4,280 feet elevation gain
I don’t particularly like soloing mountains, especially when there is a lot of snow on the ground, but I couldn’t resist tackling these peaks after seeing the weather forecast and studying these routes. Just to be safe, I let a number of people know where I was going, and I carried with me a cell phone, as always.
At the Mayflower Gulch Trailhead before sunrise, I started my journey at 0615. Not knowing the conditions of possible creek-crossings further up in the valley, I opted to cross the concrete structure just a few hundred yards from the trailhead. Then I began my relatively-level walk up the valley. It wasn’t exactly a walk in the park. The snow was deep, and even with snowshoes, I was postholing some of the time. Even worse were the willows, which I couldn’t seem to get away from no matter how hard I tried. Several times my snowshoes and other gear got tangled up in them as I tried to move forward.
After an hour or so of willow-bashing, postholing and getting snow down my back from the branches of evergreens, I at last made it to the Pacific Creek Drainage. I found a place to cross the flowing water (through some more willows), and then made my way up the steep bank on the other side. The snow here was even deeper, and I continued trudging my way through it until I came to where the base of Pacific Peak’s west ridge levels out somewhat. Now above timberline and having finally gained some altitude, I could see what lay ahead. Pacific Peak didn’t look too far away, and beyond that stood my first goal of the day: Crystal Peak.
The trip to the Pacific-Crystal saddle would prove to be, as most of the rest of today’s climb, more difficult than I anticipated. I passed first in front of Pacific Peak’s impressive west ridge, then went up and down across several boulder-filled gullies. In optimal conditions, this would consist of some simple boulder-hopping, but with the very deep snow and wearing snowshoes, I took all my steps very carefully.
When I did at last make it to the saddle, I decided to leave my snowshoes before continuing up Crystal Peak’s Southwest Ridge. There appeared to be plenty of rocks I would be able to scramble up to get to the false summit. For the most part, this was correct, but instead of going all the way to the false summit, I skirted it on its east side. Here I ran into a snowfield that made me wish I had kept my snowshoes with me. After some effortful wading, I made my way to the other side, and was surprised to find a snow-free slope of frozen scree, which I easily ascended. . . only to get to more snow. Indeed, Crystal’s summit ridge was another place snowshoes would have come in handy.
At 1027, I stepped onto Crystal Peak’s snow-covered summit. I could not find the register anywhere, and I’m sure it was buried. I stayed only about ten minutes, to photograph the beautiful land with which I was surrounded. I knew I had to get on the move, because my day was far from over.
The descent back to the saddle was a quick one. I took a short break there and retrieved my snowshoes, tying them to my pack, as I could see I would not need them for the steep ascent of Pacific Peak.
In fact, it was not the steepness of Pacific Peak’s north ridge that made it difficult; it was the first section of the ridge, leading up from the saddle, that made me wonder if I was going to make it. The snow drifts and slanted talus on this part of the ridge were a dangerous combination, and I had to plan every footstep, often slipping anyway. This resulted in discouragingly slow progress, and it tired me out. There was no easy escape from here, however, so I continued pressing for the summit. At one point I stopped to eat some energy food: that was the best Snickers bar I ever had!
The snow drifts relented as I climbed the steeper portion to Pacific Peak’s false summit. When I finally arrived I was able to preview my route up the impressive notch to the actual summit.
This was fun! I descended into the notch and then began climbing a steep snow slope on the opposite side. Near the top of this snow chute, I angled onto some steep but solid rock ledges, and climbed them fifty feet or so up to the summit. I arrived at 1246, signed in at the register (the first signature since October 23rd), and once again paused to admire the beauty around me. I stayed for fifteen minutes, mainly to catch my breath and survey what I had ahead of me.
I was already becoming somewhat concerned of the time, and I knew I had to pick up my pace if I was to get down Atlantic’s rough west ridge before dark. Fortunately, progress across the wide saddle toward Atlantic Peak went surprisingly quick with the aid of snowshoes. The slope was gentle and easy to walk, but when I got to the base of Atlantic Peak’s north ridge, the angle steepened a good bit. I kept my snowshoes on the whole way to the summit, digging into the ice-packed snow on my way up. This was definitely the easiest ridge of the day.
At 1410 I conquered the summit of “Atlantic Peak,” my third and final peak of the day. I stopped for twenty minutes to admire the awesome surroundings, breathe the fresh air, sign in at the summit register, and marvel once again at the amazingly calm and clear weather.
But hold on! The day was not over yet! I had read of the potential hazards of Atlantic’s west ridge, especially with winter conditions, and this ridge provided my only logical route back to my jeep. As I descended, what struck me immediately was the depth of the snow along the crest of this ridge. Over and over again I found myself nearly getting stuck, literally, in the mounds of snow. Only with constant squirming and the aid of my trekking poles was I able to continue. The jagged rocks underneath the snow often caused me to slip or lose my footing, but many times I couldn’t even find the ground because the snow was too deep!
In this manner I continued my descent, and this ridge provided the slowest progress of the day. I felt like I was getting nowhere and paying huge amounts of energy to do so. Another factor that aided in my feeling of slothfulness was that there was no significant loss of elevation for a long time. I found myself swimming through the snow at times, but snowshoes would not have been logical due to the rugged sections of rock and occasional steep drops I kept encountering along the way. I had with me an ice axe and crampons, but never had much use for them in the deep snow.
Eventually the snow abated somewhat, and where I could I scrambled on rocky outcrops to gain some time and lose some altitude. Still, the going was slow, and surprisingly steep drops continued to hinder my journey. It seemed as if this ridge would never end.
Finally, the spiny ridge came to an abrupt halt and dropped steeply for several hundred feet onto what became a broad, gentle slope. I switch-backed my way down the steep hill and across the flat section, then found my way down another steep but easily-traversed slope to yet another bench of land. I made great time covering this whole section of ground, because the snow was only perhaps a foot deep and actually provided good footing for my descent purposes.
On the lower bench, I met up at long last with the snowshoe-prints I had made ten hours earlier, when I had passed Atlantic’s and Pacific’s west ridges en-route to Crystal Peak. Now the sun was casting a dazzling glow on Atlantic Peak and Fletcher Mountain. After putting on my snowshoes again, I descended into the shadows, for the sun had already set on the valley, and those mountains would soon be swallowed in darkness as well.
I did not want to go out the same way I had started this morning, especially in the dark, so I found a place to cross the creek immediately, and continued south in search of the ice-and-snow-covered dirt road of Mayflower Gulch. I found an easy path through the willows, and made one last painful climb up a steep bank with two and a half feet of snow cover. I would not have survived the day without snowshoes!
At last I was on the road. I walked steadily and quickly down the road to the trailhead, completing this final stretch in 20 minutes. At 1720, when I arrived at my jeep, the sun had set, and in just over eleven hours I had managed to complete my goals for the day: three amazing Colorado peaks above 13,800 feet. As I sat in my jeep and tried to thaw the ice and frost from my windshield, my water bottles, and my boot laces, I reflected on this perfect day. I couldn’t have been more thankful to be alive.
In conclusion: It is somewhat of an irony that this traverse is named “West Winds,” for there was no wind whatsoever on this spectacular November day! Only on the summits did I encounter a slight breeze, but even that was hardly noticeable. The sun shone brightly all day, letting me know I had nothing to worry about as far as weather. That’s a good thing too, because this climb was difficult enough. Between the three peaks and their diverse ridges, I encountered a striking variety of challenges and obstacles. On top of that, the snow and ice added extra punch to an already impressive experience. There’s no doubt in my mind I will remember this climb as a classic!
© 2004, Brad Snider