Report by Steve Knapp:
2011/08/28 - The Never Summer Traverse - An Electrical Day in RMNP
"Never Summer Peak" 12,438
Lead Mountain 12,537
Hart Ridge 12,500 (unranked)
Mt. Cirrus 12,797
Howard Mountain 12,810
Mt. Cumulus 12,725
Mt. Nimbus 12,706
18 miles RT, 7500' gain, 13 hours
From Colorado River Trailhead (9,090 ft), Rocky Mountain National Park
Partner: Brian Kalet
Brian and I met about 5:30 a.m. Sunday at the trailhead. Turns out we should have met at 5 as Brian was already there, having piloted the Kalet rocketship over Trail Ridge from Ft. Collins in 1:40. I guess that's a fast trip when there are no motorhomes or elk gawkers clogging the road. It was only 2:15 over Berthoud Pass from my place in Highlands Ranch, not bad for peaks this far north and west of the Denver metro.
We started out at a brisk pace under headlamps as the eastern skies brightened through a mix of clouds. The pesky monsoon was still lingering and would come back to bite us later. Temps were not bad though, 46 degrees and nice enough for shorts most of the day. The Colorado River trail heads north about 1/2 mile to a bridge across the river, just a small creek here in the headwaters area as it begins it's long journey to the Pacific. After crossing the river the Red Mountain trail climbs moderately through a couple of long switchbacks. The park service is notorious for building the longest switchbacks known to man. After about three mile the trail pops out onto the Grand Ditch at 10,200.
Grand Ditch with Red Mtn and Nimbus Pk above:
Grand Ditch with Never Summer Peak above:
This ditch is fascinating to me, having been built in the early 1900's with crude tools and manpower. It's purpose is to siphon off 20-40% of the west slope runoff in the Never Summer mountains and divert it to the eastern slope over La Poudre pass. It's well maintained, with few bridges. It might be a difficult crossing during peak runoff season without a bridge. It's 1.7 miles north on the ditch to the Hitchens Gulch trail. Along the way a truck passed by heading south. He waved but did not look like an employee of the ditch company or the NPS so we wondered what he was doing there. Is there a legal way to drive on the ditch road?
Start of the Hitchens Gulch Trail:
"Never Summer Peak" (R) and Lead Mtn (L):
We crossed the Grand Ditch at Hitchens Gulch on a nice bridge and followed the trail west to treeline where it disappeared. The grassy slopes were enjoyable knowing that was all about to end with the rocky ridges looming above. "Never Summer Peak" was first up on our agenda today. We found decent traveling on steep talus gaining the ridge just east of the saddle. Once there the terrain moderated, we ditched our packs for the only time today, and headed to the Never Summer summit about 9:00 a.m. and 7.5 miles into the route. There was no register on this peak or any of the ones we climbed today. Too bad about that as I'm curious how often these are climbed. There are probably more visits to Longs peak on one summer day then have ever been up these peaks. Never Summer peak is an eastern outlier to the main north south ridgeline, and would be problematic for people doing a longer north-south traverse on the range.
Cirrus from below:
Lead Mountain - East Ridge:
Lead Peak was up next and it was a fun scramble. Mostly Class 2 with some short sections of fun Class 3. Even some Class 4 if you look for it. This was good solid granite and we savored it knowing the rock quality was going to head south as we traveled south. The views to Mt Richthofen were amazing from Lead. I must get up there and climb that one of these days.
Hart Ridge and Cirrus:
After Lead we descended on nice large talus to the saddle with Hart Ridge. It took quite a while to gain Hart ridge and the rock quality took a turn for the worse along the way. From Hart ridge it was a pretty quick jaunt to the summit of Mt. Cirrus. We were now halfway through the peaks with a long way to go. Great views down to Lake of the Clouds from here.
Lake of the Clouds:
The traverse from Cirrus to Howard was the easiest stretch of the day. There was a nice stretch of tundra slopes and the distance wasn't great, only .6 miles or so. We couldn't enjoy it too much since clouds were starting to build as the bright sun heated the wet landscape below. From Howard we could see the remainder of our southward journey on the continental divide. Nimbus was still a long way, separated by several miles of rotten ridge.
Cumulus and Nimbus:
The volcanic rock is very loose in the stretch from Howard to Cumulus. It was time consuming and great care had to be taken. There were times we had to leave the ridge and traverse below it, and some short scrambles as well. That said, we both agreed that it wasn't too awful bad compared to other notorious slag heaps in the San Juans. The traverse to Cumulus took 1:50, and it was now about 2pm.
Brian on the ridge:
One peak left to go. We kept an eye on the weather on the way down to the saddle. There was a distant rumble or two, but the first storms had fired to our east up towards the higher peaks of the Park. We reached the saddle with Nimbus and all we had left was a 1/2 mile hike and 650' gain on tired legs. A small storm had now built up a few miles west, so we poured on whatever speed we could muster to finish the job. I must admit I caught a case of summit fever and did not want to leave this last peak unclimbed. Brian was about 100 yards behind me and I kept on eye on him and the clouds. In a matter of a couple minutes a couple of big booms exploded around me. It was too late, we were enveloped in the storm. I was only 100 vertical feet and .1 miles below the summit of Nimbus. I found the best cover I could below the ridge on the east side and put on my raingear as all hell broke loose. No time to head down, I felt it was best to stay low and wait it out.
This was the worst storm I've been caught in for many years, maybe ever. I could no longer see Brian and wondered where he was. For a good 30 minutes lightning filled the basin and I really wished I was somewhere else. I also worried about Brian. When the storm moved off to the east I quickly ran up and tagged the summit of Nimbus, then reversed route to the saddle where I had last seen Brian. No Brian, so he must have headed out. Further down the basin there were snowfields with tracks, good to know he was alive. I glissaded a couple of the snowfields (in late August no less). It is truly never summer in parts of the Never Summers.
The basin between Cumulus and Nibus funnels into Opposition Creek. Getting back to the Grand Ditch from here would prove entertaining. The creek sucked me down into a steep walled narrow canyon with crumbling rock on the sides of it. There was still snow covering parts of it, this drainage was probably all snow just a month ago. The terrain mellowed out below treeline and it was a tough bushwhack with tons of deadfall, huge trees, and dense vegetation. It felt like the Pacific NW here, and clearly this side of the Park gets the most moisture. I was smiling all the way, thrilled to be in such wild country.
Eventually I popped back onto the Grand Ditch where fortunately there was a bridge. All the rain had swollen the ditch to twice the level we saw on the way up. I'd had enough bushwhacking , so I followed the ditch north to the trail intersection and then out the long 3.3 miles to the trailhead. I did catch a glimpse of a cow moose in the woods, which was cool. Finally I reached the trailhead about 6:30pm where Brian had been waiting for some time. He had wisely bailed off of Nimbus and ran into the valley below during the peak of the storm. After trading stories we headed home our separate ways. It had been an awesome traverse and gave me a refresher course on severe weather in RMNP. When it gets bad, it gets real bad up there. But I'll be back again soon, ready for more and with more respect for these rugged peaks and the conditions that shape them.