(Editors Note: Peter Bakwin conceives and attempts the Mosquito Tenmile Traverse – the longest and highest ridge in the lower states – 38 miles continuously above timberline).
My head was spinning as I sat on the summit of Fletcher Mountain just after noon on July 24, 2010. Was it the 13,951’ elevation? Or, was it the fact that I’d just gone straight through the night, spending the last 16.5 hours traversing some of the roughest terrain imaginable, without ever dipping below 13,000’, summiting 21 high peaks in the process? Either way, though not quite 2/3 through my attempt to traverse the longest, highest ridge in the conterminous USA, I was simply whupped.
And stunned. Frankly, after years of doing 100 mile ultras, 200 mile adventure runs, and big peaks all over the world, I didn’t think this was going to be all that hard. Heck, it’s just 38 miles from Weston Pass (near Fairplay, Colorado) to Frisco. Sure, the 27 miles from Weston Peak to Peak 10 is entirely above 13K, and yeah, sure, there are a total of 34 named peaks (two 14ers, 24 13ers, and eight 12ers) along the way. But, anyway, how hard can 38 miles be?
Pretty frickin’ hard, it turns out.
The footing on the ridge ranges from generally crappy, to shifting talus, to long sections of class 3 scrambling, and even a few class 4 and 5 moves. Progress is particularly tough at night because you can’t easily see the best line ahead. It takes constant attention. Very tiring. Normally, when you step on a rock that moves you just make a correction and continue without a thought. When your strength goes you are unable to make the correction, you stumble, struggle and then try to recover, which burns tons more energy. You get weaker. After walking and scrambling all night and through the morning I was physically and mentally fatigued to the point where I was making poor choices, burning even more energy and increasing the already high danger of falling off.
Storm clouds swirled around as I phoned my wife, Stephanie, and told her where to meet me after I bailed off this goddamned ridge. I sat a few more minutes on the summit, soaking up the sun and cool breeze. Surprisingly, I felt totally at peace. Sure, I had not achieved what I’d hoped. But, I’d made the best effort I could and had the good sense to pull when it was time to pull. As my friend Buzz said later, “You set a good mark that younger, stronger people can try … and totally fail at also.”
The Mosquito – Tenmile Traverse (MTT) had been a dream of mine for about a decade. Years before, Stephanie and I had spent a lot of time in Leadville, Colorado, training for and competing in 100 mile trail running and mountain bike races. I took many training runs up into the Mosquito Range on the east side of town. As my explorations took me farther and farther along the ridge, I was amazed by the sustained elevation of the terrain. Later, when I started studying topo maps, I was blown away to discover the true magnitude of this ridge. The Mosquito Range merges seamlessly into the Tenmile Range to the north, and it stays high. There is nothing like it in the USA outside of Alaska.
I was racing 100 mile ultras, and other adventures (the John Muir Trail speed record, Double Hardrock, etc.) also took priority, so the MTT went to the back burner. Still, I did research on the route and each year scouted some sections. My sense of adventure was particularly heightened when I read in the Colorado Mountain Club guidebook about the gnarly ridge between Wheeler and Fletcher: “We have not heard of a climb combining the two.” I did a scouting climb and was able to link those peaks in about 2:15 (still a long time for less than 2 miles!) Next, the intimidating Fletcher – Atlantic traverse is notorious for difficult climbing on dangerously loose rock. Following the ridge line is said to go at 5.7, or with numerous rappels. On my scouting trip in 2009 (a dry year) I found a 4th class sneak off the east side of the ridge, and was able to do the traverse in less than an hour, staying well above 13,000’. After that one I was confident this bastard could be knocked off, and I even had the audacity to think it might go under 24 hours. Only 38 miles!
As Mom used to say, “FLW” (Famous Last Words).
After my 2010 attempt people asked me if I was going to give it another go. I always said “Nope. Too hard. I don’t see how I can do it better.” So, why one year later, was I sitting alone on top of Gemini Peak in a total fucking white out at midnight?
(Editors Note: Part Two coming on Wednesday!)