Amongst the Ruins of a Once Great TrailI've long favored alternative routes up the more popular 14ers for the solitude and the chance to see a different angle on the mountain. I had been eyeing the southwest ridge route on Mount Princeton all winter as a perfect spring training climb to get back my climbing legs. With fair weather and a paltry snowpack, the second weekend in May looked like a window of opportunity, so I went for it. What I got was a bit more than I expected, not that I was deterred.
The SW ridge begins from the base of Grouse Canyon along Princeton's south side. I arrived at the trailhead on Friday evening with enough light left to locate the actual trail where a 4WD road peters out. On the way back down to my car I noticed a tick crawling up my leg. Wonderful! With my uncanny ability to attract ticks, I decided to bail on my plan to sleep out under the stars. I didn't want to wake up in the morning looking like the tick equivalent of those people that coat themselves head-to-toe in bees. So, for better or worse, I slept in my car. Beware the ticks of Princeton!
I got on the trail the next morning at 6AM. Initially, there is a cairned trail that weaves through deadfall to the base of Grouse Canyon. Once in the canyon, the routefinding was easy because cliffs on both sides constrain the trail to the creekbed. The trail was moderately overgrown in the canyon, and yeah, I picked up a few more ticks. Eventually a few cairns lead me to begin climbing above the canyon floor at a small sidestream. Immediately, the hillside became very steep and the cairns disappeared. A multitude of game trails made it impossible to decipher the proper path. Not feeling like playing hide-and-seek with this supposedly "well-defined" trail (according to Gerry Roach's description), I began climbing directly up the hill. Eventually I reached a small, flat bench that, remarkably, had a cairn sitting on top of it. From there, I followed an overgrown trail that contoured around the hillside with occasional cairns. Just below treeline, the cairns contoured around a talus field and into an inset gully. Proceeding up the gully, sporadic pockets of snow became more and more common until they became continuous at treeline. However, shortly above treeline the gully fanned out into a large open bowl. Although a few cairns attempted to mark a route up the steep slope, there was not enough traffic to beat a path in. So, I slogged straight up the bowl to the ridge crest at 13000 feet. The climb was very steep, but the grassy slope provided excellent footing. At the ridge, I had my first view of Princeton’s summit, a mere mile away via a dogleg in the ridge. It looked like a standard Sawatch boulder hop for the next 1200 feet with a false summit or two thrown in, but sometimes appearances can be deceiving.
After climbing talus for a few hundred feet, I was suddenly staring at a remarkably jagged ridge with at least three towers to get around. Perhaps there are paths that contour beneath these towers, but if so, they were buried under lingering snowfields. With no hard freeze overnight, the steep snow flanking the ridge was already wet and rotten by 8:30AM. So, my options were pretty limited. I was going to have to stay right along the ridge crest. That turned out to be a good thing because the exposed class 3 ridge ended up being the highlight of the outing. The rock was solid and some of the moves were classic. Early into the scramble was the best part, a 30 foot knife edge that felt almost identical to the crux on Torrey’s Kelso ridge. The rock was perfect and snow on one side of the ridge eliminated the possibility of doing the cheater butt-scoot. This was much better than the class 2 walkup I had signed up for! After passing a few more towers, the ridge eased up, and it was a simple talus climb to the false summit, labeled Point 13971. From here, a short downclimb led to the summit pitch. I summited just after 10AM, perhaps losing a half hour to unexpected route-finding problems. Surprisingly, I had the summit to myself.
The return trip to treeline was just the ascent in reverse. When I reached the snow-filled gully, I found the snow was capable of supporting my full weight despite being in the hot sun for several hours. It occurred to me that this snow was so well compacted because it was avalanche debris funneled in from the bowl above. Beware winter climbers! Below treeline, the route-finding problems of the ascent repeated but were compounded by fatigue and a rapidly dwindling water supply. I miraculously emerged into Grouse Canyon at the proper spot and followed the stream back to the trailhead. The final statistics: 5500 feet of climbing, 7.5 hours roundtrip, 3 ticks, 0 tick bites.
Moral of the story: if you want to climb this route, be prepared for it. The route-finding is not obvious, and the sustained, steep climbing to the ridge can be very demoralizing. But, the fun ridgeline scrambling and great views of Grouse and Cascade canyons can make up for this. Have fun with it, but leave early because that’s a long ridgeline with lots of cliffed-out escapes.