A Visit to Ed’s Igloo

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.

Ed leads the way

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.

Yours truly. This is a smile, not a grimace. Look closely: the snow is falling sideways.

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.

“Come stand out here on this precipice and check out the view!”

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.

Click on the picture to see it full-sized.

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.

Igloo at center; Thatchtop in background.

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.

Wind-sculpted pillows of snow.

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.

Loch Vale

Monday, October 29

Things are a bit on the slow side at work, and I have a few vacation days I haven’t used. So with the weather looking good for today, I took advantage of the opportunity and headed up to the Park for a short hike. I figured I’d try something similar to my last hike – that is, a short hike to a familiar destination but try to get a different perspective by gaining a little elevation. So I headed up to the Loch, with the intention of finding a nice rock outcropping with a view of the lake and the valley in which it sits.

I wanted to park at the Glacier Gorge parking lot, so I left a bit earlier than last time. This had the side-effect of missing the worst of rush-hour traffic going into Boulder. Between Boulder and Lyons I was treated to a beautiful sunrise, which is always a nice way to start the day.

There was relatively little traffic on US 36 and now that it’s off-season, I skipped my usual detour by the hospital and actually went through downtown Estes Park. Approaching the RMNP entrance station, I saw a few temporary signs indicating that there was a chance of fog or smoke. I thought it was odd, as the weather was fine and the skies were mostly clear. In Moraine Park their electronic sign told me that the Bear Lake parking lot was already full. I wondered how that could be, given that it was 8:30am on the last Monday of October. How can there possibly be that many people there already? If the Bear Lake lot is already full, there’s no way I’ll get a spot at Glacier Gorge.

When I arrived at Glacier Gorge parking lot there were about eight cars there. Clearly the sign in Moraine Park was in error. Two of the eight cars had just arrived moments before I did. Two guys got out of one of the cars, looked at each other, decided it was too windy and got back in their car. I told them it wouldn’t be windy on the trail, but they weren’t convinced. And, actually, I didn’t think it was very windy at all, compared to what I’ve found there in the past.

Andrews Glacier barely visible

Although I’m quite comfortable deciding what to wear and what to carry on my summer hikes, I’m not that experienced in autumn or winter. I think part of my problem is my lumbar pack. It’s sufficient for my summer day hikes but doesn’t allow me to carry what I might need on a colder weather hike. Today I wore my thermal (light or medium, I forget) underwear, hiking pants, Hawaiian shirt, hoodie, and windbreaker. I had a woolen hat and gloves, and I had my rain jacket as well. I brought my microspikes and gaiters, but ended up leaving the microspikes in the car. I figured I probably wouldn’t need them, but once I got off the trail there might be enough snow I’d want the gaiters. In the end, I didn’t use them.

The day was quite pleasant. On the trail, the wind was not an issue and I didn’t think about it until I got near my destination. There was very little snow on the ground for my entire hike, while the trail had icy stretches that became longer and more common as I gained elevation. The ice was only in the shady bits, starting about halfway up the fire trail. About half way between the Mills Lake trail junction and the Loch I encountered a hiker on his way out. He was trying for Sky Pond but turned around at Timberline Falls. All he had was microspikes and that wasn’t enough for him. He was the only person I met since the parking lot.

Shortly after arriving at the Loch I started looking for a place to start climbing. As it turns out, I started climbing too soon. But it didn’t take long to run into the talus field that’s on the south side of the lake. It runs at an angle. If I’d kept to the trail for a little longer I’d have come across it and had an easier way up.

Picnic view

In planning the hike, I had considered following this talus field all the way up to one of Ed’s glacial knobs. But I found a nice place with a view of the valley that was in the sun and out of the wind. I was perhaps two-thirds of the way up the talus. There was a bit of snow here, but I easily avoided it. I didn’t want to step on some snow only to find out that there’s nothing beneath it but a giant hole.

Interesting grain, a little burned around the edges

In the talus there’s a fair amount of dead wood. Not a lot: it’s a talus field so more or less by definition there aren’t any trees. But there are a few ribs of soil here and there and over the few hundred yards of talus I maneuvered I came across quite a few pieces of deadwood. Each one showed signs of being burned. Some were subtly discolored, just a touch of brown. Others were deeply charred. I assume all these were the result of the Bear Lake Fire of 1900. Burned bits of tree can be found throughout the area, but they’re move obvious here as no trees have grown here in the intervening century.

About two-thirds of the way to the top of the talus field I found a spot with a nice view. As a bonus, it had full sun and was not particularly windy. I fully expected that any place I found that was in the sun and wasn’t surrounded by trees obstructing the vista would be blustery, but my little spot was close to ideal. It may very well be that it wasn’t as windy as it normally is in the cooler months this close to the Divide. But it wasn’t exactly calm. The small clump of trees thirty or forty yards above me sang a bit when the heavier gusts blew by.

Interesting textures

While I let the camera run, and after my picnic, I explored the immediate neighborhood. This meant hopping from rock to rock through the talus. On my way to a spot where I could get a bit of a view of Andrews Glacier, I hopped on a rock that looked to be about three feet on a side. It was a “wobbler”. I’m often concerned that some of the smaller rocks I step on will move, but haven’t had that happen with a boulder this size. Frankly, it kind of spooked me. This one had to be three quarters of a ton or so. I had a quick mental image of it moving a large area of talus; not something I want to be in the middle of. From then on, until I got back to the trail, it seemed like every rock I stepped on moved a bit. I know it was my imagination, but it had me being very careful.

After about an hour of watching the world go by, I packed up and headed back down to the trail. Along the way I came across a large upended stump. Its color matched all the other dead wood nearby, except that it had no obvious signs of burn. What it did have was a rock that the roots had grown around. I took a few pictures of it from various angles; didn’t get one that shows it very well, but so it goes.

Rock encased in wood

Back on the trail I started encountering other hikers. One couple asked if they’d passed Sky Pond. I told them that they hadn’t, and that they weren’t likely to make it past Timberline Falls given that they lacked any kind of traction devices. The next couple I came across said they were properly equipped, and I wished them luck. They looked to be fit, but it seemed to me they wouldn’t be getting up there until fairly late in the day.

The Loch

I briefly considered taking the long way back to the car and spending a few minutes at Alberta Falls. Maybe I was feeling lazy, maybe I preferred the solitude of the fire trail, and in the end took the shortcut. As I hiked out, I shed my layers ending up in shirtsleeves. The forecast high for Denver was in the mid-70’s, while NOAA predicted a high in the mid-40’s for Loch Vale. No doubt, it was warmer than the mid-40’s where I had my picnic.

Leaving the park I saw why they had signs up warning of smoke or fog: they were doing a prescribed burn on the north side of the road, covering the whole distance between the entrance station and the Beaver Meadows visitor center. By now all the excitement seemed to be over: I saw a fair amount of smoke but no flames.

Prescribed burn

Timetable

There Back
Trailhead 08:55 AM 01:22 PM
Mills/Loch Jct 09:35 AM 12:45 PM
The Loch 10:05 AM 12:24 PM
Picnic spot 10:43 AM 11:45 AM

40° 18′ 25″ N, 109° 39′ 37″ W, or Thereabouts

Things have been a bit on the slow side at work lately. With summer hiking season winding down, I figured I could pick a day with a favorable weather forecast to take some PTO and hit the trails. The weather wonks in the Denver area have been missing their forecasts lately, predicting warmer weather than we’ve actually been getting, so this added a bit of variability. They told me Wednesday would be the warmest day for the foreseeable future so Tuesday afternoon I asked for Wednesday off.

Wednesday, October 3

I planned on a rather short hike, which meant I didn’t need to leave the house before sunrise. But a later start also meant I’d be facing morning rush hour traffic. As I work from home I almost never have to deal with traffic, so getting out in it once in a while is a good reminder as to how spoiled I am.

The Chrysler is getting old, and it sitting outside isn’t helping much. She’s getting senile. I can’t use the automatic headlights because every now and then they start flashing randomly. And the intermittent wiper often gives two or three wipes at a time. And so, when I saw the outside temperature reading at 73° on the approach to Estes I figured that was wrong, but the thermometer doesn’t yet seem to be demented. It did cool back down dramatically as I got closer to the Park.

On the way through town I spotted what I thought of as a clear-sky rainbow. I know that you don’t get rainbows without rain, but this one looked to be situated well away from any clouds. It was clear above, and the only clouds in sight were draped across the Continental Divide. Well, “socked in” more adequately describes it. Nothing above about 11,000′ was visible.

I was a bit surprised by how many people were in the park, given that it’s a weekday. The Bear Lake parking lot wasn’t yet full (but it was full when I left a bit after 1:00pm). This time of year I expect mostly locals, but there were still quite a few cars with Illinois, Minnesota, Texas, and California plates.

When I got out of the car it wasn’t particularly chilly, but it was (surprise, surprise!) fairly windy. By now I treat “windy” as the default state of things along the Divide, unless it’s mid-Summer, and sometimes even then. I wasn’t going very far, and I wasn’t exactly going to visit a lake; my intention was to spend my time surrounded by trees, so I didn’t let the wind bother me. But I didn’t put too much thought into exactly where those trees would be. My destination was the ridge that separates Dream Lake from Lake Haiyaha.

I took the shortcut from Bear Lake to Nymph Lake not so much to shorten the walk as to avoid the crowds. Rather than hustle up the Haiyaha trail, I followed the trail the few yards to the shore of Dream Lake. The clouds were impenetrable over the divide but the fierce winds that carried them east also tore them apart. To the east the skies were clear, and in the zone in between, the sun was able to play “now you see me, now you don’t” with the lakes. A few minutes patience allowed me a view of a sunny Dream Lake with clouds above.

After another quick pause to take in the views to the east, I left the trail before crossing Haiyaha’s outlet stream. There’s a bit of a trail here that gets used by the rock climbers that lasts until you reach talus. Once in the rocks I started heading uphill. It’s not too steep and there isn’t much to hinder progress – little deadfall and no rock outcroppings – and found myself at the top of the ridge in no time.

I sat up there for about an hour, letting the cameras run. I tried to stay out of the wind, but here at 10,472′ (according to GPS) it was a challenge. I found a place that wasn’t too bad. I kept an eye on the lake. For the last year or a bit more it has a distinctly glacial color to it. There was a slide a while back up the canyon and the snowmelt that passes over and through the slide has carried some sediment to the lake that gives it a turquoise color when viewed from above in sunlight. But every time the sun illuminated the lake it was over before I could capture that nice color. That just gives me an excuse to revisit this spot next summer, even though the color is already fading.

I made it back to the car pretty early so I decided to make a stop at Sprague Lake. I can’t help but notice that it hasn’t been on my list of lakes I’ve visited. Thinking about that oversight it occurs to me that I certainly haven’t been there in at least thirty years. That makes me wonder if I’ve ever actually been there. I’ve got to believe we were there as a family when I was a kid. Right? How can I have spent so much time in the Park, driven by the place hundreds of times, and never been there?

I took my time at Sprague. I let the camera run again for another half hour or so. The wind was not any less here than on the ridge above Haiyaha, particularly on the windward side. I was surprised the wind didn’t jostle my camera, as it was enough to kick up spray from the lake’s surface and unbalance the unwary pedestrian. The clouds were no longer obscuring the peaks but it wasn’t clearing up. If anything, they looked more threatening. Until you turned around and faced east, where it remained sunny.

The weather forecast turned out to be spot on. At roughly 3:30 I was mired in Boulder’s afternoon rush hour in balmy 83° sunshine.

I was hoping for better results on the time lapse. The Sprague Lake portion came out fine, with the possible exception of some spray hitting the lens. But the ridgetop sections don’t show any of the details of the clouds. The GoPro is just too wide-angle, and with the auto exposure it doesn’t handle changing light well at all. I haven’t been using the SLR since the cheap little tripod I was using broke. I guess I need to find a new tripod.

Fifth Lake – Day 2

Sunday, September 2

We were up and shortly after 6:30. In theory, as neither of us planned on a hot breakfast, we should have been able to start our journey to Fifth Lake well before eight. In practice, it wasn’t until 8:30 that we put boots on trail. We packed everything up into our packs which we left at the campsite partially covered by a log in case it rained.

On last month’s trip I packed my day pack in the backpack. After posting that trip report, Ed mentioned that he had a Kelty pack that had a day pack incorporated into it. After playing around with mine I discovered that mine did as well. I don’t like the little day pack bit as much as my lumbar pack, but I’d certainly give it a try. Not having to carry the extra equipment would save me some space and weight.

So in the little pack I carried a bottle of water, some food, and my rain jacket. Somehow I neglected to put the GoPro in it. I was a bit disappointed in my forgetfulness, but I didn’t want to turn around to get it.

Lake Verna pano

When I see pictures my other hiking friends post online I’ll admit I’m a bit jealous that they get so many shots of lakes with mirror-smooth surfaces. As a day-hiker, I’m never at any lakes early enough to see them before there’s any breeze. So I was quite pleased to see Lake Verna and Spirit Lake in such calm conditions. This is definitely an advantage that offsets carrying a heavy pack and sleeping on the ground.

Gordon on the beach at Lake Verna

Another distinct but mistaken memory I have is of the trail between Spirit Lake and Fourth Lake. I vividly recall coming to a split in the trail and having to choose whether to step across the stream and cross a meadow or stay to the left. I went right and ended up in a bit of a marsh. I navigated to higher ground, then found another game trail that deposited me in another marshy meadow. Today I came across no such split in the trail, and where I expected to find two or three meadows found only one.

Spirit Lake and ‘Aiguille de Fleur’

That is not to say that there weren’t any splits in the trail. As one progresses farther west from Spirit Lake the trail often becomes braided. Part of this is due to the many downed trees to be negotiated. In a number of places I took one fork of trail and Gordon took the other. We always came back together after a few dozen yards. So although the trail becomes indistinct and braided, it doesn’t really seem to matter.

Spirit Lake

After Fourth Lake, East Inlet makes a turn to the south. Or, rather, flowing down a steep hill, the stream turns from flowing north to flowing west. The trail is quite faint after Fourth Lake but not terribly difficult to follow. For quite a while it continues east and goes straight up the slope. A fair way up the hill we decided it was time to strike off the trail and back towards the stream.

Fourth Lake

Route finding was simple and we found ourselves hopping from rock to rock until we arrived at the stream itself. Although it’s called East Inlet, here I want to call it the outlet, as it’s the outlet of Fifth Lake. In early September the flow is quite diminished but based on the color of the rocks you can tell that the stream often flows much higher. We arrived on the shore of Fifth Lake by about 10:15.

The morning sky was still almost cloudless, so had I not forgotten the GoPro I wouldn’t have had a very interesting time-lapse. A few jetliners crossed the sky leaving contrails that dispersed into fat white ribbons and a half moon floated above the opposite ridge. Much of the lake was still in the shadow of the spectacular ridge of the Continental Divide. As the sun rose, it didn’t so much climb above the ridge as traverse it, moving behind first one peak then another, putting us alternately in shade, then sun, then shade again.

Fifth Lake

We weren’t the only ones there. A lone fisherman was working his way around the lake, casting his line in several different places. After about half an hour we headed back down. Arriving at Fourth Lake we spotted two moose wading across the lake. We kept an eye on them and they kept an eye on us. Gordon suggested they might be the same two moose we saw yesterday. If we made it here, they certainly could have too. I have my doubts that they’re the same moose but who knows.

Gordon scanned the opposite shore with is binoculars and spotted a bull moose in the trees. If Gordon hadn’t pointed him out to me I’d have never seen him. I could see him but any picture I took with the cell phone wouldn’t show him. The moose worked their way to the outlet stream and we found our paths converging.

Moose wading in Fourth Lake

Here we met a couple guys hiking up. They left the trailhead at seven this morning, arriving here at Fourth Lake at 11:40. They didn’t realize where they were. Their goal was Spirit Lake. I told them they were at Fourth Lake, gave them my map, and suggested they try to get to Fifth Lake. I somewhat expected to see them again on our hike out as they were moving quite a bit faster than us, but we never did see them again so I don’t know if they made it.

Pika

We were back at the campsite a bit before 1:00. This is somewhat later than I was hoping but not a concern. It took us about five hours to get here yesterday, and I typically don’t hike out any faster than I hike in. That could mean we don’t get back to the car until six. But we make it to Lone Pine Lake in half an hour and don’t take any breaks until we crossed the bridge over the river another half hour below Lone Pine. We stopped there for more water.

About ten minutes before reaching the bridge I heard quite a loud noise somewhere below us. I can’t really describe it, and at the time I had no idea what it was. My first thought was that it was man-made, but I couldn’t imagine how it was made. I didn’t give it any more thought until a couple hundred yards down the trail from our break at the bridge. A dead tree had fallen across the river, landing on a large rock slab that the trail crossed. The trunk had been burned, was black. Where it hit the rock it was broken in a couple places. Broken but not quite shattered. This, obviously, was the source of the noise.

I was a bit surprised at the number of hikers on the trail. My last visit I only saw a handful of people. But that was a weekday and this is a holiday weekend. Still, the number of people hiking up toward Lone Pine Lake this late in the day was unexpected. Closer to the trailhead, one couple asked me how far to the lake. I told them we’d been hiking for about two hours; they turned right around. Another woman passed us asking if the moose was still there. Last moose we saw was at Fourth Lake.

Yours truly, crossing a bridge just above Lone Pine Lake

We finally made it back to the car at around 4:30, maybe a little later. It felt like a long day. I won’t say the last two miles were agony, but I really struggled. But every worthwhile thing has a cost. The valley of upper East Inlet is gorgeous: large, beautiful lakes beneath stunning peaks. We couldn’t have had much better weather. We had some threatening clouds but never got rained on, and when it was sunny it wasn’t hot.

Just another beautiful day (or two) in the neighborhood.

Fifth Lake – Day 1

East Inlet is a stream that flows roughly ten miles from the northern flank of Isolation Peak to the eastern shores of Grand Lake. There are five lakes along this stream, like beads on a string: Lone Pine Lake, Lake Verna, Spirit Lake, Fourth Lake, and Fifth Lake. They ran out of names.

I tried to get to Fifth Lake back in 2009. That was the first year that I kept a log of my hikes, but before I was blogging. I attempted it as a day hike, hitting the trail at 7:30 and reaching Fourth Lake at noon. As that was my “bingo” time, I stopped there, ate my picnic, then headed back. I returned to the car a bit before 5:00. Given that it might take about an hour to get to Fifth Lake from Fourth Lake, I figured it was out of range for me for a day hike.

If I can’t do it in one day, perhaps I should try it in two. So when March 1 rolled around I went online to make a reservation for one night at the Lake Verna campsite. I didn’t get my request but when I visited the back country office to make my reservation for zone camping for my Gorge Lakes hike, I managed to negotiate a good alternative. The Lake Verna campsite was booked up on all the dates I was interested in, but Upper East Inlet was available for September first. It’s just a couple tenths of a mile below Lake Verna so there’s no real functional difference.

The plan was to hike in to the campsite on day one, rise early on day two to get up to Fifth Lake and back to the campsite around noon, then hike back to the car. When I made the reservation, I didn’t have anybody lined up to accompany me but I booked it for two people anyway. About a week ago Gordon volunteered to go.

Saturday, September 1

Because we essentially had all day to get to Lake Verna we made a leisurely start, putting boots on the trail at about 10:00am.

It has been nine years since I hiked this trail but I have a few very distinct memories of it. I remember encountering a bull moose just below Lake Verna with a lame left front leg. I remember it being on a section of trail that traversed a rather steep treeless slope. There is no such section of trail. I’m the first to admit my memory isn’t the best, but in this case it’s a pretty disappointing mismatch. As to the rest of the trail, only a couple of short sections of that hike stayed with me. So in a sense, much of it was somewhat like being on a trail I’d never hiked before.

On that hike long ago, I found a moose in the marshy meadow quite near the trailhead. Today we found two moose even closer to the start. They were quite near the trail. Almost too close for comfort when I realized it was a cow and yearling calf. I probably have that nomenclature wrong. It was a young moose, but now nearly fully grown. I know moose can be unpredictable and wouldn’t want to get between mother and calf.

These two were quite calm, probably used to being in the presence of people. The only other time I’ve been this close to a moose was that earlier encounter on this trail with the lame one. We quietly watched them for a few minutes and took a few pictures. As they slowly worked their way into the trees and away from the trail, the cow let out an odd little moan, then pooped. I realized I’ve never knowingly seen moose poo before. Last year I learned that much of what I’ve taken for years to be deer poo is actually llama poo. This year I learned that moose poo looks a lot like horse poo.

Lone Pine Lake is the first lake in the chain, 5.3 miles and 1500 vertical feet from the trailhead. The first two miles or so follow the stream as it meanders through a broad marshy valley and gains only about a hundred feet. After that easy first two miles, the trail climbs about 1400 feet in just over three miles. This section of trail goes through some fairly rugged country, and the trail between here and just above Lone Pine Lake is what I’d call “highly engineered”. There are a number of stretches where you climb rather a long series of stone stairs.

When we got to the campsite it seemed to me like we’d climbed a thousand of these stairs. That’s a ridiculous number, obviously. When we got to the first of these on the way down I asked Gordon how many he thought there were. “I don’t know. 232?” I said it seemed like a thousand, even though that was an exaggeration. I said that I didn’t intend to count them, but then went ahead and counted anyway. I lost track a couple of times, but by the time we got back to the car I’d counted 725. The actual number is probably between 700 and 750. Those are just the obviously engineered stairs and doesn’t include the many rocks that naturally lie on the trail or are set to divert rain water off the trail.

In addition to the many stairs, there are long lengths of trail that lie on top of carefully built stone walls. There are also some spots where the trail was laid on a ledge that was carved out of large rock outcroppings. Some serious work went into constructing this trail. I really appreciate it, as when looking at the terrain from below it doesn’t look like the kind of country I would be willing to cross without a trail.

I don’t know the fire history of this area. None of it has burned since 2000, but there’s a pretty good section that looks to me as if it has recently burned. There aren’t any large swaths of dead trees, but the tree trunks for quite a stretch of trail look like they’ve seen some fire. There’s one stretch of stone stairs that I recall quite well from before and through here it seemed to me that there were quite a few more downed trees now than then.

We stopped for a rest perhaps half way up the climb to Lone Pine Lake. That’s not half the trail distance, but half the climb, so maybe three and a half miles in. To that point I thought we were making pretty good time. But carrying the pack was starting to wear me out. We took another break at Lone Pine Lake. I really struggled to get there, as I wanted to stop about half an hour earlier. But Gordon took the lead for a while and convinced me to continue until we arrived at the lake.

Lone Pine Lake

It was nearly 2:00 when we got to the lake, and we paused for about fifteen minutes. The weather forecast for the area called for a 60% chance of rain in the afternoon, with some snow possible overnight (with “little to no accumulation of snow”). The skies by now were clearly threatening, with the occasional rumble of thunder. So we didn’t delay too long.

It’s just over a mile and a half from Lone Pine Lake to Lake Verna, and our campsite is a couple tenths below Verna, so we didn’t have much farther to go. Verna, Spirit, and Fourth lakes lie in a valley that hangs above Lone Pine. There’s not much elevation between those three lakes, but the trail climbs a bit over two hundred feet in the next half mile or so. This is another highly engineered stretch of trail that includes a few bridges and a rather large retaining wall. The trail tops out on a rock outcropping with a nice view of Lone Pine Lake.

Above Lone Pine Lake

From here to the campsite it’s pretty easy walking; a nearly straight line for about two thirds of a mile. The campsite itself is a few yards north of the trail, up another thirty or forty feet. It looks like a number of rather large dead trees have recently toppled, their thin disks of soil and roots standing upright. The large trees were dead, but in toppling they took with them some young, live trees. These were still green, so they haven’t been down for very long. I’m sure that if anybody was in the campsite when the trees came down it was quite thrilling.

Upper East Inlet campsite

After we set up camp we headed to Lake Verna. On last month’s trip, I carried two full bottles of water. This time I carried both bottles but only one was full. I figured we’d never be far from a water source so I didn’t need to carry the extra weight, but at camp I’d probably want to have more than one bottle of water, given I’d use something like half a bottle to cook my meal. After I filled my bottle, we sat there and watched the world go by for a little while.

Lake Verna, early evening

Back in camp Gordon surprised me by pulling a couple cans of beer out of his pack: Left Hand Brewing Traveling Light Kolsch. Much the way that I find a peach always seems to taste best when on the shores of an alpine lake, I was quite satisfied with this tasty little Kolsch, even though it was warm.

By sunset the clouds had cleared and by the time I turned in, the first stars in the night sky were shining brightly above us. Had I tried to stay up long enough, I might have seen a little sliver of the Milky Way as the moon wouldn’t rise for a few hours yet. I was happy that the 60% chance of rain hadn’t materialized, other than a few sprinkles when we sat at Lake Verna. With no clouds overhead at sunset, I was confident we wouldn’t get rain (or snow!) overnight.

 

Gorge Lakes – Day 3

Sunday, August 5

Rain started again at about a quarter to six. We had breakfast in the rain, taking shelter under the trees. The sky was a uniform gray, giving no indication that the rain would break any time soon. We had a short discussion as to how long we were willing to wait before packing up in the rain. We came to no conclusion but fortunately before long the rain stopped and the sun poked through the clouds. We were packed up by shortly after eight.

The route back to the trailhead was up the high ridge. We’d turn north at Love Lake, climb up to the unnamed lake above it (‘Lake Amore’ in the Foster guide) and refill our water. From there, circle to the west then south to head up the ridge. Somewhere between 12,400’ and 12,600’ we’d gain the Mt. Ida trail and be home free.

When we got to where I said we should find Lake Amore we instead found just a puddle of water. The guys were confident that their filtration systems would handle this, so we filled up as this would be our last opportunity. I still had nearly a liter of good lake water but filled my other bottle anyway. In the end this was unnecessary and proved to be dead weight as I drank none of it. But better to carry water you don’t need than need water you didn’t carry.

Love Lake (near) and Arrowhead Lake

I suspect we were on a rise slightly above and south of Lake Amore as my phone told me we were about forty feet higher than the map indicated for the lake. But I didn’t waste the steps to verify my suspicion. Once we filled up, Brad asked me if there was any reason we couldn’t just climb straight up the steep slope above us to gain the top of the ridge. It looked to be about two hundred fifty feet and quite steep. I’d have rather gone my route: longer but not so steep. I was outvoted, so up we went.

Yours truly, atop the ridge

We took our time working up the ridge and back to the trail. At altitude none of us was moving very swiftly and we took a number of short breaks. The wind was blowing fairly stiffly and the clouds to the west were building up threateningly. At one of our pauses, James asked “Did you hear that?” I didn’t hear anything until there was a break in the wind. It wasn’t the bugling of elk, but the yipping of coyotes. Not the howl I used to hear regularly during the night when I lived in Estes, but a definite yipping. I don’t think I’ve ever heard coyotes except at night.

View to the northwest. We crossed this valley (toward the right of the picture) Friday.

When we got to the trail we could see a rain squall to the south. Tim said he thought we’d miss it. We may have missed that one, but almost immediately after his remark we found ourselves getting rained on again. Back on the trail, and heading mostly downhill, our progress was a bit faster. Which was good, because we soon saw the flash of lightning. We had about three miles to cover before we gained treeline. For a short while, we got hailed on. The wind was stiff and blew the hail nearly horizontally.

The rain ended before we got back to treeline and we made it back to the car by 1:00pm without getting hit by lightning. On the drive back over Trail Ridge Road we stopped at the Rock Cut to review our trip. The general consensus (joking, I think) was that it was good we couldn’t see anything on Friday morning: “We’re going where?”

In the picture below, taken from Trail Ridge Road a bit west of the Rock Cut, we could see most of the terrain we crossed. The Mount Ida trail is on the other side of the ridge that climbs from right to left ending in about the center of the shot. We went off trail starting to the right of the snow field moving east (right to left) a bit below treeline. Gorge Lakes lie in the left third of the shot, under the pointy peak (Mount Julian).

View from Trail Ridge Road.

Conclusion

From the maps, it looked to me like I could reach all those lakes given enough time. I could have started my assault on the lakes an hour or more earlier than I did. And the weather worked against me. But it’s the terrain that stopped me, not bad weather or a lack of time. I just don’t have the skills or temperament to reach all these lakes. I certainly can’t get them on a day hike, and there are enough other remote places in the park that I’d like to visit that I’m unlikely to do another backpacking trip here.

I was quite happy with the borrowed backpack. It is borrowed no more: Paul has kindly given it to me. Thanks, Paul.

On the clothing front, I’ll have to look at getting some rain pants. I’m pretty sure my boots would have kept my feet dry had I not had water running down my legs. For around camp, I had my sweat pants and hoodie. I was comfortable with these, and used the hoodie as a pillow, but they’re on the bulky side and space in the pack is at a premium. So I’ll start investigating on that front. And I learned that I need to have enough socks.

I was pretty happy with my food selection, with the exception of the jerky bars. They left an odd aftertaste and the texture wasn’t at all like jerky. They were not what I was expecting. Next time I’ll go with your basic jerky.

All in all I enjoyed the trip. I won’t lie: I am disappointed that I only managed to get to one of the four lakes I was after, and that one only marginally. And the weather was, shall we say, less than ideal. I was tempted several times to say that I was cold, wet, and miserable. But I don’t think I’ve ever spent time in the park that I felt truly miserable. It’s an incredible place, and I’m happy to be there to experience it in all its variety.

Gorge Lakes – Day 2

Saturday, August 4

We broke camp by 8:15 and headed east around the buttress of the ridge in search of our next campsite. We needed to be a mile away from last night’s location, and I wanted to be as close as possible to where we’d be spending most of the day. We also needed to be in reasonable proximity to a water source.

When I got up this morning, I had the choice of wearing yesterday’s wet socks or the one pair of dry socks I carried. As my boots were still thoroughly wet, I went with the wet socks. I figured if I used the dry ones, they’d be wet pretty quickly and then all my socks would be wet. I wanted to keep a pair dry for the night. It made for cold feet for the start of the day but once we got going it wasn’t so bad.

In our passage through the forest we came upon the occasional bone. Yesterday I found a scapula, deer or elk I’m not sure which. Today we saw two more. I’m not sure why I see so many scapulae. I see more of them than anything else, with vertebrae next most common. I rarely see skulls. But we found an elk skull today.

Elk skull.

We bushwhacked more or less due east and came upon a small unnamed lake that lies at 11,000’. We needed to go a bit farther. The map shows a sort of plateau between 11,000’ and 11,200’ about two tenths of a mile ENE of Love Lake. I’m not sure that this area is within our zone, but I figured it was close, and it met all the other requirements of a legal campsite. We dropped our packs here and Brad and I went off in search of Love Lake.

Our navigation was spot-on and we arrived there after about fifteen minutes hiking. It sure was easier without our packs, but we should have at least carried a filter and a couple of empty bottles. So, other than the simple fact that we verified where we were, it was a wasted trip.

We headed back to our packs and selected our campsite on this plateau. I think it was a better spot than last night. The vegetation wasn’t as thick and we had some nice rocks to sit on. A couple of the rocks were in sunshine and would be handy for putting our wet items on in an attempt to dry them.

Once we set up camp, we decided on our day’s action plan. The guys all wanted to fish. The park’s website said there were fish in Rock Lake and the outlet from Arrowhead. I wanted to bag the four lakes I missed last time. So we went as a group up to Love Lake and from there down to the outlet of Arrowhead. I left them there and headed across the large rock outcroppings along the eastern side of Arrowhead toward Doughnut Lake.

Tim takes in the view

From the map, it looked like I could go from Doughnut up a gully to the southwest, over a ridge and then descend to Inkwell. From there, I should be able to follow the inlet stream up to Azure Lake. If things were still going well and I had enough time, I could follow that inlet stream to Highest Lake. From the slope above the northern end of Arrowhead, very little of this was visible. The terrain looked rugged, but passable.

So off I went to Doughnut. The ridge I traversed had a couple of large gullies leading up to saddles and so had three distinct summits. I made it to the first saddle easily enough. And from there to the second. The saddle between the second and third summits is shown on the map with two contour lines, or on the order of sixty to eighty feet. What I was faced with was a thirty foot cliff. I worked around the east side, but it’s quite steep here, too, essentially a fifty or sixty foot cliff. I was stymied.

I took a few pictures but never made it to the shore of the lake. I’m going to add it to my list, though. I’m saying I made it there, or close enough. I went west through the saddle looking for a way to get to the top of the next little summit, but no dice. So I found a place to sit down, eat my lunch, and run the GoPro for a while for a time lapse video.

Doughnut Lake

When we were up at Love Lake, we heard voices but didn’t see anybody. Now, down below me at the far southern end of Arrowhead I saw the other hikers. At first I only saw two, but there were four. They made their way to the base of a nice waterfall – the stream that flowed from Inkwell. It looked like they had found quite a nice place and they were there the whole time I was sitting there. They were a noisy bunch. They were about three hundred yards away and a hundred fifty feet below me. Once I thought perhaps they had spotted me and were yelling at me. I waved my arms but couldn’t see them responding.

I ran the camera for about thirty five minutes and watched the clouds roll by. I had a nice view of Trail Ridge in the distance. Had it been calm, I probably would have been able to hear the louder motorcycles and trucks. But it was quite windy. I tried to keep an eye out for incoming weather, but the high ridge to my west obscured my view. Before long, dark threatening clouds came over the gorge. I packed up the camera and started heading back to camp.

When I got to the top of the gully I took to get to the first saddle it started to rain. I popped into a small grove of trees just as it began to hail. I pondered how long I was willing to wait there. This squall could be over in a few minutes, or it could rain for hours. When the hail stopped the rain increased. Visibility across the lake was noticeably reduced. I waited a bit longer and the hail returned. After hail abated the second time, I set out again.

Arrowhead Lake panorama, above the eastern shore

Much of the way back to Love Lake was across open rock. The rock has quite a bit of lichen on it, and when that stuff is wet it can be quite slippery. I more or less was able to retrace my steps but did end up going through a nasty bit of krummholz that I didn’t encounter on the way up. Going through that, I got my pants soaked, which led to my damp socks getting pretty wet again.

Forest Canyon rain squall. Rock Lake visible 700′ below.

I made it back to the outlet of Arrowhead, crossed the stream without incident, and climbed the talus slope up to Love Lake. I went pretty slow, taking great care on the slippery rocks. Up on the shore of Love Lake I let my guard down and nearly slipped on rocks there.

On our way out for the day, we refilled water bottles at Love Lake. Everybody took what water they needed for the afternoon and we left some full bottles and our filter gear there. When I got there, everything was gone, so the guys had already returned to camp. If they quit fishing when the rain started, they had about an hours head start on me.

By the time I returned to camp, the rain had stopped and shortly thereafter the sun was shining brightly. I took the opportunity to take off my boots and socks and lay them out on a rock. Sadly, the sunshine didn’t last long and nothing quite got dry.

The guys told me they didn’t venture far from Arrowhead’s outlet. The park’s website said fish could be caught there, and down below in Rock Lake. The terrain is pretty rugged at there the outlet, and Rock Lake is something like 700’ below. They didn’t catch anything, but all had hits on their lines.

The evening was uneventful. The rain didn’t return before we turned in. Even so, it was an early night with everybody retiring before dark. I slept about as well as the night before; one excursion before midnight and otherwise sleeping in fits and spurts. It rained for about an hour starting at three. No dreams tonight, at least that I recall.

Gorge Lakes – Day 1

Friday, August 3

When we made the reservations back on the first of March we had no way of knowing what the weather would be like five months hence. We were reasonably expecting warm, sunny days with a chance of afternoon thunder showers. That’s not at all how it turned out.

Tim picked me up a few minutes after eight and we met Brad and James in Estes Park. They left their car at the visitors center. Parking there for the two nights was free, but they did have to fill out some paperwork. We were soon on our way up Trail Ridge Road. My plan was that we’d stop at the Rock Cut and get a good view of our destination and the interesting bits of our routes in and out. Instead, we drove into the clouds at about Many Parks Curve and visibility was on the order of a couple hundred yards.

We got to the Milner Pass parking lot shortly after eleven and were on the trail by 11:15. We’d been getting rained on since Lyons, lightly at first, but by now it was moderately heavy with no sign of letting up. We had the trail to ourselves, as nobody else was willing to venture more than a few hundred yards from their cars at Poudre Lake.

Just before we hit treeline, we decided to look for a place to eat a snack. We found a copse of trees not far from the trail that provided scant shelter from the rain. We shed our packs but didn’t have anyplace to sit, so it was a bit of a miserable picnic.

My original plan was to take the same route in and out – along the top of the ridge immediately west of Gorge Lakes. Although we hadn’t seen any lightning or heard any thunder, I didn’t really want to put us above treeline for an extended time. From treeline to the summit of Mt. Ida, it’s three and a half miles. We wouldn’t be reaching the summit, but would come within a quarter or half mile of it. Along the top of the ridge and back to the forest is another two miles or so. Also, one of the main appeals of this route is the view of the gorge. Today we had no view at all.

The alternative I decided on was to take the next ridge to the west. This is where I left the trail the first time I hiked here. At that time, I thought I was on the ridge overlooking the gorge but was mistaken. This ridge is lower and shorter. At the end of the ridge we could work our way down to about 11,000’, cross open, unforested ground, and hopefully be high enough to avoid the worst of the marshy areas.

It turned out to be a pretty good choice. The hiking was easy with good footing everywhere except one place where we had to skirt a rather large snowfield. By this time of year it wasn’t so much snow as ice. We’d have preferred to contour across it and not lose the elevation but even with microspikes I think it would have been sketchy. The ground we descended was loose and without much vegetation and was not ideal, but we made it down without incident.

To this point, even in the continuing rain, my feet were still dry. But now that we were off the tundra we were crossing open meadows. We made a point to avoid the greener areas, feeling that these would be pretty marshy (which was correct), but we still crossed quite a bit of ground with taller grass or ground cover that reached our knees. I didn’t have rainproof pants. (None of us did.) Walking through this vegetation, my pants got soaked and the water wicked down my legs and into my boots. Before long my feet were thoroughly wet.

There were a couple of notable observations in this section of our hike. As we were now below the clouds the view of the valley below us had opened up. About a half a kilometer away we spied a small herd of elk making their way along the Big Thompson. To my surprise, we heard one or two of them bugling. I’m certainly no expert, but I didn’t expect to hear bugling for another few weeks. That was the good observation. On the bad side, we came across a bit of litter. I picked up a disposable water bottle. It collapsed small enough to not be a burden. But the tent poles and stakes we found were a different matter. None of us wanted to carry them out. We made some noise about collecting them if we found them on our way out, but I wasn’t expecting to return this way. So we were bad citizens and left them where we found them.

We worked our way into the forest to about where I thought our camping zone began. I wanted to be as far south and as high as possible in this zone. I neglected to bring a map showing the zone, but wasn’t too concerned. The only map I had available was at a very high scale and didn’t show terrain, so I don’t think it would have been much help.

In any event, we found a spot that fit the rules for zone camping. By this time the rain had stopped. I was hoping to go a little farther, but there was no certainty we’d find as good a place or that the rain wouldn’t return. Also, we had to move our camp at least a mile between nights and going any farther toward our goal might make that problematic. So we made camp. It was about 2:30.

Our campsite had no large rocks to use as seating, and while one large downed tree made a good platform for preparing our dinners, none were suitable to sit on. So other than a quick recce of our nearby water supply we spent our time standing around. This standing around came to an end at about 6:30 when the rain returned and drove us into our tents.

When we first scouted our water supply, a small stream a hundred yards to our east, I managed to slip and fall. It was more embarrassing than painful. Nobody saw me fall, and no harm was done. It wasn’t until after I got home that I noticed I’d bruised my right forearm.

I was in my one man tent while the others all had two man tents. This allowed them to keep all their gear inside. On my tent, there’s a gap between the tent and the fly, which the manufacturers call an “atrium”. It’s not very big, but it did allow me to keep my boots and backpack both outside the tent and out of the rain. Probably not ideal, but it worked.

I don’t know what time I finally drifted off to sleep, but it was much earlier than usual. It might have been nice to have a book or the iPad, but I was unwilling to pay the price in weight or volume for either. I slept fitfully, waking up at irregular intervals. I only had to make one excursion before daylight and managed to sleep until six, which was much better than I anticipated.

The other guys said they slept, but never got to REM sleep. I dreamt, though: odd, disjointed dreams. The only bit I recall was one where a Frenchman was living in the house behind us. He had an old tractor which he used to plow his back yard. In the process, he knocked down a portion of our shared fence. He chattered what I presume to be an apology but I can’t be sure as I don’t speak French. (So, was it French in my dream, or just nonsense?) In the end he kissed me on one cheek, then the other, then square on the mouth.

Gorge Lakes – Preparation

Gorge Lakes are the lakes visible directly across Forest Canyon from the Rock Cut parking lot on Trail Ridge Road. There are five named lakes there, or maybe seven, depending on which ones you care to include. This high gorge is surrounded by Mount Ida, Chief Cheley Peak, Mount Julian, and Terra Tomah Mountain. It is both some of the most visible and most remote terrain in the park. Visible, because millions of people have seen it from Trial Ridge Road. Remote because there are no trails there.

Background

When I was on a business trip to San Francisco back in January I had a beer with Tim. As I tend to go on a bit about my passions, I naturally brought up the subject of hiking. I told him that I wanted to do a two night backpacking trip with the object of bagging the four Gorge Lakes that I didn’t get on my day hike there back in 2013. He thought it sounded like a great idea, as long as it involved fishing. I don’t fish, but if he wanted to go with me, there wasn’t any reason he couldn’t bring his fishing gear.

By the time March first rolled around and we could apply for back country camping permits, it had grown into a four man expedition including his brother-in-law Brad and nephew James. I went up to the back country office and picked up a zone camping permit for the group and it was on. They all wanted to fish, I wanted to visit Doughnut Lake, Inkwell Lake, Azure Lake, and Highest Lake. We’d hike in on Friday, each do our things on Saturday, and hike out Sunday.

Preparation

I would call myself a seasoned hiker but a novice backpacker. This is only my second backpacking trip. I’m using a borrowed pack. I have an old sleeping bag that’s heavy compared to modern ones and I have no idea what sort of temperatures it’s rated for. I have a reasonably light one man tent, a bear vault for my food, and a stove I bought a couple of years ago. Of course, I somehow managed to buy the wrong size fuel canister and it doesn’t fit inside the vessel for the stove, so there’s some wasted space there. And I don’t really know what I need to bring as far as food and clothing go. Experience is the best teacher, so I’ll just have to make a few mistakes before I figure it all out.

One thing I did figure out last year was that I needed to bring my day pack with me. When I visited Lost Lake it quickly became obvious that I couldn’t venture far from camp, as I had no way to carry water, my lunch, and a rain jacket. My lumbar pack isn’t terribly heavy, but it is on the bulky side.

I know the lightweight fanatics recommend against taking fresh fruit, but on the trail my preferred breakfast is an apple and a protein bar. And I always enjoy a peach or plum at lunch time. This week the plums looked good, so plums it is. I made up my own trail mix because I’m a picky eater and don’t care much for nuts (peanuts aren’t nuts). This is peanuts, sesame sticks, raisins, dried cranberries, dried pineapple cubes, and a few peanut butter filled pretzels for good measure. I saw these jerky bars at Sprouts and thought I’d give them a try. Not pictured is the ham sandwich for Friday’s lunch. Also included is sunscreen, toothpaste, medicine, toilet paper, a couple paper towels, and an extra ziplock bag. Notably absent is mosquito repellent. This turned out to be a non-factor, as all the other guys had plenty to share.

All of that went in the bear vault. The rest of the gear is pictured below: sleeping bag, tent, sleeping pad, clothes, head lamp, emergency kit, rain jacket, Steri-Pen, lumbar pack, stove and fuel, and two water bottles. I normally carry only one, but I was a bit worried about the ready availability of water. Fully packed, with bottles full of water, the backpack weighed in at 35 lbs.

Not long ago I found a nice website for maps. Historically, I’ve been using screen shots of USGS 7½ minute series maps that I downloaded in PDF format. Now I use caltopo.com, where I can select any area I want and have it generate a nice PDF. The first obvious advantage is that I don’t have to worry about pasting something together from two different maps. Secondly, they include scales in both miles and kilometers. Rather than print one map covering the whole area I made three. Zooming out to the full area would result in a map with 200 foot contour lines rather than 40 foot. I felt this was just too rough to be useful.

Chaos Canyon

Sunday, July 15

Lake Haiyaha sits at the entrance to Chaos Canyon. The canyon stretches roughly a mile and a half above the lake, ending at a couple of glaciers hanging below the saddle between Hallett Peak and Otis Peak. I’ve been to the lake many times but have never ventured very far up the canyon. The lake sits in a boulder field and this setting is emblematic of the terrain in the entire canyon. The few times I’ve attempted to get anywhere in the canyon ended with a nice view of the lake, but only a few hundred yards up.

On a recent hike with Ed he talked about visiting the small unnamed pond about two-thirds of the way up the canyon. He has named it “Quaint Pond” because there aren’t any bodies of water in the park having names starting with the letter Q and because he finds the pond… quaint.

I wonder about why some features in the park get named while others don’t. Quaint Pond may technically be better called Chaos Tarn but in any event it is officially unnamed. It isn’t because of its size: in the next canyon to the north, above Emerald Lake, there’s a similarly sized pond called Pool of Jade. An even smaller one in the canyon to the south, above The Loch, is called Embryo Lake. Ed suggests that many remain unnamed so people will be less inclined to visit them.

I knew from experience that I wouldn’t be able to make it to Chaos Tarn on my own, so I asked Ed if he’d take me up there. He promptly assented. We first planned on going Saturday but due to other obligations Ed wanted to switch to Sunday. I’d picked Saturday because it had a more favorable weather forecast, but the threat of rain and cooler temperatures on Sunday didn’t particularly bother me. In any event, if I wanted Ed to take me up there, Sunday was it.

We agreed I’d meet him at his place no later than six. I had a couple minor problems doing this. First, I got a few blocks from the house before realizing I forgot my phone. Then I ran into an unexpected construction detour in Boulder. So I kept Ed waiting for a few minutes. He wanted to make sure we got a parking spot at Bear Lake. We arrived by his target time of seven and found plenty of open parking spaces.

As expected, it was fairly cool. Also as expected, the skies were overcast with some of the clouds looking a bit threatening. We had a brief chat with one of the park volunteers who told us the forecast called for a band of rain starting maybe around one. That would clear but be followed by a heavier round. We were not deterred.

I didn’t check the times when we left Bear Lake and arrived at Haiyaha, but we made pretty good time. We took the shortcut from Bear to Nymph, avoiding some traffic. We were early enough that there were very few hikers between Dream and Haiyaha.

White columbine

The hike really begins here at Haiyaha. We stuck to the south side of the canyon, the north slope of the long eastern ridge of Otis Peak. Where there is soil there’s a sort of trail. Actually, there is a choice of trails. That’s because from here all the way up to the tarn we’re mostly rock hopping. It’s about a mile from the lake to the tarn and perhaps a couple hundred yards of that isn’t on the rocks. And this stuff isn’t the usual talus where you can easily step from one rock to the next. In many cases the rocks are quite large, and there are significant holes below you.

At four or five places we came across large snow fields. It didn’t occur to me to bring the microspikes, but they’d have been handy. Crossing the snow rather than the rocks would make things easier, but the edges of the snow weren’t so much snow as solid ice. It was quite treacherous around the edges. When we did cross the snow, we pretty much stuck to the edges as a slip and fall would end in a negative outcome.

Ed has been up this way a number of times. Although the destination is well-known (“We want to go just to the right of that snow field there“), there’s still quite a challenge with route finding. Along the way he’d point out sub-optimal routes: “Went up that gully once, it’s not a good way to go!”

By the time we caught sight of the pond, the clouds had closed in and obscured the peaks around us. Mist hung off the south flank of Hallett, and the divide – half a mile to the west and a thousand feet above – was totally obscured. Before we found a place to sit it had begun to rain. I was skeptical that I’d get any interesting footage for the time lapse video, but I set up the camera anyway.

Chaos Tarn -or- “Quaint Pond”

We didn’t dilly-dally. We tucked into our lunches and before long were ready to begin our trek out of the canyon. We were there only about twenty minutes. One of our concerns now was the rain making the rocks slippery. Bare rock wasn’t too bad, but when wet the lichen can make rock hopping treacherous. Lucky for us, the lichen isn’t as abundant at 11,000′ as it is at 9.000′.

The clouds followed us down the canyon. Occasionally we’d see brighter spots scooting down the opposite wall giving a bit of variety to the gray. About when we got back to Haiyaha, the ceiling had dropped below us: we were in fog. At one of the overlooks where we’d typically have a nice view of Long’s, we couldn’t see more than a hundred yards. But there it more or less stopped. When we descended toward Dream Lake, we emerged from the clouds.

Fog near Haiyaha

It had more or less stopped raining before we got back to Haiyaha, and from then on out to the parking lot we had only occasional sprinkles. It would be easy to complain about getting rained on, but, frankly, the weather was an interesting variation. In spite of the rain, there’s no denying it was still a beautiful day in the park.

Long’s Peak-less overlook

I include the time lapse in spite of its brevity, and the occasional raindrop on the lens. And an insect makes an appearance; the camera moved slightly, but I don’t think I can blame the bug! Although it wasn’t so obvious in real time, you can clearly see the ceiling coming down.

We stopped in Estes for a refreshing beer. By the time we left the brewery it was raining in earnest. Although the bit of rain we had didn’t bother me too much, I was happy that we missed the heavier rain that followed us all the way back to Lyons and home.