By: Ron Miller
Road construction at the mouth of the Big Thompson canyon raises concern. If we are delayed, we may really delay catching Jeff and Barry who went ahead a bit earlier to collect the permit and dash tags. It clears quickly for us.
In Estes Park, just after the turnoff from US36 to CO 7, Duane catches motion to his right front and brakes for all the car is worth. A 3 point buck leaped from the shadows of the buildings and tore across the 4-lane street. Duane gave it 3' in which to live. Without his reflexes, we would have had a deer in our laps. Friday the 13th. Thanks for not killing us.
We find the Allenspark trailhead among the houses and private property at 1445. Jeff and Barry are there and saddling up for the hike. They are wearing their fleece. It's cold here in the shade.
We are underway at 1500. Afternoon shadows, cool air, shade under the trees, it is just a bit chilly until we get warmed up from the walk. There is some wind noise in the trees but we are undisturbed.
Talk from old friends catching up on time passes the trail. In fact, the trail is virtually unnoticed. Hiking in a group.
As we climb, we come into areas where the previous night's snow had melted, slushed and then frozen into cobbled surface. We tread carefully and continue.
At about 1 hr, the redeeming feature of this trail appears. An old burn clears the view for us so that we have an awesome panorama of Longs, Meeker, Pagoda, Chiefs Head and other peaks. Today they are wearing a thin blanket of white and are incredible against the blue late afternoon sky. All of us have climbed some of those peaks and our appreciation of the view is mixed with our memories of the climbs.
We roll on. Another hour sees us at Finch Lake. Sun is low in the sky lighting the east shore of the lake. We drop packs and rest for about 10. Still some wind noise but little air movement where we are.
Onward. We thread along and then the trail starts a serious climb. More snow under the trees. In fact, we're walking continuously in snow. Not a lot but it's more than expected.
We pass the Pear Creek site where we'd camped once before. All the ground is white. Smaller spots of deeper snow. Sun is gone. Cold in the shadows. Put on more clothes. Is this what you expected?
We break out of the woods and skirt a meadow. I recall that we are close to the lake. Now the wind gear and warm hat.
WIND!!!!!! The trail tops out at a hitchrack with a view of the lake directly into the teeth of a gale. 20mph at least. Gusts strong enough to lose balance. Oboy, what are we in for?
The trail to the site goes down the V in the (former) earthen dam across the exit stream to the north. Crossing the wide-log bridge is an exercise in balance and judgement to beat the gusts. We scurry up to the site. The site is in a flat spot overlooking the lake. Protected by a thin windbreak of trees, it has about 3" of snow on the ground and the wind gusts move a lot of air here. Temperature is about 25 or so, the sun is gone, we are cold and things aren't very happy at the moment. What to do?
It's 3 hrs back to the car. Retreat is not much of an option. Bailing from this site and moving back down to some other is only an option when in-extremis (the permitting system needs some flexibility here....) . Are we? No. We are in no objective danger we are just unhappy. Barry & Duane saw fresh bear tracks on the trail just across the exit stream. Great. We have to hang our food for sure.
We struggle into some more clothes and Barry cranks up a stove while Jeff and Duane and I setup the tents. It is much darker now. We go get water at the exit stream. Blasts of about 40 mph make pumping more difficult. We don't have enough fuel to boil water for all sterilizing purposes. (or do we? Gotta reconsider that.) Water bottles ice up a little, hands are cold, one person stands upwind to serve as blastshield to the pants/parka gap exposed by the pumper.
Full dark. Stove dinner by flashlight while standing in the breeze trying not to freeze. I reassure Duane that there will be a warmup when it's time to unroll stuff and change clothes in the tent. We each choke down some kind of food. Duane eats cup-o-soup, Jeff and I take turns spooning out some still mostly dehydrated chicken & rice & veggies from the foil bag. Barry eats ramen or something. Hurry up, let's get into the tents.
Food hang? Nope. Trees too small here. Hanging food from a Christmas tree wouldn't work. Searching around the site in the dark with flashlights is unproductive. We put the food in the tent vestibules, hoping that the wind would dissipate the smell and the cold&wind will keep the critters in their burrows.
1900 we determine to go inside. Duane goes in first. Mat unrolled, bag unrolled, boots off he jumps into his bag. I get into the tent, close the vestibule & door and proceed to change to dry clothes and unroll bag and pads. Duane reconsiders his instant entry to his bag and changes clothes. The physical struggle of changing warms body and tent air nicely.
It is early yet and it seems we are all kind of jazzed about being here in these conditions. I can hear Jeff & Barry catching up on things as Duane and I do the same. The wind seems to be dropping to periods of calm interrupted by huge blasts that we can hear coming toward us. About every 10th one is rattling the tent like someone shaking the poles from outside.
The intervals between blasts grows. Maybe the weatherguessers were just a little late.
About 2300 I make a trip to look at the stars. A wind gust thoroughly chills me and I scurry back to the tent. About 2400 the wind goes back to steady with gusts and stays that way the rest of the night.
Two more hours of light rest and then we finally decide to get up and out.
Jeff crawls out and looks for an appropriate site for breakfast and finds a snow covered hillside sheltered behind a big rock about 75' away. It is in the sun, out of the wind and has a few flat rocks to perch stoves on. We crank up breakfast,enjoy the sunshine, and assess the damage. No frozen water bottles inside the tents, not much sleep due to noise but no one lost any digits during the night, in fact, we're in good shape. (I never bothered to put my earplugs in. Dunno why not.)
What will we do today? The original plan was to cruise the area and go up the ridge to the south and look into the St. Vrain drainage in the Indian Peaks Wilderness area. Will we do that? I'm the only one who brought gaiters! The wind is howling on the ridge and is evident from the snow plumes. We are tired from the trip in, the minimal dinner and the poor quality rest of the night. Jeff insists we do SOMETHING while we're here, otherwise it'll be a real waste of a trip. No one wants to spend a second night if the wind continues. I privately resolve to go out with Duane (he was only going to stay 1 night originally).
We kick it around and agree to go have a look-see about climbing the ridge. I at least have gaiters so I don't argue.
0900 We pump 2 qts of water per person before leaving and it is more difficult than the night before because the gusts are larger.
Once we move into the trees, we warm up. Yes, the snow is deep enough for gaiters but the wind is gone. We go on a winter hike. (which means punching thru snow between rocks all the way up to thighs at times)
Surprisingly soon the base of the ridge is at hand. We take a break, eat & drink and alter clothing to prepare for the unsheltered stretch up the ridge. Jeff & Duane go on ahead. I am struggling with my Cabela's Dry-Plus gloves which have turned inside out when my sweaty hands stuck to the liner. Fortunately I have some other gloves. (Note- not even at home with time and tools can I get the glove back to its original lump-free condition.)
Barry and I follow faint wind-blown tracks up the ridge behind Jeff & Duane.
Travel is easier in the windblown areas since it is still dry ground without snow cover. The wind is howling but with windgear and the objective in sight, it's doable.
We get a look at the drainage from a roundover and move east (downwind) to perhaps get shelter behind something. We are gawking at the view as Jeff appears above us a bit and we hurry to find he and Duane huddled behind a big boulder on the ridge with a great view. At our feet are cliffs overlooking the St. Vrain. Awesome! We can't quite find the perfect resting spot but it's not bad. Clear sunshine, less wind, a great view, adequate wind clothing - nice moment. Several Kodak moments are recorded. Future route note- not likely to be able to cross from St. Vrain drainage to Hutchison Lakes. Much too steep & cliffy.
All too soon we get cold and have to start moving to generate some heat. A short 10 minutes later we are down in the trees and too hot from the lack of wind. A couple of hops over some very small streams with 8" fish in them and we are back to camp. Or it seems that way anyway.
1445. Packed up and underway in the least clothing we can manage since we know it'll get hot on the trail. The wind is still howling up here at the lake but 200 yds down the trail it's a beautiful day. Old snow is melting in the trail, the sun is shining, it's grand.
1 hr to Finch Lake. The lake is mirror-calm. A 10 min break. Onward. Seems like this is a different trail. There is about 200' of fairly brisk vertical on the trail that I don't remember. Another hour to the burn. Jeff & Barry have roared on ahead. Duane makes tracks. I am hiking alone. That's ok, I just go at my own pace. Somewhere along the trail my brain died.
Duane reconsiders his burst of speed. If I (not just my brain) died on the trail, he didn't want to have to come back up to look for me so he waits for me to catch up.
3 hrs from camp we hit trailhead. Then off to Taco Bell in Estes Park.
"Taco Hell" is right. It takes forever to get food even though the store is nearly deserted. We'll probably make Club Mac the new tradition.
Duane is home by 1900.
Ron Miller, Ft. Collins, CO