Saturday, June 16, 2012

West Ridge or East Ridge? It's not a Quandary.

"So here's the plan. We take a day off work so we can wake up at 3 in the morning, drive for a couple of hours, and be at the trail head around sunrise. There's an easy, straight-forward way up this mountain, but I found a much more difficult route we can take instead. Are you in?"

I know what you're thinking: when you put it that way, who could possibly say no? How, you're wondering, did you miss your natural calling by becoming a software engineer instead of a salesman?

Or maybe you're not thinking those things at all. But I'm lucky to know a few people whose personal sense of rationality meshes with my own reasonably well. And so the scheme was hatched for Jim, Shawn, and me to climb the West Ridge of Quandary Peak near Breckenridge, Colorado.

Quandary is known as one of the easiest of the 14ers. Its standard route, the East Ridge, is just a 6-mile hike along a gentle trail from the parking area to the summit. But as with my recent outing to Audubon, the path less traveled is often more rewarding. So we opted to ascend the West Ridge, which is 2 miles shorter but takes probably twice as long. And it's at least an order of magnitude more fun.

View 2012/06/14 06:30 Quandary in a larger map

Wednesday night, I didn't sleep very well. Maybe it was excitement. Maybe it was the knowledge that my alarm clock was going to go off in just a few hours. Maybe it was the steel-cut oats in the slow-cooker downstairs calling my name all night. But I woke up feeling good, had a quick but filling breakfast, and was out the door by 3:45 and at Shawn's house by 4.

We arrived at the rendezvous point - the Safeway in Frisco - a bit before Jim. The mountain air was a crisp 45 degrees, and I was smiling ear to ear as I went into a gas station for something to drink while we waited.

We left Jim's SUV at the main trail head, then rode together to park my truck at Blue Lakes. We geared up and hit the trail around 6:30.

We made our way up the gully above Blue Lakes toward the ridge.

Along the way, Shawn and I donned traction aids and pulled out our ice axes to ascend one of the few snow fields left after a winter of very little precipitation. Jim went around the snow and easily beat us to the top of that section. But as long as the two of us were hauling axes, we wanted to get a little use out of them, however superfluous.

Once we gained the ridge, the view to the north was spectacular.

It is also at this point that things started to get really fun. Pictures will do more justice to the experience than any words that I could craft.

Up and over via that scree-filled gully. One at a time to avoid rock-fall.

The climb up this section felt adventuresome.

This down-climb was more memorable than the climb up out
 of the notch which is considered the crux of the route.

Jim and Shawn at the bottom of the crux,
with the wall we just descended behind them.

Three intrepid hikers (and some other dude) at the summit.
When we arrived at the summit, there were several other hikers who had come up the East Ridge. They were the first people we had seen since parking the truck. The remainder of the hike down the standard route was pretty well populated, despite it being a week-day.

Looking back toward the summit from the East Ridge.

I was very gratified to see some mountain goats on our way down. Somehow I've missed them on all of my previous high-country hikes.

The goats ended up blocking the trail, and they were determined to stay on it. So eventually we had to circumnavigate their location so we could move on without herding them along the entire way. The remainder of the hike was pretty uneventful. We were glad to have two vehicles, else the 2-mile walk back up the road to Blue Lakes would have been a bit of a drag.

Back at the truck, we hung out for a while, enjoying a New Belgium Somersault ale on the tailgate. A couple more mountain goats arrived in the parking area, providing some entertainment by licking the tires of another vehicle that was parked nearby.

After Audubon and Quandary, I'm pretty certain that I'll have trouble being content with a Class 1 ascent of a mountain when there's a Class 3 or 4 available. And the entire experience definitely made the early start well worth it.

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