Sunday, July 9, 2017

Geocaching as consolation: Zapata Lake

I can't remember if or when I have climbed a 14er before. Growing up, my family went on many trips into high mountains of the west, but my memory of exactly where we went, and how high the peaks were is hazy. Living here in Santa Fe though, suddenly puts me in striking distance to several 14ers in Colorado, and this weekend I jumped at an opportunity to climb one. One of my wife's colleagues, Uttam, wanted to summit Ellingwood Point, and hatched a plan to leave at 2 in the morning drive up, summit the peak and be down off the ridge before 12pm. I guess there was a decent chance of afternoon thunderstorms. The trip sounded pretty intense but also the kind of thing that gets me excited. I talked him out of the 2am start though, instead suggesting we leave the night before and bivy at the trailhead. He agreed to this approach.
Full moon above our bivy

We pulled into the trailhead parking around 9:30 pm and the first thing we realize after getting out of the car is that the mosquitos are out in force here. Even at 9,000ft elevation, they are present. Neither of us had any real mosquito protection, we just had a few sleeping pads and sleeping bags. Not being able to do much about it, we set up the sleeping gear and settled in for the night, only foir it to start to rain on us. Luckily, I did have a tarp big enough to go over us, and it even helped keep the mosquitos off our faces, but even so I slept pretty fitfully. It didn't help that there was a big, bright, full moon shining directly overhead.

4am, the alarms beep and we get up and make our final preparations for the hike. By 4:30 we are on the trail and headed up to Zapata lake. The full moon lights the trail pretty well, and we don't have to use headlamps to make steady progress. Up and up we go. The moon sets behind the ridge to our south, and the sky lightens. We reach Zapata lake around 7am, and the sun is just about to pop over the ridge in front of us. We are making good time so far, but the going gets tough from here on out.
Zapata Lake

There is couloir called C2, which is the most efficient way to scale Ellingwood peak, but it is still full of snow, and not knowing how treacherous a snow climb would be, we opt for the C3 couloir which is rocky, but means we have a longer route with more ups and downs along the long ridge leading up to Ellingwood. Almost immediately after leaving Zapata lake, Uttam begins having trouble. We are above 11,000 ft and the altitude is starting to get to him. We slowly make our way to the base of a gully filled with loose rock and scree. The going gets even slower, and the slope threatens to rock-slide several times, making for a nervous ascent. I make the ridge top above well ahead of Uttam, and am pleasantly surprised to see I ahve a good cell signal, so I check in with home, and eat a snack. Uttam crests a while later, looking pale and tired. The loose rock was not something he had anticipated, and he really didn't like it. But we were on the ridge now, hopefully the going would be easier.

Twin peaks (the actual name) to our west from the top of the ridge

It feels like the going is easier to me,even though there are some climbs and descents we need to navigate along the ridge, but Uttam is still having difficulty. I stop and wait for him several times, watching as he carefully finds his footing on the rocky exposed ridge. After a few hours, we nearly reach the point where the C2 couloir joins the ridge, and I see footprints in the snow below, indicating someone had used that route recently. Uttam though, is not buyoed by our progress, but is sweating the clock. Despite having really clear skies, he still insists on being off the ridge by noon, and based on our current progress, that means we have no chance of tagging the peak. He offers to let me go ahead, and I contemplate it. I'm feeling pretty good still, not too tired, and the peak is invitingly close. But Uttam looks like he is out of his element and leaving him to fend for himself seems like a dickish thing to do. So we decide to turn around, just over 13,000 ft of elevation.
Uttam on the ridge top, typical terrain
Progress down is just as slow as coming up, especially the steep C3 couloir. I'm having a blast, finding snow slopes to glissade down (I brought my ice-axe along just for such an occasion). Uttam, looks a lot less pleased. But we make it down to Zapata lake, and then begin the long trek back to the trailhead. As a consolation, I stop to find two geocaches on the way down. Geocaching was really a big part of this hike, there is no geocache on Ellingwood Point. Although Blanca peak to the south does have a cache on it, GC2BMZY , and I had my eyes on that as a possible route extension. Even without bagging the peaks though, our hike still clocked in at 13.5 miles, over 5,000 ft elevation gain
 and took us almost 12 hours. We were both totally wiped out as we got to the car, and I can only imagine how much more fatigued we would have been had we summitted. Still, the high peaks were amazing to be in, and I will surely try to come back and try this climb again. I think Uttam will too.
View from small lake above Zapata Lake

Marmot at Zapata Lake

Uttam near Zapata Falls

Zapata Falls

Near GZ for one of the caches we found.