Buffalo Mountain trip report


I had hoped to keep up my every-other-day peak schedule, but as usual was having a hard time feeling like going to bed, let alone getting to sleep in a reasonable amount of time. So, when I finally reset my alarm for 10:45am after lying through its 5:45am outcry and more than a half-hour of its incessent 4-minute snooze, I had given up on hiking even with a good weather forecast. When the alarm went off again, I kept doing some snooze and then got up to pee. I decided that maybe I needed the mega-sleep that sometimes results from my sleep problems and I reset the alarm for much later.

However, I couldn't get back to sleep at all and got up at 11:40am. At that point, I really felt like hiking! I quickly got my stuff together and decided to finally climb Buffalo Mountain, which looms directly over Silverthorne and Dillon and has been visible from my motel rooms on my previous trips here (but this time only from the motel grounds).

Buffalo Mountain from Dillon

It's less than a 5 mile drive from Dillon to the trailhead, and at this peak hour on a Saturday the parking area was full. People were parked along the road, which is supposed to be illegal, and I initially joined them. But, I was a little confused as to the exact start of the trail and I was parked by the Lily Pad Lake trailhead. By the time I figured out where I needed to be, a space had opened up, so I snuck into the legal parking spot.

I started up the trail at 1216, with just a few flat cumulus clouds floating by. After a bit, you enter the legal wilderness area, and after a bit more, there is a three-trail junction that is well-signed. I decided against my trekking poles for some reason, and I was quickly feeling rather weak for starting a 3000-foot ascent. But, I was expecting to be able to follow the trail all the way up and make a 3-hour round-trip ascent.

I passed someone from Florida and gave her bum advice that she should be able to get to treeline for the great views. There is a spot with an excellent view of Silverthorne and the Williams Fork Mountain, but by about 11000 feet, the trail gets lost in snowbanks.

I fumbled around trying to find other's footsteps, and with help from GPS to point me in the general summit direction, I managed to get up to treeline a little above 11000 feet. This part of the mountain is a steep talus slope that ends at the trees. The last part of the slope was snowcovered, and above that the snow was mostly melted off. What I didn't know at the time is that the rough trail switchbacks up this slope about a tenth of a mile south (left) of where I was. That revelation would have to want for the descent.

I was just wearing my lightweight trail shoes/boots and didn't even have my trekking poles. But, I could see where people had climbed the 100 feet or so up the 20-25 degree snowslope to get to the rocks. I wasn't 100% comfortable with doing that, but did it anyway. My one concession was that I stayed farther north (right) to break the snow up into two shorter pitches with a small bare rock field. My main concern with the snow was that I knew it would be slushy and slick. I more or less crawled up the slope, kicking steps and using my hands for balance with my thin gloves keeping my fingers from going numb.

The talus above that was mostly fairly stable, but steep and strenuous. The top of what I was seeing was the last very steep section around 12000 feet. Well before that, I was tired and my legs were wearing out from the previous three hikes. In addition, the cumulus clouds were starting to build up just a little, as it was nearly 2pm by that point. I seriously thought about giving up by that point. But, I just couldn't bring myself to do that considering the effort I had already put in.

Finally, after a very steep part (this may be the start of an avalanche zone that helps create the lingering snowcover near treeline), I hit the trail at around 11900 feet. From there, it was a less steep walk on dirt and talus to the summit area.

I certainly don't want to imply that this was any sort of superhuman climb (it took about 2:15), but I was very worn out by the time I reached the summit. This was my 4th hike in 7 days with a total of 10000 feet of gain and 23 miles of hiking once I finished the hike. That's quite a lot for me, particularly since it started with my rushed retreat from Baldy Cinco. I'm just not studly enough to do much more than that. Plus, I was pushing rather hard in case the weather was going to turn.

There is a slightly lower south summit a few hundred yards away, connected by a narrow ridge. I made it about halfway, but it cliffs out and it looked like one would have to descend some scree and go around a corner to continue making relatively easy forward progress. So, I gave up and retraced my path back to the summit and enjoyed the superlative views for a bit.

Dillon from Buffalo Mountain North along Gore Range

I worked back down the trail, continuing beyond the part where I hit it in the first place. Although it obviously took quite an effort to construct it, the trail between about 11000 and 12000 feet is rather annoying as it takes what seems to be way too many switchbacks, and you have to very much rely on cairns to make sure you don't stray from the diffuse path. The worst part was that after deciding that I would stay way to the north on the descent to try to avoid the snow I had climbed, the trail looked to be dumping me right back into it! However, it turned out that as I already mentioned, the trail dropped into the snow several hundred feet south of where I left it. Here, I was able to pick out a line that kept me more on talus and avoided much of the sloppy snow.

Unfortunately, I had to make a very strenuous and awkward traverse through the trees across snowdrifts and through deep pockets where the heat of the trees had melted the snow around them. I had thought to take a couple GPS waypoints near where I lost the trail on the way up, so I could aim for that, but this turned out to be very time-consuming. Furthermore, with the dense tree cover, my GPS unit wasn't getting a great signal, so I wallowed around for about 10 minutes near one of my waypoints looking for the damn trail!

This was getting rather frustrating, because I wasn't sure if I could just head straight down through the trees and snow to randomly encounter the trail. But, for some reason, I had been trying to locate the second GPS waypoint I had taken in the vicinity of where I had lost the trail on the ascent. I switched to the first waypoint, and managed to find the trail within another minute or two.

After a few annoying snowdrifts on the trail before the snow completely cleared out, I could finally cruise down the trail. But, my legs were somewhat jellified by that point, so I was a little unsteady until the trail became less rocky lower down. Despite this, I was actually in good spirits for the trail descent after having completed the more difficult than expected climb. I reached my car just ahead of the 4 hour mark. The timing was good, because by the time I had driving through fast food and made it back to my motel, a cell was passing right over Buffalo Mountain. I'm not sure if produced any lightning, but it certainly rained, and maybe hailed up there.

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File last modified: 03 July 2008

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