| Chiefs Head Peak from Sandbeach Lake TH
Chiefs Head Peak (13,579)
Mt. Orton (11,724) unranked
North Ridge (11,740) unranked
From Sandbeach Lake TH: 17 miles, 5600 feet
Chiefs Head Peak is the third highest peak in RMNP after Longs Peak and Mount Meeker and it is located in the same area. I don't think I would have ever considered attempting a winter single day climb of this peak if I hadn't read Mike Offerman's January 2007 TR. Thanks for the inspiration, Mike! Although his two partners hadn't made it, he had. I had no idea what kind of guy Mike was, but I figured that if somebody had made it, it was at least worth a try for me.
Sunday's forecast was looking stellar and the time finally seemed right to make an attempt at Chiefs Head. I'd already been hiking for two days, but I had been taking it easy in preparation for today. The worst part was getting up so early for the third day in a row.
The roads on the way to the TH were slick and it was obvious we'd have some new snow to deal with – hopefully not too much though or we probably wouldn't make it. Unlike most hikes I plan, I had already mentally prepared myself for the reasonable chance that this one would terminate before the final goal. A hike to Sandbeach Lake or Mt. Orton wouldn't be a horrible thing, right?
We started hiking from the Sandbeach Lake TH at 4:45 (really 5:45 I guess, but we decided that the time change wouldn't take effect until AFTER the hike – an "earlier" start and finish would make us feel a little better). We followed the gentle trail without snowshoes as a light snow fell. The higher we went, the deeper the snow got. There was a nice solid base along the trail from previous tracks, but some trailbreaking through the new snow was required. The many ups and downs along the way indicated that the return trip would be slightly annoying after a long day. Eventually we lost any signs of a previous track and found our own route for the remaining half mile or so to the lake. It had taken us longer than expected to reach the lake – 3 hours to cover 4.5 miles. Already very hungry, we stopped to refuel. The views of Mt. Meeker from here whetted our appetite and we knew that if we persevered our efforts would soon pay off and we would find ourselves in amazing surroundings.
The second phase of this long journey is climbing through the densely treed slopes above the lake to unranked Mt. Orton. The slopes above the north side of the lake are rather steep so we circled to the southwest side before starting our ascent. The snow here was easier to deal with than expected and although the trailbreaking was quite respectable, there wasn't much wallowing to be done. We navigated northwest until we neared treeline and the vista began to open up. Longs, Meeker and Pagoda were all within view now but still no sign of Chiefs Head. I was expecting wind swept slopes above treeline, but so such luck - snowshoes remained necessary.
On to phase three – climbing unranked Mt. Orton and North Ridge and trekking across the expansive flattish area to the base of Chiefs Head's southeast slopes. Shortly above treeline, the rocky summit of Mt. Orton came into view. We removed our snowshoes in order to climb the large blocky talus to the summit. The views from here are amazing and this would be a great winter trip in and of itself. Too lazy to put our snowshoes back on, we postholed a bit as we continued toward the North Ridge. I wasn't sure exactly where the highpoint of this feature was actually supposed to be so I just climbed the bumps that looked the highest to cover all of the bases. We stashed our snowshoes somewhere near the Orton – North Ridge saddle.
Finally, we were staring up Chiefs Head's southeast slopes – the fourth and final phase of the climb. About 1700 feet of climbing still remained and it looked like it would be tedious. There was considerable snow cover over the large talus, making it impossible to rock hop our way up. We stayed on rocks when we could, but the majority of our time was spent slogging through snow in between the rocks. I soon ran out of energy and had to eat again, after all it had been 3 hours since our last break. With renewed energy, we cruised up the last 1400 feet pretty quickly.
From Mike's talk of a ridge in his TR I knew that the "summit" we had been seeing all the way must be a false summit. As we neared the top, my GPS showed 100 vertical feet left to go and I was worried about what the ridge had in store for us. We crested the false summit and could see the real summit a short distance away. Although the ridge looked a little dramatic, it graciously provided very easy passage to the summit. We topped out at 1:15. It had taken 8.5 hours but we made it! The views were absolutely amazing. An infinite amount of pictures of Longs, Meeker and Pagoda were in order. I'm not too familiar with this area yet and I unfortunately didn't have time to sit around all day identifying peaks, but Mt. Alice looked particularly impressive from our position.
Long before we summitted, thoughts of the return trip were swimming in my head. My GPS indicated we had covered 9 miles and I was hoping it was wrong! After about 25 minutes on the glorious summit we headed down. I figured that I might be a little cranky for the final miles so I told Dominic that if I said something mean I didn't really mean it. We agreed that everything from the lake to the car would be off the record.
The initial 1700 foot descent back down the southeast slopes was tedious. However, we found one stretch of snow that was too soft to glissade but made for some fast plunge stepping. The trek from the bottom of the slope back to the snowshoes went by pretty quickly, but our pace slowed considerably on the gentle uphill sections. This time we bypassed Mt. Orton on the south side, putting our snowshoes back on in the process. We soon found our tracks on the other side and cruised on down to Sandbeach Lake. This part of the descent was easy and fast and we were shocked to reach the lake around 4.
We weren't looking forward to the undulating Sandbeach Lake trail but started on the long journey in surprisingly good spirits. We plodded our way along as best we could, stopping only for a sip of water now and again. We were ecstatic when we saw a sign saying 1.4 miles to Sandbeach Lake TH – it looked like we'd finish the hike without headlamps! Large bare patches in the trail forced us to remove our snowshoes, but it was no cruise from there. There was some postholing to be done in the large piles of slushy snow covering the trail in places. We could see Copeland Lake below us, but the trail stayed annoyingly high. Can't we go down yet? After a little bit of me swearing at it, it finally relented and let us down. We reached the car at 6:15 for a 13.5 hour total. We were quite pleased to say the least. Amazing hike!
What an exhausting but satisfying (3 day) weekend. I had the pleasure of hiking in 4 mountain ranges – the Tenmile and Mosquito Ranges, the Sawatch, and the Front Range. Couldn't really ask for more!
pictures & route map: