| Sold souls for views, paid with talus hell
What: Paiute Peak, 13,088', and Mt. Audubon, 13,223'
Where: Indian Peaks Wilderness
Trailhead: Mitchell Lake Trailhead
Route: up Paiute Peak via SE ridge, across connecting ridge to Mt. Audubon, down Audubon via Class 3 SE ridge
Total Distance: more than 7 miles
Total Elevation Gain: at least 3,300 feet
Unexpected Challenges: many, many miles of walking on loose talus … and the notch on Audubon's ridge
On paper (i.e., Internet), it looked like a fun and easy stroll through the hills. But I should know better. The Indian Peaks Wilderness is an amazing place, but it doesn't unveil its beauty so fast or so easy. You must work for it.
Driving to the trailhead at Brainard Lake was amazing. The aspens are in full bloom! Get out and see them NOW while they last, which won't be long.
As we pulled into the Brainard Lake area, the wind was calm, the skies were blue and the temperature was perfect. What an amazing day.
At the late hour of 8:30 a.m. (hey, it's almost October) we set off from the Mitchell Lake Trailhead intending to climb Audubon first, then Paiute. Having not read much on the route – mainly because there isn't much to read – it wasn't long before we blew past our intended turn-off (CORRECT ROUTE: after crossing a creek on two double-log "bridges" that are oriented in a V shape, you should hang a right and travel north on the western edge of Mitchell Lake). Shortly thereafter, I realized our miss, but we were already up so high, we decided to change the direction of our loop and just go for Paiute first.
The basin was beautiful and we had it all to ourselves. The craggy Little Pawnee Peak was to our left, and Blue Lake was strikingly scenic, especially with the waterfall at its edge.
BEWARE: Some of the grassy areas had deep holes (up to 3 feet deep in some areas), and they were obscured by large tufts of grass.
Our first obstacle was a large boilerplate slab blocking our progress. It looked like a route skirted to the left of it, but we ended up taking a pitch up to the right, which worked out well for us. The slabby rock was grippy and many ledges could be found. On many sections, I didn't even need to use my hands.
Looking up, we saw our challenge, a class 3 ridge that went directly up to Paiute Peak. This is when we noticed a couple climbers ahead of us.
The ridge (which doesn't really show up on most maps, except maybe a quad) turned out to be rather enjoyable, though it still had some "boring" sections of grass and/or scree and plenty of loose rocks to contend with. Still, you could ramp up the challenge to your liking, as there were many options.
Man, as we climbed higher, the views just got better. The IPW is an incredible place.
At 11:11 we gained the summit of Paiute Peak, 13,088', and met the couple that was ahead of us. Jen and I decided to visit all three points (the middle one had a register but we didn't sign it). Some air was found on the way over to the far summit. Awesome views were had in every direction, of course.
Here's a view from the far summit, looking toward Mt. Audubon, with the connecting ridge between:
About 45 minutes after leaving Paiute, we gained Audubon's summit. Even though I've been up there a half-dozen times, this was the first time via a different route.
Here's a shot taken from Audubon's summit, looking back toward Paiute (the lowest part of the saddle, which is just over 12,600', can't be seen):
With questionable clouds looming above, we didn't stay long. Dropping down off Audubon's southeast side, I wondered what the route would have in store for us.
At first, it was a talus slog from hell. And then it was more talus. Most of it was loose, so it wasn't much fun.
Eventually, our never-ending descent toward the "hump" ended abruptly when we cliffed out. Seeing the ridge below and to our left, we headed that way. It wasn't clear where to begin our descent down the headwall, though. All the ledges we peered over just looked like cliffs.
Down climbing the notch was not easy. And without strong beta we were on our own. Some of our choices turned into sketchy gullies or cliffs. But after some minor backtracking here and there, we made our way down that headwall from hell.
As we climbed up the other side of the notch, Jen was drawn to the left, but the exposure was pretty severe and we weren't even sure if it was the "correct" way to go. After scouting out a way on the right, which required some cliffy skirting, I found a friendlier route.
In this next shot, Jen is descending the headwall. The red arrows show our route, though you can't see our nasty descent and subsequent ledge traverse to get to the base of the notch.
WARNING: Some people say the rock is solid in this section, but I completely disagree. While there are many large boulders that are solid, there are also some that tip, and there are many smaller rocks that are just waiting for a little push to set them free. Test the rocks before you commit your weight to them. I leaned against a huge, one-ton boulder that shifted on me while descending into the notch. Not cool.
Jen climbing up the other side of the notch:
And Jen skirting a ledge on the "friendlier route" that I found:
Unfortunately, I don't have a picture looking back at the headwall. I was a bit too focused on the climbing and routefinding at the time. Just know that it looked gnarly.
Once we gained the ridge proper, after some more skirting work, it was pretty easy. That said, there were plenty of tippers, rockers, surfers, rollers and ankle twisters to watch out for, and it made for an exhausting descent.
As we neared the lower portion of the ridge, I recommended that we start our descent toward Mitchell Lake. It was a bit too early, though, and it got us onto some steep, nasty talus. (In hindsight, I highly recommend going as low as you can before making your descent off the ridge.) Let's just say the descent wasn't fun anymore. Every other rock we stepped on shifted/slid/rocked/rolled. At one point, Jen took a slow-motion roll, with rocks sliding underneath her, and scraped up her lower back and forearm. Gave me a good scare. Luckily no major injuries.
Here's a shot of our descent (red arrow), with Mitchell Lake in the foreground:
Once we regained the Mitchell Lake trail we were so glad to be off talus, which we had been on non-stop for many hours, and it was smooth sailing all the way to the parking lot. Finished at about 2:30.
Here's a look back (red arrows designate the route down Audubon's ridge):
Luckily, we avoided all the nasty weather, even though we started late. Sprinkles of rain fell on us as we drove out.
Overall, it was a rather adventurous day. On paper (7 miles, 3,300 feet, Class 3), this loop doesn't seem like much, but be warned, it may surprise you. All that talus can wear on you!
I leave you with one more pic looking into the heart of the IPW:
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):