Cooper Peak (N. Ridge: YDS 3) and Marten Peak (YDS 3) options for YDS 4

Classification System

I like to highlight and markup some of my pictures for route clarification. Black lines= general directions, landmarks and/or Class 1 sections. Blue Lines=Class 2 sections. Red= Class 3 sections. Purple = Class 4 sections. Orange = Class 5. The class system is based on the YDS rating scale.

Approach

No matter how you slice it, approaching these peaks is a long affair. Cooper and Marten are located in the IPW, west of the continental divide and therefore don’t allow for easy access from the 4th of July or Brainard areas to the East. Can you backpack in from the East? Sure, but it’s a long trip up over Buchanan pass. The best approaches (still quite long) are from the West. I ended up making these summits part of a multi-day backpacking trip which allowed me plenty of time to explore around. Unfortunately, for a lot of people, backpacking isn’t always an option, so for those weekend warriors out there, the best and most direct approach would be from Monarch Lake or Roaring Fork Trailhead.

From Monarch lake go west on the Cascade Creek Trail, take a left on the Buchanan Pass Trail and another left up the Gourd Lake Trail. At Gourd lake head North above tree-line (passing Island lake en route) until you reach the saddle between Cooper Peak and the Continental divide. At the saddle, turn South and scramble the crest up Cooper, and then continue on to Marten. From Marten, find a line to descend East, crossing a basin with a few unnamed lakes before descending down to Gourd Lake. Then, hike the 8.6 miles back to Monarch Lake. Alternatively, you can climb to the saddle between Marten and Cooper from Gourd Lake (again crossing the unnamed lakes basin) and go one way to touch one and the other way to touch the other, but this route avoids all the fun scrambling on Cooper and doesn’t provide an easier ascent of Marten, which is Class 3 no matter what way you do it.

Another approach would be from the Roaring Fork Trailhead which saves distance but also involves an arduous ascent up to a saddle north of Irving Hale, before descending down to Stone Lake, and then re-ascending to the saddle between Cooper and the Continental Divide. Either way, its a 15-20 mile day if you want to hit both. Consider also, if you are from the Front Range, the 2-3 hour drive back via either Berthoud Pass or Trail Ridge. Approach how you will, I’ll start the route description from the saddle between Cooper and the Continental Divide, though there are numerous ways to ascend these peaks.

A NOTE ON CAMPING IN THE IPW: If you camp at Gourd Lake or Stone Lake YOU MUST obtain a backcountry permit for the wilderness, information is linked here. There is no free camping in the IPW unfortunately, and very limited places left where you can still have a campfire, PLEASE respect the rules. Both places are rugged and beautiful, pack out everything you bring in.

Secluded 12ers

Gerry Roach, author of “Colorado’s Indian Peaks: Classic Hikes and Climbs” has written about a few routes up these secluded summits. The easiest version is a 2+ climb of Cooper (ascending north from the saddle between Cooper and Marten) and a mid Class 3 ascent of Marten with exposure. These are NOT the only ways to climb them. Roach also wrote of a beautiful Class 4 South buttress as well as a Class 3 snow couloir climb up Cooper Peak, along with the route I chose, which he lists as Class 3 and calls the North Ridge route.

Marten Peak’s stately summit block has a number of routes that go from Class 3 to mid Class 5 on the N. S. and E. side, the West side looks super gnarly and probably has a few Class 5+ lines that I did not scout. For being such small mountains (by Colorado standards) the options are surprisingly plentiful on both peaks.

Since I was camping at Stone Lake, the easiest way to grab both was a loop, where I ascended up the saddle between Cooper and the Continental Divide, scrambled South to Cooper, continued South to Marten, backtracked to the Cooper/Marten saddle and descended North back to camp.

My wife and I camped at Stone Lake (yellow lines). From there, I ascended to the saddle labelled “2”, hiked to Marten, backtracked to the saddle marked “1”, and descended to camp. The Gourd Lake approach offers many alternative options.

Approach stats (pulled from Gerry Roach’s book and AllTrails, use whatever source seems most accurate to you).

  • Roaring Fork TH to Cooper: ~8 miles + 5300 ft.
  • Monarch Lake TH to Cooper:
    • via saddle “1”: 9.7 miles +3960 ft
    • via saddle “2”: 10.2 miles +3960 ft.
  • Cooper to Marten: .7 miles (-700ish ft to saddle, +400ish ft to Marten)
  • Marten back to Roaring Fork Trailhead: ~7.2 miles (via saddle “1”)
  • Marten back to Monarch Lake Trailhead: ~9.7 miles

Cooper (North Ridge Scramble) +variations YDS 3

Below is a photo of the saddle between Cooper and the Continental Divide and my initial ascent up to it, taken from Stone Lake. Part of Cooper’s charm is that it doesn’t look like much from, well, most angles. The peak is dwarfed by the massive hulk of the Continental Divide as it makes its way up to “Ooh La La” and Ogallala Peaks. It’s only when you get up to the top of the saddle that you see a more distinct profile.

Blue line is the ascent route up to the saddle.
Looking south from saddle “2”. Start of route.

Much better looking! The ascent route I took follows the blue arrows to harder terrain, hops around the top of the deeply inset couloir and up to the peak. I climbed it in early September and there was still a chunk of snow in there so June/July that Couloir would make a beauty of a snow climb. As if there weren’t enough ways to climb Cooper, you can also take the ridge-line up from Island Lake for another Class 3 variation if you come in from Gourd Lake area.

My route followed the initially simple ridge as it gained elevation over broken rocks and grassy patches. Nothing really exceeded Class 2 until I came up to what’s depicted in the picture below.

Ridge direct= Class 3, or skirt to the west to stay at Class 2.

Since I was fresh and ready to scramble I wanted to see if I could stay on the ridge-line directly. The option to skirt is available and may be desirable if you’re trying to slam Cooper in a day. You do have to pick between the two options because to the left, the slope become almost immediately technical as the rock cascades down to the couloir. Below is a reference photo of where you are in the climb.

Red circle=first real scramble option. Skirt right to avoid.

Choosing the ridge-crest took me on a surprising, exposed Class 3 jaunt that I really enjoyed. If you like to flirt with difficulties and can handle a bit of exposure this is a fun section of scrambling. It is NOT a hike, you’ll be using all fours.

The scramble can be broken down into 4/5 shorter pieces. Piece one is shown below and is simply attaining the ridge-crest via a series of low-to-mid Class 3 moves.

To the ridge top

Once you get on top, you are greeted with a view of the impressive Cooper summit block and can enjoy a minute or two of Class 2+/ easy Class 3 ridge scrambling. The next piece is the most exposed and involves negotiating what I’ve called the 3 Guardians.

The Guardians are arranged like a right triangle and I’ll number them based off of which one you encounter first. The path of least resistance has you veer right around the first Guardian, hug an exposed set of rocks to the left side of Guardian 2 (the most exposed moves on this route are here) and then, hug another exposed set of rocks to the right side of Guardian 3. The pictures below help illustrate the moves.

Looking back. Barely visible in the pic, but to the right is nothing, straight down to the couloir some 100-150 feet below you. Since you approach the moves by facing towards the drop into the couloir, the exposure feels greatest here.
Steep drop to the left of the pic (your right as your climbing) when you pass the bulk of Guardian 3.

Safely passed the Guardians, you’re treated to the view below.

Ascend the haystack rocks as shown in red and enjoy scampering across the ridge-line until you meet the head of the couloir and the base of the summit block. Once you pass the Guardians, there is another opportunity to bail to your right if you choose. I went straight up the ridge-line.

My approximated route up the summit block, which utilized a gully just to the right of the whiter, slanted blocks below the summit cap.
Looking down the Couloir.

Below is a photo taken looking back to the Guardians as you circle the head of the Couloir.

From the head of the couloir, I took the first acceptable looking gully, we’ll call it Skyline Gully, just to the right of the edge of the ridge. The easiest alternative would be to traverse hard right around the steeper summit block until you find a lower Class 3 weakness and head up. The Skyline Gully runs mid 3 with maybe a 3+ move here and there.

Taken from same spot as previous photo, panning right and up.
Upper part of the Skyline Gully route

At the end of the Skyline Gully is a brief break before a final 10 foot push up a set of slanted dark rocks. Before ascending to the final summit rock, I turned back to grab the below shot of what I’d done since the Guardians.

Nice! The 3 Guardians labelled (top right) for orientation. The lake in the back is Upper Lake, upstream from Stone Lake
Last Push.
One down, one to go!

Thoughts: If the Guardians seem like a hassle, you can skirt around them, but you will still be required to perform an occasional Class 3 move to get up the summit, unless you circumvent around it entirely. If you’re up for it, give it a shot, the ridge line direct approach is exciting and will go if you take the time to find the path of least resistance.

Ridge to Marten

From Cooper, if you look south it’s hard to miss the distinctive profile of Marten Peak. Although roughly 300 feet lower than Cooper, I’d call it’s summit block even more exciting than Coopers. These are really fun mountains y’all.

It may not look like much from here, but Marten is full of surprises.

From the summit of Cooper, make your way off the highest talus area. Careful route finding keeps the going at Class 2+ but making a couple Class 3 moves hustles the process along. Once on the broad grassy shoulder of Cooper, scoot down the ridge to the Cooper/Marten low point. Again, I tried to maintain a ridge-crest line and had a lot of fun doing so. Bailout options to the East (left) keep it at a 2+, while the ridge direct option sports solid Class 3 scrambling (with occasional loose rock) and a few Class 4 sections for the willing.

An example of some Class 3 scrambling if you stick to the nose of the ridge, bail out options to the left.

Sticking to the ridge was the most enjoyable choice as it avoided side-hilling and loose scree which, in my opinion, is worse than solid rock scrambling.

As you proceed towards the saddle, the scrambling on the ridge steadily increases, until you get to the Class 4 down-climb on the backside of the rock circled in purple below.

Plenty of spots to veer left before the Class 4 down-climb.
There it is, from the bottom looking up. All in all its a 10 foot Class 4 section with a couple Class 3 moves above and below it.
The down-climb can absolutely be avoided, but I was determined to run the nose of the ridge, it’s a nifty down-climb (or up-climb) if you want it.

Just like that, you are at the saddle between Cooper and Marten. Pass to the left of the krummholz and begin climbing up the easy grass and talus slopes of Marten. There are a number of small towers along the way, the first big one is easily attained with minimal effort if you come in from the left hand side. Once you get in towards the summit block, Marten begins showing off it’s true character. It was a lot of fun messing around on the summit block.

Marten Peak: Summit Challenges

The going is fairly simple, and you pass a few knobs and small towers initially. Start paying attention when you get to the block depicted in the photo below. With time on my side I scouted three separate routes up the peak. I’ll start with the standard Class 3 (easiest) route, add a Class 4 variation and then include a third Class 4 route.

Blue lines=Standard. Red line from 1st notch is the most direct way up but has Class 4 moves. Tiny North is a sub-sub summit in front of the North Summit.

THE STANDARD ROUTE (YDS 3): As shown in the picture above and corroborated by Roach’s description, the standard route attains a wide ledge on the East side of the summit rocks, completely bypasses the true summit before pulling a 180 and looping back up the block from the South. The North-Direct scramble (Class 4) is an exciting alternative that starts from the 1st Notch. I’ll tackle that route a little later.

Showing the split between routes at the First Notch.

Once you pass the 1st Notch, the ledge continues along the side of the summit rocks, keep going. You don’t want to try and veer higher until you see “The Obelisk” depicted in the picture below. Any earlier attempt up will ultimately land you in Class 4/Class 5 territory.

As the highest blue arrow in the above picture shows, once you clear the summit block on your right, make that 180 degree turn, before encountering your first Class 3 moves.

In order to complete your 180 about-face, you have to hop up above a line of rocks. This can be accomplished with a few Class 3 moves and is illustrated below.

Instead of South, now you are looking NW. Hop up these rocks by any means you find, the two arrows depicted above were the easiest options I saw.
Looking South. From this step, proceed to the right and find a sneaky ledge (doubling back on the ledge you crossed down lower). The purple circle is a delightful Class 4 variation I’ll go over after the standard.

With the summit block now on your left, continue up the new ledge until arriving at a sandy chute that marks the easiest area to scramble left to the top.

A look back (South) at the higher ledge as you traverse. There are a couple moves on this higher ledge that are a bit exposed but the route is fairly tame by Class 3 standards.
Looking North to the last push. The summit rock and register are just a few feet behind the rock labelled in the picture above. Congrats! Enjoy the views.

F&T ROUTE (FINGERS AND TOES) Solid CLASS 4: Ok, so let’s say you wanted more spice on your ascent of Marten, fear not! I have options. Let’s backtrack to the area around the Obelisk, when you make that 180 degree turn on the standard. Per Gerry Roach’s description of the standard route: “Avoid the next 30 steep feet by performing an exposed Class 3 traverse around a corner to the east…” The F&T route is the 30 steep feet that the standard route avoids.

The F&T route, not long, but quite steep. The elongated purple circle highlights a fantastic finger crack. Once you get there, the hardest move is shifting left on not much more than a couple small toe holds, until you can reach for a couple small finger holds and pull yourself up to the higher purple arrow.
A closer look.

The two following pictures offer an un-labelled look from the bottom-up and then from the top-down.

Looking up the F&T route.
Top-down view, the route is in the shade.

Again, the route is not particularly long, but it is committing. I dropped my pack to ascend it, and felt fairly exposed until the last few feet. Exhilarating! Touch the top and descend via the Standard route.

NORTH RIDGE DIRECT (YDS 4): This route I’ve seen logged on a few trip reports in the past and it offers a great variety of moves. It is NOT the standard route which requires you to go all the way around to keep it at Class 3. The description for this route begins at the 1st Notch, as you approach from the North.

Recap/reference shot. The North Ridge Direct starts at the red arrow above.
First moves into the notch.

Once in the notch, veer left and begin climbing.

Above is a nice overview of the route after you’ve taken a left out of the notch. The orange circle looks like low 5th class, reminded me of the crux move on the Crestone Traverse, didn’t scout it. I’ve zoomed in on the brief Class 4 section below.
Some exposed 3+ moves and one or two low Class 4 moves are required.
Looking down from near the top at the upper part of the route.

Once you pass above a small rib of rock after the brief Class 4 section, you arrive on the summit plateau and are treated to wonderful 360 degree views. Marten is a super cool little peak. Don’t forget to sign the summit register! The easiest descent is taking the standard down.

Summit view! Stone lake (L) Upper Lake (R), Hiamovi Tower (upper L) and Ooh La La (upper R.) View is north towards RMNP

Below are two photos taken with my stronger camera from the summit of Cooper. They show the difficulties on Marten with the exception of the F&T route which is behind the summit rocks shown. Hopefully, this clarifies some lingering questions about the surprisingly complicated upper difficulties of the peak.

Clear as mud? Cool. Blue=Class 2, Red=Class 3, Purple=Class 4 and Orange=Class 5.

The summit block of Marten has a few loose rocks, so check your holds, but the F&T and the upper sections of the North Ridge Direct route are on solid slabs of rock which makes them really fun.

After hoofing it back to camp I was given the following look back to Marten from the shores of Stone Lake.

Like I said, just a cool set of secluded peaks. Next year I’ll attack Cooper from Gourd lake and hopefully have good conditions for an ascent of the South Buttress and/or the Snow Couloir. It would take very little convincing for me to then hop the 0.7 over to Marten as well.

Thanks for reading!

Mount Neva: North Ridge (YDS Class 4) 8/25/20

Rating System

I like to highlight and markup some of my pictures for route clarification. Black lines= general directions, landmarks and/or Class 1 sections. Blue Lines=Class 2 sections. Red= Class 3 sections. Purple = Class 4 sections. Orange = Class 5. The class system is based on the YDS rating scale.

Background

WARNING: There is a photo of an injury I sustained while climbing below, it has blood, please scroll if you do not feel comfortable seeing it, once you hit the heading that says, “Approach” you are in the clear.

The short version is that I’ve climbed Neva before, and I injured myself on it. It occurred before the crux wall. I underestimated a down-step, and my leg extended as I fell forward. When my foot finally found the ground, the pressure on my extended leg caused my knee to buckle forward…right into a sharp rock. It was a mess, I could see down to my patella. I also couldn’t turn around, so I half climbed, half dragged my bum leg up the crux, fixed a wrap around it at the top, and thanks to the courtesy of some fellow climbers, was escorted back to the main trail. Below is what it looked like when I rewrapped my leg (~2 hours after the incident). There’s a tiny thumbnail of the picture below. You can also click the blue link to see a full-size version if you choose. Be careful out there people, accidents happen.

https://whatsatimohome.files.wordpress.com2020/08/img_4185.jpg

The injury was a huge disappointment and ended my hiking season for 2019. While I didn’t need surgery or anything, I was limping for three months afterwards and the scar tissue is still very visible. Needless to say, I was itching to get back out and climb Neva again when my body healed and the weather agreed. Luckily for me, a couple of my good friends moved back into town from my trail building days of yore, and we organized a trip to make it happen.

Approach

July 4th Trailhead, west of Nederland.

From Boulder/Denver: proceed by best route to 119 (Boulder Canyon Drive) and take it up to Nederland. Lots of construction as of August 2020, no idea when the end date is, prepare for delays. Once you pass Barker Reservoir and hit your first roundabout, head south on 119 as if going to Rollinsville. Just outside of town you’ll see a sign for Eldora, take a right here (just make sure to SLOW DOWN as you pass the town of Eldora, speed limit is 25). Eventually, the road turns to dirt and passes the ridiculously popular Hessie Trailhead, keep going, angling right on an increasingly tougher dirt road for a few more miles until you arrive at the trailhead.

2WD cars can make it but its a long bumpy dirt road, watch your undercarriage if you do not have a lot of lift. The last little bit to the top parking lot is optional, but my Subaru Outback has made it up to the top every time I’ve been out there. IF YOU USE THIS TRAILHEAD ON THE WEEKENDS IN JULY OR AUGUST, GOOD LUCK FINDING A PARKING SPOT UNLESS YOU’RE UP THERE AT 5 AM.

From the actual trailhead there is only one trail, The Arapahoe Pass Trail, take it. Eventually, you pass a couple junctions, one to Diamond Lake (keep right), and another for the Glacier Trail (keep straight), there are also remnants of a mining operation here. Keep going on the well-defined trail until you hit Arapahoe Pass. From the pass, take a left (there is a sign) and proceed towards Caribou Pass. The cut off for Neva is unmarked but the mountain is impossible to miss as you start heading up the Caribou Pass Trail. It’s about three miles to the cutoff from the trailhead.

Neva summit is left. This is the view as you near the cut off for the Glacier Trail. The entire scramble is pictured against the horizon (you travel from right to left).

As you venture up Caribou Pass Trail keep an eye to your left. As the picture below shows, try to find a set of obvious rocks amongst the alpine. If all else fails, make a beeline towards the rocks to begin your climb BEFORE the Caribou Pass Trail starts losing elevation.

On the Caribou Pass Trail, Lake Dorothy to the left. Summit of Neva off-screen.

From the set of rocks in the picture above, you’ll be able to sight a fairly obvious use trail that ascends the ridge. From the ridge crest, head left across brief alpine to the summit ridge of the first Knob. The scrambling starts here.

There are three knobs to negotiate initially, followed by a Crux wall climb, then two additional knobs before the summit. The first (as shown in pictures above and below) is identified by a set of three, thin, lighter rock striations running vertically like scars. The second has a single, but wider, light-colored vertical rock stripe. The third knob has a very distinct patch of thick, green vegetation growing on its side, it’s fairly obvious from the approach trails. To the left of the third knob is a col and then a climb to and up the Crux. Beyond the crux, there is a brief option for more scrambling but the ridge mellows out until Neva’s summit. The last bit is a tundra stroll with mixed talus, leading to some larger talus blocks at the very highest point.

There are very good trip reports on Neva throughout the internet, especially on 14ers.com (thanks to author CarpeDM), so I will try to emulate how they broke up the route. There are three distinct sections. Section One=knobs 1-2, Section Two=Knob 3-Crux, Section Three=Final push to the summit.

Section One: First two Knobs

As you climb to the top of the Knob 1, you’ll notice the terrain change fairly dramatically to all talus. Scrambling to the top of this first Knob is a fairly simple Class2-2+ endeavor. Below is an example of the terrain.

Terrain atop Knob 1, looking back (North).

Staying on the ridge crest is easy. After a few minutes of concerted movement you’ll come across a descent to the col between Knobs 1 and 2.

What lies ahead.

For the most part we stayed on the ridge when and where we were able. As we descended into the col we found a nice set of grippy, sloping rock (Class 3) that we took on the East (left hand) side of the ridge. That set us up to zip passed the col and begin the easy ascent up Knob 2 (Class 2).

A look back at the first, easy Class 3 downclimb off of Knob 1.
Easy up to Knob 2.

Once you get on the crest of Knob 2, the scrambling increases in difficulty. There are a multitude of roue options available, though ridge direct is the most straightforward. Staying on the ridge allowed us to keep moving relatively quickly and also gave us some nice Class 3 challenges, including a mini knife-edge section with some decent exposure.

More difficult terrain on Knob2.
Traversing the Knife (most exposure is on the East or left hand side). Staying just to the right of the ridge helps keep the heebie-jeebies down.

The ridge crest is fun but we did not find an easy way to downclimb the nose of the ridge to the next col without hitting a Class 5 section. So, after the knife edge, I’d suggest finding an acceptable gully to your left (Class 3) that allows you to circumvent the abrupt difficulties on the ridge proper .

A cliff exists below the white line. Photos down the ridge-line tend to hide features (esp. if the ridge crest undulates) but it’s deep, steep and absolutely there.
Down gully, Lake Dorothy in the background. Once you descend to a grassy shelf, take a right and head to the Col between Knobs 2 and 3.
Where you are, what you’ve done and what’s to come.

Section Two: Knob 3 and the Crux Wall

Once at the col, you’ll see a really enticing wall in front of you. I do not know if there are workarounds (possibly to the left) but upon seeing it I knew I wanted to climb it. It’s actually a really good precursor for the Crux wall difficulties so I’d suggest giving it a go. We identified two lines up it, with the East (left) line appearing slightly easier. Either line flirts with Class 4 and I would argue commits to it for at least a move or two. Have fun!

The first move or two are the hardest for the East Line (left). The West Line (right) looks harder in general but also offers some nice cracks and handholds. Routes approximated, use your best judgment for hand and footholds.
Nice perspective with some starting variations shown. The initial block is a little steep (debatable Class 3/Class 4). Once you get to where I am in the picture, if you climb left over the fin rock (1-3 moves), you can keep the rest at Class 3. You can always push it by climbing up the large slab to my right or taking the West Line further right (not shown in this pic).
Taylor taking it to the wall

Regardless of whether or not you consider the specific moves on this section to be a Class 3+ or 4, the options to make it harder are there and you get a brief idea of what will be demanded of you in the near future. Take note.

Once you climb up Knob 3, you can maintain a line along the ridge-crest until it drops you down to the last col before the crux wall. At one point along the ridge-crest, it doesn’t appear that your line will go, but if you peer around the rocks you’ll be able to maintain the crest and keep the climbing at Class 3.

Looking back: again, the ridge-ling perspective problem. Behind and below the white line (out of view) is the notch between Knob 2 and 3. Once you scramble up the Pre Crux, continue on the grass bench (Class 2) and ascend to the ridgeline as shown (Class 3).
Dropping down off of Knob3

Once in the notch between Knob 3 and the Crux, there’s a fun little scramble up some slanted blocks (Class 3). From the top of the blocks, you have a fantastic view of the challenge ahead.

Fun blocks.

Cool, let’s pan out and take a couple looks at the entire Crux section. Then, we’ll zero in on specific sections and options.

Once you ascend the blocks, this is what you see.

Below is a zoomed in version of the crux difficulties. Let’s unpack it.

Two options. Same start, same end. The right version is harder, it involves a sustained Class 4 dihedral climb, ridge hopping, and a descent back into a notch before the crux wall. The easier option traverses left across a steep grass slope before arriving at the Crux.

From the top of the blocks to the top of the crux, it’s all 3 and 4, even though there is an “easier” option, it’s in relation to a more difficult route, not because its “easy”.

As you approach the split in options, ascend a few rock steps, and then arrive at a sharp diagonal fin. Here, if you ascend about 10-20 feet and take a look left, you’ll see a break in the fin that drops you into a grassy area (standard route). If you try to traverse across the fin much lower, you will be in serious 4/5 down-climb territory.

However, if the Class 4 Dihedral option to your right has drawn your attention, you’ll want to ascend into it before crossing the rock fin. My buddy Taylor, an excellent scrambler, will model the climb.

If the dihedral doesn’t look interesting, the standard route is your go to. Below, we’ll unpack that route until the notch before the Crux wall.

From the split option, ascend broken rock slabs to the prominent fin in front of you (Class 3). Pick the line of least resistance, and know that once you reach the fin, you will most likely need to climb uphill a bit until scouting an acceptable way to cross it.

Looking back to the Rock Fin.

Once on the grassy slope, perform an ascending traverse into the prominent notch in the ridge just to the right of the crux wall. Below is a shot looking toward the crux. The crux climb consists of the purple arrow and higher red arrow in the photo.

The hardest moves are ahead, but at this point you’ve been tested. If you’ve made it this far, you can climb the wall.

At the top of the grass slope, the optional dihedral route comes down to meet you. From that point, both routes converge on the crux wall.

Three things to keep in mind before you hit the Crux wall. A) It’s only a 30-foot wall and I’d argue only half (possibly less) is Class 4. B) There’s a little sprout of vegetation above where you start climbing that serves as a good first half marker. C) Halfway up, angle left on a Class 3 ramp until you exit the wall. In pictures below.

So, there’s this grassy plant up on the wall, super handy for nav. Find your way to it, options abound, I’ve only tried to show where some Class 4 moves may be encountered on the lower (and steeper) portion of the wall. Once you ascend past the plant, angle left on a Class 3 ramp.
Roslyn beginning her climb, taken from the Class 3 ramp above the steepest part.
In the above photo, Roslyn has just climbed passed the plant, Taylor is at the bottom of the wall.
On the ramp, almost done.

Once you take the ramp, the crux is over! Below is an overview.

Boom. Nicely done.

Section Three: To the top

Most of the climbing is behind you, all of it if you’re just sick of scrambling. However, if you want to add a little extra spice, once you get above the crux wall, sight the narrow ridge highpoint and ascend towards it.

Reference shot.

Below is a closer shot. Options are limited to ridge direct, and there are two short sections but it’s a fun side quest. Alternatively, you can traverse around to the west side and reconnect after the ridge eases up.

1st section (red arrows)
2nd section
Recap view

From the last scrambling to the top of Neva the going is quite easy. You have to cross a sub-summit with orange rocks that are not stable, in contrast to the stable darker rock you’ve encountered already. After a quick Class 2+ jaunt to the sub-summit, only alpine fields and a small rise separate you from the peak. About 20 feet before the true summit rock you have to do some talus hopping, but it isn’t difficult by any stretch of the imagination.

Getting up to the Sub-summit with the suddenly orange rock
The serpentine nature of the ridge is very striking. From back to front you can see Knob1, Knob2, the back of the Crux wall, and the last optional scramble ridge before the orange rock comes in.
Target in sight.

The Way Down

From the summit, travel south along the continental divide until coming to a sandy pass. Head left, descending on Class 2 slopes oscillating between big sturdy rocks and sandy garbage. Pick the best line for you, there is a use trail visible here, but it tracks through the slippy stuff. We stayed to the left of it for most of the descent.

FYI: The lake in the middle pic above is DEEP and can support a shallow dive at a few points, it was very cold.

After passing in-between the lakes, stay left as much as feasibly possible. The rest is an off-trail jaunt back to the Arapahoe Pass Trail and can be made easier by clinging to a set of grass and rock ribs to the LEFT (West) side of the main creek running down from the lakes. If you stay to the right, you’ll have to descend much more before finding a suitable crossing and be forced to negotiate a lot of marshy areas. Either way it’s a slow descent, watch for uneven ground that can twist ankles. No path is 100% immune from krummholz or willows, but it’s much less painful to head left after descending the talus below the second lake. Try to intersect the Arapahoe Pass Trail before it descends out of the talus. Once you reconnect with the trail, take a right and blast down to your car, nicely done!

Stats

Summits: One

Mileage: ~9 miles

Elevation: Yes

The Desolation Peaks: West (YDS Class 3) East (YDS Class 3+ or 4)

Rating System

Quick disclaimer: I like to highlight and markup some of my pictures for route clarification. Black lines= general directions, landmarks and/or Class 1 sections. Blue Lines=Class 2 sections. Red= Class 3 sections. Purple = Class 4 sections. Orange = Class 5. The class system is based on the YDS rating scale.

Location and Prep

The Desolation Peaks are located at the western fringe of the Mummy Range in the Northern Rocky Mountain National Park. There are fees required to enter the park; please click the park website link here, for pertinent information. Note: if you enter the park without the appropriate entrance pass, you will be ticketed.

The Desolation Peaks are part of a ridge that runs north from the bulk of Ypsilon Mountain and includes (from South to North) UN12718, UN12768, The Desolation Peaks, UN12341 and Flatiron Mountain before dropping down to the upper reaches of the Cache La Poudre valley as it flows north out of the National Park. As evidenced by their names (East and West Desolation), the peaks themselves are East-West oriented and just off of the main ridge to the east (or right-hand side if you approach from Chapin pass). This is a beautiful and seldom explored area, although the approach trail along the Mummy crest can be quite popular.

The best places to view the peaks (and the scrambly ridge between them) are from Chapin Peak, Trailridge road at the Lava Cliffs pullout, the top of Marmot Point trail from the Alpine Visitors Center and at the second u-curve above tree-line on Old Fall River Road, where a pullout and unofficial trail give you some great looks. I would also assume views from Fairchild and Hagues Peak are good. Mount Chiquita is unfortunately hidden by Ypsilon and Ypsilon itself is a very broad peak so the view from the actual summit isn’t the best. From most visible points along Trail Ridge Road, East Desolation is identified by its blocky, triangular shape.

While the first part of the approach is on identifiable trail, you do leave the trail about a hundred feet above the Chiquita-Ypsilon saddle and the rest of the route is off-trail. It is fairly straightforward route finding to get within a few hundred yards of West Desolation, but once you attempt the scramble be prepared for sustained Class 3 and 4 climbing, a very small amount of easily missed cairns, and lots of loose rock. The route finding was surprisingly difficult on the peaks themselves which is one of the main reasons I’m writing this report.

Approach

Chapin Pass on Old Fall River Road. The road is one way, accessed from US34 by Bighorn Flats. An approach via US36 is also possible but would take a longer amount of time. The trailhead is distinguished by a very large Forest Service sign on the right side of the road as it winds its way towards tree-line. Parking is on the left side of the road, with the best, and flattest parking spots above the start of the trail.

There is only one trail on the actual side of the road, take it, immediately gaining elevation. A few minutes later, after the elevation gain begins to mellow out, look to the right for a clearly marked sign. The park service sign says something like “All Summits this way”, and points to the right, follow that, it’s hard to miss.

Another ten minutes of meandering through stands of trees and occasional fields will bring you to a second NPS sign that declares the end of trail maintenance, with two trails extending behind it. One goes slightly right (higher), one goes slightly left (lower). The lower trail is a bypass of Chapin that runs you to the saddle between Chapin and Chiquita. The higher route is also technically a bypass, though it gains enough along the ridge to feel like an alpine trail. Choose either one, if you wanted to quickly tag Chapin along the way to the Desolations, veer right, otherwise, it’s really a preference thing, neither version is difficult.

Taken from the Higher trail, shows destination. The line of smoke across the ridges is from the Cameron Pk. Fire

The Cameron Peak Fire (as shown below) would provide some stunning shots in the clear morning. Unfortunately, during the day it ballooned in size and the smoke would eventually dominate the second half of the outing. Please respect Fire Bans, really felt post-apocalyptic towards the end when ash was raining down around us…

One of the clearest views of the original ignition area. The peak behind the wisps of smoke is Cameron Pk.
Fire, in relation to us. At the bottom left of the pic, the “lower” Chapin bypass is visible.

We (my wife Alli and I) elected to take the higher bypass and arrived at the Chapin-Chiquita saddle with 0.0 problems. From the saddle, you can see a steeper rise up Chiquita followed by a mellower section. We made our way a couple hundred feet up the initial rise before looking for a way to parallel the slope (left) and get around Chiquita. The trail from the saddle is off and on with patches of dirt, don’t focus so much on finding the “trail.” It’s better to focus on gaining some elevation and then hanging left of the ridge crest when able. This will allow you to pass around the bulk of Chiquita. However, if you can’t bear the thought of leaving any summit untagged, hopping up to both Chapin and Chiquita along the way to the Desolations is simple.

The traverse around the north (left side) of Chiquita was straightforward and consisted of traversing a mixed talus and grass slope. We even saw a Pine Marten up there, but the slippery buggers are notoriously hard to take pictures of.

Better look at the two Desolation Summits and the increasing size of the fire smoke.

Once you make it around Chiquita, it’s important to proceed to the Chiquita-Ypsilon saddle. From there, hike up at least 100-150 feet towards Ypsilon. Multiple trip reports have indicated that a traverse around Ypsilon directly from this saddle forces you to sidehill across class 2+ terrain. If you climb up the extra couple hundred feet before traversing, you avoid all of the unnecessary difficulties. Side-hilling off trail is always tough on the ankles anyway, so don’t make it harder than it needs to be.

Nice visual as to why traversing Chiquita is an appealing option. Much less effort.

Once you’ve gained 100-150 feet up Ypsilon, following broken sections of trail, pick a nice place and as before, begin traversing to the left. There is no reason to keep gaining elevation as you traverse (assuming you performed the requisite climb from the saddle) so find the best option and maintain your elevation left along the bulbous north side of Ypsilon.

Taken later in the climb, the below photo shows why it’s so important to gain the little bit of elevation after the saddle. The dominant diagonal ridge shown is the massive north side hulk of Ypsilon, Chiquita is hidden behind (not visible), and the diagonal gray stripe on the ridge to the right of my black circle is part of Chapin.

Blue = best way. Everything in the black circle = why would you even want to?

This is the biggest traverse of the day and is substantially longer than the Chiquita traverse. Take your time and watch for loose rock. As you move around Ypsilon you’ll be given some stellar views of your ultimate destination. The Desolations can either inspire or frighten from this angle.

West Desolation (left), East Desolation (Right)

It was around this time that we started to notice the wildfire smoke beginning to rise.

Cameron Pk, no longer visible behind the smoke plumes

Eventually, after traversing around Ypsilon, you can see the saddle connecting the main ridge of the Mummies to the Desolations. Proceed down to it. The introduction is now over. Below is a heavily doctored photo showing the progression of the fire smoke. It would engulf us within the hour.

Fire.

Ridge to West Desolation

Making progress! Map is oriented correctly. Up=North.

From the Ypsilon-Desolation ridge saddle, proceed north towards the Unnamed peak in front of you. FYI you’ll notice unnamed peaks are often abbreviated to UN followed by the elevation. The one in front of you now, is UN 12718. Attaining the summit of this one is a simple Class 2 affair, though the rocks are loose, you can always skirt the summit to the left for a little bit of an easier ascent.

What’s left. Smoke creeping into the skyline.

After UN 12718 you have a fairly quick descent to a saddle before you climb up (or around) a ridge Nubbin. The nubbin has a smattering of larger rocks that seem stable, sometimes they are, sometimes they aren’t. Be careful.

After traversing around the Nubbin, we regained the ridge at a pile of significant rocks. Alli decided to hang out here, as she wasn’t too keen on the scramble ahead. I set off to obtain the peaks.

The rest of the ridge approach.

After depositing some backpack weight with Alli, I polished off the rest of the ridge approach with ease. Now, I was staring at West Desolation and the two Gendarmes in front of it (visible to the right of the second arrow in the pic above). It’s really only here that you realize West Desolation is also off the main ridgeline. The first order of business is to descend off the main ridgeline and bypass the two Gendarmes.

This is a relatively simple task, although it doesn’t look it. Immediately upon descending the main ridgeline, I skirted left around a pink rock rib, regained the height of land in front of Gendarme 1, and took a right around both Gendarmes, staying as close as I could to the towers. Don’t drop too low, stay as close to the ridgeline as is reasonable, until you are right in front of the summit block. If you do this, you can keep the Gendarme skirting at a Class 2+. Now begins the climbing.

In it to win it.

West Desolation Peak (Class 3)

This is a fun and challenging climb with a ton of variety. There are a couple of key takeaways: A) do not go lower than you need to, the slope angle increases, the rocks become unstable, and there are broken cliffs to navigate. B) don’t be impatient, there are harder ways to attack the summit, but those require at MINIMUM Class 4 skills with a couple of Class 5 moves. C) hug the summit cliffs on your left until you find a cleft that runs at mid Class 3.

Let’s break it down.

Once you pass the 2nd Gendarme, the front of the summit block is staring at you. A left gets you to what looks like a “gully direct” option, although I do not know if further difficulties are encountered past what I could see. A right gets you to the Class 3 way I went.

I mean…look at it

Below is a close up of the gully direct approach. Didn’t try it but it feels like a 4+ minimum, with an interesting chockstone that may be avoided using a little ledge to the right (or crawling underneath it if there’s enough space?)

Chockstone circled in Orange.

Didn’t want to speculate too much on the ultimate route, but that doesn’t look very easy.

The Class 3 way was much more agreeable, although the exposure was substantial at times. If you take the Class 3 route, head to the right side of the summit block and hug the cliffs until arriving at a large flat rock. Looking to your left, there should be a quick Class 3 jaunt up to the top of the rock. This is where I found the first cairn on the route, it is not visible from below.

Route (Red), Flat Rock (circled).
Up to the top of the Flat Rock
First Cairn encountered, looking back to the main ridgeline I came from. Smoke getting crazy in the background.

From the flat rock, your next challenge is to ascend onto a sloping face, traverse it and continue paralleling the sharp summit cliffs on your left. Along this part of the traverse, there are a few options to head further left and ascend difficult breaks in the cliffs. I’ve tried to highlight what that entails in the next few images. If you are set on the Class 3 option (I was), ascend the crack and continue paralleling towards Dingus Rock.

From the flat rock, traverse along the bottom of the slanted face until you find a large Class 3 crack (shown below), ascend it.
Locate this obvious crack running up the slanted face for the easiest ascent.
After ascending the slanted face, traverse right. The first two options to climb directly to the summit ridge are shown. Purple=Class 4, Orange= Class 5. I kept traversing (red)
(Looking back) Now above the slanted face, parallel it and the summit cliffs until more breaks appear in the cliffs.

After you’ve traversed to within a dozen yards of the Dingus Rock, look for the most agreeable gully on your left. The one I chose is pictured below and offered Class 3 to 3+ moves on good rock. There is another one further on that I would discover on my descent later, but as long as you traverse passed the sloping face, either option is well within the Class 3 range.

My ascent gully, straightforward, pick your best line and have at it.

Once you climb above the cliffs guarding the top of West Desolation, you end up on a large summit plateau. The true summit is the highest in a series of upthrust rocks roughly 30 feet in front of you. Find a logical break in the rocks and skirt up them to tag the summit. Note: there are 3 or 4 rocky points that may be the summit, I touched all of them although the one pictured looked highest from most angles.

The summit plateau: taken from just below the summit rock. View is South-Southeast.
Looking to the East. I’m assuming you can see more on most days.

Summit number one complete! The view to East Desolation and its intense summit block from here are particularly impressive. An overview of your route from before the first Gendarme is shown below.

Blue= Class 2, Red= Class 3. The purple line (Class 4) is the direct gully approach as mentioned earlier.

Traverse and Summit of East Desolation Peak

East Desolation from the summit of West. The imposing summit block reminded me a lot of Sunlight Pk. down in the San Juans.

Right, so after hangin out on top, descend the summit rib back to the summit plateau and begin heading east. It’s difficult to miss the imposing view of your next target. Below is my approximate route back onto the summit plateau and towards East Desolation.

First few moves off the summit rock (Class 2).

Eventually, the broken summit plateau ends and you have to make some decisions. These decisions are helped along by identifying a few key markers. I gotta be honest, it’s hard naming features on a mountain or a ridge, especially when there are so many of them, but I tried my best and in the picture below there are two towers, or gates. You have to pass between them, and then diagonal right in order to get into a mini canyon. As I was writing this report a random shuffle on Itunes brought me an Avenged Sevenfold song. I suddenly remembered that their guitarist is named Synyster Gates. Therefore, the towers are henceforth known as the Synyster Gates and you must travel betwixt them.

The descent through the gates sets you up to aim for the right side of the Wave Wall.
Ignore my face, good quick look back to a steepening descent as you approach Synyster Gates.

Once through the Synyster Gates, you can clearly see East Desolation ahead. A steep wall (which I’ve dubbed the Wave Wall) lines the left edge of the canyon you’re heading for. You can descend to a flat bench and re-climb a small rise to enter the canyon (Class 3), or you can hug the right gate and find a ledge system that prevents most of the down-up dance (2+). I went with the ledge system, both ways will work.

Heading towards the Canyon, Wave Wall on the Left.

Upon reaching the beginning of the canyon you have to descend down. This isn’t overly difficult but don’t let your guard up. Many low-mid Class 3 moves are required, augmented by 2+ moves. The rocks are stable but there are deep holes and gaps between boulders that you absolutely do not want to fall into or become stuck in. Use your best judgement to find the most acceptable path and admire the prominent wave rock on your left.

Approx. route through the Canyon, up to you to pick individual moves.

Once you exit the canyon, another seemingly innocuous but very important decision awaits. The mouth of the canyon turns you towards the edge of the ridge (Southeastish) where logic may convince you to descend off the ridge and traverse underneath the crest. Nope. Don’t do that. At the canyons mouth, re-climb left to the ridge crest, it’ll save you a lot of effort later.

The re-climb, don’t go right unless you enjoy punishing yourself.

Once you regain the ridge, you’ll have the rest of the route in front of you and its a fairly straightforward affair. Descend on the ridge crest to the saddle and then either re-climb the ridge crest all the way up to the summit block, or take a line a little further left with less rock hopping. Both ways (and any combination of the two) will get you up to the summit block.

The ascent up to the summit block itself is relatively straightforward. Climbing the summit block is another story.

The summit block of East Desolation is imposing no matter how you look at it. As with most mountains, there are a few competing theories regarding how difficult the climb is. Lisa Foster, in her book Rocky Mountain National Park: The Complete Hiking Guide, ranks the block at an airy 3+. The three or four other trip reports I pulled from online to corroborate, rank it as a Class 4. I think in regard to the standard gully, its a 3+ with two Class 4 moves, the first of which is scary from an exposure standpoint. If you are a robot and unfazed by exposure, move for move you could make an argument that it’s only 3+.

Below is a great overview picture of what the standard route offers. Each arrow is numbered and has various moves associated with it. Arrow number 1 is the least difficult as it really just sets you up for the route. From the end of Arrow 1 you can also veer left to explore alternatives up the summit block. Arrow 2 is the crux for me. Why? well, its a side hop to get to a steep gully with a giant hole at the bottom that spits you down a vertical wall. A slip here will be the last thing you do in this life. On top of that, the gully above the Class 4 move is angled towards that hole, so if you slip above the side hop, you’ll get funneled out of the hole as well. It’s not for the faint of heart.

Assuming you make it up to the end of Arrow 3, you crest a rock fin and have a sneaky descent down the other side to connect with another airy gully (Arrow 4), that finally leads you up to the summit. The descent between Arrow 3 and 4 is not shown due to the picture angle, though I will attempt to clarify it later. For now, take a look below.

East Desolation, summit block problems

Below is the first part of the standard.

A note about the picture below, while it shows the first three sections of the summit block, keep in mind, for the duration of the purple arrow, there is nothing to your right. It’s just air, in order to capture the route, I tilted the phone vertically and it makes it seem tame, but this is one of those sections where its really damn hard not be worried about exposure.

The alt. route will come into play soon

So I went ahead and wigged out, wondering if there was any easier way to accomplish this tough climb. I’m no stranger to exposure having completed all the 14ers previously and 3 of the 4 great traverses (Diente-Wilson, Crestones, Bells), but sometimes that lion inside you is a neurotic house-cat and it’s very unwise to push limits. Today, I was the house-cat and set about considering my other options. Fortunately, after a bit of exploring, I found a sneak that stays at a 3+ comfortably.

Utilizing the picture above, veer left (following the alternative route arrow) and begin to circumnavigate the summit blocks. A couple things should spring out at you, namely, that the summit block is actually a series of blocks locked together with large gaps underneath them. This is a little terrifying because it all looks like a badly built jenga tower, but those gaps hold the key to what I’ve dubbed the Cave Sneak.

If you’d rather deal with exposure instead of tight spaces, read no further, the standard is for you. Essentially, I found a cave that led me behind the rock fin you climb as part of Arrow 3, from there I could attack the last gully (Arrow 4) and hit the summit while avoiding the Class 4 section on the standard route. Whoop whoop!

Possible cave entrances. Why 2 circles? Bc I’m writing this all from memory and as you’ve noticed, it’s a complicated area. If the right circle doesn’t go, check the other one.

I took my backpack off for this route, I don’t know if thats necessary all the time, especially if you have a tight fitting Camelback or something. I am 5 ft. 9.5 inches tall and weigh between 160-165 pounds. Without a backpack, I was able to fit through the cave a multitude of ways (legs forward, belly down head forward, and even managed to get into a weird crab walk without any appendage hitting the sides or roof of the cave). There is not enough space to stand or kneel (with torso vertical) for several feet.

Once you find the cave opening, you’ll see light directly ahead on the other side, however, that’s not the ultimate direction you want. Advance towards the light but keep your eye on the right hand wall of the “cave”. Once the wall on your right ends, you’ll see another path that leads to an open area. You want to make this right hand turn (basically between a 45 and 90 degree right turn) and waddle your way out.

Looking back at the Cave Sneak. Once out (essentially where the picture was taken from), spin around and perform a few 3+ moves to get to the numbered arrow at the top of the picture.
Taken from same position as the last pic, panning up. Final climb, now back on the standard route. Not a lot of real estate to your right, keep your eyes focused on the top.
If you use the sneak, as shown, you completely bypass Arrows 2 & 3 on the standard route, saving some time and some exposure anxiety.

Once you finish climbing the last gully, you arrive on the summit block, find the highest rock, touch, or stand on it, and relax, you earned it!

Please note: while the cave sneak alleviates some exposed climbing it does not eliminate all of it, the last rock gully up to the summit is quite exposed as well. However, it has a multitude of holds and is thankfully very short.

Below is an attempted overview. The numbered (and colored) arrows belong to the standard route. The white arrows and circles highlight the cave sneak. Again, there is only one cave entrance, I just forgot which of the two circles it was, check them both out, they are only a few feet apart.

As shown, with the cave sneak, you literally crawl behind Arrows 2 & 3, arriving at the base of Arrow 4.

Back to West Desolation

When you’ve soaked in the views (harder to do when inundated with wildfire smoke) you have to descend off the summit block. I retraced my steps going down the gully until I arrived at the Cave Sneak once again. Utilizing what I already knew, I dropped down into it, spun around, headed into the cave and this time veered hard left the first chance I got. From there the mouth of the cave opens up and you’re once again, below the summit block. I retrieved my backpack and focused on reascending West Desolation.

Looking back to West Desolation. The area in the black circle is zoomed in below. Stay close to the ridge for the first sections.

Once you pass the saddle and begin re-climbing West Desolation, pay close attention to the ridge line. If you don’t cross the ridgeline, eventually it will force you to climb the backside of the Wave Wall in a series of diagonal steps. Before that happens, look hard left between some white rocks and the darker fin rock of the Wall. This is where an easy descent back into the canyon is located, if you climb too high you’ll have to backtrack.

Make sure to cross back over the ridge (to the South side) before the canyon or you’ll have to backtrack.
Where to cross the ridge to avoid backtracking later

Once back in the canyon, continue climbing towards the Synyster Gates and pass between them. Hang left and work your way back to the summit plateau. As you ascend to the summit plateau, look for a logical break and begin your down-climb off West Desolation (to the South).

Makin it happen.
I descended a slightly different (and easier) way than I ascended, although I did really enjoy my ascent route, dealers choice.

Once back on the north side of West Desolation, remember to stay close to the summit cliffs you just descended and hug them until you see the sloping face to your left. Spy the obvious crack splitting the face and descend that back to the bottom of the face, take a sharp right and traverse your way back to the flat rock. On top of the rock, you’ll see the cairn again, descend off the right hand side of the rock. Parallel the summit cliffs as much as possible until you are in front of the gendarmes once more. Traverse left underneath their upper reaches until both are behind you. The last thing to do is climb back up to the main ridgeline. Congratulations! You did the hard climbing! But you’re still way out there! Conserve energy, the way back always hurts more.

Options back to Trailhead

There are two main options. If weather is threatening, try to make it to the Ypsilon-UN12718 saddle, then descend a series of grassy chutes interspersed with rock ribs. Break out left and parallel the base of Ypsilon and Chiquita along grassy stretches (careful the grass is clumpy and can still twist ankles), until you reach the basin in front of Chapin. From there, angle to the right and gain elevation as you need until running into the lower Chapin bypass. The rest is a cake walk, take the trail back to where it ends, hang a left and walk down to your car. If the weather is REALLY THREATENING, descend from the Desolations to tree line immediately and begin the longer (but similar) route between the mountains to your left and the thick forest to your right.

Option 2 is to redo exactly what you did, including the long ascending traverse around Ypsilon to the Ypsilon-Chiquita saddle. Traverse around (or tag) Chiquita, make your way to the saddle with Chapin and then you can take either the upper or lower bypass on good trail. This route is the best if you have the weather on your side.

Alli and I dropped down and traversed, the smoke was just too much up high. We eventually found a pocket of cleaner air and as we made our way back, the wind helped clear the smoke from our basin and carry it off to another.

Heading back to the Ypsilon-UN12718 saddle
Approx route down
Alli telling the descent how she really feels
Taken from right as we rejoined the “lower” Chapin bypass trail

This hike doesn’t look so hard on paper but it kicked my butt. Long stretches of climbing, and a seemingly endless amount of talus hopping makes it tough on the knees, you also lose and gain elevation often. While the incredibly fit will make little work of the distance, for mortals, this is a tough day.

As has become custom in our household, post successful hike, we treated ourselves to milkshakes and made our way home. Thanks for reading!

The Citadel and Mt. Hagar (Citadel E. Summit-E. Face: YDS 4, Citadel W. Summit-standard route: YDS 3. Mt. Hagar from Citadel: YDS 3+)

Preface/rating System

Quick disclaimer: I like to highlight and markup some of my pictures for route clarification. Black lines= general directions, landmarks and/or Class 1 sections. Blue Lines=Class 2 sections. Red= Class 3 sections. Purple = Class 4 sections. Orange = Class 5. The class system is based on the YDS rating scale.

Introduction

The weather was supposed to be fairly iffy today but my mountain weather app said we had a window, so the question of should we hike? morphed into, what can we hit quickly while we’ve got a bit of good weather? Often times it isn’t a good idea to play with weather forecasts but you really don’t know unless you go. Mountains tend to create some funk in the atmosphere, one ridge may bear the brunt of bad weather while another might not see a drop of rain. Nick and I knew our ability levels and decided to give it a shot, even if it meant turning around, which we had no problem doing. Nick had previously accompanied me on the Ten-Mile Traverse so we knew we had good communication, speed, and scrambling chops. We carpooled up I-70 in the dark and reached our trailhead at around 4:45 AM.

To the Citadel

The mountains we settled on are in a highly-trafficked corridor but don’t often see a ton of use due to their committing nature. The Citadel is a fortress looking double peak that requires Class 3 scrambling at a minimum, and Mount Hagar is connected to it via a ridge that, at it’s hardest, can run at a 3+ or 4. The kicker was the short distance, we could bag both and be back at the car in under 8 miles. With an early start, we’d be well off the summits before the t-storms and rain rolled back in.

The trailhead we used is not well known because it’s not really a trailhead. We decided to give it a shot after reading that there was a fairly good dirt road and an unofficial path up to the ridge-line. The alternative would’ve been Herman Gulch which is insanely popular and makes for a longer approach. The benefit of Herman Gulch is the well-defined trail, so if starting early and going off-trail gives you pause, use the Herman access. The way we went is known as Dry Gulch and is little more than a dirt road next to the off-ramp on I-70 (exit 216). Unlike Herman Gulch, however, when we pulled up to Dry Gulch, we were the only car there.

Dry Gulch is decidedly NOT dry and was especially wet after consecutive rainy afternoons. The navigation was fairly easy but we were both soaked by the time we finally broke through the trees. Generally speaking, you park by the gate, walk the dirt road until it ends, hang a left, pick up an obvious unofficial trail and follow it through the valley bottom until it juts up to the right at an unforgiving pitch. Be aware, if you start before dawn, there are multiple trail braids, they usually lead back to one another but some require more stream and puddle jumps than others.

Not too complicated, just very wet.

As you can see above, it’s not an overly difficult approach but because it is not an official trail, there are literally no switchbacks. Once you machete your way through the dense, wet vegetation near the valley bottom, the herd path goes straight up the ridge that the second arrow in the photo is pointing towards. If you start early, don’t panic at the myriad creek jumps and braided trails in the beginning, after a mile or two, the brush does clear and you very obviously begin to gain elevation. If, for some reason, you miss the turnoff, once the pine trees and willows begin to clear, point your boots to the right and begin climbing. Regardless of circumstance, you need to gain the ridge to your right.

Good overview of first parts of hike

The map above is really helpful. I supplement with pictures later on but the first hour was too dark to photo. The map is oriented correctly (Up=north, Down=South, Left=West, Right=East).

Once you gain the ridge, make your way towards the saddle outline in the pic above.

From the saddle in the photo above you connect with the trail coming up from Herman Gulch and the rest is a cake walk until you get to the Citadel’s upper difficulties. Another perspective of where we came from is shown below.

From the saddle, looking back into Dry Gulch.

From the saddle, continue up the ridge until The Citadel’s imposing East Summit takes shape. Before then, enjoy the views. We had a really excellent morning.

Looking north across the saddle to cloud covered Pettingell Pk.
Sun rising over the East, Herman Gulch below.
Mt. Hagar is the one in the clouds to the right, looking West.

Continue up the well-worn trail from the saddle passing some rock towers en-route to the summit block of The Citadel. From the saddle up to the base of the block you can really only see the Eastern summit and it is intimidating. The trail up to the summit block veers around any towers and rock ribs until the summit is right in front of you.

Easy strolling above the saddle.

Right before the tower feature in the above picture you get your first look at the Eastern (harder) summit of The Citadel.

The trail (easily Class 2) veers left around the tower.
All routes on the Citadel from this approach head to Saddle #2, marked with the arrow and the little snow-patch. From there, it’s time to choose how you want to climb.
Despite the clouds, this still gives the best perspective on the Standard route (Class 3).

Once you get to your second saddle, as indicated in the picture above, the standard route veers left, hugging the base of the Eastern Summit cliffs. If you choose this route, it culminates in a loose Class 3 gully OR you can climb better rock just to the left of it, still Class 3. This is depicted by the red arrow in the picture above. The standard route begins above the snow-patch in the picture. Hang to the left of the gully and find suitable rock to scramble up to the taller (and easier) Western Summit. From the top of the standard route gully, you also have a Class 4 option to climb the backside of the Eastern Summit. This is the standard approach for both summits.

Nick and I opted to climb the Eastern Summit directly. Our decision was helped by a climber in front of us. He had chosen to head up a loose gully parallel to the standard route and was dropping rocks down towards us. We didn’t want any part of that. Though there is a lot of solid rock on The Citadel (part of what makes it fun), not every route is solid and the fist-sized rocks the climber was sending down would’ve done some serious damage to us.

Eastern Summit Direct (Sustained Class 4 Slab Climb)

Instead of hugging the cliffs left towards the standard, we opted to head right and climb the Eastern face. This was a fantastic/exposed/heart-racing climb. I think in drier conditions it would’ve been more firmly on the fun side, but since we’d had so much rain, some of the open slab climbs were slick and forced some really exposed scrambling. Let’s unpack the route.

Fairly mellow beginning from Saddle #2. Loose Class 2.

As indicated by the picture above, the beginning was not difficult, just loose, especially as you traverse to the right of the organ pipe lookin cliffs and locate the first access gully. Once in the gully, use the solid rock on the right-hand side to climb up until just before the end of the second blue arrow in the picture above. Here, if you look to the right, you will see an exit that allows you to climb out of the gully and onto the main face.

Nick, at the exit from the gully. The exit involves substantial Class 3 climbing.

Right before we found the exit, we took a hard look at the head of the gully (circled in purple) and decided against going that way. If you wanted a challenge, I think it would go with a few upper Class 4 moves, possibly a Class 5 move or two, however, the exit to the right was the easiest escape.

The exit gully.

The photo of the exit gully above looks downright maniacal but it’s not, just a strange perspective looking up. There were great hand and footholds along the exit and I’d rate it at Class 3+ but no more. What the photo does a great job of doing is showing how wet the rocks were.

Sweet, let’s back it up and see where we’re at.

About 1/3 of the way up

So, after the gully exit we were now firmly on the main face and ready to take on the crux of the climb, a series of exposed, wet, Class 4 slabs with marginal holds. Here’s what that looked like, and unlike the gully exit picture, this one does not distort perspective.

VERY steep and exposed.

I’ve marked up the picture below and will try to explain why we chose the route we did.

We sighted a few lines of possibility and were attracted to the furthest right purple arrow because of the obvious seam running up the rock. This was a bit of a ruse as the seam had OK handholds but not much for your feet, especially with the slick conditions. Ultimately, we chose to use the seam for as long as we could and then traversed left as able.

Class 4 route options bordered by Class 5.

As all the purple arrows indicate, the ultimate goal was to shoot the gap between the Class 5 moves, though they are there for the taking if you choose. This was a tough, tough section and on more than one occasion we felt our tread slip on the rock. The key is to keep moving, not quickly, but consistently and only move one body part at a time, keeping three points of contact on the rock. If you stop on one of these slabs, you risk losing grip and may start to overthink your next moves which could lead to mental paralysis. Keep…moving…

Once you make it past the first slab, you have a tiny break in a dirt bed interspersed with some alpine vegetation, before the next slab begins. Don’t get too comfy, you’re not done yet.

Upper Slab section

Above are two lines you can take, the left side starts at Class 3 and uses some cracks in the rock to get closer to the end, however, there is a caveat. Once the crack system ends, you have at least two open slab moves that involve leaving the crack system and traversing right in order to keep the climbing at 4th Class. The little vertical orange marks in the picture indicate a small lip that runs between a 5.0-5.2. The traverse is necessary to avoid this. If you are thinking about attacking the lip, keep in mind, I saw no good finger holds above it, so any 5th Class moves you make will need to account for that. If you choose the crack system, also note that the vegetation is growing in dirt, not rocks. When that dirt gets on your shoes, you’re going to lose traction. On wet or damp mornings, this will absolutely be an issue.

Alternatively, if you have a dry day and good traction, you can attack the slab directly (purple arrow to the right) and work your way to the right side of the large rock sitting on top of the slab.

After the second slab you are back down to Class 3 climbing.

Making progress! As you can see, the 4th Class section is not long, but it is challenging.

Now, after the slab slab climbing, you’ll find yourself on a grassy ramp, which is not obvious from any point (so far) in your summit block climb. From the above picture it’s easy to pick out, but the ways into it (our way, traversing into it earlier, or continuing up the gully) all require some Class 4 moves. From what we saw, you really can’t avoid that reality.

A little easier but some Class 3 still required

Use the grassy ramp to get up to the next set of blocks, taking care to avoid pricking your hands on the sharp thistle plants growing there. If you hug the right side of the ramp as shown, you can keep the scrambling at mid Class 3. Once you are above this step, the grassy bit begins to peter out and you have one last, short Class 3 section before you are on the summit.

The last little section.

You’re almost there! The last section is shown above and compared to what you’ve already done it’s easy pickins. If you’ve just about had enough of scrambling you can also bypass the block on the left and attack it from the other side at 2+.

On top! Looking over at the Western (and higher) summit.
Success!

Take a sweet moment to relax, you’ve earned it, but stay sharp, you’re scrambling isn’t over yet. Even by the standard route, the Eastern Summit is a Class 4, which means in order to exit the summit you have to perform at least one more set of Class 4 moves, and this time it will be a down-climb.

Quick comment on Citadels Eastern Summit: the whole climb was awesome and a little hair raising. We chose our route based on factors on the ground but that does not mean it is the only route. I think the gully exit was a great find and the slab climbing was supreme but I would love to go back and test some other routes on that face. Even though it isn’t large, I could see starting a line further to the right or testing the headwall of the gully to see if it goes. When I go back to try new routes I will undoubtedly report on them!

Extra photo below, as zoomed in as I could get without sacrificing route details. I hope this helps!

GREAT route, hopefully this give more detail!

From East to West

Standing on top of the Eastern Summit, we realized that despite our successful climb, eventually, we’d need to find a way off the thing. This is where some pre climbing research came in handy. The standard route (which we avoided coming up) had a 10-12 foot Class 4 section from the split between the summits that we could down-climb to relative safety. Knowing its existence, we began to hunt for it.

It’s hard to tell but right in front of Nick (circled in Purple) is the vertical split that separates the two summits. The Class 4 down-climb is to his right about 7 feet.

Nick found it relatively quickly and performed the required moves with ease. To get to the down-climb from the Eastern Summit requires no more than a few Class 2+ moves. This is what the drop looked like from the top.

Here’s a view from the bottom-up. It is by no means an easy descent (or ascent if you scale the Eastern Summit this way) but it is thankfully short.

Class 4 down-climb.

I am not the greatest down climber in the world so to say I went down this section gracefully would be a stretch. I was forward-facing for the duration of the highest arrow in the picture above, turned to face the mountain for the middle arrow, and then flipped back around to face out for the bottom part. Why? Well, there was a sneaky step I couldn’t see while facing towards the mountain near the bottom, and it ended up being the crux move for me. I was still a good 5-6 feet from the end of the down-climb and I had good foot purchase and the ability to shift weight easily, so I did. I do not recommend this method as it exposes you to increased risk, however, if you down-climb this section, note that there ARE footholds there, but you may not be able to see them from above.

Below is yet another look, taken from the Western Summit that I think shows the best angle of the down-climb.

Class 2+ from the summit, brief Class 3 to get to the top of the drop, Class 4 down.

Once you are down off the Eastern Summit take stock of where you are. In front of you is the imposing Western Block, which you cannot attack directly from where you stand, to the right, the loose slope drops back down into Herman Gulch, and to the left, the slope rises to a small saddle between the peaks. IF YOU COME UP THE STANDARD ROUTE THIS IS IMPORTANT. Coming up the standard gully, the access climb to the Eastern Summit is BEYOND the height of land, crest the small saddle and then look to your right. If you take the dihedral BEFORE the saddle, it will be a tougher down-climb later.

From our new position we hung left, crested the small saddle and began looking for weaknesses in the Western Summit to climb up. This did not take very long and within five minutes we were on top of the Western Summit, having used a handful of moderate Class 3 moves.

From the Eastern Summit, you can get a sense of what awaits you on the Western Summit. Keep in mind, as before, between Nick and the route up the Western Summit is the split between the mountains, you cannot just hop over it.

Sorry about the fog, gotta use what nature gives yah.
Nick on the Western Summit, the route stays well to the left of the ledges shown.
A short Class 3 section right below the summit, which is just behind the slanted rock on the left.

That’s that, you’ve conquered both of Citadel’s summits! For added spice, you can continue across a small knife edge (North) towards a sub-summit that has some nice throne rocks to sit on. The moves do not exceed Class 3 but the exposure is SEVERE.

Extra Credit.

The summit rock only has space for one person and there was a very lovely Marmot Turd on top of it, so I elected to just touch the highest part of the rock and avoid the fecal fun.

The best part about the Western Summit is the great preview it gives of the traverse to Hagar. Even though we’d done a lot of scrambling at this point, we topped Western Citadel by 7:30 AM, a mere 2 hours and 45 minutes into our hike so time was, for once, on our side.

Hagar in the distance and the connecting ridge.
Hagar’s summit block difficulties. A lot of people rate it as low 4th, I wouldn’t, 3+ max, based off of what the Eastern Summit gave us, but hey, different strokes for different folks.

Citadel to Hagar Traverse

Onwards! Having taken care of The Citadel, we turned our sights southwest towards Hagar and kicked it into high gear. The descent off the Western Summit is a bit of a no brainer, it’s more difficult if you hug the ridge, less if you skirt to the left and then regain the ridge a little lower. The first few minutes are low Class 3 on loose rock, so watch your step and never descend directly above someone else. If you kick loose a rock, yell “ROCK!” as loudly and as often as you can until either the rock stops rolling or it is safely beyond ALL routes on the mountain where people may be.

For the most part (ie 90% of it) the ridge is an easy 2 to 2+ tundra stroll with occasional (and always optional) Class 3 moves along the way. It’s the summit block of Hagar that makes the traverse worth doing.

Taken about 2/3 of the way down the traverse, looking back at the formidable looking Citadel.

Ok, so there’s a lot going on in the picture below that’s worth explaining and a lot of it is subjective. The trip reports I read online classified the Hagar summit block as two sections of possible Class 3/4 climbing (ie 3+), the first section is up the summit block, the second is a knife edge traverse to the true summit. I agree with the 3+ distinction but shy away from calling the main difficulties on Hagar Class 4, based off our experience on the Eastern Summit of Citadel. You can certainly find some Class 4 moves on the block, but you would need to be actively seeking them out. For the risk averse, if you do not take the bypass, the summit block of Hagar runs at 3+.

1) The Class 2 bypass. 2) Solid Class 3 with good rock. 3) Class 3+ gully. 4) 3+ rocks to the right of the gully. 5) Maybe Class 4 option. 6) An in-betweener with some 4th Class moves early. These are not ALL the routes, but some clear lines I was looking at on the approach.

If you get to Hagar and you’re just doggin it and hating life, you can traverse left, around the summit block, come up the other side and keep everything at a 2+ ( with maybe a low Class 3 move tossed in there). Most people when writing trip reports on this peak tend to take route 3 or 4 in the above photo.

I believe route 3 to be the most common approach as it’s right on top of the ridge crest. What the route ends up looking like once you are the base of the gully is roughly the same as the Gully Exit we used on E. Citadel, which is to say, harder Class 3, but calling this gully option Class 4 seems like a stretch. It also reminded me of the airplane gully route up the summit block of Navajo Pk. which is a Class 3, so I was fairly skeptical of calling it something more. See for yourself below.

The only way to make this a 4 would be to peel right into harder terrain or tackle the chockstone at the head of the gully. I just don’t see it reaching that level any other way.

My impression was that the variations up the summit block were all sorts of Class 3 with a couple of Class 4 options if you swung right and found harder rock or if you went between some of the routes (like Route 6). However, the obvious routes up the block (2, 3, and 4) are all Class 3. This is not to say that the moves are easy, it is still very much a scramble and after The Citadel you may be feeling tired. Take breaks as you need them, remain vigilant, find the best route, and go at your own pace.

We found that a route to the left of the gully was a relatively safe and enjoyable Class 3 scramble up stable rocks with plenty of hand and foot holds so we opted for that (route 2 in the summit block photo). Here’s a look at the route entrance and the first section.

First few Class 3 moves.

The route swings right and gives you the following look.

Blocky terrain with good holds.

The last little bit is pictured below. Nick is standing on the ridge.

Once you regain the ridge, you walk along it for a minute until you encounter the next section, which is often times described as a Class 4 knife edge. Below is the approach to it.

The “knife edge” is in front of Nick in this photo.

Just like the Ten Mile Traverse’s Class 4 section, we debated this one at length. The conclusions we reached were similar. If you hung off the north side of the edge with rampant exposure beneath you, I’d call it a soft 4. If you, like most, moved across the top of the knife-edge, I’d call it a 3+. Why? Because, despite the HUGE exposure on the north side, at any point along the edge (save maybe 3-5 small moves) you can keep all of your focus on the south side of the ridge. The exposure on the south side is all of 5-6 feet and you can bail out at almost any point. Move for move it is Class 3+ and unless you flirted consistently with the more severe side (as in, hung off the north side and traversed it like a via-Ferrata), it would take some convincing for me to call it a 4. Take a look below.

Quick note: Why do I take on the ratings discussion consistently? Because it IS subjective, and therefore open to scrutiny. It is not my goal to make hard scrambles appear easier but I do expect people to own their actions, accuracy matters. If you do not have a lot of experience climbing exposed 3+ ridges, don’t do the Hagar knife-edge, especially since you can easily bypass it. At its hardest, this section is a 3/4 with exposure and toes that line for the duration.

Once you pass the knife-edge, the actual summit is just a short scamper away. Congrats! We were descending off Hagar by 8:30 AM. If you followed our route and took dry gulch up, you can descend into the head of the valley below Hagar. Then, contour left and maintain your elevation as much as possible until you run into your ascent trail. We were back at the trailhead by 10:30 AM.

Nice overview, excellent alpine day of scrambling!

“Cherokee” Pk. via the North Basin: (3-4 YDS)

Preface/rating System

Quick disclaimer: I like to highlight and markup some of my pictures for route clarification. Black lines= general directions, landmarks and/or Class 1 sections. Blue Lines=Class 2 sections. Red= Class 3 sections. Purple = Class 4 sections. Orange = Class 5. The class system is based on the YDS rating scale.

Intro

…where to begin. Well, I got lost, but on purpose. I suppose a better way of putting that would be, I went adventuring off-trail. What was the purpose of this you may ask? To verify a route I came across online that didn’t have a lot of supplemental information. I thought it interesting because it was in an area I had long wanted to visit, and a way up a tough mountain that supposedly lopped a few miles off of the alternative route. Naturally, it didn’t take me long to find time to make it happen.

This was to be a solo scouting trip and I relished the prospects just as much as I relish hiking with good friends. As any veteran outdoor person knows, there are attributes to either scenario, but for simple soul cleansing, nothing quite beats a solo adventure. So, on a Thursday in late July, I woke up at 1:30 AM, left the apartment, and drove three hours to the trailhead. Could I have slept at the trailhead and saved myself the pitch-black drive? Maybe, but our bed has memory foam, so…no.

From Trail to Bushwhack

Pulling up to the nearly empty Monarch Lake Trailhead, I grabbed my gear and started hoofin’ it at 5:30 AM. Monarch Lake is a lovely recreation area and in the predawn light, I managed to sight a TON of different birds and to hear aggressive rustling in the underbrush but didn’t manage to see anything. I did eyeball two loons on the lake which I thought was neat, they aren’t rare, but loons always remind me of my grandparents lake-house in the Adirondacks.

Once I’d passed Monarch lake, the trail into the wilderness started to rise up in a series of steps and runs. Right before the second step, I arrived at the first big waterfall on Cascade Creek.

On the approach, there were no less than five visible waterfalls with probably more in some sections. In between the waterfalls were sections of rolling terrain and wide-open meadows that seemed like the quintessential elk, deer, and moose habitat. They were really lovely looking. Below is a picture of waterfall #2, which I thought was particularly impressive.

Once you get to the third large meadow (I think, there were a lot of them), start paying attention. You’ll be able to see the view in the picture below. Here, you can see the summit, sub-summit, and the basin you’ll be using to ascend between them.

Excitement begins to build…

In the first few meadows, you’ll catch glimpses of where you’re going but it is NOT beneficial to leave the trail too early. You also don’t want to leave the trail in the middle of any of these meadows because two creek crossings are already required for this route, so adding a marsh to the mix is just excessive.

Not a good crossing point.

After the third meadow, keep trucking along for a few minutes more. I do want to make a note that at this point, I was over two hours into the hike, at a pace between 2.5 and 3 miles an hour. If you attempt this hike, be warned, you will be covering a lot of mileage, anticipate sore muscles.

When I saw the rock in the picture below, I began eyeing an exit strategy. It’s a good marker to use, don’t head off into the woods before seeing it.

First Marker.

Once you pass the above rock, pick a line and begin a diagonal traverse down to the stream (to the right). If you descend perpendicular to the trail (as in, straight downhill), you’ll spend a lot of time searching for a suitable water crossing. Below, roughly a minute or two past the rock is where I decided to begin my bushwhack and it worked relatively well.

Into the woods.

I liked my initial path because it deposited me on a fairly obvious (albeit loose) line of rocks that I followed briefly before noticing a nearly identical ridge of rocks to my left. I dropped down in-between the two and descended (occasionally heading left to keep my trajectory) until arriving at a section of dead pine trees. Once you navigate through this part, the sound of the stream should be quite loud. If all directional senses fail you, follow your ears. The actual bushwhack (although a true one) was not long and pales in comparison to some of the absolute nightmares that exist out east. Before long, you reach the stream! Ta-da!

Options for crossing.

Once you find the stream, locate the two options for crossing the creek. For me, they were on my right-hand side about 15 feet downstream. Log #1 is the most intact, but only when dry, and has a lot of bounce to it, which might give you pause. It rained the night before so I opted for log #2, which is about 2 inches below water at its lowest point but has less bounce and I had high top hikers so the water wasn’t an issue, provided I didn’t fall in. Poles help for stability but do note that the creek is quite deep in spots. After a few careful movements, you’ve crossed Cascade creek and can begin your ascent.

A good visualization of the long approach from Monarch lake Trailhead to the point where you leave the trail.

Off Trail Ascent

Into the wild. Black=trailed approach. Blue=Class 2 bushwhack. Red=Class 3 Climbing.

From once you cross Cascade Creek until you ascend the north-facing basin between “Cherokee” and No Name Knob, you are on your own. Extra care must be taken to find and maintain the correct path. I will do my best to help in that regard.

After the creek crossing, you’ll find large slabs of rock between pine tree groves, use them to gain some elevation, veering slightly left (SW) as you can. Once you start to pick up elevation and navigate away from Cascade Creek, begin looking for the key to this entire bushwhack: a herd path. It is by no means a regular trail and often peters out, but mountain goats and elk frequent the trail so if you lose it, look for their scat. Elk scat looks like little large oval pellets and mountain goat scat looks like smaller pellets or a mass of pellets stuck together. If this grosses you out, take heart, its just a navigation tool, this isn’t some Bear Grylls survival special.

Typical of Colorado, even in the woods, you’ll be offered many looks at your eventual destinations. Resist the temptation to shoot hard left. Continue uphill, paralleling the summits.

DO NOT leave the herd path too early and head left as I did. I saw the gully up between the peaks and decided to make a beeline for it, which ended up putting me in a much tougher situation. Even though the herd path begins to stray right (as in, away from your ultimate destination) stick with it. Eventually, the path will swing back around and put you in a good position.

If you make the same mistake I did, you end up encountering what’s depicted in the picture below. None of it was fun.

I’ve titled this piece, “Problems”. Can you tell I took some creative writing classes in college?

Let’s say you ignore my warning and end up giving it a go, here’s what you’re in for. Problem#1: a loose and frustrating descent down to a chasm, where another stream is. Problem#2: stream crossing, the chasm does not get a lot of light, therefore the rocks are UBER slippery. Two steps and I went right in the drink, both shoes, utterly soaked. Problem #3: you have to scout a weakness in the wall to get out of the chasm, which is made more difficult by wet rocks and thick vegetation. Once you finally get away from the stream, surprise, more problems. While it looks nice from a distance problem #4, is a long ascent through THICK vegetation, oscillating between young pointy pine trees, slick moss, underbrush, and hidden thistle that will prick you.

Now, let’s say you didn’t make my mistake and continued up the herd path. Eventually, you will be led to an easy stream crossing above the chasm. Yay! It will seem as though you’ve passed the ascent gully you want, but it’s fine, all you have to do after the stream crossing is double back up some broken rock steps until the views clear and you’re right where you need to be.

Much calmer.
Another look.

As evidence by the black arrow in the picture above, cross the stream and then perform an ascending traverse left (northeast) until you break out of the trees at the base of the ascent gully.

Looking up at the first challenges of the gully.
One of your first great looks back at what you’ve done so far. So far, mostly Class 2 from the trail break to here.

North Gully to No Name Knob

Now, the scrambling begins.

The blocky approach into the gully is a lot of fun and sports some variation, Below, I’ve highlighted two options. I chose option 1. Even further to the left as you approach the blocks, you’ll notice a stream spilling over a 10-15 foot rock face, eventually, the route you climb will connect with this stream.

Getting into the gully, first Class 3. Avoid climbing the wall to the left as it leads you straight into nasty krummholz.

Below is a close up shot of the red circle pictured above, with it’s own variations.

Dealers choice.

Above the initial difficulties, the gully relents and eventually merges with another shallow gully from the left (with the stream).

Note the pines on the left hand side of the picture. They are easy to remember as they are the last trees you encounter until near the saddle.

Make a mental note to remember the little cluster of pine trees you pass. These will serve as your markers on the descent. On the descent (assuming you come back this way), you’re going to want to veer left (north-northwest) to stay on track. If you stay too far right, you’ll end up in the krummholz, following the stream as it cascades off the 10-15 foot rock face.

After the two gully’s merge, the route becomes a lot simpler and begins to widen. Go up. Use your best judgment to find the path of least resistance. I always prefer rocks over potentially wet and slippery vegetation. It’s also handy to adopt a zig-zag pattern, rather than going straight up, which eats a lot of energy.

Up? My goal was the saddle and No Name Knob before heading up “Cherokee”. Class 2 talus.

At the saddle, I skipped over to No Name Knob first, which I figured had an excellent view, and wow was I correct!

The rest of the route up No Name Knob, taken from the slopes of “Cherokee”. Class 2 and easy Class 3.
The view from No Name Knob to the SW w/ out names.
Same view w/ names.
Southern view without names.
Same view with names.
Eastern Rim.

Upper route on “Cherokee”

After gawking at the surround from the summit of No Name Knob for quite a bit longer than I anticipated, I summoned up the willpower to begin the next part of the ascent. From the saddle between No Name and “Cherokee”, this part of the route overlaps with a route penned by Gerry Roach.

Gerry Roach is the resident authority on the Indian Peaks Wilderness and has written wildly successful books on climbing the 14ers, and the rest of the centennials (highest 13ers in the state). I used his book many times to corroborate routes when I completed the 14ers. Roach is a prolific climber and has named and identified dozens of routes in the area including many in the Lone Eagle Cirque. Officially, “Cherokee” does not have a name, its name was picked by Roach to match the theme of the Indian Peaks. This is why I keep the mountain name in quotes, on many USGS topo maps, there is no marker for the mountain. It helps immensely when scouting a new route, to agree on a name, even if it is unofficial.

Roach lays out a relatively simple way up “Cherokee” from the saddle that does not exceed Class 3. I have labeled his method as the Roach Approach in a few subsequent photos. On the way up, I initially stayed close to the route he described but ultimately traversed further, opting for more airy scrambling and will try to label those differences as I can. To be honest, Roach wrote only about a paragraph on the route up “Cherokee” from the saddle in his “Colorado’s Indian Peaks” guidebook, so move-for-move I just gave it my best shot and found fun rock to climb.

Please note: There are a few more internet descriptions of the upper route from the saddle to the top of “Cherokee,” but the subject matter is still annoyingly lacking. The theme of “Cherokee” appears to be, not many climb it, and those that do, climb from Crater Lake ie. not the north basin bushwhack I just described.

At first, both Roach’s and my route traverse beneath the first two major cliffs that hug “Cherokees” slopes until finding a long gully (with a few snow patches left in it) that acts as the path of least resistance. Neither Roach nor I actually climbed up the gully as it is festooned with loose, uncomfortable rock.

Route comparison, Roach Approach (approximated) goes for a mixture of grass breaks and blocks to stay closer to the ridge. I opted to traverse further right, and hug the left side of the very obvious gully that splits the mountain.

The initial class 2+ (blue line above) traverse is mostly enjoyable but watch your footing as you navigate below the first two large ridge towers. Depending on the time of year, small snow patches can add some spice, especially nestled at the base of the first tower you bypass.

From the saddle.

In the above photo, traverse underneath the first tower and pay attention to the rock in the red circle. If it is hard to see, use the next picture below. The rock resembles two faces sticking diagonally out of the ridge. The “Roach approach” turns abruptly left before it, while my route continues traversing around it.

Route split.

The rock is circled again and much clearer in the photo above. As I approached it, I began to like the way the rocks were starting to look if I kept traversing. Since I was here to scramble, I made the decision to traverse around the head of the ridge with the “Two-Face” rock.

The traverse around the ridge. Class 3 with a bit of exposure.

This is what the view looked like on the other side of the brief, exposed traverse.

Notice the color differences in the ridges. The one I climbed (left of gully) was on darker, slabby rocks, occasionally culminating in a series of towers. The ridge across the gully was redder in color and served as my descent route.

General route up to the first tower, Class 4 moves(s) from the crack to get up onto the slab, super easy bypasses to the left and right of the block. Otherwise sustained Class 3.

For the most part, this route was a lot of fun. There were a couple of towers that blocked easy passage and handed me some nice Class 4 moves with not a ton of exposure. There were always bail out options either into the gully or left around the towers on grass ledges. The rock itself was very grippy and had a TON of great crack holds that could fit fingers and hands.

Moves up to, and over, the first in a series of small towers next to the gully. Class 3.
Typical section of climbing on the “Timo’s Way” route, more Class 3.

Eventually, the gully begins to lose its definition as you climb up to a large blocky rock I’ve dubbed “split rock”. At the rock, two shallow arms fan out in two different directions like the letter Y. Each arm will get you where you want. Be aware that if you take the more inviting looking right arm, you will have to hop back left towards the summit upon attaining the ridge, however, the distance is negligible.

The gully begins to lose definition above this point, back to looser Class 2 talus.
A look back at where ya came from. Once the definition of the gully route begins to fade, its a Class 2 talus fest to the ridge-line.
The top! As indicated, there is a short, sneaky Class 3 knife edge in order to gain the summit rock. It’s a small, airy, wonderful summit.

The Summit Area

A great look at “Hopi” from the summit of “Cherokee”.
A moody looking Mount Achonee.
Beautiful view of Crater Lake, Lone Eagle Pk, Iroquois, and Apache Pk. looming behind.

In addition to the summit block, there is a sub-summit that acts kind of like a leading edge, or the prow of a ship, with sharp drops on all three sides. It’s a quick couple minutes to get there and worth the effort.

On the way to the sub-summit, looking back at the top of “Cherokee”.

The easiest way to access the sub summit is by finding a ramp on the east side of the summit block and head towards the saddle. To attain the sub-summit, climb on a smattering of rocks that require a few low Class 3 moves.

Route shown from the West.
Another look at the sub-summit excursion from the East.

The Descent

I must’ve spent about an hour up at the top. I had the weather, I had time, and after working my butt off to get here I was more than happy to relax. However, once it is time to leave, you actually have a couple of decisions to make fairly quickly. Do you want to descend back to the saddle between No Name and “Cherokee?” Or do you want to start descending back down the way you came up?

If you had it in your mind to head down to the shores of Crater Lake (a worthy destination in its own right), then backtrack down the gully until you can safely begin to traverse (right) back to the saddle. From the saddle cross over and find slanting rocks interspersed with grass and tree areas. Use the path of least resistance to make a descending traverse down to the shores of the lake which should be right in front of you. From the north end of Crater lake, haul the seven miles (on established trail) back to the trailhead.

Having botched the initial bushwhack on the way up, I was determined to descend back and find the right path, which I ultimately did. While I would love to see Crater Lake from the shoreline, I wanted to make sure I was presenting as complete a trip report as possible and that meant ironing out the kinks.

Decided to try the other side of the gully on the way down, starts at loose Class 2+.
Up and down comparison with the gully in the middle. Red lines=Class 3 ascent route. Blue lines=initially easy descent route on the other side of the gully.

Just for kicks I decided to try descending on the opposite side of the gully from which I climbed up. It was initially easy Class 2 amongst flakier rock (make sure you don’t kick anything down or it’ll just keep going). The rock rib does cliff out at a certain point (very obviously) so the hardest down-climbing moves were descending off the side of the rib and back towards the gully.

A look back up at the dueling lines.

In comparing the two lines I took, I think the descent route was easier. There were less Class 3 sections and they really only involved attaining the rob rib (if ascending) or finding your way off of it (if descending). The ascent route was more fun, and had more variety but if you want the easiest of the two, it’d be taking a line to the right of the gully on the climb up (and left on the climb down).

At the end of the gully you can choose to return to the saddle, or keep descending.
Last look back up at my descent route off the upper slopes and the cliffs to avoid.

Now firmly back in familiar territory, I began descending with more confidence and soon came upon the small grove of pine trees I used as a marker on the ascent. Veering left, I found the original Class 3 section from the morning and dispensed it with a few moves. Once those difficulties were dealt with I was out of climbing territory and back down to easy Class 2 talus hopping. The day was far from over, however, and I was starting to feel it.

Tired Timo.

Contouring to the left, I corrected my earlier bushwhack mistakes, found the herd path and crossed over the unnamed stream I had so much trouble with earlier. I was offered a few great looks back at the lower portion of the route below the saddle and took a picture.

Overview of lower route. White circle around pine tree markers. Class 2 and Class 3.

Remember, if you descend the north basin, take a left past the little pine grove. If you don’t, you end up in nasty krummholz and complicated Class 4 down-climbs.

Following the goat/elk path down to Cascade Creek was relatively straightforward. As before, I lost it a few times, but could orient fairly easily until I popped up at the stream bank once more. The ascent back to the trail across Cascade Creek was only five minutes long or so. Sweet relief washed over me when I emerged back on the relative highway of Cascade Creek Trail. Though I was still 2.5 hours from my car, I could cruise down the trail with relative ease. The end was in sight.

The trail out gave me time to think about my routes and the summit of “Cherokee”. I have climbed hundreds of mountains. “Cherokee” may have broken the top 10. While difficult and frustrating it had so many things I enjoy: remotes setting, route finding, scrambling options (upon options upon options), and STELLAR views. I’m already planning a return trip to the area. Well done Indian Peaks Wilderness, well done.

Until next time…

East Ridge of Father-Dyer, Crystal and Pacific Peak: (2+, 3 YDS) July 16, 2020

Preface/rating System

Quick disclaimer: I like to highlight and markup some of my pictures for route clarification. Black lines= general directions, landmarks and/or class 1 route. Blue Lines=Class 2 or 2+ sections. Red= Class 3 sections. Purple = 4th class section. Orange = Class 5. The class system is based on the YDS rating scale.

Introduction

After a marvelous day on the TenMile Traverse, I was itching to get back amongst it. Luckily, my good friend Ethan was in the Colorado high country for a couple of weeks dirtbaggin around and slamming some peaks, so I thought we could combine forces for a day. The targets ended up being a nice trifecta of peaks just south of Breckenridge, with some easy class 3 scrambling. Two of the peaks were also centennials, (members of the hundred highest in the state) adding to the appeal.

We met up at the Spruce Creek trailhead a little before six. It’s about two miles south of the main drag in Breckenridge, take a right on a road from another road and then, like, drive, you’ll get there. If you have a beefy truck or SUV you can head up a bit farther from the lower trailhead, for detailed directions click here. (I do not own the content on Summitpost but they are a GREAT resource for directions and mountain profiles.)

Breckenridge and the area where we hiked are magnets for wildlife, which is interesting because Breck has been “discovered” and a ton of new houses have gone up in the past couple decades. If you parooze youtube, I’m sure you’ll find many videos of moose crossing ski slopes at Breckenridge Ski Resort, it’s an almost yearly occurrence. On that note, it wasn’t particularly surprising to see a 400+ pound Black Bear cross the dirt road right in front of my car. He scurried off, but seeing wild animals that size is always a cool thing. No pics, sorry, was driving.

Up Father-Dyer Peak

The trail begins as a wide jeep road that splits into two forks a few minutes from the lower trailhead. Choose the steeper righthand option to get up to Lower Crystal Lake. This section is also a pretty well-worn jeep trail, which means you can make quick work of the first few miles until you reach the lake. It took us a little less than an hour to get to the view in the picture below.

Showing the East Ridge of Father-Dyer and class 3 scrambling up to the false peak (true summit behind)

At this point, the jeep trail took a sharp left (south) turn and trundled up towards the flanks of Mt. Helen. Once it takes another turn left (now east) break from the jeep trail and head up and over the large talus mounds in front of you. The goal is the grassy slope to your right, which you can attain via a quick down and up off the talus mounds, or a more circuitous route that follows the talus in a graceful arc to meet the slope a little higher up.

Dealers choice on specifics, but the ultimate goal is the grass slope where the highest arrow points.

Once you attain the ridge crest, the scrambling begins in earnest, first as a grab-bag of 2 and 2+, eventually thinning to a section of 3 that can be avoided by staying below the ridge crest to the south (left side).

A look back at the approach and easy ridge strolling before the scramble begins
Ethan modeling some scramble moves

As the ride tightens, you can stay on the crest for as long as you feel comfortable, while never exceeding 3. The rock is good for the most part but looser than the Tenmile traverse. Be cautious, go slow, and test foot and handholds before dropping your full weight onto them.

One of a few mini “knife edge” sections

You can always find bail out options for anything that is too exposed, which makes this approach (East Ridge) to Father-Dyer a logical pick for new scramblers. For the seasoned, the East Ridge is a great training route with plenty of options for fun. The exposure does increase in a few spots so be prepared and go at your own pace. Once you’re on the ridge proper, it’s pretty hard to get lost unless you drop off of it. Keep on climbing.

Good perspective on the ridge direct scrambling

If you do decide to stay on the ridge proper, when navigating some of the ridge crest areas, keep an eye on sharp vertical rocks, they can slap your no-no square if you’re not careful.

The rest of the scrambling sections

The ridge continues up in fairly obvious fashion over a few bumps and towards the false summit. As you near the false summit, the difficulties relent and you can hop up to the top with ease. As a general rule, the left side of the ridge has the best bail out options, but on occasion, the right side offers respite as well. Use your eyeballs and take a moment to find the best route for you.

The “Horn”

Once you clamber up to the false summit, passing the “horn” en route, you’ll see that the actual summit is still a little bit west of you. The remaining bit to the top is kept at class 2.

Last push to the summit

On the summit is a plaque dedicated to Father-Dyer, a local reverend who lived from 1812-1901. To be honest, the most remarkable thing about that is how long ole Father-Dyer lived! Life was not very kind to most in the 1800s and here’s Rev. Dyer churning it out til 89. He lived two centuries ago and still made it past the average life expectancy of a modern American, righteous my dude.

Ethan on top of Father-Dyer, with Pacific Pk in full view

Crystal Peak and Pacific Peak

From Father-Dyer, the ridge run over to Crystal is easy and enjoyable. As with all talus hopping, the risk for strains and sprains is fairly constant. Pay attention to where you are stepping! This section seemed to go by really quickly as I listened to Ethan recount stories of the multiple times he’s done the El Camino walk across the neck of the Iberian Peninsula in Europe. It sounded great and is rapidly ascending my (endless) list of things to do in life.

Made it within half an hour, moving at a quick clip

Crystal Peak is usually busier than the almost always empty Father-Dyer because of its inclusion in the Colorado hundred highest list. However, seeing as we climbed on a Thursday, there just wasn’t anyone around. Summit #2 complete!

Route preview from Crystal Pk summit

The descent off of Crystal was also fairly straightforward with a snow patch or two to navigate for added flavor. We reached the saddle between Crystal and Pacific with little difficulty, but had now spent a couple of hours above tree-line and the dramatic rise up to Pacific Peak looked a little daunting.

Getting closer

Pacific Peak is one of those mountains that I’d always been interested in climbing because of its visibility from the highway. In fact, if you are traveling west on I-70 and nearing the Copper Mountain exit, look straight down the valley, Pacific’s notched summit is hard to miss. It’s also visible if you are traveling East right after you descend off of vail pass. Having stared at it for years, I wanted to be able to climb it in a way that utilized the notch. This combo was a great way of doing that.

Looking back from the flanks of Pacific Peak. Already spent a descent amount of time above the trees

The hike up Pacific, at least until the notch, is a smattering of different sized boulders and a variety of herd paths. The slopes are looser so, again (and again and again) watch your footing. The most obvious lines of travel are on the ridge proper and down 15 or so feet from it to the right. This mountain is appropriately rated as a 2+ but at the notch, you do have some sneaky options to push it to a brief 3 (or harder?).

Viewing the summit block from across the Notch

The easiest way to attack the summit is to veer right, down-climb into the notch, and scoot right around the block until finding a suitable ascent route (blue in the above picture). However, if you’re feeling a little crazy, I found a few class 3 variations (red), one of which led to a small class 4 wall (purple). For the truly unafraid, there are class 5 overhanging options for climbing the summit block (following the orange line in the picture above), though these would require you to descend below the notch to attain the line, which looked quite loose. Choose your adventure, they all lead to the same place. I ended up climbing the furthest red line to the right.

On top, Ethan and I were greeted by a friendly Pika who hung around us, venturing to within a few feet of our…well, feet.

Model Pika

At 13,950 feet, Pacific Peak is a large, demanding, and fantastic peak. We had the summit to ourselves and (while not very visible in the pic below) could see the dozens upon dozens of people on neighboring Quandary Peak. Quandary is probably the easiest 14er to climb, and certainly, one of two most popular based on CFI’s people counter.

The View South from the summit of Pacific

Fun fact: Pacific Tarn (between us and Quandary in the picture above) is the highest named lake in the US and sits at 13,400 feet above sea level. Isn’t that fun?

After a nice break on the summit of Pacific Peak, we descended past the tarn and began looking for a way down into the Mohawk Lakes valley. Most of the descent to the bench with the tarn was light class two on talus.

Our descent route off of Pacific Pk (taken from Father-Dyer)

Descending off the bench and down to the valley proved to be the most cumbersome part. It was 2+ down-climbing and traversing over loose gullies and flaky rock ribs. While not as difficult as some other scrambles, this kind of hiking is slow and tedious. It took us a long time to finally navigate down to the upper valley floor.

The upper part of the valley

Descending off the bench and down to the valley proved to be the most cumbersome part. It was 2+ down-climbing and traversing over loose gullies and flaky rock ribs. While not as difficult as some other scrambles, this kind of hiking is slow and tedious. It took us a long time to finally navigate down to the upper valley floor.

Once we made it down to the Mohawk Lake jeep trail, we took that back to where it intersected with our ascent route and then walked the last couple points of a mile back to the lower Spruce Creek trailhead.

Warnings and Stats

Look, I’m not a hiking purist, but there are some areas that you don’t go for a wilderness experience. I would consider 95% of the hike Ethan and I did to be fantastic and absolutely worth repeating. However, I wouldn’t choose to come down Mohawk Lakes again. There are a few reasons for this…

  • Below the lower Mohawk Lake, the “trail” is a bad joke. The veg has been ripped to shreds and there are at least five separate braids heading in all manner of strange directions which is disorienting and accelerates erosion.
  • The people on this part of the trail were clearly visiting Breckenridge from out of town and were pretty clueless about leave no trace principles. I saw a younger lad with a handful of alpine flowers he had picked, including a Columbine (Colorado’s state flower). Alpine flowers are rare, less than 1% of the total area of Earth supports an alpine environment. Alpine flowers don’t belong in your hand, they belong on the mountain. There’s so little to begin with, don’t pick what’s left.
  • There were many instances of trash and toilet paper strewn about the underbrush on the lower parts of the trail, which is just nasty. Pack it out people.
  • The valley is beautiful by itself but the class of people I saw was underwhelming. I know I probably sound like a snob but hiking and scrambling are a huge part of my identity. The mountains are a special place, when I go out into them, I try to respect the land by bringing out more than I brought in. At least one piece of someone else’s trash every hike is my unwritten rule, I just want to leave the place better than I found it. Mohawk Lakes is one of those popular vacation-hiker areas where you don’t feel like those efforts will ever make much of a difference. Some people don’t care about their impact on the outdoors and I’d be lying if I said it didn’t bother me. Do your part, the land belongs to all of us.

Stats:

  • 3 summits (2 centennials) Father-Dyer, Crystal, Pacific Peak
  • ~12.5 Miles
  • Total elevation gain/loss: ~3900 feet.
The edge of Breckenridge Ski Resort is outlined in a faded red color. “Suggested” ie. does not follow path exactly, general overview of route.

The Tenmile Traverse: Peaks 1-5 (YDS 3-4) July 14, 2020

Intro

With the snow in full retreat, and a FANTASTIC solo hike up Mt. Alice the week prior, I knew it was time for a harder scramble. My friend Nick Ventrella, who is always down for a challenge, was available to join, so all we had to do was figure out where to go. After a quick search, we settled on the harder sections of the Tenmile Traverse.

The ‘full’ traverse covers the first 10 numbered peaks of this thin, highly visible range between Breckenridge, Frisco, and Copper Mt. In fact, as you cruise down from the Eisenhower Tunnel on I-70 towards Silverthorne, you can see the first two sharp peaks just to the left of the interstate. The highway wraps around the west side of the range until the Copper Intersection. As a testament to its sharp profile, this is the area where an avalanche in March 2019 buried the highway for a few hours. Click here for video (I do not own that content). However, in mid July, no chance of snowy doom so we decided to go for it!

Up and Up and Up

I picked Nick up at a park and ride outside of Denver and we blasted west towards Frisco, arriving at the Rainbow Lake Trailhead before 5 AM. After a quick organization of gear, we hit the trail at 4:55 and within the first half mile, started going up. And up. And Up.

Sunrise above Grays and Torreys, on the way up Mt. Royal trail.

The range is sharp and steep. From the trailhead in Frisco, to the top of Peak 1 is roughly 3.5 miles with a whopping 3708 feet of elevation gain. So, roughly a thousand feet a mile. From the Rainbow Lake Trailhead off 2nd avenue, backtrack to the paved bike path, take a left, and walk .2 miles west. Look to your left for a signed trail to Mount Royal and begin the arduous ascent. Near the summit of Mount Royal, the trail splits, right to Royal, left to Mt. Victoria. We took the left and blasted up on a fairly good trail to Victoria, whose “summit” isn’t much more than a ridge bump covered in antennas.

The rest of the climb after you pass Mt. Victoria

From here, the trail dwindles, but the ridge line breaks out above the trees and is very obvious to follow. The environment from Victoria to the summit of Peak 1 is alpine in nature and consists of sparse veg and large talus fields. Take care hopping across them. Once in the alpine, the most used route is obvious as a dirt streak between large boulders and should guide you up to Peak 1 with relative ease.

Summit Views on Pk. 1 (North-Northeast)

By itself, Peak 1 is a notable accomplishment. You’re quads will agree I’m sure. However, for the truly inspired (and/or mental), the best parts lie ahead!

Lay of the land, and the traverse from Pk1 to Pk2, which is the highpoint of the range until Pk. 9.

Quick disclaimer: I like to highlight and markup some of my pictures for route clarification. Black lines= general directions, landmarks and/or class 1 route. Blue Lines=Class 2 or 2+ sections. Red= Class 3 sections. Purple = 4th class section. Orange = Class 5. The class system is based on the YDS rating scale.

As indicated by the picture above, the traverse from Peak 1 to Peak 2 is not difficult. There’s one section that requires a little more awareness and a few 2+ moves but it’s incredibly short. For those looking to hit high-points but avoid scrambling, summiting Mt. Royal, Mt. Victoria, Peak 1, and Peak 2, would be a great day in and of itself.

Peaks 2-3: Gendarmes and Dragons

After topping out on peak 2, we took stock of our future. It was still early in the day, the weather was agreeable and our energy levels high. We made the trek from Peak 1 to Peak 2 in less than a half hour and were feeling pretty darn good about ourselves.

Looking like a lot of fun! There are 2-3 places where you have to drop from the ridge, for the rest, it can be as exposed as you want it, with a MINIMUM 3+ Rating.

The above photo is from the summit of Peak 2 and provides a nice overview of what’s to come, below is a blown up version of some of the difficulties.

Awwwwww yeah

Ok, LOTS to unpack here, let’s take it slowly. First, as you exit the summit plateau of Peak 2, hug the ridge for the first few minutes (black arrows). Eventually, you will arrive at a deep trench separating you from a Class 5 tower directly on the ridge crest (orange circle). With the tower in full view, descend on slabby rock. You DO NOT have to climb this tower. The easiest direction to descend is down (ha ha) with a diagonal slant to the left (solid class 3). Eventually you’ll be deposited right in-front of the tower. From here, descend to the right (west) hugging the base of the tower rocks until you locate a gully bypass that you will ascend back up to the ridge line. This bypass is class 2+ and 3.

The tower bypass on the right (west) side of the ridge.

The bypass will take you all the way back to the ridge top and we found easier scrambling on the left (east) side of the ridge. Here, the options vary with your comfort level. It’s generally a 3+ on the ridge top proper, 3 & 2+ on the east side. Enjoy some exposed scrambling and ridge top entertainment as you approach the next obstacle, the “Dragon”. Note: If you decide to stay on the nose of the ridge, right before the “Dragon”, you will have to exit left to avoid getting cliffed out.

Good example of ridge-line issues encountered between Pks. 2-3
The “Dragon”. Class 3 imagination required.
Multiple options here, easiest access is up the neck from the W. Side

The “Dragon” is right on the ridge-line so you either need to climb it, or perform another Class 3 bypass along the western side (not pictured above). My buddy Nick, an excellent climber in his own right, forged ahead with the exposed class 4 option once he’d climbed up some class three blocks to the dragons neck.

Riding the Dragon/camel/llama?

I opted to just climb the neck, but it is a fun and complicated rock rib with many options. If the day is windy, do the bypass. If the weather is starting to threaten, the safest option is to pull a U turn and start hauling back because you’re not halfway through the traverse yet and there’s nowhere to hide. From Peak 2, if need be, you can bail to the east back down to treeline.

Nick, in action on the class 4 traverse

Once we had finished exploring the features on the “Dragon”, we dutifully continued our traverse down the bypass to the west.

The “Dragon” Bypass

Once you regain the ridge after the “Dragon” traverse, the rest of the scramble up to Peak 3 is a 2+ by the easiest route. Stay on the ridge and before you know it, you’ll be on the summit. Take a break here and revel in your accomplishments, but be aware, there’s a lot more to be had.

Relatively easy up to the Peak 3 summit.
Looking back at what you’ve climbed. In this picture, both bypasses are to the Left.

Peak 3-4: Scrambling Bliss

After peak 3, Nick and I dropped down to the col between peaks 3 and 4. This part was very simple, hardly class 2 if that. Don’t let you’re guard down, it’s all leading up to what I would consider to be the most enjoyable (and exposed) scrambling of the day. The only comparable part is if you spent time climbing on the “Dragon”. If you bypassed the “Dragon”, read carefully, because you cannot avoid the next part. As far as line of least resistance goes, the climb to Peak 4 would constitute the crux of the traverse.

Peak 3-4 travers, stay on the ridge
The Purple Circle (Class4 options available) is the route Crux

Once you reach the saddle, do your last bit of scramble prep (hydration, helmets, sunscreen etc.) because you aren’t going to have a lot of space to break between now and the summit of Peak 4.

The complications of the Crux Section

Once again, lots to unpack here. Nick and I debated for a long time whether our route ever hit what we felt to be a class 4 section. The only argument for the 4 (ha ha) would be the amazing amount of exposure over the knife edge, and the ridge direct option. We’re pretty convinced our route (knife edge to cutback option) was kept at a 3+. This was based on actual moves made as opposed to letting exposure inflate that score. However, while exposure is less of an issue with us, it can be a HUGE factor for others, therefore, I’ll label the knife edge as a 4* and the ridge direct option as the only section that could be truly considered 4 on this part of the traverse. I’m sure everyone who’s done this has a different opinion about it. Good for y’all, having opinions and whatnot.

More to the point, the knife edge is not long but very exposed, and leads directly into your three options. Ridge direct is the most committing, however, a sneaky ramp extends diagonally west and supplies the groundwork for the other two options. Even though the ramp is only a Class 3, any fall backwards should be considered fatal. The ramp option (farthest to the right in the above pic) can be kept at mid 3. We found the cutback option to be a bit harder and flirted with higher level 3, while never crossing over to 4. Either way you slice it, this section is highly committing and a lot of fun. If exposure gives you the willies, stick with any of the two class 3 routes. If you were a mountain goat in a previous life, ridge direct is the way to go.

Nick, climbing up the knife edge.

In the picture above, if you extend the direction and length of the red arrow, you’ll see what appears to be a diagonal crack in the rock, that’s the ramp.

Getting above the knife edge

At the end of the knife edge is a blunt rock that would run at least a low 5 if you climbed it directly. An easier 3 option follows the red line to where Nick is sitting.

What we did vs. Class 4 option
From the Ramp, looking down

Perspective is a crazy thing. In the picture captioned “From the Ramp, looking down”, you can see the gentle approach to the first difficulties, but the knife edge is hidden behind the rock spire in the purple circle. Above it, you have a brief section of class three scrambling (also shown in the picture captioned “What we did vs. class 4 section”). The final red line in the bottom right corner shows the direction you take once you are on the ramp.

After this particularly intense section, the rest of the scramble up to Peak 4 relents and before you know it, you’re on top! An interesting change happens here. Looking back, you can gaze over all your hard work, looking forward, you see nothing but open, gentle alpine. The transition is abrupt and at first glance, makes little sense, but it is what it is. Peaks 4-10 are an easy class one tundra stroll.

Route overview from Pk.2, and rest of climb from crux difficulties
What a difference eh?

Turn and Burn back to the Car

If you come up to Pk 4 from the backside to scout the route, (which is excellent planning on your part, go you!) make sure you head down to the crux section, just staring at it from the summit of Pk4 misses a lot of crucial pieces.

From Peak 4 we strolled over to peak 5 and connected with the Miner Creek Trail, heading back to Frisco and the car. This section of trail overlaps with the Colorado Trail and we saw a lot of confused thru-hikers wondering where we were coming from. The trail did give us one last great view of the back half of the traverse which we thought was a nice going away present.

Last Look

Again, if you are scouting this route, DO NOT use this “Last Look” picture as your barometer. It a) looks easier than it is b) without labels, you wouldn’t think the route crux is where it is. Nothing beats getting up to it and actually seeing what the route provides.

The hike back was uneventful but long. We eventually took a left onto the Milner Pass trail and set a blistering sub-20-minute-mile pace back to Frisco. If you are making this a loop, be aware, it’s a long way back to your car. Most twisted ankles happen on the return journey when you are tired and your footsteps suffer. Maintain your vigilance and make it back in one piece.

I hope the above information helps anyone aspiring to traverse this gem. It is a long, committing day above the trees but if you have the day, the company, and the scrambling ability, its a fantastic route. I’d go back just to play on the “Dragon” again, and try the ridge direct route up to Peak 4. Fun, fun, fun. As always, leave no trace ya filthy animals, and do not climb things that give you heart attacks. The mountains will still be there tomorrow. Cheers!

Statssssss

  • Peaks Summited: 5 (6 if you count Mt. Victoria)
  • Top Elevation: 12,933 ft atop Peak 2 (Tenmile Peak)
  • YDS Rating (3+ with class 4 options available, 5 if you climb that first tower)
  • Mileage: 13.something miles
  • Elevation gain
    • Frisco to Peak 1: 3700 ft
    • Total (all ups and downs): +/- 5000 feet

Mt. Alice via The Hourglass: 2+ YDS Class (Options for 3) 7/7/20

Dealing with the Post Challenge Glut

I’ve had a bit of trouble finding a personal game plan after I finished climbing all 60ish 14,000-foot peaks in Colorado (the official tally is 53 but sub-peaks count y’all). It was a monstrous challenge and kept me occupied for the first four summers that I was in the state. When I finished in 2018, I took some time off to explore other activities outdoors that struck a chord with me. Unfortunately, without some sort of navigable bearing, I just ended up kind of farting around through 2019. Then, the dumpster fire of 2020 put some things into sharp relief for me. During the ‘spring of despair,’ I was able to refocus on the things that I loved about mountains and develop a plan to get back to good. That plan was centered on scrambles.

Between my backcountry ski trips to Uneva Peak and the Queensway Couloir on Apache Pk (see previous blog post) I was feeling in shape and ready to embrace the summer. Don’t get me wrong, I love winter and the backcountry trips I’ve been able to slam, but my favorite seasons are summer and fall, and in Colorado, they don’t last long. Depending on the snowpack, you could still be navigating snowy areas well into July. When the gettin’s good, you gotta get it.

I know I’m a capable climber, my 14ers success speaks to that, but after the challenge, it slowly dawned on me that I needed to figure out what my niche was. Some people excel in the ‘generalist’ category, but I’ll always remember the advice my dad gave me after speaking with a coworker. He had accepted a job in Switzerland and while based in Zurich, began to try and figure out how many mountains he could climb. There are thousands upon thousands of mountains in Switzerland and the scope was fairly daunting. One of his coworkers told him (paraphrased), “look, there’s always going to be something to climb, what you have to do is find your niche so you can make progress on your list and avoid being overwhelmed by the options out there.” I took that to heart.

Defining my Niche

Post 14ers, here’s my personal niche and area of operations for the summer months.

Scrambles: anything from a 3-5.4 on the YDS class rating scale.

Location: Colorado, with a specific focus on mountains that are not 14ers.

Other considerations: Rock quality, which has become a crucial sticking point for me. I don’t much care for an exposed traverse or scramble if it’s on crappy, brittle rock that may or may not support your weight. That’s not a game I want to play every time I go out.

Simply put, I love the feeling of using all fours on a climb, but I don’t want to lug a 60 ft rope and rock climbing gear around, especially if I’m looking at a 17-20 mile day.

Getting Back to Good

After 2019’s summer of mediocrity, I decided that I needed a hike to re-inspire my desire to get back into the wild lands. I landed on Mt. Alice. This beautiful 13,310-foot peak is tucked into the far corner of Wild Basin, in Rocky Mountain National Park.

I would consider it to be one of the prettiest mountain in the park.

High praise, I know, but it’s well deserved. Not only does it take a long time for the mountain to reveal itself (something that in my mind, ratchets up the excitement), when it does, the show is worth every penny.

First reveal, at Lion Lake #1.

Rocky Mountain National Park is often inundated with tourists in the summer, but the lions’ share of people head into the park towards Glacier Gorge, Bear Lake, and Trail Ridge Road (the ultra-pretty road that traverses a stunning alpine section of the park). This manic focus by most, leaves large swaths of the park open to exploration. The deeper areas of Wild Basin are a great example. Arrive early (on a weekday if you can) and start hiking, you’ll lose any crowds after the first 3 miles. Another three after that, and after some elevation gain, you’ll arrive at Lion Lake, one of the prettiest places I’ve seen in recent memory. From here, you’ll get your first look at Mt. Alice.

Camping in the national park is limited to established sites and while I’m sure this has caused some grumbling between people over the years, the benefits of those limitations reveal themselves immediately at places like Lion Lake. It’s an absolutely stunning, and pristine basin, right at the edge of the alpine, and has that distinct “way the f*&^ out there” vibe.

After taking in the views of Mt. Alice across the lake, proceed around the lake. There is a fairly distinct visible trail with a smattering of cairns. Eventually you will work your way across the stream that flows into the lake. Keep off the vegetation as much as possible because the alpine is lush and healthy up here, a rarity in more traveled areas.

The appropriately named Snowbank Lake

You’ll end up on some slanted benches to the west of Lion Lake and Trio Falls, which pours down from Lion Lake #2. Continue up those benches on a north north-west trajectory, turning harder west once you parallel Snowbank Lake, the highest in the series of lakes in the basin. Moving west you’ll hit the crest of a pleasant and tame ridge that separates the lakes from a deep trench between you and the intimidating ramparts of Mt. Alice’s southeast block. Head north, continuing up to the head of the valley (the continental divide).

Mt. Alice’s intimidating Southern and Eastern Cliffs

Once on the divide, you could turn right and ascend Chiefs Head, or turn left and stare at the hourglass route up Mt. Alice’s inverted, blocky, upper slopes. Logistic note: the ridge you take to the divide is West (hikers left) of the low point between Mt. Alice and Chiefs Head.

Simplified route finding above timberline.

The Hour Glass

Quick disclaimer: I like to highlight and markup some of my pictures for route clarification. Black lines= general directions and/or class 1 route. Blue Lines=Class 2 or 2+ sections. Red= Class 3 sections. While not applicable for this climb, if there was a 4th class section it would be a purple line. Similarly, class 5 and above would be marked with an orange line. The class system is based on the YDS rating scale.

The beautiful Hour Glass route up Mt. Alice.

From this vantage point atop the divide, the remaining route up Mt. Alice can be disheartening. Don’t worry, there are many options here, as well as some that keep the difficulties at a 2+ level. Conversely, if you want some more spice, you can find some nice class 3 scrambling.

Variations of the climb. Red=Class 3 Options, Blue=Class 2 & 2+ options.

As indicated in the picture above, there are a few ways to tackle this. All options start with a pleasant jaunt along the catwalk ridge to the base of the hourglass. The vertical drop to the right is very large and this is not the place to be in high wind or a thunderstorm. During the monsoon season (June-July) always keep your eyes to the skies and watch for those thunderheads, they develop quickly.

Once you make it to the base of the climb, you can continue up the middle of the face (blue lines) where a few ledges are broken up by some loose dirt and myriad tracks from former hikers. The middle of the face holds less exposure but is suffering from loose rocks and erosion. Personal preference comes into play here, but 9/10 times, I would rather pick a more challenging line in order to stay on solid rock. My ascent route followed the red lines.

Even if you chose the spicier route, the climb never exceeds lower class 3. Hugging the ridge crest to the right has great rock options and holds, but also flirts with a sudden jagged drop-off. Pick your line based on comfort, and know that if you choose the class three option, you can always bail to the center of the ridge to put some mental distance between you and the cliffs.

A sample of one class 3 section ridge right.

The rock in the Class 3 sections towards the bottom and middle of the hourglass climb (ridge right) is sturdy and full of great holds. It’s really quite fun scrambling and again, if exposure isn’t your bag, shift a few feet to the left and you can still enjoy the all fours action without the airy feeling. As the above picture indicates, its just you and the big blue if you’re on the edge of the ridge.

Looking back at what you’ve already done. McHenry’s Pk and the visible notch are in the background Left.

In the picture above, dropping into the notch before the Hour Glass (blue line) is really just a 2+ sections with sturdy rocks. In between the blue and red line, is your first opportunity for a few class 3 pitches. Once you get over those first pitches (following the red line), the surface changes to more of a boulder-fest with some bigger slabs underneath. Check where you step before putting your weight on it, a few smaller rocks shifted beneath me.

Eventually I broke away from the ridge to climb across a snowfield.

1= Lion Lake #1, 2= Lion Lake #2, 3 = Snowbank Lake

On the other side of the snowfield, the slope relented back to uniform, easy Class-2, talus hopping up to a small notch between the two summits. A quick jaunt to the west will get you to the highpoint. Another quick jaunt to the east and you’ll have tagged both summits. Soak it in, this is a special place.

The Eastern Skyline: High points of Rocky Mountain National Park
Looking south along the eastern side of the divide

I enjoyed the view south and seeing St Vrain and Apache, two peaks I’d skied down, along with Navajo and Mt. Evans, which I had both climbed.

Future route to make the loop. Southwest View.

The view southwest was a nice preview for the next phase of the hike, a lovely stroll along the divide through some wonderful “Sound of Music” like alpine. I could see Isolation Peak and further south to Ogallala Pk. Across Middle Park, I even sighted Byers Peak, one of the most visible summits from Fraser and the Winter Park area.

Thunder Lake below Mt. Alice’s East Summit.

Divide to Thunder Lake

Eventually, I began to make my way down into the beautiful tundra land of the divide, staring at the looming Isolation Peak Massif as I walked north towards Boulder Grand Pass and my exit down to Thunder Lake.

Close Up of the Cleaver

After searching the bottom of Isolations Peak’s north ridge I found the Class 3 section of the ridge known as the Cleaver, which is on my shortlist of the things to climb. Looks like a lot of fun, especially with a combo of Tanima Pk.

The walk to Boulder Grand Pass is absolutely lovely and an easy stroll amongst lush alpine vegetation. I also sighted a peculiar feature on the long westward ridge from Isolation Pk. that looked like a mini El Cap, with a ridge connection that may be climbable, would be curious to get out there one day.

Westward View from the Continental Divide. A few sources have the mini El Cap listed as “aiguille de fleur” and it runs at a 5.2-5.4 up the easiest route.

The descent down Boulder Grand Pass can be a bit tricky if you hit it early in the summer. A large snowfield, quite steep, sits along the middle and south side of the pass. After searching for a while, I found a gully on the north side that allowed safe passage, but was on loose dirt and required serious shoe tread to manage. Once you begin the descent down to Lake of Many Winds, you’re back on the eastern side of the divide.

Looking down to Thunder lake. Descent route is left of the snowfield, hugging the dry rock rib.
Easiest way down Boulder Grand Pass if the snowfield is still there. Taken from Lake of Many Winds

From Lake of Many Winds, continue down to Thunder lake on a good use trail. At one point just before coming down to the shores of Thunder Lake, an unsigned junction gave me brief pause. I took the left arm and circled around the lake easily. On the eastern side of the lake, the main trail comes in and navigation back to the central portion of Wild Basin is easy.

A look back at Boulder-Grand Pass from the Thunder Lake Cabin

Once you make it back to the signed intersection between the Thunder Lake Trail (what you’re on) and the Lion Lake trail (what you ascended hours earlier), you’ll complete the lollipop portion of the loop. The rest of the 5ish miles out are on the same trail you came in on (the stick, if we’re sticking with lollipop metaphors) and you can make the distance quickly. Before long, you’ll be back by the waterfalls and the crowds that frequent them before popping out by your car.

Pro-tip: In Wild Basin, take the campground trail instead of the trail to Ouzel Falls to reduce mileage both on the ascent and the descent. You’ll miss Ouzel Falls and Calypso Cascade but will end up saving distance and time, which really helps on longer days like this one.

Stats:

  • Summits: 1 (Mt. Alice 13,310 ft.)
  • Total distance: 17 miles (for the loop)
  • Elevation Gain:
    • Strict: 4810 ft. (summit elevation minus trailhead elevation)
    • With variance: Over 5000 ft. (accounting for + 200-400 feet extra, depending on how much you climb and explore the ridge tops)
  • Maps Used: Nat Geo Rocky Mountain National Park #200 & Supplemental information gathered from Latitude 40 Map: Boulder County Trails Topo Map.

Queensway Couloir: An IPW Backcountry Ski Shuffle

Background

(Adventure date: May 31, 2020)

It’s cold in winter, it’s hot in the summer. In most places around the globe, this distinction holds true. Colorado, however, likes to push the limits of what these seasons mean. While ski resorts in the state are usually open from Thanksgiving to mid-April, it can snow any month of the year. In fact, as I sit here typing up this report in July, two inches are forecast to fall above 13,500 feet in some parts of the state tomorrow night. Nice.

So, if May rolls around, and you’ve done all the resort skiing you want, what do you do while the snow at the higher elevations slowly melts out? You could wait for most of the snow to disappear, but depending on the ferocity of the previous winter, that waiting could push you into mid-July. If that’s the case, you only have two months before the first snows roll back in. Summer is short in the big mountains. Alternatively, you could strap on some crampons and go forth to bag some peaks, or you could go backcountry skiing. From April-June, there are ample opportunities to go out and earn your turns, while advancing into places that would normally be inaccessible until months later. Over the last couple of years, I’ve been dabbling in some backcountry skiing while I wait for the high country to open up.

Logistics and Risks

Like most mountain activities, backcountry skiing is inherently dangerous. You need to be able to ski or ride at an expert level and understand how changing snow conditions affect your body position. Additionally, you must understand avalanches, what causes them, what features to avoid, and what the avalanche forecast calls for. To this end, a visit to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center is MANDATORY before any backcountry run in Colorado. In addition, the following bullet points are HIGHLY RECOMMENDED, if not also mandatory. Remember, Colorado is the embarkation point for a lot of people visiting the Rocky Mountains, do not end up on the local news because you died trying to do something you had no business doing.

Before you Go Checklist:

  • Can you ski at an expert level?
  • Have you checked the weather? Tip: If theres snow on the ground and its sunny, apply sunscreen liberally and wear thick sunglasses or ski goggles. The snow reflects sunlight right into your face and eyes.
  • Was it cold enough to freeze last night? If not, you will encounter very slushy and slidey conditions, plan accordingly.
  • How’s the wind forecast? I count this separately because wind is such a crucial factor for not only Colorado in general but you’re well being as well. A 25 mph day up high will zap all your energy and can easily lead to frost bite.
  • Have you checked the avalanche forecast site? (CAIC )
  • Do you have all the proper equipment? Backcountry ski set up? Skins? Beacon? Probe? Radios? HELMET?
  • Did you bring a friend?
  • Have you researched the route THOROUGHLY before attempting?
  • Did you text (at minimum) 2 other people your plan and emergency numbers to call should you not return at the planned time? (numbers to know: local forest service ranger district AND county sheriff office where you are adventuring)
  • Do you know the following information for your plan?: trailhead, access point, mountain names, distinct geographic features in your area, ie markers to reference should you need an emergency extraction
Apache Pk with Queensway Couloir to the left of the summit: May 31, 2020

The Plan

1. Gateway Trailhead and road section 2. Start of lakes section 3. Start of alpine section. NOTE: the lines I drew were on a small phone and I have fat fingers, use the actual trails to follow path of least resistance.

The Indian Peaks Wilderness (IPW), is a 73,391-acre swath of protected federal land near Boulder and Denver. The wilderness straddles the continental divide and there are no roads across the divide near it (the closest northern option being Trail Ridge in Rocky Mountain National Park, and the closest southern option being Berthoud Pass). Because of its unique geographic location, the wilderness can be divided into an eastern and western section. The eastern section lies only an hour from Boulder and two from the Denver Metro area. It is VERY popular in the summer months. However, there is a seasonal caveat. Owing in part to the amount of snow received, the road into Brainard Lake Recreation area (one of two hugely popular eastern wilderness access points) does not open up until June. When it is open, the paved road into Brainard requires a 12$ entrance fee (2020) and deposits you close to the mountain majesty. Up until the road opens, if you are willing to park at the gateway trailhead (adding 2.5 miles of road walking each direction), you can get into the wilderness for free and lose the crowds relatively quickly.

Why would anyone want to add an extra five miles to an already taxing outdoor excursion? Well, there are a TON of unique backcountry ski lines that can be accessed from the Brainard area, and they only exist as long as there’s snow. Waiting for the winter gate to open often means missing these lines. Because its so close to Boulder, even in the transition months (March-June), you’ll find hearty Coloradans here, heading out before dawn to shred the gnar. Click here for an older, but nicely laid out front range backcountry ski information page.

My buddy, Harlan, had been wanting to take on a ski descent of the Queensway Couloir on Apache Peak for a while. I had done a solo outing on it the year prior and wanted to revisit, thus the plan was born. We’d meet at Brainard Gateway Trailhead, get to the top of Queensway, ski down as far as possible, and get back to the car. Statistics: ~15 miles (5 miles total of road walk). Elevation gain: 3000 feet. Altogether it is not a monstrous day, that five miles of road walking is a huge hindrance, unless…

Two wheels are better than none.

Part 1 of the Shuffle

Bikes! Yes! A few years back when I first encountered the “road problem”, I noticed that everyone else crazy enough to be at the trailhead at 4:30 AM had bikes. Even with a couple snow berms blocking the road, if the conditions are right (think mid/late May), there are large stretches of road behind the winter gate at Brainard that can be biked. This is the first logistical hurdle of the shuffle, don’t forget to bring a bike, 5 miles of road walking with skis on your back is a chore.

Upon meeting at the trailhead, Harlan and I set up our skis ( I went A-frame, while Harlan opted for a diagonal carry since he had a specific backcountry pack that allowed this very simple set up). Click here for a simple video of some (not all) ski carry variations. The goal of backcountry skiing, aside from having a rad time, is to carry your skis as little as possible. The bikes helped this problem out immensely.

We made tracks up the road to the Long Lake trailhead, locked up our bikes, and looked at the conditions before us. Luckily, with thick snow covering the trail, we could set up our skins and clip into AT bindings without having to carry the skis up the trailhead. (Ski Skins definition: Wikipedia)

Photo stop, we continued w/ bikes until Long Lake TH.

We skinned awkwardly past Long Lake (on the North, or right side) and up to Lake Isabelle, enjoying brief conversation amongst near-constant huffing and puffing. The trail was snow-covered the whole way, but it hadn’t snowed in a week, so many sets of obvious skin tracks led us up to the lake. If this isn’t the case for you, stay to the right side of Long Lake on the ascent, continue on flat terrain until arriving at a signed trail junction. Head right, as if making for Pawnee Pass (a turn left will just circle Long Lake). Parallel the slope for as long as you can, ultimately banking right up a steeper snow chute BEFORE you get to the waterfall (you’ll be able to see it) that spills down from Lake Isabelle. At the top of this incline, bear left to a slightly higher bench and you’ll reach Lake Isabelle.

Part 2: Enter Alpine

The next logistic challenge was getting around the lake. There is a trail on the right (north) side of the lake but with snow and slick conditions, it’s a pain to traverse. Luckily for us, 75% of the lake was still frozen. After nervously testing the ice and trying to see how thick it was (thankfully quite thick, at least 6 inches) we marched across the lake.

Skinning across Lake Isabelle. (L to R.) Niwot Ridge, Navajo Pk (the snowcone looking one), ridge up to Apache Pk, Shoshoni Pk in front and furthest Right)

On the far side, we encountered our next large ascent. In ideal conditions, you can ski from the top of Apache Pk all the way down to the shores of Lake Isabelle. We missed the window by a few weeks and found that out upon climbing this incline and seeing an exposed rock garden for about 30 feet. Dutifully, we unclipped, held our skis, and traversed across to the next snowfield before putting them back on. The next section was relatively flat and included a couple of stretches that melt out a little faster than others. This section ended at an unnamed tarn with fantastic views of the upper cirque, ringed by the always intimidating looking Navajo Peak and the broad shoulders of Apache Peak.

The direct ascent route up to the bench that holds Isabelle Glacier and the beginning of Queensway Couloir is steep and unforgiving. Once climbed, there is only a brief respite before you have to ascend the couloir. While probably the fastest route, we were in no rush and decided to cross below the tarn to the north side of the bowl and climb up to the foot of the glacier, roughly mirroring the route of the summer trail. Our reasoning was simple, if we ascended this way, we’d have to carry the skis for a shorter period of time. We could then leisurely skin along the edge of the glacier (which sits on a pleasant bench and doesn’t require any crampon action) with the couloir in full view, until our final climb up it. With the direct ascent route, your skis are on your back from the tarn all the way up to the top of the couloir (or even the summit of Apache if you’re going further).

Up where the summer trail goes, you can barely see the unnamed tarn behind the second line of rocks. The long horizontal line through the snow in the back is the way to the direct ascent.

This plan worked fairly well and before long we were done with our first climb, back into our skis and skinning alongside one of Colorado’s last (and most accessible) glaciers. There were two guys that had passed us near the beginning of the trailhead hours earlier, and from the glacier, we had a great view of their ascent. We were even treated to a show as we watched them descend. The visual of the route really gives you a better idea of what to expect if it’s your first time up there. Pro Tip: if you want to scout the route, climb Shoshoni Pk, the summit has a great view of most of the descent.

A tired Harlan, and the rest of our route alongside the glacier edge to the Couloir
A close up view of the Couloir

After another 30 minutes of skinning, we arrived at the base of the couloir and reattached skis to packs once more. Here, the crampons came out. Microspikes are not a good alternative for this kind of adventure. Although they say they can help on slopes up to 35 degrees, the margin for error is too great —you’re not just carrying a normal pack’s worth of weight. You want big, beefy crampon spikes to carry you and all the gear your hauling up. Don’t skimp on good gear.

Me, climbing up the couloir

This was the most exhausting and most exhilarating part of the ascent. Is it the steepest couloir you can climb in Colorado? No, but its one of the closest places to the front range that makes you feel like you are truly mountaineering. It’s also a GREAT training ground for practicing snow skills and self-arrest techniques as the couloir doesn’t melt out until late August and the glacier sticks around all year.

After getting out of the couloir, we continued up to a smattering of rocks about 300 feet higher. We were doggin’ it at this point and clouds were starting to build to our west. Here, we made one of the most crucial decisions in mountaineering, to continue, or drop-down? The temptation to reach the summit is intoxicating (hence why they call it summit fever), try not to give in to it. Harlan helped me through this decision and proved why it’s so important to have friends with you in the backcountry. The mountain will be there tomorrow, you might not be if you push too hard. So, at ~13,100ft we strapped in and began our descent.

Part 3: The Descent

This is an edited picture from the summit of Shoshoni (taken the year prior) for route perspective.

The skiing was great, but the conditions were challenging. The slushy snow forced us to really sink our body weight back as we made our turns, or risk tomahawking over the front of our skis. Shaking off the initial jitters, we made it back down to the glacial bench and skied down the “direct ascent” route back down to the tarn, marked with a 3 in the picture above.

The down view from ~300 feet below where we started.
Towards the top of Queensway
Pondering the future
Me, in upper center of the couloir, good perspective of slope angle.

Skiing the actual couloir does not take long, you can thread through it in maybe 10-15 turns. At its steepest, the slope is roughly 35 degrees. On the descent, skier’s right starts mellow before getting sharply steeper. Skier’s left starts steeply above the couloir entrance (Section 1) and then mellows out towards the bottom. The middle was ok.

At the bottom of the couloir as the apron opens up. You can see the terminal tarn poking out of the bottom of the glacier (center mid, below Shoshoni’s cliffs). To the right of (and behind) Shoshoni’s jagged edge is Lake Isabelle, and even further back is Long Lake, ~ 2.5 miles further was our starting point.

From here, we had two brief ski carries across rock gardens before we were able to strap in and ski the last section back down to the shores of Lake Isabelle. While recrossing the ice, we got hailed on, which was unfortunate. However, after we crossed and hunkered down, it only took another fifteen minutes for the storm to swipe passed us. We only heard one thunderclap, which was lucky.

The rest of the skin and hike out was exhausting. As always it seemed longer than on the way up, but we made it back to our bikes in decent time, hopped on, and got back to the trailhead in one piece. The most amusing part of the whole adventure was the looks we received from casual day hikers along the road portion back to our car. Nearly everyone was in disbelief, which went a long way towards making us feel better for all the effort we just put into the adventure.

Well, there you have it, one of the best ski descents near the big metro areas of Colorado and one where you can say, without any reservations, that you earned your turns. Now, with the snow on full meltdown, it’s time to switch to scrambling season!

10 Types of Powder People

No other word in Colorado Ski country garners more attention than powder. It immediately conjures images of snowy glory and the attainment of winter nirvana. At the same time, it reveals a comical undercurrent to skiing and riding that seldom makes the front page when discussing the Rocky Mountains or the bastion of culture they harbor. While powder is certainly synonymous with mountain winters, it has become somewhat of a divisive term. It’s either lauded with admiration or shunned because it turns seemingly regular people into dopey snow junkies. As a wise snow shaman once told me, “No one is your friend on a powder day.” A powder day brings out the crazies, and if nothing else, allows for some of the most exceptional people watching I’ve ever experienced. So, without further ado, I present: 10 types of people you may meet on a powder day.

           Covering the bases: Before beginning, allow me to say that the following list is almost certainly incomplete and based only on my personal observations at established ski resorts. I have seen all of these types of people in action, but please note that the descriptions offered are intentionally comedic. In addition, you may encounter any of these people on any given winter’s day, but to me, they always appear more evident on powder days. Lastly, I am in no way exempt and absolutely exhibit many (if not all) of the same qualities I am poking fun at. Enjoy.

1. The Chairlift Chatterbox: Let’s set the scene. You arrive at your favorite ski hill and get in the chairlift line, excited to plunge into the fresh snow. You are stoked, you are ready, the day is yours. Then, someone else gets on the chair with you… and they’re a talker.

           It starts with a simple comment (probably about the weather) to seemingly no one in particular… but it’s just the two of you on the chair…you know it was meant for you. Maybe if you stay still, they won’t notice you, perhaps their vision is based on movement! Unfortunately, the rouse doesn’t work, and they start ramping up the pressure.

           Their next comment is about your equipment: they noticed it was new, and they complimented it—a bead of sweat forms on your brow. Don’t engage, you tell yourself, be strong, remember your training. You can feel their eyes on you; they’re persistent. Then, they start quoting movies you love, books you’ve read, games you’ve played, oh lord, how much more of this can you take?! Finally, they say one thing that’s just too dumb to ignore. You know it’s a trap, but you can’t resist. You give them the smallest look possible; your eyes make contact…it’s all over.

           Speaking at a mile a minute, they’ve gone through their entire family history since the 1600s, told you about that weird growth on their foot, offered sage advice about how versatile khakis are, and have conned you into watching their pet gerbil next weekend… all before the third chairlift tower. By the time you finally get off the lift, they’ve leeched out so much of your energy that you have to guzzle a Red bull just to stay upright.

2. Too Focused on Tech: As you digest the Red Bull, you let your eyes wander, admiring the view from the top of the chairlift. That’s when you notice the tech addicts. They usually present themselves in a few different ways; this morning, you see two versions.

           The first of the two is the social media mogul:they never miss an opportunity to post. There’s a group of them with phones at the ready, jockeying amongst themselves for the best view and best poses. As the competition between them heats up, someone unearths a selfie stick and, with it, a new level of narcissism. Straight to Instagram, the pictures go. Every one of the amateur photographers is just so #blessed to be here.

           A group of intense looking individuals comes off the chair lift, they represent the second version of the tech addicts, and you catch their conversation.

           “Alright, we’ve done three runs already, we’re on pace to hit all of the ones we want by 3:00, then we peel out of here asap to avoid traffic. Jason, how much have we skied?”

           The one named Jason pulls out his phone and opens an app that allows him to see how many vertical feet he has skied so far. The rest of the group gathers around Jason as if he’s a prophet.

           “Sitting at more than 4,000 vert already.”

           “Nice,” another member says, nodding their head ad infinitum.

           “Agreed,” another one echoes, “Let’s keep it up, and it’ll be a day for the record books.”

           You half expect them to conclude their little meeting by bowing their heads together and chanting, “All hail the app.”

           These techies know their time on the mountain is limited, so they focus on hitting the runs that will net them the most vertical feet. Lather, rinse, repeat until every personal record they’ve ever had is broken. The app is their metronome; with it, there is balance in the force; without it, they cannot calculate ‘vert,’ and all equilibrium is lost. You’ve skied with this type before; every moment you are on the mountain, you are on the clock. It’s a relief to be on your own schedule today.

3. The ‘Kinesthetics’ aka Committed and Uncoordinated: Feeling a little more human after your energy boost, you hit your first run, and it is sweet. You come to a leisurely stop halfway down to admire your tracks and tighten your bindings. To your right, a talented rider hits a kicker on the side of the run. He gets a respectable amount of air, a quick tail grab, and executes a flawless landing. But you weren’t the only one to see it.

           Inspired by the performance, a new rider gets it in his head that he can do that. He tells his buddies to film him and then (on shaky knees because this is only his second time on a snowboard) he straightlines into the jump and rockets into the stratosphere, screaming bloody murder, before landing face-first into the snow.

           There is thick silence for a moment, then movement.

           Broken bones be dammed.

           The kinesthetic gets right back up, looks up at his buddies, and anxiously asks, “Did you get it? Did you get it, bro? How sick was that air? Mad air, right?”

           The Kinesthetics learn by doing, treating their bodies as punching bags in the process. Sometimes it’s painful to watch, but you have to admit, they are not afraid of anything. You smirk, shake your head, and continue skiing.

4. The Music Man: That first run was great, skis breaking through powder like the prow of a ship through water. Before you’ve had enough, you’re at the bottom and at another chairlift. Determined to get back amongst it, you line up… but suddenly, something unpleasant assaults your ears.

           In front of you is a young adult wearing snowverralls and a fanny pack. But this fanny pack is different; it has speakers in it, and they are screaming out music at an unacceptable volume. Everyone else in the lift line shoots the person worried looks, but nothing changes… if anything, the music gets louder.

           The older couple behind you starts crying; this isn’t what they signed up for. Someone calls the UN to report a human rights violation, and you feel your brain start to slide out of your ears. Madness creeps closer, who is this spawn of Satan? Why is he playing Moby so f*&(#@! loudly??? You contemplate using your ski poles to stab holes in the speakers, but by the grace of Ullr, the lift line starts moving faster, and the music moves away from you. You let three groups alternate between you and the music man, but not because you’re being nice.

5. Why me? At this point, you’re two chairlifts in and getting to more challenging terrain. The second run is deeper than the first: fewer people, more powder. As you cruise down, you notice some frantic arm motions out of the corner of your eye, so you stop to observe. The person attached to those arms is having a struggle. 

           They’ve fallen multiple times, are drenched in powder, and are livid. You keep your distance but watch as they right themselves once more. Having momentarily defeated gravity, they again try to ski. It looks like it’s working, but then they attempt a turn, lose their balance, fall over their downhill ski and evaporate into a thick cloud of powder.

           Having lost both skis in the fall, they emerge from the powder and begin searching frantically, but it snowed a foot overnight, this situation will not resolve itself quickly. Feeling useless and frustrated, they collapse to their knees, throw their hands up to the sky and ask a simple question of the clouds, “why me?!”

           You continue skiing but stop less than a minute later when you hear another exasperated, “why me?” Searching for the origin, your eyes come across a ski instructor and a group of energetic kids. Half of them have fallen over, unable to right themselves in the thick snow, while the other half are gleefully launching themselves into the powder on purpose, with some of the smaller ones sinking in as far as their helmets. The outmatched ski instructor is trying her best to give instructions, pull the nearest kid out of the snow, and watch out for skier traffic all at the same time. The second she helps one up, another kid falls over, and the maddening pattern continues. “I wanna go home!” the children yell, their cries dominating the audible spectrum. You want to help, but there’s nothing you can do here, so you continue downhill, not wanting to add to the instructor’s woes.

           By the time you get back to the chairlift, a new example of exasperation reveals itself. He is the frustrated dad in all of us: three miniature humans surround him. One child is crying, one is poking the other with their ski poles, and the third is tugging on dad’s pants, trying to get his attention while screaming “code yellow daddy, code yellowwww!” The father is tight-lipped and glum. With kids in tow, he cannot indulge his powder fantasies. He must be an adult, and he is not pleased. You give him a nod of sympathy and get back on the chair.

6. Powder Hound aka the Backcountry Bro: Only one more chairlift before the powder stash you’re gunning for. This time you share it with a backcountry bro. He has a backpack… For what purpose you don’t know, but its immediately evident that he’s better than you. He pulls a beer from the backpack, throws his thumb through the bottom of the can like an animal, and shotguns the whole thing in front of you. Does he throw the empty can from the chair? No, he crumples it up and sticks it back into his bag. Pack it in, pack it out.

           He has gigantic, floppy powder skis. His gear is expensive but used; there are miles on it. His beard? Large and majestic, of course. You don’t say anything for a few minutes, because you feel like the wrong delivery might sully the moment, and then he won’t invite you into the secret powder club. But then, towards the end of the chair, he looks over to you and reaches into his backpack once more. It takes a minute to unearth what he wants, but you assume it’s because he has to dig past all the maps, animal pelts, and hunting knives he has in there. Out comes a shooter of whiskey; with a toothy smile, he offers you the small bottle. You accept but stammer for a response.

           Just as the right words pop into your head, the bro holds up a finger and cocks his head to the sky. His nose twitches, he smells untracked powder nearby; the hunt is on. The chair lift ride ends, and the powder hound skis effortlessly off towards the horizon, the screaming chorus of a thousand bald eagles propelling him forward, while you contemplate whether or not you’ve just fallen in love.

7 & 8. ‘The Stoners’, and The ‘Local 2.0’: 

 At the top of the chairlift, you have a couple of options: ski down, or hike above the treeline towards the alpine bowls. Dutifully you climb, following the well-worn path and the serpentine of snow junkies headed for higher ground. About 30 yards into the hike, you hear it, a nasally voice above the stomping of boots on the packed snow. The voice gets progressively louder until you have a visual.

           The voice belongs to a Local 2.0: he’s from here, and he wants to tell you about it. Luckily when you get close, he’s already found a captive audience: a group of guys with bloodshot eyes. One of the stoners had said that at this elevation, one puff had gotten him high. That comment was enough for the Local 2.0 to swoop in uninvited, and crash their conversation. “Hey guys, local speaking: listen, I’m from here, and I guarantee you I smoke more than all of you, yeah. I do this hike all the time high, like all the way up to the ridge, at least twice a day, so I know how hard it is. I’m a local. This is pretty much my backyard. I would know, I’m from here.” The stoners express concern that they’ve courted this ego with legs, but they’re too mellow to get rid of him, so they must endure the monologue that follows.

           The other people around you get restless; they don’t want anything to do with this clown, and neither do you. Your fight or flight response kicks in, and your pace quickens. You bolt past the ego with fervent strides. It’s another 50 yards before you venture a look over your shoulder. He did not follow; you’re safe for now.

9. The Humble Ripper: Finally, you’ve found your spot. You can trace the line you want to ski down the side of a brilliant alpine cirque. Beyond the open snow, a few tracks lead into a labyrinth of trees until finally, miles below where you are, the run finds a catwalk and circles back to the resort. Only one person is nearby. You look over at her: she doesn’t have a majestic beard or a backpack, she’s kind of scrawny, and her helmet doesn’t fit properly. But her smile is contagious, so you smile back. You wonder if she’s ready for such an endeavor since this is an expert level area. Your wondering doesn’t last long.

           “See you down there,” she says coyly before picking up momentum, jumping a small cornice into the cirque and slicing through powder as if it were nothing but air. She moves fluidly and rhythmically, and all other commotion on the ridge stops as envious souls stare. That scrawny girl made easy work of the terrain with humility, made you feel bad about doubting her, and is now the second person you’ve fallen in love with today.

           Only a few seconds pass before the Kinesthetics start debating amongst themselves if they can copy. It only takes one of them to mobilize the rest…

           There is no order, only chaos: it’s like lemmings falling off a cliff, all of them eating snow in new and dramatic ways.

10. The ‘Just Grateful to be Here’: About halfway down the run, which you hit with reasonable confidence, you come across someone sitting in the snow, staring out at the surround. Curious, you venture closer and see that they don’t appear injured or broken.

           “Everything ok?” you ask, wanting to make sure that this far out, they have the ability to carry themselves back to the resort.

           They turn to look at you and offer a genuine smile.

           “Yeah, man, I’m just grateful to be here.”

           You agree and accompany the wayward soul for a moment as you both stare into the wild yonder. The spiritual moment doesn’t last long, but it’s enough to smooth out the worries and wrinkles on your face. You too, are grateful to be here, and it’s a profound moment, being able to share that realization with another.

           By the time you both re-engage the slope, you feel revitalized and rejuvenated because, at the end of the day, the opportunity to be here far outweighs all other concerns.

           The rest of the day is glorious: you set your own pace, you set your own goals, and the runs come swiftly and smoothly. The people-watching continues, but it finally takes a back seat to your own enjoyment.

           Finally, hours later, as you set your sights on the last run, you catch a glimpse of the backcountry bro. But he has not tired at all and hits a double black diamond because he can. Feeling the aches and pains on your own body, you opt for an easier run and breathe a sigh of relief once you get back to your car.

           As you begin putting your ski gear back into the car, satisfied with how your day went, you get the feeling that someone is watching you… Your heart sinks because deep down… you know who it is.

           “Hey, friend,” the chatterbox begins, “still good to watch my gerbil next weekend?”

           Dammit…