| Brown's Pass to Yale via west ridge, plus Jones Mtn
Trip Narrative : An opportunistic lighter-than-ultralight luxury trip to Lake Ptarmigan, Jones Mountain, and loop over Mt Yale via Browns Pass and western ridge.
Explanation of the title :
I just got back from a 3-day solo trip including the points mentioned. I didn't bring a camera, so I dare not call this a "Trip Report" ! I'll try to make up for the lack of pics with many thousands of words.
Before finalizing my plans, I kept a keen eye on the weather forecast. As luck would have it the entire state was bone dry, which opened up some interesting opportunities which I'll describe.
I ended up trying a new (to me) form of backpacking, with two key features : I carried less weight than most "ultralight" travelers, and included some elements of luxury which (to me) are sorely lackng from many a 14ers.com trip.
Oh, and the route over Mt. Yale via Brown's Pass is sorta non-standard; at least its not in Roach. I *loved* this route and highly recommend it. If you're in a hurry, skip ahead and skim !
This trip came together because I had my eye on a trail running 10k race in Salida on Sunday morning. Registration ended at 7:45 AM, so NWIH was I going to drive out from the Springs on race day. I drove out Saturday afternoon, and due in part to a moment of lysdexia while map-reading, ended up heading down the road to Blanks Cabin TH (Mt Shavano standard route). I set up camp, cooked dinner, and had a pleasant walk for a couple of miles along the Colorado Trail. Lots of trees down in the area, but the trail is clear.
On Sunday, I woke up just early enough to get myself into Salida for registration. This was my first trail running race, and it was a blast ! I started out last and was able to pass 25 of the 66 other runners. And not all of them were 78 years old !
After the race, I ate as many free bananas and cookies as I could politely manage, watched some of the other Fibark goings on, had a beer, then headed to Patio Pancake Place for some green chili and house-made german sausage.
Besides the race, my goals for this trip were to spend time at altitude, see some gorgeous scenery, practice using a topo map and compass, do a little off-trail hiking, maybe bag a 13er/14er, and maybe dip my toe into the world of ultralight backpacking. The weather forecasts for Sat afternoon/evening included a 20 % chance of rain (and I did see a bit of scattered storms on my trip out) but from Sunday AM on, all the forecasts I checked were bone dry.
I want to be really clear about this, because I deliberately chose to break *the* cardinal (and extremely important !) rule. Since there was no moisture in the entire state, and since the summer monsoonal pattern was not in effect, I felt very, very confident (willing to wager extereme misery and possible death) that it simply was NOT going to rain at all during my trip, even in the infamous Colorado afternoon. I'm not dead yet. YMMV.
Ptarmigan Lake, Lake Willameena
I made my way to the Ptarmigan Lake trailhead on CR 306 (west from the stoplight in BV) by 4:00 PM or so. I was feeling a litte iffy about the ultralight business, so I grabbed my 3-person car-camping tent and my 1970's external frame backpack. My mom sewed my backpack for me from a Frostline kit, if anyone here is old enough to remember them ! In a timid nod to the ultralight lifestyle, I left my cooking gear behind and only broght food that I could eat from a ziplock bag. And because I was counting on no rain, I didn't carry raingear or a groundcloth. The tent was really for protection against wind and bugs.
The hike up to Ptarmigan lake is straightforward, about 3.3 mi, IIRC. It's a super-popular trip for day-hikers, who are always well-admonished to finish before afternnon. IOW, I had the valley to myself, apart from a couple of late stragglers coming down the trail. The scenery along the trail is so-so, but once you break out from the trees, it is stunning. You are in a galcial bowl (cirque ?) on 3 sides, with the fourth side offering an excellent view towards Mt. Yale.
One of the great things about lake Ptarmigan Lake is that there are so *many* of them ! Although the map indicates this, I got a little mixed up as to which lake was which. I felt geat pride upon discovering yet another small, private lake up above Ptarmigan which wasn't on the map, and in a moment of explorer's vanity chose to name it after my grandmothers sister. Her name was Auntie Gert. When my sisters and I found out that "Gert" was just short for Gertrude, we thought it was hilarious : Gertrude ! In a moment of pure and very charming evil, my grandmother proceded to tell us Auntie Gert's middle name : Wilhelmina ! It was years before we could stop laughing at that one.
The evening was so beautiful and my privacy amidst such alpine vastness so assured, that I decided to do a little skinny-dipping in my newly-dubbed lake. Although my legs felt pretty good, I was a little worried that running a 10k race on the first of 3 days of hiking might not be the best idea. I figured a little cold water ("icing" as they call it) would be good insurance against pain the next day, and a few side-strokes in such a beautiful setting would be unforgettable. So I dropped trou, eased myself into the water, and immediately all thoughts of swimming vanished. I was able to lower myself in up to my navel, but any higher than that would have made it impossible to breathe. I lasted a few minutes, then stretched out on my closed-cell foam pad to dry in the last rays of the evening's sun.
It was such a nice spot there on the soft, herby lakeshore, that I decided to spend the night right there. I put on my warm clothes, pulled out my sleeping bag and passed my first night as an ultralight camper. There was enough wind to keep the bugs away, and I knew that the wind wasn't going to let up any time soon. I worried a bit that it might get too cold without a tent, so I half unpacked it just in case. As it turned out I was fine, and only used the tent as a pillow.
Also, before turning in, I walked around a bit and discovered yet *another* lake, much, much bigger than Ptarmigan. Well, it turns out the first "Lake Ptarmigan" I had seen was just one of the many lesser lakes downstream from this, the real Lake Ptarmigan. So my personal discovery, Lake Willameena, is on the map after all, just a smidge east of Lake P.
As dawn broke, I slowly, gently awoke from my slumber. I took in the beautiful colors, the sounds, the smells, and went back to sleep. As the sky lit up, I again took in the beauty of my pristine surroundings, and the comfort of my sleeping bag, and rested some more. Eventually, after the sun was good and up, I crawled out of my bag and struck "camp".
Ptarmigan Lake is at 12,147 feet and just above it at 12250-ish is a gentle pass over into Grassy Gulch. What a cool name ! The entire ridge rising from the RH side of the pass all the way down to CR306 seems to be named Jones Mountain, but its high point at 13,221 ft rises right up from the pass. As you look up the ridge from the pass, the RH side (the one you see from lake P) is rough and rocky. But the LH side is a very gentle convex blob covered with grass and wildflowers. A very easy, pleasant walk-up. Although the Lake P trail will get you up to (and beyond) the pass, there is no trail up Jones Mountain. This is an excellent chance for beginners to practice the simplest form of route-finding : just walk up hill.
The summit of Jones opens up stunning views to the west and south. Very highly recommended. Also very windy. I had hoped to pull out the topo map and compass and practice some peak identification. Instead, I death-gripped my trekking poles and practiced standing up without falling. My clothes were making loud flapping sounds, and I had to check the snugness of my hat and glasses before turning to face upwind. And then I did something truly amazing. Something the sheer fun of which caught me completely off guard. I blew my nose. Twice. Cause that's all I had to blow.
Anyway, I descended back to the pass, had a leisurely stroll down the trail, and when I rejoined my car (and watch) it was 9:35. So I headed down the road to Jan's in BV and had the "Meat Lover's" Omelette (awesome !), and lots of water. But no coffee. For that I went to BV Coffee Roasters on Main and got a large, plus their fruity purple cousin of a cinnamon roll. And I scored the NY Times Sunday Magazine with the crossword puzzle untouched. I guess this is the luxury thing I was hinting at. When the days are so crazy long and there's no worry about rain in the afternoon, why not indulge in some tasy cooked food and other comforts free fom all haste ?
After coffee and crossword reached their end, I headed back up the road to Denney Creek TH. This is the start for standard Route up Mt. Yale. But about a mile or so in, a fork to the left gets you off the Yale superhighway. The left fork heads to Brown's Pass, with the option of side trip to Hartenstein Lake.
Based on my first night's success at ultralighting, I decided to go whole hog : Lighter than ultralight. No tent/tarp/groundcloth. No cooking gear or utensils (except 1 spoon). No raingear. Pretty much all I had was my 20-L REI pack, ready-to-eat food packed in ziploc freezer bags, warm clothes, my sleeping bag, and a 3/8" closed cell foam pad. I didn't resort to any "gram-weenie" tactics like cutting my map in half or spending $$$ on sil-nylon gear. I just left everything behind unless I *had* to have it. And TBH, although my food was all unheated, it was pretty decent (no 'backpacker compromise" food) : Italian Sopressata sausage, Idiazabel cheese from Spain, pecans, pre-cooked white beans and olive-oil-packed tuna, some Lindt 70% dark chocolate, and so on.
Weather-wise, I knew I was in for more of the same. So I planned to camp as high as possible, but with a bit of protection from the westerly wind. Based on an excerpt from David Day's "Colorado Incredible Backcountry Trails" that I found at http://www.utahtrails.com/colorado%20pages/kroenkelake.html I thought I'd hike to Brown's Pass and then descend "just enough" towards Kronecke lake. This would leave me with an off-trail ascent of Yale's western ridge for Tuesday.
I could not be more pleased with this route ! The Denney creek trail starts out nice enough, but it just keeps getting better, and the whole way to Brown's Pass is continually changing. Shortly after the split with the Yale standard route, I passed two groups returning from Hartenstein Lake. And they were the last people I would see for the rest of my trip. Until the screaming.
Since I didn't even start hiking until 1:00 PM, and wasn't sure just how fresh I'd be feeling after a long hike, I was a bit ambivalent about the side trip to Hartenstein Lake. Its a short enough jaunt (about a mile each way) so I decided to give it a go. My opinion ? Its okay, but not nearly as beautiful as Lake Ptarmigan. Or Willameena.
After a mini-meal and a nap I continued up the valley towards Brown's Pass. Normaly a pass is a nice gentle way to get from one valley to another, but just like yesterday this is a case where you reach the pass, turn 90 degrees to the right, and keep on climbing. But not until after admiring the spectacular view. One of the new things you can see from here (compared to Jones Mountain) is Texas Creek. Like every square inch of the emptiness called Gunnison County, Texas Creek has me intrigued. Looks like some absolutely fantastic hiking !
As you climb up from the Brown's Pass you follow the trail towards Kroenecke Lake. After a little switchback to the right, you cross over and follow on the left (western) side of the ridge, which is also the Continental Divide. So if you have a hankerin' to pee into the Pacific, this is your chance. You skirt a hump just shy of 13er-dom before descending into the next valley (North Cottonwood Creek) to your right. If you stuck to the trail after descending into the valley you would pass Kroeneke Lake and eventually reach the North Cottonwood Trailhead. But I decided to follow the trail just far enough to descend off the ridge and into an area with several small lakes. I looped below (downhill and east of) the lakes and circled almost all the way back to the ridge, only this time I was below the rockslide and the remaining bands of unmelted snow. My goal was to get as close to the steepest part of the ridge as possible for wind protection, and still have a source of water in the morning. I was zeroing in on the largest of the four lakes that the map shows just below the pass, but somebody had stacked a bunch of stones in an odd rectangular arrangement which suggests a grave. Not the kind of charm I was in the mood for.
I went just tiny bit further upslope and found a great spot (around 12,300 or so) to unroll my foam pad. The terrain there is a weird mix of half rockslide, half soil. The snowmelt from just uphill varies between flowing on the surface and flowing underground. The spot I chose had a bunch of little rivulets of water seeping out the exposed edge of some soil, then falling a foot or between some rocks into an unseen pool, making a charming little water feature. It was like sleeping in the lobby of an asian restaurant.
The evening/night passed uneventfully. I watched the last rays of the sun make their way way up the slopes of the mountains to the east. I wathched the stars come out one by one. I listened as Celine Dion sang "My Heart Will Go On" in my head. Over and over. God I hate that song. "Near.. Far, ..." GASP ! OMG, how will she ever find a word that rhymes with "far" ? Sure, there's car, guitar, Zanzibar, but somehow none of these words seems to... HEY WAIT ! What about "are" ? That's a word, right ? AND IT FITS ! YAY MUSIC!
I guess what I'm getting at is : just what do people *do* with all that spare time in the mountains ?
Mt. Yale's western ridge, Point 13605.
Tuesday morning was a repeat of Monday. Awaken into beauty and solitude. Multiple times. Today I had my watch along, so I noticed that it was 7:00 AM when I started walking. My little water feature had frozen up during the night, and several of the little streams nearby had formed a healthy crust of ice on them. I contoured around southwest-ish to an area where the map indicated a boggy area and another tiny lake. I stayed just upslope of the boggy area and found steams deep enough to get water from. I finished off all 3L that I had already and treated another 3L to last me up and over Yale. This turned out to be adequate, but I must admit I would have grabbed more if I had another bottle. (plastic Gatorades bottle, BTW.)
I continued to travel counterclockwise around the valley, hugging the ridge as tightly as I could. Too high and it turns to slopes of talus, too low and its thick willlow bogs. In between, its Just Right : undulating lush green grass and wildflowers. After a second breakfast, taking care of bidness, and reaching the base of a gentle grassy ascent up to the ridge-top, it was 7:30 AM. Comfy way to start the day, and under 2000 feet to climb. No coffee, but I remembered that I had some gel-packs with caffeine. Good enough.
I have to say I was a little worried about this ascent. It was off-trail, it wasn't completely visible from below, and I wasn't 100% sure that the entire route was something I could handle. My "out" was to turn around and go back the way I had come. It turns out that Roach does describe the route up this ridge (starting from the North Cottonwood TH), but I didn't know that at the time. And there's this weird thing that happens when you look at a 3-dimensional mountain : the slope facing you gets squashed into a two dimensional vertical wall that strikes terror into your heart. So you have to hike closer to find out what its really like.
It turns out this route is just fine, class 2 all the way. Most of the way up the 13,605 point is grassy, or at least partly grassy. Which means you're walking on stuff that is pretty stable and not gonna slide. For the most part, its just a matter of heading uphill, although its important to keep manouvering to stay on the less steep terrain. I accomplished this by looking down at my feet. Because the top of the hill was located on a direct line between the sun and my retina. Stupid Sun !
Until I was right there, I wasn't sure if I would go over the top of the hump and bag an unnamed 13er, or contour around it. But when I got close enough, it seemed easier to just go right over the top. The real appeal is that its flat. For a short while you're just walking; no worries about steep pitches or unstable rock
From the top of Point 13,605, you get your first close-up view of the saddle. Again, my initial reaction was terror. I know I *can* do Class 3, but that's not what I signed up for. And what you see as you look out at the ridge leading to Yale is a couple of tall vertical clumps of Class 3 stuff, with impossibly steep hair-trigger rockslides on either side. Well, as you get closer, its not all that bad. I stayed on the right (SW) side of the vertical stuff, and with care (and a bit of backtraking) was able to get around it. In fact, as I relaxed a bit and became convinced that the whole thing was do-able and safe, I did try out a few class-3 moves for fun. In my book (not yet publilshed) Class 3 is when you need to use your hands, Class 2 is when you just walk or use trekking poles. I should mention that the rock was quite a bit more stable than I feared at first, but not enough to take it for granite. There were a few places when I could see that the rock wasn't safe, and a few times when a test-step revealed a rock to be unstable.
I think it was after I skirted the first of the challenging outcroppings that it began. I had a clear view of my final approach, and I could see (way, way below me !) the standard route trail winding its way up out of Delaney Gulch. It was a clear, crisp, beautiful morning and the valley below was spectacular. So spectacular that you just want to start shouting at somebody at the top nof your lungs. Well, maybe not *you*, but somebody was sure in the mood for some hearty shouting. Of course an ordinary conversational voice carries pretty far up in the high clear air, but for unexcelled voice-carrying satisfaction, nothing beats a good all-out scream. After such a wonderful journey through peace and solitude, I guess I was just irritated at being thrown back in with the masses. At least there were no dirt bikes.
I descended a tiny bit to rejoin the standard route for the last little bit of Class 1 trail. I was pretty surprised at how rough the final stretch from the saddle to the Yale summit was ! Not quite as rough as what I had just come though, but no picnic. I made the summit by 10:30 and had a moment to myself. As I headed back to the saddle (where I stashed my pack) I passed a fairly steady stream of people (20+) and a few of them seemed to be struggling more with fear than lack of 02.
I descended via the standard trail through Delaney Gulch. Wow ! That is one beautiful valley ! And one steep trail. I learned thay maybe its not such a good idea to wear boots that are a size too small, even if you got a great deal on them. In the past, I could always avoid losing a toenail on my right foot simply by bkeeping my toes curled up a bit. No problem. Well, after three days of hiking, a steep downhill really helps point out the flaw in that logic. If you scrunch up your toes, the skin on top of your foot starts to come off. When I reached Delaney Creek, I took off my boots, soaked my feet for 15 minutes (heaven !) and walked about a km barefoot. It was slow going, but would not have been too bad but for the heat. I hadn't noticed, but this was turning out to be one hot day. When I couldn't take the heat, I put my boots on again, kept my toes flat, and made it back to the car without too much more destruction. On my way to the Eddyline Brewpub in BV, I pulled over in the picnic area along the Arkansas River and found a wonderful shady spot to sit in the river for 15 minutes. That and a couple of Amber Ales worked wonders.