by Brandon Yonke
As the new year approached, I knew I wanted to start the year up in thin air. I had freshly acquired a zero degree sleeping bag that needed to be broken in; my urge to be in the mountains remains regardless of the how minuscule the temperature is. A drive to Breckenridge for a day of skiing doubled as an opportunity to summit Quandary, and I decided to take it. After a day of taking lifts to the top, and skiing down, I drove to the Quandary trailhead to switch it up in the morning; hike up, run down.
I arrived about 7:30pm after finally finding a gas station that hesitantly agreed to let me bum a refill of my 3 gallon water jug- an act which I had received some peculiar looks for. Later, as I stood in the trailhead parking lot, dividing the water up into bottles, I chatted with a couple of skiiers who had just returned from the summit. Conditions sounded to be good, as reported online, though the clear night sky would surely be dropping the temperature.
I laid out a sleeping pad, blanket, and bag across my trunk in anticipation of a cold night, and tried to fall asleep much earlier than normal.
All night long, it was either me sweating, or the water bottles I was sleeping with… but never at the same time. I started off abnormally warm and layered down to get comfortable. Then around midnight, I was too cold and layered back up, while at the same time my water bottles began sweating. Either I kept them to the side in my sleeping bag and tried not to touch them, or I would have no liquid water. It was an uncomfortable night trying to find creative sleeping positions inside of a mummy bag while my breath crystallized to every surface of my vehicle.
At 5am I woke up with windows completely frosted over; even the interior plastics had frost on them. I was happy to see my water was still liquid. With it, I washed down an icy Clif bar and rock solid cranberries for breakfast. I added some Tailwind mix to my water, and a pinch of salt to aid in keeping the water from freezing on my trip to the summit.
With this being my first dead-of-winter 14er attempt, I was indecisive about what to pack/wear for layering. I’m one to normally opt for light-and-fast pack preferences, so I went through the options what seemed like a hundred times. I’d be wearing the Altra Neoshell trail shoes and some mid-high gaiters, a choice many times lighter than boots. What benefit I gain from weight, I lose in warmth with that option, so I wore two pairs of wool socks, one medium and one light weight. I used similar strategy with tights, wearing an ultralight pair underneath my medium weight Goretex tights. On top, I had a LS compression, LS quarter zip, and puffy jacket. I packed along my Ultimate Direction Ultra Jacket and snow pants… just in case the weather got away.
After checking that I had my keys a dozen times (I locked them in the Jeep a few weeks ago with the engine on… it’s an expensive lesson you don’t forget) I shut the door, turned on my headlamp, and wandered into the forest. I couldn’t get over how many stars were out that morning, compared to the lackluster metro Denver area sky. I stopped at the trailhead sign, and on the ground beside it, traced “Yonke 5:30am 1/2/17” into the snow with my shoes. Passing the Quandary Peak: East Ridge sign, I felt a tranquility come over me. I was right where I wanted to be, doing exactly what I love to do; following a headlamp-lit trail into the sky while the rest of the world is still.
I switchbacked my way through the forest as the sky shone through the towering evergreens around me. I quickly realized I had made the terrible winter mountaineering mistake of layering too warm. I dressed down to just my compression top, and shed my goretex tights. I paused for a couple of minutes to let my temperature catch up with me, and continued upward. Within minutes, I was heating up again and could feel sweat cooling my legs. I then became that guy standing in the forest with just my drawers on. Finally, after slowing down a bit and getting my layers right, I stopped perspiring and gradually layered back into a comfortable-cool.
As I emerged from treeline, I could see the silhouette of Mt. Silverheels and the surrounding range behind me. The range was a black outline on a dull purple canvas, changing its hue with each passing moment. Light “phantom” snow streaked through my headlamp beam, even with a sky void of clouds.
I topped out the false summit and continued on toward the saddle, where the trail turned to wind blown rock as a result of the consistent wind. The slope ahead of me started to glow a dull red. Behind, the sun was just about to rise in a fiery lightshow. Looking toward the sunrise and down the mountain, the only contrast I saw against the snow were the trees below. Nothing else moved. I was the only person on the mountain, an increasingly rare claim, especially on mountains more proximate to municipalities. Even the Quandary goats were residing elsewhere; having decided to give up their post as king of the hill.
The skies were clear until about ten minutes past sunrise when the snow rolled in. The hastily moving clouds shot right over the summit, enshrouding it in a grey mass. The wind picked up noticeably, and was picking up little bits of the snow pack with it. I was quickly reminded I had lowered the mask of my balaclava earlier. The blowing snow stung my bare skin and I pulled the mask up to cover back up again.
The path to the top remained defined and packed the whole way to the top, with minimal snow coverage and visible cairns for the likely-unnecessary reassurance. I gained elevation with relative ease. Microspikes were not necessary, but they provided just enough additional traction to move with a bit more of a powerful step.
In the final hundred feet, I was fully in the clouds. The snow system was still moving fast over the peak, and bringing the wind along with it. I tagged the top and had a look at what little there was to see. The Tenmile range continued in its jagged manner toward Breckenridge, disappearing a couple hundred yards out. It was near identical views as my last summit here about two months prior- limited sight, foggy/cloudy, and colder than average. I turned and walked the frosted, wind blown rocks of the summit back to the snow packed slope and began my descent.
Coming down, the clouds gave way to a bit a clarity, and the sun shone through in streaks for a few minutes. I didn’t see anybody else until about a mile before the trailhead- a couple of hikers snowshoeing their way upward. We exchanged a few words on trail condition as I tried to break up the ice in my water bottles to no avail. I chewed on a chucky, ice-shardy mouthful of Tailwind as we parted ways, looking forward to finding some liquid water back at my vehicle.
The trail from treeline was straightforward, and again I layered down once out of the wind. Turning around and looking up, the summit was still in the clouds, hiding in its mystery, while snow fell gently in partial sun here. I emerged from the trail not long after, erasing my “sign in” from the snow on my way out. The weather had generally cooperated, with its moments of wind and cold.
I chugged down some frigid, but liquid water back at my Jeep at the expense of a moment of brain freeze. I sat on the rear bumper, steam coming from my body, staring back up at the summit. Beside me, I Jetboiled some instant coffee to keep starting the day right (ha). Despite the almost sleepless night and undeniable cold, all was good. I wouldn’t want it any other way than to experience sunrise on a silent mountain. I’ll look forward to next time; maybe the goats will decide to rendezvous too.