Painted Desert

Painted Desert

Friday, July 28, 2017

Post-trip report: Snowy Range/Medicine Bow

Our latest adventure was in the Snowy Range of Wyoming, famous for the 12,000' Medicine Bow Peak and its giant grey-white cliffs that face out toward Laramie on the plains. We had planned to do a 15-mile loop to circle nearby Browns Peak with a spur to climb Medicine Bow, but just before starting had decided we could probably do the larger, 20-mile-ish loop around Browns and up over Medicine Bow.

We'd chosen WY because the forecast for Colorado looked poor, with rain all weekend. Wyoming only had rain forecast for Friday. We took our time packing Friday morning, made the ~3h drive and were hitting the trail from the Brooklyn Lake trailhead about 3pm, going counter-clockwise.

Despite taking our time packing, we'd forgotten a couple of important items; my new prescription insoles for my bad foot were one. Since I had just the one pair (they were $400!) I was having to swap them in and out of my various shoes, and I'd neglected to make sure they were in my hiking boots. Neither were the stock insoles that came with the boots. My poor foot wasn't going to get any cushioning.

The other important forgotten item was A.'s inhaler. She has asthma and has had midnight attacks on past trips, wheezing in the tent in the dark, which is a little scary. But, there we were. We weren't going to turn back and so we headed out.

It was immediately beautiful. A few hundred feet in we already felt we were somewhere very remote and wild, with small ponds surrounded by flowers appearing through the ragged pines. Large snowbanks lingered. It had started to rain just before we exited the car, and now we could hear thunder in the distance.

Stream-tunnel through a snowbank 

We were concerned about the thunder. The map showed us climbing above treeline, although as we progressed we saw that there were always trees around, even if they were becoming stands of trees rather than a contiguous forest.

Neither of us particularly wanted to make camp for the night only half an hour from the car, so we reasoned that as long as there were trees around, we could duck into a patch of forest if the storm came closer. In fact this is not the safest thing we could have done, and I knew it at the time, but I also knew that our chances of being struck were still extremely small. But, probably don't do this.

Eventually we saw lightning in the distance to the north. And the trail in front of us crossed a large open meadow with no trees. But the wind was blowing from the south, so we made a run for it, jogging across the open area.

(Of course, I still stopped to take a picture.) 

It was scary, but we made it to better tree cover and started to head downhill. Then, suddenly, the wind changed and the storm to the north started blowing toward us. It was on top of us very quickly, the sprinkling rain turning into a cold downpour as we struggled to get extra layers on underneath our rain jackets. Lightning struck just to the north -- it seemed to flash pink and green -- and A. counted one, two, three until the loud thunder boom. This happened a few times. Then the next flash was to the south... one, two, three, boom... then the thundery part of the storm seemed to pass on south, leaving us with just the rain. We waited to see if it would let up before we set up the tent.

Browns Peak in the distance 

We were very cold. I suggested exercise to keep warm, which turned spontaneously into chasing each other in a tight circle around a 2' tall pine sapling, laughing. It wasn't enough to warm us up but since we were just standing around we decided to cook dinner: mashed potato flakes with peas and bacon.

Scooping water from the lake

Finally, the rain tailed off. There were still a couple hours till dark so we decided to keep hiking. We came to a trail junction and I, remembering we wanted to stay on the Sheep Lake trail, led us to the right. Eventually we camped by a large lake we thought was Reservoir Lake, despite the trail not running quite as close to it as the map said. We had a lovely view of the hump on the north end of Medicine Bow's long ridge that the map referred to as "Wrong Peak." (The real peak was out of view to the south.)

And then the sun came out, just as it was setting, making all the rain and cold and frightening lightning worth it with one of the greatest sunsets I've ever seen in my life.

Posing in a field of bistort, the white pom-pom flowers that look like giant falling snowflakes

A. points out a deer to the left of the lake 

I ran down through fields of wildflowers to the lake for photos, my legs full of energy again, the air fresh and everything golden. There was something Edenic about the moment.

That night, A. did start to have an asthma attack. As we lay awake tossing and coughing in the pitch-black at 1am, we heard another thundering noise. It was hooves. A herd of deer or elk was running. We heard them thundering toward us and then splashing as they ran into the marshy ground near the tent. It was impossible to tell how close they were, and I was about to clap my hands or yell so that hopefully they wouldn't run into the tent (they didn't). Perhaps we had scared them with our noise.

Both of us missed out on a lot of sleep that night, and we didn't wake in the morning until the sun had been up for a while. I love how easily we can look out in the morning just by unzipping the nylon part of the door.

View from the Lightning 2FL

 After breakfast we did some stretches while waiting for water to filter. The mosquitoes were just terrible.

And then we found the trail again and hiked off, watching the peaks disappear into the distance to the south. We would eventually circle around to the west to climb the one on the right.

The flowers here in this high-altitude meadow and lake environment were just amazing. It was the highest density of wildflowers I've ever seen, although without a ton of variety, perhaps because it was all around the same altitude. Some massive patches of elephant heads turned whole fields purple.

After a couple hours of walking, I noticed the sun was on our right. That was odd. We should be walking west, and we should be almost at the ATV road that would take us to another trailhead to do the second half of our loop.

We scouted a ways further down the trail, which continued to head north. The trail we were on now had no long north-south sections. We must have gotten off-track somewhere. A. was afraid that when we picked up the trail after breaking camp, we'd actually picked up a different trail; we had exited our campsite toward where we thought the trail was going, not toward where we'd stepped off the night before. Yet, there was no other trail on the map in the area of Reservoir Lake.

I was afraid that we were on some new trail. The map I was using was something I got off the internet... it was made from a USGS quadrangle map from the 80s or 90s. A new trail might very well have been put in since then and we'd never know.

We decided we would just have to backtrack until we knew where we were. Hopefully it wouldn't be as far as our campsite. But as we walked I suddenly knew what had happened, and it was worse than that: at the junction the previous night I'd relied on my memory of which way to go -- after all, I'd only looked at the map about a billion times while I was planning the trip -- but I should have looked again. Now I knew in my gut we had taken the wrong trail and had been off-course since 6pm the night before.

A. was a very good sport about it. It was easier to be a good sport because the country we were traveling through was just so gorgeous, and because it was mostly flat (there's nothing like going 3 hours out of your way down a steep hill, and then having to climb back). We walked quickly and made it back to the junction in just a couple hours.

We had done an extra 6-8 miles and it was just about lunchtime. We found we'd actually camped next to Mutt Lake, not Reservoir Lake. (Though, it was difficult to read on my printout so we called it "Meat Lake," while knowing that couldn't possibly be the actual name.) It was a relief to be back on the right trail and be seeing new country again, including this big (presumably mountain lion) footprint:

I had my low point of the trip as we approached the junction where, if we'd been doing or originally-planned 15-mile trip, we would have turned south onto the Gap Lakes Trail and hiked between the two peaks. My foot was starting to kill me. It was the most mileage I'd done in an 18-hour period since injuring it, and I had no insoles, and now it was the most painful it'd been since the original injury almost a year ago. I was limping and didn't know how much worse it would get. I worried over whether to tell A. we should turn up ahead and skip the larger loop. In the end I decided to just keep limping along behind her; if it was still bad in a couple miles we could turn around then.

Eventually we came to the real Reservoir Lake, which was lovely. I soaked my foot while A. played on a log (and cleaned up my calf where I managed to gash it on a razor-sharp rock). When we got moving again my foot felt better.

The scenery continued to be beautiful, although there wasn't tremendous variety. How many meadows filled with wildflowers and lakes can a person take? We started naming the lakes that didn't have names on the map. Dragon Lake, Cerulean Lake, Forgotten Insole Lake. As we made our most difficult rock-hop across a stream and got to Quealy Lake (we didn't name that one!) the flowers were at their densest yet, and quite a bit of hunting was required to find where the trail actually went. We'd seen almost no one so far, but here where the Quealy Lake Trail joined the ATV road by two falling-down cabins there was a family playing.

We were very tired by then, but A. was unimpressed by the scenery around the ATV road and wanted to keep going, to camp somewhere beautiful once more. We walked and walked and walked uphill on the dirt road, playing games to keep our mind off the slog (How many things can you think of in a kitchen that start with S?). We came to the Dipper Lake Trail and continued on it. Still in search of views, we turned off onto the Heart Lake Trail but stopped by the first little pond, exhausted, and decided to just make camp. I called it Lowered Standards Pond.

Taken from the edge of the pond 

The mosquitoes were even worse than at the previous campsite, and after trying to eat dinner with our head nets on, we escaped into the tent. It was the most incredible relief to be away from them and also to not be freezing cold and soaking wet as we were the last night. Also, I had unknowingly oriented our door to the west, and we had an amazing view of another beautiful sunset.

I mostly slept well, safe from the seventy mosquitoes whining just outside the tent door. The next morning we had this talk:

J: Do you remember the conversation we had during the night?
A: No...?
J: You were making some weird noises. You'd stop breathing and then suddenly go PFFFFFFFFF through your mouth really loud. It woke me up three times and finally I said, "Are you okay"?
A: What did I say?
J: You said, "I think so." I said, "You're not dying?" and you said, "I don't think so."
A: I don't remember!
J: I was afraid you were having another asthma attack. I said, "Are you sure you're not dying?" and you said, "I don't think so..."
A: What was I doing? Was it like this? (blows a little)
J: No, it was like the sound of a whale spouting.
A: I don't remember! I probably was starting to have an asthma attack.

(When we started dating she warned me that she can have whole conversations during the night and not remember them in the morning, but this was the first time...)

We took down the tent from our uninspiring little pond-side site, and it looked even less inspiring. "Wow," she said. "That tent really made the hillside."

We were camped right at the base of Medicine Bow Peak and (after trying to eat breakfast with mosquito head nets on) began climbing immediately, and were soon up in the cool breeze with views all around. The flowers on this side of the mountain were stunted and dry, but there were pikas chirping from the quartzite blocks covering the slope.

It was a really lovely climb, and we were all by ourselves. We were tired but took our time. Once at the top we could look over on the great cliffs and the lakes below.

Many people were coming up the east side, which was much closer to a parking lot. There was a marmot at the top who clearly wanted food. It got within 2' of me, definitely the closest I've been to a marmot.

At the start of our way down there was a snowfield to cross, which was fun.

The flowers were much healthier on the east side. It was a long way down and we were hot and becoming footsore and grouchy by the time we got to the bottom. We still had another 6 miles to get back to the car. The scenery continued to be lovely, but it's tough spending a whole day at 10,500'-12,000' in full sun. We tried to keep covered in sunblock but still both got badly burnt. It was a relief when clouds started to come up in the last couple hours.

In the final stretch we saw some flowers that hadn't been around until then, as well as beautiful green quartzite. There's always something to make you wonder about nature and how things got to be the way they are. But we never saw any more large wildlife than the deer that we saw/heard.

We were still quite satisfied when we made it to the car. It was one of the most beautiful trips either of us had ever been on, as well as an adventure. We probably ended up doing something like 27 miles and survived, even without insoles!

I definitely recommend this trip. There wasn't much elevation gain, so even backpackers in non-optimal shape should be able to enjoy it. I don't know exactly how long the loop is; 20 miles is an estimate based on using finger-measurement as well as some trail signage and listed lengths of different sections on various other sites. A smaller loop on either the east or west half (using the North Gap Lake Trail) would also be lovely and probably about 12 miles in either case. The USGS map below was embellished (with suggested campsites and spur hikes) by another hiking group on the web and I can't personally vouch for the suitability of any of the suggested campsites (especially the ones in lakes), but I don't think you can really go wrong; everything in the area is beautiful.

Water was no problem (obviously), mosquitoes were terrible. The trail was difficult to follow in places, especially in the west, though there were always cairns. I'm not sure I would recommend the west part of the loop to someone who has a poor sense of direction or is bad at recognizing trail, though the section from the Lewis Lake parking to the Medicine Bow summit is fine and highly-trafficked.

We don't have any more adventures planned until late August, when we will actually be trying to do the Four-Pass Loop. This hike definitely helped our conditioning for it!

Saturday, July 08, 2017

Lost Creek Wilderness Loop -- Trip Report

Over the holiday weekend I did a backpacking trip that was recommended to me: a 27-mile loop in the Lost Creek wilderness. (This loop is outlined in a Backpacker magazine article.) It was just beautiful, with peak wildflowers, rushing streams, and good weather.

I had last visited the Lost Creek Wilderness over Memorial Day weekend the year before, and the change in the flora between late May and late June is huge. Over Memorial Day, everything was still brown, just released from snow:

But for July 4 weekend, everything was green and blooming.

A. shelters under the umbrella in a fast-moving shower

We parked at Lost Park Campground and set out clockwise on the loop, so that Bison Peak would be saved for last. A. accompanied me for the first night. We had a beautiful sunset. It got very cold during the night. In the morning I was a little bit sick.

A. hiked with me as far as the beaver ponds the next drainage over, then headed back, kindly packed up the 2-person tent (I had my 1-person with me) and went home so she could make it to class on Monday morning.

It was sad not having someone else to enjoy the flowers with (though, I did pass a group camping out that included me in their frisbee game).



Wild rose

Bog orchid

When we had first pulled into the parking lot, I was intimidated by how high Bison Peak looked... I'm going up there?? Not just up there, but in a wide circle around the area and approaching from the opposite side. By midday Sunday I was around back of the peak, looking into Refrigerator Gulch. The peak still looked pretty far away. I planned to camp on top Monday night if the weather was nice.

 The view from one of the dozens of campsites along the loop

I've never been somewhere in the mountains that had so many flat places... you could make a campsite just about anywhere, and there were plenty of established sites. While exploring one, I found one of the places where a creek appears out of the earth, and after hiking a bit further, the place upstream where it disappears into the earth. These places are where the Lost Creek Wilderness gets its name.

Not long after taking that photo, I found a stream crossing with no bridge. Thinking I wanted to cross it this evening and find another campsite on the other side, rather than having to cross in the morning when it might be 26 degrees again, I took off my boots and waded wincingly across. It was about up to my knees. As I began to climb again I realized I was growing exhausted... I had much less energy than usual and was nauseaous as well. And then, of course, even though I'd passed about one campsite every 5 minutes on the previous part of the loop, now I wasn't finding anything. I climbed weakly up and up through the forest at a snail's pace for an hour and a half before finding a good spot to set up the tent, grumpy.

Inside the distinctly coffinlike Big Agnes Fly Creek UL1 -- I was in full raingear for mosquito protection while cooking

The next morning I woke with plenty of energy and went steaming up the valley toward McCurdy Park. Eventually I hit a wall again. It was, regrettably, 9:30am, and I still had quite a bit of climbing to do to get to Bison Peak. But it was getting closer.

McCurdy Park itself was beautiful, I wish I'd been able to camp there. I would love to do the loop again and make that an overnight stop.

The trail travels through several burn areas, which are really otherworldly-looking, with silvery dessicated trunks and orange granite outcroppings.

I saw a few flowers that were new to me, such as this dwarf columbine. Its tiny curved spurs make it look like a baby squid.

Attractive penstemon

The burn area east of Bison peak is both stunning and haunting. The pictures don't do it justice. It's like being on another planet. The visuals kept taking my breath away. (I was also pretty sad that A. couldn't be there to experience it.)

Looking at the range on the other side of South Park 

I had brought 3L of water with me to this section as I wasn't sure if there would be any once I got up high. I did find a small spring right on the trail, and later on a small pond behind an outcropping next to the trail. I don't know that these would have water later in the season.

As I approached Bison Peak, rainshowers started sweeping in. Fearful that they'd turn into thunderstorms, I stopped and made dinner on the saddle between McCurdy and Bison Peaks and did some writing. By the time I finished the clouds had moved on and I continued toward Bison Peak. Finally I found myself up on the shoulder of the mountain, looking down on the rock pillar that stands like a sentinel before the peak:

It was about 6pm and I had the place to myself. I was nervous about camping that high, as it could get windy, or thunderstorms might potentially arrive during the night. But the weather looked ok and I set up the tent on the east side of a rock outcrop. There were certainly plenty of flat places to choose from. You could have a whole music festival up there.

Of course, I originally set my tent up so that it faced into the wind, and of course as soon as I had it set up the wind shifted and started hitting the tent broadside. I just left it and later guyed it out. I was so tired. I just hadn't had my usual energy on this trip... not only no energy, but also none of the endorphin high I usually get from strenuous hiking or backpacking. In that respect the trip wasn't so enjoyable. But the sunset helped make up for some of that...

This line of rain showers moved in from the west as I was on the east side of the peak, taking some photos. When I realized the rain was really hitting the ground, as opposed to all evaporating before it hits as it often does, I ran back to the tent to put the fly on but didn't get there in time. Oh well. One of my favorite things about Colorado is that stuff dries really fast; I knew it would be dry by the time I went to bed.

The line of rain moves on, with the tent now flapping on the guylines

I took about a billion pictures. Toward dark, a deer and I startled each other. It pronked away immediately.

I did not have a good time that night. As soon as I lay down a splitting headache started, and my nausea returned. The tent flapped constantly in the strong breeze. My half-awake brain kept trying to convince me that a mountain lion could come drag me out of my tent, and at one point I dreamed that the rhythmic thrumming of the tent in the wind was in fact a big cat purring loudly because it had found me to eat. (I woke immediately.) There was a hard lump under my right side. I only slept about half the night, on and off. Finally the sun rose.

I sat up and reached for my glasses in the side pocket of the tent. They weren't there. I checked the other side pocket, the top pocket. Not there. I looked through all my belongings in the tent. Not there. Only one more place it could be... I lifted up my sleeping pad and yes, there they were. The hard lump I'd been sleeping on was my glasses.

I'd already broken my glasses a couple weeks ago -- or, rather, they'd broken on me, with an arm simply falling off as I was cleaning them. So they were taped together. I am happy to report that other than the taped joint being bent slightly, they had no other damage from my having slept on them.

The guyed-out tent did fine in the strong breeze, besides being flappy. Not sure this would be my tent of choice in a true strong wind. All my food was fine; I had found an Ursack for $22 at an REI garage sale a couple weeks ago, so I had that tied to one of the stubby trees on the peak. Mostly I was concerned that a marmot would get into it, but it was untouched each night on the trip.

As I wandered around on the peak taking sunrise photos, the nausea continued. I don't know whether to ascribe it to altitude sickness; I've never gotten altitude sickness before and have been over 14,000'; though, I can't remember if I've slept this high before. Anyway, I'd been feeling various kinds of sick since Monday morning. It started before I drew any water from a stream, so that suspect is out. Perhaps I just had a bug I'd picked up before the trip.

Originally I had thought I would climb to the actual summit, which was still about 500' above me, but now I was so sick and tired I just wanted to get down. I waved good-bye to the sentinel.

That morning I enjoyed the curious optical phenomenon known as a glory, where a halo seems to appear around the shadow of one's head. (For a better pic -- not mine -- see here; to read more, see here.) It looks kinda faint in the pic above, but was quite pronounced in person.

It was pretty much all downhill from there. My friend L. had come to pick me up (yeah... my car was still in the shop) and she had spent the night, her first time backpacking. We hiked out together. I looked up at Bison Peak and it no longer looked so high or so far.

And in case you've noticed, I'm not on the Colorado Trail... the treatment I've been getting on my foot hasn't made that much of a difference after all. So it might be surgery for me. There's still another month in which the nerve will supposedly continue to degrade from the treatments, so it could still get less painful, but we'll see.

A. and I have several more adventures planned for the summer, including trying to do the Four-Pass Loop. This Lost Creek Wilderness loop is the same length, but with less elevation. Considering how cruddy I felt trying to finish this loop, I was having a hard time imagining us being able to complete the Four-Pass, especially since A. also has to study all summer and has almost no time for conditioning. And my experience struggling to complete a 27-mile loop in four days makes me wonder how I ever did that 60-mile loop in four days last year, in higher terrain -- but I suppose that's the difference between being in-shape and healthy vs. out-of-shape and sick. Out-of-shape because my foot still isn't well enough for running, and really, who likes the gym?

But whether our upcoming endeavors are successful or not, at the very least you know there will be pictures.

Here's my report card for this loop:

Trail conditions: A
The trails are almost all well-graded gravel. Some sections were a little overgrown, but there were almost no fallen trees across the trail.

Campsite availability: A+
Oh my goodness, so many places to camp. Many with great views.

Water availability: B+
Few sections of more than a mile without water. I expect that to change for later in the summer, though.

Views: A-
Refrigerator Gulch area, the large burn area and Bison Peak are all beautiful.

Wildflowers: B+
Very good. Blooms and plants were small and more sparse compared to areas that get higher rainfall, but pretty good variety.

Mosquitoes: C
I had to put on rain gear whenever I stopped for more than a couple minutes. Even on top of Bison Peak, eesh.

Solitude: B
I could tell by the cars in the parking area that there were a lot of people out over the holiday weekend, although with so many campsites hiding here and there the forest kind of swallowed them up. On the trail I might have passed another party (or rather, been passed by) every hour or so.