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Call of the Wild: Quandary Peak

Call of the Wild: Quandary Peak

[ Wed, 2010-01-06 17:13 ]
The route up Quandary Peak
SKI’s backcountry blogger, Andrew Beekman (a.k.a. Alpine Andy), rings in the new year at 14,000 feet—frostbitten, wind-pummeled and far from the summit of Colorado’s Quandary Peak. And yes, he calls this fun.

By Andrew Beekman

Despite the best intentions to live a life without regret, 2009 may be a year to be remembered as one we’d like to forget. While the rest of the world drowned their collective woes of the past year in alcohol, we decided the moment was more appropriately marked by some high altitude suffering. A midnight moonlight ski attempt of Quandary Peak seemed an apropos way to stick a fork in 2009. 

True to form, the trip got off to a bad start from the get-go. My buddy Luke was an hour late. This, on a timeline that proved to be far too lackadaisical to begin with. He didn’t know what we were getting ourselves into. Neither did my other buddy, Dave, or I, but at least we had looked at a map and read the description. At least we were packed and ready by 6 p.m. Luke is lucky he’s an animal when it comes to skiing and climbing, and that his gear included a flask of some nice sipping whiskey. Forgiveness comes easier to man who likes to share.

Mt. Quandary is described in most of the guidebooks as an easy 14er. The trailhead starts at 10,000 feet and a plowed road gets you almost there. Still, all told you’re looking at 3,500 feet of elevation gain over three or four miles, the start of which is two miles above sea level. Somehow the reality of what that meant at midnight on December 31 was lost on all of us.

It was a full, blue moon on a crisp and clear New Year’s Eve. The moon was so bright nobody had to use a headlamp. The shadows from the trees were dense. Snow-capped and wind-swept peaks were all around us. A hint of mystery lurked just below the prevailing air of excitement. A few hundred paces away from the car, Dave got sick.

Still not sure how it happened. The altitude? Fatigue from a long drive from Arkansas the previous day? Something he ate? The swigs of whiskey on the ride up? The combination? Whatever it was, he was literally dropped by feelings of nausea, hot flashes, loss of blood flow to his extremities, and extreme fatigue. Weird, unnerving symptoms to witness, especially at the beginning of a ski adventure.

After lots of questions and cajoling, we finally got him back to the car. It was cold, but we had extra clothes, a space blanket, some hand-warmers, and half a tank of gas. Dave insisted that he’d be fine for a few hours so Luke and I reluctantly agreed to go ahead and make an attempt without him. Even though he was not with us on the climb, Dave’s character is what made it possible for us to continue.

The east ridge of Quandary Peak is a giant, “gently” sloping fin. The slopes to the north and south are steep, so it’s a relatively straight-forward approach to the top: go up. That being said, it doesn’t take a lot of forest to get lost in, and we probably should have had a compass since Dave’s was now in the front seat of my car with him. It didn’t turn out to matter since the trail we found was well-marked and well-traveled. At least down low. Up high, well, up high is a different story.

The awesome alpine vistas that open up above timberline on a full moon were matched on this particular evening by an equally impressive squall. The wind was howling from top to bottom. It would have been cool to have captured the surreal nature of our surroundings but taking pictures was nearly impossible.

At about what we figured was 13,000 feet, the only way to go forward was to take 30-step “bursts” uphill and into the wind until you couldn’t feel your face and had to stop and turn around to wait for it to thaw. The snow being driven into any exposed skin felt like needles of short-lived Novocain. A giant white wind-devil moved almost gracefully down the ridge below us. 

Finally we reached a false summit and could see the barren, wind-swept rock up to the summit that still stretched far into the distance. No skiable snow. There wasn’t much of a discussion: not worth the risk of continuing; abort. It was 1:30 at this point. Happy New Year’s.

We decided to take our skins off and put our skis on even though there were a couple of short snowless sections of scree to be negotiated. After completing delicate moves across the last bit of naked rock and frost-crusted lichen and dead grass, we looked up to see a figure on the ridge hiking toward us. At first I thought that Dave had rallied. But it turned out to be a solo guy with a big pack who looked like he was aiming to summit, and then to spend the night. Go figure. We wished him a Happy New Year and good luck, and kept going.

The ski down was decent. Mostly survival-mode turns on wind-deposited pockets in scree, but there was an inch or two of cream in a few spots. Pretty fun route-finding to a steepish grand finale down to the north-east into a small bowl. Though shallow above tree-line, the snowpack felt weird and awkward. Variable layers and densities of wind-loaded crust the whole way.

Below the trees there was no wind, but the snow was soft and too deep to make turns in. We finally reached the car, exhausted. Never underestimate how interesting it is to evacuate oneself off a mountain in the wintertime. Dave had been crashed out in the front seat and was feeling better. A Red Bull and a bag of licorice barely got us home. The clock said it was just after 4. I fell asleep in my clothes on top of my covers.

I can’t wait to try it again a little later in the season. The Cristo Couloir down the south side is going to be nice.

Cheers to getting out in 2010. It’s going to be a good year.

Thumbnail photo by thefrazh on Flickr