Monday, December 30, 2013

Best of 2013 hikes!

2013 has been a big year.  Not only did I more than double the number of outings in 2012, but traffic has gone up significantly here.  I was psyched when 2012 brought me 1,731 page views, but 2013 will end with over 15,000!  Thank you all for your support!
Below you will find some of my favorite hikes of the year.  While any day in RMNP is a good day, some are truly spectacular.
I hope you have had a great 2013, and that the new year brings you to more fun destinations in Rocky Mountain National Park and beyond.
Best high altitude lakes!
4. Sky Pond.  While not the hardest, farthest, or highest, Sky Pond is a beautiful place to visit and relatively accessible from Glacier Gorge and Bear Lake.  With the wacky winter weather of 2012, it took me four tries to get here, and it definitely gave a good sense of accomplishment to stand on the bank of this lake. 
3. Chiquita Lake.  Cramponing to this lake in May was one of those special and memorable days, as it marked my 100th named destination in the park.  There was a ton of snow and getting here was no easy task.  Miles of post holing and route finding via the surrounding peaks ensued.  In the end, I got some great views though the lake itself was under snow and ice, and another big reward for my hard work.  This lake was so beautiful!
2. Lake Powell.  The "easy" way to get here covers just over eighteen miles round trip and 5000 feet of gain.  But this is truly one of the quietest, most secluded, and prettiest places in the park.  A perfect place to sit and reflect.
1. Fay Lakes.  I'll be honest: it was very hard to pick a favorite lake this year.  Powell could've been number one just as well as Fay Lakes.  Neither are easy to get to.  Both are very secluded and likely don't see more than 10-20 visitors a year.  I ate lunch sitting on a rock in upper Fay Lake, and then walked around a high point to drop down to middle Fay Lake.  I hadn't seen it yet, and when there was nothing to stand in the way of my sight and I saw the lake for the first time shimmering in the sun, it was so beautiful tears came to my eyes.
Best features!
4. Battle Mountain.  Despite the tough sounding name, this peak is little more than a very short jaunt up to a high point on the flat ridge extending east from Granite Pass.  If you've ever done Longs via the Keyhole route, you've walked right past this and probably not even noticed it.  It is fun to find something in close proximity to a very well travelled route that sees very little traffic.
3. Glacier Knobs.  April brought a tremendous amount of snow, bad avalanche conditions, and of course it snowed every week on my days off.  This did not facilitate getting out at all.  When May rolled around I was read to go and go big, but the snowpack had more that doubled in the previous month.  These two rounded summits were on my radar as I passed them on every trip into Glacier Gorge.  It is worth it to take the time to summit them, as they offer inspiring and unique views into Glacier Gorge and Loch Vale.  These would provide a good navigation and route finding exercise for those of you who want to start going off trail.
2. Lumpy Ridge.  Not only did 2013 bring a strange spring weather wise, but September was happy to join in the fun.  One day it started raining, and then kept raining for a week.  This resulted in historic levels of flooding, and basically cut Estes Park off from anywhere below, as all of the roads washed out.  About two months after it started raining, I headed back to RMNP and with the company of a friend, did a traverse of Lumpy Ridge.  We started at Gem Lake, and ended at the intersection of the Black Canyon trail and Cow Creek Trail, obtaining all the high points along the way.  It was great to be back in the park.
1. Pilot Mountain.  Last years favorite is this years as well.  My friend Dan wanted to do Mount Alice, and I agreed to repeat as long as we could add on Lake Powell and/or Pilot Mountain.  The weather cooperated and we got to all three.  This is the high point of the crumbling ridge of rock extending south east from Alice.  Getting to the top entails a long on trail hike, followed by several tenuous miles of off trail bushwhacking/loose talus, and then some very exposed fourth class to get to the top.  The summit is tiny, offering seating for no more than a few, but it also offers unparallelled views, and in late August we were only the second and third ascents this year.  It is one of the more difficult summits in the park, but know that once you do get to the top, you will likely have it all to yourself. 
Best Peaks!
4. Joe Mills Mountain/Mount Wuh.  This looks like a fun shorter hike on paper.  It's not too far in, and in reality not too much gain.  But try doing it in a few feet of fresh powder in blowing snow, and the difficulty increases tremendously.  The conditions also made it one of the more beautiful winter days in the park of the year, with every view having a certain Bob Ross happy little trees look to it.
3. Apache Peak.  This was another fun and epic day of sorts, though it took place in Indian Peaks rather than RMNP.  The summer trail head at Brainard Lake wasn't open yet, so we rode bikes up to it.  Then came a few miles of travel over snow, and then the business, as we strapped on crampons, got out the ice axes, and headed up some intimidating looking snow fields.  In reality, it looked worse than it was and this proved to be a rather fun ascent method to gain this 13er.  It took over an hour to get to the top, and mere minutes to make the awesome glissade down.
2. The Arrowhead.  Perfection?  This was close to my idea of it.  This peak offered a very fun route finding challenge to keep the maximum difficulty at third class plus, plenty of exposure, and great views from the top.  What more can you ask for?  Well, I was still above treeline when I started hearing swiftly approaching thunder, so I also got a run in.
1. Longs Peak.  While I have climbed a ton of peaks, I'd yet to do a 14er.  My wife and friends were asking me when the day would come.  I did some research and planned a route from Glacier Gorge.  Being me, I was not satisfied with Longs alone, but had to take a non traditional route, and add on Pagoda Mountain and Towers 1 and 2 of Keyboard of the Winds.  In my opinion, Longs is not the most difficult peak in the park.  The number of people on top also dampened my enthusiasm somewhat.  But it was my first 14er, and the day will remain etched in my memory, in particular the chance encounter with a group going from Longs to Pagoda on the Grand Slam.  I'd expected to see no one until the top!
Best easier hikes!
3. Estes Cone.  This is a fun one to do any time of the year, but winter may bring a bit less traffic.  Along the way you pass the remains of Eugenia Mine.  It is a bit tricky to find the true high point- just continue to head south once you reach the summit plateau.  There are some pretty cool views of Twin Sisters peaks and Longs/Meeker.
2. Emerald Mountain.  One of the outlying peaks of the park, start at the East Portal trail head to get here.  It's less than a mile to the top, but you'll be gaining over 1000 feet per mile for that distance.  If you're feeling motivated, consider adding on Thunder and/or Lightning peaks.  They are easily accessible from the same trail head, and continue the short and steep theme, with 1000 feet/mile to get to the top.
1. Steep Mountain.  The weather didn't cooperate yet again, as our original goal was to climb Flattop and head north to several of the high points along the divide.  But it grew windier and colder as we got higher, so I made the suggestion that we turn back and go for something easier and lower.  Steep Mountain and Bierstadt Lake it was.  In stark contrast to the conditions we'd faced higher, steep mountain was sunny and quite warm.  This would be another fun navigation and route finding challenge for those looking to start going off trail.  And it offers great views of the eastern side of the park, all the way from Longs north to the Mummy Range.
Best epic days!
4. Longs Peak.  I've already talked about it above, but taking a non standard route which added more gain but not much more distance, plus having a good part of that route be completely off trail certainly made this one into an epic day.  Even once the keyhole route leaves the trail, it is blazed.  No blazes here, it's just up to you to find the way.  A fun and memorable way to ascend this incredible peak.
3. Dickinson/Dunraven and the Lakes of the North Fork River.  The idea of doing a 24+ mile hike with 5700ish feet of gain seems absurd as I sit on my couch writing this.  But I did it, and not only did it, but did so in 11 hours.  The peaks are okay, but it is the high lakes of this gorge that are the true treasures here.  Since they are so far from any trail head, it stands to reason that they see little traffic.  If you don't want to have an epic day, there are campsites all along the trail on the way up which could certainly make your visit to Scotch or Whiskey Lake a bit more manageable as a two or more day trip.  I can only imagine how awesome it would be to sit at one of those lakes and watch the sun set and the night sky light up.  This long day also provided the impetus to visit the Gorge Lakes.  See below...
2. CCY the wrong way.  Due to the high elevation of the trail head, the CCY route is probably one of the easiest ways to climb a 13er in the park.  But when you start from the Lawn Lake trail head, you almost double the amount of elevation gain, and triple the mileage.  I started off early in the morning with a more ambitious goal, but didn't feel great and decided to turn back.  When the sun came up, I'd already been hiking for hours, but the daylight rejuvenated me.  Instead of going back to the parking lot, I went toward Ypsilon Lake.  And then bushwhacked up toward Chiquita.  And then Ypsilon.  And then Chapin.  And then down the east ridge of Chapin.  It was a kind of torture to have to walk back to the trail head from Old Fall River Road.  The views of Chapin and Chiquita from the Lawn Lake trail head made it ever more impressive in my mind.  I always love being able to see my high points from below!
1. Gorge Lakes via Rock Cut.  The Dickinson hike came the week before this, and I'd covered 24 miles with no real troubles (plus did 15 miles on the mountain bike the day before and after), so I didn't think this one would be too bad.  On paper, it looks reasonable: it's only 4.4 miles and 310 feet of gain from Rock Cut to Highest Lake.  You start at 12110 and end at 12420.  But between those elevations, you descend to around 10000 feet, and then have to go back up.  So about 1000 feet/mile of gain loss along the way.  And oh yeah, there's absolutely no trail.  And it's the thickest bushwhacking I've ever done.  And there is third and fourth class along the way.  It took me thirteen hours to go eleven miles.  I left just as the sun was rising and got back just as it was setting.  I saw some truly incredible things during the day.  My legs were sore for days afterwards.  No peaks were harmed on this day, and I didn't end up higher than 12420, but this was easily the hardest hike of the year, and of my life thus far.
Honorable mentions.
Favorite trail to have pre-dawn delusions on:
I am not sure what it is about the Lawn Lake trail, but it's gotten me twice this year.  Fortunately, the second time I had someone along to talk me back down to earth.  Even though I knew this was not reality, the first time I had managed to convince myself that I had crashed my car on the way up and was lying dead in a ditch, and I was in some sort of torturous limbo where I'd be stuck hiking the same trail by headlamp for eternity.  At the same time, I knew this did not happen and I was there.  But hours of this train of thought didn't prove tremendously healthy.  In the end, the sun came up and proved me wrong.  It sounds like a lot of people who engage in some sort of endurance sport occasionally face delusions or hallucinations. 
Favorite waterfall:
You won't see it named on any map, but Liberty Falls is the exit from Arrowhead Lake.  I went by this waterfall on the way when I was doing the Gorge Lakes.  Several amazing things happened this day.
A friend of mine died of cancer on July 22, 2010, and I've made a point to do something fun in her memory on or around this date every year.  This was the day.  I took a few minutes to remember her at Highest Lake.  When I was back down at Inkwell Lake, I looked up and saw something I'd never seen before: an iridescent cloud, all of the colors of the rainbow captured in a cloud.  I looked it up later and found out this is actually a somewhat common weather phenomenon, but in 33 years I'd yet to see one until this day.  Later I passed by the waterfall exit from Arrowhead Lake and decided it was impressive enough to be named.  In honor of this incredible and incredibly strong person, an inspiration to me and many others, I named this waterfall.
Total estimated mileage hiked in 2013:
422.7 miles.
Total estimated elevation gained while hiking in 2013:
113,293 feet=21. miles.
Number of new destinations obtained in RMNP in 2013:
Number of new destinations obtained outside of RMNP in 2013:
Best photos of 2013 as chosen by an esteemed panel of judges:
 The reflective, beautiful, and secluded Lake Powell.
 A cloud hangs in the air as the summit of Apache Peak is neared.
 Silhouette in the early morning en route to the Arrowhead.
 The depth of Ypsilon Mountain as seen from Chiquita's east ridge. 
 Down one of Ypsilon's Y couloirs to Spectacle Lakes.
 A friend in the shot for perspective as we descend from Gabletop in the Tourmaline Gorge.
 Soft light and a delicate moment en route to Lake Haiyaha.
The spectacular Gorge Range as seen ascending Keller Mountain.  "This photo truly exemplifies the Rocky Mountains," said one of the judges.
 Looking up into the valley on descent from Quandary Peak.
 Approaching the Keyhole en route to Storm Peak.
Wind sculpted clouds looking south from Bighorn Mountain.
Thank you for reading!  I certainly hope to meet you out on the trail in 2014!

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