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.
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.
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.
A little farther out, Sam dug a quick test pit in the snow to help us make a decision about crossing.
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.
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.
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.
To learn how you can help, contact the Glen Haven Area Volunteer Fire Department.
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.
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.
So I introduced Sam to nearby Devil’s Backbone Open Space instead.
We watched a bachelor herd of elk graze in the hay fields below.
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.
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.
Chasm Lake Trail
Round-Trip Distance: 8.4 miles
Elevation Gain: 2,400 feet