Saturday, June 17, 1989: Chiefs Head Peak, 13579'
Once again, just for fun, I will attempt to convey in mere words an overwhelmingly rich experience impossible to capture fully even in memories or photographs. Three of us spent 15 hours, travelled nearly 15 miles, and gained at least a vertical mile (including small ups and downs) to climb Chiefs Head, the third highest peak in Rocky Mountain National Park, in a single day. Fortunately we had perfect weather conditions, essential for this adventure.
Rick Adams, Jeff Hargis, and I met at the grueling early hour of 4am in Fort Collins. As predicted, a cold front ``passed through before sunrise'', accompanied by gale-force winds. However, the weather reports had been right on since noon the day before, and they called for calm, clear, cool conditions later in the morning. That's what we received.
We arrived at the Copeland Lake trailhead in Wild Basin, south of Estes Park, around 0535. I suggested we save 3-4 miles on the round trip, and also about 200' of vertical, by driving all the way in to Wild Basin Ranger Station at the end of the dirt road, and bushwhacking to Sandbeach Lake from there. The other two agreed. At 0550 we crossed the bridge (8520') where Hunters Creek joins the South Saint Vrain.
A short distance along the Thunder Lake Trail we turned right ( NW ) and started uphill. It was a dewy, wet morning but the undergrowth wasn't too thick most of the time. We followed the left bank of Hunters Creek for at least 1.3 miles. The first 1000' of gain was pretty steep, but there were traces of a primitive trail along a lot of it. Before long sunlight filtered through the trees onto the lush, verdant, aromatic forest floor. We reached the bridge where the Sandbeach Lake Trail crosses the creek (9780', gain of 1260') at 0735.
Next we followed the well-worn trail up to Sandbeach Lake, 10283', and took a break there, 0800-0830. There were patches of snow in the trees but nothing significant on the trail. It was surprisingly cold and we put on a lot of warm clothing. At times the breeze across the lake was stiff. We met a pair of hikers, the only other folks we encountered until passing the again trail on the way down.
Around the north end of the lake a small creek emerges from a forested hillside. Just before it we found a primitive trail up to the right. We lost it repeatedly under snow higher up, but broke into treeless country soon at about 10600'. We climbed and traversed around to the north slope of Mount Orton, 11724'.
Nearing Orton the view began to wax spectacular. Once in view of the remainder of North Ridge, from Mount Orton up to Chiefs Head, and observing the constancy of the clear weather, we decided to climb south about 100' up to the summit for a break, 0955-1025. Mount Orton is a rocky pinnacle not too impressive from any angle, especially above. We did find a mayo-jar register placed, naturally, by peak bagger Mike Garrett of Arvada.
Away from Orton stretches the remaining 1900' of North Ridge, over three miles up to Chiefs Head's summit at the far left end of an undulating skyline. The ridge was lightly dusted with sparkling fresh snow and had several large, old snowfields. Pagoda, Longs, and Meeker presented an unusual and awe-inspiring panorama of tortured grey and white rock faces to the NE . Wild Basin filled the view south with forest, down and out to the peaks west of Boulder and to the distant plains. Isolation Peak and Mount Alice were prominent to the west and NW .
This magnificent scene continued to surround us as we slowly progressed toward the summit. The elements remained the same, but our perspective expanded. For over a mile we simply approached the peak, gaining little height as we crossed broad flats on the ridge. Then we walked up firm rocks and boulders. We decided to spend a little extra time to visit the Chiefs Head / Pagoda Peak saddle first (12920'), 1215-1230. We took 6:25 to climb 4400' to this point. On a long trip like this one, a slower pace is essential, if not inevitable. It's certainly more enjoyable, weather permitting. (We were blessed!)
The saddle was small and of course the sudden overlook into Glacier Gorge on the north was breathtaking. Mills, Black, and Blue Lakes were clear. Frozen and Green Lakes, right below us, were quite icy and had pretty blue or green fringes. A temporary meltpond above Green Lake glowed emerald with a snowy bottom.
The ridge east up to Pagoda is an impossible mess of sheer cliffs, jagged edges, and jutting boulders. We turned west and ascended very steeply up Chiefs Head's summit ridge. On the north side is a fairly sheer cliff face. We walked along it, sometimes looking over, sometimes traversing around a false summit. Finally, at the very late time of 1355, we attained the top of Chiefs Head Peak after eight hours and five minutes of climbing (5060', plus about 100' for Mount Orton). The top is a fairly broad, rocky summit ridge with cliffs on each side (north and south).
We rested and enjoyed the spectacular world around us for an hour and a half. I marvelled at the beautiful weather we were privileged to receive. Every day in the mountains should be like that! Clear and cool, with only the merest wisps of clouds in any direction.
I think the view surpasses that from McHenrys Peak, which was well below us to the north, or from Pagoda, inconsequential against the backdrop formed by Longs and Meeker despite being only 80' lower and 0.8 miles distant. There is no adequate description of the richness of the view to the NE . Longs and Meeker loom huge, complex, and colorful in their earthtones. Keplinger Lake was frozen far below. By inching up to the north face I could gaze down 3000' to the lakes and snow in the head of Glacier Gorge. To the SE I could see downtown Denver's artificial mountains. South, Thunder Lake and Lion Lakes nestled in snowy terrain. Even with binoculars I found no one else in view except a couple down at Boulder-Grand Pass, 2.3 miles away.
Reluctantly we departed at 1530. Going directly down the broad face of North Ridge we caught some nice glissades and slides on soft, soggy snow. At 1700 we found ourselves near 11600' on the flatter part of the ridge. Here we elected to be adventurous and avoid climbing over or traversing around Mount Orton. Instead we dropped on snow into the lovely valley below Keplinger Lake. We had to do some heavy bushwhacking for a while through and around marshy terrain. (All that melting snow makes for a very wet world!)
By 1800 we reached 11000' and started bushwhacking along Hunter Creek. That was the story of the rest of the evening. An operational definition of ``forever'' was following traces of animal trails, through trees, down, down, down along that creek for over 3.6 miles. We passed the Sandbeach Lake trail again at 1940 but didn't stay long due to mosquitos. We kept the creek to our left and passed one delicious waterfall after another. The water cascading down the mountainside was moving a lot faster than we were!
We came across a very young deer, weak and obviously near death. It weighed about 10 pounds and was perhaps 18 inches long. It was a beautiful animal but there was nothing we could do for it. Apparently it was lost or abandoned, for reasons unknown.
The steep section down to the Saint Vrain wasn't too bad if you don't mind weaving and ``flying'' through trees; at least that's what it felt like after a while. The ground was soft and spongy. Finally at 2050 we reached the trailhead, 15 minutes after sunset, just before it started to get really dark, and 15 hours after we began our trip. It was too late to consume pizza in Estes Park so we settled for a Big Mac attack and went home.
By Alan Silverstein