Thursday, July 25, 2013

Gorge Lakes via Rock Cut Trailhead.

Cancer is a horrible disease.  July 22nd marks three years since a friend lost her battle.  I was 23 when I was diagnosed with Hodgkins Lymphoma, and it was a great thing for me to find someone who was exactly my same age who had already gone through cancer treatment.  She was an inspiration to me and many more.
I cried when she died, quite a bit actually.  It was sad to not have this person in the world anymore.  I felt like the news of her passing should've been on the front page of every paper in the country, but it wasn't.
With the memory and love of this person in my heart and on my mind, I set out from the Rock Cut TH on July 23rd.  Somewhat to my surprise, I was not the first person there.  I was beaten by several photographers.
 See why?
Highest Lake, my farthest destination of the day, is only 4.4 miles from where I stood to take this picture. 
4.4 miles and 2000 feet of descent and then regain, should I say.  This is looking back up at Rock Cut just in case I had trouble locating it on the way back.
Already, I sighted some animals.  A group of Bighorn Sheep which for all the time I've spent in the park, I've only actually seen once before.  And a single male Elk, of which I have seen more than I can ever count.
Looking west as treeline comes.  It is strange to start off a hike with such a big drop.  The steep terrain was fine at this point; already I was not looking forward to the end of the day and marching back up this. 
Treeline was reached and I found this log to cross.  I mentioned to Katie that since there was a campsite at Rock Lake, I hoped to find an unofficial trail to help me get there.  Besides a few game trails, there was nothing.  The bushwhack was on once I hit the trees, and it was of the most difficult type- chest and higher thick brush with the added fun of dead fall to move over. 
Back up from Forest Canyon.
I started along the creek, looking for a creek to head up to Rock Lakes on my right.  I found one in what seemed to be a very quick time, followed it up for awhile before determining I wasn't at the right creek.  I hugged the slope I was on and contoured around, continuing through heavy brush that did not relent one bit.
Eventually I did find a bit of a trail, but it was very short and only in the immediate area of Rock Lakes.
Little Rock Lake.  I could see some footprints here and there, and noted disturbances in the marsh grass that was growing around both of the lakes, so at least I wasn't the only person up here recently.
Little Rock Lake.
Rock Lake.  It was easy to get here from Little Rock Lake.  The next problem was finding a way up.  My plan was to ascend to Lake Amore, and then head down and over to Love Lake and Arrowhead Lake.  Looking up I didn't see anyplace in the cliffs and trees above that looked any better than anywhere else.  Eventually, I just went for it.  Again, bushwhacking through the thickest stuff you can imagine.  Add to that route finding to now keep things in the 3/4 class to go up, plus getting cliffed out and having to traverse or backtrack at times.  The going was hard.
But eventually I topped out the ridge and found myself at Love Lake.  Looking around I determined that the grassy ramp on the other side of the lake was probably the best way to go up, but again bushwhack to get there.
Mosquitoes were now becoming a big problem as well.  I normally end every hike with a few bug bites, but they were absolutely swarming around me, and I was getting eaten alive.  Moving seemed to be the only thing to do to keep them away, hence I was eating less than I would normally.  What I wouldn't give for a citronella candle at this point!
In the end I went up too high, though it did afford me this lovely view.  I had to descend back a bit to get to Lake Amore.
The moon hit my eye like a big pizza pie.  That's Lake Amore.  By now I was so fed up with the mosquitoes I actually put on my rain jacket since I knew they wouldn't be able to bite through it.  It did work, though I was a little warmer than I'd like.
Back at Love Lake.  If you are here and decide to head to Lake Amore, it is atop the granite pictured to the left above/in the trees.  If you go higher, it is really just wasted gain.
Arrowhead Lake with Mount Julian and Cracktop behind.  Those deep blues all the high altitude lakes seem to have. 
Atop the exit to Rock Lake, which we will visit later.
Here I saw the first hiking of that day that wasn't talus hopping, tundra, marsh, or bushwhacking.  Just some plain old walking on rock benches.  As I've just glanced at the topo sitting next to me, treeline does extend quite a bit higher than it indicates.  As you can see from these photos, there are still copious amounts of trees in the area.
The waterfalls from Inkwell Lake to Arrowhead Lake.  Unnamed, but pretty enough to be called something.  I dub thee "Inkwell Falls" from here on and henceforth.
I just kept going up from the south end of Arrowhead Lake to reach Doughnut Lake.  It was apparently named by Homer Simpson in the late 1980's.  The island does look like it could be waded out to from the east side.  I was surprised that it was almost black in color.  Mount Julian above.
I stayed on the benches to the west of the lake and decided to just continue south west from here up and over to reach Inkwell Lake.
Arrowhead Lake now starting to show it's namesake shape.
And a little more bushwhacking.  I topped out the ridge somewhere near the snowfield almost dead center in this photo.
Looking back down the ridge.
I was expecting Inkwell Lake to be dark black, in fact it was so deep blue I could barely believe it.  Amazing!
And another animal sighting.  I've seen mountain goats on Mt. Evans from the road, but never out there in the middle of no where. 
Erratics.  Glacer love!
As we will see, this boulder is visible from most of the points around the lake.  Consider it a good landmark to look for.
It took some 3rd class down climbing and yet more talus and marsh to get around the lake.  Note the boulder above on the right.  I was now prepared to ascend a grass and talus slope up to Azure Lake.
Cracktop.  The talus slope to the right of it could be taken up directly to Highest Lake if you wanted to.
Looking down to Inkwell Lake from the ascent to Azure. 
At Azure Lake.  I took a break here and ate a fair amount of the food I had brought along.  One thing that I have started carrying along recently is olive oil.  While it isn't the most fun thing to consume, I can think of worse and it is light, compact, and high calorie.  I would tackle the talus slope at the extreme left of the photo rather than traverse around to follow the stream up.
Mount Ida over Azure Lake.
Looking back down from the talus.  A mind fuck at this point is how close yet how far away the parking is.  I could actually see individual cars over there, see cars on the road, yet knew I was very, very far from the car.  Also of note- when you zoom in, there is an avalanche visible below Rock Cut.  If you can get into this area, it may ease the bushwhacking on the way down and back up.
I saw this footprint in the mud at Highest Lake.  At least someone else had been up here somewhat recently.  It looks like descending the rib from Chief Cheley Peak (3rd class) would be a good way to get to the lake without miles and miles of bushwhacking.
At 12420 feet, Highest Lake is not the highest lake in the park.  That honor belongs to Rowe Lake at 13100 feet.  But this is the highest lake in the drainage.  Great views abound.  I took a few minutes to remember Liberty here.
Mount Julian now looks smaller.
As does Cracktop.
This is the third class rib up to Chief Cheley peak.  It was only 400 feet higher than I was at this point, but I was tired and well behind my time estimate for the day.  It was time to start heading down.
Jagor Point.
The Mummy Range.
Here I followed the outlet down to Azure Lake before traversing back east before hitting the lake. 
I found a nice way to descend, with just a few steeper second class sections.
I did get this great view of Cracktop.
And Mount Julian.
Alpine wildflowers abound at Inkwell Lake.  I had to head back around, which required more 3rd class gain to get up above the rock faces that terminate in the lake.  At one point a bird started chiping angrily at me, and I figured it's nest was near.  So I went back a bit and then ascended even higher.
I noticed this cloud over Cracktop.  Interesting was it's blue to red color, much like a rainbow, which the camera didn't capture as well as my eye did.  I have never seen this before.
Zoomed out.  Not a bad place to be.
I followed the stream down from Inkwell Lake as described in the book.  This brought me some more nice granite benches.  You can definitely see the effect of glacial activity here.  All of the rock is smooth, at times with striations leading down.
Inkwell Falls from closer.  Now I must say I totally hated this descent.  I got back into the heavy brush on the right, ended up cliffed out several times, and had to down climb third class to get to this point.  I would advise just sticking to the rock rib between Inkwell and Doughnut Lakes and picking your way down.
I navigated some marsh, and then back into the brush, and then some more granite benches to arrive near the outlet of Arrowhead Lake.  I ate here again and pumped some water.  The mosquitoes were back, and as voracious as ever.  I must've killed 50 or more over the course of the day.
This is the rather spectacular and again unnamed waterfall exit from Arrowhead Lake.  Arrowhead Falls would be a good name I suppose, but because there was someone in my mind today, I'll go with Liberty Falls.
The suggested route down to Rock Lake was on the north side of the stream.  At this point the south side was looking alot better, less bushwhacking, less talus, and less cliffy.  I started down on that side knowing that I might have to cross over at some point.
I eventually hit some cliffs I could not down climb, and found a possible way over the stream but it was at a cascade and I didn't want to risk slipping and a death fall.  So back up I went to a more mellow section.  I was thinking I might find a trail on the other side, but again, no such luck.  The bushwhack was on yet again.  Steep descents and third class boulder hopping ensued.  I was very happy when I finally hit some marshy terrain.  I was finally close to the lake!
Rock Lake, now in the afternoon.
But there was one more lake on my list for the day.  I was determined to find Forest Lake, since it would require me coming all the way back here if I didn't.  Again, there is no trail to this lake. To find it, view the topo.  Note it has a small stream which joins the stream flowing down from Rock Lakes.  Heading up or down the Rock Lake stream, look for a large marshy area.  Find a stream which looks way too small joining the Rock Lake stream.  Follow this up for a short amount of time and you'll be there.
Stones Peak as seen from Forest Lake.
Back up to Rock Cut.  Ugh.  Only a few hundred more feet to loose from here and then 2000 more to gain.
I was determined to keep as high a pace as possible up this final climb.  It took me about an hour and half, almost exactly the same amount of time as the descent.  I think that demonstrates the difficulty of the terrain.
I made it to tundra, and this view of Longs Peak shortly before 7pm.  I'd now been going for 13 hours.
And a little closer...
I saw several heart shaped rocks and boulders this day, but this one was just too perfect.  A fitting end to a hard day, as I saw this about five minutes before I rejoined Trail Ridge Road slightly east of Rock Cut.
I left my pack in the truck but headed up the paved path to the Toll Memorial in hopes of getting a cell phone signal.  I got two bars here but was not able to get a call or text through.  CCY in the background.
The mountains of the world.
The sun sets on a very difficult day.  But how privileged was I to see the sun rise and set from the same place, and that place being this place no less?
And a note on responsibility in the park, with my PSA dog:
This represents some of the trash I packed out.  While I would guess the cooler and camera were accidentally dropped and deemed irretrievable by their owners, the Bud can (dating from the 1996 olympics, I looked up the design) was very likely thrown off of Rock Cut.  I also picked up a tissue (yuck), a fountain drink lid, and four cigarette butts all lying next to Trail Ridge Road.  If you must smoke at 12000 feet, it is NOT acceptable to throw the waste out the window!  Cigarette filters take 10-15 years to degrade, and probably much longer in this environment.  If you have brought something into the park in your car, it leaves with you in your car.  There are no exceptions to this rule!
I made the following to help you find your way better if this is something you do attempt.
Here you can see the Avy area in relation to Rock Cut.  It would help you avoid alot of bushwhacking, but may be loose.
From Azure Lake to Highest Lake.  I took the left route up and right route down.  Neither is easier, but both'll get you there.
From Doughnut Lake to Inkwell Lake.
Forest Lake and the marshy area seen from Rock Cut.
Where Lake Amore is and a recommendation on how to get there from Love Lake.
From Rock Lake to Arrowhead Lake in blue, or to Love Lake and Lake Amore in red.  Both are very bushwhacky with up to fourth class depending on how you go.  Very careful route selection could keep you in third class, but will be extremely time consuming.
The general wrap up is this: all in this didn't look too bad on paper.  Highest Lake is only 4.4 miles from Rock Cut, and though there is significant loss and gain in those miles, it didn't seem like anything crazy.  Treeline is incorrectly indicated on the topo, and you'll be in heavy forest for alot longer than expected.  With some allowance for wandering, I would guess I did around ten+ miles on the day.  Of that, I'd say 75% is bushwhacking, and it was the hardest and thickest I have ever encountered.  I'd say about 20% of the remainder is on steep tundra, talus, and marsh, with only 5% of the hike on flat tundra, rock, or trail.  You'll have to be comfortable in third class and possibly fourth class terrain, though it is not exposed.  Route finding skills are needed, with very little visual reference at times.
All in, this is the hardest outing I have had this year, even counting the winter ones.  I'm thinking this could even knock the Isolation loop off the top to take the title of the hardest hike I have ever done.  This coming off a 24 mile day in eleven hours last week, which was bookended by 15 mile mountain bikes rides the days before and after.
So taking into account all of the factors: my personal fitness, the distances, gain/loss, extreme difficulty of terrain, route finding, and class, I am going to have to go to cycling to give this hike as a whole a difficulty rating.
Gorge Lakes via Rock Cut Trailhead:
Forest Lake, 10298 feet: 2ish miles each way, -1812 foot gain, with 2408 feet of gain/loss from trailhead ((12110-10000)+(10298-10000)).  Second class.  Moderate+.
Little Rock Lake, 10300 feet: 2.2 miles each way, -1810 foot gain, with 2410 feet of gain/loss.  Second class.  Moderate+.
Rock Lake, 10300 feet: 2.3 miles each way, -1810 foot gain, with 2410 feet of gain/loss.  Second class.  Moderate+.
Lake Amore, 11380 feet: 2.9 miles each way, - 730 foot gain, with 3490 feet of gain/loss.  Third+ class.  Strenuous.
Love Lake, 11260 feet: 2.4 miles each way, -850 foot gain, with 3370 feet of gain/loss.  Third+ class.  Strenuous.
Arrowhead Lake and Liberty Falls, 11120 feet: 2.8 miles each way, -990 foot gain, with 3230 feet of gain/loss.  Third+ class.  Strenuous.
Inkwell Falls, 11200 feet: 3.4 miles each way, -910 foot gain, with 3310 feet of gain/loss.  Third+ class.  Strenuous.
Doughnut Lake, 11260 feet: 3.6 miles each way, - 850 foot gain, with 3370 feet of gain/loss.  Third+ class.  Strenuous.
Inkwell Lake, 11460 feet: 4.1 miles each way, -650 foot gain, with 3570 feet of gain/loss.  Third+ class.  Strenuous+.
Azure Lake, 11900 feet: 4.6 miles each way, -210 foot gain, with 4010 feet of gain/loss.  Third+ class.  Strenuous+.
Highest Lake, 12420 feet: 4.4 miles each way, 310 foot gain, with 4530 feet of gain/loss.  Third+ class.  Strenuous+.
Toll Memorial, 12304 feet: .5 miles each way, 194 foot gain.  Easy-.
By my best estimation the route I took: 5.5 miles each way, 310 foot of gain, 5600 feet of gain/loss.  Hors Catégorie.

In loving memory of Liberty Rebekah Dagenais.  October 9, 1980- July 22, 2010.