Sunday, August 16, 2015

Back to the Bighorns

Long Lake
I’m in the rental car and on Rt 16, heading west out of Buffalo, WY toward Cloud Peak. The Bighorn mountains tower directly ahead, and only twenty minutes later I’m on the access road to the trailhead - no other cars in sight. This is my third trip to the Cloud Peak Wilderness. The first trip, in May 2013, was my first backpack outing in the west and in mountains that exceed 12,000 feet…a life changer as far as backpacking goes. My second trip, in October 2013, was abbreviated due to a freak snowstorm, and since that time I’ve been dying to return.

I don my pack, fill out the self-permit at the Circle Park Trailhead, and head up the trail at about 06:30. The sun is up, and it is a balmy, 70-degree, July morning. I started both of my previous trips from this same trailhead. It is a quick and easy access coming west from the town of Buffalo, and is less visited than some of the trailheads further north toward Cloud Peak mountain itself. From the trailhead, it is only a short hike to the Wilderness Area boundary, and another mile or so to Sherd Lake, where the trail meets its first intersection. On my previous trips, I headed straight west from Sherd Lake, directly up the east escarpment of Darton Peak. This time, my plan is to head northwest and circle Darton Peak counter clockwise over five days - maybe bagging the peak if not fully snow covered.

Heading up the arm of Angeline Peak
Day One
HFrom Sherd Lake, I head north along the trail, across Oliver Creek, then turn west again. About two miles up, the trail ends at Long Lake and Ringbone Lake - very picturesque with the mountains as a backdrop. From here, after a short rest, I’m heading off-trail toward Lake Angeline. There is a trail that leads most of the way to Angeline from one of the trailheads further north, but I prefer to be off-trail and venture through more uncharted territory. From the lakes, I circle north then west, around the end of the ridge spur, to follow the arm leading to Peak Angeline, just north of Darton Peak.

When the ground is wet, flat rocks can be appealing
The initial slope up to the spur’s ridgeline was steep, but not really a scramble. The biggest challenge was all of the deadfall. The entire slope and much of the flatter shoulders were strewn with downed tree trunks that provided hurdle-like obstacles. For large patches it was easiest to actually hop from trunk to trunk, weaving my way up the slope like a real-life game of chutes and ladders, or Donkey Kong. The spine of the spur-arm was more flat, so my pace picked up and at around 10,000 feet I was able to cross over to a shoulder on the north side of the ridge, a few miles from Lake Angeline. There were still pockets of snow in the shadow of the peaks, and the mosquitos were swarming - luckily mosquitos don’t like my blood. I pitched camp at a somewhat sheltered spot at about 10,200 feet. The ground was pretty soggy and uneven, so I set my pyramid tent over a large, relatively flat rock. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get the tent very taut, so it looked kind of sad. Open fires are not allowed in the Wilderness Area, so I turned it early after dinner (within the bug-bivy inner tent) to keep the bugs from my ears and eyes.

Day Two
The second day was a short hike. After breakfast, I made a quick climb up the shallow side ridge that I was camped on the face of, to approximately 10,600 feet; then, followed the contour at that elevation around the spur to Lake Angeline. I arrived well before lunch, but decided that I should spend a leisurely day enjoying this perfect spot. There was no one else there when I arrived, despite it being accessible from a trail. It was just me, a rock-chuck, and a few pika for most of the day. In the late afternoon, two sets of fishermen showed up; but there was plenty of real estate to spread out. It was a bit breezy, which was nice, since it kept the bugs at bay. Cloud Peak Wilderness is dotted all over with similar alpine tarns, tucked into canyons below the towering cliff cirques - it makes me wonder which I like better, these alpine shores, or bagging the peaks. Luckily, we can have our cake and eat it too.

Day Three
Climbing Angeline Peak above Lake Angeline
Atop Angeline and facing Darton Peak
After an easy second day, I started off early. I was up at just before sunrise, and packed the tent as I was heating the water for oatmeal. After a quick bite, I started northwest across the front of the lake, toward the north arm of Peak Angeline. This ridge spur slopes gently down one side of the lake cirque and is an easy scramble to the spine. The hike up the spine is not taxing (other than breathing at that elevation - at least for us east coast people); but the view is breathtaking. After bagging the sub-peak below Angeline at about 11,400 feet, it is a short hike across the gap at the top of the cliff wall, southwest, to scramble up Peak Angeline at 12,100 feet. While not as high as Darton Peak, or as tough of a scramble, Angeline somehow feels more remote - like your own first ascent. From the peak, I head down into the pass between Angeline and Darton (to the south, then turn west again to follow the topography down toward the Lost Twin Lakes valley below. The pass is a wide flat meadow, with grass hummocks growing in marshy soils, saturated with snowmelt. I must have looked drunk with my swerving and swaying across the meadow, trying to stay dry. At two points, I had to remove my socks from within my mesh Merrel hiking shoes as I sloshed through the wet spongy marsh. I eventually reached an elevation where the slope became more steep and rocky, which made hiking easier. The marsh channelized into a series of streams that I then followed down into the twin lakes valley below.

Lost Twin Lakes Valley
To my pleasant surprise, the stream became a fall at about 10,700 feet - dropping into the valley below to feed the lakes. I was able to descent to a wide shelf along the cliffs overlooking the two lakes, like a balcony. I had a tremendous view of the entire cirque and both lakes below. While the Lost Twin Lakes are another popular destination, accessible by trail, there were only two groups below when I arrived, and they both departed in the afternoon, back down the trail. After setting camp, I found a route down from my perch to the lakes below for a stroll. Upon returning to my meadow-topped ledge, I found a small stream to top off my water supply and take a sponge bath before cooking supper. As the sun began to set, the breezes died down and the mosquitos returned. Although they were not biting me, the swarming around my head would drive me crazy if I didn’t retreat to the tent. With the tent door open, I could watch the sun reflected in the lakes below until it sank behind the facing peaks; and my eyelids became heavy after a long day.

Day Four
Descending Darton Peak
I awoke to the sunrise. The mosquitos were already swarming, which made breakfast preparation almost unbearable. I would get the stove started, then walk in circles around the cliff ledge with the swarm trailing behind me, and make quick stops at the stove to check progress. I did the same route of pacing while I scarfed down my morning oats. Breaking camp was hasty; and I quickly started to re-trace my path into the Darton-Angeline pass. Once I was above the cliffs of the twin lakes cirque, I turned south from the wet meadow to the boulder strewn western approach of Darton Peak to escape the bugs. The mosquitos never disappeared completely, which was odd given that it became dry and rocky; but they were bearable once more.

Lame Deer Lake
Unfortunately, I did not make a beeline up the northwest face of Darton, which is not very steep and was not snow covered. I instead circled around the peak to approach from the south, between Darton and Bighorn peaks. I found the southern and southeastern approaches more steep, and worse - snow-covered. I was blocked about 100’ from the peak; but the view was still tremendous. I stopped for a snack, and determined that the northern approach to Bighorn was too steep to try and attempt solo. So, I planned my route down the southeast arm of Darton, overlooking the Chill Lakes, to the Lame Deer Lake in the canyon below. The hike down was fairly easy, other than some patches of loose talus, and once reaching treeline, conditions improved even more. The breeze picked up in the afternoon and kept the bugs away, even as I dropped in elevation.

Camped amongst the lodgepoles
From Lame Deer Lake, I followed the South Clear Creek that flows below the glacial boulders by hopping east from rock to rock. While many hikers complain of this sort of rock crawling, I must have some billy-goat blood in me, because I love it and can make pretty good time. I am very sure footed and can pick out a good line for traversing boulder fields - it’s like high-stakes hop scotch. By late afternoon I reach Old Crow Lake and pitch camp among the lodgepole pines in a small clearing located near the foot trail that I would follow in the morning. There were signs of recent bear activity (including prints and scat), so I slept lightly that night.

Day Five
With the thoughts of bears in the back of my mind, I ended up rising early - around 5:30. I spent a leisurely morning making breakfast and breaking camp. There was a light drizzle for a couple hours, but it actually felt refreshing, and it kept the bugs away. The misting rain was not enough to soak me, so I didn’t bother with the poncho - I just kept it at the ready in case conditions changed. I found the trail as I approached the east end of the lake, and followed it further east then north to Rainy Lake, before turning back east toward Sherd Lake and the path to the trailhead. About a half-mile from the trailhead, I came across the remains of a styrofoam cooler and re-usable grocery bag that was obviously stolen by a smarter-than-the-average bear. What a mess - somebody would be waking up to a mystery (and lack of food). I packed out as much of the trash as I could, then stopped at the Ranger Station in Buffalo on my way back out to let them know that there was still a bit of a mess to clean up.

Well, five days was great; but next time I think I’ll shoot for seven. Time flies when you’re having fun.

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