Return to the Rockies

My second trip to Colorado in the last month, and my first backpacking trip in the Rocky  Mountains.  The destination was the Comanche and Venable peaks of the Sangre De Cristo range southwest of Westcliffe.  I went with a friend who has made many trips to Colorado (including climbing quite a few 14ers) over 20+ years and who also did the Ouachita New Year’s trip with me.

A popular day hike in the area is to go up the Venable Trail, across the Phantom Terrace and the west face of Spring Mountain, then down the Comanche Trail.  We weren’t doing exactly that but would see much of the same scenery.

The reflection of the mountains is a nice unintentional effect here.

On the way through Colorado Springs Thursday (Aug 9) we stopped at REI to look around, and of course I didn’t leave empty-handed.  It was my first visit to one of their retail stores and I eagerly await the opening of the KC store next year.  On the way out of town, we came across a motorcycle accident right after it happened on I-25.  The rider was laying in the highway and the bike was further down on the shoulder.  Several people had stopped to attend to the rider and try to keep him from moving.  I’m sure that messed-up traffic for a while.

Early Thursday afternoon we arrived at the Alvarado campground southwest of Westcliffe with the intention of spending one night there before backpacking into the wilderness area in the mountains above.

The road to the Alvarado campground at the base of the mountain range

The campground is at the foot of the mountains at about 9200′ and has a great view of the valley about 1200′ below and the Wet Mountains range to the east.  You’ll see many pictures of that view.  The campground host said he chased-off some bears a couple days earlier.

The view of Westcliffe and the Wet Mountains Valley from the campground

After setting-up camp we started out on a short hike to Venable Falls but got stopped by a late-afternoon thunderstorm.  This was to become a familiar pattern.  After retreating, we drove to Westcliffe to see what was going on there and in neighboring Silver Cliff and to enjoy a non-freeze-dried meal.  Not far outside the campground, we saw a small bear at the edge of the road.  It ran off into the brush and then stood up to watch us.  I scrambled to find the camera and get a picture but the bear didn’t wait long enough.  After dinner at R’s Pizza in Silver Cliff we went back to camp.

Sunrise over the Wet Mountains Valley

Friday morning we packed and drove to the Comanche-Venable trail head and began our trek to Comanche Lake about 5.5 miles in and 2400′ feet up.  The trail soon enters an area that is almost all small aspens but then you begin a long series of switchbacks through tall pine/fir.  It has a primeval look and feel.  The trees thin after that, and boulder fields become more common.

Our first peek at Comanche Peak

The lower Comanche Lake, with the peak on the right

The lower Comanche Lake, with the peak on the right

We set up camp in a heavily-used area on a shelf north of the lake and the trail while the clouds darkened above.  We had pretty much the same valley view as the night before, but from a higher elevation.

Looking over the Wet Mountains Valley from our camp above the lake

Looking over the Wet Mountains Valley from our camp above the lake

We went down to the lake to get water but shortly after returning, the wind came up and it started raining and hailing off and on for several hours.  The pine trees grew in these interesting clusters and we found pretty effective shelter in the midst of such a cluster.  Temperatures overnight fell into the low 40’s so the fleece jacket, cap and gloves were all put to use.

ComanchePeak2012.061

A Ptarmigan

A Ptarmigan

Saturday was the big day.  We hiked up to the saddle below Comanche Peak and over onto the trail that runs north along the west face of Spring Mountain to the saddle below Venable Peak, then back over to the east side onto the Phantom Terrace where things got really interesting.  There are several places where a misstep means a 1000 foot fall.  I wonder if SPOT would survive that?  We didn’t go all the way to the Venable trail – we turned back after the Phantom Terrace became less interesting.  We debated climbing Venable but decided doing so might leave us vulnerable to the usual afternoon thunderstorm so it was best to go back to Comanche Peak where we would be closer to shelter.  The wind on the west side of the range was unbelievable and nearly blew me off my feet a couple times.

Another sunrise over the Wet Mountains Valley

Another sunrise over the Wet Mountains Valley

Comanche Peak catches the early sunlight

Comanche Peak catches the early sunlight

A marmot eyes us from an outcropping of Sangre de Cristo conglomerate

A marmot eyes us from an outcropping of Sangre de Cristo conglomerate

Approaching Comanche Peak.  We begin to see the steep grassy slope on the back side.

Approaching Comanche Peak. We begin to see the steep grassy slope on the back side.

A look back at both Comanche Lakes with the Wet Mountains Valley beyond

A look back at both Comanche Lakes with the Wet Mountains Valley beyond

We've crossed the saddle below Comanche Peak and gotten our first look at the San Luis Valley to the west with the San Juan mountains in the distance

We’ve crossed the saddle below Comanche Peak and gotten our first look at the San Luis Valley to the west with the San Juan mountains in the distance

Comanche Peak, from the saddle below

Comanche Peak, from the saddle below

Venable Peak to the north, with the west face of Spring Mountain on the right.  The trail goes from here over to the saddle below Venable Peak.

Venable Peak to the north, with the west face of Spring Mountain on the right. The trail goes from here over to the saddle below Venable Peak.

From the saddle below Venable Peak, looking northeast toward the Wet Mountains Valley

From the saddle below Venable Peak, looking northeast toward the Wet Mountains Valley

Continuing across the east face of Venable Peak on the Phantom Terrace

Continuing across the east face of Venable Peak on the Phantom Terrace

A look back at the Phantom Terrace approaching the saddle.  You have to watch your step here.

A look back at the Phantom Terrace approaching the saddle. You have to watch your step here.

After a bit of lunch and rest we felt there was enough time before the afternoon storm so we started-up what looked like an impossibly-steep slope.

Back at Comanche Peak.  It seems impossibly steep, but we've decided to climb it.

Back at Comanche Peak. It seems impossibly steep, but we’ve decided to climb it.

Getting closer...

Getting closer…

... and closer ...

… and closer …

It’s a scramble up about 500 feet to the peak at 13277′ but we both eventually made it.  It sure was a lot of work for a couple low-landers.

On the summit of Comanche Peak

On the summit of Comanche Peak

Here’s a series of pictures showing the view.  Starting out looking east towards Westcliffe and proceeding to the south, west, north, and back east.  There are many other 13er’s in the area and a couple of Colorado’s toughest 14ers too.

ComanchePeak2012.132 ComanchePeak2012.133 ComanchePeak2012.134 ComanchePeak2012.135 ComanchePeak2012.136 ComanchePeak2012.137 ComanchePeak2012.138 ComanchePeak2012.139 ComanchePeak2012.140 ComanchePeak2012.141 ComanchePeak2012.142We were pretty pooped by the time we got back to camp and, as expected, it started raining shortly after.  It only lasted 5-10 minutes this time.

There was a pot of gold at the trail head but someone else apparently got to it first.

There was a pot of gold at the trail head but someone else apparently got to it first.

We went to the lake and refilled our water bottles, sat around for a while, ate dinner, and sat around some more.  I went to bed at about 7:30 and slept pretty good until about 4:30 AM.

The last sunrise

The last sunrise

A couple mule deer graze near our camp

A couple mule deer graze near our camp

My tent, with Comanche Peak in the background

My tent, with Comanche Peak in the background

After breakfast we packed and hit the trail at about 8:15, made it back to the trail head about 10:45 and headed home.

Hiking out

Hiking out

Hiking out

Hiking out

We didn’t get back to KC until after 11:00 PM and I didn’t get to bed until about 1:00 AM.  That sure made for a fun day at work Monday.

It was a very enjoyable trip and a successful one too.  My first mountain backpacking trip has been checked-off the list.  One goal that remains is to get somewhere remote enough that it can’t be reached on a day hike.  That one might be checked-off pretty soon.

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About Michael R

I enjoy hiking, landscaping with native plants, nature photography, dark chocolate, fine dining, good movies, and old jazz.
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