This second expedition can be summed up in one word: snowy! While we felt prepared with warm sleeping bags and lots of layers, we were still a bit surprised to be hiking around in snow up to our knees while summiting 14ers. We look outside now at two of these big peaks right outside Who’s Hall—completely white! Even though we enjoyed ourselves, we’re definitely glad to be back in our cabins with wood-burning stoves to keep us toasty at night and with a warm kitchen to cook meals.
Another factor that characterized this expedition was our work with the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative—a non-profit group that seeks to protect and preserve the tallest mountains in Colorado through active stewardship and public education. Each of our groups spent a number of days base camping near one of the fourteeners and working with representatives of CFI to build and improve trails on the mountains.
Here are some of our expedition highlights:
Group A’s expedition began by base camping near La Plata Peak just outside of Twin Lakes. The morning we were dropped off, it began to snow! The snow continued to fall, and we felt like we were in a winter wonderland (even though it was only October 1st!). The snow kept up all night, and the next morning we quickly discovered that we were unable to hike up to our trail worksite due to potential snow-related hazards. So instead, we got ourselves into the academic mindset, surrounded ourselves with all kinds of literature, and got inspired to write some poetry.
After a few days of base camping, exploring, and completing academic work, the snow melted a bit. At that point, we attempted to summit La Plata. Because we still had to move through a lot of snow, the ascent took us longer than we anticipated. Time is always of the essence when summiting big mountains, and we had to turn around toward the top. Nevertheless, our spirits remained high, and we were proud of our triumphs.
Re-ration came so quickly, and we were excited about the lack of snow at our lower re-ration elevation. We camped in an aspen grove overnight, relieved that it actually was still autumn. We basked in the reds and golds of the changing leaves as we knew we’d be back in the snow during the next day’s summit attempt of Mount Elbert!
With headlamps and many layers, we started up Mount Elbert the next day. We gave ourselves a bit more time than we had on La Plata, hoping to stand on the top of the tallest mountain in Colorado. When we reached the top, we had a pleasant surprise waiting for us—another HMIgroup! We regaled one another with stories of our adventures up to that point, and it’s been fun to hear updates since we returned to campus.
A few days later, we had the chance to make a summit attempt on Mount Massive. We were lucky enough to be able to stand on the tops of the two tallest mountains in Colorado, and we’re pretty proud! We hiked up to the summit in silence and spent some time contemplating our surroundings and accomplishments at the top before heading back down to camp. We can’t believe how quickly the trip flew by and with so many highlights! We hiked back to HMI feeling proud, but also recognizing the moment as bittersweet.
Much like Group A, Group B encountered lots of snow! While we were positioned near Mount Harvard, the same snowstorm rolled in and dropped a number of inches of snow–and the storm stuck around for the next five days! On our third day of trail work, we were forced to abandon our stations despite our best efforts and those of our CFI volunteers.
The next morning, we woke early for our summit attempt of Harvard, knowing we would have a lot of snow to climb through! Our efforts prevailed over the course of four hours and 3,000 feet of elevation gain…we got to stand on the fourth-highest summit in the contiguous United States at 14,420 feet!
We soon moved on from our comfortable base camp and into the backpacking portion of our trip. We spent a number of miles on the Colorado Trail, which is a trail that stretches 500 miles across the state of Colorado. We encountered some beautiful mountains and their respective valleys, clear lakes, more snow, cool old homesteads, and even some wildlife! We even had the chance to summit another fourteener. As we crossed Elkhead Pass, we scrambled up another thousand feet to the summit of Mount Belford!
The next day, we had the chance to explore the remains of Vicksburg, an old ghost town in the area before our up-and-over of Hope Pass and down into the town of Twin Lakes. While the pass was shrouded in thick fog and covered in deep snow, our spirits were high on this last day before heading back to HMI!
Group C started their expedition at the base of Mount Massive. We met two workers from CFIin the parking lot to begin our trail work. We started off uphill with our heavy packs (filled with luxuries since we’d be base camping for a few days!) to our campsites.
We set up our tarps and kitchens and then, with the help of the CFI folks, dug a trench. Instead of having each member of our expedition group tromping out into the woods—making trails, digging holes, burying waste—around our base camp sites for four days, we would concentrate our impact in a trench. While we originally weren’t too excited about it, the whole thing turned out quite well. And it’s nice to know that we left less of an impact using this system. We are Leave No Trace masters!
For the next two days, we did trail work on Mount Massive’s main trail. We were pretty surprised by the amount and type of work this entailed. Our biggest project was moving (lots of) rocks in order to better define the trail and prevent erosion. Having finished our trail work, we had the chance to try our own summit attempt of Massive. The experience was cold, tiring, fun and cold, and we did get to stand on top of the windy summit! Our celebratory campfire that night was quite a treat, and we all got a good night’s sleep (except for the 1am wake-up call of a duo of lynx not far from our tarps).
That next day, we began the backpacking segment of our expedition. Lots of trees, some snow, beautiful lakes, good food, not-so-good food, more lynx, uphills, downhills, the Continental Divide, leaders-of-the-day, and early morning wake-ups for eclipses. We really enjoyed our time out on expedition—realizing just how unique it is to be doing stuff like this as “school”!
Group D spent their three days of trail work building a rock wall in order to decrease erosion on the Mount Elbert trail. We were tasked with digging out the side of the trail in order to build the wall while others of us were assigned to finding rocks. The cold and windy conditions challenged us, and the ground was quite hard since it was so cold! We persevered in any case—digging out placeholders for the many toaster-oven-sized rocks we searched out—and by the end of our trail work time, we had a significant portion of the trail supported by this rock wall. Since Mount Elbert is highly trafficked (being the tallest mountain in Colorado and the second highest in the contiguous United States), we think it’s pretty important to try to prevent erosion and further impact to the state of the wilderness in this area.
We were also lucky enough to summit Mount Elbert, and we’re quite happy to say that, while it was a windy summit, it was also sunny and clear. We enjoyed our view out into the Sawatch Range and looking down into Leadville and across into the Mosquito range. It’s incredible to look down on a place we feel like we’re getting to know pretty well, a place that’s starting to feel like home. All at once, we felt so close and so far away!
Group E built steps on the trail of Mount Belford with its CFI representatives! After creating space to place rocks, breaking rocks into pieces, moving rocks, and securing rocks, the trail looked (and felt) great! We were sure to test it out on our Belford summit day…and we felt hugely accomplished as we stood up top and looked down on everything below us. None of us had ever summited a fourteener, so we were quite proud of the accomplishment, especially having spent so much time and effort working on the trail.
The backpacking portion of our expedition, which we started shortly after our summit of Belford, involved lots of exciting things. We also had the chance to stand on a second fourteener summit—that of Mount Massive. This day, while it challenged us a lot, really is the highlight of our trip since we summited in an October blizzard! Additionally, we played a lot of games—particularly ichi mini hoi, a combination of baseball and rock paper scissors—drank extraordinary amounts of hot drinks, and made some amazing meals (we’re getting pretty creative!).
We had great expeditions and are still laughing about the funny memories we created. We’ve got another update coming soon that’ll report on our adjustment back to campus and digging into this chunk of academic time that we have before third expedition and Thanksgiving!