Peaks: Chiefs Head Peak (13,579′), Mt. Alice (13,310′), Tanima Peak (12,420′)
Distance: 18.25 Miles
Elevation Gain: 6,600 Feet
Climbers: Zambo (Solo)
Running Wild Basin: Chiefs Head to Tanima
If there is one thing I think I am good at, it is endurance sports. It has been that way for pretty much my entire life. Growing up, I was always athletic and did well at all kinds of sports,* but regardless of what it was, I was almost never the fastest guy, or the quickest, or the strongest. In most of those things, I have always been content to be well rounded as opposed to really excelling in one area. The one exception to this has always been my stamina.
(*Except for basketball – I am absolutely terrible, despite the fact that I am really tall. When most people see me dribble, their reactions reflect what I like to call, ‘The Stanley Hudson Effect’.)
For as long as I can remember, almost regardless of the activity, I have been able to be the last guy standing. It is just something that has always suited my determination and body type well. Plus, I have found that exerting yourself for a long period of time can actually be a lot of fun (strange for most people, perhaps, but most likely not to those on this website).
It is no coincidence then, that I have enjoyed being a runner since I was young. I have logged countless miles over the years and I have also found running to be the absolute best thing in the world to think, to reflect, and to just decompress. Endurance sports do that like nothing else can. I have run in the odd race here or there as well, and even done a few marathons, but for me, running has always been about getting in touch with the introvert within. It is a mostly solitary pursuit.
With all that said, I sometimes wonder why it took me as long as it did to get into trail running in the mountains. Maybe it was the altitude, or the steeps, or the challenge…or maybe I just needed to hike a ton of peaks before I felt like I knew enough to try to jog up one. Whatever the case, I have been making an earnest effort this summer to combine my love for running and the high places of Colorado. In short, it has been awesome. Like a rock climber or a skier, trail running brings with it a whole new set of eyes with which to evaluate possible routes and peaks.
All this led me to Wild Basin and the peaks settled deep within. After a fantastic outing last Fall up Isolation, I was itching to get back and hit the other high peaks in the Basin: Alice and Chiefs Head. After doing the requisite homework online, I realized that these peaks were well suited for a trail run. The excellent trails of The Park and the gentle angle make for good opportunities. This would be important too, since their summits are nestled nearly 9 miles away from the trailhead – a lot of ground to cover. This trip was a good one to solo as well, as most of my usual partners have either climbed these already or were preoccupied with their own pursuits this weekend.
The familiar drive to Rocky Mountain National Park led me to the Wild Basin trailhead at 5:15, just as the morning light was starting to creep up in earnest. My primary goal was to hit both Alice and Chiefs Head. I decided I would make the call on Tanima later depending on how I was feeling and the weather. Either way, I knew I would need to be quick throughout the day in order to be down ahead of the afternoon monsoon. The early morning jog up to Lion Lakes #1 went as well as I could have hoped for. The trail is very, very gradual to the first turn off approximately 1.5 miles in. From there, it steepens a bit as it winds its way past the four primary campsites of Wild Basin. Further along still, it passes the Thunder Lake junction and begins to climb a bit more aggressively beyond the Lion Lakes turn off, nearly four miles up the valley. I wound up reaching the first lake approximately 1:45 after starting out, having enjoyed every bit of the first 6+ miles of the day.
Wanting to travel light, I had only packed in a liter of water for the first stretch. So, I used this spot to refill of my camelback and take a quick break. The Lion Lakes area would be a pretty awesome spot for a campsite, if it was not quite so far up the valley (or not allowed). Regardless, it is an awesome place to enjoy the views of Alice, as well as the basin beyond. Lingering clouds remained from the night before, providing a much appreciated shield from the July sun. The bugs were down, the temperatures were perfect, I was feeling good, and I had not seen a soul since departing. Things were shaping up to be a great day.
The saddle between these two 13ers is right at 12,500′. It is roughly another 1,000 feet up to Chiefs Head and 800 over to Alice from there. The terrain up to Chiefs Head is mostly gentle upslope, starting with some mixed grass and moss before transitioning over to large boulder hopping nearer to the summit. The ridge has a few surprises as well, as it chokes to a pretty narrow point just before the top. The relief off of both the north and south sides of this ridge is spectacular, with a few semi-exposed moves near the end just to keep it interesting. I topped out 3 1/2 hours after getting started. The sun broke through the clouds for the first time all day just as I rested and took in the wonderful views.
Probably 5-10 minutes from the first summit, I turned around and saw, much to my surprise, another trail runner hastily picking his way up the rocks a few hundred feet below me. I was shocked that someone else was out here, doing essentially the same thing as me. I waited for a few minutes on the top and he arrived shortly after I did. I did not catch his name, but had run up my same route, starting a half hour or so after I had in the morning. I chuckled to myself as I was humbled by his speed – remember I never said I was the fastest guy in the world? Putting aside any notions of pride, it was actually really comforting to see and talk to another human way out here. He also gave me some great beta on the route to come, for which I was very appreciative. It is always awesome to meet other like-minded folks in the remote corners of our state.
Leaving the summit at the same time, I watched as he effortlessly hopped down the boulders ahead of me. Short guys, man…..they kill me on the downhills. 😉
Anyways, I was able to jog again for the first time in a while, which was a real treat on a ridge like this. From this lofty place, pretty much the entire park was stretched out before me. As my new friend dropped back into the valley, I waived goodbye and smiled silently to myself. Sun, altitude, rolling green tundra, an epic ridge, solitude….this was livin.
The next obstacle was to ascend the 800 foot Hourglass Couloir up Alice to reach her summit. As I traversed closer and closer, I was only slightly apprehensive about the scramble to come. While it certainly cliffs out on either side, the couloir is quite wide with almost no mandatory exposure. I simply stayed climber’s left and found I was able to walk on grassy benches for almost the entire time. More complex scrambling could certainly be found if you choose, but I saw no reason to push it by myself. The angle gradually relents 2/3 of the way up the face as the Hourglass runs out, leaving 200 feet of remaining talus hopping on relatively solid rock. I reached my second summit a bit over an hour after departing Chiefs Head.
I really could not have asked for a better day. The clouds finally broke while climbing up Alice and I knew I had a long weather window to play with. With that in mind, I decided to hang out, relax, and just soak in the views from the top. The park really is something special.
I also contimplated my next move. I did not really want to back-track the 9-10 miles from Alice’s summit all the way home. Instead, the slopes off her west face were just as advertised: gentle, green, and beautiful. It was a no-brainer to jog down these towards Boulder-Grand Pass.
Speaking of, I also had to decide if I wanted to tack on the somewhat obscure 12er, Tanima Peak, which is just beyond the pass. I am not really much of peak bagger (in fact, I kinda hate that term), so I was not really all that interested in just tagging the summit solely for the sake of the summit. However, the scree off of Boulder-Grand looked pretty miserable. Plus I was feeling great and and the slopes up Tanima were just too inviting to miss. So, I girded my loins one last time and hit the final feet of gain for the day, reaching my third and final summit some 40 minutes after departing Alice.
I did not regret the extra trip up Tanima. The summit is gorgeous and offers stunning views of all of Wild Basin. Perhaps more so than any other peak, Tanima is situated most ‘in the middle’ of Wild Basin. This alone probably makes it worth the visit.
My final decision of the day was whether to back track to Boulder-Grand for my descent, or roll over Tanima’s east ridge and the descend down to Thunder Lake. Remembering a great old TR by Steve Knapp (thanks Steve!) I knew it was possible. The final 800ish feet of scree once off the ridge, looked terrible, but I sort of just put on a ‘screw-it’ mentality and decided to go for it.
It is approximately 6 miles from Thunder Lake to the TH. I was a bit dehydrated at this point as my iodine worked on the recently re-filled camelback. Forced to just be thirsty for a while, I saddled up one last time for the final push out. All in all it was not so bad. It was nice to be on trials again and I always take comfort in knowing that there is no more uphill on the day. As expected, the crowds grew and grew as I neared the parking lots, which I reached a little over an hour after leaving the lake.
As storm clouds finally began to roll in back at the car, I was very tired, but felt very accomplished. I love it when a plan works out in the hills and this one had done so almost perfectly. I said a silent prayer of thanks for the excellent day and then proceeded to down two full gatorades & a solid pound of Starburst jelly beans. Another incredible day in the park and an absolute blessing!
Thanks for reading if you did – happy climbing!
Time Splits (for anyone interested)*
- Wild Basin TH to Ouzel Falls Junction: 44:00 (44:30)
- Ouzel Falls Junction to Lion Lakes #1: 1:03 (1:48)
- Lion Lakes #1 to Saddle: 1:10 (2:58)
- Saddle to Chief’s Head: 35:00 (3:34)
- Chief’s Head to Alice: 1:13 (4:47)
- Alice to Tanima: 41:00 (5:28)
- Tanima to Thunder Lake: 1:05 (6:34)
- Thunder Lake to Ouzel Falls Junction: 39:00 (7:14)
- Ouzel Falls Junction to Wild Basin TH: 33:00 (7:47)
*Plus about an hour for stops along the way (ie: Three summits & two water refills)