About Me

My photo
Pune/ India, Irvine/ CA, now Boulder/ CO
Welcome to my blog! I'm Hrishi from Pune, India. I am an earth system scientist currently working as a postdoctoral research associate at Colorado Center for Astrodynamics Research at CU-Boulder. These blogs are mostly about my travels, landscape photography, scientific computing, book and film reviews, fitness, cooking, and science communication. Feel free to navigate based on the labels below. My website: hrishikeshac.wix.com/hchandan


Sunday, January 15, 2017

1st winter 14er experience: Quandary

View of the summit (the seemingly lower ridge on the left) and the hikers from the treeline
Yesterday (14th Jan) I attempted my first winter 14er - Quandary peak in Summit County, Colorado. 'Attempted' because I turned back about 235 ft from the summit. I was fatigued and at my pace, it would have taken about 20-30 more minutes, and similar amount of time to come back. It was getting really late, visibility was getting poorer with frequent whiteouts. I knew I wouldn’t make it back to the car before dark, but was hoping to at least make it to the treeline  by then (which I did). This extra 1 hour would have made that difficult. Also, I was the last person left on the ridge, and this was my first real winter snow hiking experience so didn't want to stretch it. So decided to turn back. Later I discovered I made it to 14030 ft, so technically, I did a 14er! He he.

The reasons I was fatigued were many: 1. Less than 28 hours ago, I came back from a 2.5 week vacation in India. So was heavily jet lagged 2. Still a bit drowsy from the medicines after removing all 4 wisdom teeth in India (5 pills 3 times a day). 3. I was wearing my new mountaineering boots- La Sportiva Nepal Cubes. Though I got them more than a month ago, I was traveling this whole month and didn’t get a chance to break them in (except a 3 mile easy hike in Boulder- Dakota Ridge). The heaviest shoe I wore for many years now is still 3 times lighter than the Nepals. Also, I was wearing snowshoes the entire time. Thus, my feet felt extraordinarily heavy, and were extremely fatigued. 4. Possibility of altitude sickness as I was coming straight from sea level (but with jet lag and dizziness due to antibiotics, the effect of AS would be hard to isolate) 5. Over the years, I have gotten hooked to drinking from a bladder. As I used bottles for this hike (below freezing), I wasn’t drinking enough water and frequently enough.

Considering this, I would not have even attempted to hike that day. However, some folks at 14ers.com had organized this hike, and I wanted to do my first winter 14er with someone who has done it before. I didn't really think whether or not I would summit. I had read a great deal about Quandary in winter. But wanted to see for myself how the trail looked like, whether my clothing were appropriate compared to other experienced hikers, etc. Just wanted to be out there. Worst case, I thought, it would be a good workout, and would still get to learn a lot. Now with yesterday's experience, I think I'll be okay attempting a similar hike on my own.

View of the ridge while hiking down
Turning back was not such a difficult decision, as I am not a peak bagger, though I would have gone for it if there was better visibility and more time. Anyway, glad that I decided to turn back, as the visibility deteriorated further into a full blown, lasting whiteout during downhill. I had to stick to the ridge as there were avalanche-prone valleys on both left and right sides. However, due to whiteout, it was impossible to see the snowy right-side edge of the ridge (left-side edge was rocky, so better visible). While I tried to follow others' footsteps, they were soon vanishing due to the blowing snow, and just some fine traces were visible. Thankfully, I had the trail stored in my Garmin Epix watch and referred to it just in time as I was mistakenly drifting into the right-side valley, apparently following a wrong set of footprints.

This is how my trailing footsteps on the ridge looked like during whiteout.

We began the hike at 7:20am. The weather was extremely good, and I spent quite a bit time taking pictures of the snowscapes. The hike to the treeline itself was enough for me to feel the weight of the boots and snowshoes, and getting fatigued. I couldn’t find my usual rhythm, and was struggling to keep up. Still, going at a snail's pace, I carried on until 2:30pm before turning back. We reached the treeline by 5pm, and the car by 6:20pm. So in all, 11 hours to do a ~6.5 mile hike. Yikes! That’s when I remembered reading a post on 14ers.com or mountainproject.com- "During winter, consider every mile as two". I found this pretty accurate, as my usual pace for 1000ft/mile gradient is 1 mile/ hr.
The beautiful weather at the start of the hike

The houses among the conifers made a pretty site. This would look incredibly beautiful during blue hour when the houses light up, and there is still some ambient light. 
This is not a processed black and white or a desaturated picture. Winter overcast sky does it for you.
View of the North Star Mountain on the south
A hiker going up the ridge
I am pleased with my gear for the hike. I had worn several layers- bottom: non-cotton underwear + merino wool thermals + softshell pants + rain pants (my alternative to a dedicated hard shell) + gaiters; top: merino wool thermals + polyester t-shirt + down jacket + rain coat (didn't need to use it though- the down jacket was wonderful in resisting the winds); head/face: ski mask + skull cap + ski goggles + down jacket's hood; hands: liner gloves + fleece gloves + goretex mittens; footwear: semi-insulated merino-wool ski socks + Nepal Cube boots + snowshoes. In the bag: sunscreen, 2 liters of water in bottles, 1 liter Gatorade, honey stingers and other bars, and PBJ sandwiches (but just had 3 honeystingers during the entire hike. Didn’t feel hungry at all), emergency bivy (seriously toyed with the thought of using it while struggling to find the trail during the whiteout), 1st aid. Also had trekking poles and Panasonic LX100 camera.

All the gear fared extremely well, including my unbroken boots! I was warm all throughout. The only thing I would have wished  for is a pair of crampons. The climb was pretty steep nearer to the summit and I struggled with the snowshoes. I had also taken microspikes and decided to switch to them. However, I realized that they were too small for the Nepals! (as it is a mountaineering boot, I got 1-2 sizes larger). Tried to climb with just Nepals and couldn’t even go a few feet without slipping/ sliding down. So reverted back to the snowshoes. A crampon would have been the optimal gear here. Another thing I noticed was some folks were carrying an ice axe- they used it for glissading down. Neat!
One of the happiest hiker was this husky! Jumping around. 

It's amazing how agile the dog was in such soft snow. It didn't posthole! (at least I didn't see)
Summary of what I learnt from this experience:
  1. During Winter, consider each mile as two
  2. Winter weather can change very fast (it got from sunny to overcast to whiteout within a few hours. And by the time we got to the car, I could see the clear starry sky!)
  3. I'll need to up my fitness if I were to continue with winter hiking (My usual pace is fine for summer hikes, but winter is a completely different deal)
  4. I'll have to get used to hiking in heavy boots with snowshoes for long hours
  5. I'll have to learn to drink from a water bottle again (as opposed to from a bladder)
  6. Having the trail on a GPS (in this case, on my watch) is essential (Even though I had a printed toposheet map as well, it was useless during the whiteout)
  7. Don't always blindly follow other's footsteps (I got waylaid by them on two instances and was headed towards the valley!)
  8. I'll have to learn about bivouacking more seriously!
  9. Ice axe can be used for glissading as well. So it’s a good idea to always carry it
  10. Invest in a pair of crampons (I was going to, anyway)

A bright moment during the hike was spotting a White-tailed Ptarmingan in near-whiteout conditions. This was the only wild creature we saw during the hike.

No comments: