| Alone and Still: Fletcher to Drift
Peaks: Fletcher & Drift
Time: 5 hours.
The silence was beautiful. Standing at some 13,000 feet above the sea, my eyes tracked across the plateau spread out around me. In all directions, the land gently sloped away from center, flat and green. A great alpine plain filled with boulders and grass, running outwards, unsuppressed in its hasty trek to the soaring faces above. In the winter, this plateau would be a hidden wonderland. In the Spring, a mushy mess. And in the fall, a cold plain upon which the winds will howl and bite. But in the summer, few spots could be more inviting. With calm winds, blue skies, a warm sun, and only the faintest hint of fellow climbers, busy on the 14er behind, I couldn't help but stop and smile. This non-discript boulder field beneath Fletcher might not be worth mention in any guide books (after all, it is 'just' the Ten Mile Range), but on a day like Saturday, I can think of few better places to stop and enjoy the mountains.
The more time I have come to spend on Colorado's 13ers, the more I realize that this is where true wilderness is to be found. A relative 13er novice by almost any standard, all I know is that the more I climb them, the more I like it. Leaving the crowds behind and escaping the old and tired standard 14er routes, these 13ers just seem to somehow hold the promise of a better mountain experience. More than anything, I think they offer something we all desire: freedom. Freedom from people, from lists, from the familiar, from the ever-present advance of progress...standing atop many of them this summer, I cannot shake the feeling that this is what experiencing the mountains ought to be. I recently finished a book about Colorado mountaineering history. Learning about the exploration, the courage, and the fortitude of those early mountaineers made me realize just how much we take our access and knowledge for granted. Climbing in the more remote upper reaches of the Rockies makes me feel somehow, closer, to legends like Ormes, Mills, Hayden, or Longs. Their pioneering spirit and courageous advance up the peaks can still be felt off the beaten path.
I am of course, by no means the first to feel this way upon 'graduating' from the 14ers, but nevertheless, it is still fun to make the discovery for yourself. So, faced with an empty Saturday and the heart's desire of an introvert, I found myself on the way to a fun, short, and sublime day on Fletcher to Drift.
The sun rising over Blue Lakes.
A dawn start had me ahead of all but one other party.
Rounding the corner as the West Ridge of Quandary comes into focus.
As with much of this range, a major trend for the day was coming across the remains of miners from long ago.
Ascending higher as the valley fully comes into view.
BELOW: Higher still, some 60 minutes after starting out, Mount Fletcher finally comes into view.
BELOW: Soon after, the task for the day becomes clear, looking over at the Fletcher-Drift Traverse.
BELOW: Fletcher-Quandary saddle, looking down into McCollough Gulch.
Summer time in the high country. Looking over to Quandary and back down the approach.
McCollough Gulch again.
Despite setting a relatively relaxed pace, I was able to make it to the top of Fletcher only an hour and a half after setting out, passing only one party along the way. The day was gorgeous and warm. From my perch I was able to spy the long line of peak-baggers, dutifully marching onwards to the summit of Quandary. The West Ridge of the peak looked enticing as well as I recounted that solo climb from many years ago. But this lasted for only a moment. My concerns were elsewhere.
My thoughts turned to the jagged ridge west of Fletcher. Cautious of the forecast and jittery with nerves over the Class 3 solo climbing to come, I thought it best to just get on with it. I knew I could more fully enjoy the solitude once my mind was more at ease. The first task was just to get to Drift. With that, I swung on my pack and make a hasty retreat down the talus slope to the saddle.
The fun to come.
The descent to the saddle is quick and easy. Mild talus hopping down a mellow slope.
BELOW: From the saddle.
Reaching the low point of the two peaks, I took a moment to strap on the helmet and review the route description one last time. On a normal day, I probably would not have given quite as much caution and study to the route. But being solo changes things. I was truly on remote terrain at this point, and had no interest in making a dumb mistake or getting myself into unwarranted trouble. As usual, Bill has an excellent route description on the site, so throughout the climb I made a strict point of simply not proceeding until I was 100% sure I was on route.
As is outlined, this route is actually pretty straightforward. It consists of moderate to easy scrambling up to the point of the large notch bisecting the ridge approximately half way. Options are to either climb the notch (a class 5, roped endeavour) or to simply cross a gully below the notch and ascend the steep class 3 terrain beyond back to the ridge crest.
Closer to the challenges to come.
Admittedly not a great beta shot, but nearing the notch and ready for the gully downclimb.
The miners remains continue - found the old bolt marking the best descent point.
Crossing the gully and looking up into the bypassed notch.
Beyond the notch lies the crux of the route - a steep and loose class 3 wall to regain the crest. For a number of reasons, I thought this climbing felt harder than it actually probably was. I think the combination of exposure and loose rock accounts for this. While no single move is all that difficult, I definitely started to feel the exposure the higher I went. The pitch is pretty sustained with very few ledges large enough to provide a comfortable rest/relief point. Coupled with this is what I felt was pretty rotten rock. I sent more than a few rocks careening down below and I am usually very good about not doing that sort of thing. Between the recent rains, the lack of regular trundling, and just the general crappiness of the rock, it was not ideal. Of course, add in the fact that I was soloing it, and I took it slow, relaxed, and cautious. Beyond the head wall lay another 100 feet or so of more loose boulders which were equally unnerving.
Nevertheless, despite all of that, it was still a fun trip. I think were I to repeat it again it would feel far more straightforward.
The steep headwall used to regain the ridge.
Somebody hauled this up here!
Reaching the summit of Drift some hour after leaving Fletcher, I was finally able to relax and enjoy the top. The weather was holding, the route was explored, and the views were million-dollar.
Back towards Blue Lakes and the TH.
Gores to the North.
Clinton Gulch & Mayflower Creek.
Wheeler, North Star & Democrat Group. I wonder if anyone has done North Star-Wheeler-Drift-Fletcher-Quandary. Sounds interesting....
Looking back to Fletcher.
The road home was good. As fluffy white clouds rolled in, they merged perfectly with the clear blue sky and the healthy green grass. Taking the shorter part of an hour to get back to the saddle (again, taking my time), I strolled along for the relaxed descent, enjoying every step of the way.
BELOW: Sights and images from the journey home.
Thankfully, no goats on my truck back at the lot. Driving out I chuckled as I passed dozens and dozens of cars lined up for Quandary's East Ridge. We all tackle our own summits, and who I am to judge anyone else? But I just couldn't resist an extra twinge of satisfaction at being so close to the ordinary and the common, yet finding something completely unique and fun all to myself. As is usually the case, the road less traveled makes all the difference.
Thanks for reading if you did. Happy climbing!
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