| Decalibron Variation via Democrat's North Ridge
I finally realized a few weeks before attempting this trek that the name "Decalibron" just comes from taking the first two letters from the names of all the mountains climbed on the route (Democrat, Cameron, Lincoln, Bross). Until then, I honestly thought that it was some sophisticated mountaineering term derived from ancient Greek. Yeah, I'm a moron.
The standard Decalibron route from the Kite Lake trailhead is Class 2 all the way and about 7.5 miles long; this route from the Montgomery Reservoir is about 12 miles long and includes some enjoyable Class 3 scrambling up Democrat's north ridge. Having completed it, my only recommendation would be to follow Mount Lincoln Road down from the southeast slopes of Mount Lincoln and then go around the east shore of Montgomery Reservoir to get back to your vehicle. The route described below descends Lincoln through the Lincoln Amphitheatre. This is a shorter route, but it's a real bitch (as you'll read below). Just note that the Cameron Amphitheatre route may take you through some sections of private property—I'm not sure. Since it's pretty long and doesn't provide too many easy egress paths to timberline, you'll also want to reserve this route for one of those rare days with little or no chance of thunderstorms.
I had been hoping to tackle Democrat's north ridge for a few weeks, but I was waiting for a day of great weather so that I could bag all the other Decalibron summits as well. Weather reports for Thursday, August 26th looked favorable, so I left my place at about 5:00 a.m. that morning and had a pleasant drive west on U.S. 285. Just west of Kenosha Pass there's a beautiful valley that opens up before you, and I spotted several elk as I drove through it (between Jefferson and Fairplay). That was a nice added bonus. I turned north onto CO-9 once I got to Fairplay, then, several miles past Alma, turned west onto Park County Road 4 and followed it to the Montgomery Reservoir. Note that there are two Park County Road 4 turn-offs from CO-9; you can get to the Montgomery Reservoir from either one, but it's easier and quicker to take the northern one, which is about 3.5 miles past the first.
I parked my car on the west side of the reservoir, changed from shoes into hiking boots, and hit the Wheeler Lake Trail at 7:20 a.m. An old mining structure and some nice cascades of the Middle Fork of the South Platte River were right at the start of the trail, so I spent a few minutes enjoying and taking photos of those sights. The trail stays just north of the South Platte, with North Star Mountain above it to the north and Mounts Lincoln and Cameron above it to the south. It's a very pleasant trail, although I was a bit surprised at the several large areas of standing water along its path. These got to be a nuisance after a while, as I had to go off-trail in deep brush quite a few times to keep my feet dry. As I made my way around the slopes of Lincoln and Cameron, I eventually caught my first glimpse of Mount Democrat. Following along its north ridge with my eyes, I easily discerned the crux of the route: two notches separated by a shark-fin rock formation. It actually looked more like a shark tooth than a shark fin to me, but Gerry Roach refers to it as a "shark-fin tower" in his legendary "Colorado's Fourteeners" guidebook, and I'm sure as hell not going to argue with the second person in the history of the world to climb all Seven Summits. "Shark Fin" it is!
Setting off from the Montgomery Reservoir.
Cascades at the start of the Wheeler Lake Trail.
From the Wheeler Lake Trail, looking west at (from left to right) Traver, McNamee, and Clinton Peaks.
Mount Democrat from the north. The Shark Fin is perceptible on the far right.
A close-up of the notches and Shark Fin.
About 2.5 miles from the parking area, the Wheeler Lake Trail veers northwest to go up to Wheeler Lake. This route leads to a basin below Clinton, McNamee, and Traver Peaks (all 13ers). It looked like there were some good ramps on the northeast ridge of Traver that could be used to climb up to the summit, and from there one could follow the ridges north to McNamee and Clinton. I might have to come back and try that someday—looks like a lot of fun. Instead, however, I turned southwest onto a four-wheel-drive road (somewhat fainter than the Wheeler Lake Trail, but still well-defined). This path leads up to the basin below Traver Peak and Point 13,460. Point 13,460 is not labeled as such on either the Trails Illustrated or U.S.G.S. topos of the area, but, being the only prominent peak on the ridge between Traver and Democrat, is easy to distinguish. The hike up into the basin was the first significant upward slope of the hike, and my legs had a bit of a wake-up call after hiking on flat terrain for the previous few miles.
As I approached the center of the basin at about 12,800 ft. elevation, I noticed a doe and a fawn about 200 yards in front of me. I'm not sure why they had wandered up into the basin, as there seemed to be much better grazing options in the Platte Gulch below, but it certainly was a pleasure to watch them. The fawn was especially entertaining. It was actually playing on the boulders, prancing and bouncing along from one to another with no objective other than to have fun. And was it ever fast! It must have approached 20+ miles per hour on some of its bounds across the basin! I wish I could hop across boulders so easily.
From the basin I climbed west past some old mine remnants and up to the crest of the ridge between Traver and Point 13,460. From here I could see CO-91 and the town of Climax to the northwest. I followed the ridge to the top of Point 13,460, which provided great views of Democrat's north and south ridges. The south ridge looked like fun, although it apparently has very loose rock. But the north ridge was my route, so I continued onward.
From Point 13,460, looking south across the north ridge to Democrat. Democrat’s south ridge is on the right.
Not far past Point 13,460, I could see the first notch approaching. I scrambled down the west side of the ridge to the bottom of the notch, and from there peered upward at the Shark Fin. I could see two possible ways up, one right at the notch that would have required some tricky chimney moves, and another about 10-15 feet below the notch to the west which looked a bit less technical. I chose the latter option, but it was still fairly technical. I only needed to climb about 25 feet up though, so it wasn't too bad. This put me about half-way up the Shark Fin, and from there I could scramble along its west side to the second notch. The down-climb into the second notch was fun. There is a huge stone that serves as a bridge across the second notch, and that was pretty neat to cross. Past the bridge-stone, I was faced with one more major tower. The only way to get past this was to climb directly over it. This was a bit easier than getting up the Shark Fin from the first notch, but it was still on the upper extremes of Class 3 and there was a bit more exposure. It was exactly noon, and the crux of the route was now behind me. The remainder of the climb up Democrat's north ridge was pretty straightforward Class 2 hiking.
The first notch and Shark Fin. At this point you have to down-climb to the west (right) to get to the bottom of the first notch.
Almost to the bottom of the first notch, looking through it to Democrat.
Looking down at the bridge-stone crossing the second notch.
Looking back north across the ridge to Point 13,460 and Traver Peak from the tower after the second notch.
From the same spot as the above photo, looking at the remainder of the route up Democrat.
This crux of the north ridge route was tremendous fun and a good challenge, and I was a bit sad that it was so short. I would say that it is on the more difficult extreme of the Class 3 spectrum, as I used my arms and shoulders a great deal for upward locomotion. I also had to reflect more upon the rocks in front of me to choose the best way up and investigate more for handholds than on other Class 3 routes. However, the exposure was much less than I expected. That being said, I would recommend bringing a helmet along if you are going to try the north ridge route up Democrat. Although I didn't wear one, in hindsight I probably should have. There aren't any steep 500-ft. drop-offs immediately near the route, but there are jagged rocks everywhere. Even a short slip could cause someone to bang his or her head upon one of these rocks hard enough to get a severe cut or even a concussion. So my recommendation would be to pack a helmet. You only need it for a very brief section of the route (from Point 13,460 to the top of the tower after the second notch), but I think it's a worthwhile safety precaution.
Past the crux I hiked just below the ridge on its west side until I got to the remnants of yet another mine. From this point there was a fairly distinct trail that I thought would lead me all the way up to the summit. It led a good portion of the way up, but then just kind of disappeared. So instead I had to climb up a fairly steep gulley of loose talus on Democrat's west side to reach the top. I was at the summit of Democrat and biting into a salami sandwich for lunch at 1:05 p.m. exactly.
The gulley I had to climb out of to get to the top of Democrat. It wasn’t as steep as it looks here, but the talus was pretty loose.
From the summit of Democrat, looking north. Quandary Peak is the giant just left of center looming behind and above the long ridge of North Star.
Despite how bluebird the weather was, I had spent the entire morning hiking from Montgomery Reservoir up the north ridge of Democrat completely alone. In fact, the only human contact I had was observing, from a considerable distance, two separate groups of two people standing on top of Democrat. I spent a good ten minutes alone on the summit, and then a woman with a dog climbed up from the east slope route. She thought she had interrupted my solitude, but I was actually quite happy to have the company. We chatted for a few minutes before I started my descent to the Democrat-Cameron saddle. I had enjoyed several minutes of quiet reflection on top, and I thought she deserved a bit as well. I did notice a group of three people descending from the saddle back down to Kite Lake as I climbed down the east slope of Democrat, but those would be the last people I'd see until I hiked from Cameron to Bross.
The cairn marking the Democrat-Cameron saddle, looking west to Democrat’s north ridge.
A close-up of the north ridge crux: first notch (A), Shark Fin (B), second notch with bridge-stone (C), and the subsequent tower (D).
At the bottom of the Democrat-Cameron saddle, I stopped by the large cairn to take some pictures of Democrat's north ridge. Then it was a long trek up Cameron. Quite frankly, Cameron kicked my ass. I know that the long-standing tradition in Colorado is that only a summit that rises more than 300 ft. above the saddle connecting it to the next nearest summit can be considered a true "peak" (as opposed to just a false summit). Using that definition, Cameron rises only 157 ft. from its saddle with Lincoln and therefore cannot be considered a true peak, nor an official 14er. Well, nuts to that, man! I spent more energy trudging up Cameron than I did any of the other "true" 14ers surrounding it. So, 14er or not, Cameron earned my respect that afternoon. I had to sit down and rest a couple of times on the way up, and when I finally got to the summit at 3:00 p.m. I was whipped.
Kite Lake from Mt. Cameron.
Mt. Lincoln from Mt. Cameron.
Bross from Cameron—pretty underwhelming.
As I sat on the summit of Cameron, I had to make a big decision: should I climb over to Mt. Bross or not? The weather wasn't an issue. Other than a handful of white, puffy clouds, the sky was as clear as could be. My Cameron-induced fatigue wasn't a problem either, as I was already starting to feel better as I rested on the summit. What was really eating at me was the fact that Bross is on private property and is officially off-limits to climbers. Hunting and hiking in Michigan and the Midwest, I'd always respected private property. But this was different somehow. This wasn't a person's personal hunting land, farm acreage, or front yard. It was a vacant mountain summit that, being one of less than 100 peaks in the United States that rises above 14,000 ft., was also a type of national monument. I tried to imagine what I would do if I owned a 14er. I might put up signs asking folks to stay on marked trails, I might restrict parking to a designated lot, I might restrict camping, but I don't think I would charge people or totally restrict public access to something so rare and beautiful. Even though I find it somewhat appalling that the owners of Culebra Peak charge fairly exorbitant fees to climb that mountain, at least they allow those willing to pay the opportunity to do so. To totally restrict access to Mount Bross just seems morally wrong. These were the thoughts in my head as I pondered whether or not to hike over to Bross. In the end, however, what finally compelled me to do so was looking through my binoculars and seeing other people standing on the summit. After all that deep philosophical thinking, it all boiled down to monkey-see, monkey-do.
On my way down Cameron's south slope I saw an old mine shaft dug into the side of the mountain. Well, I just had to climb into the thing a few feet and take a picture. Then it was a quick trip over to Bross. I was at the summit at 3:40 p.m.—easiest 14er yet. It provided great views of Kite Lake, Democrat, Cameron, and Lincoln. There were six other people on the summit. These included three young men from Texas, a photographer, and (the subject of his photographs) a bride in wedding dress and her groom. That ranks right up there on my list of strange summit sightings with the guy grilling hotdogs and hamburgers on top of Torreys! I usually take little notice of wedding dresses, but I must say this bride's dress was very classy. They made a splendid couple, and I wish them a happy life together.
Peering into an old mine shaft.
Cameron from Bross—equally underwhelming to look at, but it kicked my ass going up it from Democrat. 14er or not, Cameron earned my respect!
Democrat’s north ridge from Mt. Bross.
I spent only moments on Bross and then headed back north toward Lincoln. I think Lincoln has the most character of the Decalibron peaks; its summit is really striking. I made it to the top of Lincoln at 4:50 p.m. and had a salami sandwich for dinner as I watched a mountain goat graze on the east slopes about 500 yards below me. The weather was still bluebird.
Unlike its neighbors, Lincoln’s south face has real character.
At the top of Lincoln, looking southwest to Cameron and Democrat.
I started my descent from Lincoln down its eastern slope at a few minutes after 5 p.m. The first 500 ft. of vertical descent wasn't bad, but the next 1,000 was all on loose, ankle-bustin' talus. You know that Paul Simon song "Slip-Sliding Away"? That's pretty much how I got down to 12,750 ft. I thankfully never fell or twisted an ankle, but there was a good deal of rock-surfing going on. Finally, at around 12,600 ft., there was a steep but solid rock cliff to down-climb. This was actually the only fun part of my descent. I was now in the Lincoln Amphitheatre proper, which is basically just an expansive, boulder-filled basin. After trudging across the boulders, I was faced with descending "the headwall." This is a very steep rock cliff punctuated with pines and thick brush, over part of which the Lincoln Falls cascade. It wasn't sheer enough to be frightening, nor did it take a lot of technical skill to down-climb (Class 2+ max), but it still sucked. The pines and bushes made it very difficult to discern a good route down. A couple of times I found myself on a steep ledge that I couldn't descend from, and then I'd have to climb back up and go down another way. I eventually just sat down next to the Lincoln Falls, filled up my water bottle and zapped it with my Steripen, and had a nice, cold drink. After drinking lukewarm city water from my Camelbak all afternoon, this was very refreshing. It revitalized me and seemed to sharpen my senses a little. I continued downward and, after what seemed like forever, finally made it back down to my car. It was 8 p.m.—yet another 12+hour mountaineering hike.
Anyone know the name of this freaky-looking plant?
Looking back to the west as I cross the Lincoln Amphitheatre.
Lincoln Falls at the top of the headwall to the Lincoln Amphitheatre.
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):