COLORADO SPRINGS, Colorado — Few things will get me out of bed at one o’clock in the morning — but a fourteen-year-old hike is one of them. And in this case, I was getting off the couch – planning ahead, I figured it would be easier for me to crawl out of the covers early in the morning in a less comfortable situation compared to my cozy king.
Waking up at a time when the world was asleep was surprisingly easy, but I knew I had a five hour drive ahead of me, then a peak adventure to the summit of two fourteen, then a five hour drive. Arriving at the trailhead the night before might have been a better option, but scheduling conflicts forced me to turn my high altitude trip into a day trip.
Getting on the road before 2 a.m., I was off to “the most remote place in the lower 48s” – Lake City, Colorado.
Ultimately, the only life on the roads at this hour would be in the form of hundreds of roadside animals along the route, with less than 10 vehicles encountered along the way.
My plan was to climb Sunshine and Redcloud peaks at 14,001ft and 14,034ft above sea level respectively. I would use the less traveled eastern slopes route up to Sunshine which provided a less crowded trail and easier access, then I would cross over to Redcloud.
Finding parking was as easy as it gets – the only vehicle in the parking lot was mine. After checking that my emergency GPS was working and communicating correctly, I was on my way.
The class two route to Sunshine Summit and back would cover approximately 7 miles and 4,500 feet of vertical gain, with the thrust through the saddle to Redcloud Peak and back adding approximately 3 miles and 1,000 feet of gain for a total of about 10-11 miles and about 5500 feet of gain.
With most of the vertical gain coming hot in the first 3.5 miles, this part of the climb proved steep and strenuous, gaining elevation quickly. It didn’t help that the trail to the treeline, which probably gained about 2,000 feet in 1.5 miles, was a mix of loose dirt, rock and mud, with an eventual transition to mud. crispy snow. In other words, I was breathing quite heavily when I left the forest.
The steady climb continued during the next part of the hike, with the beating sun already beginning to soften the snowy slopes that stood between me and my first peak of the day, Sunshine Peak. I started to mentally prepare myself for what I knew would be a post-hole battle in wet, heavy snow on my trip back up the mountain.
The trip from the treeline to the top of Sunshine was strenuous, but well done. The ridge was easy to follow to the top and my mountaineer ax came in handy for traction and balance.
Upon reaching the top, I checked the time – I was at 3.5 – on time and moving about a mile per hour on the steep, slippery inclines. With a 30 pound bag of groceries on my back and snow on the ground, I was happy with it.
From the top of Sunshine, I set my sights on Redcloud. The route seemed quite simple – a hilly trail covered in snow up to a distinct red colored peak.
As expected, this traverse posed no wild challenges or surprises (minus a false peak), although my energy level did drop.
“Fortunately the rest is downhill,” I kept reminding myself, also making an active effort to ignore the likely possibility of post-hole miles.
From the top of Redcloud the views were amazing. “Warm” temperatures of around 30 degrees and a light breeze allowed me to spend some time at the top to rehydrate and refuel before starting the long drive back to my car.
Soon it was time to say goodbye to 14,000 feet. I checked the time, I had 4.5 hours in my hike – still, right on time.
Clouds had started to roll in and while I was hoping that would help keep the snow a bit firmer, it wasn’t by the time I reached about 12,500 feet.
With every step I took, my foot disappeared under the snow, sometimes up to my ankle, sometimes up to mid-thigh, sometimes leaving my boot stuck between rocks hidden deep in the powder or dragging something sharp hitting my leg. Fortunately, I was able to stay upright while I post-hole, to avoid falling forward with gravity on the way down and breaking my shin on anything that might pin it in place.
I know, I know – snowshoes could have solved this problem. That being said, I chose not to bring snowshoes, fully aware of the type of conditions I might encounter. The extra weight and ever-changing terrain made me think the racquets would be more of a hassle than they were worth – I’d still be on board with that decision.
I continued to do my grueling push down the mountain during one of those rare scenarios where the descent proved more taxing than the ascent.
Eventually I made it back to the treeline and then through the forest following rare boot prints, directional clues and the occasional cairn back to my vehicle. My elapsed time was about 7 hours.
All in all, hiking the Eastern Slopes to Sunshine Summit and then crossing Redcloud was exactly the springtime adventure I was looking for. It was rugged, physically taxing, less crowded, and had amazing views.
I would liken the first part of the route to a less crowded and less established climb of Quandary Peak (east ridge). The route to Sunshine lacked switchbacks and was much looser and steeper, but had similar distance, gain and feel in snowy conditions.
The second part of the hike from Sunshine to Redcloud was similar to the trek from Democrat to Lincoln in many ways. The downhill part wasn’t as loose as the infamous downhill part on Bross, but I found it just as boring.
Maybe I’m in better shape than usual, but this hike seemed very strenuous for only 10 miles. With that in mind, I would recommend this climb to those who are in very good shape and are also comfortable finding a route and have the knees to handle a loose, steep descent.
Never go hiking without first checking the forecast from the Colorado Avalanche Information Center when there might be snow on the ground. During this hike, the risk in the area was one in five, but that still means being careful of potentially dangerous situations, such as steep inclines above a trail. Slopes above a trail can be triggered by movement below. Do not enter the backcountry without the proper knowledge and ability as this can pose an extreme risk.
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