I had just restarted my 14er quest after a 3 year break with a great 40th birthday present from my wife (see 5 14ers for my 40th). When Mark announced he was coming to town a month later (in July, 2002) for a bit of mountain adventure, I thought his timing was perfect.
I had originally picked Wetterhorn & Uncompahagre Peak, but rain on the drive down convinced us to go for easier routes on Redcloud & Sunshine. I had Roach’s 14er book with me, so we were able to adjust quickly on the fly.
The drive to Lake City (8658′) from DIA was an interminable 300 miles taking over 5 hours, which put us into town after everyone’s bedtime. I had never heard of a gas station closing and didn’t think to check on hours; and my gas gauge needle was already on “Empty”.
We couldn’t wait ’til morning without blowing the trip, so we had to take a chance. I just hoped the road to Silver Creek-Grizzly Gulch Trailhead (10400′) didn’t require more gas than available; otherwise, our approach hike might be a bit longer than expected.
We drove south out of town and made the turn toward Cinnamon Pass after 2.5 miles. It was a total of 18.5 miles before we found the Silver Creek-Grizzly Gulch trailhead. At mile 10, I started swearing at every loss of elevation; by mile 15 I was cursing a mile a minute. The bright bulb on my dashboard’s “low gas” indicator was burning out my retinas.
I was certain we didn’t have enough gas to get back to town; I seriously wondered if I had enough gas to restart the engine.
All I could do was hope we could get some gas from another hiker somehow; and I put the issue out of my mind for 12 hours.
We set up the tent on the most luxuriously soft ground I had ever felt, and slept amazingly well until the alarm went off at 5am.
The hike toward Redcloud hardly felt like a backcountry experience. The trail quality was too good. But heck, the peaks were on the list. Plus, it was a more gentle adventure for Mark, having come from 500′ elevation only 12 hours before.
I was disappointed to see the white color in the creek water; I hoped I wouldn’t need to refill my bottles before reaching camp and my filter. Iodine tablets just wouldn’t be enough this time.
We used the Silver Creek trail to reach the NE ridge of Redcloud. And then followed the ridge trail to the summit. The lower part of the ridge trail was not in good shape, but we made the summit easily enough. We stopped for a snack and enjoyed the views. I was able to point out Wetterhorn and Uncompahagre because the latter peak is rather distinctive. But I couldn’t spot Handies in the sea of peaks.
We didn’t stay long since Sunshine was so close (1.5 miles).
We followed the trail which tended to stay to the right side of any slopes. The weather was good so we took our time moving to the Sunshine summit.
On the Sunshine summit, we stopped for an early lunch and enjoyed the views. I was able to point out Wetterhorn and Uncompahagre because the latter peak is rather distinctive. But I couldn’t spot Handies in the sea of peaks.
I asked Mark if he was up for a bit of adventure which would also avoid the long looping route over and around Redcloud. He was game and we found a faint trail that descended from the bottom of the initial saddle below Sunshine on the way toward Redcloud. The initial scree was a bit loose, but otherwise it was a nice trail through an old growth forest.
We joined up with the Silver Creek trail and turned left (SW) toward camp. We reached camp at 1pm for a round trip of 3650′ and 8.1 miles in 7.5 hours. An easy effort for bagging 2 14ers.
I immediately started bumming gas. Mark sacrificed his water bladder tube which we tried on two different vehicles, but we just couldn’t make it work. All I got was a couple mouthfuls of gasoline; I don’t recommend it.
When Mark said he was done for the day, I asked if he was up to driving/coasting/walking/hitchiking to Lake City to get gas. I said I was thinking of going for Handies since it was so close. He said he’d take care of it.
At 1:45pm, I walked across the road and found a sign for Grizzly Gulch near the bathroom structure; I crossed the bridge and headed toward Handies. I hadn’t prepared anything for an attempt on Handies, so I quickly read the route description in Roach’s 13er book before heading out. I didn’t really know the route, but the trail was quite clear during the initial miles.
My only real problem so far was stamina. I was starting to slow down; so I just concentrated on keeping my feet moving.
When I finally broke out of the trees, the trail disappeared. My recollection of the route desciptions didn’t match what I saw, but I could see Handies and its impressive cirque; so I just followed my nose.
I wandered right to reach the next level, and then followed a trail I found up a left angled, broad ramp to reach the summit ridge. I made a mental note to stay on that trail on the way down while I continued working my way up one level at a time. A short time later I had just a short, fairly steep, dirt ridge to cover. While slowly covering the final 100 feet (I was tired), I could see down to the American Basin Trailhead; it was so close, I figured it had to be one of the easiest routes up a 14er.
On the summit, I finished my water and then started back for camp. My feet were killing me and the day was getting old. I didn’t have a headlamp with me and absolutely did not want to get caught out after dark.
I tried to stay on the trail on the descent, but it petered out. I went back to following my nose and took a more southerly path that worked a little better (as best as I could tell).
I was feeling used up and wasn’t paying attention on a section of the trail that had a steep drop-off. My boot slipped off the ledge and I went over, hanging onto the trail ledge with my arms. I had enough strength left to crawl back up, but only just.
Later, I crawled into camp after another 3650′ and 7.6 miles over 5.25 hours; and I could still taste the gasoline. But the 4Runner was there, so I knew he either couldn’t start the vehicle or he’d made it. It was the only remaining issue on my mind; I was so tired that I wasn’t hungry.
It was a giant relief when Mark told me he’d made it to town and filled up the tank.
Now able to relax, we made dinner and enjoyed another comfortable night sleep on the soft ground.
It had been a full day:
- 16 miles of hiking
- 7300′ elevation gain
- 12.75 hours of hiking
Despite my exhaustion, I concluded that these three 14ers were the easiest I could remember. Not just good trails and easy terrain, but a near impossibility of getting lost. These are very good starter 14ers for those just wanting to measure their fitness.
We slept in and then made our way back to Lake City for our traditional post-climb breakfast. Enjoying the small town (pop. 380) feel, we stayed until forced to leave by Mark’s impending flight.
Another 300 miles to DIA and then an hour back to Boulder to spend the rest of the day with my 8-month pregnant wife.
I was glad to make some progress on the 14er list while I could; I figured my days of multi-day adventure might be coming to an end soon. And another lesson learned: never let the gas tank get close to empty without certain knowledge of a resupply.