Lumpy Ridge is a great early-season training run: eleven miles of trail at 7-9 thousand feet with a couple thousand feet of gain. It’s also really pretty and highly recommended as a shoulder-season trail run. (The rock climbing is okay as well.) But I’m two weeks out from my first ultramarathon in a couple years and am desperate to get in a big run: 20 miles and at least 4000′ of gain. More importantly, at least five hours on my feet. Sure, running Lumpy twice is an option (and I’ve done that), but I don’t like doing laps of things.
So the plan was somewhat more elaborate: run the first two thirds of Lumpy Ridge, then take off west up the Black Canyon trail (new territory for me) to Lawn Lake. Finally, a blazing six mile descent down to the Lawn Lake trailhead where I’d stash a bike for a quick loop closure. Easy-peasy!
Things went well enough on the first half. Eric joined me and we had a really nice sunny, cool run up to Gem Lake, down to Cow Creek, a quick side trip up to Bridal Veil Falls (beautiful!), then a long climb up to the Black Canyon junction. So far, so good. Nine miles in 3 leisurely hours with quite a bit of stopping to talk to people along the way.
Eric headed back east to the cars while I continued west. The trail climbed gradually and was pleasant enough though not spectacular. I hit my first patches of snow around 9000′ and stopped to don low gaiters in what turned out to be a ludicrously-futile attempt to keep the snow out of my shoes. By 9600′, any pretext of keeping my feet dry was clearly fantasy as I would frequently posthole in to my knees.
I was tracking the Black Canyon/Lawn Lake junction on my GPS so I knew how far and in what direction I needed to head. This was fortunate in one way since I’d long since lost the trail but with open forest and a straight route, this wasn’t a big deal. Postholing off-trail isn’t much different than on. On the other hand, it showed me that I still had 1.74 miles to go and the snow showed no signs of improving. “Maybe the snow higher up will be colder and less sugary.” No. 1.45 miles to go. “Maybe being on a more open aspect will mean more wind scouring and less snow.” No. 1.21 miles to go. “Maybe I’ll find the trail again and someone will have laid down a nice snowshoe track.” Again no. 1.08 miles to go.
My pace was down to one mile per hour and my bare legs were getting very wet and cold (not a problem, the day was fairly warm and sunny) and my shins were being quickly cut up from the icy crust a few inches down in the snow. Sometimes I’d be able to take a dozen ginger steps in a row only sinking in a few inches. But then, wham!, in I’d go and one shin or the other would leave faint pink stains on the snow. 0.92 miles to go.
I knew that the Black Canyon and Lawn Lake trails met at an acute angle on a broad saddle, so by erring left, I would potentially cut a little bit of distance off my trip. I’d long since lost the trail anyway, so what difference did it make? Climbing up a short ridge, I happened upon a fairly large lake (Pott’s Puddle). Another quarter mile of painfully slow progress and I stumbled upon an old snowshoe track. Staying in the faint impressions I found I could generally stay afloat and my pace improved considerably. The path wandered quite a bit (as bushwhacking snowshoe trails tend to), but at great length I made it to the Lawn Lake Trail… which featured a pretty clear set of postholes and snowshoe prints but was not otherwise much of an improvement over the untracked area I’d just come from.
My plan of making it to Lawn Lake was suddenly not all that compelling. While it was still mostly sunny, the Divide was wreathed in thick clouds and it was snowing somewhat moderately on me as I hiked. Never mind the 20 mile threshold, I’d already been on my feet for five hours and more and had more than passed the watershed point on the trip. Time to turn for home.
By 9000′, the postholing was blissfully over, but the trail was still a sloppy mix of packed snow, wet slushy ice (of the strangest pale green), and occasional rocky sections. I managed to run most of the last three miles but only because moving fast was such a novel experience. Down to the bike in a brief rain shower, then a very speedy road ride down into Estes and up to the Gem Lake TH.
It wasn’t exactly the trip I’d expected, but this is May in Colorado when the mountains are at their worst. It seems I need to be reminded of this fact every couple years. In any case, 19.4 miles, 5400′ of gain, in 7-and-change hours. Presumably the Dirty Thirty will feature a lot less post-holing, so I can manage a slightly better pace than 22:31 miles. In any case, I felt surprisingly good at the end of this one… except for the scarred legs aspect.