Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Climbing Mt. Garfield, Grand Junction, Colorado

Why? Because it's there. That's why.

The Grand Valley is formed on three sides by three geologically unique formations: The Colorado National Monument to the West, the Grand Mesa (Largest flat top mountain in the world) to the North, and the Bookcliffs to the East.

Between the Bookcliffs and the Grand mesa flows the Colorado River, and between the Grand Mesa and the Monument flows the Gunnison River. The two rivers meet in the valley, and that is the Grand Junction from which the small city takes its name.

The feature that dominates the Grand Valley though is the big bookend at the end of the Bookcliffs: Mt. Garfield. Its pretty much omnipresent all over the city and the roadways therein. Pictures of almost anything facing East are going to contain the moderate gray knob of the peak. Garfield photobombs Grand Junction in a way that the Mesa and the Monument never can: Their wonders lie within - the Bookcliffs are all upfront.

Bookcliffs and their Bookend, Mt. Garfield (from wikipedia commons)
With nothing much behind. These bookcliffs are all empty volumes: Just cretaceous sandstone, old coalmine shafts and some wild horses and bison. The Wikepedia page for the 200 mile formation doesn't even have a listing for 'recreational possibilities', (Unless you count dying from excess CO2 gas inhalation in a mine shaft as 'recreation').

Mt. Garfield, the symbol of the largest city in Western Colorado doesn't even have its own Wikipedia page.
Your humble author at the
Colorado National Monument

Its just a big, eroded knob.

But I've been peeking at this peak on-and-off for my entire adult life, first on summer family vacations, and then when my family moved to Grand Junction, during my visits there. The splay of eroded 'fingers' that cascade down the sides of it always fascinated me.

And then, in August of 2014, I took the Amtrak train back to 'Junction to help my mother through a major surgery, and I was left with a lot of free time on my hands. (its a pretty fun read: CHECK IT OUT.)

I bicycled through Glenwood CANYON, and that was a giddy thrillride, but my thoughts kept coming back to Mount Garfield: Is there any hiking up there?

Well, just one hike really, and its a doozy. Only 2 miles, but a 2,100 foot elevation gain, making it the Sandy Stairmaster from HELL. There wasn't much else to be learned online, other than a whole slew of 'no's:

  • No Facilities
    $10.00 shoes. Wore 'em six times,
    left 'em behind in the motel room.
  • No Water
  • No Services
  • No Brochure
  • No Bikes
  • No Check-In
  • No bathrooms
  • No Fee
  • No Hope
  • No Future
  • And, No Oxygen in the mineshafts: Don't go in there!
And also this inviting phrase: "You will see a lot of people turning back early."

Woo-hoo! Sign me up!

My immediate problem was footwear. I had initially come to the Grand Valley in just my Birkenstocks, thinking I was only going to be there for a week, and I would be pretty busy. But when my stay got extended for another week I trooped off to WalMart and bought a pair of sneakers for 10 bucks.

That teeny post on the right? Thats your one sign.
Summit Attempt #1

I attempted the summit the next day, but didn't get far. From the parking lot the trail passes an old dusty shadowbox that mostly details how horrific it is to die from excess CO2 in a coal mine. Yay. From there the trail takes you to a little post that points at the peak and says dutifully "TRAIL".

Thanks, little buddy! Got it! And then the damned trail splits in a Y and goes off in two directions. Um, er......

The trailS lead to a pair of adjacent sandstone erosion fingers that lift you up
Click on this to make it bigger. I chose the finger on the left.
Bad move. The steep section, middle frame, is total UGH.
onto the first plateau, and it is up to you, foolish mortal, to choose which one is the proper trail.

I chose......poorly.

I took the farther trail, because it was less stark, and a little flatter at the onset. But it makes up for this easier start by 'catching up' its elevation at the top by moving the angle of the hike from 30 degrees to 45 degrees for about 100 yards, across a barren plane of loose, crusty sandstone with no hand or footholds.

A 'blank face', as they say in the rock climbing trade. And oh goody, right when the dawn brought a gusting crosswind. And me, without a hairtie, harness, top rope, partner, brain-in-my-head or the foresight to adequately scope out the very visible drawbacks to this particular route.

Crusty, slippery, 45 degree slope, with
insta-death waiting on either side. No, thank you!
I made it a little more than halfway up this blankness before deciding that I was in serious trouble and I better turn around and hightail it back down.

Easier said than done. It took me a full half-hour to back down those 60 yards, using a very focused 3 point climbing procedure. When I finally got back down to the relative safety of the 30 degree 'trail' I had to take a break to let my legs shake for awhile.

In this downtime I made a pathetic minute-long video about what a dumb-ass I was.

And that, as they say, was that. Or what is it they say? Oh yeah: "You will see a lot of people turning back early."

Summit Attempt #2: The Finger of Extinction

Two days later however, I was back. Hope springs eternal, or you can't run from stupid, or something. I had a hairtie this time, more food and water, and the shoes were a little more broken in.
The goal. View from the proper finger.

I was still beginning the hike at 6am though, still on my own, and still hadn't told anybody where I was or what I was doing.

Most important though: This time I took the nearer erosion finger, the starker one that steadily ascends all the way up to the first plateau. Much easier.

Well, 'easy' is all relative of course. That first push is the hardest part of the whole journey, and that's if you are acclimated to the elevation, which I was not. The parking lot sits at 4,400 feet, and you are easily over a mile up by the time you top out at the first plateau. Me, Santa Cruz boy, I am acclimated to THREE feet of elevation. My house is literally on the edge of a tsunami inundation zone.

Here is the drainage ditch under I-70 that you
drive through to get to the trailhead. Adventure!
But no seawater has been around here since the end of the Cretaceous period, 66 Million years ago. And every living sea creature who happened to be around Grand Junction at the catastrophic time of that six mile wide comet crash landing in the Gulf of Mexico became a dusty little fossil, as the Western Interior Seaway quickly surfed its way back to the Yucatan.

I was walking up Extinction Event Beach. A sobering thought to have before the sun appeared.

What was holding my immediate attention, however, was a peripheral vision anamoly: The path here was up the crest of the erosion finger, And while the trail itself was steep at 30 degrees, it was nothing compared to the 45 - 60 degree slopes down each side of the crest.
There are some plants growing on this cracked
boulder. Beyond, the proper trail mocks me.

So as you would walk, looking down (of course), staring at the narrow band of trail on the crest, the bottoms of the slopes to the left and right appeared to be moving backwards, at the edges of your vision. It was extremely vertigo inducing, and I was thankful that I did not suffer unduly from fear of heights.

Still I was grateful to reach the top of the erosion finger and find myself on the first plateau. (Which also meant I had made it past my first, failed attempt at the summit.)

Two Plateaux

See any flat sections along the side? No? Isn't that cool??
(Pic from Coloradoguy.com)
The two plateaus were delightful surprises to me, who had done approximately ZERO research beforehand. From the front and sides (Say, as you zooomed by on I-70), Mt. Garfield just looks like a solid, continuous spill of erosion sand.

But if you look at the summit closer, you can see very distinct bands of different types of rock, some of which erode more easily than others. This leaves extremely flat 'shelf' areas, but because they are narrow and the mountain is tall, they are hidden by forced perspective.
The first plateau and a framed portrait of the
full Super Moon, just now setting.

The first of these was a jumble of house and car-sized boulders, scrub brush and great places to be a snake. I continued up.

The next section of climbing was a twisty, narrow ribbon of dirt that inched its way up and across side of the mountain. It probably was as steep as the initial erosion finger, but because of the varied terrain it was less scary and more fun.

And this opened up into my favorite part of the whole climb: The Meadow.

The meadow. Now go look at the side view from
I-70 again. Pretty amazing, huh?
This was the second plateau and it was about an acre of almost perfectly flat grassland. There was stunningly beautiful cliffs to the North, and just enough stacked rocks to the South to create the forced perspective to hide it from ground level.

There were a few giant bowling ball boulders strewn about, but mostly it was just pasture. 6000 feet up, on the side of a mountain. No wonder there were wild horses and bison spotted up here.

To the toppermost of the flattermost

From there the trail got creative. It snaked its way up and across the side of the next level of strata, making a very narrow trail on loose shale, with a loooooong way down to the left. Not for the klutzy or those with concentration issues.

Narrow trail, and a loooong way down......
After that it was up and across the saddle that connected this side knob with the main round knob that is Mt. Garfield.

To get to the flat-topped summit you must do one last climbing section, up the back of the last strata, through an enormous debris field of boulders, bushes, rocks, dirt, sand, rabbits and dust. The trail winds all over the back of the knob, always gaining elevation, and I would not have attempted it on any but the driest days of the year.

View from the top!
Any wetness at all up here and this would be icy, muddy and slicker than snot. Uh-uh.

The top of the Mountain isn't perfectly flat of course, so once you top out on the back of the knob you must still walk up, skirting the left side of the plateau, until you reach the end of the trail, and suddenly the entire Grand Valley is on glorious display for you.

It's windy up there, as you might imagine. There's no plaque or bench or register or anything official. Just an empty pole where a flag sometimes flies.

And the view.

You can see Utah, off to the right (North), and the vast, brooding expanse of the Grand Mesa to the left (South). Across the valley the Colorado National Monument looks like a big green pine forest (which almost all of it is), with just a tiny bit of color at the edge of the mesa, where the erosion has created all of those majestic valleys and left standing the spires and walls.

View from the back of the summit knob. The meadow is center
frame, and the first, lower, plateau is to the right.
In the valley itself there is quite the contrast. There is the arid half, where the river does not flow, and there is the lush half, where the Gunnison/Colorado juggernaut (and all of its canals) has created the farms and orchards and tree-lined neighbordhoods of Grand Junction, and farther North, Fruita.

I got down on my belly, slithered out to the edge of the cliff, and slowly stuck my head over - and it looks a lot longer and straighter down than the photos would suggest. I didn't stay long in that position because my toes were curling up into painful little claws.

Watch your step!
The tops of the rest of the bookcliffs were interesting, but there isn't much at all inland to look at. They really are all spine and no substance.

I started at 6am and it took me about 90 minutes to make the climb. I spent about 10 minutes on the summit, and was back in the parking lot by 9am. So the way back wasn't that much quicker than the way up. One reason was that I was a bit tired on the way back, but the other, larger reason was that this was an intricate, technical hike, full of careful foot placements and planning of footfalls, and that happens going either direction.

I got some good perspective photos on the way back down, showing the two hidden plateaus.

And the final leg, the erosion finger, was equally challenging going down, because the extreme steepness had my toes crammed into the front of my $10.00 sneakers, creating bruises under my big toes that are still there, 10 days later.

Over the lip and onto the finger (ahem),
and MAN is that steep going down.
I ended up walking sideways, like I was on skis, and eventually three-quarters backwards, just to save my poor wittle toes some of the pain. By the time I reached level ground the sun was fully out and the day was just starting to get hot.

I felt very proud of myself for coming back and attempting this climb again, after failing so stupidly the first time.

This is a very advanced hike, and not for folks who suffer from vertigo, dizziness or an elevated fear of heights. The extreme elevation gain more than compensates for its short distance. Even if you are acclimated to this elevation, you'll be feeling this one the next day, like I was.

But now, everytime I see Mt. Garfield or drive past it on the interstate I can look up and say: "YUP. I've been waaay up there. Helluva view!"

Angus McMahan

P.S. Good hiking guide HERE. I wish I had gone to this site before I attempted the summit. At the bottom there is a fun 1:45 quickie slideshow.

P.P.S. They really need more signs at the trailhead.

Bonus Video: Me singing the Carpenters' "On Top of the World" with new, spontaneous lyrics. 

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