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I set out for my first Colorado adventure at 5:30 am. Somewhat arbitrarily, I chose South Arapaho Peak as my goal. I can't remember exactly why, but the single biggest reason was probably its proximity to Denver. South Arapaho (13,400') and North Arapaho Peaks (13,500') are probably the best-known twins of the Indian Peaks, a decent-sized range of "13'ers" due east of Boulder, on the Front Range of the Rockies. They are visible from most Denver vantage points on clear days.
I started at the Fourth of July Campground at 7:15 am. Everyone I talked to emphasized just how important it was to leave early, because compared to the sunny Sierras weather really is a factor here -- especially the lightning. I was hoping to be on the trail by 6:30 or so, because I had no idea how long my adventure would take. My goal was to ascend South Arapaho Peak, then traverse the long connecting ridge and ascend North Arapaho Peak.
The weather was cool, and the altitude immediately apparent, since the trailhead is at 10,150'. A pair of hikers was kind enough to ration me some sunscreen. I made good time, but worried that the high altitude, coupled with the fact that I was recovering from a cold and hadn't exercised for ten days, might catch up with me. I made it to the Fourth of July mine ruins (11,150') by 8:30. From there, the trail becomes rocky and ascends rather quickly to a saddle at 12,700'. I made the saddle by 9:15 and took a much-needed water break. I really began to feel the altitude after 12,000'. On a hike, I'm not afraid to breathe hard and fast, because I normally recover quickly. Up here, however, it was much tougher to recover.
I started up the ridge to the summit of S. Arapaho Pk, and found it to be mostly Class 2 with some short sections of Class 3 which probably could have been avoided altogether by better route-finding. Although the mountain was granite, it was more weathered and perforated by intruding dikes than the peaks of the Sierras. To the north was a sheer wall maybe 700' high. From the ridge, I had a great view of the Arapaho glacier. Classic ampitheather cirque, crevasses large and small (snowfall was light last year), moraines, and even little icebergs floating in the lake at the glacier's toe. I made the summit by 9:45 and took some photos.
In the last hour, cumulus formation definitely picked up, but I did not yet fell threatened. I started off the summit at 10:00 am, setting out to cross the ridge and climb North Arapaho Peak, which is a mere 100' higher than South Arapaho. Because my return trip to South Arapaho would be totally exposed, I decided to turn back at 11 am, regardless of my progress.
The ridge was fun. A trail of some sort, complete with cairns and even orange arrows spray-painted onto rocks, guided hikers along the easiest path. Still, there were many sections of Class 3 and even two or three sections of Class 4. I can never tell exactly how to rate scrambles, but I have a personal definition of Class 4: easy, but fairly technical to up-climb, but with an irritating down-climb. After the last Class 4 section, which was a smooth 8-foot high inclined wall, it was 10:30. I was about 3/4 of the way to North Arapaho Peak, but the weather situation had worsened in the intervening half hour. Thick, dark clouds were massing on the next range to the south, complete with rain, lightning, and audible thunder. The storm didn't appear to be moving toward me directly, but the clouds were defnitely in the expansion stage. If it had been a matter of simply descending the peak, I'd have kept going. But to get to safety in this case, I'd have had to traverse back along the tedious ridge, re-ascend South Arapaho, then descend along the first exposed ridge back to the saddle at 12,700'. So I bugged out and headed for cover...
It took me 20 minutes to return to the summit of South Arapaho,
and by that time, I could see that the storm was going to miss
me. I suppressed temptations to try for North Arapaho again. I
I made it to the saddle at 12,700 by 11:00, and was back to the
car by 12:30. I felt kind of ill on the way down (slight nausea,
headache, muscle pain) and my sinuses started reminding me that
they weren't fully healed yet. I saw many, many people going up,
in spite of the worsening weather, so I wondered if I hadn't
been overly cautious in my decision to come down. My caution was
validated as I reached my car, however, because the rain started
to fall, and got quite heavy as I drove away.
Department of Geophysics