Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Trail Ridge Road high points and 300th named destination!

What to do what to do what to do?  With longer drives and even earlier wake ups needed this summer, my eyes are set firmly on the west side of the park.  I will find a way to get there every week unless the weather looks absolutely horrendous.  I just have to be able to put together a logical grouping of destinations, and try to get the most I can in a single day.
The alarm went off at 2am.  Not just a few years ago I was often just going to bed at 2am, now I'm getting up then.  Times have changed....
I got ready slowly and then left the house around 3.  I planned for the majority of the hike to take place from the Poudre River Trailhead, right across the street from Milner Pass.  But since I was driving by a few things I had yet to do....
I first parked at Lava Cliffs and made the short hike up to the 12355 foot ranked but unofficially named "Trail Ridge".  It was still dark and I was working by headlamp.  During the day I imagine this would offer a great view.  As it was, dawn was just breaking over the horizon.  Please keep on the trail if you venture to this high point.
Back at Lava Cliffs there was just enough light to grab a quick photo before driving farther along Fall River Road to the Alpine Visitor Center.  From here I followed the paved path up to the 12005 foot Fall River Pass Mountain, in this case a unranked and unofficially named high point.  Again, great views abound from here and you can see vast swaths of the park from one place.  But you can't see all of it, which is why this blog exists!
From here I headed directly down towards Marmot Point.  You could also take Old Fall River Road down from the visitor center to access the thin but distinct trail that heads this 11909 foot ranked and named peak. 
Alpine Sunflowers in early morning light.
Looking from Fall River Pass Mountain to Marmot Point.  Note Old Fall River Road wrapping around.  The terrain between the two is fine, steep but solid on Fall River Pass Mountain, and the trail up Marmot Point is easy going. 
Looking back at "Trail Ridge".
Marmot Point and CCY (or YCC L to R) in the background.  This was a spectacular place to be to witness sunrise.  I find these moments so calming and peaceful.
Looking back to Old Fall River Road, Fall River Pass Mountain, and the visitor center.  I descended the trail and hiked/jogged the road back up to the trailhead.  There was now a second car parked there, but no person.  Doing this small loop took me about fifty minutes.  Which meant I was doing great!  Back in the car I drove down to Milner Pass
Elk at Poudre Lake.  My goals here were Poudre Lake Spires and Sheep Rock.
Essentially if you have ever hiked from Milner Pass, you have passed Poudre Lake Spires.  I just hadn't stopped to check them out before.  Pretty neat little rock features.  Continue up the trail until the first hard switchback to the left (which has stone steps).  There is a sign on the right asking to stay off the recovery area.  Go a little bit past this and cut off trail right to pick up a well defined trail that heads to Sheep Rock.
A great view over Poudre Lake from Sheep Rock, 10940 feet. 
Back at Milner Pass you can see Sheep Rock- the lump left of center.  I got in the car one last time for a short jaunt back the way I'd come to the Poudre River TH.  In reality, this is just a small area of the road with parking for a few cars on each side, not an actual trailhead.  You could also walk over from Milner Pass.
I started down the trail.  A few things I noticed right away:
1.  On the map it looks like the trail stays in the basin and follows the river down in a gentle decline.  This is not entirely true, as it stays uphill from the river, often cutting into the forest.  This means there are some short and steep uphills even as you go downhill.
2.  I was trying to not step in water or mud to keep my feet dry, but this soon proved futile as the grass overhanging the trail was wet, and there was alot of runoff from Specimen Mountain.
3.  This means there were large and unavoidable areas of mud -the thick and sticky kind that your foot sinks into ankle deep and then almost pulls your shoe off when you pull up to take the next step.
4.  This, due to a lack of travel to clean it up, means the trail is not very well defined in places.  There were multiple times it just disappeared into knee high marshy grass for hundreds of yards at a time.  Of course, you know the way you are generally going, so it wasn't hard to refind it on the other side of these areas.
5.  There are a TON of Elk in this area.  As such, there is a ton of Elk poo, urine, and marking scent.  Things were quite aromatic!
6.  Obviously running this 'trail', or even hiking it in the traditional sense of the word, was going to be out. 
But it is a place of great natural beauty.  And if you want to see (and smell) a bunch of animals, this would be a good place to look.
I knew I would have to cut off the trail eventually to get to the first highpoint, the 10855 foot Nutcracker Peak.  This is another peak that is ranked but unofficially named.  Hence, it was not included in Fosters book.
I definitely left the trail too early, but I was getting sick of the condition of the Poudre River Trail.  Hiking it was not fun, which is disappointing.  The area has alot to offer, but the trail definitely needs some work to improve it.  I found the animal trails running up the slope to be in much better shape and very well defined.
But of course I left the trail too early, did some unnecessary elevation gain, and had to traverse over to the peak.  Eventually I found myself on a high point that looked like the summit, but I couldn't find a cairn.  The trees were so thick I couldn't see through them.  My gps told me I was about 100 feet too low.  I spent some time looking around before it occurred to me that I was likely on the small high point west of Nutcracker Peak, which was in the 10700's.  I headed east and hit a small clearing and was able to see a heavily forested slope ahead of me.  Right on.
A little map for you.
The bushwhacking was steady but not too intense.  It was mostly downfall, with the vegetation in the area growing pretty close to the ground.
But even as I went on and got closer to the summit I was making a huge mistake this day.  I kept telling myself I'd stop and eat when I got to the summit, thinking it would only take me two hours or so.  Then it started taking longer but I was sure I was close.  Then I realized I wasn't.  Then there were so many mosquitoes I put my rain jacket on because they can't bite me through that, and I didn't want to stop and eat.
Long story short, I ended up not eating anything for the first five hours of this hike.  Not good.  Of course by the time you really think it out and know what this means, it is too late.    
I finally made it to the summit of Nutcracker Peak.  It took me almost twice as long as planned.  This was my 300th named destination in RMNP.  I should have felt joy.  I felt hunger.  Actually, I was beyond hunger and starting to feel tired and hopeless.  I ate heavily, swatting away mosquitoes, and considered just going back.  But I convinced myself to go on.  I'd have to come all the way back here to climb Confluence Peak if not.  The weather looked ok but not great, but I'd be below treeline for the rest of the day.
I convinced myself to continue on.  I could just see Confluence Peak through the trees and used my GPS and compass to take a bearing on it.  I was not going to miss it.  The forest was heavily treed and you could not see much more than occasional glimpses of the surrounding peaks through it to tell where you were.
The food I ate kicked in for the time being and I actually felt fairly good as I hit the small creek between the two peaks and started to regain altitude.  Again I faced some bushwhacking, but again it was mostly in the deadfall category. 
The mosquitoes were still with me as I hit the summit of Confluence Peak at 11220 feet.  Crazy enough, but I am now nearly done the Mummy Range.  I think with one more day I'll be able to finish the peaks, and with another day the lakes.
The difficulty in getting to this peak and the fact that it offers little in the way of views means it is not climbed often.  According to the register, it saw zero summits in 2014, and only one in 2013.  But the register is a wealth of who's who in Colorado Mountaineering, bearing the signatures of such luminaries as Gerry and Jennifer Roach, John and Alyson Kirk (before they were married and signed with her maiden name which I can't remember), and Steve Knapp.  I feel so honored to add my name to a list bearing these names!
These two peaks are probably only climbed by those trying to finish lists- ranked peaks in RMNP, Larimer County, etc. as many of the signatures bore some sort of information along those lines.  I added my name and where I was on my list.  301!
I descended back toward the small creek and cut east to hit the trail again.  When I reached it, I was finally able to take my rain jacket off and move quickly enough to avoid the mosquitoes. 
The trail here was in very good shape and I was able to move fairly quickly for the first time.  Though it is definitely a longer drive for me, but maybe not for you, hiking these peaks from Corral Creek or Longdraw would likely be a good bit easier.
Going back was gently uphill.  I passed the split with the Chapin Pass Trail.  Again, I was astounded at the natural beauty of the area.  It is truly remarkable.  Now that Old Fall River Road has reopened after the 2013 flood, this might be a fun option to access the area.  Of course, I have no idea what the trail conditions there might look like, but I can't imagine it could be worse than the Poudre River Trail.
I found this.  I have never seen antlers out and about.  Pretty cool.  Maybe 3.5 feet tip to tip? 
After the split with the Chapin Pass Trail, the conditions largely returned to what I saw earlier in the morning.  Which is to say bad.  Mud, water, marshy grass, no trail in places...  Not fun.
I was wondering if I'd see some afternoon Elk, and finally spied a what looked like a large brown one with rounder ears.  I kept an eye and made some noise and yelled at it and the next time I looked for it, it was gone.
Shortly after I saw another Elk.  A huge brown one, who turned to look at me.  It was no Elk.  "Holy sh!t, that's a Moose!"  A juvenile male, it was a hundred yards or so from me and I made some more noise as it watched me.  I was happy that I was scary enough to convince it to move away from me, and I kept an eye on it until it moved into the forest on the other side of the valley.
But it now became a game.  Though I'd tried to make up for it, I didn't eat for too long at the beginning of the day.  My mental condition continued to degrade despite what I ate, and I felt like I was going slower and slower.  I wanted to finish the day strong, but that was out of the question.  I'd have to settle for just finishing.
I started to feel nausea and stopped eating anything.  I stopped to reapply sunblock and decided to consume some Olive Oil.  I love it drizzled on bread or pasta or pretty much anything, but it is gross to straight up drink.  However, the 1.5 oz that I always carry with me contains nearly 400 calories.  Down it went chased with some water.
But I was collapsing.  I felt slower and slower, wondered when I'd pass the point that I left the trail in the morning (I finally recognized a tree stump), wondered when I'd see the trailhead.  Every little hill I went up was a fight and I was taking more frequent breaks.  I would get tears in my eyes each time I ascended these hills, hoping to see the trailhead on the other side, and then feel disappointed when I didn't.  I eventually told myself I couldn't look because I just couldn't take it anymore.  I'd only look down at the trail or sideways but not ahead.  I finally pulled all the apricots out of my trail mix and ate them alone.  The fruit sugar tasted good.
Eventually I hit a few water crossings that I remembered from the morning.  These were close to the car, right?  Then I could finally hear cars through the forest on the other side of the valley.  Trail Ridge Road was getting close to me, thus I was getting close to it.  I thought about crossing the river and getting to the road and hitching a ride back.  But I couldn't let myself do that, and it would take more energy.  I was counting my steps and trying not to cry.
And then I finally crested the last hill.  Despite telling myself not to look, I did.  I cannot describe the absolute joy I felt when I saw my 2003 Ford Focus with 152000 miles and a dent on the right rear panel.  Tears streamed down my cheeks, but I quickly pulled it together and made my way to the car, stopping to rinse my mud soaked shoes off in the river. 
This is what things looked like when I got back to the car.  So if you do plan to hike this trail, be prepared to get wet and dirty.
I took a few minutes to change into clean clothes and decompress.  I was feeling whole again and had a snack in the car.  The drive back took me about half an hour longer, most of which was in RMNP.  Lots of traffic there.
This was an interesting day, and my first real summer hike of 2015.  I started out feeling great and ready to go.  I ended up feeling like I had pushed myself to the absolute limit of what I could do and even beyond that.  The mental anguish is intense, and often imagined.  Which is to say upon arriving home and looking at my gps track, I was going almost exactly the same speed coming back up the trail as I was going down.  I just felt like I was absolutely destroyed and going slow.  I even managed to jog some of the flat sections on the way back.
I've written about my unpleasant experience to serve both as a lesson to you, and as a reminder to me.  You simply can't make up for hours of not eating.  I find for myself it is essential to eat at least once per hour when engaging in any activity that goes for much over 2.5 hours.  When I got home I discovered that I'd only eaten four Clif Kit's bars all day, which equals 760 calories (76 cal/hr).  If I'd eaten once per hour, I should have taken in 1900 calories over the day, solely in bar form.  Add trail mix to this plus breakfast plus a snack when back at the car and 3000 calories while hiking for ten hours (300 cal/hr) doesn't seem out of the question. 
In short, burning alot of energy requires alot of fuel.
The high points along trail ridge road should be accessible to mostly anyone.  If you are older or younger or coming from sea level, yes it might take you some time.  And as I have said above, the Poudre River valley is a place of great and raw natural beauty.  Expect to see and smell animals galore seasonally.  But the trail absolutely sucks and falls firmly into the "slog" category.  I could tell it doesn't get much usage, so the motivation for the NPS to fix it up is probably low.  But at the same time, I wonder if it would get more traffic if it were in better shape, as there is no real trailhead, and the trail doesn't really go anywhere...  Hard to say.
Trail Ridge Road High Points and Poudre River Peaks:
Trail Ridge, 12355 feet: .4 miles each way (Lava Cliffs parking), 280 foot gain.  Easy.
Fall River Pass Mountain, 12005 feet: .3 miles each way (Alpine Visitor Center Parking), 200 foot gain.  Easy-.
Marmot Point, 11909 feet: 1 mile each way (from Alpine Visitor Center), 360 foot gain.  Easy +.  Note you'll have around 260 feet of gain to get back to the Alpine Visitor Center.
Poudre Lake Spires, 10800 feet: .1 mile each way, 42 foot gain.  Easy-.
Sheep Rock, 10940 feet: .5 miles each way, 182 foot gain.  Second class.  Easy.  Note there is also a Sheep Mountain and a Sheep Mountain Rock within RMNP, which are both on the east side.
Nutcracker Peak, 10855 feet: 5.3 miles each way, 1350 foot gain.  Second class.  Moderate+.
Confluence Peak, 11220 feet: 7.5 miles each way, 2358 foot gain.  Second class.  Strenuous-.
As a whole, the latter part of this hike covered around 15 miles with 3236 feet of elevation gain.  Strenuous-.  

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