Monday, January 18, 2010

Thunder Pass: Another RMNP Backdoor

Cameron Pass/Michigan Ditch to Thunder Pass
~10.5 miles ski tour

I was thankful to be off of work on a Monday, in honor of MLK Jr. Day, which I celebrated by blasting U2's "Sunday, Bloody Sunday" on the radio while speeding through the snow-free and lightly-traffic'ed Poudre Canyon, on my way up to Cameron Pass.

Thunder Pass was the destination for the day, which is down the Upper Michigan Lakes trail for a bit, and past/above American Lakes. I've been intrigued by this trail for a few years, and was looking forward to trying something new, but hadn't gone yet for a few reasons:
1. Michigan Ditch starts out flat, kinda boring (though with *fantastic* scenery) in the beginning, and is usually mobbed by families and gapers on weekends.
2. Snowmobiles share much of the early route.
3. Avy danger can be high above the lakes, though my sources suggested enough low-angle options to mitigate the risk
4. You need a State Parks pass or entry fee...OK, it's a very fair $3, but if it's crowded, it would just be another reason to go somewhere else, albeit a weak one.

So, being a weekday, it seemed like a good chance to check out a new trail this year, and avoid the weekend crowds. Plus, the warmer temps and lack of new snow in the last week or so has finally allowed this year's unstable snowpack to settle a bit, so the region was generally "Moderate" danger.

This turned out to be a great decision.

Admittedly, I'm a sucker for mountain passes. I started with mt. passes on the road bike, but you can't beat the views from many of the backcountry passes, especially along the Divide. Some of my favourite parts of RMNP, so far, have been uncrowded and unspoiled "backdoor" entrances to the park: Mummy Pass, Storm Pass, and now Thunder Pass.

So I began the flat approach on Michigan Ditch. Jess and I had started this a few years back, but we had gone on a day of low visibility and actually had to break trail. Today, though, the snow was packed into a cross-country freeway, and I was able to enjoy the early views:

A bit after the cabins, I encountered a couple of Poudre Wilderness Nordic Ranger volunteers, who told me the snow was great and packed down, and just be sure not to get confused by the meandering snowmobile tracks. Good advice, as I made extra sure to get my bearings in several open areas with diverging paths (also, watch for the occasional orange blaze on the trees_.

After a couple of miles, I entered a large clearing with lots of tracks. This is a good spot to turn around for a family snowshoe trip, or even play around with some sking, as the trail now begins to get steeper as it tacks to the west. As mentioned, the snow was essentially groomed by snowmobiles. I had to herring-bone and zig-zag a few steeper stretches, but otherwise standard cross-country skis would have managed just fine.

After 2 or 2.5 hours, I reached another large clearing, and some amazing views. I am bad at mountain names from a distance, but was happy to recognize the east side of Static Peak, as well as the unmistakable Crags. I wondered how close I was to American Lakes...until it occurred to me that they were directly underneath me (and several feet of snow), which was the clearing. I made better time than I thought, and Thunder Pass was an obvious, gentle saddle below Lulu Mountain. There was no trail to speak of, but I enjoyed picking my own trail, as there was enough snow to ski to the top. I took a slope measurement for fun and practice, and I was able to stay on ~25 degree slopes. The snow was a bit hard and slabby, but seemed solid, and you could see occasional trees and rocks anchoring the snow, as well as flatter countours that prevent large, steep areas from holding a lot of energy. (That's about the extent of my reading and basic awareness class -- I don't have the skills to assess a pit on a 35-degree slope in order to get fresh tracks after a big dump, so for now I'll just avoid stuff like that altogether!)

Skiing up to the pass was straightforward, and I wasn't disappointed with a face-full of mountains upon mountains in RMNP (as well as blustery wind!):

I sat down for a lunch break, and enjoyed the views outside RMNP, too:

I knew the downhill would be quick, so I had plenty of time. I took a leisurely lunch, and fought the urge to climb Lulu, which would have been a straightforward hike with just a bit of scrambling at the top. But I hadn't planned it, and I hadn't planned for it (I would have brought extra boots, e.g.) so it'll have to wait.

I headed back down, and essentially made my first respectable BC turns -- ever -- without falling. Soon, I was back on the packed snowmobile trail, which was also a fun descent. If I hadn't stopped for more pictures, the entire 5-6 mile descent would have taken just an hour.

All told, the difference between RMNP and North Park is just an arbitrary line on the map. The world just on the other side of that line is quite beautiful, too!

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