Friday, September 3 - Sunday, September 5, 1993: Hayden Gorge, Rocky Mountain National Park

(Author's note: I haven't written many trip reports in the last couple of years. I have about 116 of them on file and writing them has gotten old. I'm still adventuring a lot... Such as the week I spent in Death Valley in January; or the three-day weekend when I climbed Mount Copeland, my 19th of the 19-1/2 high peaks in Rocky Mountain National Park; or the summer night I shared with Paul Beiser on La Plata Peak, 14336'. Anyway, here's the story of a recent outing, one I hope is worth sharing.)

How do you squeeze a five-day backpack trip into three days and not feel like you missed anything? And how do you camp just 100' higher than your trailhead but still feel like you climbed Everest? Simple - but not easy - just visit Hayden Gorge from Milner Pass by way of Mount Ida and Chief Cheley.

Ron Miller had been trying for years to get into Hayden Gorge. It was a virgin valley in the heart of Rocky Mountain National Park, just NE of the Continental Divide. You could see it well from Trail Ridge Road that crosses the Park, but getting there was not so easy. No trails ran anywhere near it, and there were no established campsites, only a cross-country camping zone.

Ron studied the Gorge thoroughly during our Divide hike last October. (We're talking serious videotaping here folks; but that's another trip report...) He decided to enter the Gorge ``from above'' the Divide rather than bushwhacking in the low way from Forest Canyon as he'd attempted before. He planned this trip months in advance, along with Jeff Bossenbroek. I was lucky enough to join them. For some strange reason we were the entire group. (He had a permit for six; I guess we should each have brought a porter...)

The weather the day before the trip was crummy. Trail Ridge Road actually closed for a while due to snow. We left Fort Collins in Ron's Jeep later than we would have otherwise, at 0645. (Ron: ``How'd you like sleeping in this morning?'' ``Groan.'') Fortunately Friday dawned gorgeous; hardly a cloud in the sky all day. We drove through Estes Park, along Trail Ridge Road, and hoofed south from the trailhead at Milner Pass on the Divide, 10760', at 0900. (I do round off the numbers a bit, but it was amazing how tidy they were through most of this trip without even trying...)

Pretty quick it became clear that as usual I was a lumbering ox with my full pack. All day I tended to lag behind Ron and Jeff. They were eager to get into the Gorge this time. We followed the long, plodding trail south up the Continental Divide to Mount Ida, 12880+', first switching maddeningly through trees, then more directly south above timberline, a total of more than four miles.

On the tundra the trail was weak in spots and went up and down a bit. I found the 50' disconnect in it where I lost it in the dark coming down last October. It was nice to bury that memory! Or more precisely, to have it blown away in the stiff, cold westerly wind...

We made pretty good time as the sharp summit steadily drew nearer. We took one break at the major saddle. Jeff got ahead of us and demonstrated his ability to look like a rock. We marched up close before finding him resting out of the wind behind an outcrop.

We were on top of Ida by 1215 (3:15 for at least 2300' gain, with the downhill sections). It was fun boggling the day hikers ahead of us by explaining we were headed beyond - way beyond. At 1305 we dropped (almost literally) off the south face of Ida and picked our way carefully down to the 12320+' saddle below. We passed the broad saddle and continued up Chief Cheley Peak, 12804', still on the Divide. I revisited the narrow, craggy summit briefly at 1400 while the others traversed around to save some vertical.

The ridge continued to wrap south and east around Highest Lake. At 12400+' it was the topmost of the eight or so Gorge Lakes and the highest pond in the Park. I was astonished to note that it was still completely frozen over. It never thawed that summer! It just had some pretty blue patches around the edges.

We reached the 12680+' saddle east of Cheley, dumped our packs, and took a short side trip east up Cracktop, 12760+', at 1500. This yielded us a fine view of the Gorge Lakes, Ida, Cheley, and innumerable other surrounding summits... Also a good look down into the bowels of Hayden Gorge to the SE. We enjoyed this scenery for half an hour. We plotted our course into the depths even as we voted not to continue east along the ``interesting'' ridge seeking a way to Mount Julian.

The Divide was complicated in this area. We returned to our packs and headed south looking for a route off the ridge line. There was a huge amount of steep, dense snow still in the upper reaches of the Gorge. We examined and rejected a direct route down a grassy gully with uncertain plummets below it. Instead we meandered quite a ways further south and east around the top of the basin, and finally north down some rather hard-packed snow. As we descended we enjoyed some boot-skiing; a trick with an unusual center of mass. ``Welcome to Hayden Gorge, Ron!''

We could have used ice axes, but I'd recommended we not bother with them, so we didn't bring any. After all, that time of year you don't want to be on the snow anyway, right? Hmm...

We crossed east down a lush grassy bowl full of ankle-grabbing holes. Then we gained perhaps 100' to a saddle NW of a rocky ``peninsula''. We made what turned out to be a wise decision and descended a steep, challenging glacial chute starting north of this promontory, rather than following the creek south of it - thereby encountering cliffs.

Our route was about the only feasible one, but it was tedious. We staggered down granite ``shield rock'', quite bare in spots and vegetated in others, including ferns growing in some of the cracks! The view ahead to Hayden Lake, Hayden Spire, and the natural vastness of the Gorge was inspiring. But Ron and Jeff muttered that, all in all, after all, it might be easier to get into Hayden Gorge at the other end, from Forest Canyon...

As we descended we noticed flat, grassy spots below us at treeline. We ended up camping in one of them at about 10840' near several creeks, just NE of an unnamed puddle at 11000'. We reached camp at 1730 (8:30 total on the day), and enjoyed more wonderful weather that evening. We were in a remote, isolated wilderness with no signs whatever of previous human presence - except for Trail Ridge Road high above and miles away, crossing beyond the mouth of the canyon. We got to bed early, and slept long under moonlight...

Saturday morning was mellow - and somewhat hung over from Friday's exercise. Eventually at 0910 we descended east through rocky forest to about 10520' to start up to Lonesome Lake, 11680+'. Elk signs - prints and scat - were everywhere. For a while we frictioned down alongside a long, fantastic waterfall over bare granite ``shield rock''. Later we followed an ``elk highway'' down along a smooth, sheer granite ridge hidden in the trees.

Upon reaching the outlet from Hayden Lake, we elected to turn right and take a risky ``direct route'' up steep talus that panned out very nicely. It was firm and bouldery. It led us ``around the corner'' to the westernmost part of the Lonesome Lake hanging valley. At the top of the drop was a gorgeous glacial knob with pools, grass, and outcrops.

We proceeded SW up the drainage, including some steep snowfields along the creek, to reach the lake at 1120 (2:10 for 1200'? You can tell we were tired). Lonesome Lake was a typical, lovely, clear, sterile, rocky, glacial pond surrounded by high valley walls; including, in this case, Hayden Spire looming overhead. We collapsed in various positions along the SE shore... And enjoyed watching a herd of ten bighorn sheep pick their way down from the SE. They paused frequently to stare at our prone bodies, and kept a safe distance.

About noon I was ready to continue SE up Stones Peak while the pleasant weather permitted. After due consideration, Ron and Jeff concluded they would follow later, if at all. Ron and I dug out and checked our ham radios as I started up the remarkably steep, loose hillside the sheep had come down. Good thing I'm a Capricorn, sign of the Goat; although of course, Capricorns don't believe in astrology.

Later Ron and Jeff decided that, forced to choose, they liked lakes better than summits. They visited Hayden Lake in the next valley west off the main gorge, and continued a loop west to the shallow unnamed puddle near our camp, to which they returned at about 1600. Ron reported Hayden Lake was much prettier than Lonesome, being a lot like Black Lake, with nearby sheer cliff walls.

Meanwhile I had a fine adventure. I chugged up directly from Lonesome Lake to a higher broad slope. Observing a huge snowfield to the right, below what I took to be the Sprague-Stones saddle, I went left and a bit higher. I made good time and felt strong on the steep, rocky and grassy mountainside. Unfortunately, upon reaching the ridge, I realized I was just NE of the east summit of Sprague Mountain, facing a 350+' drop further NE to the Stones saddle. I'd done a bunch of unnecessary vertical. Sheesh, talk about getting disoriented...

After resting a bit I paid the price to reach the 12160+' Sprague-Stones saddle at 1320. Here I noticed a fine and spectacular view of Lonesome Lake and Hayden Gorge was developing. I proceeded up the 750' NE on the rocky ridge, mostly on solid boulders, to the rounded summit of Stones Peak, 12922', at 1402. The summit was virgin but for a sturdy, 3' tall cylindrical cairn; not even a register.

What a panorama! Northwest was the Divide, Mount Julian, Terra Tomah; Trail Ridge and the Mummy Range. Northeast was a long drop all the way down Forest Canyon, source of the Big Thompson River, east to Estes Park and beyond. Southeast - ah, what a wonderful view of the crenellated edge of the Divide, past Flattop and Hallett to Longs Peak. It was a sea of summits. And further around to the SW I looked down on Hourglass, Rainbow, and Irene Lakes nestled against Sprague Glacier on the snowy eastern cliffs of the Divide.

I spent 80 minutes on Stones Peak and it wasn't enough... I ate plenty, drank plenty, and I called both Ron and Jeff's wives by phone patch to check in; got a weather report (which was ambiguous); and made half-watt direct contacts with hams in Silverthorne and in the Snowy Range Mountains in Wyoming (68 miles away, wow).

Eventually at 1522 it was time to head home... I roamed west about ten minutes to overlook Hayden Gorge and Lonesome Lake - spectacular. That was the only direction mostly hidden by the broad summit. Then I sought a direct route down. Ugh, it was too cliffy there. I had to traipse back uphill SE and south to the SW ridge, and a ways down along it, before I found a decent-looking descent route. It was awesomely steep but reasonably solid, grassy in spots, and very direct. It was like parachuting in slow motion...

Part way down I noticed I could see my orange (ugh) tent several miles away and 2000' below. Ron informed me by radio that he and Jeff had just arrived back at camp. I had intermittent sunshine, so I got out my signal mirror and flashed them. It was cool. They saw me easily, and were impressed (appalled?) at my position on what appeared from camp to be a sheer face.

While the others relaxed and fought mosquitos at camp, I made my way slowly and carefully down to the NW. I reached the the Lonesome Lake creek and drainage, a lovely grassy meadow below the glacier knobs, at 1705. I headed up a bit, over, and down to the valley floor, and then back up to camp, more or less retracing our steps of the morning. Once off the killer slope from Stones Peak I took my time, filled up on fresh snow to drink, and soaked up the painfully pretty terrain.

Before I reached camp it started to rain lightly, but once in the trees that was no big deal. I was back by 1835, an hour before sunset (9:25 for the day's hiking, and a total gain of at least 2800'). ``This is radio station N0MFW, and this concludes our broadcast day. Since we aren't allowed to transmit music on this band, please pretend that you are now hearing the National Anthem. N0MFW QRT.''

I found Ron and Jeff zonked out in their tent.

Before I was halfway through dinner the gorge was filled with a tremendous and impressive lightning and hail storm. We sat in our tents counting the seconds from flashes to booms, and listening to the skies pound on the fabric. After it was over, and quite dark, I shook the hailstones out of my flip-flops while laughing maniacally, and went out to hang my food for the night.

Sunday morning Ron woke me per plan at 0600 sharp; OK it wasn't actually until 0616, but still (too long) before sun-up. After packing a while I popped out of the tent and groaned at the weather. It was overcast, quite wet, with low clouds obscuring the surrounding peaks. We finished breakfast and packing, and at 0750 started back up the way we'd come down. We knew we had a long day ahead, whether we descended into the Gorge Lakes or, as it turned out, canceled (or postponed, I hope) that part of the trip, and went home due to impending bad weather.

Lugging full packs up out of the Gorge felt awful; both to be leaving, and because it was hard work on steep and sometimes slippery terrain. But it had its rewards. After a while Ron noticed a herd of five elk wading across the puddle just west of where we'd camped... That was neat. I was impressed that they could see, hear, or maybe even smell (yuck) us quite far away. They were attuned to our presence. So were the numerous bighorn sheep that peered down at us over the cliff to our left, from the top of the rock ``peninsula''.

I noticed an odd and rare natural phenomenon. At one point there was a large sloping slab of smooth granite that had been stained dark by runoff from decaying vegetation. Two hand-sized rocks sat on the slab... And you could see where they'd moved just a couple of inches, periodically and repeatedly, by the ``shadows'' they'd cast on the stain pattern. Whatever moved them was very regular and slow. Perhaps they slid a certain amount each winter?

Eventually we made it to the top of the steep chute and into the upper basin below the Divide. It was cloudy just overhead, sometimes foggy, with a cold, brisk wind. We had decided earlier to try climbing back to the Cheley-Cracktop saddle by the direct route up the grassy gully we hadn't climbed down. So we traversed across slow boulders up and around to below it, with one water pumping stop.

We were prepared to back down from the gully if it was too nasty... But it absorbed us into a precarious position one step at a time. We got to a point where we were on very steep, grassy cracks and ledges below a 40' or so cliff and waterfall. It was easier and seemed safer to go up than to descend. Going around to the right, at the top of the fall, we had to make a cautious step across a small creek on a moderate slope just above the sheer cliff. We couldn't see down because we were in clouds. Probably this was a Good Thing.

Jeff scouted ahead and confirmed we could get all the way up the gully. So with trepidation Ron and I followed him. What a kick! We hauled full packs up a very steep, loose, slippery-grass slope another 100' or so to a nice resting spot littered with gorgeous smoky quartz and other crystals - a place we'd stopped and then gone around on the way down two days before.

It wasn't much further to the barren Cheley-Cracktop saddle, 12680+', at 1110 (3:20 to gain 1840', but it sure felt like twice that). We took a long break there to watch and admire the clouds blowing by. After a while they became more broken and gave us spectacular views through and under them SE into Hayden Gorge, NE into the Gorge Lakes, and way SW out to Grand Lake.

We caught weather reports from NOAA and several hams. The reports were confusing but definitely not good. After a suitable amount of agonizing, we decided it was time to go home rather than piling down an unknown, unexplored route into the Gorge Lakes for another night or two. Of course the long return trip over Cheley and Ida wasn't appealing!

Ron and Jeff made the logistical decision to burn off most of their remaining cooking fuel melting snow from a nearby patch to make drinking water for the hike out. This closed the door on the Gorge Lakes option. I loaded up with some snow too, but used the ``slow-melt'' method...

I got a bright idea. Highest Lake at 12400+' sure looked inviting about 300' below, and going that way would shortcut Cheley... (Always, always check your map first.) At 1240 I launched down the hillside to the lake with my radio on, while Ron and Jeff got packed from melting snow over a stove. Sure enough the lake was fast and easy to reach.

Getting past it to the NE ridge of Cheley wasn't bad either, but beyond that I had to cross a snowfield and climb some steep rock to regain the Cheley-Ida saddle (and the Divide) on Cheley's NW ridge. (Did I mention that you should always check your map first?) It looked appealing, but I couldn't interest Ron and Jeff in joining me. They wisely decided to take the high road back and meet me at the saddle.

Feeling like I had lots of time, I dumped my pack and walked a while on the snow along the frozen and hidden lakeshore. It sure was pretty with surrounding snowfields and some blue puddles in the ice. After a while I returned to my pack and started down some loose rocks to cross the snowfield toward the Cheley-Ida saddle.

Wouldn't you know it, this north-facing snowfield wasn't as soft as the other stuff I'd been on recently, and it was uncomfortably steep (but with a long run-out far below). I descended till the rocks ended and then boldly jumped onto the snowfield with a pointy rock in each hand, only to start sliding. It was hard work arresting without an ice axe. After resting I plunged a few more steps until I slid and arrested again. I repeated this hard effort until finally I was across to shallower slopes on which I could walk, sort of.

Now all I had to do was get up to the saddle... Which was protected by a massive snow cornice... Meanwhile Ron and Jeff reached it a lot sooner than I thought they would via the ridge. Oops. They ended up waiting for me nearly an hour (!). They watched my antics while I struggled back up some snow onto rock, then found a path up steep boulders on the Cheley side of the saddle. Remember that I was lugging my house on my back all this time!

At one point I left my pack in a crack and scouted ahead to be sure I could get to the ridge safely. Yup, home safe, but then I had to climb back down to get the (expletive) pack. I pushed and tumbled it ahead of me up a protected but difficult angled crack that was too narrow for carrying it up on my back. That took everything I had.

Eventually I made the ridge, oozed down to the saddle at 1440 (two hours after leaving the others!), and slogged up to meet Ron and Jeff at their sheltered balcony on the Ida side. ``Graveyard shift reporting sir. Permission to die now and suffer no more.'' I apologized for the delay and promised to buy dinner that evening in Estes Park as my penance.

I should have just left my pack at the Cheley-Cracktop saddle, visited the lake, and returned to the saddle to follow the ridge like they did. It would have been 30 minutes quicker, and I'd have had some energy left for climbing back over Ida (groan) and pounding 4+ miles down to Milner Pass (ouch).

We made it back to the top of Ida by 1522. I felt wasted. Jeff observed it was his fourth time on top, only once of which it was a desired goal, rather than a waypoint. I could have slept there for a couple of hours, but naturally the others were in fine shape, and besides the weather around us wasn't friendly - some rain and darkness. So at 1548 we took off north back to the Jeep with one eye on the weather. We didn't get wet, just blown on (same as coming up), and it only took us 2:30 down to the trailhead. (That's all? It hurt like forever. Well I got there at 1818, the others were noticeably faster...) It was really quite lovely, just interminably long. The trail was perverse in its numerous uphill stretches...

I figure we did about 2800' total on the day. Driving back to Estes we finally saw some deer (ho hum). Dinner was good, and we were home about 2200. Trail Ridge Road was closed again Monday due to ice and snow. I guess coming out early was a good move. I for one packed sufficient pain into the time we were out! (Gained 8600' and at least 20 miles, most of it with a full pack...)

By Alan Silverstein