Crystal Lake Redux

Last year, Gordon and I spent two nights camping at Lost Lake with the intention of hiking up to Rowe Glacier. I stopped at Scotch Lake but Gordon continued. For a short while, he thought he’d made it to the glacier but finally decided that he, too, had fallen short. When I opened discussion of our next backpacking trip he casually said that he was thinking of visiting Rowe Glacier as a day hike.

I have little doubt that he is capable of doing in one day what I failed to do in three, but I wasn’t sure he was serious. I told him there’s a shorter route, one that would get him to the summit of Hagues Peak as well. I told him, “I happen to have a timed entry pass for 9/5. We could hike together to Lawn Lake, then you could blaze ahead while I hang around at Crystal or Lawn. I could theoretically do the saddle instead of Crystal, but I wouldn’t want to slow you down.”

And, so, we more or less had a plan.

Saturday, September 5

On my trip to Crystal Lake back in July, I arrived at the trailhead a few minutes before seven. That was a weekday and the lot was nearly full. Assuming that on a weekend there might be more people on the trail, we agreed we’d need to start at about the same time. So Gordon arrived at my place to pick me up a few minutes before five-thirty. He brought Eric, one of his co-workers, to join us.

Both Eric and Gordon are fitter than I am, but for the hike to Lawn Lake, they let me set the pace. In July, it took me 2:45 to get from the trailhead to Lawn Lake. Today, I was just a slight bit faster: 2:39. I’ll admit that that made me a bit proud. It’s not exactly a metronomic pace, but it is nice and consistent.

I didn’t stop, or even pause, really, until a bit past Lawn Lake. I wanted to use my first break to apply some SPF and I figured a nice place to do that was sitting on a rock with a view of Lawn Lake below me. I did pause, very briefly, a few minutes earlier to try to get a picture of a bull moose that was a few yards off the trail. He was shy. I got a picture of his backside, but he kept foliage between his head and me. Perhaps he was thinking I couldn’t see him if he couldn’t see me. A further few yards up the trail, we came across a group of deer: a doe and three spotted yearlings.

My break finished, I insisted both Gordon and Eric go ahead of me. It’s steeper here, and where I stopped was about 11,200′ in elevation. The air is getting noticeably thin. There’s no way I can keep up my earlier pace, and I don’t even try.

This is my third time up here, and the first two times I always followed the spur trail to Crystal Lake. This time I continued up toward The Saddle. Not long after this junction, the trail crosses a stream. This is not the outlet from Crystal Lake. Although there’s almost no snow left in the area, the stream still has a significant flow. I couldn’t help but wonder where all the water was coming from. It’s just an indication of how much water the grassy/marshy landscape holds.

Eric was well ahead of Gordon, and Gordon was just thirty or forty yards ahead of me. He pointed out a herd of sheep browsing along the stream. We weren’t very close, and the only camera I had was the cell phone. And the phone isn’t particularly good for telephoto shots. But at least the subjects didn’t go to great pains to hide their heads from me. I wasn’t entirely sure, but I figured they were bighorn sheep, even though I didn’t see any rams with horns that curved all the way around. I’m now thinking they were some combination of ewes and yearlings. I’m pretty sure this is the first time in my adult life that I’ve spotted bighorn sheep in the Park.

Bighorn sheep

Several minutes later, I caught up with Eric. He had tweaked his knee last Sunday hiking Mt. Evans. He was feeling pretty good when we started, but by now he figured if he kept going he might be in a bit more pain than he was willing to put up with. So he decided not to go any further. We weren’t that far from The Saddle. I was hoping to make it that far, just to look over the other side, but I decided it wasn’t that important. I told him there’s a nice spot a bit below us where we could sit on a rock and look down on Crystal Lake. It seemed like an ideal place for a picnic.

Eric takes in the view: Lawn Lake, Little Crystal Lake, Crystal Lake, and Fairchild Mountain

I didn’t pay particular attention to how long we sat on that rock. It was at least half an hour. We had a good view of the lakes below and the spur trail, but I didn’t see anybody down there. On my first visit to Crystal Lake, many years ago, I was the only one there. But two months ago the place was crowded, and that was a weekday. So I was a bit surprised nobody was there today.

Eric started back to the car. He wanted to take his time and didn’t want to slow us down. After a few minutes I decided to make a quick visit to Crystal Lake. It looked to me like it should be easy to cross the little isthmus between the two lakes to find a spot on the north shore of the lake to get a slightly different view.

I didn’t go all the way back to the trail junction, but struck off cross-country, saving me maybe three-tenths of a mile. It all looked so simple from above, but on the ground it was a bit more complicated. Then again, I didn’t spend a lot of time looking for a route. I was guessing Gordon was making quick time of things, and I didn’t want him to pass me on the way out. So my exploration was cursory, and I’ll save a more thorough attempt for my next visit.

I was getting low on water but didn’t replenish my supply at Lawn Lake. I was thinking that I’d have a chance to refill at one of the switchbacks, where I’d be close to Roaring River. This was poor thinking. The river isn’t convenient to the trail until a few yards above the junction to Ypsilon Lake. I made it that far (now not much more than thirty minutes from the trailhead) and stopped. I rummaged through my pack but couldn’t find my Steri-Pen. I would have sworn I had it. I just replaced the batteries in it. But perhaps I neglected to return it to the pack.

A bit below the Ypsilon turnoff, I ran into a couple headed up. They asked if I’d made it to any of the lakes. We chatted a bit. It was nearly four now. I told them it took me nearly three hours to get to Lawn Lake, that Ypsilon was a bit closer, but perhaps a bit steeper. While we were chatting, a group of four hikers passed us in great haste, heading down.

“See that cloud? It’s not a cloud. There’s a fire just over the ridge!” That wasn’t a very good description. I asked them where they were hiking from. They said they’d been to Ypsilon. In any event, I wasn’t certain what I was seeing was smoke instead of clouds, and what did they mean by “just over the ridge”? They didn’t stick around to provide any more details.

Continuing our discussion, I suggested to the couple that they go as far as the river crossing on the Ypsilon trail. They were unlikely to make any lake and get back out before dark. Then they asked for suggestions for tomorrow. Hopefully, they’ll be happy with my guidance.

I made it back to the trailhead at 4:18. I asked Eric how long he’d been waiting; he said he wasn’t waiting long and that he’d gotten a nice little nap. During our chat, I related the tale of my missing Steri-Pen, which I now easily found in the pack. How could I have missed it?

Gordon arrived about an hour later. By now, there was no doubt that what was above us was smoke and not cloud.

When I was applying my sunscreen above Lawn Lake, we all noted how clear the skies were. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, and the smoke we’d been seeing (and smelling) for much of the last month was gone. While waiting for Gordon, Eric and I talked about how folks in the backcountry would never know about a new fire: they’d only know what they saw. We wondered what Gordon may have seen.

He showed us a couple of pictures he took from the summit of Hagues Peak. From his description of the direction and distance, I guessed that this was the Cameron Peak fire, which I haven’t heard about in several days.

Well, it’s in the news again. The smoke plume over our heads was, indeed, from the Cameron Peak fire. This plume went up 36,000′ and as I write this the fire has expanded to more than 34,000 acres (an increase of 10,000 acres Saturday alone) and is dumping ash on Greeley. It has now crossed into the Park and several trails and roads have been closed.

Smoke from the Cameron Peak fire

Every hike I take, I have some goal in mind. Today, it was to reach The Saddle and look over the other side. I didn’t make it. Falling short of my hiking goals just serves as an excuse for another attempt at a later date. Still on the table here are The Saddle and a bit of exploration of the isthmus between Little Crystal Lake and Crystal Lake. And, just a mile up the Black Canyon trail is a body of water called Potts Puddle. So there are still a few new sights for me in this area.

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