Sunday, May 22, 2011

Bison Peak Hike: Southwest Ridge in a Lingering Winter

Bison Peak Hike
with Caleb
Southwest Ridge from Ute Creek TH
12.2 Miles RT (plus scrambling)
3671' gain (8760' to 12431')
Class 1 / Class 2-3 (snow/scrambling)

With deep, unstable snow -- and equally unstable weather -- hitting many of the higher mountains, Caleb and I decided to check out the Taryall Mountains in the Lost Creek Wilderness (LCW). We've read great reviews (online and in the Roach's famous Colorado's Lost Creek Wilderness: Classic Summit Hikes guide) and been enticed by pictures of the otherworldly rock formations on the summit plateaus of Bison Peak, which also promised great views and less snow than higher peaks to the west, while still offering sublime views but no significant avalanche risk. Although the same wind that scours snow from the summit hit us above treeline, this hike ended up being a fabulous one.

We made the left turn off of 285 onto Park County 77 toward Taryall Reservoir, which was a new road for both of us. The road heads 20 miles East to the trailhead, and other than some construction, it was snow-free and in excellent condition. We drove past the Ute Creek TH and looked for camping off of the side of the road, not really finding anything until we found an excellent spot near the Twin Eagles TH.

After rain and clouds in the Front Range for most of the week, we were fortunate to enjoy hundreds of stars in a mostly-clear night, made even brighter when the waning moon rose over the mountains just after midnight.

At sunrise the next morning, we broke camp and headed back up to the Ute Creek trailhead.

We started getting ready around 7:15, and although nobody else was stirring in the parking lot or along the short drive to the trailhead, a pickup truck pulled up as we were getting ready. We exchanged friendly greetings with the solo female hiker. She commented on how conditions in the Sawatch and Front Range didn't look appealing, but that it should be a nicer day here. We asked if she had been up to Bison before, and she replied that she had done so numerous times.

She asked if we had the LCW guidebook. When we responded, she said, casually and humbly, "My husband wrote that book."

I also noticed the Hard Rock 100 stickers on the truck.

"You're Jennifer!" I exclaimed. "What do you mean, you're husband wrote it?" I asked, shaking her hand. "You wrote it too!"

Caleb and I counted ourselves very lucky to meet Jennifer Roach, a Colorado mountaineering legend.

We asked her more about Bison Peak, as well as Hard Rock, which both her and Gerry are doing this year. Again, the entire time she was incredibly friendly and modest. We have a strong appreciation for folks like the Roach's, and their contributions to safe and interesting hiking and climbing challenges, as well as enjoyment of the state of Colorado. I wish them the best at Hard Rock, and the presence of people like them also make me very excited about the history, tradition, and ethos of the Hard Rock 100.

After chatting, we headed up to the drainage on the well-defined trail. The trail rises gently through the trees, along a stream and occasional boulders, well-protected from the elements. Caleb and I kept a steady pace and we were encouraged by the lack of wind above the trees, yet were almost startled about 1.5 hours into our hike when we came across a hiker coming down.

"How is it up there?" we asked.
"Full-on winter conditions!" he told us. He left before sunrise, but told us of an unrelenting wind up on the ridge that reduced visibility to zero and made him turn back. He wished he had goggles, warmer gloves, and a 3rd layer of wind-proof pants (none of which we had), but said it was still enjoyable views before the summit. We were a bit dismayed by this forecast, but optimistic that the previous front moving east and the morning sunshine might make things more tolerable.

Soon after that, we started hitting snow, and the terrain became more interesting out of the trees:

We also now had a view of the summit ridge, and saw some spindrift and evidence of stronger winds up high, but hoped we could stay along formations on the summit to help block the wind as much as possible. We hit McBison Pass (between Bison and McCurdy) and the wind was still tolerable, so we knew we could safely head to the summit. The boot-deep snow on the summit was manageable without snowshoes, although Microspikes and/or poles were helpful.

Mesmerized by the summit rocks, we got a little sloppy and started scrambling up the tallest pile of boulders in front of us. We knew that route-finding would yield an easy scramble to the summit peak, but decided to play around instead. ("After all, hotshots climb the face!") We stuck to problems within our modest abilities, but still enjoyed a few challenges. When we couldn't get higher, Caleb found a nifty passage to the other side:

And then, we saw a completely separate, but clearly higher, jumble of rocks in front of us. So, we downclimbed and headed over to the true summit. This was significantly easier, but we still enjoyed practice on some challenging mixed snow and rock.

The summit itself afforded great views:

We were entirely surprised at how prominent the view of the West side of Pikes was. But, it was incredibly windy, so we descended to a sunnier, sheltered spot below, where we ate lunch. Shortly after, we saw Jennifer again, and chatted. She pointed out the trail to McCurdy, including the loss and subsequent gain of elevation on the "Bison Arm" ridge, as we had mentioned a possible hike to McCurdy as well earlier in the day.

By now, however, we were content with our exploration of the Bison summit, and some more unhurried scrambling:

We made our way back down to the pass, and then decided to head back into the trees:

...after one last view of Pikes:

Our feet warmed up quickly once we headed back into the trees, out of the wind.
Some of the snow on the upper parts of the trail was already melting. Did I mention: the Class-1 trail through the trees is excellent for running? I think Caleb started it first, and we ran the steeper sections. I certainly loved doing this, and was encouraged as Caleb was keeping up. He's already good at real sports, like basketball and softball, so who knows if he'd want to pick up a made-up sport like slowrunningthroughthemountainsallday?

By the bottom of the trail, the temperature was absolutely glorious, and the windy creek came into view:

In fact, it looked good enough to fish in!

In all, this was a great hike with great company. Shoulder-season, winter conditions make it a great option before the high peaks open up, yet without as much avalanche concerns. Scrambling on the rocks can be as easy or as hard as you make it. The LCW is definitely and uncrowded area worth exploring!

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