Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Square Top from Guanella Pass

Square Top Mountain
13794 feet
~8 miles RT hiking, ~2300ft gain
Class 1/Class 2
Mapmyrun Route

It's June, it's hot out, and it's time to get above treeline!
I wasn't convinced the northern Front Range was melted out yet, so I looked to the south for something a little more snow-free. Recent conditions on 14ers.com were quite favorable, so we left Fort Collins at 0-dark-30 (4:30) to get to Guanella Pass by 7am; of course, taking the long way off of Hwy 285 due to continued construction from the Georgetown side. This time, even later than agreed upon the day before, was met with some wailing and gnashing of teeth, but in the end it was agreed to have been worth it.

Parking at Guanella Pass feels like cheating, since you're already at treeline, but it's a pleasant and scenic drive on the road. I picked Square Top because of alpine lakes, scenery, (relative) solitude, and great views from the top. Still, I didn't know if I'd be able to resist the pull of Mt. Bierstadt, just across the road and 200 feet higher. Since Bierstadt tips the magic 14k mark, it's on the checklist of many, willing to do a summer conga-line. The fact that the West parking lot, near Square Top, only had 1 car on it, helped make the decision, but it was solidified by views of Bierstadt itself: not since Mt. Sherman (which we did attempt but failed to summit) have I seen such an ugly, uninspiring and bulbous mass. (I have heard rumors of Mt. Bross's offensiveness, but have not yet had the misfortune to see it).

So we headed west to Square Top, with a Class 1 trail leading to the 2 Square Top Lakes at the base. The peak is hidden at the beginning of the hike, as you do a decent amount of climbing to get to the lakes, but once you do, a cirque opens up with a variety of options for obtaining the peak. With a name like Square Top, I was worried that its summit might be flat and ugly, but the East face (shown in the first picture) presents a nice point that is particularly attractive when holding snow. An obvious route, then, rolls up the Southeast Face, a consistently steep but non-technical pitch up tundra, with views to the Bierstadt-Evans wilderness and Scott Gomer creek behind us.

As we neared the point (which turned out to be a bit of a false summit), we reached some lingering snow fields, as well as the occupant of the other vehicle at the trailhead. This turned out to be Dan, who came accompanied by the skis on his back, and 2 very energetic Doberman mixes -- sisters, it turns out. We could see the dogs zipping back and forth up above, zipping around him like electrons, turning an easy day into a 5000-foot one. As we got closer, Dan greeted us, getting ready to ski, and we gave a show of being dog-friendly, which meant they could jump on us and lick our faces, and we were cool with that!

I brought my new ice ax with me in order to play a bit. The snowfield here wasn't that steep, and the snow was pretty soft, so I didn't get much momentum on a glissade, but I still got to play around a bit, and enjoyed having the dogs keep me company.

Later, Jessica would play around on the snow a bit as well:

Dan got ready to ski down as we continued up. He remarked the views from the top, all the way out to Mt. of the Holy Cross, whereas the views from Bierstadt were entirely blocked by the Square Top cirque, and we were the only people he had seen on his hike.

Over the false summit, there was one more small bump to the peak, just shy of 13,800 feet. A leap in the air or a raised hand would get you there.

Summit shot:

As advertised, the nearly half-mile long flat summit is big enough for a football game, or just roaming around. As it was, we had the whole area to ourselves, and took a leisurely lunch.

To the West, mountains beyond mountains, including the unmistakable Holy Cross:

Coming back down, we took an improvised cross-country route. One thing I wanted to practice was route selection, being able to tell if what looked safe from afar ended up as you expected it when you got there. There were plenty of options to stay high on the ridge or drop down in various spots, J picked a route that dropped us in the ridge between the 2 lakes. I love hiking with her on a nice day -- I'm pretty sure I even saw her crack a smile on the way down.

On the way back, we saw 3 more people and 2 dogs, for a total of 4 people and 4 dogs, or less than 1 in hour, which meets my introversion threshold. Several of the other folks were just going up to the lakes, which reputedly has decent fly-fishing. All in all, a great hike with the wife! Looking forward to more of these this summer.

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