In my short time here, I seem to have noticed that the summer thunderstorms tend to form earlier over the Indian Peaks than the rest of the front range, I have nothing to scientifically back this up, it just seems this way to me. So on a day where the storm chances looked good (>50%) we started very early for this summit.
We hiked in under the moonlight with scattered clouds around and made quick time up to Lake Isabelle where we stopped for the sunrise.
Morning Light on Navajo and Apache
After our quick break we headed west past lake Isabelle and started hiking through the boulder fields and minor cliff bands following the trail towards Isabelle glacier. Great spot to run into Marmots and Pikas if you are looking for a place to see the alpine wildlife (FYI). When we reached the lower basin with an unnamed lake (still half covered in snow) we ran into a couple of other hikers planning to follow our route up. We stood around for a little bit discussing route options to follow into the upper basin and the base of Airplane gully.
We ended up heading west angling up a gently inclined snowfield and before switch-backing up steeper scree to gain the upper basin. It looked steeper from afar than it actually was. We actually ended up getting more than we bargained for trying to shortcut and ended up with having to perform a couple of class 3ish moves to top out.
From there we quickly boulder hopped to the base of airplane gully. The climbers above warned us not to follow they didn't want to bounce rocks down on us. We didn't and we put on the helmets for extra precaution. If you are going to attempt this I would recommend a helmet, several times shouts of "ROCK!" came from the climbers above, and also from us warning a new set of climbers below. On more than one occasion I dislodged a rock the size of a television. So the gully is not what I would call stable. Some use of hands for stabilization, but overall a slog, and not a very enjoyable one at that.
Nearing the Choke Point of the gully (loosest rock found here)
Near the top when the gully separated we headed right (west) towards the ridge. The airplane wreckage here was pretty neat (I love cool little historical stuff like this). On top of the ridge we got our first really good views to the west and it felt good to be out of the gully. The weather looked okay, but the cumulus were starting to pile, we had a quick break and evaluated our plans and decided to go for it, considered it was still only around 10am. From this vantage point the east face of Navajo looked somewhat intimidating and exposed, but as we approached it the way to go became pretty well apparent. (Rockfall danger here is still an issue btw, though not nearly as bad as in the gully)
East Face of Navajo (Climbers near the bottom)
As you approach the summit cliffs the face steepens and we had to use a little bit of our hands to climb up over to the base of the cliff. I understand there are several ways up to the top of the block, we chose the class 3 chimney on the eastern end of the block. The climbing was not difficult, and the rock was pretty solid.
In the Chimney
Perfect timing. Not two seconds after reaching the summit we heard the first rumble of thunder to the west. Crap! I thought, and we decided to immediately get off of the summit and down to more a more sheltered position before we took any breaks, this included photos.
The storm ended up moving very close to our position as we scurried down the east face but it was pretty small and actually broke up somewhat as it moved over us. Once it was gone we were able to relax again, but darker clouds were building to the west. The rest of the hike down was uneventful, descending the gully was equally as bad as going up. The nice part was our thought to bring our axes, and we were able to glissade down a nice slope to avoid the boulder hopping to the lower basin. Once here we didn't feel a need to rush and we took a nice break and ate some lunch before heading back down to Isabelle lake and out to the trailhead. The thunder started in earnest shortly after we ducked under treeline and we made it back to the car just before it started to pour.
All and All a great trip and a must do for anyone who is looking for some off trail hikes but not 100% comfortable with exposure. Hope you enjoyed my TR, I include a few images from our descent below and our approximate route.
Down the gully
Approximate Route: Up in Red, Down in Blue