Mummy Mania: Chapin, Chiquita, Ypsilon, Fairchild, Hagues, Mummy
September 16, 2010
Mount Chapin: 12,454 feet
Mount Chiquita: 13,069 feet
Ypsilon Mountain: 13,514 feet
Fairchild Mountain: 13,502 feet
Hagues Peak: 13,560 feet
Mummy Mountain: 13,425 feet
RT Distance: 16 miles
Elevation Gain: 5,600 feet
Participants: Goldielocks (some random rock blondie) and Pete Castricone (castricone7)
A single day traverse of the Mummy Range in Rocky Mountain National Park is most often referred to as Mummy Mania and involves summiting Mount Chapin, Mount Chiquita, Ypsilon Mountain, Fairchild Mountain, Hagues Peak, and the namesake Mummy Mountain. In Rocky Mountain National Park, The Complete Hiking Guide, Lisa Foster labels this the “Mummy Kill Route” with a Grade II Class 3 rating. To keep the hike at this rating requires strict attention to finding the path of least resistance—perhaps not an alpinist’s typical game plan. This ambitious undertaking, which demands 5,600 feet of vertical gain and 16 miles of fairly strenuous hiking, can easily be increased in difficulty to Class 4, and several options on the latter peaks exist for some ropeless Class 5 moves.
The traverse requires a car shuttle, since the peaks of Chapin and Mummy are so far removed from one another. Thus, when I made the decision to attempt this, Goldielocks, my regular sufferfest partner, was quickly on board. We met at the Fall River Entrance Station on US 34 (RMNP) and then took a quick right on Old Fall River Road to the Lawn Lake trailhead at 8,540 feet. I parked my Xterra and hopped in to Goldielocks’s truck. Not thinking about it, I left the Xterra unlocked.
Once out of the paved parking trailhead area, Old Fall River Road becomes a one-way dirt road. It follows some switchbacks as it ascends about 3,000 feet to 11,796 feet on the back side of the Alpine Visitor Center on US 36. The road is a tad steep but wouldn’t necessitate 4WD unless it was raining—and if it was, why would you be on it? From the Lawn Lake trailhead, the road winds for 9 miles before it comes to the Chapin Pass trailhead, which is marked by a wooden trailhead sign and a small, makeshift parking area on the side of the road. Of course, when we drove this road both Goldielocks and I completely missed the trailhead and ended up another 2 miles further at the Alpine Visitor Center. I had been flipping my keys around my finger the entire drive, so at this point I dropped them into the passenger door pocket. Fortunately, it was still early enough that we just flipped a u-turn and drove back down. As we arrived, an older fellow had just parked and was heading toward the trail.
From the Chapin Pass trailhead, we followed an easy hikers trail into the forest. I was surprised that my heart rate was skyrocketing and I was out of breath so quickly. But, I guess it was probably due to starting at 11,020 feet. My knees had been hurting all summer, so I had neoprene Ace bandages on both knees and brought both trekking poles.
The hike to Mount Chapin is very easy and takes a little more than an hour. After 0.2 miles, you arrive at Chapin Pass where you take a right at the junction and head uphill. By this point, we had passed the older guy, the only other person we would see all day. Chapin is about a mile from here and is the hill to your right. You could easily walk right past it though, since it appears as a hump along a bigger ridge toward Mount Chiquita. We stopped and double checked the map before taking a 90 degree right turn up to Chapin. There is a faint spur trail from the Chapin-Chiquita saddle, but this requires a bit of backtracking. Basically, if you stay high on the trail until it appears that Chapin is on your right hand and then starting hoofing up the hill, you will top out on Chapin.
We enjoyed the views from Chapin for a few minutes before the wind chased us down to the saddle. Although it was a gorgeous day with fresh blue skies, the wind was blowing at about 20 mph. I had to wear my hood to keep my face from freezing. The views to the Desolation Peaks were awesome; in fact, the views in every direction from the Mummy Range are incredible. This is “the park” after all!
After dropping 400 feet, getting to Chiquita is not much different than 20 minutes and 1000 feet on a stairclimber at the gym. I put my head down and stepped deliberately and slowly, trying to get to Chiquita’s summit without a break. Goldielocks is in better shape than me and stayed about 200 feet ahead, so I was happy just to make it to the windy summit without stopping. We cowered behind some boulders and soaked up the morning rays. We were a little more than a couple hours into the traverse and had already knocked off two peaks. We were experienced enough not to celebrate too much. There was a very long way yet to go.
I was feeling pretty good: I had strength in my legs, my breathing seemed normal, the weather was amazing, the company was even better. Most importantly, my knees were holding out. We walked the 1.25 miles over to Ypsilon without even thinking much about it. This required dropping 300 feet and then gaining another 700 feet; but, so far, Mummy Mania was easy. We spent quite a bit of time exploring the crags above Ypsilon’s various couloirs and ridges. Goldielocks pointed everything out, including the three Aces on Blitzen Ridge. She also shared a humorous story about a woman sitting on a cornice above the “Y” Couloir with a rope running around her waist and through a deep crack in the snow between her legs. Apparently, she was belaying her boyfriend who had failed to climb it from the bottom and thought it was a good idea to try the upper half via a half-baked rappel. I’m not sure that actually counts as a successful climb.
Anyway, we had some laughs and descended some ugly talus and traversed a short ways across a mildly tricky Class 3 ridge. Goldielocks was having a blast, but this was where I had the first serious pain in my shin below my left knee. I had a similar sharp, snapping pain in this same spot in the spring and had to take two months of rest. I was bummed but, of course, there was no option but to continue.
Lisa Foster claims the traverse between Ypsilon and Fairchild is “the most difficult section of this long hike.” I guess this is true if you are risk averse. For the most part, it’s just a simple, low elevation ridge that gets much steeper once you are on Fairchild. The more interesting route to Fairchild (and to Hagues) is the direct route up the steep rocks; whether you go through, over, or up them is a matter of choice. In places, the rock is exposed and dicey. Can you avoid the Class 4+ difficulties? Yes. Did we? Of course not. To be fair though, our impressions of ridge traverses may not exactly coincide with those of others. For example, we think the knife edge of Capitol is exaggerated and quite easy. Still, the climb up to Fairchild is what separates the hardcore from the touristas. It gets much more committing from this point on and should not be underestimated, in time or in effort.
So, Fairchild is a cool mountain, and I enjoyed climbing it. Again, we stayed on top for a while and basked in the sun and ate and drank and chilled. The wind was still hootin’ and hollerin’ though so we dropped down the NE side, down some tedious talus to “the saddle.” This place was awesome and it looked like a wide trail came here from Lawn Lake, which was to the south. We rested for a few minutes and enjoyed the serenity of being in the middle of nowhere. Hagues Mountain was next and looked like the most interesting peak of the day. As with Fairchild, the contrast between the steep north face and the sloping southwest face is almost exaggerated. Naturally, our line of ascent was the sharp line between the two. Even as I wandered farther south, I kept returning to Goldielocks’s more interesting and direct line. Eventually, we hit the summit (Goldielocks was easily 5 minutes before me), where there is a solar-powered weather station. It was getting to be late afternoon, around 5:00pm if my memory serves me correctly, so we sauntered south along the cool ridge toward our final objective, Mummy Mountain. This ridge was excellent with giant boulders and some cool gendarmes that stood out like watchmen. It took a while, but we hit the base of Mummy for one final ascent. And then it hit me. I left my car keys in Goldielocks’s truck.
All the positive energy drained out of me in that moment. I was not looking forward to breaking the news to Goldielocks that we had no ride back up to Chapin Pass. I mean seriously, who wants to add another 3,000 vertical and 9 miles to a 16 mile day? But, she’s a sport and took it like it was just another adventure. I was stressed out, because I’m analytical and all the different scenarios were already playing through my brain. And then, as we ascended Mummy (quite easily, by the way) I finally realized that we were close to running out of daylight.
We stopped only long enough to sign the Mummy logbook. Some tool wrote a comment about Chapin not counting as a summit from Chapin Pass. Such peakbaggery atop this fine remote mountain! (I do believe I am the first person to ever use that word…look it up!)
I held up my hand and counted three fingers between the sun and the horizon. According to Bear Grylls, that meant 45 minutes until sunset (give or take, he is correct). We checked the map to make sure we knew exactly where we were headed. We could see the Lawn Lake basin, and Goldielocks mentioned something about heading toward Pott’s Puddle. We chose our line and stuck to it. The standard path heads southeast along the gently-sloping tundra and descends to the Black Canyon trail, from which you then hang a right until the junction with the Lawn Lake trail after about 0.25 miles. We decided, however, that we needed to find the correct trail before the darkness made it impossible. So, down the west face we went. This was by far the scariest part of the ride for me. Goldielocks is quite skilled at finding suitable paths to downclimb, but with my bum knee and a lot of adrenaline, I was anxious to say the least. I was tired of my poles dragging on the cliff face, so I repeatedly tossed them down a ways and climbed down to them. A word of advice: never buy two-piece trekking poles.
We snaked our way down to a boulder field and then hit a dirt trail. We took this to the right and found the Lawn Lake trail junction sign about three minutes later. It took us 45 minutes from the summit of Mummy to the trail junction sign. We looked back up at the intimidating west face of Mummy Mountain just as the last rays of sunlight caressed its shoulder. And then the fun began.
There is a stream with flowing water right at the junction, where the sign tells a disappointing truth: the Lawn Lake trailhead is 5.7 miles away. We refilled our water bottles and added some purification tablets. Our hike out started fast and, at times, Goldielocks was jogging. Our goal was to get as far out of the forest as possible before everything went black. We both tried our cell phones but, deep in the woods, there was no chance of signal. We concluded that our options were (a) to walk out to Trail Ridge Road and hitch a ride or (b) to push the roadside assist button on my Spot Messenger. I had already relayed the “We’re running late” message to my lovely fiancé, so if I sent her the roadside assist message she would know to send a tow truck. Either way, to improve our odds, we needed to hurry.
The trail is a blur except for the severe pain in my leg, as everything went by so fast and the sun settled into its slumber. I wished for another adrenaline rush to ease the pain but settled for a handful of ibufprofen. About an hour later, I had to strap on my headlamp and lead the way. I can’t figure out why, but Goldielocks never has a headlamp, even though she has been lost in the woods at night before….crawling through a frozen river with a finger cut off. WTF, Goldielocks? Anyway, the trail parallels a huge gorge. As I tripped over roots, I could only make out under the imaginary light from the deep blue moon that a bank dropped at least fifty feet into a river. Given the distance and our speed, we thought we would hike out in under two hours; however, looking back, it took us 2.5 hours. My biggest concern was wildlife. But, Goldielocks idled away the miles by singing and bellowing “Josephine!” which I am certain scared away every living beast within a two mile radius.
Finally….the trail ended at the Lawn Lake trailhead, about 13 hours after our journey began. We saw headlights leaving the trailhead, but we were still about 15 minutes away. There were several silent and dark cars parked there, and we made sure to make as much noise as possible. Nobody stirred or acknowledged us. Bastards. And then I remembered, hey, I think I left the Xterra unlocked. I checked it and it was open. I had some extra water and half a Mountain Dew. I left my pack in the car, and we walked the 5 minutes to Trail Ridge Road. No sooner had I sat down on the asphalt when headlights appeared. Elks were bugling in the meadow across the road. The night was black, the sky littered with stars. I waved my headlamp beam, and a couple from Nebraska driving a Subaru pulled over. We asked for a lift, and they kindly obliged. I squeezed into the tiny back seat, which I think is made for children under the age of one. Goldielocks instantly made friends with them, and they seemed beside themselves to have us in their car. It was difficult to say for certain, because the woman mumbled the entire ride. But, we nodded and laughed and told brief stories of our adventures, and she happily mumbled back some incomprehensible responses. Along the road up to the Alpine Visitor Center, three gigantic bull elks were strutting down the middle of the road. These beasts were huge! We stopped and let them clear out. I’m sure it was as much of a highlight for the touristas as it was for me.
They dropped us at the abandoned Alpine Visitor Center under a brisk and thick blackness. It was quiet except for a cold breeze and the stereophonic bugling of elks. The battery in my lamp faded and died, appropriately, and we walked under starlight among the cautious shadows of wildlife that surrounded us. We were alone in the middle of the wilderness in the early hours of night, and the only sense of belonging, the only reminder of our false security, was the packed dirt road beneath our boot heels. With every breath something within me changed—my perspective of the moment, my perspective of the day’s journey, of the previous week, of the choices I’ve made throughout my life—until, ultimately, I was filled with an emotion that has been a stranger to me for decades…calm.
Two miles later, we arrived at the Chapin Pass trailhead. All sense of calm soon escaped me as Goldielocks drove back up the road and then 60 mph down Trail Ridge Road to the Lawn Lake trailhead, where we parted with not only a true sense of accomplishment but a sincere sense of respect for the majesty of nature.