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Start/End @ Hells Hole Trail Head
5:55 AM start time
3:30 PM end time
~5000 feet of gain
class 2, off trail hiking
After doing some small hikes, and a couple 14er conga lines this summer, I decided I was looking for something different: isolation! So I finally had a hike today that was worth writing about, and I thought I'd share my success with you.
Lately I've been attracted to 12ers, 13ers and hikes on ridges surrounding a drainage (no trail, less people, amazing views). So for this hike I choose West Chicago creek, starting at the Hells Hole TH. A little back story: I found this trail head looking for a small hike, high in the mountains, and near Denver. I went in May and the trail became post hole city... I went back one week later to see how it changed and there was still plenty of snow but it was doable without equipment; that day I made it to the end of the trail, and really admired the high peaks and ridges above, wishing I was up there. I spent a significant amount of time that day with a map and compass (I don't have GPS) looking at manageable routes up to ridges and to Gray Wolf Mountain, already plotting my return.
The route I ended up following today, was much different than originally planned in May (which was a direct ascent of Gray Wolf). Instead, I decided to try a loop around the trail, avoiding it as much as possible. I don't do that fancy mapping technology so here's a picture of my paper map with my route marked with an orange highlighter.
I left the trail just past one mile in (about a quarter mile past the Mount Evans Wilderness border) where there is a good view of Sugarloaf peak. I set a bearing on my compass, pretty much due SW to to a point high on the ridge. This photo is approximately the trail departure view, but months earlier. Through trees I checked my compass often, but could pretty much let my shadow lead the way. There were lots of game trails in the area, but they mostly followed a north/south line so I never stayed on one for long.
The hike through the trees was very pleasant, and I paralleled an unnamed stream for much of this portion to the tree line.
As I climbed higher to the tree line I noticed this tree with a large amount of bark stripped off, it caught my attention and my curiosity. My first thought was it was caused by a bull elk rubbing it's horns, then I looked higher on the tree and it continued well beyond the height of an elk. Maybe it was from a climbing mountain lion? Then I noticed that all of the trees in the area had similar markings, and predominantly on the southern side of the tree... a mystery was afoot.
Any thoughts on this cause? ... I have a few more wild guesses... Anyway, I continued pondering as I hiked on.
I made the tree line at 7:40 AM and stopped for a bit longer than expected. I found I had cell service so I called my wife to make sure she was up and at it.
As I walked, I noticed two elk on the skyline to my left. They both appeared to be males but were about 200+ yards from me and I wasn't carrying a spotter... they kept a close eye on me as I continued. Shortly after, I had another wildlife spotting this time to my right on the ridge was a big horn sheep, he was also far away and was just a spec in my photo so I didn't include that one.
The talus dotted tundra near the top of Sugarloaf Peak was quite easy to navigate through, and I reached the summit at 8:30. If all else failed the rest of the day, at least I made one summit!
The view was spectacular and the photo below shows my remaining route to Gray Wolf. Following the ridge from right to left (the direction traveled) you can see snow lined Pt. 12836, neighboring Pt. 12959, Pt. 12988 directly below Mt. Bierstadt, and finally Gray Wolf Mountain on the far left. Also Pictured are Mount Evans and The Sawtooth.
I didn't stay on top very long and quickly made my way down Sugarloaf's south ridge, which I thought was a little steeper with more annoying talus than the North. Or perhaps this was just a clue that I like hiking uphill more...
I saw that herd of elk up close (30 yards) on my descent from Pt. 12959 but my phone (camera) was in my pack attached to it's external battery as power issues started very early. It's really too bad I missed the photo opp. I startled them above a snow drift and they plowed down, splashing snow and ice up like water at a river crossing as they made their escape. The herd was about 30 heads, all cows and calves; the clumsy one at rear was clearly mountain lion bait.
A little after 10 AM, on the top of Pt. 12959 I started getting worried about the developing weather, and questioned if I would make it to Gray Wolf.
From the saddle between pt. 12959 and 12988 there is a game trail leading back to West Chicago Creek, and would make the most direct route back to the Hells Hole trail. This was one of my potential "bad weather bail" routes, but for now the squalls were far off, and didn't seem to be electric.
At 10:30 AM just past the aforementioned saddle I decided to call it a day. The weather was moving in, and my phone was now dead. I sat down, hydrated and ate while I watched the weather come in. But the weather didn't come in... I watched a nasty squall over Grays/Torreys pass me to the north, another smaller squall passed over Guanella to the south. There was no thunder or lightning in the systems... just rain. To this point I hadn't gotten more than a refreshing sprinkle blown in on the wind. My legs felt fine, I had more than half of my 3 liters of water. Why not keep going up to Pt 12988? I could easily follow the ridge north back to West Chicago Creek if I had to bail (this ridge was of particular interest to me in my May scouting, I think it would be a great route up) So at about 10:45 I kept pressing on! (Without a camera, so you'll you just have rely on mental imagery from here on out).
I quickly made it to the final "almost 13er" and the weather pattern continued. I decided I would turn around at the first thunder clap... but it never came! The sun beckoned me forward and the wind pushed me up Gray Wolf Mountain. The western slope of Gray Wolf was tundra, littered with boulders up to car size. The tundra formed nice ramps between the boulders and I found very natural lines zig-zagging up the wide slope. Before long I zigged to the north and came to the side of the ridge, zag to the south and again the side of the ridge. I was decidedly close and made a straight line for the summit... I crested... and saw the shallow slope up to the true summit only several hundred yards away. Success! I quickly spotted the rock pile on the summit and took shelter from the wind on the east side of the pile. To my great delight there were three flat stones placed there creating an impromptu recliner: one for my back, one for my butt, and one for my feet. Big kudos to whoever placed those rocks; they were comfortable!
As I hiked north from there, I hugged the left (west) side of the ridge to ensure I would be able to bail into the correct drainage if lightning moved in. However, this was kind of a moot point because there was no way to descend that cliff anyway... the ridge was the only way down. The north ridge was again tundra littered with boulders, but there were no natural ramp formations. On this side, the boulders were bunched in large groups or in long honeycombed veins, and sometimes the gap between to veins would only lead to another boulder field. My map doesn't show a name for this ridge, but I think it is a ridge worthy of a name. Please excuse my profanity; here are a few potentials: "F*** You Ridge", "Sh** Rock Ridge", "This is the ridge that never ends... yes, it goes on and on my friends... ", or for the more tasteful crowd, an appropriate name could be "Honeycomb Ridge". Anyway, I made very slow progress here, and it is the one place in my route I would alter. If I did it again, I would stick to the east side of the ridge, in hopes of easier going, but at least it would provide some shelter from the wind.
Just before making it back to the tree line I powered up my phone... 1:45 PM, I have a signal and... it died. When I took a sip of water, it gurgled through my hose... crap... at least I was smart enough to bring a water pump today. I set a bearing on my compass (just west of north) and continued on into the trees. Much to my chagrin, the rocks didn't end at the tree line. I continued my way north and downhill. I didn't really rely on my compass through here as the route finding was much more difficult, and I needed water so down hill was the direction for me. Eventually the rocks subsided, but the downed trees did not. Again there were many north/south game trails along the hill. At nearly every tree crossing, whether I was on a game trail or not, was evidence (freshly scraped bark, or broken tree limbs) that it had been crossed before. As I neared the bottom of the canyon large boulders formed mossy cliffs for me to navigate between, the terrain flattened and I finally reached the creek. A quick stop to pump, cross the creek, and I found willows! They tried to play a game of "Red Rover" with me, and they won. I backed up and charged again breaking free of the grips of two conjoined willows.
I paralleled the creek keeping my distance from the dense brush... and found very easy hiking along the ever present north/south game trails. Despite being tired and sore in the legs, I made pretty good time from here. Soon I came across dispersed camping areas and knew I was getting close. The trail(s) came and went but every time the trail was lost finding it or a new one proved simple... just keep walking. I noticed one game trail traveling in an odd east/west direction, it felt very human. I decided to follow it, and within 50 yards I found the main trail, from there it was about half a mile to the parking lot. I arrived at 3:30, just in time to get to Idaho Springs and call my wife before my 4:00 PM deadline.
I hope you enjoyed my write up. Cheers!
P.S. During my hike I saw no one, not one person until I was back at the trail head... I was all alone and it was amazing!
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
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