The Pawnee-Buchanan Loop in the Indian Peaks Wilderness is a classic of Front Range mountain running: a 25-plus mile loop with 6000-plus feet of gain, crossing the Continental Divide twice, past three large lakes, numerous waterfalls, and gazillions of wildflowers. It’s a grueling loop, no doubt, and when I first ran it in 2009 with Stephanie, it took a rather daunting 9.5 hours for the whole deal. But 2009 was a year in which I’d run done very little training. This season I’ve already logged significant miles and have a couple biggish mountain runs already under my belt. It should be faster and easier this year.
Peter and I tackled the loop this time in the traditional counter-clockwise fashion from Brainard Lake. There’s not much to say this time that wasn’t said last time. Fantastic flowers throughout and some wonderful terrain. The first half of this edition of the run went pretty well. Saw a moose in one of the small ponds at 4×4 trailhead below Buchanan Pass. There was a big avalanche last winter near the Gourd Lake trail junction which made navigation a bit tricky for a while and a couple creeks were high enough it was safer to wade them than to try to keep our feet dry.
About fifteen miles in, at the far side of the loop, the wheels kind of fell off. Not really sure why. The climb up from the west toward the Divide is long and brutal which never helps and it was getting warm, but it wasn’t that bad.
After some discussion regarding the building clouds and our tired legs, we opted for a three-mile out-and-back on mostly level ground to see Crater Lake and the reportedly-spectacular Lone Eagle Cirque. This isn’t part of the basic loop, but turned out to be well worth the detour. Lone Eagle is the end of a ridge which sticks down from the higher mountains around. From the small Mirror Lake, it appears as this impossibly-pointy, impossibly-tall Gothic peak. It’s the kind of place that really requires many hours of contemplation rather than a quick snapshot before moving on. We relaxed for half an hour before turning back to tackle the remaining 2500’ of climb up to the Divide.
Once we were finally headed up the steep climb past Pawnee Lake to the imposing western wall of Pawnee Pass, clouds were building rather threateningly to the southwest. We sheltered in the last of the trees above Pawnee Lake at 11,000′ to see what would happen. Clearing skies and lack of thunder after half an hour got us moving again, but, even after a significant rest, our legs just had no pep in them. By the time we topped out on Pawnee Pass, we were both just cooked and what should have been a spritely run down the semi-technical terrain on the east side of the pass became a trudge for safety reasons.
Down on the easier ground near Lake Isabelle, I managed intermittent running, but it was still a pretty poor performance. My hoped-for sub-9-hour circuit turned into 11+ despite a much better season of training, treking poles, and having been in the area before. Even subtracting out the half hour spent waiting for the conditions to clear and the hour going to and from Crater Lake, it shouldn’t have taken us that long for that loop.
However, even with the poor performance, it’s a spectacularly worthwhile run! Finally seeing Lone Eagle and Crater Lake alone was worth the jaunt and the flowers, especially on the descent from Buchanan Pass through Fox Park, were unprecedented. As far as training for later season, longer runs, it was good in a time-on-feet sense. 11+ hours is longer than anything I’ve done in the last three years, races included and in fact longer than almost anything ever. The renewed energy I felt in the last mile makes me wonder if there is another second wind lurking just beyond there mileage-wise…
More on that later? We’ll see.
One final note: what is it with the moose this season? In my first decade in Colorado, I saw a grand total of six moose (including a trio of mother and two young). I’ve seen an additional four in the last week! Is there a population boom going on? Is the eastern part of the IPW suddenly the hip place for moose to live?