Mount Zwischen Summit
The North Ridge route of Mount Zwischen is a long, curving, trail-less adventure to the summit of a peak barely breaking 12,000 feet above sea level. While the rock on this route never exceeds Class 2+, the undulating ridgeline will challenge endurance and the lack of a trail or even a decent line-of-site from start to finish demands sharp navigation skills.
Net Elevation Gain:
3,500 feet (cumulative vertical gain will be greater)
Class 2 - 2+
Medano Pass Primitive Road is the closest road of any type to Mount Zwischen. It is a rough 4x4 road suitable only for high clearance 4-wheel drive vehicles. Due to the wide variety of conditions on this road, most vehicles will find it necessary to travel the road from east to west.
According to the National Park Service, this is why:
The road includes soft sand for about 2 miles, 9 creek crossings that may be deep in late spring, and a rocky roadbed near the summit of the pass. If sand becomes soft during dry times, dropping tire air pressure to about 20 pounds may be necessary. Full tire pressure is required to drive over rocks higher on the pass, so if you do drop pressure, you will need to either 1) have your own air compressor to refill before going higher on the pass, or 2) drive the road from east to west, and reduce pressure after going over the pass but before driving through the soft sand. A free air compressor is available at the western entrance to the road in the national park.
View a map of Great Sand Dunes National Park
From Medano Pass
Follow the Jeep road approximately 3 miles west to a suitable spot to park your vehicle. Parking is limited along this stretch of road, and the Park Service has closed off many would-be parking spots, so be creative and flexible in finding a place to leave your vehicle. Be considerate to others and do not park in a campsite parking spot (as these, too, are limited) unless you are staying there for the night. The route weaves intermittently through parts of the 2010 Medano Fire.
• Leave the road and head into the tract-less woods, heading initially southbound on a western spur of the north ridge Mount Zwischen. Enjoy an initial ½ mile of steepish hiking on vegetated (or burned) slopes.
• Trend to the southeast for about a mile until the spur meets up with the main body of the north ridge.
• Follow the north ridge almost due south for about 1 ¼ mile. At times from the rolling, upper part of this section, glades (openings in the trees) provide a view of the northern, false summit of Mount Zwischen.
• The route now bends to the southwest for about 1 ½ miles. The trees will become more stunted and at times the faintest hint of a use path may be noted.
• Turning again almost due south, the final half mile of so to the summit is on increasingly steep, rocky terrain. Sticking to the ridgecrest, which may require some easy, YDS Class 2+ maneuvers, will reduce side-hilling and slipping on grass and dirt.
• First, ascend the rocky 11985 foot false summit. From the crest of this point, you can finally see your destination.
• Descend the slopes of the false summit, and push on along the ridgeline to the rock and krumholtz dotted northern slopes of Mount Zwischen. The final push to the summit reveals amazing views in every direction.
• Retrace your steps to Medano Pass road.
Debris-choked gullies await if you opt to drop west or northwest dirctly from the summit instead of retracing your steps along the North Ridge
Fight the temptation to bushwack a fresh route down the ridges and canyons to the west or north of the peak. In attempting to cut a different descent route, you may encounter very steep terrain and even cliff out. Just be patient and retrace your ascent path to avoid any epic surprises.
Sequential Route Photos
This dense Aspen Grove is encountered low on the west spur of the north ridge, early in the route Looking north along the curving north ridge roughly half way to the summit Southward toward summit North ridge of Mount Zwischen, looking south toward a false summit...you still have quite a while to go! Crispie Krumholtz along the rocky ridge between the false summit and true summit Approaching the final summit push from the saddle south of the the rocky 11985 foot false summit
Last few steps to the summit
The most essential “equipment” to have on this peak is rock-solid navigation skills. Due to limited visibility (dense trees) and almost no line-of-site views of the true summit (terrain), both map/compass and a GPS (plus extra batteries) are highly recommended.
There is no water available on this route; pack all that you’ll need to drink and then some. Supportive boots and trekking poles will be useful. Finally, bring your standard supply pack of raingear, nutritious snacks, and emergency “just in case” bivy gear.