This is one of this trips that reminds us all to come prepared on any wilderness trek. Thatchtop is a huge bulky peak that seperates Loch Vale from Glacier Gorge. Thatchtop is visible from many peaks in the park, and because of this Thatchtop is a great place to view many peaks. However, Thatchtop is not easy. It's not a technical climb, but a very hard, long and steep hike.
There are two main non-technical routes up Thatchtop: from the south and from the north (via the "S-shaped" gully). I opted to climb from the north, then descend via the south into glacier gorge. Two others, Mark and Steven Koppenhauer joined me on this quest.
We started early up the Loch Vale trail. This hike was pretty uneventful, until after we passed the turnoff of the Glacier Gorge trail. From here, the rest of the way was off trail. We made our way to Icy Brook, and crossed it. We then started to look for the "S-shaped" gully, but we were in forest, so it was hard to find. We soon found a small, steep gully, and opted to climb it. It only was one or two hundred feet high, and when we reached the top of it, we found the true "S-shaped" gully, and proceeded to climb.
The gully is loose rock in places, and pretty steep -- probably the steepest and hardest part of our adventure. However, the gully is a lot shorter than it first appears. The top of the gully is covered with brush and krummholz, and is a fun bushwacking adventure. We found some cairns at the top, and they became our guides past treeline. Midway through climbing the gully, we noticed a group of hikers on Loch Vale Trail watching us climb through binoculars.
At this point, Steve and Mark told me to go on ahead, as they wanted to take a few extra breaks and take their time, while I wanted to take some pictures from the summit before a developing storm came in. The hike up the slopes is long, boring and hard. At one point, I thought I was near the top, only to suddenly see another half mile or so of slopes come into view. I trudged the rest of the way up, rather wearily, and finally made it to the top.
Not many folks climb Thatchtop, but on this day, another hiker was on top. I took some pictures, then spoke with him a bit. He said he had climbed every peak around Glacier Gorge numerous times. We talked about the crowds on Longs, and he showed me some neat routes up Pagoda (which I have yet to try, even though I think it is one of the neatest looking peaks around!) and the Arrowhead on McHenry's Peak.
A few minutes later Mark and Steve arrived, and the other fellow left. We stayed on top for a bit and then decided to head down via the south face, by way of Solitude and Shelf lakes. As we left, we noticed a group about 1/2 mile down the slope we just climbed, heading up. A popular day to climb Thatchtop!
This was the point where things turned into a serious situation. The slopes on the south face are steeper than the one we just climbed, with bigger boulders. We started down, when... Steve twisted his ankle, quite badly. His movement was down to small hops and painful steps... and we were still near the summit of Thatchtop. Mark took Steve's pack, and I let Steve use me as a crutch. On some of the bigger boulders, both Mark and I had to work together to get Steve down, as his ankle became more painful. It rained a few times on our way down, along with a bit of lightening and thunder. It was a dire situation, as we really really wanted to get at least to Solitude Lake before the weather turned even worse. We were careful not to have Steve step on his hurt leg, at least until we could find a decent place to shelter our selves and have a look at his ankle. At one point we even discussed having me run back and find a ranger, but after a quick glance through our supplies and experiences, that became unnecessary.
You see, Mark is a trained EMT. When we got Steve down to Solitude Lake, we grabbed some bandages, and Mark examined and bandaged Steve's ailing ankle. By this time it was around 4:00p, and we were due back in Loveland by 6:00p, and yet we were around 5 miles from the trailhead. To top it all off, it rained again. And again. Not good. On the bright side, the view at Solitude Lake is woooonderful, and I consider it one of the prettiest in the park. I only regret that I took two pictures of the area, including a rare shot of Powell Peak's east face.
After Mark took care of Steve, Steve was able to hobble a bit better, by alternating between Me and Mark as a crutch. We easily made it to Shelf Lake and treeline, but here problems began again. The trail between Shelf Lake and Glacier Gorge trail, according to the guidebooks, is "unimproved". I would say that "nonexistant" is a better description, at least in places. We lost the trail a few times, and had to backtrack, all with an injured party member. The way was long and trying, and it ended with a crossing of Glacier Creek. Here we met the trail, and were all set. Steve was doing *much* better at this point, and was able to hike with minimal assistance.
As we neared Jewel Lake, evening descended. I dug out a flashlight at around 8:00p, way past the time we were supposed to be back in Loveland. We continued on past Mills Lake, losing the trail briefly once or twice. Then, another mini disaster... the batteries of my flashlight died. No problem, that's why I carry spares. Otherwise, we would have been stuck 2.5 miles from the trailhead in the middle of the night with no light source.
We continued on to the trailhead with no difficulties. We even passed a group of backpackers just heading up. We reached the trailhead at around 11:00p, much much later due to Steve's ankle. After unpacking and resting, we drove to Estes Park and called our families at midnight.
The next day I went out to eat in Loveland, and by luck, ran into Mark and his wife, Amy. We talked for a bit about our trip, and agreed on the virtues of preparation. We even consider the trip a success, all things considered.
The Moral: Come prepared! Always bring first aid supplies, and always be prepared to hike in the night or adverse weather conditions. If we didn't come prepared, we would have been stuck out way past 11:00p that day. Who knows what would have happened.