Ever since that late fall day in 2008 when Dave and I reached the Saddle and opted to attempt Hagues Peak rather than Fairchild, I have been hankering to get back and try Fairchild. Today is my chance. Early morning on a perfect July day, and Christine and I cruise up through Estes Park and into the Fall River entrance, scoring a choice parking spot in an unusually busy lot. Construction on Bear Lake Rd has diverted much traffic to this northern section of the park. I get my gear in order, lace on my boots, and weíre off the trail at around 7:30 in the chilly morning air, donning sweatshirts (though not for long). Weíre attempting a rather long hike at nearly 19 miles, with just shy of 5000í elevation gain involved, and the forecast is calling for afternoon thunderstorms. Thus, we donít dally on our way up the initial switchbacks, and soon weíre breathing like steam engines in the slightly thinner air of 8500 feet. Past lodgepole pine and spruce, we crest out above Roaring River, a stream that roared indeed in 1982 when the Lawn Lake dam broke and sent a wall of water shooting down the steep ravine, ripping out most of the channel down to bedrock. The air is clear and calm, and itís just, well, an absolutely perfect day for hiking. We chug along at a good clip, eager to summit before the sky darkens. In the morning shade of the canyon, the cool air keeps us feeling good.
The trail leads through aspen patches here and there, and along the banks of Roaring River we get glimpses of the flat head of Longs Peak to the south. But, mostly, the trail simply winds up through a forest of lodgepole pine, Engelman spruce and subalpine fir, the ruling triumvirate of the Colorado high country (though getting a run for their money from a couple of feisty beetle species these days). By 10:15, we are sitting at the edge of Lawn Lake, snacking, enjoying the spectacular view. White puffs of cloud skate along invisible tracks above us, and remind us that the big boy clouds are not far behind. We move on, trekking through the forest east of the lake on a well-established trail to the open tundra beyond, where the last of the subalpine fir gives way to columbines, sandworts, phlox, buttercup and other such hardy beauties of the tundra, all couched in a carpet of short, green grasses. The trail is steep, and our pace slows considerably. Clouds roll in, and by the time we sit down on one of the large boulders at the Saddle, there is real concern about pressing on.
The sky is thick with dark-bottomed clouds, and Mt Fairchild, though in sight, is still 1,000 feet above us. As yet, neither of us have seen lightening nor heard thunder, so we elect to continue on up, quickly, and keep our shelter options in sight. Shelter options are few and far between on the hike up the steep north flank of the mountain, but we do pass several very large rock piles that, if pressed, could accommodate a human body or two out of the elements for a short while. The view to the west opens up along the jagged ridge and we are looking down more than 2,000 feet to the stream wandering in the valley less than a mile distant. Quite a drop. The horizon is serrated with peaks, backlit by a mostly blue sky. That mostly blue color is reassuring, especially in light of that particularly-nasty black cloud just to the north over Hagues Peak.
Rain is clearly falling on Hagues summit, just a bit over a mile to the northeast. We watch it carefully, trying to determine which direction itís heading. Will it track west, as most storms do, or will it be pushed back west by the updrafts funneled up the eastern slope of the mountainside and drift over our way? Itís hard to determine exactly which direction anything is moving, and the wind is not strong from any quarter. Wasting little time thinking on it, I am pulled by the summit ever upwards. Summit fever sets in. Christine elects to stop a little short of the summit, and I donít argue, knowing she will descend rapidly if conditions worsen. I take off at a fast pace, almost jogging, and reach the chaotic boulder field that crowns the summit. Endorphines firing, I trot across the boulder field, examining each step with extreme care. The shelter ring comes into view, and a few seconds later Iím standing on top. Checking my watch, I see itís 12:30. I realize that we should have started this hike far earlier than we did. Being this high above treeline after lunch is not a good plan. The weather to the north is rotten, but I take time to hurriedly snap a dozen photographs or so before retreating down the slope as quickly as I ascended. I catch up with Christine at the edge of the boulder field, and we make tracks down the smooth grassy slope to the Saddle. She notes that lightening is striking east of Hagues, and we keep a close eye around us, but the electric activity is pretty minor. Still, itís a bit nerve-wracking, though apparently not the couple that ascended while we were heading down.
We reach Crystal Lakes, and
discuss a side trip to get a closer look. Thunder rumbles dissuade us,
and we skip on down to the trees around Lawn Lake. Iíve been to them before,
and anyway they are perfectly visible from the open trail to the Saddle.
On the east side of Lawn Lake, we stop and pick a quiet spot off the trail
to have lunch. It begins to rain, though not hard. After twenty minutes
it stops, and the sun comes out. We hike on down through the forest, a
bit tired from the long hike but Iím not feeling sore. Maybe that will
come later. Probably will. Clouds come and go on the way down, and by the
time we reach the trailhead near 5:00, the sky is mostly overcast.
Summit of Mt Fairchild, Mt Ypsilon in the background
Early on in the hike, Mt Fairchild peaks into the valley