Lone Eagle Peak - 11290
Lone Eagle Peak - 11290
|Sometimes plan F works out pretty well|
Lone Eagle Peak 11,920'
Solo Flight route, class 4
18-20 miles, split
I was able to go backpacking in the San Juans last Labor Day in Ice Lakes Basin and had a phenomenal time. I decided to make that a tradition and try a backpack to Vestal Basin this year. I'm not a climber, but really would like to climb Wham Ridge. So for the last couple months I've bought gear, learned rope skills, and practiced some easy climbs and was totally excited about trying for the Vestal Basin trio this year.
Until that weather report! It looked yucky. Then got worse. Friday morning, after packing the car the night before and planning to leave after work it was clear we should maybe have a plan B. Coming from Fort Collins, driving 7+ hours (probably more in traffic) with a 8.5 miles pack in - we just weren't feeling lucky enough to chance it. Years back I had made a trip down to Lake City for Uncompahgre. We set up a tent at the trailhead and it started raining at 7:00pm. And not sprinkling, raining. It was still raining at 5:30am when the alarm went off. It was still raining when the second alarm went off at 7:00am. And it was still raining when we packed up the tent and went home at 9:30am, and after having breakfast in Lake City. So while driving 6+ hours one way to sleep is the rain is cool, I can think of a better way to spend the holiday weekend. That trip has made Uncompahgre a verb in my family now. It was too far to drive to pull another "Uncompahgre."
So wrestling with plan Bs which consisted mostly of day trips of the Apostles, trying for Blitzen Ridge or other easy-ish technical climbs to get me ready for Wham one day. We finally settled on the Lost Creek Wilderness Loop for a 2-3 night trip and a chance to use the gear at McCurdy tower. I don't love backpacking unless it's a means to summit some peaks. I don't pack very light, I run cold and end up bringing too much stuff. But hey, still some time out in the woods in a beautiful area with a better forecast that the SJs. But I wasn't super excited about this trip. Although lovely, it was probably because nothing sounded as spectacular as the Weimenuche.
So I decided to leave in a leisurely fashion on Saturday morning instead. I was able to stop by the Farmer's Market in the morning, then took my time and got on the road to Denver around 10am. About a half hour from picking up my hiking buddy, Rob, the Lone Eagle Cirque came to mind. I hadn't been, but wanted to. I had talked about it last year with someone else but didn't end up going for some reason I can't recall. Rob hadn't been either. And even if we didn't summit much, it still seemed like a good place to hang out for a couple days. Since I was driving I didn't call or text Rob with the idea until I showed up at his house. He was up for the last minute change of plans and luckily had Roach's IPW book and a map of the area at his place. We started making calls and was luckily able to score a day-of permit from the ACE in Nederland where a nice gentleman gave us some tips about where to camp. We then headed over to Estes and over Trail Ridge Road and over to Grand Lake to head to the Monarch Lake Trailhead to start the hike in. This can also be done from the east side at Brainard of course, but we figured the chance of getting a parking spot in Labor Day weekend in any trailhead on that side of the wilderness area would be pretty slim. Plus I haven't been to Grand Lake in quite some time.
We arrived to the trailhead shortly before 6:30pm and got on the trail in a few minutes. There were dark clouds to the east where we were headed, it made for a lovely sky over Monarch Lake. We didn't hike long before it was dark and we decided to set up the tent and call it a day. We camped near the Buchanan trail junction with plenty of spots and Clear Creek was nearby for water.
The night was clear and cold. I don't think either of us slept well. We stayed in the tent until 7:00am when we then started some hot drinks and leisurely packing up for the remainder of the approach to Mirror and Crater Lakes.
The trail is fantastic. Really well maintained and fairly easy going the whole way as it is well traveled. We shortly pass Cascade Falls, a really lovely place to hang out for a few minutes. There's also a pool on top of the falls that's nice to put your feet in with a great overlook.
Finally arriving at Mirror Lake we find gawk for a good long while at the lake. Wowza, what an incredible area. We eventually head south and find a camp spot on the west side in between both lakes on a lovely, flat, grassy area with a couple giant boulders right in back that made for some nice bouldering later that afternoon. During our trip up and several times while sitting at the lake we saw a Flight for Life helicopter shuttling in and out. It flew back south on the east side of Lone Eagle. No one was really sure what was going on other than a rescue or a training. Later in the day and after checking GCSAR when we got out, we pieced together that a couple was ascending the north face technical route, summited, and planned to descent the Solo Flight route. They got off route and cliffed out shortly after leaving the summit and was able to send a SPOT message for help on Saturday. After, what I assume was a cold and long night on a ledge below the summit, they were finally assisted off the mountain on foot by another climbing group and SAR and escorted out to Monarch Lake Sunday, making it to the trailhead late Sunday night. Thankfully everyone seemed to be uninjured, although I'm sure it was a heck of a 24 hour period. SAR had a ground crew and also were dropping crew near the lake. Well done, I'd say. It's never a good feeling to hear a rescue helicopter nearby, nor does it instill a lot of confidence to learn that a group who took a technical route up got stuck on your class 4 route down.
After the excitement, we bouldered that afternoon and settled in front of Mirror Lake for a sunset. It was mostly cloudy for the entire weekend, but we did get some pinks, and a calm lake made for lovely photos.
The next morning we left camp around 7:00am and headed over to the east side of Crater Lake to hit the Solo Flight trail. Roach's description is right on and the route is fairly obvious. There is a good trail up to the low point shown and a really good trail that hugged the base of Lone Eagle, all the way to the south end. Someone also has cairned the heck of out this trail, the whole way, nearly to the summit. There are a few options, but most lead to the same place. Keep a sharp eye when doing this trail if you're not sure where to go, you'll see lots of cairns.
Travel all the way south, away from the summit until you reach a high point and are able to see Triangle Lake under Fair Glacier. You'll then turn west towards the mountain, heading SW until you find an entrance into the upper portion. We found a clearly cairned chimney, class 3, but Roach claims a couple other options. Once on the upper portion, you head north, finally heading TOWARDS the summit. This is easy walking on a mostly trailed routed, or cairns can be seen through the more bouldery parts. You'll reach a high point where you can finally see the summit.
This is a wild looking summit and a pretty narrow ridge. Once you are at a point where you can see the summit, right before crossing briefly to the west side of the ridge, the route becomes more serious and with greater exposure. We didn't find the scrambling to be particularly difficult, but there sure was a lot of air beneath you. We cross over and make our way over to the crux of the route, a class 4 down climb with some good exposure on narrow ledges. My partner has a long moment where he doesn't feel well. Woozy is not a good state to be in on ledges high above any solid ground. We turn around and return to a little more solid area to sit for a good long while, eating and drinking and deciding whether to turn back. It starts to snow and we also take into consideration this would probably be an uncomfortable place to be in with wet rock. The snow is on and off, but ultimately doesn't last long. And after sitting for a good long while, Rob is feeling better again and ready to continue. Right before the crux there is a ledge that my long legged partner had no trouble with, but I roped up for to make it across a sloping ledge with few holds. We return to the crux. We find a couple options to down climb. The first option I was stopped by a large rock that didn't look like it had a path that continued on. We could set up a sling and rappel from here but could see well below us. We backtrack a few feet and see cairns well below us and figure this might be it. You turn south again for the crux and down climb about 70' to where you'll find easier ground. I roped up for this part, not immensely difficult but enough exposure to get your heart pumping, and a fall here would end pretty badly. I rope in and down climb this area, coming to a solid ledge with a cairn. Rob rappels quickly to meet me. From here you'll travel easier ground, traversing again towards the summit until more class 3 and 4 scrambling remain to the summit. Not far now.
There is a knife edge to the summit, and fun scrambling with good holds the entire way. And that summit! Lone Eagle definitely has one of the airiest and wildest summits I have ever been on. The views to the north are specular. We could see the lakes below, and Longs and Meeker in the distance. The view behind to the south was even more impressive of Lone Eagle's ridge, the Mohling Traverse to "Limbo" and Iriquios, Fair and Peck Glaciers still hanging in there, and the dramatic cirque all around you. The west side of the Lone Eagle ridge is also quite shear and impressive.
I scoot out to the end of the diving board and there's quite a nice perch at the end. I certainly don't have enough guts to stand on it, I also had a fear of dropping my camera at the very end, so it stayed in my pocket. We take a few photos and then head back, making pretty quick work of it. We took the rope from the rappel out of the crux in case we needed it near the summit. We didn't. We were able to climb up the crux unroped and returned to ledgy but easier ground. We then cross over briefly to the west side and return to the east: smooth sailing from here. We meet another nice pair of climbers who were traveling towards the summit and we exchange pleasantries. They were going to climb the north face but were unsure about the weather. It was unusual, almost snowing and graupelling, always cloudy, but mostly not doing much. So they played it wisely and did the easier route instead. I hope they still enjoyed their time. We sure did.
We made it quickly down, the descent on the class 2 terrain is steep and loose at times, but just annoying at this point, not dangerous. We return to our camp and pack up a few things to bring down to Mirror Lake. We eat and have a drink to celebrate (Canterris makes a pretty solid can of red wine, local too), and chat with some nice people around the area, although most have already headed out for the weekend (it was Monday evening). I don't know that we saw any sun or blue sky the whole day, but the weather held and made for a pleasant hiking temperature.
One more crummy night of sleep in the tent, we have a pumpkin spice latte by the lake (thanks Starbucks), then watch the sun finally come out and hit the peak, then pack out to the nearest burrito.
Pretty spectacular weekend in a spectacular place. Quite likely one of the most scenic areas within a short distance from Denver that I've ever been. With some other rugged peaks back there, I wouldn't mind returning for round 2!
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