Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Ni-chebe-chii Part 1

I've gone back and forth- should I name this post Ni-chebe-chii or Never Summer Mountains?  After all, Mount McKinley is now referred to as Denali by most if not all of the mountaineering community.  
In 1914,  members of the Arapahoe tribe were brought into the area on a CMC sponsored trip to find out what their native names were for various peaks and features.  They referred to this range as Ni-chebe-chii, literally never no summer.  Locals then decided to call this range the Never Summer Mountains.  It is easy to see why.  On the western border of RMNP, this range is likely to see snow before the eastern mountains, and it seems it is likely to stick around longer.  I've spent the past two weeks here, and found plenty of snow fields that have persisted throughout the summer, seeming more than in other areas of the park.
The rock here is younger than most of the other ranges in the park, and you will notice a distinct difference in most of the peaks.  While they were formed by glacial activity, they are still very much eroding, and there is a whole, whole lot of loose and rotten rock in the area.  With that in mind, it would be a very good idea to wear a helmet even if you are by yourself.  I have heard a ton of rockfall on my days here, apparently initiated by nothing at all.  
The plan for this day was to start from the Colorado River Th, head up the Red Mountain trail to the Grand Ditch, take that north to Hitchens Gulch, and then visit Lake of the Clouds, Mount Cirrus, possibly Hart Ridge, Howard Mountain, Mount Cumulus, Mount Nimbus, Mount Stratus, Baker Mountain, Green Knoll, and then Red Mountain and back down.  Ambitious?  Yes!
I started in the dark, leaving the car at the trail head at exactly 522 am.  The night before I realized it had been a year since I changed the batteries in my headlamp and did so.  That was definitely a good idea. 
Day came at some point.  The Red Mountain trail seems to be a mix of relatively steep for the first few miles and then pretty flat for what may be the worlds longest switchback.  Or at least it feels that way.  Look at it on a topo and you'll see what I mean. 
But I made it to the top and joined the Grand Ditch road.  This is an interesting piece of engineering.  It is a 14.3 mile long water diversion project that was built between 1890 and 1936.  The purpose was to catch some of the runoff that would normally flow west and divert it east through La Poudre pass.  It feeds into the Cache la Poudre River, and if you live downstream along that, you see some effect from this ditch way up in the mountains.  It is estimated that 25-40 percent of the runoff is diverted.
Mount Nimbus in the early morning sun.  You can already see how the peaks here are softly rounded with little vegetation or tundra.  A sign of things to come!
In Hitchens Gulch, you will pass by the ruins of several structures that once provided a place to live for miners.  In fact, there was a small settlement called Dutchtown in the area, hence the name of the NPS campsites and the river.
Never Summer Peak and Lead Mountain (background).  It was a beautiful day and I was already running behind my time estimate. 
You may reach a point where the trail just ends.  Cross the small creek on your left and it will resume on that side.  There are alot of splits and little offshoots.  I would say just take what seems to be going in the general direction that you want to go.  As I reached treeline, the trail hit rock and became indistinct, but by then I could see exactly where I was going. 
I found myself below Lake of the Clouds.  It is hard to tell, but there is a small exit waterfall.  Stay to the right of that on the pretty stable large talus slope.  Mount Cirrus is the peak pictured here.
At Lake of the Clouds.  So named because of its altitude of 11430 feet?  Or named because many of the peaks in the area are named after cloud types? 
I stopped for a snack and started to work my way around and up.  The plan was to reach the saddle between Howard Mountain and Mount Cirrus and head north.  I kept thinking maybe I could just head directly up Mount Cirrus, as it looked entirely possibly, but in the sake of exploration, I did not.
In the end it may have been better to do so, as I found steep snow fields blocking the way up the described route.  Some improvising was in order to avoid the snow.  Here I got my first real taste of the unstable and loose nature of the rock in the area.  I found myself on what amounted to a slope of pea gravel, where ever step forward ended up with sliding about half a step back.  I reached some more solid rock, only to kick pieces off as I moved up.  I learned early to really test any hand or footholds I was using.  This scramble was third class and loose.
But I finally made it up to the saddle.  From here it was just a short loose jaunt up to the summit of Mount Cirrus.  As I came to discover later in the day, this was about the most stable area of the whole traverse, so enjoy it.  I actually made pretty good time here.
Impressive clouds on this day.
At the top of Mount Cirrus, looking north to Hart Ridge, Lead Mountain, and others.  I was running behind schedule by a whole lot, so I decided to forgo Hart Ridge on this day.
Looking down to Lake of the Clouds.
Howard Mountain is the second highpoint south here, and you can see Cumulus and Nimbus farther in the background.  From here on out, it was a game of trying to loose as little elevation as possible yet to pick a safe way. 
Back in the saddle between Cirrus and Howard.  In this whole range there are a series of very large cairns.  I am not entirely sure what they are marking, but they did make for some interesting photographs as the day progressed. 
See?  I was almost at the summit of Howard Mountain. 
Looking east from Howard Mountain.
And south to Cumulus.  As you can probably guess just by looking at that photo, this portion of the day proved to be the most challenging.  The topo also doesn't tell the full story as there was alot of up and down upon reaching a undownclimbable section of ridge crest or something too loose to trust.  I often found myself doing down small gullies to avoid something, only to go back up shortly after to avoid something else. 
Another one of those huge cairns. 
It was in one of those small gullies that I put my right foot on a torso sized piece of rock on the other side only to have to move and tumble down.  It surely would have seriously injured anyone below. 
I finally reached the last little plateau.  Here I was able to stay directly on the ridge crest on mostly stable talus.
At last I was there! 
Looking south to Mount Nimbus.  Again, there was some loss and regain, but the going felt a bit easier here.
Back up to Cumulus.
Somewhere along this ridge I stumbled across this marker.  It seemed to be in the middle of nowhere.
Several small ponds in the drainage between Cumulus and Nimbus.
Some interesting rock on the west side of Nimbus.
One of the small high points along the ridge. 
Almost there....
Finally!  Again I took a snack break and did some calculations.  it was late in the day, and going all the way out to Green Knoll and back wasn't in the cards.  I still thought about going to Baker and back, but at the speed I was going, that would have me come down Red Mountain in the dark, and I did not want to do that.  In the end, I just decided to leave all the peaks there for another day.  Going back for a grouping of three seemed more reasonable than just one.
But I did take a few reconnaissance photos!
Looking out to Red Mountain.  From what I could see, the traverse looked like pretty stable tundra at first, then a section of rock, and then the final approach to the summit on talus.
Cutest summit register ever?  On Mount Nimbus.  I saw it right as I was about to leave and moved it to a hopefully more visible location near the top of the cairn. 
Nimbus back lit and cloudy.
I reached the rocky section and tried to stay on the ridge crest.  My very first attempt had me kick and pull fist sized chunks of rock off.  So yeah.  More loss and gain.
Finally I made it through the difficulties and to the last easy walk up to the summit of Red Mountain. 
I took this photo looking back north and west.  The peaks here really are just slowly disintegrating slag heaps. 
The true summit of Red Mountain is the small high point to the east, pictured here. 
I am not going to go into the route I took back down to Grand Ditch.  I think it was too steep and loose to be a safe choice.  I would suggest just heading east- if you look at my photo above, you will see an area where it looks like an avalanche took out alot of the trees.  Finding this and staying in it would probably be the best option to avoid bushwhacking down this hill.
I was back at the Grand Ditch where it was still just a big pipe. 
I came down this side of of Red Mountain.  Not recommended! 
I made it back to the Red Mountain trail just as the sunlight was fading.  The headlamp came back out, as did the haunting and nebulous calls of Elk bugling in the night.  Of course it was around this time that I started thinking about horror movies... 
I made it back to the Colorado River.  It is only a few miles from here that it starts and begins the 1450 mile journey to the Gulf of California. 
The sign in the night.
I was excited to finally be close to the car.  I stopped a few times and turned my headlamp off to gaze at the night sky.  Right around the time the trail rejoined the La Poudre Pass trail, I heard a bugle very close to me.  I looked to my left and saw several pairs of eyes glowing in the night.   
Safely back at the car, I was trying to guess what time it was.  As I was getting my stuff off, I set my camera for a 60 second exposure and pointed it up.  This was the view. 
It was 847pm.  This gave me an almost 15.5 hour day, a personal best (or worst) in longevity.  And there was the almost two hour drive back home.  Fortunately, I did not encounter much traffic, and found myself in bed right around midnight. 
On paper, the numbers don't look too crazy- 17ish miles and 6000 or so feet of elevation gain.  It is the terrain that makes movement so difficult here.  Everything is loose, and when down or upclimbing, you have to test every single hand and foot hold before you commit your weight to them. This of course, takes some time.  But better to be safe than sorry!
Ni-chebe-chii Part 1 (distances as part of the hike):
Lake of the Clouds, 11430 feet: 6.6 miles one way, 2390 foot gain.  Strenuous-.
Mount Cirrus, 12797 feet: 7.4 miles one way, 3757 foot gain.  Up to third class.  Strenuous.
Howard Mountain, 12810 feet: 8.1 miles one way, 3770 foot gain.  Strenuous.
Mount Cumulus, 12725 feet: 9.3 miles one way, 3685 foot gain.  Strenuous.
Mount Nimbus, 12706 feet: 10.3 miles one way, 3666 foot gain.  Strenuous.
Red Mountain, 11605 feet: 11.7 miles one way, 2565 foot gain.  Strenuous.  
As a whole, this hike covers 17 miles and a bit over 6000 feet of gain with up to third class movement.  Strenuous+.

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