When I was growing up, my Granny would make a chocolate sheet cake that was the food highlight of every gathering. It wasn't until I was older that I learned that she only used real butter and was extremely generous with the sugar scooper in the icing. It was those indulgences in ingredients that made her cake the epic treat I remember. In outdoor adventure there are trips that bring together the right ingredients in the right proportions to make them stand out. In November, 2020 my buddy Austin and I had the chance to experience that kind of trip. In this case it was the combination of friends, snow and the beautiful peaks that made it an epic trip. It turned out to be 4 great days of exploring the peaks around Leadville, Colorado.
The trip started on a Tuesday night in November at about 8:00pm when I picked up Austin at his house in north Dallas. Being two guys with families, we wanted to suck the marrow from the bone and drive through the night up to Leadville. By the time we got there, we had solved some of the world’s problems, at least in our humble opinions.
Since we are both gluttons for punishment, we headed straight to the trail upon arriving. Our plan was to go explore South Colony Lake and possibly summit Mt. Humboldt. For this part of the journey, Austin was the guy in the know. He had researched the routes in advance and even used his Dad’s old books with handwritten notes to get intel. We knew that the last bit of road to the trail head could be a bit rough, but hey, we’re from Texas and have a truck. We’ll be fine!
Austin in the middle of the “road” either clearing rocks or building a rock ramp for us to crawl up.
It turned out to be an early morning adventure that required 2 hours of rock crawling fun.
Once we got the truck parked, we got out and geared up for an adventure. It was cold that morning, and with recent snow, we knew it was going to be deep in some spots above us. That was the first time the need for flotation on the snow (a.k.a. snow shoes) was mentioned. It would be mentioned many more times before the end of the day.
The hike up to the trailhead was easy on the access road. We had about 2 hours of glorious post holing until we got to the trail split between South Lake, Humboldt Peak, Tower Lake and Crestone Needle. We did some scrambling up towards the eastern face of Humboldt peak only to become convinced that it was time to turn around. We took pictures for a bit, ate our lunch and headed back down. We never saw another person all day.
Sleep deprivation, altitude and climbing make a happy combination.
The sun finally rose up enough to light up the eastern route up to Humboldt.
Humboldt Peak teasing us through the trees. Come back another day.
We headed into Leadville. Leadville in November is right on the shoulder season between summer and winter. It was wonderfully quiet and recent snow had everything nice and white. We went straight to our house which is right off main street in Leadville, High Mountain Blue. The evening was filled with dinner and planning for the next day out.
After reading all of the condition updates on 14ers.com, All Trails and referring to Austin’s dad’s old trip reports, we decided on Mount Princeton for day two. It is a 14,200’ peak south of Leadville in the Collegiate Peaks of the Sawatch Range. The trail starts at the end of an access road to a major cell tower so it isn’t hard to get there. About 1.5 miles below the summit, the trail goes into a boulder field that goes all of the way to the peak. On a beautiful summer day, the trail would be rocky but no problem. Since it was now November and we were on the western face, the snow had filled the gullies, and we had to cross snow fields on about a 30 degree slope. This is not something that I would recommend anyone try without experience and without an ice axe. And for once we ALMOST followed our own advice. Austin was the only one of us smart enough to bring an axe. He is the more experienced mountaineer between the two of us so he insisted I take the axe, and he used his trekking poles to secure himself. Even with a proper ice axe, I moved like a sloth making sure every step was secure while Austin followed along behind me completely relaxed.
The sloth making his way across the snow field.
After successfully crossing the snow field, we high fived and forged ahead on the trail. The next 3 hours were fun filled boulder field navigation.
We both soaked up the view at the summit and Austin pulled out his Texas Longhorn and Texas A&M flags for his classic picture. His father carried the Longhorn flag on every summit he tagged. It is extremely special for Austin.
Austin from Dallas carries his Dad's UT flag and his own Aggie flag from his days as a cadet at Texas A&M
If you want to know the story about the descent just read the previous paragraphs in reverse. It was a long descent filled with deep knee bends and another snow field crossing with a real pucker factor. Getting back to the truck and then back to the house was a great feeling that day.
Over a dinner of spaghetti and buttery Texas toast, we set our plans for the next day to climb Quandary Peak. It is 14,271’ peak in the Tenmile Range and about an hour drive from Leadville. With a bit later start, we hit the trail head at 9:30am. The route has about 2 miles of wooded trail until you get to the tree line. It is a gorgeous section that you don’t want to blow past because you are in a hurry. The climb is a supper consistent 20 degree slope most of the way. It isn’t technical, but once you get past 12,000’ it can be hard to find the trail if there is any snow on the ground which there was that day. As soon as I came over the ridge at the 3.5 mile mark and could see the summit, it became clear that there was the potential for bad weather coming our way. However it wasn’t upon us, and I knew Austin and I both had the gear we needed for what could hit us. With a quick check over my shoulder to see that Austin was still keeping a steady pace, I turned west and headed up the ridge. For me it was a great climb. There is an exertion zone where everything is right, and I feel like I can just settle in and hang out at that pace forever. Inside my goggles and hood but on a crowded trail, I was in my own world of exertion and soaking up the beauty of the place.
I got to the summit right as the weather began to roll in. By this time I was wearing my down coat, shell, balaclava, heavy gloves and goggles. It was nice to be wrapped in my cocoon of protection. Austin arrived, and we grabbed pictures and headed back down in the falling snow. The trail was disappearing by the minute, but by keeping our orientation set on landmarks and double checking bread crumb trails on my watch, it was no problem getting down. By the time we got back to the truck, the storm had blown through and the sun came back out. As the old saying goes, “If you don’t like the weather in the mountains, just wait 15 minutes.”
Let's get these pictures and get out of here!
For our last day, Austin took the lead and picked an approach to Mount Sherman from the western side that is accessed by mining roads. Using the All Trails app we set off towards the direction of the trail but found it was a challenge to get on the actual trail with heavy snow. The postholing, navigation and incline were a worthy challenge that took us 2 hours to get up the valley to where we could see the summit. As we neared the ridge, we heard voices and met climbers coming up from the east side. The last push up to the summit is spectacular with exposure points that while pretty safe can quicken your heart rate. From the summit you can see the ridge line to the south that just extends to the horizon. We are definitely heading back to explore that ridgeline.
The smile says it all!
Austin caught my good side!
Looking south from Mount Sherman.
The next day we were up early and headed back south to Dallas. It was a trip that will always stand out because of the amount of climbing we fit into 4 days. We also had a great time as friends. The shared experience made it all that much more special, and it was the inspiration for our Top Out Adventures trips to Leadville. We want to give others a similar experience by providing the planning, route knowledge and experienced, medically trained guides. And Granny's chocolate sheet cake is a regular staple on the menu. If you are interested in learning more about our trips to the Colorado Rockies out of Leadville, check out the details on our Home Page at www.TopOutAdventures.com or contact us at Info@TopOutAdventures.com
Dave is the owner and a guide for Top Out Adventures. His outdoor background is rooted in ultra-running, which has given him the chance to run around the world in the Rockies, Himalayas, Alps and Andes. He is also experienced in mountaineering and scuba diving, anything to get keep him out of an office. Feel free to reach out to him on Facebook at Dave Smithey or e-mail him at DaveS@TopOutAdventures.com