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Pine Creek Trail #1467
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2017-09-11  
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Pine Creek Trail #1467South Central, CO
South Central, CO
Backpack avatar Sep 11 2017
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Backpack40.00 Miles 10,000 AEG
Backpack40.00 Miles4 Days         
10,000 ft AEG
 no routes
1st trip
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A few years ago, I first looked down into Missouri Basin from Mt. Belford and knew I had to come back and have a closer look. A little crack opened up in my work schedule, so I grabbed it. Since weather kept me from reaching Mt. Oxford on that first try, my goal was to reach it from Pine Creek without visiting Mt. Belford again. This triplog is long, but it has a few high points, including wildfire and wild weather. It was mostly at or above treeline.

Day 1
I started just after dawn on Monday morning, with no other cars near the TH. After a dusty road walk on the lower section of the valley, the trail climbs roughly 2 kfeet in 90 minutes to the Colorado Trail intersection / Collegiate Wilderness boundary, where it flattens into a big meadow with numerous beaver dams.

A couple miles farther along, I spotted two partially collapsed cabins and a corral nestled into the yellow aspens. They are associated with a mine across the creek (Littlejohn Bismuth mine), and are on the National Register of Historic Places.

A few more miles along, the trees are got shorter and thunder started rumbling. I found a nice spot above the creek at 11.5 kfeet and set up camp as quickly as possible. Reaching my goal of Mt. Oxford depended on getting enough miles in on this day, and this was far enough. After waiting out the first brief shower, I scouted out the trail a mile ahead, filtered water, ate and retreated to shelter. The next rain lasted 10 hours, but I slept too soundly to really notice.

Day 2
I made it far enough on Day 1 for Oxford to be feasible, so I got up before sunrise, ate a quick breakfast, and saddled up. Half a mile beyond my campsite, I caught the trail from Pine Creek to Elkhead Pass and started going up. After I passed the treeline and reached the upper part of Missouri Basin, the sun had topped the ridge and started heating things up.

An elk bugled as the headwall came in sight, and I saw a herd of at least forty making their way up and across. I got a few pictures, but they really don't capture how many there were.

Meanwhile, the clouds were building fast, perhaps due to the heavy rain yesterday and the bright sun. I sweated my way up to Elkhead pass and around to the Belford summit ridge, which has a branching ridge off to Oxford. As I reached the junction, a guy caught me from behind, the first other person I had seen. He was a guide with a few days off who came around Elkhead Pass from Missouri Mountain and was also hoping to reach Oxford. His opinion of the clouds was similar to mine: the remaining round trip to Oxford was three miles with 2 kfeet AEG and the weather wouldn't hold long enough to get safely down. We went on to Belford instead (14.2 kfeet), where I gobbled lunch, took some pics, and skedaddled down the mountain.

Distant thunder broke out along the way, and it briefly rained a few times, but nothing to worry about. I spotted a few more campsites that would have been good starting points. As I got back to the vicinity of Pine Creek, I spied a trail into the woods that looked like it might lead to another good site. It did indeed. It had a nice pine smell, which was oddly more pronounced than the rest of the woods. Some bushcrafters had camped here, and built an A-frame pot support from seven freshly-cut saplings. It was half collapsed and oddly positioned relative to the fire ring. The fire ring itself was also oddly positioned, directly up against the trunk of a mid-sized Ponderosa and on top of some of the roots. It still smelled like a campfire. Too much. The fire ring itself was cold, and a lot of water had clearly been poured on it. But scanning to the left, I saw smoke rising from the ground. The duff all around the tree was burning underground. I felt a powerful shot of adrenaline. Then I poured all my remaining water on it. It occurred to me that had rained for over ten hours the preceding night, and quite a bit the day before that, which would have been most likely the two days after this fire had started. Who knows how big a problem this was going to be?

I had hiked eight miles with 3 kfeet of AEG, but it suddenly felt like the day was just starting. I found a flat rock and scraped up the duff around the tree, some of which was now just ashes a foot deep. I saw that when the fire first broke out, it had burned the largest root and up into the trunk, and they had put that out well. However, it had now burned under and into three other large roots, and was now twice as big as the fire they had extinguished and was moving under the trunk. I used sharp rocks to sever burning roots and felt for warmth all around.

Now the real work began. Pine Creek was a hundred yards away and about 25 feet downhill, and what I had to work with was a two liter Platypus bag. Over the next 90 minutes, I logged almost two miles and another 700 feet of AEG carrying water, two liters at a time. With each load, I expanded the digging and checked the temperature all around. The first six gallons made a lot of steam and brought down the temps, but it still wasn't cold. I didn't start feeling like it was out until 10 gallons. After 14 gallons I was exhausted and getting thirsty. It seemed OK for now, so I headed back to camp, half a mile down the trail. Oh, by the way, that big thunderstorm held off the whole time.

Back in camp, I drank a bunch of electrolytes and rested a bit. It rained a little and I cooked dinner and rested some more, but I couldn't stop thinking about the fire. With an hour of daylight left, I went back. There wasn't any detectable smoke or heat, but I wasn't taking any chances, so I lugged another seven gallons. I trudged back to camp under another brief sprinkle and watched the clouds sink into the valley as the sun departed. Then I read archeology in the tent until I couldn't stay awake.

Day 3
The clouds totally fled overnight, and it got cold. I didn't bother looking at the thermometer, but the morning frost was thick. The goals of the day were on the other side of the basin: Twin Lakes and Silver King Lake. Once again it opened clear and sunny. It would be a shorter and easier day, heading to a slightly lower cirque. It's somewhat less traveled, so the trail grew less distinct farther along. The side trail to Twin Lakes was apparently invisible, as where the lakes themselves, screened from view on a high bench. I decided to move on toward Silver King, high up against the headwall. There were a some nice flowers, and a few small snowfields. Clouds started gathering early again, and the wind blew stronger as I rose.

In the last few hundred feet below the lake, I could see Twin Lakes below, easily reachable cross country. Silver King is contained by a huge moraine, the top of which has the remains of a stone cabin with a log roof. The lake was as cold and windswept as it looks in photos. The cabin site was nice and warm in the sun.

After a nice lunch, I started wandering down to Twin Lakes, and the hail started. It let up for a while after I reached the lakes and it started and stopped again as I explored entirely around each of them. There are dozens of campsites here above 12 kfeet, but I wouldn't want to be here with lightning. After exploring, I searched in vain for the trail that I couldn't find coming up. Apart from some big cairns near the lakes, I saw no sign of a trail, although the trail I needed to reach on Pine Creek was clearly visible. So I headed straight down the fall line, mostly down talus, dodging willows and creeks and before long I got where I needed to be. Meanwhile, it kept hailing and raining on and off, but not enough to be unpleasant.

On the way back to camp, I stopped at the fire site and made another close inspection. I dug some more with a flat rock, and didn't find any more warmth or new ashes. Happy and not too tired, I spent a couple more hours exploring the edges of the basin before settling back in camp. I ate as much of the rest of my food as I could get down, read more of my book, and dropped off to sleep with the stars twinkling outside.

Day 4
It was a bright, sunny morning and I was ready to head back. The light was great as I reached the aspens. The mining cabins were good for a stop, and I decided to cross Pine Creek and visit the mine. However, the water seemed too deep and fast in the vicinity of the trail crossing and I only made it 1/3 of the way across before deciding I didn't want to do it twice. I ate lunch and moved along, grabbing pics in the yellow sunlight along the way. I met a hiker heading up-valley and asked him to check on the fire.

After a break at the Colorado Trail crossing, I was ready to be done. There were five miles left, and the clouds were gathering. I pushed the pace and tried not to think about town food. When I finally got to the trailhead, I remembered that my car was almost a mile farther down due to a nasty patch of road, but I eventually got there and was safely inside when the clouds unloaded.

Afterward, I headed north to Leadville for some town food and spent the night and the next day dodging the rain and wandering around. Then it was on to the next adventure.
foliage observationfoliage observationfoliage observationfoliage observationfoliage observation
Autumn Foliage Observation Substantial
Aspens have mostly gone yellow. Willows are mostly still green. Some ground cover has gone brown above the treeline, but not much.
wildflower observationwildflower observationwildflower observationwildflower observationwildflower observation
Wildflowers Observation Isolated
Fringed Gentian, Blue Gentian, Alpine Gentian, Paintbrush, and a few hardy asters. Oh, and one hardy bunch of Rose Crown.
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