Peak(s):  North Star Mtn  -  13,614 feet
Wheeler Mtn  -  13,690 feet
Date Posted:  08/17/2014
Modified:  09/11/2014
Date Climbed:   08/17/2014
Author:  Hoot
 North Star Wheeler Loop  

North Star-Wheeler Traverse Loop
17 August 2014
North Star Mountain (13,614', Colorado #187)
Wheeler Mountain (13,690', Colorado #152)
Climbers: Nathan Wozny, Tom Joslyn, Hoot Gibson
Trailhead: Hoosier Pass
Distance: 11.5 miles
Elevation gain: 2150' (~3000 cumulative)
Difficulty: Class 4 with exposure
Round trip time: 10 hours and 15 minutes

This was a fun loop with lots of scrambling and two bicentennial peaks. Based on the dearth of trip reports I found on the North Star-Wheeler ridge, I assume it is not frequently traversed despite its proximity to Denver. For those who enjoy exposed class 3 and class 4 scrambling, I recommend this route!

Nathan, Tom, and I left Colorado Springs at 4 am Sunday morning and reached 11, 540' Hoosier Pass under lightening skies a little before 6 am. We started hiking west up the 4WD road from the pass parking lot at 6:15 am. The road climbs gradually along the south side of the Continental Divide which becomes the long ridgeline that is North Star Mountain. Just above a small saddle at 12,100', we took the right branch in the road at an open gate above the Magnolia Mine. We left the road at 12,600' just after a switchback and climbed on talus to the ridge proper at 12,800'. At this point hiking along the broad ridgeline was very easy. After an hour and 50 minutes, we reached the first summit along the ridge and could see we had a long way to go along the ridge to Wheeler. We reached North Star's highest summit at 13,614', just before 9:30 am after two hours and 50 minutes of hiking from Hoosier Pass. We took a break for 20 minutes on the summit and talked briefly with another hiker before continuing along the ridge to Wheeler.
 
The 0.85 mile ridge from North Star to Wheeler is action packed with lots of scrambling and a good dose of exposure in places. While we stayed on the top of the ridge much of the way, we climbed down off the ridge, usually on the south side, to get around several obstacles. Fairly early in the traverse we came to a small tower that we traversed on the left (south) side at class 3. The first of two cruxes which required some route finding came before the North Star-Wheeler saddle. While a very exposed climb along the ridge might have worked at this point, we opted for an exposed traverse on a narrow ledge above a snow field on the south side. It wasn't clear the ledge would go until we were half way across it, but a small cairn indicated that others before us had gone this way. Most of the rock along the ridge was solid, but loose rock on this ledge and at other places required some careful climbing. Near the saddle of the traverse a fearless big mountain goat came strolling down the ridge headed right toward us. Fortunately we were at a place where we could give him wide berth. Once behind him, Nathan startled a bunch of his kids hanging out just below the ridge.

The second notable crux on the traverse was near the saddle perhaps a little on the Wheeler side. After investigating a few options, I down climbed on the south side of the ridge to a sloped slab. Moving across the slab required moderately exposed class 4 climbing. While not difficult, this was the crux of the day for me. Nathan followed me on the slab while Tom stayed closer to the ridge reporting fun class 4 climbing on solid rock.

Most of the climb up to Wheeler from the saddle was fun and at times steep class 3 scrambling. The three of us each climbed slightly different routes up as we got close to Wheeler's summit. I chose a short easy class 4 chimney on solid rock, but the standard route which we descend is no more difficult than class 3. We reached Wheeler's highest summit at 11:40 am, almost 5.5 hours after starting out. The traverse from North Star's summit to Wheeler's summit took us just under 2 hours. While Nathan and Tom hung out on the 13,692' summit for about 20 minutes, I tagged Wheeler's two small and just a bit lower summits to the north.

One of the two trip reports we read and used to estimate our return time suggested the author competed the round trip from Hoosier Pass in less than 6 hours. This seems improbable. In any case, we made a significant adjustment to our predicted finish time before starting to descend. Following cairns, we scrambled down an occasionally class 3 route to the Wheeler-Clinton saddle which is much closer to Wheeler than centennial Clinton Peak. From the saddle we descended quickly, occasionally along a faint trail toward the east side of the small lake above Wheeler Lake. While the weather was great all day, we did get a few sprinkles on our way down to the lakes. The rain felt good! Just above the upper lake we took a 17 minute break and filled up on water at a small cascade. Then we continued to descent on a more established trail along the east side of the small lake and then down to the west side of Wheeler Lake. There were lots of flowers along this section which I didn't expect in mid-August.

We reached Wheeler Lake at 1:40 pm and I posed for a picture in the old rusted truck on the west side of the lake. Like the last time I visited Wheeler Lake when climbing Clinton Peak, there were about a dozen highly modified 4WD vehicles with their drivers proudly hanging out at the lake. We shortcut the very rough 4WD road a little below the lake and passed at least half a dozen more vehicles creeping their way up.  

Attempting to follow a return shortcut we had seen in a previous report, we left the 4WD road at 3:10 pm near 11,200' cutting east on the slopes above Montgomery Reservoir. We left the road on what looked like a well-established trail, but it soon became and up-hill bushwhack through dense trees and underbrush. We were all a bit tired at this point and the going was slow with a few choice words expressed along the way. However, we eventually crossed the old aerial cable below the Magnolia Mine and broke out of the dense brush. We didn't quite hit our target 4WD road at its closest point as planned. But after a traversing climb of about 500' from the valley, we got on a good dirt road and headed mostly downhill toward Hoosier Pass. Just before the pass, we turned left off the road onto a well-established trail that led right to the parking lot at Hoosier Pass. Despite the initial bushwhacking, I think the return route we ended up taking was likely easier than the alternatives (aside from the Montgomery Reservoir car shuttle alternative).

We returned to our car at 4:30 pm after 10 hours and 15 minutes of hiking the 11.5 mile loop.  The hike took us a few hours longer than expected, but it was very enjoyable nevertheless.  Hopefully this report will serve as a guide for estimating the time for future hikes.  You don't want to be on this route in bad weather, but if you're up for a long hike with lots of scrambling, this is a good one!

My GPS Tracks on Google Maps (made from a .GPX file upload):




Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
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