Friday, May 18, 2012

Thursday Adventure: Attempt on Thatchtop (Sometimes The Mountains Kick Your Ass)

Sometimes all the stars align for a peak climb and you skip up the mountain with nary a loose stone to trouble you.

And sometimes the mountains kick your ass.

Like last weekend.  After being chained to my computer working on The Tainted City for months, I was dying to get out into the "real" mountains (as opposed to the Flatirons beside Boulder).  I lined up a hiking partner and settled on a destination: Thatchtop Mountain (12,668 ft), in Rocky Mountain National Park.  Not a hard peak, just a nice little class 2 off-trail ascent, reached by taking the heavily traveled Black Lake trail up Glacier Gorge past Mills and Jewel Lakes, then ducking off into the forest and scrambling up off-trail past a few lakes to the broad summit.  You can even turn it into a loop hike by crossing over Thatchtop's broad summit and then descending an S-gully to meet the Loch Vale trail.

It never even occurred to me to check the trail conditions.  Yeah, it was early season - so we brought ice axes and warm clothes and microspikes, figuring we'd have to ascend/descend snowfields once we got off-trail.  But the trail up Glacier Gorge is one of the most well-trodden in RMNP; heck, I've seen grandmothers and five year olds waltzing along that sucker.  And no wonder, since the views are so lovely:

Glacier Gorge (Longs Peak and the Keyboard of the Winds visible on the far ridgeline)

Yeah, well.  It turns out last November there was a windstorm in RMNP that resulted in a "microburst" wind event in Glacier Gorge.  Hurricane-force winds knocked down nearly the entire pine forest within the gorge's upper reaches.  Our first warning of this was upon passing Mills Lake, when we started seeing unusual numbers of downed trees.  But someone had been through with a chainsaw; we laughed over how in a National Park, the trails are always in such good shape.

Then we passed the turn-off to a backcountry campground midway up the gorge, and found the entire forest knocked over and no more helpfully chainsawed path through the trees.
The "trail" at the start of the blowdown
Trail?  What trail?
Not realizing the extent of the damage, we forged on.  But downed pine trees in Colorado are vicious to crawl through; they have spiky stabby branches radiating out whole damn way down the trunk.  If it'd been winter, we could have tromped up the gulch of the creek and been spared the worst of it.  But the creek was free-flowing (and deep, and icy cold); no joy that way.  We tried moving higher on the slopes, and were stymied by unconsolidated snowbanks that had us sinking waist-deep.  After two hours in which we'd made all of a quarter mile of progress (while cursing like sailors and bleeding from innumerable branch-stabs), we turned around.

I've gotta say, that's the first time I've ever had my ass kicked by nothing more than downed trees.  But that's part of the fun of the mountains: they can always surprise you.  Given how popular Glacier Gorge is as a snowshoe/winter camping destination, I keep wondering if anyone might've been in the canyon when the windstorm happened.  Because...whoa.  That must've been one hell of a night, with the entire forest crashing down around you.  Maybe I'll have to work that into a story sometime.

Even though we didn't make Thatchtop, it still felt awesome to get a day in the mountains again.  Hopefully only the first of many this summer!
Me beside Mills Lake, after escaping the blowdown


  1. Those mountains are heartbreakingly beautiful.

    As far as the blowdown, Courtney, I have a similar story from a North Shore trip I took a couple of years ago. A bad windstorm up the shore did a whole lot of trouble in knocking down trees, including closing the entrance to one park, and a treefall that closed a major footbridge in a second.

  2. Paul - nice photo! Amazing how when the trees topple over, they tear such huge chunks out of the ground (what with all the soil trapped in their roots). Found someone else's photos of Glacier Gorge after the blowdown that show just how big some of the downed trees really are (check out the one with all 10 people on the snowshoe trip standing under one tree's rootball):

    1. Yikes, yeah, those microbursts can be amazingly destructive.

  3. Such epic blowdowns would definitely work into a scene with battling mages.

    And thanks for the Every Trail link. Whenever I find rootballs like in that photo, I can't help but scour about for arrowheads and the like - anything that might've been buried for a hundred years.

    1. Ha! Good call, hadn't thought to look in the rootballs (though they were hard to get near on our hike, since the melting snow had made the exposed ground beneath them into sucking mudpits...I expected Rodents Of Unusual Size to appear at any moment!).