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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
Once we had finished exploring the features on the “Dragon”, we dutifully continued our traverse down the bypass to the west.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
- 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
Again a very nice post with many interesting details for the route you have followed.
I particularly like the way you illustrate the route on the photos.
The knife edge photo, also looks great!
Thanks for sharing
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