By Randy Campbell
On Saturday, September 14, 1996 at about 1:30 PM, Peter McLain and I achieved the summit of Hagues Peak, elevation 13,560 ft. Hagues is located in the Mummy Range, in the northern part of Rocky Mountain National Park.
This was my third attempt to climb Hagues, having been thwarted by weather in 1974 and again in 1994 (gotta watch those 20-year cycles). It was Peter's second try, having shared the 1994 defeat.
We started on Friday the Thirteenth with a nice bit of luck -- at the Twin Owls trailhead, Peter discovered he had forgotten his boots! Reluctantly concluding that Tevas were not *quite* appropriate, he drove back into Estes Park to buy some boots (ain't plastic handy?), while I started up the trail. Peter bought boots, returned to the trailhead, and caught me after I had been going only 1 1/2 hours.
After admiring Peter's new boots for a bit, we continued hiking up the Black Canyon trail to Lower Tileston backcountry campsite. Had I only known... This was a tougher-than-expected hike in. It's 6.3 miles and gains almost 3,000 ft. The scenic qualities of this trail vary considerably. At the lower end, it goes through a pleasant open valley below Lumpy Ridge. The valley at this point is a mix of hay fields and open ponderosa pine forest. At some points further up, once one passes MacGregor Mountain on the left, there are stunning views of Long's Peak and the adjacent stretch of continental divide. But quite a bit of the trail goes through relatively uninteresting stretches of white pine and fir forest, with limited views. It was a mostly cloudy day, and the darkness was occasionally relieved by a splash of yellow aspen, which has almost an identical effect to a ray of sunshine striking the forest.
I nearly keeled over from exhaustion just before reaching our campsite. A piece of hard candy bummed from Peter supplied just enough energy to get the rest of the way. It took me 5 1/2 hours to travel the 6.3 miles, which is probably more a commentary on my condition than on the trail, although Peter admitted to being a tad tired, too.
We got the tent set up just as the evening shower arrived, so we were able to stretch out and recuperate awhile before making supper. The Lower Tileston site has the drawback this time of year that there is no surface water nearby. We had to stroll on up the trail about 1/4 mile to find water. The Tileston Meadows campsites were closer to water and looked more attractive to me, but I had reserved the campsite unseen. Oh well.
On Saturday, we set out about 8:45 from our camp for the approximately four mile trip to the summit, with an additional elevation gain of almost 3,000 ft. We crossed over a ridge that separates the Black Canyon Creek drainage from Roaring River and descended into the Lawn Lake basin. This was my first time in from this side since the Lawn Lake dam broke in 1982. I was quite amazed at the scene of devastation along upper Roaring River and the fact that little recovery had taken place in fourteen years.
Once past Lawn Lake, we began to ascend in earnest, at which point I found what a friend ibuprofen can be to the middle-aged hiker. A clearly marked trail continues up to the saddle between Hagues Peak (to the north) and Fairchild Mountain. We enjoyed the magnificent views to the west here while we had a spot of lunch. To the northwest, the Medicine Bow range was clearly visible; more to the west, we could see most of the Never Summers. Desolation Peaks and Flatiron mountain were practically at our feet, and we had an angled view into the cirque where Mirror Lake sites, across the Hagues Creek drainage. This is a big part of why I climb mountains!
Thinking of a buddy who'd been invited but couldn't come, we decided to dub the saddle the "Closer-than-Bill-Gates-Will-Ever-Get Memorial Saddle" and continued on up. (No not *that* Bill Gates. The other one. Who lives in Ft. Collins and works at HP. Well, come to think of it, that other Bill Gates will never get that close, either.)
The weather at this point was mostly cloudy, but the clouds were high enough that the peaks were all visible, and there was no significant precipitation visible.
We progressed slowly but steadily up the SW ridge of Hagues, first over tundra, where I was pleasantly surprised to find a few hardy alpine sunflowers still blooming (Peter called them "morons"), and then an increasing amount of rock. By a few hundred feet below the summit, it became a scramble, requiring the use of hands, teeth, toenails, etc. The exposures were never that terrifying, but it wasn't exactly a walk-up; this last bit took a good 20 minutes to negotiate. This was about when it began to spit a little snow on us. Peter looked up at the summit ridge, and all he could see beyond was grey and snow. We almost backed out, but with only 50 ft to go... well, it wasn't really snowing hard enough to cause a problem.
We didn't hang out on the summit very long, because by then it was snowing really hard over towards Long's; a shower was sweeping over Mummy Mountain just to our east; and little spots of precip were appearing hither and yon. We had early discussed returning by way of Mummy Mtn, if we had energy, or bypassing it to the north and returning to camp via a pass east of Mummy. The weather discouraged those plans, because of the fear of getting caught in a whiteout in unfamiliar terrain (remember, Bill?). So we started our descent pretty quickly, modifying the route only by starting down a little to the east to avoid the worst of the rock climbing. Before we reached the saddle again, the summit was socked in, as were all nearby peaks. We got more snow as we headed down from the saddle, but never enough to accumulate. Long's, however, remained hidden in a pretty serious looking storm cloud.
After we got back over the ridge between Lawn Lake and our camp, I was seized by an insane desire to expend all my excess energy finding Potts Puddle. It's clearly shown on all maps of the area -- how many have seen it? My wife and I had made a brief attempt to locate it on our 1974 trip. On my second circular bushwhack south of the trail, I found it. It sits on the second bench up from the trail, and was a more impressive little lake than its name had led me to believe. It's a nice 2-acre or more rock-shored lake, surrounded by forest.
After that bonus success, I sauntered on down to camp, tired but mellow almost to the point of euphoria (climber's high?), grooving on the cloudy, quiet afternoon. There is a series of small meadows along the trail there, and I was bemused by the distinctly different character of the vegetation in each, and wonderful combinations of fall colors and textures. In one meadow curving tawny grasses are speckled with dark seed heads; in another the tan grass is alleviated by puffy white seed heads of a stalky flower, etc.
Back to camp at 5:15, again just in time for the evening rain. It rained a little longer and harder than the day before, almost causing a minor crisis as I discovered that the floor of my tent was overdue for re-waterproofing. Fortunately the rain slacked off before we were inundated, and just in time to crawl out and make dinner before it got completely dark.
With dinner, we toasted our success with an airline bottle of McCallan's Scotch that Peter had thoughtfully brought along. Yum. There just wasn't enough of it. Of course it was just the 12-year-old, not the *really* good 25-year-old bottling.
We lazily slept in the next morning, but finally got up to clear skies and a chilly wind at about 7:45-8:00 or so. It was quarter of 10 by the time we breakfasted, packed, and hit the trail out. The hike out was quite pleasant. We marveled at the new whiteness on the summit of Long's Peak, but with no great surprise, since we had seen that storm just sit over there for a long time Saturday afternoon.
Reached the car about 1:30, legs quivering, and proceeded in to Estes Park's McDonalds for a well-earned greaseburger, then home, well satisfied with the weekend.