I've been enjoying some of Colorado's classic scambles and ridge traverses this summer, including Wham Ridge, the Glacier Gorge Traverse, and Keiners (of course!), among others. I decided to take it up a notch in terms of the element of "unknown", so the Mohling Traverse was a perfect choice (Roach calls it "Difficulty UNKNOWN").
Here's my report.
(Sorry about the photo quality. I used my iPhone - big mistake.)
“Penetrating the Unknown”: The Mohling Traverse
“There can be great solace in penetrating the unknown.” – Gerry Roach
The Mohling Traverse is a remote and committing route deep in Colorado’s Indian Peaks Wilderness. In his guidebook to the Indian Peaks, author Gerry Roach rates it emphatically: “Difficulty UNKNOWN”. Originally, Franz Mohling traversed from Lone Eagle Peak to an unnamed summit now generally known as Iroquios. Numerous variations have been done over the years, but for anyone wishing to attempt this in a day (i.e., those of us who are too wimpy to camp), the most logical route continues over Iroquois to Mt. George and eventually Apache Peak, thereby traversing the entire ridge.
I couldn’t find much beta on the web – fewer people have done this traverse than have stood on the summit of Mount Everest. I did find a brief write-up on the Mountain Project site, and a detailed report from Bill Wright and Mark Oveson’s 1998 trip, which was especially helpful. From these sources I could tell that this route would require a whole lot of class 3 and 4 climbing, some class 5, and a bunch of places where falling would be a very, very bad idea.
What’s not to like?
Unlike Mount Everest, this route is very accessible from my home in Boulder, Colorado. Less than a 1 hour drive, and a $9 day use fee, and I’m on the trail at 5:30AM sharp – the first moment it’s possible to run without a flashlight. The first 4.5 miles ascends 2000’ to Pawnee Pass, at 12,550’. As the sun rises I am treated to beautiful alpenglow, and a sea of clouds covering the plains far below. On the way up the pass I overtake a solo hiker – the only person I will see until I descend off Apache hours later.
The west side of Pawnee Pass is guarded by ominous gendarmes, and dropping down the switchbacks has a committing feel. The trail loses 2400’ in a few miles, and the west side of the Indian Peaks Wilderness is quite remote. Soon, I start to get views of Lone Eagle and the spectacular, rugged cirque that is dominated by this tantalizing spire. Turning off on a spur trail into the cirque, I am soon collecting water at Crater Lake – I’ll be on a ridge line for quite a while, which means no water.
Crater Lake sits right at the base of Lone Eagle’s awesome north face. Wright and Oveson climbed this super-classic, which goes as 11 pitches up to 5.7. I’m going fast and light, and not up to soloing 5.7, so I’ll take the Solo Flight route, which is rated as 4th class and is the easiest way to the top of Lone Eagle, approaching the summit from the southeast. It’s a fun route, well marked with cairns, with enjoyable climbing, some exposure but solid rock. And, the summit is incredible – a tiny platform at the edge of the void that drops into Crater Lake, 1600’ below.
After a snack I’m on route for “Limbo”, really just a pinnacle on the airy ridge between Lone Eagle and Iroquois. This is where route finding becomes make-or-break: there are no cairns, and little evidence of previous climbers. I take cues from Wright and Oveson, but mainly use my own judgment to find the best way through. I find a good route up the impressive summit block, straight up an obvious cut in the north face. The climbing is steep – nearly everything is a no-fall zone – but the rock is solid, so it’s exhilarating but not terrifying.
From the top of Limbo I study the options for Iroquois. All are intimidating, to say the least. Everything I can see is extremely steep and committing. Steeling myself with the knowledge that there is supposed to be a 5.2 route through those cold cliffs, I begin the downclimb to the col between Limbo and Iroquois.
Abruptly, I reach the spot where Wright and Ovenson rappelled 50’ down a vertical wall on the ridge. There are a few tattered slings in place, remnants of previous parties. None of them look particularly recent. After a bit of searching, I’m able to downclimb some ledges on the east side of the ridge, thus bypassing the vertical wall and reaching the col.
Getting into the nitty-gritty of the ascent of Iroquois, weaknesses in the steep face begin to reveal themselves. I wrap around the west side of the north face, towards a prominent gully described by Wright and Oveson. They reported good, low 5th class climbing left of the gully, but I guess I must not be far enough left because the climbing is very insecure due to loose rock. For several moves I feel like the entire cliff could peel off at any moment, sending me and tons of debris skittering down into the abyss. I move with extreme care and total focus, trying to put as little weight as possible on the crumbly holds.
Fortunately, things stay in place and soon I am standing on Iroquois’ lofty summit, looking back at the jagged ridge I have just traversed. It’s an amazing spot, and probably one of the least visited high summits in Colorado – there is simply no easy way to get here.
Given that, I still have plenty of work to do. There’s a bunch of rock hopping, scrambling and a good 4th class downclimb getting over to Mt. George, where I am treated to a fine view of whole ridge. From here, it’s smooth sailing to Apache, with cool gendarmes and a nifty traverse over the top of Fair Glacier.
Apache is the highest summit and the only 13er of the day. It sits on the Continental Divide, and, at 13,441’, is the second highest summit in the Indian Peaks Wilderness. Apache forms the end of the remarkable ridge that is the Mohling Traverse.
After 7 hours of steady effort, I still have nearly 3000’ of descending in maybe 5 miles to get back to my car. Like Wright and Oveson, I botch the easy class 3 descent off Apache and end up mired in still more tricky and exposed downclimbing. Enough already!
I finally hit the smooth trail next to Lake Isabelle, and am ready to rock it on in. Or not. My legs feel pretty dead, and, well, heck, it’s really nice out here. What’s the hurry? I jog slowly down the easy trail, passing hordes of day-hiking tourists out for a stroll: teens in flip-flops, dads carrying toddlers on their backs, groups of gabby ladies spanning the whole trail. Everyone is enjoying the afternoon, the crisp mountain air, the sounds of birds and running water. To them, mountains mean scenery, something to view from afar. But, I am drawn in. I want to be intimate with the terrain and the high peaks, to feel the rock with my hands, drink the water, smell the earth, gaze down on the soaring birds. Today the Mohling Traverse provided all of that, and more!
Long Lake TH (10,500’) 05:30AM
Pawnee Pass (12,550’) 06:54AM
Crater Lake (10,300’) 08:07AM
Lone Eagle Peak (11,900’) 09:32AM
Limbo (12,400’) 10:17AM
Iroquois (12,800’) 11:05AM
Mt. George (12,850’) 11:45AM
Apache Peak (13,440’) 12:17PM
Long Lake TH (10,500’) 02:04PM
TOTAL TIME: 08h34m
17.5 miles, 6000+’ elevation gain
My GPS Tracks on Google Maps (made from a .GPX file upload):
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
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