Swept off My Feet on My First Fourteener
At 14,036 ft., Mount Sherman is the 46th highest peak in Colorado. Situated between Leadville and Fairplay in the Mosquito Range, it is perhaps the easiest fourteener to conquer since it is a mere 2.75 miles and 2,040 ft. in elevation gain to the summit.
Many people choose Mount Sherman as their first fourteener, so my husband, after reaching the summit once himself (from the east on 8/29/09), decided I should try it just one month later. I protested that I was in average condition, having avoided the steeper trails that summer. Still, he pushed the idea.
I had to admit that somewhere inside me was the desire to tackle a big mountain. So, even though I feared getting a migrane like I did roaming the summit of Mt. Evans, I wanted to get in on that ultimate Colorado hiking experience I had heard so much about. About 1 1/2 weeks before our trip, I found it fairly easy to climb 2,000 ft. up from the base of Barr Trail, which leads up the eastern face of Pikes Peak. Of course, climbing the same amount near the top of a fourteener would be another story. Yet my confidence was boosted and I was ready to go.
Directions: From Fairplay go south on US 285 one mile then turn right on Park County Rd. 18. Take the dirt road over 10 miles, pass the old Leavick town site and go another 1.5 miles where the road gets more rough. With slow driving, we managed to get our low riding Neon in the closest lot to the gate along with the 4WD vehicles. There are a couple small areas to park before the gate.
Length: 5.5 miles round trip from the gate. Add three miles if you park in the first lot in Leavick.
Time: Allow 3 to 5 hrs. for those in good condition. Greg made it in 5 hrs. including a half hour at the summit. It took me 7 hrs. with stopping to take about 150 photos, half hour at the summit and several stops to eat and change jackets.
Difficulty: Class 2 or moderate along the ridge, but Class 1 otherwise. Lots of loose rock between the saddle and the ridge. Slippery snow and ice with high winds can make for a tricky descent on the ridge.
Be Prepared: I was comfortable in 40 degrees at the summit with a 25 degree windchill wearing a windbreaker over a fleece jacket over two thin shirts and two thin pants (inner layer with wicking material). I also wore a scarf, visor, medium weight gloves and sturdy hiking boots. Greg was comfortable with shorts, sweatshirt, T-shirt and hat for late August with high 40's at the summit. Remove layers when hot. You don't want to sweat too much because sweat will make you cold after awhile.
It's helpful to wear gators around your shins to keep snow out of boots. Wear sunscreen on exposed areas and a brimmed hat (Greg's face was very sunburned on second trip). Some hikers brought walking sticks or ski poles for balance. Yaktrax are very good for traction in snowy sections.
I drank about .5 liters (one water bottle) every hour going up - maybe more is better because I got a headache near the end. Bring snacks that are easy to digest.
Below is Mount Sherman to the right and Mount Sheridan on the left.
Below is the parking lot near the gate with the 4WD's. The next photo shows the rough road leading to that lot and you can see previous parking areas in the distance. Unfortunately, people sometimes park on the most driveable section of the road, making it just about impossible for passenger cars to attempt to reach the gate on crowded days.
Since there are no toilets for miles around, these bushes by the last parking area before the gate lot are your final option with privacy. There's just a small stream to cross.
Having slept only 5 hours, then getting up at 4 a.m. to drive 2 3/4 hrs. from Colorado Springs to the trailhead, I was fatigued and quite distressed when I discovered my camera lens wouldn't focus properly. I'd have to rely on my sketchy manual focus abilities. It didn't help that our somewhat late 8:30 a.m. start made me nervous about returning before an afternoon storm hit. The rule is to be off Colorado summits by noon, but I reminded myself that the forecast was good and encountering lightning is less likely in the fall than in the summer.
As we progressed and I soaked in the fresh, tranquil basin and the white peaks piercing the sky, my tension eased. The gradual smooth ascent at the beginning made for an easy start. The shot below is looking back toward the gate. Wildflowers were still abundant at the end of August. For this article I used Greg's August photos along with mine from September 26, 2009, two days after about a foot of snow fell.
Higher up the trail are ruins from the late 1800's when they were mining for gold, silver and zinc. Below is a section of track for the mining cars.
You will soon see a maze of trails. When Greg went, for a more gradual climb, most people veered to the right at the row of small rocks visible in the photo at the very top of this page. In the same photo note the faint white line on the hill to the left of Hilltop Mine. That is where many hikers ended up when I went because they went straight over the row of rocks. I couldn't figure out why they chose a more difficult trek in the snow.
In the shots below, we went to the left, following a lone set of footprints in the snow. Hilltop Mine is the building in the upper left.
Below is the White Ridge on the north (or right) side of the basin.
Pikas were squeaking all around the basin, but were hard to spot amid the brown rocks. This guy was sounding off behind a large rock that stood right in front of his hole where he dove as soon as we took a few steps in his direction. This photo is blurry because I had to crop it so much - didn't have my 300mm zoom on me.
Of all the old mining buildings, the one below looks the sturdiest. However, I would expect all of the structures to drop more boards in high winds, so I wouldn't rely on them for shelter during storms.
As we got closer to the saddle, we could see a young man climbing directly up a snowy crevice that hikers, armed with ice axes to control speeds, use as a glissade in the spring for a quick descent (center of photo).
In the cropping below, he is laying in the snow, trying to catch his breath. Such a climb looked like sheer misery to me. It was funny to watch him struggle while his dynamic dog kept running up and down the hill effortlessly to check on him periodically.
When we caught up with him after the the saddle, I asked him what he thought of his climb and the teen smiled with enthusiasm and said it was fun. When we passed by the crevice on our way down, I noticed that several other hikers had followed his lead.
Approaching the saddle, the rocky path along a steep hill looks vastly different with snow covering it. It was here that I started using a ski pole for balance. I'm pretending to be scared going out because of the long sloping drop-off, but on the return trip I was genuinely nervous. The path was slippery and hard packed by then, so some hikers were leaning into the snowbank above for balance. In really bad sections we started a new path higher up in the fresh snow.
As we stepped onto the saddle, I was finally rewarded with a stunning view of a snowcapped mountain range to the west. But fierce and chilling winds of at least 50 mph (common for Mt. Sherman) forced us to make a hasty retreat behind the rocky mountain wall we had just passed so we could don fleece coats beneath our windbreakers.
I was thrilled to reach the saddle between Mt. Sherman and Mt. Sheridan because we were at 13,140' in elevation - just over half way to the summit. I saw a man coming up from the western slope on the Leadville and Iowa Gulch side. It looked like he had a steeper climb than we did.
Looking back on the basin we had just hiked through was very enjoyable also.
We had to traverse a myriad of wobbly rocks as we headed up the southwest ridge of Mt. Sherman. Before this section we had been stopping to catch our breath a number of times, but now the stops were more frequent. Everyone was stopping to breathe, so I didn't feel like such a wimp. As we got higher, the valley started to open up to the west along with views of mountains on every side.
As we started up the narrow section of the ridge, finding good footing was easy because the snow was still fairly fresh and we weren't slipping. Looking down either side was a bit unnerving if I stared too long and imagined myself rolling down.
The top of the ridge wasn't too far when I started getting so tired that I just wanted to lay down on the jagged rocks and go to sleep. I knew that was a sign of altitude sickness starting. I debated about turning back because I feared a migrane would be setting in soon. However, the summit was in view and I had come so far already. I knew I'd be very disappointed if I didn't reach the top. I pressed on and kept drinking lots of water.
When Greg went in August, he was amazed to see this dad determined to reach the summit as he carried two kids after his wife couldn't carry a child anymore (note little legs under his arm). Of course, they were moving slowly.
Fortunately, there is a short plateau after the ridge climb where I regained some energy. The rest of the way to the summit is a wide gently sloping path. I proceeded with joy, knowing my goal was finally in easy reach. The shot below shows the ridge path from the summit's vantage point.
We headed straight for the summit and celebrated as we soaked in the amazing scenery. It was 12:30, so it took me 4 hours (and 2 1/2 to get down). At 46 years of age I figured that was an okay time, especially since I stopped to take about 140 photos on the way up. The mountain range to the west is behind me.
Below you can see how broad the summit is. Here you are looking northeast.
Greg had made it to the summit in 2 hours when on his own a month ago with dry conditions.
There were about 20 young people at the top with us laughing and eating and taking pictures. They looked like they were feeling good. I was a bit dizzy and kept praying I wouldn't get a migrane. Sometimes it was a challenge to keep our balance when the winds kicked up.
You can sign your name on a sheet in a canister attached to a pole near the true summit (on the right).
Once we finished our lunch, I noticed we had the summit to ourselves. I took advantage of the solitude and stood near the western edge to study the massive size of the mountains around me. Never before had I felt so small and vulnerable in nature.
A New Perspective on Life:
I felt dwarfed by the sheer size of the mountains and thought about how much greater and more powerful God is than myself. I sensed Him showing me that, since He is so powerful, He can have a major impact on the issues in my life that are weighing me down with worry. I should stop trying to control everything and just receive His peace. Immediately, I felt lighter in my heart as I saw God as my loving Heavenly Father watching over the world.
That morning before the hike I happened to read Psalms 121:1-2, "I lift up my eyes to the mountains- where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth." (TNIV) God cares and He intervenes.
On his first trip to Mt. Sherman Greg brought our tripod and set it up on the summit so he could zoom on the surrounding mountains. In the first photo you can see the three nearby fourteeners Lincoln, Democrat and Bross to the north. Many hikers summit the trio in one shot since the trek is under 8 miles with a cummulative 3,700' elevation gain.
In the following photos are:
Leadville toward the west, Leadville close-up, Twin Lakes toward the southwest (on left) and Mount Elbert (right), and Pikes Peak toward the east (on right).
After a half hour at the summit we headed down. By this time the snow was slippery and harder packed with the additional traffic and winds. I used my ski pole at every step. We must have been suffering from some altitude disorientation because we both forgot about the Yaktrax in Greg's backpack. We really could have used them for better gripping in the snow.
To the left of the hiker in the photo below is where I slipped and fell with my shin landing on a sharp rock. As I went down, I half expected that I might roll off the path and continue on down the drop off. Thankfully, I landed about a foot away from the edge. As shooting pain went through my shin, I then wondered if I could walk and imagined the bother of being air lifted.
I managed to get up after a few minutes and had to limp all the way down, hanging onto Greg in the difficult sections, wearing him out. I started regretting going on the hike, wishing I'd waited to go next summer when snow would be less likely.
These loose rocks above the saddle (looking toward Mt. Sheridan) were a lot easier to ascend than to go down. I was surprised to see people still coming up the mountain after 1 p.m. and a couple actually had shorts on. They claimed they weren't cold. We may have seen about 60 people on the mountain that day (no kids except a couple teens), including two visitors perhaps 50 years old from our home state of Michigan. I marvelled at how comfortable they looked at about 13,500 ft. When Greg went in August he saw perhaps 200 hikers, including children.
The photo below shows that, once you descend from the saddle, in the distance you will see several paths. In August Greg took the path up the hill to the left so he could stand right next to the forlorn looking Hilltop Mine. But he found going down the hill to be steep and a bit slippery with loose rocks. We headed to the far left for a smoother path. As I gazed at the dilapidated structure, I pictured miners over 100 years ago working in frigid temperatures with few comforts of home far from civilization. I shuddered.
I was so happy when I saw our car. As we drove home on the bumpy road, nausea and a headache increased. I could hardly wait for pavement. I was so grateful that I never got the severe migrane I feared. I didn't feel normal until after a good night's sleep.
I told Greg that in the end I was glad that I did the hike, but I was SO GLAD when it was over. Now I know the exhillaration and the challenge of climbing a fourteener. I still have a painful lump on my shin, but am thankful that an X-ray shows there is no fracture or dislocation. Maybe I'll do another fourteener next SUMMER (not Fall) - just one. And I'll train better on steeper trails! Greg is more ambitious and hopes to do 3 or 4 per summer since he already has a few fourteeners under his belt.