Saturday, November 3, 2012

Heart Lake

I was a little closer to the "edge" than I would have preferred today. It was a combination of factors, but they left me feeling a little exposed when I usually prefer the safety margin to be much wider in my favor. It's not that I'm ultra-cautious, but I do take care to balance risk and prepare for any situation I might encounter. And it's not that I got the calculation completely wrong today...more that I misjudged two critical factors that I'll come to later.
Driving along the Rollins Pass road to East Portal. Headlights on the road show how dark it still is. Heart Lake lies just below the highest snowy peak in the distance.

I've been hankering for one last high mountain trip before the real grip of winter takes over. The weather has been pleasant and mild in the foothills and the high mountains seem to have had fewer storms over the last few days. I did a fast 10 mile run with Livvy last night so I would be on my own this morning and decided a trip above the snow-line was in order. I don't like taking the dogs in deep, high-altitude snow - it's hardly fair. Although Otto and Olivia are big dogs in comparative terms, it's still tough having to jump through 3 feet of snow. If I was going to get above 11,000 feet then today was the day.
Moffat Tunnel from the trail head. My route crosses the obvious snowy ridge beyond which is Heart Lake.

It was a cold morning leaving home and as I drove through complete darkness up Boulder Canyon the temperature showed 24 degrees. By the time I left Nederland under lightening skies it was 20 degrees and arriving at the East Portal of the Moffat Tunnel it was 18 degrees. At this time of year I usually allow 6 to 8 degrees of temperature loss per thousand feet of ascent and this would put the temperature at Roger's Pass at 0 degrees Farenheit (-18 degrees Celsius). I then factored in warming from the rising sun, which should add 10 degrees at all elevations and would still leave at high level -12 Celsius. The miscalculation was wind speed. All the overnight forecasts predicted zero wind. I wish they had been true. The one thought I held in my mind as I battled the cold morning was the thought of warming sun on my back at higher elevations. The thought kept me going. Unfortunately, the sun would never touch my back at all due to thin cloud cover over the plains to the east - above me I had brilliant blue skies, but the sun was concealed.
A mile and a half up the trail and the first signs of sun clipping the peaks. Freezing cold on the trail.

The sky was light when I left the trail head, although the sun hadn't risen. I could hear the sound of a distant train coming through the tunnel and the displacement of air was causing the massive exhaust turbines to scream at a high pitch. It was the only disturbance to the early morning calm, but it was significant and distracting. Such is the length of the Moffat tunnel that I would be 2 miles further up the trail by the time the train emerged - not that I'm fast, of course, but that the tunnel is so long.
Well worn tracks leading up a steep snow the wrong direction!! The trail heads right at this point.

The trail was clogged with snow and ice from 10,000 feet. Lot's of recent walkers had turned sections into a skating rink and I trod on the softer snow at the edges in an attempt to maintain balance and control. I was blowing hard up to the Forest Lakes split and as I gained altitude past the Crater Lakes trail my heart was pounding and my breathing was irregular and labored. For all the effort I was putting in I didn't seem to be making such quick progress.
Just below Roger's Lake

Approaching 11,000 feet the tracks on the trail thinned out significantly. Clearly, many walkers gave up the effort in increasing numbers and the snow became deeper and the imprints more scattered. The hard, icy surface lower down was replaced with sparsely trodden deep snow higher up and this made running very challenging. And it quickly became clear that those walkers who had persisted this far weren't gifted in map reading. I know this trail well, and although the snow makes it harder to follow the correct course, a well-trodden passage crossed a stream and seemed to head up a steep incline in the wrong direction. Not only did I know that this wasn't the correct path, but it was obviously incorrect from an examination of the surrounding terrain. If I have learned one thing well in studying the natural world it is this - streams tend to flow downhill away from lakes...and given that Roger's Lake was only a mile away, the trail probably kept fairly close to the stream bed. These tracks veered away at right angles...and it seemed everyone followed them.
Leaving a completely frozen Roger's Lake for Heart Lake. James Peak is the obvious high point dead center. The annoying cloud cover kept the sun at bay.

I sighed and began breaking trail through fresh deep snow in the correct direction. It was desperate going. I had to back track a couple of times to find more stable ground but eventually arrived at the outlet of Roger's Lake. Not a foot print in sight. Either a whole group of disoriented walkers was wandering around the countryside 2 miles to my left, or they had also given up and headed back to the trail head. All evidence suggested the latter.
About 8 inches of ice covered Heart Lake. The wind whistled across the surface.

My goal for the day was Heart Lake. I did toy with the idea of ascending Roger's Pass, but the strong wind and debilitating cold suggested that was an objective too far. Leaving Roger's Lake I jogged over open country to where I knew Heart Lake lay. On the south-facing hillside above tree line most of the snow had blown away or had melted and this made it much easier. However, the wind stiffened appreciably as I crested the shoulder to the south of Heart Lake and I made hard work of crossing the final stretch of ground to the lake outlet. I needed to find somewhere sheltered to fuel up. I felt I had low blood sugar and this needed addressing quickly. But I couldn't escape the wind. Whenever I found a place that seemed protected the wind would whip through after a short lull.
View across Heart Lake to Roger's Pass. The trail can be seen climbing the obvious nose in steep zig-zags.

I was wearing technical clothing so, in one sense, I was well prepared. But there is one feature of technical clothing that needs to be understood. It's really basic science. Technical clothing is designed to wick moisture away from the body quickly. This is great during the summer because as moisture is evaporated from the upper layers of clothing it causes cooling closer to the body. I had expended significant energy climbing up to the lake and was now "benefitting" from this cooling effect. Just at the time I needed to feel some warmth my clothing was working against me. It would only be short lived, because moisture evaporastes quite quickly, but how I longed for a woolen fleece.
I am looking a little battered by the weather. I have no idea how I managed to fiddle around and get the camera self-timer to work.

I found a small depression below a large boulder right on the shore of the frozen lake and huddled down on my side. It wasn't ideal but it was better than taking the full force of wind head on. Small grains of ice and snow were whipped up by the wind and blasted my face and eyes. They hurt. I quickly checked my water and even before I removed it from my pack I remembered that I didn't loosen the screw cap before I left the car. I always do this in winter because the cold usually prevents me from being able to grip the cap and open it. I was furious with myself for forgetting such a basic task. I needn't have concerned myself - the water was completely frozen. I still needed glucose and found the two oatmeal cookies I carried for precisely this purpose. They, too, were frozen and I had a hard time breaking pieces off to chew...but I did manage to eat one and knew that this would provide much needed energy in the next 20 minutes. I just didn't have 20 minutes. I needed to move, and quickly.

I skirted the lake to the west but failed to find any respite from the wind and cold. It was at this point that I realized the miscalculation I mentioned earlier. It's not that I was in actual danger, after all, I had plenty of running left in my legs and I was able to reason things through rationally and assess my situation. But I was extended beyond the point where I am usually comfortable and was annoyed at myself for exposing myself to such risk in this way. I could feel my lower jaw freezing - this has happened before so wasn't, in itself, particularly concerning, but it was a symptom I could have done without. I needed to lose altitude and get back below tree line.
Descending back to Roger's Lake.

I broke south from Heart Lake and picked up the trail that descended to Roger's Lake and from there I descended below 11,000 feet and into the trees. The wind dropped immediately and my spirit rose. It was an exhilarating descent. I love running on snow-packed trails in the mountains and downhill is a lot easier than uphill. Having spent the best part of three hours completely isolated from  civilization I met two walkers heading in to the hills. They were discussing whether to continue when I surprised them coming round a rocky outcrop. It took me all of a nanosecond to realize how ill-equipped they were for these conditions and I encouraged them in the decision to turn back.

About a mile from the trailhead I encountered another group of walkers...maybe six people and as many dogs. I didn't see any risk in this group getting much higher and bid them good day. Back at the car I felt a sense of relief and pleasure. Pushing myself a little further than is comfortable, but coming through felt good. I remembered the huge bear prints I had seen earlier in the day and thought that encountering their owner might have added too much spice to the occasion  but every day in the mountains is an outstanding day and today was another one of them.
Final view of Roger's Lake before the rapid descent back to the car - 5 miles away.

Unfortunately I couldn't remove my running shoes. The laces were completely iced over and my fingers were still numb. I sat in the car with the engine blasting warm air on my feet and legs. The tingling was uncomfortable but after 10 minutes I was able to prise the laces apart, remove my shoes and begin the drive back to normality...until tomorrow.

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