Thanks to Ken Nolan and Steve Martin, whose TR's proved very useful!
Started hiking at 3:45am, reaching Ouzel Lake at 5:30am. Steve's report gave me hope that by traversing around the lake I might avoid much of the bushwhacking up Copeland's slopes. I went west on the lake's south side, at times stepping in soggy marshes. I probably avoided the worst bushwhacking, but I got too far west and ended up below some of Copeland's cliffs. I traversed back east and finally reached pleasant hiking terrain. At 7am I had reached 11100'.
Elk Tooth & Ogalalla Pk from Copeland Mtn
Looking back down the slopes, there is a very nice open swath towards the lake. However, this would be hard to see from below. Future hikers of this circuit might consider doing it in the opposite direction. This also might simplify Copeland's west ridge somewhat.
I moved steadily up Copeland's slope, topping out at 8:25am. Descending the west ridge starts out simple enough. However, I was forced to guess often whether to attack the ridge directly or bypass difficulties below. Sometimes I guessed right; sometimes not. Finally, at 10:30am, I reached Cony Pass. Nearly 7 hours in, I'd reached only one of five peaks.
The ascent from Cony Pass had pressed heavily on my mind. Ken's report alluded to a 4th-class route, though he had descended 300' to avoid this. As I looked up, I saw possibilities, but I worried I could get into trouble. Mentally, I was tired, and adding 300' to push the day over 7000' was more than I could accept.
Cony Pass ascent gully
So, I traversed to the right 100' or so and saw a gully. It looked loose, but not too steep. I decided to try it. As I ascended, I thought that if I cliffed out, I might just call it a day. Reaching the gully top, I now could continue up and left and even saw cairns! Euphoria built, and soon I reached the huge plateau of the Continental Divide!
I dropped my pack and strolled up Ogalalla Pk, summitting at 11:15am. Incredible views of Copeland and Elk Tooth, whose west ridge did not seem to welcome visitors. White clouds were forming, so, with apologies to the Tooth, I hurried down, grabbed my pack, and walked up Ouzel Pk at 11:50am.
Isolation Pk & Mahana Pk
Terrain down to the next saddle was a little steeper. On the ascent up Isolation I had frequent stops but still kept a good pace, reaching the 3rd 13er for the day at 1:10pm. I continued along the ridge until I could descend directly to the saddle with Mahana Pk. Summitted the 5th peak at 2:05pm. I felt pretty good considering the long day. Little did I know a trap was laid...
In Ken's report, he mentioned getting cliffed out a few times on the descent from Mahana. I planned to avoid that. While ascending Copeland, I had seen that by staying high and left on the descent, I could reach a little saddle and then descend barren terrain back to Ouzel Lake. What I didn't comprehend was that this was the deadfall terrain Ken was trying to avoid; he had chosen the cliffs on purpose!
I reached my little saddle as planned, then turned towards the lake. My "barren" terrain was initially not so bad, scattered dead trees here and there. Quickly it worsened, and I ended up descending 1000' of steep slope covered with loose dirt and deadfall. It had looked so benign from Copeland! By the time I reached the trail at 3:55pm I was truly suffering.
If I were to try this over, I'd maybe try to descend from the Mahana/Isolation saddle to Bluebird Lake and take the trail home. Maybe that would involve bushwhacking, too, but it'd be worth a try!
My 6th liter proved handy for the 5 mile hike out, and I had recovered somewhat when I returned to the trailhead at 5:35pm. Another great adventure in the Park!