Saturday, July 7, 2018

North Fork Basin loop.

I mapped this monster a few years ago, I believe shortly after my first visit to the area with Dan in 2013.  Doing a loop to connect all of the peaks above the basin seemed like a logical choice, and while entirely off trail, there isn't too much scrambling.  In fact, with good route choice, casual rock touching is minimized to almost zero.
This marked my second attempt on this route, with the first being a week prior.  I think that one was destined for failure from the start.  I went to bed the night before with my stomach feeling a little upset, and it didn't feel any better the next morning.  I didn't sleep well, or long enough (though that in itself is not unusual), and I was really feeling it.  And it was windier than predicted.  And my heart just wasn't in it.  
That happens, and it is important to listen to your body and evaluate the conditions rather than force things.  The first attempt did come with a lesson in the route choice, as I'd planned to go clockwise.  But the bushwhack up to Mount Dickinson was not fun and rather difficult.  Perhaps going counter clockwise was a better option.  I'd still have to do the bushwhack, but would have the assist of gravity to go downhill.  Maybe that would make it easier?
The original route I mapped started and ended at the Dunraven TH, taking the Bulwark Ridge trail to Signal Mountain(s).  After a rather jolly time on the trails east of the Signals last year (and a hellacious bushwhack on a trail on the map that isn't there in real life), and wanting a little bit of a bigger day elevation and distance wise, I decided to add on some time on these trails.  Why not?
I started from the Dunraven TH at 5:43 am.  The initial climb is pretty steep, taking down about 1000 feet in 1.3 miles or so.  The other side brings a fun and fast descent on the Indian Trail to Miller Fork.
I took a left here to head west- it is not necessary to cross the creek though it looked like it was.  At the first fork after this, I stayed left for the Donner Pass Cutoff trail, then left at the second intersection to take the Donner Pass trail.  
Early signs...  These trails don't appear to get much use, but someone had been through fairly recently with a chainsaw.  That made things alot more pleasant.
Along the Donner Pass trail.
This is the meadow where I decided I was going the wrong way last year, and then went the wrong way to a trail that was on the USGS map, but not there in real life.
I arrived at Donner Pass at 8:13, and took the short and not in great shape or distinct trail to Lookout Mountain, the first peak of the day.
The start of the Lookout trail.  It gets worse with deadfall, though it's still mostly ok to follow until the trail seems to disappear.  There are cairns up to the summit, but those are widely spaced and also difficult to follow.  So I just kept going up.
The views from the top are quite enchanting.  It was pretty hard to wrap my head around the idea that I'd be over there in just a few hours.  It was also a little intimidating!
I took the trail back down to Donner Pass, and then continued on trail 934 west.  Here I could see some signs of usage, as dirt bikes are allowed and it was clear someone had been through.  Peak 10582 is right off the trail, and I made sure to visit the summit if oh so briefly.
I continued along this trail at an easy jog/hike.  Next up was the clearing with the intersection with the Signal Mountain trail.  There was a little bit of deadfall here, but nothing major.
Signal Mountain trail intersection.  This is trail 928.
It breaks treeline soon enough, and the views are awesome, though the trail becomes a little less distinct.
At the summit of Signal Mountain, 11262 feet.  Over there was still looking pretty darn far away.
It was a quick jaunt over to South Signal Mountain.
Looking forward.
I can't say you're above treeline for the rest of the day from here, as you aren't.  But the lowest elevation you'll face until the final descent from Dickinson is between Pennock Peak and Stormy Peaks, at around 10500 feet.  In my mind, the extended time at elevation/above treeline is the main difficulty.  Starting at Signal Mountain, it's about 20 miles at elevation.
Another benefit of doing the loop CCW was that the now very faint Signal Mountain trail between Signals and the Stormy Peaks trail is alot easier to follow going down.  Last year I lost it multiple times climbing, and faced more hard bushwhacking.  As it was, I still lost it once before refinding it and topping out Pennock Peak, 11058 feet.
Looking back from Pennock.
Down into the valley.
Here is where the Signal Mountain trail ends/starts on the other side.  Note that there isn't a sign indicating it is a trail.  It's hard to follow from this side, with deadfall in multiple places and numerous animal trails crossing/taking off from it.
I headed up towards Stormy Peaks after a sit at the intersection.  I was already thinking maybe I should head back.  It was already noon.  Continuing on would give an exceptionally long day.  But I'd come this far.
I stayed on the Stormy Peaks trail for what seemed like a long time- I didn't want to go too far past the east summit to have to backtrack to it, yet I also wanted to be high up enough to avoid the bushwhacking and willows between myself and the summit.
In the end, it worked out completely fine.
Back down.
Stormy Peaks West (the true, ranked summit) from Stormy Peaks East.
It was a fairly quick jaunt between the two, with a touch of scrambling to meet the summit.  East from West.
I made the quick descent west from there, and stayed down and north of the next small bump to continue on to Sugarloaf Mountain.
Things fell apart here a bit.  I was really struggling even though the terrain is pretty easy, and the gain is not steep.  I was extremely disappointed to top a small rise and see I still had a bit to go to Sugarloaf.  I sat for what felt like a long time but was in fact a few minutes.  It was now around 2:30 PM.  I could just turn around and take the nice, easy trail back down, which meant I'd be home at a reasonable time.  It would be nice to be back home, comfortable, eat some real food, cuddle with the dogs, pet my wife.  Oops!  Reverse that.
But then again, I mapped this day.  I planned on it.  I already tried once and turned back.  I was pretty far in and to turn around now meant I'd have to come all the way back here once again.  I wanted this day.
To Skull Point and the climb up beyond.
Onward I went.  It's weird to describe what I was feeling, both wanting to quit or be done and wanting to continue on.  I guess part of the reason for continuing was that even if I turned back now, I'd still be facing a not very short run/hike back, even though it'd be mostly downhill.
Skull Point was a quick and easy rock hop to the summit, and then a quick descent to Icefield Pass.
Great views to the east, down the entire basin I was looping around.
The permanent snowfields between Little No Name and Rowe Mountain look to be the highest elevation/farthest out feeders for the South Fork of the Cache la Poudre River.  There was a mini waterfall, rushing, icy cold water, and astounding views.
I found the view to the north west to be particularly striking.  Of all the special places I've seen and been in the park, this one was extremely memorable.
One aspect that bears mentioning for these long days above treeline is water access.  I'd planned on several, some of which will be seasonal only, fed by the snow melt from the year before.  Thus, doing this in September might mean long stretches without.  The only definite accesses I'd count on then would be Miller Fork, the above melt stream, and Rowe Glacier Lake, so one would need to make sure to have enough to get through the sections between those.
The view from Little No Name was awesome, but getting there definitely took some time.  I was moving pretty slow and really felt like I was dragging.  Aided by several breaks, I made the top eventually.
I felt a little bit better from there up to Hagues.  Maybe the lack of oxygen was helping!
Gibraltar Mountain from Middle No Name.  Middle No Name is pretty silly as a summit, with virtually no prominence.  Gibraltar isn't much more impressive, but at least the movement is a little more interesting.
I made the quick trip out to Rowe Peak from there.  I'd looked at and planned to include Rowe Mountain while I was close, but the day was getting on.  Even just twenty minutes out and twenty back would be another forty minutes.  As I thought about it, if the goal was to do a loop of the North Fork Basin, Rowe Mountain wasn't a peak that bordered it, nor would it contribute to the drainage at all.  Thus, I decided to skip it.
Looking across to Hagues and Rowe Glacier Lake.
I made my way down some talus to the lake and enjoyed the silence and beauty of it while I filled up on water part of the way- I knew there was a place I could fill up between Hagues and Dunraven, and the less weight I had to carry, the better.
The climb up to Hagues felt like it took forever, but the reality was about 20 minutes.  I signed in for the third time this year, and then headed east.  Though I've done Hagues multiple times, I only discovered a really great end to the traverse this year, as I previously stayed up on the ridge as high as possible.  I stay north and down from the summit, which gives a nice, relatively flat and wide passageway to a series of social trails up the north face, which go easy.  There is almost no rock hopping at all, and it seems alot easier than staying on the ridge.
As I headed east, I considered where I was.  It was now around 6:30 PM, and while I had also planned to visit Mummy Mountain, I decided to disqualify it for the same reasons as Rowe Mountain.  Time, and most importantly, it does not border the North Fork Basin, nor does it contribute to the drainage.
With the impending sunset, I was hoping to be at least somewhat into the bushwhack downhill before I had to get the headlamp out.
A herd of Elk between Hagues and Dunraven.  I stopped to fill up water here for the last time above treeline.
Up to Dunraven.  I gave myself the goal to get to Dickinson from Hagues in two hours.  It looks like it's about 5.7 miles between the two.  I guess that seems like a reasonable time goal, and I was motivated to reach it as I wanted to minimize the whole bushwhacking in the darkness thing.  Funny, as Erin remarked the week before as we bushwhacked up to Dickinson how much it would suck to do it in the dark.
I tagged Dunraven, then Dundicking, and finally made it to Dickinson in 2:07.  Close enough I guess.  I turned north and started the descent.  Upon reaching treeline, I found and followed some cairns and a goodish trail.  I'd like to know where that ends or goes to if anyone knows, as I lost the cairns and descended as directly as possible.
A last sunlit look back at a long day.
I've usually stayed to the east of the rock face on the north side of Dickinson, but decided to stay west of it this time.  The theory was that the route to the east looked like it had a longer stretch above treeline, but the route to the west looks like it is more direct.  In reality, it probably doesn't matter at all.
The going was pretty ok and easy at first, as I was able to find clear avenues through the trees.  But I got lower, turned on the headlamp, and darkness came.  The bushwhacking got alot more difficult and thicker.  Now I was cursing my route decision (CCW vs CW), as if I'd went the other way I'd be on a nice easy trail at this point.  But on the other hand, the bushwhack was definitely easier going downhill.
I used the app on my phone a few times to see how progress was going.  While steep here and there, the going was pretty okay other than the brush I was fighting!  This section actually felt pretty quick, and looking at my tracker, it was exactly 50 minutes down from the summit to the trail, about 2300 vertical, bushy feet.
I ended up in a flatter meadowy area and scared something big that I never saw which fortunately headed opposite me.  I also got my feet wet.  I'd managed to keep them dry until now.  I hit the North Fork of the Big Thompson, the namesake of this day.  I quickly looked for a down tree to cross, but I was still in a meadow and there were none.  The creek didn't look too deep and my feet were already wet, so I waded it.
Joy of joys, I happened to cross at the one place where the trail practically touches the creek, and found it in a few paces once I climbed the bank on the other side.
"Could it be?" I said.
And it was.
Now it was simply motor on down.  I surprised myself by actually feeling like I wanted to run and could do so, and alternated between jogging and power hiking the remaining 7ish miles or so.  This felt like it took awhile, but I was finally back to the car about an hour and forty minutes later.  I'd been down the trail six days prior and nothing looked familiar, but at least I had the comfort of passing the signs for the various campsites.  There was also a ton of insects and mosquitoes out, one of whom bit me in the face.  This face needs all the help it can get, thanks jerk.
This was two days before a full moon and I kept thinking I was seeing things off the trail, as white flowers appeared to almost glow in the night, shadows were longer and exaggerated, and the white water on the creek looked like tents with lights in them.
I am pretty sure I saw some campers at one of the spots in RMNP, but when I though I saw a bunch farther down, I realized it was actually the moonlight on the water.  Several times, until I was like, "Wow, there's alot of people camping here.  Great spot right next to the river.  Hey, wait a second...."
I arrived back at the car at 10:51 PM, just over a 17 hour day.  Phew.
What a day this one was.  I was particularly enthused to link these peaks together since I first mapped it a few years ago, perhaps it has taken that long for my fitness to rise to the level of my ambition.  This loop covers alot of incredibly scenic alpine terrain.  The extended time at altitude is certainly the biggest difficulty here, in several ways I've already touched upon.
Link to hike map/GPX on Caltopo.
North Fork Basin loop:
Lookout Mountain, 10626 feet: 8.3 miles, 2826 foot gain.  Second class.  Moderate.
10582: 10.15 miles, 2782 foot gain.  Second class.  Moderate.
Signal Mountain, 11262 feet: 14 miles, 3462 foot gain.  Moderate+.
South Signal Mountain, 11248 feet: 14.75 miles, 3448 foot gain.  Second class.  Moderate+.
Pennock Peak, 11058 feet: 16.7 miles, 3258 foot gain.  Second class.  Strenuous-.
Stormy Peaks East, 12020 feet: 20.95 miles, 4220 foot gain.  Second class.  Strenuous.
Stormy Peaks West, 12148 feet: 21.5 miles, 4348 foot gain.  Second class.  Strenuous.
Sugarloaf Mountain, 12140 feet: 23.65 miles, 4340 foot gain.  Strenuous.
Skull Point, 12060 feet: 24.55 miles, 4260 foot gain.  Second class.  Strenuous.
Icefield Pass, 11840 feet: 24.85 miles, 4040 foot gain.  Strenuous.
Little No Name, 12530 feet: 25.65 miles, 4730 foot gain.  Strenuous+.
Middle No Name, 12760 feet: 26.2 miles (a marathon), 4960 foot gain.  Strenuous+.
Gibraltar Mountain, 13300 feet: 27.05 miles, 5500 foot gain.  Strenuous+.
Rowe Peak, 13420 feet: 27.75 miles, 5620 foot gain.  Strenuous+.
Rowe Glacier Lake, 13100 feet: 28.3 miles, 5300 foot gain.  Strenuous+.
Hagues Peak, 13560 feet: 28.85 miles, 5760 foot gain.  Strenuous+.
Mount Dunraven, 12571 feet: 31.25 miles, 4771 foot gain.  Strenuous.
"Dundicking", 12312 feet: 32.15 miles, 4512 foot gain.  Strenuous.
Mount Dickinson, 11831 feet: 33.75 miles, 4031 foot gain.  Strenuous-.
As a whole, this day covered 41.5 miles with 11219 feet of elevation gain.  A slightly shorter and less elevationous day could be had by taking the Bulwark Ridge trail up or down from the trailhead, but any way you go, this is a big day.  Again, the time above treeline is extensive, and the difficulties that come with that are the main obstacle.  Strenuous+.