Bison Peak trip report


Gerry Roach has quite a cottage industry going with regards to hiking and climbing guidebooks. Last year I picked up the Lost Creek Wilderness guidebook he wrote with his wife, but I hadn't done a hike yet. However, after unsuccessfully trying to find good weather the last few weeks on a day I could leave Boulder, I really wanted to get out and do something during the 3-day weekend, but the weather was mostly crappy. On Monday, there was a High Wind Warning up for the northern mountains, with snow showers and blowing snow to boot. At the last minute, I thought about the fact that the Roaches claim that the Lost Peak Wilderness area misses a lot of the bad weather (and from my almost obsessive interest in weather and climatology, I thought that sounded right), and decided to try a hike. I wandered through the book, and figured that for my first outing to this area I might as well go "big" and try for the highest peak in the area, Bison Peak. Considering the season, the length and elevation gain were a bit daunting. However, there is a trail for nearly all the hike, and the rest of the terrain was easy as well. Also, the guidebook insists that the south-facing standard route doesn't collect a lot of snow, so I decided to give it a shot.

I left Boulder right at 5am, and was rather amazed at the traffic volume in my face on US 285. Holiday, what holiday? I guess some of the people could have been heading into Denver for the MLK celebration, but at 6am? On the other hand, I'm usually not driving up 285 this late in the morning because I either have a longer drive, or I'm getting an early start. According to the Denver radio stations, traffic volume was relatively low in the city itself.

Anyway, the drive to the hamlet of Jefferson was otherwise uneventful, and I turned off onto the Tarryall Road. Fortunately, this road is maintained year-round, and it's a pretty good road with a speed limit of 40 mph. Nice, because the trailhead is 20 miles up the road. I arrived at the trailhead before 0730 and had to make my first big decision: snowshoes or not. I didn't see anything around me that indicated much snow, up to say, 10000ft. Even though tree covered, the route from about 9600 to 11000 is along a south facing ridge that I expected might be wind-scoured from the west. Then, above the 11600ft treeline, the route would again be wind-scoured. So, I decided to leave the snowshoes in the car.

With plenty of clothing to stave off the wind I expected up high, I headed out of the parking area and across an over-constructed bridge over frozen Tarryall Creek. There was already some wind at the trailhead, but once I got into the trees, that mostly disappeared. The early part of the route stays low and relatively near the creek and road to avoid private property, but eventually you start the climb up Ute Creek.

There was only occasional snow on the trail even though Ute Creek was frozen solid. It was a gorgeous day, and other than the cap clouds I would see over the distant high peaks, I saw only a single small cloud during the whole hike. The trail is excellent and during the summer this would make a good macho trail run for someone with a much higher VO2_max than I.

I thought I might be able to sneak up to the summit with just one sit-down break, which I planned to take somewhere near the one trail junction on the route. However, hunger and my unacclimatized legs won out, and I took a break to eat some chocolate and rest near 10600ft. By that point, it was starting to get breezier and I still hadn't encounted much snow. It wasn't too long until I got up to 11200ft and the signed trail junction, where you take a right to go across a saddle and then up to the "Bison Arm" saddle at about 11900ft. Anyway, I finally got into some snow just before the junction, and had to follow other people's tracks through the snow. There still wasn't any need for snowshoes, but gaiters were beneficial, and a few places slowed me down a little.

As expected, when I got near treeline, the snow started to disappear again, and not coincidentally the wind picked up. After a few switchbacks, you reach Bison Arm, about 500 ft below the summit, but still nearly a mile away. The wind was averging about 20-25 mph and while I was measuring I didn't pick up a gust above 35. I think the strongest gust I felt was only about 40 mph, so I was pretty happy with the wind relative to what it could have been. Especially since you get some really good views of nearby ranges from the long summit plateau and there were cap clouds over some of the high summits indicating very high winds. As I was making the final approach to Bison Arm, I did have to put on my shell pants and my ski goggles in the sub-freezing air. (For the rest of the hike above treeline I was wearing the shell pants, Polartec pants, midweight underwear, midweight briefs, gaiters, sock liners, moderately heavy oversocks, "normal" sturdy hiking boots, midweight thermal top, Polartec jacket (no hood), shell jacket (no hood), two balaclavas, my ski goggles to keep my nose partly covered, glove liners, and Polartec mittens. I let my hands get cold on the summit taking photos with just glove liners, so I had wear my Gore-Tex mittens as a 3rd layer on my hands for a while. I was quite comfortable in this outfit and still had another jacket in my pack, along with an "uberclava" I made out of an old space blanket.)

I've read a lot of trip reports where people find "booty" on the trail in the pirate sense, like a piece of clothing, a trekking pole, water bottle, or other item that either blew away from someone or fell out of their pack. I never seem to be that lucky. On the last switchback to Bison Arm, I saw something on the trail. "Hey, booty," I thought. It was "booty" alright, an insulated soft shoe for a dog! D'oh!

As the guidebook indicates, the summit plateau is punctuated by fascinating rock formations. As a long-time resident of Laramie, Wyoming, I was immediately reminded of the Vedauwoo rock climbing area east of town. This was definitely a scaled-down version, but still impressive. The most striking feature is a 60-80 foot tall isolated freestanding "monolith", which is pictured on the inside cover of the guidebook. A single photo doesn't do it justice at all, though. (I tried to get my perfect photo, of course.) The route goes right by this thing, so you don't even have to make a detour to get a close-up!

From here, you have two choices, the standard route that avoids a large rock formation to the left, or the "Neffer's Way" route that avoids it to the right. I decided to be clever and take the alternate route because I thought it might be a little more sheltered from the wind. It was, but I had a hard time identifying the summit boulders so I had to put in a little extra effort to get back on the final summit route. I recommend ascending the standard route and then descending "Neffer's Way" if you are feeling peckish. In any case, once you get close to the summit you can identify it by the wooden stake sticking up above the highest rock. You have to circle 3/4ths of the way around the summit to keep it a hike, but you can also pick a bouldering route that is a little more direct if you wish.

I reached the summit at 1137, for a 4-hour ascent. The wind wasn't quite as strong here as on the saddle, about 15-20 with gusts to 30. There wasn't a formal trailhead register, but there was a glass jar with sheets of paper in it. Some of the entries were pretty old, which was a little surprising considering one fumble with the jar would break it and let the paper scatter to the wind. The summit would be a good place to bring a telephoto lens or a video camera to zoom in on the surrounding mountain ranges, but I had neither with me.

I left the summit a little before noon. I descended the standard route off the summit and got another close look at the "monolith". The wind had decreased somewhat by the time I got back to "Bison Arm", so I had to start stripping down even before I got back into the trees.

Once I got well below treeline, I decided to do a little running even though I was wearing boots. I was feeling energetic and figured it wouldn't hurt to make good time. I also kept thinking I was closer to the trailhead than I really was. I was thinking the round-trip distance was 9.4 miles instead of 12.2, I guess this was from looking at other hikes in the guidebook before I left. After I had ran close to a mile in short spurts mixed with walking, I sat down for a break and got out the guidebook (it's a pretty thin book, so I decided to carry the extra weight), and realized my mistake. I still had 2+ miles to go at this point, and I spent much of that wishing I hadn't done any running! The last 1.5 miles or so are pretty much flat so you don't get much help from gravity, either.

I finally reached the trailhead at 1415. My car was still the only one there, and no one else had signed the trailhead register. It was still a little breezy at the trailhead, but the temperature was up into the 40s. Although this hike could be a real chore in bad weather and bad snow conditions, I highly recommend the trip.

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File last modified: 30 December 2004

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