Two failed attempts on Fletcher Mountain

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Fletcher Mountain is the high point immediately above the headwaters of Monte Cristo Creek. This creek lies in an impressive L-shaped valley framed by steep mountain faces on nearly all sides; Quandary Peak and Fletcher Mountain on the north, a high rugged ridge between Fletcher and Wheeler Mountain on the west, and North Star Mountain to the south. I had climbed Quandary Peak (a 14er) in September and was very impressed by the scenery, so I decided to give Fletcher Mountain a shot.

In summertime, the standard climb is fairly short as there is a good dirt road up to a dam which creates the upper lake of Blue Lakes. I was unsure how far this road would be passible this time of year, but the snowpack in Colorado was rather low in early April. It turned out that someone was staying in a cabin quite a ways up the valley, and the road was plowed and passable with 2WD for about 1.5 miles of the 2.2 mile road. The weather was beautiful; chilly but clear and calm.

Hiking up the rest of this road wasn't too bad, but the configuration creates some sidehill hiking so this was a little awkward on the relatively solid snow. Also, there is some nasty unplanned glissade potential on the left side of the road in places. However, I made it up to the dam after only about 30 minutes. The summer trail heads up to Fletcher's southeast ridge in an ascending traverse, so this was how I tried to ascend. However, the terrain as compared to the map was not obvious to me at all. The big problem was the snow condition, which was rock-hard covered by about 4" of fresh wet slick snow. It was almost impossible to kick steps or to self-belay with my axe. The angle wasn't too bad at first (less than 30 degrees) so I was able to struggle my way up to about 400 feet above the dam, but less than an hour after leaving the dam I had to give up. Crampons would have been very useful.

The descent was tricky as well. To give you some idea of how hard the snow was, I started a sitting glissade in one spot, and when I arrested after only sliding about 20 feet, the axe was nearly ripped from my hands. The snow about 200 feet lower was softer and I very likely would have eventually stopped completely unscathed, but it scared me nonetheless.

After getting most of the way back to the dam, I decided to try climbing straight up Quandary's south face (I had never really gotten off of Quandary's southwest flank while trying to ascend Fletcher). Snow conditions were the same so I came back down after less than 200 feet.

I was pretty much beaten mentally and physically, so I hiked back to the car and headed home. I made a detour to Loveland Pass to check out conditions for the successful climb of Grizzly Peak that I would do the next week.

I definitely wanted another shot at Fletcher. In studying the topo back home afterwards, with the hard snow a route which followed the valley all the way up could go. This would be a little longer, but more gradual. Thus, my plans were made for a rematch last weekend.

Breckenridge ski area is only about 10 miles away from here, and it was clear from the ski reports that this general area was getting some pretty good amounts in the three weeks bewteen the climbs. The report on the 10th gave 11" in the previous two days, the report on the 12th added 6" more, another 6" from 19th-21th, and probably more in the days when I didn't look at the reports.

Road conditions were reported to be mediocre in the area, and even leaving at 2:30am, I ended up driving cautiously enough that I didn't make it to the Blue Lakes road turnoff until shortly before 7am, about an hour later than it would have been on dry roads. There had been light snow falling throughout Summit County, but at the point on highway 9 where you suddenly get your first dramatic view of Quandary, my mouth dropped open because the top 1500 feet were bathed in sunlight! It shouldn't have been surprising because this was upslope snow which frequently doesn't make it all the way up to the highest peaks near the Continental Divide, but it was still impressive.

When I turned onto the side road, I immediately knew that I had a problem as there was several inches of snow on it. I managed to slip and slide my way about 0.7 miles up the road in my 2WD car and it's all-season radials, but the snow got too deep and I had to stop. Backing down this road was pretty interesting as there was only a couple feet of clearance between me and the high snowbanks on either side. There was a small parking area about halfway, but there were cars here that had been driven recently that might belong to the people who live along the first part of this road, and I didn't want to get in the way of people who lived there. Thus, I ended up parking only a tenth of a mile from the main road.

To make a long story short ("forget short, try interesting" as a comedian once quipped :), much of the two mile hike to the dam was in a foot of snow and was rather tiring. As I got nearer to the dam, the weather got better and I could see the ugly gray upslope clouds at the foot of the valley, while I had sunshine filtered through the fringes of those clouds. The plan for past the dam was to stay near the upper lake and then the creekbed. Unfortunately, the postholing was laborius and I only made it about a mile upstream in over an hour. Completely the opposite conditions to the first attempt. In this case, snowshoes would have been quite useful.

I decided that with the snow conditions being what they were that I would see how far up Fletcher's southeast flank I could get by snowclimbing. I had my homemade clinometer with me and I made it about 250 feet up on 25-35 degree snow. I was still postholing rather than step-kicking, but the snow was solid enough for good self-belay. I finally bailed just before 11am, ironically the maximum altimeter reading was a whopping 20 feet higher than on the previous ascent. Even if I had had the energy to continue, and assuming I didn't run in to anything too steep to safely climb, it would have taken me at least two more hours (and maybe four) before I would have summitted. And it probably would have been miserable too. Best to quit while you can still enjoy the trip.

Despite the soft snow, I managed a 100-foot (slow) sitting glissade, followed by losing another 100 feet with downhill snow jogging. That certainly takes your breath away at 12,000 feet! But it also really perked myself up for the hike back to the dam. By this time, there was nothing to block the sun at all and I was in a valley completed surrounded by snow. Needless to say, I had to be very careful to keep my sunblock current (it worked!). I also had to strip off a lot of clothing, and my black shell pants were a bit warm. I would have taken them off, but I didn't want to mess with the gaiters. Despite being only about 25-30 degrees, a few times I kneeled into the snow to cool off.

As I got closer to the dam, I could see a snow shower chasing me down the valley which was pretty cool, and it finally caught me just as I reached the dam. After putting my clothes back on, I headed back down the road. Shortly after, I met two snowshoers coming up. They had followed my footprints in places, but I didn't really get much help from their tracks. Exactly an hour after leaving the dam, I reached my car. By now there were quite a few cars parked in the area, and a group of six was heading out for some cross-country skiing.

Heading home, I had plenty of interesting weather, which was great since I'm a weather weenie. This included a heavy snow pellet shower while getting gas at Frisco, off and on light-moderate snow on I-70 above 9000 feet, rain in Denver, heavy rain on I-25 north of Denver, torrential rain turning to heavy snow on US 287 north of Fort Collins, and finally 2" of fresh snow at home in Laramie. (This later became 3.6" for the day, which, in this mild winter is the heaviest one-day snow we've had so far.)

I've learned a lot from these two climbs, especially how fickle snow conditions can be, and in what I can reasonably expect to do without certain equipment. I still love that area, and hell, I might even try it again before the snow melts.

[If you are thinking, "well, why the hell didn't you just go buy crampons and snowshoes?!?!" I was in grad school at this time, for crying out loud! I had already spent way more money than I really had just to get good basic clothing, pack, and other gear. This was the 4th calender year I was in grad school and it would be the first year I would gross more than $10,000, and that was only because I took a time-and-a-half teaching load during the fall. In any case, I did end up buying some 4-point instep crampons during that spring, and real crampons later.]


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