Peaks: Ptarmigan Mountain (12,324), Andrew’s Peak (12,565), Ptarmigan Beak (12,241)
Trailhead: North Inlet, Rocky Mountain National Park
High Camp: I’d tell you, but then I’d have to kill you….
As summer winds down, it gets increasingly more difficult to find the motivation to get out. It should be the opposite, as, strategically, one might think the best plan of attack would be to hit it hard in the Spring, take a break for the first few weeks of summer, when there isn’t enough snow to ski, but just enough to make it annoying to hike. Then as the monsoon winds down, you’d wind up your trips, but any mountain man knows all too well the undeniable call of the wild and one’s insatiable desire to head back in to the hills – time and time again. Scot has been taking full advantage of his free time lately with 4 straight trips to the hills. The drive is admirable but the burnout is understandable. Life is about balance after all.
What started out as a potential group of 5, dwindled down to a dynamic duo when all was said and done. Scot suggested we maybe think about other long time coming objectives, but I was dead set on this remote trio. Rocky Mountain has never failed yet and this had the potential to be the best of the bunch.
When you think of quintessential Rocky Mountain National Park basins, a few heavy hitters come to mind: Glacier Gorge, Sky Pond, Wild Basin, Longs Peak Cirque, Milner Pass, Cloud Traverse, Mummies – the list goes on. I’ve been paying attention for over a decade now and never have I seen much attention being paid to a little southwest corner of the park known as North Inlet. It’s got it all, quite literally. Golden fields, lazy winding creeks, waterfalls, pools to cool off in, solitude, remote jagged peaks and lakes so painstakingly blue they’ll bring a grizzled old man to tears. It was yet again, proof that there is always more places to explore in this diverse alpine paradise that is Colorado.
Scot forwarded me his classic spreadsheet that laid out the weekends plans. I admittedly hadn’t done much research, but figured it wasn’t necessary since there was a trail all the way to camp. A quick look at Lisa Foster’s book and Summitpost showed a pretty brainless route to Ptarmigan Mountain, and that’s all I really needed to know. One detail that must’ve missed my line of sight was a rogue 9er that snuck its way on to the spreadsheet. Now I wouldn’t classify Scot as a helpless peakbagger, but some of his lists have there quirks. Unofficially known as “Cascade Falls Peak”, it rises 9,732 from sea level – that’s all you really need to know about this hump. Scot and I managed to find the path of most resistance on the ascent- as usual. Here are some highlights:
We found some fun class 4 cliff bands (the entire eastern side is lined with a massive cliff band). I can’t believe I’m wasting this much time talking about a 9er in RMNP, but if you ever muster the motivation and need to fill this insatiable desire to climb a close, ranked peak while happening to stay in Grand Lake, bring a 60 meter rope and rappel down the east face to avoid getting turned around on the way down. Another thing of note regarding this peak, some lady on the summit register claimed this was the “finest view in all the park” and according to her notes, this was #75 for her. So….yeah. That’s like choosing Justin Bieber over Jethro Tull.
It wasn’t as bad as I make it sound – we had fun and were back at the pack stash a little before noon. The remainder of the hike made up for whatever lack of aesthetics we experienced on “Cascade Falls Peak”. The trail to the Lake Nokoni junction is Lone Eagle-esque – dare I say even better. There are a number of campsites along the way, 1 of note being “Big Pool”, which is yards down the trail from one of the coolest little cliff jumping spots along the river I’ve personally seen in all of Colorado.
This spot made us both kind of regret we were on another summit-based trip and vowed to return to this very spot for the sole purpose of camping and swimming. I know I’ve probably said that on about 50% of my peak outings, but this one was a bucket list.
Some more highlights of the approach:
The hike to Nokoni ended up being over 10 miles and our backcountry site another couple from there….
Needless to say we were thrilled to remove our packs. I was surprised to see Scot had taken on the “fast and light” mentality – a 180 from his days of carrying full size pianos around on his back for weekend backpacking trips. Tortolini, Modus, SnV Pringles, Buffalo Wing Pretzel Bites and a highly concentrated mix with about 750% the recommended dosage of Countrytime Lemonade was enjoyed at camp. I had just won a portable Bose speaker at work so we enjoyed some tunes at camp with class.
We woke with the first sunrise and I went over to take a piss near the creek when I noticed a massive log starting to move. My eyes must be feeling the impact of a decade in a cubicle staring at a screen – cause that was no log, it was a full grown moose, I’m just thrilled there was a creek between us and he seemed to want no part of a confrontation that early in the morning. By the time I came back with my camera, he was gone.
The easiest way to do this loop is to, from Nokoni, head up the NE shoulder of Ptarmigan and just gaper slog your way up. Here is what the route looks like from near the summit:
That forested plateau would actually make for a sweet site and its pretty damn close to actually being legal. I highly doubt a ranger would patrol up there anyway. I only advocate this illegal camping cause I doubt more than 5 people, who happen to even read this, will even consider this from now until the end of time. The views and sunset would border on science fiction.
The terrain over to Andrews was about as straightforward as it gets (even for remote 12ers). Basically this trio is identical in difficulty to Hallet/Otis/Taylor/Powell from over yonder. Rugged faces to the left and flat alpine tundra to the right. Outside maybe Snowdrift Peak, this trio is about as centrally located as one can get in RMNP. You can basically see every single named or ranked peak in the entire park. Here were some noteworthy views:
It was time for our last peak of the day (that is if Floyd didn’t go all LOJ on me and jet for Alice). Ptarmigan Beak looked pretty cool from Andrews, with some minor scrambling in between.
One thing this trio and the surrounding area taught me is to never judge a peak by its elevation. I thought my interests in 12er obscurity would’ve come to a halt after peaks like Cooper, Marten or any of these 3 we were doing, but after having a front row IMAX view of Rocky Mountain’s southern most 12ers in Craig, “Fleur de Lis”, Adams and Watanga – my perspective took a 180 . And the efforts it takes to reach these outcasts is noteworthy.
Side note -if you have quite a bit more motivation and energy than we did, that lake in the Alice pic is a legal backcountry zone. Have at it.
We didn’t quite know what to expect of the descent off the Beak back to Nanita and Nokoni, but were able to find a “well travelled” loose dirt “trail” from the eastern edge of the Andrews/Beak saddle, which eventually turned in to a boulder field and then the valley below. Our goal was to head in a northwesterly direction towards the saddle between Andrew’s eastern flanks and Point 11,603 on the map. This was easy enough travelling and then we were able to continue on along the banks of Nanita, picking up the trail on the northern shores back to Nokoni. This didn’t go without its fair share of incredible views. Its a damn shame Nanita ain’t legal for camping…..
We found the semi-elusive trail and made our way back to camp, packed up quick and made a bee line for the car, as the call of the grumbling stomach was starting to make itself known. We hopped in the creek at the Big Pool spot and took advantage of all the photo ops we skipped out on on the way in, which there were plenty of. We arrived at the car in significantly better time than on the approach and made way for the Sagebrush Grill. There was a 30 minute wait on a sunday evening and in the words of Michael Chang during his historic upset of Ivan Lendl in the 1989 French Open, we had “an unbelievable conviction in our hearts” to feast like Ghengis Khan and his band of battle weary Mongolians at an all you can eat buffet. Such a place happened to fit those needs on the ride home in the form of Hernandos in the town of Winter Park. Floyd and I had been discussing favorite buffalo wing joints in Colorado earlier in the weekend, and by chance, stumbled upon – arguably – one of the finest wing stops west of the Mississippi. The pizza wasn’t too shabby either. It was the perfect meal to round out the weekend. Some shots of the creek on the deproach…..