Sunday, November 16, 2014

Stormy Peaks and the North Fork Basin.

The true story of this day started with a heinous act.  A vehicle caught up to me at the one way red light shortly after Glen Haven proper, and when it turned left behind me on to Dunraven Glade Road, I thought I might be meeting up with another hiker at the trail head.  
I gained a little bit of distance up the road, and within one hundred feet of the parking, I spied a very large bull Elk about 25 feet off the road on the left.  He of course froze in my headlights, like these animals are prone to do.  It was a pretty magnificent example of the species- huge in stature, with large antlers, and certainly in the prime of his life.  What a neat encounter to start the day.
I got to the empty parking lot, pulled into the spot I favor, and turned the car off.  I then heard the unmistakable and loud sound of a single rifle shot fired in close proximity to me.  I looked back and saw the truck turn it's headlights back on and then pull into the parking and do a uturn, turn off their lights, and sit with the engine running. 
I couldn't get cell phone service, and to be frank, I was scared.  Here I was unarmed with someone who obviously was, who brazenly committed a crime knowing I was right there as a witness.  I sat and watched them for a bit, as I imagine they did me.  I decided the best thing to do was to just get on with it, and contact the proper authorities when I could. 
I guess the good news is that after speaking with an officer at the law enforcement branch of Colorado Parks and Wildlife, my somewhat vague description of the vehicle immediately yielded a suspect.  I am not sure what will happen with this case, but a good lesson learned: if you ever see someone violate wilderness rules and feel comfortable, approach them and say something.  If not (as I didn't), report it as soon as you can with as much detail as possible.  Even the smallest details can yield results. 
My heart was already beating hard and I'd yet to leave the car!  
The flood pretty much wiped the North Fork Trail from existence.  Alot of work this summer has put in a new trail that is 20-50 feet higher uphill than the previous iteration which ran directly next to the river for the most part.  Pass through the white gate at the trail head and start up a steep road to Camp Cheley.  Pass though the camp entrance, taking care to follow the signs and be respectful of the owners of this private property.  You'll loose some elevation before meeting the trail on the other side of the camp. 
The trail is built to fly on.  With very little in the way of steep sections and not much total elevation gain, the first 5-6 miles go by fairly quickly. 
Sunlight hits Mount Dickinson.
I was interested to see how long it would take me to hit the Stormy Peaks Trail.  I'd hiked here earlier in the year via the North Boundary Trail starting at Cow Creek, and thought that could be a possibility to access the peaks above.  But it took me five hours just to get to this intersection, which meant I'd be looking at a loooooong day.
But it only took me three hours from the Dunraven TH.  So that wasn't too bad.  The trail gradually steepens after the intersection with the North Boundary Trail.  The topo doesn't really show it, but there are a ton of switchbacks as you head up rather steeply from here.  Consider that over the 6.5 miles or so it takes to get to this point, you gain about 2000 feet.  Now consider that over the next 2 miles, you gain 2000 more.  
But the work brings some increasingly good views into the basin.
Mummy Mountain, Mount Dunraven, Hagues Peak, Gibraltar Mountain.
And by the way, if you happen to be looking for a kick ass campsite in RMNP with great views, look no farther than Stormy Peaks South.  Pretty awesome!
I spied Stormy Peaks East from the trail, and decided to head toward it once I got past treeline.
As I gained altitude on the trail, snow started to become a factor.  It isn't quite snowshoe time, but it will be soon. 
Back east to peaks and valleys and life on the plains.
Up and up I went, and very soon I was standing on top of Stormy Peaks East. 
Looking toward Pennock Peak, Signal Mountain, and South Signal Mountain.
And west to Stormy Peaks' true high point on the right, and Sugarloaf Mountain center.
It was getting cold, though the wind didn't seem as high as predicted thankfully. 
A great view from Stormy Peaks.  Hagues Peak, Gibraltar Mountain, Rowe Peak, Middle No Name, Rowe Mountain, and Little No Name all visible l-r.  Four of those are 13ers, and I climbed them all the in the same day with Dan.
It is hard to pick out, but the long declining slope in the middle ground is the way down from Sugarloaf Mountain to Ramsey Peak.
Looking back at Stormy Peaks East.
As I dropped down to Stormy Peaks Pass, I spied a lone Bighorn, who was quite content to keep some distance between us.  Fine by me.  After not seeing any of these for years, I finally made up for that in a big way this year. 
Back to Stormy Peaks from west of the pass.
The journey up to Sugarloaf Mountain is pretty easy, covering about 1.75 miles and 400 feet of elevation gain on tundra. 
Middle, Gibraltar, Rowe, and Rowe.  Of interest, I noted what looked like a possible small avalanche on the snowfield below Rowe Mountain. 
There is a small cairn on Sugarloaf to mark the high point.  It is so broad it might be hard to find otherwise.  I looked west to Skull Point, though it was not the closest point to me.  There was definitely more snow now, and a bunch had been deposited on the north face of Sugarloaf Mountain.  This made going slow, and I thought about just skipping Ramsey Peak.  The only thing that convinced me to go for it was knowing that I'd have to come all the way back here just to summit it.
I got to the saddle between Ramsey Peak and Sugarloaf.  I decided the east side looked like the highest point, but from there it looked like the west side was higher.  From there it looked like the east side was higher.  To spare you the indecision, the east side is the true high point. 
And it provided good views of the drainage to the west of Stormy Peaks, pictured here.
Now it was all up to the legs and lungs and heart, as 500 feet or so of elevation gain would be needed to get me back up to Skull Point.  I ended up doing a contouring ascent, heading west as I gained, as I did not need to go back to Sugarloaf Mountain. 
And then I was close.  Travel slowed to a crawl as I had to use my poles to probe the snow with every step.  Was it solid ground beneath or an ankle or leg snapping hole in the talus?
After summitting Skull Point, I headed down to Icefield Pass.  This was my planned descent route, though I guess I should've known better.  In addition to the steep ice fields (yes, it's not just a name!), wind blown snow had created some treacherous looking conditions.  The slope looked wind loaded and primed to go, and since I also didn't bring an ice axe, glissading was not an option to begin with.  I decided I could either go back the way I'd come, or head around the north side of the bowl and hope the sun exposure had kept several promising looking gullies I'd already spied free of snow.
Around I went.  The first one was filled with snow, as was the second.  But I kept going, and in about a quarter of a mile spied something that looked promising.  And then great, as I could stand at the top of it and see it was clear all the way to the bottom!
Looking back up this gully.
And down into the basin to Lake Louise, Lake Husted, and the long journey back to the car.
Icefield Pass loomed as I got into the basin.  The immensity of this thing was incredible.
Now I faced exactly the same problem as I did above.  I didn't know if the snow was solid, and movement took some time as I had to continually probe every step.  It might have just been quicker to stay up above in the end!
Back up to Icefield Pass and the gully.
It continued to look pretty spectacular from farther down.
Once I passed the talus near Lake Louise, I was back on solid ground and able to turn on the rockets and start the almost 11 mile journey back to the car.  It took me about 3 hours and 40 minutes to cover this distance, roughly the same amount of time it took me to cover the 4.3 miles between Stormy Peaks East and Skull Point.
Dropping down to Lost Lake.  Quite a difference!  I'd swam in this lake last time I was here, but that was definitely out today.  Some deeper snow on the south side made travel more difficult, and I remembered the trail being not obvious to find even in summer.  I couldn't find it, but crossed the outlet creek, and worked my way down until I hit the trail for the campsite and was able to get moving.
The sun set at some point, and I got my headlamp out.  I am normally okay with hiking in the dark, but with a close to full moon, I kept seeing glimpses of light that had filtered through the trees and thinking they were animals or horror movie people or something.
I stopped at the North Boundary intersection for another snack, and went down for a short time before I realized the fleece I had strapped to the outside of my pack was no longer there!  ARG!  I really liked that thing.  I was pretty sure I had it at the Stormy Peaks intersection, but by now felt I was in no condition to go back up, either physically or mentally. 
Anyway, if anyone happens to find a blue Helly Hansen fleece somewhere up here, I would sure like it back!  I'd be happy to reward with beer.
Finally I started seeing some structures that marked Camp Cheley.  Soon enough I was grinding up the last little hill needed to reach the camp entrance before loosing that elevation to get to the parking lot.  After such a long day, these 200 or so feet of up really sucked.
But there it was.  The beautiful car right where I left it.  I take much pride that my 2003 Ford Focus hatchback has more mud on it than most 4wds I see!
I got my things back in the car and decided to take a look and see if there was a fence or some signage indicating property ownership where I saw the Elk.  It was easy to find, as a vehicle had backed into the thigh high grass there, smashing down two distinct trails that ended in a flattened area.
This was a long and lonely day.  But of course it was worth it!  The maximum technical difficulty is second class (maybe a some easy third if you have to come down that gully), and the length could be cut into two or more sections by camping at Stormy Peaks South, Lost Lake, or one of the many campsites along the North Fork trail.  Spectacular sights, solitude, and beauty await you.  The lakes around the base of Little and Middle No Name are some of the most spectacular in the park, and worth a visit.  Despite the high amount of elevation gain, the length of the trail stretches it out, so things aren't ever too steep.
Stormy Peaks and the North Fork Basin (distances as part of the hike):
Stormy Peaks East, 12020 feet: 8.1 miles, 4120 foot gain.  Second class.  Strenuous.
Stormy Peaks West, 12148 feet: 8.5 miles, 4248 foot gain.  Second class.  Strenuous.
Stormy Peaks Pass, 11660 feet: 8.75 miles, 3760 foot gain.  Strenuous.
Sugarloaf Mountain, 12140 feet: 10.4 miles, 4240 foot gain.  Strenuous.
Ramsey Peak, 11582 feet: 11 miles, 3682 foot gain.  Strenuous.
Skull Point, 12060 feet: 12.3 miles, 4160 foot gain.  Strenuous.
Icefield Pass, 11840 feet: 12.5 miles, 3940 foot gain.  Strenuous.
Along the way you will also pass (distances from th):
Lake Louise, 11020 feet: 10.9 miles one way, 3120 foot gain.  Strenuous-.
Lake Husted, 11088 feet: 10.4 miles one way, 3188 foot gain.  Strenuous-.
Lost Lake, 10714 feet: 9.7 miles one way, 2814 foot gain. Moderate+.
Lost Falls, 9840 feet: 7.5 miles one way, 1940 foot gain.  Moderate+.
Kettle Tarn, 9220 feet: 5.3 miles one way, 1320 foot gain.  Moderate.
As a whole, this hike covered approximately 23 miles with 6300 feet of elevation gain.  Second class.  Strenuous+.

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