| Middle St.Vrain Basin - Indian Peaks Wilderness
Elk Tooth-Ogallala Traverse
Peaks – Elk Tooth (12,845), Ogallala (13,130), "Ooh La La" (12,945)
Mileage/Vertical – 4 to 5 packing in, 5 to 6 climbing, 5000-5500 total
Time – quite a bit longer than expected. 10 hour day from camp.
Trailhead – Middle St.Vrain (not South Vrain). Its not marked from the road, but it's the same parking lot as Camp Dick, right across the street on the West side of rt.72 from the Peaceful Valley Ranch.
Stephanie (slynn4_13run) and myself met up after work at the Middle St.Vrain parking lot round 7pm Friday afternoon. Since not much has been documented about this region, I will do my best to elaborate on not only its complexities, but its insane aesthetics as far as rock quality, scrambling opportunities, views, etc. This one has got it all and I can safely say I've discovered my new favorite region of the IPW, it sounded like Stephanie agreed. In addition, whoever did these along with Copeland in a day is an animal.
Quick note regarding the parking lot. Camp Dick is aptly named. I've been trying to figure out the appeal of RV'ing for as long as I can remember and I still haven't come to any sort of reasonable conclusion. I love car camping when the opportunity presents itself and when it makes more sense than packing in and in a remote location. Playing some Jethro Tull, cooking some brats and drinking a lot of beer sounds fun and IS fun. But to relocate your entire family and belongings from your home to a campground littered with hundreds of other people is a ludicrous act? I don't think I'm bitter, just confused, if I was bitter that'd mean I was sort of envious, which is definately not the case. Camp Dick reminded me of the Pikas from the movie Snatch, I was just waiting for some bare knuckle boxing champion named Mickey wreaking of Johnnie Walker to come up and punch in my window, asking "if I like dags?". The kids all seemed to get a kick out of playing chicken with my car with their toy atv's and the parents looked to consider that pretty normal. This obviously didn't affect the "backcountry experience" since no one was higher up the basin, just trying to figure out why people spend thousands of dollars on gas guzzling, portable homes to "get away" from the worries and congestion of city life, only to be in a bigger quagmire of crowds.
Anyways, enough of that. For the approach. We began hiking up around 7:15pm or so up the 4wd road. Middle St.Vrain road is incredibly rough in areas (think quasi Lake Como) and then incredibly flat in most other places. A stock vehicle with 4wd low could make it with care, legs work better though. Once we reached the end of the 4wd road, we crossed a bridge and found a campsite about a mile up the trail, right along the creek at the beginning of a meadow. IPW is a permit area, just a FYI. Also, the trail, up to this point, was very flat.
Alarm went off around 3:45am, we were on the trail probably around 4:30am. The turnoff for the St.Vrain Glacier Trail was no more than a mile from our campsite, so we veered right and started to gain a little elevation. At a section where the talus/boulder fields meet the trail and it begins to head directly south across the creek, you can split off and head for an obvious notch in Elk Tooth's East Ridge. Keep in mind, its relatively easier to obtain the ridge sooner, but that just means more time consuming scrambling. As described in Summitpost, the author refers to a "scree gully from hell" which spits you out a lot closer to the summit, but it looks exactly as described.
The climb up wasn't horrendous, but it'd be hard pressed to call it fun. The views from the saddle were mighty nice though….
Elk Tooth E.Ridge from saddle
From where we gained the ridge, staying to the north side seemed to be the way to go. We kept getting cliffed out on the south side and wasted some time regaining the ridge crest.
We could finally get a decent view of the actual summit after hitting a bunch of false summit points along the ridge. The climb up to Elk Tooth is arguably the toughest and most arduous part of the day, so prepare accordingly.
summit of Elk Tooth, finally
Topping out on Elk Tooth's summit a little over 4 hours from camp, Stephanie and I refueled and then prepared for the traverse over to Ogallala. Keeping it consistent with the SP route description, the first half of the climb is performed mainly on the north side (right) of the ridge, with some class 2+/3 downclimbing. Around the notch at the halfway point, we crossed back over to the south side and were presented with our first obvious obstacle. A tower blocked easy access if you wanted to remain on the ridge crest. We dropped down on a descending traverse no more than 50 feet, got impatient and I tried to find a way straight up the middle of the tower face, via a vertical chimney with decent handholds. It was a fun, interesting scramble, but I got stuck 4/5 of the way up, didn't feel comfortable making a 5.5/5.6 exposed move not being roped up, so I backed off and we traversed around a corner and easily regained the ridgecrest.
traverse to Ogallala
some climbing up
and some climbing down
Tower and view from saddle of traverse
got cliffed out, a rope would be nice here, retreat was interesting
looking back at Elk Tooth and the plains from saddle
Stephanie scaling the exposed, slabby sectino before final tower and summit
We both agreed the climbing and exposure along this ridge was quite manageable and highly enjoyable. There are probably more exciting traverses out there, but this one is indeed a classic. The final 100 feet below the summit is classic, IPW terrain, with a final tower to negotiate and slabs with decent cracks for handholds. We chose to head to the right of the tower, traversed along some ledges and then climbed the final 50 to 60 feet up talus to the summit of Ogallala. Lots of iconic peaks to check out from this vantage point in both the IPW and RMNP.
"Iroquios" is a beast
Apache Mastiff and Lone Eagle Cirque
Clouds were beginning to build, especially to the south around the Brainerd Lake Cirque. Longs and Meeker were shrouded in clouds as well, so we figured it was time to get a move on. Middle St.Vrain is encompassed by a wide horseshoe cirque, with Elk Tooth/Ogallala guarding the northern edge, "Ooh La La"'s broad hump standing out at the crest of the shoe and then grassy ridgelines to the south. We scurried over to "Ooh La La", spent about 10 seconds on the summit and made way for a weakness in the southern edge of the cirque's cliffs. We eventually found one and began to descend (think N.Maroon descent, bring trekking poles, it's a brutal knee workout). Clouds socked in every cardinal direction except for where we were, we lucked out. We heard some thunder down south, but only a few booms, nothing too close and it subsided as soon as it was heard.
Once we were safely down, the terrain flattened out, we performed some ugly, but brief bushwacking directly above Envy Lake. Below Envy Lake was some of the most pristine camping spots I've ever laid my eyes on (think Japanese Garden). There were plenty of cascading waterfalls, wildflowers, lush shelves of vegetation and other good stuff.
Traverse from down below
quite the tranquil setting
waterfall below Envy Lake
Around 2pm, we ran into the St.Vrain Glacier Trail, washed faces in a cool lake and then were back to the tent with cold beers waiting for us around 4pm (supplied graciously by Stephanie). After the beers were enjoyed, we packed up and out, arriving at the cars around 6:15pm and parted ways soon after.
a really cool lake along the trail
a parting shot
Biggest piece of advice, don't underestimate the time dedicated to obtain these summits. The approach couldn't be flatter, but the rest is time consuming talus gullies, class 3 to 4 climbing, a 90-120 minute traverse and a descent that is anything but straightforward. Beautiful region though, if I return (more like when), it'll involve packing in more beers, packing in further and enjoying the tranquil settings of some of the upper lakes (and doing everything in my power to avoid Camp Dickbag). Good climbing with you again Stephanie!
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):