After a few days away from the mountains to enjoy Memorial Day Weekend in Denver with some great people, it was time to get back out there. Although I hadn't booked my flight back to New York, I knew I was down to my last few days in Colorado and I wanted to make the best of them. Having tagged my first 14er not even two weeks prior I figure why not go for another one?
I started doing my research and once again distance from Denver and access to the trailhead were key. After doing some research I set my sights on Quandary Peak. I logged into CalTopo and started planning my route. The goal was to descend Cristo Couloir on the southern face of Quandary. What I wasn't sure of was the approach.
If Blue Lakes Rd was open then I could start climbing near the base of the Couloir. If not, I would have to hike a little over 2 miles along the road before climbing and descending the 2,600 ft couloir and then hiking back down the road. The other option would be to follow the east ridge 3.4 miles to the summit before descending Cristo and then hiking back along the road.
I reached out to a few friends up in the area but none had been there yet this season so no one was sure if the road was open all the way to Blue Lake Dam or not at all. I plotted all three options on my CalTopo map and decided I would figure out what the best plan of attack would be when I got there in the morning.
Just like most backcountry days, I woke up at an ungodly hour the morning of June 1st, grabbed my gear and hit the road. The only difference today was that Nic wasn't coming with me, I wasn't picking anyone up along the way and I wasn't meeting anyone at the trailhead. I was flying solo today. Now this wasn't the first time I headed into a backcountry zone alone, but it was my first time heading solo into a backcountry zone that I had never been to before. I was confident in my backcountry and decision making skills but it was a little weird knowing that I wouldn't have anyone to bounce ideas off of if I was unsure of anything.
I turned onto Blue Lakes Rd to an amazing view of Quandary Peak to the right and North Star Mountain to the left. This is a great spot to stop and snap a picture for reference as you can see most of Cristo Couloir from here. I followed the road as far as it would let me and to my delight it was drivable all the way up to the lower lake which is only about a half a mile short of Blue Lake Dam. At around 6:30 am I parked and started gearing up.
At 7:00 am I left the truck and started making my way up the rest of the road, passed the dam and to the trailhead. From here I had trouble spotting the best entrance to the couloir so I simply threw on my crampons and started making my way up. It didn't take long for me to realize that I should have traversed a little farther west before heading up. I ended up having to bushwack through some shrubbery until I made it into the base of the couloir.
From there climbing was pretty straight forward. I did my best to follow what was left of a bootpack but it kept disappearing on me so for the most part I was breaking my own trail. After about 2 hours of climbing the sun start to feel pretty warm and my boots were sinking pretty deep with each step. Not only was this exhausting but it's also a telltale sign that you probably want to get off that slope.
This is where being alone was not to my advantage. In the grand scheme of things I was still fairly new to backcountry terrain and especially spring time conditions in backcountry terrain. I knew the main avalanche danger was small wet slides and you can read about assessing the snow all you want but without prior experience it's hard to know for sure whether you are in danger or not. This is where having someone for a second opinion would have been very beneficial.
Still being at least a 1,000 ft, if not more, from my goal and erring on the side of caution I decided being uncertain of the snow was enough to call it a day and make sure I made it home in one piece. A small wet slide isn't typically catastrophic but it is enough to wipe you off your feet and even something as simple as a sprained knee can have serious consequences if you are alone and without cell service.
There was a nice rock outcropping where I sat down to rest and have a quick Clif Bar for lunch before heading down. Not too far away were a mountain goat and her kid to keep me company. I dropped in around 9:45 am for some fun turns and was back at the car by 10:20 am. I drove back down to Denver a little disappointed that I didn't reach the summit but pretty proud that I was able make the decision to turn around... one I am usually pretty reluctant to make.
That evening I reflected on the day and tried figuring out where I would head the next day. There were a few spots I wanted to check out that had been recommended to me by friends but I knew that not summiting Quandary would haunt me all summer if I didn't give it another shot.
I reviewed my CalTopo and came to realize that most of the climb up Cristo Couloir was between 30 and 45 degrees. Although it was the most direct route, it was definitely the hardest. Then I looked at the east ridge approach and it was around 20 degrees the entire way. At around 6.5 miles roundtrip it was the longest but also the most manageable, especially after climbing the previous day. The plan was set, I would take another stab at it the next day via the Quandary Peak Trail along the east ridge.
This time around I got to the parking lot at 5:40 am and decided to make note of the temperature which was 34 degrees at the lot. I parked in the overflow lot at the start of Blue Lakes Rd as it saves your legs from a few hundred feet of an uphill climb at the end of the day if you were to park in the small lot near the trailhead. From the overflow lot go through the cut in the woods and then make a right on Road 851 and you will come up to the clearly marked trailhead on your left.
From here the trail was a mixture of snow patches and dirt up until you got above tree level where it switched to mostly snow. It tends to have many splits but they all seemed to merge back up eventually. Once I started clearing the tree line I came up to a steep section so I threw on my crampons and kept them on for the rest of the ascent. I realized I could have gotten away without using them but once they were on I just left them on.
It's pretty straight forward from this point. If you have trouble this is a pretty popular hiking trail so once you are clear of the trees you can just follow the many footsteps to the summit. I was moving at a fairly slow pace so I was actually passed by a few groups of hikers on the way up. Around 13,000 ft the air got thin so not only was I huffing and puffing but my legs were overworked at this point and with every step my achilles tendons felt more and more like they were on the verge of snapping.
Determined to reach the summit that day, I simply sucked up the pain and kept moving. I reached the summit at 10:00 am where I ran into some of the hikers that had passed me. I guess this wasn't a very popular choice of ascent for skiers and boarders as they were all surprised to see a snowboard strapped to my back. After taking in the view(which is worth the hike) for a few minutes I got ready to descend.
I dropped in and carefully maneuvered the scree field near the summit as I found my way into Cristo Couloir. Once in the couloir, the snow wasn't quite as soft as I had wanted it to be but the turns were still a lot of fun. I passed one guy to the left of the couloir near the top and another slightly lower to the right, both with skis on their backs and both very surprised to see me and a little disappointed that I got the first drop of the day.
After a tomahawk or two I made it back to Blue Lake Dam at 10:45 am and hiked Blue Lakes Rd(Road 850) back down to the overflow lot. I got back to the lot at 11:45 am and by then the temperature had risen to 62 degrees. I hopped in the truck and made my way back down to Denver with a huge grin on my face as I had just tackled my second 14er!
On a side note, I noticed on the way up that there were some pretty awesome open snowfields on the northeast aspect of Quandary that you can descend from the summit. At the time I hadn't done my research so I wasn't about to drop them but they lead back to Road 851 and I think I'm gonna check them out next spring.