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I was on my own for a few days, having spent the last four days chasing a handful of Colorado 14ers. I've four remaining 14ers, all many hours across the state, which I don't plan on doing until next year. So I started looking for Centennials (100 highest in the state) in the area, and came across a group of four in the Ten Mile Range northeast of Leadville. I found a GPX track on PB by Ben Brownlee that took in all four plus a bonus peak in a nine mile loop. I've seen enough Brownlee GPX tracks to know that these aren't to be taken lightly - they're usually all-day affairs that cover a lot of ground, often of a technical nature. A rough dirt road reaches into the Mayflower Creek drainage from SR91 on the west side of the range, high-clearance required. Mine was the only vehicle when I pulled up at the road's end at the old Boston Mine site the previous evening. I could see instantly that this was not a walk in the park - the ridgeline between Atlantic Peak and Fletcher Peak is highly castellated and looks devoid of a reasonable scrambling route. My plan then was to do the first three summits and then see how things looked (along with the weather) once I was on Atlantic Peak.
Another Jeep arrived at the TH around 4a, the occupant promptly heading off for a hike/climb while I went back to sleep. I wasn't interested in hiking by headlamp, so I slept until about 5:30a, then got up, breakfasted and headed out around 6a. It had rained profusely the previous afternoon, so I expected the meadows to be wet with rain and dew. I was not disappointed. My first task was to cross Mayflower Creek to the north. I was happy to find a use trail going just where I wanted for the first mile of travel. The willows were thick along the creek and the trail was a muddy mess as it passed through the willows and the swampy creek environs. My boots would get wet but not completely soaked through, saving me some discomfort. The trail climbs through forest around the base of Atlantic Peak's WNW Ridge into the Pacific Creek drainage. Ben's track ran higher to the east over what looked like awful talus - I'm guessing he didn't find the good use trail. I followed the trail up the south side of Pacific Creek until it disappeared upon reaching a high alpine basin.
I continued northeast around the base of Pacific Peak into the Humbug Creek drainage, crossing a large, tedious boulder field before turning east up to the saddle between Crystal and Pacific Peaks. The clouds from the previous afternoon's storms had not completely dissipated overnight, leaving some to linger about the summits. At the saddle I turned northeast, following the ridgeline up towards my first stop, Crystal Peak. I had not gotten far above the saddle when I spotted another climber and his dog about to reach the saddle on their way down from Pacific Peak. This was the guy who had started out at 4a. There were some vestiges of a use trail along the ridge, but mostly it was a rock-hopping affair, not all that pleasant, and certainly not the grassy ridgeline that I've almost come to expect at these altitudes in Colorado - this was much more like a High Sierra ascent. I reached the top by 8:20a, just as a cloud had come in to cover the summit, leaving me with pretty crappy views. I saw a PVC register tube, but didn't bother to open it. It was cold at the summit with the damp cloud and light wind, so I simply turned around and started back down the ridge.
I met up with the young man and his friendly dog about 5min down from the summit. We spoke briefly, determining he was the guy that had pulled in at 4a. The two of them had gone up Atlantic Peak, traversing over Pacific, and finally to Crystal, the same three I planned on, but in the reverse order. I continued on, back down to the saddle, then up to Pacific Peak. The impressive-looking summit has a notch near the top, so I circled around the west and south sides of the lower point to reach the notch, saving some downclimbing, but probably not time. Like Crystal, Pacific was a straightforward class 2 affair, but nothing to write home about. So far, there had been very little vegetation along the crest of the range, and a bit sadly, this would continue over all the summits.
Atlantic Peak was next in line, more of the same class 2 rock-hopping I'd found between the first two summits. On my way up to Atlantic Peak, I came across a guy and his 12yr-old daughter descending from the summit. They had climbed up the WNW Ridge, same as the other guy. The young girl was in surprisingly good spirits - this was not her first summit outing, for sure. I asked if they were heading to Pacific next, to which the man replied in the affirmative. The girl then concluded, "Then we get to go to Starbucks!" I laughed at this because I had used Frappucinos as incentives for my own kids when they were young, and it worked wonderfully. We parted ways, and I continued up to Atlantic, reaching the class 2 summit at 10:15a. It was decision time.
The weather seemed to be holding out nicely. The early morning clouds had mostly disappeared, and the first vestiges of new clouds were just forming - I certainly had a few hours before anything serious could develop. The view south along the ridge didn't look that bad, though I knew the sharp notches the ridge held were nicely tucked out of view. I was happy to have Ben's track for added confidence, and set out along the ridge, easy at first, to "check things out." How many adventures start out with that in mind?
The distance to Fletcher Peak came in around 0.7mi, fairly short by most standards. The first couple hundred yards along the ridge were pretty tame, then I needed to do a descending traverse off the east side to bypass the first major obstacle. I was happily cruising along when I noticed Ben's track dropped significantly further down the east side - I quickly followed suit by dropping into a sandy gully to avoid a large notch just ahead along the ridge. I should point out that one can avoid all the difficulties along this ridge by dropping lower on the east side and ascending the NE side of Fletcher. This would keep difficulties to class 3 at the most. Ben's track went back up to the ridge, and I felt compelled to do likewise. I modified this ascent somewhat, aiming to the left to rejoin the ridge a bit south of where Ben had, avoiding some difficulties he seemed to encounter, judging by the back and forth of the track. The scrambling on this ascent was stiff class 3, but enjoyable. Once on the ridge, there was some traversing high on the west side of the ridge that worked nicely and enjoyably until I came upon the crux 60-foot tower, the last obstacle on the way to Fletcher. Again, I'll point out that the more sane route would drop lower on the west side and go completely around this tower. Ben's track showed he climbed up the NW side of the tower, though there was quite a bit of static in this section, suggesting much uncertainty and back and forth route-finding. I first went up to the notch on the ridge to see if the tower could be climbed directly along the crest. I could see a rap sling 30ft up and guessed it wasn't trivial. I started up this, thinking it looked class 4. The rock here is a mix of somewhat solid and unexpectedly loose and I got spooked before I made much progress. I decided to try Ben's route on the NW side. I spent some time examining the face before deciding on a more direct route than Ben had used. This proved to be the sketchiest climbing I've done in Colorado to date, low class 5 with huge exposure and more than just a few moves. It worked, but I was breathing heavily afterwards with far more adrenaline coursing through my veins that I should at this age. It was something I would not want to repeat. Once atop this tower, the route becomes much easier, and by 12p, I was atop Fletcher Peak.
Ah, relief. The hardest part was now behind me. Though I didn't recognize it at the time, Quandary Peak (a 14er I climbed a year ago) lies only a mile and quarter to the ESE. With better weather (and more energy), one could add this to the itinerary for more bonus points. Clouds were developing nicely with thunderheads forming around Fletcher, but little in the immediate vicinity. I had identified a bail-off route just past the tower crux, but decided to continue on to Drift Peak, another 0.6mi to the southeast.
As hoped, this section was easier than the last, but it held a crux of its own where an unexpected (unhoped?) notch is found. There was a rap station found here, with multiple slings and a nice locking carabiner that I bootied. Again, I'll say here that there is a good bypass on the west side to avoid this notch, and this time there is not much deviation from the crest. Instead, I decided to reconnoiter the direct route down, finding some spicy class 4. This time, it was much more solid rock and not nearly so long - only about 20ft, and I felt much more confident soloing this crux. Once past, it was a class 2 effort (I was quite tired by this time and it felt like more work than it probably was) to reach the summit of Drift Peak by 12:45a.
I walked south past the summit a short distance to where a metal pole has been cemented into the ground. No flag, but an ammo box register lies at the base. It held a few scraps of paper going back three years, more visitors than I would have guessed. It was the only register I signed so far in five days in Colorado. I noticed a use trail heading down from the pole, optimistically thinking it might continue all the way down Drift's SW Ridge. It didn't. There is much class 2 rock-hopping down this ridge, though the trail appears in several sections, some of them very well-defined. At least nothing crux-y on this ridge. I eventually reconnected with an old road (no longer driveable) that would take me back down to the Boston Mine and the Jeep by 2p. Clouds had covered the whole sky by now, but so far only a few fleeting drops had fallen. I took shower where I was parked before starting back down the road - a good day, indeed. (Though in hindsight I wish I hadn't climbed that tower...)
I learned a few days later that Ben Brownlee had died the previous October, aged 26yrs. He was scrambling solo in the San Juans near Lake City. Another sobering reminder to be careful in the mountains...
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Crystal Peak - Pacific Peak - Atlantic Peak - Fletcher Mountain - Drift Peak
This page last updated: Tue Aug 24 15:33:44 2021
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