Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Sawtooth Mountain and Coney Lake loop

Visually descriptive mountain names usually my view. Sharkstooth in RMNP doesn't quite cut it (sorry) for me. Similarly Arrowhead. Even Twin Owls on Lumpy Ridge. Never mind the Flatirons. Yes, I can see the vague similarity and the pattern-seeking creatures we are can fill in the blanks that geology has left out, but Sawtooth is perfect. Reflected in the small lake at Coney Flats it has a distinctive saw blade profile. The vertiginous cliffs on its south face, impressive from a distance, are much more foreboding up close and the proximal route I took with Otto provided a perfect view.

I had wanted to ascend Sawtooth since a failure last Fall. In mid November, on a cold, sunny day, high winds prevented progress beyond the upper reaches of the Buchannan Pass trail, with stinging blasts of ice and a lazy wind (the kind that can't be bothered to go around you and insists on blowing straight through you). This might be more of an excuse for an earlier error, for having run from Camp Dick (there are so many problems with that name) to the junction with the St Vrain Glacier Trail, I slipped on the iced-up timbers of a log bridge and took a plunge through the ice into a chest deep river. Although wearing shorts and tee shirt is usually an advantage when wet, I found it hard to get dry and recover warmth, even after upping the running pace past Red Lake, and when I crested the ridge near the top of the pass it became too dangerous to proceed. These were the days before I had invested in my Spot 2 GPS device - the one that sends a signal back to my wife showing her where I am on a map ( Even with this device today I want to avoid all difficulties, but not having the device and then getting into difficulty was unthinkable.

July 1st this year was a 100+ degree day in Boulder and leaving the Beaver Reservoir trailhead at 6.15am Otto and I struck a fairly brisk pace towards Coney Flats in a 65 degree heat. It was a stunning morning with no-one about.

We navigated the linked footbridges across the small lakes, quickly jogged up the Beaver Creek trail and then joined Buchannan Pass trail at the junction with the spur to Red Lake. We were accompanied a short distance by an overly athletic marmot (pictured above just left of the trail) but even it lost interest as it dismissed the threat it originally thought we posed. The route ahead was clear and compelling - a direct line to the col with tricky sidestepping of a snow field. All would be good.

From the rising trail the gentler north slope of Sawtooth came into full view - not exactly runnable, but certainly amenable to fast walking and it took little time or effort to reach the summit.

I should point out that this trip would be an entirely different proposition in low cloud or darkness. The summit is an exposed place and the cliffs on the south and west and east facets are extremely dangerous - get the navigation wrong and the consequence will be severe. What is a disarmingly pleasant approach on a beautiful day would be very different in poor conditions.

The summit is a lofty vantage point. It's not a mountain with a particularly high elevation (12,304'), but it feels like a big mountain when you are on top.

Otto and I spent as good 30 minutes taking a breather and enjoying the environment. We could pick out all the main mountain landmarks (he's a clever dog is Otto - I would point out a mountain and he would agree with me. He was right every time).

Here is Otto with Paiute Peak in the background.

The distant lake on the upper left is our starting point...and destination...Beaver Reservoir. Overall a 16 mile trip.

I hadn't intended attempting the descent to Coney Lake. The original plan had been to simply retrace my steps the way we had come, but there's something more complete about a loop or lollipop and once I saw Coney Lake from the summit of Sawtooth, and checked the map, I decided it was the route to take. I'm not sure I would do it again, or if I did I might take a different line on the descent.

We descended Sawtooth to the north and west and picked up a social trail that followed the ridgeline south along the Divide aiming to crest the grassy knoll ahead before tracking east to talus slopes above the lake. All went to plan. The view back to Sawtooth was impressive, and for this reason alone it was worth the tough time to come.

We hadn't realized when on the summit of Sawtooth just how large those cliffs were a few steps away.

As we traversed the grassy knoll we picked up a great view of Upper Coney Lake below Paiute Peak - not our destination, but a very beautiful place.

The talus on the decent was horrible and Otto was amazing as he slid with me on all four paws and showed incredible balance for a canine. He must have wondered where I was leading him to. It was a painful and slow descent. Dropping down a steeper rocky section my feet skated off and as I put out my left hand to brace my fall I gashed my hand badly on a sharp rock. At first I could just feel the warmth of the blood, and then I looked down and saw a 3 inch gash through to my palm. Our position was too unstable to get out my first aid kit, so I closed my hand into a fist and we kept moving. This turned out not to be the smartest of things to do because the blood coagulated around my closed fist and when I later opened it the action ripped the wound even wider. Still, nothing was broken and these things are fixable and the cool waters of Coney Lake were a welcome respite.

Never was a dog more deserving of some shade...

...or a cool down!!!

Although the trail from the lake back to Coney Flats was littered with fallen trees and snow patches, the return trip was uneventful. We picked up the pace to 9-minute miles and quickly clocked off the remaining distance. Although this wasn't a particularly long run, or particularly hard, the two of us were exhausted. And my hand still hasn't healed!!!

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