The plan was to return to some of the places I failed and revisit some of the most fun I had on Colorado 14ers. I wanted to make a sweep of Colorado’s 4 Great Fourteener Traverses before my attempt to finish all of the 14ers on Snowmass Mountain.
Great 14er Traverse #1: Little Bear Peak to Blanca Peak
Rewind to September 2011. “Digging in the dirt. Open up the places I got hurt.”
The last time I attempted this route I climbed the northwest face of Little Bear and made the traverse to Blanca without completing the last 300 yards to get the summit of Little Bear. My climbing partner and I made this decision due to the early season snow and ice that was still holding to northern aspects, especially on the remaining crux of the route.
Little Bear and the Capt'n -- September 2011
There was nothing on my list of climbs this summer that I wanted more than 100% completing this traverse and getting the summit of Little Bear. I’ve been planning my return to this route like it was some type of rite of passage. I wanted it to be a time to turn toward my own failures and look for a transition from one phase of life to the next. Let the healing begin?
I had an aggressive plan for the day so I stuck with the standard route this time, which was easy to follow up to the base of the hourglass.
I ventured off in my own direction at the top of the anchor rock in the hourglass and started climbing towards “South Little Bear.” The climbing in this direction reminded me of the northwest face on Little Bear. I was also given a spectacular view of the great traverse after gaining the summit ridge. “South Little Bear” was no quick detour and the “Mama Bear” traverse was a nice warm up for things to come.
"South Little Bear" -- June 2012
“Simply put, this is Colorado’s most astonishing connecting ridge” -- Roach.
Most attempts at this great traverse are done in the direction of Little Bear to Blanca. This traverse direction avoids having to climb down Little Bear at the end of the day. It should also get you started on traversing the ridge at an earlier point in the day.
Little Bear to Blanca -- June 2012
Little Bear to Blanca = one huge dose of exposure. If we are going to compare the great traverses, one key element would be exposure. This traverse wins that category hands down with no competition. The exposure is intense, relentless and it's sustained for a good portion of the 1 mile long ridge. Much of the movement on the first 1/3 of the ridge is cautiously slow and awkward due to the exposure and how narrow and jagged the ridge is.
"In the perfect moment, I was so concentrated, there was no space for other thoughts… When you are in a situation where if you fall you die, everything changes... You act like a different person. You act with all yourself. You are making a completely different experience, and in some way you are discovering yourself. This is the magic of the mountain. You can accept to die for this. You don't want to die. But to live so close to the possibility of dying, you understand what is really important and what is not. And this makes you a better person.” -- de Benedetti
The north face of Little Bear -- June 2012
The view from the top of "Captain Bivouacko Tower.” The actual climbing along the ridge is really not that difficult and the rock is solid when the terrain is exposed. Most of the time the route finding is easy: Stay on the ridge because there is nowhere else to go. However, there is some route finding to do as there are many notches, bumps and towers along the ridge. There is a lot of class 3 and 4 climbing and maybe a few low class 5 moves required. However, the exposure compounds the situation and makes you aware of every single hand and foot hold regardless of the class rating.
The ease of the route finding on this traverse just depends on how you solve a few of the key difficulties along the ridge. Weather and conditions are critical on this traverse and it is a big commitment once you drop in on the ridge since there is almost no escape. Add a complexity like gusty wind, low visibility, ice, heavy rain or a t-storm and this ridge could quickly become a survival course.
The Top of Capt'n B. -- Let the route finding begin!
The traverse and the summit of Blanca would be completely quiet and peaceful. Total solitude. My personal struggles in life could not be fought here. No Tiger Woods fist pumping, barbaric yawps or uncontrolled blubbering. It would not be a rite of passage. It was simply a beautiful, rewarding and challenging day with a great sense of peace in the mountains. A quiet time to be grateful and focus on what is really important.
A time to relax before the final push to Blanca -- June 2012
It was a grueling and long return to my car and with a new realization that life at home would be no different as a result of this traverse. In fact, I would go home severely exhausted and physically depleted with banged up feet from the Lake Como Road.
I have always pursued the mountains for the beauty, fun and challenge of it. I know it can translate in many positive ways into my personal life but the theory I conjured up for this traverse was simply false. The balance between mountain adventures and life is not always obvious and you cannot bring your own lesson plan or expect to force a specific outcome. The beauty and solitude of the summit of Blanca will always be a special place for me. This is also the hardest, longest, riskiest and "greatest" of the 4 Colorado Great 14er Traverses.
The "sidewalk in the sky" -- June 2012
Great 14er Traverse #2: Crestone Peak to Crestone Needle
If we’re going to compare the Great Traverses, the Peak to Needle is one big dose of route finding, sweet Sangre de Cristo views and a ton of fun conglomerate rock scrambling with a short spine-tingling class 4 climb to the summit of the Needle. Lose your way and the face of the Needle could become a nightmare.
The Crestones -- June 2012
“Run away fast as you can.”
The Crestones -- June 2012
It was definitely a fun highlight to revisit a favorite route. A superb redo and nothing like a dark sequel.
The next 2 photos are from "Northeast Crestone" and "East Crestone" which are not part of the great traverse.
Crestone Peak from "Northeast Crestone" -- June 2012
“Do You Realize - that happiness makes you cry? Do You Realize - that everyone you know someday will die? And instead of saying all of your goodbyes - let them know you realize that life goes fast. It's hard to make the good things last. You realize the sun doesn't go down… It's just an illusion caused by the world spinning round.”
I've learned so much in this area of the Colorado mountains. Having had the opportunity to meet and chat with Duane and Linda Buhrmester back in 2010 is an experience that I will never forget. Life is fragile.
"East Crestone" from "Northeast Crestone" -- June 2012
People do change…. I went all John Madden on this route back in 2010. Putting lines and arrows on a route like this can be considered controversial and I understand that now. In 2010, my analytical side went nuts in a TR with the complexity and challenge of the route finding on this traverse. The route finding is a major part of the adventure that makes this a great traverse. Study up and come prepared but save some time to explore.
"Northeast Crestone" from Crestone Peak -- June 2012
The climbing and views are simply some of the best in Colorado. The rock is perfect fun to scramble and climb on. This may be my personal favorite of the great traverses in terms of the fun meter but the final descent down the east side of Broken Hand Pass quickly reminds you that every rose has its thorn.
I've done this traverse both times from the South Colony Lakes Trailhead. I think the Cottonwood Creek Trailhead may be a worthwhile alternative to avoid the east side of Broken Hand Pass and the South Colony Road.
The north face of Crestone Needle -- June 2012
This great traverse has the best summit finish. The final 500 feet of scrambling and climbing on the north side of the Needle is a big thrill. The final class 4 crux is “airy and beautiful” but the Crestone conglomerate rock eases the climbing with a huge supply of possible hand and foot holds. There is no bypass and the only non-technical escape would be to retrace your route back towards Crestone Peak. This is a fantastic non-technical way to top out on a Colorado 14er summit. Simply, one of the best.
The class 4 crux on the Needle -- June 2012
Great 14er Traverse #3: El Diente Peak to Mt. Wilson
This great traverse is known as the easiest of the 4 great traverses but I think that designation could also go to the Crestone traverse, especially if route finding was taken out of the equation. In my opinion, the class 4 climbing on the Wilson traverse is more difficult than the final class 4 pitch on the traverse to the Needle. There is also a heavy dose of exposure once you get to the top of the class 4 crux on the Wilson traverse as you have to cross a narrow coxcomb near the summit of Mt. Wilson. The finish on the Wilson traverse is also exciting as you join the standard route for the final scramble on the narrow and blocky class 4 summit ridge.
One interesting part in planning for this great traverse is that it offers various logistical options. There are multiple ways to approach this area and there are various routes to climb El Diente or Mt. Wilson. I completed this traverse both times from the Kilpacker Basin approach with an ascent of the south slopes of El Diente. Much like choosing the direction of the great traverse (climb vs. rappel), pick the approach and ascent route that gives you the best advantage.
El Diente to Mt. Wilson -- June 2012
Overall, the route finding on this traverse is by far the easiest of the four great traverses, which allows you the opportunity to make great time even though the distance of this traverse is longer than either the Bells or Crestones. However, there is a series of towers blocking the ridge in the middle part of the traverse. This part of the traverse will offer some challenge in terms of route finding. You can drop extremely low, which will bypass most of the scrambling and put you on a talus hike to regain the ridge; or you can stay high near the ridge, which will quickly become more exposed and challenging. There are some well marked class 3 scrambling options midway between these 2 options.
The class 4 crux on the Wilson traverse will also offer some route finding options as there are many ways to climb the crux wall. Choose your own adventure.
My focus for the day would be on “South Wilson.” I could not stop viewing the challenge that I knew was teed up for the second half of my day. The remaining photos in this section are going to be dedicated to the traverse from Mt. Wilson to “South Wilson.” This is not part of the great traverse.
"South Wilson" from the Great Traverse -- June 2012
Looking back on another failure… This is a photo of the catwalk on the west ridge of "South Wilson" and the point where my partner and I decided to bail on our attempt to get this unranked summit back in September 2011. My missed summits and bad days in the mountains have taught me more than my accomplishments. Also, a good friendship came out of this day in the fog and thunder snow. Something I needed more than a summit.
The catwalk on the west ridge of "South Wilson" -- September 2011
The saddle between Mt. Wilson and “South Wilson.” Adding the traverse from Mt. Wilson to “South Wilson” is one of the hardest things I’ve done in this entire 14er journey. The crux of the route is the down climb off Mt. Wilson. If I ever attempted this route again, I would take a rope and a partner. It took me 1.5 hours to make it to this saddle from the summit of Mt. Wilson. It was impossible to spot the best route down as I repeatedly circled, cliffed out and climbed up, down and around the towers on the south ridge of Mt. Wilson. How I got to the Saddle was a major challenge and it took a lot of cautious exploring. Be careful if you explore the gullies here because they are loaded with loose rock that is ready to slide.
The view towards "South Wilson" from the saddle with Mt. Wilson -- June 2012
There are several notches that have to be crossed as you near “South Wilson.” The climb out of the notches were usually fun with an easy scramble. However, all of the down climbs into the notches were abrupt, steep and difficult.
This was the deepest notch in the traverse to “South Wilson.” It included a small knife ridge before a short class low 5 climb to regain the ridge. The remaining climb over to “South Wilson” would be an easy hike after this last crux.
Another Notch before "South Wilson" -- June 2012
Looking back at Mt. Wilson. Did I mention this traverse serves up some stunning views of the San Juan Range?
Looking back at Mt. Wilson and its south ridge -- June 2012
Returning to a previous area of surrender but looking at it from the other side. The infamous catwalk stacked high with “dinner plate” rocks (Mr. Wilson needs to do some dishes). I did not like the look of the alternative descent down a steep gully since the snow was melted out. However, there was a large snow field remaining just below the saddle of “South Wilson” and PT 13,428, but this option would require crossing the catwalk. It was not that difficult to cross in better conditions but the catwalk is highly exposed and the rock is rotten, so be careful if you climb this short segment of the ridge. In the end, my feet were happy to find snow that would provide a soft descent for most of the way down the upper portion of Kilpacker Basin.
The catwalk and PT 13,428 from the west ridge of "South Wilson" -- June 2012
Great 14er Traverse #4: Maroon Peak to North Maroon Peak
A cool profile of the great traverse between Maroon and North Maroon as seen from Lead King Basin on the approach to Geneva Lake. I completed the Bells traverse via the standard south ridge ascent of Maroon Peak but I thought this photo taken a day later was a great picture of the traverse.
The Maroon Bells from Lead King Basin -- July 1, 2012 (Photo by Mike W.)
A stadium view of Snowmass Mountain.
The remaining pictures from the Bells traverse will get blurry. My nice camera accidently took a nasty tumble down North Maroon. I spent at least 30 minutes looking for the memory card that popped out somewhere during the fall but no such luck would be found. My phone camera would have to suffice.
Snowmass Mountain and Capitol Peak from the Bells Traverse -- June 2012
This is the most aesthetic of the 4 great traverses. It has it all in terms of views, exposure, route finding and class 5 climbing opportunities and it is all packaged in a very short distance. There is some loose rock to deal with but that is mainly on the descent from Maroon Peak to the top of the Bell Cord. There is also some loose rock on the final class 3 push to the summit ridge on North Maroon. The narrow portions of this ridge and the class 4/5 cruxes are all solid rock.
North Maroon from Maroon Peak -- June 2012
There are ways to bypass the tough climbing sections on this traverse but it turns the route mainly into a loose rock and a gully scramble on North Maroon’s hidden west face. The ridge proper traverse is like no other non-technical route on a 14er. It is very close to being my favorite of the great traverses but the Little Bear to Blanca traverse trumps it in different ways.
This is the shortest of the great traverses but it can take just as long as the Crestone or Wilson traverses, if not longer. I've encountered several groups making the traverse both times I've done it. Waiting for a group to rappel down a crux can cost you a lot of time. Despite its difficulty, this is a very popular great traverse, so remember to keep an eye out for other groups to keep safe from rockfall danger.
Crux #2 & #3 on the Bells Traverse -- June 2012
This traverse offers some of the most fun and challenging climbing pitches of the 4 great traverses. The pictures of this route are not an exaggeration. Although short, the second and third crux are full-on raging with exposure and serve up a few solid white knuckle moves if you free climb it.
There is still some significant exposure once you get to the top of the third crux. Make your way across another narrow ridge where you might encounter a "leap of faith" and another strenuous move or two before getting to the final class 3 summit pitch.
North Maroon from the top of Crux #3 -- June 2012
A look back on the traverse. The views of the Elk Range are breathtaking at every moment. Bring a camera and don’t drop it. The descent from North Maroon is a challenge so don’t forget to prepare for it because it’s no gimme.
Maroon Peak from North Maroon -- June 2012
A cell phone camera and the classic view of the Bells from Maroon Lake. Good thing this view isn't along I-70 or we would have more routine traffic backups to complain about.
Classic Colorado as viewed from a cell phone
My 14er Finisher: Snowmass Mountain
The route for my 14er finisher would be the "S"-ridge on Snowmass Mountain with a traverse over to "North Snowmass." The hike up to both Geneva and Gem lakes was absolutely stunning with the lush landscape, wild flowers and waterfalls. This is a great area for camping and backpacking and there was not a lot of foot traffic.
The scrambling on the S-ridge was fun and this is a classic Colorado scramble route in my opinion. Scout your route carefully and you can avoid most of the loose rock below the ridge. The peak to the right of Snowmass and the S-ridge in this photo is Hagerman Peak (elevation 13,841). Add another 159 feet in elevation to Hagerman and there just might be another Great Traverse from Snowmass to Hagerman?
Snowass and the S-ridge from Geneva Lake -- July 1, 2012 (Photo by David J.)
My climbing partners for the day and the view of Snowmass Mountain from “North Snowmass.”
Climbing Partners and the view from "North Snowmass" -- July 1, 2012 (Photo by David J.)
The highlight of the day was making new friends, scoring perfect weather and discovering another fun and good looking Colorado scramble.
“The only people with whom you should try to get even are those who have helped you.” -- John E. Southard
A big thanks goes out to Gerry Roach and Bill Middlebrook for providing so much detail and written guidance in planning all of these climbs. Also, this site has been a great way to make new friends and meet new climbing partners.