The “Incisor,” and some of her friends: Northern Park Range, Colorado (Class 4)

TLDR: The ridge north of Big Agnes is full of interesting soft-ranked peaks with sections of rolling alpine, surprising challenges, and bomber rock. It can be roughly split into two parts, a higher section from the shoulder of Big Agnes to the “Incisor,” and an end-cap with the “Castle” and its unnamed neighbor, both of which look like minimum Class 3 scrambling. This report covers a Slavonia start, Micah Basin approach, ascent of “Middle Agnes,” and a jaunt north over every high point to the Incisor and a smaller, hidden (but really fun) high point behind it. Then, you loop back to the highest of two unnamed lakes in what I think is the prettiest basin in the region. Pick your line of least resistance to the saddle with Mt. Zirkel, turn south and piece together a connection to the Gilpin Lake Trail. From there, bust on back to the car. What you get: clash of environments, forest, alpine, off-trail hiking, short bouts of Class 3-4 scrambling on good rock, a series of high points, two stunning unnamed lakes, lots of off-trail exploration and, ultimately, a loop back to where you started. I don’t think this hike will appeal to too many checklist people when you have Zirkel, Big Agnes, and Flattop Mountain as the area’s only 12ers and this hike covers none of them. I saw the potential for this route from a previous scramble of the west ridge up Big Agnes and wanted to check it out. I’d consider it more of an exploration-type adventure than a summit bagging or scrambling adventure (even though it has both). This hike made me reexamine the role arbitrary elevation lines have had in limiting mountain discovery because on a map it doesn’t look like there’s much to love, but when you get back there, it’s a whole different ballgame.

-Roundtrip distance: ~13 miles (+4,150 ft.) *roughly half of the distance is off-trail, your pace will slow and orientation skills are a must*

Go Pro video of the ridge/scrambling portions only.

Table of Contents

Click on a heading to jump to that section. At the end of each section is a “Back to Table of Content,” phrase, click on it to return here.

The “Incisor” from “Golden Tooth”

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:

  • Highest point: 12,010 ft. on Middle Agnes
  • YDS breakdown
    • Approach to Micah Lake: Trailed Class 1
    • Spike Bypass saddle NE of Micah Lake: Class 2
    • Middle Agnes to Highpoint 1: loose Class 3 traverse or Class 5 downclimb, Class 3 ascent
    • Highpoint 1 to “Molar Tooth”: Class 3 descent, Class 2 ascent
    • “Molar Tooth” to “Golden Tooth”: Class 3/4 descent, Class 3 ascent
    • “Golden Tooth” to “Incisor”: Class 2-3 descent, Class 4 summit pitch (for both summits)
    • “The Incisor” to optional highpoint “Flathead”: Class 2+ descent, Class 3 ascent
    • Descent to highest lake “Timo’s Tarn” for simplicity, officially unnamed: Class 3
    • Follow the basin east toward Zirkel: Class 2+
    • From low saddle west of Zirkel south to Gilpin Trail: Class 2
    • Gilpin Trail to Trailhead: Class 1

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Regional Introduction

For a very long and probably overly detailed explanation, click here.

The Park Range has three pieces. The southern piece is called the Gore Range, the middle part is low and forested (think Rabbit Ears Pass), and the Northern Park is largely in the Mt. Zirkel Wilderness. The southern and northern portions have exquisite scrambling, and after completing the Big Agnes West Ridge Route (with the Spike add-on), I wanted to explore all the ridges around there.

The area I’m focusing my efforts on is the Sawtooth Range, the spindly ridges that lead up to and around Big Agnes. You access this area from Slavonia Trailhead, which is about an hour north of Steamboat, near the town of Clark.

This particular journey includes a series of soft-ranked summits on a north-south oriented ridge north of Big Agnes and some quality off-trail navigation.

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Resources

Weather, always check the weather. This area does not have a hugely reliable forecast; expect high variability and come prepared. Unless you live in Routt County, make sure someone has a detailed plan of where you are going and how long you plan to be there.

For general lower trail conditions, you can use the Clark 7-day forecast. For the higher portion of the hike, Mt. Zirkel is the most reliable forecast.

Here are some local emergency numbers as well; stay safe out there.

  • Routt County Sheriff: 970-879-1090 (offices in Steamboat Springs)
  • Routt National Forest: 970-723-2700 (offices in Walden)

There are some resources that shed light on this region. Summitpost has a good Park Range page with mountain profiles; there are occasional Zirkel and Big Agnes reports on 14ers.com, and List of John has regional trail reports. The following photo journal is also a great resource for the Sawtooth Traverse, but it is a photo journal and doesn’t go into too many scrambling specifics. The definitive guidebook for the region was written by Joe Kramarsic, but it is not well distributed. You’ll have to hunt in local gear shops in Steamboat or perhaps Winter Park to find it. It’s listed on Amazon as “Mountaineering in the Park Range. A Guide to the Mountains of the Mount Zirkel-Dome Peak wilderness,” but has been unavailable every time I’ve checked. Hopefully, this guide helps fill in some knowledge gaps.

Directions to Trailhead: Type Slavonia Trailhead or Seedhouse Road into your phone and follow the directions. If you’re coming from the Front Range, expect somewhere between 4 and 6 hours.

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The Approach

Since the approach is the same for the West Ridge of Big Agnes, I just copy/pasted from that guide. If you’re interested in that scrambling route, here’s a link to that post.

From the trailhead, pick up the only trail as it heads northeast-ish. Only a few points of a mile into the hike, you’ll come across a trail junction. Take the left branch (Gilpin Trail); the right one heads to Gold Creek Lake. Continue along the trail as it ascends a smaller valley and skirts a larger burn area. You’ll be seeing lots of burn evidence on this hike. The late 90s saw a devastating wind event in the region, followed by a pine beetle infestation and a couple of fires (~2002). Combine that with the deeep regional snowfall (~500+ inches a year), and I think trees have just had a really hard time bouncing back. It’ll look a little bare on the approach, but for the first 1.25 miles, you stay in a treed area and only skirt the scars.

The next junction is with the Micah Basin Trail; take a left and head up the valley. The approach into the basin is a good 700 or so vertical feet in less than a mile. It’s not so bad in the morning, but from late July-early September, if you go up this stretch, put on some sunscreen, it gets bright.

Once you get into the basin, the elevation gain lessens, and you meander along the trail as it winds higher among fields, burn scars, and babbling brooks. Eventually, you cross a crest of land and can stare down a small rise to the shores of Micah Lake. Your introduction is over. Micah lake is about 4 miles in, so it’s really not a bad approach, and all on easily identifiable trails.

Micah Lake.

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To the “Incisor” (Class 4)

Instead of heading directly north to the low saddle visible from Micah Lake, you want to head northeast into the higher part of Micah Basin. A good visual cue is to head right from the lake shoreline and keep the rock towers of “The Spike” clearly framed to your left.

Once you get beyond the towers, a steep but Class 2 slope will present itself and you can get onto the ridge without too much difficulty.

The key to this ascent is to stay to the left of a thick patch of Krummholz. These low-lying subalpine pine shrugs are very hardy plants and will scratch the shit out of you if you try to break through a patch. It’s much easier to just go around them until you hit the ridge.

Slide the bar to see labeled peaks.

The blue arrows in the picture above show the ascent route to the ridgeline. Everything from Big Agnes to the left is part of the prominent N-S ridge that makes up the bulk of what’s considered to be a part of the “Sawtooth Range.” There are other components of the range on the other side of Big Agnes.

Once you hit the ridgeline, you can turn west (left) and see the isolated but very gratifying set of rocky towers known as “The Spike.” There’s also a smaller north-south ridge that has a prominent rock tower on it called “The Grand Central Tooth,” according to ListofJohn. Other online references to this rock are rare or nonexistent; I’ll use the name’s I can find. If I can’t find a name, I’ll create one to help with orientation. A lot of the peaks around here don’t have names, and if they do, they are unofficial.

The “Grand Central Tooth.”

If you’re looking at Grand Central Tooth, head east (right), following the ridgeline as you skirt to the left of the Krummholz patch and ascend a Class 2 grassy slope up to “Middle Agnes.” As you ascend, you’ll get stunning views of one of the most dramatic cliff lines in the area (Mt. Zirkel’s west slope being the other contender). Now, these aren’t the most dramatic cliffs in the state, probably not even the top 100 (or 200, tbh), but for the region, they are stark, shapely, and give you a preview of the summits you’ll be on. Rest assured, the other side is easier to scamper across, but I wonder if there’s a scrambling way up those cliffs that does two things 1. stays fun, 2. avoids roped climbing pitches. Further exploration is required.

At one point there’s a small cluster of rocks on the ridgeline, you can just hop around it to the right to keep everything in the Class 2 range.

Stay to the right of the rock cluster on the ridgeline.

If you haven’t yet, hop up to the top of Middle Agnes, an obvious high point in the shadow of Big Agnes’s North Wall. Instead of working your way to Big Agnes, you’re going to head north (left if you’re looking at the view in the picture below).

From Middle Agnes, looking over to Zirkel.

The ridge from this perspective doesn’t nearly as intense as it did from the ascent up Middle Agnes, but it has a few surprises waiting for you.

Here, again, is the link to a GoPro video detailing all ridgeline issues and challenges. It does not show how to get back, only the scrambling parts!

The first question you should ask yourself is, “how do I get off this thing?” Which, as it turns out, is not so easy and makes up your first challenge.

Blue=Class 2, Red=Class 3, Purple=Class 4, Orange=Class 5

There are two options, you can head north from the summit of Middle Agnes and piece together a relatively short but very significant Class 5 downclimb to the next saddle, or you can take the loose way around (Class 3).

The Class 5 downclimb looks like this from the next saddle to the north.

Short but consequential Class 5 downclimb off of Middle Agnes.

You don’t really get a look at the downclimb until you’re on top of it, so I decided to find a way around. Turns out there is a navigationally easy alternative but probably my least favorite part of this hike. It’s not long, it’ll take you only a few minutes, but everything moves. It’s San Juan scree meets off-trail Cascade volcanic crap. Is it doable? Yeah, absolutely. But go slow, check every hold, and don’t be surprised if you slide and/or have to kickstep a bench out of the loose slope to stabilize yourself.

This part kinda sucks, but it’s not long; just go slow and double-check everything. The good news is that you do not have to do this part again if you make a loop out of your route.

Once you make it to the first saddle, you need to scramble up Class 3 blocks to the top of Highpoint 1. This one isn’t that visible from the approach and only has like 40 feet of prominence, but it’s in your way, and you need to deal with it.

What’s not apparent from the short scramble to the top is that the majority of Class 3 scrambling on Highpoint 1 comes on the descent to the following saddle. It’s stable for the most part, 3.5/5 if 5 is the sturdiest bomber rock you ever held, but there are a few places where careful foot selection will help you out. You can descend about 2/3 of the way along the ridge crest. However, the endcap is a bit of a cliff. Bounce right and traverse around to avoid having to backtrack.

Looking back up at Highpoint 1 from a section of Class 3 scrambling.

The scrambling is pretty involved and interesting, but the best view of this stretch of the route isn’t from the ridge. On your return journey, you’ll be able to snag the view below.

The rock striations on Highpoint 1 are really fun to look at. Red=Class 3, Blue=Class2.

Once you get off the rocky ridge, you’ll end up in a Class 2 saddle. The rest of the ascent to “Molar Tooth,” which was probably the most obvious high point you saw on the approach, is a pretty easy Class 2+ affair. The only real scrambling is a couple feet near the top.

This part of the route is lovely and rolling. Enjoy it while it lasts. As you descend off of the “Molar Tooth,” make sure to stay closer to the ridgeline so you can enjoy the dramatic western profile of the ridge.

Looking back to “Molar Tooth” Blue=Class 2.

You’ll descend toward the notch between “Molar Tooth” and “Golden Tooth”, which seems to go at an easy Class 2 until you hit the Trench. This gouged-out section of the ridge forces you into some brief Class 4 downclimbing. It’s only a couple of moves but may come as a shock given the gentle nature of “Molar tooth.”

The view ahead as you get closer to the Trench shows the gnarly sides of both “Golden Tooth” and the “Incisor.”

Like the Class 5 downclimb off of Middle Agnes, you don’t really see the Trench until you’re right on top of it. The best perspective is actually down by one of the two lakes you’ll visit later. I’m calling it Timo’s tarn bc it doesn’t have a name, and since there are two lakes, it’ll be easier to reference later in the report, but you can call it whatever you want.

The Trench is an interesting and abrupt feature. The geology in this area is super cool with lots of interesting rocks shapes, striations, and colors. Purple=Class 4, Red=Class 3, Blue=Class2.

The descent isn’t long, and despite the near-vertical look, there are two variations that stay Class 4 and make use of a slanted boulder that keeps the difficulty from shooting into the Class 5 range. (Check out the footage here.)

Once you’re down in the trench, you’ll notice that the rock lining the other side has a few more breaks in it, which gives you more to work with. There’s a nice Class 4 climb (optional) and an easier Class 3 traverse to a Class 2 slope.

Purple=Class 4, Red=Class 3, Blue=Class 2

Whenever you’ve picked your route, work your way out of the trench and reclimb up to “Golden Tooth.” If you took the easier traverse, the scrambling is majority Class 2, with a short/fun Class 3 section near the top.

The Class 3 scrambling section up to the top of “Golden Tooth.” The rock is sturdy and a nice break from the rolling tundra you’ve been moving through, but like previous sections, it’s over pretty quickly.

“Golden Tooth” is the last summit before you get to the “Incisor.” Again, summit is a bit of a stretch. I think we’re looking at like 80 ft. or prominence…maybe. But it has nice scrambling, and the views keep getting better the farther north you go. I think the best perspective I’ve found for “Golden Tooth,” was taken on a subsequent trip up Little Agnes. It hides from most perspectives, but when you’re climbing up it from the Trench, it certainly feels like enough of a highpoint to warrant acknowledgment.

Taken from Little Agnes’s East Ridge, another Class 4 route in an area that’s just full of ’em.

There’s a bit of Class3 downclimbing but nothing substantial, and before you know it, you’re knocking on the “Incisors” door. To me, this was the most consequential summit. There are two summit blocks, both require a little Class 4, and the rock is glorious. Despite the exquisite scrambling, both sections are short, which is another staple of the route. I believe the western summit is higher, and it also has the most gratifying scrambling on it. The best way to dispense with it is to move up between the two summits, drop your pack, and hit the western one first.

Generalized look. Purple=Class 4, Red=Class 3, Blue=Class 2

The western summit is basically one intact rocky slab that has an astounding amount of exposure to the north. The exposure to the south is less scary, but a slip will absolutely send you tumbling head over heels down to more dangerous terrain. This is very clearly a no-fall zone.

I climbed up according to the alt. route in the picture below, but you can squeeze in a little extra Class 3 before a few non-negotiable Class 4 moves if you hit the ridgeline between the two summits first and then turn left toward the western summit.

Despite the short duration, this is the best section of rock on the whole ridge. You can find a few variations to work with; the rock quality is 5/5, and if you combine this summit with the eastern one, you get to stretch the scrambling out for longer.

Careful up top; not a whole lot of room. Looking back east, you can zero in on the route up the other summit block, which wasn’t 100% visible from below.

Fun, fun, fun. Purple=Class 4, Red=Class 3.

Both summits are really fun, the western one feels more dramatic and exposed, but the eastern one has better views toward Zirkel and the massive untrailed basing between it and you. What’s nice from this perspective is you can piece together a visual route into that basin, cuz if you do the loop, that’s where ya going. (If you have the time, you want to do this, but it is longer and has way more off-trail navigation.)

Once you’ve had your fill of the “Incisor,” you could start to head down into the basin with the lakes, but I would recommend going a bit farther. There’s a high point that’s been hidden this entire time, and it’s a fun 3rd Class scramble. Plus, you get some great looks at the rock walls on the “Incisor’s” north side.

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Extra Credit (Class 3) “Flathead Rock”

The first cool part about this added little section is that you can descend reasonably close to the Incisor’s dramatic north face without having to do anything more than Class 2+.

The descent is Class 2 to the next saddle.

The scrambling on Flathead Rock is fun. You start right on the ridgeline and ascend up to just below the summit block; this gives you great sections of Class 3 scrambling. Once you make it up to below the highest part, the easiest thing to do is traverse to the right and scout a way around.

Probably my favorite view of the whole day, especially with the warm afternoon light.

You’ll start on a grassy bench that narrows down to a slanted rock. Traversing the slanted rock is solidly Class 3 with exposure behind you. Once you turn the corner, you’ll end up on another bench.

Now, turn to find the highest rock (hard left) and scamper up (Class 3). I ended up taking a nice long break up here, it’s a cool spot with killer views of the Incisor to the north, the Castle, and whatever sharp, mystery peak is in front of it.

From here, the main ridge you’ve been on dips to its lowest col before climbing back up to the Castle. It makes for a natural break. My original plan was to do the whole ridge up to the Castle but sometimes life shits on your plans. I got a bead leak in my tire pulling into Steamboat so my early start was replaced with 2 hours of waiting for a shop to open and another 2 to get it fixed, plus another hour to the trailhead. I don’t think I hit the trail before 10:30, so by the time I got to Flathead Rock, the afternoon was in full swing and I had hours of off-trail travel ahead of me. Flathead ended up being the last summit on the day but because of the views, probably my favorite on the day. I’ll have to come back for the Castle and it’s crazy looking neighbor.

Chronogically, Gopro video coverage ends on the top of Flathead Rock.

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Tarns, Basins, and Off-Trail Beauty (Class 3)

From the Flathead Rock/Incisor area, though, you have the easiest exit off the ridge. If you went out to the Castle, you’d have to budget another hour or two for going out and coming back. I don’t know if the ridge north of the Castle goes and if it does you’ll just end up farther from where you started. Coming back over the ridge seems to be the best one-day option.

Work your way back to the saddle between Flathead Rock and the Incisor. From there, head SE toward Timo’s tarn.

There’s a grove of krummholz here that you can try to skirt to the south, though you then have to deal with loose traversing. You can also pick a path through the krummholz veering left to stay on its northern side, where the scrambling is less. Between the krummholz are a few lines of rock steps, so be prepared for those (Class 3).

The rock most prominent rock tower, is the Eastern Summit of The Incisor.

Once free of the steepest part of the descent, it’s an easy Class 2 stroll to the lakeside. However, the shoreline has a lot of rock alongside it, so anticipate some Class 3 scrambling to get to the outflow stream when you’re ready to leave the area. If it’s a hot day, the lake is deep enough for a jump and, at least when I was there, had a wonderful greenish hue.

The echo is also pretty good here, so if you take a dip, follow that up with a nice shout to see if you can hear it bouncing off the ridges. All in all, this is a very cool place and still allows you two options to get back. Reclimb the few hundred feet to the ridge and backtrack, or head downhill and deeper into the basin.

If you go deeper into the basin, your first challenge is getting away from the shoreline. The best thing to do is climb above the shoreline and traverse across until you can hop down to gentler terrain on the southern edge of the lake.

Once you’re clear of the lake, follow the drainage down, clinging to the left (north) side for easier movement (Class 2). The outflow stream starts underground before reappearing farther down, but anything close to the water will be slippier.

On this stretch, you get some interesting views back up to the ridgelines around Big Agnes, including a cool look up to the South Summit of Big Agnes from below some gnarly cliffs.

Looking down the valley, you get an idea of where you want to go. Ideally, you want to stay closer to the ridgeline on your right (which looks super gnarly and is on my scramble list).

Down valley.

Looking back up from where you came you can see that the easiest descent (or ascent) route is hugging the north side of the drainage.

I think there’s probably a way to rope in a shoreline traverse of the other unnamed lake in the basin, but it won’t make for your fastest route. In my situation, running out of daylight, I was going for the easiest route out of this wild, trailless, and miles-from-my-car mountain basin. Below is the route I settled on. It worked well.

The high route in the pic above (high as in you never quite descend down to the other lake) is the faster way out of this basin. There’s a decent amount of sidehilling, but it’s not more than a few Class 2+ moves. Essentially, you descend down to the outflow stream, cross it, and find a way to attack the grassy bench just to the south of the lake. Then, wrap-around, regaining a bit of elevation, until you can see a diagonal slot (pointing up and to the left) that’ll take you around another finger of land.

Even if you had the time to go down to the lake, I’d recommend skipping it and traversing above because of the views of the Castle. They just keep getting better and better.

And look, once again, these aren’t 14ers, they don’t have thousand-foot uninterrupted cliffs, but this area is surprisingly rugged, wild, and beautiful.

Anyway, now that you’re traversing above the lake, time to look for your next marker.

Forgive the bad quality of the pics above; however, they do a great job of showing the whole traverse. Once you make it to the end of the ramp, turn right and enter another basin, this time with the flanks of Mt. Zirkel just to the east of you.

Work your way up forgiving ground in a S-SE direction, taking care not to lose elevation or cliff out. Eventually, a super loose gully will separate you from the pass you’re going for. DO NOT TRAVERSE THIS SLOPE. I did, and it blew chunks; wasted a lot of time in there. Can you? Yeah, but if you’re doing this loop the way I’m describing, this far into the journey, you’re going to be tired and more susceptible to mistakes. Mentally, it may be tough, but the best thing to do is drop a couple hundred feet to more stable ground and then reclimb up to the pass.

The reason traversing high is crap is because it’s steep, there’s no grass or solid slope to get traction, and the rocks are all small, meaning any bit of movement starts a slide. Plus, for your convenience, you’ll be traversing below crumbly cliffs that almost certainly contain rockfall danger. It’s just crap; drop down and go around.

Once you finally make it to the saddle, you’re out of one trailless basin and into another. Luckily, now you’re on the right side of the range. Let’s take a look at a map of your progress since Flathead Rock.

Nice! You cover a good amount of distance in this basin, but there is an issue. Do you see any indication of Gilpin Lake Trail in the pic above? Nope, because it’s still far below the bottom frame. It’s off-trail till you reconnect, but thankfully, it’s downhill and fairly intuitive.

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Return to Gilpin Trail (Class 2)

Follow the drainage down. From the saddle, connect fields and rocky benches together in a southward direction. You want to eventually get on the right (west) bank of the stream that starts from a small tarn you can see from the saddle. The ground is uneven, and this late into the hike, perfect ankle-rolling territory, Be cautious!

As you make your way down the valley, you’ll notice the Pt. 11,580 sticking up like a sore thumb; the easiest route is to stay relatively close to its flanks.

This strategy works well for a while but finding a good place to meet the Gilpin Trail takes a little creative navigation. If you stay on your trajectory, using Pt. 11,580 as a wall to your right, you could end up trending parallel to the trail without connecting, which is a grand ole way to waste more time and energy (says the guy who did exactly that). On a follow-up mission to scramble Bulwark Ridge, I did find what I think is the best reconnection strategy.

It’s not foolproof, but eventually, the terrain features a series of bogs and meadows. The temptation is to stay to the right to avoid them, however, if you find yourself on a rib of rock. Turn to the right and see if you see this view.

If you can, turn around and veer downhill and diagonal left (east-southeast). You’ll pass through a few more fields, some wetter than others, but there are many game trails to follow. Keep a true south trajectory when able, and you should pop into the trail right here.

Don’t expect the last part of this to be smooth. It’s tough bushwhacking and checking orientation often that ultimately got me to this spot.

Back on the trail, bust ass to your car, just remember, it’s still a few miles to Slavonia.

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Conclusion and Future Adventures

I loved this hike for a variety of reasons. The scrambling on the Incisor was short but very fun and well-worth the ridge walk. Flathead Rock was kind of the surprise hit, I really enjoyed that highpoint. The tarns are also delightful, and worth an alpine dip. The trailless basin you end up in has some of the best views of the whole region and it all feels very wild. Plus, you can make a loop out of it. This is an unexpected and surprising route for those interested in getting way more than the map suggests you will.

My next adventure in the region was a route up to and across Bulwark Ridge (my name, it officially doesn’t have one) which ended up being more committing and, in my opinion, more of a classic high peaks scramble than Big Agnes’s West Ridge. Stick around for that one!

Big Agnes Mountain West Ridge (Class 4) w/ Optional “Spike” Traverse (Class 4)

Looking to Mt. Zirkel from below Big Agnes’s true summit

TLDR: Big Agnes Mountain has a few ascent routes, this is the most difficult while still allowing access without ropes. It’s a really fun, dramatic route with short periods of intense scrambling followed by very pleasant alpine strolling. The scrambling (both up Big Agnes’s north summit/west ridge and around the Spike) certainly demand attention and careful route selection but aren’t as difficult or nearly as long as something like the North Ridge of Lead Mountain. However, for such a geographically small area, the scrambling possibilities are explosive. There are many, many individual rock formations that you could add to the adventure, although many of them require ropes. In most cases, you can just breeze right by them so the variety of possibilities is a highlight. This route takes advantage of easy access, offers great views of the Sawtooth Range, sections of superlative scrambling and stellar views of Mt. Zirkel. I have two Gopro videos that show both the Spike and the W. Ridge. You’ll find links sprinkled throughout the article. There’s no volume, it’s really for informational purposes and goes well with the route description below. “Spike Traverse,” “Big Agnes W. Ridge.”

-via W. ridge and the Spike: ~10.6 miles (+ 3,920 ft.)

-via W. ridge and the Spike Bypass: ~10.25 miles (+ 3,770 ft.)

Table of Contents

Each bullet point below is hyperlinked, just click it to go to that section of the report. At the bottom of each section is another hyperlink back to the table of contents. Endless scrolling is annoying, hopefully this helps.

Starting along the ridge to the Spike. Peak 11,777 is the large peak, and Pt. 11,820 is the mountain farther behind.

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:

  • Highest point: 12,060 ft. on Big Agnes Mountain’s middle summit (there are three)
  • YDS breakdown
    • Approach to Micah Lake: Trailed Class 1
    • Low saddle north of Micah Lake: Class 2
    • Direct approach that skips the “Spike”: Class 2+
    • “The Spike” (optional but very fun): Class 4
    • The North Summit of Big Agnes from this route: Class 4
    • Descent route: Class 2+
The Class 4 challenge on the way to Big Agnes, the North and south summits are showing; the true summit is hidden. You’ll ascend just to the left of the obvious cliff face.

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Introduction

So, the Park Range. it’s a lower, lesser-known, and difficult range to reach, despite relatively good access from the Steamboat area. Resources are scarce, although there are some (discussed in the Resources section), so my scrambling partner and I were flying a bit blind. A lot of this adventure was an exploratory endeavor, and I think the route represents a really good case study of the type of terrain available here. The rock is generally very solid around Big Agnes but gets less solid around Mt. Zirkel and the Continental Divide.

Since many people recreate in Colorado without ever stepping foot in this part of the state, I think it’s beneficial to play a little geography catch-up.

Here’s a big overview of the main ranges of Colorado. By the way, I hope you are a map person. Slide the bar to the right to see a PARTIALLY labeled map. The partially labeled map shows areas many people are familiar with but also leaves some notable areas out, like the Grand Mesa, Rabbit Ears Range, Roan Cliffs, Uncompahgre Plateau, and The Park Range.

If you’re wondering what the numbers in the Front Range Zone represent, here they are:

  • 1. Medicine Bow Range (NOT Medicine Bow Peak, that’s in the same range but north of the border in Wyoming. A lot of people just call these the Rawahs because of the wilderness area and to avoid confusion.)
  • 2. Never Summer Range.
  • 3. The Mummy Range.
  • 4. The most popular area of Rocky Mountain National Park, west of the town of Estes park. The east/northeastern part of the Never Summers and all of the Mummy Range belong in the park as well.
  • 5. The Indian Peaks Wilderness
  • 6. James Peak Wilderness
  • 7. The mountains around I-70 i.e. Loveland Pass, Pettingell, Citadel, Grays/Torreys, Evans etc.
  • 8. The Pikes Peak Massif, kinda off on its own
  • 9. The Wet Mountains

Wow, great, cool, super nice, but where’s the Park Range? Great question; it be here.

There are three broad areas of the Park Range that, combined, make for a continuous uplift area about 180 miles in length before jumping the border into Wyoming. Big Agnes and Mount Zirkel are located in the Northern Park Range, which we’ll be focusing on.

The middle section of the Park Range is a lower, rolling area with thick forests (Sarvis Creek Wilderness is a notable feature, along with the Colorado River breaking through the range just west of Kremmling). If you’ve ever driven over Rabbit Ears pass on US 40, that’s a great example of the terrain typically associated with that region.

The southern part of the range is really dramatic and known as the Gore. This part of the Park Range is well-known and well-loved for a truly mind-boggling amount of scrambling and peak bagging. The Northern Park Range is similar in its offerings but much less expansive.

Sweet, let’s zoom in on the northern part of the range, again, with an unlabeled and labeled map; just slide the indicator to toggle between them.

Zoomed in on the Park Range north of US 40 and Rabbit Ears Pass

Yeah, so, a lot going on. Steamboat Springs is on the southwest side of the range; the higher peaks are to the north and east. There’s also the lower Elkhead range, which is an East-West oriented range that includes Hahns Peak, a popular hike and backcountry ski. Hahns Peak is NOT in the Park Range. Adding to the confusion is the Sierra Madre, or what Wyoming calls the Park Range, which spills north into Wyoming. Jury’s out on whether or not the Sierra Madres is distinct enough to be its own range (geologically, it’s part of the Park Range), but again, these distinctions begin to matter when you live around here or recreate in the area and are trying to relay accurate locational information. For now, there’s the Sierra Madre and the Northern Park Range, which bears similarities to the 10 Mile/Mosquito Range issue (same range geologically, but separate names and divided arbitrarily at a point). The 10 Mile/Mosquitos are divided at Hoosier Pass, the Parks and the Sierra are divided along the drainage of the Northern Elk River and the Encampment River.

Don’t worry, there’s more! Let’s zoom in on the Zirkel/Agnes zone, one of two major alpine uplift zones that make up the meat of the Northern Park Range.

The southern zone is almost as high but doesn’t quite make 12k. The southern zone is notable for large stretches of alpine (treeline is quite a bit lower this far north) and contains a ton of large permanent snowfields on the eastern flank of peaks like Mt. Ethel and Lost Ranger (turns-all-year people take note).

The Zirkel/Agnes zone (northern zone) contains the Northern Park Ranges only 3 official 12ers and can be subdivided further (because, of course, it can).

Confused yet? Here’s the gist. The Northern Park Range has two major alpine zones; we’re focusing on the northern one, which is largely accessed by one trailhead: Slavonia.

This zone can be divided into two components based on rock quality. There’s the looser rock quality along the Continental Divide spine and the bomber rock hidden in the Sawtooth range. The Continental Divide portion has the range’s two highest peaks (Zirkel and Flattop); both are longer journeys but don’t exceed Class 2 and are beautiful. The area has some backpacking potential as well, especially near Gilpin and Gold Creek Lake (not allowed to camp within 1/4 mile of either). The trails that connect the two lakes to the trailhead make up a loop called the Zirkel Circle or Zircle. That is probably the best way to experience the area without going too crazy because it’s a great loop and it’s on an established trail network. If you want Big Agnes, you gotta get off-trail no matter what route you pick.

For the adventure-oriented and scrambling-minded folks, let’s do one more zoom-in, this time focusing on the best part of this area (and a top-five candidate for the best area in northern colorado if you ask me), the Sawtooth Range. I’ve also drawn the general overview of the West Ridge Big Agnes route. Don’t worry, route descriptions are still coming, along with a shitload of pics and extra maps.

There are MANY more peaks than what I’ve labeled, most are soft-ranked (under 300 ft. of prominence) but totally worth exploration.

The Sawtooth Range is exquisite, and Big Agnes is its heart. However, if you look online, you will find very few pics and descriptions of the area. This is due to a variety of reasons, including a lack of online reporting and the generic-ass name. There are Sawtooths everywhere. There’s the Sawtooth Traverse, a very popular and well-documented intro Class 3 scramble between Mt. Evans and Mt. Bierstadt. There’s also Sawtooth Mountain, a 12,300-foot peak in the Indian Peaks Wilderness. There’s even a Sawtooth Mountain in the remote Elkhead Mountains. The Sawtooth designation doesn’t end in Colorado either; Idaho’s Sawtooth Range is one of the prettiest in the western US; there’s even a set of Sawtooth Mountains in Minnesota.

Understandably, this Sawtooth Range (the rugged subrange that includes Big Agnes) is tougher to get info on. This is kind of a double-edged sword, though. Despite weekend popularity and high traffic around Gilpin Lake, once you barrel into the arms of the Sawtooth, you will likely be all alone. The exceptions are Micah Lake and the two of three routes up Big Agnes that don’t involve Class 4 scrambling. If you do see people on this route, they’re likely just as nuts as you are.

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Resources

Weather, always check the weather. This area does not have a hugely reliable forecast; expect high variability and come prepared. Unless you live in Routt County, make sure someone has a detailed plan of where you are going and how long you plan to be there.

For general lower trail conditions, you can use the Clark 7-day forecast. For the higher portion of the hike, Mt. Zirkel is the most reliable forecast.

Here are some local emergency numbers as well; stay safe out there.

  • Routt County Sheriff: 970-879-1090 (offices in Steamboat Springs)
  • Routt National Forest: 970-723-2700 (offices in Walden)

There are some resources that shed light on this region. Summitpost has a good Park Range page with mountain profiles; there are occasional Zirkel and Big Agnes reports on 14ers.com, and List of John has regional trail reports. The following photo journal is also a great resource for the Sawtooth Traverse, but it is a photo journal and doesn’t go into too many scrambling specifics. The definitive guidebook for the region was written by Joe Kramarsic, but it is not well distributed. You’ll have to hunt in local gear shops in Steamboat or perhaps Winter Park to find it. It’s listed on Amazon as “Mountaineering in the Park Range. A Guide to the Mountains of the Mount Zirkel-Dome Peak wilderness,” but has been unavailable every time I’ve checked. Hopefully, this guide helps fill in some knowledge gaps.

Directions to Trailhead: Type Slavonia Trailhead or Seedhouse Road into your phone and follow the directions. If you’re coming from the Front Range, expect somewhere between a 4 and 6-hour commute. Plan accordingly. The last 6 miles are on a relatively easy dirt road but there are some sections of washboard to watch for.

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The Approach

From the trailhead, pick up the only trail as it heads northeastish. Only a few points of a mile into the hike, you’ll come across a trail junction. Take the left branch (Gilpin Trail); the right one heads to Gold Creek Lake. Continue along the trail as it ascends a smaller valley and skirts a larger burn area. You’ll be seeing lots of burn evidence on this hike. The late 90s saw a devastating wind event in the region, followed by a pine beetle infestation and a couple of fires (~2002). Combining that with the deeep regional snowfall (~500+ inches a year), I think trees have just had a really hard time bouncing back. It’ll look a little bare on the approach, but for the first 1.25 miles, you stay in a treed area and only skirt the scars.

The next junction is with the Micah Basin Trail; take a left and head up the valley. The approach into the basin is a good 700 or so vertical feet in less than a mile. It’s not so bad in the morning, but from late July-early September, if you go up this stretch, put on some sunscreen, it gets bright.

Once you get into the basin, the elevation gain lessens, and you meander along the trail as it winds higher among fields, burn scars, and babbling brooks. Eventually, you cross a crest of land and can stare down a small rise to the shores of Micah Lake. Your introduction is over. Micah lake is about 4 miles in, so it’s really not a bad approach and all on easily identifiable trails.

Micah Lake
Boom, another map.

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The Spike Option (Class 4, optional but the best scrambling on the route)

Right, so north of Micah Lake is a low saddle that separates the east ridge of Little Agnes with the ridge leading up to The Spike and eventually Big Agnes. Head for it.

GoPro footage of the scramble.

Head for the low point in the ridge.

If you look to the right as your finding a way beyond Micah Lake, you should be able to see the profile of the Spike.

Clamber up to the low saddle, where you’ll notice fire damage from the Mt. Zirkel Complex Fire (~2002) to the north and the effect it has on the landscape, which is…yeah, pretty noticeable.

Head east (right), up a steep slope with sections of dead trees. This first part is somewhere in the Class 2 range and gains elevation quickly.

The higher you go, the better the views become. There are great perspectives to the south, where you can see all the way down to the Lost Ranger and Mt. Ethel region, which is the other large alpine area of the Northern Park’s.

Looking south as you approach the Spike

Little Agnes also starts to take shape behind you, along with its apparently Class 4 east ridge (on the to-do list).

Looking west to Little Agnes

What really steals the show, though, is your view east, which reveals a dramatic profile of the Sawtooth Range.

Looking east as the terrain sharpens

This view continues to change and impress as you traverse the spike. In fact, the whole route from here on out has plenty of great mountain views to stare at and scramble over. The sharp and serrated profile of the ridges in the Sawtooth is a route highlight.

Blue=Class 2, Red=Class 3

The ridge will stay class Class 2 as you descend a bit off of the first high point you reach. As you start to gain elevation on the other side of a shallow col, the first scrambling section appears.

You’ll cross into Class 3 territory as you negotiate a rock band on the ridge crest. There are several options to choose from, and if you get to the Class 3 section on the ridgecrest and don’t like what you see, head right, following the rock band. The rock will break in a few spots allowing for a few additional Class 3 options to consider that will reconnect you with the ridge crest.

In either scenario, you’ll continue along the ridgecrest, deploying Class 3 and Class 3+ moves where necessary. The rock quality is great, with plenty of holds. The ridge narrows, and you get to stay on it for a few seconds before the route briefly banks to the right to avoid a wall. Once you get around this (Class 3 light), the ridge widens out a bit and softens with more grassy saddles.

The next section as you near the tallest part of the Spike.

This is very typical of the Sawtooth Range. There are stretches of superlative rock scrambling, but those sections are often broken up by mixed terrain. It certainly keeps you on your toes, but none of the scrambling sections on this route are what I would consider relentless.

With the summit tower of The Spike, the strategy is to head right and circle around. The exposure is very high to the north (left) if you decide to take a look that way. There is a route that hugs the summit block and goes at easy-moderate Class 3, with a final small Class 3 slab to climb before relenting back to Class 2. A rocky side ridge blocks you from maintaining your elevation line, so the only way to continue is to work back up to the ridge crest, now on the other side of the summit tower.

**This route does not climb the top of the Spike, to do that I think you’ll need to still circle around the tower and attack it from the east, it could go at exposed Class 4 but I didn’t scout it, will report back when I do!

The route from off-trail in Micah Basin

Once you work back up to the ridge you have a sneaky Class 3 descent before arriving at the next grassy col. This is the last break before the route crux, which is a really fun and engaging section.

From the grassy col, sight a diagonal line of rocks to the left of a very prominent rocky highpoint.

The first part of the route is a nice Class 3 section with good holds, then you hit a small shoulder and the difficulty bumps up to Class 4. The rock is delightful and there are great options for holds.

Red=Class 3, Purple=Class 4

Once you get right up to the obvious highpoint rock, slide by on Class 3 terrain and approach another difficult section. The next part features two small leaps of faith sections where the ridge comes down to only a few feet in width (on good rock) and drops vertically on either side. The exposure to the north is, again, much more dramatic.

The first leap of faith section, you don’t actually have to leap but be very careful: Class 3+
The second section, with a class 4 downclimb into the notch. The rock is very grippy, and it’s 1-3 moves but with substantial exposure.

Once you get out of this section, the ridge begins to look a lot more accommodating, and for the most part, it is. However, like with the traverse around the highest tower of the spike, there is a sneaky descent here (Class 3+). The path is not straight down; hunt for options, and don’t be afraid to traverse around before settling on a route. There are a few chances to make this section harder than you’re intending.

After you drop off the last rocky part, you’re back to grassy alpine for a while. Descend to the right of one final rock fin, hit a lower saddle, and approach a thick line of krummholz atop another sneaky Class 3 rock band. The scrambling is easy and fun. Make sure to stay on the ridgeline to avoid the krummholz. Watch the exposure to your left(north), but this part doesn’t get harder than moderate Class 3 if that.

Spike Overview

On the other side of the krummholz, you’ll see two rock towers along a softer stretch of the ridge and The Grand Central Tooth taking shape on a sub ridge to your north. This area is where the Spike Bypass comes in.

Looking back at the Spike section from beyond it.

Footage of The Spike Scramble

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The Spike Bypass

Now, let’s say you didn’t want any of that, and you just came to tag the Class 4 wall on the way to Big Agnes. Well, you can skip the Spike and its associated scrambling portions. The idea is to break from the trail at Micah Lake, and head east, higher into the basin. The vegetation is pretty sparse here, so orientation should be very simple on a clear day.

It’s easiest to break trail from the top of the ridge right before you get your first views of Micah Lake.

Keep the Spike to your left, traverse beyond the rock towers and sight a grassy slope leading up to the ridge with thick krummholz on its right (eastern) side. By the easiest route, you can keep this ascent at a mid-Class 2 and avoid the Spike. I would argue that including it adds to the route, but the option to skip it is certainly there.

As you climb up to the ridge, make sure to keep the krummholz to your right and sight the line of least resistance to the ridgeline. You’ll join the route from the Spike right after its difficulties relent and around a set of three rock towers. There are two smaller ones on the main ridgelines and a much larger tower on a spur ridge leading north (called “Grand Central Tooth” on Listofjohn).

Grand Central Tooth

The two smaller towers on the ridge are called “Baby Teeth,” according to ListofJohn, but I don’t know how I feel about that name. I kinda thought the eastern small tower looked like a howling Pika, so I’ll just call it that. You can scramble the Howling Pika at Class3+; the other tower looks harder. I think Grand Central Tooth also looks like a Class 5 endeavor.

The two smaller towers, Howling Pika is centered.

Head east and uphill to continue to Big Agnes.

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Big Agnes West Ridge (Brief Class 4)

Like the Spike portion, the start of the Big Agnes West Ridge route (post bypass) starts out pretty innocuously.

Seen from the end of the Spike scrambling. The Blue line below is the bypass option.

The trajectory is fairly self-explanatory. Stay closer to the ridge crest, avoid the krummholz and begin ascending up to “Middle Agnes.” This unofficial peak is attainable via Class 2+ scrambling, making it one of the easier peaks to reach in the Sawtooth. As you climb, the Sawtooth wall leading north from the Big Agnes Massif steals the show. The rock walls around the Incisor are particularly good-looking. On subsequent adventures, I went along that ridge and made it beyond the Incisor, look for that report soon.

The Sawtooth looking pretty Sawt-toothy

As you ascend up the pleasant alpine slopes of “Middle Agnes,” you’ll run into one ridgeline obstacle. There’s some quick Class 3-4 scrambling involved here, but you can just as easily skip it all to the right.

Purple=Class 4, Red=Class3, Blue=Class 2

After some huffing and puffing, you’ll top out on “Middle Agnes.” This is a great place to take a break with stellar views.

A trailless basin with two unnamed lakes and Mt. Zirkel in the background. I’m going to call the higher lake Timo’s Tarn because A. alliteration is easy to remember, B. I’m vain and wanted to use my name in something. If that don’t float your boat, you can call it something else; it has no official title, like many features in this area.

Don’t get too caught up in the view, though, because there’s a big ole wall that’s now in front of you, and you need to get around it to get up to Big Agnes. The wall leads to the summit of Big Agnes North, one of three summit blocks.

As you approach the wall, you may be wondering how on earth you’re going to be able to scale this thing without ropes. Well, there’s a sneak on the left-hand side that provides a (relatively) simple passage. Let’s walk through it. FYI: This will be another section of concentrated scrambling like the Spike, or it’ll be your scrambling intro if you hit the bypass. Get your game face on, it’s not long, but it is steep.

Scrambling footage

The first section involves some brief Class 3 scrambling along the ridge crest as you approach the wall of North Agnes.

Blue=Class2, Red=Class3

You’ll stay along the crest (employing some moves to the north side to get around a small tower) until arriving at a set of white slanted blocky rocks. Here, you have two options, a Class 3 skirt to the left or a brief, fun Class 4 traverse along the very sturdy rocks.

Is there any benefit to the Class 4 way? Yeah, it’s fun. Practically, though, you can just skip it.

On the other side of this initial test piece, you’ll be on the slanted northern slope of the Big Agnes massif. The terrain here is a mix of solid rock sections and grassy benches, which are pretty but don’t offer the best traction. Pay attention to where you step and what you step on.

The first section along the white rocks. Red=Class 3, Purple=Class 4

The strategy now is to perform an ascending traverse along these grassy ledges while keeping the mostly solid cliffs close to your right-hand side. A few sections of traversing are necessary, but if you start losing elevation in this part, you’re doing something wrong.

Gopro still shot. Head to the red circle.

As you ascend towards what looks like a rockier section, two options open up for you.

The upper option is initially easier, taking advantage of a large, flat-ish rock, but ends in an awkward Class 4 traverse move to get into the right gully. The lower option traverses underneath the flat-ish rock, heads into the right gully, and then climbs it directly. In both scenarios, there is a move or two of Class 4, while the rest remains manageable Class 3.

Once you’re in the right gully, you climb up and bank left, following the natural lay of the land. This will deposit you on another series of grassy benches underneath a last quick pitch of Class2+/Class 3 scrambling. Once you find the easiest gully up, take it, scramble for a few seconds and then find yourself on a much more forgiving summit plateau.

Here’s the whole route from below.

From where you break through on the summit plateau, it’s only another 20 seconds to the top of Big Agnes North. Might as well touch it since you’re up there (Class 2).

Once satisfied with your first of 3 Big Agnes summits, turn south and sight the last mandatory Class 3 section. The basic pattern is ridgecrest (Class 3), dip left to circle around a small tower (Class 3, stay on the slanted rocks, it’s got better grip than the sandy chute below), scramble back to the ridgecrest (Class 2+).

When you’re beyond the Class 3 section, pick your easiest Class 2+ route up the blocky terrain to the highest summit. There’s a small plaque in this section; see if you can find it.

Continue up to the highest point, and just like that, Big Agnes is yours.

There is a southern summit that’s within a few feet of the true summit’s elevation. It takes a bit of Class 3 to reach, but nothing you haven’t already done.

South Summit from the true summit.

To add the south summit, descend into the col, and work your way back up to the white rocks at the top.

Looking back at the other two summits from the col

The final push to the Southern Summit requires a handful of Class 3 moves on gloriously solid rock. Have fun!

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Descent Options

Once you’re done farting around on the summit, it’s time to pick your descent route. There are three options, repeat what you just did (hardest), choose a Class 2 route back into Micah Basin, or choose a longer Class 2+ route that leads southeast towards the Gilpin Lake Trail. I chose the Class 2 Micah Basin option; it’s easy to find, the off-trail veg is manageable, and you can reconnect with the Micah Basin Trail pretty simply.

Descent options from just below the summit.

Once you descend out of the upper basin between Big Agnes and Pt. 11,777, head west or southwest to reconnect with the Micah Lake Trail. The simplest strategy for the off-trail descent portion is to sight Micah Lake and head towards it. This may not be the most direct route, but you connect with the trail quickly, and then you can haul. Once you do, follow it south to its end, take a right and bust the 1.25 miles back to the trailhead. Nicely done, ya did it.

Scramble Video

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Conclusion/Future Reports

Big Agnes Mountain is one of 3 12,000 foot mountains in the Park Range. There are three ways up it, with the Class 4 west ridge providing the most in terms of scrambling. There are also three summits, a southern summit (Class 3), true summit (Class 2+) and a Northern Summit (Class 3 by easiest way, Class 4 via West Ridge).

I find this area fascinating for several reasons:

  • Rock Quality: Generally great, especially within the Sawtooth Range (Big Agnes and the ridges leading up to it).
  • Off-the-beaten-path: Solitude almost guaranteed if you hit Big Agnes via the Spike or any of the other spindly ridges in the area
  • Satisfying scrambling and views (largely Class 3-4 with harder stuff around)
  • Lots of rock climbing potential
  • Large alpine area for being so low. The tree line is also a lot lower so you get alpine ruggedness mixed with stretches of krummholz, thick alpine grass and occasional pine trees. It makes for a challenging and visually quite interesting smash of environments.
  • Generally manageable distances to get to most of these ridges, just a (potentially) long way to the trailhead
  • Lots of fun off-trail exploration (Pack your shit out though, like, all of it.)
  • TONS OF SNOW IN THE WINTER. Backcountry skiing looks like it would be excellent up here, most likely via snowmobile though, lots of winter gate closures limit cold weather access
  • Relatively contained area: i.e. depending on willpower and scrambling ability, you could check off the main ridges and peaks within a season or two

The next report will deal with the Incisor and the ridge to the north of Big Agnes, which makes for another excellent adventure. Look for that report soon!

Route preview for next report: The Incisor and off-trail exploration in the basin north and east of Big Agnes

Colorado Backcountry Turns All Year: Year 1, Months 7-9 (2021)

I am not the first person to try and ski every month of the year in Colorado. While the overall numbers aren’t many, there are people who have done this thing every month for decades or more. And while the elevation of the Centennial State guarantees turns through mid-July at hundreds of locations, by the time August and September roll around, you’re options become really limited. Additional limiting factors include the rate of recent snowmelt and the previous season’s snowpack. Luckily for me, I decided to ski in a year that only managed an average winter snowpack and experienced a warmer than average June/July…wheee.

Faced with dwindling options, I honed my focus on the areas of Colorado that seem to hold onto snow the most. In the northern Front Range, those areas are high, cold, sun-starved alpine cirques. Some of these feature permanent snowfields, and some feature the occasional glacier. For August and September, those became my focus while I clung to the hope that October might signal the return of accumulating alpine snow.

This is part of an ongoing series, for parts one and two, click on the links below.

Table of Contents

Backcountry Warning and Resources

If you’re tip-toeing into backcountry skiing, there are a ton of resources and education that I would consider mandatory before taking it to the hills. I’ve compiled a list below.

  • Avalanche training (look up Avvy 1 certifications near you).
  • Avalanche gear (shovel, probe, beacon, radio).
  • Regular ski gear plus skins, frame/tech bindings.
  • Orienteering skills (download offline maps, have a GPS watch, or bring a physical map and a compass).
  • Scout your line before committing.
  • Ski with partners when able (if not able, compensate by only attempting on the best day conditions wise). This is a touchy point, many refuse to attempt without a partner, and I accept that, but if you have a flexible risk tolerance and can accept more risk in one area (solo journeys), you have to compensate by nailing down all other aspects of the planning process to make the risk defensible.
  • Check the weather up until the moment you leave.
  • Leave your plan with a loved one and have that plan include emergency contact info should you miss a predetermined rendezvous time.
  • Here are some Colorado-focused resources I use: OpensnowFront Range Skimo, Mountain Weather Forecasts (click here), CAIC (they have an Instagram page, and there are other associated avalanche pages to follow as well), NWS.
  • For added info on planning and gear, please visit these two articles I wrote for an outdoor website called SkyblueOverland. The topics covered are crucial for any aspiring backcountry skier/rider. Essential Backcountry Gear, and Guide to Planning a Backcountry Adventure.
  • Additionally, I wrote an overview of Colorado Snow, which has a bunch of additional information pertinent to centennial state winters.
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Month 7: August 25, 2021 (Ptarmigan Glacier)

Ptarmigan Glacier, tucked into the Continental Divide between Flattop Mt. (left) and Notchtop (right).

After a successful July ski of Andrews Glacier, I began looking at the rest of Rocky Mountain National Park in search of other permanent pieces of snow. I’d passed by Ptarmigan Glacier (a name that doesn’t usually show up on official maps but has been recorded in many user trip reports and blogs) the year prior when I scrambled up Little Matterhorn. It’s not too terribly far from the Bear Lake Trailhead (roughly similar to Andrews, just the opposite direction), and from what I’d researched, stays snowy all year. Good enough for me

So, one late August day, after delaying what I knew would be a taxing journey with skis on my back, I finally committed.

Views toward Estes Park as the day slowly dawned.

Like Andrews, I used the Bear Lake Trailhead. This time, however, I went north, around the bulk of FLattop Mt. and the Banana Bowls (another lower angle backcountry area in the winter/spring), and continued as if heading towards Odessa Gorge. The whole Odessa area is magnificent, from the lakeshore to the views of Notchtop; it’s all National Park-level beauty.

Notchtop (and Notchtop Spire) from just above the Odessa Lake trail.

The established trail ascends gently to a saddle near Joe Mills Mountain and then drops into the gorge before finding the shores of Odessa Lake. My turnoff into the backcountry was at the saddle, where a noticeable but unsigned path leads south to Lake Helene, a shallow pond that acts as a great marker.

Lake Helene and the not-so-flat sides of Flattop Mt.

I followed the use trail around the right shore of the lake until a series of paths began veering uphill. Using a combination of a few, I found a route that ascends away from the lake and higher into the gorge. This part was a bit frustrating because Krumholtz kept catching my skis, but I soldiered through, following the occasional cairn, until I broke into the alpine.

As you can see in the picture above, stubborn vegetation gives way to two separate snowfields. Up until July, they are more or less connected. The upper field is what’s generally referred to as the glacier, although both fields are large enough to last all year. The navigation was never really hard on this trip, but it was a taxing approach nonetheless. As the terrain changed to talus and scree, my pace slowed to a crawl to make sure I wasn’t misstepping or taking a long rocky ride down a loose slope.

I broke out the crampons and climbed the first snowfield, thankful to be on more of a solid surface. All around the snowfield were large pieces of talus on unstable slopes. The whole area looked like it moved with some regularity, so I was keen to avoid any suspicious-looking areas. Using the crampons to bypass a particularly perilous-looking hogback saved me time and worry.

Looking back at a couple unnamed tarns as I get ready to climb the first snowfield.
Climbing up the first snowfield, notice the layers of windswept dirt on top of the snow. Not only is summer skiing limited to existing snowfields, but in a lot of cases, you have to deal with dirt, exposed rocks, ice, slush, and rockfall. Just because avalanche danger is low to non-existent doesn’t mean there is no danger.

Between the two snowfields, I chose an angling ascent over loose ground until I could traverse over to the second, larger snowfield, aka Ptarmigan Glacier, and put my crampons back on.

Ptarmigan Glacier.

As far as permanent snowfields go, Ptarmigan didn’t look as sad as some of the others I’d seen; the top half looked fairly cohesive and nice, but the bottom half bled into a talus field with plenty of scree poking up out of the snow. The skiing looked like it would be challenging, which felt appropriate since it was late August. I channeled some energy and spike-stepped my way up.

Up we go.

As I mentioned in a previous post, the ideal time to hit these slopes is before the afternoon sun creates slush out of the top layers of snow. This process slows when you have temperatures that dip below freezing the night before. Well, in the middle of summer, that doesn’t happen often, so, even though I made good time getting to the glacier, the climb was slushy and uncomfortable. I had to brace a few times to stop from sliding.

Interesting looking crevasse near the top.

I made it one piece and allowed myself a bit of time to prepare but wanted to turn around and start skiing soon because the slush issue was only going to become more pronounced as the day warmed up.

Top-down view.

To be honest, the skiing was a bit terrifying. I connected ~10 turns, but the top was a mixed bag of hard snow ridges and sun-cupped BS, the middle was slushy, and the bottom was a minefield of fist-size rocks that could really screw up my skis. I threaded together as many safe turns as I could but ultimately had to take my skis off and boot pack down the last hundred feet; there was just too much detritus to avoid.

It was too dangerous of a ski to film with my phone so this is the only “mid-action” photo I have. I think this day convinced me to start looking at Go-Pros, which I would eventually get by the year’s end.

So, yeah, I skied in August on a dwindling glacier in a National Park. It was harrowing, steep (~42-45 degrees at its steepest pitch), and riddled with debris that would’ve destroyed my skis had I not been paying attention. I don’t think It’ll be on the repeat list anytime soon, but it was a good reminder that while dirty snow can be skied, it’s really tricky.

I also finally got a good idea of what a “rock” glacier is, which I thought was pretty cool.

As yearly erosion dumps more rock and debris into valleys and cirques, they end up covering the top of the ice. The ice doesn’t really go anywhere; it just hangs out under accruing layers of rocks and dirt. Practically, this makes the terrain on top of the ice exceptionally loose and subject to sliding; as far as climate change goes, the layers of rocks actually help hide the glacial layers from direct sun exposure. So, even though you may not see a bunch of ice and snow above ground, in some areas, you can bet that the ice still exists; it’s just hiding below the rocks i.e., rock glacier.

What’s interesting about Ptarmigan (Taylor Glacier is also a good example) is that a substantial portion of the ice is still visible, so you get the above surface “glacier,” and you can see the transition zone into the sub-surface “rock glacier.” Cool stuff.

Here’s what you’re looking at. A roughly 20 foot wide, 8-foot tall chunk of ice covered by dirt and scree. In fact, everything in this picture is resting on top of ice. The only reason this piece is exposed is because the summer snowmelt creates a runoff stream from the glacier; as the water moves, it carries debris down the slope, opening up a channel to sun exposure. Between where I took this photo and the ice chunk, is a ravine about 10 feet deep that leads to a running stream on top of more ice layers. There was no way I was walking up to the edge, so this is as close I got.

Rock Glaciers are exceptionally unstable (because it’s all resting on ice) and demand careful footfalls and risk management. Naturally, I traversed it in ski boots.

Another instance of debris on top of visible ice.

The “rock glacier” continued pretty much right up to the lower snowslope. As I carefully made my way to it, I started to tire of the tedious footing and thought it may be worth it to grab a few extra turns on the lower snowfield and drop a couple of hundred feet relatively quickly.

To my surprise, the snow surface was much more agreeable on this field, and I actually made some half-decent turns without feeling like I was two steps away from dying.

Slide the bar to see roughly where I made my turns. You can see where the snow is disturbed from the turns but it’s not immediately obvious.

After managing a handful of extra turns on the lower snowfield, I felt accomplished enough to call the outing a success. I made my way to the tarn at the base of the lower snowfield and collapsed on a nice, sunny rock. Compelled to celebrate in some way, I stripped down to my birthday suit and got into the water.

Hand down one of the top five coldest water experiences of my entire life, and I’ve jumped into the Arctic Ocean before!

The tarn is only exposed enough to get into for maybe two months out of the year, so it’s all frigid snowmelt. Despite the shock, I didn’t freeze to death and let the sun dry me. A few confused and concerned rock climbers descending from Notchtop probably got more of a show from my naked lounging than they would’ve liked, but hey, after hauling my skis all the way up to Ptarmigan and faced with the daunting prospect of hauling them back to the car, I can’t say I was in much of a caring mood.

Cold, cold water.

After my quick water refresh, I summoned as much energy as I could, strapped down all my gear, and dragged myself back to the parking lot. Unlike the hundreds of questions I had to field coming back from Andrews, I only spoke to a handful of people. There were still hordes of visitors near the trailhead, but I think they were too shocked at my appearance to even let some questions out, fine by me, haha. August ski down!

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Month 8: September 16, 2021 (Knobtop Icefield)

The previous October, I hiked Little Matterhorn, a Class 3 scramble overlooking the Odessa Lake area of Rocky Mountain National Park, and just a stellar adventure all around. While on the ridgeline to the summit, I noticed a large snowfield hiding under the bulk of Knobtop, a relatively ill-defined area with a flat top, gentle western slopes, and a precipitous eastern and northern wall. The snowfield looked large and interesting, so I decided to revisit the area and see if my observation last year held up to skiing scrutiny.

Not bad; decent vertical to boot.

So, a little less than a month after my Ptarmigan Glacier descent, I saddled up for an attempt of the Knobtop Icefield.

I really wanted the snowfield to be exactly the way I’d seen it the year prior, but that turned out to be pretty optimistic on my part.

The approach was fairly benign until I broke from the trail around Lake Helene as I’d done for the previous hike. Instead of heading up into the Ptarmigan Glacier area, I traversed underneath a small headwall and descended below Hope falls. Technically, this is the same gorge that originates near Ptarmigan, but the headwall is a significant enough obstacle to legitimately call them two separate things (Odessa Gorge and Ptarmigan Cirque, for example).

Little Matterhorn and the Gables from near Lake Helene.

After descending below Hope Falls and crossing the stream, I found myself in a familiar talus field and slope (the same approach that I’d used to climb Little Matterhorn the year prior). This part I knew wasn’t terribly long but featured some serious elevation gain that I had to do with skis. It was a long, and grinding ascent, but I stuck to areas that I thought looked the most stable and slowly made my way higher.

Generalized ascent path, turns out, not the easiest way, but certainly the most direct.

My path was…ok, I mean, I arrived where I wanted to, but the loose rocks and steep slope angle made me a bit nervous, and if you’ve ever tried to hike anything with skis on your back, you’ll know how easily you can get off balance. So, I stumbled, cursed, and dragged myself up the rise, hoping to reach what I knew would be a relatively flat talus field leading up to the edge of the icefield.

The first views of the icefield were…not super inspiring.

Oof, dirty and a lot smaller than last year’s observations.

Feeling the looming specter of failure creep in, I resolved to at least scout the whole field from its base to see if there were any places I could rope together a measly five turns. The longest part of the icefield looked initially good but led right to a rockfall chute, and after watching countless fist-sized rocks scream down the icefield and crash into the talus below, I was keen to avoid that part.

I did find one section that looked relatively clean and was tucked up underneath a solid-looking rock wall with nothing overhung above it. To be honest, the whole area was a huge rockfall hazard, but I angled towards an area that looked white (so not a lot of surface debris) and got as close as I could to the start before getting my climbing gear on and preparing for a steep ascent.

Certainly not pretty, but clean enough to ski.

My crampons got their money’s worth as the terrain steepened quickly past 40 degrees. It wasn’t an altogether long ascent, but the sun-cupped surface, steep profile, and constant rockfall danger kept me plenty focused. I angled towards a large bergschrund (specifically, a randkluft in my case) between the top of the icefield and the solid rock walls behind it. In that pocket, I awkwardly got ready.

This is not beginner territory.

Also, in case you are unaware of what a bergschrund or randkluft are, this still shot from a video I took should provide some context. In no way was this a comfortable changeover from crampons to skis.

As the summer sun melts snow slopes, the snow can pull away from the walls behind them, creating a gap or a bergschrund. Technically, since this was the gap between stagnant ice and rocks as opposed to a moving glacier and stagnant ice, the appropriate term is a randkluft, but the key element is the same: a crevasse-like gap between ice and other stuff.
In the randkluft.

After a few trying minutes, I got all my gear ready and awkwardly sidestepped from the lower part of the randkluft up to the crest and gently, nervously, stepped my skis over. I was leaning so much on my inside edges I thought I’d fall right back into the randkluft, but it all held together, and I slid forward to a patch of clean snow.

Yeah, so, perhaps unsurprisingly, this was not a banner skiing day, but in the middle of the summer, beggars can’t be choosers. Would I ever repeat it though? ….Uhm.

I didn’t take any pictures on the way down but did manage to put together a set of turns that actually made me really proud. Despite my wonky start, I settled in quickly and hit the skiable bit with the same confidence I had at Andrews Glacier, which is saying something. I hated the rockfall danger and looming sense of potential catastrophe, but I skied better this day than I did on Ptarmigan in August.

I did get some perspective shots from further back and could trace my lines, which was neat.

Gotta love old iPhone pic quality. Below the red line, I unstrapped and just carefully heel kicked my way down, far too much debris.

Below is a different perspective from farther away. I drew in the lines using a computer mouse, so there may be small differences between representations, but you can clearly see my first few turns in the shade on the undrawn version.


The skiing was strangely better than August, but this was by far the most dangerous ski of the year.

Although I made it down the ski slope just fine, I had another couple of heart-stopping moments when chunks of rocks cascaded down from higher elevations. Hearing a rock pick up speed, hitting what looked like 60-80 mph, and then split into a thousand pieces when it hits a piece of talus bigger than an SUV certainly leaves an impression.

Luckily, I had scouted potential lower-risk escape routes, and because I had already identified the problem spots above me, I knew I wasn’t in immediate danger. With barely any wind that day, the biggest factors were sun-melt on the ice and rockfall from gullies and slots that broke through the walls above me. I could tell where those gullies emptied out because of how the snow looked (darker=more debris covered), and you can see that in the picture below. Purposely picking my line to ski the best conditions, as opposed to the longest vertical, saved my skis from getting too beat up and kept me in one physical piece.

Left pic, no markup. Right pic, Red arrows=most likely rockfall direction based on my observations. Blue=the area where I skied. PLEASE NOTE: all of this was completely dangerous, I just worked with the best option.

Still, having a bunch of rocks break a few dozen meters away from you is not a calming experience. I kept my helmet on for the majority of the return hike to lake Helene and only stowed it when I was safely back on established trails.

The hike back felt somehow more exhausting and challenging than last month’s outing; my ski straps kept loosening, so I had to do a bunch of re-adjusts, and talus hopping with skis on just beats you up. I did make it back successfully, and despite the rapidly forming blisters, felt pretty good about how I’d managed what is definitely one of the craziest backcountry adventures I’ve done.

Quick PSA: This is all completely nuts, and I think that should be noted somewhere in every piece I write about this kinda stuff. I am a competent skier and mountaineer with decades of experience; I’m also a 6-year ski instructor; additionally, I have years of trail-building and months of alpine camping/living under my belt. I make it my business to understand the mountains and the hazards they harbor, and I have turned around on many adventures when the conditions weren’t right.

I really like being alive, but I also intimately understand my personal thresholds because I have that conversation with myself often. Like most aspects of life, thresholds change over time. As silly as it sounds, the best advice when you’re pushing yourself in the outdoors is to get right with yourself, figure out what you can and won’t do, and identify the gray area where you can build skills into. After all the years I’ve spent in the outdoors (along with the hundreds of Colorado mountains I’ve climbed), I felt that I could handle the risks presented to me on this day, but I am always preparing for the day when that’s no longer the case.

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Month 9: October 28, 2021 (Shrine Pass Meadows)

When we talk about the alpine in Colorado, there’s usually a period of time in the autumn when a series of high elevation storms bring the first snow of the year. Most of this is unskiable from resorts, and there’s a fair amount of melting between storms because the sun angle is still high, but it signals the inevitable arrival of colder weather. Well, this year, that first bout of snow took its sweet time showing up. There were a few anemic spurts in early October, but finally, towards the back half of the month, a stronger storm targeting the western slope dropped up to a foot on the mountains around Vail Pass. My time had arrived.

By this time, I’d also managed to wrestle down the inevitable criteria I would use for the challenge. With an understanding that I’d elected to keep my skiing limited to the I-70 corridor and north, I figured exploring a small section west of Vail Pass would make for a nice excursion. I knew the road to Shrine Pass was skiable, so I planned for that.

The new snow, while copious for October, was also still drivable, so I ended up giving the ole snow tires a workout and chugged up the Shrine Pass Road, looking specifically for low-angle grassy slopes where the chances of skiing rocks was a lot lower.

I had no illusions that this was going to be a short outing. Already limited by early season snowfall, my hope was to just recycle a few slopes until I felt like I’d made my five requisite turns. All in all, I found three separate “runs” and pieced together about 20 turns between them.

Easy and it counts.

There were a few people out skiing the road, but after driving over some bare patches, it looked, to me, like it would still mess up a pair of skis, so I was relatively excited to find soft slopes without surprise gravel under them.

There were a couple of times I broke through the snow, but luckily the surface was soft underneath. If you strain, you can see at least five turns in this photo.

This day wasn’t anything to shout about, but after languishing through the first part of October, wondering if I’d get to ski fresh snow or be forced to have another experience like August and September, I was just happy to be able to ski something soft.

I think from start to finish, I was on my skis for maybe 90 minutes total, and a lot of that was just soaking up being outside.

Yeah, no real issues, just enjoyed some high-altitude October turns under cloudy skies and on top of fresh snow.

Naturally, thoughts turned towards the following month since another storm was set to hit, and I wanted to take advantage but I also took a moment to give myself a high five, month 9 of backcountry turns complete! Only three more before I’d skied a whole year!

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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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