Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Signal Mountain in Winter.

I've not hiked much in calendar winter 2015- this day marked my second and last outing for the season.  I thought about doing something different.  I'd really like to have a winter ascent of Mount Meeker, but the weather conditions kept me away this day.  
It's not been long since I stood on top of this mountain, it was only five months or so ago that I ascended it for the first time along with South Signal Mountain and Pennock Peak.  I thought then that this would be a good winter option because the avalanche risk is very low most of the way.  The trail essentially stays on or near the ridge crest most of the way up, and the land isn't steep enough. 
Thus, I set out on the second to last day of calendar winter to repeat these peaks. 
You'll want to start early to avoid the ongoing construction on 43.  To get here you can take 43 north from Estes Park, or 43 south from Drake, which lies along 34.  Turn onto Dunraven Glade Road, and take it to the end where you will find the trail head.  Proceed past the metal gate to the top of the hill and follow the signs to the trail. 
A quick and steep climb is met, but it gives some interesting views of the valley below.  Things will start to level out and you'll meet a sign.  Continue straight as directed to reach Signal Mountain.
I had my snowshoes with me, but the trail looked to be pretty well packed in.  I was thinking of caching them to pick up on my way back.  But in the end, I was glad I didn't.
After some flats, the uphill starts.  I finally put my snowshoes on when the trail became steadily covered.  Up and up I went.
I first gained the small summit of Bulwark Ridge, which will be on your right before you drop down to the saddle between it and Signal Mountains.  From here I could see an area of concern.  The trail runs through the snowfields pictured above, and my research indicated this was one area that was steep enough to avalanche.
In fact, it was in this small saddle area that I heard two whoomps, both fortunately on flat ground.  The first saw a crack propagate about five feet on my right.  The second settled an entire clearing about 15 feet in diameter.  That was kind of freaky as I heard the snow settle pretty far away from me.  It looked like there was a melt/freeze crust on top of powder, and that is what broke.
The other peaks in the area.
I made it to treeline and picked a way west to stay on flatter ground.  In the end I summited South Signal Mountain first.  I stopped for a snack and looked at Pennock Peak.  
I went back and forth- the topo didn't show any areas steep enough to go, but knowing that I'd have to cover some less flat terrain and the fact that I'd twice seen and heard that dreaded sound on my way up and right below treeline was enough for me to decide to skip it.  
I set my sights on Signal Mountain. 
It was a pretty mellow walk on tundra and talus to the summit.
I curled up in the wind block on the summit and had another quick bite to eat.  I also wanted to take a photo of the register.  
Dottie McEs comment really struck me.  "77& ~ 15 times on summit.  This may be the last!:("
This statement is both a reflection on our mortality and inspiration to never give up doing the things you love.  Thank you Dottie McE.  I hope you have one more summit in you!
I looked back at South Signal Mountain.  I would have to head back toward it to avoid the steeper snow on the leeward/eastern side.  However, I spied a route that would keep me on solid ground without having to go back over the summit.
Looking back to Bulwark Ridge. 
And Longs Peak.  Last year I stood on top of it on the last day of winter.
I made my way back to my snowshoe tracks.  The route I spied worked, and I was able to avoid all the snow for the most part.
Looking back at Signal Mountain.
A final look back at the trail in winter.  A day of warming made the snow farther down a bit more slushy and sticky.  Things are definitely melting, though there is plenty of time left for winter conditions this year.
And just as a note, CR 43/Devils Gulch Road was virtually wiped out in the flood.  Construction is currently ongoing, and looks to be completed by late 2015.  From 8 am- 4 pm traffic is let through at five minutes past the hour on the hour from both directions (heading up from Drake, or down from Estes).  If you plan to hike from this trail head, get an early start to avoid it, but know that might also give you a wait at the end of Dunraven Glade Road to get back home.  There will be closures and night work as well, so check these websites for information and plan ahead.
I think this hike is a great option any time of year!  In the winter, the trail can become less distinct, particularly as altitude is gained, so that can be a factor in reaching the summit, but the route is avalanche safe for the most part.  And those parts that didn't look so good were quite easy to avoid.  Views of the Mummy Range, Longs Peak and area, and the North Fork Basin await.  There is enough elevation gain and distance to make it challenging.  But if Dottie McE can do it, you can do it!
Signal Mountain in Winter:
Bulwark Ridge, 10890 feet: 4.5 miles each way, 3090 foot gain.  Second class.  Strenuous-.
Signal Mountain, 11262 feet: 5.7 miles each way, 3362 foot gain.  Strenuous-.
South Signal Mountain, 11248 feet: 5.2 miles each way, 3348 foot gain.  Strenuous-.
As a whole, expect to gain around 4000 feet of gross elevation, and cover 11.5 ish miles.  Strenuous-.

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