This is not a success story. No peaks were climbed, no summits “bagged”, no celebration of achieving a lofty target. In fact, I’m still not convinced that our outing even deserves a trip report, but it may serve as beta for what I believe is a new route that may interest other climbers - regardless, here it is for what it’s worth. This is how close I got to 13,951’ high Fletcher Mountain before I turned around – less than 600 feet of elevation and 0.5 miles to go.
This far and no further!
This wasn’t my first visit to the Blue lakes trailhead; this was the scene of crime some eleven odd years ago when, on a whim, I decided to tackle Quandary’s formidable west ridge from this very spot. Then too, I made it up to the ridge at 13,200’ before assessing the dark clouds hovering overhead and the none-too-inviting rock towers on the ridge and calling it a day. So, I’m now batting zero for two on this route!
Quandary's notorious west ridge
The trailhead starts at the dam at the end of Blue lakes road, where we were greeted by the guardian.
There was a full herd closer to the dam (Steve counted a total of eleven) and I suspect, judging by this guy’s eagerness, that they were probably routinely fed by visitors and had grown accustomed not just to their presence but also the accompanying treats.
We started out on the trail by the right side of the dam and promptly went off course as there are a few misleading off-shoots.
Trail by the shore
Detour from main trail
The actual trail is farther down and requires some amount of bushwhacking as we discovered on our return.
Climbing the steep hillside
We climbed the steep slope and then dropped and side-hilled a bit to avoid an ice field before rejoining the trail that leads to the basin.
Actual trail toward the basin
Shortly thereafter, we got our first glimpse of the peak that we intended to climb, Fletcher Mountain.
Fletcher comes into view
The skies were clear and relatively smoke free, and we enjoyed the views around us.
The valley behind
The wind had picked up a little but the weather to this point was just right and we patted ourselves on our backs for picking a good day. But our joy would be short-lived, as we momentarily caught full sight of the basin ahead and the slope we would need to climb to gain the ridge leading to the summit.
Snow adorns the basin!
We had discussed snow conditions and figured that we would encounter some patches here and there but nothing significant; accordingly, we had not packed any gear to navigate through snow and ice; my micro-spikes were collecting dust in my closet.
We mentally mapped the route that we would need to take and it was painfully obvious that we would run into two major snow fields while climbing out of the basin.
Route through the basin
It would be remiss on my part if I didn’t give Steve credit here for suggesting that we should take an alternate route, possibly climb the ridge to the west (left of the basin) to avoid the basin entirely. I considered the idea briefly but dismissed it; I wasn’t sure where the ridge would lead, and from my previous excursion in the area I knew we’d encounter loose scree on the hillsides. So we persevered on the main trail, our trepidation growing as we approached the basin.
Steve navigating the creek
Approaching the snow-filled basin
The snow turned out to be mostly an ice field and we simply weren’t equipped for it. Micro-spikes would’ve helped but there were patches that gave way under us and we would’ve likely needed ice axes to keep from sliding down. After a couple of failed attempts, we knew we were done. The next picture shows Steve slipping and about to embark on a slide; you may note that the picture is rather cloudy - no, there was no avalanche, but after I slipped and slid off the ice field my camera lens took a bath that fogged up the next few pictures I took.
We took one last look at the slope that wasn't to be and turned around to retrace our paths.
The slope that shot us down!
Less than an hour and a half into the hike and our day was done? We’d driven over two hours for this? I don’t believe there is any shame in turning your back on a mountain when conditions aren't right – heck, I’ve done it at least once every season in sixteen years of hiking the high ones. But somehow, this retreat really rankled – after all, it was my season opener and one of Steve’s last hikes before he would leave Colorado for good.
As we silently trudged back, we decided that we should at least make a day of it. And then we thought about the abandoned plan of climbing the ridge to the west and voila!
The route that we should've taken
This ridge rises 500 feet above the basin floor (12,300 to 12,800 at the point that we selected to ascend) and requires a class 2 scramble with a couple of short class 3 sections. We discussed this and agreed that we weren’t going to summit Fletcher today – the goal was simply to just surmount the ridge and enjoy a quick scramble so we could at least get half a workout!
We started up the ridge, using handholds generously, and basically tackled the pitch in two segments.
Looking down the first pitch
Steve can be spotted in the center of this shot making his way to the perch at the top of the first segment.
The final pitch to the top was steeper and Steve decided that he’d had his fill of scrambling for the day.
Surveying the final pitch
I proceeded to satiate the mountain goat in me and figured I’d just take in the views after gaining the ridge and then head back. I scrambled a bit higher and made a mental note of the pitch I’d just climbed to make sure I could make my descent from the same spot.
I was still on the final pitch when I looked up - and there she was. So near yet so far!
I still couldn’t tell how this ridge connected to Fletcher’s southeast ridge but I had to find out!
Atop the ridge
The ridge top was a gentle grassy slope and perfect for a jog as long as I could navigate the rocks.
Calling all ridge runners!
But the view to the west was not to be missed!
Views to the west
The ridge meandered like a massive serpent, and I sidestepped rocks while staying fairly close to the edge.
Mind the rocks!
Soon I was left with one small grassy mound from which I’d be able to take stock of Fletcher’s southeast ridge.
One more grassy knoll
And there she was, rising steeply above the broad grassy base - majestic and aloof, the highest thirteener in the Tenmile range and not a single visitor today.
This far and no further!
I had a decision to make and none too soon – I could attempt the final pitch up Fletcher’s southeast ridge but I needed to connect with my friend first so he wouldn’t call in the helicopters ; after all, our plan at last review was to just do some scrambling before we called it quits. Peak bagging was no longer on the cards. As luck would have it, I had no signal whatsoever on my phone so that was that! As I surveyed Fletcher, I also realized that the snow fields on the southeast ridge would be no more hospitable than the ones we’d encountered in the basin.
So I turned around, knowing I would not only be back later in the season but I would also know exactly what route to take! And maybe the third time will be the charm!
On the drive back, we spotted the all-too-familiar "Highest Saloon in the USA" in the quaint little town of Alma, and lo and behold - just a couple of doors from it was "Alma's Only Bar", which seemed to be higher (maybe it was just us?) than the former. So the highest saloon in the USA is really not the highest, and the only bar in Alma really isn't the only bar! One of those things that make you go...hmm...
My GPS Tracks on Google Maps (made from a .GPX file upload):
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
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