5/9/05 Trip Report: Lessons on Hope

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My calves were sore from my previous steep hike, two days prior to this one, and I knew there were avalanche concerns in the area. Two days-worth of light snowfall were caked on the old snow at higher elevations, and winds had been whipping through the area. I knew the weather forecast was great for this day, but I also knew the sun would not help avalanche conditions. All this I took into consideration, but what I didn’t plan on was my own incompetence in route-finding.
Almost the entire past winter I had spent off-trail, bushwhacking my way through timberline to remote ridges and high summits. This one should be a piece of cake: Mount Hope from the east, via the Mount Hope Trail. Ryan Schilling had completed this hike the previous year on this exact date, and I was looking forward to a similar day to his, in the giant mountains of the Sawatch.
Wildlife was abundant in my journeys from Denver. I saw numerous elk, deer, and bighorn sheep throughout the second half of my trip to the trailhead, and I would see many more bighorns while hiking the steep hills and mountain country. Also, a huge bird exploded out of a tree at one point, almost scaring me senseless. I think it may have been a hawk, but I only caught a glimpse of it.
Anyway, I started off completely wrong. There are two four-wheel drive roads near the beaver ponds along the dirt road I was driving on, while looking for the Sheep Gulch Trailhead. Yes, there are two, but there are more than two, and when you miss seeing the first of the two, your count quickly becomes messed up. There are also more than two beaver ponds, which I was also using as a gauge for finding the correct turnoff. If those criteria failed, I figured I could count on my map-interpreting ability to ascertain which mountain to the north was indeed Mount Hope, thus determining my starting point. The problem with this plan was, I could not see the full mountains, only the beginnings of the slopes and ridges leading up to them, and from my vantage point, these all looked surprisingly alike.
Well, what could I do but start hiking up the four wheel drive road I had parked at and hope it was the right one? It was already 7:40, so I wanted to get moving, hoping I could figure out my exact location along the way, and make changes as necessary. This turned out being what I did, but I also turned out being more off-track than I thought possible.
This four-wheel drive road did end after a short time, and it did end at what appeared to be a maintained hiking trail. I felt good that I was on track, though I saw no signs or any other indication that I was on the correct trail, or even in the correct gulch. My confidence quickly faded as the trail petered out after several hundred yards, into a draw full of saplings and logs, nonetheless. I considered turning back and trying another option, but foolishly plodded onward, thinking that maybe this trail was simply not well-maintained.
Things went from bad to worse quickly, and it did not take long for me to decide I had indeed started at the wrong place. Instead of turning around, however, I continued across the gulch and began crossing the south-facing slopes to the east. The terrain was steep, and rock out-croppings made the going tough. Saplings slapped me in the face constantly, and I fought forward and upward, determined I would at least reach timberline, then figure out what ridge I was on. My burning calves were no longer bothering me, and I was not even thinking about avalanche conditions, as I was yet to encounter any snow. I simply wanted to figure out which mountain I was on.
Eventually I came to a steep gully. Following that uphill, I came across snow, and with it a multitude of bighorn sheep tracks. I followed the tracks up and over the next steep section of rocky slope, and finally came to the top of the ridge.
Now surrounded by snow, I could see timberline above, and avalanche conditions below me and on the surrounding slopes. I also spotted some bighorns above me, just disappearing into the trees.
I carried my snowshoes on my back today, and ended up having no use for them. If I would have used them anywhere, however, it would have been on this section of snow-covered ridge leading up to timberline. The snow was deep and wet at places, making progress difficult, but only for a few steps at a time before I would reach a spot where the rocks stuck out enough to allow for solid foot-holds.
Finally above timberline, the going was much easier for quite some time. The west side of the ridge was dry and wind-swept, while the east side of the ridge was corniced and avalanche-prone. I stayed on the solid talus the whole way up a couple false summits. The only problem was, the farther up I went, the less sure I was of which mountain I was on. At first, I thought I had made it to Mount Hope at last, and by now I was figuring that I had gone too far east and was now on neighboring Quail Mountain. As I reached one of the false summits, however, the view above opened up to reveal ever-rougher terrain, leading to a pointy summit that did not fit with my expectations of this route whatsoever.
Consulting the map, everything suddenly became clear to me. I had indeed started too far west, but I was still too far west. I was tromping up the southwest ridge of Mount Hope, leading to a jagged sub-summit that stood at 13,542 feet. To get to that false summit looked to be a challenge, and quite possibly a dangerous one at that. So, I decided to continue forward and upward cautiously, to see how far I could make it before having to turn back.
Already about 13,200 feet and nearing noon, there was no use trying to make any other ascents from other routes today. I pinned my hopes on finding a good route up to that false summit and being able to traverse from there along the pinnacled western ridge leading to Mount Hope. In reality, I knew my chances of success were low. The day was dragging on, and the jagged Point 13,542 in front of me got more ominous the closer I got to it.
Looking to the south, however, I had fantastic views of four bulky Sawatch fourteeners: Mount Belford, Mount Oxford, Missouri Mountain and Huron Peak.
It was noon when I decided to turn around. I had had covered some fun, class 3 terrain leading all the way to the base of the steeper and snow-filled cliffs just below Point 13,542. I thought I saw a reasonable line at which I could attack it, but I could not be certain of the snow conditions above, and I didn’t like the idea of some rock-fall or avalanche knocking me from such a lofty perch aside those cliffs. Besides this, I was alone, and I did not want to get myself in a precarious position with no one else to aid me.
So, I retreated. I retraced my steps down the ridge to timberline, then dropped into the basin to the east, where I saw another half a dozen bighorn sheep below me. I went all the way down to the lower woods, and cut over onto the dirt road which leads to the Mount Hope Trail–the road I had meant to turn onto this morning. It was a simple twenty minute walk from there up the main dirt road, past the beaver ponds, to my jeep, where I arrived at 1420.
Yes, Mount Hope got the best of me today, and it had nothing to do with avalanches or sore legs. No worries, though: this mountain hasn’t seen the last of me.

© 2005, Brad Snider

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