Sheep Mountain | Fairplay, CO

This trip was by far one of my favorite (and most challenging) hiking experiences. It brought me to new levels, both literally and figuratively! Meghan invited me and Jackson out for a weekend to their family’s cabin near Fairplay, CO. The plan was to do a higher altitude climb and then drive on to the cabin for the night. Since our weekend trip was scheduled for mid-March, the weather could be a bit unpredictable–maybe cold, maybe windy, maybe snowy, maybe sunny. Luckily, the weekend we planned to go was perfect! We had sun, low wind, and no snow in the forecast.

On our previous adventures, I expressed to Meghan one of my many bucket-list items: hiking a 14er. While March, especially for an inexperienced winter hiker, is not really a great time to tackle a 14er due to extreme conditions and higher avalanche risk, I felt now would have been one of my best opportunities since I wouldn’t have to worry about a babysitter for the kids (they were still with grandma and grandpa!). However, that was not an adventure I wanted to attempt alone nor was it one Meghan wanted to attempt until her ankle had more time to recover from surgery 10 weeks prior. Instead, she suggested we try a 12,000+ ft mountain. The lower altitude and grade would be easier on her ankle and would also give me a better sense for the challenges associated with winter hiking. It sounded like a great idea, let’s do it!

Meghan chose Sheep Mountain which boasted an altitude of 12,818 feet. Early during the first weekend of March, we packed up all the dogs, food, water, and gear that we would need for the weekend, and headed directly to the base of the mountain.

Previously, my tallest hike was to the top of Cheyenne Mountain, which reaches 9500 ft. Even the Incline, which is an intense vertical challenge, tops out at 8590 ft. I had been higher at some of the Colorado ski resorts such as Breckenridge and Vail whose slopes reach between 11,000-12,000 ft. However, somehow skiing that altitude feels very different than hiking it. And even still, our goal was to reach the TOP of Sheep Mountain, an even higher point than the ski resorts. I thought I was ready, although realistically, I’m not really sure I knew what I was ready for!

Once we arrived, we initially decided to leave the snowshoes in the car. Above treeline was completely void of snow as was the area down where we were. We incorrectly assumed the area between would not be deep enough to require snowshoes. Oops. Less than a quarter mile in, we realized snowshoes were a must and promptly headed back to the car to retrieve the gear. Again, one of the perks of hiking with an experienced hiker meant that there was already an extra set of snowshoes waiting for me to borrow. Thank you Meghan!

She showed me how to put them on and tighten them, and then off we went, again. What a difference showshoes make! Although we were still often post-holing–foot sinking into the snow, another new term I learned while hiking with Meghan–sometimes up to our knees, it would have been impossible without snowshoes. The snow was at least 2-3 feet deep!

Jackson didn’t have any prior experience with deep snow. Although happy to be out with us, I certainly felt him look at me several times with questioning in his eyes. He has long skinny legs, so he regularly sank chest deep or higher into the snow. He stuck mostly with following Meghan’s trail and would stand on my snowshoes for support when I got close. I was a bit worried about him at several points, but he was determined! He definitely seemed much happier once we got above treeline and the snow essentially disappeared.

The showshoeing portion was tough work. We moved at a slow and steady pace and I had to stop regularly for breaks. I was having a good time, but I was also getting quite a work out at the same time. Luckily, as I said previously, the weather was perfect. It was cold but sunny and no wind. In fact, due to the intense nature of snowshoeing up a mountain, I was continuously taking layers off to prevent myself from overheating. The higher we climbed up the mountain, the better the views got as well. Pike’s Peak was visible off in the distance, very well marked as the only snow capped mountain towards the south.

Finally, we made it above treeline after about 2.5 hours or so. Although I enjoyed snowshoeing, I felt relieved stripping them off and walking with my shoes touching the ground again. Once above treeline, obviously nothing living grew and the rocks were plentiful: small rocks, big rocks, loose rocks, brown rocks, gray rocks, just lots and lots of rocks. We continued following the trail until it crossed over a snowy area that looked deep and more prone to avalanching. With the dogs alongside us, we decided that probably wasn’t the best way and opted instead to go off trail and literally straight up.

Snowshoeing was tough, but hiking straight up was hard on a completely different level. Jackson was bounding ahead, but I was definitely struggling. Luckily the rocks we were climbing on were actually pretty stable. If I had slipped, I’m pretty sure I would have tumbled at least the length of a football field before stopping, ha! That would have been an interesting sight, and fortunately not one that played out.

We were SO close to the top, I just had to keep going! Every time I got close to what I was sure was the top, there was another ridge line looming up even higher. Meghan was well ahead of me at this point, so I let her scout the top out before I pushed myself to the final summit. Jackson, of course, followed her and was patiently waiting for me at the peak.

We made it! I was so excited! And what a huge accomplishment! I was so proud of all of us. I certainly had my doubts on several occasions on the way up. Meghan apparently did too, although I’m glad she didn’t tell me about them until we reached the peak! Meghan had packed snacks for all of us, including the dogs. It was a well deserved reward!

The views were incredible. The back side of the mountain sloped down and joined several other snow covered peaks. The front side views stretched for miles and showed the blue line of the Front Range. Although beautiful, it was quite windy and cold. I quickly started adding layers back on and tried to snap as many photos as I could in a short amount of time.

I’m not sure if it was exhaustion, altitude, dehydration or some sort of combo of the three, but I was feeling a little foggy-headed and frozen and ready to begin the journey back down. The way down HAD to be easier than all that which we had just completed.

We started back down, going a bit of a jogging pace to try and make up some time. We wanted to get down to the bottom before 5pm so we would have time to drive to the cabin before dark. It was already approximately 3:20pm. As soon as we dipped below the summit, the wind fortunately disappeared. I once again had to start stripping layers off barely 10 minutes into the journey down. As mentioned before, I knew the trip down was going to be easier. We gathered our snowshoes from where we had left them at treeline, and continued our journey back through the deep snow. The trail was obviously much easier to find because our trail up was the ONLY trail carved into the snow. There were no other tracks to follow.

Jackson also found the journey down to be a bit easier. He didn’t seem to be sinking into the snow quite as frequently and had no problem keeping up with the brisker pace. We made it down to the bottom with record speed. The journey had taken us approximately 4 hours to summit and a brisk 1 hour to descend. We hit our goal end time easily and even reached the bottom before the sun disappeared behind the mountain.

Sheep Mountain, elevation 12,818ft

What an accomplishment! I am so glad Meghan suggested this trail. We travelled approximately 8 miles total, gained over 2300 ft of altitude, and burned over 1000 calories. It was an excellent work out and also gave me some insight into what short of challenges I would be facing with higher altitude winter climbs. Although this journey was fun, I was certainly not ready to undertake another high altitude winter hike anytime soon. For now, it was time to head to the cabin and relax!

April 17, 2021

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Baileyana Rose