The summer of 2017 has been a memorable one, but not because of the epic mountain running trips I’ve managed. Between spur-of-the-moment multi-continental travel, increasingly-ambitious family outings, and some nagging maybe-injuries, I’ve only managed a couple proper runs in the high-country. My original plan (back in the dark days of last spring) was to build some ultralight fastpacking gear and then do a series of ever-more-intensive test trips culminating in an ambitious traverse of the Gore Range. But suddenly it’s late August and the weekend before the start of the semester. The flag has not been sufficiently waved. Gah!
I’ve long been map-fascinated by the Continental Divide on either side of Buchanan Pass in the northern Indian Peaks Wilderness. Buchanan Pass is half of the rightly-popular Pawnee-Buchanan loop and is the key to many wonderful and scenic places along that route. But it also access some other fascinating spots: to the south lie Sawtooth and the greatly under-appreciated Algonquin Peak. The Divide north of Buchanan has long fascinated me. I can find very little information about it on-line but it looks like a long tundra-hop to the border of RMNP and beyond. To sweeten the deal, there is a complicated set of basins and lakes northwest of the pass which look interesting and remote which has always been just a little too far away to properly explore in even a long day trip.
For my second gear testing trip, I’d planned a thorough recognizance of this area, but now, in this abbreviated season, it became the main event. I learned a lot from my first short foray; I needed a bigger pack and my sleeping system was only barely adequate for summer in the high country. So I packed all my gear into a larger pack, switched to a warmer Thermarest, added a complete extra layer of clothing in the event of an uncomfortably cold night, and headed out to see what could be salvaged of the 2017 mountain season. Fully loaded, my pack tipped the scales at 23 pounds. Dry (without water or food) it was probably about 15. Not ultralight by any means, but still pretty slim for not trying super-hard.
The larger pack (and my relative lack of fitness) made running up the Buchanan Pass trail a non-starter. But I still managed a brisk 3 mph hike most of the way and dropped into the western side of the Divide at about mile 8. Tonight’s goal was Gourd Lake, the most-accessible of the NW basin lakes, reachable by trail from the west end of the Pawnee-Buchanan Loop. However, this required 2500’ of descent from the pass followed by another 1500’ of steep switchbacking up to the lake. Ain’t nobody got time for that! After reaching the lovely Fox Park (after a somewhat-blistering 1500’ of descent), I managed to traverse across at about the 10,500’ contour following a set of game trails and navigating by dead reckoning toward Gourd Lake. Saw a bear and traversed the top of the impressive avalanche path which ripped through this forest about five years back.
Gourd Lake turns out to be a lovely sub-alpine lake surrounded by steep forest and rocks on all sides… and surprisingly popular as well. Despite my late start (10:30) and non-running speeds, it was still pretty early (4 pm) and I’d only done 13 miles. But in this sorry state of fitness I didn’t savor pushing on to a higher basin. I deployed the tarp in a small campsite on the north side of the lake and contemplated my minimal gear. An uninspiring dinner was managed; it was a little lonely and I wished I’d packed along a beer to sip, lake-chilled, while watching the sunset. The sunset was, at least, fantastic.
When it got truly dark, I climbed under the tarp and quilt and set about sleeping. It was much warmer than last time I tried this. The modifications to my sleeping system I’d made after my chilly night in July worked well; a drawcord to keep thing snug, a more insulating (though heavier) pad, and perhaps the tarp as well kept me quite warm all night; I only even snugged up the drawstring toward the end of the night. The stars were astonishing.
When in doubt, go bigger
By dawn, I was up and out of camp by 7 and headed north. This was a bit of a personal victory for me since, as lately as the evening before, I was contemplating just turning back by the route I’d come rather than committing to the scree climb up to the Divide. I have found myself becoming more cautious and conservative lately with my outdoor pursuits, and tending to err on the side of caution, sometimes glumly so. However, I was intrigued by the rest of the lakes in the basins up there and prodded myself into boldness to a high, committing, and lonesome route. Time to regain some boldness! Up we go!
A mile up a decent trail from Gourd I came into sunlight and a soul-satisfying view of Cooper Peak and Island Lake. While camping up here would have been a bit more challenging, the dawn’s early light made up for the breakfast-by-headlamp start to the day. I watered at a tarn above Island Lake, then started the scree climb to the north saddle of Cooper Peak. Perched between the Island Lake drainage and the suddenly-visible Hell Canyon (which looked anything but hellish), I continued north up a daunting talus slope which eventually gave way to easy tundra around 12,000’. Despite shortness of breath, my legs felt pretty good on the climbing. On the Divide at last!
Where to now, boss? The eventual goal was Buchanan Pass which I knew would require climbing up and over two unnamed tundra lumps (Pt12277 and Pt12391) as well as traversing a couple miles of rolling tundra bordered on either side by steep cliffs. The only technical challenge was a bit of minor scrambling down the small saddle to the northern of these peaks. To the north were the loftier “Ooh La La” and Pt13049 and then the mighty Ogalala, anchor of the southern boundary of RMNP. Feeling proud of myself for choosing the path of more resistance, I set out to conquer Ooh La La and maybe more beyond before turning around and heading for home.
Despite being the lynchpin of the mighty St. Vrain Glaciers, Ooh La La proved easy enough and I took in the broad summit ridge and stunning views to the north and east. What I saw to the north, however, looked daunting; a deep notch full of gendarmes and talus before another long climb to the peaks to the north. So I turned south and tromped tundra for a few miles. A single 12,900’ summit would have to do for the day.
From below in the lovely Fox Park, the notch between my current tundra plateau and Pt12277 looked pretty minor. Standing at the brink, I realized how much larger it is in real life. The down climb was nothing too technical, but definitely involved picking my route down 400’ of mountain carefully. Fortunately, the gendarmes seen from below were a bit right of the ridgeline and reascending to Pt12277 was easy enough. One more peak to go in another 1.5 miles of easy tundra except…
Surprise! There’s a steep, chasm of black rock separating the two unnamed peaks! It was almost like someone had decided that the peaks needed more prominence and lowered the connecting saddle by way of a monster backhoe. Only by backtracking a few hundred yards did I find a ramp down onto steep grass and blocks on the west side and could thereby find my way to the notch and then, by climbing some minor ledges, make it back to previously-scheduled tundra climb.
By the summit of Pt12391, I was exhausted and tired of being on the Divide. Clouds were building in a not-yet-ominous way. I hadn’t seen another human since the evening before, nor been on a real trail since shortly after dinner. The Buchanan Pass trail was obvious from above and several hikers could be clearly seen lounging down there. I strode down the tundra anxious for this small bit of, in a relative sense, civilization. Did I really used to backpack solo for a week at a time? Was I always this gregarious? Wow.
Back on the trail, it was an all-out, all-downhill eight miles back to the car with a short detour to see if there is a bushwhack connection between the Buchanan Pass Trail and the lower St. Vrain Glacier Trail that was more direct than the usual route (short answer, mostly no). The comfortable sunny weather at 12,000’ gave way to sweltering heat down at lower elevations. Ah yes, there’s that final, runnable four miles on nice trail. I even managed to run part of it despite the large pack and everything, but I was well glad to reach the car after a nice 28 hours in the mountains.
What a fantastic trip! While this season was not what I originally envisioned, this single jaunt made up for a lot of what the 2017 summer season wasn’t. The stars at Gourd Lake and seeing Cooper Peak by dawn was pretty magical. Heck, if I were in better shape and had done this whole trip as a big day (27 miles, 7600’ would totally be doable in a better season), I wouldn’t have seen any of that stuff.