Part 1 -- no luckOn the morning of July 6, 2008, I set out in light rain from the Slavonia trail head with the goal to hike to the summit of Mount Zirkel via the Gold Creek Lake trail and the Red Dirt Pass trail. Wet, cold feet were going to be a given. About an hour into the trek, at the first crossing I found that the Gold Creek was raging about a foot over the dual-log foot bridge; I started out on the bridge but found the footing trecherous and not safe (for me and my gear); wading across the creek proved not to be a viable option -- I turned back when the the water level was near my waist. So I stepped out of the creek and backtracked to the Gilpin Lake trail, with the plan to hike past Gilpin Lake to make the connection with the Red Dirt Pass trail. About three hours later, I was at the edge of Gilpin Lake -- which was about half ice-covered -- surrounded by snow fields. The sun was out; the weather was beautiful. But a lot of time had been burned up and there wasn't a clear option for further progress to Mount Zirkel. I was not equipped for a slog up the snow-covered slope (no trail was visible) up and over the pass to the Red Dirt Pass trail. So I turned back, knowing this wasn't going to be the day for a summit of Mount Zirkel.
Part 2 -- the rematchOn July 9, 2008, one day after a successful hike to the summit of Mount Elbert (in the face of a few snow showers but on a wonderfully maintained if steep trail to the top), I returned to the Slavonia trail head for a rematch with Mount Zirkel.
I had a new, better informed plan (thanks to SummitPost.com) to climb to the ridge between the Gilpin Lake trail and the Mount Zirkel basin -- the so-called Gilpin Creek route -- and traverse the ridge to the plateau from which Mount Zirkel rises. As the route instructed, rather than making the wade-through Gilpin Creek crossing, I turned left and followed a variously distinct and indistinct trail up and over rock formations, through swamps, across Gilpin Creek and finally to the base of prominent Point 12006.
The 1,500+ vertical foot steep scramble/climb to a gully just south of Point 12006 was wearying, but there was relatively little unavoidable snow to traverse. Steady progress could be made. Once at the ridge, all that was left was a climb over Point 12006 and a walk along the ridge toward the plateau.
The ridge was rocky at points and had a substantial bit of snow on it, but there was a clear path along the right to the plateau. The views were spectacular. The trek along the plateau around and across some snow fields and up to the summit of Mount Zirkel was uneventful -- though there was a large snow field to cross on the way and a bit of a scramble required on the mount itself.
It was 2:30 PM when I was on the summit of Mount Zirkel. The skies were not being completely friendly. There was a bit of rain. But it was a great feeling to have made it to the top.
That being said, my journey was only half-completed. I resolved to return via the Red Dirt Pass trail and the Gold Creek Lake trail, facing the fact of a waist-deep wade across raging Gold Creek.
To that end, I started across the plateau and down to the Red Dirt Pass, then into the snow-filled basin. The expansive snow fields were (mostly) stable and sturdy. But trail-finding was a virtual impossibility. So I changed the plan and decided to scramble/climb back up to the ridge at Point 12006 and regain the elevation that I carelessly had abandoned.
Exhausting would not be too strong a word for this part of the trek; unlike the opposite side of the ridge, this shaded side was snow-covered with few bare spots. Progress was slow, slow, slow. At 5 PM I was back atop the ridge, just south of Point 12006.
Rather than return down the ridge the same way I had come up earlier in the day, I walked along the ridge to the south, until Gilpin Lake came into view. I then zig-zagged down to the Gilpin Lake trail, at times having to struggle through spiky half-dead krumholz and loose rocks, over logs, across swampy ground, etc. I connected with the Gilpin Lake trail just south of the Gilpin Creek crossing. Once across the creek, it was just a downhill walk to the trail head.
The trip took just about 9.5 hours; I did not see another person for the first 9.4 hours of it. It was a wearying, physically and mentally challenging, wonderful hike that wore out my trail-running shoes.