Type 1 Fun: Fun all the time, during and after.
Type 2 Fun: Miserable during it, but not that bad on reflection, and maybe indeed a little fun.
Type 3 Fun: Never fun, both during and after reflection when it is all over.
I am trying to decide if my overnight adventure to Lake Isabelle was Type 2 or Type 3 fun…
After responding to a call on a Facebook group for buddies for winter overnights on 14ers (because that sounds like Type 1 fun… /sarcasm), I roped myself into an overnight trip up to Lake Isabelle in the Indian Peaks Wilderness west of Boulder in early December. I mean, why not?! I’ve been lamenting for awhile that I need more friends that are into hiking, backpacking, and mountaineering as my interests shift away from cycling and out of my comfort zone of things I am willing to do solo. As the week went on, finally getting to the night before, I watched as people dropped out of the trip due to the weather forecast, and I took to fretting if I should stay home as well. The trip organizer, Tyler, called me to say things were still on and that we would just see how things went and readjust on the fly. Sounds good, off to bed I go at 8am for the 4:20am wake up!
Lake Isabelle is one of numerous alpine lakes best accessed through Brainard Lake, which sits west of Boulder, Colorado (and just outside of the super small hamlet of Ward in Left Hand Canyon). This is an incredibly popular area for recreation, and requires timed entry reservations for access in the summer. Though there is a lot I have wanted to explore in this area, like summiting Mount Audubon, I just never wanted to deal with the hassle of the reservations and limited parking. So what is more perfect than a trip in December?! No timed reservations and no permits required to overnight! To boot, since Lake Isabelle sits in the Four Lakes Backcountry Zone, normally you cannot camp here overnight May 1st through November 30th. It was December 3rd, let’s go!
It was a smooth two hour drive to the Brainard Gateway Trailhead, which is where winter access starts. I’ve only been up Left Hand Canyon via bicycle, so it was a bit odd to drive it in a car! Tyler ended up being behind, so we arrived at the same time. We would have a group of four, which ended up being perfect, with Jessie and Patrick arriving shortly afterward. Before long our packs were strapped on and we begun up the closed road.
After a steady 2.7 miles of traveling on the road, we arrived at the official trailhead at the Niwot Picnic Area. Snowshoes were strapped on, and we started up the snowy singletrack in a winter wonderland. Long Lake (which is quite long, ha!) was the first place we arrived, about a half mile up the trail.
Long Lake was safely frozen, so we were able to cross the lake. The trail was pretty nonexistent, but thankfully there was a quick guy in front of us breaking the trail (who we thanked profusely multiple times) up to Lake Isabelle.
The trek from Long Lake up to Lake Isabelle took a lot longer than we all expected thanks to the elevation gain and soft conditions. After one final steep headwall to gain (thank goodness for rest step technique on this one), we arrived to a snowy and windy Lake Isabelle just about five hours after leaving our cars.
The weather was worsening as we took to setting up our respective tents. I had brought my one-person backpacking tent, which is a three-season. In theory I felt like I could make the tent work with some mylar blankets over the mesh panels. But after getting all my stuff into my tent and cooking up a Mountain House (wasn’t a fan of the Chicken and Dumplings offering from them, sadly), I had a moment of reckoning as the snow kept falling and the wind picked up. I was cold and the tent was not doing the best in the high winds and blowing snow. This was miserable. It was 1:45pm, and I knew if I packed up and started back to the car, I could be in a worse situation as the sun would set and there was the possibility the trail could have drifted over. I exited my tent to find Jessie packing up her tent, and I asked Tyler what was up. “She’s going to stay in my tent.” I thought for half a second, and then announced, “Patrick, I’m taking you up on your offer and moving in!” as he had a four-season tent as well and had offered up half to me.
After moving all my stuff to Patrick’s tent, we took to laughing about how early it was… like 3pm. With the wind howling outside and white out conditions, there wasn’t much to do aside just talk and trade adventure stories in between bites of Pringles, all the while avoiding the thought of how awful it would be to go pee outside. Finally around 6pm we braved the outdoors for a “final pee” and I boiled 1.5 liters of water to put in my Nalgene to cuddle up with.
I’d like to say I slept well, but I awoke at 11pm with anxiety of the storm outside. “This is dumb, and stupid, and certainly not fun,” I thought to myself. At least I was cozy in my sleeping set up (another point of anxiety I had)… I used my 25 degree bag, Klymit packable down blanket, sleeping bag liner and slept fully dressed, including in my down jacket. I was up for about an hour before I fell into another restless sleep, ignoring my need to pee.
I woke shortly after 6am, thankful to have made it through the night without freezing. The wind was still howling as Patrick and I prepared for the day. “I just want to get the hell out of here,” I stated. I wasn’t having fun, what can I say?! We realized a two-foot high snowdrift had buried the door of the vestibule, and we were happy we blocked the door with Patrick’s backpack, otherwise all that snow would have been in our boots and packs.
Emerging from the tent it was a beautiful scene with all the fresh snow (about a foot!) and views of the mountains that were missing the day before. The wind was still blowing something fierce, however. We took to tearing down the tent and packing the final bits.
At 9:30 we began our trip back to the cars oh-so-far away. At first the trail was completely blown in, but luckily for the most part the trench we set the day before we still visible. It didn’t stop some dramatic postholing from occurring, but it was a relief that we didn’t have to break a new trail and navigate. But oh my goodness… what an absolutely slog. It is funny how much you don’t notice the trail going downhill while hiking in, and yet how much uphill there is on the way out.
By the time we hit the road, I was just ready for the whole adventure to be done. My hips hurt from my backpack, my upper back ached, and it was a lot of work to pick up my feet. The good part is the trip out was a lot faster than packing in, and in three hours eleven minutes, I was throwing down my pack at the rear bumper of Fozzy, so happy to yank the mountaineering boots off and get my Crocs. There were some quick goodbyes, and it was time for the two hour drive back home.
So yeah.. a physically hard weekend (I went to sleep at 7pm on Sunday night I was so wiped out) that definitely left me wondering if we were all up to something stupid. However, I was happy to have made some new buddies and that we were in a group – safety in numbers! I definitely realized that as “fun” as it may sound to backpack and sleep on a 14er summit in the winter seems when it is a Facebook post, I don’t think it is the activity for me. I am still wanting to play in the mountains in the winter, maybe just not sleeping on them. This trip also highlighted for me that while I have squeaked by with my three-season tents and 25 degree sleeping bag while car camping in colder weather, I will need to invest in more appropriate gear if I wish to pursue this further.
What’s the verdict? Type 2 or Type 3?! It’s a hard one for me. It was mentally and physically challenging, but I still get a bit giddy thinking I did such a crazy thing. We’ll call it Type 2 at the moment!
Date Hiked: December 3-4, 2022
Trailhead: Brainard Gateway
Total Mileage: 11.4 miles (Garmin Vivoactive 4s/Strava)
Elevation Gain: 1499 feet
Time: 5 hours in, 3 hours 11 minutes out
Weather: Snow, wind… oh the wind
Trail Conditions: Snow with flotation required (like snowshoes)
Special Considerations: Camping at Lake Isabelle is only allowed December 1st-April 30th. There is a winter closure at the Brainard Gateway Trailhead, and this will add several miles one-way to any hikes that start at trailheads at Brainard Lake.
Winter camping and backpacking is not to be taken lightly. It requires special preparation and gear. I do not recommended attempting such activities without experience.