| Casco via Bull Hill on a tropical winter day
From: Echo Canyon TH
Approximate stats: 9.5 miles RT, 4,200 ft elevation gain (Roach has 8.8 miles and 3,900 for his route to Casco from this TH; I'm making what I consider to be a conservative guess, as we didn't have a gps nor altimeter).
The Trailhead: Finding the TH was our crux. Mileage given from Hwy 24 & 82 junction - 12.5 - is pretty accurate, but the dirt road has no sign and the "cabin" is a tall A-frame lodge (if it takes you until daylight, as it did us, you'll see it's the Echo Canyon Lodge). The dirt road immediately veers left (W) to parallel the highway and it's very quick (and, with snow, not obvious) that there is a small clearing on the left for two vehicles (no signs). Opposite the clearing, you'll see the 4x4 road goes straight back (NNE).
The trail: Walking up the 4x4 road soon brings you to the concrete foundation in the woods. The trail is supposed to be west of here and in summer it probably is readily found. East of the foundation is a sign that reads "Trail" and the trail was in very good shape. I believe it leads to Bull Hill on the east side of the ridge; as we neared the top, we could see a good trail switchbacking that slope, which had much less snow cover. So I recommend that trail if you want to do both Bull Hill and Casco. If you want to do just Casco or try to get Casco and French, then I don't recommend going over Bull Hill but instead hiking up the basin below Casco, as Roach's route shows.
We zigzagged through the woods and ended up bushwacking along the creek until I crossed back to the creek's east side and found a faint trail. This was slow going and we burned an hour pretty quickly, compounding our late (7:30) start from the TH location difficulties. We followed this trail/game trail for a mile and a half before we began climbing NE up the ridge on our right, which is Bull Hill's south ridge.
We began ascending the ridge shortly before 9 am. The snow was ankle to knee deep in some places, and powder -- not much consolidation. Up higher, it was only a few inches and crisp but still not consolidated; we slip-stepped our way up.
We couldn't see Bull Hill, just a false summit on the ridge. We found ourselves in a flat area of grass and scattered rocks. We saw these bighorn sheep near the the main trail on the east side of the ridge.
We also had a great view behind us (to the south) of the Ellingwood Ridge to La Plata.
It was a fantastic day: no clouds, no wind, and I was wearing only my base layer, having even taken off my gloves. The view west was brilliant -- just white ridges and blue sky. In this photo, the basin is below us and Casco is at far right (Bull Hill is to our immediate right, out of the photo):
So returning my view to the north, I followed Aaron up the final slope to Bull Hill.
It was shortly after noon when I joined Aaron on Bull Hill's summit. Nick (Mountainjam) had fallen back, telling us to go without him; he summited Bull behind us and then took a jaunt east over to South Elbert. Kudos to him, as he had to ascend Bull Hill again on the way back! Iman and Coxie were still ascending to the ridge; they summited Bull Hill but did not follow us or Nick.
As I descended Bull Hill at 12:18, I took this picture. Casco is the obvious peak ahead, and "Friascol Benchmark," the highpoint of the ridge running east from Casco to French is a the right. We had planned to run the traverse to French, but our late start and detour over Bull Hill would make this unfeasible.
Aaron blazed ahead. Where the snow was soft and deeper, I stretched to follow his footsteps, feeling like a terrier chasing after a german shepherd. I took the following picture at 1:14; it felt like the halfway point on the ridge from Bull to Casco.
We were to the left of the ridge crest in many spots. The snow was firm but prone to slabs cracking and sliding underfoot, so I stopped to don my microspikes. The shiftiness didn't pose a threat, as the angle here was slight and the snow only 3-6" deep. This second half of the traverse involved numerous bumps on the ridge; I would see Aaron disappear, emerge, and disappear again as he surmounted them ahead of me. It was now 1:53 and the hardest work lay ahead.
I reached this spot, what I considered the "summit push," at 2:09. It would take me until 2:55 to reach the peak. From here on, the ridge became much rockier, which was sometimes easier, sometimes slicker, but definitely more interesting as several sections turned to 2+.
When I reached the peak, I found Aaron resting on a large slab. Up until this point, I was not sure whether he had attempted to continue over to French. He reached the peak at 2:00, just shy of two hours for the traverse from Bull Hill, and nearly a full hour faster than me. I resolved to reduce my beer intake and up my winter cardio regimen - I mean, get a regimen. But for the meanwhile, I took his place on the cozy slab, with the Elk Range in the distance behind me.
We stayed long enough to snap photos and for me to get a snack, and then started our way back between 3:10 and 3:15. We made excellent time retracing our steps down the ridge until we found an easy slope down to the basin. This mellow south-facing slope was slushy and if it had been loaded with more snow, we would not have been able to head down it safely at such a late hour in the day.
I think we could have done better by hugging the bottom of the ridge rather than getting all the way into the basin, but we chose a line that looked good from a distance and found ourselves wading through deeper snow and willows. In the shadows of the basin, it still was not too cold and the heights above -- La Plata ahead and Casco behind -- were still bathed in the afternoon sun.
The willows ate up time and we followed game tracks out of the lower basin as the sun began to set. We came across our group's footsteps and followed these, unaware that our comrades who had descended Bull Hill had got off target. Headlamps dimly illuminating the dark woods, we lost the footprints and so abandoned any attempt to seek a path and simply struck due south for Highway 82. We emerged on the highway, walked a ways west before determining that we needed to go east, and found our car at 6:00. The others had left at 5:50 and we met up with them in Leadville.
A beautiful day and a great hike for all!
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):