Saturday, June 16, 2012

Shelf Lake Trail Fail: A Cautionary Tale

A member of the Denver Trail Heads organized a hike to Shelf Lake off Guanella Pass Road this coming Wednesday, which I unfortunately can't make. It sounded like a great destination, though. And since I had Saturday free, I figured I'd take Ginny out and do it today.

Ah, the best laid plans.

I wasn't interested in getting up at 3:30 in the morning again like I had last Saturday for San Luis Peak. So I slept in until just before 8 a.m., puttered around a bit and was finally in the car around 9:15. A later start than normal, but I figured on a 90-minute drive and four hours out and back so I'd probably be done before 3:00 and miss any afternoon thunderstorms.

That's foreshadowing, kids.

Anyway, as I headed up 285 I saw a sign advising of delays in Bailey and recommending an alternate route. I'm pretty sure there is no decent acceptable route to the south end of Guanella Pass Road, so I continued on.

Divine sign #1: Ignored.

The delay turned out to be for a town festival called Bailey Days, and really didn't amount to much. Besides, I wasn't in any real hurry. Skies were clear, and the temperature was cool up in the foothills. Perfect conditions for a hike.

After one stop for a drink, another for some elk jerky and a very bumpy drive down FS 119, I was at the trailhead a little before 11:00.

As I got my gear together I noticed my Camelbak had fallen off the hook I'd placed it on and leaked about half its contents onto the floor of my car. Annoying, but the hike was supposedly less than six miles roundtrip. I could certainly get by on half a Camelbak of water.

Divine sign #2: Dismissed.

Clouds had started to roll in by this point, but it wasn't actually raining. We'd had partly cloudy skies the past few afternoons and no storms to speak of. I'm no Ivan Lendl. A few clouds don't frighten me.

OK, so there were more than a few clouds. Still, a little rain would be refreshing. So off we went.

Divine sign #3: Disregarded.

That's when the first sound of thunder rolled through.  I can discount a lot of apparent red flags, but not that one.

The skies didn't look uniformly ominous, though, so I thought we might be able to wait it out.  So Ginny and I got back in the car.

The rain got heavier and we saw flashes of lightning but no actual bolts.  Eventually it started to slack off, the lightning got less frequent and the thunder grew more distant.  Patches of blue sky turned into huge swaths of it.  After 45 minutes, it looked like we were good to go.

Divine sign #4: Outlasted.

Back up the trail we went.  At least, I thought it was the trail.  I hadn't seen an actual sign, but parked right where the directions had said to park.  And every other hiker I saw had been coming back from this direction, so it had to be the right way, right?

After 10 minutes hiking up what was clearly a road and not an actual trail, I figured I'd ask a guy camping.  He said the trailhead wasn't too much farther -- on the left up ahead after another couple of bends.

Now, I realize a "bend" isn't a standard unit of measurement.  But I had a pretty fair notion what he was talking about.  And after I'd gone another half a mile or so around at least four more "bends" and still no trail sign, I was wondering if I was completely off track.

Divine sign #5: Starting to sink in.

That's when the rain started again, along with some more rumbles of thunder.  Well over an hour behind schedule, discouraged, wet and getting wetter I decided to head back to the car.

It was about 12:30 by the time we got there.  I poked around the parking area as the rain turned to hail searching in vain for a sign that I might have overlooked.  Nada.

So I turned the car around and began to drive off.  Then I saw it.

There's a slag heap that my directions had indicated marked the parking area for the trail.  Two parking spots before the heap were occupied, so I parked just past the heap with several other cars.  Guess which side of that heap the sign was on?

Yup.  The side I'd driven right by.

Oh, well.  The rain was still coming down way too hard to think about starting.  But at least now I knew exactly where the trail was for my return trip.

As we passed the Abyss Lake trailhead I glanced back at the sky.

Unbelievable.  Not a threatening cloud in sight.  Maybe ...

Cue the bolt of lightning.  No joke; a bolt of lightning came down towards the southeast.

Divine sign #6: OK, OK!  I get the message!

It was a pretty harrowing drive back.  There was heavy hail between Bailey and Pine Junction and pounding rain the rest of the way to Conifer, all of which I would have probably avoided if I'd given up sooner.

I'm really not sure what the moral of the story is.  It's hard to tell when challenges are there for you to overcome, or to discourage you from trying at all.  Maybe if I'd found the trail on my second attempt I could have been caught outside in some nasty weather rather than in my car.  Who knows?

I do know this.  Shelf Lake hasn't seen the last of me.  Well, I guess technically Shelf Lake hasn't seen me at all.  But you get the idea.

Most definitely more to come!


Orontes said...

Lovely tale of a day better spent in bed. But it makes for a good blog post

Josh Jackson said...

Funny tale. Sorry it didn't work out. Two questions: have you made it back to Shelf Lake, and it is true that an AWD and high-clearance vehicle is needed? Or will my little 4-cylinder Camry be OK?