This was sort of a revenge hike for my deer accident last fall. (See my Rogers Peak report for more information on this.) It was in the same area, and I picked an appropriately named mountain instead of Casco Peak. I ran the Bolder Boulder on Monday (with no training) and wanted to keep the hike down to about 3000ft of gain. I'm chronically injured anyway, so I didn't want to double up too much.
Luckily, this time I drove past that spot 11 miles south of Leadville without hitting or even seeing a deer. I did watch 2 deer walk across the road in front of me near the start of the Independence Pass Road. The trailhead for this hike is listed in the French Group section of the Roach*2 thirteeners book, Garratt & Martin's book, as well as Martin's "Hiking Trails of Central Colorado". You can park immediately off the road, or drive 200 yards up the bumpy dirt road to a closure gate and a second parking area. With care, it's possible to drive a normal car up to the gate, but if the road gets any worse, that might not work. Not that it really matters.
I started hiking at the gate at 5:30. It was a beautiful morning with clear skies, no wind, and the Last Quarter Moon hovering over the ridge to the southeast. You hike a little ways up the old two-track road. The road quickly forks, but joins back together. At the top of a small hill, you see the first single-track trail off to the left, and this is the route you want to take. Despite the snow drought this year, a lot of the lower trail was muddy and/or wet, as Martin's two guidebooks say. I figured it had been too dry for that, but I was wrong. Boots were definitely needed to stay on the trail, unless you like starting a hike with wet feet.
You stay just above the bottom of the valley on the west (left) side. Interestingly, there isn't much tree cover, just on the sides of the valley, so it's an open hike the whole way. It's a very pretty valley, and from the trail you get really nice views of the north fork of Lake Creek. Above that, a high ridge rises almost 2500ft above the valley floor in a linear mile. This ridge contains Mount Champion, and a slightly higher unnamed significant summit. This ridge continues to the northeast and then back north to Deer Mountain.
Once you get above a turnoff for a high lake on the west side of the valley, the trail is not very frequently used and was probably never very well constructed in some places. Coupled with the occasional snowbanks as you get higher into the valley, it was impossible for me to stay with the trail after a while. I lost the trail several times, and then re-found it, before losing it for good just after crossing over the little ridge coming down off of Point 12990. But, the worst thing is that the trail data on the Trails Illustrated map is just wrong! Now, maybe there is a trail that switchbacks up that little ridge and then angles across the steep slope to the lake at 12378ft. I never found it, and on the way down I did find and was able to mostly follow a trail that stayed on the valley bottom until it switchbacked northward up to the lake. Without knowing it existed, this trail was impossible to follow on the way up, mainly due to snowcover. My recommendation for anyone trying this hike early in the year is to stay to the left (northwest) of the creek, but remain fairly close to the valley bottom. Then, when you reach the drainage coming down from the lake, start heading up the fall line, and you will probably hit the trail, or if not, you will only have to suffer a bit on the steep slope.
What I actually ended up doing was quickly losing the trail in a snowbank after crossing the little ridge. Then, I angled up the side of the drainage in a vain attempt to locate the map trail. I never did, and the steep sidehilling was very tiring. I finally reached the upper basin and tried to cross a snowfield above the lake, again following the general path of the "trail" on the map. I got about halfway across the snowfield and found myself in a very awkward position on the snow. I obviously didn't have an ice axe or crampons, and didn't even have trekking poles because I've been dealing with a nasty case of wrist tendonitis over the last few months. The snow was pretty solid and I couldn't really kick steps, but it was too steep to easily hike. A fall down the slope could potentially dump me onto the frozen surface (of unknown thickness) of the lake. In reality, I wasn't in serious danger, but I was getting a little "gripped" and was sort of frozen in position. But, I collected myself, used my pocket knife to help cut some steps and got into a comfortable position. I maneuvered around to a sitting position and realized that the snow surface was such that my Polartec pants and glove liners gave me more than enough friction to prevent a fall. So, I ended up doing sort of a crab walk to finish crossing the snow.
From there, the route goes up to a poorly defined saddle and you take a right turn up the northwest ridge. The lower part of the ridge is not very well defined and tends toward scree. Higher up, the rock gets a little more solid, but it's still relatively small talus and thus slow and awkward. Once the ridge becomes better defined, your best bet is to stay near the ridgecrest, but remain slightly below it on the right to take more direct lines through the many steeper parts that lead to small flat areas. The lower part of the ridge was a little uncomfortable because the wind was being funneled, and I measured gusts to near 35 mph and a temperature of 40F on my new Kestrel digital wind/temperature gauge.
I was pretty tired and my legs had not completely recovered from the 10K race. I was even having thoughts of whether I really wanted to finish the hike or not. But, I've done this enough to know to just keep pushing onward and it almost always gets better. And it did. According to my altimeter, I even maintained a 1000ft/hour ascent rate, which was pretty good on that ridge. All this time, I was considering my descent route and how I wanted to try something different. By 13500ft or so, I was feeling better and I was moving pretty well when I finally topped out onto a flat area and was just 50 yards from the summit!
The sky was still clear on top and the wind wasn't too bad. I shot some video and some still photos. There was still enough snow to make everything pretty. The east side of Deer drops off in a hurry! It even looks like the summit itself could calve off and fall into the basin below at some point. The ridge over to Mount Champion looked quite rugged. The Deer summit register had been placed last August and there were only 4 or 5 other people signed in. I was the first person to sign in for 2002! What a difference it makes when you aren't on a 14er, or even a "Centennial" 13er.
I didn't stay too long, and worked my way back down the ridge. This was okay until lower down when it became very awkward due to the scree and loose talus. It would have been nice to have had poles here, but I just had to slip and slide my way down. Once I got down near the lake, I decided that my ascent route across the snowfield would probably be best, if the snow had softened up. It had, and the crossing went smoothly. The best part is that I found a trail! I started descending down near the lake drainage and hit a good trail which switchbacked me back down to the valley.
Once in the valley, I was partly able to follow the trail, but in any case, I knew at which snowbank I had finally lost the trail on the way up, so I mostly worked across snow and grass to that point. I actually did a damned good job at following the trail the rest of the way down to the trailhead. But, I kept losing the trail momentarily in a patch of snow and had to keep poking around to find the outlet. Not a big deal, though.
After yet again briefly losing the trail at the bottom of a snowdrift. I was near a rock feature on a slight hill that I had passed on the way up, so I poked around over there for the trail. I didn't find the trail, but I saw something moving in the distance. I could see it was dark and relatively large. Could it be? As usual when I take it on a hike, my camcorder was in the left inside pocket of my Polartec jacket. It has 20x optical zoom and I needed all of it. But, I got 1.5 minutes of black bear video! My best-ever animal encounter while hiking, and I had my camcorder! A bit shaky at that magnification (not from fear; that didn't really cross my mind). It was quite some distance from me, and moving perpendicularly away from me and uphill. I kept looking for a cub, but didn't see one. Once I was able to watch the video at home, I'm not sure if the bear was maybe a yearling or just a small sow.
Immediately after this, I went back down the hill and found the trail. Good thing I didn't do that the first time! From there, I was able to follow the trail the rest of the way down. The only down side to this was that I had to wade a stream. There wasn't a good rock crossing, mainly because it was about a foot deep and there weren't many large rocks. But, it was only about 6 feet wide, so I took off my boots, threw them over onto the trail on the other side, put my socks in my pockets, hiked up my pants and walked across. Cold!!! But, the air temperature was above 50 degrees by that point.
I eventually encountered two ladies from the Leadville/Twin Lakes area who were doing a short hike and I told them about the bear. They were both school teachers and I ended up chatting with them for a while. I felt pretty decent hiking the rest of the way down, although as usual it started getting a little long. The weather stayed great and I reached my car a little after 12:15pm. The drive home went surprisingly well; I pretty much expect heavy traffic on any Sunday afternoon on the I-70 or US 285 corridors, but it wasn't too bad this time.
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File last modified: 07 July 2006