Third Time’s the Charm on Mt. Princeton

MOUNTAIN: Mt. Princeton (14,197′)
ROUTE: East Slopes
RT GAIN: 5,400′
RT DISTANCE: 13.25 miles
RT TIME: 10.75 hours
PARTNERS: Jerry, Adam, Shawn, Joel

Mt. Princeton had become something of a winter nemesis. I tried it in early January 2014 prior to shoulder surgery, but the recurring dislocations that necessitated said repair left me woefully out of shape. I only made it as far as subsummit “Tigger Peak,” a mile or two and nearly 1,000′ short of the summit. Princeton was also the plan three weeks ago, but I was forced to bail last-minute for a variety of reasons.

Third time’s the charm, right? I roped a few poor souls — Shawn, Joel, Adam and Jerry — into yet another winter attempt Sunday, Feb. 15. Most of the Colorado high country still looked more like early fall than mid-February, and with the weather pattern changing toward more frequent snow beginning this week, I figured I better poach an easy winter summit while the option remained.

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The group started from the lower trailhead at 6:45 a.m., faced with a few miles of road walking before reaching the standard summer starting point. Snowshoes weren’t necessary and the distance melted away. As the day grew warmer and the sun burned off the early-morning clouds, some of us even found ourselves in baselayers. Of course, with a storm scheduled to roll in during the afternoon and high winds obvious up high, we knew it wouldn’t last.

The rest of us caught up to Jerry, who’d dashed ahead at superhuman speed, at the only real decision point we’d face all day. The road continues to above 12,000′, but the summer route leaves it on a good trail that traverses across the face of “Tigger Peak” to the low point in the saddle between “Tigger” and Princeton. Most winters, avalanche danger dictates forgoing the summer trail and going up and over “Tigger” instead, at the expense of some extra mileage and about 800′ of added elevation gain. The minimal snow levels convinced us to take the easier option and stick to the trail.

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The “easier option” was still kind of a pain. The Mt. Princeton trail consists of large, loose, annoying talus. Add a foot or two of powder on top of it and the going becomes very slow and tedious. Jerry continued leading the way as the weather began its preordained decline.

Princeton’s summit looked tantalizingly close. Almost every winter trip report I read had a huge round-trip time that didn’t align with the 13.25 mile/5,400′ stats. Sometimes it even took people 20+ hours! Now, I understand why. Most of terrain above 12,000′ is simply horrid. If we’d had to deal with trailbreaking in snowshoes and going over “Tigger,” it likely would have taken us much longer as well. The path becomes more and more intermittent, replaced with steep scree, loose talus and ankle-breaking murder holes. The final push to the summit took about twice as long as I expected at first glance. We finally topped out, one after another, between 1-1:20 p.m.

The forecasted storm was arriving in earnest. I stayed on the summit only long enough to eat a sandwich and snap three pictures. No one else bothered. Clouds and light snow had already rolled in, with the wind whipping around at 30 or 40 miles per hour.

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On such hideous terrain, the descent took almost as long as the climb. I think we all wanted to kneel and kiss the ground when we were finally back on the solid trail. As nice as that was, regaining the road was even better. We rested for a while at the junction to eat, drink and adjust layers, tasks we’d neglected for a few hours in the deteriorating elements.

Thus replenished, the stroll down the road was lighthearted and victorious. The storm produced a veritable whiteout at times, with an inch of snow falling per hour and visibility reduced to a couple hundred feet. Safely on the road, however, we had little to worry about. We spaced out a bit, with the last person returning to the vehicles around 5:30 p.m. It’s not often you can do a long winter daytrip without needing a headlamp. Not to say we were especially quick — just lucky with the conditions.

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We tried to stop at Eddyline Brewing for a post-climb meal, but shockingly there was a 45-minute wait on a Sunday night in the middle of winter. We instead visited a Mexican joint down the street on Joel’s excellent suggestion, which hit the spot just the same. Thanks to Joel, Adam, Jerry and Shawn for a fun day. Now, back to ice climbing…
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