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.
Location and Prep
The Desolation Peaks are located at the western fringe of the Mummy Range in the Northern Rocky Mountain National Park. There are fees required to enter the park; please click the park website link here, for pertinent information. Note: if you enter the park without the appropriate entrance pass, you will be ticketed.
The Desolation Peaks are part of a ridge that runs north from the bulk of Ypsilon Mountain and includes (from South to North) UN12718, UN12768, The Desolation Peaks, UN12341 and Flatiron Mountain before dropping down to the upper reaches of the Cache La Poudre valley as it flows north out of the National Park. As evidenced by their names (East and West Desolation), the peaks themselves are East-West oriented and just off of the main ridge to the east (or right-hand side if you approach from Chapin pass). This is a beautiful and seldom explored area, although the approach trail along the Mummy crest can be quite popular.
The best places to view the peaks (and the scrambly ridge between them) are from Chapin Peak, Trailridge road at the Lava Cliffs pullout, the top of Marmot Point trail from the Alpine Visitors Center and at the second u-curve above tree-line on Old Fall River Road, where a pullout and unofficial trail give you some great looks. I would also assume views from Fairchild and Hagues Peak are good. Mount Chiquita is unfortunately hidden by Ypsilon and Ypsilon itself is a very broad peak so the view from the actual summit isn’t the best. From most visible points along Trail Ridge Road, East Desolation is identified by its blocky, triangular shape.
While the first part of the approach is on identifiable trail, you do leave the trail about a hundred feet above the Chiquita-Ypsilon saddle and the rest of the route is off-trail. It is fairly straightforward route finding to get within a few hundred yards of West Desolation, but once you attempt the scramble be prepared for sustained Class 3 and 4 climbing, a very small amount of easily missed cairns, and lots of loose rock. The route finding was surprisingly difficult on the peaks themselves which is one of the main reasons I’m writing this report.
Chapin Pass on Old Fall River Road. The road is one way, accessed from US34 by Bighorn Flats. An approach via US36 is also possible but would take a longer amount of time. The trailhead is distinguished by a very large Forest Service sign on the right side of the road as it winds its way towards tree-line. Parking is on the left side of the road, with the best, and flattest parking spots above the start of the trail.
There is only one trail on the actual side of the road, take it, immediately gaining elevation. A few minutes later, after the elevation gain begins to mellow out, look to the right for a clearly marked sign. The park service sign says something like “All Summits this way”, and points to the right, follow that, it’s hard to miss.
Another ten minutes of meandering through stands of trees and occasional fields will bring you to a second NPS sign that declares the end of trail maintenance, with two trails extending behind it. One goes slightly right (higher), one goes slightly left (lower). The lower trail is a bypass of Chapin that runs you to the saddle between Chapin and Chiquita. The higher route is also technically a bypass, though it gains enough along the ridge to feel like an alpine trail. Choose either one, if you wanted to quickly tag Chapin along the way to the Desolations, veer right, otherwise, it’s really a preference thing, neither version is difficult.
The Cameron Peak Fire (as shown below) would provide some stunning shots in the clear morning. Unfortunately, during the day it ballooned in size and the smoke would eventually dominate the second half of the outing. Please respect Fire Bans, really felt post-apocalyptic towards the end when ash was raining down around us…
We (my wife Alli and I) elected to take the higher bypass and arrived at the Chapin-Chiquita saddle with 0.0 problems. From the saddle, you can see a steeper rise up Chiquita followed by a mellower section. We made our way a couple hundred feet up the initial rise before looking for a way to parallel the slope (left) and get around Chiquita. The trail from the saddle is off and on with patches of dirt, don’t focus so much on finding the “trail.” It’s better to focus on gaining some elevation and then hanging left of the ridge crest when able. This will allow you to pass around the bulk of Chiquita. However, if you can’t bear the thought of leaving any summit untagged, hopping up to both Chapin and Chiquita along the way to the Desolations is simple.
The traverse around the north (left side) of Chiquita was straightforward and consisted of traversing a mixed talus and grass slope. We even saw a Pine Marten up there, but the slippery buggers are notoriously hard to take pictures of.
Once you make it around Chiquita, it’s important to proceed to the Chiquita-Ypsilon saddle. From there, hike up at least 100-150 feet towards Ypsilon. Multiple trip reports have indicated that a traverse around Ypsilon directly from this saddle forces you to sidehill across class 2+ terrain. If you climb up the extra couple hundred feet before traversing, you avoid all of the unnecessary difficulties. Side-hilling off trail is always tough on the ankles anyway, so don’t make it harder than it needs to be.
Once you’ve gained 100-150 feet up Ypsilon, following broken sections of trail, pick a nice place and as before, begin traversing to the left. There is no reason to keep gaining elevation as you traverse (assuming you performed the requisite climb from the saddle) so find the best option and maintain your elevation left along the bulbous north side of Ypsilon.
Taken later in the climb, the below photo shows why it’s so important to gain the little bit of elevation after the saddle. The dominant diagonal ridge shown is the massive north side hulk of Ypsilon, Chiquita is hidden behind (not visible), and the diagonal gray stripe on the ridge to the right of my black circle is part of Chapin.
This is the biggest traverse of the day and is substantially longer than the Chiquita traverse. Take your time and watch for loose rock. As you move around Ypsilon you’ll be given some stellar views of your ultimate destination. The Desolations can either inspire or frighten from this angle.
It was around this time that we started to notice the wildfire smoke beginning to rise.
Eventually, after traversing around Ypsilon, you can see the saddle connecting the main ridge of the Mummies to the Desolations. Proceed down to it. The introduction is now over. Below is a heavily doctored photo showing the progression of the fire smoke. It would engulf us within the hour.
Ridge to West Desolation
From the Ypsilon-Desolation ridge saddle, proceed north towards the Unnamed peak in front of you. FYI you’ll notice unnamed peaks are often abbreviated to UN followed by the elevation. The one in front of you now, is UN 12718. Attaining the summit of this one is a simple Class 2 affair, though the rocks are loose, you can always skirt the summit to the left for a little bit of an easier ascent.
After UN 12718 you have a fairly quick descent to a saddle before you climb up (or around) a ridge Nubbin. The nubbin has a smattering of larger rocks that seem stable, sometimes they are, sometimes they aren’t. Be careful.
After traversing around the Nubbin, we regained the ridge at a pile of significant rocks. Alli decided to hang out here, as she wasn’t too keen on the scramble ahead. I set off to obtain the peaks.
After depositing some backpack weight with Alli, I polished off the rest of the ridge approach with ease. Now, I was staring at West Desolation and the two Gendarmes in front of it (visible to the right of the second arrow in the pic above). It’s really only here that you realize West Desolation is also off the main ridgeline. The first order of business is to descend off the main ridgeline and bypass the two Gendarmes.
This is a relatively simple task, although it doesn’t look it. Immediately upon descending the main ridgeline, I skirted left around a pink rock rib, regained the height of land in front of Gendarme 1, and took a right around both Gendarmes, staying as close as I could to the towers. Don’t drop too low, stay as close to the ridgeline as is reasonable, until you are right in front of the summit block. If you do this, you can keep the Gendarme skirting at a Class 2+. Now begins the climbing.
West Desolation Peak (Class 3)
This is a fun and challenging climb with a ton of variety. There are a couple of key takeaways: A) do not go lower than you need to, the slope angle increases, the rocks become unstable, and there are broken cliffs to navigate. B) don’t be impatient, there are harder ways to attack the summit, but those require at MINIMUM Class 4 skills with a couple of Class 5 moves. C) hug the summit cliffs on your left until you find a cleft that runs at mid Class 3.
Let’s break it down.
Once you pass the 2nd Gendarme, the front of the summit block is staring at you. A left gets you to what looks like a “gully direct” option, although I do not know if further difficulties are encountered past what I could see. A right gets you to the Class 3 way I went.
Below is a close up of the gully direct approach. Didn’t try it but it feels like a 4+ minimum, with an interesting chockstone that may be avoided using a little ledge to the right (or crawling underneath it if there’s enough space?)
Didn’t want to speculate too much on the ultimate route, but that doesn’t look very easy.
The Class 3 way was much more agreeable, although the exposure was substantial at times. If you take the Class 3 route, head to the right side of the summit block and hug the cliffs until arriving at a large flat rock. Looking to your left, there should be a quick Class 3 jaunt up to the top of the rock. This is where I found the first cairn on the route, it is not visible from below.
From the flat rock, your next challenge is to ascend onto a sloping face, traverse it and continue paralleling the sharp summit cliffs on your left. Along this part of the traverse, there are a few options to head further left and ascend difficult breaks in the cliffs. I’ve tried to highlight what that entails in the next few images. If you are set on the Class 3 option (I was), ascend the crack and continue paralleling towards Dingus Rock.
After you’ve traversed to within a dozen yards of the Dingus Rock, look for the most agreeable gully on your left. The one I chose is pictured below and offered Class 3 to 3+ moves on good rock. There is another one further on that I would discover on my descent later, but as long as you traverse passed the sloping face, either option is well within the Class 3 range.
Once you climb above the cliffs guarding the top of West Desolation, you end up on a large summit plateau. The true summit is the highest in a series of upthrust rocks roughly 30 feet in front of you. Find a logical break in the rocks and skirt up them to tag the summit. Note: there are 3 or 4 rocky points that may be the summit, I touched all of them although the one pictured looked highest from most angles.
Summit number one complete! The view to East Desolation and its intense summit block from here are particularly impressive. An overview of your route from before the first Gendarme is shown below.
Traverse and Summit of East Desolation Peak
Right, so after hangin out on top, descend the summit rib back to the summit plateau and begin heading east. It’s difficult to miss the imposing view of your next target. Below is my approximate route back onto the summit plateau and towards East Desolation.
Eventually, the broken summit plateau ends and you have to make some decisions. These decisions are helped along by identifying a few key markers. I gotta be honest, it’s hard naming features on a mountain or a ridge, especially when there are so many of them, but I tried my best and in the picture below there are two towers, or gates. You have to pass between them, and then diagonal right in order to get into a mini canyon. As I was writing this report a random shuffle on Itunes brought me an Avenged Sevenfold song. I suddenly remembered that their guitarist is named Synyster Gates. Therefore, the towers are henceforth known as the Synyster Gates and you must travel betwixt them.
Once through the Synyster Gates, you can clearly see East Desolation ahead. A steep wall (which I’ve dubbed the Wave Wall) lines the left edge of the canyon you’re heading for. You can descend to a flat bench and re-climb a small rise to enter the canyon (Class 3), or you can hug the right gate and find a ledge system that prevents most of the down-up dance (2+). I went with the ledge system, both ways will work.
Upon reaching the beginning of the canyon you have to descend down. This isn’t overly difficult but don’t let your guard up. Many low-mid Class 3 moves are required, augmented by 2+ moves. The rocks are stable but there are deep holes and gaps between boulders that you absolutely do not want to fall into or become stuck in. Use your best judgement to find the most acceptable path and admire the prominent wave rock on your left.
Once you exit the canyon, another seemingly innocuous but very important decision awaits. The mouth of the canyon turns you towards the edge of the ridge (Southeastish) where logic may convince you to descend off the ridge and traverse underneath the crest. Nope. Don’t do that. At the canyons mouth, re-climb left to the ridge crest, it’ll save you a lot of effort later.
Once you regain the ridge, you’ll have the rest of the route in front of you and its a fairly straightforward affair. Descend on the ridge crest to the saddle and then either re-climb the ridge crest all the way up to the summit block, or take a line a little further left with less rock hopping. Both ways (and any combination of the two) will get you up to the summit block.
The summit block of East Desolation is imposing no matter how you look at it. As with most mountains, there are a few competing theories regarding how difficult the climb is. Lisa Foster, in her book Rocky Mountain National Park: The Complete Hiking Guide, ranks the block at an airy 3+. The three or four other trip reports I pulled from online to corroborate, rank it as a Class 4. I think in regard to the standard gully, its a 3+ with two Class 4 moves, the first of which is scary from an exposure standpoint. If you are a robot and unfazed by exposure, move for move you could make an argument that it’s only 3+.
Below is a great overview picture of what the standard route offers. Each arrow is numbered and has various moves associated with it. Arrow number 1 is the least difficult as it really just sets you up for the route. From the end of Arrow 1 you can also veer left to explore alternatives up the summit block. Arrow 2 is the crux for me. Why? well, its a side hop to get to a steep gully with a giant hole at the bottom that spits you down a vertical wall. A slip here will be the last thing you do in this life. On top of that, the gully above the Class 4 move is angled towards that hole, so if you slip above the side hop, you’ll get funneled out of the hole as well. It’s not for the faint of heart.
Assuming you make it up to the end of Arrow 3, you crest a rock fin and have a sneaky descent down the other side to connect with another airy gully (Arrow 4), that finally leads you up to the summit. The descent between Arrow 3 and 4 is not shown due to the picture angle, though I will attempt to clarify it later. For now, take a look below.
Below is the first part of the standard.
A note about the picture below, while it shows the first three sections of the summit block, keep in mind, for the duration of the purple arrow, there is nothing to your right. It’s just air, in order to capture the route, I tilted the phone vertically and it makes it seem tame, but this is one of those sections where its really damn hard not be worried about exposure.
So I went ahead and wigged out, wondering if there was any easier way to accomplish this tough climb. I’m no stranger to exposure having completed all the 14ers previously and 3 of the 4 great traverses (Diente-Wilson, Crestones, Bells), but sometimes that lion inside you is a neurotic house-cat and it’s very unwise to push limits. Today, I was the house-cat and set about considering my other options. Fortunately, after a bit of exploring, I found a sneak that stays at a 3+ comfortably.
Utilizing the picture above, veer left (following the alternative route arrow) and begin to circumnavigate the summit blocks. A couple things should spring out at you, namely, that the summit block is actually a series of blocks locked together with large gaps underneath them. This is a little terrifying because it all looks like a badly built jenga tower, but those gaps hold the key to what I’ve dubbed the Cave Sneak.
If you’d rather deal with exposure instead of tight spaces, read no further, the standard is for you. Essentially, I found a cave that led me behind the rock fin you climb as part of Arrow 3, from there I could attack the last gully (Arrow 4) and hit the summit while avoiding the Class 4 section on the standard route. Whoop whoop!
I took my backpack off for this route, I don’t know if thats necessary all the time, especially if you have a tight fitting Camelback or something. I am 5 ft. 9.5 inches tall and weigh between 160-165 pounds. Without a backpack, I was able to fit through the cave a multitude of ways (legs forward, belly down head forward, and even managed to get into a weird crab walk without any appendage hitting the sides or roof of the cave). There is not enough space to stand or kneel (with torso vertical) for several feet.
Once you find the cave opening, you’ll see light directly ahead on the other side, however, that’s not the ultimate direction you want. Advance towards the light but keep your eye on the right hand wall of the “cave”. Once the wall on your right ends, you’ll see another path that leads to an open area. You want to make this right hand turn (basically between a 45 and 90 degree right turn) and waddle your way out.
Once you finish climbing the last gully, you arrive on the summit block, find the highest rock, touch, or stand on it, and relax, you earned it!
Please note: while the cave sneak alleviates some exposed climbing it does not eliminate all of it, the last rock gully up to the summit is quite exposed as well. However, it has a multitude of holds and is thankfully very short.
Below is an attempted overview. The numbered (and colored) arrows belong to the standard route. The white arrows and circles highlight the cave sneak. Again, there is only one cave entrance, I just forgot which of the two circles it was, check them both out, they are only a few feet apart.
Back to West Desolation
When you’ve soaked in the views (harder to do when inundated with wildfire smoke) you have to descend off the summit block. I retraced my steps going down the gully until I arrived at the Cave Sneak once again. Utilizing what I already knew, I dropped down into it, spun around, headed into the cave and this time veered hard left the first chance I got. From there the mouth of the cave opens up and you’re once again, below the summit block. I retrieved my backpack and focused on reascending West Desolation.
Once you pass the saddle and begin re-climbing West Desolation, pay close attention to the ridge line. If you don’t cross the ridgeline, eventually it will force you to climb the backside of the Wave Wall in a series of diagonal steps. Before that happens, look hard left between some white rocks and the darker fin rock of the Wall. This is where an easy descent back into the canyon is located, if you climb too high you’ll have to backtrack.
Once back in the canyon, continue climbing towards the Synyster Gates and pass between them. Hang left and work your way back to the summit plateau. As you ascend to the summit plateau, look for a logical break and begin your down-climb off West Desolation (to the South).
Once back on the north side of West Desolation, remember to stay close to the summit cliffs you just descended and hug them until you see the sloping face to your left. Spy the obvious crack splitting the face and descend that back to the bottom of the face, take a sharp right and traverse your way back to the flat rock. On top of the rock, you’ll see the cairn again, descend off the right hand side of the rock. Parallel the summit cliffs as much as possible until you are in front of the gendarmes once more. Traverse left underneath their upper reaches until both are behind you. The last thing to do is climb back up to the main ridgeline. Congratulations! You did the hard climbing! But you’re still way out there! Conserve energy, the way back always hurts more.
Options back to Trailhead
There are two main options. If weather is threatening, try to make it to the Ypsilon-UN12718 saddle, then descend a series of grassy chutes interspersed with rock ribs. Break out left and parallel the base of Ypsilon and Chiquita along grassy stretches (careful the grass is clumpy and can still twist ankles), until you reach the basin in front of Chapin. From there, angle to the right and gain elevation as you need until running into the lower Chapin bypass. The rest is a cake walk, take the trail back to where it ends, hang a left and walk down to your car. If the weather is REALLY THREATENING, descend from the Desolations to tree line immediately and begin the longer (but similar) route between the mountains to your left and the thick forest to your right.
Option 2 is to redo exactly what you did, including the long ascending traverse around Ypsilon to the Ypsilon-Chiquita saddle. Traverse around (or tag) Chiquita, make your way to the saddle with Chapin and then you can take either the upper or lower bypass on good trail. This route is the best if you have the weather on your side.
Alli and I dropped down and traversed, the smoke was just too much up high. We eventually found a pocket of cleaner air and as we made our way back, the wind helped clear the smoke from our basin and carry it off to another.
This hike doesn’t look so hard on paper but it kicked my butt. Long stretches of climbing, and a seemingly endless amount of talus hopping makes it tough on the knees, you also lose and gain elevation often. While the incredibly fit will make little work of the distance, for mortals, this is a tough day.
As has become custom in our household, post successful hike, we treated ourselves to milkshakes and made our way home. Thanks for reading!