Every year about this time, the folks over at Rocky Mountain National Park Forums put together a little shindig they call “STOMP”. This is the ninth year. They hike up to Lake Haiyaha, build a couple of igloos and spend a couple of nights. Not everybody wants to sleep in an igloo, though, so there’s a bigger get together on the Saturday of the week allowing the day trippers to get involved with a hike to the igloos followed by a dinner that evening.

Those of us just doing the Saturday hike were to meet up at 8am at the Bear Lake parking lot. I didn’t really want to spend all day on this hike, particularly as it’s a fairly short one. And it would be fairly cold. And I wasn’t that interested in getting up early on a Saturday. I figured I’d be able to follow the tracks of those who did get there on time so wasn’t too concerned about not finding my way. I roughly knew the way. I’ve only ever taken the summer route, and I knew that wasn’t going to happen this time. How hard can it be to follow a path taken by 15 or 20 people just a few hours earlier?

Jerry went with me. I’m somewhat prepared for winter hiking, he’s a bit less. I have a pair of snow shoes, some micro spikes, ski pants and gaiters. I also just recenly bought a decent winter coat and a pair of gloves with fairly long gauntlets. Jerry has ski bibs, hat, gloves and boots and that’s about it. When we got to the parking lot, I gave him the snow shoes and I took the spikes. I figured if we stayed on the beaten path, the snow would be packed enough I wouldn’t need the floatation the snow shoes provide and if I did occasionaly posthole the gaiters would keep my feet dry. If I gave Jerry the spikes and I took the snow shoes, his feet would be wet pretty quickly.

The weather was about normal for the area – mostly cloudy along the divide, wind obviously blowing hard above treeline, and cold but not bitter. The weather wonks predicted snow in the area by noon or shortly thereafter. From the looks of things, it was snowing not far from where we were going.

We hit the trail a bit before 11am and found the rock marking Ed’s departure from the trail without problems. I’d been this way with Ed a couple of times before, but both when there wasn’t any snow. Every time I hike in the snow I’m taken by how different the terrain looks. In some places, there might be only a few inches of snow but a few feet away it may have drifted ten feet deep. Streams and large rocks that may be used as landmarks may be covered completely. Nonetheless, the trail was well trod and easy to follow; snow shoes not necessary.

The forest was quite pretty in its winter clothes, even with the weather closing in. The clouds were not far above us; it was snowing lightly and the gusty wind blew the snow along the ground when we weren’t in denser forest.

I thought if we encountered anybody on this trail they’d be members of the STOMP party. After a few minutes we caught up to a group going our direction. I thought this was a good sign – somebody that might have been up and down this part of the trail. I asked where they were going, expecting to hear something about igloos, but they said they were looking for Bear Lake. I told them they were going in the wrong direction – Bear Lake is behind us. They thanked us and turned around.

We continued on our way. Before long, it became obvious to me that the trail we were following wouldn’t take us to Lake Haiyaha. We were a bit north of where we needed to go. I had come down from Haiyaha last spring on the steep slope directly in front of us and knew we were unlikely to make it up that way. We needed to go to our left and up a more moderate slope. I knew if we’d just reach the top of that ridge the lake would be an easy hike. The trail we were intending to follow must have gone left somewhere that we went straight. But I certainly didn’t see any tracks that way. Blowing snow clearly obscured the correct path.

So we took off cross-country. Jerry took the lead as he was wearing the snow shoes. At times, even he was sinking a foot into the snow. I was often postholing quite badly behind him. Where the slope got steeper he had trouble with traction. We crested a ridge only to reveal another ridge above it. We topped that one to find yet another. I was sometimes sinking hip deep in the snow, crawling to get out. On the plus side, I was warm and dry, all my winter gear doing the job. But I was getting pretty worn out.

It was now about 1pm. I didn’t think Jerry would keep buying that we just had to gain one more ridge and we’d be back on the trail. We chatted about it for a few minutes and decided to back track the way we came. On the way, we kept a lookout for a nice place to sit and eat our lunches. In places we were quite surprised how steeply we had climbed. Soon we found a nice downed tree, barkless and gray, not covered with snow. We ate quickly as we had to take our gloves off.

By the time we were done and on our way again, my fingers were so cold I couldn’t feel them. I wasn’t particularly concerned. I knew that once we were exerting ourselves again I’d warm right up. This was true, it was only five or ten minutes before my fingers were warm again. The snow had stopped falling and sun was sparkling on the snow.

We again ran into other hikers; two groups of four or five hikers each.

“Where are you coming from?” they asked.
“The middle of nowhere. We didn’t get where we were going.”
“Where’s that?”
“Lake Haiyaha. Where you headed?”
“We’re trying to find Bear Lake.”
“Well, you’re heading in the wrong direction.”

One group took off down the trail in front of Jerry and I, the other lagged behind. I’d been looking for signs of tracks I might have missed but didn’t see any. We did come to a fork in the trail, though. The group behind us said the other hikers had gone that way only to reach a dead end. I thought the proper way was to the left and went that way. The group in front of us had by now turned around saying this way was a dead end also. In fact, the trail went nicely up the hill to gain the proper trail from Bear to Nymph. We could even see hikers on that trail. I hollered at the other hikers to follow me and we all got where we were going.

As two of them passed me, one said to the other “I wasn’t worried.” Perhaps he should have been. Granted, Jerry and I never made it to Haiyaha, but we were never lost. I knew exactly where I was. I just missed the tracks to the lake. These folks evidently had no idea where they were and seemed unable to follow fairly obvious tracks. I wonder how long they’d have been wandering around there.

Jerry and I made it back to the car by 3pm. Which left us three hours before pizza. I suggested we grab a beer at the brew pub and off we went. After a couple beers and some appetizers we headed to the shindig. We were still quite early so we sat in the car chatting and watching the clouds creep in from the west. The clouds looked like a big down blanket, slowly slipping over the divide, smothering the Bear Lake area.

Cars started arriving, so we went inside. There was a good turn out, a couple dozen folks at least. All had made it to Haiyaha but us, but no matter. People introduced themselves with their real names and their handles on the forum. I was surprised to find out that folks came from quite a distance for this little shindig. One couple flew in from Brooklyn.

As we were leaving, Mike suggested that we could still make it to the igloos if we wanted. He expected at least one of them to stand for another few weeks. I’m not sure I’ll make the attempt. I know I don’t want to take the summer route and I clearly demonstrated I can’t follow Ed’s route.

Maybe next year I’ll be willing to meet the Saturday group at the appointed time.