Saturday, June 20, 2015

Bighorn Sheep in the Stout Lakes Basin

I live at the base of the Sangre de Cristo mountains below the Twin Sisters.  As the crow flies the long ridges of the two peaks are about 5 miles from my house.  The Twin Sisters are the dominant view in the valley surrounding Howard, Colorado.    I see the summits daily but have yet to climb them.  The winter access to the summits is not the best and spring snow made access more challenging.
The Twin Sisters and surrounding peaks
taken earlier in spring
Closeup of Twin Sisters from
earlier in spring
I haven't been above treeline since the middle of May.  The late season snow followed by rapid warming has made alpine hiking messy and snow conditions unstable.  However, I could see the snow starting to melt quickly the past week and wanted to scout the local alpine area to see how the conditions have been progressing.

Last week, I hiked the Stout Lakes Trail, the trail that leads to the basin between the Twin Sisters.  I had no intention of climbing the summits.  I was mostly checking the snow conditions in the area while getting some exercise and enjoynig some time outside in nature.

I encountered patchy snow below treeline, but was able to follow the trail to treeline.  The biggest problems was runoff turning the trail into a stream in some areas.

Stout Creek gushing from runoff and recent heavy rains
Water flowing down the trail was common
Nice section of trail
Twin Sister North's ridge from below
Closeup of the ridge
The trail was completely lost at treeline due to deep snow.  Above the basin the snow was patchy.  While looking uphill contemplating my next step, I spotted some bighorn sheep a couple hundred feet above me.  I could see at least one of the herd was a ram with really nice horns.  I tried to get a photo but they were too far away for a decent shot.  The group of three quickly climbed out of sight, sending rocks down the steep slope as they disappeared.

The trail ends with heavy snow in the Stout Lakes basin
The view above from treeline
Looking at the terrain where I spotted the sheep
Despite seeing many bighorn sheep since moving to Colorado, I haven't seen too many rams, let alone with such a nice set of horns.  I decided to climb towards them and try to get a better look at the group.  A short scramble up a sketchy cliff band led me to more open terrain.  Once in the open, I saw the herd again and a total of four sheep.  They watched me before climbing higher.  The terrain was a mix of loose talus, scree, and boulders.  They moved gracefully over the jumble of rocks while I struggled with the rough footing.  I did get close enough a few times to get some more photos however.  Eventually the herd ran off and over a ridge before disappearing out of sight.  As they got further away, the herd grew as they picked up more sheep.  Before they disappeared I counted ten sheep.  It was amazing watching them glide over the nasty terrain in minutes while I struggled to find reasonable footing.  I could hear rocks tumbling as the herd moved away.

One of the first shots I got of the sheep
Sheep deciding if I'm a threat
Not looking too concerned
Checking me out as I got closer
As they got further away, they
seemed less concerned with me again
Apparently they were relaxed enough to eat
even though I was fairly close
This was my favorite shot of the sheep.  The
ram in the front is almost posing for me.
Since I gained a fair amount of elevation following the sheep, I decided to climb the rest of the slope to the ridge above me.  This was the ridge of Twin Sister North.  I reached the ridge and followed it to dominant point that is visible from the valley below.  There was a brief section of tundra but generally the climb continued over rough rock.  This ridge had a fair amount of snow on it still.  The temperature was fairly warm but I was able to bareboot with minimal postholing.

Looking toward Twin Sister South's ridge
Plenty of scree and talus
Looking toward the Cottonwood group
Heading toward the false summit of Twin Sister North
Looking down the ridge toward Howard and Coaldale area.
There was still some distance to the actual summit.  There wasn't much elevation gain along the ridge but the ridgeline traverse still had a fair amount of snow and was quite rocky.  I had some some obligations later in the day so I turned around at the false summit.  I figured it would have been an extra hour or more to reach to summit and I was already running short on time after watching and following the sheep.

The ridge to Twin Sister North's summit
Closeup of the Cottonwood group with the rest of the
Sangre de Cristos beyond.
Looking over Twin Sister South with Bushnell Peak behind it.
Looking north over Red Mountain.  Hunts Peak is the pointy
peak behind it and the Sawatch Range in the distance.
The Sawatch Range in the distance
With the excellent sheep sighting I got much more out of the hike than I had hoped.  I did get to enjoy some time above treeline for the first time in nearly a month as well.  I'm hoping to return soon to climb Bushnell Peak and both Twin Sisters when the snow has melted a little more.

The nasty descent back into the basin
After the hike however, I had a mishap.  When I reached my car, I took off my pack.  My camera, which I keep on my hipbelt, fell to the ground in the process.  I didn't realize I dropped my camera and started driving.  After a mile or so I realized I was missing my camera.  I returned to the trailhead and saw my camera on the ground.  Unfortunately, as I backed up to leave, I ran over my camera.  The screen was cracked enough that most of the screen was blank.  Surprisingly it still takes pictures, I just can't see the screen to know what is in view.  Luckily, I was still able to get the photos from it that are in this post.

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