Navigational Error

I’m still in catch-up mode. I used my business trip last week as the excuse for the late report on my Haynach Lake hike. No such excuse this week. It was just a busy week.

August 17, 2013

I won’t exaggerate and say I’ve been over Trail Ridge Road hundreds of times – it’s only in the dozens. And I don’t always stop along the way to enjoy the view. But I have spent a fair amount of time at the Rock Cut looking across the valley at Gorge Lakes, thinking how marvelous it would be to visit them. It has only been the last few years that I’ve even considered actually trying to hike there.

Lisa Foster gives us four possible routes. One way would be to park at the Rock Cut, make the steep descent to the Big Thompson river, find a potentially precarious crossing on a downed tree, then make the climb up the other side. Her description of this route is such that I’m unlikely ever to make the attempt. Another option is up Forest Canyon, which also sounds much too difficult for me. The other two are variations on a theme involving the trail to the summit of Mount Ida, one of which involves a steep descent. I’m not a fan of steep descents.

So I decided to attempt to reach Arrowhead Lake by going up the Mount Ida trail then contouring along the ridge a few hundred feet below ‘Jagor Point’ to ‘Lake Amour’, Love Lake, and up to my destination. I have not been on the Mount Ida trail before. I felt there was a fairly decent chance of spotting some bighorn sheep (which I haven’t seen since childhood) and was looking forward to it since deciding on this hike shortly after returning from Haynach Lake.

The trail starts at Milner Pass, so the most direct route is a drive over Trail Ridge east to west. So far this summer I’ve only driven the road west to east after my west side hikes, always in late afternoon weekend traffic. That means I’ve crawled along in something like a tundra version of rush hour – a nice view, but a frustrating drive in a sports car.

On a Saturday morning before eight it’s another story. I had an almost unimpeded drive; from below Rainbow Curve on the east side to Milner Pass on the west side I only encountered one other car going my direction and was able to pass him as soon as I caught him. Not that I wanted to go particularly fast, but it was a comfortable speed not grossly illegal.

I hit the parking lot in plenty of time to get geared up and on the trail by eight. I again scored the end spot closest to the trail and chatted with another hiker while I changed shoes and strapped on the pack, camera, and tripod. It was then I realized I left my map on the kitchen counter. It’s not the first time I’ve managed to do this, so I wasn’t particularly bothered. It was yet another beautiful morning in the park and I felt I’d studied the map well enough to do without.

Not far up the trail I found this notice:

ATTENTION!!!

 

MOUNT IDA HIKERS

 

The hike from here to the summit of Mount Ida is 3.5 miles of exposed tundra without a maintained trail and few reference points. You will need to pay strict attention to weather and terrain. A map and compass along with a strong sense of direction are paramount to a safe return.

 

Several hikers have been lost in an attempt to return from Mount Ida to their starting point. Don’t be one of them.

I am not deterred. I really did intend to have a map, but I never carry a compass. And I feel I have a strong sense of direction, in spite of making silly mistakes like wandering off in the wrong direction along Grand Ditch on my way to Lake of the Clouds. Ahem.

Not long after this sign I ran into a couple guys loaded down with camping and fishing gear. They were also on their way to Arrowhead Lake. We chatted a bit before I continued on. They had gone less than a mile before taking a break; I would clearly make much better time than them.

Before long I was above treeline and able to take in the view of the Never Summer range and the verdant valley immediately below me. Contrary to the warning sign, the trail looked quite well maintained and easy to follow. In addition, there were several obvious game trails criss-crossing the slope below me. Although saw a deer very near the trailhead, no big game was in evidence. I did see a mother marmot with her adolescent child scurry off the trail in front of me, too quick to get a picture.

Not far above treeline there’s a fork in the trail. I paused here to slather on some SPF and consider my route. Even had I had my map, it wouldn’t have been much help. Though the trail on the ground appears well maintained, it appears not at all on my map. But I must bear to the right, for that leads to the higher ground. So I continue on my way.

The trail isn’t particularly steep, but I paused many times to catch my breath and study the nice views. I wondered how long before I’d see the fishermen on the trail below me. Instead of them, I saw a lone hiker in a white shirt. Every few minutes I’d pause and notice that although this hiker seemed to be standing still, he was closer each time. About the fourth or fifth pause I finally caught him not standing still. He was running.

It was about this time I realized I could use the speedometer app on my phone to determine my elevation. I was at about 11,800′ when he caught me and we chatted. I asked if he’d done this hike before. He hadn’t. He also confessed that he didn’t have a map either and was a bit disconcerted by the warning sign from earlier. He had never been in the park before and was visiting from D.C. I congratulated him on his ability to run up this trail, the better part of twelve thousand feet above sea level.

He continued up the trail ahead of me and there was still no sign of the fishermen. According to my phone, I was now a bit above 12,000′. I looked to the northeast and decided it was time to leave the trail and head toward ‘Jagor Point’, which I decided was ‘right over there’.

I am now forced to decide how to continue this tale. The title of this entry is a bit of foreshadowing. Shall I keep my readers with me in my ignorance of my actual location, or cut to the chase and reveal my error now? Of course, even asking the question here provides its own answer.

Had I had my map, I’d have known I really needed to gain another few hundred feet of elevation before leaving the trail. In fact, I was one valley short of Gorge Lakes. When I reached what I thought was the saddle between ‘Jagor Point’ and Mount Ida, I was perhaps a mile short of there.

Recall that my plan was to contour around this ridge. From my map study, I decided the descent from the saddle was probably too steep for my comfort. But standing where I was I decided it really wasn’t that steep after all. I saw several lakes below me and headed more or less directly toward them, heading to the body of water at the top of the valley.

It was an easy descent, not too much loose talus. I quickly made it to the grassy meadows below. There I saw a few places where the grass was matted down where four or five elk or other large animals had lain down. A bit farther along, I saw an elk lying in a meadow and got the camera ready for a picture. Taking off the lens cap, I inadvertently clicked it against the barrel of the lens. The elk snapped his head in my direction and upon seeing me, he got up and cantered off to the trees toward my right. Dang.

By now it should have been obvious to me I wasn’t where I intended to be. I expected to make about a thousand foot descent from the ridge to the gorge. I probably only went half that distance. The lakes I was going to were substantial, all easily visible from Trail Ridge Road. The ponds I was heading to were much smaller. But I was blissfully unaware. It was a pleasant day and I was in beautiful surroundings. And I have a strong sense of direction.

IMG_9843sI had veered left when the elk ran to the right. A few minutes later, the elk dashed from right to left not far in front of me, followed by another one I hadn’t seen a few moments ago. I snapped a couple photos as they ran by, then continued to the pond in front of me. After a few minutes at this pond I headed down the valley to visit the other “lakes” I had spied from above. The walking was easy. There were a few marshy spots but the few clusters of willow were easily avoided.

I hiked from one lake to another, thinking that if I managed to stay high enough along the base of the ridge I’d soon come to Arrowhead Lake. I made it to the end of the ridge without coming to anything remotely like Arrowhead Lake and still hadn’t realized I wasn’t in the right place.

IMG_9856sOn many of these off-trail hikes I’ve come across piles of bones, bleached white. Some ribs or vertebrae, perhaps a pelvis. Always more than a single bone, always less than a full skeleton. Sometimes I can’t decide what sort of animal it was, and it’s never clear to me how long these bones have been there. This time I found a single leg bone, with skin still attached. Where’s the rest of the beast? Did some carnivore or scavenger make off with just this one?

By noon I had been through this valley without finding a pleasant shore for my picnic, so I found a nice outcropping of rocks with a view of Trail Ridge Road opposite. It was quite hazy due to forest fires in distant Idaho and the clouds didn’t look very entertaining so I didn’t bother setting up the cameras.

IMG_9870sAfter lunch, I worked my way along the ridge in the direction of the Mount Ida trail and an easy hike back to the car. Here well off the trail I found a bit of a puzzle. What is the purpose of these funnels? They don’t look like rain gauges to me, and they’re not hooked up to anything.

I quickly regained the trail and made a mental note of where the hiker should leave the trail to contour below ‘Jagor Point’. Ha ha. I made quick time back to tree line where I ran into a group of hikers led by a ranger. A bit farther down the trail I heard a commotion ahead of me and spotted an elk trotting down the trail. I followed him, snapping pictures. He caught up to a friend where the trail switches back. The two elk continued south, I followed the trail north.

I was back to the trailhead by 1:20, the earliest return to the car all summer. I figured I’d be home pretty early, easily by 4:00. After all, it only took me two hours to make the trip in the morning. It couldn’t take an extra forty minutes due to traffic, could it? Silly question. Of course it could. About a half mile before reaching the Rock Cut I found myself in an impromptu parking lot. This was clearly more than a half dozen cars ignoring the signs instructing drivers not to stop on the road, taking pictures of elk in the far distance. I got the camera out and spied flashing lights at the Rock Cut parking lot. Somebody was having a bad afternoon. We were stopped here for more than a half hour.

When I got home, I consulted the map and compared it to my notes. I visited a lake at 11,500′. There is no lake in Gorge Lakes at 11,500. Nor at 11,350′. So I finally accepted that I’d made a major navigational blunder. But no matter. As I always say when I fail to reach my desired destination, “There’s always another day.” I had a very enjoyable walk in the park, saw some wildlife in its natural habitat, got some exercise, and had a picnic above treeline. What’s not good about such a day?

Maybe next time I won’t forget my map.

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