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Pacific Peak

Started: 2011-08-31 20:27:02

Submitted: 2011-08-31 21:57:29

Visibility: World-readable

Last summer Kiesa and I invited my mother to come watch Calvin for a weekend while we took a trip to Breckenridge for our anniversary. We went hiking into a little valley south of the Breckenridge ski area and saw, towering above the western edge of the valley, the pyramid-tipped Pacific Peak. I'd read of this mountain in several guidebooks and added it to the "extra credit" section of my official summer todo list. At 13,950 feet, Pacific Peak is not the highest peak in the Tenmile Range -- its neighbor Fletcher Mountain is a foot higher, and the Tenmile Range contains one fourteener (Quandary Peak) north of the Continental Divide, and several fourteeners south of the Continental Divide. I've resolved to climb peaks based not on their elevation (though elevation helps) but on the aesthetics of the peak and the route. Pacific Peak's east ridge route gained a "*Classic*" rating in Colorado's Thirteeners: From Hikes to Climbs, by Gerry Roach and Jennifer Roach, and a favorable mention in Colorado Scrambles: Climbs Beyond the Beaten Path, second edition, by Dave Cooper.

My alarm woke me at 04:00 on Saturday, 27 August. I ate breakfast, made coffee, and departed to drive to the trailhead. Since the trailhead was south of Breckenridge, this involved a two-and-a-half hour drive up I-70, through the Eisenhower Tunnel, around Lake Dillon, through Breckenridge (where preparations were being made for the penultimate stage of the USA Pro Cycling Challenge as I drove through shortly after dawn at 07:00), and past the crowded Quandary Peak Trailhead, ultimately reaching my destination in McCullough Gulch. Despite being one of the one hundred highest mountains in the state (a "centennial thirteener"), and within driving distance of Denver, Pacific Peak was very much off the beaten path. (The founder of the popular website 14ers.com quipped, "The purpose of 14ers.com was to distract climbers so I could find peace on the 13ers.") The "trailhead" was a wide spot near the dead end of a dirt road where I parked behind a pickup. There was no trail, just a GPS waypoint up the grassy side of the mountain.

I headed north, climbing toward the crest of the long east ridge of Pacific Peak. I ended up on the wrong side of a small willow thicket and had to bushwhack through the wet underbrush but emerged unscathed. I reached the crest of the ridge and followed the ridge west along gentle class 2 terrain until the tundra gave way to rocks and more than a mile of class 2+ scampering along the very top of the ridge. I could see throngs of people climbing Quandary Peak's east ridge immediately to the south, and though I was once one of them I was happy to be on my route. I pulled out the binoculars I picked as my reward for my employer deciding I'd done a good job on one of my projects and counted 50 people climbing Quandary. I hadn't seen a single person on my route, though I assumed the owner of the pickup could be somewhere ahead, out of view.

Fletcher Mountain and Atlantic Peak
Fletcher Mountain and Atlantic Peak

I followed the ridge west, scampering up and down the fun rock on the crest of the ridge. In some places the rock was damp and slippery from recent storms, requiring some careful negotiation. As I downclimbed from the crux of the ridge (having accidently climbed too high) I brushed my pack against the rock and dislodged one of the empty Nalgene bottles I carried in the pack. I watched it fall, rolling and spinning and bouncing down the rock as I held onto the rock, careful to not follow the bottle down the mountain. It came to a stop fifty feet below, and once I finished downclimbing to remain on top of the ridge I could see the bottle nestled in the rocks. I picked my way down the damp scree and found the bottle, scratched but intact. I returned it to a zippered compartment and resumed climbing.

East Ridge of Pacific Peak
East Ridge of Pacific Peak

I left the ridge on the shelf below Pacific Tarn, the highest named lake in the United States, and crossed below the lake to the final pitch of scampering up talus to the summit. I reached the empty summit around 11:30, quickly surveyed the clouds to the west (present, but not yet ominous), and scanned the surrounding peaks for other people. Quandary Peak was still mobbed. With my binoculars I could see a few people climbing the ridge between the microwave relay site and Crystal Peak, and at least one climber on Atlantic Peak. I checked my phone and saw that I had cell coverage, probably from my line-of-site to Copper Mountain. A group of two climbers arrived a few minutes after I did, having climbed the west ridge. They reported it wet and occasionally slippery as well. I ate lunch and tried to identify my surroundings. A few minutes after I arrived the clouds that obscured Halo Ridge and Mount of the Holy Cross dissipated enough that I could actually see the mountain rather than the clouds, and I could follow the Sawatch Range south to what I presumed must be the general vicinity of Mount Massive and Mount Elbert but I couldn't quite tell which was which. At the bottom of the valley to the west I saw the giant tailing ponds at the Climax molybdenum mine (which I apparently managed to spell properly the first time), easily identifiable as tailing ponds by their unearthly blue and orange hues.

I began my descent around noon, just as a large group of five or six people were about to reach the summit. I picked my way down the south ridge to the saddle between Atlantic and Pacific Peaks and briefly considered climbing Atlantic Peak, but I decided against the extra credit ascent based on the clouds and my dwindling food supply. I descended into McCullough Gulch and found myself on top of a modestly-sized steep snow field. I uncapped my ice axe and crossed the snow field, unwilling to descend directly because I didn't want to take the time to grab my crampons from my pack and the snow, although warmed and melted by the morning sun, was still too firm to get good purchase in my boots. As soon as I crossed the snow field it started hailing. I donned my jacket and carefully continued my descent, picking my way down the talus on the upper edge of the gulch as thunder raged above. I did not feel especially threatened by the cloud-to-cloud strikes but was glad I rejected my ascent of Atlantic Peak.

The storm passed quickly, leaving behind broken clouds and wet rock. The terrain leveled off in the upper reaches of the gulch as I continued my descent, then descended a step to a broad meadow, filled with wildflowers, interspersed with willows. The rain and thunder returned as I hurried through the meadow and tried to dodge the creek channels, overgrown with grass and often difficult to see, that cut through the meadow. I found higher ground and soon spotted a faint track heading down the gulch, and the broken branches around the track suggested it was a social climber's trail rather than a game trail. The track led me to an optimal crossing of the creek, which had grown too large to cross easily without an outright ford, and continued down the gulch until it picked up the official trail that managed to lead only halfway up the gulch. I followed the official trail and suddenly saw more people down the gulch, past a mining claim and water diversion projects, to the forked road and, eventually, my car.

I drove back through Breckenridge and saw preparations well underway for the imminent finish of the USA Pro Cycling Challenge. The day's stage finished in Breckenridge, following the one highway north of town, which was to be my escape route home. CDOT's website had suggested that the highway would be closed for up to half an hour at a time, so I drove through town, past the throngs of spectators and race assistants (and the people marking every imperfection in the road) only to be turned around at the traffic circle on the north side of town. The Breckenridge policewoman manning the roadblock didn't think the road would open until 18:00, another three hours. I pulled over to consider my options (and double-check my information, and call Kiesa) and saw the road south (my other plausible escape route, over Hoosier Pass into South Park) close in front of me. I settled in to watch the race (having nothing else to do) and saw a progression of race vehicles pass in the next forty-five minutes. After an interminable wait, I stood on the curb on the inside corner as the four lead cyclists raced past a few feet in front of me (lead by a guy in a blue helmet, who did not go on to win the stage), bracketed by motorcycles with cameras, followed by a large pack of cyclists, and a long convoy of race team tenders in hatchbacks with spare bicycles on the roof racks. I had to confess the whole thing was a bit underwhelming, though if I had some vague idea who the racers were and the sport of cycling I might have gotten a bit more out of it. I sat back down on the curb to wait for the rest of the race and, eventually, saw several more packs of cyclists, followed by a lone cyclist and a State Patrol SUV with a sign reading "end of convoy". It took another half-hour for the rest of the race traffic to clear, and the road to reopen; I stopped by the local grocery store for a snack and headed home.