Julie and I rolled out of bed at 5:00, got our stuff together, and headed out the door. On the way out of town we stopped by the grocery store for some last minute snacks and some donuts for breakfast. After the stop we headed up Poudre Canyon toward Cameron Pass. When we got near the top of the pass we pulled over at Joe Wright Reservoir. We had Julie's kayak strapped to the top of the car and hauled that off and carried it down to the reservoir. Julie retrieved the rest of her stuff from the car and I left her and Poudre to paddle around in the lake for a couple of hours while I climbed Mount Mahler.
I drove over the top of Cameron Pass and made my way through Colorado State Forest to the Lake Agnes Trailhead. I was the first car there. As I gazed up at Mount Mahler I contemplated what gear to bring. It was a beautiful day, but a snowstorm had dumped some snow on the mountains during the week (this storm closed Trail Ridge Road briefly). After my misadventure on Mount Sherman early in the season I had been in the habit of throwing all my gear in the back of the car and picking and choosing what to bring at the trailhead instead of going through this process at home. This day, aside from my normal summer hiking kit, I decided to bring gators, fleece gloves, and my waterproof over mitts. With that decision made I set off for the summit at 8:00.
I made swift progress up the first mile of trail to Lake Agnes and then around it's western side. About halfway around the lake I found a talus slope that looked like it would be a straightforward ascent to the basin below the north face of Mount Mahler. The talus was well packed and solid so the going was easier than it looked from below. Within an hour from leaving the trailhead I made it to the unnamed lake below Mount Mahler's north face. I snapped a few photos and then circled around the lake and ascended a grassy ridge to the west of the lake. This brought me level with the vast talus slope that makes up Mahler's north face. I stopped to have snack and put on some warmer cloths. I put on my fingerless gloves and the pant legs to my convertible shorts. I debated putting on my gators but the snow didn't look too deep so I decided against it for the time being.
After the snack and the clothing adjustment I began the long, monotonous slog up the north face. The talus was loose in places so I had to be careful I didn't roll an ankle. The slope wasn't very steep so I wasn't concerned about causing a rock fall or anything. The snow wasn't deep and I didn't need the gators, and with my trekking poles, I didn't need to put my hands down on the ground so the over mitts were unnecessary too. After another hour of trudging up the slope I reached the summit at 10:00. I signed the summit log (I was the first person since early July to sign), took some photos, and enjoyed the view. I was especially enthralled by the view to the south into the heart of the Never Summer Range. I made a mental note to add Lead Mountain, Mount Cirrus, Howard Mountain etc to my wish list for next season.
While I enjoyed the view I contemplated my descent route. Initially I had planned on descending the way I came but I wasn't really looking forward to the boring descent down the monotonous north face. A different option was to circle around the ridge to the west and hit Point 11,960 on the way back to the car. Another option was to descend the East Ridge down to the Mahler-Richthofen saddle. Gerry Roach, the renowned author of many hiking and climbing guides to the Colorado Mountains, specifically advises against this in his RMNP guide. However, I was feeling adventurous - no doubt inspired by a book I'd recently read about the legendary Stettner Brothers (The Stettner Way by John D. Gorby). I followed the ridge down to where the going began to get challenging. I said to myself "it doesn't looks so bad." These were the same words that I'd uttered on top of Ypsilon Mountain several weeks earlier regarding Donner Ridge. Those words of course came back to haunt Nelson and I several hours later when we finally had to give up on downclimbing the ridge and look for an alternative route of retreat when we were stymied by the ridge. That day out in the mountains culminated in a death march that ended thirteen ours after we started out. I hoped this wouldn't turn into a similar situation. I certainly didn't want to leave Julie and Poudre paddling around in Joe Wright Reservoir all day. At the same time I knew they had all the gear they needed so I wasn't too worried about them even if I was a little later than I planned.
Once I'd made up my mind to go for it I set off down the ridge. The first section was fairly easy class 3 scrambling punctuated by a class 4 move here and there. One in particular was difficult. The ridge was narrow and blocked by a large refrigerator-sized boulder. I climbed up on top of the boulder and examined the far side. I checked for handholds and one after another they kept crumbling away. I kicked out all the loose and hand and foot holds I could reach and watched the rocks fall several hundred feet down the north side of the ridge. Once I'd dislodged the loose stuff I slowly lowered my body down over the boulder. Gripping the top part of the boulder I stretched my legs down to find solid purchase. I lowered myself down to nearly the full lengths of my arms before I could reach anything solid to stand on. "Hmmmm," I thought to myself, "This is going to be really hard to climb back over if I'm forced to turn around and retrace my steps." I just hoped it wouldn't come to that and continued down the ridge.
A little ways further down the ridge I came to the real crux of the day. It was a very steep, 100-foot pitch of solid class 4 scrambling down to a notch in the ridge. Getting down to the bottom of the notch would be a significant challenge and climbing up the other side didn't look trivial either. However, if I was able to reach the bottom of the notch I could see that it was possible to bail from the ridge down a scree gully to the south. I decided to commit myself to the downclimb. At first I stayed on the south side of the ridge, but after a while it looked like there were better holds on the north side so I switch over to that. The climbing was steep and demanding. I was relying heavily on my handholds so I was super-careful that anything I was going to put any weight on would be solid. This meant that almost every other hold had to be rejected because it was loose or unstable. Very carefully I made my way down to the notch.
Once at the bottom of the notch I examined my alternatives for climbing up the other side. There was a ledge system that led along the south side of the ridge that looked fairly easy. However, I wanted to stay as close to the ridge proper as possible whenever I could, and it looked like I could by climbing a very steep gully up out of the notch directly to the top of the ridge. This I did, and when I regained the top of the ridge I was very encouraged by the view. The rest of the ridge looked easy, and it was. Soon I was on the grassy saddle between Mount Mahler and Mount Richthofen. It had taken me an hour to downclimb the ridge. I felt really pleased with myself, especially since Roach had warned so strongly against the ridge.
With all the difficult parts behind me all that remained was the descent down the scree, talus, and boulders to Lake Agnes and then the short hike back to the car. The descent down to Lake Agnes was long, boring, and taxing on the legs but I made it down non-the-worse for wear. This time I hiked around the east side of the lake. As I gazed into the water I spied a couple of ten to twelve inch fish. One of these days I'll have to bring my fishing gear with me. I arrived back at the car a little over four hours after starting out. Mine was still the only car in the parking lot - I'd had the entire area to myself.
I climbed back in the car and drove back over Cameron Pass to pick up Julie and Poudre. They had a good time paddling in the lake and I timed it perfectly because they were just starting to get bored. We loaded up the kayak and headed down the canyon for home. The traffic was pretty heavy and I was a bit surprised. At only 1:00 I assumed we'd beat most of the traffic but I guess I was wrong. We got home shortly before 3:00 and still had a lot of the day left for work. Yippee.