Niwot Ridge - 13,023 feet
Navajo Pk A - 13,409 feet
Niwot Ridge - 13,023 feet
Navajo Pk A - 13,409 feet
|Memorial day in the IPW|
Memorial Day in the IPW
16.8 miles, 4900', 15 hours moving time
Niwot Ridge 13,023'
Navajo Peak 13,409'
With a three day weekend coming with no vacation time necessary I was planning a big trip. I had been in the IPW several times this past winter and had many failures... Snow and weather prevented me from any real success. I had managed to do the Pawnee Traverse in some terrible weather but on three occasions failed to summit Niwot Ridge, Navajo Peak and Apache Peak. I was desperately hoping to grab these before the June 1st camping restrictions and the hoards of "normal" people flooded the basin. My original plan was to summit Niwot, Navajo and Apache via Niwot Ridge on Saturday and Aubuon, Paiute and Toll Sunday. Before heading up Friday afternoon, the weather forecast was looking bleak for Sunday so I settled on a three day trip rather than four.
I was at the Brainard Lake winter lot and packing out by 6pm on Friday. To my delight, the road was completely dry heading into the basin. I was here just two weeks ago in a heavy snowstorm and there was still a foot of snow on the road and several more in the treeline. I happily laced up my trailrunners and began lugging my 80lb winter pack up to Long Lake. The weather was perfect, 60 degrees and sunny. I packed out in a T shirt.
I was the only one heading into the basin this late, everyone I saw was returning back to the parking lot. I was hoping to have the basin to myself and it was looking like it would be.
I eventually did have to put on my 6000m boots and strap on the snowshoes at the Long Lake trailhead. The snow was surprisingly solid, however, and in no time I found a great spot to set up camp on the South side of Long Lake.
Before dark I was set up and ready for the following day. The weather change I just experienced was quite dramatic, 90 degrees when I left Denver, 60 degrees at the trailhead, by dark it was 30. I relaxed a bit and got some surprisingly good sleep. The following day I purposely got a late start just so I could get the picture below, Alpenglow on the Indian Peaks peaking through my tent.
By 6am I was rolling up to Niwot Ridge. It went down to about 25 that night and luckily all the snow in the trees froze. I wore my snowshoes and 6000m's for all of a quarter mile in the treeline before I reached a dry boulder field. I dropped the snowshoes and threw on my trailrunners. I was ecstatic to not have to wear those stiff boots longer than necessary - I spent all winter destroying my joints in those heavy f*ckers. I held on to the boots however, I had a feeling I'd need them and crampons at some point on the ridge. Wasn't too happy to strap 10lbs of boots to my backpack but it was necessary.
The weather, for the first time I've ever experienced in the IPW, was great. 40 degrees by 7am, no wind and sunny. I headed up the mellow ridge.
It's a really easy hike along Niwot ridge, just long. Almost 2.5 miles from camp to the scrambling portion of the ridge.
I stopped just below the steeper scrambly bit and enjoyed a snack before the real fun began. Strapped on the helmet (cause that's what responsible climbers do, I'm told) and started the scramble.
I grossly underestimated Niwot Ridge... I did zero research on beta and opted for the more fun "figure it out as you go" approach. I didn't realize just how much routefinding this would entail. The ridge is pretty gnarly in parts and without a rope you really have to choose your lines wisely. The snow only compounded the difficulties. The snow leading up to this point had been solid, but above 12k' it was loose and unstable. I decided to just avoid all snow I could as I really didn't feel like going for a ride. Most of the gullies and ledges on the ridge are still covered with snow, making routefinding especially interesting. What would have been an easy climb turned into some sketchy class 4 and 5 to avoid the snow. I got cliffed up three times on the way over all due to snow. If there wasn't any snow my life would've been much easier. Eventually I picked my way through, it was a long 2 hours of scrambling to reach the other side of the ridge.
By 10am I was on the tallest point of the ridge.
I stopped again on the summit to relax and eat. I used this time to scout out the route ahead and wasn't too pleased with what I saw. The East face of Navajo, typically an easy scramble to the summit, was covered in snow. Judging from what I saw I had a feeling Navajo was going to elude me again. The entire basin was covered in avy debri and I knew trying the snow climb up the east face was asking for trouble. I pressed on anyway hoping I could find a different route.
Reaching the base of the East face only confirmed my worries - there was no way I was climbing up that snowy slope. It's steep, 45-50 degrees and the snow was very loose. I would have to reroute. Wrapping around the North side was just as sketchy, so I headed South in hopes of a safer route.
The SE face looks like a fun class 5 climb but I was hoping to summit Navajo, not die on it. I continued wrapping around the south slowly as I searched for a route. There's a large gully on the South face which presented the "safest" route up. It wasn't safe by any means, all class 4 and 5 littered with snow and ice. I had some serious anxiety as I picked my way up - getting up was one thing, but I knew at some point I would have to downclimb the same route. I was doing moves that I was definitely not comfortable reversing on the way down. There were three moves in particular that were quite awkward and very exposed. Normally I really enjoy this type of climbing, but the entire time in the back of my head I knew I'd have to downclimb it and kind of ruined the experience. After almost an hour of some painstaking routefinding I was on the summit at noon.
On the summit I saw two people heading towards me on the easy part of Niwot Ridge. They were about 3.5 hours behind me, never saw them again.
I chilled and ate my lunch after 6 hours of hiking and climbing. I spent some time scouting out the short traverse to Apache and was again not pleased with what I found... I did my research on this part of the climb - there's a class 4 chimney on the West side of Navajo which is well documented for the upclimb, not so much the downclimb. I found plenty of reports of parties climbing up this route but none climbing down it. Now I know why. The top of the gully is filled with loose rock and the actual chimney is about 100' of some exposed climbing.
To make matters worse, the only way up to the ridge to Apache was covered in snow. There was a thin line of bare rock that was viable but was some very exposed class 5. Not something you would live from if you fell. I'm extremely confident in my abilities to climb up class 5 - I've free soloed exposed 5.8 but downclimbing is not my strong suit. To be honest, I absolutely hate downclimbing, even class 3.
The summit to Apache was so close I could literally throw a rock to it - but getting there was a completely different task. It would involve downclimbing the sketchy class 4 chimney, free soloing some crazy exposed class 5, summiting, downclimbing the same class 5, reclimbing the class 4 chimney then downclimbing the 4-5 of the south face of Navajo. This wasn't very appealing to me. Normally I'd ignore all the warnings in my face and blindly risk everything for a summit. I think just 6 months prior in my climbing career I would've went for it, but recent experiences have chipped away at my ego and I wasn't going to endanger myself that much just to grab Apache. I've had way too many people express worry for my decisions and that old saying was stuck in the back of my head:
"There are old climbers and there are bold climbers, but there are no old, bold climbers."
I made another uncharacteristically wise decision (second time in the last two trips), swallowed my pride and headed back home.
I stopped off on the east face just to see how bad the snow was. I was hoping I'd might be able to simply glissade down the snowy face and save 30 minutes of hard downclimbing and anxiety. I stood just above the snow and started throwing large rocks down hoping to trigger a slide and make my glissade safer. I never actually triggered an avy, but the rocks I dropped down each made their own mini-slide and quickly fell to the bare rock below the snow. After 5 minutes of this I gave up and settled on downclimbing what I just came up.
My anxiety wasn't ill-gotten - the downclimb was truly terrifying. I managed to reverse each awkward move I did on they way up and was happily back on the easier class 3 terrain.
By this point I was pretty scrambled-out and wasn't looking forward to routefinding Niwot ridge all the way back. I tried hard to retrace my steps exactly but ended up getting cliffed up twice... I did however, enjoy the way back much more than the way up. Niwot is a pretty awesome ridge, highly recommended for some never-ending scrambling fun.
I was back at my tent by 5pm. I decided to spend another night so I could relax and enjoy my Memorial day weekend. There was a small section of the bank along the lake that was dry and snow free - I sat down, ate my dinner and laid on the bank to take a nap.
Napping on the ground here was one of the best feelings I've had in a while - laying in the dirt with my shirt off, 60 degrees and the sun keeping me warm after a long day of climbing. This didn't last long; after about an hour of napping the weather changed pretty much instantaneously. The temperature dropped 20 degrees, sun disappeared, wind picked up and it started snowing... Now this is what I'm used to in the IPW.
I grudgingly went back to my tent and got ready for some much-needed sleep. Just before dark, just to spite me and taunt me, Apache literally lit on fire in the distance. Very suiting, this would be the 4th time I failed to summit Apache in 6 months.
I hit the bag and got a solid 12 hours of sleep. The weather forecast didn't disappoint, by 8am it was snowing heavily. I packed up my stuff and headed back to a wet and chilly Denver.
Overall a damn good weekend, managed to grab a couple summits before the IPW turns into a shopping mall for the summer. I'll be back for Apache (hopefully via the Kasparov traverse) - you know what they say, 5th time's a charm.
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