Monday, August 16, 2010

Comanche Peak and Fall Mountain Traverse

Comanche Pk and Fall Mtn from Emmaline Lake TH
16 miles, ~6:15

Plans to go hiking with J in the Sawatch didn't work out, so I needed an audible. I've had a Comanche-Fall Mt loop on my list for awhile, so finally ventured out to check this one out. I love the Pingree Park area very much, so it was a nice excuse to go back while we live 1.5 hours from it.

I took Buckhorn Canyon/Pennock Pass for the first time, and enjoyed the quality dirt road. Bonus: Saw my first bear in Colorado! A young'n ambled right across the road. I waited to see if Mom was nearby (I was safely in my car) but didn't have any other ursine encounters.

I arrived at the Tom Bennet campground around 6:30, under a cloudless sky, and got ready for the day.

My plan was to take the relatively popular Emmaline Trail up to the lake, then scramble up to Comanche Peak, traverse over to Fall Mtn, and drop down somewhere on the Mummy Pass trail. I had been on parts of both trails before, so it was a mix of the familiar and the new.

Just a mile and half or so up the trail, I heard a shuffling to the left of me, and I caught a glimpse of a mom and baby moose standing next to each other. I wouldn't have even seen them had they not made a noise, and I just kept going up the trail, trying to look as disinterested and non-threatening as possible! That now makes 4 moose sightings in the last couple of weeks.
I made decent time up to the cirque meadow, a few miles of jogging, in about 35 mins. That in itself made up a previous dayhike in the area, and is a common backpacking destination. Sure enough, there were tents set up on both sides of the lake. I knew the main trail went right, but thought that a connecting trail also went around the left side, and I was trying to avoid crashing through people's campsites. It turns out that there isn't much of a trail on the left, and I ended up spending 15 minutes slogging directly through the meadow, repeatedly hopping over small streams and trying to avoid pockets of water. Lesson learned.

I had never been past the meadow before, but easily found the trail after bushwhacking back to the other side of the meadow. I was able to run a little bit more, but soon enough the trail became more technical and steep, so I was relegated to pretty consistent power hiking.

The trail winded through the trees and near some interesting cascades of Fall Creek, before popping out into large rocks and boulders. The cairned route led straight up to a smaller pond, and then Emmaline Lake itself.

I was alone for a few minutes at Emmaline Lake, planning my route, when another person approached. This turned out to be Seth, who is fortunate enough to administer the Pingree Park campus and live there all summer. Lucky! We both thought the other person looked familiar but couldn't place it, probably have just seen each other around town. He used to do more racing, Pikes a few years ago, etc. He gave me some beta on the route, mostly about a good descent option of following the Fall Mtn. ridge instead of backtracking to Mummy Pass. I then began heading toward Comanche.

The cirque and shoulder of Comanche offers plenty of options. First, you cross a boulder field, and then you get better views of potential routes. I identified a neat series of rock steps and ledges to the right of the snow fields, but as I finally saw the top of that route from below, it was clearly blocked by snow in the shade. The more I went through the boulder field, the more attractive it looked to head straight up to the right of Comanche. It looked safer as it had vegetation interspersed with rock, and it would give me more time on the ridge. But first, the boulder field: the large rocks are literally boulders, and often have deep gaps between them, so you really have to take care to watch your step.

The climb itself was a steep calf-burner. Finally made it to the top of the ridge and peered down.

Comanche was just short stroll, then a scramble to the summit itself, which had a register on top.

The wind really picked up here, and I needed all my layers, including a hat. From this vantage point, the top of the cirque was a rolling expanse of tundra, even though it looks gnarly and jagged from below.

I headed over toward Fall Mtn. Because of a high ridge that divides the cirque, Fall Mtn wasn't easily visible from below: I just knew it was on the other side of the cirque somewhere. I would have liked to run, but the tundra was pretty uneven, with tufts of grass and shrubs, small pockets of mud, and rocks aplenty, so I enjoyed the stroll. The warmth of the sun countered the wind.

Now I couldn't pick out a prominent peak that looked like Fall Mtn, so I went to dig out my map, and realized it had fallen from my jacket pocket. Rookie mistake! Not only did I lose my map, but I had littered. I backtracked for about 10 minutes to look for it, but was unable to replicate my exact route, and there were enough 3-dimensional hiding places that I never found it. I had wasted 15-20 minutes or so looking for it, and then gave up.

The most prominent peak in my general direction was clearly higher than Comanche (I couldn't remember Fall Mtn's elevation), but it was on the other side of a deep, treed valley. That seemed to far way, and weather was building, so I decided I'd head in toward the lake and climb whatever looked interesting. I was back on the edge of the cirque again, where the tundra gave way to spiky, jagged towers.

Following along the edge, I didn't see anything that looked to prominent, but did see a few climbable hunks of rock. I climbed up pile of boulders, and then saw another pile slightly higher, which had a cairn on top. I headed over, and found myself on top of Fall Mtn.

With the cirque complete, it was time to head down. I intended to head down the ridge of Fall Mtn's shoulder, but it looked like slow talus-hopping, and the clouds were getting darker. I could clearly see the Mummy Pass trail to the West, so I headed down the steeper side of Fall Mtn so I could get down to treeline and on the trail. But the steepness of my choice didn't really save me time, as it was a careful class 3 downclimb and some willow-bashing, and occasional forays into thorn bushes. I reached the trail safely, albeit with some cuts on my legs.

The deeply rutted singletrack of the trail didn't lend itself to runnability, but this improved once I reached treeline. I enjoyed the descent, met up with the Cirque Meadow trail again, and got back to the car around 1pm, clouds threatening but still no thunder.


  1. Going to knock out Castle and Conundrum on Thursday, Sept 16th if you're interested...

  2. Oooh! That would be a good one to do with other people. Consider me 'interested', but I have to see how my school schedule looks. (My intent is to work hard during the week so I can still play on wknds)

  3. Tapering is way overrated! You should bag at least another dozen or so peaks before Lean Horse. Love running up in the Pingree Park area. You might have seen my report from a couple weeks ago. I'm thinking of a return trip this Fall mostly below treeline. A big loop of Fish Creek, Beaver Creek, Flowers, and Browns Lake. So many trails!

  4. Hi Rob, I missed your Pingree report and now need to check in more regularly -- your route looks more runnability on the Comanche side! Yes, taper/schmaper: the summer is too short to stay below treeline too long. But I think if I'm hiking more than running, it's not beating my legs up too bad.

    I like what you said about training for Hardrock 1 or 5 years from now -- that's about what I feel like, though it would be 2 or 6 years from now I guess. Hope you get in next year!

  5. Dood - thanks for the beta. I'll be up doing 'Rob's loop' next weekend. Can't wait.