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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- 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.
Very nice post and very nice to see all these route details you have placed on the photos.
From your description (2+ YDS), it came in my mind my first ascent on Mount Olympus (Greece) that is rated as 3 YDS (class 3 rock scramble) and I had enjoyed it a lot.
Since then, I have been climbing and mixed climbing several steep routes.
Again, thanks for sharing such a nice post with all these info.
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There will be more! I LOVE scrambling and Mt. Olympus (for various reasons) has always been interesting to me. I will need to reach out when I go to Greece to climb it!