Tuesday, 19 June 2012 00:00

Mount Oklahoma - A Centennial 13er that is more than just "OK"

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Mount Massive from Mount Oklahoma's Summit Mount Massive from Mount Oklahoma's Summit

Mount Oklahoma is often forgotten by many, including myself, for a variety of reasons. There's nothing very remarkable about the look or feel of Oklahoma or the route to climb it. As Gerry Roach explains in his guidebook for 13ers, Mount Oklahoma is dwarfed by its neighbor to the east, Mount Massive, which is the 2nd highest mountain in Colorado. Despite this fact, Mount Oklahoma is more than OK - it offers solitude, unique views of mountains in all directions, and a fresh perspective on the art of "peakbagging." 

Mount Oklahoma is not a mighty mountain, nor is it meek - rather, it is fairly average in stature for the Northern Sawatch Range - rising 13,845 ft. in a valley full of giants. Indeed, Mt. Elbert (14,433 ft.), Colorado's highest mountain, towers over Oklahoma to the south and east. Other higher Centennial peaks also adorn the skies nearby, including French Mountain (13,940 ft.), Casco Peak (13,908 ft.) and of course the Mount Massive massif (14,421 ft.) right next door. 

Knowing that Mount Oklahoma is a fairly straight-forward and relatively safe climb, lacking anything harder than class 2 and with one of the easier levels of access for a 13er, I opted to head-out to climb it solo. While this is something I generally discourage, I felt the risk was manageable, plus my wife knew where I was going to be. Indeed, it did turn out that I did not run into a single other soul during the whole hike until well on the way back to the Jeep on the Mount Massive leg of the trail. So there it was, I left my house in Colorado Springs at about 6:30 PM on Friday evening and found myself at the North Halfmoon Creek Trailhead at 9:15 PM. There was an abundance of people up in the valley camping. Despite campsites being quite ubiquitous in the valley, I was left with no other option but to park at the trailhead and find a flat and comfy campsite within the trees. I set-up my sleeping pad and sleeping bag only and went to sleep right away. 

The alarm sounded promptly at 3:30 AM and I rose quickly to get a start for the day, as I knew my wife wanted me home relatively early so that we could go to my parent's house for a father's day dinner that night. The first thing I did was take a shot of the Milky Way above the trees and above the 13,221 ft. northern sub-peak of Mount Elbert. 

Click on the photo to see a larger version or to purchase a print.

The Milky Way over Mount Elbert

I had been on this trail once before in 2009, having been here in the cold month of October to climb Mount Massive. What I remembered of this trail was that it was very straight and easy to follow below tree-line before the turn-off for Mount Massive, so I was very confident that I could make my way in the darkness with the aid of a headlamp. Adorned with my Ipod and my favorite Celtic tunes, including Solas and Altan, I began my journey in the dark.

I also decided to bring my Gitzo tripod - which is basically an older, heavier version of THIS one, with an Arca Swiss monoball affixed so that I could get some sweet sunrise shots and summit shots along the way. While this adds a great deal of weight to my pack, the effort is worthwhile and increases the types of shots I can get significantly. I've fallen in love with this tripod and monoball combination since acquiring them both on the cheap a few months ago on Craigslist. They are hands-down the highest quality photography gear in the business. I highly recommend both for anyone looking to upgrade. 

The plan was to follow the route as described by Roach, which is close to what actually happened - here is the map of my route - click on it to see a larger version.

Mount Oklahoma Route Map Small

I found the trail very easy to follow, even in the darkness, minus one section where the trail meets up with a very large rock formation and crosses it. I just kept my eye out for the trail and ensured I was on track at all times. The route description for Mount Oklahoma is pretty straight-forward according to Roach. After passing the Mount Massive trail junction, continue west-northwest until the trail begins to gain elevation and head north, at which point you are to leave the trail and continue west. That's just what I did, but it was somewhat sketchy in the dark - bushwhacking through trees and logs is a great time. I quickly reached the two large stream crossings described by Roach - they were quite fast streams on a steep incline - I was very careful to cross, finding dry-ish rocks in narrow passage-ways. At this point - I began up a steep hillside per Roach's description for going up a tree-filled ridge to the northwest. Before I knew it, I had reached treeline and could make out my surroundings.

Mount-Oklahoma route at treeline

I encountered a deer at this point, which quickly ran off into the trees below. I could also make out a series of waterfalls in the Halfmoon Lakes basin below Mount Massive to my right - this was quite impressive and I made a mental note to return to those lakes someday - they seem to hold quite a bit of promise. I also was revelling in the fact that I was hiking solo in the Mount Massive Wilderness Area, off-route, while listening to great tunes and taking pictures of fantastic vistas. I really do love Colorado! Mount Oklahoma was clear as day above me, and the route seemed quite obvious from this point - go up.

Mount Oklahoma

Before  long, I found myself high above most of the trees just in time to witness the first light kiss the tops of Deer Mountain and UN 13,535 to the south and west. Moments like this made hauling the tripod up worth the effort.

Sawatch Range at Sunrise from North Halfmoon Creek

I left my pack and wandered up a little way and found an area covered with really cool looking flowers. Turns out the flowers are known as Alpine Primrose - a really quite lovely looking purple and pink flower. I took quite a few shots from this spot and processed each a little differently.

Mount-Oklahoma-6

Another version from the same vantage point...

Sunrise in Mount Massive Wilderness Area

I was even able to put together an 360 degree HDR panorama, which I've not tried in a few months. I was not overly impressed with the results of this one, but I'll share it anyways.

North Halfmoon Creek HDR Panorama

Having filled my soul with a dose of alpine sunrise, I was ready to continue on up the mountain. I followed what seemed to be a slight trail or drainage up the mountain and was aiming for an area to upclimb a grassy screefield.

Mount Oklahoma

At this point I stumbled upon a small pond at the base of a small snowfield below Mount Oklahoma. It made for a very interesting reflection in the water with the sun just hitting the tops of the southern ridge of Oklahoma.

Mount-Oklahoma-11

I played with a few versions of this shot, and I think I liked the HDR horizontal version the best. I know HDR is a technique with many detractors; however, I like to play with it - it keeps me entertained and thinking.

Mount Oklahoma reflection

At this point, I found the grassy screefield, and it was mighty steep. I was not sure if this was the right way to go, but it looked like the easiest way up to the ridge. I plowed ahead slowly, reaching the ridge after several long minutes of gruelling climbing up this nasty section. Once up, the views were splendid.

Mount-Oklahoma-14

I continued to plow ahead slowly on the obvious route up Oklahoma to the north and west. As I climbed, the views improved dramatically.

Monochrome Sawatch Range

It was at this point that I began to feel sick to my stomach just like I did back in 2009 when I climbed Harvard and Columbia. I was beginning to wonder if my lack of food intake or the water I was drinking were to blame. Perhaps I did not clean out my camelbak adequately? Perhaps I was eating too dense a food (Larabars) for my stomach to handle? Or, perhaps I was just suffering from a mild case of Acute Mountain Sickness? Who knows? All I knew was that I was moving far slower than I wanted to and making progress quite sluggishly. I worked my way slowly up the boulderfield until my eye was caught by some blooming flowers which happened to be quite near the summit. I took off my pack and prepared my tripod for some photos of some flowers. Also, I could finally make out the Elk Mountains to the west, including Snowmass, Maroon Bells, Cathedral and Castle - they were all quite impressive to be sure. I fixated on small field containing  a variety of colorful wildflowers and took some shots.

Wildflowers near the summit of Oklahoma

After taking my fair share of photos in this patch of flowers, I decided to move upwards. It took about 4 more minutes from here to reach the summit, which was a relief given my stomach issues, which had actually subsided significantly since I stopped to photograph the flowers. On the summit, I noticed that clouds were hitting the Elks with some light showers and that those clouds were headed this way. I had no intention of getting stuck in a storm, so my lofty goal to traverse to North Massive was out of the question. I set-up my tripod and set the timer so I could get a few shots of myself signing the summit register for Centennial #76 - only 24 more mountains to go!

Mount-Oklahoma-17

The register was quite intact and filled with many familiar names. I was happy to add mine to the list.

Mount-Oklahoma-18

At this point I used the tripod to take some photos to later be used in my 360 degree summit panorama.

Mount Oklahoma Summit Panorama

I also toyed with a black and white shot from here, framing Mount Massive on the left part of the shot.

Mount Oklahoma summit black and white

After a quick phone call to the wife to let her know I made it safely, I took an assessment of the weather. The storms rolling in over the Elk Mountains to the west did not give me a good feeling, so I decided to pack-up and head down. I decided this time to see about the small ridge that rolls down to the east of Oklahoma. Instead of going back down the grassy talus, I went down the long ridge.

Mount Oklahoma and Mount Massive

Once down, I found a great spot at the end of the ridge to take a sweet pano from - Mount Oklahoma at center with Mount Massive at right with a small storm over it.

Mount Oklahoma and Mount Massive

At this point, I saw a ton of cairns leading down the mountain towards the cliffs Roach warned to avoid in his guidebook. I decided to take the challenge and see where the breadcrumbs could lead me. Sure enough, they led me down the mountain's steep slopes, but it was not a terrible route, albeit harder than my ascent route (loose rock, etc).

Small storms were hitting the areas peaks, and it started snowing a little bit, but nothing too scary.

Downclimbing Mount Oklahoma

On the way down the steep terrain, I ran into some really nice flowers in a very strange spot amongst the rocks. Nature never ceases to surprise me...

Wildflowers in an unlikely spot

Once down the nasty part, I was back on the grassy ledges near treeline. I decided to angle my decent more northeasterly so I could hit the trail coming down from Halfmoon Lakes sooner. This turned into a pleasant bushwhack into the forest, where I stumbled upon a small stream leading down from the lakes.

 Mount-Oklahoma-21

I found the trail again with no issues and found myself flying down the trail at a rapid pace. I reached the turn-off for Mount Massive in short order and took one last look back at Mount Oklahoma.

Mount Oklahoma

I was also pleased to see the large monument cross at the trailhead that was placed after the Blackhawk Helicopter crash in 2009 on Mount Massive.

Mount Massive Blackhawk Helicopter Memorial Cross

In closing, I highly recommend Mount Oklahoma as a hike that gets you away from the crowds on 14ers and still allows for wonderful views and a decent work-out. I am certainly not usually a fan of the Sawatch Range; however, the northern Sawatch Range really separates itself vis-a-vis grand views of the Elk Mountains and a seemingly more rugged feeling than the Southern Sawatch Range. I'll leave this trip report with a creative rendition of my 360 pano from the ridge - Planet Oklahoma. I wrote a tutorial on how to make these if anyone is interested.

Planet Oklahoma - 360 degree pano

Additional Info

  • Trip Date: June 16, 2012
  • Yosemite Decimal Class: 2.0 - Simple scrambling, with the possibility of occasional use of the hands.
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Matt Payne

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