Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Poplar Gulch and UN 13,078

As the weather continues to get more summer like, I'm becoming more eager to hike in alpine areas.  Travel in the high country can be quite tricky this time of year however.  Higher elevations still hold a fair amount of snow.  Intense high elevation sun softens the remaining snow, making travel often difficult.  This was the case on my last hike I wrote about, on St Charles Peak, a few weeks ago. (Click on St Charles Peak  to see that post)  Now that a few weeks have passed with plenty of warmer days, I was hoping to get back in the mountains with some easier travel.

My destination was the ghost town of St Elmo.  Looking at a map, I noticed some 13,000 foot peaks that appeared relatively easy to access.  My route had a south facing trail to the saddle below the summit, followed by a relatively easy slope to access the summit.  Enroute, there are open meadows that receive plenty of sun and hopefully little snow.  The upper reaches of the hike are south facing and above treeline with full sun.  I even read that there was possibly an unofficial trail to the summit.

After my last hike, I brought some extra gear just in case.  This time I had gaiters and snowshoes.  I left my ice axe and crampons behind since the slopes looked fairly tame.

Since Colorado has so many mountains, many remain nameless.  The peaks are identified by their elevation.  This was the case of the summit I was hoping to reach.  It is refered to as Unamed (UN) 13,078'.  Not a very aspiring name for an alpine summit surrounded by views of endless mountains and high alpine tundra, but this is Colorado.  After all, there are 586 higher ranked mountains in the state.  I guess they run out of names at some point.

I started early to take advantage of cooler morning temps and hopefully firmer snow.  Even at my 10,000' trailhead, It was already 40F when I began.  This trailhead is interesting because it requires travelling through the well preserved ghost town of St Elmo.  Although it is semi-inhabited, the old townsite has many original buildings from its mining heyday preserved as a historic site.  To avoid rough roads in my Outback, I walked the half mile or so through the town to the actual start of the trail.  (To see pics of St Elmo click on Alpine Mountain Biking on the CDT: St Elmo, Alpine Tunnel, Tincup Pass Loop)

The real hiking began on the Poplar Gulch Trail.  The Poplar Gulch Trail starts out pleasantly and gradually.  There was no snow at all for at least the first thousand feet of climbing.  After a mile to mile and a half into it, I started to see snow.  In the trees, as soon as I hit snow, there was a probably a 50/50 mix of dirt and snow.  Most places I could avoid the snow however.  Oddly enough, the snow in the middle of the trail had a hard packed section of monorail* most places. (*Monorail is a snow condition where hiker traffic packs the snow firmly. This packed snow melts slower than the snow around it causing a raised track that's usually hard.  This is very common on heavily used trails in New England.)  I didn't think this trail would see enough traffic for monorail to form, but I took advantage of the firm snow when I needed to.  Not long after the snow started, the trail gained elevation via a series of switchbacks.  I had to cross a creek at one point that was flowing strongly with snow melt.

Nice trail on the lower reaches of Poplar Gulch
The beginning of the snow
Soon after reaching the snow, the trail climbed into an open meadow.  The meadow had good sun exposure and was mostly dry.  The meadow seemed like a good spot to camp.  A few sections near the meadow had water running down the trail, but nothing very deep.  Because the meadow is open, and above 11,000', I started to get views of surrounding mountains, particularly to the south.

Mostly snowfree near the big meadow
Easy hiking in thin trees
Views open up in the meadow
Continuing through the meadow 
Best views in the meadow are to the south
I soon left the meadow and was back in the trees.  I didn't get very far before reaching a deep drift.  I stopped to put on my gaiters since the snow looked quite deep and ended up reaching well over my knees.  The drift wasn't very wide though and I was back on dryer ground.  The dry ground was short lived and soon I was in predominantly snow.  I put my snowshoes on for the rest of the travel below treeline, although there were brief stretches of bare ground.  Even with snowshoes, I sank to my knees a few places and travel was somewhat of a slog in the heavy mash potato snow  Generally the snowshoes did their job and prevented miserable postholing.  Periodically I saw pieces of the trail to confirm my route.

Time for snowshoes
I began to pass through more open stretches as the trees thinned with elevation.  I reached the end of the trees and could see a piece of trail and some cairns higher up on the tundra.  I had one final snow field to traverse before I was on relatively snow free tundra.  A short climb through the snow field brought me to the cairn.  From the cairn, the trail headed back toward treeline, so I figured I veered off course slightly.  The trail that headed my way was lost in snow.  At this point, I had nothing but open alpine tundra above of me, so I had no difficulty finding my route.

Snow receded as I got closer to treeline
Looking down at the last spot I needed snowshoes
on the climb, the snow is much deeper than it looks.
Nice grassy slopes above treeline
UN 12,976 
Looking at the false summit of  UN13,078
I headed directly toward UN13,078 over open tundra, avoiding all but small patches of snow.  I reached the unnamed pass below UN 13,078 where I could see evidence of the trail I bypassed.  A gradual, grassy slope stood before me with little snow and there was even a visible trail much of the way.

Looking back the faint trail toward UN 12,637
Looking back toward UN 12,976
Heading up the grassy slopes
By now I was well over 12,000' in elevation.  I didn't have a thermometer with me, but it was noticeably cooler than the 40F at the start of my hike with a stiff breeze.  I had to stop and add a fleece as well as a winter hat and gloves. I climbed an easy false summit that led to a flat plateau before quickly reaching the true summit of UN13,078.  I briefly contemplated continuing along the ridge to the next peak, UN 13,317 but decided against it.

On the plateau with true summit of UN 13,078 ahead 
East toward UN 13,299 and UN13,317 with Princeton
at the end of the long ridge
Despite the fairly easy trip to the summit, the scenery doesn't disappoint.  UN13,078 is surrounded by higher peaks and offers a fine vantage point.  Further along the ridge are several higher 13,000 foot peaks culminating with 14er Mt Princeton at the end of the line less than 5 miles away.  To the north 14er Mt Yale is less than 10 miles away with Columbia and Harvard just beyond.  The Three Apolstes jagged profile stands out to the north.  The town of Buena Vista is just barely visible between Princeton and Yale.

Mt Princeton is the largest peak in the distance
Mt Yale is the high point in view
Yale on right with Columbia and Harvard beyond
Three Apostles
Another look at the Three Apostles
About 8 miles to the south stands 14er Mt Antero, easily identifiable by the road climbing it.  Shavano and Tabeguache are just beyond.  A cluster of high 13ers are just to the west of Antero.  To the west lies the Continental Divide with its wall of mountains.  There are endless peaks near and far in all directions.

Mt Mamma with the scar of snow on its north face
Southwest view
Looking in Grizzly Lake Basin
Looking west toward the Continental Divide as I leave the summit
I quickly descended back to the snowline, where I put on my snowshoes again.  The travel through the snow on the return was slightly more difficult.  By now the temperature warmed up and the snow softened.  By now the snow had the consistency of runny mashed potatoes.  I still wasn't sinking that much with the snowshoes, but the snow was just much heavier underfoot.  With gravity now in my favor, I made it quickly to the meadow and the end of the consistently deep snow.

Traveling across the plateau below the summit
The tundra here was full of elk scat
Continuous views as I descended
Approaching the saddle on my descent
UN 12,637 from the saddle 
Parting shot as I approached treeline
Traveling through the meadow on the way down was particularly nice.  Not only was the hiking much easier, the views heading this direction are quite nice.  The Grizzly Lake Basin dominates the view ahead  with Mt Mamma and Chrysolite Mtn framing the view.

Mt Mamma from the meadow
Looking toward Grizzly Lake Basin
Early wildflowers
Below the meadow, I made quick time.  Despite softer snow, I utilized the monorail to avoid too much postholing.  I passed a pair of hikers just getting into the snow and they seemed surprised to encounter any snow.  The consulted me about trail conditions further up.  Near the trailhead I passed an older couple that looked like they were in for as longer hike but were decked out with summer gear.

By the time I got back to St Elmo, the place was already fairly busy.  There were quite a few groups of ATVs staging for a ride.  I can't imagine there is much riding yet available that isn't snow covered since all the routes in the area climb.

I was back at my car around 1130AM.  I don't know for sure but I"m guessing this hike was close to 10 miles round trip. It's roughly 3.5 miles on the Poplar Guclh Trail, maybe a mile to the summit with additional half mile from where I parked to the actual trail. Despite some increased difficulty with sloppy snow, this was a fairly easy hike considering it climbed a 13er.  This would be a good hike for someone looking to experience hiking at elevation or just looking to bag an easier peak with great view.  Every year around this time, I try to find an easier hike like this to get a feel for the snow conditions in the mountains.  Traveling can be tricky this time of year with soft snow and you can't really tell what your up against until you get out there.

I apologize if this post appears a little choppy or not as clean as some of my other blog posts. The day after this hike I accidentally put a large drill bit into my hand and can't really type with it.

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