Thursday, August 2, 2012

Lumpy Ridge, Estes Park

A cold March morning

The blanket ban on dogs in RMNP makes even less sense around Lumpy Ridge than it does in the high mountains. Let's be honest, this really isn't a true mountain trail at all - it is really a country park trail that undulates through beautiful mountain scenery without ever getting very high elevation. Be in no doubt, it is a superb running trail, but why no dogs?

I've completed this run twice now and each time I've automatically taken a clockwise direction without ever giving it much thought. Maybe my previous rock climbing visits conditioned me to set off towards the crags, but the more I think about it now, it makes much more sense to start early and run anti-clockwise. This way the hoards of ill-equipped, noisy and occasionally inconsiderate tourists who head up to Gem Lake are completely avoided. The other advantage of the anti-clockwise run is that a much faster finish is possible downhill from the Sundance Buttress rather than the steep and awkward descent from Gem Lake. So, clockwise it was.

Dawn was breaking as I pulled into an empty trail head. Back in Boulder the pre-dawn temperature had been 45 degrees. It was minus 4 as I looked in the back of the car and saw a tee-shirt, shorts, and nothing else by way of clothing. Was I still asleep when I set off? Did I really leave my running fleece and windproof at home? Well, yes I did...along with my hat and gloves. How lucky that I brought my sunglasses. As I pulled on my running shoes I was also greeted by a damp, freezing insole - they hadn't fully dried from the soaking the got a day ago. I shivered in the car for a few minutes while my GPS locked onto satellites. I would have to make a brisk start in order to generate some body heat.

Heading west from the trailhead the initial uphill pull was more tiring than it should have been and when I crested the first rise I was blasted in the face by an icy breeze. This was more fun than I could handle. I was absolutely freezing. Had I been allowed to bring Livvy or Otto, and had they done what they would usually have done at the start of a run, I would needed to have chipped them from a tree. Please don't ask me to explain that further.

So I ran quickly, but it wasn't working. Every few minutes I would vigorously shake my arms and hands to try to get some circulation. This isn't easy to do when running fast, and it also struck my mind that if anyone was watching I must have looked a complete idiot (as opposed to the partial idiot which is more my specialism).

As I approached Sundance Buttress the sun was touching the summit rocks and I was hoping for it to spread warmth across my back and put some life into me. A few hundred yards beyond this photo, as I continued to stretch across the frozen ground, I tried to drink out of my Camelback tube but it was completely frozen. So, let me summarize. It was 4 degrees below zero. I was wearing a pair of light shorts, a thin tee-shirt and a pair of wet running shoes. I was carrying water that was now frozen. Thank goodness I remembered those sunglasses - the sunglasses my frozen fingers could barely carry. What a good job I'm not a novice at this sport.

Some relief came, fleetingly, as I passed below Sundance Buttress. A few rays of sunlight were penetrating the trees and I could certainly feel some welcome warmth on my back. But it was gone almost as soon as it came and as the trail shifted northwest through the trees I hit cold, hard-packed snow. The thermometer on my sack showed minus 7 and this became minus 9 as I reached the high point after about 4.9 miles.

Sundance Buttress is a wonderful piece of rock. As a climber I had been attracted to it the first time I saw it on a visit to Estes park two years earlier. I had heard about climbing at Lumpy Ridge, but seeing this beautiful rock motivated me to climb it. Not all rock makes me feel that way even though I really enjoy climbing pretty much anywhere. I can drive up Boulder Canyon and have a fantastic days climbing, but still feel there wasn't a specific draw or attraction to any particular cliff. Similarly Rifle. Sure, there are fantastic climbs everywhere, but some crags just have to be climbed. Sundance is one of them. The Diamond on Longs Peak is another. Back in the UK I was drawn towards Beeston Tor, High Tor and Gogarth as these very old photos of me as a young climber show.

Beeston Tor - 38 years ago!!!

High Tor - 32 years ago!!!


Beautiful memories of outstanding places, but here I was on a freezing cold morning running underneath a crag I would have preferred to have been climbing with a good 7 miles still to go.

Skipping down the Dark Mountain trail was treacherous. There was a hard pack of iced snow and several times I skinned my thigh as I slipped and fell across the surface. There was one point - and it brings tears to my eyes even now as I recall it - when I fell over and was sliding down a too steep slope on my backside with my legs wide apart heading for a tree stump. Not even the shrinkage caused by very cold weather can offer much protection against this kind of bodily assault and only a last second dig of a heel saved me from...I even left my crushed walnuts at home.

Once out of the trees the snow disappeared and I picked up the Cow Creek trail. I could feel the temperature increasing and although my hands were still cold it was no longer unbearable. I also now had the breeze at my back and the day was taking a positive turn. I hadn't seen a single person. It felt great and I didn't want to be anywhere else at that time. The running down the north side of Lumpy Ridge was exhilarating. Even my water unfroze. With all body parts intact and uncrushed I faced the steep climb up to Gem Lake with positive apprehension.

The decision to run the detour to Standing Rock was taken on the spur of the moment. I was enjoying the cold, morning solitude and knew I would be the only person there. It only added two miles of distance and I had plenty of time and energy. Of course, there are people out there who argue that rocks like this are evidence for a global flood 6,000 years ago, but artificial comedy never was one of my strong suits and I marveled instead at the invisible pixies I knew were responsible.

Gem Lake was both deserted and still partially frozen. It really is an exquisite place. I didn't stay for long and I ran around the sandy beach and crested the top of the Gem Lake trail. I knew I would meet hikers on the way down and enjoyed the peacefulness while it lasted.

It's a tricky descent to run quickly and a few times I almost fell over. I punched this rock in anger and tried to step up the pace for the final mile to the trailhead.

It was now a beautiful morning and the freezing cold I experienced earlier had dissipated. Even my running shoes felt warm. I just missed having a dog on a leash and still don't know why this isn't allowed. Maybe someone from the National Park Service who might read this can post a comment and tell me why?


  1. I appreciate your story and photos, but I find that people who run trails tend to think they own them when the idea of being in nature is to quietly move through it and take it in, not to disturb or startle wildlife. Chances are if I were hiking behind you I wouldn't see a single critter because you had scared them off. Let's not kid ourselves - people who run and bike these places do it for the challenge, not for the love of nature.

  2. Thank you for your comment "Anonymous". I am pleased to see that you avoided meaningless generalizations and that you are able to move through nature completely undetected. If you could post a link to your "cloak of invisibility" (I think you'll find it next to "mind training for arrogant pricks") I will be happy to invest in one.