Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Hiking to Quandary Peak - The Dirty Details

In Monday's post, I provided a skimpy, fluffy travelogue of our trip up Quandary Peak. Today's post provides a bit more detail, for anyone interested in doing the hike themselves. Although none of the Colorado 14er peaks are EASY hikes, Quandary Peak's East Ridge is a worthwhile starting peak for anyone of reasonable fitness and good preparation. For comparison, I am a middle-aged suburban that eats fried chicken too often and runs about 12 miles per week at a jogging pace while watching bad TV shows on the basement treadmill.

Important Stats

  • 6.6 miles round-trip, with 3375 ft elevation gain

  • Took us 2 hours for the first 2 miles (to the saddle ridge), then 1.5 hours for the final 1 mile. Stayed on the summit for 30 minutes, as the weather was mild.

  • Took us 2.5 hours to get back down to the trailhead (6.5 hours total).

Preparation

  • Do some hikes with serious ups: This hike is almost completely uphill with only two short sections even close to horizontal in nature (You go up about 1000 feet for every mile you travel). The elevation gain will kill you before the overall distance. Get used to the slow and steady "alpine plod" approach to making steady progress without burning out. This hike is steeper than the famed "Roller Coaster" section of the Appalachian Trail in Virginia.

  • Do some hikes at similar elevations in the days just before this hike: We did two ten milers in Rocky Mountain National Park (each with about 1600 feet of elevation change), and definitely felt the effects of the reduced air pressure at high altitudes. This gave us a better appreciation of our limits during this hike and gave our lungs time to acclimate to the changes.

  • Be fit enough to carry the standard kit of hiking gear: You will definitely need good lightweight hiking layers (we had a range of 35 - 64 degrees Farenheit in a single mid-August day) and an appropriate amount of water for your body size. I favored quick-to-eat granola bars over meal foods like sandwiches, but left heavier food to look forward to back at the car. I also needed a flashlight for the early portion. Don't forget your sunscreen and sunglasses.

  • Come EARLY: This is an incredibly popular hike with limited parking. The main trailhead fills up by 6:30 AM on the weekends, forcing you to park down in the overflow lot (at the intersection of 850 and CO-9). Hiking from the overflow lot adds another half mile to your trip, and no one wants that. Come on a weekday if you want a more serene experience. We hiked on a Monday and got to the trailhead at 5:30 AM, and there were already 8 cars there.

  • Leave EARLY: Hiking after 12:00 PM can be unpredictable weather-wise. Plan to start early enough to be back down below the treeline before any thunderstorms occur.

  • Treat this hike as a challenge: This is a difficult, strenuous hike, and you will have a greater chance of success if you go into it expecting the challenge instead of treating it as just another outing. Your physical endurance will get you most of the way, but the last 1/4 mile is all mental.

What To Expect

  • The trailhead is easy to find on Route 851 with great signage. The start of the hike may be difficult to see if you come before sunrise -- it is beyond the triple trailhead maps on the left side of the road and ascends very quickly.

  • The first 100 ft of the hike will give you some idea of how steep the end is, but it calms down quickly after that. The trail crosses several old mining roads, but newer "TRAIL" signs are very easy to follow. You may need a flashlight here before sunrise.

  • The first mile is fairly pleasant. The trees continue to thin out, only to be replaced by boulders you will learn to hate. When you start seeing small stands of trees covered in stray mountain goat fur, you will know that you're at the treeline. This will be your last chance to pee in privacy (peeing later on involves long treks away from the main path and ducking behind very small rocks).

  • Above the treeline, you will face neverending staircases of rocks, punctuated by the occasional cute pika. Conserve your energy here and understand that the final ascent will be HARDER than this section.

  • Around the 2 mile mark, the hike will flatten out to form the saddle ridge. This area is relatively flat and the worst is yet to come. This is the point where you should seriously judge your reserve energy and not be afraid to turn around if your body or the weather are not cooperating. The views from here are amazing enough that even this stopping point is a worthwhile hike. This area was the windiest and coldest portion, during which I put all of my layers on).

  • The final ascent from the saddle ridge is the most challenging section, but you will be cheered on by everyone else already on their way down. I survived by going about 15 steps at a time, then standing still until my heart rate normalized, with a longer 3-5 minute break whenever I felt like it. The one time I felt like I wasn't going fast enough and tried to push harder, I immediately regretted it and had to lie down for a few minutes doing some mindful breathing.

  • As you ascend, you will see a "false summit". The real summit doesn't actually come into view until you're nearly there, and can be recognized by a wooden stick planted at the top. The GOOD news is that after the false summit, the remaining 0.1 miles is nearly flat.

  • After this, you've made it! Seek out the geological marker embedded in the rock roughly in the middle of the summit, and celebrate with the many other hikers who will be up there taking pictures of the great views and mountain goats. When we went, someone had left a cardboard sign with the name of the peak and elevation wedged under a rock near the geological marker.

  • The descent is wholly possible if you've made it to the top. You'll just get super annoyed that the neverending boulder staircase lasts for so long. Start coming down with at least 2 hours to spare before any brewing thunderstorms so you can reach the treeline with time to spare.

Any questions? Let me know in the comments section! Good luck!

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