Above all, I would like to say that this route is incredibly deceptive. ~8 miles and 3400 feet of elevation gain wore on our party more like 12 miles and 5000 feet of gain. I attribute this mainly to the conditions we encountered. In the willows we broke a trail a foot deep and similar deep, unconsolidated snow was encountered throughout the route, even on the ridge crests. The descent was equally taxing for other reasons that will be revealed later.
First views of the day.
The beginnings of yet another epic.
Having planned this trip for the past couple weeks, many of the attendees have now dropped out. What is left is 6 climbers. The weather forecast is less than optimistic: A 40 percent chance of snow. Mostly cloudy, with a high near 25. Wind chill values as low as -5. Breezy, with a west wind between 21 and 24 mph, with gusts as high as 39 mph. New snow accumulation of around an inch possible. Having been out of the mountains for the past few weeks, I have the worst kind of summit fever. Since being back in the city, I also have a lingering upper respiratory infection, that I am hoping some fresh mountain air will cure. We are go for an attempt on the North Ridge of Pacific Peak, traverse to Atlantic, and decent of the West Ridge of Atlantic Peak.
6:00 AM party members assemble at the Wooly Mammoth PnR and prepare for the drive to the Mayflower Gulch Trailhead. Among the participants are myself, Leonard, Mark, Scott, Kendra, and Ted. Most of us have hiked and climbed together in the past and have become good friends. Comments are made about the weather. Observations at 8,000 and 10,000 feet in the front range do not look promising. Enroute to the trailhead, road conditions are not much better. One of our party nearly loses it on an icy section of CO 91.
Traversing toward Pacific
Fletcher Mountain obscured in clouds. Breaking treeline in Mayflower Gulch
8:00 AM we are on the trail. Err the road. We park at the large parking area off of 91 and boot it up to our turn off at Pacific Creek. By 9:00 AM we are experiencing the joy of the willows. The snow is deep and we take turns breaking trail through treeline. At 12,300 feet we gain the shoulder of Atlantic's west ridge. There is obvious slab formation on this aspect as is the reputation for this area. I would not have attempted this route nor would I repeat it without a good avy forecast. From the flat area on the ridge we traverse a moderate snow slope until coming to a flat area near 12,400. From here until the Pacific/Crystal saddle, flat is the name of the game. Do your best to lose and gain as little elevation as possible.
Snow features below Pacific.
Ups and downs. Rock features on Pacific.
There was some confusion as to the best direction of travel at this point as the route does lose and gain a lot of elevation while circling around to Pacific's north ridge. My best advice is to stay as close as possible to Pacific while staying off of the scree slopes and avoiding obvious avalanche danger. With good routefinding, we found good lines of wind hammered snow the rest of the way to the Pacific/Crystal saddle along with many ups and downs and interesting snow features.
Gaining Pacific's North Ridge.
Stopping short of the saddle, we turn South-East and climb a good snowfield and some large scree to the north ridge of Pacific, gaining it near 13,400. Throughout most of the day we stay out of the wind. Once on the ridge, the forecast rings true. We experience steady 20-25 mph winds with gusts to 30 or more. The ridge itself is windblown with alternating slabs and large boulders. Views of the North face are spectacular. Nearing the top, I am concerned about the notch. My concerns are unwarranted however, as the notch is not a difficulty in the icy conditions.
Pacific's summit ridge
Climbing out of the notch. Summit shot on Pacific.
Pacific summit and Atlantic.
Shit hits the fan.
2:00 PM we are standing on the summit of Pacific Peak. Interestingly enough, the summit proved to be a safe haven from the wind, which was a constant issue along the ridgeline. Over the next half hour the rest of the party arrives and we reasess the condition of the group and condition of the route ahead. Backtracking down the north ridge is not an option. It is decided that we will descend to the saddle with Atlantic and split into two parties. The faster group is to ascend Atlantic's north ridge and descend the west ridge, and the slower is to drop into the basin between Atlantic and Pacific and return to the trailhead.
Descending Pacific Peak.
Descending to the saddle goes easily enough. This side of the mountain has retained more snow on the ridge, and we occasionally posthole when forced off of the scree. Once at the saddle we go our separate ways, Mark, Scott, and I making quick work of the 400 foot gain to Atlantic's summit. Approaching Atlantic from just east of the ridge places the climber on a moderate snow slope that we found to be hard enought to kick steps in through most of the ascent. It is now 3:30 PM. We tag the summit without taking a photo and start hurrying down the west ridge. Expecting the other group to be far down into the basin, we are surprised to find them traversing below Atlantic's summit to the ridge! Unable to stop for various reasons, Mark and Scott continue down the ridge. I stay and wait for the other party of three. Painfully slowly, they finish their traverse and we continue down the ridge together.
Climbing Atlantic Peak. Photo by Mark Traversing Atlantic Peak.
It is now that a very real problem presents itself. The sun is going down, FAST. Six climbers are descending, two alone and without headlamps, and four others with only two lights. Exhaustion is taking its toll. By the time we reach the flat shoulder on the ridge at 12,500 feet it is completely dark. There is no moon. We miss our previous trail as blowing snow has effectively wiped it off the map. Descending this slope, blowing snow reduces visibility to zero. We continue descending to Pacific Creek and break a new trail down to the willows. Along the way we pick up Scott, one of the strays. We have been urgently following his trail as he stumbles on alone in the darkness ahead. One left.
Dusk falls over the Sawatch. Photo by Mark
Mark, the last lone climber, now does something that surprises us all. From the summit of Atlantic Peak, he motors down the ridge and to the trailhead in just over an hour. He is at CO 91 by 4:30 PM. Expecting the other five of us to be stumbling down in the darkness (he didn't know we had lights), he drives to a gas station, borrows a flashlight, drives back and hikes all the way back up from 91, through the willows, to meet us as we are exiting the trees. Quite a feat! Mark is definitely the kind of guy you want to have your back when you are in the mountains. Finally back in one piece, our party descends to the trailhead, with a car to car time of 11 hours.
After breathing a sigh of relief, we stop for food and drinks in town, and recap the events of a very challenging day. I will forgo the "mountain taught me a lesson" speech, but I do believe we all felt the same about that particular subject. Errors were made, some things could have definitely been avoided, but ultimately six friends emerged unscathed and with a great story. Good times!