By Tom Vervaeke
My regular hiking partner Bob Broeking had been traveling quite often recently and we hadn’t had a chance to climb together. I’d been out doing some hike with another partner and it was nice to get back to hiking with Bob. We picked a date and Bob let me pick the place. I chose North Star Mountain. It’s a 13’er that’s easily accessible in the winter as its trailhead is right off of Colorado Route 9, the back way to Breckenridge. North Star is just north of Mt. Lincoln and just south of Quandary Peak. In fact, last spring when Bob and I had climbed Quandary we both remarked that the mountain to the south would be fun to climb.
It’s got a very long east-west ridge and the entire ridge is also directly on the continental divide. We got a nice, lazy 7AM start from Bob’s house on Sunday, 12/11. After a quick stop at the Donut Mill (required) we arrived at Hoosier Pass at 9AM and were on the trail at 9:15. Hoosier Pass is 11,540′ so we needed to cover just over 2000′ of vertical and 8 miles round trip. Weather was partly sunny and windy. Temp was around 20F at the pass.
We hiked west along an old 4WD road for about 1.5 miles as it wound its way up to the west and north-west. We had only gained about 500′ after this nice 1.5 mile walk so now it was going to get a little more serious. The wind was picking up as we were on the road and balaclava’s and wind-proof parkas were soon the order of the day. I estimated the winds were in the 30-50 MPH range and right in our faces as we headed west. We left the road and headed up to the NW. Our original plan was to strike out NW and then N until we reached the long ridge that is really the whole North Star Mountain. We were going to just hike W along the ridge until we reached the summit. Well… had to change the plans a little when we saw how much snow was up there near the ridge line. Bob found a nice old trail and we followed that up a good part of the way.
We had brought our snowshoes with us but didn’t have to use them until we were at around 12,500′. After post-holing for about 100 yards in an attempt to sneak across a windblown slab we finally gave in and donned them. Hey, what’s worse: 5 lb. snowshoes on your back or on your feet? Answer: Not sure. Both are rotten! We only had to wear the shoes for about 500′ of vertical and 1/2 mile of distance before we were high enough to be on windswept rocks again.
We kept to the old hikers trail as it wound its way in a NW direction up the mountain. The wind was really shrieking now. The sky was mostly sunny with a few puffy white clouds. However, these clouds now were passing only 300-500′ over our heads at a high rate of speed. We were high enough now that we could see a lot more clouds coming our way, as per the weather forecast. From our position it was difficult to tell where the summit was so we just followed the trail for a while and then cut north to the ridge line. There was a taller peak to the left at about 1 mile and a much closer high area to our right with a large cairn and stone marker on top of the cairn. We headed to the right (east) along the ridge until we came to the cairn. The wind was so stiff at this point that we had to cantilever our hiking poles out to the sides like oars to keep from being tossed over the edge. The cairn was marked with a large piece of stone so we assumed this was the summit of the mountain. However, the book called “Colorado’s High Thirteener’s” by Mike Garratt and Bob Martin implies in their “interpretation” that the actual summit is that other peak about 1 mile to the west at 13,614.
Where we were sitting was 13,500 and is right where the words “North Star Mountain” are printed on the 7.5 minute Breckenridge quad. The ridge to the 13,614 point looked a little treacherous in the current windy condition so we turned to each other and congratulated ourselves on reaching the “summit”. Perhaps someday we’ll go back and reach the other “summit”. The view from the “summit” was tremendous. Directly to the north, and about 700′ higher, is the summit of Quandary Peak. This is another long east-west mountain with a knife edge ridge that one walks along to reach the summit at the west end. The ridge on the other side is only 1.25 miles across from where we sat. In the valley below are two lakes called the Monte Cristo lakes. A man made dam caps the upper one with a large spillway. We scanned the ridge and summit but couldn’t see a sole. Well, it was a might bit windy and cold. Bob estimated the wind chill at -20 to -30F. To the south was a great view of Mt. Lincoln and its very steep north face. In the valley between us and Lincoln we could see the middle fork of the South Platte River. Very scenic. The weather was beginning to change for the worse so we made a hasty departure back along the way we had come.
The hillside is dotted with old mine buildings and shafts. We found a small shed that was still standing and decided to use it as a lunch spot. I used an ice axe to make a ledge in the snow drift on the lee side of this small building and we then placed two old planks on top of the snow to form a cozy, wind-less snow bench. I got my trust MSR Whisperlite out of the pack and assembled it. Oh oh.. when I pumped the handle to put pressure in the bottle it wasn’t pressurizing. I quickly removed the pump handle, wiggled the little rubber washer at the end, inserted it, and pumped again. It worked! Great, as it was cold as s**t. Had a quart of water boiled in no time and we had a hot lunch. It’s amazing what hot chocolate (Bob) or Lipton’s instant cup-of-soup (me) can do for you when it’s freezing cold and blowing like the devil outside. Even at 13,000′ the old MSR can boil a quart of water in a mere 3-4 minutes. Besides the heat, the wonderful blow-torch sound it makes is very comforting. Ate a quick lunch as the weather was turning sour. The sun was gone and the clouds were all around us. As soon as we broke out from behind the little building we could see it was soon going to be a white out. Sure enough, we hadn’t gone 300 yards down the hill when the visibility went to 100′ and it began snowing. Bob had set his compass with the right heading during lunch so we didn’t have to worry about missing our turnoff at the end of the ridge.
Made it back down to the road in good time with only a few, small glissades. Managed to avoid the deep snow so didn’t need the snowshoes again. Hiked down the remaining 1.5 miles of 4WD road in silence as we watched the snow storm move around us. Got back to the truck at around 2PM for a total elapsed time of 4:45. Since we didn’t hike to the further summit I’d estimate our round trip distance at about 6 miles. A nice winter hike under varying conditions. Bob had worn his new plastic double boots for the first time and didn’t seem to have any problems, for which I was pretty surprised. I’m still breaking in my Vasque Glacier’s so still resort to using duct tape. Bob lost a headband, but found a nice polar fleece zip-up sweater that was snow encrusted. It was made in Scotland so not sure how it got here (i.e. it wasn’t THAT windy!). Not a bad day.