Boulder Creek Trail - Snowshoeing
April 24, 2021 · James Peak Wilderness
The snowshoeing trek along Boulder Creek Trail to Rogers Lake in the James Peak Wilderness was an early Spring incredible snowshoeing trek. It had snowed nearly every day for the past week and on this day the sun came out and there were very few clouds, making for a very bright day on the trail. The weather was perfect, a minor breeze at the Moffat Tunnel East Portal trailhead.
There were very few cars at the trailhead, and not speak around the gorilla in the room, I think small number of cars at the trailhead has a lot to do with the easing of social distancing restrictions of the pandemic. As a result of rediscovering Friday nights, there are fewer people at the trailhead early in the morning, which is great. Throughout this eight-hour snowshoe trek I saw a total of six people on the trail: two up-hill skiers early at the trailhead, a guy walking down the snow-filled trail with a camera on a large tripod and three backcountry skiers just before the final leg of the ascent.
The absence of people on an otherwise busy trail, the crystal-clear blue sky, fresh white snow, and an extremely comfortable just above freezing temperature made for an incredible day on the trail. The original plan was to snowshoe up to Heart Lake which would have come in around 7.25 miles roundtrip with a healthy elevation gain of just over 2,000 feet. However, when I got to the cutoff to start the ascent to Heart Lake, nobody had been to Heart Lake in the recent past. Given that I had waited to get vaccinated before heading back out on the trial, that meant I have not been out on the trail since January 1st. As such, I was not up for trailblazing in heavy, wet Spring snow. Which, as it turns out was fine following the Boulder Creek Trail as far as I could.
This trek would come in at 7.5 miles roundtrip, and equally challenging in terms of elevation gain and steep pitches. This trail is on the East Face of the Continental Divide, with Winter Park on the West side of the Continental Divide, making the forest on the East Face extremely healthy, and in many places, it is so damp in the Summer the conifers have moss growing on them. Much of the trail is in tall, healthy stands of conifer. Though there is plenty of light that makes it way through the canopy to the forest floor, which makes for a bright, blinding trek with the sunlight reflecting off the fresh snow.
Because so much of the trail is in tall stands of conifers, it is easy to lose sight of elevation gains being made during the trek. There are several steep pitches along this trail that would get your attention during a summer trek, and in snowshoes after about three months off the trail, these pitches elevate the heart rate quickly. There were times when I felt like I was moving in slow motion, which may indeed have been the case, but I also had over thirteen hours of sunlight to work with, so there was no real race against time.
When I got to what I called the Rallying Point, a false summit with a barren tree trunk that stood out of the snow about seven feet, I rested up and could see through the trees and according to the map, the next mile would be a very steep ascent. Thinking that after I finished this leg of the ascent, there would be a spur cutting across the ridge off to Heart Lake. In Summer, that is a doable option. In the Winter, everything from this point on to the turning back point was a test of judgement.
Shortly after leaving the Rallying Point, I found myself at the outlet of was clearly a small avalanche chute. The only tracks in the snow were from backcountry skiers on their way down. Nobody had done this ascent since the last snow. It was very steep and filled with snow with a perfectly smooth surface, though by this time of day the snow was soft and easy to punch trough the surface. Just below the surface, the wet snow was like sand.
I asked myself what I would do if an avalanche, albeit a small one, started here, where would I try to go, and would I even have any time to think about my next move. It may seem like an overreaction, but this was a very steep snow-filled chute, and it has been a highly active avalanche season. I decided to continue, this was one of the most difficult snowshoe ascents I have ever done. When I reached the top of this chute, I thought I had the hardest part behind me. That was not the case, there were two more steep ascents like this.
When I reach the false summit of the second chute, I looked over towards the Continental Divide and there was a wind blowing over the peaks and had created enormous cornices. At a safe distance, huge snow cornices like this are a specular site. To watch one collapse is even more impressive, though non collapsed on this day.
Looking over the ridge where the spur to Heart Lake would be, there was nothing but a steep wall of fresh snow, nobody had attempted that crossing, and for good reason, the spur goes through a side zone. Deciding that I had already pressed my luck on such steep snow-filled terrain, I took in the views and headed back down. The decent from here to the Rallying Point was just as complicated as the ascent. I had to go very slowly down the same route, careful not to either fall or trigger a slab breakoff.
Once back at the Rallying Point, thoughts began to run through my mind of ...what if... and that this was the second time I really wish I had an avalanche airbag pack. They are expensive, though on snowshoe treks like this on such steep snow terrain, it is easy to justify the expense.
The trek back to the trailhead went much faster, I finished the trek about two hours earlier than I anticipated. I am glad I did this trek, and very thankful it was uneventful. I would like to return in the Summer to make it to Rogers Peak Lake and to experience the spur from the Boulder Creek Trail to Heart Lake.