After visiting Ice Lake Basin in August of 2013, I knew that I had to return to the area to photograph the wildflowers there at peak season (mid-July). After moving back to Colorado in November of 2015, I knew that one of my first destinations would be the Ice Lake Basin area. I also wanted to get my wife into backpacking so I got her equipped with some light gear and we both began exercising together to get ready for the primetime hiking season. Since my wife was new to backpacking, I decided to get our pack weight as low as possible. My friend Todd Myers loaned us a great book on Ultralight Backpacking by Mike Clelland which offered some great tips to get our weight down. The items I picked up for my wife included a new sleeping bag, a new sleeping pad, and a new backpack. We were able to get her pack weight under 15 lbs, which I think is a huge success. Here's the short list of gear we picked up for her:
1. REI Joule Women's Sleeping Bag - my wife sleeps super cold and this bag kept her nice and cozy at 12,500 ft, and it only weighs 2 lbs 2 oz. Success.
2. Therm-a-rest NeoAir XLite Sleeping Pad - while this is probably the lightest sleeping pad I've ever seen and it packs down to almost nothing, my wife complained it was a bit too small. Get the longer version.
3. Osprey Tempest 30 backpack - this pack was the perfect size for what she was carrying and weighed under 2 lbs. Awesome.
For myself, I picked up a new backpack as well, the Osprey Exos 48 - a perfect size pack for a tent, bag, pad, food, cookware, and my camera system.
We weighed all of our gear using a kitchen scale and used the awesome gear planner from Erik the Black to calculate our total weight. The whole planning thing helped my wife get into the ordeal and get excited, I think.
Lastly, we invited some of new friends from Durango, including Todd, Autumn, and Ellen. Good times were for sure going to be had! From my last adventure up to Ice Lake Basin, I knew about a shortcut by taking the road up to Clear Lake and then parking at the 1st switchback. This saves about 1,000 feet of total climbing. We arrived at the small parking area, which was empty (a good sign for sure). Our adventure began immediately by crossing the strong creek coming down from Clear Lake. This was my wife's very first stream crossing and she did it like a champion. The trail was steeper than I remembered and my wife struggled a great deal on the way up, but our group was supportive and I was SO proud of her determination. She rocked it! As we entered lower Ice Lake Basin, we had a decision to make - to continue on to Ice Lake Basin, to stay at the lower Ice Lake Basin, or to go to Island Lake, which was somewhere I had never been. The group unanimously voted to go to Island Lake since we anticipated the weekend to be quite busy with wildflower peepers and we thought Island Lake would be a little less busy. I personally had no problems with this since I could head over to Ice Lake no problem to take photos if I wanted. We made quick work up towards Island Lake as sunset approached and I captured a shot of the last light as we gained elevation quickly. The wildflowers were insane. By the way, you can check out the map of where we went and the GPS / GPX file over on Gaia GPS, who generously gave me a free Pro account. I love Gaia GPS - such an awesome app!
Upon arriving in the upper basin near Island Lake, the whole area opened up to the South and East, revealing views of the Grenadiers, the Chicago Basin 14ers, and Rolling Mountain (right). As you can see, the yellow paintbrush were stunning.
Our group found a great spot right by Island Lake to camp and we proceeded to get set-up. We were alone at the lake (or so we thought) and just loved the solitude. I knew that I would have some great opportunities for some photography at night - I had studied the projections for the moon's brightness, location, and time of rise/set as well as the location of the Milky Way and the time it would rise and set - all using a handy app called PhotoPills. Since the moon was looking to be quite bright and nearly full, I knew that I would shoot in two sessions - early at night for the bright moon illumination, and later in the very early morning after the moon had set. So - I set off to take some photos using the bright moon light to provide some ambient light in the basin. The Milky Way was barely visible, but the moon provided some light to bring out the flowers in the basin and the summit of U.S. Grant Peak.
The lake was mesmerizing. I could sit there and take it in for hours.
After wandering around for awhile taking photos, I decided to re-join the group at our campsite and go to bed. I set my alarm for 2 AM so that I could find a cool spot to photograph the Milky Way. Sleep is over-rated. None of us slept all that well - it was eerily quiet and everyone could hear everyone else move in their bags, open and close zippers, etc. It was pretty tough to get any sleep. I got out of the tent at about 1:45 AM and looked for a good spot to shoot the Milky Way, as planned. I found a little shallow lake nearby that had a nice view over towards the Ice Lake Basin 13ers. I was able to find a way to place my tripod in the center of the lake (it was really only about 3 inches deep), and loved how I could get the reflection of the Milky Way in the water. An amazing sight, for sure!
I really wanted to get a 180 degree panorama of the full Milky Way reflected in the water, and was able to pull it off after some work on my settings. The airglow (those high, green looking clouds) was looking awesome as well.
I played around a little with my headlamp as well, wanting to add a human element to the scene. I think it worked out pretty nicely.
I went back over to Island Lake to set-up for one last shot before going to back to bed. This was a photo that I shot as a tattoo concept that I have been thinking about for awhile - imagine the flowers or a campfire at the bottom on the wrist and then the tattoo works its way up the arm to the mountain and then the Milky Way. I think it would look great, personally.
I went to bed again around 4 AM, getting about 4 hours of sleep total. We all woke up and enjoyed the amazing view from the lake and noticed some hikers heading up U.S. Grant Peak. I threw out the idea of doing the same and everyone agreed to give it a shot. So, we made breakfast and got ready for an adventure up U.S. Grant Peak. Normally I do a lot of research before climbing any peak; however, for this one, I decided to just see how things would go and turn-around if needed. I knew there was some challenging class 3 or 4 sections but had no idea what would be in store for us. Exciting!
Off we went towards U.S. Grant peak - our goal was to gain the saddle between the two small areas of snow to the right of the peak above the lake seen above.
While we were hiking up there was a large group of day hikers having a bit of fun on the island - one even took a backflip off the lake. I'm thinking that was pretty damn cold. More on that later.
We reached the last section with grass and that is where my wife decided to rest while we continued on. She had an amazing view to take in.
There was a very lightly travelled trail up to the ridge up the muddy dirt and scree. My legs were feeling great so I took the lead, which was awesome because then I could stop and take photos of my friends climbing up. This was a particularly memorable climb because it was Autumn's first mountain climb in Colorado, one I'm sure she will remember.
The higher we got, the better the view was, which eventually opened up fully to reveal the San Juans in their glory, from Pigeon all the way over past Vestal and again past Jones and Handies (right to left).
Upon reaching the ridge, I was greeted with a glorious view of Mount Wilson (left), Gladstone (left of center), and Wilson Peak (center). It was great seeing them from this vantage point since I had just climbed Gladstone and Wilson Peak the weekend before from Bilk Basin.
Ellen and Todd joined me on the ridge to take in all of the awesomeness.
From the ridge we took a right turn and followed a very solid but slightly loose trail straight up the ridge. Here is a view looking down that ridge.
The view back down to Island Lake dominated my mind as we scrambled up the relatively easy class 2+ scree.
Eventually, looking back we could see Pilot Knob's gnarly summit block behind us over in Ice Lake Basin. The group continued the slog up the loose scree, which was pretty manageable.
I live for this kind of terrain but I think my friends thought I was a little crazy for enjoying it. The rock was pretty much what you'd expect in the San Juans.
We eventually found ourselves in a steep orange gully with great hand-holds on the sides which was fairly loose. Sticking close to the wall made for pretty easy navigation.
The full beauty of Ice Lake Basin presented itself as we gained elevation, showcasing both Ice Lake and Fuller Lake. The weather looked like it would hold for the whole day.
Honestly, I think I could have stayed up there for hours on end, taking in the views in every direction. It was just the reason I moved back to Colorado.
Island Lake pretty much stayed in view the entire way up, a nice beacon and reminder of just how high we had climbed in such a short amount of time.
At last we reached the crux of the climb, which I had no idea existed. We got to this wall and wondered if we had taken a wrong turn or if we needed to go around, or, what? Upon close examination I decided it was the only way up. It consisted of three or four relatively exposed moves up to a small ledge, which wrapped around to the right. I went first and Ellen decided to join me. Todd and Autumn decided to stay behind because it looked too difficult.
When Ellen and I got to the top, about 3 minutes later Todd and Autumn joined us - we were so excited that they decided to come up the wall. Even though the shots are out of sequence, I thought it best to show how hard the wall looked, on our way down, with Todd and Autumn still needing to downclimb it (below).
The top was magnificent. Here's Ellen topping out on a summit filled with purple wildflowers (their name always escapes me).
From the summit you could make out every major summit in the San Juans, including Uncompagre and Wetterhorn (top center).
My gaze kept going back over to the San Miguels to the west. They were so damned impressive.
Next, a 180 degree view showing most of the San Juans and Ice Lake Basin, and Island Lake. So amazing.
A quick group photo was in order, so I set up the tripod and self-timer. All I remember is that Todd invented a new food item on top - a burrito consisting of Peanut Butter, Fritos, and slices of apple. Apparently it was quite delicious.
After enjoying lunch, we head back down, without any issues at all. We all faced-in on the crux and it was surprisingly easier than I thought it would be. Now, remember above where I said the lake was cold? When we were about 1/2 way down the ridge, I noticed a group of people huddled around our tents at the lake. I was not too concerned until I saw them open Todd's tent. My first reaction was, "what the heck are they doing, trying to steal beer or something?" I raced down the mountain at a quick pace and caught up with the group. As I approached they asked if they were invading our campsite. I replied, "well, yes, kind of...". They apologized and said that their son (probably about 14) had swam in the lake and was getting hypothermia and needed somehwere to lay down and warm up, and was that OK? I felt horrible for thinking they were doing something bad and replied, "of course not - not a problem at all, and that makes total sense!" The rest of our group arrived and we helped them ensure he had food and was warm before they departed the basin. We rested up and as the sun dropped lower and lower I decided to get the camera out and take some photos of sunset at the lake. It was a pretty nice one. The marsh marigolds and fireweed looked awesome.
The last light left an impression on the fireweed that I knew would look fantastic in camera. I think I was right.
After dinner, I decided that I wanted to hike back up to the top of the grassy area below the ridge for U.S. Grant. I know that sounds crazy but I had a vision for some shots looking back over the lake at sunset. I hoped the clouds would stick around, and they were looking like they might, so I took a chance and hiked back up the mountain again. Todd thankfully joined me and kept me company. Unfortunately, the clouds did not cooperate much, but I think I still got some decent shots, including one with the nearly full moon in it.
As the last light kissed the tops of the Chicago Basin 14ers, I took advantage and snapped off a two-row panorama to include the pink sky (which was a bit hazy from fire I presume), the lake, and some wildflowers.
It was quite a memorable sunset, for sure. Flowers + sunset + Island Lake + San Juan Mountains in alpenglow = awesome.
We head back down to our tents and got some much needed sleep. I never did make it over to Ice Lake for sunrise wildflower photos. Maybe next year! As a reminder, you can take a look at my GPS and/or KML file for this hike over on Gaia GPS. Prints of my photos are always available on my photography website (if you see one you like and can't find it, let me know). Thanks for reading!