Orno Peak P750
Northwest Orno
Peak 12,008ft P300

Jul 29, 2021

With: Eric Smith
Ingrid Dockersmith

Story Photos / Slideshow Map GPX Profile


Eric and I paid a return visit to the Flat Tops Wilderness, this time with Ingrid in tow. We had sold Ingrid on the joys of hiking the grassy plateaus in the Wilderness, and hoped that the weather would hold as nicely as it had the previous day. We were interested in Northwest Orno, the highpoint of Rio Blanco County, though it had little prominence. We would add a few other summits on the same plateau, recreating a route than John Kirk had done in 2016. The roundtrip effort climbs about 3,000ft over 15mi, much of that on the Mandall Creek Trail which climbs to Mandall Pass in about five miles.

We started shortly after 7a from the Mandall Creek TH at Bear Lake Reservoir, though not at all obvious from the main road we drove in on. It helped to know ahead of time where to find it since the TH signage seemed lacking. Though amply signed for No Camping, the trailhead was currently occupied by a sheepherder's camp whose occupants were grazing their locust somewhere up the drainage, leaving no one to mind the camp. We didn't know if the public was welcome to park in the same area, but we did so anyway before starting up the trail. A sign posted near the start warned of sheep dogs on duty and the strong suggestion to not challenge them. I knew from past experience that these animals are not to be triffled with - they are incredibly defensive of the sheep and will drive you away. Luckily, the sheep weren't grazing near the trail today and we would have no issues. A trail sign is first encountered just past the sheep warning, and half a mile later we crossed the Wilderness boundary. Just beyond this, the trail has been rerouted away from it's old course for about half a mile to avoid a washout section where the trail traverses a steep slope. Knowing this ahead of time, we simply followed the older, shorter trail section, saving a bit of time. The trail passes through forest and open meadows as it follows up the Mandall Creek drainage, taking us several times across the creek (easy in late July of 2021). The trail grows thinner past a junction to Black Mandall Lake, with ducks and small cairns now serving to mark the route, though sometimes we lost it anyway. Above treeline, it's easy to see where Mandall Pass is and the general direction we needed to travel. We left the trail before reaching the pass, aiming for a gap in the cliffband to the north. This had a bit of class 3 scrambling, but nothing serious. Easier slopes then lead to the plateau above, between Northwest Orno and our first stop, Orno Peak.

We took about 2.5hrs to reach the plateau, marking the end of the hard work. Now it was time for a walk in the park. Turning east, we found several use trails along the narrow section of plateau leading east to Orno Peak. Ahead of us a short distance, Ingrid had stopped, eyed something, and was signaling for Eric and I to approach cautiously, which we ignorantly disregarded. Luckily, the weasel that she had spotted had not darted off, but remained curious about the approaching strangers. It was the first weasel I had seen in the wild, and I had just had enough time to snap a picture of it eyeing a butterfly before it turned to leave. We continued on our way along the open ridgeline, reaching the class 2 summit of Orno shortly before 10:30a. We found a register from 2018, preprinted sheets that seem a bit too regimented. It was fairly busy, and I can't recall if we bothered to sign it. There was a USFS benchmark, too, and nice views in four direcitons.

After about 10-15min, we returned back west along the ridgline, heading to Northwest Orno, an effort that would take us most of the next hour, though fairly easy. Clouds were starting to make an appearance, starting a little early today, something we would need to keep an eye on. There are 2-3 bumps along the ridgeline where we expected to find NW Orno, the first was the location marked on LoJ. I looked west and thought one of the other two might be higher, and wanted to check them out to be sure. Eric was getting nervous by this time with the developing weather, so he asked if he and Ingrid could start off for the last summit. I said, "Of course!" and went off to take some measurements of the other bumps about 400ft further. They turned out to be lower based on by GPSr elevation measurements, so satisfied I turned to join the others - only they were nowhere to be found. Eric had rushed off faster than I thought him capable of, Ingrid following in his wake. They had headed for Mandall Pass before continuing up to Peak 12,008ft, a curving route that would make for the least elevation gain, but not the shortest distance. I thought I could catch them by dropping lower on a more direct line to the summit, but they were simply too fast with the headstart they had. It took less than half an hour to get between NW Orno and Peak 12,008ft, and when I arrived in the vicinity I found Ingrid and Eric wandering about the large, flat summit area trying to locate a highpoint. There were a couple of small cairns, but no register, no obvious highpoint. After judging that we'd done sufficient diligence, we turned back towards Mandall Pass.

I had entertained the idea of continuing south to the Devils Causeway about three miles in that direction, but the weather was looking like it wasn't going to hold out for the next few hours as needed. A high, grassy plateau is no place to be should the lightning start. We picked up the thin trail at Mandall Pass and followed it back down over the course of the next two hours. We stopped at one point to let Eric stretch his legs - seems they were hurting after rushing the last peak, which he may have regretted. it was after 2p by the time we finished up. The rain never did come, but it continued to threaten as we drove back to Steamboat. A good day...


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