Peak(s):  Mt. Princeton  -  14,197 feet
Date Posted:  07/07/2019
Date Climbed:   07/04/2019
Author:  Jon1702
 Mt. Princeton: Lessons Learned   

#12 - Mt. Princeton

I write this trip report as not only an account of a beautiful mountain surrounded by stunning views, but also as a bit of a cautionary tale. I hope it will be helpful to others, especially those steadily moving from "beginner 14er" to "intermediate 14er" status. Mt. Princeton was my 12th fourteener-- 13 if you include repeat summits. I'm active in the forums and the Facebook group. I regularly read the news stories about beginner hiker mistakes. I research every hike thoroughly before attempting it. I knew what I was doing... right?

Bring plenty of food and water: Check
Start early and be below treeline by noon: Check
Research the route, recent condition reports, trailhead reports: Check
Let others know where I will be and how long to expect: Check
Wear appropriate clothing for a 14er ascent: Check
Bring appropriate gear, in this case spikes and poles: Check

I crossed my t's and dotted my i's. What could go wrong?

Mt. Princeton from the Collegiate Peaks Overlook on 285, the day before the hike.

My alarm woke me at 2:00am in my Salida hotel. It was time for me to attempt my first 14er of the year. With that pulsating anxiousness of a child on Christmas morning, mixed with just a tinge of trepidation, I hopped into my Jeep and drove to the Mt. Princeton trailhead.

Beginning of the 4WD road leading to the upper trailhead.

To my surprise, the 4WD road wasn't bad at all. It was narrow for sure, so passing a vehicle in the opposite direction could be an issue. But the road itself was not nearly as rough as Stevens Gulch, or Nellie Creek, or American Basin. I drove past the radio towers and settled on a spot in the dispersed camping area around 3:45am. By 4:00, I was ready to begin my hike.

Here was my plan: follow the standard (summer) route to the summit. I knew from previous condition reports that there would be 4-5 snowfields to cross, and I knew that I could summit Tigger Peak as well on the way back to create a loop. After all, it was only an additional 240 feet of prominence from the saddle, maybe 400 additional feet to gain. I wanted to take the summer route to Princeton's summit while the snowfields were solid and then swing back over Tigger to descend over a loose class 2 ridge. Solid plan.

I began hiking up the road. The road stretched on for some time, but it was nice to gain some elevation right away, with the Arkansas River valley opening up more with each passing step. I could see the road was blocked off to vehicles after the second switchback due to some lingering snow drifts.

Snow drift after the second switchback. Photo taken in the afternoon.

The sun had not yet risen, and I eventually reached the point at which the trail left the road towards Tigger Peak.

Trail leading off the road marked by logs and stones. It immediately precedes a large snow drift further blocking access up the road. Photo taken in the afternoon.

A couple hundred more feet, and Mt. Princeton's summit appeared. I was making good progress! ...right?

The summit appears.

The sun hadn't yet risen, but the colors on the horizon were spectacular.

Before long, I reached the point at which the talus began. (Spoiler alert... it's pretty much talus from this point onward.) The trail was pretty easy to follow overall. And then I reached my first of several snow gullies.

First of five snow gullies to cross.

Three of the five snow fields along the route.

Okay, it didn't seem so bad. I put on my spikes, readied my poles, and crossed. The snow was solid and stable; the cross was easy with spikes. I'd imagine it might be a little more difficult without traction. That said, as someone who has never before crossed a snow gully... the combination of steepness and exposure was intimidating.

This would be a bad place to slip and fall.

More gullies.

It's a good thing I was going to come back over Tigger Peak, right? Because going back over these when they're slippery and slushy doesn't seem sketchy at all. Did I mention I'm clumsy?

One of the more spectacular sunrises I've seen. Unreal.

Then I came to the final snowfield. This one had tracks ascending diagonally as well as a bootpack heading horizontally. I figured this is where the old Princeton trail diverged from the new trail, so naturally, I followed the diagonal trail upwards.

The final snowfield before ascending to the ridge.

I was wrong. It led to a mess of talus not connected to any part of the trail. Luckily, I was able to spot a cairn in the distance. Making my way to the cairn, I regained the trail ascending up to the ridge. Tip: take the horizontal path across the snowfield!

Some 20-30 minutes later, I reached the ridge. And there, in all her glory, was Mt. Antero. I'm pretty sure I audibly shouted "Wow."

Mt. Antero from the Tigger/Princeton saddle.

I was doing well! I had already gained the ridge, and not even 2 hours had elapsed since the beginning of the hike (a decent pace for me). I was feeling a little bit of the altitude, but nothing too bad. I was consistently drinking water. I was winded but had plenty of energy left to push onward. The sky was blue. Everything was perfect.

I followed the trail along the ridge to Princeton. It didn't seem that far away.

The ridge toward Mt. Princeton. The summit doesn't look far away!

At about 13,200' on the ridge, looking back toward the saddle and Tigger Peak.

And then, about 0.5 miles later... it hit. A 35-40 degree wall of talus with no defined trail. My heart sank when I realized how much effort this final ascent would require... for about 800 ft of vertical gain.

About 800 vertical feet of this.

In my 11 previous fourteeners, I hadn't seen anything like this climb. And I remembered reading Bill's description on the .com that this was not going to be a pleasant climb... but I definitely underestimated the warning. Holy cow. So, up I went. Slowly and steadily.

Lesson Learned #1: Don't underestimate the final pitch.

And then, it happened with about 400 ft of gain left to go. I started feeling horrible. I felt dizzy, I felt shaky, and my energy that previously seemed so consistent just... disappeared. I never had anything like this happen before. Was it the altitude? Was it the lack of sleep from the previous night?

I sat down to take a breather. It was still a bluebird day, with barely a cloud in the sky; I had time if I needed it. But I wasn't feeling any better. For the first time, ever, I realized... I am going to need to turn around. I'm 400 feet from the summit, and the altitude was going to take me out of the game. What an absolutely horrible feeling. I sat there, tears just starting to form behind my sunglasses, realizing I had to give up the summit. Resigned, I took my first steps in the opposite direction.

Then I realized... I've barely eaten a thing since the trailhead. Why don't I give that a try? I reached into my pack and grabbed a granola bar.

Wouldn't you know it. 15 minutes later, I felt way better. It wasn't the altitude; my body had run out of fuel. Way to go, Jon.

Lesson Learned #2: Take breaks to eat food during the hike. Don't just power through.

Feeling better and a little dumb, I finished the final pitch and gained the summit. And wow-- what a summit view. One of those views so majestic it doesn't feel real.

View to the south, toward Mt. Antero, from the summit.

View to the east, toward Buena Vista, from the summit. Pikes Peak in the background.

View to the north, toward Mt. Yale, from the summit.

View to the west from the summit.

I summited at about 9:30am, a far cry from my expected summit time of 7:00-8:00am. Still, the weather was fantastic. I exchanged photo ops with the others on the summit-- some of the friendliest people I've met on a 14er yet-- and enjoyed a nice 30-minute break to refuel and rehydrate.

Then, time to descend. I don't have photos here, but the descent is long, unsteady, and, well, not my favorite. It probably took me two hours to reach the saddle again. At that point, I took a critical look at Tigger Peak, and knew the decision I had to make. I gave up on Tigger, and proceeded back down the standard route.

Toward the now-slushy, slick snow fields. That I had no intention of crossing in the afternoon. Because of my "solid plan" from earlier. Blergh.

Lesson Learned #3: Have a Plan B. And possibly a Plan C.

I should have accounted for the "what if I lack the energy to summit Tigger" possibility. But I did not. So now I had to tackle the slippery snow with a VERY steep drop if I screw up. And coming down the mountain-- safely-- was mandatory.

Mt. Princeton in the afternoon.

Carefully, methodically, and with a healthy appreciation for my spikes and poles, I made my way over the exposed snow gullies. In hindsight, it wasn't that bad... but I definitely psyched myself out a bit at the time. I think it was the hikers using their ice axes along the way, ready to self-arrest if needed. (As I thought... "What would I arrest with?") But I also saw parents with their children, crossing without traction and with what appeared to be minimal effort. So, perhaps my anxiety was getting the better of me.

Lesson Learned #4: Keep your head in the game.

"What if" is not a thought that will help me hike safely. Instead, it's all about taking one careful step at a time. As I proceed to more difficult hikes in the future, I'd imagine this lesson will be a critical one to bear in mind.

I was very lucky that the weather held. It remained a bluebird day even when I returned to my Jeep at about 2:30pm. Even though my elapsed time was pretty slow for 14er standards-- including my own standards-- I was back, I was safe... and I was humbled. I needed to learn these lessons, and it was Mt. Princeton that taught them to me.

I thought I knew how to tackle a 14er. But I made some mistakes. I know better now, and I hope my story helps someone else who may fall into similar traps.

Side note: my gosh, Mt. Princeton's views are beautiful.

Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
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Comments or Questions
You made it!
07/07/2019 10:01
Thanks for the trip report, I'm hoping to hit Princeton up very soon.

The hunger is real. Crazy how sometimes things slip your mind, even something as important as eating as you go.

Bring a couple Snickers. Nothing better in my opinion. Snack it up!

07/07/2019 20:58
Can I get to Radio Towers in a GMC Yukon SUV

07/07/2019 21:26
@mikjik86-- thanks for the tip! I'll have Snickers at the ready from now on, haha.

GMC Yukon
07/07/2019 21:28
@jrob1066-- I definitely think so. You have about 8" of clearance, which is what I had, and I had no issues. You might have to K-turn a few turns along the way, but I'd imagine that would be your only issue. Other than the usual obstacle of passing another vehicle on such a narrow road.

07/08/2019 10:01
Thanks for posting this great trip report. I attempted Princeton a couple of years back. I believe I was within 100 - 200 feet of the Summit but there is just too much lightning for my comfort level and I turned around. The scree and the steepness of that final pitch was kicking my butt as well. I am planning on going back later this year for another attempt. Happy Hiking!

Good report
07/11/2019 15:54
I liked it a lot! It's a slog up that mountain, but I agree - the views are unreal on that peak! I always carry some Clif energy gels for the quick burst of calories and fuel (I like the ones with caffeine) for those moments like you had. Glad you thought to take a few bites of food before turning around. Nice work overall on this mountain!

Great report
07/13/2019 22:55
Thank for your repot! I am planning on attempting Princeton this Friday and looking forward to it! Anyone want to join, if so, you can message me!

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