Thursday, August 30, 2012

Elk Tooth and Ogalalla Peak- Wild Basin complete!

On Tuesday August 29, I set out for the above peaks.  These were the last two I needed to be able to cross off every one of 57 named destinations in Wild Basin.  I wanted to do these all in a single season, unfortunately I ran out of time last year and was too ambitious at times as to what I could realistically get to in one day.
But my goal this year was to finish the list off.  Again, this meant several long days in the park including this one.  Though of course, that is something that I don't mind at all.
Since I am again on Tuesday and Wednesday off, I am back on the get home from work Monday evening and stay up later than intended, get 4 hours of sleep, take too long to get ready the next morning, and then hike all day routine.  Not really the best, but I got it done.
Meeker in the early morning.
As I was hiking, I reflected on the past year.  Two years ago I had never hiked in RMNP or elsewhere.  My sister and her friend came out to visit and wanted to see some nature, so we hiked to Lake Haiyaha.  Her friend went home a few days later and my sister wanted to do more, so we headed to Ouzel Lake.  I must thank you Jane, for you ignited a passion in me.  Within a month of that day I had summited my first 13er- Isolation Peak.
I thought of all the long days- class 3 and 4, 4000 foot plus gain, 20 mile plus hikes I had done.  And why?  Well, this quote from Thoreau sums it up nicely...
We need the tonic of wildness,- to wade sometimes in the marshes where the bittern and the meadow-hen lurk, and hear the booming of the snipe; to smell the whispering sedge where only some wilder and more solitary fowl builds her nest, and the mink crawls with its belly close to the ground. At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be infinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us, because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature.  We must be refreshed by the sight of inexhaustible vigor, vast and Titanic features, the sea-coast with its wrecks, the wilderness with its living and its decaying trees, the thunder cloud, and the rain which lasts three weeks and produces freshets.  We need to witness our own limits transgressed, and some life pasturing freely where we never wander.
The sky was overcast as I started from the Finch Lake trail head at 545 am.  I could see wet pavement on the way up and could smell the wet earth as soon as I exited the car.  I could see the sky getting bright to the east, but still started out with head lamp.  The sun rose just as I summited the moraine the trail starts on.
I hiked on, arriving at Finch Lake in about two hours.  Fortunately, the day was mostly overcast, and I was able to avoid the hot sun for the most part.  I continued on to Pear Lake.
I have rarely gotten reflective photos since I don't want to sit there for ten hours and wait for that one moment of no wind.  Top two are Finch Lake, and the lower is the smaller lily padded lake between it and Pear Lake.
The trail gets steeper after Finch Lake, and I felt like I was dragging due to my tiredness.  But I got there in another hour or so.  A quick bite to eat, and a few minutes reflection, and I was headed up.  There is an unmaintained trail that is very easy to follow and in good shape from Pear Lake to Lower Hutcheson Lake.  Much easier without any snow at least.
 Arrival at Pear Lake, Copeland massive.
A small grass filled pond on the way to Lower Hutcheson.
At Lower Hutcheson Lake.

Arriving at the north side of Lower Hutcheson Lake, look west to find the trail continuing up.  At this point, it is basically matted grass, and can be difficult to find at times.  I followed this trail best I could until I arrived at Upper Hutcheson Lake.  Here, I crossed the lake at its outlet and continued around a little bit before attacking the steep scree slope of Elk Tooth.  The peak did look rather intimidating, but the closer I got, the better things looked.
 This is what the 'trail' looks like after Lower Hutcheson.  Not too hard to see if you are following the same direction, but almost impossible to see if you were to come upon it perpendicularly. 
From crossing.
The slope actually looks pretty sedate here.
I am guessing this is Gibralter Lake in Indian Peaks?  St. Vrain glaciers behind.
The summit mound of Elk Tooth.  A nice second class ramp after some heady third class on the way there.
This is second class territory and it would be wise to have a helmet, particularly if attempting with a partner.  Almost every step sent loads of loose rock down the slope.  Eventually I approached the ridge.  Some third class brought me to the summit of Elk Tooth.  Great views all around, but the day was getting on and I still had another peak to go.
The summit cairn, 12848 feet.
The ridge holding Elk Tooth and Ogalalla runs east to St. Vrain and Meadow Mountain.  Opposite view here.
Only .7 miles to go, but I'd say .5 of that is 3rd and 4th class.
The steep north slope of Elk Tooth.
St. Vrain Glaciers and an unnamed high point 55 feet below 13000.
Finally hit the low point on the saddle between the two ridges.  Some second class awaits.  Stay on the south side of the ridge, and when you hit the steep cliffs, head left.
Cony Lake from a steep vantage point.
Elk Tooth starting to look small.
The distance from Elk Tooth to Ogalalla is only .7 miles, but these are hard, mostly highly exposed third and fourth class, and a significant loss(400+ ft) and regain of elevation is needed between the two.  After deciding the south side of the ridge was out, I went back up and had relatively easy movement on the north side until I reached a peak.  At this point I moved back to the south side and descended a 3rd/4th class gully until I could continue on west.
You'll get a break in difficulty- it is second class for a bit- before hitting a steep cliff.  Hug the base of this, heading south and west.  You will reach a gulley heading north.  Take this up.  It is fourth class, but presents a wealth of hand and footholds without too much loose rock.  At the top, crest the ridge and look west.  Follow the red cliffs along, again being very careful.  This is highly exposed third and fourth class, and a fall here would certainly result in death.  At one point I was on several six inch triangles of earth with about 400 feet of air under me.  The copious moss growing on this cliff face can make foot placement difficult- it compresses significantly and your foot moves around quite a bit.  Be aware of this.
 Take this third and fourth class gulley up to the ridge line.
Traverse highly exposed fourth class...
 Seriously, there were times my feet were on six inch triangles of rock with about 300 feet of air under me.
Looking back.
 Very close now, and into third class for the final push to the top.
At last I got off the red cliffs and onto some more talus and scree.  This was third class, but I was right at the top and summitted Ogalalla Peak shortly after.  This was the last thing I had to do in Wild Basin, and while I think I was too tired to really appreciate it, I was very happy to stand atop this thirteener.  The summit register will remain unblemished by my hand as the mechanical pencil there was out of lead and I didn't bring anything along with me.
Atop Ogalalla 13138 feet and the last of my goals in Wild Basin.
It was a good feeling to stand atop this peak, the end of a year long plus project that has seen me stand atop thirteeners, pump water from high alpine lakes at twelve thousand feet, and bushwhack to find hidden gems at nine thousand feet.  There were times I felt like giving up, times I felt I was going to die, and times I felt so utterly alive.  All of the getting up early with little sleep, spending twelve hours or more doing hard physical activity, being sunburnt, thirsty, tired, hungry...  I have to say it was all worth it.  Like Thoreau, I find something in Nature.  I like spending my days off out there, seeing no other people, hearing nothing but my own breath, animals in the forest, rocks falling, dead but unfallen trees groaning in the wind.  I like hearing the sound of rain in the forest, the thunder echoing through the valley.  It gave me a great amount of pleasure to be able to walk on snow- yes snow- yesterday towards the end of August.  I didn't hear a cell phone ring, a loud stereo, or the voice of another person all day.  Nor after leaving the trail did I see another sign of humanity save for the stacked cairns and registers at the summits.  Only when on the peaks and looking east and west could I see the order and construction of humanity.
 Looking north, knowing I have been to everything.

Back along the ridge to Elk Tooth, St. Vrain Mountain, and beyond.
Looking into Indian Peaks and the St. Vrain drainage.
Looking into Wild Basin.
Longs and Meeker.
Cony Lake as seen from Ogalalla Peak.
And this is what it is all about.  Hiking is not just a destination, it is a journey.  In the past year I have learned alot about myself.  I have hit and pushed past limits of endurance, the very limits of sanity on long days.  And I have succeeded.  I could tell you that yes, I have hiked to Isolation Peak, and it was difficult because of this, but I can remember quite vividly the first time I stood on this peak.  It was hard and I did a good bit of unnecessary bushwhacking to get there.  I called my sister at her desk job in NYC to let her know I was ok.  I remember crab walking and butt sliding back down, how my foot got stuck in a hole and I started to tumble down backwards but was able to catch myself.  I remember taking my shoes and socks of and plunging my aching feet into Lark Pond and how good it felt.
The fight of Copeland, after three attempts no summit, but it felt great to finally stand atop it last year.   A long ring of the Ouzel Lake drainage this year, a near fall on Cony Pass, and moose encounter on the Bluebird Lake trail.  Lookout Mountain and Horsetooth with my wife, sharing something that I love with someone that I love.  Bluebird Lake in the winter, snow all around, finding a way there and back.  Descending to Keplinger Lake, its pristine alpine beauty, and then spending hours wading around in its drainage, trying to get to Dragons Egg Rock.  Seeing forever from the top of Mount Meeker. 
These are all memories that I am going to carry with me for life.
So.  I ate.  I brought along a mini I refilled with Lagavulin 16 and had a celebratory sip.  And then, as always, onward.  I headed north over tundra for about half a mile to arrive at Cony Pass.  If you know me at all, you know I love hiking tundra, and this was no exception.  As I said, I came very close to a fall on Cony Pass on my last attempt, due to some uncertainty of where exactly to descend.  Staying on the north side brought me to a gully that looked to be 3/4th class, so I started to descend.  At some point I came to a part where I would have to hold onto a large rock while stepping down.  I yanked on the rock and it seemed solid.  However, as I moved to step down, I felt it pull out about an inch from the wall.  Fortunately, my full weight was not on it yet and I was able to go back up and find a safe way down.  But I just think what if it had pulled free entirely?
The correct way, in my opinion, to descend Cony Pass is this.  Looking east, start down from the tundra on the north side of the feature.  There is a bulge to your right or south.  Continue along this until it ends, and then traverse around it.  This is very exposed fourth class, but a small section only.  From here, you can almost see a trail beat in in places.  Find your way down the broken cliff face.  Think of a switch back road winding up a mountain- that is basically how you descend this.  This is second and third class, with good hands and feet the whole way down, though the ledges are narrow.  At the bottom you can head north to descend to Junco Lake, or continue south to Cony Lake as I did.  Either way it is a long and steep scree/talus slope, and you will kick up alot of loose rock.  Helmets would be a good idea if climbing with anyone else, probably a good idea even by yourself.
Junco and Bluebird Lakes as seen from Cony Pass.
Cony Lake and Elk Tooth from Cony Pass.
Descending to Cony Lake.
Back at Cony Pass, and the broken cliff system on the south side.
Ogalalla over Cony Lake.  Hard to believe I was up there!
The descent seemed to take forever, but eventually I made it to Cony Lake.  I stopped to pump some water.  Nice and icy cold.  Looking west, I could now see some clouds that were looking threatening, and decided I had to get going asap.  It started to rain before I made it to Upper Hutcheson Lake.  I put on my rain jacket, but my legs got soaked from bushwhacking through all the wet stuff.  My pants dried quickly once I got back on the trail.
Emerald green waters.
Legs getting wet.
Rainbow over Hutcheson Lakes.
Back to Lower Hutcheson and almost almost done.
I somehow got myself right back to where the trail seems to end above Middle Hutcheson.  I guess I kind of have a bird brain in a homing pigeon kind of way!  But at this point, there are no cairns, and the trail is matted grass only.  I was able to follow it down to Lower Hutcheson, where I picked up the more defined trail back to Pear Lake.  I could now hear periodic thunder from the north side of Copeland, and hurried my pace a bit.  The storm seemed to be moving due east, as I never got near it, but did get rained on for quite awhile.
Back at Finch Lake I thought I might have the chance to see someone... but there was no one there.  I continued on.  At some point after this I saw what looked to be fresh mud splashed on a log on the far side of a puddle.  Maybe I was catching up to someone?  But as I looked closer, I noticed the prints of cloven hooves that appeared too large to be a deer.  They were going the way I was going.  I wasn't sure if they were moose or elk.  Obviously, I would prefer elk.  I got two sticks and started banging them together along with blowing my whistle once in awhile, hoping to scare off anything I might be catching up to.
I could see prints for several miles (I guess it is easier for them to use a trail rather than bushwhack also), but eventually they stopped without any close encounters.
Giants in the mist.
I was really dragging by now, but the rain and sun combination gave me some interesting and pretty views of peaks to the north.  Eventually I found myself at the top of the moraine, and started down.  As usual, the last leg of the hike seemed to take forever, but I made it back to the car right at 745pm, witnessed the sun set behind the mountains.  A fourteen hour day!  I did not see another person all day.  I just wanted to sleep in the car I was so tired, but I ate one more Clif shot + and started the drive down.
Aspen starting to turn.
A departing shot of Meeker.
I know there are many in Colorado who have gone after peaks, but I am not sure how many of you might have tried something like this.  It is a pretty awesome feeling to know that I have been to every single destination in this area of the park.  I have been to the top or base of every waterfall, stood on top of every 13er, 12er, 11er, 10er or other high point someone thought to name, have pumped water from many of the highest and most remote alpine lakes and ponds, touched melting glaciers.  It's been a really great experience, and I know there is much more to come.
Elk Tooth(12848 ft) and Ogalalla Peak(13138 ft) via Finch Lake trail head:
Elk Tooth: 9.2 miles one way, 4368 foot gain.  Third class.  Strenuous plus.
Ogalalla Peak: 9.9 miles one way, 4658 foot gain.  Fourth class from Elk Tooth.  Strenuous plus. 
To head to Cony Pass and descend to Cony Lake will give you a total distance of 20.4 miles round trip, with copious amounts and third and fourth class climbing.  Strenuous plus.

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