| The No Joke Route: Quandary - West Ridge
With Sherman under our belts as an acclimation and warm-up 14er, our flatlander foursome set our sights on a more challenging route. The west ridge route on Quandary promised lots of fun scrambling and plenty of air. It was also short, which fit our criteria for our third full day in Colorado.
We had ogled this route for a while, considering it last year before choosing Kelso Ridge instead. We nicknamed it the “No Joke Route,” after Bill Middlebrook’s stern warning on the 14ers.com route description. The seriousness of the route was also driven home by a sign at the trailhead. We had seen the sign before in someone’s trip report photo, but to read it in the flesh when you’re heading up that way is sobering.
The No Joke Route Sign
Our first look at the area came on Sunday afternoon, after hiking Sherman in the morning. We enjoyed a scenic drive to the Blue Lakes Trailhead, huffed up the brief incline to the dam, and surveyed a beautiful scene of lake and mountains. Some of the local wildlife greeted us, and for a while we were Men (and woman) Who Stared at Goats. On this, our 13th Fourteener, it was our first up-close look at the critters. While they were obviously peaceful creatures, the weapons they carried on their heads demanded a certain respect. Just the thought of the damage any one of them could inflict to a standing human made us cringe.
Docile critters, thankfully
I had read for some years how fond goats are of human urine, so of course a couple of the guys had to take a leak to see what happened. Sure enough, they came eagerly slurping the pee off of rocks and gobbling down urine-soaked grass. We felt a warm fuzzy glow knowing our group helped provide essential nutrients to these poor creatures.
The next morning we hit the trailhead early – too early in a way. The route description warns about crossing trails “going up from the lake,” but hiking by headlamp off of a 5:30 a.m. start, we ended up going astray on one of them anyway. After thrashing around in brush for a while, we agreed we were too high for that stage of the hike, and what little semblance of trail remained was not heading the right direction, west. We followed Rule 7 in The No Joke Route Sign and backtracked. It took just a few minutes from there to find small gully which led down to the main trail as morning dawned. We had essentially wasted a half-hour getting off-trail in the dark.
Once back on course, the section that followed was one of those wonderful serene morning hikes that reminds you why you love just being in the high country. Over a modest shoulder lay a ruggedly beautiful basin, with patches of beautiful wildflowers, majestic views down to the lake, and soon, alpenglow on the peaks before us.
Dawn over Blue Lake reservoir
Brothers color-coordinated with each other (dorky!) and with the alpenglow (awesome!)
Further up the basin, the trail runs alongside a small mountain stream, crossing over it to the southwest side after a while. Soon we were viewing from a distance what appeared to be our first climbing challenge of the route.
We had not recognized it at the time this photo was taken, but in the far center background, just left of the tip of the cairn, is our snow gully
The route description upon which we relied heavily calls for ascending a “short, steep gully” at about 12,400 feet. There is a cryptic reference to the possibility of snow in the gully, but we were not prepared for what we saw this late August day.
The gully that wasn't. Someonewhere under that white stuff is a rust-colored stain!
The snow slope was not terribly steep, but with no gear and no experience on snow, we agreed it was too steep for us to try. As we approached, we studied the terrain on both sides of the gully. The right looked like easy going initially, but it got cliffy up higher and we could not see what lay above the cliffs. The left side looked steep in spots and potentially loose.
With some trepidation, we chose to go left of the snow. Being forced to depart from the established route is a big issue for us. We take Rule 4 in The No Joke Route Sign pretty seriously.
Mark scrambled up the first section to see the lay of the land before we came up. I was relieved to hear him call down, “this is fine. There’s a cairn – there’s another one. Piece of cake.” Our concerns were unfounded. An easy, well-cairned trail, mostly class 2, wound through the rocks to the left of the snow. After we ascended it, I wondered if this might not be the best way to go even if the gully were snow-free.
Easy terrain to the left of the snow gully
Looking down from the top of the gully. Steps in the snow are visible, by those more prepared for it than us.
Above the gully came a stretch of mostly talus-hopping with a few slabs sprinkled in. The rock field with water running beneath it reminded me of the boulder field on Longs Peak, in miniature. More snowfields lay above us and to our left, but our route clearly went right. We were at the upper end of the basin, approaching 13,000 feet. The west ridge ascended in its rugged beauty to our right, and a notch in the ridge was our gateway to it.
Our trail swung left out of this photo, then back right. The notch in the ridge (top center, in shade) and reverse "Z" ascent are visible.
As we approached the talus field at the base of the slope, there appeared to be several options to gain the ridge. To climber’s left it looked solid but steep. Toward the middle, the angle of the slope relented; the terrain looked to me like a mix of solid rock and possibly difficult talus. The established trail appeared to swing far to the right, and then switch back left to ascend diagonally up the slope. It looked like the kind of sand-gravel scree path that we try to avoid.
Despite my previous misgivings about being forced to leave the trail, or maybe emboldened by the experience, I favored abandoning it here. Eventually the rest of the group agreed. We peeled off the trail and headed more or less directly up the slope, toward the middle.
Looking down over the upper basin, from a little above 13,000 feet.
It turned out to be looser and more difficult than I had supposed, and really one of the harder sections of the route - which we would have known if we had remembered Rule 6. We kept scrambling over loose slopes toward what looked like better ground ahead, only to find when we got there that the only climbable way forward involved more loose scrambling. But we made it eventually, ending up briefly on the upper reaches of that diagonal path. Just before the notch we peeled off the path again, this time to the right, up a short, solid scramble to the climber’s trail below the ridge, which Mark had located.
Looking north through the notch that you gain to reach the ridge. The trail did not go through this notch.
From the notch, the trail wound along initially on the right (south) side of the ridge. It was easy going, but the rugged rock and steep drops to our right made for a hearty trek.
The beginning of the ridge trail.
After quite some time along the south slope, the trail veers up to a small notch and takes you to the north side. Here the terrain was more mundane, but with more elevation gain. We alternated between cool shadowed stretches and walking directly into a blinding morning sun.
Another one for Dad's favorite collection of Dear Daughter shots. There's gotta be one in every TR!
As we approached 14,000 feet, the trail took us up over a rise and revealed the highlight of this trip – a series of brutally jagged towers of shattered rock, basking in the relentless glare of the sun. We knew a route wound through those towers to the summit, but that initial sight was still intimidating – and exhilarating.
This photo is out of sequence, but the best shot we have of the rugged towers that highlight this route.
But first there was more elevation to gain and more ridge to walk. Back to the east side went the trail, again winding through more rugged terrain. With no other souls visible on the ridge this Monday morning, we were feeling like real mountain men – until we came to the remains of a mining crib. The thought that somebody many decades ago had figured out how to lug big timbers up there for the sake of mining kind of took us down a notch on our self-assessed badass scale.
Nevertheless, the crib, or shack remains or whatever it was, served as a good marker for the beginning of the intense section of the route. I believe photo 14 in the route description is taken from near that mining crib, showing the first scramble up to the apex of the ridge from the a small notch. But we missed that upward scramble, instead following what looked like a trail traversing around the north side of the ridge.
After a short distance, the trail we were following abruptly ended. We looked every which way from that point, and nothing looked like trail or a reasonable climbing route. We backtracked a few feet, and Mark decided to scramble up the rocky slope to our right to get a look around. When he reached the apex of the ridge, he called down that he was on the route up there. We followed, up a somewhat steep slope with some large loose boulders. That “trail” to the north side was just a misleading spur.
That experience once again drove home Rule 7. There seems to be a natural aversion, at least on our part, to both back-tracking, and checking our route photos - but that's exactly what's needed most of the time when the route is not apparent. At any rate, from that point the fun factor went to near 10 on our scale and stayed there most of the way to the summit.
Optical illusion pic. The foreground rock is less than a foot away from the camera.
We love a good ridge walk!
Looking back on the ridge, with Fletcher Mountain and the northern Sawatch peaks behind us.
The first major landmark was a long scree gully on the north side. The lower half is flanked by a sheer wall on the right and dropoff to the left, leaving no choice but to scramble up the loose dirt. But about halfway up, near a distinctive white rock, you can exit the dirt to climber’s right and take to fun, blocky rock the rest of the way up.
Approaching the long scree gully. The white rock that marks the point where you can exit right to solid rock is clearly visible even from here.
Looking down from the top of the steep gully. This is a really fun climb.
Looking back, toward the notch at the top of that gully.
The next challenge, however, was deadly serious – a brutal scree gully facing north, which had to be somehow crossed or bypassed. A trail segment took us around the north side of the ridge, intersecting the gully at a point where it was wide and steep enough to be extremely dangerous to cross. Mark, going first, made it over, but realized he had gotten away with a risky move and warned me against trying it as I approached. He had no trouble convincing me.
At Mark’s urging, I climbed up the gully, as it transitioned from scree to relatively stable, steep rock above the point where I stood. It was a short climb, maybe 15-20 feet, but kind of sketchy, with a yawning drop below leaving no margin for error. I reached a small saddle where I could cross to the summit side of the gully, but the rock on the other side did not look like something I wanted to climb up. Uncertain about how to proceed from there, I expressed some annoyance with my brother’s advice back to Maryjane, who was approaching the gully behind me.
The gully that gave us so much trouble is not visible in this photo, but lays between Mark, in background, and me, in the foreground.
Maryjane surveyed the scree crossing. A basketball-size rock near the middle would have provided a stepping-stone for crossing if it were solid, but it looked loose. She braced herself, reached across the gully, and pulled on it to test it. It came out and thundered down the gully in a series of sickening thuds, gaining speed as it went, followed by a shower of gravel and debris. The whole thing went on for quite some time, as far down the gully, way out of our sight, we could hear the thunk-thunk-thunk of that rock continue.
That experience was unsettling to all of us, but Garrett was especially shaken. I traversed left from the saddle, and Maryjane climbed up to where I had been at the saddle, but Garrett remained parked at the bottom of the gully, contemplating turning back. Mark had moved ahead along the ridge, out of the vicinity of the gully. I was annoyed at him for leaving, and for advising me to climb something that I didn’t think was safe. Mark then came back and, standing up on the ridge above us, tried to tell us how he thought we should proceed. It came out sounding to the rest of us like impatient criticism, although my viewpoint was admittedly rather skewed at that point. Maryjane seemed to handle the situation best. Garrett thought we were all nuts for putting ourselves in such a place.
Eventually Mark climbed down the route he was advising, back into the gully, demonstrating that it was in fact an easy, solid scramble. Maryjane had climbed up the gully at that point, and scrambled to the ridge. Marked help lead Garrett up to the ridge as well. We were past the crisis, unfazed physically but a little shaken.
Looking down the gully. The rock that Maryjane dislodged probably ended up in or near the green shrubs, more than 1000' below.
Part of my alarm came from over thinking the rest of the route. I knew there were several prominent challenges ahead of us. This gully didn’t even seem to warrant the attention of the route description or any of the numerous trip reports I had read beforehand. If this challenge sets us back this much, I thought, how will we handle what lays ahead?
As with the snow challenge down lower, my concerns were misplaced. That gully turned out to be, for us, by far the stiffest challenge of the route. Afterwards we would agree that we should have backtracked (Rule 7, duh) and gone to the ridge before the gully, rather than following the trail segment which led to a lower crossing point. Approaching it from the ridge would have provided for an easy downclimb into the small saddle, and a good vantage point for picking out the line up the other side..
At any rate, once that was behind us, the fun returned. The next prominent challenge was a wall with a large crack, about 30 feet high. Chimneying up that crack would have been difficult for us, especially with our packs. Someone with more experience on rock walls, even more time in an artificial climbing gym, might scamper up it with ease. For us, however, the easy route was to climb about halfway up the wall on solid rock to the right of the crack, then cross over it to the left at that point, never placing hand or foot in the crack itself.
Crossing the first crack.
The next challenge was the spot generally identified as the crux of the route: “a large wall with poor rock and several steep sections,” preceded by a long downclimb from a prominent bump in the ridge down to a saddle.
Looking back on the large rise, from the top of the "crux wall".
Several trip reports describe the downclimb as being as hard or harder than scaling the wall itself. Here’s a tip that might make it a bit easier for someone: You start down well-documented “white rock” on descender’s right. But there is a point where you turn left off of the white rock to climb over a small rock outcropping toward the saddle. That point is clearly seen in the photo below, because I’m standing on it.
Downclimbing. The red rock at the bottom of the photo is the saddle. I'm standing on the best point to exit the white rock.
The natural instinct while downclimbing there is to keep following the white rock down, which is visible to the left of Garrett and me in the photo above. But that white rock leads too low if followed that far, requiring an exposed traverse back across, or maybe even back up, to the saddle.
The "crux wall" on the other side, maybe approaching 100’ in height, may look daunting in photos. We found it to be easy, with the blocky rock providing ample steps and an abundance of reasonable holds. Scampering up it was a delight. We didn’t end up with a shot of that wall, but plenty of other people have photographed it.
From the top of that wall it was a short walk to the summit – just enough time to let it sink in: “Wow, we did that route!” As we approached the summit, some from among the throng of standard-route hikers saw where we came from, and came over to congratulate us. We feigned modesty, but in reality our ego meter was back up to “major badass.”
On the summit, with the ridge behind us.
Some don’t like the social gathering that is the summit of a 14er with an easy standard route, but I find it fascinating. Among the most interesting of the summiteers that day were three ladies in their mid- to late-60s. (It took me a while to get the nerve to ask their ages, but eventually I did.) A couple of them had climbed Quandary a number of times, and some other 14ers. One was a serious distance runner, and another was planning a climb of Kilimanjaro a few weeks shy of her 70th birthday.
We decided to descend the standard route and try to catch a ride back to our car at the Blue Lakes dam. I was starting to feel ill and was moving slowly – just about the same pace as the ladies. I cajoled an offer from them to take a couple of us back up to the dam. But alas, Maryjane and Garrett descended much faster than me and caught a ride back to our vehicle with someone else, so there was to be no joyriding with these gals.
Blue Lakes dam from the summit.
It was as I suffered down this trail that I realized my problem this day, and the day before descending Sherman, was sun exposure. A few sparse clouds teased me with shadows sweeping across the trail below. I wanted desperately to get into them, but the wind kept taking them away by the time I got to where they had been. Finally, around tree line, I found relief from clouds, and soon afterward, trees. That night I bought a hat – brilliant!
More goats ... or one of the same group that greeted us at the dam?
The walk down of course seemed endless, until it ended, if you know what I mean. Not having ascended that trail made it a little more interesting on the descent. Very picturesque, and blessedly shaded. Best of all, Maryjane and Garrett met us at the trailhead with our vehicle. Before long we were reliving our experience on the “No Joke Route” over burgers and Corona at a Fairplay watering hole. Most of us loved it and would do it again in a heartbeat if we had the chance. I suspect we will someday.
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