Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Exploring Wild Basin


After a warmup day on Hallet Peak, it was time to start acclimatizing to the altitude and begin exploring in earnest. Our plan for doing this kicked off with a three day backpacking trip into the Wild Basin area of Rocky Mountain National Park. Even though Longs Peak was the main objective, and promised to be the biggest prize of the entire trip if we proved successful in the attempt four days hence, I think I was looking at this three day outing as the highlight of the trip, with a chance to bag four or five nice peaks in a less visited area of the park. Unfortunately, things didn't work out according to plan - but it was still a great three days in one of the lesser traveled but nevertheless spectacular areas of the park - and probably the best backpacking trip I have had the pleasure of doing in Colorado.

Ready to start a three day hike into the backcountry of Wild Basin. Photo by Bill Walker
Destinations! Photo by Steph Petri
We arrived at the trailhead too late to really give climbing Mount Copeland any serious consideration, but after shouldering our packs, we headed up North St. Vrain Creek on the Thunder Lake Trail. It was easy hiking the first few miles to the North St. Vrain campsite, and we stopped briefly at the two low waterfalls of Lower and Upper Copeland Falls. Upon reaching our campsite, already late morning, we ditched all of our overnight gear and extra food (in bear canisters), then headed up the Bluebird Lake Trail. It didn't take long at all until the trail climbed up onto a low, minor ridge that was surprisingly open even though still well below the treeline, apparently part of an old burn area. Along the way, there were awesome views of Mount Meeker and the forbidding looking Homestretch of Longs Peak, as well as an inspiring view of Tanima Peak and Mount Alice. As we became more walled in by the surrounding mountains closer to Ouzel Lake, the scenery was dominated by Mount Copeland, Ouzel Peak, and Mahana Peak. Gaining elevation, it became increasingly subalpine and we walked through some very nice wildflower areas. Among others, there were lots of beautiful yellow snow lilies and "little pink elephants". We also began to see lingering snow patches close to us, and at one point, there was even a really neat looking snow bridge across Ouzel Creek, and we couldn't resist the urge to get a closer look. I didn't think it looked safe to get on, and certainly not to get under, but it presented a tempting photo opportunity as it was in a steep, narrow gorge with the creek cascading out from under it, while above it were massive rock walls and deep blue sky with fluffy white clouds - a classic mountain scene if ever there was one. There was a bit of excitement while here, something that certainly reinforced how unsafe these things can be. While Steph and I were standing beside it on its downhill side, a chunk of snow the size of a Volkswagon broke off of its upper side and crashed into the creek with quite a rumble, one that made us quickly back away as soon as it started to happen. No harm done, but it is something I will always keep in mind in the future. Dave was lucky enough to get part of it on video!

A great view of the Homestretch on Longs Peak (left) and Mount Meeker (right). Photo by Dave Socky
Tanima Peak and Mount Alice from the Bluebird Lake Trail.
Above here the trail steepened as it began to leave the trees behind and climb up into the cirque containing Bluebird Lake, whose steeply cascading outlet was in sight, providing more visual and auditory stimulation. Just below the lake, the trail went into a steep, narrow gully still filled with snow, and I'm pretty sure it was the first time that either Bill or Steph had walked on snow in August.

The lake itself was an ice cold emerald beauty nestled in below the rugged slopes of Ouzel Peak and Mahana Peak. There were a couple other guys here swimming, but we did not indulge. Not only was the water little more than snowmelt, there was a brisk chilly wind blowing as well. Just the thought of getting in was enough to shock my system. Had it been earlier in the day, we could have tried to climb into an even higher basin between us and the Continental Divide where there is yet another lake, slightly smaller and with the name of Pipit. Once there, it is also a relatively straightforward climb to the summits of Mahana and Isolation Peaks, but those simply weren't in the cards for this day, as it was well after noon and there were dark clouds building. In fact, it was threatening enough that we didn't linger but a few minutes before turning back for the safety of the trees nearly three miles away and 1,400 feet lower.

We then had the luxury of a few relaxing hours in camp before turning in early for a big next day.


"Little pink elephants" is one of the names for these pretty wildflowers.
A neat snow bridge, part of which collapsed while we were beside it. It made quite a rumble!
A snow ramp up a still buried section of the trail near Bluebird Lake.
Bluebird Lake and Ouzel Peak. Photo by Bill Walker
The next morning we were on the trail at 3:30 a.m., making an alpine start to the day I had been looking forward to at least as much as Longs Peak, that being an attempt to climb Mount Alice and Tanima Peak. It's kind of hard to explain this, because Longs is considerably higher, more famous, and has been a goal of mine for far longer. Perhaps that is because in some ways Longs seems more daunting, despite the fact it has a marked and well established route that is attempted by roughly 15,000 people every year and has a 50% success rate. Maybe it is also partly because of those crowds, which I don't like. Mount Alice, on the other hand, is technically no more difficult and maybe even a little less so, but is unmarked and far, far less visited. In fact, we would see no else even trying today. Being lower, it also seems somewhat less committing, but it also has more of an element of the unknown about it (especially the descent from Boulder-Grand Pass) - both these things also having a certain amount of appeal. Perhaps it is also partly that it has a more unusual form, arguably looking a little more exotic. There was also the appeal of it being a traverse of two peaks and a loop, rather than an up and back of one peak. Regardless of the reasons, it was something I was excited about trying. 

On the trail at 3:30 a.m. on Day 2, to move camp up to Thunder Lake, then attempt Mount Alice. It would prove to be not early enough. Photo by Steph Petri
Because of not being able to get the campsite we had wanted the first night, we were forced to get up at 3:00 to get ready and actually break camp so we could stay at Thunder Lake after our climb. This required hiking three miles and 1,200 feet higher in the dark, which seems a pretty modest undertaking based on previous experiences, but it still took us until after dawn to get there. This little fact had already given me doubts about the day, but I tried my best to suppress them from myself. Since the campsites at Thunder Lake were currently in use and we weren't entitled to one until later in the day, we found an out of the way spot and once again hid all of our overnight gear and extra food to retrieve later. Then we continued on our way with lighter packs for the actual climb.

The first act was to actually backtrack a short distance, then bushwhack from the Thunder Lake Trail to the Lion Lake Trail, which had the benefit of saving us an unnecessary descent of 600 feet and over two miles of hiking in order to stay entirely on trails to the start of the actual climb. The forest was relatively open, so the bushwhack itself was uneventful and a smart move. Once back on the trail, we found a good view of the descent route from Boulder-Grand Pass. This was something that I had nagging doubts about the difficulty of, because if it proved too hard for us, we would have little choice but to backtrack over Mount Alice again. I was relieved to see that though it looked "interesting", it also looked to be reasonable with some care via a steep and narrow gully incised into the headwall of the cirque above Lake Of Many Winds. 

Boulder-Grand Pass is the low spot between Tanima and Alice, and was intended to be our descent route after climbing both peaks.

The next highlight was at Lion Lake Number One, where there was a perfect reflection of the pointy summit of Mount Alice looming some 2,200 feet above its dead calm sapphire waters. It was such a perfect scene that I thought Steph should see it in its entirety at first sight, rather than appear gradually as it had for Dave, Bill, and myself as we approached the shore. Steph had been a little behind us when we got here, so I stopped her short of the lake and asked her to close her eyes and let me lead her to the water's edge before opening her eyes. I think it was a scene she will long remember. There were also great views of Tanima Peak as well as Mahana Peak and Chiefs Head from here.

Mount Alice and Lion Lake Number One.
The maintained trail ended here and we continued up a climber's path towards Trio Falls and higher into the basin which contains Lion Lake Number Two and Snowbank Lake. We had to climb a small, steep snowbank to get above Trio Falls and to the next lake, where we took another snack and water break before working our way onto the long tundra ridge that leads to the Continental Divide in the pass between Mount Alice and Chiefs Head Peak. Despite how good it had already been, this is where the scenery began to get really dramatic. From the lower end of this ridge is perhaps the best view of the massive cliff face on Mount Alice known as the "Mini-Diamond", a reference to the even bigger and world famous face of The Diamond on Longs Peak. There is an equally dramatic view of Hourglass Ridge, which is the rugged ramp that the route to the top of Mount Alice follows. This sloping, cliffbound ridge looks even more daunting as one climbs higher and closer to it, so much so that Bill at one point asked me, with some concern in his voice, if I really thought we could climb it. Looking at it carefully though, I thought, as is often the case with things like this out West, it wasn't as difficult as it appeared at a quick glance. This was a point of view that Dave agreed with me on, but we would ultimately have other concerns by the time we reached the Continental Divide and the start of Hourglass Ridge.

Our route was to follow the center ridge to the pass, then continue up the right skyline of Mount Alice (left). Chiefs Head Peak is on the right. Photo by Bill Walker
Mount Alice looking a bit more formidable, but doable. It doesn't show in this photo, but there were a number of ominous looking clouds building around us at this point. Ultimately, we decided the risk of getting caught in a thunderstorm was too high and we turned around - a difficult but smart decision. It ended up not storming after all, but taking chances with afternoon thunderstorms above treeline during the Colorado Summer is like playing Russian Roulette - you only get to be wrong one time. Photo by Dave Socky
We had been unable to see much of the sky to the west of us until we reached the divide, but even though it was still a little before 11 a.m., there was a mass of very dark, threatening clouds moving toward us. Climbing Alice would mean gaining another 900 feet and probably take another hour. I wanted to continue so badly it hurt. The top was within grasp and despite several truly awesome trips to the Northeast mountains in recent years, I had not been anywhere this dramatic since 2007. I think Dave felt the same way as me, but being so new to the West and having no prior experiences to base what to expect from the remaining climb and the questionable weather, both Bill and Steph were very apprehensive about going any farther. The truth is that this was unquestionably the right and smart response, and I knew it. Being above treeline and on the peaks during Rocky Mountain thunderstorms is like playing Russian roulette - one lightning strike is all takes to never climb another mountain. In fact, two people had been killed by lightning in separate events and several others injured in different parts of the park a week or two before we arrived. We decided to turn back rather than risk it. But before doing so, I did get close enough to the start of Hourglass Ridge to truly determine that it was not as difficult as it appeared. In fact, it actually looked very straightforward - a fact that I committed to memory with a plan already taking form in my head.

The sky that ultimately  made us decide to abort our climb. Photo by Dave Socky
This certainly didn't mean our climb had been without great reward. We were now standing in a very dramatic place with wild scenery all around us. The closest and most obvious was the ragged ridgeline up Alice and the adjoining cliff faces on both sides of it, but there were also awesome views of Chiefs Head Peak and Mount Meeker, the park's second and third highest peaks, as well as dramatic McHenrys Peak and its distinctive notch. Then there were the more distant peaks of the rugged Never Summer Range, the veritable canyon of North Inlet right below us, and the whole of our route here from camp. It was fully worth it just to get to this magnificent prospect in the heart of Rocky Mountain National Park.

McHenrys Peak from the Continental Divide below Mount Alice.
Having made our decision though, there was nothing left to do but start making our way back to the relative safety of the trees as we were still far from safe here if it started storming. Of course, as luck would have it, it never did storm...

Back at camp, and with some pent up energy and enthusiasm remaining, I decided I was going to walk down to Thunder Lake and then explore up into the basin leading to Boulder-Grand Pass, which would have been our descent route. Dave and Steph also decided to tag along at least as far as the lake, where Steph couldn't resist the temptation to go swimming. That was a rather entertaining and short-lived activity as she lasted about five seconds in the icy cold water! I continued on from here and was pleasantly surprised to find a good climber's path continuing on. I had only the vaguest notion that I would reach Lake Of Many Winds, much less Tanima Peak or even just the pass.  Ultimately, I ended up climbing about 500 feet higher before the weather started threatening again, but I now knew that there was an easy route down from high in the basin if I could just get down from the pass. I think you know where I am going with this, but even I wasn't certain yet and I eventually headed back to camp for the evening.

After dinner, I decided, with the blessings of the others, that if I woke up early enough and felt good about it that I would make another attempt on Mount Alice and Tanima Peak the next day. Knowing that after hiking out to the trailhead afterwards, we were going to be hiking in to another campsite to position ourselves for the climb of Longs Peak the following day and would be getting up at 2 a.m. for that, Bill and Steph decided that they were going to sit it out and relax at camp. Dave had more of a struggle deciding, and he was sorely tempted to join me, but ultimately he too decided to forego the climb.

When I woke up at 2:30, I decided that, yes, I wanted to try this again. While some people climb Alice and Tanima in a day from the trailhead, I was now glad to have the previous day under my belt as a reconnaissance trip for a solo climb. I had much more information to go on and very little apprehension, other than still just a little about the descent from Boulder-Grand Pass. I was on the trail alone at 3 a.m. and moving reasonably quick. Having a gps track from the previous day made the bushwhack in the dark a pretty simple matter, as it did for the slightly tricky section from Lion Lake Number One to gaining the crest of the ridge above Lion Lake Number Two. At 6 a.m., with dawn just starting to break, I found myself standing where we had turned around yesterday. I watched the sunrise over Mount Meeker as I started up Hourglass Ridge, and true to my assessment, it was steep but very straightforward and not at all scary or technically difficult. In fact, I would say it was mostly Class 2, with only a few spots perhaps being the next class higher. It was certainly well within my comfort levels, even alone. In fact, I made it up the summit cone to the top in 30 minutes, not the hour we had estimated it would take yesterday.

I left camp alone at 3 a.m. on Day Three, and made it to our previous day's turnaround point in time to see the sunrise over Mount Meeker before continuing up Mount Alice.
Looking down at our previous day's turnaround point at the notch at the base of Mount Alice's summit cone.
On top I was at 13,310' above sea level, and very happy to be the highest I had been since standing atop the Grand Teton in 2006. It was a tremendous feeling! While this terrain is no Canadian Rockies or North Cascades, it is still undeniably sublime with its enchanting mixture of broad slopes and ridges of high tundra culminating in sheer cliffs, cirques, narrow, ragged ridges, and distinctive peaks. The views were terrific! Longs and Meeker dominated to the northeast, but were by no means the only show. Stretching north and south were the nearly countless other peaks of the Front Range while many of Colorado's other ranges marched off to the horizon to the northwest, west, and southwest. The oceanic vastness of the Great Plains lay spread out to the east as far as the eye could see. Closer at hand, still in early morning shadow and 2,700 feet below, was Thunder Lake and camp. Presumably the rest of my group were still in their sleeping bags or perhaps just beginning to stir for the day.

There was an icy wind on the summit, and it looked and felt as if it might snow at any minute, or rain - which would be even worse at just above freezing high on the Continental Divide. But at least the sky didn't seem to have any thunderheads in it. Nevertheless, as I started working my way down first the boulders on the south side of the summit, then the gentler tundra slopes leading to Boulder-Grand Pass, I decided that I was going to skip the easy climb of Tanima Peak. One reason was because of concern over what the weather might do. Another was because I didn't want to keep the others waiting an extra hour for me. I simply decided I was content with the bigger prize of Alice for the day.


Looking towards Tanima Peak, the low, rounded ridgeline just above the center of the photo. It would have been an easy climb from Boulder-Grand Pass, but it was only about 35 degrees and very windy when I got there, and it looked and felt like it might rain or snow at any minute, so I ultimately decided to descend and be content with Mount Alice alone.
Longs Peak, Mount Meeker, North Ridge, and Thunder Lake.
Nearing the pass, it was time to find out just how hard it was going to be to escape it. The obvious route on the topo or at a quick glance is to simply drop down the headwall of the cirque beneath the pass, but in person there is a snowfield there that is far too steep for the average person like me to safely descend without crampons and an ice axe. However, just to the north of here is a narrow gully that doesn't show up on the map. And seeing it from a distance in person, it still doesn't look particularly inviting. However, it is snow free in late Summer and actually creates a break in the angle of the headwall. While this gully is still very steep and also very loose, with caution it is relatively easy as there are just enough solid hand and foot holds to get down it safely if you look for them. I had no trouble getting down to Lake of Many Winds, which it turns out is well named. Buffeting gusts of wind seemed to be swirling around and hitting it from every side. I climbed up on a little nondescript knoll by the outlet of this tiny alpine lake and had a few snacks while gawking at the scenery, including the daunting Homestretch of Longs Peak and looking at what I had just descended. It didn't look too bad from here, and was clearly the best and safest way down. After another steep half mile I was back on ground I had stood on yesterday and had easy going back to camp. The rest of the gang was just starting to break camp and it didn't take me long to start doing the same, still ecstatic about how the first half of my day had gone.


Another view down the descent gully. Aptly named Lake of Many Winds is visible below.
Longs Peak and Mount Meeker one more time.
Now we had a six mile downhill hike back to the trailhead, the first half of which we had climbed in the dark the previous morning. As a result, we got to more fully experience a viewpoint we had walked past when all we could see were stars and silhouettes of mountains. But the hiking for the day was not yet over. We piled into the car with our exploding gear as best we could, then drove a few miles up the road toward Wind River Pass and the turnoff for the Longs Peak trailhead, parking at an elevation of 9,400'. It was early afternoon now, and we spent probably a solid hour in the parking lot repacking, reorganizing, and restocking our gear and supplies for the climb of Longs Peak which towered very nearly 5,000 more feet above us. Our only remaining goal today was to hike another 1 1/4 miles up the trail to the Goblins Forest campsite and get 700 feet of that climb behind us. By the time we started up the trail, it had started raining, but luck was on our side and it only lasted a few minutes. I hadn't even bothered to put on rain gear before it quit, though I was on the verge of doing so. We spent a few relaxing hours in camp, then turned in early knowing that the biggest highlight and challenge of the trip lay ahead of us the next day.



Dave's video of our hike to Bluebird Lake.


The profile of our three days in Wild Basin, separately and combined.

A topo map of our three day hike in Wild Basin. Red is Day 1, purple is Day 2, and green is Day 3. To see the topo map larger on this site, click on the map. Or click here to see a larger interactive version on CalTopo where you may also print the map, generate a pdf, create a kmz map for use in Google Earth or as a custom map for some Garmin gps units. Additionally, you may download gpx and kml files from the site. No sign in is required to do any of this.

Hike stats: 35.6 miles and 9,170' total for three days in Wild Basin

More pics here or here.

Trailhead coordinates for Wild Basin40.2079, -105.5664


created with Chrome OS and various webapps



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