12,244 Feet (Ranked 1,176th in CO)
Long Gulch Trailhead (10,080 Feet)
March 1st, 2009
About 7.6 Miles Roundtrip
Elevation Gained: Approximately 2,500 Feet
Greenhouseguy (Brian) and Slow Moving Fun Seeker (Jay)
I’ve spent many hours hiking and snowshoeing the crowded trails in Rocky Mountain National Park. I’ve joined the throngs that always seem to appear at the Brainard Lake winter closure trailhead on the weekends. I remember feeling a sense of dread as I was gearing up in the Mt. Bierstadt parking lot with at least a hundred other like-minded individuals. I inadvertently stumbled upon a cure for the crowded trail syndrome one day while I was driving down Hwy. 285 near Bailey. I had seen the Ben Tyler Trail sign many times, and finally decided to check it out. The interesting flora, fauna, and geology drew me in. The solitude sealed the deal. In all of my hikes in the Lost Creek Wilderness, I have rarely seen more than one or two other pairs of hikers. In seven LCW hikes this winter, I have yet to see another hiker other than my partners. Nothing can compare to ascending a 12,000-foot peak and feeling like I own the whole 119,740 acres.
“Peak Z” is relatively isolated from the trailhead. The Colorado Trail passes within a mile of the summit, but it is a difficult bushwhack from the trail to treeline. Numerous rocks, fallen trees, deep snow, and dense aspen growth make the standard route unattractive in winter. I came up with a fairly painless way to reach treeline; I followed the Hooper Trail and a spur trail to reach the plateau between “Peak X” and “Peak Y.” This is not the shortest route, but it entirely eliminated the bushwhacking. I had already broken trail to the 11,500-foot plateau on the last weekend in January, and February’s light snowfall had not even begun to fill in my trench. From the plateau, I intended to pass over “Peak Y’s” south ridge at the lowest point, and improvise to find the easiest route to the summit of “Peak Z.” I had to make some minor revisions to the route, but the basic plan turned out to be pretty solid.
The trip to the trailhead was much easier than it usually is in winter. Lost Park Rd. was almost entirely free from snow, and 4WD was not necessary to get past the short snowy stretches. A Subaru would have had no trouble reaching the trailhead.
The lower part of the trail has had some light traffic over the winter, so it was packed well enough that we didn’t need snowshoes. Jay wore his microspikes, and I just had my winter boots. If we had been taking the standard route on “Peak Z,” we would have turned right on the Colorado Trail at about 0.2 miles. We continued on the Hooper Trail past the signed intersection with the Colorado Trail.
The junction of the Hooper Trail (straight) and the Colorado Trail (broken trail to the right and unbroken trail to the left)
We followed the Hooper Trail for another 0.6 miles to the junction with a spur trail on the left at about 10,600 feet. The junction is not marked, but I had no problem finding the trench that I made back in January. There was a series of old blazes on the trees, so navigation was fairly easy.
The trail ascends a scenic gulch lined with rocky cliffs and filled with willows. The best route stays to the east of the willows, and bushwhacking is not necessary. My trench was still mostly in good shape, but we put on our snowshoes for traction and to help us through the deep snow in the windblown areas.
As we neared the top of the gulch, a large rock formation appeared at the top. I’ve named this rock the “Guardian of the Gulch” because it “guards” the mouth of the gulch. It’s a useful landmark, particularly when visibility is poor. The standard route for “Peak X” and “Peak Y” takes hikers to the left of the rocks, but some hikers bushwhack around the right side. The advantage to following the standard route on the left is that it directs hikers to an easy path through the willows on the plateau. Straying from the standard route through the willows can result in unnecessary torture as you have to bull your way through head-high willows.
When we reached the 11,500-foot plateau, the sunshine was brilliant and the views of “Peak X” and “Peak Y’ were magnificent. It was a logical place to take a water break, adjust our gear, and put on some sunscreen. There was a light breeze, but the weather was still ideal. The trail through the willows stretched out before us. We planned to follow the trail through the densest part of the willows, then turn right towards “Peak Y.”
“Peak Y” loomed about 700 feet above us on the plateau. There is no trail to the summit, so reaching the top is simply a matter of picking what appears to be the easiest route. Staying on the grassy tundra is much easier than scrambling over the rocks. I have already summited “Peak Y,” and Jay was more interested in reaching our goal of “Peak Z,” so we just headed for the low spot on the south ridge (about 11,800 feet).
The west side of “Peak Y” seen from the plateau between “Peak X” and “Peak Y”
We stayed at about 11,800 feet as we traversed to the east side of “Peak Y.” Since we were neither gaining nor losing elevation, it was a pleasant tundra hike for about 0.4 miles. Staying to the south of the summit turned out to be a good plan; the ridge between “Peak Y” and “Peak Z” on the north side of the summit is extremely rocky, and would have involved a good bit of scrambling and significant elevation loss.
There were some eerie skeleton bristlecone pines on the south slopes of “Peak Y.” I have no clue as to what may have killed these trees, or how long they may have been dead. Wood can take hundreds of years to decay at high altitudes, where fungi cannot survive the harsh winters. Wind-driven ice particles blast the wood and burnish it to a smooth finish, much like driftwood on a beach.
Skeleton bristlecone pine on “Peak Y.” The rocky ridge between “Peak Y” and “Peak Z” is in the background.
We determined that the easiest route to the summit of “Peak Z” was going to be up the side of the south ridge. It was fairly steep, but not too rocky. We had to cross the valley between “Peak Y” and “Peak Z,” and it was necessary to lose some altitude between the two mountains. From the 11,800-foot level, we only had to lose about 100 feet of elevation. This was an acceptable loss, given the relative ease of our route up to this point. I worked toward a huge, prominent rock structure on the south ridge; it looked like a fine spot to take a break and to find some shelter from the increasing wind. The sun and the wind had cleared most of the snow from the upper slopes, and the bare tundra was a reminder that spring was just around the corner.
I waited for Jay at the rocky fortress so we could plan our ascent of the upper slope. Jay was bonking, because he had not fully recovered from a nasty cold. He decided to layer up and find some shelter at the rock while I finished off my nemesis peak. It was probably about 250 vertical feet from the rock shelter to the summit. The summit boulder was not visible from below, but it was just a few feet beyond the highest visible spot.
I had caught my second wind, so it didn’t take me long to work my way up the upper slope. There was nothing particularly remarkable about the rocky summit. Nothing, that is, other than the notorious summit boulder.
Brian near the summit (image by Jay F.)
The summit boulder is about six or seven feet tall, with no significant hand or footholds. There are several large rocks close to the boulder, but nothing big enough to give me much of an advantage in scaling the boulder. I walked around it several times to work out a plan. The most notable irregularity that I could find on the rock was sort of a flake on the east side (not visible in the image below, but just above the handles of my trekking poles). I put my left foot on the flake, my right foot on the rock in the foreground, and my left hand on top of the boulder. I lunged, and pulled myself up on the rock on the first try. Jennifer Roach wrote that it takes several Class 2+ moves to get on top of the boulder; I’d call it a single Class 3 move. It wasn’t exactly hardcore mountaineering, but it was satisfying to have a puzzle to solve on the summit.
The Roaches wrote that the spirit of the Retirement Range is on “Peak Z;” it was indeed a beautiful, very isolated spot. I could see all of the Platte River Mountains and Kenosha Mountains, all the way to Kenosha Pass. Bison Peak seemed so close that I could reach out and touch it. Pikes Peak seemed very close as well. Much of the Mosquito Range was visible, cloaked in a fresh coat of snow. I didn’t have the presence of mind to snap any images until I was already on my way down the slope.
Brian descending from the summit (image by Jay F.)
“Zephyr” was about a mile to the southeast. The terrain between the mountains appeared to be fairly easy, and the elevation difference was not significant. I would have loved to have tagged the summit while I was so close, but I still had a long and difficult trip back to the trailhead. I’ve visited “Zephyr” before, and it was certainly worth the effort. The rocky summit is among the most beautiful in the Kenosha Mountains, and the summit has an interesting Class 3 finish that is similar to “Peak Z’s.”
Bison Peak looked magnificent, but not nearly as magnificent as it looks up close. That granite wonderland is a national treasure. Snow-capped Pikes Peak appeared elegant in the distance.
Looking down the spine of the Kenosha Mountains, I could see “Peak Y,” “Peak X,” and one of the subpeaks of “Peak X.”
(L to R) Unnamed subpeak of “Peak X,” “Peak X,” and “Peak Y”
I met Jay back at the rock shelter, and we geared up for our descent. We decided to bushwhack down to the Colorado Trail instead of retracing our steps. It was more direct, and making a loop was more interesting than just doing an out-and-back. I knew that bushwhacking would present some challenges, but it seemed to be worth the effort.
There was an extensive skeleton forest on the south ridge of “Peak Z.” Some of the specimens were spectacular; Jay noted that a competent photographer could get some amazing shots here.
Bushwhacking through knee-deep snow and tightly-spaced aspen on the south ridge of “Peak Z”
We stayed on the east side of the ridge as we descended. There were some large rock outcrops on our right for much of the descent; I had to use my GPS to keep us on route when the rocks weren’t visible. We encountered mud, shallow snow, and deep snow. I got tired of taking off my snowshoes and putting them back on, so I just plowed through the deep snow in my boots. It was exhausting work. We took a circuitous route through downed trees and around numerous rocks. The tightly-spaced aspen seemed to close in on us. The bushwhack had nearly everything that I would want to avoid on a hike. Then, quite suddenly, we broke out of the forest and hit the Colorado Trail in the valley along the North Fork of Lost Creek.
Patchy snow and mud on the Colorado Trail along the North Fork of Lost Creek
We headed northeast on the Colorado Trail towards North Lost Pass. The snow was patchy, so we started out in boots. The snow got deeper as we progressed, so we finished up in snowshoes.
Winter conditions prevailed at North Lost Pass. I was amazed that nobody had used this stretch of the Colorado Trail recently. The untracked snow was pleasing to look at, but it only meant one thing to me: more trail breaking! We had the option of turning south on the Colorado Trail or staying straight on the Hooper Trail. I knew that we would not have to break trail for very long in either direction before we would reach broken trail; I estimated that we would only have to cover 0.2 miles on the Hooper Trail before we would reach the point where we turned off on the spur trail that went up the gulch towards “Peak X.” It seemed like the easier alternative, so we stayed on the Hooper Trail. The route was not always obvious, so I followed the contour of the land and used the GPS when it was necessary. The forest was pretty open, so there weren’t many obstacles in our path. It was quite a relief when we finally reached the well-packed section of the trail. We were pretty tired, but it required little effort to follow the packed trail downhill to the trailhead. We enjoyed a beautiful day in the wilderness, and got in some good conditioning in preparation for the summer fourteener season. It was particularly satisfying for me to finally summit “Peak Z” after several unsuccessful attempts. Having a nemesis peak has always been a strong motivator for me, and this one was certainly a worthy challenge.