Monday, September 10, 2007

RMNP Part 2 - Off Trail Adventure

The first night of camping never seems to net much sleep. Both Jill and I tossed and turned all night, probably accumulating more sleep than we realized but still not feeling that rested. The sun was up, although not hitting us yet since we were tucked away below the 12,000 foot peaks, so we got up and started getting organized for our attempt at Fifth Lake.

Looking on our map, we plotted out our trip. We would climb up to Lone Pine Lake, then continue climbing to the largest of the lakes we'd see, Lake Verna. Once we got to Lake Verna, the luxury of having an established trail would be gone and we would be forced to navigate our own trail to Spirit Lake. Past Spirit Lake we would hit Fourth Lake and then a big climb to the apex of East Inlet, Fifth Lake which sits in the shroud of Isolation Peak and the Continental Divide. Round trip would only be 10 miles, but a lot of climbing and rough, unestablished trails would make it a formidable goal as this would be our first time to leave established trails in search of a destination.

We packed Jill's backpack as a daypack. I took her backpack and she carried my camera and before we realized it we were approaching Lone Pine lake. As we walked up we saw a lone man sitting on the rocks, and he gestured towards the water. Standing about 30 feet from us on the edge of the lake was a good sized bull moose. He took note of us, but then went about his business of having a morning snack and a cool drink of water. We stood and watched him for about 10 minutes, before continuing our ascent to Verna Lake.

Looking back towards Lone Pine Lake, lake stop #1 for the day

Lake Verna, the 2nd of 5 alpine lakes for the day

By the time we hit Verna Lake, the sun had crested the divide and the temperature was warming quickly. Just as the temps were rising, the trail was diminishing. We encountered a broken sign, propped up on the side of the trail that simply read:

"Unimproved trail beyond this point"

What we didn't realize at the time was that "unimproved" meant virtually no trail. Huge fallen trees around every corner, stream crossings, crossing large boulder sections and general bushwhacking were standard issue. Following game trails as much as we could, we eventually made our way to Spirit Lake. Pausing for to take things in for a moment, we kept moving higher towards our lunch spot, Fourth Lake.

That is one huge elk footprint

Looking towards the Continental Divide across Spirit Lake

Just as we broke through the trees into the flat marsh around Fourth Lake, a huge bald eagle swooped down about 30 feet in front of us. The huge, unmistakable bird flew to the other end of the lake then rested in a tree. As we approached the mountain, it circled countless amount of times just effortlessly soaring through the air. We picked out a large boulder to be our picnic table, fired up the stove and in 15 minutes we were eating pasta primavera.

As we filled our bellies, we talked about how unimaginative "Fourth Lake" was. It was at that point that Jill deemed this lake "Joel Lake" as at that moment in time it truly seemed like we were the only people who had ever been there. Sure I know that this summer there were probably at least 50 or 100 people who made it to Fourth Lake, but the signs of anyone else were long, long gone.

With lunch devoured, we packed up and started our way across the boggy wetlands. Now the real fun would begin.

From Joel Lake to Fifth Lake, which from that point on would be deemed "Jill Lake", was only about a mile, but it would require a rock scramble up a super steep ridge. As we approached the ridge, we tried to develop a plan of attack to reach the top. Pulling our way through waist high weeds and crossing East Inlet probably at least 6 or 7 times, we found ourselves scrambling up a 30 degree pitch any manner we could. We would switch back and forth, increasing mileage but decreasing slope until we finally would break out of the rocks and trees and see the top of the ridge where Jill Lake sat.

Jill stands near 5th, I mean Jill Lake

When we got our first glance at the lake it made it all seem worthwhile. Jill Lake was a saturated green color with crystal clear water. Everything was lush and green which provided an interesting contrast to the jagged peaks that give the impression of a hard living. We again found a big boulder, dangled our feet in the frigid water and just enjoyed the solitude.

Back at our campsite, Jill enjoys a book by the stream

While we enjoyed tremendous weather for the most part, we were reminded Saturday night how quickly things can change at high elevation. Big winds and rapidly dropping temps had us hanging out in the tent even before the sun had dropped. The next morning, we got up and leisurely packed up camp and trekked the 5 miles back to the car. We were approaching the trailhead about the time the day hiking crews were showing up. Perfect timing, and after the scenic drive across the real Trail Ridge Rd, we were back on our Trail Ridge Rd in time to catch the end of the Bronco's game.

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