I have been aching for another walk in the Park. I was thinking it has been two months since my last hike, but I see it’s more than three. Definitely past due. I reached out to Ed to see what he had on his calendar. Thursday worked for both of us, so Thursday it was.
Thursday, December 26
I told Ed I’d pick him up between 8:10 and 8:20. For a while, I thought I’d be late. There was more traffic than I’d expected. And it was foggy. Dense enough that you couldn’t see much past your headlights. And a surprisingly large number of drivers didn’t bother with headlights.
North of Boulder the road goes alongside the foothills and up the slope I could see blue skies while everything to the east was in the soup. By the time I got to Lyons, I was out of it. There wasn’t much traffic north of Boulder. I made up the time I lost earlier and pulled up in front of Ed’s house right at 8:20.
We got to the Bear Lake parking lot in good time and met the third of our party, Judy. She’d hiked with Ed once or twice in the past. Since I can’t drive wearing my big hiking boots, I have to get ready when we get there: take the shoes off, put on the snow pants, put on the gaiters and boots, change to the heavy coat, and all the rest. Ed and Judy went up and chatted with the volunteers while I got it together.
We began by taking Ed’s winter trail to Lake Haiyaha. Or, two-thirds of it anyway. At the meadow at the top of the gully, instead of heading uphill to the right we went left. I keep thinking I should know my way on this route, having been on it several times now. Today, his trail was pretty easy to follow. He’s been working on it all season, and for most of the way I’d have been okay wearing micro-spikes instead of snowshoes, the base was that good.
Our route took us between West Glacier Knob and the eastern flank of Otis Peak, along the shores of “Beautiful Lake Marv”. Today, not so much along the shores as right across it. This is one of three unnamed lakes in the immediate vicinity that Ed has named.
Just before arriving at The Loch, we met up with the last few yards of the summer route. I was a bit surprised to see so many footprints here. The other times I’ve been to The Loch in winter, I came up the stream. The hike so far had been quite pleasant. A bit on the cool side, but no wind at all. The skies to the east were still quite clear, but above the Divide was a maelstrom, often blotting out the sun.
At the lake, though, the wind whipped in a steady gale down the valley, blowing snow across the ice. All the nice sunny summer picnic places today were instead cold, bleak stone benches blasted by blowing snow. Naturally, I had to suggest we stay here long enough to get some time-lapse video. I sent Ed and Judy to find a place out of the wind, following after I got the camera running and set in a place I thought the wind wouldn’t move it.
I found them a hundred yards or so away, in a hollow half surrounded by a fifteen-foot snowdrift. There wasn’t any place to sit, but it was out of the wind. We told each other stories until we decided standing still wasn’t the most fun thing to do, whence I went and collected the camera. It ran for not quite twenty minutes and looked to be exactly where I left it.
We left by the route I’d always used in winter: down the outlet stream. When we started down it occurred to me that my other winter trips here were later in the season. Today there isn’t nearly as much snow here as before. I could see why the summer trail was still carrying all the traffic: this was not the easiest way down.
We took another short break at the hitching posts near the bridge to Mills Lake. The snow was deep enough to make them nice benches. I ate about half my lunch here. After a few minutes, we were moving again.
Ed took us from the trail junction on a route that included the two other unnamed lakes that Ed has named: Joyce’s Pond and Zone Lake. As bodies of water, they’re not much to brag about. But all three of these little ponds have three nice attributes: they’re a short hike, have nice views, and very few visitors.
All day on the trail it was Ed leading, Judy in the middle, and me at the back. When you’re hiking, anything you say is projected forward. Being in the back I couldn’t hear what Ed and Judy were talking about. Which, actually, was fine.
I could be unengaged. I was always following, never leading. I didn’t do any navigation, I didn’t set the pace, I generally wasn’t involved in any conversation. We weren’t on any sort of schedule. It was easy walking. It was a beautiful day. I could let my mind wander. I soaked in my surroundings. I enjoyed myself immensely.
It has been a bit more than a month since my last post, so I’m a bit overdue. Last time, we’d put a fair amount of effort in and didn’t even complete the install of the rear clam kit. And I made some sort of promise as to how far we’d get by the next (this) post. Given that everything we do seems to take three or four times as long as the instructions say, it’s a no-brainer that I over-promised. So it goes.
I wanted to (more or less) finish with the clam kit. The first step was to make that minor repair to the rear clam where the boot lid hinge attaches. I waited until we had a fairly warm day so that I wouldn’t have any issues with the epoxy. Given our stretch of weekends where it was cold, this simple step took a surprisingly long time. Sure, it was just a few minutes of actual work and an hour or three of drying time, but this elapsed over three weekends.
After that, Michael spent a few evenings after work tearing the car down. I’m pretty much useless for this portion of the work so I left him to it, venturing out to the garage after he was done each night to snap some photos.
Before long, he notified me that he’d gotten as far as he could and it was finally time to take the engine out of the car. Which meant it was time to go to Harbor Freight and pick up an engine hoist (some assembly required).
Silly me, I didn’t realize until we assembled it that it doesn’t include the load leveler bit. So, naturally, it was more than one trip to the store before we could get around to extracting the lump from the back of the car.
This is a major milestone.
With the motor out and the area around the back of the car more or less accessible, we figured it was a good time to test fit the clam back on the car. The word on the street is that sometimes things don’t line up exactly as expected and we might need to come up with a way to shim things so it all matches. From our quick look at things, we look to be in good shape. We didn’t tighten everything down, but everything lines up okay. That means, next time we need to get some room to work, we’re not looking at four hours to get the clam off. It should be more like fifteen minutes (famous last words).
Now let’s take a look at some (perhaps) interesting details.
I noticed what could be a date alongside some Japanese writing. I have no idea what it says. I shouldn’t be surprised to see Japanese writing inside my Toyota engine, but I got a kick out of it. Take a good look at the left side of the photo. This is why the engine has to go. That bit should be a nice machined surface and the snout needs to fit rather snugly inside the flywheel. Other than this bit of damage, the engine is still good. But replacing the crank is a bit more than we’re willing to deal with on our own. So the engine has to go.
Here’s one of the flywheel bolts. Note the damaged threads.
Here’s a closeup of the center of the flywheel. This bit mates up with the bit to the left of the Japanese writing. Not exactly a precision fit.
Finally, with the rear clam back on the car, it looks like a car again. Except for the giant hole in the center where the engine is supposed to be.
Next step is to order a gently used 2ZZ-GE long block, a flywheel, and flywheel bolts. The vendor is closed until the start of the year so I’ll need to be patient.
After a great deal of back and forth between “yes I will” and “no I won’t”, I’ve settled on “yes I will”. Yes, I will go with a lightweight flywheel. Several times now I’ve had the choice of whether to stick to the original equipment or to make a performance upgrade. So far, I’ve stuck with original equipment. Although I track the car a handful of times a year, I think of it as predominantly a street car. I don’t really want to make changes that result in it being hard to drive in traffic. But I’m going to go ahead with the light flywheel. Most everybody I’ve talked with regarding a light flywheel says it’s not a big adjustment.
One more piece of foreshadowing: There are some “creature comfort” features the car has that I never use.
One is the air conditioning. I’ve turned it on three our four times in the near-decade I’ve owned the car. It fails to cool the tiny cabin. We’ll leave the plumbing in but take out the heavy bits, the compressor and condenser. Since I never use the A/C, I don’t see the point of keeping it in the car given that with it all taken apart it’s a simple job of removing it. So we’ll need to figure out how long of a belt we’ll need as the original will now be too long.
The second is the radio. Even before I did the motor mounts, the radio was only of use when sitting at stoplights. I thought maybe I’d leave it in as it shows the time. But due to one thing or another, the time displayed was almost always wrong. I’ve already removed the two rear speakers. We’re not digging into the dashboard as part of this work, so I’ll have to take it to a car stereo place for the work. After some searching on the internet, I see I can replace it with a small storage area with a door. So it’ll be a mini glove box.
I probably need to make this video a bit shorter, but here’s us using the hoist to extract the engine.
Today we take our first steps down the tortured path of replacing my engine. Hopefully, we can get it all done in a reasonable amount of time. I have no particular target date in mind, but I’m hoping we’ll be done by March.
My goal for today was to get the rear clam off and install the “modular rear clamshell kit” from Radium Engineering. I’m not sure why they call it “modular”. There’s not a lot to it: a billet aluminum decklid hinge brace, 4 black anodized laser cut aluminum body shim pads (73% lighter than stock), 4 green anodized aluminum body shim spacers, 2 sets of precut super adhesive velcro, and stainless steel hardware. The hinge brace is available in black (“Bright Dip Black”), silver (“Titanium Silver”), or green (“Radium Green”). I went for the green. I’m not sure how much of it will be visible when it’s all done, but I felt it necessary to go with the green.
The idea is that with this kit it’ll be easy to remove the clam. I’m not sure how often, after this engine ordeal, I’ll want or need to remove the clam, but if there’s ever a time to do it, it’s now. Okay, maybe the time to do it would have been last winter when we did the clutch job. So it goes.
The instructions said, “Allow 1-2 hours for initial disassembly.” We managed it in four. From now on, when the instructions give us an expected duration, we should guess how long it’ll actually take. I’m sure it’s faster if you’ve done this before, but this is our first time. The instructions were pretty good. The only surprise we had was that, because I have the Track Pack, I have a harness bar. The instructions don’t cover that possibility. There was much head-scratching and wondering what sort of parlor trick would be involved in getting it out so we could remove the rear speaker panel. We managed, and it probably only added 15 or 20 minutes.
When we finally gave up, we had the clam off but didn’t complete the install of the clam kit. The flange where the kit mounts is broken. I need to get some epoxy and make a repair. It won’t be visible, so it doesn’t need to be pretty.
In any event, as I say, the clam is off and now we have unrestricted access to the engine. Next time, we’ll complete the installation of the kit and get the car back on the ground. We have lots of parts scattered everywhere, including the seats. When the clam kit installation is complete, we can put the interior back together.
Then we can start the disassembly/removal of the engine.
I very nearly titled this entry “Money Shift Forensics”. I was thinking “forensics” was a suitable synonym for what I really want to say. But forensics is defined as “scientific tests or techniques used in connection with the detection of crime”. I’d say my missed shift lies more in the neighborhood of negligence than criminality. Although the car isn’t dead (and never was alive, for that matter), parts of the car certainly are dead so I think “postmortem” is a better word in this case.
Monday, October 14
In spite of Ryan having a few other Lotus to work on, he was able to start digging into my issue on Monday. He started it up for a few seconds to hear the noise. Then he got to work pulling things apart and assessing the damage.
Initial reports looked good. In an email at the end of the day he said, “I actually think we may have dodged a bullet here!” At that point the extent of the damage looked to be limited to the flywheel. But the investigation had just begun. He wanted to remove the transmission, continue the inspection and record some measurements of the crank to verify no damage has occurred. Ryan suggested that, all said and done, I might get out with a bill for parts and labor “near the 3k mark. This is assuming that there are no engine issues found or any other hidden gremlins.”
He asked me for authorization to remove the transmission to continue the inspection. So far, I’d be billed for 2 hours of labor. To continue, it starts to get expensive: “11.5 hrs for transmission removal and inspection, clutch and flywheel replacement.”
I consented and waited patiently.
Later in the week I was telling a coworker my tale of woe. I made the rather flippant remark that “I’d taken the car to the most expensive place I could think of” to get the work done.
Monday, October 21
That bullet that we dodged? Not so much.
Here is the email Ryan sent me late on the 21st:
I was able to get the transmission off this afternoon and have a look. I first removed the clutch and found all 8 of the flywheel bolts to be EXTREMELY loose and had backed out. This allowed the flywheel to vibrate at such a rate where it almost welded itself to the nose of the crankshaft. After about 5 minutes of prying with 2 pry bars (side to side) I was able to release the flywheel from the crank. This should normally pretty much fall off once the bolts have been removed.
The galling was so bad between the flywheel and the crank that the remnants left on the mounting flange of the crank as well as the nose is very severe. I noticed a couple things during the removal as well. There was an oil leak from the back of the engine. This was because the bolts were loose without any type of thread seal/lock applied. These holes are open to the crankcase through the crankshaft.
So, here we go. Because the galling and build up on the flange mounting face and the nose is so bad we pretty much have 2 options.
OPTION 1) I attempt to remove as much of the galling as possible, replace the rear main seal, flywheel, and bolts and hope for the best. Having this professionally machined would be just about impossible with the crankshaft installed in the engine and/or the engine installed in the vehicle.
*** THIS I DO NOT RECOMMEND. The crank is a perfectly machined piece where the flywheel and clutch assembly are designed to fit flush with almost zero runout. A small variance here will be very large at the outer circumference. Apply this to an 8500 max rpm limit and track use, the repercussions down the road may be worse than what we have seen here.
OPTION 2) We replace the engine. New, used, rebuilt, whatever you’d like. This will provide the safest option for the future, the best outcome, and guarantee the most trouble free in the long run.
Option 1 doesn’t sound too good to me, so that means I’ll be replacing the engine. The first decision to make, then, is who will do the work. As I said above, this is pretty much the most expensive place I could have it done. It may very well be that no one would do a better job than Ryan. Even with the club discount rate for labor, I’m already near twelve hundred for the diagnostics.
We initially thought we dodged the bullet because the timing chain is okay and there is no damage to the pistons and valves. So perhaps there’s some salvage value to be had out of this engine. Compression is good, and the top half was rebuilt less than two years ago.
Ferrari of Denver doesn’t get as much work over the winter as summer, so it would be better for them to utilize Ryan at a lower rate than for him to be idle. And as I’m in no hurry to get it done, they would have scheduling flexibility. So Ryan put together a quote for the work with a deep discount.
It was not an unreasonable quote, but it’s not a small number. I don’t want to go into debt to get the car running again. With the luxury of having four or five months to get it running again, I think Michael and I can get the job done. It doesn’t look like it will be difficult to get a good replacement engine. Michael has done an engine replacement before and he graduated with high marks from the same school as Ryan, so I have every confidence in him.
Now I just need to get the car home.
Friday, October 25
The other Ryan came to the rescue again.
We met at 10:00 at Ferrari of Denver. They got a few guys to help us push it out, thinking perhaps that we’d need to push it into the trailer. They seemed impressed by the winch in the trailer, and that my little tow ring was robust enough to pull the car. They asked Ryan if he had the same tow ring. “No, but it threads into the same hole.”
My big concern was getting it into the garage. We could winch it in, but not winch it out. The driveway is sloped enough that the car is almost level when the back tires are on the ramps. With the tongue of the trailer as high as it would go, we’d still have to push it uphill. And at tipping point, it would start to roll down the ramp and into the garage, so somebody had to be in the car to hit the brakes. Which meant only one of us could push.
But Ryan backed the trailer up, inch perfect, and we easily got the car into the garage. With it backed into the garage it’ll be a lot easier to deal with than when we did the clutch; we should have backed it in then, but I didn’t give it a second’s thought.
This one hurts
I’ve spent quite a bit on repairs, but this one is different. Brakes and tires and the clutch are all wear items. The ordeal of the camshaft was engineering failure: first the excessive wear on the cam, a widespread problem, and then compounded by defective parts from Toyota. The suspension failures were both due to failures of bolts. Those bolts aren’t generally considered wear items, but I now have their replacement on my calendar. The wheel studs will also be replaced on a schedule.
None of those repairs was due to any fault of mine, other than putting miles on the car.
I’ve run laps at La Junta one time before, two years ago with CECA. I really had a good time. I describe the track as “rinky dink” yet outstanding: it’s short and flat with six right turns and only one left turn. And yet it’s the only track I’ve been on with a turn that I can take at 100mph. On street tires.
I’ve been wanting to get back there. Last year I made a half-hearted attempt to get the LoCo track rats to do a day. Nothing came of it. This year I put in a bit more effort. After a series of emails with Ryan and Dave to come up with a few possible dates I reached out to Allan at La Junta Raceway to see what we could do. And so we had our first LoCo Track day at La Junta Raceway.
Saturday, October 12
Google Maps tells me La Junta Raceway is 192 miles from my house. The sensible thing to do would be to get a room, as I did last time. But I often get up before 5:00am when I’m hiking, so why should I treat this any different? So I packed the car last night and set my alarm for 4:40. I was out of the house at 5, at the gas station in La Junta a few minutes after 8, and at the track in plenty of time for the 8:30 drivers meeting.
Entry was $100, which is about what HPR charges for half a day. We were hoping we could get 5 Lotus out there. We did get 5 signed up, but Dave’s Elise is up for sale at FoD and his Porsche is leaking fluids, so he scratched. When I looked at the roster Thursday evening there were 9 cars. We had six show up and one of those wasn’t one of those 9.
We ran in two groups: LoCo at the top of the hour, the “mixed group” at half past. It wasn’t so much a mixed group as a German duo: a Porsche and an M series BMW. Allan provided pizza for lunch and coffee and donuts for the drivers meeting.
The meeting had all the usual stuff: talk about the flags, passing, entering and leaving the track. The unusual stuff took up most of the agenda.
My first visit here we ran the whole day counter-clockwise. This is the orientation the track was built for. Today we’d do the morning sessions clockwise and do the normal way in the afternoon. So that was a big topic in the meeting. There are non-trivial concerns when running the track the wrong way. One of the (concrete) corner bunkers is on the outside of the exit of a turn and there are no tires on this side of it. There’s a giant cottonwood tree on the outside of the end of the fastest turn on the track. And the end of the pit wall would be a bad thing to hit.
Oregon Raceway Park was designed to be run in both directions, and that’s what we did on my visit there. I found it disorienting and never had enough laps to get comfortable on it in either direction. La Junta is much smaller and simpler, and I was certainly comfortable running it the normal way. Our first session was only about fifteen minutes as we got a late start. But that’s okay. It was still fairly chilly. Nobody would be going very fast with cold tires on a cold track.
I ran with the top off, as usual. Under my driving suit I had my sweater and hoodie. I was bulky but warm. By the second session I shedded those layers as the weather turned ideal. Sunny, calm, mid-60’s or even low-70’s.
The track is adjacent to the airport. Back in WWII it was La Junta Army Airfield, a training base that accommodated a large number of twin engine aircraft on its three runways. Deactivated in 1946, it’s much calmer these days, and only two runways have been used since then. The track uses the southern end of the disused runway and taxiway. I may have missed one or two, but I saw four or five planes and a helicopter all day. The helicopter is that of the local medical transport outfit.
One of the pilots stopped by and visited with us. Interesting guy. Flew for the Marines for 26 years, recently started doing medical transport. Works seven days on, seven days off; twelve hours on, twelve hours off. He had lots of questions about the cars. I loved his language. The cars are ships, horsepower is thrust, speeds are in knots. Upgraded brakes and tires are “varsity” brakes and tires. I’m surprised he didn’t call us drivers “pilots”. I told him if he could borrow a helmet I’d give him a ride.
Got him strapped in, told him I wouldn’t be able to hear him once we were going, and headed out. He was very enthusiastic, giving me a big thumbs-up after each turn. Then I made a mistake. Exiting the fastest turn and onto the long straight, I miss the shift from fourth to fifth and instead did fourth to third. I caught it in an instant and got into a correct gear. Damn. But nothing happened. Well, it seemed nothing happened. Half a lap later when I entered a braking zone and lifted off the throttle the car made a bad rattling noise. I went back to the paddock.
It sounded and felt good on the throttle, only making the rattle off throttle. After a short trip around the paddock I didn’t drive it again. I did start it twice more for a few seconds each time. The consensus was a rattling exhaust or a broken motor mount. I didn’t say anything about my missed shift. We took the diffuser and access panel off and poked around. No problems with exhaust or motor mounts. Listening to the last few seconds I ran it, it was clear to me it was inside the motor. I’m screwed.
Finally somebody asked if I’d missed a shift.
I lied. I said “no.”
Why did I do that? Obviously, I should have led the investigation with the admission that I missed a shift. Would have saved everybody the trouble of looking for rattling exhaust or broken motor mounts. Why did I lie?
I’ve driven stick shift cars for thirty years, more than four hundred thousand miles, and about fifty track days. Only missed shifts I’ve ever made have been second to fifth instead of second to third. Never the money shift.
For a long time, I’ve taken pride in the notion that I’m kind to the equipment, getting more miles out of brakes and clutches and tires than most of my peers. But this notion is under assault: twice I’ve had suspension bolts fail on the track, had wheel lugs fail, broke a motor mount, and replaced the clutch at 80,000 miles. Now the money shift.
I also take some measure of pride in thinking of myself as an honest guy. I claim to value honesty, openness, and transparency. If I was open and transparent I’d have said I missed the shift first thing. If I was honest, I wouldn’t have denied it when asked.
We gave up looking at my car when the pizza arrived, and I tried to relax for the next few hours. When I could think of things other than the events of the morning the time seemed to pass faster. So when Kevin asked if I’d like to ride with him and maybe drive his car for a couple laps of instruction I agreed. I’m not an instructor. I often have to reflect on events after the fact to realize exactly what’s going on. My videos help a lot on this. Maybe I rely too much on the videos, and if I didn’t have them I’d be better at being in the moment.
In any event, I did my best to see what tips I could share with Kevin. This is only his second track day, so he’s a bit of a clean slate. I didn’t try to communicate anything to him until after we did a full lap, then I tried to correct his line in a few places. In general, he wasn’t getting the car close enough to the apexes, he tended to apex early, and often didn’t let the car run out to the edge of the track exiting the corners.
After five laps we swapped places and I drove. I drove three laps; an out lap, a hot lap, and an in lap and we switched back. He then drove another five laps. His times after seeing what I did improved by four or five seconds a lap, and were more consistent from lap to lap. He’s so new at this, I’d expect his times to steadily improve with practice without my input, but I think I helped him out quite a bit.
The guy in the BMW was there giving a ride to his grandfather who used to race cars back in the fifties. The grandfather, whom I’d never met before and who, to this point, I’ve exchanged maybe a dozen words with, said if he still had his trailer he’d get me and the car home. You meet some pretty nice folks at the race track. (Addendum: I wasn’t the only mechanical victim of the day. The BMW driver had a broken strut and when we left, his car was still out on the track.)
The obvious next issue was how to get the car home. The obvious answer was to ask Ryan what it would take to get him to drive his Exige home and put my car in his trailer. All it took was to ask. Ryan is a lifesaver.
Ryan drove his car and I drove the truck with trailer. I got out of the gas station before he did, so we were separated from the start. He’d programmed the GPS in the truck to navigate to his house so I didn’t bother with using my phone. This turned out to be a problem. The truck’s satnav didn’t know there’s a bridge out. I stopped and consulted my phone. It said I could go a few hundred yards ahead to take a county road east. I should have turned around right there, but instead I followed my phone’s directions.
I got to this first county road and it looked like somebody’s driveway. Phone says there’s another one up ahead. So I went to the next one. It was a nice gravel road, but it looked like it dead-ended. On I went. The next county road was a just a double track, like a single lane jeep road. No way I was going to pull this trailer down any of these roads.
So I had to turn around and go back. I got to sort of a wide spot and managed to flip a u-turn without sinking into the shoulder, having to back up, or jack-knifing the rig. The detour took me six miles east to cross the river, then six miles back to the road I was on. But I think it was still a better route than dealing with the construction on I-25.
Ryan was using his phone for nav, so he got routed across the river without incident and was now almost ten miles ahead of me.
Our first waypoint was Limon, where we could stop and grab a bite. But this is quite a bit up the road, so I had plenty of time to reflect on the day. I was pretty down about my driving error and tried not to think about how much it might cost to repair. I was also quite ashamed about lying about it.
I phoned Michael and confessed about the money shift. I was originally thinking we’d take the car home, but given our limited resources it was obvious the best plan was just to drop it off at FoD. The LoCo meeting was scheduled for the next day, so I’d be able to explain it all to Ryan and discuss the way forward. (Oh dear. I generally don’t use last names here, but we now have two Ryans in the story. I was going to use last initials, but they’re both Ryan C.)
We dropped the car at FoD at about 8:00pm. Ryan offered to give me a lift home, but that’s not an optimal choice. I took a Lyft instead.
Sunday, October 13
The meeting was scheduled for noon, so I got there about 11:30. Ryan was right there when I pulled up, and I gave him my tale of woe. It would be the first of many tellings, as we had a nice turnout. Before long, I realized I was a topic of conversation. Everybody knew the story pretty quickly. So it goes. I was a little surprised that so many people weren’t familiar with the term “money shift”.
I told Ryan to take his time getting to it. I’m sure he has a few cars in front of me. He’ll take a good look at it and let me know the diagnosis and we’ll discuss a treatment plan.
Here’s the video. A couple of laps to get a feel for the track when going the wrong way. Note the unprotected bunker (0:34), the tree (1:00), and the end of the pit wall (1:07). I had a couple of faster laps later in the session, but the forward facing camera died half way through. Evidently, I need to plug that camera into the charger after every session.
Our last sojourn with the club was spring of last year. If I’m counting correctly, that means we missed two trips since then. So we’re due for a weekend outing. This time we’re sticking closer to home and shortening the trip to two days/one night.
Mike has now put so many of these trips together that he’s probably driven every paved mile of every state and US route west of I-25 at least twice, and certainly many miles of county road as well. His routes are well designed and documented, and thoroughly scouted. Thanks Mike!
Saturday, September 28
Our rally point was an Alta station in Woodland Park. A quick drivers meeting at 9:45 for a 10:00 departure. We left the house at 7:30 and would grab breakfast and stop at a Subway to make our picnic lunch on the way. We hit the superslab and went through the Springs. This may have been our first suboptimal decision. I think the route through Deckers is as fast, but I figured food would be easier the other way.
I’m not a big fan of Interstates to start with. But the stretch between Denver and Colorado Springs is at the top of the list of Interstates I particularly dislike. There’s been too much traffic for twenty-five years and it only gets worse. A bunch of people go too fast, and another bunch never gets out of the left lane. Now the level of difficulty has been bumped up with a twenty-one mile stretch of construction: narrow lanes, lane diversions, concrete barriers, reduced speed limits.
But today is a beautiful, clear Saturday morning in early fall and perhaps a lower than average number of inattentive drivers are out and about. The worst offenders today are the ones who you catch up to at a steady rate but speed up when you go to pass them. If that’s the worst behavior we encounter all weekend, that would be great.
We had a fast food breakfast, got our picnic lunches, and made it to the rendezvous with time to spare.
This trip is not only 2/3 of the normal duration, but about 2/3 of the normal number of cars. The Lotus contingent is a Europa, four Elises (one each of red, yellow, green and blue), and a Westfield 7. In theory, we could have had two more Elises, both orange, but the passenger count required larger vehicles so two M series BMW’s were substituted (an M4 and an X3). Also on the substitution list were two Esprits. One went down with an electrical problem a few days ago, so it is replaced by a Range Rover. The other is an X180R and is not as well-suited to these trips as the Jaguar XK-R. And, finally, a sharp, sporty Cadillac piloted by a former Elise owner.
Our first stop was the Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument. It might be natural to try to compare Dinosaur National Monument to this place, but they’re not at all the same. Florissant is six thousand acres of sub-alpine forest, while Dinosaur is high desert with deep canyons and is thirty-five times bigger. Forissant’s treasures are 34 million years old, a world dominated by mammals, while Dinosaur’s are, well, dinosaurs.
Thirty four million years ago, the Florissant area was prime lakeside land in a forest of giant redwood trees. Then a nearby volcano erupted and filled the place with lahar and ash, preserving the stumps of the giant trees. In addition to the giant stumps, there are layers of “paper shale” that hold fine specimens of plant and insect fossils.
The place has a smallish visitor center. There are displays that describe the geology and have examples of the fossils and interactive dioramas. There’s also the usual gift shop. Outside, there is a set of large stumps with roofs over them, and several trails that go out into the fields. We took the one mile loop and saw a number of the stumps in various conditions.
The fossil beds were notorious a century ago and people came from all around to take home pieces of the stumps. The place was comprehensively looted. As late as 1956 it was still going on. Walt Disney visited Florissant and arranged to buy one of the stumps. I understand it’s still on display at Frontierland.
After a bit more than an hour at Florissant we hit the road for Victor and Cripple Creek. These were flourishing towns in the gold rush days. In those days, most of the fortunes were made by the people who supplied and supported the miners, rather than the miners themselves. A story I find amusing is that of the guy, building his hotel in Victor, who struck gold digging the foundations.
Cripple Creek has lived on tourism and gambling for decades, but gold mining made a bit of a comeback. The road from Victor to Cripple Creek passes around the Cripple Creek and Victor Gold Mine, operated by Newmont Goldcorp. Newmont is the second largest producer of gold in the world, but this is not one of their larger operations. It is large enough, though, that I expect the mine to completely level a mountain.
We had our picnic lunches at a park in Cripple Creek. They had a festival going on, with the main drag downtown closed to traffic. A stage was a the top of the road with a live band playing sixties radio fare. Lots of the usual sorts of vendors, and a few food trucks. We’d heard that there was a car show, but we missed it. We did see another group pass through: a few Corvettes and a Ford GT.
Our third leg of the day takes us to the Royal Gorge over a series of Teller County roads. Much of this leg was on roads I’d never been over before. There wasn’t much traffic. We weren’t going particularly fast, but it’s always nicer to pick our own pace.
At one time, the Royal Gorge was the highest suspension bridge in the world at nearly a thousand feet above the river. There are now a couple higher bridges in China. Those probably are used to get from one place to another. The Royal Gorge, though, is a bridge to nowhere. When I was a kid, you could still drive across it. Even then there wasn’t anyplace to go on the other side: you had to cross back over the bridge.
Today, of course, it’s pedestrian traffic only. I haven’t been here since I was a kid, and nothing was familiar except the bridge. A forest fire burned through the area a few years ago. It burned some of the facilities but not the bridge. So the place is mostly brand new, with a large visitor center and a number of thrill rides on the other side. We didn’t stop for very long: get some photos, walk around, take a comfort break.
From the Royal Gorge we headed west on US 50 to Salida and our lodgings for the night. We’ve been seeing a surprisingly large number of RVs so I expected to get held up in the canyon. But there are several passing lanes and the only RV we came across pulled over after two of us passed it.
Approaching Salida we ran into a construction zone that had several sections of unpaved road. We also started to smell smoke. The Decker fire is burning nearby. It’s not a particularly big fire, having burned about 1,500 acres (so far). It was started by lightning and is burning an area with lots of beetle-kill. We saw fire fighter trucks from various places; the fire is only about 5% contained but the forecast is for strong winds, so that won’t help.
We had dinner at the Boathouse Cantina. They made room for our large group near the front door. The room was dark enough to make reading the menu difficult, but we managed to decide what we wanted. Genae had the scallops while I had the tacos al pastor (pork and pineapple with jalapeno and cilantro, with a slice of lime).
Sunday, September 29
We’d spend the morning driving: over Monarch pass to Gunnison, then north through Almont, past Taylor Park Reservoir, and over the newly-paved Cottonwood pass to Buena Vista. While I enjoyed our visits to the fossil beds and the bridge, I most anticipated the drive over Cottonwood pass and it ended up being the highlight of the trip for me.
Genae jokingly (I think) suggested we hit the pancake house down the street. Somebody else did go there; said it’s a crowded place and you have to get there early. I wasn’t going anywhere early. Breakfast in the hotel was underwhelming. Their bagels were miniature, too small to put in the toaster. Almost everything else on offer was sugary. So I had toast.
Down to ten cars with the departure of the Cadillac, we were were a relatively easy group to wrangle. Everybody was ready to go. We left promptly at 8:30. We’ve done the drive from Salida to Gunnison a number of times. We had very little traffic this time, which is nice, but Monarch Pass is a fairly run-of-the-mill road.
Part of the fun of the trip is to see the aspen. Yesterday, I’d say the aspen looked a lot like my car: mostly green with some yellow. Today there was more yellow, so much more scenic. The western side of Monarch is grassy, with cottonwood near the water. The cottonwoods had turned, a bit more gold compared to the yellow of the aspen.
To get to Cottonwood Pass, head north out of Gunnison to the confluence of the East River and Taylor River. This confluence forms the Gunnison River. From here it’s county roads to all the way until it turns into Main Street in Buena Vista.
Taylor canyon is quite pretty. The river is still flowing nicely, and the road is often close to it. It is open range, so there are quite a few cattle guards. I’ve driven many miles through open range and rarely see cattle. Today there were some, right on the side of the road when we resumed after a short rest stop.
Cottonwood Pass doesn’t have a storied history. No notable expeditions of exploration crossed here, no railroad conquered it. And only this year did it finally get paved. It is now the highest paved through road in the state. Only the roads to the summits of Mt. Evans and Pikes Peak are higher. The road was built in spring of 1880. Nearby Tincup Pass got a road at about the same time, but although Cottonwood is higher, it was used more than Tincup because of the gentler grade.
Cottonwood Pass has some character. Almost all the passes in Colorado on US highways have been widened and straightened to handle high traffic loads. Wolf Creek used to be so treacherous they wrote songs about it. Today it’s three or four lanes all the way over the pass. Cottonwood still has a healthy number of hairpin turns, even if it lacks precipitous drops. It’s twisty and turny: a nice Lotus road.
The road crosses the Continental Divide Trail at the summit and the Colorado Trail a few miles down the west side. I was expecting to see another crossing on the east side as well. The CT splits: hikers can use either the Collegiate East option or Collegiate West. Each is 80 miles, and we’re passing between Mt. Yale and Mt. Princeton. It doesn’t get much more collegiate than that.
At the summit we parked next to a small SUV with writing all over the back windows: “Triple Crown AP 2017 PCT 2018 CT 2019”. Seems to me they’re running a bit late. Certainly, if they’re only this far on their way north they won’t finish.
We arrived in Buena Vista about noon. We split from the group here. The itinerary called for a lunch stop here for an hour and a half or so, followed by everybody going their respective ways: the Springs folks down US 24, the Denver people down US 285. This is where we made our second suboptimal decision. We left early and went north to I-70.
This takes us through Leadville and over Fremont Pass and by the Climax mine. We stopped in Silverthorne for lunch. The electronic signs near the Dillon exit indicated “Up to 90 minutes to Denver”. That’s not bad. With no traffic it takes an hour. So thirty minutes of delays on a Sunday afternoon doesn’t sound too bad. And “up to” means it could be less, right?
Only that’s not how it turned out. It took us half an hour just to get to the tunnel. Then it was stop-and-go off and on to US 6. We’d have been much better off going 285. So it goes.
It was a really nice weekend. Big thanks to Mike for all the effort he puts in.
This is the second time I’ve camped at Lost Lake. The first time was three years ago, my first backpacking trip. That time, I only camped one night so I had too little time to get past Lake Dunraven even if I’d gotten through the willow. Two nights is the way to go to get to Lake Dunraven and beyond, perhaps to Rowe Glacier.
Saturday, September 14
Gordon was my companion again. We left my place at 7:15 and arrived at the trailhead and had boots on the trail by a quarter to nine. I was surprised at the light traffic on 36. And I was pleased to see that they’ve just repaved the top of Devils Gulch Road.
I described the trail fairly well in that earlier post, so no need to repeat it here (other than to correct the obvious mistake of misidentifying Glen Haven as Drake). I will add one note, though. We stopped for a break at the same place I stopped last time. Between there and the base of the grueling, stamina sucking climb there’s a section of trees that have been toppled and uprooted. It looks much like the section of Glacier Gorge that was blown down several years ago. Here it’s a much smaller area than in Glacier Gorge.
At the Boundary Creek campsite, two hikers entered the trail ahead of us. We leapfrogged them a few times until our break at the base of the climb. I knew what was ahead and I kept telling myself that it’s more mental then physical. I’m not sure I’m convinced. I tried to focus on the trail immediately in front of me, tried not to look too far ahead. I had to take three breathers before we got to the top.
I think I mentioned that Gordon races bicycles. He’s a bit of a hill climb specialist. So here I am, after five and a half or six miles into a ten mile hike on this steep section of trail with a thirty-five pound backpack. I wasn’t going all that fast earlier, but this brought me to a crawl. My heart was going in the neighborhood of 140 and I’m breathing about as fast as I can. At our my three breaks I couldn’t help but notice Gordon isn’t breathing hard. Not even breaking a sweat.
We get to the lake in six hours, arriving twenty minutes behind the father/son duo we leapfrogged on the trail. The father was checking out the status of the north side camp sites. The prime waterfront site I had before was occupied. The father/son took one of the southern sites, we took the other northern one.
After an early dinner, we headed up to the shelf Lake Husted sits on to get a good look at what we’ll have to deal with tomorrow to reach Dunraven. We went up the way I did last trip (directly from the camp sites on the north). We came down the trail from the south side camp sites. The trail is much easier.
A marshy wetland sits at the confluence of the North Fork of the Big Thompson and the outlet stream from Lake Louise. On the maps it’s depicted as three ponds, but they are surrounded by a sea of deep, thick willow. We walked downstream a bit, looking for possible routes. It seemed if we got to a gully on the other side of a krummholz forested hillock on the other side of the stream we’d have easy going. Who knows? It could be a good passage, or it could be filled with willow. There’s one way to find out.
After our recce, we stopped at the creek to refill our water bottles. Somehow, I managed to smack my shin into a rather large rock. That really hurt! Not much blood, but it swelled up considerably. Time for a beer.
Sunday, September 15
Gordon is trying a hammock this trip instead of a tent. In the morning he reported a lack of sleep. I slept okay. It was a bit chilly, but not uncomfortably so when I had to relieve myself in the middle of the night .
We put boots on the trail at about nine. In the forest just above Lost Lake we saw a cow moose and a bull elk through the trees a few minutes apart. We quickly and easily made our way to the stream in search of a way through. Early on we had a couple of short stretches of dense krummholz but avoided the disheartening willow. Where we expected easy moving, we found easy moving. We made our way along the border of the trees and the talus field above them. Eventually we had to cut across a large willow patch, but we found a nice game trail that took us where we wanted to go.
And that was at the base of a steep, wide gully that tops out on a tundra slope about fifty or sixty feet above the northern end of Lake Dunraven. I wasn’t sure we’d be able to retrace our steps on the way out, but that was a problem for later.
Lake Dunraven sits at the mouth of a valley carved by glaciers, drained today by the North Fork of the Big Thompson river. It is the first of three lakes. The other two have no official names, but in Foster’s guide she calls them “Whiskey” and “Scotch”. Arriving at Dunraven is the hard part: the three lakes are separated by just over a half mile of tundra and a climb of less than three hundred feet.
I was thinking we’d have plenty of time to make an attempt to reach Rowe Glacier, at the very top of the canyon at a whopping 13,120′ of elevation. There are many peaks in the park that aren’t this high. But as soon as I saw the pile of sand, scree, and talus, with a skirt of snow on the southern shore of “Scotch” I said I’d gone far enough.
I said to Gordon that he could go up to Rowe and I’d wait here for him. I have no problem watching the world go by for a couple of hours. It’s a beautiful day to sit on the shores of an alpine lake with a stunning view of Gibraltar Mountain. How long could it take him? Three hours max? So he’d be back by two. No big deal.
I set my day pack and water bottle by some rocks that would serve nicely as seats. Even if I wandered off, anybody going by on the faint game trail here would see them at about eye-level. I sat there for long spells, pondering the imponderable, and occasionally made little exploration trips. Up to the top of the rise that gives a view of the valley below, or around the outlet to see if I can cross, or out on a sandy stretch to start and stop the GoPro. But mostly I sat right there.
I’d shed my thermal under clothes and had them on a rock to dry out. After three aborted attempts, a ground squirrel made his way to sniffing distance of them. He ran off right away, but he wasn’t done. He scrambled back and forth along the fringe of the willow that was growing here, stunted to only be 12-18″ high. Every now and again, he’d climb to the top of the willow for a shaky look around.
He really wanted the salt from my shirt. Twice he had licking sessions that were longer than I expected, for such a jittery creature. I’d never seen them do that, but I guess I’ve never given them the opportunity.
Sitting there, I had a bird give me a bit of a buzz. It flew from behind me, silently, until it got inches over my head and flapped loudly. I wasn’t expecting it and it made me jump. Later, I saw the same bird buzz the ground squirrel the same way.
“Scotch Lake” has one of the biggest beaches I’ve seen in the Park. The hillside on the east is quite sandy, and the big pile that made me decide to stop was pretty sandy, too. There is a fairly fresh alluvial fan below a narrow crease in the slope, severely eroded. This one has been recent enough that almost no plants are living on it, but there were other, older fans. At first I wanted to attribute this one to the 2013 floods, but it could be more recent, with one of the older ones from 2013. Who knows?
I go back and sit by my pack and water. One o’clock passes, as does two, and three. It’s been four hours. If he only went to Rowe Glacier, he should have been back a long time ago. Perhaps he went farther? It’s only a short climb to the top and then on to the summit of Rowe Peak, or Gibraltar Mountain, or even Mummy Mountain. He may also have taken a different route down.
It also occurs to me that he might have twisted an ankle, or stepped on a “wobbler” in a talus field and cracked his noggin open. By now, even if I felt I was capable of going up toward Rowe myself it was too late. I decide I need to leave “Scotch” by five or risk darkness before I’m back to camp. So I’m working through my options if he doesn’t show up before I leave, if he doesn’t return to camp by dark, if he doesn’t show by morning, given that it’s a nearly full moon.
I tried to make a sign out of rocks on the alluvial fan. “LEFT AT 5:”. The idea is that he’d be able to see it from the top, but it was obvious that I’d made the letters too small. I left promptly at five. It took me two hours to get here, so I figured it would be about the same to return. I made it from “Scotch” to the bottom of the gully below Dunraven retracing our steps. I easily found the same game trail we used before and followed it to it’s natural conclusion, somewhat downstream of where we crossed in the morning. Here was an easy crossing using game trails. Much easier than this morning, when we whacked through some krummholz.
When I got back to the camp sites, I ran into the father/son hikers. The father asked how my hike went. I told him I was worried that I’d abandoned my companion. “You talking about the guy you hiked in with yesterday? He got back about half an hour ago.”
That turns out to be half true. He made it back to “Scotch” by about one. How he left there without seeing me or my backpack, and how he made it through without me seeing him is a puzzle. He says that when he last saw me, I looked to be leaving “Scotch”, and he figured I’d be waiting at Dunraven. So when he didn’t see me at “Scotch” he kept going. He was back to camp by two. After a while he grew concerned that I wasn’t back to camp, so he made another trip up to Dunraven. He left Dunraven the second time at five.
In the end, no harm, no foul. I didn’t really mind sitting at this lake for six hours, except for the tension of wondering if he was hurt. I probably would have enjoyed two hours at each lake, but “Scotch” has a fine view.
From the map, we expected the lake at Rowe Glacier to be a significant body of water. Gordon says it’s more like a big puddle or two. [As I’m late writing this, I’ll add a late update from him: “I’m quite sure now that I didn’t make it to Rowe Glacier, but just below it. Foiled again!”]
So it was a rather late dinner. Gordon had had a beer before I returned and had his second while I had my first. One was enough for me tonight, so there was a leftover beer.
Monday, September 16
I didn’t sleep quite as well as the night before. I was a bit restless, and although the swelling had greatly reduced, my shin was still tender.
Not long before sunrise I heard a large animal walking through camp. I figured it was either an elk or a moose. It wasn’t moving very fast, and three or four times it made an odd noise. My immediate thought was “Indigestion!” With a noise like that, I decided it had to be a moose. We discussed it in the morning over breakfast. Gordon agrees it was a moose and commented on the odd noise it made.
I drank the last beer so Gordon wouldn’t have to pack it out.
The hike out was uneventful. We took a short break at the usual place, at the bottom of the grueling climb. I had my last peach: sweet and juicy. We were making good time; I told Gordon he shouldn’t expect it to continue.
We ran into a ranger on his way up the trail. “I see you have your permit hanging off your backpack. Thanks!” He asked us where we went; Gordon showed him pictures of Rowe Glacier. His parting words were, “Have a nice hike! I have a couple llamas coming up the trail.”
Saturday, it took us six hours to make the hike up. I was expecting it to take six and a half. When we left camp on the way out, I expected to be back to the car in five and a half hours. In the end it took only five, so my actual vs estimated variance was consistent.
I thought it might be possible to bag four new lakes this trip. I fully expected to get three and have a decent shot at the fourth. I got the three. So although I didn’t bag the maximum, I didn’t come up shorter than expectations.
Which has usually been the case. It’s good to finally have a backpacking trip where I got to all the places I expected to get to. This was my fourth two night trip. Last year I thought I’d get to four lakes on the Gorge Lakes hike. I got one. My July trip was way too early to get either of the two high lakes above Bluebird. So early that I didn’t even make it as far as Bluebird. And two weeks ago when I reached one of four again in Spruce Canyon.
It was unfortunate that Gordon missed me on his hike down from the glacier. I didn’t really mind spending six hours there. But I did feel pinned to a spot. Six hours is a long time, and would have been more enjoyable if it had been two hours at each lake. But the GoPro battery held out a surprisingly long time. I ran the camera with five different views for a total of nearly two hours. I never get two hours of battery at the track.
It’s unlikely I’ll be back there. This was my second trip. It’s a long hike to camp. I much prefer the six to seven mile range to ten. Luckily, that isn’t much of a limitation in the Park. There are still many lakes I haven’t visited that are within reach from a campsite six or seven miles in.
I’m happy that we got through the sea of willow and krummholz as easily as we did. I obsessed for days over a photo I took last time that shows the area. Our recce Saturday evening was time well spent. All that miserable vegetation wasn’t nearly the roadblock I feared it could be.
I’m pleasantly surprised that I was able to average two miles an hour on the hike out.
I got almost twice the normal amount of time lapse footage. I didn’t use it all, but probably too much.
I’m a little behind in getting things recorded. That’s not a habit I want to form.
Sunday, September 8
This is the second track day hosted by Ferrari of Denver this year. I was happy to be able to do one, and even given what I experienced at HPR, I was quite happy to have another free track day.
This one was billed by LOCO as a “Club Social Track Day”. FoD puts it together for their Ferrari customers: a free day at the track with access to an instructor, feed everybody pizza, hang out with guys who have a Ferrari or three. We Lotus folks tag along, kick in for the corner workers, and pass every Ferrari that ventures out. So it wasn’t exactly free, but a $40 track day (including lunch) is tough to pass up.
We had a good Lotus turnout: Tat, Kevin, Eric, Will & Kat, and myself in Elises. Ryan in his Exige, Peter in his Evora, and William with the Cortina. (I hope I didn’t miss anybody; one of the perils of not writing these up promptly.)
The supercharged guys weren’t having the best treatment when it comes to point bys. I was only held up once all day; everybody gave me a prompt signal. Ryan posted a video (that I can no longer find) of him following Eric and being held up several times. I was just a bit behind them, and I guess after getting passed by bright orange cars they may have been more vigilant by the time I got there.
One guy in particular was slow. He was in a grey FF. I passed him twice in three laps. Think about that: the lap is 1.4 miles long. I went 4.2 miles in the time it took him to go 2.8.
They had a press car there from Lotus: an Evora GT. I almost didn’t drive it. I’ll never be in the market for an Evora, new or used. This particular example is an automatic and on suboptimal tires, so that wasn’t particularly enticing. But Tat said I should drive it; all the LOCO people would give short write-ups to William for the next issue of Remarque. So why not?
Given the vast difference in comforts the Evora holds over my car, I didn’t pay particular attention to the interior appointments. The cockpit of the Evora is hands down vastly superior to my go-kart. Ingress was much easier than the Elise, obviously. The seat was comfortable yet firm and supportive. Visibility is about what I expected: limited to the rear but otherwise good. I adjusted the seat and the mirrors, selected sport mode and drove. Given the car is an automatic and not on proper tires I was expecting a less than stellar experience.
I wasn’t allowed free reign in the Evora, but I wasn’t driving parade laps, either. I wasn’t allowed to wring its neck and they did a data dump after every driver. Full throttle was okay on the straights, but keep it cool. Six tenths, maybe.
Once I got out on track, the first thing I noticed was the down shifts. It took me by surprise going into the first corner. It was quicker than I expected for an automatic, and the sound was unexpected. And I didn’t expect it to go down two gears where I only go down one. I took it easy for a couple of laps, getting used to the car. The Evora is twelve or thirteen hundred pounds heavier than my Elise, but it didn’t feel heavy. I found the handling very neutral. I have CG locks in the Elise; just regular belts in the Evora yet I felt well planted and didn’t miss the CG lock.
The cabin is quieter than I expected; I could easily hold a conversation with my passenger. In the Elise it’s pretty much hand signals on the track.
Throttle response was immediate. I didn’t put the brakes to much of a test, but I did hurry a bit through the turns and the precise handling made me smile. The purist in me would want a manual transmission, but I was rather impressed with the auto.
It sure would be a fine car to take on a cross-country road trip for an HPDE day.
I haven’t made the time to put together a video yet. I didn’t improve my best lap time, so there’s not much point in just putting up a lap or two. I did go through the footage to make some notes. I was passed only by the orange Lotuses of Ryan and Eric, while I made twenty passes. They weren’t all Ferraris, but I did pass every Ferrari I saw on the track. Maybe I’ll put together a compilation of passes.
I started plotting this summer’s backpacking trips about a year ago. One thing I decided after the last couple trips is that, for where I want to go, spending one night in the backcountry isn’t sufficient. Another thing was that doing zone camping is less than ideal because you have to move your camp from night to night. So this year, my three trips are all two nighters in official camp sites. Hike in on the first day, go wherever I’m trying to get to on the second, and hike out the third.
The plan for this trip was to spend two nights at Spruce Lake and spend an entire day in Spruce Canyon, hoping to visit four lakes: Hourglass Lake, Rainbow Lake, Lake Irene, and Sprague Tarn. In preparation, I had searched for descriptions of the area with very little luck. I found the report of a guy who wanted to summit Stones Peak but changed his mind due to weather. He had a few pictures of the Canyon, but not much description..
So I spent a lot of time studying the map. I had a route planned: about three miles each way, through unknown terrain, and a sprinkling of relativly steep sections to deal with. I’ve done enough off-trail hiking to, I think, have an idea how long it might take to get from one place to another. In this case, I decided I’d be able to go about a mile an hour, and it looked from the map that I’d be able to skirt the steepest bits. I might get a bit out of my comfort zone, but as long as I had a hiking companion I figured this would be a challenging hike, but with a decent chance of reaching my goals.
Gordon agreed to go with me. I hiked with Gordon last year. He races bicycles with some degree of success and thus is in much better shape than I am.
After my last backpacking trip I decided that I needed to buy a backpack. First I used a borrowed one, than one that was given to me. I didn’t particularly like the first one, and the second was too small. So a couple weeks ago I went to REI and bought one.
Since we were only going to Spruce Lake, about 4.8 miles and a fifteen hundred foot climb, we didn’t need to get to the trailhead early. My only concern was getting a parking spot right at the trailhead. If we couldn’t get a spot there, we might have to park at the bus stop and walk an extra three quarters of a mile.
We left my house by ten, stopped for an early lunch at The Other Side, stopped at the back country office to pick up the permit for the next trip (in two weeks), and headed to the trail. My concern about getting a spot was in vain. Enough folks hike to the Pool or Fern Falls that there’s some turnover in the parking lot and there were a few empty spots. We put boots on the trail at 12:30.
The only delay we faced getting there was an accident on Pole Hill, just before the overlook. A mail truck went through the guardrail and was hanging precipitously off the edge. I’m sure that was a brown-pants moment for the driver.
I’ve described the hike to Spruce Lake before, so I won’t dwell on it here. In the past, I always enjoyed the last section of trail, from just below Fern Lake to Spruce Lake. It’s an unimproved trail with a fair amount of character. Carrying a 35lb backpack changes the character of it a bit. With the backpack I certainly prefer the nice, wide pack trails. With short breaks at Fern Falls and Fern Lake, we reached our campsite a few minutes before four.
To now, I never thought Spruce Lake is anything special. There are many lakes in the Park in spectacular settings. Spruce Lake is not one of them. But Spruce Lake is not without its charms. It is absolutely loaded with fish. Sitting on the shore you can see the greenback cutthroat trout swimming within arms reach. A bit before dusk they were rising, breaking the surface with a soft “plop”, the expanding ripples marking the spot. And at any moment there were maybe two hundred sets of these ripples. That’s a lot of fish!
The fish weren’t the only creatures in the lake. A mother moose and her yearling calf were there. She, wading belly deep where the tops of the long grasses floated, repeatedly submerging her head to pull the grass by the roots, then shaking the water off, sometimes winding the grass around her snout. Her calf was lounging on the shore, mostly hidden. About the time Gordon wanted to get closer for a better view, they decided they’d had enough and moving up the hill away from the lake.
I was expecting my alarm to go off at six, but I’d forgotten that I’d turned it off. But we weren’t in any particular hurry. Even leaving camp at eight, if we managed a mile an hour we’d have plenty of time to spend at the lakes. So, off we were at eight.
We climbed to about 9800′ and contoured around Castle Rock. Rather than descend to Spruce Creek, we continued along the slope working our way west. When encountering obstacles, we typically climbed above them rather then descending. Making any progress was very challenging. The forest is quite dense, with a lot of deadfall. We came across rock slabs that I was unwilling to cross. We crossed talus fields that sometimes bordered on scree.
At about 10,400′ we descended to the creek and crossed it. My original plan was to cross the outlet of Hourglass to work our way up a gentler slope. But the terrain in front of us was a sea of willow. Gordon suggested we stick to the forest and climb straight up. About four hundred feet up, we emerged onto a large meadow. Being the last week of August, it was mostly dry, but generally it is a boggy marsh. We walked on the firmer bits of earth, but these were still quite spongy, even if dry.
The outlet of Hourglass falls into this meadow from the west. The stream is running at only a fraction of its full flow; the rocks in the stream bed discolored a rusty brown, but water running over half the width, or maybe a bit less. It was fairly easy climbing up alongside the stream, but I think it would be much more difficult when the stream is in full song. After a couple of false summits we found ourselves on the eastern shore of Hourglass Lake.
It was 12:26.
That’s nearly four and a half hours to travel about two and a quarter miles.
We took a short break and continued our climb, looking for Rainbow Lake next. We worked our way through a maze of krummholz until we found ourselves on an outcropping with a fabulous view down the canyon: the Fern Lake fire scar, Moraine Park, and Lake Estes in the distance.
There looked to be one more fairly steep climb to the next bench and Rainbow Lake. I made an executive decision. It was after one now, and I had no expectation that the return trip would be any easier or quicker than our journey here. I called it quits. Gordon said he wanted to check out that last climb and I told him to go for it. I’d meet him back at Hourglass.
He’s so much faster than I am, he’d made it to Rainbow Lake and returned to Hourglass in the time it took me to get back to Hourglass. Granted, I made a bit of a wrong turn and ended up having to navigate some willow. And Gordon admitted to running part of the way. Gordon is somewhat more comfortable on steep terrain than I am and he said it was a challenge for him. Based on this, even if there was no time constraint, I would have had difficulty reaching Rainbow and the other lakes.
In any event, we headed down from Hourglass at about two. Gordon said something about retracing our route in; I said I didn’t expect we’d be able to, but that any reasonable route would work for me. We did cross Spruce Creek at the same spot, and once or twice Gordon thought we passed by this spot on the way up. I wasn’t convinced. For the most part, we followed an entirely different route. Afterwards, Gordon said he thought the return route was worse than the way in. I won’t argue.
We crossed large talus fields then found ourselves descending a couple hundred feet down a gully. Back in dense forest we came to a point were we could see the stream again. I figured we had another hour to go, so I went down and filled my water bottle (for the third time today). I intended to climb back to where Gordon was, but he followed me down to the water a few minutes later and we continued our trek from nearer the stream.
When we’d descended to below about 9800′, we left the stream and worked our way around Castle Rock toward Spruce Lake. In this area we found a few cairns, both in the morning and on our way back. They were scattered so far apart as to be of little or no help to us, and we found them only in the vicinity of Castle Rock.
It was in here somewhere that I got stung by a bee. I haven’t been stung by a bee since I was about four years old. This little fucker got me on my right wrist. It hurt like hell and swelled up a bit. And I don’t know what I did to deserve it.
We returned to our campsite at 6:15. I was spent. It took us more than ten hours to go about five miles. It was physically challenging for me, and due to our slow progress, mentally challenging as well. Had I been on my own, I’d have turned back well before reaching Hourglass Lake. I’m a bit disappointed that I didn’t reach the other lakes, especially given that we were so close.
Given the grueling nature of the hike, I’m not likely to make another attempt. Quite a number of times during the day I found myself asking “What am I doing here? I do this for fun, and very little of this is fun.”
Gordon packed in a six pack of beer. We’d had two of them last night and he put the other four in the lake to chill. He reported that our moose friends were back, browsing around the rock we’d sat on earlier. I went down to the water to watch them. The yearling nearly stepped on our bag of beers. They began working their way towards me. I didn’t really want to be closer to the calf than the mother, so I bushwhacked back to the camp site.
All the afternoon clouds disappeared and we enjoyed the starry night skies. After having two beers before sacking out, I was not surprised that I had to get up in the middle of the night. The Milky Way wasn’t visible when we retired, but it was out in full glory at 1:30.
We took our time breaking camp and were on the trail at 8:30. We made it back nearly to the Fern Lake trail junction when I realized I’d left my camera at camp. Gordon volunteered to “run back and get it”. I was selfish and let him. I figured it would take me forty five minutes without the backpack for the round trip. He was back in twenty six (“a nice warmup,” he says). We took short breaks at Fern Falls and the Pool and were back to the trailhead at 11:30.
It’s not a long hike down from Spruce Lake, and the day had not really started to heat up by the time we were done. But I was not exactly moving fast. The fatigue in my legs served as a constant reminder of yesterday’s struggles. My Fitbit tried to tell me I hiked more than twelve miles yesterday. It often overstates distances when I’m hiking. But it sure felt like I’d hiked much more than twelve miles the day before. I’m blaming my fatigue on all the talus we covered, particularly the sections where we were descending steeply. So I didn’t exactly set a blistering pace.
Many times this summer I’ve commented about the crowds in the Park. I think today was the extreme in my experience. The line of cars at the entrance station went all the way to Highway 66. I’d never seen it go past the Beaver Meadows Visitor Center before. And the entire way from Estes to Lyons the traffic heading to Estes was an unbroken line of cars. Assuming an average of 200′ between cars (but it was often much less), over 21 miles that would be 550 cars.
I’m pretty sore right now. I have a blister on my big toe and it hurts a little to go down the stairs in the house. I knew it would be a challenging hike before I started. I only made it to one of the four lakes, and the others were quite close. At times I wasn’t having very much fun. But I’m glad I did it.
I think the new backpack is an improvement over the others. My legs are sore but not my shoulders.
Maybe I should start a list of RMNP lakes that I’ll never visit.
It’s officially unnamed, but if I don’t apply names to some of the officially unnamed bodies of water I visit in the Park I’ll confuse myself. In the past I’ve resorted to calling them things like “unnamed lake at 11,200′ on Hunter’s Creek”. That’s a bit cumbersome and I don’t really want to continue very far down that road.
But I’m not certain how to name this one. Is it Ptarmigan Tarn, or would Fern Tarn be better? It sits beneath the snow field at Ptarmigan Point, but it’s at the source of Fern Creek. Do you name the tarn after the glacier or the stream? Is it a glacier, or just a snow field? Is it a tarn if a stream flows from it? Too many questions. I’m going with Ptarmigan Tarn.
Sunday, August 25
It’s a fairly short hike, just a bit over three and a half miles, and about fourteen hundred feet in elevation gain. That meant we didn’t have to get too early of a start. I had Chad meet me at my place at 6:30, and we stopped for a quick bite of breakfast as we passed through Boulder. Historically I haven’t been too concerned about getting a parking spot at the Park and Ride, but this summer I’ve seen the lot there get quite full, so I did have a bit of low-grade anxiety about getting to park there after 8:00. The anxiety was not founded, as the lot was back to what I’m accustomed to there: it was only about a third or less full, and there was no line waiting for the bus.
We hit the trail at Bear Lake at 8:36 and spent most of our time on the trail discussing the relative merits of various Sci-Fi television series. I usually make a note of the time when I reach various navigation points, which in this case would be the junction with the Flattop Mtn trail and upon reaching Lake Helene, but we were in the depths of plot line analysis of various Star Trek and Farscape episodes, and how many demerit points Farscape deserves for ripping off a Gilligan’s Island episode. So I didn’t note the time until we reached our destination, not quite two hours after leaving Bear Lake.
I have somehow never noticed that there’s a fairly well-developed trail leading up the hill around the west west side of Lake Helene. I’ve never gone any farther up the canyon than some large rocks overlooking the lake, and I always went around the east side of the lake to reach them.
This trail served us well on the way up. It was covered for a few yards by a bit of snow, and there really aren’t many cairns marking the way, but it was fairly obvious which way to go. I did note one place where I thought might be easy to make a wrong turn on the way down. But overall it was easy route finding and we avoided what little willow and krummholz we saw.
My map shows one body of water up here, but in reality there are two. In spite of a forecast high in the upper 90’s for Denver, it was quite cool here at nearly 11,000′. And to say there was a stiff breeze would be a bit of an understatement. Unable to find a spot that was both out of the wind and in the sun, the best we could get was the leeward, shady side of a large boulder beside the easternmost, smaller lake. And “leeward” isn’t quite right, either, as the wind swirled around our rock chaotically. Within a few minutes we had both donned our jackets to keep warm.
I set the GoPro up where I thought it least likely to get moved by the wind and placed a rock behind it as ballast. We had our early lunch, well before eleven, and watched the wind whip whitecaps on the water. And twice while we sat there, the wind blew my hat off sending us scurrying to grab it before it could start a trip to Kansas.
After our blustery break we headed back down. And, of course, we managed to make one wrong turn on the way down but it wasn’t difficult to get back to the route we took on the way up. As it was still early, I considered taking another pause on the shores of Lake Helene but it was still fairly windy here and neither of us particularly wanted to deal with it, so we headed back down the trail and into the trees.
Very quickly we encountered two twenty-something women. They asked us if we could point them to Lake Helene. It turns out they were headed to Ptarmigan Tarn as well, and that’s the name they used for it. I donated my map to them and we gave them a couple of route finding tips and a warning about the wind.
Approaching the junction with the Bierstadt trail I considered the option of walking back to the Park and Ride, but Chad had just run out of water. So I’ll save that option for another time. We made it back to Bear Lake by 1:15. After a stop for food and beer we headed back home. The thermometer in Chad’s car read 101 as we passed through Boulder, and our chilly, breezy picnic was just a fond memory.