The Thomas Lakes Rockslide Adventure

A great way to wake up in the morning, even more bracing than a strong cup of coffee, was a cleansing of the lower body in Prince Creek. It was just the right depth to sit in BRIEFLY! I was going on the assumption that the frigid water would paralyze any of the bacterial culprits causing body odors and they would just fall off and no longer be able to hang out and create odor. So I then numbly ate my oatmeal and we broke camp. We got the backpacks ready for an overnight out-and-back to Thomas Lakes which is situated in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness in the Elk Range. We had chosen it given it was short very doable distance of 2.3 miles. Now this may seem almost laughable to a long distance thru hiker but given we were hiking with a sick dog, at times needing to be carried, my altitude sickness kicking inn, and Amara’s altitude headaches etc. it seems like a very viable choice for this trekking crew. It had only about 1600 feet of elevation, starting at 8600’ and campsites at around 10, 284’. Now I am beginning to realize that initial descriptions of trails are by no means on target. I have yet to do a hike where the mileage is right on its stated distance. The description stated this trail was 2.3 miles BUT my Garmin read 4.1 at our destination. We discovered that often the trailhead is NOT where one starts hiking a specific trail, but up where perhaps your destination branches of from another trail, at which point you are starting at 0. The same thing occurred on the Oh Be Joyful trek where we clocked in at 7.25 miles but according to the trail guide we would have been at Blue Lake (which we never got to) at 6.5. But I digress.
Needless to say our anticipation of a relatively easy to moderate hike did not exactly bear true. The altitude again was knocking the wind out of me. It felt somewhat akin to a moderate hangover, which is a bummer because my drinking days are long gone and I did all the right things to get ready for this trip. The trail itself was a moderate grade and relatively easy to negotiate initially. It ascended through a forest of aspen and oak and there were excellent views of the Elk Mountains in the distance. It slowly climbed, with expansive views of pastures and extensive fields and slopes of wildflowers and views of the Roaring Fork Valley. It was breathtaking. I was very happy taking my time one small step after the other and then a pause to drink in the scenery and of course take more than a few pictures.


The build up of the thunder heads was early this day as we had good views of Mount Sopris which was now draped in ominous black thunder storm clouds. We had put the rain covers on our packs at the start thank goodness. At about the point I thought we were almost there (still unaware that the distances didn’t start until we 1.8 miles in) it began to rain, and then continued to rain harder and harder. So we hauled out the rain ponchos and hunkered down in the woods perched on some boulders. I managed to get Kilt onto my lap under the poncho, a very challenging task given he had no clue as to what I was attempting to do and seemed to be fighting even though he was already quite rain-soaked. Simba looked like a very large drowned rat. It finally let up after about 15 minutes and we meandered on with the sun coming out intermittently.


We continued through groves of aspen and evergreen interspersed with meadows. The wildflowers continued to be prodigious and stunning so we spent a lot of time viewing and photographing them.Soon the trail became noticeably rockier and now was a rocky, rubbly high county trail of broken rock debris, more forested with fewer vistas. I can only think of the term talus to describe the path. It’s seemed that all the talus that has broken off of the mountains and adjacent cliffs was piled up to make the trail difficult, though most likely this was a naturally occurring process. The pieces of talus were of all sizes from tiny to huge boulders, or anywhere in between. I wasn’t scrambling or boulder hopping (would that I could) but was picking my way over the rocks to find firm footing, as some rocks would be loosely planted. I knew it would be easy to miss a step or twist an ankle or worse. It required a lot of focus in the midst of huffing and puffing. It was slow slow going and the distance of a mile felt like two or three.

We passed the first smaller emerald green Thomas Lake and knew we were only about .3 mile to the other Thomas Lake. The campsite is nestled beneath the twin peaks of Mt. Sopris just above the second Thomas Lake. It is a stunningly gorgeous emerald green timber lined lake. It was quiet and secluded at this point and it seemed like we were situated in a bowl, surrounded by lesser peaks across Thomas Lake which completed the circle. We chose campsite #2 as it was not too far down to the lake for resupplying our water. There were a couple large flat boulders which made great tables to prep and eat lunch and afterwards we set up camp, including for the first time an ultimate and safe wilderness hanging of the Ursack, our bulletproof Spectra fabric white bear bag. It was at least 20 feet up and out on a limb!!! That left us the afternoon to relax by this beautiful little mountain lake, read, ponder, and wade in the very cold bouldered bottom lake. It was a fun challenge stepping around onto boulders on the lake bottom – seeing if they were firmly planted, slick with algae, flat enough to step on and not tip me in for a shockingly cold dip.

Rain threatened off and on during the afternoon and dinner time brought a thunder shower. When the rain broke we quickly got the Jet Boil going for our “gourmet” bagged meals which I so lovingly created prior to this trip. Out biggest problem was impatience, not waiting long enough for the water to fully absorb so instead of pasta or rice a la dente we had many very crunchy rice and pasta meals! But often impatience was fueled by the threatening storms. Today was no exception because we soon needed to retreat to our tents due to more rain and the visitation of the dinner hour flies and mosquitos.
When trying to nod off around nine, all of a sudden there was a loud thunderous noise and it seemed like a very large loud bulldozer was going to come tearing through, massacring the forest and our campsite. Needless to say we were quite startled. When quiet fell upon us, we were able to deduce it was a large rockslide on one of the mountains encircling the lake. It definitely put me on edge a little, not knowing how close it was to us, but I wasn’t going to pack up my tent and hike out in the dark. That would be sure disaster. I heard two more lesser slides during the night.
The adventures of the night didn’t stop with the rockslide though. It continued to rain and rain. When it rains on the tent it is hard to tell how hard the rain is. It seems to magnify the intensity. But I had to pee badly and I had kept putting it off. But finally I had no choice by 1:00 am. I kept trying to fiddle with my rain cape and put it on but failed miserably. So I finally just climbed out and stepped in a “lake” of water up to my ankles My tent was sitting in a shallow lake. So after completing the task, I crawled back into the tent and had to strip off my soaked socks and pants as the legs were sopping. I finally was back in my bag and asleep by two, praying for no more adventures that night!
Though we had brought enough food to stay and extra day we opted for the hike out as everything was a wet muddy mess and covered with dirt, leaves, pine needles. There was no hope of drying things out as it dawned a chilly 50 degrees and was quite cloudy. The trail was somewhat muddy and slick in spots but surprisingly better than I anticipated. Before we left we were able to pin point where the thunderous rockslide was the night before. Everything had a different look now with the dark, threatening clouds and it had an entirely different beauty. One of Tasia’s challenges with Amara, to add to the enjoyment of the hike, was to find and photograph what looked like faces in the rocks, tree trunks, flowers etc. It was quite fun way to be more aware of so much of what we often do not pay attention to in our surroundings. Can you see the faces?


Fortunately we didn’t have to dive under our rain ponchos as we hiked out. I think a lot about what it must have been like for the pioneers of our country in their traverse to the West. I am hiking with great lightweight high tech equipment and still it can get quite uncomfortable. But hundreds of years ago with the conestoga wagons and everything that needed transporting being quite heavy, how incredibly arduous it must have been. I doubt they had time to enjoy the delicacy of the wildflowers. insects or a raindrop on a leaf.


Once back to the car, the next challenge would be finding a campsite in the Aspen area, not an easy task in the high season. A visit to the USFS Office in Carbondale revealed that there was no dispersed camping in the Aspen area as it was all private land and our best bet would be to head out east to a couple of National Forest Service Campgrounds up towards Independence Pass that don’t allow advanced reservation. We began to feel discouraged as the first one was full but a few miles up the road we came to Lost Man USFS Campground which was basically empty. We of course hurried the set-up as the regular afternoon storming was looming and it did not disappoint. Kili got soaked and then jumped into the tent, muddied feet of course, and walked and rolled on my sleeping bag. That is one thing every hiker and backpacker wants to keep dry at all cost – the sleeping envelope! When the rain let up Tasia managed to string one of my tarps up over the picnic table to have a dry place to eat our yet again JetBoil bagged meals! However, it is a good thing because I can’t imagine trying to prepare a gourmet meal in the drizzle. Would be quite a watery diluted menu. Rain forced us back into the tents by 7:30 for the night.

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