| A Grand Day on the Divide
13,553 Feet (Ranked 217th in CO)
Southeast Slopes from Herman Gulch Trailhead (10,250 Feet)
October 17th, 2009
8.9 Miles Roundtrip
Elevation Gained: Approximately 3,400 Feet
Greenhouseguy (Brian) and Jason (JasonF)
A Grand Day on the Divide
Pettingell Peak was named for pioneer Jacob N. Pettingell, who came to Colorado from Boston in 1880. Pettingell was one of the most prominent early residents of Grand Lake, where he served the public as a postmaster, county commissioner, and county court judge. Having the highest point in Grand County named after him is a fitting tribute to his more than 50 years of public service in the county.
(L to R) "The Citadel," Unnamed Pt. 13,418, and Pettingell Peak seen from Mt. Machebeuf (image taken 11/1/08)
Of the several routes that are used to access Pettingell Peak, the Herman Gulch approach is certainly the most popular. Pettingell just barely falls short of being a Bicentennial peak, but the Herman Gulch Trail is a Centennial wildflower trail with more than 100 colorful varieties of native plants during the height of the season. The plentiful wildflowers and the alpine lake (Herman Lake) at the top of the gulch bring plenty of hikers to the Herman Gulch trail; oddly, Pettingell Peak sees relatively few hikers.
The Herman Gulch Trailhead
It looked like Pettingell Peak was going to be a solo hike for me, but I had the good fortune to run into 14ers.com member Jason (JasonF) at the trailhead. We geared up and hit the trail in a matter of minutes. I had worn some of my warmest gear in anticipation of much colder temperatures; I was almost disappointed by the mild weather. The lower part of the trail was entirely snow-free. After 0.2 miles, we bore to the left at the junction with the Bard Creek Trail
Snow-free conditions on the lower portion of the Herman Gulch Trail
We hiked under a canopy of pines and aspens for a while until we came to the first of several broad meadows. In late July, this meadow is a choice spot to find our state flower, the Rocky Mountain Columbine. In mid-October, the distant Pettingell Peak provides the best scenery.
Looking up Herman Gulch towards Pettingell Peak
As we progressed up the gulch, we had Mt. Machebeuf to the right and Mt. Bethel to the left. Mt. Bethel is the peak that has two parallel snow fences on the side that faces I-70; these fences keep snow from accumulating in the avalanche chute above the highway. A pair of backcountry skiers nearly died in an avalanche on Mt. Machebeuf back in 2004; under extreme conditions, an avalanche could potentially reach the Herman Gulch Trail. At about the 2.75-mile mark, we reached the junction with the Continental Divide Trail that heads over towards Jones Pass.
Junction with the Continental Divide Trail
After another quarter mile and a few switchbacks, we finally reached Herman Lake. The last section of trail before the lake is pretty steep, so the lake was a natural spot to take a break and plan our next moves. The scenery at the lake is fantastic, with Pettingell Peak to the northwest and "The Citadel" to the southwest.
A view of "The Citadel" from Herman Lake
On the north side of the lake, an obvious ramp leads to the saddle between Pt. 13,418 and Pettingell Peak. This should be easy, right? The snow on the lake's shore was unpredictable; it was ankle-deep in some spots, and knee-deep in others. We both had waterproof boots and gaiters, so it didn't really matter as long as we didn't snap an ankle postholing in the talus. The real work began when we started up a gully that led to the ramp on the north side of the lake.
The ramp on the north side of Herman Lake that leads to the saddle between Pt. 13,418 and Pettingell Peak
A couple of stone cairns in the gully let us know that we had started out in the right direction. The snow was deep enough to be an issue, so we stayed on exposed rocks as much as possible.
Heading up the gully above Herman Lake
Instead of following the ramp up to the saddle, we tried a more direct route towards the summit. Progress slowed to a crawl on the exceptionally steep talus.
Jason on steep talus higher in the gully
The route only got steeper as we struggled in the jumble of rocks on the right hand side of the gully. The grade of the slope would not have been a problem if the talus had been stable; however, the rocks were perched on an unstable base. We would take one step forward, and slide half a step backwards.
Jason on an annoyingly loose section of rock
We finally approached Class 3 territory below Pettingell's east ridge. The rock, which was barely stable enough to stand on, was also too rotten to climb on. I broke several handholds loose, and we both sent several large rocks cartwheeling down the slope. We gradually moved to the left (west) where the rock was far more stable.
Jason picking his way through the junk
Looking down our route towards Herman Lake. It would have been much easier to follow the snow/talus ramp that can be seen just above the lake in this image.
Jason making up for lost time on the easier terrain below the east ridge
I finally topped out on the east ridge a short distance from the summit. A minor bump on the ridge was the only obstacle that stood in my way.
Looking at the summit from the east ridge
It occurred to me on the summit that we had really beaten the weather report. It was sunny, reasonably warm, and hardly a breath of wind. This was atypical for the Continental Divide in October, but I didn't complain.
On the summit with McClellan/Torreys/Grays on my left and the Evans massif on my right
Several mountains (Mt. Machebeuf, Woods Mountain, Mt. Parnassus, Bard Peak, Robeson Peak, and Engelmann Peak) were directly to the east of Pettingell Peak. These peaks all have some degree of mountaineering interest.
Cluster of mountains east of Pettingell Peak
To the southeast, I could see down Herman Gulch all the way to I-70. I tried to scope out the best route on Mt. Bethel, but it looked steep from every direction. That's a good hike for another day.
The view down Herman Gulch
Our arduous ascent motivated me to find an easier way back to the lake. Why not try the standard route? The descent to the saddle between Pettingell and Pt. 13,418 was quick and easy. There was a steep hundred-foot snowfield below the saddle; we heel plunged and boot skied our way to the bottom. Jason caught a short glissade, which I presume was intentional! It appeared that the remainder of the route would be talus and grassy tundra interspersed with patchy snow.
The first part of the route just below the saddle
We followed the grassy ramp downward towards the lake. There were a few small cairns along the way, and some short stretches of faint trail. The drop-off on the edge of the ramp was significant.
Looking over the edge of the ramp at the frozen Herman Lake
Near the bottom of the grassy ramp, we rejoined our "gully route" from earlier in the day. We stayed on the edge of a big snowfield to avoid postholing in the deep snow in the center. Much of the snow in the gully had melted, leaving slick mud in its wake. Despite my best efforts, I managed to do a pretty good butt plant in the mud.
One last snowfield…
Beyond the lake, it was solid Class 1 trail and smooth sailing for the three miles back to the trailhead. The fantastic fall weather had drawn hikers to the trail like a magnet; we passed dozens of people on the way back down. It's a pretty tame trail, and I just wanted to put it behind me and get back to the car. It turned out to be a pretty good day; I met a new hiking partner, I visited a pretty decent summit, and I enjoyed a beautiful fall day outdoors. And it cost me less than a quarter tank of gas!
Heading down the trail on the way back to the parking lot
GPS track of our hike
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