Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Mount Eleanor and Sprague Mountain via Bear Lake TH.

I will certainly incite a riot on 14ers.com by calling this the first winter outing of the year.  It's not winter yet, and won't be until the solstice on Tuesday, December 22nd.  So how about the first wintery conditions outing?  The first time I hiked in snow this fall?  The first time I wore microspikes in months?  The first time I postholed past my knees in snow?  The first time travel got alot more difficult?
I really have nothing against winter, but it certainly makes getting places by foot quite a bit more difficult.  Those big days mentioned last time will have to wait.  In the meantime, I can work on the minor destinations on the east side, and hopefully leave myself 50 or less to go next year.  But we'll see.
I slept in all the way till 4am.  I was up and on the way by 430.  I always forget how long it takes to get to Bear Lake.  It is geographically close to Estes, but that road does not come quickly.  I set off from the trail head just as the sky was starting to lighten.  I was not above treeline for sunrise, on this day wisely sacrificing that privilege for two more hours of sleep.
But still, there is something calming and nice about enjoying sunrise in the quiet and peaceful forest.
Shadows and snow.
It took me a not very quick 2.5 hours to hit the top of Flattop.  Well, considering that until this year my best was around 2:10 not in snow, we'll call that good.  The trail was well packed down, icy in lower elevations and packed snow as I went higher. 
At the junction with the North Inlet trail.
If you want to be by yourself in RMNP in the winter, climb Flattop and then head north.  I saw a few animal foot prints here and there, but did not see a sign of humanity until I was back in the Flattop area.
Travel got a bit more difficult, as the nice mashed down trail ended and I entered the no mans land of Bighorn Flats.  The trail became completely indistinct, and I was essentially off on my own, picking a way toward Sprague Mountain.
Stones Peak would be a pretty fun one to attempt in winter.
I started to gain some elevation on the south side of Sprague Mountain.  I had hoped I'd be able to drop down to Sprague Tarn, but there were already cornices and wind loaded slopes in the way.  Not surprising, considering the wind generally travels west to east. 
Above Rainbow Lake.  It was interesting to see the various lakes I'd pass over the day in different states.  The higher lakes were already frozen over, but while this one is right below 11800 feet, it was still liquid with a touch of ice around the edges.
I got to the summit of Sprague Mountain around 11:15, at about 5.5 hours in.  Travel had slowed significantly after leaving the trail.  There were two registers, and no one had signed either since September.  I left my name in both just to make sure!
I was greeted by views of Hayden Spire.  This imposing high point is on the list for next year.
Hayden Lake with some ice beginning to form.
The rather unimposing south side of Mount Eleanor.  This peak is the unranked and unofficially named high point north west along the divide from Sprague Mountain.  It is pretty much in the middle of nowhere, with the one way distance from Milner Pass at 7.5 miles, and the one way distance from Bear Lake at 9.5 miles.  It looks like the Milner Pass method will also have slightly less total elevation gain, about 5000 rt vs 5500 from Bear Lake.
I worked through some snow covered rock, and was at the summit in short time.
Looking south from Mount Eleanor.
A winter wonderland. 
The north face of Hayden Spire.
Cracktop, Mt. Julian, and Terra Tomah Mountain off to the right. 
I'd planned to go a little farther this day, but with the snow conditions and a shorter day of sunlight, I decided it was wise to turn back.  I tried to stay at around 12200 feet and contour around to the west of Sprague Mountain.  This worked out just fine.
Snowdrift Peak.
Nakai Peak is the last peak I have to do in the area, excepting Hayden Spire. 
Looks like an easy descent could be found to visit Haynatch Lakes. 
Back on the flats of Bighorn Flats.  The snow was of the all to familiar winter character of holding your weight for a few steps before having you post hole knee deep.  I was glad I wore my winter boots!
Bighorn Flats and Stones Peak.
Looking back to Sprague Mountain.
You can actually see Mount Eleanor from higher up on plateau, I just never knew what it looked like until now.
I hit Flattop and started to see some signs that a few people had been up here today.  There was some snowshoe tracks that came up from the North Inlet Trail.  Now that's a day!
As is seemingly the usual for this year, it now became a race to beat the sunset back to the parking lot. 
Longs Peak and Hallett.  Similar view in summer here.
Finally back below treeline, I felt like I was able to move pretty quickly. 
It was pretty great to be able to capture this view of the last sunlight on the day on Longs. 
A little bit closer.  Very pretty.
It took me about an hour and forty minutes to descend Flattop.  I did have my headlamp on by the time I got back to the car, though it wasn't totally dark. 
Over the day I kept an eye on the thermometer I have on my pack, and saw a low of around 20 and high of around 40.  Maybe not quite full winter temperatures, but the snow sure made it feel like winter, despite calendar winter being over a month away yet.  Travel is about to get alot more difficult.  If only it could be fall all year....
Mount Eleanor is one of the most remote peaks in the park, and the major difficulty comes from the distance one must travel to get there and back.  It is a long distance to cover, with elevation gain coming in both directions.  It would certainly be easier to do without snow on the ground, but the route looks to be avalanche safe (though I might suggest going back up and over Sprague Mountain vs. contouring around).
Link to hike map on Caltopo.
Mount Eleanor and Sprague Mountain via Bear Lake TH:
Sprague Mountain, 12713 feet: 8.7 miles one way, 3263 foot gain.  Second class.  Strenuous.
Mount Eleanor, 12380 feet: 9.5 miles one way, 2930 foot gain.  Second class.  Strenuous.
As a whole, this hike covered 19 miles with 5560 feet of elevation gain.  Strenuous.

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