My wife Blynn and I climbed Cooper Peak during a 2 week trip to the Indian Peaks Wilderness in late August/early September 2004. On August 24th we set out from the Monarch Lake Trailhead on the Buchanan Pass/Cascade Trail. The weather was beautiful --sunny with temperatures in the mid-seventies-- although locals in Granby had told us to expect snow by the end of the week. We saw a couple of groups of hikers before the Buchanan Pass/Cascade junction and an off-duty ranger returning from fishing at Island Lake a mile or so further on. He was the last person we would see for 4 1/2 days. We camped on the first night near the creek that drains Gourd Lake and established a high camp at Gourd Lake the following morning. The Gourd Lake Trail was not nearly as challenging as we had been led to expect. We found a perfect campsite on the south side of the lake and enjoyed a sunny afternoon lounging and taking in the unbelievable scenery. My father had camped at Gourd Lake while climbing in the Rockies as a teenager, and he had recommended it to us. Now we know why. We got an early start the following morning, working our way around the lake and following Gerry Roach's Southwest Slopes route up to the saddle between Cooper and Martin Peaks. The climb was uneventful up to this point although I was tired from climbing through the talus. At this point, our midwest flatlanders route finding skills took over. Somehow we skirted the "mini Couloir" described in Roach's book and ended up doing some pretty exposed class 3 scrambling to get to the top of the ridge just below the summit. The final pitch to the top was no problem, and we arrived at the summit around 1 PM. The weather looked like it was beginning to build so after a few photos and a snack, we began our descent. We got back down to the Cooper-Martin saddle, and to the small tarn below it without any problems. Then, however, we began to make some serious mistakes. On the map the tarn below the Cooper-Martin saddle appears to be two seperate ponds. As we walked past it, however, it looked like one larger lake. Instead of taking a compass bearing at this point, we simply followed the string of ponds toward what I thought was the saddle between the Gourd Lake and Island lake drainages. We were actually about a third of a mile west of where we needed to be. I discounted my wife's remark that the terrain didn't look right and we descended to what we thought was Gourd Lake. When we got to the lake we realized we had made a mistake and were actually about 1.5 miles as the crow flies from our campsite. To get there, we needed to work our way around a band of steep talus. It was fairly difficult off-trail walking --climbing over lots of deadfall and boulders. By this time we were tired and disoriented and ended up walking in 2 four-mile circles --ending up right where we started at the wrong lake. Hoping that the third time would be the charm, we tried, once again, to work our way around the ridge. This time we had a good idea of our location, but the sun was setting and we needed to stop. We ate the last of our trail food and put on all of the cold weather and rain gear we had with us and huddled together, planning to try again in the morning. We figured if necessary we could climb back into the high country and retrace our steps. By 9 PM a steady cold rain had begun to fall. By 11 PM it had changed over to sleet and then eventually snow. By 4 AM Blynn and I were both in the moderate stages of Hypothermia --shivering and stumbling. We built a small fire which due to the weather (6" of wet snow and wet wood) didn't do much to keep us warm. Nonetheless, the focus of trying to keep the fire going combined with the moving around helped. By sunrise the snow had begun to let up but visibility was still only about 30 feet. The snow had almost completely stopped by 8 AM, so we began walking again. Unfortunately everything looked different because of the snowcover. We began to realize at this point that we were getting more truly lost. We were tired and wet and knew we would not survive another cold night away from our camp. My altimeter told us were 800 feet below the altitude of Gourd Lake, so we agreed to try climbing one last time to at least get to the correct altitude. If this didn't work our plan was to descend below the snow line to the Buchanan Pass Trail and try to get back to the car. Our luck changed for the better at this point. The snow was beginning to melt and it revealed the Gourd Lake Trail. We made it back to our tent by 11 AM and the snow was nearly all melted by suppertime. The weather for the hike out to the trailhead the next day was perfect. All in all it was an incredible trip.
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