In order to avoid the heavy mountain traffic that I70 was bound to have on a holiday weekend, Cole and I decided we should head up to Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) for a climb. I have only been to the park in the summer months, so I was looking forward to seeing the mountains covered with snow.
There are a few ways to get to RMNP, we chose to take HWY 36 that goes through Boulder into Lyons and Estes Park before coming into the park’s East Entrance. Pay the $20 park entry fee or bring your pass. Just after entering the park turn south onto Bear Lake Road and drive to the end of the road parking at the Bear Lake TH.
We arrived at 7am, and there were only three or four vehicles parked in the lot. The temperature gauge on my truck was reading -7°F, so neither of us was really eager to go outside at that point. We faced the music and started gearing up. It takes a bit longer to get ready when it’s freezing outside, so by the time we had boots and all of our layers on we were quite frozen, at least in the fingers and face. I suggested we warm up in the truck so we didn’t start off frozen. As we heated up in the cab, I started my Jetboil just outside of the door so I could bring some hot tea up the trail. The temps were too cold and the gas wasn’t flowing to well so I brought it in the cab with us and the water boiled fairly quickly in the warm surroundings. I ate the last of Kristi’s pumpkin bread and then we made our way out to the trail a little before 8am.
|Trail Near Bear Lake|
Conditions didn’t change in the last twenty minutes, but at least now we were moving. We started on the Bear Lake Trail that makes its way around the east side of the lake. The trail was hard packed snow that has seen a lot of traffic so we didn’t need our snowshoes yet. The cold air didn’t seem to affect either of us as we were making what felt like good time on the first stretch. Within about a half mile of the start there is a trail junction, head left or west onto the Flattop Mountain Trail. Once on this trail you make your way onto the Bierstadt Moraine, but you don’t realize it’s a moraine until you are high above it later in the day. After about thirty minutes or so we both had to make a layer adjustment. I had a light prima loft jacket on and I wanted to remove it before I drenched it in sweat that froze into icicles. At this point I tried to mark a waypoint with my GPS App, but screwed it up, so there is a random point that is closer to the lake than our actual position.
Fern Lake Trail was the next intersection along the trail. From here the Flattop Mountain Trail switchbacks to the south west and we could immediately tell the difference in the boot pack along this section. Fewer people head up this trail and the snow was starting to get a lot softer. We managed up the first five or so switchbacks before getting the Dream Lake view point. This was about an hour in for us. We took a few minutes to put on sunblock and have a snack, and I chose to put on my snowshoes instead of caring them on my back.
|Morning View of Longs Peak|
The snowshoe decision seemed to pay off because after about 50 yards or so the snowshoe track we were following veered off the main trail in a more direct route through the trees. We followed it because the soft snow would have been a serious ass kicking even with snowshoes on. After gaining a little elevation, I noticed the trees were starting to thin out so we were nearing tree line finally.
As we came out of the trees we could see the large east slope of the mountain and one snow shoer making his way across the slope. We took another break here and the vies of Longs Peak were amazing. After a bit of jerky and some fluids we were off on the trail. We caught up to the snow shoer we saw as he was making his way down. He said the wind was too much for him, we hadn’t felt much wind so we continued on. About a hundred yards later and the trail vanished and the snow covered boulder field opened up for us.
We had to remove the snowshoes through this section. I brought crampons and chose to leave them off while Cole put his micro spikes on. I re-laced my boots and froze both hands, and it took quite a bit of time to get the feeling back. While I was shaking the hell of out my hands we started slowly making our traverse through the boulders. I had my eye on a landmark that turned out to be a hitching station for horses. We would cross what looked like the summer trail here and there but just kept to our line. There was a mess of cairns all over the place, so don’t count on them as an aid if you find yourself in our situation.
Once we got near the hitching station we could see tracks from a goat or a sheep. Cole was curious and followed them as they dropped off the south face. We were able to get a glimpse of a few sheep that were probably running from us. We attempted to get a picture and soon gave up and made our way up the last small incline towards the flat summit.
|Me and Cole on the Summit|
The cairns were starting to get really big and you could at least see they were aligned heading towards what we considered the summit. There was a trail marker where the cairns kind of terminated and we called that the top. We wanted a better view so we headed to the south edge that gave great views of Hallett Peak and Longs in the distance. Just before noon we summited after a gain of almost 3,000 feet.
We had talked about adding Hallett Peak since it would only add another mile and a half or so. I told Cole I didn’t want to head over today. My toes were cold and I didn’t want to be completely exhausted. The sun is also a factor in the winter and the days are short and we would have a long hike back to the car from Hallett’s summit. I really wish we got there a bit earlier, but I have no problem saving Hallett for another day.
We were both remarking how perfect the weather was today. I know we both had our doubts at the TH with car reading negative degrees. The sun was out, and there were no clouds are barely any wind. I think we got very lucky with conditions today. I wished I had brought my binoculars that were in the truck. I knew somebody had to be up on Longs and we both wish we were there as well. After we had a bite to eat Cole spotted a ewe and two lambs walking across the flats behind us. They were on their way to Hallett I guess. Soon we decided it was time to get our gear together and start down.
The ridge route looked good to us in order to avoid most of the boulder field. As we started we could see hordes of people making their way up. Not like 14ers hoards, but there were maybe 20-30 people all together that were on the route at some point above tree line. Heading down we found a maze of trails left by people heading to the summit. Just before tree line we stopped for a short break. I saw my first bald eagle flying overhead. I tried to get a picture, but he had his own plans. After that we just hoofed it down the trail making it back to the car at 2:45pm.
It’s hard to beat a day like this in the mountains. Sometimes the crux of the climb is opening the door of your truck when you know it’s going to be damn cold out there. This could be the last climb for me for some time as school is about to start again. I hope that’s not the case, but at least I finished 2015 on one of the best days I had in the mountains all year. Cheers!
Date: December 27, 2015
Bear Lake TH Elevation: 9,464 feet
Flattop Mountain Summit: 12,348 feet
Total Ascent: 2,956 feet
Distance: 7.8 miles
Moving Time: 4hrs 12min
Stopped Time: 2hrs 53min
Total Time: 7hrs 6min
Moving Speed: 1.8mph
Average Speed: 1.1mph