Without much preparation or planning, Chris and I decided we were going to hike a 14er on Saturday. The only real intention we had was to leave for Buena Vista, CO after work on Friday, set up camp and hike on Saturday. Though we tried, we did not summit our chosen mountain peak of Mt. Princeton, and there were many things we could have done differently to aid in a successful climb. I’ll chalk it up as a live and learn experience, and perhaps next time I will triumph.
The first thing we did wrong on this adventure was we didn’t choose which peak we wanted to hike in advance, or spend enough time researching the trails. While we drove down 285 south toward Buena Vista on Friday evening I did some quick searches on Google while my phone was in and out of cell service range, and decided that Mt. Yale seemed like a good choice for us to hike. We knew the trail head was off of county road 306, and we figured we’d set up camp somewhere in the vicinity.
By the time we got to CR 306 it was getting dark. We were greeted with a sign that said “road closed 9 miles ahead”, which was about three miles before the trail head. We drove as far as we could on CR 306 and set up camp on BLM land. We headed back to town to go to the grocery store to get provisions for breakfast and lunch the next day. This was our second mistake; not doing meal prep in advance. Usually when we go camping we get out all the equipment prior to departure and look through the supply bag to make sure we have everything we will need. This time we just grabbed the supply bag and packed it in the car, and of course it didn’t contain everything we would need.
Since the road to the Mt. Yale trail head was closed I tried to look up alternate hikes on my phone from the grocery store parking lot, but cell phone reception was terrible, which turned out to be caused by a nearby wildfire that reached some cell phone towers. Chris had some previous experience with the Mt. Princeton trail and said he had always wanted to summit that peak, so to make our decision quicker and easier we settled on that choice.
Chris had mentioned wanting to wake up early to begin the hike, but our third mistake came in not setting a morning alarm. We woke up later than desired, and then realized we didn’t have a pan or other cooking utensils to make bacon and egg sandwiches for breakfast. This required us to go back to the grocery store in the morning, because there was no way I was going to attempt a long and strenuous hike without eating breakfast. By the time we stopped at the store and then prepared breakfast and lunch at the trail head parking lot, we didn’t start out on our hike until 10:00 AM, which as an experienced hiker of 14ers knows was the fourth mistake.
The fifth mistake we made was that when you hike Mt. Princeton, you have the choice to either park the car in a larger parking lot on CR 322 at 8,900 ft. elevation, or continue driving for three miles to a smaller parking lot at the radio towers at 10,800 ft. When I had internet service I did see that driving on CR 322 to the radio towers required a 4WD car and I was nervous about taking my 2002 Honda CRV on the road. Also, Chris said it would be cheating if we drove three extra miles instead of hiking, so it seemed a no-brainer to us to park the car at the lower lot and hike all the way up. It turned out that parking in the lower lot was a bad decision (at least for us, anyway). And for the record, after seeing the road to the radio towers, I think with very cautious driving my car would have made it to the upper lot.
The hike up to the radio towers was on a dirt road which was very dusty and not very scenic. As we strained ourselves hiking three extra miles and about 2,000 feet in elevation, we were passed by at least 15 cars that were driving up to the second lot. Everytime a car passed dirt and dust swirled around us and stuck to the sweat and sunscreen on my face and body. It was already not my favorite hiking experience, and we hadn’t even reached the radio towers yet.
It took us two hours to reach the radio towers and we had already breaked several times, eaten one snack and sought out shade as often as possible. Due to the 10:00 AM start we were hiking in the blazing sun, which did not support our efforts whatsoever. The sixth mistake we made was that we weren’t sure how long the hike actually was. I had taken a few screenshots to reference from a website that gave directions in elevation, but not miles, and Chris had read something that said 7.4 miles, but wasn’t sure if that was one way or round trip. It turned out 7.4 miles was one way from the lower lot.
We hiked the three miles to the radio towers at 10,800 feet and our next direction was to look for the trail head off the dirt road at 11,800 feet, which turned out to be another 1.5 miles away and took us about one hour. En route to the trail head I was starting to wonder if I would even make it that far, let alone to the summit. By this time my hip flexors were hurting very badly and every step I took was painful, so I was walking slowly and with small steps, all the while fighting back tears and negative thoughts about my capabilities.
I’m going to go ahead and say my seventh mistake was not having any music to listen to on the hike. It was a long hike and Chris often forged ahead, and while quiet time alone on a trail can be wonderful, I really wished I had some music to boost my energy and take my mind off the difficulties I was facing. As we neared the trail head we passed three men on their way down. Chris asked them if we were getting close and one man laughed and said “you aren’t even warmed up yet.” I found his remark to be incredibly discouraging and it definitely acted as an anchor to my already sinking spirit about the hike and my physical condition.
We took a break at the trail head and talked to a small group of people that were coming down. They said they didn’t reach the summit because the terrain turned very rocky and challenging, and the summit was still “very far” away. Once we were off the dirt road and on the actual trail this part of the trek was actually beautiful and enjoyable and much like I would hope for on a hike. There was green grass, wildflowers and high elevation life such as marmots, pikas, bees, butterflies and birds.
The beautiful trail didn’t last long, though, and wasn’t enough to revive my spirit. After about .4 miles the terrain soon turned to all rock scramble and there wasn’t much of a visible path. It was around this time that I broke down and cried. I knew I didn’t have it in me to keep going, and I felt like a failure and like I was letting Chris down as a hiking partner because he was going much faster than me and wasn’t experiencing the hip flexor pain like I was. According to my best guess from the websites we had looked at, it was still another 2 miles to the summit after the terrain turned rocky. I knew I was not making it all the way. I stopped where the green grass and trail turned to rock and sat and waited for Chris who went a little further to about 12,500-13,000 ft elevation.
Sitting and waiting for Chris was my favorite part of the day. There I was sitting on a mountain top at 12,100 ft. elevation with just me and the solitude of nature. It turned out I was sitting near a marmot den, and he or she came out to visit and we looked at each other and I got a few awesome photos.
While waiting for Chris I took off my hiking boots and rested on my backpack as a pillow and felt some of my spirit return. I realized that I had still hiked five miles and just over 3,000 ft. in elevation, and that itself is an accomplishment, even though I didn’t reach the summit. I talked to several others who didn’t reach the summit, so I shouldn’t feel too bad, but I can’t help but feel like I failed and like all the time I’ve dedicated to going to the gym the past few months hasn’t paid off and why should I live in CO if I can’t summit a 14er.
I think if we had started from the parking lot at the radio towers I may have made it to the top of the massive Mt. Princeton, but I guess I can’t be sure until I try it again, which I’m honestly in no rush to do. To quote someone I talked to who also didn’t summit, “I’m not loving this that much to keep trying.”
Mt. Princeton is rated a class two difficulty (on a scale of 1-5), but we heard from other hikers that it’s a very challenging summit over the rocky terrain. Being that I’ve only actually hiked (and successfully summited, thank you very much) one 14er, I decided that next time I want to try a trail that may be easier, or at least shorter, and prettier, so that I can summit, boost my confidence and give me more experience before I try to tackle Mt. Princeton again.
I guess I’m not much of an ivy-leaguer, anyway…