| Princeton: Eight Years in the Making
My love affair with Princeton started the day I feasted my eyes on this glorious peak, some 14 years ago on one of my early Sawatch hikes. Since then, I’d always aspired to hike this mountain and my dream came true one fine day in August 2003, when a friend and I set out to climb the southwest slopes from the Grouse Canyon trailhead. I was young and foolhardy and my friend, Jim, was the strongest hiker I knew so I convinced him that the less-traveled Grouse Canyon trail which required over 5000 feet of elevation gain in 3.5 miles was right up our alley. And it might well have been, had we not run into a tree wall less than a mile into the trail forcing us to start ascending the west slope far too south of the peak. With no trail to follow, we bushwhacked for a while and then started climbing a nasty scree slope followed by a boulder field, not knowing where it would lead. Three hours into a grueling climb, we were on the ridge and Princeton was far to the north. With most of my wind and all of my will knocked out during that relentless scramble, I knew my day was done even though I suspect to this day that Jim would’ve pressed on. On our descent, we discovered the ill-defined trail and followed it all the way to the wall of trees that had stymied us on the way up. We decided then that we would be back the next season to bag the peak; the next season and others that followed brought some memorable hikes but Princeton wasn’t one of them.
It wasn’t until today, that I was able to return to the stateliest of the Sawatchers – Princeton, majesty is thy name! Thanks to my friend Steve’s hardy Jeep we were able to make it up the 4WD road to the camping sites past the towers before we found a broad shoulder to park. This road may well be a 4-wheeling junkie’s delight, narrow and riddled with deep ruts and undulations that require a vehicle with good clearance and a short wheelbase to navigate without drama.
Going down Mt. princeton 4WD road
The road also has steep drops to the ravine and very few spots which can accommodate an oncoming vehicle. As Steve would put it, his Jeep was built for it, but he wasn’t!
Steep drop-offs adorn the 4WD road
Within a mile of trudging up the road, we hit the trail junction distinguished by the rock staircase and marked by a cairn.
The trail winds up and through the highest pines and soon offers the first view of Princeton to the west.
First glimpse of Mt. princeton
The gentle terrain over tundra soon gives way to boulders that continue to dominate the east and southeast slopes of Princeton.
Trail gets rocky early
The view of the trail just traversed shows the abrupt transition.
Tundra transitions to boluders
At the start of the hike, I had decided that I would detour to “Tigger Peak”, Princeton’s sidekick at nearly 13,300 feet on my route depending on conditions – mine, those of the trail and the weather. From this vantage point, the trail ahead was clear, including the traverse up to the saddle on the southeast ridge.
Trail leading up to the sadlle
As I would learn, the key to making the best of this route is to stay close to the ridge, with the ideal route just east of and slightly below the ridge.
Soon I stumbled (literally!) on to the rock wall that blocks off the old trail that continues directly west. Thankful for the cairn, I traversed northwest on the new trail making a mental note to call Steve who was farther behind to remind him of this.
Rock wall blocking off old trail - Head left!
As I scoured Princeton’s south east slopes, I mentally mapped out the trail that I would take from the saddle. Numerous gullies and chutes adorn Princeton’s beautiful east slope but, from a hiker’s standpoint, these are best admired from a distance!
The trail then traverses around the northeast face of Tigger Peak, leading to the saddle which would be my decision point. They say a picture says a thousand words, so I will let the view of Mount Antero to the southwest from the saddle speak for itself!
Mt. Antero from the ridge saddle
The ridge to Princeton’s lofty summit lay to the northwest.
Mt. princeton from the saddle
And Tigger Peak to the south.
Tigger Peak from the saddle
Having made excellent time up to the saddle, I knew I had no excuse to avoid Tigger Peak and figured that this detour would also let my friend catch up. This view of the ridge to its summit shows most of the trail which looks narrower than it is.
Ridge trail to Tigger peak
I stayed on the ridge most of the way which worked out well as the trail is easy to follow.
Route to Trigger peak
As I neared the final mound, I made a quick decision to skirt it to the west – not such a good idea!
Final pitch to Tigger Peak
The west slopes of this ridge are seriously steep and I quickly found myself 50 feet below on class 3 talus!
Skirting to the west - OOPS!
Avoid the west slopes!
A quick scramble brought me thankfully right on to the summit.
Views of Mount Antero and Princeton from Tigger Peak:
Mt. Antero from Tigger peak
princeton from Tigger Peak
As I made my way back down to the saddle and gazed at Princeton’s steep southeast face, I knew that the hardest part of the climb was yet to come.
Princeton's imposing southeast face
Momentarily en route to the saddle, as I glanced down the slopes below, I spotted Steve making his way up. Unfortunately, my call to his cell went unanswered so I continued on, figuring that we’d establish communication once I was on the summit.
My plan of staying close to the ridge worked out well on the ascent but would later prove to be less than stellar on my return. The pitch to the summit is steady with the final 900 feet being covered in just over half a mile of rocky talus.
Looking back at the terrain gives a better idea of the steepness of the last section.
View of the trail from nearly 14,000'
Thankfully, there was only one false summit to endure and after that final pitch, I stood on top of the queen of the Sawatch.
Final pitch to summit
My summit shot came courtesy of two lovely fellow hikers that soon embarked on their descent leaving the summit to me for as long as I would want it, and want I did!
In all, we encountered a total of five other hikers on the trail the entire day, a paltry number given that this is the only documented trail to Princeton’s summit and the weather conditions had been absolutely perfect. The desolation on the summit was deafening but I didn’t complain, having had quite the opposite experience on Quandary only three weeks ago.
As I refueled, I took in the magnificent scenery around.
I basked on the summit for nearly an hour hoping that my friend would soon join me. After multiple failed attempts to connect with him and not being able to spot him on the trail, I decided to head down hoping to catch him close to the summit but that wasn’t meant to be. I later learned that Steve had gone right past the rock wall onto the old trail leading to the slippery east slopes below Princeton’s summit. Roach describes these slopes as “unpleasant” and indeed that proved to be Steve’s undoing today, forcing him to “bottle it” after a fruitless struggle.
Indeed, I got a taste of those slopes on my descent as I strayed too far east from the ridge, mistaking one of those chutes as the trail.
Scree slopes to the east!
scrambling back up
Realizing my folly, I scrambled back up the slope only to make the same mistake again. In retrospect, the cleanest path is one that stays close to the ridge while avoiding its difficulties.
Once past the saddle, the remainder of my descent was uneventful and, as noted earlier, completely solitary. After I’d rejoined my friend at the parking area, we recapped the events of the day’s hike and figured out what had gone wrong – Steve’s cell phone battery had died leaving us incommunicado, not a good situation on any hike and a costly one on this day. No doubt disappointed on failing to summit, Steve acknowledged that it had still been a terrific day to enjoy the incredible beauty of the Sawatch that we’d come to expect, and the solitude that we hadn’t.
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):