TLDR: Incredibly fun Class 4 route on grippy rock. Over in 45 minutes if you’re moving slowly, and you avoid downclimbing any Class 3 or 4 sections by looping around via the Cooper Peak-Marten peak saddle. VERY long single day or great activity while camping at Gourd Lake. Bonus route (North Couloir) below. GoPro Footage of both routes below each trail description and again in the summary. Indian Peaks Wilderness-Northern Colorado (western side of the wilderness).
Table of Contents
- Preface/Rating System
- The Approach
- The Route: Cooper Peak, South Buttress
- Bonus: The North Couloir
- Summary and Acknowledgments
Quick disclaimer: I like to highlight and mark-up 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.
Cooper Peak is a fairly unsightly lump in the western IPW. From most angles, it isn’t much to look at and gets lost beneath the size and height of its eastern neighbors, namely Ogallala and “Ooh-la-la.” Even the local peak that it’s taller than, Marten Peak, is more eye-catching and features some interesting routes of its own.
Yet, Cooper Peak is one of the more magical peaks in the IPW due to at least three interesting routes on it. In his IPW book. Gerry Roach describes Cooper Peak as epitomizing the joys of the lesser summits. After climbing up Cooper via each of its interesting routes, I gotta say I agree. The South Buttress is a particularly fun and exciting route.
If you camp at Gourd lake, you can stare right up at it from your tent and contemplate potential route strategies. A good zoom also helps capture some of the more interesting parts of the scramble.
The approach to this area is pretty straightforward. Park at the Monarch Lake Trailhead in Grand County and hike to Gourd Lake (~8.3 miles one way). If you’ve never been over Buchanan Pass or you feel like punishing yourself, you can also get to Gourd Lake from either Camp Dick or Beaver Reservoir on the eastern side of the divide.
Once you’re at Gourd Lake, your first objective is to get out of the lakes drainage. Head north. You can ascend a number of ways. Since I camped by the lake, I circled the lake on its eastern side and just followed the stream that emptied into Gourd Lake uphill. It’ll take you up to a small unnamed lake. At this new lake, I hopped across the stream and headed for a notch to the left of some cliffs.
At the crest of this rise were two additional ponds with the towering South Buttress behind them. The challenge from here is getting onto the route.
You need to descend to the next stream, which is coming out of Island Lake to the northeast. There is a mini canyon that the stream goes through before entering the basin to the west between Marten Peak and Cooper. It’s best to cross either above or below the mini-canyon.
If you cross above the mini-canyon, orientation is fairly easy, but you will be bashing through some krummholz before the route begins. If you cross below the mini-canyon and then work your way up the ridge to the right (east), you should be able to find some gullies that lead up to the ridge line and the start of the scramble.
When the Krummholz ends, the scrambling begins.
The Route (Cooper Peak, South Buttress)
Beyond the krummholz, you have this rock step that you need to deal with. The scrambling starts there, and if you’re careful, you can pick a path through this rock step that doesn’t exceed Class 3.
For the next few parts, you’re right on the nose of the ridge. There are a few rocky steps like the first one, interspersed with grassy saddles.
This pattern continues for a minute until you get to the view below; then, you have an option.
You can stick to the ridge by heading initially right and then doubling back to get onto the crest. This appeared to be the sunnier and easier way (at least in the morning). If you want a quick Class 4 challenge on good rock, head to the left and follow an angling ramp to the side of a nice slab.
Get onto the slab and climb back to the ridgeline.
Between the top of the slab and the ridgeline is a little window that you need to climb through. The moves here are Class 4 but short.
Once you’re back on the ridgeline, scramble through a couple brief Class 3 sections before gettin up to the crux area, which looks like this from below.
After you’ve digested the view, walk up to the Class 4 slab and climb up it on its left (western) side.
Once you’re on top of this first slab, there’s a brief section right on the nose of the ridge with substantial exposure. The holds are good through this stretch, though.
After the brief part on the nose of the ridge, your path gets blocked by an overhung rock. You could climb it, but the overhung first few feet looked difficult. I found a Class 4 way by traversing to the right underneath the rock on a grippy slab and then climbing up and around the right side of the rock. This is likely the most exposed set of moves on the route.
Once you get through this part, the crux difficulties relent briefly.
The route isn’t over though and there are some more Class 3 sections and a surprising wall that you have to take care of to get to the top of the buttress.
After you get above the last scrambling surprise, the terrain starts to mellow out pretty quickly.
Before a minute has passed, you’ll be standing on a wide-open arm of Cooper Peak with no signs of the ridge you just climbed.
The flat finish can seem like a bit of a letdown, but the scrambling is awesome, and I’m sure there are more variations you can play around with on that route.
From here, head up to touch Cooper’s summit, or if you don’t care, head west and downhill to the saddle between you and Marten peak.
At the saddle, which you can get to with some loose Class 2+ terrain or sturdier Class 3 near the ridgeline, drop left (south) into the basin. Cross the basin, sneaking glances back at your ridge, which once again starts to look intimidating.
Recross the stream, climb up to the top of the low ridge on the other side and pop down the other side to get back to Gourd lake.
Here are some reminders of what you just scrambled up.
Here’s also a link to some GoPro Footage of the scramble. There is no audio, the only thing your missing is the blustery wind and me wheezing. If you expand the video caption it breaks down where I am on the ridge, which should correspond with the marked-up pics in this post.
Bonus: The North Couloir
In 2020 I climbed the North Ridge of Cooper and Marten Peak and wrote a trip report on it. Remembering how fun and surprising that route was, I committed to coming back and snow climbing the deeply inset North Couloir when it was filled. I climbed this route on July 18, 2022.
The North Couloir is ~55 degrees and is a fairly standard snow climb. You can mess around with the finish to create a nice mixed climb.
Here’s a video of how all of that looked.
Summary and Acknowledgements
Between Gerry Roach’s very brief description of the route in his book “Colorado’s Indian Peaks: Classic Hikes and Climbs,” the zoomed-in view of the route from Gourd Lake and a report by Lordhelmut on 14ers.com with a fantastic shot of the crux area, I felt good enough to give it a go. It was a very satisfying scramble. If I’m ever back in the area, I’d do it again. Super fun.
Here, again are the video links: