My friend Ryan and I packed up the snowshoes and headed to the Blue Lakes Trailhead. It looked like a beautiful day: the sun was already glowing on the cliffs above us leading to Quandary Peak. There appeared to be much less snow than I had anticipated, so I decided it would be best to leave the snowshoes behind after all. This decision was correct, but I was wrong about there not being much snow.
Starting out at 7:45, we climbed around the north side of the dam at Blue Lake and headed out along the ledges below numerous cliffs. We began post-holing almost immediately, but it wasn’t too bad at the beginning. Trying to avoid the snow as best I could, I led us along some rocky slopes, slowly angling up above the reservoir and around some thick evergreens.
Roach’s guidebook mentions a nice trail in this area, but we had completely missed it. That’s okay, though, because we were planning on climbing the next ridge up to Fletcher Mountain, instead of following the standard route up through the basin. There would be less snow on the ridge, I figured.
We crossed a deep gully where two small but steady streams of water were flowing, then continued up the other side to the base of the south ridge leading to our destination. The sun was out bright and warm, so we stripped some layers before beginning our main climb.
From a distance, the ridge appeared to be snow-covered rocks punctuated by cliff bands. This turned out to be a fun hike over solid rock, and we were able to avoid most of the snow. We did gain a lot of elevation in this steep section of the hike. Near the top of this, where the ridge flattened out and the final summit pyramid of Fletcher Mountain came into view, I told Ryan we were past the worst of it. In actuality, we were past the easiest part of it. Everything from there on would prove to be harder than expected.
Now above 13,000 feet, the altitude began to have noticeable effects on Ryan. Having never been this high in elevation before, he had a headache and was getting dizzy. I noticed he slowed down considerably, as well. It was also about this time that the real slog through the snow began. I had been able to avoid it well for the most part, but at this point there was simply too much snow to get around. We had to go through rather deep snow at several points. Slipping in the deep snow and invisible talus beneath, we made very slow progress as we contoured the upper part of the ridge until reaching the 13,400-foot saddle below Fletcher Mountain.
At this point, Ryan had had enough. His legs were burning, and the altitude sickness was not letting up on him. He said he could have made it in good conditions, but the steady slogging through the snow was tiring him out very badly. He wanted to stop to make sure he would have enough energy to get back down.
Feeling okay, I hurried up the final section of the southeast ridge to the summit. Much of this steep ridge was bare and easy to hike, but the higher I went the more snow I encountered. At one point, I slipped into a chest-deep chasm of snow and had to use my trekking poles to aid in my escape.
There were impressive cliffs to the north and west as I continued the final pitch to the summit. Arriving at 1:30, I dug out the summit register and took pictures of the fantastic scenery.
As we continued steeply downhill into this huge hanging valley, I could not help but reflect on how Gerry Roach described this place, “This idyllic valley will embrace you.” Looking back, I can see why Roach would write this. There is awesome scenery, including a huge head-wall that sits center stage between several small alpine lakes and waterfalls. To the west lies pyramidal Fletcher Mountain, and to the east rises the impressive jagged west ridge of Quandary Peak. Still, I think I can speak for both Ryan and myself when I say that one word describes our experience in descending through this “idyllic” valley: PAIN.
Sometimes we were able to find a trail, but most of the time we were floundering downward in the ever-annoying snow, slipping and sliding on the snowy talus. We each fell several times, despite our unerring attention to our footing and balance. There was plenty of rock showing, but the snow filling the gaps between the rocks is what kept us guessing. We tried to get our footing, but time and time again our feet would slip into hidden cracks or unseen crevices, always waiting to trip us up and make us stumble.
The difficulty of this descent would not let up, either. Along with some bruises and scratches, I ended up tearing a gaiter and losing half a shoestring. The weather was beautiful, but the warm sun kept the snow wet and sloppy, thereby soaking our pants and feet in spite of our gaiters. Near the bottom, where the terrain finally flattened out, we found ourselves in a sort of marsh. A couple times we stepped through snow into water, soaking our feet even more. We passed by some old mining ruins and regained the trail through some nasty willows and more snow, all the while getting lower and lower in elevation.
We were in pain when we reached the reservoir again, physically and mentally exhausted. Just before coming to the dam, I passed by a half-white ptarmigan who was happy to pose for a picture. We had seen a few pikas throughout the course of the hike, and a butterfly had even wafted by me as I was climbing the final pitch to the summit, somewhere around 13,500 feet. It is amazing how moments like that let you forget your pain and enjoy the fresh air as you watch something completely separate from yourself, perfectly at peace and at home in its element.
Then, nine hours from start to finish, we were back at the jeep. In the end, Ryan’s comments ranged from “single most exhausting thing I’ve ever done” to “it was sort of fun.” I would say those were some fair comments based on the conditions, and considering this was the first time he has ever been that high outside of an airplane. Fletcher Mountain was no joke for either of us. In fact, I would say it was the hardest four and a half miles I have done to date, and the downhill was the worst part of all. I should have learned by now that you should never underestimate a mountain, because you never know what surprises it may be holding.
Still, would I do something like this again? In a heartbeat!
© 2005, Brad Snider