From Thomas Lakes Trailhead
Saturday Oct. 20, 2012
Indian summer is a wonderful thing here in Colorado and elsewhere; with dry, sunny days, mild breezes, temperatures in the low 70’s and nights that cool-off into the 30’s. As much as I love summer time, these pleasant days in autumn fall into line as a close second. I’ve always been fascinated with Mt Sopris since my early days in Colorado back in the late 1970’s as these twin peaks seem to stand as sentinels for the Roaring Fork/Crystal River valleys, standing tall as a visual reference point from nearly all directions.
Thursday night I texted my wife’s nieces husband and made arrangements to stay Saturday night at their place in Basalt. So after spending all day Friday working around the house raking leaves, shutting down the sprinkler system and closing-up the air conditioner as well as shopping for new kitchen appliances I’d gained a reprieve of sorts and was graciously granted permission to pursue Mt Sopris the following day. I checked the NOAA website and found weather to be ideal; decided to ready all my gear, get to bed early, set my alarm for 2:10am and rise way early for the 3 hours plus drive to Carbondale.
I awoke at 2:00am on my own and turned-off the alarm, as it turns-out this would be the first of several moments this day would bring where my timing would be spot-on. The night was black with crystal clear skies as I showered, made a quick breakfast and was on the road at 2:58 sharp. Traffic is non-existent at these wee hours and leaving Louisville I saw two police cruisers and that’s about all. Out route 93 to route 6 and the Clear Creek Canyon heading west towards Central City; here the traffic coming east towards me was heavy to say the least, buses, cars, trucks and even a few motorcycles coming back down from the casinos no doubt. Going my way was clear sailing and I was soon westbound on I-70 and would be for the next couple of hours to Glenwood Springs and then route 82 to Carbondale where I turned right on route 133 and stopped at a 7-11 for coffee and to check my map for Prince Creek Rd. About a mile and a half on the left was my turn on Prince Creek Rd and then after 6-7 miles I turned right and went a bit farther to the Thomas Lakes TH where the lights of Carbondale could be seen down below and here two trucks were parked.
Several guys were dressed-out in camo/orange packing rifles and I had not known that this was also the first morning of rifle/deer hunting; I think…..?? Anyway, they were heading up the same trail I would be taking and we spoke briefly as they went up ahead of me. Another two guys/hunters then emerged from the other truck and also started up the same trail. I now wanted to make sure that I wouldn’t be wearing any white today and I took in some more Gatorade & water and donned my headlamp while starting up myself right at 6:44am; I had wanted to start hiking no-later-than 7:00am so again I was right on time. The trail starts as a road of sorts as it crosses through a grassy area and then directly into the aspen/pine forest. Traversing & a few switchbacks and I soon had passed all the hunters and had the trail all to myself as light was dawning through the trees on my left side. “Red sky in morning, sailors take warning”. However being over 1600 miles from the ocean I figured that didn’t matter much and the colors were actually more of a flame orange, so very beautiful.
Dawns early light
At first light I heard 5 distant rifle reports and that’s all I would hear for the rest of the day. Thomas Lakes Trail is a wonderful place; the trail is dirt and rock and easy to follow as this trail is well beaten by man and beast alike. Climbing higher and up through forest and meadow and I soon packed-away my headlamp and made good time up and over hilly terrain and then back into forest and after some more elevation gain I came to the first Thomas Lake on my right and soon the second at 8:15. I counted four Thomas Lakes with the largest on my left as I cleared the last of the designated campsites
and quickly began a series of traverses and switchbacks taking me up much higher with the Thomas Lakes below and tree line up ahead. I paused for a drink and to apply some sun lotion as the day was now quite sunny but remained quite cool.
A soft breeze from the west had kept things cool and the weather was ideal for this endeavor, clear views all around and Mt Sopris East looms high right with an rocky ridgeline left up along one last line of pine trees and then abruptly over tree line where the snows were a bit more prevalent. Here I was greeted by a white Ptarmigan which led me right up the trail for short while and then crossed onto the snows where I knew my camera would not get a decent shot. I advanced much higher now on the good trail and was soon on an exposed ridge where all the peaks northeast now came into view and I was taken back by the shear size and what an impressive view this was from this unique vantage. The entire Elk Mountain Range seemed to appear and close enough to touch as the ridge now had lethal cliffs both left and right and staying on the trail here was a no-brainer as it crested the very top of the ridge and continued to climb along a rocky/snowy advance for a short while before coming to two prominent “mounds” of rock. Up and over the first mound as my heart was pounding from the exertion, then across a short rocky ridge to the next mound where the trail then veered left and took me around vs over this outcropping and onto a wind-blown approach ridge for Mt Sopris East.
Mt Sopris East ridge approach
Here I paused for a rest and to take in some water as staying hydrated on this sunny day would be most necessary.
Windy conditions were now becoming much more of an issue as a strong blow was now in my face as I continued the trek along the ridge or just left of it as following the trail became a little more of a struggle as I simply decided to scramble along and stay high enough as to not get too far left and off course. I now experienced the first and then the second false summit I read about before actually seeing what I hoped to be the actual Mt Sopris East summit above. Pausing and catching my breathe as I went and then up some more rock scrambling as I ignored the trail and went for the highest point I saw. I could now see Mt Sopris West looming in the distance on the left as I plodded up and through the last rocky section then up and abruptly onto the Mt Sopris East summit proper. I’d made it! right at 11:26am and the wind had me hunkering-down some and I looked back down the ridgeline and now saw a person in red advancing towards me. Here again the views were astounding as I found this to be a very rewarding summit with impressive views in most any direction as I looked down upon Carbondale and Thomas Lakes; at eye level was the Elk Range dominated by Capitol Peak and many other snow-capped peaks.
Across the way and “right there” stands Mt Sopris West with it’s three “humps”
Mt Sopris West
and the left most hump appeared to be the highest point with a gradual appearing connecting ridge from where I was over to the second of these twin peaks. I would not hesitate and paused only briefly at the first summit as I was now on a mission to reach both peaks. Earlier I wasn’t sure where this climb would take me; would it be one peak and call it good as it was on Mt Meeker or would I have the “suds” to reach both peaks in one attempt. I was feeling quite good and although the wind was becoming more of a factor I made my way down and onto the connecting saddle/ridge in a matter of minutes. As I descended from Mt Sopris East and onto the ridgeline the wind became ever more fierce as I was now in the midst of sustained 40 mp winds as the snowy/rocky saddle revealed another well-traveled trail and although the snow hid some of the trail the summit remained directly in site and making my way without stopping brought me up the ridge/saddle on a gradual climb as the last 50 yards was through ever-pressing stronger winds as I clambered up one last section and practically fell into the awaiting stone bunker and was quite glad to be there. Mt Sopris West right at 12:01pm; my halfway point had been reached.
I held on to my hat the last 100 yds as the wind seemed to increase with each step I took and the bunker was a savior as I removed my pack and settled-in as best I could while crouching low and finding a seat. My hands shook as I could feel my perspiration chilling-down almost immediately and I quickly took in some food & drink and readied my camera for the many shots I’d take from the confines of this welcomed respite. Others had built this tiny fortress and I couldn’t have been happier to be there now and treasure the well-being I felt as I peered over the side and took some good shots of the Elk Range and Mt Sopris East.
Mt Sopris East
I grabbed my hat and posed for my self-portrait summit shot
Mt Sopris West summit shot
and then took in more food & drink and three aspirin for the way back; I looked over to Mt Sopris East and saw the person I’d seen below earlier and wondered if they’d come on forward to this peak as well. I buttoned-down, put on my stocking cap and grabbed my pack then crawled over the side and back out into the blowing/tempest like wind as I was now being pushed back down to the saddle and back up the other side in record time as I didn’t stop but for a short breather near the middle of the saddle.
My Sopris East was empty just as I had left it earlier and I saw no sign of the other person I’d seen earlier as they no doubt were on their way back down. I paused only briefly here and took a few more photos
Elk Range with Capitol Peak left
Mt Sopris East summit shot
and then started back across the approach ridge and back the way I’d come. Getting down off Mt Sopris East and back across the ridge brought much appreciated relief from the howling winds and it became downright pleasant again the further I went as the lower elevation showed only minor breezes. Nice! Following the trail back was much easier as I found that if I ever lost the trail all I had to do was get back on the ridge crest and there it would be complete with footprints from others. I made quick work of the route down and cleared the double rock outcropping and back through the narrow/exposed section which I found to be the crux of this entire trail.
Mt Sopris ridge system Thomas Lakes below
Tree line brought warmer temperatures and the snows were now slush and keeping your eyes on where your were going was necessary to avoid biffing it hard as things were now a bit loose & muddy in spots and I was glad to be sporting my old mountaineering boots as I’d brought my crampons along just in case but never needed them. Kicking down through the snows and back to Thomas Lakes went well and although I was feeling tired I felt good and soon paused to get into short sleeves and add some more sun lotion.
I saw only ten people all day and here at the lakes I now saw a young couple and rather large wolf-looking dog that snuck-up on me as I made ready for the last push back down. We exchanged pleasantries and they then started down ahead of me and would keep about 75 yards ahead for the better part of 2 miles as I found this final descent on the good trail to be a necessary grind of sorts. After a while the trail broke-out into a meadow where the trail stays right but off on the left I noticed another trail and looking below could see where it re-connected with this same trail about 200 yards down. I decided I could use a good short-cut right about now and proceeded left and down a bit steeper grade and then through some tall grasses and then back onto the main trail. I found a renewed vigor and passed another couple also with a dog a bit farther down before covering the last few turns and switch backs and then back down near the TH where I saw a group of four backpackers heading up, they were very pleased when I announced that they would have the Thomas Lakes all to themselves.
I got back down and to my truck right at 4:30 sharp to close the day on an uncanny time-plan I’d put together two days earlier in my preparations. I always take a slip of paper and try my best to jot down a timetable of events to keep myself on a schedule of sorts. This day I had planned to wake at 2:10am (I woke at 2:00), get on the road at 3:00am (I got rolling at 2:58), start up the trail no-later-than 7:00am (I started at 6:44), to reach the second of the two summits at noon (I reached Mt Sopris West summit at 12:01pm) and finally to get back to the trail head by 4:30. Never had I come so close in my estimations and it added a sense of having someone above watching over my endeavor and helping me along each step of the way. October 27 is by far the latest I’d ever tried to climb an alpine peak and being blessed with great weather made for an enjoyable quest. Mt Sopris has been on my list for a good many years and finally getting a chance to have a great climb on a wonderful mountain this fine autumn day featuring a most rewarding 12’er was one for the records.........Way sweet!
One last shot of Mt Sopris from the Prince Creek Road and then on to Basalt.
Tonight- dinner, a game of “Snarkle” and much welcomed lodging with my niece and her husband in Basalt. Tomorrow- trout and whitefish fly fishing on the Crystal River one of my many favorites……..I’m so very glad to live in Colorado!!
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