November 7th - 9th, 2003 Mt. Evans Expedition #11 trip report by Kent Drummond
Another successful winter outing to the summit of Mt. Evans has been completed.
Last Friday night, Nov 7, we met at Echo Lab, 13 miles south of Idaho Springs, CO. Actually, it's only 6.8 miles as
the crow flies, but it's also a 3,000' elevation gain, so there are quite a few switchbacks along the way. This is a
University of Denver high altitude research facility, located at Echo Lake, just at the start of the road up to the
summit of Mt. Evans. Dr. Robert Stencel "Dr. Bob", had the facility opened up at 8:00, and was there to greet us with
a fire in the wood stove, lasagne in the oven, and a variety of liquid refreshments. By the end of the evening the
following folks had arrived: me in my 404 Hardcab, Rex Miller and Jay Hineman in Rex's 710M Pinzgauer, Fred Reim in his
404 Radiobox, and Pat Ormond and Lewis Denton, in Pat's 712 Pinzgauer ambulance.
Fred Reim showed us many pictures of his experience at Burning Man this year. He and Judy drove his 404 all the way
out there and back. That's dedication. After the picture show, we retired to our separate bunks for good night's sleep.
Erik Olsen arrived from Evergreen in the middle of breakfast on Saturday, to let us know he wouldn't be joining us on
the summit trip. His mog hauler wouldn't start and there just wasn't time to analyze the problem. Turns out it was just
a shorted ground cable. At any rate, we hope to have Erik join us on a future trip.
Everyone loaded all their gear and we headed up to the entrance gate, ready to start up the summit at 9:00.
Here are photos of the assembled vehicles where we normally put on chains. Snow was late coming to the Colorado
mountains this year, and the accumulated depth at the start of the road was only about 3", so I made the decision to
try it without putting on the chains. It was my consideration that any drifting we might encounter would be soft snow,
since there hadn't been any time for it to have gone through repeated freeze/thaw cycles which tends to make it very
crusty and difficult to break through.
There was a small drift in front of the gate, but nothing that needed shoveling or plowing. Once Dr. Bob had the
gate open, we were all able to drive right through.
The snow depth up through timberline was minimal, with no drifting, so presented no problems. Once we got above
timberline, the road was basically clear until we got up directly above Echo Lake. There is a long stretch here which
typically has a fair amount of drifted snow and this year was no exception. Fortunately, as I predicted, it was soft,
so I was able to drive through it fairly easily. There were a couple spots where it took several tries to get through,
but nothing that stopped us.
In these pictures the Pinzgauers were high centered, so Dr. Bob and I took shovels back to lower the snow between
the wheel tracks, to enable the Pinzis to get through.
Here you see my truck with Mt. Spalding in the upper right and the summit of Mt. Evans lost in the blowing snow in
the upper left.
Once we got everyone through that stretch, we headed across the ridge which would put us on the eastern side of the
mountain and in the sun for the rest of the ascent. Before we'd gone too far, I noticed Fred wasn't following behind,
so I called him on the radio. He said he'd just slipped his rear wheels into the ditch and would be along shortly.
At that point, I realized I'd left my cooler with all my food back at the Lab (again. I've done this before), so we
figured that I would go back down and get the cooler, and the Pinzis could help Fred get out. When we got back down
it was apparent that it would take more traction/mass to get him out, so Rex was kind enough to run down to Echo Lab
to get my cooler in his Pinzi, since it would be faster, and I hooked a snatch strap onto Fred to pull him back up to
Once we were all reassembled at the transition,
we continued our ascent. The long stretches where we usually have to shovel weren't too bad. The snow was soft,
and we generally had at least one foot of clear asphalt on the outside edge of the road for traction, so progress was
At Summit Lake the wind had really picked up so blowing snow was a bit of a problem. The switch backs above
Summit Lake usually have some pretty good drifts, especially at mile 12, but this year it was clear. However, after
the final transition which takes us around to the south side of the mountain, the switchbacks were a different story.
They were deeply drifted and on a couple we had to cut to the inside of the road surface and clamber up through the
dirt and rocks where there was enough exposure to gain some traction. Here's a shot of Pat Ormond just coming through
one of those spots, with Fred Reim spotting him.
When I attempted the same thing again at the next switch back, I found that it was even deeper than it looked.
There was just enough room behind me before the mountain dropped off that Fred was able to get in behind and hook
up a very short snatch strap to pull me back out. After about 10 minutes shoveling, I was able to clamber up to the next
level. Pat Ormond buried his Pinzi on his first attempt to follow me through, so Fred pulled him back out as well,
and Pat was able to make it on the second attempt.
On the summit, there is a large parking area, from which a short dirt road leads down and around to the observatory.
About 60' from the observatory there was another huge snowdrift, which we've never encountered before. It took me about
six or seven tries at bashing into it to finally bust through, and we were there. Elapsed time from the time we passed
through the gate at Echo Lake three hours thirty-four minutes, but actual time in motion was only one hour forty-two
Once we got to the observatory (about 14,170'), we parked our trucks
and unloaded gear into the ground floor area. Here you can see the communal corner
with propane heaters strategically placed to create a warm pocket for the lunch break. Above the observatory is
the A-frame shelter
where we were to spend Saturday night. This structure was built in the 1930's and served as a research center for
studying cosmic rays. Today, solar panels are mounted on the south facing side of the roof, to provide power for
charging the battery bank in the main floor of the observatory. As you can see, snow had pretty much covered the
panels, so they weren't able to function properly.
Our mission this trip was to top up the electrolyte levels in the sixteen deep cycle batteries which are hooked up
in series and parallel to provide 24V current into the inverter for running the minimal electrical needs of the equipment
in the observatory. Dr. Bob divided us up into teams, one to uncover the batteries and fill the electrolyte levels,
and the other to open up the A-frame and see if it would be habitable for us to spend the night. One important factor
would be to see if we could get the propane heater lit in there. Two years ago, when Bob Ragain and I spent the night
in the A-frame, we didn't have any heat, and the thermometer read 29°F. This time, Dr. Bob unlocked the big propane
tank down below. It seemed to take forever to bleed the air out of the 60' feet of 1" pipe up to the A-frame, but
eventually Rex and I were able to get the pilot light lit and then the stove fired up. We left the A-frame warming
(that's a joke) and went back down to the observatory to have lunch.
After lunch, Dr. Bob determined that one bank of four batteries (these babies are about 20" tall and weigh about
80 lbs apiece) had no specific gravity in the electrolyte, so I rewired the array to bypass that bank. The results
were more favorable, so Dr. Bob then fired up the big diesel generator to recharge the remaining batteries up to full
capacity. That gave us lights in the observatory for a couple hours, and provide power to open up the telescope for
some deep space observations.
While Rex and I were working on the heater in the A-frame, Lewis Denton wrenched his back trying to start one of
the small emergency generators down in the observatory. He was pretty miserable, and Pad Ormond felt it would be best
to take him down rather than trying to spend the night. Fred accompanied them down, since he had planned to go down
and pick up two friends, Wolfgang and Klaus (I didn't get their last names). By the time Fred made it back up to the
summit, he said all our tracks had been completely obliterated by the wind. Klaus was accompanied by his little short
haired dachshund, who was also wearing a warm doggie parka.
As the sun was setting
it looked like the night was not going to be as clear as we had hoped. You can see Mt. Bierstadt in the center
right of this picture, which is also one of Colorado's fourteener's. The Continental Divide is off in the distance.
We elected to open up the telescope before dinner, so as to maximize viewing while the moon was in it's full eclipse.
shows the beginning of the eclipse with considerable obstruction from the low clouds. We were able to get a look at
Mars even though it's several million miles further away from Earth than it was earlier this summer. The clouds kept
obscuring the view, but I was able to get one good look at the polar ice cap. While others were looking at Mars,
I went outside and took this picture of the moon just as it was finally slipping into the Earth's shadow.
Then back up to the telescope for a look a the Messier II Globular Cluster. A handful of diamonds on black velvet
couldn't be any more spectacular than this, and these stars are 20,000 light years away.
By this time everyone was hungry, so Dr. Bob and I put the lens cap back on the telescope, covered it with it's tarp,
set it back into locked position, and closed the dome. It was time to shut down the diesel generator, so we were reduced
to the light from Fred's propane lantern and the glow from the propane heaters. Even though it was warmer inside,
thanks to the heaters, you could still see your breath, so it wasn't all that cozy. About the end of dinner, I slipped
outside and took this last picture of the moon emerging from the Earth's shadow.
It was actually quite spectacular to see the eclipse unobstructed and the lights of Denver spread out below us.
About 8:30 everyone decided they were tired and cold, so bed seemed like a good idea. We had all hauled our sleeping
bags and gear up to the A-frame earlier in the evening. Although it's only a short walk up through the rocks, at 14,000'
you move pretty slowly, especially when you're carrying a load. The main room in the A-frame had finally warmed up a
little bit. At least, you couldn't see your breath any more. The adjacent room where some of us slept, didn't benefit
from any of the heat, so it was pretty cold. I reached out during the night to get a drink from my water bottle which
I'd placed on the floor beside my bunk and it was frozen.
It was a long, cold night and I don't think anyone got any sleep, or if they did, it was just fits and starts.
The wind increased into the 80 mph range and banged the security grate against the building all night. Even though
everyone was awake in the early hours of the morning, no one was willing to crawl out until the sun finally peeked
over the eastern horizon, which was about 6:30. We sort of collectively decided to skip any kind of formal breakfast
and just try to get everything loaded and head down the mountain. The biggest concern was whether the vehicles would
start after spending the night in the screaming wind. It was 12°F in the observatory dome. My truck has always been
balky at starting after a night at high altitude in the winter, but to my absolute delight it fired right up. That's
relatively speaking of course. It was very stiff and would hardly turn over initially, but once it started to catch,
it came to life fairly quickly. I attribute that to the Pertronix and having the distributor rebuilt. Rex's Pinzgauer
seemed to start pretty well. Fred had a little trouble, but after some extended cranking, it caught, so we were all okay.
We let the vehicles idle while we loaded up gear, and started off the mountain at 8:00 a.m. The big drift close to
the observatory had filled back in during the night, so it took Fred about four tries to bash through it. This final
looking out to the southeast over South Park, with the Collegiate Range in the distance, shows what a beautiful day
it was. What it doesn't show is that the wind was blowing so hard that it was nearly impossible to stand up without
support. You can just see Fred's 404 and Rex's Pinzi at the hairpin corner.
We made it back down to Echo Lake in one hour, fourteen minutes, with no problems, where we said goodbyes and headed
for our respective homes. If you weren't there, we missed you and you missed an opportunity for a unique experience. :)
1963 404 Hardcab with Swiss bed