Peak(s):  Elk Tooth (12848)
Ogalalla Peak  -  13,138 feet
Ouzel Peak (12716)
Date Posted:  08/08/2020
Date Climbed:   08/08/2020
Author:  timewarp01
 Elk Tooth Traverse   

I finally got around to knocking out the traverse from Elk Tooth, a rugged, remote 12er at the south edge of Wild Basin in RMNP, to Ogalalla, perhaps the park's least visited 13er. This is a hike I've been meaning to do for awhile but I've had to keep pushing it until I got a really perfect weather window. Not only is this route very long and involved, but it was surprisingly difficult for me to find good beta on the traverse itself. The few people who actually go for this line tend to be pretty accomplished climbers and mountaineers who breeze over details that would give the rest of us mere mortals some real pause. Hopefully this report will help make these amazing summits a bit more accessible to the less extreme crowd. I knew there would be at least one 4th class gulley/chimney feature along the way, and an exposed slabby section near the top, with the option to bypass the slab via a series of absurdly exposed ledges that run across the north flank of Ogalalla's summit block. The rock on Elk Tooth is also pretty infamous for being loose and unstable, so I decided a long time ago to pick a day where I could really take my time with this one. I was pretty determined to make the traverse work because there really aren't very many good ways to get to Ogalalla, and if I managed to gain the continental divide, I could add on the nearby 12er Ouzel Peak on the way down. These three mountains were the last summits in Wild Basin I hadn't yet climbed, and knocking them all out in one go would be awesome!

Sunrise from the first big switchback on the Finch Lake trail

My favorite thing about Wild Basin is it's a pretty short drive from Boulder to the TH, which almost makes up for the huge approaches to basically any of the major peaks in that area. After sleeping in and enjoying the drive up, I started from the Finch Lake trailhead around 6:00. From here it's four easy miles until Finch Lake, which is the first time that Elk Tooth becomes visible from the trail. For some reason that morning there was a huge amount of smog from a forest fire to the west (not sure which one). The smell of the fire was quite strong, and at one point the haze was so dense I couldn't see Longs or Copeland from the trail. Once I passed Finch Lake it seemed to blow off, although the sky remained pretty hazy for the rest of the day.

Forest fire smog makes it hard to see Elk Tooth (left) from Finch Lake
Wild Basin is always a great spot for wildflowers, and this hike did not disappoint

As much as I would have liked to hang out at the lake, I was only halfway to the base of Elk Tooth. It's another 2 miles to Pear Reservoir, then 2 more up the valley to reach Hutcheson Lakes. After Finch the trail got a lot narrower and fainter, occasionally disappearing in the undergrowth. Once I got up the shelf under Hutcheson I stopped trying to find the trail altogether and just took the path of least resistance toward the north slopes of Elk Tooth.

Elk Tooth in full view after Pear Reservoir
Ogalalla coming into view at the end of the valley over Cony Lake. The notch in the center is the very remote Cony Pass

After studying the terrain on Elk Tooth's slopes, I decided to go pretty far into the valley before cutting south and up the flank. I couldn't see a great way to get up the east ridge so I figured I'd shave off some mileage and just head directly up to join the summit ridgeline a few hundred feet east of the true summit. This ascent was an endless slog up extremely loose scree and talus, one of the worst I've hiked so far in the park. It was unstable enough that on many occasions my next step up or to the side would cause all the rock around me to shift and settle, including the stuff 10 or more feet above me. The few larger boulders I came across seemed to be floating in the rock soup, and were no more stable than the gravel. The climb was very time consuming; it took me almost an hour to gain the ridge from the lake. Eventually the scree gave way to more stable protrusions jutting out from the backbone of the ridge itself, and I was able to quickly scramble up a gulley to the top.

Looking east from where I gained the ridge, which was surprisingly narrow.
View north to the true summit (left) over some large humps in the ridge

Once you're on the ridge it's a pretty straightforward talus walk to the top. The closer you get, the steeper the south (left) side becomes, until it falls away entirely to a huge cliff. You can stick to the north side below the ridge to avoid some elevation loss on the false summits.

Looking east from the summit of Elk Tooth
Indian Peaks to the south from the summit of Elk Tooth

It was a pretty windy day, especially on the summit block, so I only stayed long enough to sign the summit register and grab a quick bite. I was making decent time, and wanted to get the hardest part of the day out of the way. The ridgeline to Ogalalla looked pretty intense, and you have to lose a pretty significant amount of elevation to reach the saddle.

The traverse ahead from Elk Tooth's summit

Once again staying on the north side of the ridge, I descended the steep 3rd class of Elk Tooth's west flank. This stuff was a lot more stable than what I had climbed on the way up, but it's still loose enough that you have to take your time. Once you get off the summit block, the steep cliffs to the south ease up and the north side starts getting steeper. By the time you reach the saddle you'll have shifted from the north side to the south slope of the ridge crest.

Descent off the summit block
Transitioning to the other side of the ridge

You're only able to stay on the ridge direct for a short distance after the saddle until you hit the first major cliff band in Ogalalla's rambling east face. I knew getting cliffed out was inevitable, so I decided to lose some elevation immediately after the saddle and traverse the second class ramps 20 or 30 feet below the ridgeline. There's a steep gulley that would allow you to climb past the first cliff section if you wanted, but I didn't know if there would be a way over the second cliff band from there, so I continued skirting around. You'll see a very large rock rib that extends pretty far south from the ridge direct. Stay on the grassy ledges and hike around the base of this feature to reach the upper section of the cliff bands.

Circumventing the rock rib keeps you on easier terrain before the gulley
Elk Tooth becoming more aesthetic as you gain elevation up Ogalalla

Once around the rock rib, the 4th class chimney comes into view. It looked pretty straightforward, but one of the reports I'd read before setting out mentioned a particularly annoying chockstone plugging the top that barred easy access. I did some extra exploring around the area, and saw a pretty obvious gulley west of the chimney that looked like it would go.

Chimney feature that accesses the ridge crest
Climber's left of the chimney, an open-sided gulley of solid 3rd class rock

It was pretty easy going all the way to the top of the gulley, and I was a little surprised when I popped out the top to see that not only had I bypassed the crux of the 'standard route' of the traverse, I was positioned directly under the summit itself, with just a short slab section between me and the top. I highly recommend skipping the chimney (unless you want more of an adventure), because with this gulley you can keep the entire hike 3rd class (unless you consider the slab 4th class).

The summit just out of view from the top of the gulley.
My approximate route up the slab

This section was the most exposed part of the traverse for me, but the slab is extremely solid and featured. It's not very steep either, so I actually just walked up most of it. From the far end you have the option of dropping down to the grassy ledges on the right which will take you up to the summit, or you can scramble up a short, easy stepped section to regain the ridge direct. I went for the ridge, and in no time had the summit in sight.

Easy talus from here to the top of Ogalalla Pk
Looking back down at the slab section from just under the ridge crest

I took a nice long break on the top. Ogalalla is a really cool summit, with amazing views into RMNP and the Indian Peaks to the south. It's a shame more people don't climb it, but not too surprising given that I had to hike and climb 9.5 miles to get there.

Always nice to see the legend himself has beaten me to the top. Orton is very far to the north from here!
Copeland looking massive over Cony lake
The Longs Peak group to the north
Looking ahead to my last peak in Wild Basin, Mt Ouzel (which looks pretty lame from this side)

From Ogalalla I made a quick completionists' jaunt over to the unranked high point 'Ooh La La,' which is the point on the continental divide where RMNP ends and the Indian Peaks begin. After that it was a long but pleasant tundra hike over to the top of Ouzel.

Elk Tooth looking pretty toothy from Ooh La La
Hiamovi and points south from Ooh La La

After completing this traverse, many people descend toward Cony Lake or Junco Lake via Cony Pass, which is the low point on the west ridge of 13er Copeland Mountain. This descent is pretty steep and loose, but the hardest part of it can be avoided by taking a 3rd class gulley just north of the point where the ridgeline meets the continental divide.

Junco Lake from the walk over to Ouzel

It didn't take much gain to get to the top of Ouzel, but I was definitely starting to feel it by the time I got there. It was an amazing feeling to know that I had finished Wild Basin when I reached the top! This is one of my favorite sections of RMNP and I will definitely be back soon. I hadn't done too much research on Ouzel, but I knew that a more or less direct descent off the north slope would be steep but manageable. The other option was to follow the Divide over to Ouzel's saddle with Isolation Peak, but having survived Elk Tooth I didn't mind a little more scree. It was steep, but surprisingly stable, and I made it down to Pipit Lake in less than 30 minutes. I had climbed Isolation and Mahana via Pipit in the past, so I knew the best way down from there was to cross the creek under Pipit and follow the hillside over and around the north shores of Bluebird Lake. Once you reach the east side, you can hike down to the terminus of the lake and cross the fast-moving stream to join the Bluebird Lake trail which will then take you all the way back to the Wild Basin TH.

Looking back at the scree descent down Ouzel
More wildflowers above Lark Pond
Ouzel standing tall over Bluebird Lake

I didn't linger long at Bluebird, despite the fantastic views. I still had 7.5 miles to go before I got back to the car and I didn't want to think about it for too long. I was definitely tired, but I always enjoy the hike out from Wild Basin. Along the way the trail passed through some big patches of wild raspberry bushes, which made for a welcome trail snack. Another awesome day in the park, with absolutely perfect weather. Day like this make life worth living!

Final stats:
18.2 miles
5,905 ft elevation gain
9 hrs 45 min

Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
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Comments or Questions
08/08/2020 21:41
One of the nice things about that whole area is how remote it is and how little information you can find out about the area online

Long Day
08/08/2020 22:08
Helpful information. I plan on making a loop out of Elk tooth and Ogalalla sometime in the near future. Congrats on finishing up the Wild Basin peaks. So many great summits here.

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