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The weight of the pack was already making my shoulders and my hips burn, and I was only to Calypso Cascades, less than two miles down the trail, with about four miles and 2,000 vertical feet to go. So I took a break and let the cool mist from the falls do its work. And let me tell you, it felt great! I had already worked up a pretty good sweat even in the cold mountain dawn. I was headed up for a couple of nights in the back country at the Upper Ouzel Creek campsite just below Bluebird Lake. This was my first solo backpacking trip, so I had it all in my pack, which must have weighed at least 85 pounds. Yes, that ‘might’ be a little more than I needed, but you never know what kind of conditions you may run into during a Rocky Mountain Spring. I had my typical summer hiking gear as well as my axe, crampons and snowshoes for the climbing I planned to do in the upper reaches of Wild Basin. My camera gear added a few pounds as well.
After a large gulp of water and a few shots of Calypso, I was off on the next leg of the hike which would take me another mile down the trail to Ouzel Falls. Once I reached the falls, I felt that I was in a pretty good rhythm so I didn’t stop. I just kept on keepin’ on. Before long I was at the Bluebird Lake trail junction. Now I would gain elevation fairly quickly to a ridge top that is right in the middle of the old Ouzel burn…a fire that ripped through Wild Basin in 1978. The forest is making a slow comeback, but one can easily tell what happened there. It was great to see all of the wildflowers on this stretch of the trail. With an explosion of yellow, Golden Banners were everywhere. Mixed with the charred remains of old trees and the relatively recent growth of new ones, it made for an exciting landscape. I took a little time to really enjoy this section of the trail then finally made my way down towards Ouzel Lake and back into the forest.
Once you get nearer to Ouzel Lake there is another trail junction. One way takes you a half mile down to Ouzel Lake and the other takes you the last 1.5 miles to the Upper Ouzel Creek campsite. I took my last break at this junction, slapped on some sunscreen and insect repellant, down some water and recharged for the last push. Soon after lifting the death bag onto my back once again, I was back in the dense forest along Upper Ouzel Creek, which was flowing like I have never seen it before. There was so much water throughout Wild Basin, it was amazing. The trail was half mud and half knee deep snow, some of which you could walk on, some of which you would sink through. This stretch is where the wildflowers turned from being beautiful to simply astonishing. These were some of the greatest wildflower displays I have ever seen. There wasn’t much diversity, as most of the flowers were Glacier Lilies and the rest were Marsh Marigolds, but they were everywhere. They lined the trail, the slopes and mountainsides around the trail, the banks of Ouzel Creek and some were even brave enough to grow right in the middle of the trail! Glacier Lilies are an amazing flower. Not just because of their unique aesthetics, but because of how they grow. They are usually one of the first flower to grow and bloom after the snow melts below timberline, and can often be seen pushing up through some of the remaining snow. Native Americans used to dine on the leaves and bulbs of the flower, and these are a tasty snack that bears take advantage of as well. It was a real treat to see so many in bloom!
After a few stream crossings and some post holing I was finally there! The campsite was absolutely breathtaking, or maybe it was the damn pack I had to lug up there! I pitched my tent right on the edge of a small rise that overlooks the valley below Bluebird Lake, with Copeland Mountain towering a few thousand feet above you on the other side. Rising up behind me was Mahana Peak with Ouzel Peak as the sentinel at the head of the valley. I finished setting up camp and boiling some water just as the first of a series of small thunder storms rolled through. I took this time to go over my maps for the millionth time. The plan was to head up above Bluebird Lake to the Northwest to gain the shelf above. This also acts as the saddle between Mahana Peak and Isolation Peak. Isolation Peak was to be the first and primary goal. Then I would head along the ridge, south, to Ouzel Peak and onto Ogalalla Peak if time and energy allowed
A restful evening followed with a little more rain and lightning than I would have liked, but for the most part it was pleasant. I did a little reading, took a few photos in-between storms and basically just enjoyed time in the wilderness. After dark, I got pretty tired and was asleep by 9:30 excited about the day ahead.
Though I was excited, I was also a bit apprehensive about what the conditions would be like. We have received some late season snow storms and had a nice spell of unseasonably cold weather. Even with the last week of mercury swelling hot weather, there was still a lot of snow in the high country. And because of the warm weather, the snow was not in the best shape, with dangerous conditions throughout the Indian Peaks and the National Park. The story of fellow SummitPost.org member Nelson Chenkin, found HERE, was also heavy on my mind. An experienced mountaineer, with a lot of miles logged in similar snow conditions was swept hundreds of feet down Mt. Toll in an early afternoon slide. Luckily, thank God, he received relatively minor injuries, a torn rotator cuff, and a deep hip bruise were the worst, along with other aches and pains, and small lacerations on his tongue from icy snow sucked into his mouth as he was trying to breathe while enveloped in the slide. Needless to say, I was going out there with caution as the number one priority.
The alarm went off at 4:00 am and soon enough I was out of the tent and above Bluebird Lake. What I found wasn’t too good. I wasn’t too concerned with my ascent, but didn’t want to chance having to come down in bad conditions as the late morning sun turned the snow into unmanageable and dangerous slush. So I went to plan B, which was to ascend a dry couloir and summit Mahana Peak. So, I headed back to camp and then straight uphill. I was hoping that once I reached the summit of Mahana I might be able to find a safe route over to Isolation without too much steep snow. That was not to be the case. About halfway up the couloir the rock was very unstable. With every step, I would send a few rocks hurling down the mountain, and I was being excessively careful. Then, I stepped on the wrong rock and started a pretty good sized rock slide that actually hurt my ears it was so loud, and sent a couple of coffee table sized rocks down about 100 feet. I just stood there kind of stunned and then heard a rock rolling down from above me. I never saw it, but that ended my desire to climb even another step. So I started the painstakingly careful descent back to camp, over 1,000 feet below.
Sitting around camp sucking on beef jerky got boring pretty quickly, and it was only about 8 am. Having not brought any fishing gear, to save weight and not thinking I’d get around to using it anyway, I figured I didn’t feel like sitting around all day. So I quickly packed up camp and headed back down the trail. It was a nice hike back with thunderheads building to the West by the time I was into the Ouzel burn area. Here, I met a Marmot that lived in a tree. The only one I have ever seen that picked a hollow burned out tree as a home. He kept jumping in and out of his home waiting for me to leave. When he was up in the tree, I guess he was eating something, because little bits of whatever it was kept falling down through the hole. It was pretty entertaining. Soon enough, I left him alone and picked up the pace, not wanting to get rained on. Before too long I was back in the crowds below Ouzel Falls. I stopped to chat with a few folks, many who happened to be Spurs fans from Texas GO! SPURS! GO! And many who were just curious as to why in the world I was carrying snowshoes on my pack on this hot, dry and dusty day! A few crazy looks later I was glad to see the trailhead and my car waiting for me…air conditioning and Gatorade were only an unlocking away.
All in all it was a nice little retreat into Wild Basin. I am still a little bummed out that I didn’t get to do any of the climbing that I had planned, but know I will have a chance this summer to get out there again under better conditions.
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