Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Harvard Lakes Backpacking - And a Missing Hiker

Three Elk trail to Colorado Trail
Lower Trailhead Elevation: 8,831 ft.
Upper Trailhead Elevation: 9,302 ft.
Harvard Lakes Elevation: 10,246 ft.

Hike In
Start Time: 4:57pm
End Time: 6:07pm (6:59pm)
Distance: 1.91mi. (4.18 w/ search)
Elevation Gain: 1082 ft. (1309 w/ search)

Hike Out
Start Time: 8:40am
End Time: 9:55am
Distance: 2.77mi. (to lower TH)
Elevation Gain: 116 ft.

Trip Report:
This summer was the first time my whole family and my brother's whole family would be together in Colorado and staying at my parent's house. This meant wonderful amounts of family time and opportunities to give the kids new experiences in the backcountry. I knew immediately I wanted to find a way to take out all the young cousins backpacking. My boys have had a few short experiences already and the chance to get my brother's kids out to enjoy the same was enticing. We weighed through a number of options and places of how to accomplish this. One of the times I've taken my boys out was merely hiking a half mile up the North Cottonwood Creek trail and picking a spot. A short excursion like that is necessary with new young backpackers as they likely won't be carrying much of their gear. The adults in the gear get overloaded packs with extra sleeping bags and tents.

We knew we had found the right option when the idea of hitting Harvard Lakes from the Three Elk Trail came to mind. Harvard Lakes would make a beautiful and fun destination for the younger kids and hiking it via the Three Elk Trail was just under 2 miles each way making for a manageable hike for all involved. We still had the obstacle of how to get all of the gear carried up the trail that would be needed for our whole group. I had four from my family going, my brother had six, and also my father, making for eleven total. We resolved that three 4-person backpacking tents could work. Next it was how to carry up the sleeping gear needed for my brother's kids, none of whom have packs yet. My brother ended up playing sherpa for all of his kids and had six sleeping bags strapped into and onto his pack. My sister-in-law carried their 2-year old in a back carrier and only the oldest of his boys carried a daypack with a bit of clothing in it.
Jonah waiting by Three Elk creek
I was nominated to be the tent sherpa. My job was to kill two birds with one stone. I would carry up two of the 4-person tents in a separate hike before the whole group would go. I went up around 1pm in the afternoon to bring the tents up and also to stake out a site for us to occupy. My father had been up a week prior and had scouted the lakes resolving that a big site on the southeast corner of the lake would be great. So I hiked on up there and sure enough found that spot, and it was empty. It had plenty of spaces for three tents and our family to enjoy an evening. The only drawback was a good portion of the site wasn't entirely level. Two of the tents would be setup with a little slope to them. I set things up while a storm threatened with some thunder but the heavens never opened up.

I made the roundtrip and drove back to the house and had about 30 minutes to help my own boys get their packs ready and then the whole group was ready to head out again. My older two boys were carrying regular backpacks and had their own gear in tow. My oldest, Luke, was also carrying the third tent. My youngest son, Seth, was carrying an ultralight daypack (REI Stoke 29) with his sleeping bag and pad in it. I wanted to make his trip up as easy as possible.

The smaller, western lake
One final obstacle for us to handle was how to get all 11 people up the mile long 4WD portion of the approach to the Three Elk TH. We talked about a subgroup hiking up the road. We ended up deciding to make two trips with my father's Ford Explorer to shuttle everyone up the road. It was a 20-minute round trip drive so it kinda worked out.

The hike up was mostly uneventful until we reached the junction with the Colorado Trail. My brother's family had been the first to be dropped off and so they mostly hiked their own hike up the trail. I hiked up with my boys and my father. Seth struggled the most with his asthma and the 2nd half of the hike, which also happens to be the steepest, really challenged him.

The first 3/4 of a mile from the 4WD TH is relatively flat and traverses south through the woods. When it turns west it gains through a steep rocky trail. It has the looks of an old mining road now turned trail. The last 0.3 of the hike up to the Colorado Trail is right along Three Elk Creek. In one short section the trail actually now splits up and goes on both sides of the creek. It appears the original route crosses the creek to the north side for a time before crossing back. Over recent years a route has been forged to stay on the south side the whole time. We found both routes worked out. We had some FRS radios along with us to communicate between the groups. We used this to find that my brother's group was just under 10 minutes ahead of us as we neared the CT.

It was at that 4-way junction where the Three Elk trail meets the Colorado Trail that our real adventure began. My middle son Jonah had been hiking at times just a little bit ahead of us. He was proving himself to be a strong hiker today. He rarely was out of eyesight for more than a minute and would at times stop and wait for the group. When we reached the four way junction he was nowhere to be seen. This struck me as odd. We had discussed this intersection and the left turn needed. Even so, I had never given him instructions to just forge ahead to the lakes on his own.

My son Luke fishing near our campsite
When we didn't see him I immediately knew I had to settle the question before we moved onward. For years I've been borderline paranoid with our groups and junctions and keeping people together. I know the risks of a group member making a wrong turn and too much time passing before the mistake is realized. So instantly went to work to find Jonah. I trotted south on the CT towards the lakes to see if he had indeed gone that direction. I made it all the way to the eastern lake and didn't see him. Two dayhikers were there and they also hadn't seen him. My brother's group was at the campsite and I radioed them and they also hadn't seen him.

I dropped my pack there at the lake by a tree and ran back to the four-way CT junction. I discussed things with my father. I sent him and my youngest towards the lakes and I had my oldest stay at that four-way junction in case Jonah would double back. We wanted to eliminate all possible places he could be and could go. With Luke at the junction we hoped to rule out Jonah backtracking downhill or making another wrong turn.

I decided to scout north on the CT (a right turn) to see if he could have made a wrong turn. I went almost 2/10 of a mile and didn't see him. I reasoned that he surely would have stopped by that point if he wasn't seeing us. Next I ran up the Three Elk trail heading west from the junction. I went a quarter mile up this trail with no sign of him. Again I reasoned if he had gone this way he would have turned around by now. This would be my first mistake, but more on that in a moment.
A beautiful morning at Harvard Lakes
This was when my first bit of worry and concern really kicked in. I was rapidly weighing through all the possible options in my head of where he could be and what might have happened. We had checked all four directions for nearly a quarter mile with no sign of him. By this point my brother had also joined the search heading even further south on the CT from Harvard Lakes to check that area.

Our resolution to the problem began when a father and son who were camping by the junction heard the commotion and could tell we were looking for someone. I told them what was going on and asked them to keep an eye out for Jonah at the trail junction. They did one better, they headed up the Three Elk trail heading west to look while I made a longer search going north on the CT. I made it a whole half mile going north while yelling for Jonah. In the meantime we were all figuring out that we still had cell signal so I spoke with both my father and brother on phone to coordinate our efforts. My brother decided to follow the couple of the Three Elk trail.

I finally got the call from my brother that they had found Jonah. The father/son combo caught up to Jonah, who had finally stopped almost a half mile up the Three Elk. David then caught up with them as well and they hiked back to the junction. I had covered almost 2.5 miles in searching the trails and we were probably within 30 minutes of planning out a call to SAR. He was missing for almost an hour.

He and I had a serious talk about trail rules and how situations like this could be avoided in the future. The two basic rules boiled down to this: 1. Always stop at trail junctions to wait for your group. Always. 2. Never get ahead of your group, and if you think you've lost them stop.
Our camp
Bad situations in the backcountry rarely happen on accident. In fact, they rarely happen, period. Most tragedies occur after a series of bad decisions add up into an unforgiving situation. In this case two bad decisions got my son missing half mile up a trail. Thankfully, the bad decisions stopped there. He then began to make good choices. He stopped and he stayed on the trail and he waited. Those decisions helped resolve this before anything worse could happen.

So in the end things worked out but an extra amount of physical and mental exhaustion was heaped upon us through the whole situation.

Once we were all together at camp we quickly moved into cooking mode. My brother manned two stoves while I worked to filter water. The kids all entertained themselves playing on logs and watching my oldest try to catch a fish in the lake. For most it was a first-time eating freeze-dried meals at camp and we all had fun with it.

By the time our supper was concluded we had less than a half hour til dark. It was nearly 9pm. With a fire ban in Chaffee County there was no hope of a campfire and so our evening ended fairly quickly. My brothers and I squeezed together in my REI Half Dome 4 tent. We fought the slope all night long. The overnight temps got into the upper 40s but we stayed pretty comfortable.

In the morning we relaxed a bit and my oldest tried his hand at more fishing with no success. We began the work of packing up camp and were on the trail by 8:40am. The hike out was relatively uneventful. When we reached the vehicle we decided not to shuttle this time. Myself, my brother, Luke, Jonah and my brother's oldest all hiked the mile down the road.

Aside from the unexpected adventure of a missing group member, it was a great, albeit short, backpacking trip. I loved getting my boys out again and for my brother to get his whole family out for the first time. Harvard Lakes proved to be the right choice.

I have a track and waypoints from the hike all contained in the embedded Google Map. Check it out and use at your own risk.

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