Monday, July 17, 2017

Pfiffner Traverse

Last year, Abby and I took on Mark Oveson's "fast" version of the Pfiffner Traverse, almost on a whim. While we completed the first 40 miles of the route, the final 15 miles were in complete darkness. The route is pretty unbelievable, it traverse peaks and basins weaving a glorious line from Milner Pass to Berthoud Pass.

I decided to sleep in my bed in Boulder rather than camp. Mainly, for the quality of sleep and ease of having a good breakfast; plus I enjoy the waking up process that the drive lends. We got held up behind a herd of elk on Trail Ridge road and I found out that the GoPro was out of batteries so I would have to deal with lower quality phone images. Ah well. Jack and Kiri were already at Milner Pass when we pulled in; I was a little stressed on the tardy start time so I pretty much got out of the car and started walking.

It's actually quite a special moment now that I'm not in a rush (Photo: Abby)

If you actually plan on reading this whole thing, I might recommend following along via my Strava (part one, part two) if you don't happen to have been studying this route for the past couple months and aren't sure where any of this stuff is.

The first peak, Mt. Ida has trail the entire way, obviously being the first I felt great, only stopping a couple times for the predictable morning bathroom needs. From Mt Ida to Flattop Mountain there are a handful non-unique grassy summits: Chief Cheley, UN12820, Cracktop, Eleanor (bypassed), Sprague, Knobtop and Ptarmigan point. The Eureka ditch, just south of Sprague was unfortunately dry aside from a few isolated pools. I elected to bring a lifestraw in addition to my bottles so I could comfortably drink out of any and all sources. At about 4 hours in, both of my bottles were empty so I was happy to not have to be picky about my source. Furthermore, I would be able to shed water weight from my pack by only drinking from streams for the next several miles.

Leaving Milner Pass TH (Photo: Abby)

A regal looking Longs Peak on the horizon from the summit of Sprague.

Last year Abby and I found a flowing stream at the Eureka ditch, but here is just vaguely moist dirt. Just below Knobtop.
Flattop mountain was predictably busy with people enjoying the summer alpine. I turned west and headed down the North Inlet trail. Soon thereafter I crossed paths with Abby just above treeline who was running the North Inlet/Tonahutu loop (plus an extra credit tag of Hallet), an often overlooked classic alpine marathon. I continued down the well traveled trail until I turned back uphill on a trail forking south towards a spectacular series of alpine lakes. The first stop was Lake Nokoni, I was feeling hungry and thirsty so I took some time to put down a bunch of food and drink a lot of water. Revitalized I continued to Lake Nanita where the trail fades away. I was moving well here, but the going is inherently slow when you are bushwhacking around a lake. Constant deadfall and stream crossings necessitate a meandering path through the trees. Above the lake, the Ptarmigan towers soar to the sky -- if it wasn't a 10 mile hike in I'm sure there would be classic climbs on each tower.

Heading down the North Inlet switchbacks (Photo: Abby) 
Lake Nokoni Trail
The Ptarmigan Towers
The route past Lake Nanita is a small col on the northwestern shoulder of Andrews Peak. The hike to this point is quite pleasant as the forest is much thinner. The pass through the col just squeaks above treeline and the rocky drainage ahead looks quite snowy. The snow ends up being a nice change of pace, it is well consolidated and offers a rapid descent. The pass on the other side is the saddle between Mt Alice and Andrews Peak, I have to laboriously kick steps up a snowfield to reach the pass but on the bright side, I was able to take a straight line up. Unfortunately, I make a huge mistake atop this fantastic lookout -- I forget to look around! Another magnificent peak lies just to southwest, Aiguille de Fleur, which is similar in shape to the Spearhead but has a flat mesa like summit covered with grass and wildflowers.

Looking towards Isolation from the Andrews col. Andrews peak has a magnificent east face, barely seen on the right.
The descent from the Andrews-Alice saddle to the faint East Inlet trail is the nastiest bushwhacking of the route. It is steep and grungy but I manage to pick a line following a game trail for bits and pieces that takes me there in what felt like the most efficient line. The west face of Isolation and the Cleaver loom to east, another wall surely full of great climbing which would be frequented more if it weren't for the approach. Surprisingly, I bump into six people in this remote drainage -- two groups of three. The first was simply hiking to Fifth Lake, a long abut worthy objective; the second allegedly made an attempt at Isolation Peak. Last year, Abby and I (along with Mark in his route) bypassed Isolation by instead traversing along its southwestern slope on loose rock, this year I planned on summitting after reading Lisa Foster's guidebook claiming the ridge went at class 2. The group coming down said it got to be technical climbing, I later found there footprints turning around only 100ft above the lake on a snowfield, about 2,000ft below the summit. The remainder of the route went well at an exposed but obvious and easy class 2. From the summit is a fantastic view of Wild Basin and the west face of Longs Peak which is less seen but equally impressive.

Looking up towards the Cleaver (somewhere in there, not sure where). The boulder in the foreground is where Abby and I waited out a thunderstorm last year!
Ten Lake Park which composes a small portion of the much larger, unexplored and trail-less Paradise Park drainage. Mt Adams (?) in the distance.
The west ridge of Isolation, there is more to go beyond what is seen in this photo, but the notches you encounter are easily navigable.
Embracing the wind on top of Isolation Peak
My remaining traverse along the divide before dropping off, Ouzel (left, dark peak) and Ogalla (grassy high point just left of center).
Looking back towards Andrews Peak (grassy, left of center) and the two passes used to traverse from the North Inlet drainage to the East Inlet drainage.
Although storm clouds began swirling around nearby peaks there was no electrical activity, so I steadily moved along towards a group of three summits, Ouzel, Ogalalla and "Ooh la la!". Both Ouzel and Ogalalla lie just enough away from the direct line to be frustrating but the views from the top of each are worth the extra effort. The evening light cast wonderful light onto the nearby summits of Copeland and Elk Tooth. "Ooh La La!", a satellite peak of Ogalalla forms a mighty cirque around the St. Vrain Glacier, although a walk up from the west, approaching these peaks from the east seems impossible. From the summit, the light upon the central Indian Peaks is breathtaking. The perspective on Lone Eagle Peak and the Mohling Traverse is particularly striking.

Looking back towards Alice, McHenrys, Chiefs Head, Pagoda, Longs, Meeker, Ouzel (left to right) from just beneath Ogalalla's summit
The central Indian Peaks basking in the evening light, one of the best views of the entire traverse! If you know where to look for the Mohling Traverse, it is incredible from this perspective, Iroquois looks very proud.
Looking down the Ooh La La! - Cooper - Martin ridge, Island Lake and subsequently Gourd Lake lay just beyond the grassy slope. 
View from the summit of Ooh La La!, Ogalalla's East Ridge, Chiefs Head (barely!), Pagoda, Longs, Meeker, Copeland, Elk Tooth (looking very proud!)
Last year, Abby and I summited "Ooh La La!" at about 11PM in complete darkness which was semi-terrifying as we really had barely any idea where we were. Thus, the following descent to Gourd Lake was executed by means of the most inefficient, tedious, thickly vegetated route which included short slabby friction downclimbs which often ended with a leap into the willows below. My rush to reach Gourd Lake this year was prompted by this. Armed with experience of where not to go, daylight and a promising GPS track plucked from the interwebs I descended with confidence. Reaching Cooper Pass involves a steep section of loose talus but culminated with a long, steep and unavoidable glissade that warranted some sharp rocks in hand, just in case. Island Lake in the evening light was everything I hoped it would be, the water was calm and vividly reflected the walls above glowing in the sunset. I proceeded with my new route which went perfectly to Gourd Lake. I made it from the summit of "Ooh La La!" to the Gourd Lake trail in 1:10, last year it took 2:45!

A reflecting pool just above Island Lake, it would have been nice to take my time and photos here but I wanted to get every last drop of daylight on this tricky descent!
Looking back at my glissade path, there wasn't really another option!
Having rushed down and not bothered to change my layers from windy evening above treeline to calm air a couple thousand feet lower I paused to remove my wind pants and coat, eat and drink then fire up the headlamp. I now had one hundred percent descent on trail to the Arapaho Pass junction near Monarch Lake where I would meet Jack, Kiri, Kyle and Abby. I make a point to jog which feels better and better as I get lower. It is a deceptively long stretch of trail and I'm thankful to eventually see the light of friends having been essentially alone for the last 17 hours covering 40 miles.

Meanwhile down below... (Photo: Abby)
Only Abby and Kiri are at the aid station as Jack and Kyle had rushed out to cell service to check my SPOT. I sit down and begin wolfing down cold soup, I'm in no particular rush to leave, if I were to end right here like Abby and I did last year I would be content, the route is a serious undertaking which is equally matched in the quality of the scenery. Continuing to eat and drink I relish the conversation with Kiri and Abby recounting the spoils of the journey. I eat almost 2 liters of soup along with a couple sliced of avocado bread while they tend to emptying my pack full of empty wrappers and filling it back with food (which weighs a lot more than wrappers). I change into three-quarter tights and a down layer and prepare to leave just as Jack emerges from the trees, happy to see him I stay just a touch longer before saying goodbye at around midnight.

Happily eating Abby's homemade potato and cashew soup! (Photo: Abby)
Back to solitude, I am fully aware of the length of trail between me and Arapaho Pass. The trail is lush, almost overgrown in places. With two liters of soup, a freshly filled pack of food and full bottles my steps move slowly. I follow the tunnel of light before me losing track of time. Feeling sleepy I set a timer for 7 minutes and enjoy a quick nap; I wake alert and refreshed almost in disbelief in how effective the brief sleep was. I repeat my nap tactic 90 minutes later with similar results. The trail continues to steadily move through the forest barely gaining any elevation, meaning must be a steep grind to the pass at the end. At around 4AM, my headlamp flashes, meaning I'm about to run out of battery. I decide to push to treeline which takes another 40 minutes. Knowing first light should appear around 5AM, I take one last lonesome nap in a sheltered nook ensuring I won't be caught above treeline in the dark. I awake to just enough light to move confidently without a headlamp and to see the steep switchbacks ahead. My movement is slow, but eventually I crest the ridge with great views of the jagged ridge stretching from Cherokee to South Arapaho Peak which generally composes the grim finale of the LA Freeway.

The usual night time nap break view. Sidenote: the sense ride is phenomenal!
The sun is welcomed but my effort and loneliness weigh heavily upon me. Staggering up the beginning of Neva's north ridge I doubt my intentions. Staying determined, though breathless, I launch onto the thinning 4th class ridge of Mt Neva barely able to balance. Scared of taking a stupid step off of a cliff I retreat back to safer a ground and take a seat on a rock. I remembered that there is great cell service on this ridge so I call Abby telling her I don't quite feel balanced enough to tackle Neva. After our conversation my retreat seemed as fueled by the effort required to continue as it was by my lack of coordination so I decide to try once more. Moving unbelievably slowly so as to maximize safety, I make my way along the ridge making sure to never get out of breath and potentially lose balance. It takes me actually double the amount of time it took me when I first did the ridge but two hours later I'm on the summit, out of water and staring down the continental divide as it stretches south.

Neva's North Ridge
Berthoud is for the first time visible, though even Rollins Pass alone seems an eternity away. The weight of all my food is useless without a drop of water to be able swallow. Expecting the divide to be a swamp as I've seemingly always found it in the past, today there is no sign of any water. I find a small snowfield below Neva's summit to scoop out of but waiting for it to melt in a bottle is no quick thing. Jasper, the next peak, is only a short 500ft climb a mile and half away but my dehydration and calorie deficit are taking form in severe shortness of breath. The mile and a half to Jasper's summit takes me an hour and half.

I text Abby that I'm done at Rollins Pass. I feel totally satisfied with what Milner Pass to Rollins pass entails. She drives to Rollins Pass while I move painfully slow over UN12660 then down and up Devils Thumb Pass. On the final climb I am forced into a two steps to ten breaths tactic to maintain myself. I thankfully join the High Lonesome trail heading south to where my journey will end. I meet Abby two and a half miles from the pass. In no rush we lay in the grass, she brought me two bottles of water which I easily dispose of along a peanut butter sandwich.

Not a bad place to lounge about. (Photo: Abby)
Abby and I effectively began dating during our Pfiffner attempt last year. Now, happily laying besides one another in the alpine tundra I feel profoundly happy. The remaining traverse feels to be focussed far more on the slog factor and physical challenge than on the quality of the route. They're good peaks, but when the reference is The Park and the Indian Peaks, it is hard to compete. Certainly and validly, this can be interpreted as an excuse to quit, I'll take that. It should also be duly inserted here that what Mark did accomplish from Milner to Berthoud is an incredible accomplishment. What I wanted from this adventure was the splendor that comes from immersion in the wilderness, having accomplished that I felt no regrets with ending the route.

Done. (Photo: Abby)
This is truly a classic route and I'm grateful to be following in Mark's footsteps. I think the Pfiffner Traverse can take many forms, it's a physical challenge, a mental challenge, an exercise in route finding and a scenic tour of RMNP and the Indian Peaks. The possible variations to this route are endless and intriguing. You could draw a line of truly least resistance, skipping all the peaks and staying on trail as much as possible or you could strictly stay on the divide embracing the challenges of the LA Freeway. The tradition that is blossoming out of Mark's initial conception (and I suppose Karl Pfiffner's and Gerry Roach's as well!) is one of creativity and personal satisfaction. In Gerry Roach's biography he describes Pfiffner as a visionary whose dreams reached beyond single peaks or routes but to encompass long and magical traverses. Unfortunately, Karl died in avalanche on La Plata at the age of 22 before he could ever see to these aspirations. When Gerry Roach tackled his commemorative traverse he spent 16 solitary days picking his own line and set of objectives, what Mark did was the same in that he chose the route therein which appealed to him the most. Although I failed to reach Berthoud Pass I got everything and more out of the traverse that I hoped I would. The experience of forging a path through a remote wilderness that is seemingly untapped and full of treasures inspires a lifetime of exploration and discovery.

Peaks Summitted:
Mt Ida, 12,880'
Chief Cheley, 12,804'
UN12820, 12,820'
Cracktop, 12,780'
Mt Eleanor, 12,380'
Sprague Mtn, 12,713'
Knobtop, 12,331'
Ptarmigan Pt, 12,363'
Flattop Mtn, 12,324'
Isolation Pk, 13,118'
Ouzel Pk, 12,716'
Ogalalla Pk, 13,138'
Ooh La La!, 12,945'
Mt Neva, 12,814'
Mt Jasper, 12,923'
UN12660, 12,660'

57.4 miles


  1. wohoo! fun to hear about the adventures man. Way to go for it! This route is on the list so thanks for the writeup : )

  2. I have read your article, it is very informative and helpful for me.I admire the valuable information you offer in your articles. Thanks for posting it..

    doctor strange (2016)