July 28, 2014

Hiking Report: Mount Princeton (Part 1)

What a weekend! Remember when I was supposed to climb my first fourteener (actually, two – I was going to attempt the double summit of Gray’s and Torrey’s) a few weeks ago? Well, this Friday finally found me on my way to do that – this time, at Mount Princeton in the Sawatch Range.

We didn’t leave town until around 6:30pm, which meant that we’d get to the mountain around 9:30pm – just early enough to set up camp in the dark and head to bed before our early morning summit attempt. However, a few stops along the way for gas and food meant that we actually didn’t get there till about 10:30pm. So far, not a big deal.

Double Rainbow
We did see what I thought was a good luck charm on the way… but later events made me rethink that meaning. For future reference, a double rainbow really means “TURN BACK; BAD THINGS AHEAD!”

But the big deal came when we started ascending the dirt road that led up the mountain to the trailhead. I had known beforehand that it was a four-wheel drive road, but I just thought that meant it was a dirt road with some rocks on it. When we started climbing, though, I found out exactly why you need four wheel and not two wheel drive: there were some really big ditch-like hills on the road that we kept needing to go up and over, and they were sandwiched within tons of switchbacks and hairpin turns, so you really needed to have full control of the car at all times. We had a big, safe four-wheel drive truck, and I wasn’t the one driving, so I mostly just clutched the passenger door handle and hoped/trusted that everything would be okay.

The road was very narrow, and only had room for one car, so every so often there would be a pulloff section. If you encountered a car coming the opposite direction, one of you would have to back up to the closest pulloff, or else try your best to make the two cars fit by having one car kind of go up the dirt wall on the inside of the mountain. (There was definitely no room for the outside car to move over, since most of the way there was a pretty decent drop-off on the outside of the road.) Arriving at nearly 11pm, there was no one else coming down the road, and I felt good about the fact that headlights would herald another car’s approach. This feature seemed like it might actually be better at night than in the daytime!

Mt Princeton Road Daytime
Here’s a pic of the road in daytime. Image credit: Colorado Guy

But we kept passing pulloffs that were full of other cars/tents, and so we had to keep going up the mountain – either to find a place to camp, or a place to turn around. Unfortunately, the further up the mountain we got, the worse the road got too. We passed a hairpin turn where a Jeep Wrangler was parked with a tent alongside it, and looked at the space closely to see if we could squeeze in. According to our mileage, we were nearly at the trailhead, so this would be a good spot to stop. Unfortunately, there wasn’t room (either to park or to turn around), so we continued on up. And then it got really really awful.

The road became even more rocky as well as really narrow (as if the pic above wasn’t narrow enough) – to the point where the truck just barely fit on the road without sliding off. (We were in a Dodge Ram 1500, which is pretty big.) And, this part of the road didn’t even have trees on the edge of it – just some low brush and a big, big drop off. Basically, bouncing off a rock and shifting even a foot or two to the left would have basically caused us to go over the edge. I was hoping that it was just my inexperience with four-wheel drive roads that were causing me to worry, until my four-wheel-drive-expert-driver pulled the truck to a stop, and asked me to get out and walk. Why? Because he thought there was a good shot he’d go over the edge, and he didn’t want us in the truck if that happened. “Just be ready to call for help.” OH. MY. GOD. ARE YOU KIDDING ME?!?!?!

But there really wasn’t any other choice. There were absolutely no pull-offs at this point whatsoever, so the only other option would have been to try to back down that narrow, awful road – and that would have been a suicidal move for sure. We both walked along the road about 1/2 mile until we did find a turnoff, and then he went back to try to get the truck to that point, while I sat holding the dog and panicking. I pre-dialed 911 on my phone and then hovered my finger over the “send” button as I nervously waited for the truck headlights to start making their way up the mountain toward me.

They started to move toward me, so slowly at first that I couldn’t tell if I was imagining the movement. Then they started coming faster, and the dog jumped out of my arms and started running toward the truck. I started running back down to try to get him, until I heard my companion yelling “GO! GO! GO!”, so I turned and went scrambling back up to the turnoff. When the truck reached me and pulled off, I understood why the yelling: we had completely blown a tire on one of the rocks, and if he hadn’t kept going with the momentum he already had, he didn’t know if he’d be able to drive the truck forward at all. The tire was all but in shreds, and the rim was crazily bent out of shape from all the rocks it had been going over in that last bit after the tire had blown. However, the blow out had probably saved us – if the tire had bounced off the rock instead of popping, the truck probably would have gone over the edge!

Mt Princeton Road
Here’s a view of the road with the dropoff, but in daylight. Image credit: Denver Davis

The same Google search for that picture after I got back showed me that this was not me being dramatic – in fact, it happened to this guy a few years ago in a similarly-sized truck.

To make things even worse, the turnoff where we had stopped happened to be right at the base of a big slope of rocks. If there was any rain during the night, there was a good chance that some of those rocks would come tumbling down right onto the spot where we were camped. (There were lots of loose rocks on the road there to confirm the possibility.) So instead of pitching a tent, we just holed up in the truck, hoping that it would protect us until morning. Or at least that the rain on the roof of the truck would wake us up and alert us to impending danger so we could do… something.

When I went to sleep on the mountain, I can’t say that I really slept much at all. I kept having nightmares about waking up to a bear in the back of the truck, or having a rockslide smash the windows of the truck and hit me in the head, or having a rockslide straight-up push us off the mountain. And in the morning, we were going to have to change the tire and then drive back down that harrowing stretch! We hadn’t even started the hiking part and already I was pretty certain that this would be the weekend I died. (Or he died, if he again insisted on me walking that stretch of the road instead of staying in the truck.) As you can imagine, between that and the cramped sleeping quarters, I slept very little.

So… this was my preparation and mindset going into my first fourteener. At this point, I was pretty sure that the trail would be a piece of cake compared to everything else on the trip!


7 thoughts on “Hiking Report: Mount Princeton (Part 1)”

  1. This is awesome, in a scary/crazy kind of way. Yikes about the tire, though. It does not sound like a fun situation. I did Princeton a few years ago and we camped somewhere in Buena Vista and woke up at 4:00 to drive up that sketchy road. By the time we got to a place we could park, the three of us were really carsick and not at all ready to hike. But two of us made it and it was my first 14-er (the other one needed to stop and wait for us due to altitude/stomach issues).

    1. Glad to hear I wasn’t the only one who picked it as my first 14er! I would definitely do another but will be researching the road closely beforehand.

    1. We were joking all day that we HAD to get to the top because we were NOT going back on this road ever ever again 🙂

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