Monday, July 09, 2018

Finally Never Summer Mountains

With my primary adventure partner (Derek) living in California this year as a rocket scientist (SpaceX), I decided it was a good time to branch out and do new things, things on my todo list. With Derek I was mostly trying to expose him to the classic routes and mountains. Since it was all new to him, why not do the most famous things? He’d have been fine doing about any adventure in the mountains, of course, but nevertheless it was the slight extra bit of motivation I needed to do new things.

On the 4th of July I did a cool traverse in the Indian Peaks Wilderness. I’d actually been over all the terrain before, but never this exact link and it had been ten years since I’d done the Kasparov Traverse. I hiked up to Pawnee Pass and then traversed over Shoshoni, to the Kasparov Traverse to Apache and then up Navajo. I finished by going over the Niwot Ridge, which had some more 3rd and 4th class terrain.

That adventure was solo and those can be fun, but great partners make for more fun adventures, so for this weekend I sent an email to Homie with four ideas for adventure on things I’d never done before. We settled on visiting the Never Summer Mountains in the western area of Rocky Mountain National Park. Climbing any peak there had been on my list for ten years. I kept not doing it because the drive required you to drive past the trailheads to so many other great mountains. Plus, anything there would be a pretty long outing. Perusing the guidebook I read about loose talus on every mountain. It was enough to keep putting it off. But the allure of something new is great. Real adventure has to have something uncertain about it. These mountains had been on Homie’s list as well, so there we went.
Hiking along the Grand Ditch
Homie picked me up at 3:30 a.m. and we drove Trail Ridge Road, past the Milner Pass, and down to the Colorado River Trailhead. The Colorado River at this point is a modest creek. It grows into one of the most important rivers in the western US. We were hiking at 5:40 a.m. up the Colorado River Trail for about half a mile before turning left onto the Red Mountain Trail. We hiked this another three miles to where we intersected the Grand Ditch. Isn’t this name used as a nickname for the Grand Canyon? What these two have in common is the name “Grand” and that water is involved, but it ends there. The Grand Ditch was built to direct run-off from the Never Summer Range to the eastern slope, primarily Fort Collins. It is an aqueduct of modest proportions with a flat dirt road running along it. On this day the water in the Ditch was about a foot deep, running north, and crystal clear.

We hiked north on the dirt road for 1.7 miles until we hit a bridge crossing the aqueduct. We crossed and headed up the ?? Gulch. We followed that until the trail ended in a valley below the peaks we wanted to climb. We were both carrying Katadyn soft water bottles with a built-in filter. Unfortunately, we both forgot to fill them when we were next to the creek. We were now away from a water source and we saw no chance for water en route to our first peak: Never Summer  Peak. Dang. We could hear water to our left, towards our planned last peak: Howard Peak. We made a command decision to do the traverse in the opposite direction.
Fun scrambling up the Lake of the Clouds
We headed across talus and up a steep slope. Our first destination was the waterfall we saw above us. Once we had our bottles filled, we continued up steep, solid scrambling to the Lake of the Clouds — the biggest lake in the Never Summer Mountains, and perched high in a bowl instead of down in the valley. It was a beautiful lake, with steep talus plunging straight into the lake from most of it shores. We navigated the steep, grassy slopes on the east side until we could start up the very steep slopes leading to the east ridge of Mt. Howard. Howard, 12,800 feet, was our highest summit on this day. It didn’t take us long to determine this range’s reputation for loose talus was well founded. Indeed, the rock hopping here is serious business, as so many boulders move, even ones that appear too big and too solid. We took great care working our way up it until we gained the ridge proper. We still had 600 or 700 hundred feet to climb along the loose, exposed (at times) ridge. We continued to exercise caution but, still, Homie dislodged a large rock and it went tumbling down the slope. What surprised us is that it didn’t go all the way down to the lake.
Homie at the Lake of the Clouds
We signed the summit register, installed by our friend Roger Linfield. Roger’s working on climbing all the 12ers in the state. I get tired just thinking about a project that big. After a quick bite and a drink, we traversed over the loose bump to our north and then down to the saddle between Howard and Cirrus. We climbed up alpine tundra and some minor talus to the summit of Cirrus. This was easy hiking and a nice break from the tedious climbing on the loose talus.

Next up was a craggy, exposed, loose-talus scramble across Hart Ridge. This had three or more “summits” on it and, of course, Homie had us tagging them all. This wasn’t a lot of extra work because the slope to our left was steep, loose talus and to our left was a vertical precipice. Staying on the ridge, though not to close to the edge, especially with all the loose rock, was the most efficient passage. Still, it was tiring.
The East Ridge of Howard Peak
We dropped down to 12,000 at the low point and started up our most technical mountain: Lead Mountain. All these peaks were between 12,400 and 12,800 feet. Lead was 12,500 feet, but it was guarded on the west side by steep scrambling and some loose blocks. The south ridge was much more exposed and was continuous third class with some fourth class. The south ridge, though, was by far the best rock we encountered and was actually great scrambling. It would have been even better if we were going up it. With dark clouds building, we didn’t stay long on the summit of Lead - just enough time to drink and eat, as I was fading a bit.
Steep scrambling on Howard Peak
Once down the beautiful ridge, we were at the saddle between Lead and Never Summer Peak. The dark clouds didn’t seem any closer and we felt there was time to climb the 500 vertical feet to bag our last summit. This went smoothly on the easiest terrain yet - mostly tundra. We paused even less on this summit. Homie signed the register, but I just rolled over the top and started down.

We descended talus to tundra and then steeply down through sparse trees to more talus and back to our trail.  Most rest of the hike out was uneventful and passed with great conversation. Then the hail started and we got a flash of lightning that we timed as just a mile away. But the hail stopped pretty quickly and we didn’t both to get out our rain shells. Then, just a quarter mile or so before we hit the Colorado River Trail, we passed a female ranger who was stopped, either to shed or don a layer of clothing. She was in great spirits and told us, “What a great day for a hike.” It wasn’t clear which direction she was headed. We moved on.
Loose talus on the traverse of Hart Ridge
Just before we got to the trail junction lightning struck so close to us that we estimated the distance to be a quarter mile away (less than a second between flash and thunder). The thunder was so loud that I practically jumped out of my shoes. I asked Homie, “Want to run the rest of the way?” He said, “It’s slightly uphill…” I said, “Well, we’ll do the best we can. I don’t want another strike like that near me.” We hit the Colorado River Trail less than a minute later and started trotting at the same time the rain came. The rain came harder and harder until it was absolutely pouring. If the trailhead wasn’t so close, we’d have obviously dug out our rain shells and maybe we should have. For in the five minutes it took to get to the trailhead, we were completely soaked. At the trailhead we found an official on a handheld radio. She told us that a ranger thinks she was hit by lightning. We knew who it was and related her location. Soon maybe rescuers filled the parking lot. We asked if they needed more manpower and they said they had it covered. The site of three rescuers hiking up the trail with full packs into that storm filled me with admiration for them and all rescue personnel.
Downpour at the parking lot.
We did four peaks, five named high points if you count Hart Ridge, in about 18 miles and 5000 vertical feet. It was great to finally experience this range.