IntroductionThe northern Tenmile Range in central Colorado divides the Blue River and Tenmile Creek drainages. The range crest (of the northern end of the range) consists of a single spine which runs south from consecutively numbered Peaks 1 through 10. Beginning next to I-70 at the bottom of Tenmile Canyon on the southern end of the Gore Range, Peak 1's north ridge climbs nearly 4,000 vertical feet from the town of Frisco to the summit. This narrow ridgeline stays well above timberline all the way to Peak 10, high above Breckenridge at 13,633. All summer I had been wanting to attempt a traverse of this long ridge, but I always seemed to find myself climbing or hiking somewhere else when the weather was solid enough to attempt such a long, exposed route. Finally, a day off from work coincided with what looked like a stable weather window, and I decided to attempt the Tenmile Traverse.
The TraverseI woke up at 3:45 a.m. on Labor Day, September 5th. I quickly made some black tea and oatmeal, and headed over Hoosier Pass to Frisco. I arrived at the Mt. Royal trailhead in just before 5 a.m. Soon I was walking along the paved bike path by headlamp. I eventually found the Mount Royal trail on the right and started up it, but after a few hundred feet of walking along what I thought was the trail, I found myself in the middle of a surreal-looking boulder field with several crude shelters built up against the rocks. Where was I? I wondered if I was on the wrong trail, or still slightly altered from the night before... maybe both. Nevertheless, I turned around, and after a brief search by headlamp, found the correct trail.
I tried to pace myself starting up Peak 1, wanting to make good time, but not cash my legs too quickly, with something like 8,000 vertical feet still to come. After a while I turned my headlamp off, finding the trail easier to follow in the light of the half-full moon. For a good long stretch, I could hear only my own breathing, the crunch of my shoes on the gravel trail, and the occasional rustle of aspen leaves overhead. Gradually I watched the lights of Frisco drop away. Somewhere around 10,500 feet, the pre-dawn solitude was shattered by someone shouting in the woods up ahead. In a few minutes I caught up to a group of four or five guys, sitting on both sides of the trail in the dark like some sort of strange alpine gauntlet. “Friend or foe?” asked someone in the group as I approached. “Friend,” I called back optimistically. “May I pass?” After a brief chat, they consented. They informed me that their plans included hiking “over hill and dale.” I thought they might catch up again at some point, but as it turned out, these were the last people I would see until reaching the top of Peak 8, more than six hours later. I resumed the climb up Peak 1's north ridge as the sky began to lighten.
Nearing timberline, I rested and watched the blood-red sunrise intensify. Stratocumulus clouds covered the eastern sky, but despite the prevailing wisdom regarding red skies at morning, I was hopeful that these clouds would delay the daytime heating and subsequent buildup of thunderstorms. All week, the forecast for Monday was dry, with a marginal chance of thunderstorms. But on Sunday night, the precipitable water values jumped again and the forecast changed to a 20-30% chance of storms. Not ideal. But I had decided to give it a shot anyway, with an early start and fast pace. If need be, it would be possible to drop into the trees relatively easily anywhere from Peak 4 on. This was an important detail to me-—getting struck by lightning is low on my list of priorities.
I continued on to the 12,805' summit of Peak 1, pausing for a moment to take in the interesting view of Lake Dillon and the rest of Summit County, and to scope out the possibility of a ski descent next spring (looks fun). I collapsed my poles, stashed them on my pack, and continued on to Tenmile Peak (Peak 2). I was still groggy from the alpine start, but crossing this ridge in the early morning sunlight woke me up completely. There is a faint trail most of the way, and a beautiful view of the Gore Range to the south. Solid rock and some more elevation gain made for a fun, quick scamper, and soon I was on top on another summit, this one a lofty 12,933 feet.
At this point I was too excited to take much of a break. The section between Peak 2 and Peak 4 is the semi-technical part of the traverse, and I was eager to see what it would be like. I had a drink of water and headed south to dispatch the gnar.
From below, this ridge looks tedious, shaped sort of like the bottom half of a toothy grin, missing a few teeth. But the rock is fairly solid and the holds are plentiful. At one point I did dislodge a big flake and watched it roll all the way down the southeast face of Peak 2. Through some parts of the section, it is possible to cat-walk directly on top of the narrow ridge. At other places, small ledges and ramps can be followed just below the ridgeline, and you can use the ridge crest as a kind of hand rail. The scariest moment of the day occurred between Peak 2 and Peak 3, climbing down and out over a bulge. I downclimbed into a steep, cliffy, overhung spot, and found myself searching blindly for a foothold with quite a bit of exposure. As I was backtracking, my backpack caught on a rock and threw my balance out over space, just long enough to make my heart jump. After that, it was easy enough to re-ascend a bit and find a better way, but definitely ragged enough to make the exposure felt. Thanks to helpful beta from CharlesD, I skirted the Dragon to the west on a ramp above the talus, without incident. The airy ridge from Peak 3 to Peak 4 was one of the most enjoyable scrambles I've done in a long time, on solid rock and an aesthetic, narrow ridge. I was still feeling pretty energetic at this point and kept moving at a good pace until I was on the 12,866' summit of Peak 4, at about 10 a.m.
With the sketchiest part of the route behind me, I relaxed a bit. After another breakfast—dried fruit, cheese and bread—I set off along the ridge. The terrain really changes character here, shifting abruptly from exposed scrambling to an easy, flat-ish ridge walk. Peaks 5 and 6 are essentially just high points on a long ridge (12,600'-12,800'), with its share of gradual ups and downs. I was able to make good time, moving fast and stepping lightly on the tundra. There is no real trail here, except for a few hundred yards where you can follow along the Colorado Trail between 5 and 6. Approaching the saddle before Peak 7, I watched some cumulus clouds begin to quickly form off to the west, where it had been clear all morning. It looked like these would eventually develop into thunderstorms. But how soon?
I had been going pretty much non-stop since 5 a.m., and as I approached Peak 7, my legs started to feel it. I downed a packet of GU and some electrolyte drink, and started rest-stepping uphill again. Slow and steady, I plodded to the summit of Peak 7, to find that it is just a shoulder of 12,987' Peak 8, which I reached soon afterward. It was 12 o'clock, seven hours into the ordeal. As I was summiting, among ski area boundary signs and litter, I noticed two other people on top. I recognized one of them as fellow climber and SP member jesseskico. Jesse is a carpenter and we work on the same projects from time to time. At work a few weeks previous we had been talking about the Tenmile traverse, and he had done a good chunk of it himself. You can imagine my surprise running into him on top of Peak 8, having just climbed the east ridge from the Summit Stage stop in Breckenridge! He guessed correctly where I had come from, and was kind enough to offer to join me for the remaining two summits. I was definitely starting to feel the length of the route at this point, so the good company was appreciated.
The sky to the north and west continued to darken, but we both felt that it was not immediately threatening just yet. We descended rather quickly to the Peak 8-Peak 9 saddle (the Wheeler Trail crosses here), where a few dozen day-glo clad elderly folks were congregating. I had been breathing hard at altitude for quite some time now, and couldn't completely rule out the possibility of hypoxia-induced hallucinations. However, Jesse claimed that he saw them too. Either way, I said hello to the horde of people and continued on. We took an ascending traverse to the broad northwest ridge of Peak 9, and made good time to the false summit, then across a short, fun bit of scrambling. We spent a very short time on Peak 9's 13,195' summit, eying the weather and the single remaining mountain left to climb. We considered climbing directly up Peak 10's north ridge, which looked fun, but loose, and possibly time consuming. In interest of time, we decided to drop down the steep tundra and scree to the basin between Peaks 9 and 10, catch the jeep road, and take that to the east ridge of Peak 10.
At this point, I was beginning to get a bit sketched out by the weather. In Colorado in the summer, unless we're under a strong dome of high pressure, I'm almost never still trying to gain elevation at one o'clock in the afternoon. The clouds were growing and darkening, and the wind was picking up. In retrospect, I may have also had just a touch of the ol' summit fever... But if nothing else, the threatening weather kept the pace fast. We pressed on, “climbing with our ears” as Jesse put it, listening for thunder. We agreed that if we heard any, we would head downhill immediately (of course, the first bolt could always be right where you're standing, but we were thinking optimistically). As we passed beneath a small snowfield in the 12,800' basin, Jesse spotted three well-camouflaged ptarmigan. From a few yards away it was almost impossible to see them.
Eventually we hit the road and began switchbacking up the hillside, past the Briar Rose mine, up to the east ridge of Peak 10. I ate another packet of GU and more electrolytes. My left quad felt like it was just on the edge of cramping, but the cold wind and dark sky motivated me to keep moving. Quickly we gained the ridge, where an SUV was parked. We contemplated pushing it down the south face of Peak 10, but decided against this temptation. We hiked past the antenna, and headed up the ridge to the summit. Some hail and sleet fell, sans thunder. I could see the flag on the summit, but my legs were fried. I had to stop and rest. Then another push, and another rest. And again. Then, finally, we were on top. It was 2 p.m.
A frayed American flag greeted us on the summit. I had been hoping for cold beer, but no luck. The view was spectacular, down the length of the Tenmile Range, with the Gore Range further north, the Front Range to the northeast, and an up-close view of the rest of the southern Tenmile/Mosquito Range. As Jesse identified the nearby Tenmile peaks and pointed out fun routes, I was already thinking of future climbs (Mt. Helen-Father Dyer-Crystal Peak-Peak 10 anyone?). Four thousand feet below us, we could see the town of Breckenridge, our next destination.
We took our time on the summit of Peak 10, eating, drinking, and generally celebrating, as it seemed the weather gods had spared us for the moment. I felt extremely lucky to have made all ten summits, and grateful for the working pair of legs and conscious mind to take it all in. Eventually we headed down, down... the jeep road made for relatively a relatively easy descent, but it was long. All I could seem to think about was how nice it would be to have a pair of skis on my feet and a few feet of fresh powder to descend in.... alas. Still summer. Thunder began to rumble overhead. The sky to the west had begun to take on the unmistakable blue-black tint of a thunderstorm. When we hit the trees we began descending directly down lift lines and ski runs, occasionally intersecting the road.
My watch said we were somewhere around 10,300' when we spotted a Breckenridge Ski Area (lift maintenance?) truck making its way down the road. The driver was kind enough to give us a ride down to the base area, and even kinder to drive us all the way to the transfer station in Breckenridge so we could catch the bus back to Frisco. After getting something cold to drink, we caught the 3:30 Stage and headed to Frisco.
Of course, the adventure wasn't going to end that easily. When I got to Frisco, I ended up at the transfer station out by Wal-Mart, nowhere near my car, which was parked at the trailhead on the west end of Main Street. This meant I had to get on the Copper Mountain bus. Unfortunately, it was 3:45 and the next bus was at 4:30. I realized I could probably walk to my car faster than that, but the afternoon's thunderstorm had just begun in earnest. I waited in the bus shelter for 45 minutes, getting drenched, watching the rain, and thinking about coffee. At least this was better than being caught in the storm on top Peak 10. Eventually, I caught the bus... mistakenly got off at the wrong end of Main Street, found that the coffee shop was closed, and walked about a dozen blocks in pounding rain back to the car--almost 12 hours since I had left it. Finally! Soaking wet, cold, sore, and deliriously happy, I drove home.
At around 8,000 feet of vertical gain and 10-15 miles in length, the Tenmile traverse is the longest route of its kind I've done. But I'm afraid the addiction has already taken hold--the far northern Sangres and some combination of Gore Range ridges are next on the list.