Elk Tooth

      by Gordon S. Novak Jr.
      July 4-5, 2002

My second big hike of the year is an attempt on Elk Tooth. I hadn't really been aware of Elk Tooth, which isn't easy to see from the road, before I passed it in climbing Ogalalla Peak. Elk Tooth looks dramatic from every angle. Gerry Roach's book says it involves third-class climbing and is "not as hard as it looks." Sounds about right for me.

I plan to leave no later than 3 PM, but cabin repair chores keep me busy, and I leave trailhead at 15:48. That should still get me to a campsite before dark. Since Elk Tooth is about 8 miles from the nearest road, I plan to camp close to it to get an early start. I have gotten a camping permit for a cross-country area southeast of Pear Lake. Despite my plans to reach camp before dark, photo opportunities arise, including a snowshoe hare -- the first one I've ever seen. I leave Finch Lake at 19:35, arriving at Pear Lake at 20:30.

I am planning to camp near Lake 10852 (identified on the map only by its altitude), about half a mile southeast of Pear Lake. There is a trail around Pear Lake, in fact many of them; I try to follow the best one, but wind up doing fairly easy bushwhacking, passing an intermediate small lake and coming out near Cony Creek. So where is my Lake 10852? I finally decide it is below me, so I head down the hill just as it gets completely dark, stumbling through the heavy timber looking for a level campsite. I find a place behind a log, the requisite 200 feet from the lake and beside but not in a meadow, and make camp at 21:35.

I get up at 07:35 and get started hiking by 09:00. I hike back up to Cony Creek at the base of Elk Tooth. Since this is the last water source for a while, I filter water to fill my canteens. I am feeling dehydrated, so I pump 4.5 quarts and drink 1.5 quarts on the spot, taking 3 quarts up.

I start up the mountain at 11:05. My route goes below two snow patches, with a bit of rock scrambling at the edge of the second one to avoid the snow. I cache my sleeping bag, pad, and bivy sack behind a big rock; no need to carry them up the mountain. There is a small hourglass of loose rock spilling through a break in a cliff band; it looks like a possibly viable route, so I head toward it and get up with a bit of rock scrambling. Then I head up towards a rock that looks like a conifer tree, then up to a shoulder to the east of the summit. After a bit of climbing on this ridge, it looks like I may be reaching the summit. Is this really it? I wish!

When I top out at 13:40 on what I hope is the summit, though, it is clear to me that this isn't really it. There is a dramatic cliff to the west, and surely that is the summit. Somebody has left a trail register on this summit in a glass jar, and has signed it with a note that they think this is the Elk Tooth summit. I sign the register, but add a note that I don't think this is the summit. The summit is that big, nasty cliff to the west. This is hump number 1 of a 4-hump camel, and the summit is the last and biggest hump. Here the GPS says 12,772', N 40o 10.071', W 105o 38.992'.

It's getting late in the day, and the weather to the west is looking bad. I'm doubting that I can make it to the top given that weather. I call my wife on the cell phone and tell her where I am, and say that I will probably turn back from here. Then I eat a snack.

After I've been sitting on this minor summit for a while, the weather still looks bad, but no worse than it did a while ago. It would be a shame to hike all this way and miss the summit. I wonder if I could perhaps go a little further, so I do. The ridge is rough and requires some class 3 scrambling, but it isn't too exposed. I bypass one hump on the south side (rather than the north side the books recommend), otherwise staying on or just north of the ridge line. The weather still looks bad, but no worse, so I continue. Before long, I am at the final summit ridge, so I make a quick push and reach the summit of Elk Tooth at 14:30.

There is a dramatic view of Ogalalla Peak. The GPS reads 12,787' (map says 12,848'), N 40o 10.066', W 105o 39.308' . There is a trail register in heavy PVC pipe, secured to the rock by a 1/4" galvanized steel cable -- or at least it used to be: the cable is broken. Apparently a heavy steel cable is no match for winter winds and metal fatigue. I sign the register and wedge it back deep between rocks where I found it. Judging by the trail register, about 22 people per year climb Elk Tooth.

Off to the north is a good view of the southern Cony Express couloir, which I used to climb Ogalalla a few years ago.

I leave the summit at 15:05 and head down the eastern ridge where I came up. The weather still looks bad nearby, but it never gets bad where I am. I am tempted to head straight down the side of the mountain, which looks like an easier route, but I never can convince myself that I can see talus going all the way to the bottom. If there is a cliff band in the middle, it wouldn't be a shortcut; so I wind up going back the way I came up. Looking back at photos after my return, it looks like I made the right decision; going down earlier would probably have led to cliffs.

This is a mountain that is in the process of falling down, and the slope is covered with talus that is poised on the brink of rockslide. Every rock is loose and about to slide. Worse, big rocks may slide and trap or crush a foot, which nearly happens as I quickly pull my foot out of the way. This is a very uncomfortable descent. The hourglass gap in the cliff band now has a trickle of water and is slippery. I try using my ice axe as an aid tool in climbing down these rocks, but I slip, fall on my butt in some mud, and lose my grip on the axe. I go back up a few feet to get the axe and continue.

I arrive at Cony Creek again at 17:53; it is lovely and peaceful. As I come around a rock, I am startled by the sudden whistle of a marmot, like a policeman who has spotted a violation. Sorry, officer, I know I'm trespassing; I'll move along. Heading back to Pear Lake, I go high to stay in grass at the edge of timberline, then choose what look like the best of the many elk and human trails in the area. It is often possible to see Pear Lake below through the trees, so it is easy to navigate.

At 19:03 I get back to Pear Lake. Across the lake, there is a man fishing and a woman yelling instructions to their kid: back to civilization, somehow comforting. I leave Pear Lake at 19:20 and get to Finch Lake at 20:22. I take a pit stop at the privy there, all the while hearing a woman talking loudly like a drill sergeant. I think she must be commanding a bunch of young campers, but when I come out I don't see any. I'm glad I'm not camping next to her tonight.

I leave Finch Lake close to dark. I get out my headlamp so I'll have it when it gets dark. I'm using a Petzl Tikka LED headlamp, not too strong, but it suffices and is very lightweight. I try calling my wife on the cell phone, but no luck. A cell phone usually works (in analog mode) from a summit in the Park, but often doesn't work in a valley. There is one place where the trail rounds the end of a ridge, and I think that place may have a line-of-sight to Allenspark; otherwise I may be walking farther than I want. I get near that place and decide to try again. The phone tries, it says "connecting" (which means it isn't connecting), and I'm about to put it up -- but then it works. I ask my wife to pick me up, adding about 10 minutes to my estimated time. She comes early, just as I reach the trailhead at 22:50. I'm quite tired, but it has been an excellent and memorable hike.

Rocky Mountain National Park: The High Peaks