I started off from the Bear Lake trailhead at 6:56 AM on Monday, November 23rd, 2015, with the goal of reaching the summit of Flattop Mountain, and if conditions were good, continue on over to Hallett Peak. The trail was packed snow down low, so I started out wearing Micro Spikes, with snowshoes strapped to my backpack. Twenty minutes up the trail, I stopped at a small clearing in the trees that offers a great view into the Glacier Gorge, which was still in the morning shadow of Longs Peak. I’ve taken plenty of shots from this spot over the years, but it’s a view that’s just hard to pass up.
Fifty minutes up the trail now, I arrived at the dream Lake Overlook and took this shot showing Dream Lake in the lower left, Otis Peak in the upper right, and Thatchtop in the upper left of the picture. Somewhere in the area, I switched from the Micro Spikes to snowshoes as the trail became less packed and post-holing became more of a problem.
An hour and twenty minutes up the trail, I came across these ski pole marks in the snow, and for some reason thought it was worth a shot. Hiking alone, I notice a lot of little dorky things like this.
At an altitude of roughly 12,150 feet on the trail, there's a horse hitch with a great view looking south across Tyndall gorge at the north side of Hallett Peak. The hitch is only fifteen minutes or so from Flattop’s summit.
I reached the summit area at 10:10 AM, three-plus hours after leaving the trailhead. Looking north-northwest, I took a photo of this beautiful winter scene highlighting the Never Summer Range. The right foreground shows Ptarmigan Point, at the top of Ptarmigan Glacier, on the west end of the Odessa Gorge rim. While it’s a great snow ascent in the spring and early summer, it's often a steep icy mess later in the year, like now.
As far as I know, this trail junction sign is the only summit landmark there is on Flattop. The true summit, however, is supposed to be the highest nearby boulder along the Tyndall Gorge rim. The sign was close enough for me though. It was too cold to walk around looking for the highest boulder.
I continued on around the Tyndall Gorge Rim on a light trail toward the west side of Hallett, and in a few minutes came up on the sign marking the top of Tyndall Glacier. I took this picture with Hallett in the background and moved on. Turning east up toward the summit though, with only about 400 vertical feet to go, I turned back. Conditions above timberline were brutal. The wind speed was hitting 40 MPH here with a chill factor of -5° F. The weather forecast for the Colorado Front Range had been great with expected temperatures in the upper 50s. So, while I thought I had packed plenty of warm layers, I had left behind my heavier windproof shell. After nearly two hours above timberline now, I felt the cold right down to my core.
Moving back down now, I stopped for a very quick shot looking down into Tyndall Gorge, and switched back into snowshoes again. I had put the Micro Spikes back on when I turned around, but they weren’t working out as well as I had expected on this terrain.
Just a few minutes down the trail from Flattop’s summit, I was caught completely by surprise when this Ram crossed the trail maybe fifty yards in front of me, looking completely at home in the cold and wind. I zoomed in close and got this shot as he worked up to and along the Tyndall Gorge Rim.
When I finally reached timberline again, I immediately stopped to remove my two jackets and full face mask. It felt so good to be out of the wind. A few minutes before reaching Bear Lake, at 2:04 PM, I stopped for this last shot looking back up into Tyndall Gorge and showing the back glacier wall. While my goal had been an early winter summit of Hallett Peak, the goals I set are often challenging - for me anyway, and assume good conditions with no errors on my part: like underestimating the wind. Failing to reach a goal from time to time is a sign of good common sense which is needed in mountaineering. However, Flattop Mountain itself is a great destination, and despite it’s lack of a visible peak, it has some of the most awesome high alpine views in the park. I will note, though, that in a summer afternoon electrical storm, Flattop is one of the last places you would want to be caught. With no place to hide, lightning strikes are a deadly danger. Evaluate the weather forecast the night before going into the mountains, leave early, keep your eye open to the changing current conditions and trust your instincts.
The GPS recorded a round trip distance of 9.36 miles, with a total elevation gain of 4,162 feet, and a max elevation of 12,384 feet above sea level: 60 feet above Flattop's summit height of 12,324 feet. My jeep-to-jeep trip time was 7 hours and 49 minutes.
National Park Service - Rocky Mountain National Park - Climbing and Mountaineering