Thursday, January 22, 2009

Wahatoya: Scree of Vengeance

On West Spanish Peak, no one can hear you scree....

In December 2007, the AAS made a fateful decision to go to Plan B when a raging snowstorm blanketed our favorite ski resort in nearly seven feet of powder. What was Plan A? An ascent of one or both of the Spanish Peaks, sensuously shaped twin peaks towering nearly 7,000 feet above the plains of Colorado half way between Pueblo and the New Mexico border. Wahatoya is the Ute name, roughly translated to mean "breasts of the world" for their shape and the frequent summer thunderstorms that gather at their peaks, bringing rain to the plains that fed the tribes. We vowed we would return, and on November 21, 2008, Paul, Dan, Kirk, and Brian did.

This is what we wished they looked like. West Spanish Peak is on the right.

Usually by November, the taller peaks on the Front Range have a frosting of snow, enough to fill in the nooks and crannies, making climbing a little easier on a carefully-chosen route. From a distance and from the thin route descriptions we could find for West Spanish Peak, we didn't expect much of a challenge in terms of terrain, though snow cover was unseasonably thin. The AAS AAS-embeled at the Wahatoya Trail trailhead after some sleuthing to find it. We began our climb to AAS Base Camp well after sunset, traveling by headlamp under a moonless sky. On the climb, in thin patches of snow that hugged the daytime shadows, we spotted fresh bear tracks, and passed numerous piles of fresh scat -- something we didn't expect to see in late November, but the unseasonably warm weather had probably kept this one from hibernating.

We chose a ready-made campsite at the pass between East and West Spanish Peaks, with ample snow and a pile of dry wood thoughtfully placed by some previous benefactors. The next morning dawned cold but clear, and having gone to bed late after melting snow to refill our water containers, we took our time getting on the trail.

We soon found our way to a ridgeline that we decided we would follow for four steadily climbing miles to the summit, and set ourselves to the task. Below treeline we walked on thin snow cover and forest loam...but as we passed from Spruce forest to open Bristlecone Pine groves at treeline, we emerged into a scree field as far as the eye could see. Hope remained, however, as we simply assumed we'd find a use trail as we climbed higher, or we'd see firm, windpacked snow that we could walk on. It was not to be.

Hopping from ankle-twisting rock to knee-wrenching rock, ranging in size from softballs to small appliances, is hard work. One step is solid, but the next step could have you flailing to stay upright as a hundred pounds of rock slides tinkling from under your weighted boot. We left ABC shortly after 9am, and by noon, we estimated we'd climbed only half way to the summit -- there were nearly 1,500 feet and about 2 miles left. A brief sighting of a small flock of hearty Colorado Bighorn Sheep led by a giant full-curl ram gave us another boost, watching them fairly glide over the loose slopes, but we began to suspect our summit hopes had been dashed. We hiked another mile or so in two hours, and being out of water, searched for a patch of snow to refill from. Here's a collection of videos from Paul taken as we hiked, and after. Walking uphill on scree is hard enough...none of us wanted to walk downhill in the dark, so with a quote on Ed Viesturs' climbing philosophy in our heads, we began our retreat...but not before allowing Eric to partake in a taste of high-altitude camraderie via cell phone.

We finished our trip enjoying a roaring campfire, mountain meals, and spirits while we pondered a return, with skis and snowboards, in spring conditions when firm snow underfoot and longer days above would give us ample time to summit and enjoy the descent as only the AAS can.


Pablito said...

Awesome Post!

Extra Credit will be taken from Kirk's account and credited to Brian's account.

FYI: That drastically effects how much community gear you carry on trips!

Major Bone said...

Yesh! Hey, I got a helmet cam for Christmas. CB is coming quickly....

lizrdboy said...

Did you say Helmet cam?? And then there were three of the most useless gadgets in the AAS. I'll bring mine and we can all get shitty video of each other...

Nice post Bri.