TRIP REPORT: Four Summits: Flattop Mountain (12,324), Taylor Peak (13,153), Otis Peak (12,486), and Hallett Peak (12,713). August 5, 2006.
Summary: In good summer conditions, this four-summit trek involves an estimated 15.1 miles of hiking over mostly class 1 terrain, with class 2 talus hopping required only in the areas near the summits of Taylor, Otis, and Hallett. The total elevation change for the day is around 4600 feet. Most of the hike is spent at elevations over 12,000 feet along the Continental Divide. There is no exposure to steep drop-offs that need be negotiated. A significant part of the journey is on a good trail, and the remaining route-finding with map in hand is readily apparent in clear conditions. Moving at a moderate pace in good weather, this hike required 12.0 hours from trailhead to trailhead to tag all four summits.
Special attention should be paid to weather conditions for this hike. Once you leave Flattop Mountain for the other summits, there are no easy retreats should lightning threaten and most of the hike is over an area providing no shelter. If the weather looks threatening from the summit of Flattop, go back down and enjoy the rest of your day.
Our day started at the Bear Lake Trailhead in the Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) at 4:15 a.m. With headlamps illuminating the Flattop Mountain Trail, our initial group of four made steady progress and was treated to the sight of a tranquil pink and crimson sunrise just as we neared the timberline. The trip started with Nan, Laura, and Lee, all of whom are part of a Texas family with a storied and long (70-year!) history of vacationing and adventuring in RMNP each summer, and Doug, a Denver friend. Nan and Laura joined the trip as far as Flattop; Lee and Doug carried on from there.
A class 1 trail leads to the summit of Flattop, and this part of the trip involves about 4.4 miles and 2875 feet of uphill hiking. On reaching the summit plain of Flattop, about two-thirds of the elevation gain for the day is done.
Four bull elks were ambling around near the summit. They walked slowly past us, heading down. We stayed out of their way. After pausing for a snack on Flattop’s summit plateau at around 8:00 a.m., we were psyched up for the beauty and labor that lie ahead. We said goodbye to Nan and Laura and headed south.
The next peak generally south from Flattop is Hallett, then further south is Otis, then yet further south is Taylor. The four peaks share an east ridge that plunges down into different basins, but west from each summit is a broad rocky plain. It is therefore possible to skirt Hallett and Otis on the west side and hike directly to Taylor from Flattop over a relatively flat and easily negotiated mixture of tundra and stable rocky surface. Our plan was to follow that course and summit Taylor, the most distant of the four peaks, next. On the way back north to Flattop and the trail home, we would jump off the tundra and hike up Otis, descend to the northwest, then hike up Hallett, descend to the northwest, then return to Flattop and follow the main trail back to the Bear Lake Trailhead. Lisa Foster’s wonderful Rocky Mountain National Park – The Complete Hiking Guide has a map identifying the basic routes on page 70 (1st ed. 2005).
Spread out west from us throughout the day were distant vistas incorporating mountains, valleys, lakes, and wildernesses whose names we could only guess. To the southeast, the west side of Longs Peak is visible for most of this hike. This is a bonus for those who, like us, revere the mighty Longs.
The trip from Flattop to Taylor involves around 2.7 miles of hiking and about 830 feet in additional elevation change over mostly unmarked class 1 terrain. Once we got close to Taylor, the route steepened and the footing turned into class 2 talus. This was to be the toughest summit of the day, but by RMNP standards, it isn’t onerous. We reached the top of Taylor at around 10:50 a.m. and were rewarded with terrific views of Sky Pond and the Loch Vale below to the east. We took a quick lunch break and signed the register atop Taylor’s beautiful summit.
Dropping down from Taylor and now heading north toward Flattop again, we veered east to peer over the top of Andrews Glacier. This snowfield is between the Otis and Taylor summits and is only moderately steep. A few people were clamoring up the snowfield, and Lee has on other occasions glissaded down it, thereby gaining access to the Andrews Creek Trail and ultimately, an alternative means of returning to Bear Lake. However, the snow was melted out from beneath in many places and did not look particularly inviting as a means of descent on this day. We decided to stay the planned course.
From the saddle between Taylor and Otis we made our way up rocky class 2 terrain and nabbed the top of Otis Peak around 12:15 p.m. The great view of Longs from Otis was obscured a bit by low wispy clouds that were moving in.
We were feeling a little weary but Hallett looked invitingly close so we stuck to our game plan. This was a good decision, as Hallett is a slightly easier side trip than Otis. We picked our way over the rocks down the northwest slope of Otis and in short order, tramped up the southwest side of Hallett. Sometime after 1:00 p.m., we were standing on top of our fourth peak of the day. We rested briefly and contemplated the moment. Hallett is a modest summit on which to stand, but it offers an inspiring profile from the eastern vantage points of Dream, Emerald, and Bear Lakes in RMNP. We enjoyed a strong sense of where we were and what we had accomplished since beginning the day.
Of course, a summit hike isn’t over until you touch your car at the trailhead. A faint trail leads down Hallett and back to Flattop, where we rejoined the main trail to Bear Lake. The downhill hike from the summit of Hallett back to the trailhead covers about 5.1 miles. We stopped at an overlook location on the trail where a break in the trees offers a terrific view of Emerald Lake below. From where we stood, we could also see Taylor Peak, off in an extraordinarily remote-looking distance. We marveled at how far the human body can transport itself just by continuously putting one foot in front of the other.
We arrived back at the trailhead at 4:15 p.m., exactly twelve hours after we started, feeling full of heart about a strenuous but fun undertaking.
The upper sky remained generally gray and overcast all day. Additional low clouds moved in to the surrounding area about the time we summited Taylor. We kept watchful eyes on the weather but apart from a wet drizzle that eventually developed, conditions remained stable and local visibility was good all the time we were in the high places. The temperatures were probably in the 50s to 60s all day.
One of the terrific things about this itinerary is the ease with which the route can be shortened just by skipping any one or combination of the four mountains. Tagging only Flattop and Taylor makes for a round-trip hike of about 14.2 miles, adding Otis on the way to or from Taylor adds about 0.5 miles, and Hallett probably adds another 0.4 miles. A Flattop/Otis only excursion would be around 12.0 miles and a Flattop/Hallett only trip would be around 10.2 miles in length.