Dodging Lightning on Mt. Princeton

Mt. Princeton

Elevation: 14, 197′

Class: 2

Date Climbed: July 2009

After successfully summitting Mt. Shavano, Tanner and I wanted more…

We started making plans for our next 14er adventure which happened to be Mt. Princeton.  Again, living near Salida really had its benefits because we were within an hours drive to several 14er hikes.  Mt. Princeton is located in the Sawatch range and is a part of the Collegiate peaks.  The drive from Salida is roughly 30 minutes to the turnoff and another 10-15 to the lower trailhead parking lot.  There is a 4×4 road that takes you to about 12,000ft which really cuts the hike down, but where is the fun in that?  Packs were put together, sandwiches were made and the ol’ trusty Grand Am was off, bouncing down highway 285 heading towards Buena Vista and the Mt. Princeton turnoff.

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Since this was our 2nd 14er we came a little more prepared.  More water, food, rest, and an earlier start time.  The early start time went right out the window when we decided to drive around for almost an hour looking for the trailhead.  The signage for the trail was a little tough to find (or Tanner and I were just really bad with directions).  We started the hike around 9:00, a little later than we had originally planned.  The trail really isn’t a trail at all for the first few miles, but rather the 4×4 road I talked about earlier.  So the first couple hours of hiking is a little monotonous as you are basically hiking a dirt road that winds up the side of the mountain.

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Mt. Princeton summit in view

Eventually you come to a trail marker that designates the turnoff to gain the summit.  From here it is roughly 2,500 vertical feet to the summit (cake walk, right).   It’s all boulder hoppin’ from here on out, baby (fun stuff).  Eventually the boulders become bigger which forces you to uses hands and feet to “crawl” up the side of the mountain.  Tanner and I got off trail (again, we’re pretty good at losing the trail) and decided to hike straight up the northeast face until we met with the east ridge again. 

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Looking to the east down on the trail

Once we made it back to the ridge the heavens opened up and it started spittin’ rain mixed with hail for about 5 minutes. We stopped and talked with a guy that was on his way down, asking him how the summit looked and if anymore weather was headed our way. He thought we should be good to continue up. So, after coming this far we decided we didn’t want to turn around and kept pushing on.

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The Arkansas valley below with a faint glimpse of the trail crossing the east ridge

The last couple hundred feet are steep and loose at times, but nothing too extreme.  We summitted and refueled. The sky was beginning to cloud up but we thought the worst was behind us.  After spending about 15 minutes on the summit we decided to head down (I guess the clouds scared us a bit), which turned out to be a great decision.  Not 20 minutes later the sky opened up, this time unleashing hell on the mountain.  Rain, hail, lightening and thunder all exploded down on us for the next hour and a half.  Luckily we had reached tree line by the time the lighting began.  Growing up in Kansas I was used to viscous lighting storms but nothing compared to this.  Seeing lighting while simultaneously hearing the thunder is an extremely unnerving experience.  Also, seeing lighting strike several hundred feet below you isn’t an ideal situation.  We busted ass, running at times, down the road, reaching the upper trailhead in time to be able to catch a ride down the mountain with some generous folks.

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Views of the Sawatch range from the summit
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4,000 vertical feet of mountain views. Whoa!

The storm finally passed and the sun came out (typical Colorado weather, gotta love it). Tanner and I finished hiking back to our car, soaking wet, and thanking our lucky stars we were alright.  No more 9 o’clock start times for these guys.  Unfortunately this wasn’t my last run in with nasty weather on a mountain. Glissading down a mountain with lightning striking all around you is a sure way to make you feel alive and I definitely recommend trying it! (not really…)

As always, please check out 14ers.com for a more detailed route description.


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