12,884 Feet (Unranked)
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Trailhead: Fall River Reservoir (10,740 Feet)
September 26th, 2009
8.5 Miles Roundtrip
Elevation Gained: Approximately 3,400 Feet
Greenhouseguy (Brian) and Zoomie83 (Todd)
The last day of summer brought snow to Colorado’s Front Range. While many hikers dread the prospect of snow in the high country, others like myself view it as an opportunity for refreshing change. Would we really want the summer monsoon season to last forever? Ironically, Todd and I headed to the Fall River Reservoir to start our first hike of the fall season. The conditions that we encountered forced us to adjust our plans with happy results.
We set out to climb two ranked thirteeners on the Continental Divide, Mt. Eva and Parry Peak. Parry Peak was named by (and for) botanist Charles Christopher Parry, who is hailed by many as the father of Colorado botany. Parry studied under renowned professors Asa Gray and John Torrey, for whom Grays and Torreys Peaks are named. He gained his first practical botanical experience by serving as a scientific advisor on a military mission to explore the land that the United States annexed after the Mexican/American War. He returned to Colorado in 1861 and amassed the largest trove of botanical specimens that had ever been collected. University of Colorado Professor Emeritus William Weber wrote that Parry named Mt. Eva after his second wife, but historical records show that his second (and final) wife’s name was Emily Robinson. Mt. Eva’s namesake remains a mystery as far as I’m concerned.
I don’t know how cold it was when we departed from Fall River Reservoir, but it was cold enough. The weather report looked very promising, so I foolishly expected the steady wind to relent as the day progressed. The water level in the reservoir was exceptionally low. We hiked around the south side of the reservoir and headed southwest towards Chinns Lake, which was a distance of less than a quarter mile. Much of the trail was buried beneath the snow, so we just bushwhacked along the creek that flows past the reservoir from Chinns Lake.
The surface of Chinns Lake was mostly frozen. We could see much of our route through Chinns Lake Basin from the shoreline. Our goal was to follow the path of least resistance through the basin and to ascend the saddle between Witter Peak and Mt. Eva. It is best to avoid the willows by staying to the extreme right in the basin, but I plotted out a more challenging course that required us to posthole in every snowdrift and wade through every creek.
There was an obvious trail between Chinns Lake and the higher Sherwin Lake, but we had to navigate through a sea of willows beyond Sherwin Lake. I was grateful for my Gore-Tex gaiters and freshly waxed boots.
As we neared the saddle, we could see that a fairly significant cornice had formed on the ridge. I spotted what appeared to have been a nearly snow-free route on the side of Witter Peak’s northwest ridge; it was steep, but it looked like a safe and easy alternative. Why not hit Witter Peak while we’re so close? There would never be a better opportunity. Todd agreed.
Veering off towards Witter Peak's northwest ridge. Our “nearly snow-free” route can be seen angling from the lower right to upper left side of the image.
It turned out that the bare patches of rock were not so bare; they were covered with a film of ice. It was difficult to make much progress with the treacherous footing, so we followed a ribbon of snow to the top of the ridge. We got much better traction on the snow than we were able to get on the ice.
It was much easier to contend with the ice once we reached the gentler slopes on top of the ridge. Witter Peak only rises 144 feet above its saddle with Mt. Eva, so it didn’t take much effort to get to the summit once we reached the crest of the broad ridge.
The wind was probably blowing a steady 15-20 m.p.h. up on the ridge. We were fortunate, because it is frequently much worse along the Continental Divide. I wore my mask to keep my nose from freezing, but it also protected me from the flying ice and dirt particles that were being whipped around. I had sunglasses, but I would have worn my goggles if I had brought them.
The wind shelter on Witter Peak’s summit was inadequate at best. Todd had a bite to eat while I took in the views. The number of mountains that I could see amazed me; they were dazzling with their fresh coat of snow. I saw Squaw Mountain, Chief Mountain, Mt. Evans, Mt. Bierstadt, Squaretop Mountain, Argentine Peak, Mt. Edwards, Grays Peak, Torreys Peak, Colorado Mines Peak, Mt. Flora, Mt. Eva, Parry Peak, and many more. Lowly unranked twelvers don’t ordinarily earn much praise, but Witter Peak did not disappoint us.
Torreys Peak, Grays Peak, Mt. Edwards, and McClellan Mountain as seen from Witter Peak
Mt. Eva (left) and Parry Peak (right) viewed from Witter Peak
Following the ridge over to Mt. Eva required little effort. The summit only rises 430 feet above the saddle, so there wasn’t a great deal of altitude to gain. The only thing that concerned me was the powerful gusts of wind. The wind kept us off-balance for much of the hike.
The abandoned radio shack about 40 feet below the summit made an excellent wind break. The shack and mangled radio tower were supposed to be removed when the area became part of the James Peak Wilderness in 2002, but the project seems to be moving at the speed of government.
Mt. Eva’s summit was somewhat drab, but the views were excellent. I was anxious to move on to our loftiest goal of the day, Parry Peak. Parry Peak is the James Peak Wilderness highpoint, and is the highest mountain on the Divide for several miles in either direction.
The descent from Mt. Eva was problematic at first. We worked our way down steep snow-covered talus until the grade gradually leveled off a bit. There was a significant cornice on the edge of the ridge almost all the way to Parry Peak’s summit. I made it a point to keep my distance from the cornice with the wind blowing us backwards, forwards, and sideways.
Parry Peak was technically very easy, but it was physically demanding. It rises 691 feet above its saddle with Mt. Eva, and most of it was steep rock and snow. We took frequent breathers along the way.
The slope finally eased up near the summit. Parry Peak has an interesting profile, but up close the summit resembled a rounded whale’s back.
So, we reached our third summit of the day. Now what? In order to return the same way that we had come, we would have to re-summit Mt. Eva; that would have required a great deal of effort. Parry Peak’s south slopes route was not looking like an attractive option with all the snow. It seemed that the easiest option was to summit Mt. Bancroft and return to Fall River Reservoir via the southeast ridge route. Mt. Bancroft is one of the easier peaks in the area, and the southeast ridge would be a long, easy ride down.
The wind really whistles across the Parry/Bancroft saddle, and most of the snow had blown to Kansas or Nebraska. We made good time on a trail down to the saddle, but the wind became absolutely unbearable as we started up the other side on Mt. Bancroft. We were practically crawling on our hands and knees through some stretches. After we crossed the first major bump on the ridge, we dropped down on the leeward side. The ridge sheltered us from the full force of the wind, but we found ourselves hiking through the spindrift that was blowing off of the ridge. I watched several miniature snow “tornadoes” swirl over our heads. There was never a dull moment. I found a dragonfly encased in ice as we crossed a snowfield.
The bitter end for a dragonfly
We crossed one last snowfield just below the summit; I stood and watched the wind hurl chunks of ice over the ridge. The wind shelter on the summit was almost big enough to be useful. It was mostly covered in snow, but Todd knew where to dig to find the summit register since he had just been up here the previous week before the storm.
The route down Mt. Bancroft’s southeast ridge didn’t look like it would present any difficulties. We started off on smooth snow, and it looked like we would be able to hike on bare rocks for most of the rest of the way. We wound up postholing several times in hip deep snow between the boulders, but it wasn’t terrible. The mountain blocked most of the wind, and the afternoon sun warmed us. This ridge was definitely the best descent route available to us.
We passed an ice-free Ice Lake on the way down the ridge. This lake stays frozen for most of the year because of its shady location beneath James Peak’s slopes.
We continued down the ridge until we could see Loch Lomond on one side of us and Fall River Reservoir on the other side. We turned down towards the reservoir when we reached the point where an old 4WD road comes up from Loch Lomond.
Fall River Reservoir as we were dropping down off the side of Mt. Bancroft’s southeast ridge
There were short sections of trail on the slope down to the reservoir, but they weren’t really necessary. We just basically headed straight down the hillside towards the reservoir. A contorted grove of limber pines stands as testimony to the high winds in the area.
A limber pine (Pinus flexilis) sculpted by the wind
Our tour of the four mountains took us on an 8.5-mile loop with more than 3,400 feet of elevation gain. It was an exhilarating hike with breath-taking views, and it didn’t take an inordinate amount of time or gasoline to get there. The next time that you head west on I-70 past the buffalo overlook at Genesee, look for five beautiful mountains that are framed perfectly by the pillarless overpass. These mountains are certainly worth adding to your to-do list!