Climbing a Fourteener—at Night

Our scout bucks conventional wisdom and guns for a 14,000-foot summit by sundown—instead of sunrise.
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Our scout bucks conventional wisdom and guns for a 14,000-foot summit by sundown—instead of sunrise.
Sunset Summit

If there’s one thing my cousin loves more than peakbagging, it’s sleep. Hunter’s slow, three-coffee mornings might drive some hikers insane, but they’re one of my favorite things about adventuring with him.

They’re also the reason we were standing at the Yankee Boy Basin trailhead at 7 p.m. in June, preparing to summit Colorado’s 14,150-foot Mt. Sneffels at exactly the wrong time of day.

Traditionally, climbers camp the night before and get up early to bag alpine summits by dawn, avoiding afternoon thunderstorms in summer.

That was our plan, too—before we realized we’d forgotten the coffee. Our alpine start would be doomed without it.

Daylight was fading, but the summit, just 2.5 miles and 1,700 vertical feet away, seemed so close . . . We looked at each other.

Surely any afternoon storms had to have passed. Plus, capping out at class 3, this was supposed to be one of the easier scrambles in the Fourteener family.

The more we talked about it, the more brilliant our new mission sounded: We’d top out before sunset, chug a beer, descend, and prove once and for all that early mornings are for the birds.

Then, overestimating the simplicity of our new plan, we overpacked. By that, I mean we brought everything. What if we wanted to pitch a tent? Stop and cook? A lot can happen in 3 miles.

But most of what happened was huffing and puffing. A few hundred yards in, the trail vanished in a broad, steep, talus-filled gully. To speed things up, we chose the most direct route possible: straight up.

But with 30-pound packs and loose rock, progress was slow, eating up our daylight and crushing our rebel spirits. So we decided to ditch everything but summit gear (and beer) and crank up the pace. Now this was easy!

The gully brought us to Lavender Couloir, where we got our first good view. The San Juan Mountains shrank away below us, painted gold by the fading sun. And it was just going to get better.

Now we were flying, whooping and hollering our way up the mountain. With the whole thing to ourselves, there was no need to hold back. After an hour and a half, we reached the summit just before sunset.

I’ve never seen a view like it. Without midday’s flat light, nearby Thirteeners Mts. Kismet and Gilpin glowed in every shade of red, orange, pink, and yellow. Hell yeah.

We smashed our helmets together to celebrate, popped open a beer, and sent howls echoing down into the valley.

At this point, I was certain of two things: I was never waking up early again, and dawn patrol was for suckers.

Night hikers: 1, Mountain: 0.

Amid all the ego stoking, we didn’t even see the darkness coming. But just like that, the party was over.

I clicked on my headlamp. We laughed nervously.

Retracing our steps through the exposed V-notch near the summit, we fell quiet. Then we turned our headlamps onto the talus. In the narrow beams, all the rock looked the same, and none of it was stable.

Without a visible route, we slid, skated, and stumbled our way down. Hushed obscenities replaced our earlier cheers of delight.

We skittered right by our gear cache. After a brief panic, I managed to spot my pack, but Hunter’s was nowhere to be found.

Hikers: 1, Mountain: 1.

He turned uphill to search. I watched his headlamp climb—then wink out.

“Hunter?!” No response. If he was joking, it wasn’t funny. As I shifted to look, the scree beneath me gave way. I pitched backward and was suddenly on the descent again, ragdolling downhill.

Hikers: 1, Mountain: 2.

When I skidded to a stop, I lay still, shocked but unhurt, and saw light blinking from Hunter’s direction. Unaware of my near-death experience, he’d found his gear—and the headlamp he’d dropped retrieving it.

We granny-trudged the last half mile, but we made it.

Hikers: 2, Mountain 2. The mission was complete, and the score was even.

We high-fived and set up camp. I was dreaming of sleeping in when a loud hiss erupted. Snakes? Too cold. Wind? No. Do marmots hiss? Then my eyes started burning and I saw Hunter.

He’d lost his bear spray cap in the dark scree field and had just found out. The hissing was the sound of capsicum pouring into the tent and everything in it.

Hikers: 2, Mountain: 3.

Eventually I gave up on sleep and dragged myself out of the pepper spray dungeon just before sunup.

I tiptoed past Hunter, who was somehow still snoring, and peered toward the mountain. Two headlamps bobbed up the trail. They were right on schedule. 

The Verdict: Fail

We got to the summit by sunset, but check the scorecard: In the face of our poor preparation, Mt. Sneffels had the last laugh.

How to Conquer a Sunset Summit

Budget extra time.
Miss the sunset? Since darkness follows, you’ll miss the views entirely. Leave more time for the approach than you think you’ll need.

Take it easy.
Always stick to the trail. Pick a route you’ve already done or hike a class well below your comfort level.

Stay lit.
Carry spare headlamp batteries to avoid getting benighted.

Stick together.
Accidents happen, and splitting up in the dark is a good way to invite them.

Cache Carefully.
Avoid caching gear at night. If you have to, mark the spot with a GPS waypoint, cairn, or reflective marker.

Mind the Weather.
Check the forecast, and turn back if things look uncertain. Bring extra layers; as soon as the sun drops, so will temps.

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