Keplinger Lake FAIL

Before I started this blog I had been posting trip reports to a forum for lovers of Rocky Mountain National Park. This is one of those reports, with only minor edits for clarity.

Hike date: 04 August 2012 — Originally posted: 05 August 2012 – 12:22 PM

Lewis W. Keplinger was a student of John Wesley Powell at Illinois State Normal University. Keplinger was a member of Powell’s expedition that first successfully climbed Long’s Peak in late August of 1868. The group first attempted the summit by starting near what is now Lake Powell. They climbed the sharp ridge that connects McHenry’s Peak with Chiefs Head and Pagoda Mtn. They found themselves cut off from their destination by “impassable chasms.” They retreated and made camp near Sandbeach Lake. The next day, Keplinger set off on his own to reconnoiter. He found a couloir winding up the south flank and managed to reach within several hundred feet of the summit before returning to camp after dark. On August 23, the group set off on Keplinger’s route at 7am. In a couple of hours they had attained his highest point where another member of the party remarked that no man could scale the point and live. By 10am, the party made the summit, led by Keplinger.

The hike to Keplinger Lake has been on my list for a couple of years, but I’ve been a bit afraid to attempt it. It’s something like 4 miles of hiking off-trail, and as none of my friends wants to hike with me, I’ve been thinking it’s too much off-trail for me to go solo. But I finally talked myself into it.

I hit the Sandbeach Lake trailhead at 7:30, about a half hour later than I had intended. The forecast was for cool weather, perhaps some rain, and the sky was overcast on the drive up from Denver. There was one little bit of clear, blue sky visible to the west and as I hiked the clouds evaporated leaving a pleasant sunny day with scattered fluffy clouds. The hike to Hunter’s Creek (about 3.2 miles) is pretty basic. The first section reminds me of the first part of the Lawn Lake trail – a fairly quick climb of about four hundred feet, then leveling out somewhat. I reached Hunter’s Creek at 9am.

A hiking report I found on another website said you head up the “faint” trail at Hunter’s Creek. This trail is quite easy to follow, except for the occasional spot where it is interrupted by recent deadfall. I’m guessing this trail is used mostly by folks climbing Long’s using Keplinger’s route, as to continue up Hunter’s Creek you must leave it where another stream meets the creek. From here on, there really isn’t any trail and the bushwhacking begins in earnest.

The forest thins out about this point and soon the hiker is presented with a nice view of Pagoda Mtn. The creek climbs steadily but not very steeply. I found it was often easier hiking to stay ten or twenty yards away from the creek. Before long a large snow bank becomes visible on the flank of Mt. Orton. The creek bends a bit to the right (north) and leads you into… not krummholz exactly, but the same sort of stuff – waist deep shrubbery. I found my way to an outcropping of rocks which put me on the southern shore of the unnamed lake lying about 11,200′. The view was incredible. By now it was 11:30. After a quick look around, I decided the best way to continue to Keplinger would be to back track a bit and cross Hunter’s Creek. I also decided it would take me another hour to reach my destination. Faced with another hour of hiking, or sitting here enjoying the view and eating my picnic lunch, I decided to save Keplinger Lake for another day.

Here’s a time lapse. It’s becoming clear to me that the GoPro isn’t up to the task. The automatic exposure control wreaks havoc on the results; whenever clouds shadowed the camera, it overexposed the view of Pagoda and Long’s. Oh well.

After about an hour I headed back down. I felt great all day, never particularly fatigued, and was making better time than normal at the end of the day. That ended when I got to that steep part just above the trail head. Dang big steps played havoc with my knees.

I didn’t make it to my intended destination, but I learned a few things. I know the route and know that it’s not as difficult as I had feared. The trip report I had read said it would take 8 hours at a fast pace. Clearly, it will take me a bit longer (I was on the trail 8.5 hours and fell a mile or so short) so maybe it’s more like 10 hours. If I can put boots on the trail by 7, I should be able to hit the lake by noon.

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