North Arapaho Peak – North Ridge (w/ descent of Arapaho Traverse): Class 4+ Scramble

Table of Contents

General overview

Preface/Rating System

Quick disclaimer: I like to highlight and markup some of my pictures for route clarification.

  • Black/white 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. Please note these colors are different than other sites. If you are unsure of what a color means, I usually leave a quick reminder in the picture caption.

Introduction

This is a spectacular and completely inconvenient route considering that the far more obvious Arapaho Traverse exists so much closer to the 4th of July Trailhead. However, for mountain masochists and people who have ever wondered if there was another legal way to climb North Arapaho, there sure is. Be aware that while some people continue to debate whether or not the crux on the Arapaho Traverse qualifies as Class 4, the North Ridge of North Arapaho absolutely does. You’ll be performing a series of angled Class 4 slab traverses and climbs while your bum hangs out over the infinite. The good news is the holds are bomber and move for move; it’s quite enjoyable. You do, however, stare right at the crux as you’re climbing up to the ridge, which is either exciting or terrifying.

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Approach

The first part of this scramble is easy. From the parking lot, hoof it up the trail to Arapaho Pass. You can knock this whole section out in the dark as long as you have a headlamp. Once you get to the Arapaho Pass Sign, take a right to continue following the Arapaho Pass Trail.

Stay on the Arapaho Pass Trail.

Stay on the well-defined Arapaho Pass Trail as it passes scenic Caribou Lake. The views to the northwest are particularly nice.

Looking at “Hopi” Peak.

Once you get out of that area, the trail drops down through a forested and rocky set of slopes until you creep into Coyote Park, another beautiful subalpine field with great views. When you get down to around 10,300 ft. above sea level, start scanning the terrain to the right, you’re looking for this view.

Here, the hike becomes trailless

Caltopo has this at about 6 miles into your journey (give or take). Anyway, once you see that old avvy chute, break from the trail, cross the creek and begin traversing left (north), trying to maintain your elevation as much as possible.

This is true off-trail navigation. If you go up to much, you’ll either cliff out trying to round N. Arapahos spindly west ridge or have to descend once you get near Wheeler. There are some game trails here that help, but you will have to break from them eventually because animal herd paths don’t usually lead to Class 4 ridges. It’s about a mile of traversing before you get into the mouth of Wheeler Basin. I’ve heard there is an old trail here that makes navigation a bit easier. I never found it because I got too excited and climbed up too high… Ultimately though, even my wonky path made use of game trails to enter Wheeler Basin. I then bushwhacked up the south side.

Gerry Roach describes Wheeler Basin as a fairyland, and he ain’t wrong. There are a series of meadows along the south side and mature trees with minimal undergrowth that made following herd paths easy (at least initially).

Stunning scenery in lower Wheeler Basin.

Eventually, a large avalanche path that looks like it broke from the side of Apache Pk. dumps debris across the basin. I used a system of downed logs to cross the creek to the north side and continued along its banks until treefall, and I swear the longest long grass I’ve ever been in forced me to ascend above the trees. From above the treeline, I just talus hopped around the vegetation difficulties and rounded back to the valley center when it seemed logical. If this seems vague, don’t panic, it’s a basin surrounded by cliffs; follow the direction of the stream until you eventually get to this meadow.

The head of Wheeler Basin, “Deshawa” is the mountain to the left.

Great, let’s orient ourselves.

Blue=Class 2.

Nice, not too bad. There’s a fun boulder field you can play in on the other side of the meadow (bouldering potential?). Get through or around it and climb a steep grassy ridge. On top of this grassy ridge, turn around for killer views of the basin and the gnarly western side of Navajo Peak.

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The Route

From the grassy slope, you transition onto a scree and talus slope to the ridgeline. This part kinda sucks; lots of moving rocks. The best and most stable rock is actually more to the left (north), and you can perform a series of angled traverses that make the most use of the sturdier rock. If you go for more direct, just watch the loose rocks and never ascend right above someone else. It’s here that you get some good and scary looks at the ridge and the crux section.

Fun?

Here’s a marked-up version of what you’ll be expected to do.

The Crux section. Class 3=Red, Class 4=Purple (lighter shade to highlight better against the rock).

The crux section is longer than any Class 4 you’ll encounter on Neva or the Arapaho Traverse. The crux buttress is also tilted, so you get this lovely off-kilter feeling as you’re climbing. I took some GoPro footage of the main parts of the scramble; I’ll toss a link in at the bottom of the description for added visual aids.

From the ridge crest, head south. The ridge narrows at a gap with views down to another little alpine glacier that’s seldom viewed since it’s deep in the off-limits Boulder Watershed. Once you pass this notch, the Crux difficulties begin in earnest.

It’s a wild ride up the Crux.

Because of the seriousness of this kind of climbing, pictures are lacking (look for video link at bottom). The order of operations is to first get up the step below the crux, perform an exposed traverse across a gap and swing to the western side. From the tilted bench you’re now on, find a diagonal-looking route up the buttress, that’s your Class 4. There’s climbing, traversing and some interesting problems to work through. The route is not just straight up. Once you find your way beyond a notch, the scrambling finally drops back to Class 3.

For the next hundred yards or so, stick close to the ridge crest, dodging any difficulties on the east side. You can usually stay pretty true to the crest. There are some surprises, so look for sneaky downclimbs, and secret ledges and keep bailout options in mind before committing to anything.

The serpentine ridge is very beautiful.

Eventually, you get to the low point of the ridge before it starts heading up to North Arapaho. Here, locate a long, green ramp on the east side of a set of crazy-looking cliffs. This ramp will lead you past the cliffs and up to another section of scrambling. This is the first place you gain significant elevation in a minute so expect a slower pace through it.

Red=Class 3

The ramp features some Class 3 sections and looser rock in the middle. You can ratchet the scrambling up to 3+ and 4 but trade the loos rock for sturdy rock and good holds on the ramp’s left side.

On the ramp, looking back at the lower ridge and another alpine glacier tucked into the Boulder Watershed.

At the head of the ramp, you have two options. You can climb up to a notch and through it to the other side (Class 3). On the other side, the rock ends into a big ole sandy chute. If you take the sandy chute up to the right (west) it’ll lead you up to the ridge crest (loose Class 2). Form there, you can veer around a final gathering of scramble rocks and continue up to the summit via loose Class 2 gullies.

Blue=Class 2.

But wait! There’s more scrambling if you want it. Instead of popping over then notch and into the sandy chute, turn right and clamber up the ramps headwall. It goes at a fun and surprising mix of Class 3+ and 4, with, again, bomber holds. From the top of this scramble, head left (south) up along the crest, where all that’s left to decide is whether you want to mess around on some more Class 3 scrambling (left) or take the path of least resistance (Class 2) up to the surprisingly broad and gentle summit plateau. You’ll see the enormous summit cairn and know that you’ve arrived!

The summit cairn.

After the handshakes and champagne, stow the silliness because you still have to do the Arapaho Traverse backwards before you’re out of scrambling danger. Translation: more scrambling, hurray!

The Arapaho Traverse has been well-documented in a few stellar resources, so I won’t go through all the bells and whistles with you but I will do a quick description and link to a bunch of useful resources. Before we get into that, here’s a marked-up picture of the whole North Ridge Route, as seen from the summit of Navajo Peak.

The purple area is the Crux. Red=Class 3. Blue=Class 2.

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Video of North Ridge

As indicated before, here is some footage of the more dramatic parts of the North Ridge, hope it helps!

The Arapaho Traverse and Exit

Essentially, get off the summit plateau by finding a strong use trail that dips down in between two rock outcrops.

The trail as it leaves the summit plateau; easy start.

The hardest moves are downclimbing between the two rock portion(Class 3+).

Downclimbing this features the most serious moves to get off the summit plateau.

Once beyond this, find the first opportunity to juke right and get out of the sandy mess at the bottom of the notch. Use this trajectory to find the trail and hug the western side of the ridge.

Looking back at the notch to get off the summit plateau, a possible alternative to the left?

You can dance along the ridge if you want, but the trail and path of least resistance hugs the western edge until you’ve passed a few obstacles. Eventually, the trail will circle back to the crest. Scramble up the rocks in the pic below.

This reclimb will get you up to the top of the traverse crux. There looked to be cairns marking a very circuitous path down and to the west. I suppose you could follow them and skip this part, although you lose a ton of elevation in the process, and if you’ve just come over the North Ridge, you’ve already dealt with the hardest stuff anyway. The crux is fun.

This is the crux rock from the bottom. Scale is missing, but if you stand on the crack to the right, you can basically reach the top of the rock. At most, this is a 2-3 move Crux, I think still Class 4, but so short you may be wondering if that was actually it.
The whole area. Red=Class 3, Purple=Class 4.

After downclimbing a sneaky step underneath the crux, pick up the social trail and keep on keeping on. After this, the trail winds up a few ridge highpoints. There are ways off of them, but they might not be at the very crest of the ridge, where a few isolated Class 5 moves wait. If you lose the trail, stop, turn around, and hunt for the path, it is there, and it takes you beyond any remaining difficulties with minimal Class 3 thrown in here and there.

Before you know it, you’ll be on South Arapaho Pk! From here, you have some Class 2 to contend with on the way down to the next saddle (stick close to the ridge and avoid descending to the right before the slope allows for decent traversing). A strong official trail meets you at the saddle, from there follow it right and it will intersect with the Arapaho Pass Trail after a significant descent. Turn left, and take the Arapaho Pass Trail back to your car. Done!

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Summary and Additional Resources

While helpful, my Traverse info is just the quick and dirty version, here are some better resources:

I also used a couple sources to help get into Wheeler Basin, keep in mind the Caltopo route on the Arikaree link for getting into the basin was lower than what I ultimately ended up doing.

And once more, here’s a link to my Gopro footage, which covers the most dramatic parts of the North Ridge, including the Crux components!

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Part 10: Adventure Crescendo

Intro

After my parents left, it was time to load up and head back to El Diente for our last 9-day hitch there. Though we’d really only been on the project for something like two months, we’d experienced a lot of adversity in that time. Two crew members gone, bear and rat attacks, miserable weather, etc. I started to feel a bit sad that we’d be moving on. For me, we really came together as a group during our time on El Diente and the squad we’d re-engineered felt more durable than the first iteration, something I think we were all pretty proud of. Come what may, El Diente pushed us, and we pushed right back. I started figuring that for the off-hitch after our time on El-Diente, I would try to string together an epic series of adventures, a crescendo of the summer season filled with as many adventures as I could stuff into a set of six days. Boy, did I get that right.

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Hitch 6 (back half of August, 2015)

Having already established the new trail, our last hitch was going to be making the old trail disappear. It had never been stabilized and was an erosion trap in all senses of the word. We’d already rerouted the alpine portion and reinforced the lower bits of the main trail. So, with our CFI guys on the saw, we started cross-cutting trees to chop into manageable bits and regrade the old trail’s tread. From there, we’d dig up durable alpine plants (root ball and all) to replant the sections of old trail.

Trail Work Terminology Update (exclusive to this hitch)

  • On the saw: Whoever is operating the Chainsaw, which requires a special permit to do on federal land.
  • Cross-cut: A monster saw without an engine, the baddest regular saw we could carry in with us. Used since forestries ancient days, it’s a two-person push-pull saw that can make quick work of burly trees.
  • Soil compaction: A naturally occurring process on heavily used trails. The more boots there are on a trail, the more compact the soil gets. In order to replant and make old trails disappear, you have to make sure the plant roots can break into the soil and take root. Step one, using Pick Maddock’s and other tools to break up the compacted soil, helping our little plant buddies make their new homes.
  • Checkered Check Step: Like a regular check step but with a checkered and raised pattern on the tread side so people can step on it without sliding off an otherwise slick log.
  • PPE: Personal Protective Equipment like eye protection and helmets, mandatory in many cases and dependent on the organization your working with and what they’re doing.
Gator Gal and I working on a checkered check step, a crosscut is against the tree behind us.
The finished product. While it may seem excessive, logs get real slick if it’s raining so avoiding a nasty sprain while stabilizing tread seems like a win-win.

Between revegetation efforts, crosscutting, and checkering steps, the entire hitch was busy busy busy. We often swapped tasks to try and alleviate the monotony but ended up back at our old stations when we realized we’d all developed borderline OCD about how things should be done. Don’t try and fix what ain’t broken, eh?

SWCC crews are really guns for hire, so even though CFI had bought our services for five hitches, that didn’t necessarily mean we’d have the satisfaction of seeing the job through to completion. We helped as much as we could, kept their project pace on schedule and when it was all said and done, packed up our camp and left. From what they told us, it looked like they’d be working for another month or two, depending on when the first snows came in. Despite the less than satisfying realization we wouldn’t see the final project through, both CFI leaders expressed enormous gratitude for our work efforts and floated potential employment for next summer, which I thought would be a lot of fun. They were competent people and trail-building wizards; if I was to do trail work again, I’d want to work with the best. I told them I’d be interested if an opportunity opened up.

With that, we geared up on our last day, bid adieu to the CFI people, and left El Diente.

Bonus Story: On the way back from the worksite, we decided to stop in Dolores and eat at the local diner, a nice little send-off for our project. After sitting down, I got another reminder of the fact that Western Colorado is decidedly not Denver. A couple of plaid shirt and trousered fellas were discussing (loudly) the state of the new hire they had for their farm. Apparently, he had a man-bun, and this did not sit well with the older gentlemen. Ever the inquisitive soul, I tuned in and heard the following:

“A man bun?”

“Yeah a man bun, I felt bad but he seemed interested in fishin with us so I figured I’d better talk to him.”

“What’d you say?”

“I said boy you better cut that thang off if yew gonna come fishin with me!”

(Many nods of approval and manly grunting).

I honestly hadn’t heard that strong of a twang since leaving Georgia and it amused me to no end. And look, I’m not a huge fan of the man-bun either because I’d never be able to pull it off, but those oldies laid into him like the poor guy had committed a capital offense. Old stereotypes die hard, I guess. Somewhere out near Dolores, the dueling banjos from the movie Deliverance are playing.

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Because I Could:

Over the course of the summer, my backcountry competency had been rising dramatically. A string of adventures where I hadn’t almost died really helped cement that notion. Always on the hunt for the next things to do, after leaving El Diente, the impermanence of the summer finally hit me. Another couple of months later and I’d be out of a job and off the trail, less if the snow decided to come in earlier. I doubled my efforts to apply to ski resorts, though many weren’t opening applications until September, and set about trying to construct the craziest, most demanding off-hitch yet…because the summer was short and because I could.

Not only were my backcountry skills improving, but I was also, almost without a doubt, in the best shape of my life. Not jacked, which is functionally useless in a manual labor position, but cut and capable. I had six days to kill, no obligations, and a pool of hundreds of SWCC members spread across various crews, who were also looking to maximize the time they had left in this magical corner of Colorado.

Those factors led to a great conversation during the previous off-hitch (before my parents showed up) with another SWCC member named Hawk. Now, Hawk is a great rock climber and wanted to dip his toes into some multi-pitches; meanwhile, I wanted to climb into Chicago Basin and lop off the most remote fourteeners in the area. We decided to do both. First: a multi-day odyssey into Chicago Basin, followed by a two-day journey to climb Mt. Vestal. Then, to top it all off, I’d travel to the great Sanddunes National Park, meet Gator Gal, go sandboarding, set up camp for the night, and drive like a madman back to start the next hitch. Needless to say: I was STOKED.

Once our crew supplies were stowed and the hitch officially ended, I rushed through quick goodbyes, told Gator Gal where/when to meet me for the Sanddunes and jetted into town to meet up with Hawk. After a quick prep session where we packed up and got our supplies ready, we turned and burned for the Purgatory Creek Trailhead, hoping to make some serious distance before it got dark. The adventures were about to take off!

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Chicago Basin: Mt. Eolus (standard ascent, Class 3)

The most common way to access the three 14ers in Chicago Basin is to pay to ride the Durango-Silverton Railroad. The train cuts through the Weminuche Wilderness (splitting it between a smaller western portion and the massive rest of it). The train cuts off seven miles and multiple thousands of feet of elevation but also costs around 100$. For a couple of dirtbaggers, this seemed like a steep price, so we decided to just hike in for the whole thing and see what that did to our bodies.

If you don’t take the train, the hike starts near Purgatory Ski Resort, following the creek as it cascades north of US550. The first half of the trail consists of a descent to a series of picturesque flats, followed by another steeper descent to the banks of the Animas River. Unfortunately, the day was a little gray with weather threatening. In an ideal world, we would’ve been able to plan around the weather, but knowing we only had one shot to make it happen forced our hand. We threw our rain gear on, took compass bearings, and forged ahead with maps in tow.

It took a couple of hours, but we made the Animas in good time, crossing the river over a massive footbridge and eventually across the tracks themselves.

Not long after the railroad crossing, we had our first wilderness encounter. It was an adolescent black bear, my first black bear sighting in Colorado, and a cool sign that we were in it now. Weird fact: though I’ve seen more bears in Colorado since that day, I’m fairly sure I’ve seen more between N. Ga and Western NC. Black bears there be plenty.

Our guy was just to the side of the trail, rubbing his back against a tree like a back scratcher. We took some quick cell phone photos and began hollering at it to move. Startled, the bear ran into the woods and cleared our path. Brown bears are the more dominant variety and don’t always move when you scream at them. Luckily, Colorado doesn’t have brown bears, and black bears are far more skittish. If you see one, make yourself big, and make lots of noise, yell, scream or hell, even sing. They’ll give you space.

Hey pal.

After following the Animas River for a while, we reached a junction with the Needle Creek Trail, which provides the most direct access to Chicago Basin. Turning uphill, we continued hiking for as long as the light let us and then set up camp in a small, flat field ~100 yards from the trail. Having slammed close to eight miles in the fog and rain, we had no trouble firing up some quick dinner, stowing our smellies, and collapsing into our tents.

Smellies: Anything you carry with you that emits scent. Bears have a really good sense of smell. When you create a bear hang or use a bear canister, it’s best to put ALL of your smellies together, unless you want a rude awakening or a close encounter.

The next morning we woke up early, collapsed our tents, and hit the trail inside of 45 minutes, determined to get into the basin and set up for our summit escapades. The fog was still clinging stubbornly to the higher ridges, but we managed to make good time and drop our heavy supplies at a new campsite high in the basin.

Getting into the basin.

With our packs much lighter, tents set up, and position secured, we decided to make an attempt up Mt. Eolus. Eolus is the monarch of the west side of the basin and named after the Greek god of wind. It’s also mispronounced A LOT. It is not “YO-lus”, “Ee-lus” or any other version. Ever watch Lord of the Rings? Pay attention to how they say “Eomir’ or “Eowyn”. Phonetically it should sound like this, “Eh-oh-lus”.

Ehohnyawy, the trail up to the twin lakes at the head of the basin was easy to follow, courtesy of CFI, who had spent a previous season buffering it up. After the lakes, we found the obvious climbers trail to the left and up into the arms of Eolus. The fog still hadn’t quite departed, but we had committed to the adventure and took what the day gave us. Upwards and onwards.

Getting higher up the slopes of Eolus.

Once we ascended through a steep and very green basin, we reached the headwall and followed ascending ledges to the right (north) until we lost most of the vegetation and wound up in a high altitude land of rocks and stubborn snowfields, holding on to the memories of past winters.

Looking down at Glacier Point (~13,700 feet) and the high elevation tarn to it’s right.

From the top of the new area we found ourselves in, we finally hit the ridge separating Eolus from North Eolus, an unofficial 14er that doesn’t quite make the prominence rule. We, of course, decided to tag both since we were there (eat your heart out prominence purists), but not before grabbing this incredible view of the king of the winds atop Eolus.

Whoa.

Seeing the bowl of fog tucked into Eolus and outlined by our ascent route across the Catwalk and up the ridge gave me goosebumps. Seriously cool example of the tussle between weather and mountains. Eolus, the god of wind indeed.

Turning around we sighted the Class 2+ route up to the top of North Eolus and made tracks to it.

After the nearly two days of effort it took to get here, it was nice to be able to stand on top of a summit, and the view back to Eolus just got more and more ominous.

Top of North Eolus with Mt. Eolus in the back.

We spent a little time on the summit catching up on water and food. As we rehydrated and reenergized, the weather gave us a couple of foggy windows into the type of terrain we’d stumbled into.

Has a bit of an Italian Alps vibe doesnt it? Looking down into The Ruby Creek Basin with Monitor Peak and Peak Thirteen in the fog.

After a bit of ogling at the wild scenery, we set our sights on the ultimate target of the day.

Now, Gerry Roach, in his seminal 14’ers guide book, has illustrated a route that utilizes the catwalk and then skirts left until climbing ledges up to the top. In the photo below, where the red and blue arrows meet, it’d be the equivalent of taking a jog left into the fog and route finding from there. For multiple reasons, this did not seem like a prudent way to climb Eolus. Instead, we said fuck it and climbed the ridge directly up to the top.

To the left of the bottom-most Red arrow is a Class 5 headwall. You can easily bypass this section on the right (west) side and reattain the ridge.

Now, little did I know at the time that I’d be trail working in Chicago Basin next summer (2016) and would climb Eolus a grand total of six times. All six summits were made via the Ridge Way direct. Y’all, Eolus provides. Every place where it looked like it would cliff out, there was a secret step or support move that avoided the difficulties and keep the climbing at Class 3. If the ridge-line scares you, go the standard route, if a little exposure exhilarates, take the the direct approach. Move for move it’s not harder than the Ledges, just more exposed.

North Eolus poking through the fog from the summit. The rock at the bottom right is the highest summit rock and provides a nice perch.
Patagonia bout to call, demanding me for a male outdoor model. Stay tuned.

The set of North Eolus and Mt. Eolus and the look at either from the other is just a sublime Colorado experience. To date, it is my favorite 14er to climb and provides generally solid rock. As always, double-check holds before setting weight on anything.

On the way back down the ridge, a good sense of the “challenges”.

Naturally, the fog didn’t dissipate until we were waaaaay off the summit but all in all, the climb was fantastic. What a great introduction to the area with some excellent rock scrambling in supremely interesting conditions.

Getting a little lighter as we made our way back to the second camp we set up for this trip.
After descending by Twin Lakes, the fog finally began to lift. Here’s a view looking towards Aztec Mountain (left) and the upper part of Chicago Basin as it spills south.
Our campsite was tucked into the clump of pine trees in the center-right portion of the photo. The western slopes of Eolus (really quite a large mountain) are behind it.
Finally, back at our camp, we settled in and enjoyed relaxing for the rest of the afternoon. This is looking back up into the higher parts of the basin with Pk 18 (Dark fairy castle) left, Windom in the clouds to the right, and Jupiter as the large lump to the right of everything.

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Chicago Basin: Sunlight and Windom (Class 4 and Class 2)

After a relaxing afternoon in camp with the sun warming our cold bodies, we slept like logs. Waking up early to take advantage of the most stable part of the day (afternoon T-storms in the high country are a real safety issue), we stretched, downed some oatmeal, stashed our smellies, packed up, and headed back up to Twin Lakes. This time, instead of peeling left to tag Eolus, we broke right and headed up into a feeder basin between Sunlight and Windom

At this point, I’d read just about every piece of literature about the 14’ers in the basin as I could find. The verdict seemed to be that Eolus was a fun Class 3 scramble, Windom was a 2+ bolder fest, and Sunlight was a sandy, irritating climb with a serious Class 4 final move to the summit (reminiscent of Mt. Wilson). Generally speaking, that was accurate.

Twin Lakes and the Needles.

The upper basin was lovely in the early morning light and we had fun identifying landmarks as we passed them.

Basin left (north). Sunlight Spire is technically over 14,000 feet but requires ropes to ascend.

Our first target would be Sunlight Pk., followed by an excursion over to Windom. Sunlight, while tough, is really a pile of oddly shaped rocks leaning drunkenly against each other. Before you even get there, you have to climb a very sandy and slick slope that reminded me of the bottom part of St. Helens. Two steps forward, one step back territory.

Lumpy Windom.
Twin Thumbs (left), Peak Eleven (center, leaning right).

We proceeded up the slope with careful steps, marveling at the bulk of Eolus and North Eolus behind us, and finally clear from fog.

Higher up in the basin. Both Twin Lakes visible lower and the whole Eolus massif behind it.

After dispensing with the lower slopes, we reached the ridge between Sunlight and Sunlight Spire. Precipitous and beautiful, we were awarded views north into more of the majestic Weminuche. No roads in sight.

A window in the Sunlight summit ridge, looking north to Jagged Mountain, a famous mountaineering destination and the namesake of Jagged Mountain Brewery in Denver.

After a little scrambling around we were also given a peak to our next crazy destination, Vestal Peak in the Grenadier Range. Isolated and sporting quite the vertical relief, Vestal and its left neighbor Arrow looked like serious endeavors. Before I spent too much time thinking about it, I punted my reservations into a corner of my brain called “tomorrow problems” and went back at it like a bad habit.

Arrow Peak (L) and Vestal (Center). Our next area of adventures post Chicago Basin.
Looking across to Windom and Jupiter behind it as we rose up the Sunlight slopes.

Finally, we reached the summit plateau, which for many is the top. Technically, this isn’t correct because a crooked 30-foot rock with a sizable overhang is the true highpoint. That’s the Class 4 portion; up to that point, we’d dabbled with some 3+ moves, but the summit rock is really what puts it out there. Smoothed out of substantial holds, the summit rock is not easy. You climb up a parallel rock, flop onto the summit rock, and then kind of beached whale yourself up to the top. Maybe there’s a more graceful way to do it, but that’s how I climbed the thing lol.

Looking north again with Jagged Mountain and the pristine Sunlight Lake Basin below (the lake pictured is unnamed, Sunlight lake is below the flat rocky section to the left of the unnamed lake). The rock at the bottom left of the picture is the summit boulder, a 30 foot, overhung rock supported precariously by other rocks, hope you brought your courage!

We spent a half-hour gawking at the incredible views. The Weminuche is by far the largest and (in my opinion) the most interesting wilderness in Colorado. There are no roads; no mechanical noises save the occasional jet overhead: it’s pretty dang wild. Chicago Basin is fairly popular as far as that goes, but a lot of the areas we were staring into hadn’t seen human traffic in years.

After a quick refuel, we geared back up, descended into the upper basin, and began scrambling up the side of Windom. What started as a strong second wind quickly whittled down to huffing and puffing. Windom isn’t difficult in a technical sense, but it’s still a big lump of earth, and despite our enthusiasm, we could not just run up it.

Climbing Windom with Eolus behind.
Sunlight (left) and Sunlight Spire (right). Arrow and Vestal (behind) with the Trinities to the right of them.
Unnamed lake in the vicinity of Sunlight Lake. The pointy peak in the background is Rio Grande Pyramid. The Rio Grande River (the one between Tx and Mexico) starts behind and to the left of it.
More unnamed lakes to the east with Greylock mountain and the daunting-looking ridge to Thunder on the right. Mount Oso is the highest peak in the grouping behind Greylock (no trails exist near Oso, it’s all deep wilderness).

After lounging around on the summit and enjoying the sunny day, we turned around and descended quickly back to our camp. The reach goal was to make it back to our car (~15 miles away) by the evening, rush to Molas Pass, fall asleep at the new trailhead, then start out for Vestal the next morning. Could I do that now? No, but again, best shape of my life, anything was possible.

After packing up camp, ready to head back down.

Ultimately we did make it back to the cars after a long, long hike back. Despite our waning energy, we’d stashed some energy drinks at the Purgatory Creek Trailhead and inhaled them before heading north to the Molas Pass area. There was no way I was going to set up camp that evening after two summit tags and a ~15-mile exit hike, so I just conked out in the Subaru. Since I’d done it before, it wasn’t even that uncomfortable. Next stop, Vestal Peak.

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Vestal Peak

Hawks pose says it all, boy were we feeling our bodies this morning.

After a groggy rise and some choice words the following morning, we set about securing our essentials for another jaunt deep into the Weminuche. Luckily the sun decided to stick around, so we weren’t fighting rain anymore. Of course, the added light and warmth meant sunscreen and a lot more hydration. Trade-offs. Possibly the most painful sensation of a multi-day trip is setting a heavy pack on your hips. Our shoulders were strong from trail work but bruised hip bones just plain hurt, and a 30-40 pound pack really hammered that point home. Once we’d cursed ourselves appropriately for being so ambitious, it was time to get moving.

Looking down into the Animas River valley with the spires of the Needle Mountains standing watch above.

The first part of the trail was a long descent down to the river, followed by a long ascent back up to a bench, where we would then break trail and bushwhack our way up to the basin below Vestal and Arrow Peaks. The trailed portion was on a part of the Colorado Trail, a 485-mile trail from Denver to Durango, which overlaps with a large part of the Continental Divide Trail as well. One of the more famous/infamous sections of the trail in this part of Colorado is the descent from Molas down to the Animas River, consisting of something silly like 30+ switchbacks, dropping you over 1700 feet down to the river. Not so bad on the way down, but realizing we had to climb back up the switchbacks on our way out kept the optimism in check.

Hawk along the railroad, same one we’d crossed to get into Chicago Basin, just a couple dozen miles further up.

From the river, we had to follow the rail tracks for a bit until breaking left (east) and heading up the Elk Creek Drainage. The trail was easy to follow and enjoyable for the most part; I mean, up is up, and with a big pack on after three days of hiking already, it’s all just part of the grind. We got our first look at Vestal from near our cutoff, around a set of beaver ponds. Looking south at the imposing form of Arrow and Vestal was enough to boost my heart up into my throat.

The intimidating first look at Vestal (left) and Arrow (right). The ridge we would climb was called Wham Ridge, and it was in full sight.
Better view of the beaver ponds area, focused more on Arrow though the top of Vestal is still visible.

We took a break at the trail junction and forged ahead. Now, even though it is trail-less, in Colorado, especially sub-alpine and alpine areas, the bushwhacking is not reminiscent of any of the hellscapes out east. Usually, there is some semblance of tread to follow (especially if it’s a big mountaineering goal like Vestal) or relatively easy navigation on a day when you can sight landmarks. We found the climber trail up to the Vestal Basin to be fairly easy to locate. However, there were absolutely no switchbacks to speak of, so you were, at times, climbing straight up very steep slopes and desperately holding on to exposed roots.

After a lot of grumbling, grunting, and sweating, we broke out of treeline and began hunting for a campsite: while the imposing form of Vestal stood watch.

Evil looking.

…the problem with being excited is that you tend to do things without thinking about it.

After quickly setting up camp, we looked at each other and immediately reached the same conclusion. Instead of waiting around camp staring up at Vestal, we could just climb it right away. Hawk, who had brought the rock climbing gear, was immediately on board. So, despite conventional wisdom telling me to pump the breaks until tomorrow, we set out to climb Vestal at around 3 pm.

The approach from our camp wasn’t bad but we had to scale a low ridge and a marshy area before getting to the lower ramparts of Wham Ridge. Of all the routes in Colorado I’ve climbed, I still think Wham Ridge is one of the most appropriately named. I mean, wham, there it is, a ramp straight up to the stratosphere.

Wham. We rock hopped across the talus, took an ascending travers left onto the ramp and began scouting a way up.
Taken from right before we hit the main ramp. Ascent route is diagonal left until we were on it.

We successfully navigated to the main portion of the ridge and assessed what lay in front of us. Wham indeed. Hawk figured the first half or so we could scramble between the ramp and some horizontal vegetation benches without too much trouble. Since we’d brought the gear, we were actively looking for harder faces to climb; I do think there is a way to climb it as a Class 4 without ropes. Warmed by the alpine fire and the afternoon sun on our backs, we began heading skyward.

Looking back to the lower valley where the Colorado Trail deposited us.
This is a shot east, towards one of the Trinity Peaks. I found it striking that even though there are only a handful of peaks within the Grenadier Range, they’re all kind of on their own: not connected by high ridges, which is so common in other parts of the state. It really gave the whole range a regal, imposing quality.

After the grass benches lessened, we geared up and began scouting routes. The San Juans, in general, have lousy rock quality, but the Grenadiers and the Needle Range (Chicago Basin inclusive) have generally great rock, which absolutely helps the enjoyment along. In my opinion, the worst combination is a dicey scramble on loose, dangerous rock (i.e., Pyramid Peak in the Elk Range). With solid and stable rock underfoot, I knew I’d be able to trust my arm and finger strength to get me through any challenges that lay ahead.

Hawk, kitted up and scouting.
Looking back down to the valley floor where our camp was (somewhere in the pines). The lake to the right is also a good place to set up camp for a Vestal summit bid, FYI.

When the ropes finally came out, things started to get serious. From my previous experience rock climbing with Hawk and a couple of buddies from SWCC, I had a good idea of what was expected from me. I knew how to be on belay and pick up equipment once Hawk had set up the end of the pitch. Roger, copy, affirmative, and away we went.

One of the tougher pitches.

In total, I think we managed five pitches, with the third and fourth pitches being the toughest. The rock was solid but sloped against us, so purchases were a little harder to come by. If I had to guess, I’d say the hardest parts were in the 5.6-5.8 range and generally only a few moves long.

Pretty fly for a…Timo

Despite us zooming through the pitches, it took a while for Hawk to set them up and for me to pry loose some abandoned gear. By the time we finished our fourth of five pitches, the sun was noticeably lower in the sky. Instead of panicking, we doubled our efforts while enjoying this beautiful time of day. To be honest, I think the hour or so leading up to sunset is the most beautiful time of day in the mountains. The area is quieter, day-trippers have gone home, campers are setting up, and the mountains feel freer. It comes with plenty of risks, like dealing with darkness, but for those couple hours, it just feels like the world is taking a deep breath with you. Connected: is the word I would use to describe the feeling. You just feel like a part of the world around you.

Catching the sunset.

We finished the roped portion just before sunset. Hawk had wanted to do another pitch, but with sunlight waning, we thought it best to free climb the rest. After testing our scrambling skills in Chicago Basin, we knew we could find a way to get up the last bit. The top of Wham Ridge is pretty much vertical, but the rock is blockier and had excellent holds compared to the smoother ramp below. I found the change of free climbing enjoyable and sped up to the top of what I thought was the end of the climb. Wrong! The top of Wham Ridge ends at a subpeak (hard to tell from below). From there, a little more scrambling is necessary to attain the true summit, which is depicted below.

Just past the sub-summit and on to the main peak.
Finally on top! What a view. Left to Right (Windom, Sunlight (then a lower part of ridge) back up to Eolus & N. Eolus, back down and the last shapely peak on the right side is Pigeon).

As I’ve said in previous blog posts, the climb is only half the battle, so despite the IMMENSE satisfaction of topping out on this absolute unit of a mountain, we knew we still had a lot of work to do….in the dark.

The descent begins.

For various reasons, I did not take a lot of pics on the way down, but it was intense. Armed with headlamps, we made our way down, but Vestal is steep, no matter what side your climbing. The back of it, where we descended, is also much less stable than the front. We kicked some rocks down and had to slow the pace a lot to make sure this wasn’t the last mountain we’d ever climb. The brittle nature of the rock on the side we descended was interesting for another reason. Every time we’d kick loose a rock, it would fall and smack into the slope with a vibrant spark like I imagine flint would if starting a fire. Watching a rock fall down thousands of feet, sparking as it slams repetitively into the side of the mountain was kind of a cool phenomenon. It also reminded us of what would happen should we take a tumble, so keeping that in mind, we proceeded as cautiously as we could. It was a long and tedious descent.

Finally making it down to the rubble field around the base of Vestal, we still needed to traverse out of it. If you’ve ever been in a giant talus field you know it can be fun to rock hop, but if you misstep, you twist an ankle, or worse, get into a 127 hours situation. With it being almost completely dark, that might’ve been the most frustrating and time-consuming part of the whole climb. It really helped having Hawk there to bounce route ideas off of. If we had been making it up as we went, we could’ve easily walked off a cliff or fallen in-between large talus boulders. By the time we finally made it back to camp, we didn’t even make dinner, just passed right out.

Glorious peak.

Morning brought a period of reflection, made easier by our front row seats to Vestal’s blocky profile. What a beast. I think we must’ve sat in silence and stared at it for over an hour before finally willing ourselves to pack up and head out.

Look, I’m not a huge rock climber, I’ll never lead, and I’d only go with someone I trust. Vestal is not the hardest wall out there, but it demands physical sacrifice to get to it, let alone climb the thing. It was also a wonderful opportunity to push my comfort zone and try something new. I had a blast. Mad respect to everyone who gets out of the gym and climbs in the great outdoors; it ain’t easy.

Realistically though, It just isn’t my jam. I’ll probably never be a competent rock-climber; outdoor gear is expensive enough as it is, and I just can’t be bothered. I grew up hiking, backpacking, summiting mountains, and scrambling. That isn’t to say there aren’t some incredibly impressive people out there who climb, and again, mad respect, but eventually, you need to settle into the things you’re good at. I’m thrilled I was able to land a multi-pitch in a wilderness setting, but unless the factors all line up again, I’ll probably stick with hiking and scrambling.

If you want to check out an inspiring, cerebral climbing blog, head over to Olympus Mountaineering. You can tell these lads love what they do, and there’s no finer thing than seeing someone excel at the thing they love. The effort they put into their routes is the difference between a discipline and a passion.

After our quiet reflection in Vestal’s shadow, we packed up and headed back down to the Animas.

As predicted, the climb back up to Molas was a pain in the arse, but we did it. With a handshake and words of affirmation, Hawk and I parted ways. I drove back to Durango, grabbed a shower at the rec center and some internet at Durango Joes to plan the next stage of my off-hitch bonanza.

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San Luis Peak

While not as isolated distance-wise as the Chicago Basin trio, San Luis Peak is not close to anything. The only way to hit it is if you hike the Colorado Trail or drive waaaaay around to a place called Creede and take some old dirt roads up into a holler. Conveniently, it’s kind of on the way to the Sanddunes, or close enough to it that I could justify lopping it off the 14ers list. After doing some quick research in Durango, I saddled up, did some shopping, and drove around to Creede.

Creede is a small town that is so off the beaten path you’d be forgiven for thinking it didn’t exist. Wilderness around here is plentiful, but I got the feeling the locals weren’t too sweet on visitors, so I passed through town quickly, found my dirt road, and slept in the car.

Amazing the difference a day can make. Woke up early expecting sunshine, got clouds and fog again. Oh well, off I went.

The profile of the mountains here wasn’t as dramatic as the bulk of the San Juans, but the weather gave it an otherworldly look.
Catching the sunrise on my way up San Luis Peak.
Looking at the lumpy summit, just a Class 1 walk to the top.

Even though the weather wasn’t great, the popularity of the Colorado Trail meant I still ran into a handful of people through-hiking. We traded a couple of stories and set off on our respective missions. If you end up running into some through-hikers near any long-distance trail, give them a shout-out or conversation. Long, lonely days on the trail can drive people a little batty. I always found it helps to engage when the moment is there and give them some human contact.

Desolate looking.

Above is the best look I had at the mountain. It’s…a mountain. I don’t think I’d ever hike it again, but it was nice to check boxes and walk along another part of Colorado. I always enjoy filling in my mental picture of a state, and San Luis Peak was in an area I hadn’t ever been to; for that, I salute it.

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The Great Sand Dunes

After tagging San Luis, I drove down to the Sand Dunes, making such good time, I beat Gator Gal by multiple hours. Fueled by my easy summit, I decided to go adventure around while I waited for company. The Dunes are an amazing National Park and well worth the visit. The area had received an unusual amount of rain, so the whole area was really quite green, adding a lovely contrast to the dunes themselves.

The dunes from near the campground.

The campsites were almost luxurious compared to sleeping in the Subaru, firepit, smoothed area for tents, table, grate, and a big ole bear box. High livin, I tell yah! I set up my stuff, grabbed my day pack, and walked for the dunes. Along the way, I ran into my campsite neighbor and struck up a conversation with her. We combined forces and set out for a dune stroll while hoping to catch a sunset.

Mount Medano standing watch over the Dunes.
Medano Creek is a seasonal outflow from the Sangre de Cristo Range and provides a beautiful contrast through July. Later in the summer, the creek dries out.
The Dunes themselves were easier to walk on because they’d been soaked, leading to a tougher outer crust.
We walked up to the highest dune and looked westward to the setting sun. Amazing how quickly the temperature dropped when the day began to transition to night.
Cold and beautiful.

After viewing the sunset, we headed back to the campground as Gator Gal pulled up. In true outdoor fashion, we broke out the drinks, toasted to life, and traded outdoor stories until sleep called us home.

The following morning, Gator Gal and I headed to the little store just outside the National Park boundaries that sold sand boards. Why not, right? We got a little crash course in what we needed to do (basically wax the entire board so it slides) and then set off to find a dune to conquer.

The clouds made for fantastic photo ops.
Gator Gal shredding hard.

Once we fell a couple of times, we managed to secure our balance and had a fantastic time speeding down the tallest dunes in North America. 10/10 would repeat.

It’s hard to put into pictures how immense the dunes are.

Once we exhausted the duney possibilities, we broke camp, packed up, and headed out. Another hitch was around the corner, and truth be told, I was a little adventured out. Focusing on some trail building would be a nice change.

On the way out, I drove around to the Blanca Massif, a super obvious set of enormous peaks, visible from just about every angle of the San Luis Valley near it. Blanca is the third tallest mountain in the state, and the area houses two additional 14’ers. Naturally, I had to grab a shot of it, including a good perspective on Little Bear, one of the more dangerous 14’ers out there. Someday soon I would be standing on top of it!

After that, I made the long, lonely drive back to Durango, thinking of my accomplishments during what was rapidly becoming the most adventure-laden summer of my young life.

Final Thoughts

One of my favorite expressions is “get amongst it.” I first heard it when I was studying abroad in New Zealand and it just instantly made sense. Don’t be above, below, or to the side of it, get amongst it. Surrounded by achievements and salivating at the possibility of future adventures, I knew I was amongst it. Connected.

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Little Matterhorn 11,586ft. (YDS 3)

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.

The iconic view of Little Matterhorn from Odessa Lake

RMNP

All vehicles entering Rocky Mountain National Park need a pass to enter, there is no free entry into the park without a pass (excluding free parks day which occurs once a year). You can find more information here.

Quick Background and Approach

The above picture from Odessa Lake is one of the multitude vistas that pushed the creation of Rocky Mountain National Park. Simply put, it’s breathtaking. Front and center to this view is the Little Matterhorn. Many people have stared at the peak from the lake shores but far fewer have scrambled up to its exciting summit. While imposing and daunting from the lake, you can approach Little Matterhorn from the backside and keep the scrambling at a manageable Class 3 with significant exposure.

There are two ways to attack little Matterhorn, from Bear Lake or from Fern Lake trailheads. My first visit to the area was from Fern Lake Trailhead up to Odessa Lake, the vistas unveiled at Odessa from this approach are wonderful. If you’re set on climbing Little Matterhorn from this direction you need to make your way up to Tourmaline Lake and hike Southwest to the low spot on the ridge between Little Matterhorn and Knobtop on the Continental Divide. The shorter and easier approach is from Bear Lake and only costs you about 7.6 miles with 2800 feet of vertical. The only “disappointing” thing about this approach is that you realize Little Matterhorn is really an extending ridge from Knobtop and not the solitary behemoth that it appears to be from Odessa. This is why I put the picture form the lake shore up top, so you can see why people named it Little Matterhorn. All perspectives from Bear Lake will show the mountain in a much different light.

From Bear Lake (get there reallllllly early on weekends or you will not be able to enter, no joke, like 5 am. Weekdays are a bit better but not by much) begin by hiking counter clockwise (right) around Bear Lake. At the first very obvious trail sign, take a right up hill towards Flattop. Begin climbing for .4 until you reach another junction, head left. From here, you’ll hike around the bulk of Flattop mountain (at the Flattop summit trail junction just keep heading straight) until reaching the height of land between Flattop and Joe Mills Mountain to your right. At various points, you will see a massive wall of mountains in front of you. Start paying attention when the trail begins to lose elevation, if you don’t deviate, eventually, you’ll descend down to Odessa Lake. Right before the trail takes a sharp right hand turn, look for the unmarked junction in the picture below. At this point you’re a little more than three miles into your journey.

Take a Left here at this unsigned junction, you can see the top of Ptarmigan Glacier in the cirque above you.

After moving a couple of minutes down this path, with the shallow Lake Helene to your left, you’ll see another unsigned junction with a smaller trail heading right through some grass, take this trail.

This new path will lead you towards your target. As is the case with “off trail” in high elevation areas, even in the trees it’s fairly obvious to see where you’re heading. Occasionally the unofficial path you’re on will fade, don’t panic, keep your eyes on the prize and note that you will lose about 200 feet of elevation at first which is necessary to avoid some cliffs. Keep Grace Falls to your left. The general trajectory is to circle the head of the basin you’re in and head to the saddle between Little Matterhorn and Notchtop. See the pics below.

Route overview, Little Matterhorn is labelled at the top left.
One of the first look at the whole enchilada.

To the Ridge Line

One you cross Fern Creek begin your climb by performing an ascending traverse to your right. The slope will change to an all talus affair with no trail. On occasion, you’ll pass areas that are susceptible to rock slides (evidenced on my trip by flattened alpine grasses and fresh streaks of dirt across large areas of boulders). Make sure to parallel the steeper areas instead of ascending into them.

Once you are in the proper gully (fairly obvious as all routes further to your right put you on slabby/steep rock), ascend until you find a logical break in the slabs to your right. It is NOT necessary to follow the gully all the way up to the low point of the ridge, you can cut off a significant corner by angling an ascent diagonal right towards a prominent rock on the ridge-line.

Head up to the rock circled in red. From there, the ridge scrambling begins.

There are plenty of options further right to tackle some scrambling early on but make sure to head up to the prominent rock circled in red in the picture above. Various trip reports have called this rock a variety of names over the years, the two I see most often are “Lizard” or “Dune Worm”. To be honest, it looks like both, point is, it’s really hard to miss and when you get closer, looks like this.

It is easier to bypass the rock on its right hand side and attain the ridge, though veering left provides a fun, brief Class 3 section. In either scenario it is possible to scramble up the backside to the cleft in the rock, from below it’ll look like you’re being eaten.

Once on the ridge, the scrambling begins and the seriousness of the summit ridge presents itself. While only Class 3 and not very long, the exposure is fairly relentless. Take your time and watch where you plant your feet.

The intimidating view of the rest of your scramble.

Summit Scramble

The short and dirty version: From the Lizard/Dune Worm rock, you’ll flip over to the Northern side of the ridge and traverse underneath two ridge knobs, which look very prominent from below but are easily bypassed. Continuing on, you’ll flip to the South side and traverse under a Third knob until you reach the Crux. It is possible to ride the crest on the second and third ridge high-points but it will require at least a few exposed Class 4 and Class 5 moves on the backside. Once again, the exposure here is severe. After the Crux, hop up to the summit.

Keep in mind there are three knobs, and the Crux area before the actual summit. The formula is left around the First and Second Knob, right around the Third Knob, stay on top of (or very close to) the ridge crest until the Crux, and then up to the summit cairn.

First part (go left).

Longer version: Take off from the Dune Worm/Lizard rock and veer left around the First Knob. Keep your trajectory and perform an ascending traverse around the bulk of Knob #2 which is longer than it looks. Some Class 3 moves are required on the traverse. Once you round the corner depicted in the photo below, the terrain eases for a brief moment and you are presented with a couple options.

The easiest method is to stay at your elevation and traverse until arriving at the gap before the next knob. At the gap, you want to flip to the right side of the ridge (the South side) in order to bypass Knob #3.

Sensing an opportunity for adventure, I reascended the ridge crest early (still on Knob 2) and found a passable (albeit very exposed) descent to the low-point between 2 and 3. While not super efficient, it does provide a great idea of the typical level of exposure out here.

STEEP.

Once you flip over to the right (South) side, traverse along some sloping rock to bypass the bulk of Knob 3, paralleling below the crest.

South side slabs.

Once you’ve polished off the South side slabs, the Crux section becomes apparent. It is the most exciting set of moves on the mountain and quite exposed, although the moves themselves are only Class 3.

At this point, the ridge whittles down to a set of stacked boulders with huge drops on either side. In order to reach the Crux, you need to scramble up to the crest by climbing the rocks shown below. There is a work around but it is not easier, I’d even rate some of the individual moves as low 4th, the only benefit being less exposure. It’s a gully running left and around to the north side of the Crux, but I did not scout all of it so I can’t tell you how beneficial it is in the end.

Moves right before the Crux.
The hardest moves on the mountain.

Yeah, so it’s a bit of a doozy, ESPECIALLY if it’s windy. Unfortunately, without a climbing partner it’s difficult to show human scale, but the Crux involves you stepping out onto a Pride Rock looking ledge. There are handholds, which you will be white knuckling. As you face into the rock, there’s enough room on the ledge for a full boot length but not much more. The most critical moves are when you shimmy around an exposed corner to find more suitable rock on the other side. The ledge your standing on is overhung and drops at least a hundred feet before catching the slope at a 25-30 degree angle and continuing to fall down to the Fern Creek drainage some thousand feet below that. BE CAREFUL. I’ve attached two pictures below (one angled down, the other angled towards the summit rock) to hopefully give a better understanding of the terrain. The silver lining is that it’s not long and much easier on the way back.

Angled down.
Angled towards the summit.

Once you round the corner, the terrain lessens and all that separates you from the summit are a couple climbable boulders. The top is a large flat rock with a surprising amount of space considering how narrow the ridge was at the Crux. Enjoy! There is a summit register there as well.

Looking back at the Crux from just below the summit.

Extra Credit

There is an Eastern Summit, marked by a gigantic cairn. This requires some Class 4 moves to get to. Proceed down from the summit until reaching a crevice that you have to wiggle into and drop down to a lower plateau before re-climbing a rock ledge to the Eastern Summit. The crevice is a complicated down-climb and up-climb with little space to work with, I’d call it Class 4, the rest is simple Class 3. I did not do it on this adventure due to typical (and annoying) front range winds gusting into the 30’s. Oh well, gives me a reason to go back!

Descent

Owing to the nature of the summit ridge, the only acceptable course of action without ropes, is to retrace your steps to the Lizard/Dune Worm rock. From there you can head back down towards Bear Lake or veer right and descend into Tourmaline Gorge. The formula for the way back is ridge crest past the Crux, left around Knob #3, right around Knobs 2 and 1, then left off the ridge and descend the way you came up OR right into Tourmaline Gorge.

Little Matterhorn may not be much to look at from various points (see below) but is an excellent and heart pumping scramble that at 7.6 miles roundtrip should only take the committed climber half a day to complete. In addition, because it is under 12,000 feet, the season for scaling it usually extends much longer than area 14ers or high 13ers.

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

“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…

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.