Thursday, December 5, 2013

Sheep Mountain and Balanced Rock via Lumpy Ridge.

Planning an outing this week was a little tricky.  The storm was set to roll in on Tuesday.  In checking various possible destinations, I found the more to the north east and closer I was to Estes, the later the storm warning was set to start.  While I actually really enjoy hiking in snow, I knew I did not want to drive back down 36 in it, nor did I want to be around to deal with the increasingly bad avalanche conditions that would become a factor as the snow continued throughout the day.  
All things considered, I set my alarm for 4 am yet again.  An early start would likely get me all the way back home before the storm warning even started in Estes.  Sheep Mountain looked to be a fun destination- something that would certain take some effort to get to (especially from Lumpy Ridge TH vs. the still closed Cow Creek TH, where it is normally climbed from), while still being somewhat close and providing the sense of wilderness that I desire. 
I was at the trail head and ready to go by 530am.  Things had yet to cool down, and the temps were just over freezing.  After a few starts and stops to adjust clothing, I was motoring up the trail.  So much so I was surprised when I arrived at Gem Lake in what seemed to be no time at all. 
Getting to see Estes laid out in the darkness below me.  An abstraction, a handful of gems glittering in the valley.
I wasn't expecting to see much if any sun during the day, but after I passed Gem Lake, I started to see some pink on the horizon, and as it rose I actually had some blue skies.
The sun rises on another fun day in Rocky Mountain National Park.
I descended towards the Cow Creek trail, and took the split for Balanced Rock.  A number of people had been on the trail before me and it was fairly well delineated before the storm.
Balanced Rock.  I stopped for a snack here.
Back on the trail, I made my way down to Cow Creek.  I think I read the bridge here had been damaged, but there was a nice new one in place.  The trail on the other side was gone, with cairns marking the way forward.
Blue skies poking through.
Sheep Mountain as seen from the trail.  I would take the SE couloir route- the heavily treed gully to the right of the most prominent rock face in this photo.
This is what things looked like.  I could see there was a landslide originating on the south side of Sheep Mountain.  You can see it in the photo above, just slightly left of and below center.  It is just astounding to see this kind of destruction.
The couloir was pretty brushy and steep, but relatively free of snow.  As others have advised, I would stay to the right or east side of it for easier going.  It was pretty neat to see the storm move and and peaks disappear.
After what feels like forever, the grade starts to soften.  Of course I didn't do the math before hand, but from the low point at Cow Creek, you gain around 1700 feet to the summit over maybe .8 a mile.  It took me about an hour and a half to cover this ground.
I've read others having problems locating the true summit.  I felt it was relatively easy.  It is a broad rounded hump, so I headed north east from the top of the couloir, just focusing on what looked like higher ground.  I came to it in short time.
Summit cairn.  Sheep Mountain is the highest 9er in the park at 9794 feet, and one of three named 9ers with Steep Mountain and Emerald Mountain.  Despite this lofty status, it probably doesn't see much traffic.
Going back down the couloir was just as bushwhacky as going up.  This time I stayed on the east side until I actually hit the landslide area, then crossed that and followed it down.

Seeing boulders five feet or larger around just tossed like they were nothing.
A few trees still standing.
But this one, which was 2.5 feet thick, has met it's end.
I thought about doing the Lumpy Ridge loop, but at this point, the snow was starting in earnest, and I didn't want to take the additional time.
So, it was across Cow Creek, and back the way I'd come.  
 Here is a close up on the top of the landslide from the Gem Lake trail. 
And the snow wiped out Dark Mountain from view, while making Sheep Mountain look hazy.
Back at Gem Lake I ran into the first group I'd see that day.  
The trail offers great views down to Estes and again it was neat to see the clouds swallow the familiar peaks. 
I got back to the truck at 1, to find the temperature in the parking lot had not budged.  Snow had yet to really start sticking to anything, though the road was a little wet but in fine shape otherwise on the way down.  In short, the plan to get out and completely avoid the weather worked perfectly.
Balanced Rock is neat to see, but it is something I'd take out of town guests to?  Probably not.  Despite the proximity to the trail Sheep Mountain does offer a fairly good challenge, and rare for many of the peaks in the park, from the top you can not see a single sign of humanity, save for the cairn!
Sheep Mountain and Balanced Rock via Lumpy Ridge:
Balanced Rock, 8863 feet: 4.2 miles one way, 1011 foot gain.  Moderate.
Sheep Mountain, 9794 feet: 4.7ish miles one way, 1942 foot gain.  Second class.  Strenuous-.
Along the way:
Gem Lake, 8820 feet: 1.7 miles one way, 968 foot gain.  Moderate-.
In total, you'll do about 3400 feet of gain over a round trip of 9 miles or so to get to Sheep Mountain from Lumpy Ridge and back.  Not a bad day!

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