Sunday, September 9, 2012

A Circle Tour of the Circle Peaks in RMNP

Peaks shown from Trail Ridge, picture from Summitpost.

Mt. Ida
Chief Cheley
Pt. 12820
Mt. Julian
Terra Tomah Mountain (12718')
~14.5M, 6000' gain, 8 hours

When recently visiting the high point of Trail Ridge Road, our view was drawn to some of the peaks just off of the Continental Divide, especially Mt. Julian (the most visually prominent of the peaks). It was apparent that these peaks can be connected for a nice long ridge run, and internet research suggested that the route would be fairly easy, with a combination of Class 1 runnable trail, much Class 2, and a bit of Class 3, with the bulk of the route above treeline. When we factored in another pleasant weather forecast, Nick, Steph, and I were up for a Rocky Mountain adventure.

Our goal included 6 peaks, and is described as the "Circle Peaks" and "Gorge Lakes Peaks" for the respective cirque formed by the mountains around Gorge Lakes. Our proposed route involved a fairly straightforward ascent of Mt. Ida, followed by a ridge run all the way out to Terra Tomah, followed by backtracking and some possibly different descent options once in the field. All 3 of us had the Trails Illustrated RMNP with us, but we could just has easily brought postage stamps with us instead.

Indeed, these peaks are so visually stunning, they were an inspiration for a USPS "Alpine Tundra" stamp.

By first light, we had crossed the high points of Trail Ridge on Iceberg and Milner Passes, descending to Poudre Lake, where we started our journey.
The first peak was Mt. Ida, a flat summit that slopes gently toward the divide. In that respect, and more, there are similarities between Ida and Flat Top mountain in RMNP, as both have runnable trails over 4 miles each way to the summit. The trail to Ida isn't marked on all maps, but is definitely a pleasure to hike or run.
I am unsure of Ida's naming, although that mountain name is prominent in Greek mythology.

We gained Ida with steady hiking in just over 80 minutes, and now had view towards Chief Cheley Peak, which had a more satisfying and accessible summit. (For anyone considering a hike of Mt. Ida, it's definitely worth it to add on a summit of Chief Cheley).

Pics courtesy of Steph and Nick

In the short approach to Chief Cheley, we had enough time to ponder the naming of the peak. We guessed a Native American heritage, but looks like we missed on that one. Instead, Chief Cheley Peak is named after Frank H. Cheley, who was known for directing a boy's camp in Michigan, Camp Eberhardt, in the 1910's. He authored several books based on these experiences, and in "The Three Rivers Kids", he included himself as a character known as "The Chief." He soon established himself in Colorado by opening the Bear Lake Trail School in 1921, an outdoor school for boys, and then later expanding to inclusion of a girl's camp as well. The Cheley Colorado Camps exist today. I am curious for further explanation and clarification, especially to know if the actual naming of the peak was based on exploration or honorifics, as the founding of the park predates Cheley's founding of the school in 1921.

After Chief Cheley, there's a ridge with a highpoint of 12820', rolling along directly to Cracktop. Both names are obvious, with Cracktop being named by a vertical slit directly at the summit.

The ridge between Cracktop and Julian is the slowest-going because of more technical terrain, but still remains Class 3 with easy routefinding.

Afterward, we headed to the more prominent summit of Julian, our penultimate named summit, to be followed by Terra Tomah. I've since learned the explanations for these mountain names (as well as reaching the same conclusions on Ida and Cheley) from "Best Summit Hikes in Colorado", with Julian being named after civil engineer and surveyor Julian Hayden. It appears he did some exploration around the area, but other information about Mr. Hayden is scant. It is likely that official Larimer County surveyor Abner Sprague named it simply in Julian's honour, but I am unaware if the imposing nearby Hayden Spire is named after Julian or more famous surveyor F.V. Hayden.

Terra Tomah's explanation is a double misnomer, as it appears to be a mondegreen from a Cohuila ghost dance...but the name was intended for the lake instead, and was mistakenly applied to the mountain.
(In any case, it's a fun name to play with: it also anagrams to "A Rat Mother..." whatever that means).

Mt. Terra Tomah (left) and Mt. Julian (right)

Julian went quickly enough, and was the only summit with a register, and soon enough we were exploring Terra Tomah's flat summit (with a few candidate high points).

Now we were ready for a decision: most routes involve backtracking the way we came. Doable, but loops are always more satisfying. We had another option of backtracking about halfway before descending to trails parallel to Trail Ridge. But, as we stood on Terra Tomah (and having seen it earlier), we thought that descending off of it would be a fun way to explore the lower lakes and benches above them, and lead to a satisfying loop. But would a Terra Tomah face descent go?

We could see parts of the route, and we were aware of some towers, but it looked like we could descend safely, both in terms of the terrain we could see, and by having ramps leading in either direction at the points we could not. We gambled, fully prepared to reclimb and count our losses, and although it was slow and loose (with occasional slabs of granite, sometimes helpful and sometimes too smooth and vertical) I'd say it was a fun descent that kept our attention. Although there was occasional backtracking,we fanned out and took slightly different routes down, suggesting that there were options.

Our descent off of Terra Tomah's East Face, roughly in the middle

Looking back gave us a new appreciation for the mountain, for what appeared to be a non-descript flat summit from the ridge ended up having a quite impressive face. Going down this face added legimitacy to this mountain, in this author's opinion. In hindsight, an easier but longer option would have been to drop off the more gentle South slopes. Also, photographs show that the lower reaches of Terra Tomah often hold snow in the area we traversed, but was dry on the August day in a very dry snow year of 2012.

Now our technical difficulties were over, and we needed to regain elevation as we explored the lakes below. We gained the bench between Arrowhead and Love lakes on solid rock, as we approached an outlet cascade. This is indeed the source of the Big Thompson, a powerful river that has carved out the canyon all the way from Estes to Loveland.

At this point, though, 'twas but a trickle and a jump:

After a brief blitz through willows, we had straightforward options of regaining the ridge to complete the loop. It was a breathless, Euro-hiking grunt, we made it back out of the cirque. Except, there was more elevation to gain as we traced back along the ridge to the Ida trail, which added to the grind.

Finally, we were back to the trail, and it was a fun, clean descent back to the car. In all, I think the Circle Tour of the Circle Peaks was a great route, and it was great to enjoy it with fun and capable friends.

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