Monday, July 9, 2012

James Peak, June 9th 2012

James Peak had held an interest to me since plotting a running course on a map over winter. At 13,294' it represented a great challenge and I wasn't sure how lingering late season snow might affect the steep traverse from Rogers Pass to the junction with the Ute trail.

I haven't worked out why I select some running routes over others. With so much territory to cover selection is important. I generally like to visit higher peaks because I like the twin challenge of altitude and scale of ascent. A low elevation trailhead and a high mountain finish is ideal and preferable to a high elevation trailhead. But then there are other important considerations. The peak has to be scalable by a dog. As much as I want to ascend Mount Toll, there is no way it would be fair to even try to do this with a dog. Similarly North Arapahoe Peak. I particularly like those peaks that turn out to be not overly difficult for a dog, yet fulfilling for me. Because so many of these peaks are new to me, it is only in retrospect that I can really appreciate the quality of the selection. While I don't think there is a "bad" peak to climb, there are aesthetics at play. I can't fully explain why St. Vrain Mountain is one of my favorite running trails...but it is. Despite taking a nasty fall there a few weeks ago, it still draws me back.

I hadn't been in the James Wilderness, but one trip was sufficient to convince me that this would be an area to which I would return again and again.

The East Portal trailhead is a bit strange. The spectacular drive up Rollins Pass Road ends at the Rio Grande railway tunnel. Despite our early arrival, Livvy and I soon caught up with two hikers who were heading North on the Forest Lakes trail. Our next contact with humanity would be with two ice climbers as we descended from the summit of James Peak. The intervening solitude was special.

I was really pleasantly surprised by how much of the early section of the Rogers Pass trail was runnable. In fact, I was concerned that I was running an unsustainable pace that I would pay for at altitude. The trail was fairly soft and green meadow interspersed the dense forest.

But as we climbed and the forest thickened we began to encounter the evidence of strong winds, winter storms and heavy snow as we navigated carefully by fallen trees blocking the path. The National Park service is attempting to reroute part of the trail and this took us on a slightly longer loop that was more open and runnable, but shortly after the Crater Lake trail heads North we began a series of river crossings that really slowed us up.

One river crossing landed us on a steep patch of snow and the fallen trees made the trail difficult to follow. I just headed up the river bank knowing that a few hundred feet higher we should see the trail crossing back over. We emerged from the treeline suddenly at about 11,000' and the trail skirted the North shore of Rogers Peak Lake. I've yet to encounter an ugly mountain lake, but this was truly beautiful.

Dwarfed by Haystack Mountain this lake lay a little below the more famous Heart Lake and we would have an elevated view of both as we climbed to the top of the Rogers Pass.

As we left the lake the climb up the pass was improbable from below. I stopped to check the map to be sure I hadn't made an error, but it looked like the trail headed directly up a ridiculously steep ridge above some unstable cliffs. I wasn't wrong and Livvy pulled ahead impatient with the delay. This photo also shows the ridge line that lies ahead leading to the final slopes of James Peak.

The wind picked up as we climbed and although we were in full sunshine it was only about 7am and the temperature was dropping with the altitude. I pulled on a long-sleeved thermal and strode out more quickly. The view back was tremendous and we could see a small camp by the east shore of Heart Lake, but no one was about.

Once at Rogers Pass we had a clear view of the approach to James Peak. Thankfully the trail skirted to the North of the rocky ridge line and it looked like it was free from snow. We had a good idea of what lay ahead and began picking our way across this final section.

The summit views were fantastic and we spent a little time consuming a late breakfast. I removed my filthy running shoes to clean out debris and Livvy licked between my toes. It's one of the few pleasures I have in life and it was shortly followed by her licking my face. Words can't describe. Shortly after leaving the summit we encountered two ice climbers who had started at 4am.

The descent took us back along the rocky trail to the top of Rogers Pass and we retraced our route back to the car. This trail exceeded my expectations. Once out of the trees it is both challenging and spectacular yet reasonable for a dog. Livvy was in her element. This is definitely worth a return trip.

As we descended the temperature rose and Livvy cooled off in the fresh, ice cold water of South Boulder Creek.

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