Friday, September 7, 2012

Pawnee-Buchanan Loop, with Mirror Lake

Pawnee-Buchanan Loop, with Mirror Lake Spur
28.5M, 7000' gain
8 hours total

A few weekends ago, I finally did the famous Pawnee-Buchanan loop in the Indian Peaks. This is a great marathon-length trail circuit that crosses over the Continental Divide in the middle, revealing stunning mountain panoramas above treeline and numerous cascading waterfalls and streams below. This is a classic loop that has been well-covered elsewhere. Among many great reports, Pete has great beta on the stats and map of the loop, and Woody took some great photos on the loop earlier this year.

I brought my GoPro along, which allowed me to take faded, foggy pictures, as well as a bunch of jumpy video to which I haven't gotten around to doing anything.

Going counterclockwise, I first climbed Buchanan Pass, which took a couple hours:

Running down Buchanan was a blast because it was great trail and new terrain to me, plus it's always fun to be West of the Divide.

Now I set out by myself so I could take my time and not worry about pace. Coincidentally, pretty much halfway into the loop, I ran into these guys:

Yup, Pete and Andy were running it together in the opposite direction! Strangely I immediately kinda wished I were running it with friends -- there are advantages to both.
As we stopped to chat, another runner came from my direction -- Shaun (?) from Boulder (works at Boulder Running Co). Based on his pace and start time, he was flying in his Hokas, but mentioned running together, so I hitched onto his wagon and indeed enjoyed a good hour and a half of conversation. He was doing well and had been running hard early (and we were now running faster than my previous pace), but then needed to stop for water and his back was getting a bit sore as we started climbing back up. I got a bit ahead but had already discussed the fact that I was going to add on the Mirror Lake spur, so I did that and wondered if I'd see him again from behind (never did, so he must have rallied quite well).

The point of going to Mirror Lake is so that I could ogle Lone Eagle Peak for the first time. Here is a bad picture of it:

But a few years ago, I recall seeing a photograph or poster of it, and immediately wanting to know the name of the peak. I think my heart skipped a beat when I learned it was in Colorado.
Here's an internet picture that does more justice:

I can't believe it's taken me this long to see it, but it was certainly worth the side trip for the vantage point (it's really a high point along a ridge). There's a class 4 route to the summit, whose coordinates I most certainly hope and expect to reach someday.

I had run out of water at this point, and my Steripen wasn't working, so I hoped for the best from the creek draining out of Mirror Lake.

Although it looked like there might be an interesting and easy scramble just to the North of the Mirror Lake/Crater Lake trail, I returned to the main trail and ran to Pawnee lake, explored the shore a bit and got off of the main trail, so I bushwhacked generally upward until I found the trail again.

Finally, I was ready for the last big climb of the day (well, last of 2!) Pete and others mentioned that the backside of Pawnee climbs inexplicably up a formidable-looking wall of rock, and this was certainly true. Somehow I ended up too far right on the talus, but once I saw people coming down I headed towards them and indeed saw a climber's trail on the talus, which gave way to a series of serious switchbacks.

And that's the reason for doing the loop counterclockwise (at least if it's your first time), because the West side of Pawnee is more of a solid climb (and worth staring at for a longer period of time!) while the other 3 pass approaches are all pretty much runnable.

Now I had just over 5 miles to descend to my car, with great weather, but it was getting a little toasty out and crowded, and I was rationing the last of my water. This was also repeat terrain for me, having hiked Pawnee Peak with J a few years back, so I wasn't too motivated and didn't move too fast.
I don't have much to add otherwise, except for it is a gorgeous and worthy loop, and I would definitely add the Mirror Lake spur. Lastly, people read these things so they can budget time (or compete! Tony's completed the main loop easily under 5 hours): I took 8 hours, with a solid 45 minutes extra for the Mirror Lake spur, and 45 minutes or so goofing around with gear or taking pictures and video, at a leisurely pace.

I think I took 60 oz of water and drank 100 oz. Since my filter didn't work, I drank from the stream below Mirror Lake. There wasn't really any fresh snowmelt or pooled rainwater anywhere. About 9 days later, I did get painfully sick for about 18 hours, but it was also after a separate camping trip in which my wife said her stomach was also somewhat upset.
I think I ate ~1.5 PB&J sandwiches (500 kcal total?), 3 or 4 gels (300-400kcal), some jellybeans (~150 kcal) and gatorade mix (~150 kcal), so probably 150 kcal/hour.

Since I recall people wondering about the comparison, that's pretty much how long I took on the Aspen Maroon Bells loop a couple years ago, with about the same amount of fooling around, although at that time there were downed trees to deal with. The extra time from that is probably a wash compared to the extra time to go to Mirror Lake, so I'm inclined to say that both classic loops are pretty close in terms of time and effort.

So go do 'em if you haven't already!


  1. Great trip!
    Can you please tell us what you fuled with and how much?

  2. Very cool. I think that's still my favorite loop since I moved out here, even though it kicks my butt. The terrain variety is stellar.

    Good to know about the comparison to the Four Pass loop, because I came in about 9 hours last time on this one (without Mirror). So I figure 10.5 for the Bells.

  3. Thanks Feebird, I added the food and water detail above. My energy felt fine so I don't think I was short on calories.

    Jeff, I think you asked about a comparison before, I think 10.5 hours is a solidly-conservative estimate based on what you said, but ~9.5 for a probable guess.