Wednesday, 25 May 2011 00:00

Sleepless on Mount Princeton - Sunrise in the Collegiate Peaks

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Views from Mount Princeton Views from Mount Princeton

Mount Princeton has been on my radar for a long time. As the most visually prominent (but only 8th most prominent, literally speaking) mountain in the Sawatch Range and Collegiate Peaks, it always has greeted me with warmth and nostalgia to the Arkansas River Valley and the quaint town of Buena Vista (yes, it is pronounced "Bewna," we know) during my travels into Colorado's mountains. Mount Princeton is the 18th highest mountain in Colorado, towering over the valley below at 14,197 feet in elevation. According to The Princeton Alumni Weekly, the first recorded ascent of Mount Princeton was on July 17, 1877, by William Libbey of Princeton University, hence the namesake. Sitting next to Mount Princeton is "Tigger Peak," an unranked mountain with 13,300 feet in elevation, which is often climbed in conjunction with Mount Princeton (which is what we did as well). The Princeton University history would also help explain the name of "Tigger Peak," since the mascot for Princeton University is the Tiger.
The plan to climb Mount Princeton was hatched earlier this month when I was chatting with a climbing friend of mine, Mike Vetter, about him coming to Colorado for his next climb. Mike actually found me through this website last year from his home in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and joined me for my climb of Huron and Browns, and later, Capitol Peak. Mike found some seriously cheap plane tickets to Denver for the date we both had open, and he decided to pull the trigger. We both knew it would be a challenge, logistically, since he was flying into Denver and I lived in Colorado Springs, not to mention that his return flight departed the same day as our climb. Mike flew into Denver International Airport at 6 PM on Saturday evening and I picked him up from the terminal. We drove west on I-70 to C-470 and then caught US 285 towards Fairplay. After a quick meal in Conifer, we were ready for our adventure to begin.
We arrived in Johnson's Corner at around 10 PM and made our way to the Mount Princeton Road. We were happy to find the road completely clear to the Radio Towers on Mount Princeton Road, where we planned to camp for the night. We eagerly set-up camp in some hellacious wind and cold temperatures. Little did we realize (out of sheer stupidity mostly) that we were smack-dab on top of a giant hill, and consequently, the wind was outrageous. Not only did this make setting up tents quite difficult, it made sleep simply impossible. Due to the tight time constraints we were under due to Mike's departure flight, we knew we needed to start early if we were to make his flight on time. So, as a matter of necessity, we set our alarms for 2 AM and hoped for at least 3 hours of sleep. Unfortunately, neither of us were able to sleep one bit due to the insane wind.
The experience of trying to sleep through huge wind gusts in a tent was surreal to say the least. Even though I did not sleep at all, the experience was very peaceful and restful, yet violent at the same time. Never before have I simultaneously experienced fear and happiness, it truly is difficult to explain what the experience was like. On top of getting zero hours of sleep, I managed to contract my son's cold, so I was feeling quite under the weather for this hike; nevertheless, we woke up at 2 AM, tore down our tents, secured our gear and began our hike at 2:45 AM. Here is a map of our route (click for larger version), which took us up the road and under "Tigger Peak," over "Tigger Peak," and up the ridge to Mount Princeton.

Mount Princeton Route Map

To get some perspective of our route, I decided to dig into my archives and illustrate the route, as seen from the Collegiate Peaks lookout, just east of Johnson's Corner. As you can see, the radio towers provides a good starting point and a clearly defined route all the way up the mountain.

Mount Princeton Route Photo

The route seen above was made even more interesting by the record snowpack that Colorado has received this Spring, which many believe will cause flooding and massive avalanches. Indeed, as I returned home from this trip, I learned that someone died on a nearby 14er the day before due to an avalanche. Relative to our climb, the snow was a concern for both of us; however, we made sure to take our time and heed the utmost caution at all times. The snow appeared to be settled on Princeton for the most part, and we benefited from a very early start, which guaranteed snow that was not melting, and therefore, more stable. On the approach, just before heading up Tigger, we encountered several steep snowfields that were somewhat difficult to navigate because of how hard the snow was; crampons would have been a really nice thing to bring along, but instead we both had snowshoes with us (which were never deployed - story of my life).

Early on in the hike, the effects of sleep deprivation and a strong and nasty head-cold were considerable and noticeable. I felt awful. Mike was gracious enough to capture the essence of that feeling in a photo, taken just a half mile into our hike.
Matt Starts Princeton

I think I actually felt worse than I looked, which says a lot based on how awful I look in this photo! On the flip side, Mike was looking chipper, as seen in this photo taken right as we left our campsite.

Mike Vetter Ready to Rock on Princeton

Despite feeling as if a large semi-truck had ran me over, I kept my head down and my spirits up. Once we reached the upper section of the trail beneath Tigger, I knew we needed to start heading up sooner rather than later. Despite the map in Roach's guide showing the hike following the trail to the top of the hill, we opted to leave the trail early and bushwhack straight up the ridgeline of Tigger. This proved to be a fairly good decision despite the absence of anything resembling a trail and the interesting route-finding required on the ice and snow strewn rocks that adorned the eastern face of Tigger. Most of the way up Tigger, we decided to stop and enjoy the sunrise, which was, by far, one of the most beautiful ones I have ever witnessed. Now, if you don't know me by now, you should know - I'm pretty obsessed with sunrises and sunsets, so that probably says something about the quality of this particular sunrise. The colors were fantastic. The presence of snow made it even more special, with the snow giving off a pinkish glow. We spent quite a bit of time watching this sunrise, and it was well worth it. I compiled several panoramic photos of the moment, including a couple single shots that I thought were pretty fabulous as well. Feel free to click on them for higher resolution versions (and full resolution prints are of course available for sale if anyone were interested).

Princeton Sunrise Panoramic

The pre-sun sunrise color was intense, casting a deep red and pink hue on the clouds, with a cream-sickle orange glow around the silhouette of Pikes Peak.

Princeton Sunrise Panoramic

The sunrise itself was great - of particular note, the clouds around the Buffalo Peaks were glowing, which was pretty marvelous!

Mount Princeton Sunrise

Not sure what else to say about it - the sunrise was exceptional, and a dream for an amateur photographer!

Having indulged enough in the amazing sunrise, Mike and I were ready to keep on going since the wind was blowing pretty strongly, making it a very cold morning. We made our way to the top of the ridge of Tigger and were greeted with some of the strongest wind I've ever felt. The wind was easily gusting to 60 miles per hour or more, making it very difficult to hold your ground or take steps. Mike and I both later commented that this moment was very demoralizing for us both because we could not fathom continuing all the way up Princeton in these conditions. Nevertheless, we continued up and over Tigger, taking frequent breaks to catch our breath and regain our strength. The combination of the snow, wind, cold, lack of sleep and head-cold was forcing me to take much more frequent stops than I am generally accustomed.

It was a very pretty environment though, with views of the Southern Sawatch acting as further motivation to continue. Additionally, the ground was covered with thin ice and deep snow, littered with ice-cycles drooping from large boulders. It almost felt like another planet.

Princeton's Icy Prison

Mike and I soldiered on, with wind gusts and broken terrain slowing our climb. Mike was still in high spirits, and I had caught a second wind. Thank God.

Mike Vetter After Tigger

We had a long ways to go yet, and it felt like an eternity just taking one step. Sleep deprivation does not mix well with mountaineering.

Matt Payne on Tigger to Princeton Traverse

After about two hours, our traverse up to Princeton from Tigger was complete. It was a very exhausting haul up the deep snow. We were both wishing we left the snowshoes at home and packed crampons instead. Lesson learned. It was a great feeling, having completed my 43rd 14er and 61st mountain in the highest 100. Naturally, the views from the summit were breathtaking. It was a fairly clear day, and fortunately, the wind had magically subsided while we were on the summit, making our photography efforts that much easier. One of my favorite captures from the top was the view of Antero, Shavano, Tabeguache, Boulder Mountain, Cronin, Mount Mamma, Carbonate and Grizzly. Having spent numerous days hiking on those mountains last year, it was neat to see them from this vantage point. Here's the black and white version, feel free to click to see a higher resolution version.

Looking South from Mount Princeton Black and White

And of course the obligatory 360 panoramic shot... click for a larger version.

Princeton 360 Panoramic

And if you're interested in an interactive version of the 360 view, take a look at these files, one is smaller in size (1.2 megs) and one is larger in size (16.7 megs).

CLICK HERE for small version (1.2 megs) of the interactive 360 panoramic.

CLICK HERE for large version (16.7 megs) of the interactive 360 panoramic.

Additionally, Mike was able to catch me in the act of shooting some photos and generous enough to share the photo with me.

Matt Payne Shooting from Princeton

And here's one of Mike enjoying the views from the summit.

Mike Vetter Gazing From Princeton

Knowing that the sun was melting the snow, we decided not to spend too much time on top and head on down. On the way down, we were lucky enough to run into a few skiers, several of which were from, including LostSheep5 and EatinHardTack. They were able to confirm that the standard route trail was clear, so we opted to detour to the trail to avoid the ridge. I was excited about descending the snow to some degree, because I wanted to test out my new ice axe, which I purchased at REI recently. With ice axes in hand, we crossed the giant snowfield between Tigger and Princeton, which felt quite solid despite the warming temperatures and avalanche concerns in the back of our minds. I did slip a few times on the way down, and needed to use the axe for self-arrest. I was thankful that I had already experienced this before, because self-arresting came quite naturally.

Matt Payne Crossing Snowfield on Princeton

We were able to wrap around Tigger, following the snow-filled trail and look back to see the skiers making their descent.

Tigger and Princeton

It was about at this point that the trail ended and we had to make a decision, not knowing where the most logical place to descend from since we did not come up this way. I did some scouting at the end of the ridge and much to my surprise, spotted the radio towers and my Jeep in a straight line down from us. We opted to bushwhack in that direction and quickly met back up with the trail, which we happily followed all the way back to the Jeep. Those radio towers never looked so good!

Mount Princeton Radio Towers

That concludes this trip report. If you would like to stay up-to-date on all of my articles, trip reports and other mountaineering related news, please feel free to follow 100summits on Twitter or Facebook! Also, if you're planning on doing any online shopping and if you enjoyed the content, please help keep the site going by using the links on this page to help fund the site.

Additional Info

  • Trip Date: May 22, 2011
  • Yosemite Decimal Class: 2.0 - Simple scrambling, with the possibility of occasional use of the hands.
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