Two trips to Timber Lake. Polar opposites in experience. (The other one was the good one.)

By Ron Miller (


Summer 1993

Big ideas and big fish often have to go together. In this case, big ideas could get you in trouble unless you have a backup plan.

Winter 1992-1993 was a very heavy snowfall year. I made a motorcycle recon trip over Trail Ridge Road 2 weeks before this trip to see what we were facing. Snowdrifts were fairly large but was no reason to hold off. (little did we know)

The plan was to hike from Milner Pass to Timber Lake, camp one night, then climb over the saddle to Lake Julian and camp in the cross-country zone. After setting up camp, we would jump the NEXT saddle and go fish at Haynach Lake until dark and then return to camp by flashlight. We'd caught some good fish the preceding August at Timber Lake and had heard from the rangers of 24" fish in Haynach Lake. (sigh) Friend Barry Z planned to join us at the saddle between Timber and Julian lakes on Saturday (he always seems to keep his own timetable).

This was our plan to GO FISH!

Friday 07/02/93

We get going early for this holiday weekend expedition. There are snowfields everywhere to be seen from TRR as we drive to Milner Pass. We hit the trail and have to walk on snow or ice to follow the trail toward Mt. Ida. Gaiters and ice axes seem appropriate. We wonder what we'll find and cuss at the postholing effort.

Once we get out of the trees, the snowdrifts have melted and we mostly walk on tundra trail toward Timber Lake. We sidehill along, holding elevation and cross several large snowfields that weren't there last August. For over 2 hrs we plod along. It's not cold, not too windy and the snow is only a minor obstacle.

Until we get to the cliffs above Timber. This time, instead of dropping down to the mush meadows like last year, we aim for the cliffs just to the north and west of Timber Lake. When the lake is visible, we fall down stunned. We get out our situpon pads, put on clothes and park our butts to think.

Timber Lake is 3/4 ice and we can see about 75% snowcover down there. It looks like WINTER!!!! (Sure is pretty though....)

We sit for an hour and a half. Should we go on? Or should we bag it? Will there be anyplace to camp? Or do we have to snow-camp? Will the fishing be any good? Are you up for this? Will we be wimps if we go home? We kick it around for quite awhile. The day is pleasant and warm, the weather non-threatening and we have plenty of time. We ponder and puzzle. Waffle and waiver. Jeff tends toward bailout, I tend toward going on.

I propose that we at least go fishing. That way, we can assess what the camping will be like, if it's unworkable, we can still do the carry back to the car without extraordinary effort. With a plan to not committ, but instead to evaluate, we work our way down the cliffs and hope to not end up like the bighorn carcass at the bottom. No problem. We work our way to the lake and park ourselves under the trees in the same spot we cooked dinner in last Aug. It's a little dry ground amongst the sea of snowdrifts.

There are no tourists around. The snowdrifts are quite deep under the trees yet and so it's unlikely that anyone will come along. We eat and rest and silently wonder what we're really going to do.

After awhile, we leave our packs and go down the hill to see what condition the designated campsites are in. We meander downhill among the snowdrifts and find about a 10' x 15' stretch of dry ground in the ROCKSLIDE site. Perfect. At least it's not on top of snow. (But the 10' snowdrift adjacent to the tent with the site marker sticking out the sideis a reminder.)

We return to our packs for the rest of the day. Only 2 people show up, 2 tourists who had gotten high enough to see and follow our tracks to the lake. We exchange howdies and they eventually depart. The fishing was lousy. No fish at all.

After an early dinner, we again plunge down the hill to setup the tent. The site is a great coincidence. It's dry, it's flat, and it's big enough for Jeff's 1.25 man NF tent. In the sea of snow. After the tent is pitched and the bags are unrolled, we hang out. The mosquitoes get pretty thick. All that standing water around to breed them and we are the only warm thermal signatures for hundreds of yards. We retreat to a rockpile a little more in the open and hope that a little breeze will make them work for their target acquisition.

We have decided that this isn't very much fun. Plan for tommorrow is to ascend to the saddle where we can evaluate the conditions in the X-C zone around Julian. Our fishing success (none) at Timber also doesn't encourage us to think much about Haynach.

In the middle of the night, there is a persistent crackling noise as a marmot fools around with the garbage bag covering Jeff's pack. We chase him off with a stick and rocks and light.


We get up and find the marmot still around. He persists in coming after the packs and isn't smart enough to take the hint that rocks falling near him and sticks waving in his face are intended to give. I finally land a couple of rocks on him and he ambles away.

We depart and pass the lake and head for the saddle. It takes some snowfield climbing with ice axes to get up there. Then the view we'd been waiting for - Julian Lake. In winter. Not only is Julian frozen, but there is still snow on the lake surface and there is no dry ground to be seen. The saddle to Haynach is also a snowfield. We sit in the wind, bundled up and disappointed.

So, we bail.

We sidehill above Timber and spread out a ways to walk abreast. We want to be SURE to intercept Barry and not let him get past us to wait uselessly at the saddle.

We walk toward the car. The wind is cold and the mood from turning back is not good. We are each walking wrapped in our own thoughts about 100 yards from the other. Formation bailout.The wind is strong. Very strong (the weatherguessers report 90mph that night). It's difficult to walk straight, the packs cause a weather-vane effect. At 1130 we intercept Barry. We heap our packs together for a sort of windbreak and give him the bad news. He wants to see for himself (he worked so hard to get this far) so he and Jeff leave their packs with me and go to look at Timber. As they arrive back at the packs, it is clear that something bad is developing in the weather department. A black wall of clouds is visible behind the ridge to the west. We set off in a hurry back toward the cars.

We don't get halfway there before the clouds bring horizontal sleet. We hang lower than we normally would in order to maintain access to treeline. In fact, we follow elktrails right at the ragged edge of treeline and periodically take shelter in the same stands of windblasted trees that the elk use. It is not terribly uncomfortable due to the novelty of the adventure of new terrain, wild weather, adequate clothing and concentrating on navigation. The occasional elk bones provide dire hints of what *could* happen :-) It is encouraging to be outbound in this kind of weather.

We re-wade the snowdrifts in the trees and hit the cars at 1415. It is now blowing, foggy, sleeting and cold. We cross TRR in blowing snow and go home. This trip was a definite mission-abort.

That night the weatherguessers report 6" of fresh snow closing TRR. And for each of the next 2 nights - the same.

We counted ourselves very happy to not be blizzard camping in Jeff's tiny tent for 2 days of confinement. Maybe some other time.

By Ron Miller

Ft. Collins, Colo.