Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Our Excursion into the Fossil Ridge Wilderness

Hi everyone, Dustin here. So, for this blog post, there's going to be a bit of a change of pace. Amy's decided to ask me to take over this post to account our past weekend in a trip report of sorts. Apparently, she saw me journaling on our trip to Mexico and wanted me to be a guest blogger on this post. Warning: this is my passion and subsequently, this will be a looooong post!




A month or so ago, our backpacking buddy Brennan sent me a email outlining a couple of potential trips for our Fourth of July weekend trip. One of the options was to Comanche Peak in the Mummy Range of northern Colorado, and the second was the one that just seemed to be a perfect match for us - Lamphier Lake in the Fossil Ridge Wilderness.




Located about 45 minutes northeast from Gunnison, Lamphier Lake sits three miles from the Gold Creek Trailhead. While that doesn't sound too far, the trail is quite steep for a backpacking trip, gaining about 1800' over that distance. Lamphier Lake sits in an idyllic alpine cirque, which is reason enough to spend the weekend there, but there was a special draw for Amy and I; the monarch of this particular wilderness area was none other than Henry Mountain; an isolated peak standing tall at 13,254'. What better way to celebrate the start of our marriage by climbing our namesake mountain? Needless to say, at the start of the trek to Lamphier Lake, we were both excited.








It was steep. The trail doubled as a Forest Ranger 4x4 road, so it largely consisted of a jumble of softball sized rocks that would threaten to roll your ankle if your gaze shifted into the forest of aspens on either side. Amy chose to wear her Vibram Fivefingers with her pack, despite not really breaking them in except for a short run the day before. As she told me her ambitions, I couldn't help but raise an eyebrow; three miles with a 35-40 pound backpack? I already felt pity on her calves.



It was slow going, but we made good time. We reached the campsite early in the afternoon, where Brennan and Christa (and Keltie) had set up shop the day before. At 11,750', the air was thin and crisp. After a few pleasantries and a quick look around the nearby area, Amy and I unpacked and took a well-deserved rest. we sat on a bluff that provided fantastic views of Fossil Mountain to the south, across Lamphier Lake proper.










After a quick bite to eat, we snapped a quick pic of us to document our arrival.










And naturally, we had to get a quick shot of Keltie enjoying her first multi-day backpacking trip.







However, I didn't rest in camp for too long. Weighing heavy on my mind was our climb to Henry Mountain that we would attempt the next day (Sunday). I wanted to scout an area to the north of camp called Gunsight Pass; this area was only a mile or so away, but it allows you to gain the eastern ridge of Squaretop Mountain, which you pass over on the way to Henry Mountain. Colorado was hit hard with snow this winter, so my primary concern was to see if the trail was accessible and devoid of snow. The ridge was somewhat treacherous; in some places, it was only a few feet wide, with vast drops on either side, so any snow covered cliff ledges would be dangerous. However, I was able to catch a glimpse of Henry from this vantage point. After climbing up the ridge a quarter mile or so with Brennan, we concluded there was a snowfield at the ridge's lowest point that wrapped over the entire ridge. This route would, for all intents and purposes, be inaccessible.




Discouraged, Brennan and I headed back to camp to get a hot meal and discuss any potential alternative routes. I wasn't ready to give up on the trip just yet. We started the fire, and enjoyed each other's company as the daylight faded on the nearby peaks.








Before we knew it, summit day was upon us. I'd decided to attempt climbing Henry via Squaretop Mountain's broad eastern gully, just under the jagged ridge we'd scouted the day before. I was unsure if it would work out (persistent snowfields were prevalent on this route as well), but it was our only alternative, so we were willing to give it a try. Brennan and Christa decided not to join us on this climb, so it was just the two of us. After some preparations, we were off.






While it seemed slow-going, we were climbing quickly. Only half an hour or so after we started, we were far above Lake Lamphier. The Sawatch Mountains were now visible as we climbed above treeline.








However, while trees no longer had the ability to survive at the elevation we were at, other flora seemed to do just fine.







The route turned out to be a great alternative. We rockhopped up large talus blocks, skirting the snowfields, until we were able to gain the ridge. After a quick break, we started our ascent of Squaretop's northern ridge. Clouds were starting to build, so out of necessity, we decided to skip Squaretop's summit at the moment to give us a better chance to summit Henry. It was now in view, and while it looked monstrous, the end was in sight!







The clouds began to get more threatening. Wispy sheets of rain fell into nearby valleys and drainages. It was enough to give me pause to study the clouds, to try to predict their movement. I was concerned that we wouldn't be able to summit, but Amy pointed out the wind direction blowing the clouds away from our destination. After a few more moments of weighing our options, we decided to keep pressing for Henry.



The climb from the saddle between Henry and Squaretop was brutal. We were getting tired, and our pace was slowing. About halfway up, I stopped for a break, and turned back to wait for Amy as she made her way to me. It was then I spotted a massive herd of elk on the saddle, only a few hundred yards from us. They were young juveniles, and they had only been grazing on the slopes for a couple of minutes before they quickly descended into the valley below. We couldn't help but smile - already the trip seemed special.






The air thinned as we climbed, but soon enough the end was in sight. For the last thirty or so vertical feet, I took Amy's hand, and we walked to the summit together. From the top, we could see almost every major mountain range in Colorado. Although the weather was continuing to worsen, it was still an incredibly special moment.







After signing the register and a quick bite to eat, we headed back down. The clouds held, and we were even able to summit Squaretop on the way back. However, as we began to near the top of the gully back down to camp, it began to rain and sleet. While it had been reasonably clear above us fifteen minutes ago, a raincloud formed in an astonishingly short time. We began our descent into the ridge just in time; the metal on our trekking poles we had stowed in our bags began to pop and creak with the static electricity building in the air. It became urgent to get off the ridge, in case any lightning would find us a suitable target. The rain made the rocks slick on the descent, and although we did our best to hurry, we had to be careful to not lose our footing on the steep terrain.




As we hopped off the last of the talus back into treeline, the sun came out once again. Relieved, we casually made our way back to camp, content to have accomplished our goal. I know that will be a memory I'll cherish for the rest of my life, and I hope Amy feels the same! The rest of the day, we took our well deserved rest, and recounted our day with Brennan and Christa.




And just like that, before we knew it, our trip came to an end. The next morning, we packed up to beat the traffic back into Denver, and we made great time back down the steep, three mile trail. At some point, Amy looked down to find a dandelion neatly fitted in her Fivefingers.







Already, this has been a great summer. With experiences and memories like this, it's exciting to see what's in store for the rest of 2011, and beyond!

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