Sunday, July 15, 2012

High Lonesome Loop from Hessie

Against the clock!

I wasn't going to make the same mistake on successive days and I parked up at Hessie shortly after 6am. The cars that were there, and there were quite a few, looked like overnight parks for campers in the high hills. With luck I'd have the trail to myself. No dogs today as both Otto and Olivia were resting.

About two weeks ago I had intended doing what I was attempting today, but I had underestimated the injuries I was carrying from an earlier fall and after 2.5 miles I had slowed to a walk and returned to the car. Today was going to be different. The competitive mindset carries some baggage. For the run today I had both time and distance goals for no obvious reason. I knew the outbound leg of this loop pretty well, but I had never descended from King Lake so I was unsure of what to expect. The way I thought about the run today, I had 5 specific goals. First, I wanted to get to the Devil's Thumb Trail split (1.5 miles) in 17.5 minutes. Second, I wanted to pass the outlet stream from Devil's Thumb Lake (6 miles) in 1hr 23 minutes and then top out on the col (7 miles) in 1hr 45 minutes. Fourth, I wanted to be at the col before the descent to King Lake (9.5 miles) by 2hrs 15 minutes and, finally, back to the car by 3hrs 30 minutes. This was not a rational calculation. I just looked at the map and thought..."I should be able to do that". The problem with this competitive mindset is that it attaches significant meaning to such nonsense and I would spend the next few hours pushing myself beyond reason to beat these goals.

When I had first run this loop in the opposite direction last October with Otto I had taken about 4hrs 20 minutes - we stopped frequently and I wasn't running very well, or very much, back then. Today was going to be a test of how fit I was.

I travelled light with a Camelback, my Spot GPS and carried a small camera and began a slow jog through the trees and tried to pick up the pace a little crossing the river and walked as quickly as I could up the steeper section to the Devil's Thumb trail split. 18 minutes 23 seconds, already a minute behind schedule and I felt I was gasping with neither a steady stride nor a comfortable rhythm. I scrambled up the steep section leaving the river and headed onto the beautiful alpine pastures by the Indian Peaks Wilderness marker sign. I felt a little better on this section and kept a decent pace up to Jasper Lake.

On the rising climb to Jasper the treeline cleared in places and I caught sight of the higher mountains. It was when running through the wetter sections of the trail that I picked up clear signs of wet boot marks on the rocks. They must have been made this morning and I suspected an early start by campers and felt sure I would catch up with them soon.

Passing Jasper Lake in the early morning sun the alpine flowers were still in bloom. There were three or four tents dotted along the shoreline but I didn't see anyone up and about...just a few more wet boot marks. I've been up to Jasper Lake quite a few times and previously I would walk some of this section. Not today. I had time to make up and by the time I crossed the outlet stream at Devil's Thumb Lake I was 1 minute 30 seconds ahead of target. It felt good for no obvious reason. Here I was in beautiful high mountain country with not a person in sight racing the digital readout on a stop watch. They commit people for therapy for less than this.

I have always loved Devil's Thumb Lake. My first visit last fall was after a short snowstorm and the cloud was down low over the lake. On that first encounter I never did get to see the protuberance that gave the lake its name but it was in clear view today. The "devil" is clearly a very active individual. Not only does he have a thumb next to this lake, he also has another thumb overlooking Shadow Canyon in the Flatirons. He has that amazing tower in Wyoming (which doesn't seem to be named after any particular appendage) as well as countless other "thumbs", "fingers" "elbows" etc.. This is another example of a name not matching the visual. No matter how I try, I just can't see a thumb at all. I just see a pointed rock spire. I clearly have no imagination.

I could see one tent on the shore of Devil's Thumb Lake but no-one was stirring and as I began the climb to the smaller upper lake I spotted two people higher up the trail. They were stood on the brow of a rise and were photographing the Devil's Thumb. The source of those wet tracks had been discovered. Although I was visible to them for a long time as I jogged slowly up the long rise in front of them they were not expecting anyone else to be there and it shocked them when I ran by. I don't take any pleasure surprising people like this and I apologized and wished them a good trip. I was surprised when they started running after me...they were also running the same trail. This explained why it had taken me so long to catch them. I didn't really want to intrude on their run so I took off at a slightly faster pace than I wanted to towards the very steep climb to the High Lonesome trail.

As I hit the steeper slopes I took this picture of the upper lake. I must have put on a faster spurt than I thought as neither runner was in sight.

The route ahead was long and steep and I had a time to aim for. I ran the short sections I was able to and then walked as fast as I could for the remainder. I felt as though I was struggling and avoided looking at my watch for confirmation of the inevitable.

At this point the trail rises across a steep slope to a rocky col and I still had over 200 feet to climb. I was really tired and crossing 12,000 feet I could feel my heart pounding.

With my target time shot to ribbons (so I thought), I eased off a little and took this photo of the trail I had just climbed. The two young men were some way below me and, although I was struggling, it felt good to be giving them both 20 years in age and yet still be pulling ahead.

I topped out on the spur leading down to the High Lonesome trail and checked my watch. 1hr 43 minutes, 2 minutes ahead of schedule. I couldn't believe it. I was later to discover, when I uploaded my GPS data to, that I had set the current course record for this ascent. I was ahead of a list containing a few young guns. I will enjoy the feeling for the short time it will last. Closer to 60 than I am 50 I have to make the best of these moments while I can.

I seemed to run pretty quickly (for me) on the High Lonesome. It always seems a lot further than it looks on the map to the trail junction above King Lake and I was having to concentrate hard to prevent my foot disappearing into the many holes and depressions. I was feeling pretty tired. I had just been sipping water since I started and although I had a few nuts and dried apricot in my bag I didn't want to stop and risk my muscles tightening up. It's always a difficult thing to balance but pressing ahead was also important because I had a time split to make. After covering about a mile on this high level trail I took one glance back to see what had become of my pursuers. They hadn't yet crested the ridge. Either they had stopped or I was flying. I think they had stopped.

It's a steep and rocky drop down to the trail junction above King Lake and the high level Rollins Pass Road is in view. I reached it at exactly 2hrs 15 minutes and it felt good to be maintaining a schedule that had no rhyme nor reason to it. I was matching the time shown on the hands of an insignificant little clock but it made me feel a sense of accomplishment. I clearly need to get a life. It was downhill more or less to the car about 6.5 miles away.

King Lake is a great place. Remote and photogenic it is a destination in its own right, although today I couldn't see anyone around. Then, descending just below the lake outlet stream I met a woman out running. Thankfully we didn't surprise each other as we caught sight at a distance. She seemed to be making good progress and looked like she was completing my route in the other direction. I wonder what her time was?

I was taking a few risks on the descent but still felt in control as I crested the high falls below King Lake. It was here that I would make a navigation error that would frustrate and delay me. Rather than turn left at the crest of these falls I was deceived by a small trail on the other bank. I hopped over the rocks and then found myself on a steep, unstable slop with no option but to descend. This took me into a boggy area with lots a small tributaries and it was an effort hopping across them all. After half a mile of bushwacking I eventually found the trail again, but I had lost 7 or 8 minutes and there was little chance of getting back in 3hrs 30 minutes. But these challenges are there to test us (or so I rationalized) and my risk-taking continued. If I ran each mile in less that 11 minutes I might just make it.

The trail seemed to go forever. I met a hiker but the blur was insufficient to reveal whether it was male or female. A mile or so further two more groups of hikers then, with 2.5 miles to go I picked up a stone in my shoe. It worked under my instep and it was a distraction if not painful. Stopping to clean this out would delay another 3 minutes. I kept going.

I rejoined the Devil's Thumb trail below Lost Lake and there were quite a few groups of hikers on the trail heading for this accessible destination. I crossed the bridge and headed down the steep trail to the final log bridge at the old Hessie trailhead. Here I was delayed by a family with kids. It isn't exactly polite to just barge through them, so I waited patiently as they took their photos. It took what seemed like an age for them to get off the bridge, but I was away again, on flatter ground, but still with 0.75 miles to go.

I was concerned about the final 0.25 miles of single trail through the trees to the trailhead. I had been held up many times before in this section and it was getting busy and late. Sure enough, everyone and their dog (and not particularly nice dogs at that) were coming my way. I sidestepped those I could, but had to wait for a heavily pregnant woman on an elevated walkway. I smiled and wished her luck, glanced at my watch and saw 3hrs 30 minutes. I was out of time. I ran as fast as I could down to the car but stopped my watch 1 minute over time. After an exhilarating run I felt deflated. The little hands on this watch had ruined my day.

It was my fastest time on this route by 50 minutes, but I felt bad because I missed my goal. The fact that my goal meant nothing was irrelevant. I had given it meaning. I looked back and rued my navigation error. I thought of the family on the bridge and if only I had got there 2 minutes earlier. Or the pregnant woman on the elevated walkway. That's it. It was her fault. I should have brushed past her and knocked her into the water and then I'd have made my time!!

What a great day. I met some great people, if only for fleeting moments, and it felt good to be in the high mountains. I hope she has a healthy child who can look forward to this legacy in the future.

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