I had wanted to get into the southern Never Summer Range for quite some time after climbing most of the peaks at the northern end of the range. I finally found a hole in my schedule when I could get together with Michael (aka smudge) to bang out some of the peaks. The plan was to get an alpine start and summit Lead Mountain first, then head south - going as far as we could while the weather and our legs held out.
To facilitate the alpine start I drove up to Estes Park Friday evening and spent the night at Michael's lodge - The McGregor Mountain Lodge. The alarm went off at 03:15 and after getting our stuff together and having a little breakfast we were on the road by 4:00. It took us about an hour to get over the divide, find the trailhead, and hit the trail. The first hour of hiking melted away until we hit the Grand Ditch when it became light enough to put away the headlamps.
We hiked north along the ditch for a little ways until we reached the trail into Hitchens Gulch. While we paused to catch our breaths and snap a few photos a pair of ATVs came rumbling along the maintenance road and passed us as they continued south. Both Michael and I thought that was pretty strange. We were pretty sure that motorized vehicles weren't allowed up here and these guys didn't look like official Park Service staff. Maybe the reason they were out on the trail so early was because they were making an illegal run and were afraid of getting caught.
After that encounter we turned onto the trail that climbed gently along Big Dutch Creek into Hitchens Gulch. This section of the trail was really pretty - in fact the entire Hitchens Gulch was really nice. After a few minutes the trail entered a small meadow with a small pool in it. Across the meadow we got our first good view of Lead Mountain and Mount Cirrus. We paused to take some reflection shots of Lead Mountain in the small pool and discuss our approach options. From studying the topo map I had planned to continue up the trail a little farther toward Lake of the Clouds before cutting over to Lead Mountain. However now that we were actually there on the ground it looked like our best bet was to leave the trail, cut across the meadow, and then angle cross-country directly toward the saddle between Lead Mountain and UN 12,438.
The cross-country trip across Hitchens Gulch was surprisingly easy. There was very minimal bushwhacking followed by a traverse through a small boulder field that dumped us out right below the saddle to the east of Lead Mountain. As we crossed the boulder field we encountered a sizeable herd of Bighorn Sheep grazing in a meadow. There must have been about twenty of them and they seemed to be all rams.
After passing the boulder field we proceeded up a tundra slope until it gave way to talus and scree. Progress up the talus and scree was brutally hard - with every step upward we slid about half a step down. After a hundred or so vertical feet of progress we decided to traverse over to a jumble of boulders. The boulders were big and stable and progress up those was quick and painless. Soon we were on the saddle between Lead Mountain and UN 12,438.
We stopped to eat a quick snack before heading up the ridge toward Lead's summit. While we snacked we enjoyed the view to the north of Richthofen, Mahler, and you could even see a little bit of Static. Tepee was completely dwarfed by Richthofen and was hard to discern.
Energized by the snack and encouraged by the proximity of the summit we set off up Lead Mountain's East Ridge. The ridge was a joy to climb- fun third class scrambling on solid rock with some exhilarating exposure on both sides. In some places the ridge was very knifelike. It didn't take long - probably less than 45 minutes - and we were on the summit. It was a little chilly on the summit and we hunkered down in the windbreak while we put on extra jackets, signed the summit log, enjoyed the views, shot some photos, and had another snack.
When we'd had our fill we set off down the South Ridge of Lead Mountain. The South Ridge was nothing but a second class stroll down boulders and talus. Within fifteen minutes we were down to the low point on Hart Ridge.
Hart Ridge connects Lead Mountain with Mount Cirrus and is named after 2nd Lieutenant Eldon C. Hart who crashed his F-100C Super Sabre into the west side of the Never Summer Range on January 30, 1967. The wreckage is still somewhere in the Never Summer Wilderness, but I believe it is not actually on the ridge. Though I kept a fairly careful eye out for it during the entire hike I never spotted a sign of it.
As we began the long traverse of the ridge up to Mount Cirrus the terrain began to get a little more rugged but never exceeded third class and there wasn't much exposure. The rock was a bit loose in places and fairly early on up the ridge I stepped on a loose rock with my left foot. As I struggled to maintain my balance I stepped back onto my right foot. Unfortunately instead of stepping onto a solid rock with my right foot it landed in-between two boulders and I fell backwards until my upper thigh jammed between the two rocks. The tumble elicited a cry of pain as the fall hurt pretty badly. With the adrenaline pumping I pulled my leg out from between the boulders and examined the damage. I wasn't cut or bleeding, it didn't appear that anything was broken or twisted, but I was going to have a giant bruise all the way around my thigh. Michael offered to sit and rest a spell so I could recover but I figured I better keep moving. I was afraid that if I sat still that my leg would stiffen up, making hiking out even more difficult and painful.
We continued on and though my leg hurt a bit it really didn't impede my progress. The going remained mostly second class with sections of third class thrown in. About an hour and 40 minutes after leaving the summit of Lead Mountain we arrived on the summit of Mount Cirrus. We repeated the summit ritual of taking photos, snacking, and looking for the summit log (and signing it if we found one).
Ready to continue the journey we gazed to the south across a broad, gentle saddle to Howard Mountain. Unlike the rocky ridge we'd just crossed this traverse would be across mild tundra. This went very quickly and within a half an hour we were on the summit of Howard Mountain. We repeated our summit ritual and studied the next leg of our ridge run. About a mile of ridge separated us from Mount Cumulus. From our vantage point atop Howard Mountain it looked rugged and imposing. It appeared there were at least two significant notches in the ridge that would have to be negotiated along the way.
Sitting on the summit of Howard wasn't getting us any closer to Cumulus so we collected our stuff and set out. As we descended off Howard Mountain we found that not only was the ridge rugged, it was also loose... really, really loose and rotten. It became apparent that we would have to test every hold before trusting it. It seemed like every other rock we touched moved - it didn't really matter what size they were. Rocks as big as sofas moved on me. At one point I concluded it wasn't a matter of "would the rock move", it was more a matter of "how much would the rock move".
Taking extreme care we made our way down to the low point in the ridge and the first significant notch in the ridge (this turned out to be the only really interesting obstacle). The descent down into the notch from the north was fairly straightforward and we found a fun fourth class line on the east side of the ridge that lead back up to the ridge crest. Luckily this section was relatively solid and made for fun scrambling.
The remainder of the ridge seemed to be monotonous, easy, third class scrambling on rotten rock. For the most part we tried to stay on the ridge crest because that was where the rock was most solid. Occasionally though we were forced off to one side or the other (mainly the west side) to avoid steep scrambling on especially nasty rock. These traverses on the sides of the ridges were often spicy as we had to cross gullies of flowing scree and make awkward third and fourth class moves across questionable rock. I was always thankful to get back on the ridge crest after one of these traverses.
The traverse of the ridge took a long time and we finally arrived on the summit of Mount Cumulus nearly three hours after leaving Howard Mountain. By this time I was pretty tired and my leg was beginning to hurt a little more. The bruising almost felt like a cramp and was beginning to hinder my scrambling and hiking. Michael and I had planned to continue south as far as we could get as long as our legs and the weather held out. At this point I figured my legs were done and I ruled out continuing on to Nimbus. I offered to wait for Michael if he wanted to nab Nimbus but he must have been getting pretty tired too because he turned down the offer.
After repeating our summit ritual for the fourth and final time of the day we packed up to begin the long descent back to the car. It's true that it was all downhill from the top of Mount Cumulus, but that didn't mean it was going to be easy. The descent route off Cumulus began as a nasty talus slope. The rock was spread across a little bit of tundra and ranged in size from a deck of cards to a textbook. It was too big to slide down and too small to step on with any confidence in your footing. Negotiating this was brutal on the knees and progress was slow and painful. As we lost elevation the rocks began to get bigger as we descended into a boulder filled basin just north of Opposition Creek. We scrambled our way across some boulders and then crossed a small meadow which gave temporary relief before we encountered timber line and more steep descending.
At this point we had our choice of two evils: bushwhacking through the trees or descending a steep boulder-strewn gully. The path of least resistance seemed to take us down the interface between the two and we continued the steep descent until we seemed to encounter something of a valley with a creek running through it - we assumed this was Opposition Creek or one of its tributaries. We found some animal trails that wove there way though the forest as they periodically appeared and disappeared. We followed these across easier ground and after what seemed like a long time we passed the Opposition Creek backcountry campsite and finally reached the Grand Ditch.
My legs were thankful to be back on a nice even trail and we followed the maintenance road northward until it intersected Red Mountain Trail. Alternatively we could have continued the bushwhack downward along Opposition Creek and intersected the trail shortly. This would have cut some mileage off, but would have been a steep bushwhack. I'm not sure if it would have saved time or energy. Once we'd got back to Red Mountain Trail my legs required one last rest break before completing the hike.
We gutted out the last section of trail and arrived at the trailhead approximately thirteen hours after we'd left. We had a couple of celebratory beers as we headed back over the divide to Estes Park. As we passed the Alpine Visitor Center the sun set and we noted that if we'd gone after Nimbus we'd still be out there on the trail (with probably another hour of hike ahead of us). We were both glad we'd decided against it - we were content with the day's hike the way it was. That also leaves the possibility for the Baker - Stratus - Nimbus ridge run for 2007.