Wednesday, June 28, 2017

A High Alpine Adventure - Fishing Our First Lake for Cutthroat Trout

After a few days of “vacation” near Boulder, fishing the rare slow pockets in blown out creeks, and poking around the different backcountry trailheads and campsites, we were ready for some adventures in the Front Range. We chose an "easier" hike to our first high alpine lake, being that we figured it was a modest 2.5ish miles each way, and took us up to a nice high elevation to test our abilities thus far.

The hike started out innocently enough, with unseasonably warm temps for the mountains, and dry, easy trail. We were already pretty high up, and the views were stunning right from the start.

To rewind just a bit, we had run into some people at the trailhead on the way in… one was a mountaineer preparing for a group hike up to a peak along a snowfield. The other was a father and son who had hoped to catch some trout at the lake. The mountaineer told me there was a lot of snow and not really much trail. I could tell he was being modest and trying not to judge us, but the look in his eye said it all… we were in for it. The father and son duo told us that they turned around when they lost the trail in “a glacier.” Hmmm...

Needless to say we packed our ice axes, micro spikes, gaiters and a good supply of food and extra layers. Of course we brought our rods because we wanted to catch some cutthroat, but neither of us was really sure we were getting to the lake.

As the trail climbed, we began to encounter wildflowers and a good deal of snow. We weren’t breaking through or post-holing, which was a good sign. After passing the first junction with a trail leading up to the Arapaho Glacier, we came to a waterfall where some people were snacking and taking a break. A couple told us that we could easily cross the stream and head up the trail, but that they had lost it and had to turn back.

We pushed through, vowing to at least try to make it up to where other people turned back. The snow was already quite deep, and we were beginning to find places where post-holing was becoming an issue. It was important to stay vigilant, and use our poles to test the ground if needed. 

We put on our micro-spikes and followed the most obvious sets of footprints we could find. It was soon evident that the footprints in the snow were no longer following a trail. However, we had maps, compasses, and had been able to take note of the features we were now navigating from across the canyon at the start of the trail.

As we climbed higher, footprints faded. I noted that the footprints were going too far up and not left, where the map indicated we needed to go. We kept climbing. It was steep, and the going was tough. We kept a good pace… maybe too good. Rob and I each had our own moments of doubt, but in the end we decided to head left as I had wanted to do, and I brought us up into the first bowl on the map. Rob consulted with me and we agreed that it was the feature we thought it was from the map, and he laid out a path following the ridge, which we then did.

I wish I had more photos of the section along the ridge, because it was really cool. However, we were pre-occupied with navigation and safe passage over small snow fields and snowmelt drainage channels. At one point, we looked up to see the mountaineering trail up the side of the mountain… a gigantic snowfield with significant pitch… and we were glad that we weren’t going up that way.

After another strenuous climb over a small ridge, and around a steep hillside, we spotted the depression and break in the cliffs that we knew held the lake. At this point I was pretty taxed, both mentally and physically. But it had been my call to push on, and so I wanted to make it to the lake at this point, because I could taste it between heavy breaths.

Soon we managed to find the actual trail, just a tiny section exposed and melted out. We once again found footsteps, and Rob made the final push to the opening to the lake. We had made it! Whew. Time for a good rest, a lot of water, and a big snack…

After which I knew we had to fish… but the wind was blowing something awful and the lake just wasn’t producing for me. Rob watched me struggle with the wind and the current, neither of us spotting any fish. At this point there were some heavy gusts, it was extremely cold, and yet the sun was intense and I knew I was overexposed.

I decided to give up on fishing and we walked back up to the ridge to get our position on the map. At this point, I spotted the outflow, and a nice pool below the snow bridge at the edge of the lake. My morale jumped and I high-tailed it down to the edge, setting up my rod again and figuring at least I’d have tried… until I saw a nice 14” brookie practically at my feet!


I did my best to drop a fly at it, but all that happened was that it swam away spooked instead. I cast out a few times along the edge where I saw him, figuring some other fish were hiding below the bank and I might get a hit… but there was nothing. Going with a heavier bead head fly, I nymphed through the current at the center of the pool. All of a sudden the line went taught, and I set the hook. Whoooo Buddy! Fish on. I whooped and hollered to make sure Rob heard me, and he came running. I ended up landing a beautiful high mountain cutthroat!

Rob took a cast and on his first good drift I saw the rod bend hard… it was another fish. What luck! It was as if the mountain gods had somehow felt we had earned this moment after pushing through it all and making it to the lake after all.

The walk down and back was a serious undertaking, to say the least. There are no photos of this section for good reason… I was feeling the altitude, the overexposure to the sun, and was possibly at the edge of dehydration. I wanted to get down fast. Unfortunately, that’s not exactly what happened, and it was a serious challenge to get back to the crossing and the waterfall where we had left the last people that had turned back that day.

But we did make it, and, as exhausted as I was, and as much as my head was pounding, I was in great spirits. We stopped for more water and another snack. I focused on breathing deep and getting as much oxygen as I could. The sights around me… fields of flowers and the clean smell of the air had me distracted enough to make good time.

On the last leg, we ran into another guy taking a break. He had also turned back, having gone up and back twice in slightly different paths trying to find his way. Ultimately, the issue was he was unprepared and it’s a good thing he didn’t commit to breaking from the footsteps as we had done, since he had started much later in the day, and without anything other than a bathing suit, lunch, and a jacket. Yikes.

We finally made it back to the trailhead and our campsite, exhausted and beaten up pretty hard. But we were triumphant. Happy that we had made it, that we had navigated off trail in the snow in the high mountains, that we had done it reasonably fast and without major issues, we settled in for the evening and slept it off, soon ready for another high alpine adventure…