This weekend I had considered two hikes. Option one was a loop hike of Comanche Peak and Fall Mountain from the Emmaline Lake Trailhead in Pingree Park. Option two was Hagues Peak and Fairchild Mountain from the Lawn Lake Trailhead in Rocky Mountain National Park. My fishing buddy Ric said he wanted to come, but then bailed midway through the week. After that I tried to drum up some interest on summitpost.com without luck. So when my alarm went off at 4:30 Saturday morning I prepared for another solo adventure. I decided on the Comanche Peak and Fall Mountain option because it looked shorter, and it wasn’t quite as high as the Hagues Peak and Fairchild Mountain option. The high peaks had received a dusting of snow the last couple of nights and I didn’t think that negotiation Hagues’ class 3 ridge when it was slick with snow and melting snow sounded like a good idea.
I snoozed a couple of times before rolling out of bed and taking a quick shower. I collected my gear and left the house at 5:00. I made a quick stop at 7-Elevan for a donut and a cup of coffee on my way out of town. The last several times I headed into the mountains of northern Colorado I’d gone up Poudre Canyon, so out of habit I turned the car in that direction. After driving north for about a half mile I realized I was going the wrong way. I swung the car around and headed south to round the southern end of Horsetooth Reservoir on my way through Masonville.
I sped through Masonville and headed up toward Stove Prairie Landing. The road is real narrow and winding with some very steep sections, some as steep as 12%. Historically, the road has been really bad. Although it’s paved, in some places you could barely tell because it was so potholed. However, it had recently been repaved so it was smooth as a baby’s bottom. I made a mental not to take my bike for a ride up here before the weather turned. I made a left onto Buckhorn Road and made my way up and over Pennock Pass and then dropped into the Pennock Creek valley. As I was climbing out of this valley toward Pingree Park a small heard of elk crossed the road. It looked like about twelve females and one big male with a huge rack. I made it to the trailhead at 6:30.
The sky was beginning to lighten, and I could just barely see well enough to leave my headlamp in my pack. The car said it was 32o outside so I decided to wear my polypro turtleneck and my convertible pants. After I got my kit squared away I set off. However, after I’d walked about a hundred yards down the trail I realized I’d forgotten my sunglasses so I turned around to fetch them. After that I was fairly sure I had everything and set off once more. For the first few minutes my hands were pretty cold but after I got moving they warmed up and I felt great. As I made my way past the CSU mountain campus at Pingree Park I heard a noise coming from the direction of one of the service roads I was passing. I glanced over and saw a giant moose. The moose was huge with an impressive rack and it was only about fifty feet away. I was excited to see a moose so close and I quickly got my camera out of my pocket. However, the moose was making a grunting noise and was walking toward me. This worried me because I had heard that male moose could be very mean during the mating season (which I figured it was). I fumbled with my camera and took a quick photo or two and then beat a hasty retreat. The moose didn’t follow me as I made my way up the trail.
The first part of the hike climbed gently along the north edge of Pingree Park. The Hourglass Forest Fire burned this area in 1994. The lightening-caused fire burned 1,275 acres and several buildings on the CSU Pingree Park campus causing an estimated $2.2 million dollars of damage. (For more information on the Hourglass Fire click here.) Most of the burnt trees were still standing and it was a little eerie to be walking through them.
I had hoped to get a good photo of the morning glow on Fall Mountain and Comanche Peak. I realized this was probably not going to happen because I didn’t really have a good view of the peaks from this part of the trail and I was pretty far away. However, getting a shot of the sunrise was a totally different story. There were a few wispy clouds in the eastern sky, and as the sun began to light them, they glowed a range of really pretty oranges and pinks. I snapped some really incredible photos including one where there were a few snags (standing dead trees) silhouetted against the beautifully painted skies.
After a while I passed the burned area and entered live forest consisting of a mix of aspen and pine trees. The trail continued climbing gently as it crossed over Fall Creek. After crossing Fall Creek on some nice footbridges I left Pingree Park behind and the trail continued climbing gently, but the aspens faded away and the pine trees became thick. I arrived at the junction of Emmaline Lake Trail and Mummy Pass Trail at 7:20.
I continued up Emmaline Lake Trail and popped out into a meadow twenty minutes later at 7:40. From the meadow I could see Fall Mountain and the ridge that connected it with Comanche Peak. The actual summit of Comanche Peak was hidden by its eastern ridge. I dropped my pack and took some photos. As I walked along the bank of Fall Creek I could see it teeming with fish. I could make out tons of brookies and greenback cutthroats. This meadow, with Fall Creek meandering through it and its beaver ponds, would be an ideal fishing spot. However, fishing is not permitted in Fall Creek or the South Fork of the Poudre upstream of Pingree Park. This is because the Colorado Division of Wildlife is trying to reintroduce greenback cutthroat trout to the area. Hopefully they will permit catch-and-release fishing soon.
At the meadow, the trail crossed back over to the north side of Fall Creek and continued west toward Emmaline Lake. Here the trail began to climb more steeply and I was huffing and puffing. The forest was thick during this part of the hike and I couldn’t see Fall Mountain, Comanche Peak, or the connecting ridge. As I got nearer to Cirque Lake, the trail became fainter and I lost it in a couple of places as it climbed over some jumbles of rock. Each time I lost the trail I regained it a few hundred feet farther along and I arrived at Cirque Lake at 8:45. Cirque Lake was very pretty, especially with the backdrop of the steep cliffs behind it with their snow-filled cracks and crevices. The lake itself was pretty small, probably less than fifty yards in diameter. I scrambled down to its shore and took a few photos.
After Cirque Lake it was quick jaunt over to Emmaline Lake. I circled around the east side of the lake and stopped to take a few more photos. The area to the northwest of Emmaline Lake was a sprawling boulder field with sofa-sized boulders. I stowed my trekking poles and began the scramble. I headed toward the summit of Comanche Peak following a small stream. I couldn’t see the stream, but I could hear it gurgling below the boulders. While I scrambled among the boulders I admired an impressive spire that was connected to the sheer cirque wall by a narrow rib. Climbing the spire from the cirque floor looked to be a class 4, or possibly more technical climb. However, climbing it from the top of the cirque wall looked to be a class 3 scramble with some incredible exposure.
As I gained elevation I left the boulder field behind and the terrain changed into tundra scattered intermittently with small boulders and talus. When I made it to the same elevation as the base of this spire, it was time for me to make some decisions about my route to the summit of Comanche Peak. It looked like there were two choices. I could veer to my left and climb up a class 2 ramp to attain the ridgeline a few hundred yards to the south of the summit, or I could take a more direct route that would involve some class 3 climbing directly to the summit. I chose the latter, figuring that if I got out of my league I could always turn around and resort to the first option.
I made my way up to the base of the summit block. This continued to be a relatively easy stroll across tundra until I made it to the summit block and the route immediately turned into a class 3 scramble. The scramble turned out to be a real joy. The rock was incredibly stable and there were endless possibilities to reach the summit. After about two hundred feet of vertical scrambling I popped out on the summit of Comanche Peak at 10:15.
There was a cairn with a summit log hidden in it. I pulled it out and signed my name. I was a little surprised to see how many people had climbed the mountain. I thought there might only be a handful of people that had climbed the mountain all year. To my surprise fifteen people had climbed Comanche Peak in September alone. I downed a PowerGel and enjoyed the view. And what a view it was! I could see nearly every summit in the Mummy Range. To the south I could see Flatiron Mountain and Desolation Peaks. Then to their east I could easily discern Ypsilon Mountain, Fairchild Mountain, Rowe Mountain, Rowe Peak, and Fall Mountain in the foreground. I was pretty sure I could see Hagues Peak just barely peeking out from behind Rowe Peak, or maybe this was Mummy Mountain. Anyway, to their east I could make out many of the lesser Mummies including Mount Dunraven, Mount Dickinson, and Stormy Peaks. It was pretty amazing. I snapped some photos and then tried to get one of myself on the summit with all those peaks in the background. This didn’t work out so well because I couldn’t find anything high enough to prop the camera on. After dorking around with that for a few minutes I finally settled for a photo that wouldn’t really capture the other mountains.
Besides being a great vantage point for the Mummy Range, Comanche Peak also made a great place to view the Never Summer Range. Because I was pretty familiar with the northern part of the range it was easy for me to discern Nokhu Crags, Static Peak, Mount Richthofen, Lulu Mountain, Thunder Mountain, and Iron Mountain. If I’d known more about the rest of the range it would have been easy for my to tick of the names of all the other peaks.
I finally put the camera away and began the hike down the ridge toward Fall Mountain. There was a little boulder hopping involved in getting off the summit block but after the first hundred yards or so I was down on tundra and it was a very pleasant, downhill stroll with great views in all directions. I stopped by the top of the spire I had been admiring on the way up Comanche Peak and confirmed my suspicion: one could climb out to the top of the spire from ridge via a class 3 route with tons of exposure. Another thing that struck me as interest was that the permanent snowfields that clung to the cirque wall were extremely clean and lily-white. When I’d been on Clark Peak a month earlier, its permanent snowfield had been a very dirty gray. Some of this was from rock falling onto the snowfield from above, and some of it was from bacteria/algae that was growing on it. These snowfields had neither. They were immaculately clean and bright white.
I continued making my way down the gently sloping tundra field and reached the low point of the ridge at 11:15. From there I strolled up a gentle tundra ramp toward the summit of Fall Mountain. As I got closer to the summit, I examined Fall Mountain’s north face. The face is a pretty sheer wall of solid rock that might be around five hundred feet tall. It reminded me of the mountain goat habitat at the Denver Zoo because the rock was the same dark gray color and looked like it was chunked up into prefect little cube section. Although I know nothing about technical climbing, Fall Mountain’s north face looked like it was just begging for some technical routes. After strolling up the tundra ramp, the last hundred feet or so of Fall Mountain involved a little class 2 boulder hopping. I arrived on the summit at 11:35. There was a large cairn on the summit with another summit log hidden beneath it so I pulled it out and signed it. It looked like about ten people had summitted Fall Mountain in the month of September. I sucked down another PowerGel, took some photos and rested for a few moments.
After the break I set off once more. Fall Mountain has another sub peak and I debated whether I should climb that or just skirt around it to the south. I decided I might as well climb it since I was here. After another little section of class 2 boulder hopping I made it to the summit at 12:00. I continued down the ridgeline to the northeast until I met up with Mummy Pass Trail. Almost all of the elevation loss involved boulder hopping Fall Mountain’s class 2, northeast ridge. After the boulder hopping a gently sloping, tundra field took me down to the trail. I left RMNP behind and reentered Comanche Peak Wilderness at 12:35.
The rest of the hike was uneventful. It took me another hour and a half to meet back up with the Emmaline Lake Trail at 14:00. By this time I was beginning to tire and walked a few more minutes down to where the trail crossed over Fall Creek. I decided to give myself a break and sat watching the creek for a few minutes while I snacked on some trail mix. Fall Creek was just teeming with little fish. Most of them were four or five inches long and they were everywhere. In some places the stream was very shallow and though I couldn’t see the fish below the water because of the glare, I could see them rippling the surface with their bodies and making an occasional splash as they rose to eat something off the surface of the stream. After watching the fish for ten minutes or so I gathered myself together for the last leg of the hike.
Almost as soon as I crossed the stream I met a group of three people coming up the trail. These were the first people I’d seen all day. I passed two other guys coming up the trail as I made my way down. This section of the trail was really pretty with its aspen trees. Although I hadn’t really noticed the aspens on the way up, they were very pretty on the way down with the afternoon light shining on them and their golden leaves carpeting the trail.
I arrived at the car at 14:55. There were now several cars parked at the trailhead and I wondered if there were more than just the five people I’d seen up the trail. Anywho, I packed up my stuff and headed out. There were many more cars than I’ve ever experienced on Pennock Pass. I guess I usually traveled the road either very early in the morning or pretty late in the evening, thus missing the crowds. I supposed that there might have been more people in the area than usual to view the changing aspens, which were pretty impressive, especially on the east side of Pennock Pass.
The traffic slowed me down a little and I rolled into the outskirts of Fort Collins at about 16:20. As I came down Stadium Hill, I realized I’d made a mistake on the route I’d taken back into town. CSU had just beaten Fresno State, and police were directing the flood of cars out of Hughes Stadium. Consequently, I couldn’t make a left onto Overland and I had to loop back to away from my house into the middle of Fort Collins. I finally negotiated my way through the traffic and arrived home at 16:40.
I took a quick shower, and then began to play with my camera so I could check out all the photos I had taken. I was especially excited to see if the sunrise photo and the moose photo had turned out. I removed the photos from my digital camera and transferred them to my hard drive. As I was playing with the photos my computer crashed. I was unable to get it to restart. I spent the rest of the night on the phone with Gateway technical support in vein. My hard drive was toast. Not only had I lost the photos I’d taken of my hike in Comanche Peak Wilderness, I’d lost most of the other photos I’d taken with the digital camera during the last two years! I cried myself to sleep that night.