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The alarm went off way too early, as Justin or myself did not get all the sleep we should have. We were just too excited about our upcoming adventure. We had a three night backpacking trip planned within the borders of Rocky Mountain National Park. It was to consist of a difficult trek to Little Rock Lake on the first day. This is a remote lake, and the lowest of the Gorge Lakes, which are absolutely beautiful. They are flanked on the South, East, and West by Mount Ida, Chief Cheley Peak, Cracktop Mountain, Julian Mountain, and Terra Tomah Mountain. These lakes, including Rock Lake and Little Rock, are often seen on the other side of Forest Canyon while driving along Trail Ridge Road, and often spark ones adventurous nature. But this is a very remote area of the park, and rather difficult to get to.
The plan was to get to the lake, set up camp, get a good nights sleep, and spend the next day exploring the area, and summiting some of the nearby peaks. Then we would head up and back over the Continental Divide for a night at Timber Lake, heading out the following morning. All it takes for a change of plans is one hell of a storm, excessively rugged terrain, and packs in excess of 50 pounds!
It was a beautiful morning on the 21st. There were a few clouds in the sky, but all looked peaceful and we were anticipating a great day of hiking. We took a few shots of Poudre Lake and then began our climb along the Divide. We climbed through the dense forest up toward tree line. About fifteen minutes into the hike, we were welcomed by two very large bull elk. They watched us as we took a few pictures and moved along the trail. Before we knew it we were above tree line. surrounded by stunning mountains, engulfed in a wonderful morning.
Justin and I continued along the Continental Divide on, possibly, my favorite trail in the park. This trail follows the crest of the Divide for miles. You get above tree line. very quickly, and you spend your day high above the valley floors. There are wonderful views in every direction, beautiful flowers, and a lot of wildlife! The well established trail rises and falls with the rolling tundra as you climb toward the summit of Mt. Ida, seen far in the distance.
We were contemplating hitting the summit before dropping down the ridge from Ida's Northwest slopes, and toward our destination for the day, Little Rock Lake. But the weather was looking a little uncooperative, and we hastily began our descent down, as I know it, Ida Ridge. This is where our only major mistake of the day took place.
We had both looked at the maps and decided to follow the ridge in its entirety, leading us right to Little Rock Lake. But a little over halfway down this gently sloping ridge, we came to a very steep, but manageable slope that led directly to Arrowhead Lake and tree line. With the clouds darkening, tree line. was looking VERY tempting. So we bit. Picking our way carefully down the slope we could see some small willows around the lake that we would have to push through in order to get to the outlet stream, and onto Little Rock Lake, only 3/4 of a mile beyond Arrowhead, and well in sight.
These Willows turned out to be between six and eight feet in height. It was horrible negotiating through the extremely dense, wet, slippery, branches of the trees/bushes. Our feet only touched the ground after falling, and only to get ourselves back up a few feet off the ground in the branches of these trees, so we could see where we were going. After a fall, I would pick my self up, shake it off, only to hear Justin take a tumble up ahead of me. Every time a foot would slip on the wet, slick branches, the weight of the heavy pack would instantly throw you off balance and it was difficult to regain it before you were laying on the ground...or close to it as the branches helped to break the fall. After what seemed like a lifetime, we were finally out of that mess!
We had wasted a lot of time in there, so we quickly moved around the rest of the lake, and began to follow the outlet stream toward our destination, now out of sight. Actually, while crossing the outlet stream, right at tree line., we felt the first drops of rain, which made us pick up the pace even more. We were expecting to make it to camp fairly soon, and hoped to beat the rain...yeah right!
The first section while descending this gorge below Arrowhead Lake was beautiful. There were enormous waterfalls, cliff edges, flowers and even a porcupine, that made this part of the trip very enjoyable. But being in a hurry, I didn't stop to take pictures of anything but the cuddly porcupine. He wasn't to thrilled that I followed him and turned to "flex" his quills. Then he realized that I wasn't such a bad guy after all and sniffed a rock while I got a few shots of him. But, back to business...put the camera away, get your rain coat out and get moving!
A minute or two after I said goodbye to my new friend, the heavens opened. It was a downpour. The temperature dropped to about 40 degrees, the rain was cold, and it was hailing. Now the pace really quickened...because we had to be close, right?
The terrain became pretty marshy, so we moved away from the stream to find some dryer ground. But this just led us through deeper marshes and got us a little turned around. The moving was very slow. We were tired, soaked to the bone, very cold, and hiking cross country....the last trail we had set foot on was high on the divide, miles away. I was a bit out of it at this point, but at least I knew it, and listened to Justin for the correct directions.
As the rain kept dumping from above, Justin leapt from our vantage point, a rock we had climbed to asses our route, down into some more willows, lucky only waste high. I followed, but only because there really wasn't another choice, I just wanted to lie down! Justin lead me back to the stream, and coaxed me over a very tricky crossing, which I would have done without hesitation if I didn't have a small elephant strapped to my back.
After making the river crossing, I realized I was kind of being a wuss, and made myself snap out of it....Justin helped too. So we kept picking our way slowly down the rough terrain along the river. At one point we came to a small, though not so small when it's raining, you're wearing wet shoes and carrying 50 pounds on your back, drop of about eight feet that we had to negotiate along the river. We made our way carefully down this little obstacle, and had to cross the river again, but this time on a steep, slippery slab that made it very unnerving. Halfway out in the river, clinging to this rock, we saw the flash and felt the electricity in our hands through the rock, while, simultaneously, the long and loud crack of thunder shook the earth around us. We both looked at each other in that "what the hell is going on" look and darted to a "cave" in the cliff like bank of the river.
It was actually an overhanging cliff with a grassy bottom, our only shelter but ended up working pretty well. I took my pack off and sat on it, while Justin just sat on the grass. It was actually nice to take a little break, and the "shelter" kept us somewhat out of the rain, although the wind didn't help. But most importantly is kept us from being exposed to the lightning, and made me feel much more comfortable about our situation. So comfortable in fact, that I began to fall asleep, and would have if I hadn't been shivering so badly.
Partly because the sky had cleared a tad, and partly because we were getting excessively cold, we decided to get moving again. We crossed the river once more, and finally found some open forest in which to travel. We stayed in the forest, and the progress became much better. The sun even poked its shining face out of the black clouds at times, which definitely lifted out spirits.
At last! We could see Rock Lake, and new that Little Rock Lake was only a short distance beyond. These lakes are named very well. They are banked on their East sides by enormous boulders, larger than Lake Haiyaha, that have fallen from the steep faces of Terra Tomah mountain high above. Negotiating through these rocks was tiring, but a welcome relief from the marshy terrain, or the steep, slick and technical rock along the river. The sun was warming our frigid bodies and the shivering and shaking had stopped. Plus, our shins had stopped bleeding and were no longer stinging from being dragged through brush. We circled around Little Rock Lake, and felt we had reached the finish line of a marathon as we looked down on our campsite, only about twenty yards away!
We set up camp quickly, laid our gear in the warming sun, filtered some water (which was at the end of the only trail in this gorge!!) and began fixing our mountain chili...which ended up un fixing Justin...but that's another story. We were pretty beat up and really didn't feel like doing anything but sleeping, so that's exactly what we did.
We woke up the next morning to beautiful blue skies. We lazily got out of the tent, both realizing that an unspoken agreement had been made that this would be a rest day to let our bodies get ready for getting out of there. We cooked up some eggs , fixed some tea, and had a nice and relaxing breakfast in a truly beautiful place. After breakfast, we laid all of our gear out again in the warming and rising sun, and Justin didn't even have to miss his daily dance routine ritual.
After cleaning up around camp a little bit, we decided to do some fly fishing. I am new to this wonderful sport, and have been unsuccessful at catching even a single fish. But today was my day. I did catch my first fish, and a lot more too. Little Rock Lake turned out to be an great spot to throw a fly in. Justin caught a lot of fish too, and it was his first time to fly fish, ever! Here is a Greenback Cutthroat that he caught! What a beautiful fish.
The rest of the day was spent relaxing at this wonderful little spot. We played some "washers," ate a nice lunch and dinner, did some more fishing, and took a small exploratory journey around the immediate area. And after listening to Justin jam out a little bit (which I wore a bandana cowboy style for) we finally laid down and tried to get some sleep. But the wind picked up and kept us awake most of the night.
The next morning we awoke to a very chilly sunrise. We quickly ate breakfast, packed up, and headed out. This time we followed the ridge we were supposed to follow all along, and were above tree line. and back to the divide in two and a half hours (it took us over four to get to our camp from the divide on the way in). Our only obstacle was the wind on this day...easily 50 miles per hour, and the temperature was in the 30's along the divide, making for a frigid day. We were debating whether to head to Timber Lake or not, but another big storm was moving in and we decided we would rather spend the night indoors, than wet and miserable.
So we headed back to Milner Pass where my car was parked, and made our way back to the lodge.
I wouldn't necessarily say it was a fun or relaxing backpacking trip, but it was defiantly an adventure that pushed our limits in more ways than one, that took place in a truly special and overly beautiful setting with a wonderful old friend, in whose company, I can promise you, I will share many more adventures.
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