Monday, July 25, 2016

"Fast Pfiffner" Traverse

The Pfiffner Traverse is described in Gerry Roach's guide to the Indian Peaks Wilderness, although it includes a bit more than just the Indian Peaks. The start is at Milner Pass in Rocky Mountain National Park and traverses 70 miles south along the continental divide to the next paved road, Berthoud Pass. Along the way awaits numerable summits, peaceful meadows, ridge scrambles and very few people. There a few notorious sections along the divide where the tundra morphs into steep and jagged knife edges, the "Fast Pfiffner" avoids these sections by dropping into basins to the West then returns to the divide once the coast is relatively clear.
The route.
We weighed our options quite a bit on whether or not we would plan for sleep. Its a long ways, but carrying extra gear for just a couple hours of what would likely be sub-par sleep seemed silly -- you can sleep when you're dead. There is only one other completion of a single push on this route (that I'm aware of), and thankfully, I know the man! Mark Oveson completed the route in 37 hours in 2011 and graciously responded to a bombardment of questions promptly. He said the route for him was an experiment pre-Hardrock, and hey what-do-ya-know Abby and I both need that same sort of experiment -- no sleep it is! He also volunteered to meet us at Monarch Lake, roughly the halfway point, at what would likely be a very dark hour of night.

Inspirational words at the Pearl Dragon restaurant the night before in Granby
We dropped one car at Berthoud Pass Friday night then attempted to get some sleep in the car at a trailhead parking lot only to be kicked out around midnight. The ranger was nice and recommended us another place to sleep outside the park. The impact though was that with the commute to location number two we got maybe 2 cumulative hours of sleep, maximum.

The highly official permit the ranger told us to right down and leave on our windshield. Ranger 421 for the win!
We began our journey just after 5AM Saturday morning by headlamp followed by sunrise up to the first peak, Mt Ida. It was a very moderate gradient which would be the theme for the next several peaks. As the sun rose in the sky further, we made our way across 7 more gentle summits, passing through a massive heard of elk and trekking through bountiful wildflowers. Hallet Peak, our 8th summit, marked the end of the first section of the continental divide.

Abby nearing the summit of Mt Ida
A rather large herd of Elk on the way towards Flattop Mountain
Refilling water from some snowmelt along the divide.
We descended on good trail west for a couple miles toward the North Inlet before turning south -- our last segment of trail for many miles -- to Lake Nokoni and Lake Nanita. On this section I felt very tired; heavy eyelids and cloudy mind. I found my rescue from the doldrums to be singing to myself out-loud for a bit -- a bit weird I suppose, but it worked. Abby was feeling the same way here, but I figured she would be fine pulling herself out of it as I had. Nokoni and Nanita were stunning to say the least. We made our way over a small saddle just northeast of Andrews Peak, through a small basin and then down a rather nasty bushwhack to the East Inlet drainage.

Just above Lake Nokoni
Ptarmigan Mountain from Lake Nanita
Unnamed drainge northwest of Andrews Peak
Upon finally reaching Fourth Lake, Abby's condition hadn't improved much but she remained far more upbeat and optimistic than I could have expected. Maximum stoke. We found a very faint social trail which lead us to treeline, but here the weather turned a bit sour. With a long climb ahead of us and rumblings of thunder we elected to play it safe and wait out a short storm under an overhanging boulder. The scenery was still unbelievable and despite the setbacks the journey thus far had been phenomenal. It wasn't long before the clouds parted for us to continue on. We had lost even more time here though and I was beginning to get apprehensive about how late in the day it was, we still had many miles ahead before we even got back to a trail, and then several more miles of trail to Monarch Lake. I voiced my concerns and began trying to accelerate our pace.

The southern geology of the East Inlet drainage. The prominent arĂȘte just right of center is Aiguille de Fleur, a promising looking alpine scramble I'd love to check out.
A distant Abby climbing out of the Andrews-Alice col
Refilling water and while waiting for Abby to finish the climb to Isolation's west ridge. (Sponsor Plug:) Loved the gear choice for the day: X-Alp 20 pack was perfect, I used the dedicated crampon pocket as a dedicated food pocket! Would never attempt something like this without my trusty wizard sticks either!
We slowly made our way around the loose southwest slopes of Isolation Peak. The sky adopted a tint of orange as we rejoined the divide and after weighing our options I decided to start making executive decisions. Abby was only getting deeper into mega-bonk-land, the primary goal now was to get her moving as fast as possible and dig her out of the hole. We stopped briefly on the divide: I made her drink as much water and eat as much food as she could stomach then took her pack to carry myself. I told her to just keep hiking south on the divide and I would catch up in a few minutes. I changed into my warmer clothes in preparation for night and prepared her warm clothes. I then caught back up to her so she could gear up for night. I had been very thoughtful about my nutrition and maintaining a positive mental state and was glad to be feeling almost the same as I had 15 hours earlier.

Shadows getting longer heading further up Isolation Peak. Longs looms tall in the background.
Longs poking out from the beautiful west face of Isolation Peak.
We had to bop over two more mountains before we could start the long descent, they are very moderate inclines but forward progress remained slow. We reached the (almost) summit of Ogalalla in complete darkness. Abby was barely awake, we had one short climb left and then we could descend significant elevation which I hoped would help immensely. I stood on the summit of "Ooh La La!" a little after 10PM and took in the moment. It was both surreal and intimidating. Miles to the east and nearly 8,000ft below the city lights of the front range twinkled; to the west I could see Abby's light traversing just below the summit (uphills were on the edge of impossible, so she skipped the true summit), what appeared to be a lone campfire in the distance and very far away, the few lights of Frasier Valley marking our eventual endpoint.

The final rays of light behind the Never Summer mountains to the northwest from the south ridge of Isolation.
The next section was terrible. Completely off trail, we needed to descend to a saddle east of Cooper Peak, contour around a small tarn, then around Island Lake, over a small rib then down to Gourd Lake where we would rejoin trail. Some remaining snowfields were a godsend to shoe ski down with ease but the final half mile wound its way around short slabby dropoffs and painfully healthy fields of willows scattered among trees. I had the route well committed to memory on a macro scale as well as the navigational operations on my watch, but the nuances of hiking through the complicated terrain was immensely time consuming trial and error without the ability see more than 20ft in front of me. I'm not sure I've ever been so frustrated! It was very mentally taxing to be so focused on route finding, making sure Abby was moving well and safely and trying to remember to keep my own self in good condition.

A daylight picture taken from SummitPost of the complicated terrain below Cooper Peak (there is even more not pictured above too!), many curses were said.
After what felt like a year we finally rejoined the trail, it was the homestretch, Abby's condition was starting to improve and the overall mood was drastically more positive. Still, we had a long 10 mile hike out to Monarch Lake to meet Mark who we had been in radio contact with intermittently throughout the journey. By following our SPOT he had been able to keep track of us all day long. It would have been nice to jog back out, but running wasn't quite in the cards so we marched along as quick as walking allows. At the Cascade Creek (Pawnee Pass trail, essentially) I was happy to see Abby moving much easier and complaining less of of "almost falling asleep every 5 seconds" and "seeing less faces in trees and rocks". Stellar, but we weren't done yet. The remaining 4 miles were easier flatter trail and we were able to jog a few sections. My watch started beeping, I looked down and realized the time was 4AM, it was my wake-up alarm from 24 hours earlier. We passed the Arapaho Pass junction, went around Monarch Lake and after 23 hours and 31 minutes were finished.

Despite the horrible time of day, Mark was patiently alone in the parking lot on a fold out cot with water boiling and a pot of hot soup. I can't express how thankful I am for his immutable generosity and support. I wolfed down the soup and tripped over my now untied shoe lace and took an actually very hard fall in the parking lot, spilling a cup of hot chocolate  and cutting my knee and elbow. An ironic and fitting conclusion.

Well, we didn't finish the whole traverse, Monarch Lake was 45 miles into the ~70ish mile route and is the same place Mark bailed the first time he tried the route. The vert was only around 11,000ft but Mark agrees that on paper the route looks a lot easier than it feels in real life. Out of two Hardrock 100 finishes in two attempts, the Pfiffner took Mark one DNF and a time longer than both Hardrocks when he did finish it. I can't wait to get in the ring with this traverse for a rematch next summer! The overall experience was amazing, the scenery far exceeded expectations, the company was great and I was able to gain tons of experience and confidence going forwards.

Looking back north from Hallet Peak
We summited 10 peaks : Mt Ida, Chief Cheley Pk, Cracktop, Sprague Mtn, Knobtop Mtn, Ptarmigan Pt, Flattop Mtn, Hallet Pk, Ogalalla Pk, (well, apparently we just missed the summit of Ogalalla in the dark, but pretty close) and Ooh La La!

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