Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Cameron Pass: Zimmerman to Thunder Traverse

After leaving Wyoming, I decided to head down to Cameron Pass to camp. This also gave me an excuse to drive the dirt 20+ mile Laramie River Road down from Woods Landing. I'd been on the southern 7 or 8 miles, but it always intrigued me on the map: I wanted to get a feel for the transition from the rolling plains to the forest and mountains of the pass.

The road was relaxed and enjoyable, with wide open views. Not too many people around, but apparently enough full-time residents to get regular mail service.

Krazy Kaption Kontest -- submit your best caption for this photo!

Eventually the forest got thicker as I entered the Rawah Wilderness. I looked for a spot around here to nap and perhaps camp -- J and I had camped in this area before. Found a nice pull-out off the road, got set up, and tried to relax...but couldn't, with regular gun-shots (target practice) directly across the dirt road. No fun for me, so I took off down the road, and checked out Long Draw instead.

Long Draw Rd has free primitive camping as well, but only in official designated sites. The rain and mud made it difficult and risky for me to try some of the sites up steeper roads, so I stopped at an early one and made camp. As the rain got heavier, I just stayed in the car (the Subaroost?), doing some reading before eventually falling asleep.

My plan for the next day was a deliciously lesser-known and freeform route in the Neversummer Range. My goal was to run up to Zimmerman Lake, obtain the ridge directly behind it (I believe this may be called Table Iron Mtn, but isn't marked on my map), then follow the ridge to Iron Mtn, Thunder Mtn, and Lulu Mtn, before dropping down Thunder Pass and looping back. This route was inspired by having stared at the ridge behind Zimmerman at least a dozen times, and wondering about a route, but there is precious little beta on it, other than a few reports of general bushwhacking to get up there. On the other end, I'd seen Lulu Mtn and deemed it safe in Winter, and I'd read that Lulu and Thunder was a class-2 connection. The middle parts looked safe enough topographically, so I was anxious to give it a go.

The warm-up run to Zimmerman was fun but short: interesting to be here in summer instead of winter. It would be a great repeat workout. At the top of the lake, I stared at the ridge again.

As you're looking at it, the left side is steeper, cliffy scree, as is the face itself. The right side of the lake has a lower notch in it that could be an intriguing weakness, but is just below the trees. Finally, there's an interesting ramp that sweeps from right to left up the mountain -- I'm just not sure if it cliffs out at the top or not.

So my plan was to head mostly for the notch, while getting above treeline for a better view, and then checking out the potential of the ramp. So began the bushwhacking, until I ran into this gal:

Didn't see any young mooselets, but I gave wide berth and tried to slink out of the meadow and into the trees as fast as I could. It got me into denser trees quicker than I wanted, but didn't have a choice with the moose. Heading up, I mostly tacked between fall line and heading slightly right, mostly on some game trails. I stayed near a drainage that led to the lake, mostly stayed on the right before crossing over as I got closer to treeline and saw a little daylight. This ended up being an open, grassy area of downed trees (looked almost like and abandoned ski run) that headed up to the right, which was the way I wanted to go. At the top of this, I saw more daylight to the left. I headed straight up what I deemed the 'grassy knoll,' and was amazed at my fate: I was on top, as I hit the notch exactly.

The top...was...awesome! Sure, I love climbing on chunky rocks too, but I'm a real sucker for expansive green tundra. The top of this was like a giant park:

I want to come back with other people and picnic blankets and barbecue and a football and baseball bats and balls and maybe a golf club and a ball and all that. Wow, what a cool place with cool views! I looked across with satisfaction at the Diamond Peaks and the local monarch, Clark Peak, reminiscing about a great hike up there previously with J.

For now, I had all this flatness to run around and check out. I headed back to the left, towards Bald Mountain, to scope out the ramp and face as alternative ascents. Sure enough, the ramp does cliff out at the top, so it doesn't help, but the terrain gets progressively easier as you head from north to south. The easiest is the grassy knoll/notch class-1 walk, but along the ridge is a veritable playground of possibilities, with class-2 talus hopping, class-3 gully scrambling, and more advanced climbs of some pinnacles and rock formations in the area. Underappreciated!

I debated an out-and-back to claim Bald Mtn, but decided the best course would be to head back in my initial planned southerly direction. Either way, more fun running on the flat green expanse, heading up a gradual rise to Pt. 12060 on the shoulder between the ridge and Iron Mountain. Here, I was pleasantly surprised to find a summit register, dated from 1991, with only a half dozen small pages or so. And, I recognized one of the most recent names, from May 2009, as one of my brother-in-laws coworkers. What a different scene than the more popular peaks!

Now I got a good look at Iron Mountain as it hooked to the southeast. The ridge here narrowed to be more exposed, rocky, and interesting.

There's a column near the top and it gets steep enough to require your hands just a bit, but nothing too bad. From this new vantage point, I had a chance to peer into the box canyon of Trap Park.

Fun stuff.

I've seen Iron Mtn from the North before, and I knew it was a steep, mushroom-shaped pile of scree. I had read that the slope toward Trap Park was more stable and pretty easy -- I only hoped that the drop from this saddle, and regaining the ridge toward Thunder Mtn. was reasonable. Luckily I wasn't disappointed, with a fun scree run down the back.

Then, more rolling tundra.

(Looking back at Iron Mtn)

Thunder Mtn. sounds badass enough, but it's just a tundra walk. Once the climb started, I decided to run the whole thing, just put it in a low gear and stretch out the calves and associated tendons. 15 minutes seemed like a good goal, but it took me 15:10.

This rolling ridge was instant-gratification-land, because the mountains were just enough rise to look legitimate, but quick and interesting to bag.
A bit rockier downhill, then a steeper uphill to Lulu, for the last mountain of the day.

From this lofty perch, I was able to look back from whence I came.

I had first heard of "Lulu" when going past Lulu City on the west side of RMNP. Sure enough, this mountain is the edge of the same area that was previously mined. Too bad I didn't know this ahead of time, or I'd still be there, looking for the lost gold of Soda Creek (pretty interesting geological history there).

Now down to Thunder Pass, and terra cognita. Two people were hanging out at the pass -- the first ones I'd seen all day. I got closer and we exchanged greetings. As expected on an obscure route on a weekday, these folks were incredibly friendly and interesting people. Here I was, taking a break from work, thinking about the upcoming graduate school adventure and associated risks for my wife and I...these folks were scientific researchers, originally from Poland, who now lived in Louisville, Kentucky. He is an alternative energy physicist, she is a biologist, and asked what I was studying. I mumbled "computational biology" and braced myself, her eyes lit up and she talked about how she works for a small-but-promising biotech and how protein folding simulation could aid with some of their work. Fantastic! There is clearly some common thread with outdoor activity and scientific intellectual curiosity -- is it as simple as seeking and finding wonder in the world around us? -- where common personality traits come together symbiotically. I know this, but it's nice to have a(nother) sign from the universe that I'm on a righteous and happy path for the way my mind works.

We chatted a bit, before I headed down toward Cameron Pass, while they headed back to RMNP. I warned them about a storm coming in 'around 2pm'; though it was nearly 2 hours away, as I descended, I wondered if it would hold off that long, as the Crags got darker.

I dropped into the Basin, and took the first opportunity to refill water bottles -- there wasn't much up on the ridge, other than some unappealing emergency mudholes. This time of year, the runoff stream through the basin was unpleasantly warm...hmmmm....but it was my only choice. I rambled on down the Thunder Pass trail, through fields of wildflowers, when I saw a solo hiker. We greeted and he warned me about impending elk.

Sure enough, this guy and his buddies kept a weary eye on me:

I swung wide and hacked my way back to the trail...or so I thought. I took it all for granted, but I neglected the fact that there was a fork West toward American Lakes, in addition to my planned Michigan Ditch return. It was all good at first, as I was in haste to at least get to treeline, but then I was clearly headed back toward the Crags. I realized this would still ultimately work out, so I made the choice for extra credit miles instead of backtracking, and I felt I could reach the highway via the trail as well as forest roads. The only major drawback was being off of my planned, written return route left on the dash of my car -- but how does one plan for elk?

Now I haphazardly followed logging roads and trails down, down, down -- I've played this game before in this area, once when searching for Mt. Mahler, once when tooling around on a mountain bike. I got closer to the Crags campground, which had a switchbacking trail down to camp, and the main road headed exactly in the opposite direction. Option 2 was to drop further toward Michigan Ditch, get wet, then climb back up to the Michigan Ditch trail. With the storm getting closer, I picked Option 3: cross the Poudre, head straight up for the highway shoulder, clamber over the guardrail like an escaped convict, and run pavement up the pass.

This had a nostalgic appeal to it. I've had a lot of great memories of Cameron Pass. In May 2006, the month after we moved here, I mountain biked over the pass in each direction and camped in the area for the weekend. Running it felt great, and I don't mind some pavement after a long slog. I crested the Pass, and the thunder started to rumble on schedule as I finished the downhill to Zimmerman, glad to be back at the car about 6.5 hours after I started.

I'll miss living an extra hour away from this area, but I'll be back. To those that already enjoy it, I hope I'm not letting too much of the secret out, as I've gotten a lot out of it in the last 4 years.


  1. Yes, pretty area, Neil, I know you got to play around on the motorcycle near the border before.

    You didn't submit a caption for the photo yet, I was expecting big things from you!