Wednesday, November 2, 2016

A Day in Lost Creek Wilderness.

Ah, Lost Creek Wilderness.  It had been almost three years between my first and second visit to the area, and now only three weeks to go back for a third time.
Last time we were there, I was looking at the peaks to the north of us- Kenosha Peak looked very close to us, and the northern grouping of peaks looked like they were relatively doable from where we were.
While I'd now done the peaks on both sides of Craig Park, I read this trip report and was inspired to try for a big day, and link the entire area together.  The only thing I didn't like was that to start from the same trail head as they did was a longer drive- about 50 minutes each way, according to Google.  I felt that I could start at the North Ben Tyler th and do the same- though it would come with more elevation gain and distance.  
My initial estimate on Caltopo gave me somewhere in the neighborhood of 34 miles and a bit over 9000 feet of elevation gain- no small numbers, but certainly within reach, as the terrain is relatively easy going.  Easy going in the sense of very little if any talus hopping, and most of the time not on trail would be on relatively smooth tundra.  There wouldn't be much bushwhacking, and most of it was through pretty open forest.  And while there is alot of initial elevation gain from the trail head, the peaks don't have all that much prominence.  
Thus I set out from home at around 4:15 am, arriving at the trail head and getting a start by 5:45.  With daylight hours diminishing, this meant some time in the dark, and I was pretty sure I'd see sunset from the mountains as well. 
Just a few weeks ago, this slope was blanketed in the gold of Aspen.  Today I got to see the garish pink of alpenglow.
But there was some gold to be found in the skies.
I was able to move pretty well on the trail, and left after some switchbacks to head directly towards Foster Benchmark. 
The benchmark lies a few feet from the summit.
The 11871 foot  summit, looking towards unranked Mount Blaine.
And South Twin Cone Peak.
There was an interesting view to the west, with some lower elevation peaks, a fairly flat plain, and higher peaks beyond.  The perspective was neat to view- it looked almost like a painted backdrop to a movie set, and it seemed as you could almost pinpoint the place where the real world ended.
I headed toward Mount Blaine, pushing through some willows that were up to head height.  I was mostly able to follow animal trails through the willowy areas during the day, which was good, as travel would have slowed down significantly without them.
I came upon this sealed tube along the way.  I could feel that there was something in it, but both ends were glued shut.  I was able to track down someone from North Fork Ranch, and got a pretty neat story about it.  I love finding stuff like this out there.
Looking to North Twin Cone from near Mount Blaine.  It takes a short amount of hopping on large talus to reach the summit. 
The summit block of Mount Blaine, 12303 feet.
I exited the talus and headed toward North Twin Cone.  Now above treeline, the hiking was easy, with a few short sections of willows to work around.  I joined the 4wd road at around 12100 feet, and stayed on it until the top. 
This 12323 foot summit was a little less wild than I am used to, with a well defaced structure on top, and the road right to the summit.  I took a short snack break here- after all, there was still plenty of ground to cover...
Looking back to Mount Blaine.
And again, admiring the awesome view to the west.
From North Twin Cone, I'd intended to stay up as high as possible and stick to the saddle between Mount Blaine and South Twin Cone.  However, as I dropped down, I decided to take a more direct route.  The trade off was loosing and regaining more elevation to hike a shorter distance.  I think it worked ok.
The summit of South Twin Cone, 12340 feet.
Looking into the future...
And back to the past.
Again, I took a short snack break before heading on.  I did a ring around the bowl holding Rock Creek, briefly dropping below 11600 feet in elevation before making a gradual gain to Kenosha Peak.  Again, there were some willows and boggy spots in the lower elevation areas, but things weren't too bad and my feet stayed dry for now. 
The Platte River Mountains from Kenosha Peak.
The summit of Kenosha Peak, 12100 feet.
When Dan and I did the Alphabetizer, we talked about doing X Prime, but decided against it due to time constraints.  After several false summits, I found the top of this unranked peak.
Peak X from X Prime. 
X Prime, 12100 feet. 
Shawnee Peak, looking pretty far away.  The best bail plan was to head down to Craig Park and then take that trail back to the Ben Tyler Trail.  Fortunately, I did not need to exercise this option.
I made good time up to Peak X, despite feeling it a little.
Peak X, 12429 feet.  This was the highest point and my seventh peak of the day, which meant I was halfway there... well in some manner of speaking.
Peak Y looked like it was far away, but most of the gain differential was downward.  It was a quick downhill, then a little more travel through some willows, before about 400 feet of gain to the summit.
Peak Y, 12274 feet.
Looking back to Peak X.
And across the valley to Platte and Shawnee.
Looking to Peak Z.
A nice view.  Again, here is a case of the topo not showing the full story.  It looks like you could simply stay on the highest part of the ridge from Y to Z, but as you can see, that would be quite difficult to do.  I simply made my way up when I got close to the summit.  Technically speaking, this is the most difficult summit of the day, with a few third class moves to get to the top. 
Or you can stand next to it and get this view, with Zephyr in the background.  Though, for the sake of completeness, I did make the few moves to the top.
Up next was Zephyr.  At 12067 feet, this was the lowest summit on this side of the ridge.  It took me about half an hour between Z and Zephyr.
Looking back to Z and beyond.
Since The Alphabetizer hike has you do Zephyr through X, which are actually in reverse alphabetical order, did I just do the reverse Alphabetizer, which puts the peaks in correct alphabetical order?
Either way, it was fun to repeat these four.  Now I had to drop down to Craig Park, where I'd finally be able to find water.  I'd been out since near Kenosha Peak, and relying on isolated patches of snow for hydration.
I left Zephyr headed north east until I found the Brookside/McGurdy trail.  Two observations on that...  The trail isn't in the same place as shown on the topo, and it's definitely hard to follow at times, due to dead fall and the likelihood that this trail isn't often traveled.
Finally I got to the creek, and drank heavily.  The cold water was very refreshing, and it was nice to take a short break to refill.
There were two options to get to Payne Benchmark from here.  I could either go direct at it, or take the Craig Park trail for a bit to continue on the Brookside/McGurdy trail.  I decided to go for that, since that would make the elevation gain up to the saddle pretty easy, as I didn't know the how the forest would be going directly up.
I followed the familiar route up from there, and made the summit a bit before 6pm.
Looking to No Payne, which was definitely going to bring some pain.
The true summit of Payne Benchmark, 11780.
The sun was starting to go down, and it was clear I'd be making several hours in darkness.  I got my headlamp out so it was ready to go, and then found myself encountering a problem I'd face for the rest of the evening.  Somehow, I descended in the wrong direction off the summit.  Fortunately, I looked at the GPS app in my phone and realized it before I descended too far, but I did go slightly out of the way.
I made it back to the saddle between Payne and No Payne, and turned my headlamp on shortly after. I hit the summit of No Payne as the denouement of darkness came crashing down upon me.  Nautical twilight was now in full effect, and I'd only make it about halfway to Shawnee Peak as I progressed through astronomical twilight and into full night.  Though, I suppose those last two stages of the day are nearly identical, and even nautical twilight doesn't supply enough light to see what you're doing.
I remembered the forest feeling pretty open on our visit a few weeks prior; now it felt like I was bushwhacking a whole, whole lot.  Without light, staying on top of the ridge became very difficult to do, and while my GPS track doesn't look too bad, I felt like I was constantly off route.  I'd hit a point and knew I'd have to descend, but couldn't see the peak ahead, or any of the forest around me, and go the wrong way. 
More than a few times I found myself descending and pulled up the Earthmate companion app to my Delorme Inreach to find myself headed either west into the Craig Park drainage, or east, towards Shawnee and 285.  This is the first hike I have ever done in my life during which I relied so extensively on GPS to navigate.  I honestly think I would have been out there for alot longer without it. 
This was also really having an effect on my psyche- it wasn't long before I started thinking that perhaps I should just hole up for the night.  After all, there was tons of dead fall, and I had several tools with which to start a fire.  But I pushed on, despite the coming feeling of hopelessness. 
As I approached Shawnee Peak, skirting the southern rock faces as planned, but likely not by the best route, I stepped up onto a partially rotted log.  As I moved my weight from the right to left foot, it went from a partially rotted log to a fully rotted log- my left leg went through it to the crotch.  I had immediate pain in the thigh, but thought I just took a hard hit on it.
I did take a hard hit, and it's still bruised now over a week later, but it was more than a bruise.
Cleaned up the next day.  Surprisingly, it bled little if at all. 
This was another blow to the mind, but shortly after I was able to make the summit of Shawnee Peak.  With no moon, I could look ahead and barely see the rounded hump of Platte Peak ahead.  But the night sky was a sight to behold, a million diamonds glittering in the sky, echoed by the lights of the towns in the valley along 285 and from Denver to the east. 
Will I, on my deathbed, look back and think of some day at work?  Or will my mind wander back to that day that I was 30 miles in, in complete darkness, barely able to see what I thought was the next peak, and starting to feel some sense of desperation? 
I convinced myself that it was less than two miles to Platte Peak from here, and there wasn't much elevation gain between the two.  After that, I could descend to the trail, and have that- a nice, well put in, and easy to follow trail the rest of the way down.  Get to the peak, then the trail.  Those were my two goals. 
The peak didn't bring much excitement, just a short scramble in the dark to stand exactly where Dan sat a few weeks ago.  And then I left the summit.  It seemed easy on this side to follow the high point of the ridge down, at least until I looked and noticed I had again gone too far north.  I needed to stay at the same elevation and cut back west to hit the trail.  It worked, and I was on it pretty quickly.  But up until the sign for the Ben Tyler trail, it wasn't as easy to follow as I remembered.  There were several times I had to stop and backtrack to confirm I was still on the trail, or find out I wasn't. 
It seemed like forever before I hit the sign, but I got there. 
I jogged some of the less rocky sections of trail on the way down, and started to hit the familiar landmarks- the two places where water runs over the trail, the creek crossing, the sign in.  Finally I could see and hear the occasional car below me on 285.  And finally I found myself on the last few switchbacks above the trail head.
I got back to the car at 11:45 pm.  I'd left the car at 5:45 am.  And now, there was the matter of the hour and a half drive back home.  It took me a few minutes to get situated, and I started the drive at midnight.  By the time I got home, I'd been awake for 22 hours straight, and had hiked for 18 of those hours. 
I guess I can consider this day, October 24, 2016, as seized. 
As you can imagine, this hike is not for the faint of heart.  I am sure some ultra runner could come along and pop this day off in 6 hours or less.  A good thing for the rest of us normal people out there is the ability to camp in the area, thus this loop could easily be split into two or more days.  I think that would be quite fun to do, as the scenery is romantic, the night sky would be enchanting, and you're virtually guaranteed to not run into another person. 
Lost Creek, as always, proved to be a fun place to visit, an enormous place to loose oneself for a day and for part of the night.  I look forward to many return trips that will be shorter in length!
Link to hike map/GPX on Caltopo.
A Day in Lost Creek Wilderness (distances as part of the hike):
Foster Benchmark, 11871 feet: 6.4 miles, 3610 foot gain.  Second class.  Moderate+.
Mount Blaine, 12303 feet: 8.2 miles, 4042 foot gain.  Second class.  Moderate+
North Twin Cone Peak, 12323 feet: 9.7 miles, 4062 foot gain.  Second class.  Moderate+.
South Twin Cone Peak, 12340 feet: 11.5 miles, 4079 foot gain.  Second class.  Moderate+
Kenosha Peak, 12100 feet: 14.7 miles, 3839 foot gain.  Second class.  Moderate+.
X Prime, 12100 feet: 17.5 miles, 3839 foot gain.  Second class.  Moderate+.
Peak X, 12429 feet: 18.5 miles, 4168 foot gain.  Second class.  Moderate+.
Peak Y, 12274 feet: 19.7 miles, 4013 foot gain.  Second class.  Moderate+.
Peak Z, 12244 feet: 20.6 miles, 3983 foot gain.  Third class.  Moderate+.
Zephyr, 12067 feet: 21.8 miles, 3806 foot gain.  Second class.  Moderate+.
Payne Benchmark, 11780 feet: 25.4 miles, 3519 foot gain.  Second class.  Moderate+.
No Payne, 11789 feet: 27.7 miles, 3528 foot gain.  Second class.  Moderate+.
Shawnee Peak, 11927 feet: 30.3 miles, 3666 foot gain.  Second class.  Moderate+.
Platte Peak, 11941 feet: 31.9 miles, 3680 foot gain.  Second class.  Moderate+.
As a whole, this hike covered 39.27 miles with 10016 feet of elevation gain, with a very short section of third class.  Strenuous+.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Sheep Mountain and area.

Sheep Mountain, aka Round Mountain, is another peak listed in the Eastern Perimeter section of Fosters book, which gives information on the destinations on the extreme eastern edge of RMNP, as well as places that are outside of RMNP, but fun hikes in the opinion of the author.  This peak falls in the latter category, with the trail head lying about 16 miles east of Estes Park on highway 34.
Before you go, know that you can't currently get to this trail head, with 34 closed from now until May or June of 2017 for post flood recovery work.  But once the road is open again, put this on your list!
The Round Mountain trail head lies on the south side of the road, at 1211 Big Thompson Road.  There are restroom facilities there.  The trail starts from beyond this small building.
After a short but steep climb, the trail starts to head east before turning south and then west, and gaining elevation again. 
The trail in this area.
Looking east down 34.  A great view of some autumnal colors.
After some uphill, the trail starts to weave through and around some pretty neat rock features.  Here is a place where you cut through a small notch between two shorter towers.
One thing I also rather enjoyed were the interpretative signs along the trail.  Each explained something about the area, flora, fauna, or geological features/processes that can be seen in the area.  They also provided a good excuse to stop for a break, catch my breath, and sip some water!
Still some vibrant golds from Aspen along the trail.
Up and up- this was one of those trails that when you think you must be about there, you still have some distance to go.  But soon enough I came upon a place where the official trail heads to the right (west), with a thin spur heading to the left (east), toward Stone Mountain.  It's still over a mile to the summit from this point, but it seemed to go a bit more quickly. 
I made it to the summit and looked around.  You can see the large man made summit cairn to the right here, and interestingly enough, it looked as though this was an artificial high point.  Which it to say, both the rock to the left and the area immediately around the tree center looked like they were higher than the base of the cairn.  The summit register was in good shape, and since I was the only person up here on this day, and 34 was set to close the next day, I might be the most recent signature.
The large summit cairn, 8450 feet, plus or minus!
While the summit is treed in, one can head slightly northwest to get some views of higher peaks.
The Mummy Range.
I decided to do this hike on this day because the weather at altitude was predicted to be extremely windy, and even here things were breezy.  That, and I'd had a long week and didn't want to get up super early and do a long drive.
While I was here and put in the elevation gain, I decided to just do a loop and visit the four other peaks in this area.  From the summit of Sheep Mountain, I headed in a WNW direction to visit peak 8092.
I made my way through some pleasantly open forest to this overlook.  The summit of 8092 lies to the north, or right in this photo.  I down climbed the rocky outcrop I was standing on (to find I could have easily avoided it completely, but hey, a little spice never hurts!), and headed up, staying to the right of the rocky ridge visible. 
The summit of 8092 was pretty open, and offered some good views in all directions.  Here I looked to the next goal of the day, peak 8310.
To points west. 
The summit of 8092.
I had a snack and planned a route to drop into the valley below.  From looking at the topo, it appears that crossing a small parcel of private property is unavoidable here, but I didn't see any signs.
I found the remnants of a very old road before heading up.  The travel here was a bit more difficult, both since the uphill was steeper, and there was a fair amount of dead fall to move over and around.  But I finally topped out on a grassy ridge, and made my way to the high point. 
Looking west from 8310.  A perfect place to be.
And a great register, placed in 1996 by Estes local Howard Pomranka(click to read a neat article about him).
From here I headed east toward peak 7567.  Again, you'll enter some private property along the way, and the summit itself is on private land, but there aren't any signs, and you can stay on the outside of any fences you encounter.  Basically, I'd guess that as long as you are being respectful and friendly, you probably won't have a problem.  Taking the path of least resistance won't put you near any residences. 
Peak 7567 in some afternoon light.  I took a short break here, looking back across the valley.
Sheep Mountain. 
And my last goal of the day, Stone Mountain, the lower but pointier summit all the way to the right here.
I headed NE from the summit to the small outcrop on the topo.  From there, I headed down almost directly north until I was around 7000 feet, and then cut NE again.  The USFS topo shows a trail running along the creek in the bottom of Saddle Notch Gulch, and I thought I spied it as I got close.  This supposed trail eventually turns north to climb steeply to the saddle between Sheep and Stone Mountains.
I refilled water from the creek, and then headed up.  The going was tedious, with lots of bushy growth, trees, and talus.  I stopped several times to empty debris out of my shoes.  Eventually I was high enough up that I realized I either missed the trail I thought I saw, or there wasn't one.  But I could see something above me...
It was alot higher than shown on the topo, and not in great shape, but very easy to follow!
While obviously rarely used today, this wall/trail was very distinct, so much so that it can be seen on satellite photos.  I can't imagine how much work it took to build this, running for miles and miles. 
Looking east from the ascent.
I eventually left this trail, as it went into a heavily wooded gully.  I was on a pretty open slope, and felt that the travel was easier there.  Soon after, I hit a thin trail and took it toward Stone Mountain. 
Looking back to Sheep Mountain.
Blue Mountain and Pinewood Lake. 
The summit of Stone Mountain, 7655 feet. 
With daylight waning, I now had about four miles to cover to get back to the parking area.  As seemingly usual this year, I'd obviously be making some of the return in darkness, and it became a race to get back as quickly as possible.  It's not that I'm scared of or uncomfortable hiking in the dark, it's just that some days it would be nice to be able to instantly transport from the area of the last thing of the day back to the car!
I was able to make pretty good time on the upper sections of the trail, enough that it only took me an hour to get back.  As it got darker, it was difficult to jog or run quickly because I couldn't see far enough ahead to prepare for what was coming.  But my movement higher up made up for it.
Back at the car, I had just what I wanted- a shorter drive home!  I'd had a busy and tiring work week, and didn't want to get up early and make a long drive.  Nor did I really feel up to a 12+ hour adventure, so the day served it's purpose perfectly.
As always, much fun was had in the mountains.  Despite going no higher than the 8450 feet of Sheep Mountain, I still put up a pretty respectable amount of elevation gain since the trail head lies below 5800 feet.  Sheep Mountain was a nice summit- just make sure you explore the area a little bit to get some of the better views.
Link to hike map/GPX on Caltopo.
Sheep Mountain and area (distances as part of the hike):
Sheep Mountain, 8450 feet: 4.6 miles, 2707 foot gain.  Moderate.
8092: 6.6 miles, 2349 foot gain.  Moderate.
8310: 8.1 miles, 2567 foot gain.  Moderate.
7567: 10.8 miles, 1824 foot gain.  Moderate.
Stone Mountain, 7655 feet: 13 miles, 1912 foot gain.  Moderate.
As a whole, this hike covered 17.54 miles with 5817 feet of elevation gain.  Moderate+.