Friday, November 23
Several days ago I reached out to Ed to see if he’d be interested in hiking with me today. His plans were more ambitious than mine: he said he would be going to the igloo he made the other day and spending Friday and Saturday nights there. He asked if I’d like to join him. I quickly declined, but agreed to spend the day with him. My excuse is that my sleeping bag isn’t sufficient for a November night at 10,500′ in a structure made of snow.
Earlier in the week, the forecast for the day looked pretty good. It would be mid-50’s in Denver, but windy. I don’t know why I keep mentioning the Denver forecast when I’m heading to the Park. In the summer I can count on my time in the Park being much the same as Denver, but cooler. In the winter it may as well be a different planet.
Ed wanted to meet at the Bear Lake parking lot at 7:30. That seemed a bit early for me, so I talked him into 8:00. Lately it has been taking me an hour and forty-five minutes to get to the parking lot, and when I add a few minutes to grab breakfast in Boulder and a few minutes cushion in case I run a bit late, I could leave at 6:00 to meet Ed at 8:00. As it turned out, I left promptly at 6:00 and didn’t have any traffic, so I arrived at Bear Lake at Ed’s preferred time. Which meant I had to wait.
According to the weather report, the forecast for the northern mountains was snow overnight Thursday, clearing up for most of the day, then snow again starting late afternoon or early evening. As of 7:30, the first part of that was more or less accurate. The skies were clear on my drive all the way up to the Bierstadt trailhead, just a few miles from Bear Lake. From there on, it was snowing, but not windy. Here I should mention that the Chrysler isn’t equipped for driving in snow: I have ultra-high performance summer tires on her. They’re fantastic for dry pavement, excellent in the rain, but there are few tires that are worse in the snow.
I’ll also add that the road to Bear Lake was in the worst condition I’ve ever seen. But that’s fairly meaningless, for three reasons. First, I only go to Bear Lake in the winter a few times a year. Second, I’m a fair-weather winter hiker and most times I’ve gone, I could easily take the Lotus (which is worse in the snow than the Chrysler). Third, the park service does a good job of keeping the road clear. So I made it to the parking lot without problem, but made sure to park so I didn’t have to go uphill on my way out, anticipating that conditions wouldn’t get any better.
Ed had posted a few pictures of the igloo on Facebook, but I didn’t have a great idea where it was other than the top of a little ridge with a great view. Given Ed’s range, even restricting it to within a few miles of Bear Lake, that doesn’t narrow it down much. Perhaps I should have asked him before we started, or before I agreed to go with him, but I waited until we were on our way. We stopped for a few minutes and he used his trek pole to make a diagram in the snow.
This is the fourth or fifth time I’ve followed Ed through the snow. He’s led me to Lake Haiyaha a few times and I still don’t think I could get there on his route without his guidance. I think I’m figuring it out. I think I could do it in the summer, but for some reason the terrain looks totally different to me when it’s covered with snow.
My inability to follow his route isn’t because he’s not a good guide. He is constantly pointing out terrain features. Today perhaps he was trying to show me too much. I felt it was a bit of information overload. But that may have been because I was a bit preoccupied. You see, this was a one-way trek with Ed. Because he’d be spending two nights in the igloo, I’d have to find my own way back to the car.
We spent a lot of time turning around and looking back the way we came. “Through the trees here our trail should be fairly clear. But in this clearing it will drift over. You’ll want to avoid the bottom of the gully here. Stay to the left of that log there.” That sort of thing. You see, it was snowing pretty good. The wind wasn’t as bad as it often is here so close to the Divide. But it would be hours before I came back this way.
Where our route crossed the trail from Lake Haiyaha to the junction with the trail to Mills Lake and the Loch, we walked back and forth along that trail so that “tourists” wouldn’t be tempted to follow our tracks. Here we discussed one of my options. I could either follow our tracks, or take the official trail. It didn’t look like the official trail was very well traveled, so I was thinking following our own tracks would be the best bet.
From here our route started getting steep. Our destination was a glacial knob at the eastern end of Otis Peak, immediately north of The Loch, and about 300′ above it. Ed knows I’m not a big fan of the steep stuff, so he gave me a bit of a pep talk. The final approach to the igloo would be quite steep. He compared it to the descent we made from the ridge on the south side of Dream Lake back in the spring. It would be that steep, but not that long, and broken into short segments.
On that final approach there was only one spot that had me bothered. It was a bit tough climbing it, as the snow seemed to want to give way under my weight. I had to be very careful to put my weight directly above the balls of my feet, which I found a bit of a challenge. At one point, I was almost crawling up the snow.
The igloo is sited atop a rock outcropping, with clear views to the east and south. Or, it would have clear views if the weather was clear. When we arrived, we could see a bit down the Bear Lake road and we had a view of Half Mountain. A cliff face of Otis was just a few yards away to the northwest, and the northern flank of Thatchtop was prominent to the south. After a quick look at the surroundings, we retreated to the shelter of the igloo for lunch.
We ate and chatted for about forty-five minutes. My soda was nice and cold, but my water was colder: it was starting to freeze. This should not have surprised me, but it was a bit distressing to have to knock a plug of ice out of the mouth before I could take a sip. We set my water bottle beside Ed’s little furnace. Although it was nice and cozy inside, it wasn’t warm enough to melt the ice. Standing up, though, I found that the air was close to fifty degrees at the top, while it was more like freezing down at the level of the door.
After lunch it was time for me to head back. When we popped out of the igloo, it was quite obvious how the conditions had changed. Visibility was just a few hundred yards. Ed kindly escorted me down the steep bits and I was soon on my way, retracing our steps from the morning. These steps, of course, were our most recent. So they had had the least amount of snow, either freshly fallen or wind-blown, obscuring them. In the trees it was quite easy to follow them. I was feeling pretty good, in spite of the degraded conditions.
The first challenging part was around a small unnamed body of water that Ed likes to call “Beautiful Lake Marv”. We had walked through an open area where the wind gets an unimpeded run. Our track was completely erased. Ed’s advice was to stay to the left and don’t go down into the gully. It took me a few minutes, but I eventually did spot our trail below me. I was able to follow it all the way down to the trail from Haiyaha.
On the way up, we didn’t just cross directly over it. After reaching it, we went along it for maybe a hundred yards, then left it. I thought I’d easily find where we gained the trail, but I had no luck. Some other hikers had come through; I followed their tracks off the trail, but they just made a short excursion to look at the stream. After a couple times up and down the trail looking for my way, I decided that the tracks along the official trail were my best bet, so off I went.
Although a bit longer, it was an easy hike out. I arrived at the trial junction in good time and ran into a few hikers. Two guys asked me how it was the way I came. I told them I didn’t go all that far. They told me they’d come up the Fire Trail and that it was pretty clear. So that’s the way I went. A few minutes later they passed me, one on skies, the other booting it. They went at a pretty good clip, the one in boots running.
By now the wind was getting pretty fierce. Even in the wooded sections, the trail was getting harder to follow. Those guys were just a few minutes ahead of me and their tracks were indistinct. Then a few minutes later another pair of hikers passed me, and shortly after that the trail was sufficiently out of the wind that it was quite obvious.
I was back to the car by 2:45. There were surprisingly few cars in the parking lot. My car was the closest to the top of the hill, and was pretty well covered by snow. By 3:00 I was on my way. I practically crawled along the road, ABS engaging quite a bit. My doors don’t lock until I reach 13mph. They didn’t lock until I passed the Glacier Gorge lot. Even going so slow, I managed to catch two other cars, who pulled over to let me by. The road was pretty treacherous, with blowing snow creating blizzard-like conditions, until about Hollowell Park. At Moraine Park, a ranger had his truck, lights flashing, blocking up-bound traffic. Clearly, they weren’t letting people go any farther. That explains why there were so few cars at Bear Lake.
So, to recap: I walked through sometimes blizzard-like conditions, up and down sometimes incredibly steep terrain, sometimes trying to follow my own vanishing tracks in the snow, then drove my car on summer tires through more blizzard conditions. Through all that, I was warm and dry. What can I say? It was another beautiful day in the neighborhood.