7.2 miles one-way
I wasn't initially planning to put this trip report up, but have since thought better of it to show pictures of this route, namely Starvation Pass (officially unnamed), where there isn't much out there on the Web. When I was thinking about areas I wanted to visit leading up to summer, 2009, I was scouting on Google Earth to find a place with relatively low mileage that might provide some good views in Colorado's largest wilderness, the Weminuche. I would be planning a more in-depth visit later (for summer, 2010). Then I found the perfect spot—a window to a string of peaks that makes up the eastern half of the wonderful Grenadier Range, then Windom and Sunlight peaks to cap it off. Being that it is just over seven miles and one pass, the goal was set.
I had planned this trip at the start of my second week during a two-week vacation in the peak of wildflower season. The first full week was used to complete the Maroon Bells four-pass loop and Avalanche Pass, then I would head straight for the Kite Lake area out of Silverton. However, the forecast was bleak for the first few days as a front was moving through that was bringing a lot of continuous rain, so I pushed it back a few days. Once the system was back do its daily thunderstorm routine, I headed over Stony Pass and up to Kite Lake. I was initially wanting to take a one-night backpack trip just a couple miles west of Kite Lake along the Colorado Trail, but I ended up not doing it and ended up doing nothing for a day. The next morning came and I started out for the West Ute Lake area and planned for two nights.
I started out at 7:47. I started early to make sure I got up to the pass well before storms would develop. The forested section has a lot of tree blow-down that was kind of a pain as you have to work your way around them. Thankfully, the forested section is fairly short and only takes about a half-hour to get through. After reaching tree line, the tundra stroll was fairly easy with no steep sections. It was a beautiful summer morning with non-threatening puffy clouds. I arrived at the pass at 9:04, and after a few minutes, West Ute Lake came into view across the valley. It looked like it was going to be a pretty easy route, and it was. I descended the switchbacks and one of my feet started to get a blister hot spot. I thought that was quite odd being that I just finished 40 miles of hiking around the Maroon Bells without anything of the sort. As the trail leveled out, i sat down on a rock and put some moleskin over the area.
A short while later, I came to the intersection with the West Ute Trail where there is a sign post. The sign post that points to where I came from was labeled Starvation Pass. I had no idea the pass was named, and it is not officially named, thus you won't see it on maps. As the trail starts going uphill again, in the trees after the flat valley meadow section below West Ute Lake, a thunderstorm came through. I waited it out here before proceeding any further up. After it moved east, I headed probably only a quarter-mile further up the trail when another storm came through. I was just below tree line here immediately before the lake, so I waited here. I waited through two or three rounds of thunderstorms here, which was very odd. Usually, the systems are one and done, though the durations can vary. After the last one, it seemed like the system was moving on and the weather was pleasant, though still with gray skies. I made my way up to the lake where the Continental Divide Trail meets up. It was now 4:15. I ended up going around the east side and around the south end. The inlet section is pretty marshy. The CDT continues south over a pass, but my destination was the low saddle directly west of West Ute Lake, which lies on the Continental Divide. On my way back, I found there is a trail around the west side of the lake from fishermen.
There is no trail leading up to the saddle above the lake, but navigating was super easy with dry ground and minimal vegetation. I filled up with water at the base, then leisurely proceeded up. I made it up to the pass at 5:10 where the view opened up wonderfully with The Guardian, Silex, Storm King and East Trinity, just like Google Earth showed. It was most impressive. The skies were gray, but I don't think I really thought anything of it at this point, figuring all the rain would be done for the day. Regardless, my destination would be down in the trees in the event it decided to storm later. In the short distance descending the saddle, the skies grew very dark, and the row of mountains almost black—it was very ominous, which made the mountains that much more impressive. I really wish I took a snapshot at this point, but it will have to live in memory instead. Then the storm came. Yes, another one. I hunkered down right around tree line where the trees don't grow tall. And it stormed hard, and the lighting came with it in impressive fashion. I was not feeling very comfortable with the situation to say the least. In fact, up to this point, it was the most nervous I had felt with lightning in all of my trips. Ideally, for me, I would've preferred to be even lower amongst taller trees, but even if I were at the bottom of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, I would still feel like the highest thing around! It's just a mental hurdle I struggle with every time out.
After the storm passed, I proceeded to look for a place to pitch the tent. There was no flat ground anywhere on this side, so I found a spot that was less sloped than the rest and hoped for the best sleeping that night. Right around sunset, the sky was beginning to open up and there were hints of color. I hurried and grabbed the camera and tripod, hurried up the hill for a more open view and took some shots. It was a great way to end the day, and I just hoped it wouldn't storm again. I slept good, but the angle of the ground made it a bit hard to get used to at first. I had to angle the sleeping bag in the tent as much as I good to make it level side-to-side, and have my head uphill, but by morning, I was lying up against the tent wall.
Morning came, and I was treated to some really good color and clouds. After I took a number of shots, I immediately knew I was going to pack up and head out instead of staying another night. The chances of getting good color two consecutive mornings always seems bleak, but mainly the fact I did not want to stay in this spot for another day's worth of storms, as I didn't want to bear what I went through the previous day again. I waited for the shadows to mostly recede and the clouds to break up before I packed up and headed out.
It remained a beautiful morning as I went back over the divide and West Ute Lake, but the Starvation Pass seemed a long ways up and I needed a few hours of good skies to see me through. Not to be! Clouds were quickly closing in as I made it across the valley meadow below the switchbacks at the base of the pass. I was going at a pretty good clip, but as I neared tree line, I was having a tough time making up my mind if I should wait the impending storm (and I knew it was going to storm) on this side, or if I dare try to go over. Perhaps under normal weather patterns, I would've likely opted to sit tight and wait for the storm to pass. However, based on the six distinct rounds of storms the previous day, the likes of which I have never seen, all bets were off what this day had in mind. I decided to press on and hope for the best. The clouds were enveloping the area, but the storm didn't seem to be coming along as quickly. I kept moving as fast as I could possibly go uphill; I have never made such progress going uphill without quick rests. A bit of adrenaline flowing above tree line will do that when lightning seems to be just around the corner. After the last switchback, the trail travels around the slopes of an unnamed peak for a long 3/4 mile, and at this point I prepared for rain, as I could see it coming. Now, more nervous than ever, up until this point, I had never been above tree line in a thunderstorm. I kept walking as quickly as I could. Then it came. It wasn't a heavy rain, but the lightning started up as I was still a half or quarter-mile from the pass, and I wondered what I got myself into. I was ever so happy after having arrived at the pass, as now I could start going downhill, but my timing couldn't have been worse, for I was in the dead-center of the storm. Man, that was a horrible feeling! Thankfully, the lightning was fairly limited, but still had a number of strikes within a mile.
The quick storm finally moved past as I descended a short ways on the northern side of the pass, and my blister hot-spot I had going the other way the previous day was really hurting pretty good. There was quite a bit of blue sky to the west now and knew I could take my time, and take my time I did—every step was super painful. I was was only going a half MPH along the tundra, but I didn't care because I just survived an intense storm and knew I'd be back in the trees before the next round hit. It was such a relief making it out of that situation!
About a quarter-mile from the trailhead, and still walking very slow and gingerly, the next storm round arrived in the form of heavy rain and sleet, though there wasn't any lightning in the area this time around. I finally made it back to the trailhead fully satisfied from another successful trip. This was the last backpacking trip I had planned for the year, and I was relieved to know the final days of this trip would be in the relative safe cover of the 4Runner. I was glad I didn't stay a second night as it would've been another very wet day in one spot, and as I viewed this area from Stony Pass in the late afternoon, I could see a bit of snow had fallen on the area peaks. I knew I had made the right decision.