Saturday, August 4, 2012

Pawnee Peak

I don't exactly know what to make of Ward. This small town, clinging uncomfortably to the sides of a dark, damp, steepening ravine, lies at 9,500ft on my route to Brainard Lake (and to various points south on the Peak to Peak highway). It represents a walk back in time. From the water hand pump at the bottom of the hill, through to the unusual general store/cafe in the center, much of Ward represents a dumping ground for discarded vehicles. It's as though the town is occupied by a whole group of "fix it" people who have never actually got around to...fixing it. It's not a town where you could accuse people of being house proud or of being too environmentally sensitive. Most of the timber homes look to have seen better days and as I drove through this morning at 5.30am in thick fog and a steady drizzle it wasn't the kind of place that encouraged me to linger. I can't help thinking of those mountain villages in southern Appalachia and the problems caused by a genetic bottleneck.

It is all too easy to leap to assumptions...and be wrong. Although Ward feels unfriendly and inhospitable I have zero evidence that this is actually so. Some discomfort comes from people who, going about their business, stop and stare as cars go by. But this is nothing remarkable. Outside the general store I often see a medium sized brown dog wandering around in the middle of the road. Were it not for the 15mph speed limit, this animal could play havoc with cyclists and traffic. But I - and possible many others - expect it to be there and slow down even more.

I did wonder about whether I had made the right choice this morning. It was still completely dark on the Brainard Lake approach road. Headlights full on, windscreen wipers sweeping briskly. The temperature showed 36 degrees and the fog was thick...maybe 25yds visibility. Yet again my expectations of a nice sunny dawn looked thwarted and the shorts and tee-shirt weren't going to look the smartest choice as I pulled into the parking lot and saw a large group of walkers fully kitted out in fleeces and waterproofs.

It felt cold, but not unbearable and I thought that I would warm up pretty quickly on the flat trail to the north of Long Lake. No dog today so I strapped on my Camelback, clipped on my Spot GPS and ran into the dark, wet woods clutching a small map. I didn't have a lot of time this morning - I needed to be back home by 10am - so the plan was to summit Pawnee Peak and return by the same route. I actually wanted to recce the onward route to Mount Toll and also assess the trip past Shoshoni to Apache and Navajo for later visits.

It didn't take long to catch up the large group of walkers and they were happy to step to one side to let me stride through. Then, about 100yds further along the trail I ran out of the fog and saw the first of the morning sunlight. It was a beautiful dawn, above the cloud level at 10,500ft.

The damp air was replaced by a crisp breeze and although it was still cold I felt a lot happier. I love running as the sun comes up.

I passed a couple of other walkers and powered on past the Jean Lunning circuit before reaching the Isabelle Lake trail split at about 1.5 miles. The Isabelle trail is the route to take for Navajo and Apache Peaks - I'd leave both of these for another day.  Shoshoni Peak dominated the view up the valley. Its twin summit looked enticing. I would have the rest of the trail to myself until well along the descent. It felt great to be on my own.

There are no really steep sections along the lower trail and I was able to maintain a reasonable pace as I crossed back and forth over the river that cascaded down from the cwm below Pawnee Peak.

This is a picturesque trail and even this late in the season there were lots of flowers in bloom. Emerging from the treeline the view south west towards Navajo Peak is stunning.

This beautiful mountain, the scene of an airplane crash many years ago, is on my itinerary for the Fall.

The trail steepens after about 2.5 miles and the rapid altitude gains are rewarded with tremendous views back towards the west. The climbing sun was still having a hard time burning off the clouds and the Brainard trailhead was still enveloped in thick fog.

After a few switchbacks, rounding a corner, I was faced with an improbable ascent. A faint trail led off to the north (right) and the main trail seemed to head west towards this outcrop. It climbed steeply on tight turns and was a great section to run. Rapidly gaining height I crested out at 11,500ft and the sweeping rise to the Pawnee trail summit was in view.

Although rocky and uneven this entire section was runnable and the trail headed towards the skyline near the obvious shoulder just right of center.

Shoshoni Mountain brooded in the cloud cover. The small pinnacle of Dicker's Peck (now there's a name to conjure with) is visible in the col just to the right of Navajo Peak.

Left Hand Park Reservoir can be seen in this photo. This lies a few hundred feet higher than Brainard Lake (which is still shrouded in fog).

At Pawnee Pass the route to the summit is less clearly marked. I headed directly up the grass slope towards the obvious pinnacle and picked up a social trail that took me to the summit. Just 400ft of ascent across easy ground.

There isn't a bad summit in the Indian Peaks and Pawnee, with Audubon in the background, is a great vantage point. It was still cool on the summit so I took a few photos and began my descent.

Paiute is at my right shoulder (I was there only last week) and Mount Toll a little further to my right. The temperature at this point was 34 degrees and a stiff breeze was blowing from the west. Time to move on.

From left to right are Navajo and Apache with Lone Eagle Peak just right of center. Really impressive territory.

Airplane Gully runs down the left (east) flank of Navajo. It is just possible to make out the wreckage in shadow half way down the gully. What a miserable place to die.

I was running fairly slow today and taking plenty of photos. It was a beautiful day. The ascent to the top of Pawnee took about 85 minutes and the descent was very rapid. I decided to take a detour and complete the Jean Lunning trail loop around Long Lake. I expected this to be crowded but was surprised to only meet one walking party. Crossing the bridge at the lake outlet provided this spectacular view of the cirque.

Driving back through Ward I decided, impulsively, to visit the general store/cafe. From about 9am in the morning at weekends this place is always inundated with cyclists who, having punished themselves on the 15 mile slog uphill along Left Hand Canyon, take refreshment at Ward. I wasn't sure what to expect, but there were no missing bodies reported in the area, so thought I would be safe. Furtively scanning for oriental-looking banjo players I climbed the steps and entered. It was a dark and dismal place, but in an "old world" sense. There were three trays of delicious cookies and a whole batch of cyclists buying and consuming them. The proprietor was a perfect example of commercial hospitality. Not only was he human, he was more human than I. I was the odd one out in Ward...who would have thought it?

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