Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Snowdrift Peak and its lakes.

The last time I'd attempted this peak was with my friend Dan and it was nearly winter.  It was the first of many times I'd go on to summit Flattop, and I think my hands were totally numb for at least a good three hours that day.  It was cold and windy.  And cold.  Did I mention windy?  I was freezing.
Despite the discomfort, we did actually make it most of the way there.  But upon unnecessarily topping out point 12277, we sat for lunch, talked, and found on that day neither of us had the motivation to go farther.  Back to the car it was...
A year and a half later I was looking for something to do that wouldn't require a super long drive.  Snowdrift Peak!  And, to make a day of it, I could hit all the lakes around it.  And with it being July second and all, I didn't think I'd have to worry about it being too cold.  Or windy.  But you never know.
I set out early and could see low clouds the whole drive up and at the trail head.  I wondered how the predicted nice weather would turn out. 
Along the Flattop trail, grey and blue peaks in the early morning.
The bottom of a cloud engulfs the east ridge of Otis and Hallett.
I worked my way up into the mist.  Visibility dropped to 50 yards.  How would I ever be able to find my way to anything in this?
Flattop is up there somewhere.
As I gained in elevation, things grew otherworldly.  A trail to nowhere. 
I thought of the Stephen King short story "The Mist".
And then I saw a glimmer of hope.
Some blue skies poking through gave way to bright sunshine and very soon I was above the clouds. 
Literally.  And I could not get enough of one of the single most spectacular things I have ever seen in my entire life.
It was so beautiful to see some of the high peaks just poking out, like islands in the water.  It was surreal to look back east and see nothing at all but an ocean of clouds.
Deer and Notchtop float above the clouds.
A trail to the clouds.
The Mummy Range pokes out.
Little Matterhorn and the Gable.
I topped out Flattop, and was greeted by my first view of my highest but not furthest destination of the day.  And it lived up to the name, with snow swathing the peak. 
I walked by Ptarmigan Glacier and saw the clouds filling it up part of the way.  But this would not be the last of the great sights of the day.
I made my way towards Ptarmigan Lake.  After a little confusion over where to drop down, I found the correct place.  Simply head towards point 12277 and turn left before you get there.  It is almost directly west of Ptarmigan Point.
I made my way down some grassy slopes and stable talus.  There was a north facing snowfield that couldn't be avoided which I glissaded.  Much to the chagrin of my butt, since it was still very hard and I was sore for a few days afterwards!
At Ptarmigan Lake, which was still very much ice and snow covered.
Looking back up.  A pretty neat place to be.
Now came the next challenge: I had to loose elevation and traverse over to the basin holding Snowdrift and Wonderland lakes, but I didn't want to loose too much.  This led me to take a rather adventurous way down, which involved bushwhacking, climbing on wet talus and rock, and was basically a pain in the butt.  Not literally this time.  I would recommend to follow the drainage down from Ptarmigan Lake to the unnamed pond below it, and then start to work your way west as you can.  That would certainly be easier than what I did, which was to stay as close as possible to the rock face on the western side of the lake. 
Though of course I did get up close and personal with this pretty spectacular unnamed waterfall.  Ptarmigan Falls seems an appropriate name.
Once I was past the bushwhacky and wet rock stuff, I stopped for a snack break.  This was my view.  Not bad at all!  From here around to the basin, I would recommend staying close to that cliff face I advised to not stay close to above.  The talus here was again mostly stable.  There is a closed contour loop on the USGS topo, and I suggest staying between that and the cliff face to get to the small pond south of Wonderland Lake. 
From this pond, continue up into the basin and start to work your way west as you can to get to Snowdrift Lake.
I came to the lake pretty quickly.  Here it is, like many of the high alpine lakes still topped with ice.
From here I reversed direction and headed back to Wonderland Lake.
Above Wonderland Lake.  I guess I should have expected it, but the snow ramp to the left was my planned ascent route back up to the saddle, and I didn't have crampons.  I suppose I could've just went for it, as it was likely soft enough, but I decided to play it safe and stick to the scree gullies to the right of the ramp.
Here is another view which gives a better look at the gullies on the right.  The snow was entirely avoidable except for a brief crossing.
Above Wonderland Lake.
In the saddle between Snowdrift Peak and point 12277, I headed toward the peak.  This was on large and very stable talus.  It is not necessary to top out the first high point you come to. 
Almost there and I was feeling the excitement!  This was going to be my 222nd named destination in RMNP, which means I was about to be halfway done with my goal of hiking to every named destination in the park.
Snowdrift Lake from above.
And there I was.  Destination 222.  I am now fifty percent done with the park!
The clouds near Longs were starting to look threatening, but I decided to continue on.  Moving quickly now, I passed over the high point of Snowdrift Peak and then descended a grassy slope until I hit snow, and then pulled off a short glissade.  I found myself at a place where I faced a steep talus slope down climb to Murphy Lake, and decided to go for it.  I planned to come back up the same way.
I made it down to the lake, but the slope was so unstable that I decided going back up was not an option.  After another snack break, it was time to get going.  I contoured east from the lake, at first picking my way through huge boulders, and then moving over smaller talus, grass, marsh, and snow.  Once I saw point 12277, I aimed myself to the south side of it.
In the end, this might not have been the best option.  There were still a few steep snow fields here which had me gain some elevation that I didn't intend to. Going over directly or making contouring around on the north side might have worked out better.
Farther away...
I was pretty impressed when I made it from Snowdrift Peak to Flattop in a little over two hours.  It is only 3.5 miles or so, but that is definitely not on the best and smoothest of terrain.  I'd been thinking about possibly descending Chaotic Glacier, but reading the description of 50-60 degrees of steepness made me think twice.  I went and checked out Tyndall Glacier to find it has shrunk significantly, and that decided it for me.  The trail it was.  Since I'd run out of water, I did take some of the glacier with me to rehydrate.   
Back at the trail intersection.  Check it out in winter here.  I was thinking on the way down, and I think this was the first time I'd been up the Flattop trail in a season other than winter (or in anything other than winter conditions at least).
There were a fair amount of people on top of Flattop and Hallett, and I passed a few on my way back down.  But otherwise, it was an uneventful walk back to Bear Lake (which was teeming with people).  Route 7 is still the preferred route to get back to Lyons.  I remain hopeful that the work on 36 will be completed ahead of schedule, as the lower section is now completely repaved, while the higher section between Pinewood Springs and Big Elk Meadows is still dirt.
This was a pretty awesome day.  From the clouds in the morning, to the absolute silence and solitude of most of the hike, every second of this day was a joy.  The real difficulty in obtaining any of these destinations lies in that they are so far from any trail head and a good portion of your day will be spent above treeline.  Even taking the short way as I did from Bear Lake will give you 8.3 miles each way, while the western accesses add 2-3 miles to that.  This of course necessitates a very early start in the summer, or a day predicted to be free of storms.
Going from Ptarmigan Lake to Snowbank Lake was the section of the hike that took the most time relative to the distance covered.  Obviously there is alot of bushwhacking, talus hopping, and route finding that slows things down dramatically there.  But these lakes are true jewels, and I have to imagine not visited all that often due to their proximity to nothing.  Ptarmigan Lake is probably the 'easiest' of the four since it is the closest to Flattop.  It is certainly worth a visit.
Snowdrift Peak and its lakes (all distances given from Bear Lake th):

Flattop Mountain, 12324 feet: 4.4 miles each way, 2874 foot gain.  Moderate+.
Ptarmigan Lake, 11460 feet: 5.9 miles each way, 2010 foot gain*.  Strenuous-.
Snowdrift Lake, 11060 feet: 7.6 miles each way, 1610 foot gain*.  Strenuous-.
Wonderland Lake, 11060 feet: 7.8 miles each way, 1610 foot gain*.  Strenuous-.
Snowdrift Peak, 12274 feet: 8.3 miles each way, 2824 foot gain*.  Second class.  Strenuous-.
Murphy Lake, 11220 feet: 8.3 miles each way, 1770 foot gain*.  Strenuous-.
This hike as a whole: 17 miles round trip, 6054 foot gross gain.  Up to third class.  Strenuous.
*= Of course, once you top out Flattop at 12324 feet, you will need to loose elevation to drop to these destinations and then regain that on the way back.  The gross elevation gain will therefore be significantly higher than the absolute gain, which is given here. 


  1. I know this post is a few years old now but if you happen to see this comment I've got a question about Murphy Lake. I'm tasked with doing some sampling of randomly selected lakes this summer, Murphy Lake is one of them, I wonder if you think there are any routes from the Tonahutu Creek Trail up to Murphy Lake that stock animals could pass? We'd have to haul all our sampling gear in and out plus samples. Thanks! -David

    1. To my knowledge, there is not. You may be able to leave your animals at one of the Haynatch Lake campsites and make the remainder of the trip on foot. It's sure to be bushwhacky, but that's probably about the closest you could get. I am pretty sure stock are allowed up that far, but would check with RMNP to make 100% sure. Best of luck, it is a beautiful area!-Andy