Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Rocky Mountain Rambling

I couldn't stop asking myself, "What am I thinking" while standing out front of my bosses house at 11:45pm on Friday night. I've finally stopped feeling sore following the Leadville 100 (all of 5 days ago) and here I am, gearing up for an insanely long hike in Rocky Mountain National Park. Then I think of Josh, Josh is my boss who works and works and works. He's also a father of two and rarely gets a day off let alone a day to play up high. So just past midnight we pulled away from his place and headed for the hills. Once in Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) we placed the company van at Bear Lake trailhead, ready to roll upon our return from the ridge we were about to hike. We then drove up and over Trail Ridge Road and park my car at Milner Pass. Our adventure would begin here, right on the Continental Divide at an elevation of 10,700'.


In our party is Josh, our field director Nick and our fellow co-worker Chris. As we start our march up into the darkness, Chris and I get a good chuckle. We break our conversation to ask Josh if we were looking down on the town of Granby. His mumble incoherent answer indicated to us that he and Nick were just zombie walking in the back, asleep.. awaiting the sun to rise. After 4.5 miles of trudging through the darkness, in search of an resemblance of the non-existent trail, we sat atop Mount Ida. Here we took off our packs and bundled up in puffy coats. I put on my rain pants for a little extra protection as a frosty wind blew across the Continental Divide. Here we fueled up and sat quietly amongst the rocks while we watch the sun rise.
Nick watches the sun rise
Mt. Julian Rises above Inkwell, Azure and Highest Lakes
Sunrise
From the top of Mount Ida, I looked down across the void we had to descend into. I could't believe my eyes. I now had to scramble down a 450' drop in less then a quarter mile and then follow it up with a 380' climb in a mere football field distance. Scrambling over sharp volcanic left-overs from ages ago, along a precipitous cliff.. my nerves were shaking but for some odd reason, I smiled at the adventure and off I went.
Click image to enlarge and look closely to find my peers.
While trying to negotiate the rocks down and up this section of the divide.. by the way.. I'm literally right ON the Continental Divide. Our journey takes us along the divide for the entire day but at this point, I'm literally straddling the Atlantic Watershed and the Pacific Watershed. HOW COOL!? Anyway, as I negate the rocks, I continued to watch the sun rise as the mountains turn shades of pink and orange. The Never Summer Range to the west is lit up magnificently in the morning light. Stunning.
Flanks of Mount Ida with Lake Granby below
The Never Summer Range in the morning light
Looking back at Mount Ida
From here we walk along the ridge line, picking our way across a treeless alpine landscape. If I could imagine what walking on the moon is like, this would be it. Not a trail in sight, tiny shrubs and alpine grasses. We can see that things are starting to turn brown in the higher elevations as summer finally starts to come to a close. We're quickly reminded how high up we are and how much winter rules the world up here. After cresting the top of Chief Cheley Peak, we walk high above what is known as Highest Lake and it's amazing glacier. We walk along the ridge, around the upper ledges of the couloir that makes up Highest Lake and over to the top of Cracktop.
Top of the Highest Glacier
Highest Lake
The walk around the top
Cracktop
The View from Cracktop
At the summit of Cracktop, my friends are waiting for me patiently. I'm struggling a bit to stay awake enough to really push it up these peaks. So while sitting around on the top of Cracktop I pause to eat some food, drink some sports drink and soak in the views that surround us. Once again, we're resting on top of the world with nothing.. but air.. and beauty below us.

On top of the world
We take off and make our way down another steep slope, across the upper portions of glaciers and their cirques and eventually onto more forgiving terrain. The worst of our day was over and now, we're walking across the sky on our way to Flattop Mountain. But first, if you look in the photo above, you'll see a pile of rocks jutting up from my right foot. It's an unnamed peak, and we walked to the top of it for shits and giggles. Then, I took close-up pictures of the other side so you could see the effects of the period of vulcanization that ruled this land 70 million years ago. Just look at the way these rocks are set amongst the landscape, proof of the upward force that created these magnificent mountains.
Up-slope
After hitting the summit of this tiny un-named peak, we headed across the ridge towards our next big target, Sprague Mountain. We headed towards Hayden Spear to get a closer look at the summit area where we confirmed that we couldn't achieve the summit without proper ropes and equipment. Bummed out we kept heading out towards Sprague. Once we reach the summit of Sprague, the end destination was finally in view. I layer down on top of some tussle of grasses and fell asleep... for an hour. I woke up with a painful sunburn but I felt refreshed and ready to push. As we looked around, we could see the clouds getting puffier. It was noon, we'd been at this for some 9 hours and we're just barely beyond the halfway point. We fuel up and prepare to push.
Walking to Sprague
Hayden Spire in the center

The Man
Lonesome Lake 
Longs peak in the distance. Hallett Peak is below and to the right of longs, our drop down locale
Post 12,713' Nap
From Sprague we picked it up and headed down off it's steep cone and down towards Sprague Glacier. We walked along the top, again, and glared down at Irene Lake and Rainbow Lake. We finally caught up to an old stream bed known as Eureka Ditch and followed it up through Bighorn Meadows. We spotted a large herd of Elk, some 200 in size, grazing up on high, and met up with the Tonahutu Creek Trail. We walked past Ptarmigan Point and into Ptarmigan Pass before walking to the top of Flattop Mountain. We'd spent much of our entire day above 11,000' and touching the tops of the many 12,000+ foot peaks that make up this side of RMNP. We took pictures of the storm clouds gathering over the top of Longs Peak and the surrounding area. We knew our time above tree-line had come to a close and it was time to rush to the trees. We blitzed down off of Flattop Mountain to the shores of Bear Lake. We threw our gear in the can and headed for home.
Out towards the Mummy Range
Storm clouds rolling in
Longs Peak with a thunder-head hat
Rocky Mountain National Park is a huge park compared to the places I'm used to playing in. For most of my summer I've seen it from the windows of the tour van I drive and the tiny walks across the various overlooks of Trail Ridge Road. On this hike, I learned just how huge, rugged and remote this park truly is. One of America's true gem's, I learned more about the park on this hike then I ever have from a book. Getting off the beaten path has never been so great.

Happy Trails!
SJ