Quick disclaimer: I like to highlight and markup some of my pictures for route clarification. Black 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.
The weather was supposed to be fairly iffy today but my mountain weather app said we had a window, so the question of should we hike? morphed into, what can we hit quickly while we’ve got a bit of good weather? Often times it isn’t a good idea to play with weather forecasts but you really don’t know unless you go. Mountains tend to create some funk in the atmosphere, one ridge may bear the brunt of bad weather while another might not see a drop of rain. Nick and I knew our ability levels and decided to give it a shot, even if it meant turning around, which we had no problem doing. Nick had previously accompanied me on the Ten-Mile Traverse so we knew we had good communication, speed, and scrambling chops. We carpooled up I-70 in the dark and reached our trailhead at around 4:45 AM.
Table of Contents
- To the Citadel
- Eastern Summit Direct (Sustained Class 4 Slab Climb)
- From East to West
- Citadel to Hagar Traverse
To the Citadel
The mountains we settled on are in a highly-trafficked corridor but don’t often see a ton of use due to their committing nature. The Citadel is a fortress-looking double peak that requires Class 3 scrambling at a minimum, and Mount Hagar is connected to it via a ridge that, at it’s hardest, can run at a 3+ or 4. The kicker was the short distance, we could bag both and be back at the car in under 8 miles. With an early start, we’d be well off the summits before the t-storms and rain rolled back in.
The trailhead we used is not well known because it’s not really a trailhead. We decided to give it a shot after reading that there was a fairly good dirt road and an unofficial path up to the ridge-line. The alternative would’ve been Herman Gulch which is insanely popular and makes for a longer approach. The benefit of Herman Gulch is the well-defined trail, so if starting early and going off-trail gives you pause, use the Herman access. The way we went is known as Dry Gulch and is little more than a dirt road next to the off-ramp on I-70 (exit 216). Unlike Herman Gulch, however, when we pulled up to Dry Gulch, we were the only car there.
Dry Gulch is decidedly NOT dry and was especially wet after consecutive rainy afternoons. The navigation was fairly easy but we were both soaked by the time we finally broke through the trees. Generally speaking, you park by the gate, walk the dirt road until it ends, hang a left, pick up an obvious unofficial trail and follow it through the valley bottom until it juts up to the right at an unforgiving pitch. Be aware, if you start before dawn, there are multiple trail braids, they usually lead back to one another but some require more stream and puddle jumps than others.
As you can see above, it’s not an overly difficult approach but because it is not an official trail, there are literally no switchbacks. Once you machete your way through the dense, wet vegetation near the valley bottom, the herd path goes straight up the ridge that the second arrow in the photo is pointing towards. If you start early, don’t panic at the myriad creek jumps and braided trails in the beginning, after a mile or two, the brush does clear and you very obviously begin to gain elevation. If, for some reason, you miss the turnoff, once the pine trees and willows begin to clear, point your boots to the right and begin climbing. Regardless of circumstance, you need to gain the ridge to your right.
The map above is really helpful. I supplement with pictures later on but the first hour was too dark to photo. The map is oriented correctly (Up=north, Down=South, Left=West, Right=East).
From the saddle in the photo above you connect with the trail coming up from Herman Gulch and the rest is a cake walk until you get to the Citadel’s upper difficulties. Another perspective of where we came from is shown below.
From the saddle, continue up the ridge until The Citadel’s imposing East Summit takes shape. Before then, enjoy the views. We had a really excellent morning.
Continue up the well-worn trail from the saddle passing some rock towers en-route to the summit block of The Citadel. From the saddle up to the base of the block you can really only see the Eastern summit and it is intimidating. The trail up to the summit block veers around any towers and rock ribs until the summit is right in front of you.
Right before the tower feature in the above picture you get your first look at the Eastern (harder) summit of The Citadel.
Once you get to your second saddle, as indicated in the picture above, the standard route veers left, hugging the base of the Eastern Summit cliffs. If you choose this route, it culminates in a loose Class 3 gully OR you can climb better rock just to the left of it, still Class 3. This is depicted by the red arrow in the picture above. The standard route begins above the snow-patch in the picture. Hang to the left of the gully and find suitable rock to scramble up to the taller (and easier) Western Summit. From the top of the standard route gully, you also have a Class 4 option to climb the backside of the Eastern Summit. This is the standard approach for both summits.
Nick and I opted to climb the Eastern Summit directly. Our decision was helped by a climber in front of us. He had chosen to head up a loose gully parallel to the standard route and was dropping rocks down towards us. We didn’t want any part of that. Though there is a lot of solid rock on The Citadel (part of what makes it fun), not every route is solid and the fist-sized rocks the climber was sending down would’ve done some serious damage to us.
Eastern Summit Direct (Sustained Class 4 Slab Climb)
Instead of hugging the cliffs left towards the standard, we opted to head right and climb the Eastern face. This was a fantastic/exposed/heart-racing climb. I think in drier conditions it would’ve been more firmly on the fun side, but since we’d had so much rain, some of the open slab climbs were slick and forced some really exposed scrambling. Let’s unpack the route.
As indicated by the picture above, the beginning was not difficult, just loose, especially as you traverse to the right of the organ pipe lookin cliffs and locate the first access gully. Once in the gully, use the solid rock on the right-hand side to climb up until just before the end of the second blue arrow in the picture above. Here, if you look to the right, you will see an exit that allows you to climb out of the gully and onto the main face.
Right before we found the exit, we took a hard look at the head of the gully (circled in purple) and decided against going that way. If you wanted a challenge, I think it would go with a few upper Class 4 moves, possibly a Class 5 move or two, however, the exit to the right was the easiest escape.
The photo of the exit gully above looks downright maniacal but it’s not, just a strange perspective looking up. There were great hand and footholds along the exit and I’d rate it at Class 3+ but no more. What the photo does a great job of doing is showing how wet the rocks were.
Sweet, let’s back it up and see where we’re at.
So, after the gully exit we were now firmly on the main face and ready to take on the crux of the climb, a series of exposed, wet, Class 4 slabs with marginal holds. Here’s what that looked like, and unlike the gully exit picture, this one does not distort perspective.
I’ve marked up the picture below and will try to explain why we chose the route we did.
We sighted a few lines of possibility and were attracted to the furthest right purple arrow because of the obvious seam running up the rock. This was a bit of a ruse as the seam had OK handholds but not much for your feet, especially with the slick conditions. Ultimately, we chose to use the seam for as long as we could and then traversed left as able.
As all the purple arrows indicate, the ultimate goal was to shoot the gap between the Class 5 moves, though they are there for the taking if you choose. This was a tough, tough section and on more than one occasion we felt our tread slip on the rock. The key is to keep moving, not quickly, but consistently and only move one body part at a time, keeping three points of contact on the rock. If you stop on one of these slabs, you risk losing grip and may start to overthink your next moves which could lead to mental paralysis. Keep…moving…
Once you make it past the first slab, you have a tiny break in a dirt bed interspersed with some alpine vegetation, before the next slab begins. Don’t get too comfy, you’re not done yet.
Above are two lines you can take, the left side starts at Class 3 and uses some cracks in the rock to get closer to the end, however, there is a caveat. Once the crack system ends, you have at least two open slab moves that involve leaving the crack system and traversing right in order to keep the climbing at 4th Class. The little vertical orange marks in the picture indicate a small lip that runs between a 5.0-5.2. The traverse is necessary to avoid this. If you are thinking about attacking the lip, keep in mind, I saw no good finger holds above it, so any 5th Class moves you make will need to account for that. If you choose the crack system, also note that the vegetation is growing in dirt, not rocks. When that dirt gets on your shoes, you’re going to lose traction. On wet or damp mornings, this will absolutely be an issue.
Alternatively, if you have a dry day and good traction, you can attack the slab directly (purple arrow to the right) and work your way to the right side of the large rock sitting on top of the slab.
After the second slab you are back down to Class 3 climbing.
Now, after the slab climbing, you’ll find yourself on a grassy ramp, which is not obvious from any point (so far) in your summit block climb. From the above picture it’s easy to pick out, but the ways into it (our way, traversing into it earlier, or continuing up the gully) all require some Class 4 moves. From what we saw, you really can’t avoid that reality.
Use the grassy ramp to get up to the next set of blocks, taking care to avoid pricking your hands on the sharp thistle plants growing there. If you hug the right side of the ramp as shown, you can keep the scrambling at mid Class 3. Once you are above this step, the grassy bit begins to peter out and you have one last, short Class 3 section before you are on the summit.
You’re almost there! The last section is shown above and compared to what you’ve already done, it’s easy pickins. If you’ve just about had enough of scrambling you can also bypass the block on the left and attack it from the other side at 2+.
Take a sweet moment to relax, you’ve earned it, but stay sharp, you’re scrambling isn’t over yet. Even by the standard route, the Eastern Summit is a Class 4, which means in order to exit the summit you have to perform at least one more set of Class 4 moves, and this time it will be a down-climb.
Quick comment on Citadels Eastern Summit: the whole climb was awesome and a little hair raising. We chose our route based on factors on the ground but that does not mean it is the only route. I think the gully exit was a great find and the slab climbing was supreme but I would love to go back and test some other routes on that face. Even though it isn’t large, I could see starting a line further to the right or testing the headwall of the gully to see if it goes. When I go back to try new routes I will undoubtedly report on them!
Extra photo below, as zoomed in as I could get without sacrificing route details. I hope this helps!
From East to West
Standing on top of the Eastern Summit, we realized that despite our successful climb, eventually, we’d need to find a way off the thing. This is where some pre-climbing research came in handy. The standard route (which we avoided coming up) had a 10-12 foot Class 4 section from the split between the summits that we could down-climb to relative safety. Knowing its existence, we began to hunt for it.
Nick found it relatively quickly and performed the required moves with ease. To get to the down-climb from the Eastern Summit requires no more than a few Class 2+ moves. This is what the drop looked like from the top.
Here’s a view from the bottom-up. It is by no means an easy descent (or ascent if you scale the Eastern Summit this way) but it is thankfully short.
I am not the greatest down climber in the world so to say I went down this section gracefully would be a stretch. I was forward-facing for the duration of the highest arrow in the picture above, turned to face the mountain for the middle arrow, and then flipped back around to face out for the bottom part. Why? Well, there was a sneaky step I couldn’t see while facing toward the mountain near the bottom, and it ended up being the crux move for me. I was still a good 5-6 feet from the end of the down-climb and I had good foot purchase and the ability to shift weight easily, so I did. I do not recommend this method as it exposes you to increased risk, however, if you down-climb this section, note that there ARE footholds there, but you may not be able to see them from above.
Below is yet another look, taken from the Western Summit that I think shows the best angle of the down-climb.
Once you are down off the Eastern Summit take stock of where you are. In front of you is the imposing Western Block, which you cannot attack directly from where you stand, to the right, the loose slope drops back down into Herman Gulch, and to the left, the slope rises to a small saddle between the peaks. IF YOU COME UP THE STANDARD ROUTE THIS IS IMPORTANT. Coming up the standard gully, the access climb to the Eastern Summit is BEYOND the height of land, crest the small saddle and then look to your right. If you take the dihedral BEFORE the saddle, it will be a tougher down-climb later.
From our new position, we hung left, crested the small saddle, and began looking for weaknesses in the Western Summit to climb up. This did not take very long and within five minutes we were on top of the Western Summit, having used a handful of moderate Class 3 moves.
From the Eastern Summit, you can get a sense of what awaits you on the Western Summit. Keep in mind, as before, between Nick and the route up the Western Summit is the split between the mountains, you cannot just hop over it.
That’s that, you’ve conquered both of Citadel’s summits! For added spice, you can continue across a small knife edge (North) towards a sub-summit that has some nice throne rocks to sit on. The moves do not exceed Class 3 but the exposure is SEVERE.
The summit rock only has space for one person and there was a very lovely Marmot Turd on top of it, so I elected to just touch the highest part of the rock and avoid the fecal fun.
The best part about the Western Summit is the great preview it gives of the traverse to Hagar. Even though we’d done a lot of scrambling at this point, we topped Western Citadel by 7:30 AM, a mere 2 hours and 45 minutes into our hike so time was, for once, on our side.
Citadel to Hagar Traverse
Onwards! Having taken care of The Citadel, we turned our sights southwest towards Hagar and kicked it into high gear. The descent off the Western Summit is a bit of a no-brainer, it’s more difficult if you hug the ridge, less if you skirt to the left and then regain the ridge a little lower. The first few minutes are low Class 3 on loose rock, so watch your step and never descend directly above someone else. If you kick loose a rock, yell “ROCK!” as loudly and as often as you can until either the rock stops rolling or it is safely beyond ALL routes on the mountain where people may be.
For the most part (i.e. 90% of it) the ridge is an easy 2 to 2+ tundra stroll with occasional (and always optional) Class 3 moves along the way. It’s the summit block of Hagar that makes the traverse worth doing.
Ok, so there’s a lot going on in the picture below that’s worth explaining and a lot of it is subjective. The trip reports I read online classified the Hagar summit block as two sections of possible Class 3/4 climbing (ie 3+), the first section is up the summit block, the second is a knife-edge traverse to the true summit. I agree with the 3+ distinction but shy away from calling the main difficulties on Hagar Class 4, based on our experience on the Eastern Summit of Citadel. You can certainly find some Class 4 moves on the block, but you would need to be actively seeking them out. For the risk-averse, if you do not take the bypass, the summit block of Hagar runs at 3+.
If you get to Hagar and you’re just doggin it and hating life, you can traverse left, around the summit block, come up the other side and keep everything at a 2+ ( with maybe a low Class 3 move tossed in there). Most people when writing trip reports on this peak tend to take route 3 or 4 in the above photo.
I believe route 3 to be the most common approach as it’s right on top of the ridge crest. What the route ends up looking like once you are at the base of the gully is roughly the same as the Gully Exit we used on E. Citadel, which is to say, harder Class 3, but calling this gully option Class 4 seems like a stretch. It also reminded me of the summit block moves on Navajo Pk. which is a Class 3, so I was fairly skeptical of calling it something more. See for yourself below.
My impression was that the variations up the summit block were all sorts of Class 3 with a couple of Class 4 options if you swung right and found harder rock or if you went between some of the routes (like Route 6). However, the obvious routes up the block (2, 3, and 4) are all Class 3. This is not to say that the moves are easy, it is still very much a scramble and after The Citadel you may be feeling tired. Take breaks as you need them, remain vigilant, find the best route, and go at your own pace.
We found that a route to the left of the gully was a relatively safe and enjoyable Class 3 scramble up stable rocks with plenty of hand and footholds so we opted for that (route 2 in the summit block photo). Here’s a look at the route entrance and the first section.
The route swings right and gives you the following look.
The last little bit is pictured below. Nick is standing on the ridge.
Once you regain the ridge, you walk along it for a minute until you encounter the next section, which is oftentimes described as a Class 4 knife edge. Below is the approach to it.
Just like the Ten Mile Traverse’s Class 4 section, we debated this one at length. The conclusions we reached were similar. If you hung off the north side of the edge with rampant exposure beneath you, I’d call it a soft 4. If you, like most, moved across the top of the knife-edge, I’d call it a 3+. Why? Because, despite the HUGE exposure on the north side, at any point along the edge (save maybe 3-5 small moves) you can keep all of your focus on the south side of the ridge. The exposure on the south side is all of 5-6 feet and you can bail out at almost any point. Move for move it is Class 3+ and unless you flirted consistently with the more severe side (as in, hung off the north side and traversed it like a via-Ferrata), it would take some convincing for me to call it a 4. Take a look below.
Quick note: Why do I take on the ratings discussion consistently? Because it IS subjective, and therefore open to scrutiny. It is not my goal to make hard scrambles appear easier but I do expect people to own their actions, accuracy matters. If you do not have a lot of experience climbing exposed 3+ ridges, don’t do the Hagar knife-edge, especially since you can easily bypass it. At its hardest, this section is a 3/4 with exposure and toes that line for the duration.
Once you pass the knife-edge, the actual summit is just a short scamper away. Congrats! We were descending off Hagar by 8:30 AM. If you followed our route and took dry gulch up, you can descend into the head of the valley below Hagar. Then, contour left and maintain your elevation as much as possible until you run into your ascent trail. We were back at the trailhead by 10:30 AM.