One of the greatest qualities of
Fall hiking in the Rocky Mountains, is that you rarely have to worry
about your typical Summer Thunderstorms that roll in every afternoon.
I usually plan on hiking all day when I'm out during the Fall months.
Today, I was headed for Chiefs Head Peak, 13,579 feet, by way of
Sandbeach Lake and Mt. Orton, 11,724 feet.
I arrived at the Sandbeach Lake Trailhead
in Wild Basin at ten minutes to seven. I had heard this trail, until
you reach the lake, was boring and uneventful. I heard wrong. This
is an amazing trail. I usually don't enjoy hiking through dense
forest too much, there are no views. But this forest is unreal.
Maybe it was just because of the Fall colors that saturated every
aspect, from the trees, to the small plants covering the forest
floor. Truly a beautiful trail.
About 2.5 miles into the hike, I
crossed Campers Creek, another mile after that, Hunters Creek, and
yet another mile brought me to the shores of Sandbeach Lake. This
lake gets its name from the sandy shores which surround much of
it. It is now at its natural level. The Lake was once used as a
reservoir and dammed to retain water for towns at lower elevations.
Once the dam was removed, the damage had been done, leaving the
sandy shoreline, the natural vegetation long gone.
I noticed the wind beginning to pick
up once I reached the lake. Finding shelter behind a huge boulder,
I enjoyed my early morning lunch. I was graced by the company of
two little gray squirrels, who eventually became angry at my reluctance
to share my meal. They spent the last half of my little lunch break
barking at me from a nearby tree.
Not one to wear out my welcome, I
put the pack back on and started up the steep ridge toward Mt. Orton.
This would lead me to North Ridge and on up to Chiefs Head, three
The wind kept my attention by getting
noticeably stronger as I approached treeline. Once above treeline,
the wind was fierce. By far the most powerful wind I have ever felt.
It was difficult to stay standing up straight, especially while
trying to hop boulders up a steep slope.
I picked what looked like the best
route toward the summit of Mt. Orton, over the large boulders. The
wind, still, was a factor. I had hoped it would let up a little
bit, but the higher I got, the stronger it grew. I had long since
put on a winter cap (beanie, toboggan, whatever..), the baseball
hat was just not staying on.
Other than the wind, the weather
was still perfect. So I continued on along the North Ridge toward
my distant goal. I tried to drop down to the North side of the ridge,
hoping it would give me some protection against the wind. But it
did nothing. The wind was still as strong as ever.
I had forced my way against the wind
to the lowest point in the ridge, just before I would begin to tackle
the bulk of Chiefs Head. This is where the wind became absolutely
ferocious! It felt like a hand picked me up by the back pack, and
tossed me aside. Maybe I was a little off balance to begin with,
but it was still a strong gust.My guess would be in the 110 MPH
range. It would have to be to lift a 170 lb man off of the ground!
The strongest reading of the day at the Niwot Ridge Research Station,
about 15 miles south of the North Ridge, at over 12,000 feet, was
just over 75 MPH. So the wind was definitely roaring.
After the fall, I decided it was
smart to head back. I was beat from fighting the wind for the past
two miles, and a little unnerved from being knocked over by an invisible
truck-like gust. On the way back toward Mt. Orton the wind kept
at it. One gust actually carried away my winter cap. I thought those
were supposed to stay on!
It was an uneventful hike on the
way back to the trailhead. Once back in Estes, I celebrated my failed
summit attempt with a sackful of McDonalds best sweet buttery goodness,
and a Mr. Pibb!
Another great day in the Mountains.
Round Trip: 11 miles (Mt. Orton)
Elevation Gain: 3,412 feet