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National Public Radio woke me abruptly at 3:00 am and I was on the road by 4. I was headed to Guanella Pass to climb three mountains. Square Top Mountain, Argentine Peak and Mount Wilcox. Guanella Pass is just to the south of Georgetown off of I-70. It is a dirt road that takes you up to 11,670 feet in the heart of the Front Range. It is the most frequent starting point for the popular 14er, Mt. Bierstadt. However, if you head west from the pass, you can climb Square Top Mountain and as many of its neighbors as your legs feel like visiting.
The road was under construction so it took me a little longer to get to the trail head than I had anticipated. By 6:45 I was in the midst of a chilly October morning heading up toward Square Top's Northeast ridge. It was a breezy morning, but very nice...a typical Fall morning. I knew there was a weather system moving in that was supposed to bring showers at some point in the day, but no one knew exactly when. Some said it was supposed to come early morning, others said it wouldn't hit until sometime in the evening. From the looks of the clouds in the distance, it looked as if it would fall somewhere in between. I figured I would go as long as the weather let me. If it was a half mile, or to all three mountains, we would just have to see.
The morning started off dark and dreary because of a cloud bank to the east. But as I climbed toward Square Top the sun broke out above those clouds and made for a beautiful morning. I spotted my first Mountain Goat, something I have wanted to see for a long time. But he was really far away. I tried to get at least a little closer, but he made his way down the north side of the ridge and was headed toward Silver Dollar Lake. So I kept pushing ahead, watching the clouds come from the southwest at a pretty rapid pace. Before too long, the clouds were passing low over the summit of Square Top.
I decided to reassess the situation just below the steep slope to the summit. At that point, the clouds were getting pretty thick at the top of the mountain and getting lower as the wind was really beginning to pick up. At this point there was no threat of thunderstorms, at least the clouds didn't show it, and I began heading up the steeper portion of the northeast ridge. I was soon engulfed in thick clouds and visibility was decreasing rapidly. I wasn't too nervous about the weather conditions, but I was a little concerned with finding my way back to the trail head if this pea soup made it all the way down to 11.6k. I figured that to get lost up here would be pretty hard to do as all it would take to get back would be to follow the crest of the northeast ridge all the way to Guanella Pass. So I pressed on and up.
Before I knew it, I was on the long flat ridge of a summit. For about a quarter of a mile this summit goes on and on between 13,700 feet and the summit at 13,794. Pretty long and flat. I finally came to what I was sure was the summit as a break in the clouds showed a considerable loss in elevation about 40 yards ahead. I checked the map, and sure enough, I was there! I have heard the views were great from here, but the mountain wanted to keep those views from me on this day. So I took a couple of quick shots and began making my way back to Guanella Pass. I would save Argentine and Wilcox for another day. Being in a new area, I didn't feel like pressing my luck, especially while being alone. Now, with the light moisture in the air, the rocks had a thin layer of ice over them, making for slower travel as I had to be a bit more careful.
On the way back, I discovered that the clouds had in fact thickened and dropped down quite a bit. It turns out that I had these conditions until about 12,400 feet, just above the pass. I just stayed on the rolling ridge top until I dropped out of the clouds, right where I should have been. I checked the map a couple of times in the process just to ease my mind a bit, but it worked out perfectly. After a few more photo breaks, I was back at the pass and ready for the heater and a snack. During the three hour trip back to Estes I noticed a break in the clouds behind me and could see Bierstadt and the surrounding mountains around Guanella Pass with a nice layer of fresh snow on them. I made it home to a relaxing afternoon and evening of listening to the rain and the thunderstorms as they rolled through dumping snow on the mountain around the Estes Valley. Another great day in the hills!
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