| Quandary Peak, East Ridge
East Ridge Route: 2,950 elevation gained, 7.0 miles round trip
Quandary Peak is a curiously-shaped mountain that is located a few miles south of Breckenridge in Summit County. In spite of the fact that it is a relatively tall 14er (14,265 feet, ranked 13th highest in Colorado), it is considered an "easy" hike because it has a distinct and well-maintained trail all the way to the summit. The high altitude and 2,950 feet of elevation gain certainly give hikers a fair indication of their fitness level. Round trip on the standard route is just over seven miles.
Quandary Peak viewed from Hwy. 9 near Hoosier Pass
Quandary allegedly received its name from a group of miners who were in a "quandary" because they were unable to identify a mineral that they found on the mountain. It has also been known as McCullough's Peak, Ute Peak and Hoosier Peak.
Two-wheel-drive passenger cars can easily access the trailhead in all seasons. To get to the trailhead for the standard (East Ridge) route, head south out of Breckenridge on Hwy. 9. Start up Hoosier Pass, and turn west on Summit County Rd. 850. The trailhead is on SC Rd. 851 (McCullough Gulch Rd.), which is only a couple of hundred feet off of Hwy. 9. There is ample parking along the road. Arrive early to ensure a good parking place.
The Quandary Peak Trailhead on McCullough Gulch Rd.
I had already summited Quandary twice, but my hiking partner KeithK convinced me to give it another shot to support his third 14er summit attempt. It didn't take much persuasion, since I had enjoyed my previous experiences on the mountain.
We started at the Morrison park and ride at 4:30 a.m., and were on the trail by about 6:30. Cars were already lined up and down the road. The temperature was mild, and the weather report did not mention any thunderstorm activity. Less than a mile into our journey, we were both down to short pants and t-shirts. It didn't take long to figure out that this was going to be bluebird weather.
Trail conditions were excellent. The trail was well-marked and easy to follow. Down below tree line, the trail was dry packed dirt. As the trail emerged from the trees, it crossed a moraine; at this point, the trail was on scree and talus. The footing on the rocks is not particularly pleasant, and it would be easy to turn an ankle. While many people hike this trail in running shoes, better foot protection would be a good idea. KeithK and I both wore sturdy mid-height hiking boots, and did not regret it.
Quandary Peak looms in the distance
The lower stretches of the trail are in a montane ecosystem. The trail switchbacks steeply (VERY steeply!) through Engelmann Spruce, Subalpine Fir, and eventually through some Aspens. The trees gradually thin out as the altitude increases, and neighboring North Star Mountain comes into view. It's a long, imposing ridge that looks like it could present some interesting hiking challenges. As the trees become more sparse, the trail passes through some small meadows. Wildflowers were numerous in the meadows, and it was easy to identify Anemones, Pussytoes, Pearly Everlasting, Dusky Penstemon, Sunspots, and Chickweed. Columbines and Larkspur were present, but were not yet blooming. Some flagged Krummholz spruce trees marked the change between the montane and alpine ecosystems.
At this point, the trail is still below the East Ridge, and the ridge blocks views to the north. North Star Mountain blocks any distant views to the south, but Monte Cristo Creek and the Blue Lakes can be seen below. Quandary's summit looms over the trail to the north, and is visible for much of the hike. It looked impossibly far away as we emerged from the trees.
The trail switchbacks up the side of the rocky ridge
The trail makes several switchbacks to gain the ridge. The CFI placed rocks to form a staircase in some critical areas; this must certainly preserve the trail by preventing erosion. At about 13,000 feet, the trail levels off a bit and gives hikers a little break before starting the grueling 1,000+ foot final slog to the summit. We seized this opportunity to sit on some rocks and down some Clif Bars to fuel our summit push.
Quandary's Upper East Slope, and the intimidating final ascent
The steepness of the Upper East Slope tests your cardiovascular fitness. It is seemingly endless. For some people, their progress slows to a crawl. I was at the base of the slope when I had one of my stranger fourteener experiences; I had the pleasure of meeting a tiny Yorkshire Terrier. In spite of being about the size of an average hiking boot, he was a real trooper. He bounced from rock to rock, and had no trouble keeping up with his human companions. In fact, he kept bumping into them as if he was trying to get them to hurry up. It's still hard to get used to the idea that a dog that size can have the endurance for such a long, hard journey.
The mighty Yorkie admiring the view from the summit
Approaching Quandary's snowcapped summit
I eventually made my way to the snowcapped summit. The final 100 feet or so of the trail pass through a fairly shallow snowfield. There is a firmly-packed trench through the center of the snowfield, so the passage did not present any difficulties. The long, narrow summit has several wind shelters and plenty of room for hikers to relax and enjoy the view. There were easily two dozen hikers up there when I arrived, and more were arriving at a steady pace. The sky was a brilliant blue dotted with puffy white cumulus clouds, and there was scarcely a hint of any wind. I chose a comfortable rock in a wind shelter and proceeded to lounge and people watch for at least an hour. I tried to raise my hiking partner on the 2-way radio, and wound up contacting a group of three 14ers.com people (Nutrition_Guy, Cloudust and Crazydiamond80) who were climbing the North Couloir on Mount Democrat. Their epic journey was a success, by the way. I chatted with some people and took some group photos, and KeithK finally made an appearance on the summit. There was no rush to leave, so we took some time to identify as many peaks as we could. Keith has been studying GoogleEarth, and was able to identify many peaks in the Mosquito, Tenmile, Elks, Front, Sawatch, and Sangre de Cristo Ranges. Visibility was good, and the views were impressive.
The view to the north from Quandary's summit. Pacific Tarn is the highest officially-named lake in the United States
The view to the south from Quandary's summit
Looking to the east from Quandary's summit
Western view from Quandary
KeithK's summit shot
Greenhouseguy on Quandary's summit
We could have stayed for another hour, but we had to return to reality at some point. We began our descent by trudging through the snowy trench.
Heading back down
Looking down the East Ridge Trail
On the way down, I took plenty of time to enjoy some of the alpine flora. Alpine Forget-me-Nots, Alpine Avens, Old Man of the Mountains, and Alpine Springbeauties were in full bloom. I found a rare Alpine Springbeauty with pink flowers; they ordinarily have white flowers.
The pink-flowered form of the Alpine Springbeauty
A young mountain goat nonchalantly crossed our path. It munched a few mouthfuls of snow on the south side of the ridge, and went on its way.
A young mountain goat, seemingly without a care in the world
I failed to bring enough water, and was happy when we returned to the car in the early afternoon. The chilly beverages in my cooler brought a close to a beautiful day on Quandary.