Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Sprague Mtn, Stones Peak and A Heavy Dose of Sch'wackin'

Olive Oil Joe was in town from Oregon this past weekend for a PT conference/junket. I was in charge of the junket details and came up with a plan to go grab a couple of the more remote and committing summits on my never-ending list of Larimer County ranked peaks - these would be numbers 63 & 64.

We warmed up late Sunday afternoon with a lap on Horsetooth followed by some nourishment at 415 (a restaurant) and beers in a can from Pateros Creek (Quad Rock beer sponsor). The wake-up call for Monday was 5:15. We arrived at Rocky Mountain National Park's Bear Creek trailhead (perhaps the biggest in the world) at around 6:45 and after some fannying around we were on our way up the hill headed for Flattop (12,324'). In the spirit of the off-season, I set a nice casual pace up the mountain which had us topping out on the summit boulder approximately 75 minutes into the outing. 
Two-thirds of the way up, a few hundred feet below treeline, with Maccas Notch in view behind Joe on The Divide.

Olive Oil Joe, the summit boulder, Hallet Peak and Longs.
True to form, the winds were blowing hard on the uber-exposed high alpine of Flattop, which meant a potentially miserable traverse of the Bighorn Flats en route to Sprague Pass. A quick look at a quivering Joe confirmed that it was indeed cold. Time to get moving. We followed the Tonahutu Trail for a ways across the gently descending high alpine flats, before choosing a more direct off-trail route across intermittent snowfields, talus and tundra, charting a course in the general direction of Sprague Pass. The blustery winds forced a heat-making pace, so we made reasonably quick work of the 12,000 foot Flats.

From Sprague Pass, we had a bird's eye view down into Forest Canyon where a 1,000 acre blaze was burning hard thanks to the strong winds. A quick map consultation suggested that we were in the vicinity of where we thought we were, meaning a relatively easy, if steep, hoof up to the summit of Sprague Mountain (12,713').  
Joe fiddling at Sprague Pass.
A moment of shelter behind a ridge fin. Not a bad spot to take in some calories.
From the top of Sprague we found some shelter (and sunshine) on the ridge overlooking Sprague Glacier and a nice little gaggle of high alpine lakes, all of which feed into Spruce Creek and the Big Thompson River. Refueled and a touch warmer, we forged on across the connecting ridge to Stones Peak (12,922'), losing five or six hundred feet in the process before regaining it all (plus change) for the steep chossy ascent of the aptly named summit. Coming up from the southwest, we were nicely sheltered from the worst of the wind, making the summit push a whole lot more pleasant than it otherwise would have been. Once on the summit the winds were blowing hard again, and looking across to the now much closer smoke plume it looked like the fire was really getting stoked up. But we were still one drainage removed, with the wind blowing in our favor - so no imminent danger with regards to our chosen descent route.
A fire burning in the lower reaches of Forest Canyon above the Big Thompson River. View from Stones Peak

A view back to Sprague Mountain and the glacier-fed high alpine lakes.

The wind helped Joe add a bit of bulk.

The Hidden River drainage, you say! Hmmm. Rocking the new PI M2s - best PI shoe ever - available spring 2013.
Hidden River had not been my original game plan with regards to a descent route, but Joe liked the look of it and I'm easily persuaded. We'd have to drop a not-insubstantial 3,000 feet to gain the valley floor and we really had no beta on what kind of terrain to expect, so we took a roll of the dice and hoped for the best. We ended up getting the full mixed bag.

The gently sloping tundra above the headwaters of Hidden River were just fine, but once we got into the drainage proper things got a little spicier. In the upper reaches of the canyon, we were forced to the right by icy, cliffed-off slabs, before having to negotiate what would be the crux section of the morning.

We were faced with a snowy, icy shoot at a not-insubstantial angle with a couple of turns that if overshot would have resulted in a pretty unpleasant ending. To not take that path would have meant a long haul back up the valley and a likely retracing of our outbound steps across the windy Bighorn Flats. Not an appealing option. After throwing a couple of large rocks at the snow to assess its depth, we both agreed that we were comfortable with the route and got to work with the butt-scooting. Thankfully, there was adequate snow and a limited enough amount of ice to make this a totally controllable descent, and before we knew it we were both down the shoot, inspecting the next set of options for getting past the iced-out band of slabs that we were trying to negotiate down to a rocky pooling plateau.

Once down, we were in amongst some significant boulders, which ranged in size from small to three-bed house. We had to choose our lines a little more carefully with rocks that size, a fact that continued to keep our rate of descent painfully slow.  

If the map comes out too often, the chances are I'll lead you in the wrong direction. High above the Hidden River drainage, a few hundred feet below Stones Peak with Longs off in the distance.
Joe after negotiating the snowy crux of our route.
A scenic moment of reprieve on a tricky 3,000 foot descent. 

Winter isn't even close to being in full effect up high, but there are signs that it's coming.
The beginning of the real trudge fest. 

With about 2,000 feet of the descent negotiated, we were over the final plateau looking into Spruce Canyon. Like Forest Canyon, its neighbor to the north and east, Spruce Canyon is a heavily forested mess of a place with steep canyon walls and endless deadfall. Negotiating a line is challenging to say the least. Nonetheless, the descent in was simple enough as, well, we just needed to descend alongside the creek. The plan from the valley floor was to contour around the lower reaches of Castle Rock until we hit Spruce Lake.

We contoured and then we contoured some more. An hour or two later and doubts started creeping in. We were moving at maybe half a mile per hour and seemingly getting nowhere, but we were both calm despite the tedious nature of the terrain. With that said, there was a significant degree of uncertainty as to where exactly on the map we were. I thought we were below the lake, Joe thought we were above it. Landmarks were tough to come by through the thicket, so when we finally came upon a creek we were able to get a bearing. The likelihood was that it was Spruce Creek, which meant that Spruce Lake was either above us or below us. We chose not to follow it - and instead continued contouring. We were 'bending the map' and ignoring the reality on the ground.
The aptly named Castle Rock
A half hour later, and the canopy opened up enough to give us a view of the confluence of the Big Thompson and Spruce Creek valleys. Immediately we knew that we'd overshot Spruce Lake by a considerable margin. However, if we kept contouring it looked like we'd eventually end up in Fern Creek Canyon, and thus happen across the Fern Lake trail. And so we kept on sch'wackin' until finally, after more than two hours of negotiating unrelenting deadfall, we caught a glimpse of the Fern Lake trail a steep hundred feet below us.

And then, all of a sudden, we were running. We had a direct line of sight up the Big Thompson Canyon and it was clear that the fire had burned a large swath of timber. The wind was moving the smoke in our direction and for the first time all day we were breathing and smelling the smoke that we'd been looking at for most of the morning.

An hour later and we were back at Bear Lake's football-field sized parking lot. It had been an eventful nine hours, but we both stayed calm, even in the depths of the forest when it seemed like we might be stuck there for some time. A fun day in the park indeed, but once again I am reminded that shortcutting through the forest is typically a really bad idea. 


  1. Good stuff, that RMNP map surely gets battered by the wind more than any other.

    "but once again I am reminded that shortcutting through the forest is typically a really bad idea"
    Maybe an idea for some sort of tattoo??

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  3. It looks like an amazing place. I would love to go there and the best thing. It is the view.