Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Stones Peak, Stapps Peak, and Sprague Mountain.

Last week I was so close yet so far away.  I ended up turning back less than 700 feet from the summit of Stones Peak, so it was at the top of my list for a return trip.  This week my parents were in town and staying in Estes, so that gave me the opportunity to get up a little earlier (though I stayed up later and didn't sleep well).  Storms were forecast starting at one in the afternoon, but I felt sure I could move fast enough to be up and back below treeline by then.
My new camera was along, and I had the opportunity to play with it a bit.
Shot at Bear Lake in complete darkness.  Obviously I will need a tripod to take photos at night, but with the ability to have up to a 60 minute exposure, it is good to know that is an option.
It also captured sunrise quite well.
Longs and Thatchtop in the early morning.
I was above treeline for true sunrise.  Not bad.
Last week I felt great though the weather wasn't the best.  This week I hadn't been as active as the previous, and I felt like I was dragging a bit, though it ended up taking me only two hours and ten minutes to summit Flattop from Bear Lake.
Goals for the day- behind Gabletop find Stones Peak to the left, and the unranked and unoffically named Stapps Peak on the right.  They looked far, far away.
Longs behind Hallett.
Around the time I summitted Flattop, I heard some voices.  I looked to the south and lo and behold three people had beaten me up and were on their way to Hallett.  Click to zoom in and you can actually see them above and to the right of the snowfield.
North along the divide.  The tundra has remained green this summer since it's been pretty wet. 
Snowdrift Peak and Snowdrift Lake.
I continued around point 12277 before leaving the trail and heading towards Sprague Pass. 
Here I stumbled apon the skeletal remains of an elk.  They must've been fairly recent since the connective tissue between the vertebrae was all still intact.  This marks only the third time I have seen anything up here, kind of surprising considering how much off trail time I have!
Stones Peak was now looming large.  The clouds had yet to clear up but things were not looking threatening at all, only overcast.
Looking south along the divide to a whole lot of awesome memories. 
Above Rainbow Lake.
I made my way toward the summit of Sprague Mountain.  I should have looked at my topo, because they are very close in height, but the true summit is actually attached to the divide, not the high point slightly to the east.
Hayden Spire over Lonesome Lake.  These are even more in the middle of nowhere than Stones is.  Hopefully this year...
I started over second class terrain on the rocky ridge between Sprague and Stones.  If you want a little spice you can go more directly at some of the small towers, but by the easiest way, this is solid second class, though the movement does take some time.  It took me about four hours to get to this point.
Though I didn't do it until the way back, I would suggest staying close to the ridge line for the easiest travel.  The rock seems to be pretty solid here, while there is looser talus farther down.  Staying to the south of any difficulties worked well.
It took me about another hour to get to the 12922 foot high summit of Stones, but there I was with blue skies!  The register was intact and I added my name.  I saw one person who said they'd climbed the peak via Hayden Gorge.  Impressive!  I would say this peak sees somewhere around 20 registered summits a year.  I would imagine Sprague Mountain sees at least that much, while Stapps Peak likely sees less because it certainly doesn't look like much from Stones. 
Looking east.
I now set my sights on the easy walk over to the Stapps Peak, if easy is loosing 400 feet and then regaining 200 of that.
The alpine sunflowers that I've enjoyed for much of the season are now starting to die off.
From Stapps, looking east to Tombstone Ridge.
Looking back to Stones from Stapps.  There was the small piece of wood there but not much else.
The summit cairn and Longs Peak.
Hayden Spire looked a little more ominous from this side, especially with some clouds building.  Time to get going.
It took me about 50 minutes to get back to Sprague Mountain from Stapps Peak.  The register here was wet, so I did not sign it.
Stones Peak as seen from Sprague Mountain.
A good view of Eureka Ditch.  I made my way downhill and when I met it, I stayed next to it for some time, finding the movement somewhat easier than going over tundra.  I could now see some very ominous looking clouds to the north and was moving as quickly as I could. 
Looking down into Ptarmigan Gorge with Odessa Lake, Lake Helene, Two Rivers Lake and Joe Mills Mountain.  This was a last minute bail out plan if things were looking bad.  But I felt I was close enough to the trail to get down quickly.
The North Inlet Trail and cool clouds. 
Clouds build over Hallett and Taylor.
A parting look at the peaks I'd just climbed before heading down.
There were a fairly large amount of people on Flattop, and I passed a ton of people on the way down since I was trying to jog/run some of it.  I felt a few raindrops as I got back to the parking lot, and it started to rain and thunder in earnest on the drive down.
Though I didn't feel great, I was still able to pull off 20ish miles and 6500 feet of elevation gain (a personal best) in only ten hours.  Though the maximum technical difficulty here is only second class, there is a ton of time spent above treeline and you have to have good weather predicted for the day.  While visible from large portions of the park, these peaks are not very accessible, with all approaches being long and requiring huge amounts of elevation gain, with lots of ups and downs on the way out and back.  While entirely worth it, getting to these places is a serious undertaking.
Stones Peak, Stapps Peak, and Sprague Mountain via Bear Lake th:
Stones Peak, 12922 feet: 9.8 miles one way, 3472 foot gain.  Second class.  Strenuous.
Stapps Peak, 12736 feet: 10.55 miles one way, 3286 foot gain.  Second class.  Strenuous.
Sprague Mountain, 12713 feet: 8.7 miles one way, 3263 foot gain.  Strenuous.
This hike as a whole will cover approximately 21 miles and gain 6500 feet of gross elevation.  Strenuous+.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Rainbow Lake, Irene Lake, Hourglass Lake, and Spruce Canyon.

Earlier this week I lie in bed one night thinking that there were probably only a good eight weeks of hiking left this year, maybe a few more if the weather holds.  After that, the snow will come and movement will become alot more difficult.  This thought was almost enough to make me quit my job and hike full time, and that is only partly a joke.  Eight weeks just doesn't seem like enough time.  There is still so much to do!
The weather this week looked great- a 20% chance of storms, and I planned to be above treeline all day.  My ultimate goal was Stones Peak and the lakes near it.  But of course, things don't always work out as planned and I got an unexpected tour of one of the most remote, wild, and rugged places in RMNP.
Sunrise from the Flattop trail.  Despite leaving the house at 4, it took me almost an hour and a half to get to the trail head since 36 was closed for construction.  On the way up, I could see the ground was wet in places, though I could see stars, so the clouds had moved on.
But as I gained altitude, I could see a bunch of clouds lingering on the divide.  Here they envelop Longs Peak and Thatchtop.  
This reminded me of my hike a few weeks ago, when I went into and through a layer of clouds.  Despite the predicted great weather, I began to wonder.  
I got into the clouds and visibility dropped to around 30 feet.  I could tell I was close to the summit when I saw the hitch rack.  And I could tell I was past it when I saw the sign for the Tonahutu Trail.  I knew I would leave this trail at some point, but since I had no visual references, I was left to estimate where I was and use a compass and topo to determine where I should go.  Oh, and it was cold.  The thermometer I have on the outside of my pack was hovering around 35 degrees.
Things cleared up slightly, and I was able to see the base of point 12277.  As I went around it, I left the trail and headed northwest over Bighorn Flats.  
Much to my surprise, I ran into a group of four headed the opposite direction.  
I was starting to see some blue skies here and there.
And could almost see Stones Peak poking through.
But it wasn't until I was very close to the rim of Spruce Canyon that this magnificent peak came into view.  While the maximum difficulty here was class two, this peak is right in the middle of no where.  I mapped two possible routes, one starting from Bear Lake, and one from Milner Pass.  Bear Lake is shorter by about two miles, but still has you cover almost ten miles each way, and easily 4000+ feet of elevation gain.  And the gain isn't just one way, as you need to make some gains on the way back as well.  In short, it is not easy to get to.
I first planned to hit the lakes between Sprague Mountain and Stones.  The recommended route has you ascend from Sprague Pass up to a point before Sprague Mountain and take a second class route down to Rainbow Lake.  I was looking at what lie in front of me and noticed the flat, wide, grassy ledge that lead around this, almost dead center in the photo above.  I decided this looked like a viable option to avoid some unnecessary gain and loss and going back up into the clouds.   
Eureka Ditch was dug to divert water that would normally flow west from Bighorn Flats east into Spruce Canyon.  RMNP was eventually able to secure the rights to this and filled it in, though a very visible scar remains.  
Spruce Canyon was beautiful and breathtaking from above.  Much like Forest Canyon, this is a truly wild place, with no trails at all.
My plan worked pretty well.  Things stayed at second class, and I was at Rainbow Lake in a very short time.  I love these alpine lakes.  And ones such as this that have no trail are very special.  I would guess yearly visitation is in the order of less than ten people.
Stones was looming.  I would take the south gully up from Hourglass Lake, which is the largest crack just left of center here.  It looked steep and loose.
I went to Irene Lake (confusingly there is also a Lake Irene on the west side of the park).  I've been having some trouble with my camera lately, and here it sprung up again.  Something is wrong with the focusing mechanism as you can tell.  It also isn't recognizing the orientation.  Though I held the camera horizontally to take this photo, it ended up oriented vertically.  I've had a good four years with this one and a new one is on the way.
From Irene Lake I made my way down a gully to Hourglass Lake, which lies slightly below treeline.  Careful route selection from above helped me to avoid any bushwhacking. 
I stopped and ate pretty heavily here.  The weather was looking good to the east, but not great to the west from what I could see.  But still, I had a bail out plan if things looked bad: Spruce Canyon.
Over Hourglass Lake.  In the end, I blazed up the gully.  You'll gain nearly 1700 feet over six tenths a mile to get to Stones Peak.  I about half an hour I was just below 12300 feet when I was able to get a good view to the west.  Things looked bad- big thunderheads, grey clouds, and I was sure I heard thunder.  I was faced with a tough decision.  My mind told me there was only a 20% chance of storms, but my instinct was that I should get down and quickly at that.  In the end I made the tough decision and turned back though I was only 600+ feet below the summit.  I jokingly thought I'd almost rather get struck by lightning than descend into Spruce Canyon, because I knew it was going to be rough. 
Going back down the gully was just as much a challenge as going up.  The talus is all loose and will shift under your feet.  Stay on grass as much as possibly or on the more solid rock on the sides.
I made it back to Hourglass Lake, and was around it when I looked up.  Clear blue skies.  In fact I never heard thunder again, nor did it rain.  That is kind of frustrating.  But I made a decision based on my experience.  In every other case when I've seen the sky looking like that, it's been storming within half an hour.  On this day, it fell apart.  
I saw this Krumholtz which made me think of a car hood ornament.  I also spied a few Bighorn.
Down into the canyon I went.  While the bushwhacking was a little less intense than in Forest Canyon, the terrain was marshier and had the additional fun of house sized blocks of talus ala Chaos Canyon to move over and around.  In fact, this could be a beautiful place to climb.  But the approach...  
In Spruce Canyon.  The goal was to follow Spruce Creek down to a point where I was east of Castle Rock and then contour around that to Spruce Lake, pick up the trail there, take it back up past Odessa Lake to arrive back at Bear Lake.
I saw a single cairn as I made my way up and around Castle Rock.  It is funny seeing those singles out in the middle of nowhere.  They never seem to be marking anything.  Are they more of a I was here than a trail marker?
Spruce Lake came and went.  I saw a few people camping there.  Then down to Fern Lake.  I had never hiked the section of trail between Fern and Odessa Lakes.
It is pretty, and does provide some great views of blurry Notchtop.  I saw two people on the far side of Fern Lake, but that was it until I got back to Bear Lake.  It took me 12.5 hours.  Along the way, I estimated that if I'd just continued on as planned, I could have been back in as little as nine hours.  And the weather would have been fine!  But in the end, I know I made the right decision, and I am anxiously awaiting a return to Stones Peak!  At least I will have less up and down without having to visit these lakes, though I must get down to Sprague Glacier and the unofficially named Sprague Tarn.
This was a pretty big day, though some of that came from the bailout route.  Even if I'd been able to stay up above treeline as planned, I would still have had some elevation gain on the way back.  Forward movement in Spruce Canyon is quite difficult, and of course there is no trail to any of these alpine lakes.  If you can stay above treeline, things aren't too bad in the big scheme of things, but with the only bail route being as it is, wait for a perfect weather day to attempt this.
Rainbow Lake, Irene Lake, Hourglass Lake, and Spruce Canyon:
Bighorn Flats: 6.8 miles each way, 2450 foot gain.  Strenuous-.
Eureka Ditch: 6.8 miles each way, 2450 foot gain.  Strenuous-.
Sprague Pass: 7.5 miles each way, 2258 foot gain.  Strenuous-.
Rainbow Lake: 8.5 miles each way, 2290 foot gain.  Second class.  Strenuous-.
Irene Lake: 8.4 miles each way, 2410 foot gain.  Second class.  Strenuous.
Hourglass Lake: 9.1 miles each way, 1770 foot gain.  Second class.  Strenuous.
Spruce Canyon: If you want to go here, start at Fern Lake th.  Hike up toward Fern Falls, and when the trail makes a sharp switchback the the left (when looking at the topo, the last switch back before you hit the falls), look for a social trail that continues straight up along the creek.  I imagine this dissipates at some point, as I did not see any sign of a trail besides for the single cairn.  Prepare yourself for lots of thick bushwhacking, man eating mosquitoes, and terrain that ranges from marsh to large talus.  Good luck to you!
As a whole, this hike covered an estimated 16.4 miles with 5750 feet of gross elevation gain. 
Note that when done from Bear Lake, any of the destinations listed above will have you do elevation gain in both directions, hence your gross total will be much larger and the numbers listed here may not tell the truth to the true difficulty.