Alone, I set off quickly, and soon left the Blue Lakes trail for the use trail that ascends the "hanging valley" southwest of Quandary Peak. Braided streams and a lack of vegetation render the use trail indistinct as climbers approach the "headwall" of the hanging valley. Many class 2 routes to the Fletcher/Quandary saddle exist, but in the dual spirit of laziness and adventure I did a little scrambling along the way.
I stood at the Fletcher/Quandary saddle at 8:30, and by 8:45 I was on Fletcher Mountain's summit, after some tedious class 2 scrambling over loose blocks and boulders. The views were great today. Clear as a bell in every direction. Quandary Peak especially looming to the east, with a quite fitting name, as I ponder the tougher climbing on Quandary's West Ridge. A large molybdenum mine (the Climax) sits near the top of the pass on highway 91, which runs from Leadville to Frisco. Although undeniably colorful, the enormous tailings ponds are somewhat unsightly, especially in a dry year like this one. I was anxious to set forth for Quandary Peak, so I lingered on the windy summit until only 9:00 or so, and quickly returned to the Fletcher/Quandary saddle.
Just above the saddle, there are some obstacles at the 13,400' level, which I avoided to the south. At 13,500', a rudimentary climbers' trail magically appears on the north side of the ridge. I could imagine, with some awe, hardy miners and their mules clambering up this route to the old mining claims that dot the talus slopes.
The north slope is well-behaved until 14,000', where the trail ends and the scrambling begins Between the 14,000' and 14,200' contours on the USGS quad, you can make out four well-defined towers along the west ridge. The first three were fairly straightforward class 3 with non-trivial route-finding challenges. Unfortunately, after a quick look at the fourth tower, I rashly decided that it looked fifth class, which was harder than I was prepared to solo. Irritating mistake! I descended about 100 feet into a steep, amazingly rotten gully, traversed around the fourth tower, and finally made a painstaking ascent of another equally steep, equally rotten gully to the east of the fourth tower. This proved to be the most stressful climbing of the day. After topping out on the main ridge again, I was greeted by a stunningly exposed traverse on good, solid rock around the north side of the ridge. One last scramble up the sidewall of a gully, 50-foot of solid class 3, brought me to within a short walk to the summit.
The traverse from Fletcher Mountain to Quandary Peak took me longer than I expected (2 hours), but it was an enjoyable and exhiliarating climb, aside from the gully episode. Besides, I was in no rush, since the thunderstorm potential looked small. 15-20 people were on the summit at all times during the blissful hour and a half I spent there, and I'm sure that all of them came from the East Ridge route. People looked at me strangely when they found out that I'd come up the west ridge route, because the route is basically invisible from the summit. I guess people fear what they can't see. Anyhow, they looked at me even more strangely when I started down the "Cristo Couloir", which is just a fancy word for "straight line path back to the Blue Lakes parking lot". As the crow flies, this route is a mere mile long, and loses 2600', although it looks steeper than it is. It is certainly not a sustained 45-degree slope! I did a lot of downclimbing, as much scree skiing as I could, and a lot of falling on my butt, but I was back to the truck after a long hour. Done over, I'd have only done this if there was snow in the couloir, as it would likely make a suitable glissade.
The gully episode hammered home a point for me: class 2 grappling over truly crummy rock should not be the big adrenaline rush of the day. Personally, I would rather climb short class 4 pitches unroped than risk a long fall down a rotten gully. Reluctantly, I might climb short, easy class 5 stuff unroped, as long as I was helmeted. But as Roach notes, this decision must be made by every climber individually. Roped climbing (sport and gym) has helped me know my limitations on alpine climbs. I recommend this for anyone who aspires to do semi-technical alpine climbing.
I sent Gerry Roach, author of the famous guidebook Colorado Fourteeners: From Hikes to Climbs, an e-mail, asking him some questions about this route. He sent me a very detailed and insightful reply, in which he covered not only this route, but also gave some interesting takes on the California versus Colorado notion of climbing...
Re Quandary West Ridge.
Re Cristo Couloir.
One general comment:
This ridge is turning out to be harder than most people expect. It sounds like you missed a critical up-climb on the 4th tower. My memory is of crossing the gully, then climbing the SW face of the 4th tower (Steep but only Class 3). There was a fatality on this ridge a year ago. A party was using Dawson's 14er guide and thought that the West Ridge was the standard route! Yipes! That's a bad error for a hiker to make. Some friends of mine were caught up in the rescue. It was a bad scene. For the record, I always put the standard route first for each peak and preface its description with, "This is the easiest route on the peak."
This is normally done with snow in it. We have had a very dry season and the snow is long gone.
If most of your experience is in California, then you may have already discovered that the ratings between CO and CA don't line up very well. CA ratings are harder. I think this stems back to the pioneer days. Class 5 in CA is where Norman Clyde put on a rope. That's 5.5 or 5.6 by today's standards. Hence, North Palisade is rated "Class 4" but would probably get a 5.3 or 5.4 rating in CO today. Our general rule is: If a climb is rated Class 3 in CA, we take a half rope and small rack. If a climb is rated Class 4 in CA, we take a full rope and full rack. Things are a bit softer here in folksy CO. I have a few words about it all in my front matter.
Re Cristo Couloir.
One general comment:
After my exciting climb, I headed over Hoosier Pass to Southpark for some
fishing in the upper reaches of the South Platte River. The only
fork with enough water to fish in September is the Middle fork, especially
in years with hot, dry summers, like this one. Like many times in the
past, I fished the Middle fork just north of Hartsel, Colorado, in the
Badger Basin State Wildlife Area. As I tied up, a small thundershower
approached, and I figured that the accompanying pressure drop would
bode well for fishing. Indeed! I tied on a #8 Dave's Hopper and the
surface action begun, which was a bit surprising for 4 p.m. I missed
five or six hits in the first 15 minutes or so, and the last hit was
quite similar--not ferocious. I hooked the fish this time, and the
small, lethargic tug on my line convinced me that all the fish in here
were small. And then I saw her roll! She was far larger than I imagined,
so I mended my line and prepared to fight her for a while. After a
careful 10-minute fight, I dragged her to shore and subdued her
agressively, since I did not have a net. She measured a whopping
25 inches and probably weighed 4-6 pounds. And you better believe that
I ate her! I'm a sucker for the succulent pink meat of a Brown Trout.
Department of Geophysics