Runtrails' Rocky Mountain Journal
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"Mile 85.6. Elevation 12,920 feet. Grant-Swamp Pass. Acrophobia. Exposure. Pass #11.
You are looking into the Ice Lake drainage with multiple basins. You are going to descend
Island Lake Basin. Behind you is a spectacular view of Swamp Canyon and Oscar's Pass.
The saddle will probably be full of snow on both sides of the pass  . . ."
- from the 2007 Hardrock Hundred course description 


After taking Jim into Silverton to get a ride for his trail work day above Ouray's Bear Creek (see last entry, also dated July 5), I washed a couple loads of clothes at the Laundromat. It was nice to have the place all to myself early in the morning. I discovered that clothes wash and dry more quickly if I take the laptop and work on it! I was so focused I didn't notice when the washers OR dryer went off!

That chore done, I returned to the camper to gather my running gear and Cody. I've been planning to go back up to Grant-Swamp Pass this trip, and today was the day. It's a short enough hike up/run down that I could be back in time to get Jim in town when he was done later this afternoon. We did a similar hike last year during the Hardrock Hundred, sitting up on the pass for a couple hours while the last half of the runners came up and over. I remembered the trail (or so I thought!) and knew it'd be fun to do again.

And I was curious what Swamp Basin looked like on the other side. Was there much snow? Last year it was pretty bare. See the 2006 journal, July 8 and July 14 entries. Here is one of the July 8, 2006 photos Jim took down into the basin:

This year Grant-Swamp is the eleventh of thirteen passes as the runners reach it 85.6 miles into the race in the CCW direction. Runners come up the far side from Chapman Gulch through Swamp Basin, go over the pass, and run down through the Ice Lake Basin to the Kamm Traverse. I'd be going UP to the pass today, then turning around and going the same direction as the race this year.

Translation: runners coming down in daylight won't see the same views shown here unless they turn around.

Tater sort of limped around for a couple days after our trek up to Clear Lake, so I left her in the camper. Po Tater! (Actually, she loves sleeping all day in the camper.) Cody and I began hiking from the base of the road to Clear Lake at 10:15 AM, a relatively late start for mountain adventures. I don't particularly like walking a mile or more up the road but trail head parking at the Ice Lake Trail is very limited. Twenty minutes later we were on the trail, which connects with the Hardrock course on the  Kamm Traverse shortly after it crosses gnarly Ice Lake Creek.

Our first little challenge was getting across Clear Lake Creek where a long waterfall lands near the trail and then keeps falling over the cliffs below it. The falls have more water flowing through them now with all the snowmelt than last year.

The force of the water has washed out part of the trail and it's a wetter crossing than before (mist, and water in the rock and log "bridging"):

I saw lots of beautiful waterfalls today on the Ice Lake and HRH trails, but that was the only one that got me wet.

The remainder of the creeks up to the tundra below Grant-Swamp Pass were about as I remembered them from last year, despite more snow still on the ground. There was plenty of water for Cody. The road and trails below timberline were very dry and dusty, though.

The flowers were just as beautiful as last year, all the way up to the barren rocks 300-400 feet below the pass. There were even some large pinkish-purple clumps most of the way up that I don't remember from last year (and they aren't in the 2006 photos). I believe they are Purple Loosestrife. They looked past their peak today, so they may have already been done blooming when I was up here last year.

Remember those conglomerate rocks I've showed you on nearby trails? Here's another one I ran past today. Sure hope one of those things doesn't decide to roll on down the mountain when someone is under it!



Since I got a late start this morning, my plan was to follow the Ice Lake Trail to its juncture with the HRH course, hang a right and follow that up to the pass, look over into Swamp Basin, and return to the juncture with the Ice Lake Trail near timberline -- hopefully, before any storms blew in. Even though we've had no rain since we arrived in the San Juans eleven days ago, it's gonna happen one of these days and I don't want to be at 12,920 feet when it does.

Then, if the sky looked good and I still had plenty of energy, I wanted to follow the Ice Lake Trail west into the lower and upper Ice Lake basins since I've never been there before. The trail dead ends in the upper basin about 1 miles from the juncture with the HRH course.

Another option would be to follow the HRH course down to Ice Lake Creek, which I refused to cross last year when I hiked the Kamm Traverse (2006 journal, July 4). It was fast-moving then, and full of skinny logs I didn't want to fall off of. I had Tater with me then, and thought she might have trouble crossing, too. I was real curious today to see how it looked with the inevitable higher water from all the snowmelt. I had no intentions of crossing it, though.

If I did all these outs-and-backs, I'd have a good run/hike of 12-13 miles, I figured.

What I didn't figure on was missing the HRH turnoff from the Ice Lake Trail.

Rats! I forgot to re-read the course directions before starting, assuming I'd see the turn and/or course markers. Well, I missed both and kept on going west on the Ice Lake Trail. I knew I should be going seriously UP, but some part of my brain said to keep going straight. Straight was just undulating past little lakes on a very beautiful section of trail in the lower Ice Lake Basin instead of looking down at them from the HRH trail high above.

I was about half a mile off-course when I ran into Steve McBee, who's running HRH for the first time this year. Although we've seen each other's names in race results and on the internet ultra list for several years, we've never met.

This was Steve's first day on the course. From the race description, he had an inkling we weren't on the right trail either, but we kept on going. He got a little ahead while I was taking photos of the gorgeous masses of blue Columbines and ran into a friend (wife?) of Billy Simpson, who verified we were almost to the upper Ice Lake Basin, not on our way to Grant-Swamp Pass.

Waterfalls on left, above, coming from Upper Ice Lake

Oops. We turned around and went back almost a mile to the correct turn on a narrow "squirrel trail" through the willows and skunk cabbage. The views back into the Lower Ice Lake Basin were very scenic, so I'm not exactly sorry I went the "wrong" way:

On the way back we met Billy Simpson and Whit Rambach, who'd both already been up to the pass and were getting additional mileage on the Ice Lake Trail (deliberately). I've met Billy before at Bighorn, but didn't recognize him and failed to remember he's hiking the Appalachian Trail this year. Steve told me after Billy continued on. Apparently he's done all but the last 200 miles in Maine, which will have to wait until after Hardrock. The Hundred-Mile Wilderness will be a piece of cake for him after Hardrock!!

In the photo below, Steve is on the left and Billy the right (unknown female hiker behind them).

When we got back on the HRH trail, Steve plopped down and asked me to take his picture with one of the course markers:

Whit decided to turn around and hike with Steve a second time to the pass. I was walking slower AND taking pictures, so they got ahead quickly and I didn't see them again until we were all making our way back down through the snowy tundra.



I just love the upper reaches of this trail through the alpine marshes. The trail was pretty easy to follow since it was already marked (you can see the orange and yellow HRH markers in some of these photos). In a few places the course detours around patches of snow that weren't there last year.




There's that black dog that gets in a lot of my pictures! He loves that snow.

The surrounding mountains are just as amazing as anywhere else in the San Juans. There simply are no lousy views!! I think this is my favorite photograph from today:

Although you can see snow on the sides of the surrounding mountains, there was little on this side of Grant Peak and the trail up through the rocks is free of snow now. The approach to the pass is clearly visible in the photo below (brown U-shaped area in middle at skyline):

I've seen a lot of alpine lakes in the region and my favorite remains Island Lake, below. There is a fantastic view of it from the trail going to the pass:

Last year Jim and I went down to the lake with the dogs after the runners had all crossed the pass during the race last year. Someone was camped down there this time (see the yellow tent?), so I didn't go down with Cody. Bet that water was ice-cold! I was surprised the lake wasn't frozen over, since nearby Clear Lake was still mostly frozen last week. They are both at about 12,600 feet high.

While I was traversing Grant Peak on the rocky part of the trail, above, I noticed gray storm clouds in several directions. It was about 1 PM by then. Only a few minutes before (two photos back), the sky was blue! I'd been so mesmerized by Island Lake and the other stunning scenery that I had taken my eyes off the sky for a few minutes. Amazing how fast thunderstorms can develop in the Rockies.

I had only about 400 feet more to climb to the pass, but decided not to take any unnecessary risks up there. I've been there and know what the view looks like on the other side. A current snow report from Steve and Whit would have to suffice this time. I reluctantly turned around.

Rats -- two passes I've missed in a week because of late starts in the morning! Will I learn from this??

The remaining shots are on the way back down, the same directions runners will see the views this year:


Before long, Steve and Whit went racing by. OK, not racing, but they were much quicker on their feet through the marsh trenches and rocks than me. (They reported some snow in the basin on the other side of the pass, but it shouldn't be any problem for the runners during the race.) I was quite happy to get down to tree line faster than I thought I could. By then I could hear thunder but I didn't care if it rained or not. At least I wasn't a lightening rod any more.


You can see all the way down to a campground (not ours) on Mineral Creek Road in the photo below:



In retrospect, I wish I'd kept going on the Ice Lake Trail. Now that's another one I'll have to "finish."

I did start down the trail, below, to Ice Lake Creek on the HRH course, but decided it'd be tough getting back up the steep trail if it started raining. I turned around after about 300 feet. I wasn't intending to cross the creek anyway, just see how bad it looks. <grin> I'm a weenie compared to Hardrock runners!

Even with a little detour on the way down and more photos stops (and battery change), it took me only an hour to get back to the truck because I was able to run a lot. I'm more sure of the elevation change (from 12,700 feet back down to 9,700 feet) than the distance -- somewhere over four miles back, and about six out.

I was happy to see about a dozen hikers on the Ice Lake Trail (other than the runners mentioned), and one fella, not a Hardrock runner, who was day hiking and very slowly moving up the trail to Island Lake. Nice to see someone slower than me.

I never did get rained on, although I could hear thunder on the trail for an hour and at our campground a few miles away all afternoon. It finally started raining lightly at 8 PM, the first rain Jim and I have seen in a couple of weeks. We got to bed early and went to sleep listening to the raindrops above our heads. We were both pleasantly tired from our interesting trail adventures today.

Next entryJim and Cody explore Little Giant, a mountain above "our" aid station at Cunningham Gulch.

"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil, Cody, and Tater

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2007 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil