Saturday, August 7, 2010

Mt. Thomas

Distance: 9 miles round trip from trailhead, 10 miles from lower parking lot
Elevation: 10,448 ft - 11,977 ft
Elevation Gain: 2,404 ft (cumulative)

View from the summit of Mt. Thomas

Mt. Thomas is a lesser known mound of red talus a top the sprawling and geologically unique Red Table Mountain. It presents sufficient challenges worth bragging about but also has some of the most expansive views in the state. Toss in never ending wildflowers and languid tundra strolls and you have the makings of a quintessential Colorado experience.

Power lines that mark the parking area

The trailhead

The trailhead is a 2-hour drive from Silverthorne near Sylvan Lake State Park south of Eagle. The road past the lake is very narrow, grated dirt with some washboards. It is passable with a passenger car but would be better with a 4x4. Around 5.3 slow miles past the lake, which is very scenic, is Crooked Creek Pass. If you are in a passenger car, park on the pass, there is ample room. If you have a 4x4 and want to cut 1 to 1.2 grueling miles off the trip, then read on.

White Indian Paintbrush

Looking southeast towards the backside of Holy Cross

For 4x4 owners, take a moment to face the sign at the top of the pass. There is a road going down to the right and one down to the left. It is the left road that you want. It dips down sharply and then starts up again. It is not rocky but was very rutted from spring run off. You need a true high-clearance 4x4 on this road, not a Honda CRV or Subaru. Around 0.6 miles is a very sharp turn up to a parking lot underneath some power lines. You'll need to gun it to get up there. The sign for the trail is on this small plateau. If you start heading down you'll have missed this turn off.

A trail segment climbing towards the top of the ridge

Wildflowers dot the trail

The payoffs on the Mt. Thomas trail start immediately. To the left one can see deep into the Hunter Frying Pan Wilderness, which is filled grassy knolls surrounded by impenetrable and towering Spruce trees. I felt like I was spying on the hidden home of the Valkyries. Would my warrior spirit be recognized? Would I be welcomed into their cadre and allowed to romp forever in the golden light of Asgard? Or would I be turned into an Elk and made to join the herd that grazed peacefully out of sight of any humans wandering below?

Reaching the ridge, looking north towards Sylvan Lake

A trail segment in the Spruce Forest

These views continue for 1.6 miles as the trail switch backs up to the top of the ridgeline. This entire route was covered in wildflowers. They filled the meadows, nestled in the trees, and poked out from between every rock. At the top of the ridge, the trail crosses over to the other side for a view to the north and Sylvan Lake below. It then winds upwards to the top of a large hill. Enjoy the respite this segment provides. It is in the shade and relatively flat.

Coming down from the first high point to the pass that traverses the sea of red tallus

Looking down the right side of the pass

Descending from this hill at 2.56 miles takes you to the "sea of red tallus". You cross the sea on a small pass with expansive view both north and south of never ending red rock. I wondered if the sea had been placed there by receding glaciers. It certainly took great force to create the mammoth piles of rock.

Looking left from the pass

On the "point of hyperventilation" looking at Mt. Thomas which is the ridge in the distance

The route up the other side of the pass is steep and filled with loose and eroded rock. There is one brief segment where the trail is very close to the edge. I did not linger on this portion since I felt a mild vertigo setting in. For those with extreme fear of heights, you may wish to avoid this section.

A cluster of Rose Indian Paintbrush

A typical segment across the tundra

A half a mile beyond this point you come to the "point of hyperventilation". This physiological condition is not due to fearful heights or carnivorous beasts, but to the near-360 degree view of every mountain range in Colorado. Ok, I exaggerate, it just felt like every mountain range. To the left is the back side of the Holy Cross Wilderness including Mt. Massive. Directly ahead was the Maroon Bells and Pyramid Peak near Aspen along with more peaks than I was able to identify. To add to the build up of CO2, one is standing on a bucolic grassy knoll with only a few spruce trees to mar its pristine beauty. For those that don't want to climb Mt. Thomas, this is an excellent destination.

The final segment before the final talus field

Looking south to all the mountains in the distance

You can see the summit of Mt. Thomas from the "point of hyperventilation". It is a small cairn on top of a red tallus ridge way off in the distance. In reality, it is only 1. 5 miles further. To get there, one descends from the knoll, across another wide pass and up a small incline to the far side of ridge. The trail from this point on travels below the ridge across a large slope of red tallus. There is a well worn trail through the tallus, so don't be intimidated by the rock.

Entering the final talus field. Mt. Thomas is the last bump along the ridge line

Looking south and down from the talus field

When the trail is directly below the summit, you will be standing next to a 60° slope that ascends through dirt, skree, and thistle. To get to the summit, you must crawl up this slope to a small saddle above. I did not measure it, but I am guessing it is about 100 ft. The crawl is not technically difficult, but was so steep that I was on all fours the entire time, my heavy pack pulling me backwards. It might be best to leave you pack. It is easy to slip and slide in the loose dirt and there is not much stable rock to grab on to.

Looking up the slope you need to crawl up to get to the summit. It is steeper than it looks.

Looking at the summit from the final saddle. There are long drop offs on either side of it.

I was expecting to reach a broad ridge, and when I finally stood up for the final lunge upwards, I almost lunged off the 90° drop off on the other side. Eyes bulging, I flung myself down onto the sharp rocks of the ridge and quivered for a second. The top of the ridge was very narrow and some of the small talus on the edge were loose.

Looking back down the ridge of Red Table Mountain

The northern valley below Mt. Thomas

Once my companion joined me, we looked back down the way we came with some trepidation about how we would get back down without tumbling head over heals. We also lamented to ourselves that not a single soul knew where we were, we had broken the cardinal rule and not notified anyone of our destination. If we fell now, we might not be found for months. We never did see anyone else that day.

The author on the summit

Heading back down the final pitch to our backpacks on the saddle

Once the initial shock was over we started exploring, albeit carefully, the top of the ridge, inching closer to the edge for photos etc. Ginger, the hyper one, bolted up and back from the summit, so my companion decided to try her luck and wormed her way up the narrow (as in two body widths) ridge to the top. Noticing that she was not paralyzed with fear, I followed, as close to the ground as I could possible get. Be one with the rock. My dangling camera was a nuisance. It kept me a good 3 feet off the rock.

Another view of the valley

The summit itself is quite large and could easily hold a square dance party. The rocks are more stable there and we stood next to the large cairn seen from below. After sufficient time exulting in the otherworldly views, I crabbed my way downwards off the summit.

Heading down in the evening with shadows on the peaks

A longer view with the meadows in shadow

Since neither of us wanted to cleave our head in on a rock, we decided to ignominiously slide down the final slope on our posteriors. My pack and behind gathered dirt and skree like a glacier and dragged it down hill with me. I gazed back at the huge swath and swore to find a "Buns of Steel" video if I made it down alive. Using my heavy boots as a brake I narrowly avoided several large bundles of thistle waiting to prick my nethers. Finally, after much maniacal laughter we regained the trail. Note to self, bring leather gloves next time.

The 3 story Spruce Trees look small seen from above

The trip back to the trailhead was long as most descents are. An ice coffee half way back would have helped immeasurably, but alas all we had was a few drops of very warm water. Like the rest of the country, Colorado was very warm that day. Here we were at 12K ft and it was almost 80°. We should have been in jackets.

Another view of the meadows. Can you tell I was enthralled? The herd of Elk was in the hook shaped meadow below. The threes surrounding it are 3-stories tall.

Climbing Mt. Thomas is a wonderful adventure on a trail less traveled. If you dislike heights or peaks in general, just go as far as the "point of hyperventilation" and you will get a great deal out of the trail. Do pack some extra fluids and leave them in the car. It is a long, dry, drive back to civilization.


Jann said...

Your Mt. Thomas hike is just breath-taking! I'd love to have half your stamina, too, ha! I don't comment very often but you have a wonderful blog and I'd love to explore CO's for the scenery and wildflowers some day. Love seeing your rose and white paintbrushes! The paintbrush in the Black Hills are not as colorful as those or the red paintbrush; one is green (sulfur) and one is a very pale pinkish (downy). Anyway, a really primo post!

penny said...

I am in awe of the beauty that you encountered on this magnificent journey, Sylvia. Your photos are stunning.
Thanks for letting me look over your shoulder, I enjoyed it immensely... and I don't feel tired at all ;)

Linda said...

Yes, I would have been with you in flinging myself down on the rock. Glad you persevered for our sakes.

And THAT's what Indian Paintbrush looks like. I've read about it in Laura Ingalls Wilder books, but didn't have a clue what it really looked like.

Anonymous said...

Inspired by your review, we did Mt Thomas yesterday. I think it is my new "best ever" hike. The views were spectacular and we had perfect weather. I could not believe all the places we could see from the top. I will definely do this hike again. Thanks for all the details you gave us with your review!!

Margie said...

I found your blog AFTER we did the hike on 9-29-2011. Had a really hard time locating the trail which your description would have helped a lot. Also if you can't tell where the parking area is, it is at the intersection of roads 432 and 431. We hiked up from the road, no 4 x 4. The trail marker is gone but we could find it by knowing it was by where the road crossed the power lines. The road in after Sylvan St Park is very rough. It would have taken us 1 3/4 hrs from Vail had we gone directly to the parking area. We made it to the first red rubble rock pile, the views were terrific and the hike tremendous. We took the wrong road down and ended up at the right side of the parking area, probably an extra 1/2 mile, so pay attention hiking up (we obviously didn't--no biggie though). Anxious to come back and finish the hike someday. Thanks for a tremendous blog. Will keep this in mind for future hikes.

Anonymous said...

Nice description! And it is a wonderful hike. We camped at the 1.5 mile mark (about the first flattish area) and had great views and solitude. I wanted to offer that I think there is an easier way to the top than the scramble you describe. Basically you just keep following the trail up to the saddle (from here it looks like the trail continues to Red Table Mountain), there is a big cairn at which point you turn right and just follow the gentle ridge of big boulders to the top. It was not too exposed and plenty stable. Hope this helps for next time!

sylvia murphy said...

Good to know thanks!