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. 

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