Posts Tagged ‘Sawatch’

3rd Time’s a Charm: French Mt (& Mt. Ok)

December 7, 2008


It was time for Chicago Mark’s annual mountain adventure, and this time Brian was available to join us.  This time, we decided to pick off a couple of high 13ers in the Sawatch Mountains:  Mt. Oklahoma and French Mountain.

French Mountain had eluded me twice before, so I considered this a grudge match.

In 2001, Susan (my wife) and I climbed the wrong mountain (unnamed 13,400) by starting from the wrong TH (we drove past the Halfmoon TH to the North Halfmoon TH, and then hiked South with French on our left instead of right).  We only realized our mistake after we ran out of mountain and sat down to figure out why.

In 2003, Mark and I attempted to climb the French-Frasco-Casco circ, but failing light kept us from finishing French; we completed Casco & Frasco and were standing at the top of the Frascol, 400 feet from the French summit when we abandoned the attempt so we could minimize the hiking on an icy road in the dark.   And I still nearly broke my neck & skull several times on the hike out.

This time I was not leaving the area without leaving my footprints on the French summit.

We decided to camp near the two trailheads to facilitate bagging both in a weekend.   I picked up Mark at DIA at 12:30pm on Friday, June 17, 2005; we headed to REI in Denver to resupply Mark and then to the Halfmoon Campground and beyond.  At 5pm, we had the place to ourselves and took 30 minutes to select a prime campsite approximately 100 yards from the North Halfmoon Trailhead.  Brian showed up at about 11pm after a failed attempt to leave work early.

At this point, I should go ahead and accept blame for any climbing logistics difficulties.  I decided that we’d do Oklahoma first to allow for route finding errors that we could not survive on Sunday, when Mark had to be at DIA at 3:30pm.  Since we knew the way to French (see failed attempt #2 above) and Oklahoma had a difficult bushwhacking section, I still claim the sequencing was correct.  However, I’ll admit to bringing too little brainpower to the consideration of difficulties in a 10-mile, 3700 ft ascent of a high 13er plus a 100-mile drive to DIA by 3:30pm.  Most would agree.

On Saturday, we got up early and started hiking right at 6am north toward Mt. Oklahoma.  The scuttlebutt about Mt. Oklahoma was that the route was off-trail and hard to find.  During my climb planning, I was able to identify on the map 3 signs that would allow us to know when we should leave the main trail and begin bushwhacking West toward Mt. Oklahoma:

(1) when the southern most Massive peak was due East,

(2) when we hit a creek after not crossing a creek for 0.5 miles, and

(3) when we were at 11,600 ft.

While these clues were devilishly difficult to identify on site, I still claim that these were good clues and they probably helped us find a good cutoff by heightening our attention level at about the right time.  Others may disagree.

At approximately 11,600 we left the trail heading west (I’d describe the point as the first place where you could imagine starting to bushwhack once you were at approx. 11,600).  We crossed two tributary creeks (one via log walk, the other via rock hop) and climbed to the top of the tree-covered ridge, heading approximately west-northwest.  We were far enough south to avoid dropping down into the drainage, as some route descriptions indicate, and simply followed the ridge to tree line, and then into the basin beneath Oklahoma.  In the basin, we had a short walk over soft snow to the most moderate couloir available to mount the summit slopes.  The elvin-like among our party and another party on the climb seemed to be able to hike & climb on top of the snow much of the way to the summit, while the heavier of the group climbed in it.  It took a considerable effort to swim up the couloir, and then to slog up the soft summit slope in snowshoes.  If it was an hour later in the day, I would have drowned.

After a lengthy respite on the summit, we started down at 11:30am with high hopes for a fun ride.  Anticipating soft snow, I brought my old rain pants (what they call “death pants” – no friction while glissading) just in case.  They worked wonders.  I was able to glissade from the summit to the couloir and then down to the basin with only a few aiming steps.  A great ride.

Route drawn in red; actual snow coverage was much greater

Route drawn in red; photo taken a few weeks after climb which had much greater snow coverage

We retraced our steps as best as we could back to the main trail.  About halfway down we lost our old trail and ended up about 100 yards further up the main trail than where we left it.  All in, I’d say the higher route was preferable.

We hiked the remaining 2 miles back to camp in rapid fashion, arriving at approx. 2pm.

We spent the next 4 hours drying gear in the hot sun and discussing the plans for Sunday.  It was during this time that it became clear that we had a long climb ahead of us on a shortened day.  Mark had to be at DIA by 3:30pm, which meant we needed to be back at the car by noon.  After close inspection of the map, we determined that French would be comparable to Oklahoma, but possibly longer: 10 miles on road vs. 8 on trail/in bush and similar elevation gain.  Since Oklahoma took 8 hours we scheduled 9 hours and set the alarm for 2am, planning on a quick camp breakdown and relocation to the Halfmoon trailhead for a 3am start.  Yikes!

We turned in at 7pm after dinner for what would prove to be a largely successful attempt to get a good “night before” sleep of about 6 hours.

The alarm rang out right at 2am, and we were in a blind scramble to dress, undo camp and pack the cars.  Our pre-packing the night before proved useful and we left the camp area on schedule, and drove ½ mile East on FS 110 to the turnoff to Iron Mike Mine.  We started hiking right at 3am.

It was a very dark early morning, as the nearly full moon had set some time before.  Mark and I made our way via flashlight to the creek and were first to make the log crossing; the water was high enough to make our “straddle” approach a mildly wet one.  This was the safest way to go, given that the water was rough enough to look deadly in a fall.  We then turned to watch Brian do his promised walk across the log.  He had announced his intentions to do so during dinner the previous day.  As we watched, I said to Mark, “I don’t know what we’ll do if he falls…we’ll never find him!”  Mark agreed.  But after a moment’s consideration, Brian proved once again that smart guys can make smart decisions and decided to do the “straddle” crossing due to the wet conditions.

We were in a hurry; I went as fast as I could to ensure we had enough time to finish the climb.  Each of us seemed to be able to maintain a fast pace, despite a decent effort the day before.  After 1 mile, we came to the second washed out bridge, which we crossed via a set of narrow logs placed across.  I did the “crab walk” on all fours, putting my feet on the largest log and my hands on the highest (by 3 inches) log.  This worked without incident.  Once across I turned to watch Brian attempt to make up for his “lack of courage” on the previous log crossing by doing a no-hands, ski-pole assisted walk.  He made it ½ way before nearly slipping off into the darkness and waterfall below.  He somehow made it across without dying or, even worse, losing a ski pole.

We continued on for another 2.5 miles to just below the Iron Mike Mine.  At 5am, we were still on schedule.  At this point, the snow patches were becoming snowfields, and so I decided to change out of my running shoes into my boots and gaiters.  Brian waited a bit before heading out to avoid freezing.  A few minutes later, Mark came up and indicated he was feeling sick and was going to sit this one out.

After crossing the final wide creek, Brian followed the line (slope) of least resistance and made a broad sweep around to the right to the far side of the Iron Mike Mine area; I took a shortcut through the willows and caught up with him near the foot of Frascol (col beneath the saddle between French & Frasco Benchmark).

Joe's route in red; actual conditions was mostly snow covered

Joe's route in red; photo taken in late Summer, while climb conditions were mostly snow covered

Brian skinned up while I took a grassy/rocky strip between Frascol and French.  When I was at the top of the grass/rock strip at about 6:15am, I decided I didn’t want to stop to put on my crampons.  I had been maintaining a great pace and wanted to keep going.  I decided I would leave the couloir, by moving to the right, and kick steps to reach the steep, rocky slopes of French Mountain that I could climb instead of the snow.  I also like that the new route would allow me to cut the corner once again.  I had, in fact, considered this approach earlier but rejected it as senselessly risky; now I was convinced it was a path to victory.

The further I moved up the snow slope toward the rocks, the steeper the terrain got.  Too late, I was thinking that it would have been useful to have my ice axe instead of my hiking poles in case I slipped down the snow.  This made me work even harder to kick secure steps, the effort for which was exhausting me.  I finally made it to the rocks only to find the terrain was wet grass with imbedded, loose rocks…and it was very steep.  I could see that the angle would ease up about 200 feet up and so I kept move higher, testing every foothold before using it.

I finally reached a more moderate angle slope at about 7:00am, the time I had set as my summit goal and would certainly have achieved had I taken the normal route.  I was also sick to my stomach; the stress/adrenalin/effort had conspired to make me nauseated.   After a long rest, I started upward again.  I made slow progress in 40 foot stages that were comprised of:  25 steps of feeling great, 5 of steps feeling very tired, and a 3-5 minute rest while I tried not to vomit.   I eventually found Brian frozen and complaining on the summit at 7:30am.  All would agree he had a point, but I was not sympathetic.

Brian decided to head over to bag Frasco Benchmark while I finished my second breakfast (I had bagged that peak on my previous attempt on French).  After a few minutes, I hiked down to Frascol and did the most painful glissade since my last glissade down Frascol two year before; the snow was frozen with painful ridges.  As I slide down the slope, I tried to lean my full body weight on my axe point and lift my butt from the surface, but succeeded only in surviving the rapid descent.  I then backtracked across the willows to the road where I met up with Brian again.  He skied ahead to find Mark while I postholed along at a comfortable pace.  We reached Mark about 8:30am and began the long hike home.

Mark was grousing about the evils of “powerbars” which is what he calls all energy/food bars (in this case it was a Balance Bar).  Rather than blame me for an excessive pace (for a low-lander), he generously blamed his food.  I knew better, but accepted his generosity.

The approx. 11% road grade was very good for both uphill and downhill hiking so the road disappeared rather quickly.  When we reached the last log crossing about 1.5 hours ahead of schedule, we knew we had done well.  Mark and I once again did the “straddle” while Brian promised the reclamation of his pride.

Once I was across, I dumped my pack and worked my way down river a bit so I could react if necessary.  Then I watched Brian “The Lost Wallenda” approach the log with his skis in his hands perpendicular to the log as a balancing aid.  He walked gracefully for 3 steps and then paused, skies dipping left and then right.  Then, suddenly, he bolted, running across the log slowly leaning further and further to the left.  At the last moment, he leapt toward shore, landing in the shallows, safe with only wet boots.    We all thought he had done well, even if a bit ungracefully.

Mark and I said our farewells to Brian and headed toward civilization.  The drive out to DIA was interminable but Mark was able to gain enough extra time at the airport that he could take steps to avoid stinking out the other passengers on the 2-hour flight to Chicago.  Whether he did or not, I never found out.


  • Mixed skill level group
  • Arbitrarily short timeframe


How we got lucky:

  • Weather was good both days
  • Nothing happened to less experienced partner left behind
  • Dangerous route selection didn’t result in injury or death
  • Foolish river crossings didn’t result in injury or death

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