Two fifty five in the morning is early, but only acceptable pending the first summit of the year, Quandary Peak, located in the Tenmile/Mosquito Range. Quandary had been on mine and my dad’s list of peaks to do as an early spring ascent. As we headed up to Breckenridge I was surprised by the amount of cars on the road at three in the morning on a Memorial Day. When we arrived at 5:45 we were the third car in the parking lot at the Monte Cristo trailhead.
The cool, crisp, morning mountain air was refreshing, invigorating and made the first part of the trail seem like a breeze. The latter part of the winter and spring season had seen a fair amount of snow; snow as late as May 23, above 7000 ft. Consequently, we planed for the worst and had
snowshoes at the ready. Below treeline, patches of snow and ice dotted the trail.
As we broke out above the treeline we reached the first snow slope. Still early, 6:30 AM, the snow was solid and we saw no need for snowshoes. The morning was absolutely beautiful and I was always wanting to turn toward the scenic east. I snapped a few pictures with my Christmas present and jugged up the slope. Several route descriptions talked of a false summit at about 13,000 ft. I laughed “False summit over 1000ft. below the true summit!?! What?” As we climbed, I could see the ‘false summit’ and it didn’t seem that far away. I put my head down and one foot in front of the other for about five minutes. I looked up and felt like I had gone backward. I tried again, head down and climbed. Looked up and thought “Ahhuhhh, am I stuck in quicksand!!!”
This continued for what seemed like hours, but in reality it was only 40 or 45 minutes. Since I started climbing 14ers, I was always under the impression that Quandary was an over glorified hill…it was on a mission to prove me wrong. I soon looked up and saw what I feared, the summit 1750 ft. above me and me feeling like I had already climbed a fourteener. I felt so slow and lethargic, whether because of the snow (my first fourteener ‘snow climb’) or because this was my first fourteener in eight months, I’m not sure, and the daunting view of the summit wasn’t helping matters. We pushed on and I tried not to act like I thought it was hard.
As we crested the ridge, islands of dry land sprawled out in front us.
We passed several what-use-to-be cairns that got lambasted during the winter, and all that remained were large oddly shaped plateaus of rocks. We could see a climber on the endless ridge which dropped everything into perspective. The climber looked like an ant and I felt like one! We picked our way through the barren talus at the bottom of the ridge up to the snow slope. Neither of us could pretend any more, I would pause, watch the climber above us, dig my pole into the snow, suck on some water and occasionally take a picture. We slowly made our way up the ridge.
We hit the summit ridge abruptly and got blasted with a face full of wind. I quickly followed the ridge to the summit and was able to climb below the cornice as a reprieve from the wind. I sat there in awe of the view. The cornice framed the wilderness beyond perfectly, Pacific Peak to the north was breathtaking and McCullough Gulch was beautifully rugged. As I looked out over the vast expanse, I felt as if I had earned the summit, a hard work reward for climbing/hiking a real mountain. It was 8:30 AM and the sun was still fairly low in the sky so we stayed on the summit for about thirty minutes (long for us).
As we started down, the snow had noticeably softened. It made me glad we had gotten up early. Here the fun began: I started climbing/skiing down the ridge until I fell. Then I half glissaded, half pushed myself down the slope. My dad tried to be a little more dignified by trying to stay on his legs but was only half successful because of the soft snow. We descended the ridge in a fourth the time it took us to go up. The lower we got the softer the snow became until we hit post-holing heaven a few hundred feet from treeline. One step--thunk—and I was up to my waist in snow. I rolled onto my stomach, and tried to glissade until I post-holed with my butt. Then I repeated the whole process, again and again. It was painfully slow and painfully painful. I was extremely thankful I only had few hundred feet left, but two unfortunate souls were trying to climb-up the same slushy-slurpee thing we were tumbling down. We stopped and talked for a minute, tried to offer some advice other than start earlier. They fortunately had brought snowshoes, but I think a summit bid was probably out of their reach.
We continued post-holing our way back to the car and looked like complete idiots. At one point my dad post-holed with his face and I fell into the same mess because I was laughing so hard. I enjoyed every minute of the walk back! It had been an amazing day already and it was only 10AM. We arrived at our car four hours and thirty minutes after we left and with a new appreciation for Quandary Peak. It may not be technically difficult, but it’s a lung buster and a leg burner.