Solitude Atop Mount Democrat
In the Mosquito Range just northwest of Alma lies Mount Democrat. At 14,148' it is the 29th highest mountain in Colorado. It is a very popular fourteener because ambitious hikers love the opportunity to summit three fourteeners in one day by continuing on to Mount Lincoln and Mount Bross, making for a manageable 7 1/2 mile hike with a 3,700' elevation gain. But my husband Greg went mid October when snow and fierce wind gusts slow a body down. So he had to scale back his plans. Above is a shot of Kite Lake and the parking lot.
Directions: From I-70 take Hwy 9 (exit 203) south through Breckenridge to the center of Alma, then go west (right) on Buckskin Creek Rd. for 6 miles to the Kite Lake trailhead and campground where there are pit toilets. From Fairplay go 8 miles north on Hwy 9 and go west (left) on Buckskin Creek Rd.
Difficulty: Mount Democrat has a Class 2 trail with an elevation gain of 2,150' (12,000' at trailhead) and is 4 miles round trip.
The 6 mile dirt road to Kite Lake wasn't too bad for our passenger car. When Greg saw there were no other cars at the Kite Lake trailhead, he wondered if he might have to return home since he did not have a hiking partner. But twenty minutes later a car showed up with five hikers, so he took off at 8:30 a.m., hoping to keep them in sight the entire time.
The path starts out with a very gradual climb, but soon gets more steep and remains so the entire way to the summit.
Below is a shot looking up toward Mount Cameron (the summit may be the tiny point just to the right of the hill on the left) which is actually a sub-peak of Mount Lincoln because the saddle between the two is only about 150' below Mount Cameron's summit. The elevation change must be at least 300' from peak to saddle for a peak to qualify as a separate mountain.
At around 13,400', the saddle between Democrat and Lincoln is almost 2/3 of the way up Democrat, but Greg was only just over half way to the summit as far as time. The trail was easily passable with a few patches of snow up to that point, but at the saddle Greg was met with winds of 35 mph and gusts up to 60 mph.
It was here he decided to switch to warmer gloves, but the next pair was frozen and Greg wondered if he'd have to return to the car as his hands were taking too long to get warm under his arm pits due to the frigid wind chill. He got nervous as the lone group of hikers passed him and disappeared beyond a hill.
Because the clouds were so pervasive both during his ascent and while going down, this is the only shot Greg took toward the summit from any distance. The peak is somewhere behind the visible rocks (below).
After ten minutes his hands were finally warm, so Greg continued his ascent and ran into a 40 yd. long slippery snow and ice patch that forced him to veer of the trail to the left over rocks. Then he proceeded toward the false summit or plateau at 14,000' which was snow covered and hard packed from previous hikers. It was here that he ran into the other hikers as they were descending and they confirmed that he was going in the right direction. Visibility was only about 50 yards at this point.
At the end of the plateau, the last 150' ascent was covered with 3 to 4 foot snow drifts making progress across maybe two hundred yards laborious. He kept looking up hoping to see the summit, but the slopes seemed to go on forever. After a 20 minute climb including a number of stops to rest, Greg finally reached the top around 11 am, making the total time to summit 2 1/2 hrs.
He was so happy to cease climbing and sat next to the summit log (seen below). He didn't bother signing it because the tube was filled with snow. He drank and ate, then took some photos amid the heavy cloud cover.
As Greg was putting the camera away, the sun broke through the haze. He felt so fortunate that he was up there for the brief clearing so that he could enjoy the views from the south to the west. He could only take a few more shots as his fingers were starting to freeze. It was peaceful at the summit except for the constant 25 mph winds. The next two photos are looking south then southwest from the summit.
Below is a shot of Fremont Pass toward the west.
Greg didn't want the other hikers to get too far ahead, so he made his way down and was glad he could sit and slide most of the way to the plateau in 3 minutes, pushing himself part of the way since it wasn't that steep.
After nearing the end of the 200 to 300 yard plateau, it was a bit foggy and the previous hikers' footprints were already being obscured by the winds, so Greg pulled out his GPS to find where the trail started down the mountain again. As he left the plateau, it started getting snowy and icy, so he sat down once more to slide along the path, slowing himself by grabbing onto rocks near the bend of each switchback. I would have been terrified and screaming the whole way had I been with him.
Just before he reached the saddle, an extremely strong wind gust of 90-100 mph forced Greg to sit down to avoid falling over. As he sat there, he marvelled at how fast the snow was shooting straight through the air. It was a relief to finally get below the saddle where the winds were more manageable.
Below the saddle, he saw a long snowfield (with perhaps a 400' elevation drop) and veered off the path to check it out. But it was quite icy so he returned to the trail since he didn't have an ice axe to properly do a glissade.
The skies started to clear a bit toward the north and Greg could see the base of Mount Bross on the right. Mount Lincoln is out of view behind the hill on the left.
Hikers coming down Mount Bross take a trail located on the other side of this ridge, then curve around to the parking lot to the right of the photo.
As he descended from the saddle, Greg thought he heard birds nearby. Against the bright snow he managed to spot a couple of white ptarmigans scuttling over the rocky terrain. Usually found in higher elevations, the feathers of this grouse change from brown in summer to white in winter to help them hide from predators. (I have a photo of one with summer coloring in my
article.) It was clear that the blustery weather didn't bother them as they'd hunker down and brace themselves whenever a strong wind gust hit. They allowed Greg to get quite close, probably hoping he'd throw them a piece of bread.
There are mining ruins not far up the mountain from Kite Lake.
Because of the potential for injury while hiking in the snow and ice, Greg decided to never again hike a fourteener alone after September. I was happy with his decision since I worried about him the whole time. Overall, the hike had not been that grueling even though the conditions were not the best. He was glad he brought many layers (shell on the outside), ski goggles and snowpants. He did get windburn on his face. Greg enjoyed having another fourteener under his belt before winter set in and plans on hiking Lincoln and Bross in the summer of 2010.