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When A Hike Hands You Lemons

Whether you’re a backcountry explorer or local trail lover, this winter day trip report has a little something in it for everyone.

We’re talking alpine hiking, avalanche conditions, flood zones, tourist traps, an exasperated teenager, monster elk, peeping through keyholes and booze.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

On a chilly Saturday a few weeks ago, my boyfriend Sam and I planned a hike to Chasm Lake near Longs Peak in Rocky Mountain National Park. After forcing down some oatmeal, we left Fort Collins around 6:15am and arrived at the Longs Peak Trailhead by 7:45. We did our homework the day before. The weather forecast looked great and our winter gear was packed. We asked fellow hikers on 14ers.com if anyone had current conditions for the south slope of Mount Lady Washington, a known avalanche slide area. A climber in the forum said he recently crossed that exact snowfield using extreme caution. He encouraged us to “watch that slope like a hawk.” Yeesh. Were we sure about this?

Less than two weeks before, a person was killed in a relatively small avalanche while snowshoeing on the east side of Kelso Mountain near Torreys Peak. My heart goes out to family and friends of the victim, but I was thankful for the sobering lesson as Sam and I prepped for our trip. The night before we made a pact: if the snow appeared unstable on the sketchy slope, we would err on the side of caution, turn tail and head back to the car. No hike was worth it.

Trail Map

The trail to Chasm Lake is 8.4 miles round trip. It was practically empty, and the few people we ran into were either in snowshoes or microspikes. I gotta say that the combo of our trekking poles and microspikes was the way to go on the hardpacked snow. We hiked up the switchbacks through tall stands of evergreens, past Goblins Forest through the Gooey Gumdrop Gorge. (OK, but Goblins Forest is a thing.) Once we got above tree line, in typical Longs fashion, the wind really picked up and the temps plummeted. The trail continued along the north wall of a deep drainage on the south side of Mount Lady Washington where we had a great view of Mount Meeker above, and Peacock Pool below.

Chasam Lake Trail

By the way, this blog post is not meant to teach avalanche avoidance and rescue techniques. The Colorado Avalanche Information Center and Diamond Peaks Ski Patrol are great resources, and be sure to check out Kristin’s “Learn: Avalanche Awareness” post from last week. It’s loaded with good information.

Anyway, back to our slippery slope. The wind chill was pretty brutal at this point. As we made our way around Lady Washington, we came upon the spicy slide-prone section of the slope right before the bench to Chasm Lake. This curvy pano shot shows Peacock Pool, the blue ice of Columbine Falls, and the snow fields we needed to cross.

Peackock Pool

A little farther out, Sam dug a quick test pit in the snow to help us make a decision about crossing.

Snow test pit

There was a ten-inch layer of hard slab snow on three inches of sugary snow (depth hoar) that Sam could easily brush away with his gloves. It seemed really solid on top, but that slippery sugar snow underneath made us nervous. So we listened to our squeamish guts, trusted the test pit and turned tail back the way we came.

When a hike hands you lemons (or limes), you head to Ed’s Cantina in Estes Park to eat stuffed poblano peppers and drink margaritas.

Eds Cantina

But Sam and I weren’t finished with our outing. Not by a long shot.

On our way back home, we decided to drive through Glen Haven to check out this forgotten little community’s flood recovery efforts.

Glen Haven

If you’re looking for a good reminder to be grateful, I highly recommend a road trip to Glen Haven, where residents continue to rebuild 16 months later.

Glen Haven recovery

To learn how you can help, contact the Glen Haven Area Volunteer Fire Department.

Glen Haven Help

At the mouth of the Big Thompson Canyon sits a tourist trap icon. I’ve driven past that Dam Store countless times, but I’ve never been inside, let alone up the tower.

Dam Store

Dam Store Sign

Becky: “You know, Sam – I’ve never been up that Dam Store Tower.”

Sam: “Oh, we gotta DO this.” (said while flipping U-ey on Highway 34)

Dam Proprietor: “Sorry, the Dam Tower is closed today.”

Dam Proprietor’s teenage daughter: “There’s like THREE inches of ice on the steps.”

Becky: “Oh, that’s nothing. We barely escaped an avalanche today! We ran down the mountain in microspikes. We touched DEPTH HOAR. And, besides, I’ve waited my whole life to climb this Dam Tower. Please?”

Exasperated teenage daughter doing her best Napoleon Dynamite: “Come back when it’s summer, like, in THREE months or something. GAWSH.”

We were ice blocked at the Dam Tower.

Devils Backbone

So I introduced Sam to nearby Devil’s Backbone Open Space instead.

Devils Backbone Open Space

We watched a bachelor herd of elk graze in the hay fields below.

Keyhole at Devils Backbone

And we enjoyed a gorgeous sunset through the keyhole.

When it comes to doing things outdoors, you can have the best gear and do everything by the book and still get skunked by unknown factors. At that point, we can hang our heads in defeat. Or we can turn on our heels, scamper back down the trail and go chase a new adventure … like a lesson in gratitude. The impromptu tower heist. That gorgeous sunset.

Devils Backbone Hike

A simple heel turn on the unfinished trail is a pivotal moment when each of us makes a mental choice. A choice to either retreat in defeat (such a slippery slope), or regroup with fresh, open eyes eager to find beauty and meaning in the unexpected.

 

Overview

Chasm Lake Trail
Round-Trip Distance: 8.4 miles
Elevation Gain: 2,400 feet
Rating: Moderate

 

 

Learn: Avalanche Awareness

Cameron Pass

As someone who never got into backcountry skiing or snowboarding, I didn’t anticipate the need to sharpen my avalanche awareness skills. Every winter I’d hibernate at home, anxiously awaiting for the snow to melt so I could hit the trails and break out the camping gear when spring finally sprung.

And now Fresh Air Fort Collins has me up around Cameron Pass doing some backcountry snowshoeing in avalanche prone areas. Habits have changed, for sure!

I recently saw that Diamond Peaks Ski Patrol has been hosting some free avalanche awareness clinics around town. I decided to pop into one to see what it was all about.

Diamond Peaks Ski Patrol

Diamond Peaks Ski Patrol is the only backcountry ski patrol in Northern Colorado, dedicated to paroling the Cameron Pass area. They originally started as the ski patrol for Hidden Valley Ski Resort in Rocky Mountain National Park, and when that resort closed, they broke off and some got back together and formed the backcountry patrol in 1990. As part of the regular duty cycle, the patrol maintains a snow station at the Zimmerman Lake Trailhead, as well as the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC) for current snow conditions in the northern mountains.

 

The free avalanche clinics are pretty much an outline of what you’d learn in their full avalanche courses (which run $300 with field training). If there’s one thing I learned in the free clinic, it’s that you need to register for their field courses if you really want to learn anything. I need to up my knowledge more if I’m going to hike up in higher elevations during the winter, and this clinic made me realize how little I know about being in avalanche areas.

If you’re in the same boat, your best resource to start with is the CAIC website. This is updated every morning with the most recent snow and avalanche condition reports for Colorado. It’s free, which is a huge bonus, as many other avalanche report sites are fee based for data.

Colorado Avalanche Information Center

The free clinic gets you familiar with avalanche terminology and slides in a few tidbits of interesting info here and there. You’ll learn…

  • that the prime angle for an avalanche is around 35 to 40 degrees on the slope. So the higher you go toward treeline, the more risk you take with breaking an avalanche.
  • The hottest time of the day poses the biggest risk of an avalanche, so you need to be off the peak before noon – at least.
Photo from CAIC media gallery - front range avalanche

Photo from CAIC media gallery – front range avalanche

You’ll also learn about the different types of avalanches:

  • Loose Dry – which happens after a storm cycle with loose fluffy snow, and they don’t typically cause fatalities.
  • Wind Slab – a hard pack that’s caused by high winds, which is common in Cameron Pass.
  • Storm Slab – which happens when new snow falls on a weak snow layer, and is highly dangerous.
  • Persistent Slab – which are problematic because of how unpredictable they are.
  • Deep Persistent Slab – hard to trigger, but once they do, they are very destructive and can persist for months.
  • Loose Wet – a sprint time hazard as snow starts to turn into slush.
  • Wet Slab – when water starts to flow under the snow pack as it’s melting, creating instability.

While we became familiar with some types of avalanches, the free clinic does not go into depth about how to recognise, or mitigate avalanche risks. This is why you need to either register for an avy class or start studying on your own.

 

Unfortunately, we’ve had avalanche fatalities already this year. The CAIC keeps track of all of this information and includes details about what sport they were doing. There were 8 deaths in 2014, and most of them were on skis. Although, you’ll see that snowmobilers have the highest risk overall.

 

Fatalities by activity

And if you’re really into data for risk assessment, you can view their statistics page where you will see that Colorado has the highest number of avalanche fatalities per any US State, and that January and February are the most deadly months of the year.

Avalanche Fatalities by State

What was interesting to hear in the free clinic is that every person lost to an avalanche had some kind of avalanche training and preparedness. Which means, they knew what they were doing, they had the proper gear (which we really didn’t go into in the clinic other than mentioning beacons), yet they still fell victim to the power of nature. It was a sobering reminder that there are risks in every mountain adventure.

The comprehensive avalanche courses are full for most of the winter season, but you can always get on a wait list or check the CAIC calendar for additions, as they tend to add more to meet the demand. The National Avalanche Center has a great basics website that also includes tutorials for how to measure slopes and mitigate risks, as well as a great gear explainer, and everything else you may need to start learning on your own while you wait for field training openings.

 

 

Meet Guest Blogger Becky Jensen!

Blogging about the Fort Collins community is a two-part goal on Fresh Air Fort Collins. One is to develop a resource of information for people living here, sharing trail review information, discussing great fly-fishing spots, and a million other different outdoor activities that are possible in Colorado. The other is building a community of like-minded people, where we can share ideas and discuss different styles and challenges that we come across our Colorado rivers and trails – whatever we may be doing.

Many of you may know that I write three of the blogs in the Scoop Blog Network with most of my time dedicated to Feasting Fort Collins and Fresh Air Fort Collins. Juggling them all is a challenge, so guest bloggers are a huge help! When I received Becky’s email about contributing to Fresh Air, I was thrilled to have some assistance with balance, but also the addition of another perspective to share with you all.

Here’s a little more about Becky and what you can expect to read from her in the coming months!

Becky Jensen

I was Googling “American Lakes summer hiking Colorado” the other night (because that’s what I do in snowy January) and I stumbled across Fresh Air Fort Collins and The Scoop Blog Network. I started reading “American Lakes Hike: A Must Do, Especially for the Anti-social and Nature-deprived” from 2012. At that point I was hooked and down the bloggy rabbit hole I went. I devoured the Best of 2014 highlights and forced myself to stop reading and go to bed sometime after midnight. I think. There was so much good stuff.

The next morning I couldn’t stop thinking about the Fresh Air blog. As a local, it really resonated with me and provided great info. As a freelance writer, I was impressed with the blog’s voice. I was hooked. I wanted MORE. In less than 12 hours I was asking the Universe, “Where has this blog been all my life?!”

That same day I reached out to Kristin Mastre, trying to play it reeeeal casual, and asked if I could lend my voice to her blog network. Little did Kristin know I was already a super fan.

You know you’re a big fan when you hear yourself say things out loud to Kristin like, “I’m not a stalker, but …” and “I really loved that part in your August 25th Weekend Adventure Report when …” I pretty much geeked out. Luckily Kristin sensed I was harmless, saw some potential and welcomed me with loving arms.

By the way, Kristin is as awesome and real and personable and sharp and adorable and tough as she appears to be in all of her blogs. I’m thrilled to be on her team. I can’t wait to contribute a few stories, share trip beta and admit lessons learned. I’m looking forward to conversations that are relevant to people interested in outdoor adventures in or near Northern Colorado. I might even cross the border into southern Wyoming. I plan to check out local trails, review outdoor recreation programs and explore remote areas of Rocky Mountain National Park. Will I talk about Boulder-area trips in my blogs? Hells NO. There are plenty of people who do that already.

Here are the TOP FIVE THINGS that will shape my Fresh Air Fort Collins blogs:

Little Becky

1. I’M HOMEGROWN
I grew up in Fort Collins since I was eight years old. I’m the youngest of ten kids, so my parents were always on the lookout for inexpensive ways to keep us busy and wear us out. That usually meant going fishing, swimming at lakes, hiking nearby trails, checking out wildlife in Rocky Mountain National Park – you get the picture.

After graduating from Colorado State with a Marketing degree, I left FoCo to build my career in places like Los Angeles, Denver and Boulder. In 2002, I moved back to raise my boys in the hometown I love. Today, I pretty much eat, buy, live, work, hike and bleed LOCAL. I’m eager to reveal favorite outdoor gems, as well as share first-time experiences I’m dying to try. And speaking of bleeding…

2. STORY TELLING IS IN MY BLOOD
As kids, we would beg my dad and uncles to tell the same family stories over and over again. That’s where I learned the power of a good story. Over the last 20 years, I’ve worked in corporate communications, public relations and pitching stories to the press. As a freelance writer, I crank out website content, blogs, ad copy, newsletters, magazine features – you name it. I’m so grateful that I can write stories for a living, but this blog is different. I get to write in my own voice, for my hometown, about all the cool outdoorsy adventure stuff NoCo has to offer! Dad is smiling down right now.

Mountain Top

3. I’M ACTIVE IN THE OUTDOORS
I can’t stand exercising at the gym, so I head outside to stay healthy and active. Exercise is miserable when it feels like a chore or obligation, so I’m determined to fill my days with activities that are exercise in disguise … ones that feel more like play. Making it fun is the key. I’ve summited 26 Colorado peaks (17 unique) that rise over 14,000 feet in elevation. I’ve been bitten by the 14er bug and hope to never recover. I love hiking, fishing, car camping, backpacking, cruising on my bike, playing grass volleyball, river rafting and tubing, lake kayaking, stand up paddling and trail running. I trail run for joy and with a grateful heart, not against the clock in organized races. Having said that, I did “compete” in the Warrior Dash human steeplechase in Copper Mountain a few years ago. Which leads me to the next thing …

Archer

4. I’M WILLING TO TRY NEW THINGS
The best moments of self-discovery are when I totally immerse myself in something new and am forced to tap my inner reserves to tackle the difficult and unfamiliar. I’m not an extreme athlete or danger junkie, but I like to push my limits and feel the occasional adrenaline rush. I also like to try things that calm my swirling mind and encourage quiet reflection. Wherever the activity falls along the crazy-to-calm spectrum, I feel that ANY new experience builds self-esteem and character. Tackling new things in nature makes me feel humble and powerful at the same time. I learn something from every single outing, which makes for some good stories. Right now I’m a newbie at snowshoeing, rock climbing, ice climbing and archery. Stay tuned!

Balance

5. I’M DESPERATELY SEEKING BALANCE
I’m a working 44-year-old mom of twin teenage boys. I’m also lucky enough to have an amazingly supportive outdoorsy boyfriend who is a total badass. I have insanely awesome friends, too. So, you’re probably going to see blogs that include this cast of characters. I plan to write about the importance of carving out solo time for yourself in nature. I’ll share the trials and tribulations of trying to get LEGO-loving teenagers off the couch and excited about stretching their legs in the mountains. I’ll report on weekend getaways with my fella, volunteer opportunities, camping as a family and girls-only outings.

 

I’m excited to explore, share, celebrate and discuss all the cool outdoor activities and places that make Northern Colorado so special. I have a lot to learn, so I always appreciate comments, insight and story ideas. I look forward to getting out in Fresh Air Fort Collins!