Lead Mountain North Ridge: Crux of the Never Summers (Class 4)

TLDR: This is a fantastic and remote adventure in RMNP that utilizes some of the best rock in the Never Summer Range. You approach from wild and remote Skeleton Gulch, hit the main Never Summer Crest between Tepee Mt. and Lead Mt., turn south and begin scrambling. The crux of the whole range is the North Ridge of Lead Mt. (Class 4). You can stay on the ridge for aaaalmost the whole way, and it makes for a great challenge. There do appear to be workarounds near the toughest sections, but they also feature Class 4 scrambling. Once above this, you ridge stroll on looser but generally OK rock to the actual summit of Lead (2+). Then, for the most expedient way down, take the East Ridge (Class 3+/4). You can descend via Hitchens Gulch, the Ditch Road, and Red Mountain Trail back to the Colorado River Trailhead, OR you can retrace through Skeleton Gulch, descend to the river trail via the lower part of Thunder Pass Trail and head south to the trailhead from there. For mountain masochists, you could try the entire Never Summer Traverse or take Thunder Pass to Static Peaks East ridge (solid rock and Class 3), climb that, tag Richthofen, head south to Tepee, tag Lead, and then pop off the crest via Lead’s East ridge. ~16-17 miles roundtrip. ~3500 ft. gain/loss.

Here’s a video of the whole North Ridge scramble up to the summit.

Table of Contents

First light on the Never Summer Range from lower Skeleton Gulch. Tepee Mt. is the shape point right of the center.

Preface/Rating System

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 that 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.

Quick Stats: ~16-17 miles roundtrip. ~3500 ft. gain/loss.

Half pano of the area. “Never Summer Peak” is on the left, Lead Mt. is actually the next summit to the right, and the dominating North Ridge is the central high point. The range drops precipitously to the west.

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Introduction

The Never Summer Range is a fantastic, albeit lesser-known range of Rocky Mountain National Park. Part of its lesser-known status is due to a western location that’s harder to get to from the Front Range. During the winter Trail Ridge closes, giving the range another level of isolation. Another aspect is the lower elevation of the range. None of the peaks make it to the 13,000 ft. Access is also a bit helter-skelter. The eastern side you can get to from Trail Ridge. The northern side is best visited from Colorado 14 west of Cameron Pass. The western side you can get to from a few trailheads on long dirt roads, but it’s pretty scattershot.

The most popular area of the Never Summers is most likely the northern endcap, located in Colorado State Forest State Park (fees apply). From just west of Cameron Pass, you get a great look at it, and it’s jaw-dropping if you haven’t seen the Nokhu Crags before. Between the Crags, Richthofen (the highest in the range), Lake Agnes, and the American Lakes, this area pulls visitors. It’s also a popular backcountry skiing area in the winter. However, this area and the Rocky Mountain National Park area don’t connect unless you car position. So, they really operate separately.

Area overview map.

Overall, the range does not have great rock. Many of the summits require scrambling on loose and uncomfortable slopes. That pattern breaks in three notable areas: the east ridge of Static Peak, the North Ridge of Lead Mountain, and the East Ridge of Lead Mt. After two adventures to the range, I had done Static peaks East ridge (Class 3) and Lead Mountains East Ridge (Class 3+/4). The only thing left was the crux of the range, a sizable Class 4 ridge scramble up the North side of Lead Mountain, then a downclimb of the Class 3+/4 East Ridge to get off the mountain. Kind of like my ascent of North Arapaho from Wheeler Basin and descent of the Arapaho Traverse, you get two scrambles for the price of one.

Lead Mts. East Ridge (3+/4). This is your quickest descent route and makes for a fine scrambling adventure on its own.

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The Approach

Lead Mountain is an oddly shaped peak on the Continental Divide between the bulk of Richthofen to the north (and the almost invisible from the ridgeline Tepee Mt. in front of it) and Cirrus to the south. It’s not the tallest peak in the range and is, in fact, hard to see from many areas of Trail Ridge that otherwise support fantastic views of Cumulus, Nimbus, Howard, and Richthofen. For elevation-oriented hikers and peak baggers, there isn’t much to love here, but for the discerning scrambler and explorer, Lead Mountain is a winner.

A rare view of Lead Mt. from the east, taken from near the Mt. Ida trail.

If you’re doing this in a day, I’d say start before dawn. The approach is largely trailed and easy to follow with a headlamp so you can burn some distance. From the Colorado River Trailhead, head north toward Lulu City. Make sure to follow the signs for Thunder Pass. The trail will initially follow the river, pass the Red Mountain Trail, and go up and over some meadows and steeper sections. Eventually, you’ll break left at a large intersection and head to Lulu City (between 3-3.5 miles, the trail signs are a bit off in this area).

At the plaque for Lulu, it seems like the trail splits again (do not take the left variety, it heads to the river and dies on the other side). Stick to the right-hand variation and continue toward a footbridge across the river. Once across, you’ll begin a steady rise to the Ditch Camp area (passing a trail junction with the Little Yellowstone Trail). When the trail dead-ends into what looks like an old logging road, head left and through the Ditch Camp Group sites.

First mention of Skeleton Gulch.

Depending on how dark it is, there could be some momentary confusion here. You need to actually go through the Ditch Camp Group site (a large flat pad for tents should be visible on your right). After you pass the tent pad, look for this sign to continue to Skeleton Gulch.

On the other side, the trail meanders through the woods before connecting with the Grand Ditch. Almost directly across from where you are (slightly to the right), you’ll see a bridge over the ditch into Skeleton Gulch.

Take the trail ~1.2 miles up to the Skeleton Gulch campsite. From here on, you’re off-trail. You can either follow Sawmill Creek on its right (northern side) or go through the Skeleton Gulch campsite and cross the creek below it. In either scenario, you want to follow the stream uphill. The trees will break around the stream, and you’ll want to pick a gully on the northern side to gain some elevation. It’ll look like you’re heading up toward Richthofen, but this method avoids harder climbing.

Beautiful Skeleton Gulch. Lead Mt. is visible above and doesn’t look like much from here. Once you gain some elevation, the perspective shifts pretty quickly.
General route from higher in the gulch. Blue=Class2.

Once on a grassy plateau, sight the low point in the ridge to the left of the sharp Tepee Mt., which you can see from various points leading into Skeleton Gulch. If you choose your route well, you can get to the ridgeline without any Class 3 scrambling. From many points below, the North Ridge doesn’t look like much, but when you get up to the ridge, the seriousness of the route begins to take shape. Once you’re on the ridge, turn south and ascend to a high point (Class 2+). Once you top out on this ridge point, the rest of the route unfolds in front of you, and the scrambling begins.

Don’t worry, it’ll look a lot more intense when you get on the ridge. Purple=Class 4.

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The Route

From where you hit the ridge to the first high point requires a bit of Class 2+ navigating or light Class 3 if you stick to the ridgeline. It’s a nice intro but won’t last long.

Lots going on here, key takeaways: there are at least 3 sections of scrambling, each with Class 4 components (purple arrows). There are 2-3 ways to handle the crux, and the most direct way flirts with lower 5th class (Orange). Above the crux, there are some really great slabby climbing sections.

From the first ridge high point, a.k.a. the start of the scramble, this is what the rest of the ridge looks like.

You’ll start with some solid Class 3 scrambling that maintains elevation. For the most part, the rock is super solid; there were a few errant pieces that moved, so if you’re moving quickly, take a couple of extra seconds to check holds.

Enjoyable Class 3 up some nice slabs.

This part into a wild dip in the ridge where you’ll hit your first Class 4 downclimb and then a quick Class 4 reclimb up the other side.

In the danger zone.

I was both surprised by how long this first section took and how committing it ended up being. There were several sections where exposed climbing into and out of notches slowed me down, but the weather was gorgeous, there was almost zero wind, and the stellar rock helped A TON.

Eventually, you get up to a small knob that isn’t visible when you start but actually has a little prominence on either side. From here, you can stare up at the Crux section and contemplate your fate.

One of the more interesting perspectives of this area is actually from below. As you initially rise up from Skeleton Gulch, you can pick out some of the features I noted in previous pics.

Keep in mind, the ridge side facing us looks easy but a sizable cliff runs just below the picture frame which limits access to that side and you’d still need to scramble Class 4 sections to make it up to the ridgeline before cliffing out. Purple=Class 4, Orange=Class 5.

As you work way slowly up to the crux, the terrain hits high Class 4 pretty quickly and may sport a move or two at low 5. It’s certainly there if you want to stick true to the ridge. There are two “problems” you need to contend with if you employ a ridge-direct strategy: 1) there’s plant life growing in a seam you need to use to get up to the crux moves, and the alpine grasses in it are not great for foot traction. 2) An overhung lip limits your options to an exposed move to the ridge’s east side or squeezing into a pocket between two rocks and then figuring out how to scramble out of it.

Red=Class 3 approach to Class 4 alt. route. Orange=Class 5.

Although it’s still certifiably Class 4, there is a workaround to the right that breaks from the ridgeline briefly, attacks it at a relative weakness (light Class 4), and then turns left up this Crux Ridge (Class 4) until it reconnects with the main ridgeline above the Crux.

Work around. Once you get onto the Crux Ridge, there are a few surprisingly exposed Class 4 moves before you rejoin the main N-S Ridge Crest. Red=Class 3, Purple=Class 4, Orange=Class 5.

The workaround isn’t long and still gives you plenty to scramble over before you rejoin the ridge. You’re not saving a ton, but there are much better holds on the alternative route, and that can be a really nice confidence booster. If the ridge direct is calling, go for it, just know that it is harder.

Despite the difficulties near the ridgeline, the rock more than makes up for it all.

So, after the crux, you’re on to section three of the scramble. The difficulties are NOT over. However, the scrambling takes on more of a vertical profile. Up until the crux, you’ve gained maybe 150 ft. (net). The last section will pull you up another 250 ft. in short order. Thankfully, the rock remains wonderful, and you can stay true to the crest pretty much the entire way up.

You can pretty easily bail right and keep it at Class 3ish, but eventually you need to either go back to the ridge or climb up to the top of the rise, which could push you back into Class 3+/4. At this point, since the Crux is over, just stick to the ridge.

After some stout elevation gain, you’ll pop up to the top of the ridge, and the scrambling mellows back down into Class 2 terrain for a while. Congrats! Don’t take your foot off the pedal, though; you still need to go a quarter mile to tag Lead and then descend the East Ridge. Alternatively, you could go all the way to the saddle above Lake of the Clouds, but that requires additional miles, a 2+ traverse of all of Hart Ridge, and going up and over Cirrus.

Looking back after about 2/3rd of the way up the last section.

Here’s a link to Gopro Footage of the North Ridge scramble.

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Notes on the North Ridge

There isn’t much information out there on the North Ridge scramble; both Lisa Foster and Gerry Roach recommend staying west of the ridgeline for the majority of the scramble. The thing is they only have like a 3-4 sentence description of the whole route, which isn’t all that helpful aside from the generalized “stay west” advice.

I don’t know, partly because I love ridgelines and partly to prove that I could, staying on or within a few feet of the ridge crest was my goal, and it was exhilarating. This is a high-caliber Class 4 scramble. In the interest of transparency, I think you could possibly construct a bypass further west around more of the Crux ridge (like Foster and Roach suggest), but then you have to reclimb to the ridge; it’ll likely involve Class 4 sections anyway. The closest report I found that gives a bit more detail on a possible western workaround is here.

Sorry about the crap quality, taken on an old phone, but this is looking up at the Crux section.

Obviously, it’s a choose your own adventure type deal but let’s be real, if you’re out here trying to scramble this random ridge in a remote corner of Rocky Mountain National Park, you’re here because you enjoy scrambling on good rock in a pristine setting. If that’s the case, stay close to the ridge and enjoy the experience more.

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To the summit!

From the top of section three, you still have a quarter mile to go, but it’s easier. Note that the rock quality gets a little worse, still not bad, but off the crest, and even sometimes on the crest, stuff starts moving a bit. Watch for small rocks and if a rock looks loose, give it a tap with your hand or foot before putting weight on it.

What remains.

If you stay close to the ridge, you can flirt with some exciting exposure back to Skeleton Gulch. There’s also a small section of optional Class 3 as you draw near the summit but you can just as easily skip it.

Getting closer! Red=Class 3, Blue=Class 2

After a steeper Class 2 pitch, you get up to the summit.

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Lead Mt’s. East Ridge

This is the fastest way down. I’d scrambled up this route before and combined it with Hart Ridge. The rock is solid, and it’s a pretty enjoyable route on its own. Here’s a description I wrote on it for the website SkyBlueOverland where I’m a frequent contributor. You can also check out this summitpost page as well, which I used to prep for the route.

Here’s the abridged version; start descending down the east ridge with substantial exposure to the north. The rock quality is excellent, but you’ll still have to perform a few awkward moves.

Pretty soon, you’ll top a small subpeak, and then the route drops quickly away, leading to the crux and a pseudo-knife edge.

Crux moves. Purple=Classs 4, Red=Class 3

After the crux, you’ll have to downclimb the knife edge. Move for move, it’s not bad; just don’t let your eyes drift too far downhill.

After the knife edge, the exposure drops a bit, but you still have a series of small points to get over before the scrambling relents. Depending on your mood, at this point, it can be nice to keep scrambling or annoying that you’re not done yet. Stay alert until you’re safely on the saddle between Lead Mt. and “Never Summer.”

Lead Mountain and the East Ridge from inside Skeleton Gulch.

Right, well, you can either drop into Hitchens Gulch (right) or circle back to Skeleton Gulch (left). Snow does linger in both gulches well into the summer, so make wide moves around any snowy surfaces unless you have spikes. You’re still 7ish miles from anything, so stay focused on the return journey to your car. Take your time descending into whichever gulch you choose. Once you’re back on established trails, you can start hauling.

Video of North Ridge Scramble

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One thought on “Lead Mountain North Ridge: Crux of the Never Summers (Class 4)

  1. Diana August 30, 2022 / 1:03 pm

    Looks like fun! I clearly need to spend some time in the Never Summers.

    Liked by 1 person

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