Day 0: we drive from Manhattan, KS. It was blazing hot. 98 in Denver, which has to be pretty freaky, though not nearly as oppressive as when it's 98 in our humid neck of the woods. We drive the Mt. Evans highway for giggles--we had to practically run to the summit and down because a storm was imminent.
We had pizza and beer at the Backcountry Brewery in Frisco, then headed to Heeney to the Surprise Lake trailhead. The tiny little campground there was full, so we headed down to the lake (Green Mountain Reservoir) and camped at McDonald Flat. (Side note--I wish so badly to live in Heeney, CO. Maybe some day. I love mountains, especially the Gores, and my wife loves water—problem solved!)
Day 1 (of a planned 7 day trip) We are picked up by Burt, the owner of Jake's Mountain Shuttle, and his dog Jake, who shuttle us to the Rock Creek trailhead. Had the hike gone as planned, we'd have saved about 12 miles of fairly uninteresting up-and-down hiking on the Gore Range Trail by doing this shuttle. We take off...to reach Slate Creek from the Rock Creek TH is 5.5 miles of annoyingly up-and-down GRT. Then it's about 3.5 miles to (lower) Slate Lake, climbing moderately until the last mile. Lower Slate is one of the more scenic lower-elevation (ca. 10,000) lakes in the area, but the established camps are pretty close together.
<http://uploads.tapatalk-cdn.com/20160725/e89299f5f6bb6e0af29af7351af4965e.jpg%5B/IMG%5D> Lower Slate Lake
Day 2 We cross the creek and climb a fairly steep mile to Upper Slate Lake, where the trail ends. Both the GRT and the Slate Creek trail were well-maintained, with deadfall cut and reasonable logs in place at major creek crossings. (This is definitely not always the case in the eastern Gores). The junctions are all well signed.
From the upper lake, it’s a bushwhack of 1.5-2 miles to South America Lake, in the upper basin. As Gore Range buskwhacks go, it’s not terrible. Like all eastern Gore Range buskwhacks, it is densely brushy and WET. There’s a pretty good semblance of a path around the south side of the lake. From there, there are some bits of boot-built tread and cairns, but you’re mostly on your own. There are two feasible routes: you can head high, traversing the lower slopes of Peak S all the way to the basin of South America Lake. We more-or-less followed this route on the way down. It involves a lot of talus, boulders, and snow, and my favorite: dense brush mixed with boulders. Or, you can drop to the ponds below the headwall, backtrack downvalley and cross the creek, contour around the north side of the ponds, and then mount a direct assault on the steep headwall leading to the lake basin. (This was our route on the way up.) This involves a lot of brush, a lot of wet, and a steep climb up grass and talus. I can give details about the route for those who are interested.
We arrived at South America Lake (11,600 ft.; unofficially so named due to its shape) early in the afternoon. Holy smokes, what a spectacular place SA lake and the upper Slate basin is: to my mind, rivaled in the Gores only by the upper Black Creek high country to the north (and not quite as difficult to get to.) We slowly contoured our way around the lake in grass, talus and brush, finally selecting a camp just about off the coast of Peru, near the inlet stream coming from the snowfield in the saddle between peak Q and Peak R. (One first reaches the lake at the tip of Chile.) The other major inlet stream is at the very head of the lake (Venezuela).
Unfortunately, by now, I am suffering from more severe altitude sickness than I ever had before. I’m vomiting and can’t hardly eat anything. I’m always queasy on day 1 and 2, and eating is a challenge, but this is disconcerting—we’re planning to be at or above 11,500 for the next 4 days, and I’m running on empty.
We manage to make camp before the storm, which arrives with a passion—we get torrential rain for much of the afternoon, and again after dinner. The tent is nearing the end of its lifespan and we’re taking some water, but we manage to keep things reasonably dry.
We decide to take a rest day (our schedule allows for one somewhere, although I was hoping to use it later to climb Mt. Powell). I’m in no condition to continue-- although not actually puking anymore, I can still barely eat. We explore the upper basin above the lake, and confirm that our planned route, over the pass to the north to the S Fork of Black Creek seems feasible: mostly class 2 (as near as we can tell) over mostly talus and snow. It could be corniced on the other side—there’s still a fair amount of snow. The light conditions are amazing, the lake is like glass. Marmots and pikas abound. (No pika pics this time: those buggers rarely sit still.)
Afternoon, it is stormaggedon, part duex. This time, it rains/hails torrentially for about 2 hours, with scary-close lightning. The most intense high-mountain storm I’ve ever experienced. The tent barely survives. Also, my son’s pad is leaking. (When the lightning is so close you can smell the ozone, you really need those couple inches between you and the ground!) Much of our camp is now a lake.
This pretty-much seals it for us: tomorrow, we are aborting and heading back down Slate Creek. My body and our gear are not up for several more days exposed to this. But we enjoy the raw beauty of this inhospitable place the rest of the evening, in between the rain.
We head out. We take the higher route back to the upper lake, since the wet level is now off the charts, we figure the low route with its ponds and wet brush is to be avoided like the plague. It’s slow, since we are route-finding all over again. It’s almost noon by the time we reach the trail at the upper lake. The creek is literally exploding down the drainage, but the crossings are manageable. We eat lunch at the lower lake, and descend about 2 more miles into the open area of the lower valley, and find a barely passable camp spot near the creek. Fortunately, there’s a bit of a log damn creating a still-enough bit of creek at our camp to safely bathe up to about waste-deep. (Getting any deeper in the swollen creek would have been risky, I believe.) I’m able to successfully eat all three meals this day.
Since the car is at the Surprise Lake trailhead, it will be a haul to get there. We are thinking we’ll either camp at Surprise Lake (about 10 miles), or just go all the way to the car (another 2.5 miles) if there are no camps available there (since it is Saturday). I’ve been on the GRT between Brush Creek and Surprise Lake, and I’m not looking forward to it. Last time I was there, it scarcely existed in places, there was tons of deadfall, and there was a horrible mud slop with cows near Black Creek. Fortunately, it was much better this time around: almost all the deadfall was cut, and no cows. It is still a tough pull out of the Black Creek valley on a treeless slope, but so much better. We decided to just go to the car—we got there around 4:30 after a long day, just ahead of the rain. I don’t like hiking more than 10 mile days—my feet are killing me.
So, not the trip we had planned, but an awesome adventure as always in my favorite part of Colorado. Anyone who has the ability and know-how to get to South America Lake needs to go—you will not be disappointed. I can give more details about the route if folks are interested.
Just like my list of books I'm going to read...though one nice thing: as we've aged and shortened our hiking days, backpacking often involves whole afternoons lounging in camp with a book. Sometimes it feels "wrong" to be out there and just reading, but the light is lousy then anyway, and sitting for hours reading is a part of being on vacation! So this last week, I finished 4 books and started a 5th
One thing I like about high Rockies trips is that the monsoon storm cycle really dictates short days and long afternoons/evenings in camp. If you're hiking above treeline, you really need to be down off the ridges and passes by 12:30 or 1:00. My typical hiking day on that sort of trip is from 7 or 7:30 am to 2:00 or so. Some days I might make camp earlier.
There's lots of time for a nap, reading, or whatever you do in camp in the PM. Of course, there's a good chance you'll be doing it in your tent with lightning cracking the ridges above and/or torrential rain.
By dark, I'm usually plenty tired enough to retire and rest up for the next early start.