Royce Peak and Merriam to Steelhead Lake: Bear Lakes Loop Day 6
The previous day’s early cloud build up had us a bit paranoid about today’s weather so we were up and ready to climb Royce Peak first thing in the morning. It wasn’t a big climb – 2 miles, 2000 feet of gain, and routine class 2. We expected it to take a few hours at a regular pace,and to be back at camp mid-day, long before the typical danger time-frame of afternoon storms. This was us being so smart. I’m sure you can tell where this is going.
Leaving camp around 8:30, the clouds were already starting to build over the surrounding peaks, but they were light and didn’t concern us. If they built at the expected rate we’d have plenty of time to get up and down the peak. Royce Peak was still under clear skies.
We wandered up the southwest facing slope, one big ramp all the way to the summit. Evidence of wildlife was around – we saw some baby grouse hopping around, and also saw a ‘pika pile’. It is a well-known fact that pikas are the cutest animal in the mountains, looking like some adorable mouse/rabbit hybrid. They spend all summer stockpiling green plants to insulate their den and provide food for the long months they spend under the snow in the winter. We came across a pile of greenery in a dry and non-green pile of talus. It could only have been a pika!
By 10:30 am we popped out on the wide open summit plateau. The clouds had grown into big white poofballs, but they still looked harmless. There are two piles of rock on this plateau, and Gordon was already on the first one. He shouted down to me that the other one was a bit higher, so I headed over to it. We worked our way up this pile, finding ourselves in class 3 terrain. We thought it was supposed to be easy class 2. No matter…we worked our way through the rocks when all of a sudden BAM! Thunder. Behind us, towards Mt Goddard, one of those ‘harmless poofballs’ had quickly developed a thunderhead and was looking really dark.
At the same time, Sooz and I both looked at the other summit rock pile and decided we were on the wrong one – the one Gordon originally climbed was higher. A quick snapshot and search for a summit register, just in case, revealed nothing and we hauled our butts off the one pile and headed to the other one. Quickly. With our eyes on that dark cloud that was heading in our direction.
We tagged the other pile (which was, fortunately, in the right direction for the descent and also a really easy pile to climb). I was looking for the summit registers with my body all contorted: my head under a rock and my butt and feet up in the air. Gordon was standing on the tallest rock when he calmly said something along the lines of “uh oh, there it is”. That telltale electrical charge and smell in the air. After a few choice words from all of us (“Holy sh$% we gotta move!”) I bolted from the pile, sprinting across the summit plateau. I’m pretty sure I set some kind of record for the talus-strewn 100 yard dash.
I dropped down onto the lower slope that had led us to the summit plateau and descended a couple hundred feet to a place where I felt safe (not the highest point, no overhanging rocks, etc), sure that Gordon and Sooz were at my heels. Taking stock of the situation, I realized the storm cloud was already dissipating and the sky above and around me was perfectly clear. ARGH.
But I also realized Sooz and Gordon were not behind me. I couldn’t see them. Feeling much safer, I started climbing back up when suddenly they popped into view. We all gathered together and took stock. Sooz had been stopped in her tracks on the summit plateau when she felt the electricity buzzing in her head. Not something I ever want to experience!
Although we tagged the summit, sadly we didn’t get to enjoy it, and it was extra disappointing since the storm cloud was gone just as fast as it had appeared. In fact, all of the clouds were fading out and the summit and entire area was clearing. All of this during the morning hours, which just goes to show that knowing typical weather patterns helps in making decisions that can keep the odds in your favor, but they don’t always apply. It was also my mom’s birthday and I had wanted to make a fun Happy Birthday picture for her, but I’m sure she wouldn’t have been happy had I gotten struck by lightning in the process of doing that. Maybe next year!
Back at camp around noon, it was clearing up and we were tempted to climb back up Royce! Instead we decided to pack up and head to our next campsite, Steelhead Lake in Upper French Canyon. Gordon had other plans so we said our goodbyes and he headed out. Sooz and I enjoyed the hike down to Merriam and through the lower meadows, and eventually connected with real trail again in French Canyon. Following a trail to Elba, Moon, and L Lakes we saw several people and were overwhelmed with the stink of packer campsites. It wasn’t difficult to make the decision to continue off-trail up to Steelhead Lake.
Arriving at Steelhead around sunset, the exposed lake was cold and windy. We used the last gas in our tanks to wander around and find a campsite, and eventually ended up in an okay spot that kept us protected from a little bit of the wind. It was probably the most tiring day of the trip, with 12 miles (4 of which were easy on trail), one peak, and one near lightning strike. I wolfed down my dinner, donned all of my layers, and fell asleep before dark.