Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Backpacking to Parika Lake in Colorado's Never Summer Wilderness

After arriving late into Denver on Thursday night and speeding up Berthoud Pass to the Fraser Valley, I got a room at the YMCA of the Rockies Snow Mountain Ranch and crashed. Friday I awoke and gave myself a full day to acclimate to the altitude, as our definition of high-points in Wisconsin are small glacier kames that don’t surpass 1,000ft by a long shot. It was a day of catching up with old best friends and co-workers, making last-minute trips to the local gear shop in Fraser and a warm up hike to the ranch’s waterfall trail. Later that night, my former boss and her husband hosted me over at their home for a glorious dinner. Mary Ann and Andrew, I’m incredibly grateful for the two of you. Saturday I was up at sunrise and packed my suitcase before heading to the Y’s dinning hall, where I devoured my last full hearty meal before heading to the backcountry.

Let’s rewind for a second to right at dawn. While pulling together all of my gear, sprawled out over one of the two beds in my lodge room, I paused and reflected for a few minutes, determining if I were ready for what I was about to take on. When it comes to solo adventures, you can have all your homework and research done, be physically fit at the top of your regiment, and stockpiled with every piece of necessary outdoor gear possible…but if you aren’t ready then the trip is a wash. I ran through a series of affirming questions, checking to ensure I was confident, content and capable once I arrived at the trailhead in an hour. Good to go.
I pulled into Rocky Mountain National Park and drove about six miles into the park to the Baker/Bowen Trailhead. Truthfully, there isn’t a single location on earth that like makes my heart stop and send chills up and down my entire body like Rocky Mountain National Park. It’s a tremendously important place to me for a lot of reasons and its quite possibly the most majestic place I’ve ever been. It’s just so beautiful. I strapped on my pack, weighing exactly how much I want it to (win), turned on my Spot GPS beacon and headed down the dirt road towards the snow-covered and lodgepole pine littered Baker Gulch I’d be ascending. The goal for the first day was to get up to Parika Lake, located some six miles from the trailhead. This alpine lake sits above treeline at a whopping 11,371ft, and that’s where I’d be setting up camp for the night.
The approach hike is gorgeous, leaving the national park and entering into the expansive Never Summer Wilderness area of the Arapaho National Forest. I signed-in at the trailhead logbook and kept pushing forward. The trail weaves its way up more than 2,000ft of elevation, through thick lodgepole pine forest, groves of tall aspen with their golden flickering leaves still attached.

At about three miles into the hike, I traversed a rocky talus field, where rusty pieces of mining equipment from hundreds of years ago lay between some of the boulders. The elevation continued to rise and when I reached the Grand Ditch, which parallels an old forest service road, I crossed a fallen tree and pushed north.

As I trekked past the 10,000ft mark, it started snowing and the wind picked up. Suddenly, I entered a massive clearing, with hundreds of trees blown over in the same direction. Looking up at the towering unnamed 12,000+ mountain to the right, I noticed scarring from avalanche slides. Imagine all the snow flying down the peak and bashing into those trees. Wild. Almost eerie.
Crossing an iced-over stream, I reached the split for the Baker Pass/Parika Lake trails. I kept left and after a few minutes of marked trial, it disappeared completely into snow. I stopped, spinning my head around trying to make out where to go next. When you do enough hiking, you eventually learn what a trail looks like, geographically, so I pulled out my Garmin GPS which I had programmed the coordinates in for Parika Lake and got somewhat of a general bearing.

The next ninety-minutes was exhausting and conditions were becoming worse. Trudging through knee-deep snow, blind of any kind of trail, just guessing where a path may lay underneath the snow. The wind kept picking up and snow falling harder. It was steep hiking and at one point I entered a brief clearing in the woods and a nasty gust of wind blew down at me from my left, almost knocking me over. On a clear day, I could probably just look up and see either Parika Peak or Fairview Mountain and head in that direction towards the lake but now, visibility was next to none. I just kept trusting my fairly-basic Garmin GPS and going with my instincts. It was kind of a precarious guessing game but I stayed confident the entire time. Finally, I approached what would be the base of a mountain that shot upwards and spotted a cairn. Relief. I reoriented myself with the GPS unit and eventually found the lake.
Parika Lake is an alpine lake at 11,371ft sitting in the shadows of Parika Peak and Fairview Mountain that jut upwards from the northwest shore. It stopped snowing and blue skies started to emerge, and I found a place to set up my tent for the night. But the wind, the ferocious wind did not stop. I scrambled trying to find any not-frozen rock to throw inside my tent as I attempted to attach the outside rain fly. No one wants a tent flying away. Once set-up, I hurried inside, blew up my insulated sleeping pad and tucked away into my down sleeping bag to try and warm up and seek shelter from the wind. If I were to take a guess, the gusts were at least 40mph, every time just ramming into the side of my tent, almost blowing the whole thing over on top of me. But the Eurkea Taron2 kept me safe, cozy and warm.
I lit up my backpacking stove, boiled some water and had dehydrated linguine pasta and veggies for dinner. A break in the nasty wind allowed me to get out of the tent, hang my food bag far away in a bush (stay away, you bears) and look around at the stunning scenery that is Parika Lake.

The water on the lake was flowing with the wind and I could look behind me and see peaks far off in Rocky Mountain National Park. It was like a dream. Front row seats to golden wash of alpenglow as the sun set. The wind’s rash picked up again and the night was spent by headlamp journaling and watching my tent violently shake. You could hear each punching gust, start up at the nearby peaks, build and tumble down the mountain, skate across the frozen lake and then crash into the side of my tent.
The next morning, I hiked for a few minutes around the lake to warm up and had the treat of watching the sunrise over the far western mountains I mentioned earlier, including Longs Peak. Parika Lake had frozen overnight and my tent was still standing. It was so quiet, serene and jaw-dropping picturesque.

I found a run-off stream that had a tiny opening melted away, big enough for me to fill my water bottle with and boil to make breakfast: dehydrated biscuits and gravy and fruit. Keeping the stove lit, I collected more water and boiled it for drinking.

While spooning away at my dehydrated food pouch, I heard a big crash. I looked over my shoulder and up on the edge of one of the peaks surrounding the lake were a group of big horn sheep, two of them bashing their horns into one another in a fit of rage. They would stare each other down for a few seconds and attack. It was the only noise you could hear at this elevation, everything else was silent. Fascinating. This may go down in my books as the best backpacking I’ve ever done, up at Parika Lake.
I tore down my tent, packed up and took one last prolonged look at the alpine lake I fell in love with. Originally, I had hopes to climb to the top of Parika Peak, but there was, way too big of an avalanche risk judging the terrain and snow coverage on the way up. I found my trail I carved the prior night and headed down back a few miles to the trail split to start day two of exploring the Never Summer Wilderness.
As the elevation dropped from 11,371 to about 10,000ft, the weather was splendid and allowed me to shed some layers. A Colorado bluebird sky and sun above. Temperatures were probably in the high 40s/low 50s at the trail split. I veered right and attempted to make my way up the Baker Pass trail, which after only about ten minutes completely disappeared into snow.

The destination was at the top of a gulch, meaning if I kept the jagged peaks at my right and a stream at my left, I should be able to get there by heading north. Bushwhacking through the pines, only a few hours of daylight left and reaching knee-deep snow cued the “Is this worth the risk?” question. I thought about it, looked at the terrain ahead and at my Garmin GPS which I had been solely relying on, and turned around. Not worth getting hurt or deeply lost. Risk management and mitigation are key. Big thanks for all the training you folks at NOLS and Outward Bound gave me back in 2014.
I returned to the split I had departed form an hour earlier, kicked off my boots and socks in the sun to dry and sat there for half-an-hour, hydrating and soaking in this killer panorama view. We are so lucky to live on such a thriving, living planet and have unrestricted access to these public lands. Pulling up my Garmin GPS, I saw that I had only about three hours of daylight left, so I hit the trail and headed down the Baker Gulch. Retracing my footsteps from Saturday morning, I kept hiking downwards, scanning for possible clearings to pitch a tent for the second night.

The beauty of National Forest Land is that you can pretty much throw a tent wherever you want. Success, about 2.75 miles from the main trailhead in Rocky Mountain National Park, where I parked my rental car, I saw an opening in the woods off trail to my right. It was the perfect area to set up camp and then hike back the next morning. A plot of stable ground beneath some aspens and lodgepoles, earshot away from a stream, I set up tent fully this time.
Meaning, I had enough room and flat ground to rig my tent the way its supposed to be. Compared to the shelter-esque manner I had it pitched the prior night at Parika Lake, this was like glamping. I could fully stretch out inside the tent, hang up gear to dry from the ceiling and my sleeping pad was on level surface! I gathered a bunch of water from the stream, cooked up dehydrated chicken breasts and mashed potatoes (gosh that was yummy after a full day of hiking) and soaked in the sunset above the trees. Before heading to bed, I filled my Nalgene bottle to the brim with scorching hot water I had boiled, and put it at the feet of my sleeping bag. Classic backpacking hack- do this and your sleeping bag will feel like a sauna for hours. It was the very best and as night came, I was able to read and write inside my tent in a state of upmost comfort. That boiling hot Nalgene bottle kept my sleeping bag warm for hours.
I woke up Monday morning, stirred up some dehydrated eggs and fruit and started tearing down camp. I hiked out the final few miles back to my car. But it was a slow hike, a very slow hike where I was repeatedly stopping in my tracks, and looking all around, taking it all in. It’s not every day I get to backpack through thick Colorado forests, past roaring streams and in the shadows of mountains.

Eventually I reached the Never Summer Wilderness/Rocky Mountain National Park property line, marked “Out 10/16” next to my scribbled name I jotted down two days earlier, and kept hiking towards the original trail head. When I arrived back at my rental car, I checked-in with my Spot beacon one last time, set my pack down, looked behind me up the gulch at those snowy peaks and raised both arms in the air, letting out a celebratory“Yes!”

I’m on this redeye flight back to Milwaukee now and I’m already missing those mountains and that glassy alpine lake, otherwise known as heaven. Good thing I have a trip scheduled for January to explore Pinnacles National Park in sunny California. Time to start working on that next adventure.