There are 56 mountains in Colorado that matter. 56 that reach the determined threshold of importance. The rest fall by the wayside. Its easy to understand the attraction of hiking one of the fifty six 14,000 foot peaks; the revere of the tallest mountains, pushing out and above the surroundings. These mountains have their downsides, too, though. Busy and worn trails, a race to the top; dogs and children being dragged and hurled to the top by overzealous parents. It can be chaos during those busy summer months. My experiences of hiking the highest peaks has been a little different, mainly through timing and weather. The first attempt was with James Sullivan – a mid-august snowstorm dampened our attempt to bag three in a day but simultaneously removed the vast majority of people from attempting the same thing. We had mid-winter alpine bliss in the middle of August. My best 14er experience was with my brother, Frank, and Vicki. We chose Mt. Sneffels, between Ouray and Telluride, at the end of September. The late date, the impending weather, and its location about a million miles from anything else made sure we were three out of the only five people to get to the top that day.
By and large though, I have avoided the hunt for 14ers in the summer due to that other occupation obsession of mine, pedalling. This weekend had been designated pedal free for a long time in advance, and it was decided instead to destroy our legs in undertaking something new. The Peak was chosen due to its proximity to the campsite, and distance from civilisation, rather than any more distinguishing factors such as height or grandeur. It turned out that it had both in spades. We went for Clark peak – 12,800 feet above the mucky muck, and one of the cresting peaks of the northern Never Summer range. Three miles of approach-road were covered quickly with the help of one of those motorised thingies, and we started a mere 3 miles (and 3000 feet) below the top.
Dirt road turned to tree-lined forest track. River crossings abound, and the majestic girth of the pines begins to wane as the struggle for oxygen ensued.
Gradually the fertile and protected soil between the trees became rockier and sparse; the bed of the trail gave way to rocks, and the climbing really starts:
The trees turn to scrub bushes, and eventually we peak our heads into the tundra, and onto the shore of Jewel lake, at 11,300 feet. Emerald green bounces off its surface with alpine wind pushing waves of ice blue across its width:
Here the trail ends. A problem for some, we treated it as an opportunity; no longer constrained with a single 18’ track, we scaled the scree choosing the MAN route – straight up!
We crested the top of the scree at 12,400 feet. The last little push getting harder and harder as the snow thicken and the grade continually pushed upwards. From within the bowl we’d been hiking up, the restricted view only gave a hint of the surroundings. Now, with a further 180 degrees of visibility, it really felt like a different place:
From the saddle of Clark Peak looking at South Rawah peak:
Looking Northwest, across North Park to the Wyoming border:
Ruby Jewel bowl (apparently infamous in skiing circles, I found out later), and a view south over the Never Summer mountains and onwards to Rocky Mountain National Park:
The walk to the top was quick and, although steep, didn’t tax us too much. Unfortunately we decided the best way down would be to run. Again, we took the ‘straight’ route. Thighs complaining from the onset, by the time we got back to base I knew my legs would be hurting. A serious case of aching muscles is now lasting into its 4th day!
The empty beauty of these mountains really struck me. Wild in a true Colorado sense; devoid of paths, signs, warnings, and other people. Although Clark peak may not have the stature to match its close brethren, it has a lot more going for it; the factors which aren’t measured in feet, but rather in lack of footsteps.