Route: Fletcher Southeast Ridge, Quandary West Ridge, Cristo Descent
Stats: 5 miles, 3,500′ vertical, 5 hours
Is it ski season yet? Although for some the answer to this question may be “yes”, what realistically awaits the Colorado skier at this stage of the game is either rocks and core shots in the BC, or low-angle, man-made ice ribbons at the resort. As much as I wanted to try to ski somewhere on Saturday I just couldn’t quite bring myself to do it. Last year I was the first one on the lift at A Basin (on October 10th I believe it was), and I remember getting a few marginal turns and then having to wait a legitimate five weeks before finding anything worthwhile. This year I made a pact with myself. ski when the skiing gets good and leave it at that. With skiing out of the picture I had a Saturday morning to kill, so what then? Rock climbing? No partners. Planting myself on the sofa and watching some NCAA? Sounds sort of anti-climactic. I might as well go hiking…
I figured a Centennial and a classic scramble route on a 14er in an aesthetic area would make for a good day. I pulled into the parking lot below the Blue Lakes Dam at 7am and geared up. The site of new snow on Wheeler and North Star was refreshing. I’ve always loved the transitions that take place in fall. Summer tries desperately to keep its grasp on the landscape but little by little, winter starts to win out. Grass and flowers begin to fade and die with the dropping temps, a nice frost line forms at 13,000′, blanketing the peaks in coats of silver, and best of all, hiker traffic decreases dramatically.
Somehow I lost the trail on my way up into the basin below Quandary’s West Ridge, but I joined up with it again just before reaching the old mining ruins.
To be honest I was a tad ill-prepared on this one in terms of route planning/navigation. I sort of just figured I’d head up there and work things out. I could see Fletcher at the head of the valley but decided to climb due west to the top of a prominent ridge line. My thought process behind this decision was that I knew Drift Peak was up there somewhere, although I wasn’t exactly sure of its location in relation to Fletcher. Regardless, I figured if I could nab Drift too why not go for it.
I worked my way up through a talus slope blanketed by a few inches of snow, then up through a series of steep cliff bands before topping out on the ridge. From my position I could see Fletcher to the north and Drift to the east.
The weather was not looking spectacular, and Drift looked to be a tad more out of the way than I was anticipating, so I elected to save it for another day. Remembering that the Northwest Face makes for a superb spring ski descent made me feel better about my decision. I made quick work of the Southeast Ridge; it’s only around 600′ vert to the summit from the Fletcher/Quandary saddle. Minimal postholing through the talus had me to the summit in no time.
I broke out the customary sleeve of Pringles (cheese flavor this time) as well as some dried cranberries. I saw no reason not to stay awhile and just enjoy the solitude/views. I’ve always found the Mosquito/Tenmile to be a beautiful range…
As I sat atop Fletcher munching on cranberries I came to realize just how much I appreciate getting away from it all. It had been a month since I had achieved real solitude in the wilderness. Amidst the busyness of life, work, relationships, finances, everyday problems, you name it, getting into the high country and enjoying some solitude is a true gift. We who live in Colorado are blessed to have the refuge of the mountains.
I eventually got cold and decided to head for Quandary. Descending to the Fletcher/Quandary Saddle took me less than twenty minutes. I traversed high across the ridge proper and before long had made some decent progress up Quandary.
The lower portion of the West Ridge is not all that interesting from a scrambling standpoint, though the views never disappoint…
Around 14,000′ the ridge throws some interesting notches and towers at you. Though the scrambling never exceeds class 3 if you’re looking to keep it at that, there are plenty of opportunities to make things more difficult. Overall I remember one spot where I made sure to take my time; an exposed twenty foot down climb to the bottom of the most prominent notch.
Another ten minutes of scrambling brought me to the final summit ridge.
I was lucky enough to also have Quandary’s summit to myself (one of those benefits of fall hiking I mentioned), so I decided to repeat the feasting/lounging session I had on Fletcher. The only remaining question in my mind at this point was how I was going to get down. I knew reversing the West Ridge would be a safe bet, as would descending the East Ridge and hoofing it back up the road to the dam. I could see my car a few thousand feet below, and it seemed tantalizingly close, so I just said screw it and decided to descend the Cristo. Surprisingly I was able to plunge step down quite a long stretch of continuous snow before getting in some good scree skiing. Forty five minutes after departing the summit I was taking a nap in my car.
All in all I would highly recommend this circuit. It made for a relatively leisure day out with a small amount of scrambling and good views all around. That said, I am definitely ready for ski season.
Thanks for reading…