June 21, 2014 – – –
The “Tenmile Traverse” is a classic long mountaineering route near Breckenridge, Colorado, which links ten summits uncreatively named Peaks 1 through 10. But, the route covers only half of the Tenmile Range, and the lower, easier half at that. The true Tenmile Range Traverse” (TRT) is simply the entire range, which adds six high 13ers and some really gnarly terrain to boot. Buzz and I were looking for a long training day, he won’t do anything that isn’t both classic and interesting, and I happen to be probably the world’s foremost expert on traverses of the Tenmile Range (for what that’s worth :-)… so let’s get on it!
The first detail was determining where the Tenmile Range starts and the Mosquito Range ends, as they are geomorphologically one long ridge, separated by names only. Their boundary is where the Continental Divide intersects the ridge between Fremont Pass and Hoosier Pass. But the Divide and the Mosquito/Tenmile ridge coincide for a couple of miles. The original source for mountaineering in Colorado, Guide to the Colorado Mountains (by Robert Ormes) lists Wheeler Mountain (13,690’) as the southernmost peak in the Tenmile, while Gerry Roach suggests it is nearby MacNamee. We studied the maps and thought the dividing line should be the col between the two, but went with Ormes as Wheeler being the southern end of the Range; at its northern terminus the ridge drops steeply into the Tenmile Creek and I-70 at Frisco with a definitive termination.
That decided, we left Boulder at 3:00AM and dropped a car at Frisco on our way to the trailhead at Blue Lakes. We were underway at 5:35, tromping up Monte Cristo Creek through wet marshes, willows and snow. Once the grade began to steepen we stopped to attach Kahtoola crampons to our La Sportiva running shoes, and then marched on up on nicely frozen snow. We both ware using the PB Adventure Vest, not necessarily because I designed it, but because it held our crampons, ice axe, and trekking poles readily, and its low profile meant no bouncing so the technical moves were safer and more stable.
From the summit of Wheeler it seemed like all the mountains in the world were stretched out before us, and we could see probably two dozen 14ers (Colorado has 55). Also before us was our next project; the nasty ridge to Fletcher. The authoritative Ormes guidebook says, “We have not heard of a climb combining the two [Wheeler and Fletcher]”. This would be my fourth time doing just that. It’s not that hard, just relentless route finding through steep, exceptionally loose rock, with plenty of snow; very slow and tedious. We tagged Drift Peak (13,880’) and then Fletcher, the highest peak in the Tenmile at 13,951’. This was my sixth ascent of this obscure peak, which probably constitutes an equally obscure and pointless record. While less than 50 feet shy of being a “14er”, Fletcher probably sees a tiny fraction as many ascents as its 14er neighbor, Quandary Peak, and indeed from our solitude we could see the hordes standing on the summit of Quandary on this fine first day of summer.
Fletcher to Atlantic (13,841’) is the crux of the traverse. Staying on top of the ridge is hard (5.7?). In dry conditions several years ago I traversed on the east side, staying high, which went rather well. On the previous occasion, Buzz and I traversed on the west side, which was really horrible, slow and dangerous. We certainly weren’t going to try that again, so we dove off the east side, which was completely filled with snow and went easily with crampons and axes. Soon we were standing on Atlantic, remembering the horror show from our previous west side debacle, and breathing a sigh of relief; the hard stuff was mostly done. Still, we’d been moving steadily for 6h45m, covered only 6 miles and summited just 4 of the 16 peaks that were on our agenda for the day! Time to get moving! Fortunately, getting off Atlantic provided the best glissade of the day.
We still had two more high 13ers, Pacific (13,950’) and Crystal (13,852’), to tag before we got to Peak 10 (13,633’) and the start of the standard “Tenmile Traverse”. With the terrain dramatically easier, we strolled across beautiful alpine terrain, up and down steep talus and soft snow. Clouds drifted by, the day was pleasant with almost no wind. The views seemed limitless.
We rolled on over Peak 10 and picked our way down the other side on exceptionally loose talus. Reaching the saddle between Peaks 10 and 9, we dropped below 13,000’ for the first time since Wheeler, and were relieved to find the first source of water in nearly 10 hours – while there was tons of snow of our route, being on a ridge on a fairly cool day without much sunshine meant there was no melt water. It would have been impossible to fill a reservoir from this 1″ deep trickle, but slipping the bottles off the front of the our vests was really quick and easy. We filled up, ate a Cliff Bar, and popped Vitamin-I and caffeine pills. Better living through chemistry.
For the next few peaks the route is basically “Sound of Music” – beautiful alpine tundra terrain with expansive views and gentle climbs and descents. The weather had become a bit squally, with a cold wind and some snowflakes around from time to time, but nothing serious. We strolled along and Buzz commented “Peaks 10 to 1 is a great route!”
The ridge tightens up again after Peak 4 (12,866’), and there was some fun scrambling on relatively good rock. As we moseyed along we could see and hear traffic along I-70, 3,000’ directly below. Buzz said “I’ve looked up at this from my car hundreds of times!” The scrambling was a good diversion, but it was slow and we were eager to get off the technical stuff before dark. Buzz rates this section “hard 3rd Class”, while Fletcher to Atlantic is “sketchy 4th Class”.
We made it to Peak 1 (12,805’) in a stunning orange glow of evening, with the Sun shooting heavenly crepuscular rays from behind billowy clouds. There was an increasingly good trail descending off of 1, but as the daylight failed we lost the trail under large snow banks around treeline, and found ourselves floundering down a steep, forested slope in the dark. Fortunately, I had Mt Royal waypointed in my iPhone, so we just followed that, knowing we’d find an excellent trail there. Finally, at 10:15PM, 16h45m after starting, and after covering just 20 miles (!), we reached Buzz’s car in Frisco (9,100’). It was a long and satisfying day, but we still had to do the crux of the whole day – retrieving my car and the 2-hour drive home!
In summary, the standard Tenmile Traverse is an excellent route – easy access, easy shuttle, and easy routefinding, with enough difficulty to keep the tourists away. By comparison, the full package (“Tenmile Range Traverse”) is dramatically longer and more difficult, probably looks better on the map than it goes the ground, and is not likely to be repeated often. But you should know about it. Because a full day entirely above timberline, doing 16 high summits on a single ridge, is a remarkable piece of topography worthy of consideration.