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Route: Sawmill Creek Trail to east ridge of pt 12,433, south of Clark Peak
Time elapsed: ~ 6 hrs (attained high point of 11,500 on ridge)
Weather: Cloudy with snow showers, temperature 35-40 F near trailhead and 31 F on ridge at 11,500, winds sustained at 25-30mph on ridge with some gusts
Conditions: Soft, new snow between 6-24 inches in depth
It was exactly three weeks since the day I'd sprained my ankle on an outing up South Rawah, and my future brother-in-law Dave and I were setting out again for the Medicine Bow mountains. On the previous trip I'd hurt myself early on in the hike, but with ibuprofen, a good tape job, and the (ever-indispensable) trekking poles, we'd managed to continue on through the season's first big snowstorm to reach the summit. It was a great day out, and the memory had provided strong solace during my recovery back in Michigan, where I returned for work just two days after the Rawah trip.
I'd been concerned when I went to the doctor after arriving in Michigan. (Surfing the internet for injury advice is always a bit risky, since the diagnoses tend toward the dramatic... snapped tendons, surgical procedures... oh my god do I have Crohn's disease?!?...). The doctor met me for about 2 minutes. "Can you walk on it? Could you walk on it when you injured it? You'll be fine. Bruising should get to be real pretty in a few days... 2-4 weeks... return to exercise when you can. See you."
During the two and half weeks in Michigan the ankle had remained sore and weak, but it was beginning to feel stronger as my departure for Colorado approached. (Psychological?? naahhh...) A few days before I'd been able to discard the flip-flop sandal I'd been wearing to work. I'd found some over-the-ankle shoes which were comfortable, and figured my boots would be the same.
We decided to take it easy this time out. Dave had a head cold, I was sporting the weak ankle, and the forecast suggested snow showers most of the day Sunday. We agreed on a 'reconnaissance' trip to Clark Peak, heading up the Sawmill Creek drainage on old logging roads. From the trail we aimed to attain the east ridge leading up to pt 12,433. Pt 12,433 lies just south of Clark Peak along the spine of the Medicine Bow, and Dave had hiked there earlier in the season (no snow). The ridge offered a nice route to Clark's summit.
I picked up Dave at 8am, and we headed up Poudre Canyon. The roads were dry and clear except for the last mile or so up to the trailhead. Ours was the only car in the lot as we rolled in over a wind-scoured crust. It wasn't snowing on our arrival, but a light, cold wind was blowing. The sky was cloudy and the air raw (temp 37 F). We set off at 955am, walking briefly south on rt 14 to reach the gate at the entrance to the Sawmill Creek Trail (old logging road).
The snow wasn't too deep on the trail, in most places only 3-6 inches, with occasional drifts to 12". We stopped frequently to check out animal tracks, which criss-crossed the lower sections of the trail. We identified moose, squirrel, rabbit, and mouse, as well as some indistinct canine tracks, which were not accompanied by any human signs. The snow on the trail showed slight depressions in some areas, indicating that someone had been up this way since the storm earlier in October, but the drifted snow in and around these 'tracks' suggested it had been a while.
The logging road (now aptly named the Sawmill Creek Trail) should be easy to follow, but it's not, at least under new snow and if you don't know where you're going. The Nat Geo Trails Illustrated map we had (#112) shows the trail heading west along Sawmill Creek, twisting and turning somewhat, and forking to offer a path north of the creek and one south (we wanted the southern one). Eventually it switchbacks up the ridge to the south to contour along, crosses the creek, and gains a saddle in the eastern ridge we had identified as the route. But in actuality there seem to be more trail offshoots than depicted on the map. You need to be careful not to take a road switching up the ridge too early (the map shows this will take you too far south), and conversely if you wait too late (like we did) the road deadends. The map doesn't show this --- it simply traces the 'main' road and doesn't show many turn-offs. The whole thing is complicated by tree cover on the road -- in some areas 6-8' pines grow in small stands on the road itself, especially in the switchbacks, and these are virtually indistinguishable from the other 6-8' pines which are growing on the nearby slopes.
Fortunately losing the road does not present a serious problem, as you can always bushwack up or down in hopes of finding it again. When we lost the trail down near the creek, we went straight up the slope to the south to find it contouring along, but we promptly lost it again after several hundred meters. It's worthwhile to stay on the road, however, as it does save considerable time, and when we found the switchback trail/road on the way out, we moved much faster.
As far as we can tell (cross-checking during the hike out), you want to take the 'second' main turning south up the ridge to your left. This is roughly opposite a large cleared area on the ridge you can see looking north across the basin. It may or may not be visible depending on cloud cover - we had just a few glimpses on the way in. The trail winds up the ridge and then along it, though in my mind the Trails Illustrated map shows the trail too low in the basin. When we found the trail on our descent, we crossed the creek higher, nearer to treeline. [Again, it seems like there are more tracks than depicted on the map -- I'll update these directions based on future visits and I'll check out a USGS quad to see if there's more detail.]
On the hike in, of course, we didn't know this, and ended up running out of trail along the creek, and we bushwacked up and along the ridge, trying to contour around to put ourselves in a good position for the hike up to the saddle in the east ridge up to pt 12,433. (See a rough sketch of our Sawmill route.) The going was fine, but the snow was deeper in the trees (often knee deep) and soft. I spent a good bit of time balancing on the trekking poles, slipping on hidden branches and undergrowth, trying to protect my ankle. It had been snowing fairly heavily since we left the trail, and the air temp was just below freezing (31 F).
At 1235pm we reached the head of the valley and crossed the tiny creek, which was a running gray torrent of slush and icy water. The stream looked very uninviting, and we sat on our dignity and a large log, butt-scooting across, wary of the slush flowing beneath.
Once across we contoured around the head of the small drainage and could begin to pick out the saddle for which we were making. We crossed another smaller stream (this by hopping on frosted rocks) and headed up the slope, where tree cover was becoming more patchy. (Treeline is pretty consistent at about 11,000 along these ridges, but coverage is more intermittent after about 10,6 or 10,8). Once on the ridge the wind and blowing snow were much stronger, especially once we left the last of the trees. We reached a highpoint of 11,500 or so at 135pm, in stiff west winds and driving snow. The ridgeline was beautiful -- tiny tufts of grass were lightly rimed, and the rocks were icy and wind-scoured. On the ridge and in windward areas snow had been blown clear, but in lee slopes drifts were up to 24" deep.
Rimed over ourselves, we turned around and headed down. The snow was thick and powdery, and we floated down through some deeper sections in a wonderful motion which was half plunge-stepping and half skiing. We rapidly regained the saddle at treeline, and decided to move south and west along the contours, rather than moving straight down the slope (as we had come up). This proved easier going, and we were able to cross the 'slush creek' higher up, near treeline, where rock hopping was possible. We finally encountered one of the logging roads, and followed this as it zigzagged down the ridge. The going was much faster along the road, which was fairly easy to follow, but we still lost our way two times at switchbacks and had to retrace to the main track.
Soon we were down on the main road along the creek and could see where we had erred in the morning. The snow had stopped (it had been lessening since we turned around on the ridge), and now the clouds were breaking. We could see patches of blue shining through. Looking east the sun was falling on the ridges east of rt 14. Up on the ridge clouds still covered the upper elevations, but the mist and snow were less heavy. A trick of weather and timing surely, but I felt the peak in accord with our plans for the day -- reconnaisance up the ridge but no permission to climb higher. Once we'd turned back the ban was lifted, like the clouds.
We resolved to return and finish the route later in the season. With better knowledge of the approach route we should be able to move much more quickly to the ridge. We also plan to bring skis to use on the logging roads. The snow isn't deep enough now, but later there should be a good base, and skis will significantly improve the time to/from the ridge.
As we descended the final stretch to the trailhead, the sky continued to lighten. An open invitation to return, I imagined. Driving down the canyon I thought about taking a few days vacation near Thanksgiving. By then it'd be time for my next monthly dose of Medicine Bow.