Thursday, October 22, 2009

Sandboarding and California Peak near disasters!

It looked like another nice weekend coming up in Colorado high country.
"You up for something epic this weekend?" I asked Ben.
" about boarding the Sand Dunes?"
I knew Ben had been wanting to do this for awhile, and it looked like fun, so we had the beginnings of a plan...

Great Sand Dunes National Park is one of the newest National Parks, having been designated in 2004 (upgraded, as it were, from a National Monument). It certainly seemed intriguing, but logistics from the Front Range lead to excuses. The easiest way is a 5-hour drive that curls around the Sangres, although backdoor 4x4 options can save 30-40 minutes. I've been within 30-40 minutes of the park several times -- heck, the previous weekend in Taos we went through Ft. Garland -- but never made the extra distance out there. In the summer, beautiful, starry nights mean brutal, 140-degree sand during the day, while December through April are out for obvious reasons involving frozen, crystallized water. Throw in autumn leaf-peaping, and that leaves late October/November and May "shoulder seasons" as the only reasonable times to go...
And clearly the best. We found the park to be uncrowded and gorgeous, with perfect weather and ample camping. But I'm skipping ahead.

In addition to the Sand Dunes, we planned on hiking California Peak, which promised a long class-2 ridge traverse up a 13.8k foot mountain. That seemed like a good combination for a Sunday with little chance of rain or clouds. Besides Ben, we piqued interest from his friend Sean, who was up for some sort of camping and outdoor adventure.

We left Fort Collins just after 3AM on Saturday. Instead of using Ben's old snowboard, he found a place that rented sandboards and sleds in Alamosa. Score! Plus, they agreed to drop off the goods near the NP entrance by 9AM, saving us the extra trip. Double score!

We picked up Sean in Thornton just after 4AM, and it turns out he had gotten about an hour of sleep. Looks like he had a long weekend ahead of him, but with the promise of a long drive in front of us, and plenty of sand siesta possibilities, he could certainly make it up. Since we didn't need to get there until 9AM, we were in no hurry...

Except we were. Ben passed a stopped car to the left. From my sideview, I saw the car pull onto the road and start following us.
"Uh, did you see a cop back there?" I asked, which turned out to be the magic phrase to turn red and blue blinking lots on the car behind us.
This was the area approaching downtown where the speed drops down to 55, and we had no excuse. We were anxious and highly sober, unlike most of the other drivers at that time, but no dice. As a college student especially, that's the last thing Ben wanted. I couldn't tell if mentioning my previous tickets were helpful (Wisconsin...Wisconsin...Minnesota...California...Colorado), plus my lame parking ticket from Denver just a week earlier, or if we should drop the subject, but we did agree, unfortunately, that Colorado is pretty darn expensive.

Soon Ben was out of that funk, and dawn was breaking. Finally, we left I-25 and started heading West. We were still early, somewhat hungry, and after we passed a coffee shop in Ft. Garland, I asked if he didn't mind stopping there: both of my travel mugs were empty, my bladder was full, and we were early anyway. He pulled a U-turn, and we parked at Ute Creek Coffee House.

I'm a sucker for coffee houses. It turns out that the owner, John, is too, as he shared various stories about his background and starting the coffee house itself.
"Well, to make a long story short..." he was fond of saying, and the twinkle in his eye proved that he was aware of the irony.
We had time to listen to these stories while waiting for our made-from-scratch burritos. That's right, we glanced at the menu, saw burritos for $2.75, and asked about the ingredients. John's full-time worker (a nice 20-year old girl whose name we all remembered differently...Violet? Clarissa? Twilight?) told us we could have whatever we wanted in them. Sold!

While waiting, John told us about the various pennants and signs hanging in the coffee house, which were all delivered or sent by various customers.
"When I talk to somebody," he explained, "I can usually tell that they'll visit again. The only hard thing is getting them in the first time."
I asked if they had any stickers, as I've collected them from my favorite shops.
"No, but that's a great idea!"
I'll be back again, to Ute Creek Coffee House in Ft. Garland., to check.

Caffeinated, we were now on schedule to get to "The Oasis" just outside to pick up our boards. As we headed North, our view shifted dramatically. First, the last stretch of road is road-bike wet-dream smooth. Second, the view of the Sand Dunes is incredible. It just doesn't make sense: a vast playground of sand, piled between mountains and the San Luis Valley. With our boards in tow, we drove the car as far North as we could, to the "Point of No Return," and headed West to the Dunes.
Basically, our plan was to practice on a bunny hill, head for steeper ground, and hit whatever looked fun. Things went exactly according to plan. Once past the initial scrub and brush, it was an entire day spent barefoot.

At our first bunny hill, we tested out the gear. We were told to wax on every ride, and this ended up being good advice. The boards barely moved when unwaxed, especially on gentle slopes (between "Green" and "Blue" for major Colorado slopes), but absolutely flew when waxed appropriately. In any case, we were tentative but had fun on our first few rides. Neither Sean nor I had snowboarded previously, so we were quite cautious. But we were ready for bigger hills.

We headed in deeper, and found another promising hill. By now, we figured out a good waxing scheme, and hit the same run a few times. I was starting to get more confident standing up, and was finally able to make a run down. At this time, a woman and her pappilon dog approached. We offered to let her try the board, but she just wanted to take pictures. As it turned out, although several groups were trying plastic sleds, nobody else nearby was actually boarding. Since it was my turn, I figured I'd show off my skillz. And I did, making it all the way down...
As I hit the bottom, I fell straight back. I know there's a brutal, bruising learning curve in snowboarding, but I landed on unforgiving ground. Make no mistake: a half inch of slideable sand is covering solid ground. Midwest ice would have been a blessing. For about 10 seconds, I was afraid of vomiting (or worse), or bleeding internally. I stood up, warily, waved "I'm OK" and trudged up the hill, and did a systems check. I knew I was bruised, and unsure if anything was broken, so I took it easy for a bit.

But, opportunities abounded, and I could still walk, so we headed deeper into the dunes, finding a long, steeper run to the West. I stuffed an extra shirt and jacket into the back of my pants, and was good to go. After a few runs, my confidence was back, and started having fun again, as I was starting to be able to shift my weight in either direction. After a few rounds, a family started making it's way toward us. Again, they wanted to check it out and take some pictures. This time, it was a man and 3 smiling, adopted children from Moracco: a young boy and his two teenage brothers. We quickly offered our gear to them, and the teenagers each took a test run. The younger boy, then, took his turn, and delighted us by flying down with absolutely reckless abandon! Soon, they were off, and Ben had one more idea: sledding down head first. We were skeptical, but it turns out this was the key to record land speed descents.

Now, late-afternoon, we called it a day, headed back to return the gear, and picked up some Tecate for the road. We asked the ranger for camping suggestions, and he gave us great advice on backpacking a couple miles from the lower Zapato Falls trailhead to the NF boundary. Then, in the morning, we would be that much closer to California Peak.

We followed this advice, and although the Zapato Lake trail had several social trails branching from it, we found a great campsite before dusk. We gathered our food and combined it: Trader Joe's Jambalaya, plus Ben's fettucini and chicken in a pouch, ended up being awesome like camp food always is. We forgot to bring rope, so we hucked our food remainders into a distant tree and hoped for the best. We worked our way through most of the Tecate, and headed to sleep under thousands of visible stars and the Milky Way itself.

Sunrise woke us up, and we packed up and stashed more of our gear. We continued heading NW along the trail, and then saw the official Wilderness Boundary sign. We crossed a few drainages, but some were completely dry, so it was difficult to determine where we were on the TI map, since the trail essentially involved crossing a few drainages between ridges, and then heading straight west on a less popular trail. The TI map, unfortunately, doesn't have sufficient resolution to show the various switchbacks we encountered, so we stayed on the main trail, figuring that the ridge to California would be obvious.

Except it wasn't. Even though California hits nearly 14k feet, the surrounding 12-13k ridges prevent a clear view of it from the Zapato trail. Finally, it looked like we were in a valley to the West of Twin Peaks. At this point, the trail became icy in the trees, and it didn't make sense to go further. We encountered a woman who was returning from the lake, so we knew we were past the ridge to California. We decided to turn back, and scout at the area near the NF boundary for evidence of a different trail. However, after we turned around and stared at the ridge in front of us, Ben and I decided that we should be able to scramble straight up it, thereby saving time and distance of doubling back. Sean was OK heading back to camp to rest, so Ben and I figured we'd make it up the ridge, run up the peak, and head back in no time.

After crossing a boulder field, we examined various gashes in the side of the ridge that looked promising. We chose one, and started working our way up. The rock, it turns out, was chossy and unstable, but we slowly made our way up. As we started dropping debris, we separated for safety reasons. At one point, Ben was below and behind a boulder, and I sent several rocks that ricocheted much too close to his head. We caught up, and it was his turn to lead (which made more sense anyway, since he had more rockclimbing experience). Unfortunately, the moves started getting harder, and now we were committed halfway up the ridge. We had both -- unbeknownst to each other -- decided that there was no way in hell we were descending this route. But we were almost to the top...

Except we weren't. With more experience, perhaps, we would have realized that the steep angle of the ridge meant we couldn't see what was behind it -- which was even more loose and dangerous climbing, 5.3-5.4 in Ben's estimate. Now, I am not a climber by any means, but I enjoy reading and learning about the sport from others. One thing I really dig is the idea of the "flow," being so caught up in what you're doing that everything else is blocked from your mind. While I've found that in other sports, I can totally see how this really applies to climbing specifically, where you're in an absolutely committed survival mode.

There's not much more to say here, except we eventually made it to the top of the ridge, when

The "thing" up the ridge to our right was not as high as the ridge in front of us. That meant, instead of risking life and limb for California Peak, we were instead making our way up an unknown, unnamed ridge instead. We ambled to the nearest high point -- a pile of rocks -- took some pics, and assessed our situation.

We were essentially on top of an unknown knife edge. Both sides were equally steep, but the North side, unsurprisingly, was snow and ice covered. Climbing this ridge -- a stupid mistake for which I take responsibility -- now left us with an unknown risk of where to proceed, and the possibility of getting cliffed out if we picked the wrong direction. We both did not want to descend our ascent route, so our best option was to gamble and follow the knife edge as low as we could, and then head down.

It was slow going as we picked our way around boulders. We hit treeline again, but this only mean more obstacles in the way, as it was still mostly steep, loose rock. We had no choice but to start heading straight down, slowly. We came near a steep gully, and each choose a different side, so that numerous rocks sent downward wouldn't harm the other person. Eventually, our only choice was to finish up on the gully itself. There appeared to be about 4 cascades of downclimbing followed by narrow ledges, and the problem was, we couldn't actually see the last ledge. This was truly a test of faith, and Ben went first. Most of the time, I couldn't see him, but I could only hear occasional crashes of rock. Now that I was straight above him, I couldn't move at all: even a weight shift could launch a serious of rocks downward. Eventually, he reached a safe ledge, and called out.

I made my way down slowly as well. At one point, I took off my pack and contemplated pitching it, but couldn't count on it stopping at the next ledge, so I put it back on. Each hold absolutely had to be tested, and the only reason some of them stayed is because I didn't put full weight on them. Not much more to say here, but eventually I made it down.

Holy shit.

I will admit, several times, I just wanted to sit there and cry. But there was no option. We shouldn't have been in this position. I shouldn't have misread the map, of course, and we shouldn't have climbed an unknown route in either direction without protective gear and full visibility of the route itself, if not more experience. It's tempting to chalk this up as a learning experience, and I guess it was, but mostly I'll remember foolish unnecessary risks.

We got over it, and started heading back. Climbing the wrong peak took longer than we thought, and at least some of the cool, shaded parts of the trail were fun to run in late Autumn. We ran across another party, looking for the lake -- at 3pm, they were ~4 miles from the lake ??? -- and at least it felt a little better to bust out the map and show them where they were.

Finally, we met up with Sean, and were glad to see that nothing messed with our gear. On the way back, we quickly checked out Zapata Falls itself, which is a destination for many but just a 10-minute diversion after our other adventures. We made it back to the car, which was also undisturbed, and I was happy to sit down for the ride back -- since it was still incredibly painful for me to stand up after sitting down.

We figured we'd stop in the Springs for dinner, and I'd read good things about pizza and beer at "Il Vicino," so we sought it out. That ended up being a great decision, as the pizza and beer were awesome, plentiful, and affordable.
To make a long story short, we'll be back there again.

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