I got a relatively late start and left home at about 7:30. It took me an hour and fifteen minutes to drive from my house in west Fort Collins to Stormy Peaks Trailhead at Pingree Park. When I hopped out of the car the wind was howling and it was pretty cold. I looked up at the Stormy Peaks – Sugarloaf Mountain ridgeline and I could see snow blowing off the ridge. Based on this I left my cowboy hat in the car and donned my stocking cap and a pair of wool fingerless gloves. I set off down the trail, but after a hundred yards I turned around because I realized I’d forgotten to strap my snowshoes onto my pack. Now with snowshoes I set off once more.
The first quarter mile of trail loops out away from the parking lot through the path of the 1994 Hourglass Fire on it’s way to a the south side of Pingree Park. There were patches of two to three inches of snow along the trail and as the trail reached the hillside and left the burn path I lost the trail. (I would find out later that the trail makes a hard switchback when it reaches the hillside. Mind you this is only a quarter mile from the trailhead.) I walked along a hundred feet or so before I realized I wasn’t on the trail. I had no idea where I’d lost it so I pressed on. The brush wasn’t too thick so the bushwhacking wasn’t too painful. I contoured along the hillside until my path intersected some power lines. The power lines were headed in the correct general direction and the going was a lot easier underneath them so I followed them straight up the hillside.
At the top of the hillside the power lines made a 45-degree turn and started to head in the wrong direction (to Twin Lakes Reservoir I presumed). I turned away from the power lines and started heading in a more southwesterly direction. Within a couple of hundred yards my path once again crossed the path of the Hourglass Fire. This swath of burned forest stretched almost a mile across and I set off across it. As I crossed the burn I debated whether I should to try to ascend Stormy Peaks in the general way the trail does or if I should totally take a new path. The trail circles counter clockwise around the mountain beginning from the northeast and eventually reaching the summit from the southwest. Totally ignoring the trail and heading straight south looked like another viable option. While I was debating my option I found the trail.
Since I found the trail I decided to follow it. The going was much easier now – I didn’t have to continuously climb over and around fallen trees. Soon I was out of the burn and back into the forest. Once in the trees I was sheltered from the wind (which seemed to be letting up) and I began to overheat. I put away the stocking cap and gloves but I continued to sweat big time. After another half hour or so of hard hiking I began to encounter significant snow. I resisted putting on the snowshoes, but after another 20 minutes or so I relented and strapped them on. The going was much easier after that and I berated myself for not putting them on sooner.
I continued to slog along through the snow as it got deeper and deeper. As the trail passed into Comanche Peak Wilderness the trail began to climb more seriously (or it just felt like it because I was beginning to tire). This was a little disconcerting since I was only about half way there. I continued to slog on but began to have trouble staying with the trail. I eventually lost it for good.
After I realized I’d lost the trail again and I probably wasn’t going to find it I decided to gain elevation much more rapidly than the trail did. I headed up and up through deep wet snow. I was really huffin’ and puffin’ and sweating like a madman. I took of my long sleeve shirt and would have taken off the legs to my pants if I didn’t need the gaitors. The afternoon was really warming up and the snow was heavy and wet. After a lot of hard work I popped out of timberline at the very northwest tip of the Stormy Peaks ridge. This was encouraging because I could gauge my progress instead of blindly thrashing through seemingly never-ending trees.
I contoured along the ridge aiming to cross it just to the northwest of one of the major false summits. The going here was much easier than in amongst the trees as the snow seemed to be more compact and I didn’t sink down as much. The views were very nice. Directly across the valley to the west were Ramsey Peak and Sugarloaf Mountain. When I looked over my right shoulder I had an excellent view of Fall Mountain and Comanche Peak. Just to the left of Fall Mountain I could make out several of the peaks in the Never Summer Range - Richtohfen Peak, Static Peak, and Nokhu Crags. As I made progress along the ridge I crossed another path made by snowshoes. The tracks were pretty fresh – probably only a day or two old at the most. Up until this point I’d seen no evidence of human travel. These tracks were really interesting because they were gaining elevation as they headed northwest along the ridge and I was gaining elevation as I headed southeast. I wondered where this person came from and where were they going?
Soon I made it the saddle between two of the false summits to the northwest of the actual summit. I could finally see the true summit and it was a relatively flat half-mile to the base of the summit pile of boulders. As I crossed this last stretch I saw a solitary elk off to the east. I wondered why he was up here. I would have thought all the elk would still be down in Estes Park eating the golf course.
When I got to the base of the last pile of boulders I sat down to take off my snowshoes and have a snack. After a short rest I set off for the last 300 ft of vertical scrambling to the top. The snow on the boulders made this more interesting than it probably is in the summer but I managed to make it safely to the top. It had taken me five hours to cover the five miles and 3,180 vertical feet to the summit. Under any other circumstances I would have considered this a pathetic pace, but I earned every step of that the hard way today. Needless to say I was whipped. I hung out for a few minutes taking photos. The views were great especially to the south and southwest across the North Fork of the Big Thompson River vallley. I could make out Mount Dunraven, Mummy Mountain, Hagues Peak, Rowe Peak, and Rowe Mountain. I couldn't stick around too long because the wind had sprung up and it was a little cold.
I beat a hasty retreat down to my snowshoes, strapped ‘em back on, and headed back to the car. Going downhill through the heavy, wet snow was much easier than going up. I followed my tracks back down the way I had come. As the snow started to peter out I found another set of tracks. Apparently this person had come as far as the point where I strapped on my snowshoes and had turned around. When I made it back to the burn I stayed on the trail. When I made it out of the burn and back into the trees there was evidence of other hikers in the snow and mud. I finally made it back to the car three hours after leaving the summit to find my car was alone in the parking lot. I tossed my gear into the trunk and collapsed into the drivers seat – utterly destroyed. I had never been so tired after covering a mere ten miles and 3,180 feet of elevation gain.