Yikes! Pike's Peak is only five weeks away, and in a fit of hubris, I signed up for both the Ascent and the Marathon this year. That means one and a half marathons and almost 16,000' of climbing in slightly more than 24 hours! Time to train. Several weeks ago, I resolved to do "short" runs during the week, and "long" runs on the weekend, preferably at altitude and over some significant elevation change. And there's no reason to make them boring, either. This worked well last year and was an incredible amount of fun.
First on the schedule, a one-day assault on Mt. Alice in the Wild Basin of Rocky Mountain National Park. Wild Basin is pretty big and most of the good views, lakes, and so forth are at least five miles from the trailheads. This tends to limit the most casual hikers and provides long approaches on reasonably gentle trails. Of course this means that the peaks are even farther from the trailhead. Mt. Alice is about nine miles each way with 4800' of elevation gain, depending on exactly how you do it. It would be a stiff one-day hike, but quite doable as a trail "run".
Joining me were Eric and Clem, both hard-men runners from Fort Collins, veterans of the San Juan Solstice 50 miler and somewhat out of my league when it comes to ultra running. I was pretty sure I could hold my own on the up hill portion, but was a bit nervous about being dropped on the way back down.
We met up at 8 am at the Wild Basin trail head and quickly formulated our plan. Clem's wife Sharlyn (a pretty impressive runner in her own right) and their friend Larisa would do a hike while we ran. We agreed that we'd probably meet back at the cars in 5-6 hours and took off up the trail.
The first mile of any run is always rough and this one was no exception. My quads were still burned from a hard hill workout on Thursday (Bear Peak, 2700' of gain in 59 minutes!). But the day was beautiful and the trail was only slightly uphill. We set a pretty casual pace and soon hit our stride. The trail got rougher and steeper after a few miles and we spent most of our time walking, albeit briskly. After three or four miles, we reached a junction: left to Thunder Lake, right to a series of lakes known as the Lion Lakes. The plan was to head to the Lion Lakes, climb up to the Divide and scale Mt. Alice (13,310') via the classic Hourglass Ridge; then run tundra to Boulder Grand Pass and drop down to Thunder Lake to return via trails.
Mt. Alice from Lion Lake #1. Notice how Eric has cleverly tilted the camera to make the ridge appear steeper...
Clem negotiates the bergshrund at Trio Falls.
We climbed steeply for another two miles before reaching treeline at the first of the three Lion Lakes. Suddenly out of the trees, we could see our goal rising above. Mt. Alice has a very imposing east face and our proposed route looked long and steep. We could also see that the weather was not quite as optimistic as we hoped. Nevertheless, we ran around the lake and negotiated some willows and rocks. The trail largely vanished at this point, but the easy ridge to the Divide was clear enough. The cascade from Lion Lake #2 to #1 (Trio Falls), was still snow-covered, but Eric found a nifty corridor through the bergshrund between snow and rock. Sweet! From then on, it was easy trail through occasional scrubby trees and over slabby rocks as we climbed to the Divide.
|The aptly-named Snowbank Lake (aka, Lion Lake #3)||Eric and Clem with Mt. Alice. The Hourglass Ridge is the right skyline and the crux is the steep part at the very bottom.|
From the Divide, the dark clouds looked a bit less ominous than they had below. It looked like nothing major was brewing to the northwest, so we continued. Passage immediately became harder as the Divide narrowed to a rocky spine. Directly ahead, the steep north face of Alice rose 700' to the summit. The Hourglass is steep, narrow section of rock that is rated at class 3. Still, it posed no problems at all and we were soon gasping and wheezing our separate ways up the loose talus of the upper face. Certainly we weren't running anymore.
Three and a half hours after leaving the car, we reached the summit and were greated with great views in all directions. In particular, the high peaks of RMNP were easily visible to the north. Far below we could see Thunder Lake and Boulder Grand Pass, our route down. After ten minutes of refueling and general camraderie, we switched to our downhill legs, and started off across the tundra. The south face of Mt. Alice is much more gentle than the north, and we were able to run large portions of it. The weather was looking a bit ominous again, so we hurried across the mile of open plateau to the pass. As we'd seen from above, there was a large snowfield blocking the top of the pass. It was steep enough and hard enough, we didn't fancy trying to glissade it, especially without our running axes. But there is a clear scree gulley on the north side that we were able to scramble down with dry feet.
Eric and I running tundra. Glorious, but watch your step!
Eric descending from Boulder Grand Pass to Lake of Many Winds. Thunder Lake and the trail are far below.
We paused to drain the gravel from our shoes at the small Lake of Many Winds as a few raindrops started to fall. The pass looked much steeper from down here. After picking our way through some impressive boulders, we found a rough trail and started running again through wildflowers and steep rocks. Another mile of trail brought us to treeline again and the more established trails near Thunder Lake.
None of us snapped any photos from Thunder Lake onward. We were back on trails now which were just smooth enough to run, and just downhill enough for momentum to be easy. No time for photos! We flew along at a great rate spending all our mental energy dodging rocks. Normally downhill is my weak point, but I managed to stick close to Clem and Eric as they went pounding down the trail. It was exhilarating! We covered six miles of trail in a little more than an hour, stopping for occasional breaks to let our feet cool off, then pounding down some more.
While we'd seen almost no one in the upper portions of the trail, we began to encounter more and more hikers headed in both directions. I'd be lying if I said I didn't enjoy flying past with a hearty "good afternoon!" or "beautiful day, isn't it?". Tired as I was, having "spectators" of a sort definitely kept me moving strong. "Gotta finish strong," said Eric. Two and a half hours after leaving the summit, we rolled back into the parking lot and met Sharlyn and Larisa. They produced a cooler of cold Cokes and I must say, I don't think I've ever tasted anything so fine in my life!