Sunday, October 20, 2019

Ring of Never Summers.

As I planned to do two difficult 100 mile races this year, both fairly close to each other (for me), I felt recovery from Ouray was important.  Two days after the race, I was back out there. 
I decided to do my early recovery by bike, doing two shorter and lower intensity efforts back to back on the last days of July.  My thoughts were that mountain biking is definitely lower impact than running or maybe even hiking, but also very good cardio.  And getting that blood moving would help clear out my legs.
Then a short bump up to some longer days before tapering for the Plain 100.  It was going swimmingly, until...
This was one of the two longer days I did in August.  Funny that while I wanted to do a traverse of the Ni-chebe-chii this year, it never occurred to me to do a ring around the range.  Until I was sitting there mapping that is!
From previous adventures, I knew there was at least some sort of trail(s) on the west side of the range.  I took a close look at satellite imagery to make sure there was indeed something there in those places I wasn't as sure of, and I could see there was definitely something there.  I knew the back half of the planned route would be good.  It follows the course of the Never Summer 100k, and then kicks in RMNP, where even the least traveled trails are usually still well maintained.
This planned route checked nearly all the boxes I had: new to me trails and intersections for route finding, approximately 15% on dirt road (matching a similar percentage at Plain), similar gain per mile, and like all of my days, self reliance, in that I'd have to carry everything needed for the day from the start, and get water from ambient sources.
I had a great weather day coming up, and enlisted an adventure buddy for the journey.  Though she was looking for something more runable, it didn't take much to convince her to join me for this big day.
We met at the Beaver Meadows Visitor Center dark and early, leaving my car there as she offered to take the drive to the Colorado River TH and back.  Like myself, Erin drives without much regard for the speed limit, particularly at night, so it wasn't too much longer to get over Trail Ridge Road.
We started as planned just after 6 am.  I was hoping to average 15 minute miles, or thereabouts.  In hindsight, pretty ambitious for a day like this, where I wasn't sure there'd even be a trail in places, and if there was, what it would look like.
Off we went, up the Red Mountain Trail, home of the world's largest switchback!  Note that none of the maps I've ever seen show this trail accurately, including the one they give you when you enter the park.
I mapped it both ways, and decided to basically go to the end of the switchback, and head off directly uphill from there.  This skipped about four easy miles of trail and road in trade for a shorter and quicker bushwhack uphill.  
Once there, we turned left and followed Grand Ditch Road. 
Which provided a great morning view of Grand Lake.  You can see the ditch road cut into the hillside on the right.
I had every intention of running this, but cramps really slowed me down, and we fast hiked.  It's a few miles of unengaging terrain.  Roads are my least favorite thing to run, which is why it's good to include them.
It felt like it took forever, but we only spent an hour or so on the road before we got back on some trail.  We took the small bridge across the ditch to start up the Bowen Pass trail.  It was pretty good at first, well put in and seemingly well traveled, but that changed shortly after, when we took a right to continue on to the pass instead of going on to the obviously much more popular Parika Lake.
I remarked that it reminded me of a fairy tale, where the character comes to a fork in the road and the decision is to take either the nice, well lit road with baby bunnies playing next to it, or the dark, foreboding road, over grown with trees and a skull on the ground.
We took the latter.
Approaching the pass.
And while there were a few stretches that were harder to follow due to lack of use, it wasn't bad really.  We saw a mom and baby moose, and upon breaking treeline, tried to follow the trail as best we could, but also noted that we could clearly see where we wanted to end up at, and could just head directly there if we wanted.
At the pass, and into the unknown.
Looking back on some very fun days.
We could see a few cairns on the other side, but no obvious trail.  We followed them at first, but knowing that we'd generally trend north, aimed for the base of the large rock glacier ahead on our right, the result of the slow erosion of the Never Summer Range. 
Said glacier.
And yours truly for size comparison.
We crossed a small creek and spied what looked like a trail continuing on the other side.  This ended up petering out pretty quickly, so we bushwhacked up to find the trail per the gpx file I'd made for myself.
I have this marked on the map at the end.  After crossing this water, parallel it uphill and it looks like the trail takes off on your left.
The trail was generally good and easy to follow when below treeline, though not without dead fall.  However, it was a different story above or around treeline, which this route flirts with alot.  There were some pretty long stretches without any obvious trail, maybe just a cairn here and there, or maybe nothing.
We came to another large rock glacier and spent some time searching for the obvious trail, which I'd spied with satellite recognizance.  From where we were, it was difficult to see where to go.  My gpx followed the USFS map, which showed the trail up from where we were.  Maybe it once was, but no longer.  I went up and Erin went down- she found the trail which you can see in the disance in the next photo.
As she said, this was probably the easiest section of trail to follow, but some of the most difficult to hike or run.  In true Never Summer fashion, nearly ever step was on to something loose, though the trail blazed through rock was definitely distinct.  Thanks to whoever made it, as I'm sure they never wanted to see another rock again. 
Thumbs up, so far!
Looking back again from farther along.
The next landmark we'd come to was Lone Ranger pass.  I don't know if its called that, or if it actually has a name, but this is the low point between 12ers Lone Ranger on the west and Mount Cirrus on the east.
Between the rock glacier and this point was more of the same pseudo trail.  At times nothing, at times widely spaced cairns, and at times actual trail, again best to follow through rocky areas.  As we approached the pass, we could clearly see a trail going up it, but decided to just go for it straight on and hit the trail when we crossed it.
Looking north from the pass.
From here, we'd head down into the valley, and then up and around the west side of Mount Mahler, the highest point to the left of center.
We started down,first crossing a small snowfield (thanks winter!), and then following cairns and a well put in trail into the trees.
The maps are wrong again here, the trail generally stays up versus going down into the valley, though we again had some issues following it in the more open and less treed sections.  Of course in the trees we faced lots of dead fall.  So who knows which is better?
Near Silver Creek th.
We eventually crossed the creek and found ourselves at the Silver Creek th, which is accessible by vehicle.  It looked like someone had been there somewhat recently, but I'd guess many don't venture in that far, and it might only be people looking to drive 4WD roads.
The next section was a bit tricky.  While I'd looked, and could clearly see trail 1141 at higher elevations, I assumed the intersection would be easy and obvious.  Not so.  It looked like the traill was right after the first stream you'll cross, but after wandering a bit, Erin spied a cairn after the second stream on our right.
We went through a small grassy meadow and into the trees before a real trail started.  Once we did locate it, it was obvious for the most part, save again for any areas that entered meadows or places around water.  The growth is so much that the minimal usage doesn't help keep the trail in, so we wandered a bit here and there.
Looking back as we gained altitude.
The climb was steep, but it went by quick.  We occasionally faced some deadfall (surprise!), but I knew that we'd very shortly hit the Never Summer 100k course, and it would be clear.  We lost the trail here and there, but were able to get it back eventually.
As predicted, things improved significantly once we reached the saddle east of Seven Utes Mountain, seen here.
We were at mile 16 or so, and now on good and well maintained trail.  We hiked the ups, eventually topping out at point 11187, where we were able to get this great view.
Nokhu Crags to Static Peak and Mount Richthofen. 
Back from whence we'd come...
and into the future.
We headed down to Lake Agnes, enjoying some easy downhill.  Since we've both done the NS100K, we talked about our experiences there. 
Lake Agnes, where we saw the first few people of the day.
Yep, it was a solitary effort for most of the day, but I guess people frequent the area.  It's always a shock of sorts after going so long without seeing anyone. 
We got past Agnes and after some debate, found the right way to Michigan Ditch Road.  We filled up on water before we joined the road.  It was pretty cool to see the wood pipeline next to the road- I'd guess many people wouldn't think of a pipe as being wooden.  We alternated hiking and jogging along the road, and finally reached the turn we'd take to head up toward Thunder Pass.
Up the trail.
I remembered this part of the trail pretty vividly.  At that point in the race I was feeling miserable and had resigned to dropping at the next aid station. 
On this day we were both suffering on the uphill, and by mutual unspoken agreement, made the climb slowly.
We did take the time to look around and enjoy the sights, something I didn't do at all during the race. Here, the north east side of Nokhu Crags. 
We discussed making a short out and back to Upper Michigan and Snow Lakes over the day.  This would ultimately help me visit these destinations I've included in the big list of stuff in RMNP (even though these aren't).  By the time we got there it wasn't even a discussion really.  I think we were both too gassed and looking forward to the long and leisurely descent from Thunder Pass back to the car.
We saw a fair number of people in this area as well, one of whom very clearly noticed that we stood out from the average hiker!
He asked what we were up to, and seemed only slightly shocked when we told him.  "I used to do that long shit too!" he exclaimed.  I thought it was pretty funny, and the short chat put a smile on my face.
We sat for a break at Thunder Pass, watching the tiny figure of a person making their way up Lulu Mountain.  We ate and drank, though I think Erin had finished her water awhile ago.  From here it was all downhill, an expression that doesn't make alot of sense.  While there are some short ups in the area of Lulu City, it was around 2300 feet of descent in the next seven plus miles.
Soon we'd be down there.
Erin grabbing some water. 
We started down.  The trail here was pretty fun, well put in even in grass, and fun to run.  Or jog I guess, neither of us was really running hard at this late point of the day. 
The descent back to Grand Ditch was pretty fun.  When we got there, it took us a little bit of looking around to figure things out.  It looks like the trail just crosses the road and continues down from the map, but the reality is that you have to turn left, stay on the road for a bit, and then take a right near the camp buildings to get back on the trail.  Not too bad really.
More descent brought us to the Colorado River, where we crossed and continued on.  We saw a few people along this stretch, some of whom even cheered us on.  Thank you kind persons!
We finally hit the Red Mountain Trail intersection we'd taken that morning.  Almost there....
We got back to the car at 4:50 PM, nearly 11 hours after we set out.  This was a bit slower than I was hoping for.  The race was just a few short weeks away, and it would've been a great confidence boost to be able to average 15-18 minute miles.  We ended up at 20:22.  Not bad, but I was hoping for more.  At that pace, I'd be up against and stressing cutoffs for the entirety of the 107ish miles of the Plain (cutoff at 36 hours).
I rationalized that by telling myself that this day was harder in some ways.  It was:
-Higher elevation, with the lowest point at the start/finish (9040 feet) being over 2000 feet higher than the highest point of Plain, Klone Peak (6820 feet).
-Both have no course markings besides the usual signs at intersections, but the trails here were hopefully in much worse shape as far as ease of following, mainly in that 8ish mile long stretch on the west side.  We had some very slow miles in that section.  I am under the impression that the trails in Washington get more use/are better delineated and more trail like.
So I was okay with the slower but still entirely reasonable pace.  I had to be! 
Yet still I worried, what if I just wasn't fast enough?
We headed back to Estes, facing lots of early fall Elk related traffic.  It was a pretty awesome day on a really fun loop with great company.  How had I never thought of this one before? 
As it turned out, my worries were for naught.  Or maybe I should say inconclusive.  Less than two weeks before the race, I fell and broke my arm.  Hopefully I can get back there in the future, but as for going in with my fitness where it was this year, we'll never know. 
If you go for this loop, you could easily fastpack or backpack it to split it into two or more days.  For me, it would probably only be one night out there, but you can camp anywhere not in RMNP, though you'll need a parking permit to leave your car at the Colorado River TH overnight.  There's alot of beautiful scenery out there. 
I've marked up the map a little, to include places you should turn that aren't obvious.  A quick test in Gaia shows the markers come through, but look a little different.  If you use the Caltopo app, you should see it as it is.
Link to hike map on Caltopo.
Goodbye Blue Monday:
31.51 miles, 6532 foot gain.  Second class.  Strenuous.

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