Route: Southwest Ridge from Grouse Canyon TH Difficulty: Class 2 according to Roach (what was he smoking?) Distance: 7.6 miles Elevation gain: 5,548 ft (this excludes additional elevation gain for the time GPS was turned off) Time: just over 12 hours
This Grouse Canyon route on Mt. Princeton has been on my radar for a while. As often the case with alternative routes on 14ers, it requires a fair amount of route finding and bushwhacking, so I waited till I got more proficient with GPS navigation. I am glad I did because this route had absolutely everything - snow and rock climbing, navigation challenges, dangers and rewards.
Both Roach and this site description give reasonably good directions to the The Grouse Canyon TH. Still the TH is not very obvious, so it is probably better to do a recon at daylight.
I camped near the TH the night before and met the rest of the group in the morning. We set off shortly after 7.30am (later than I'd like but this was not my choice). We got off trail almost immediately. With this route, the term "trail" is very loosely defined. Even when it is there, it is not very visible. Luckily, I had the route from the Roach book plugged into my GPS, so it helped to guide us in the general direction and we soon regained the "trail" only to lose it again in about 0.5 miles.
Starting out - the trail is there, somewhere
Route finding challenges
At some point trees got really dense. Can you spot two people there?
It did not come soon enough, but eventually the dense young aspen trees opened up and we saw a gully in front of us. It was partially covered in snow, which for the most part supported our weight.
at the end of the tree line
Scree/snow filled gully leading to Pt. 12,800. Full view of the gully 0.5 miles, ~1,500 ft of elevation gain
The gully has a very similar look & feel to the SW gully on Mt. Columbia, although this one may be a bit steeper near the top. I could not avoid the temptation to get on some reasonably steep snow. It beats going on loose talus any day.
The views are opening up
Almost full view of the long gully
Steeper snow near the top of the ridge ~40 degrees
After topping out on the ridge, the rest of the route became visible.
Pt. 13,971 on the left. Mt. Princeton on the right, about 2 miles away.
Close-up of the ridge leading to Pt. 13,971
Soon thereafter, at about 13K and before the difficulties of the ridge, the rest of the group called it a day. It was already 12.30pm. After this point, I proceeded solo. The ridge intro was nice and sweet, but I knew it won't last long.
Maybe in the summer conditions, this is rated Class 2. But the snow was obscuring the most obvious route. The snow was soft, steep and deep, with a little bit of ice underneath. Moreover, I knew that the crux was yet to come.
Looking back at the section completed
And here it was. The previous TR indicated that it was Class 3 at most. Well, even getting close to it required a downclimb facing in - but maybe only because I am short (5'4). I was really hard-pressed to find anything looking remotely like class 3, and not seeing it, opted to downclimb and go around this section.
Soon I noticed that I haven't done myself any favor by staying lower, as it all seemed to be Class 4 and maybe even low class 5 territory, and climbed back up to the ridge, right before the snow-filled gully (same gully as in Image #9 of the summer report).
Snow-filled gully. Compare with Image #9 of the other report.
Looking back at the ridge from the notch.
The much easier route leading to the notch was on the other side. From this point on, the route reverted to standard Class 2. Route finding on the ridge did eat up a lot of time, though. Combined with a very late start, I was looking at a later than optimal summit time. However, the weather was good and the forecast was good, so I proceeded as fast as I could muster.
Point 13,971 on the left and Princeton on the right.
The views from Pt 13,971 were actually better than on Princeton itself, maybe because it is positioned further west.
Topping out on Pt. 13,971
Remaining 1-mile route to Princeton.
What this mile-long ridge masks is the multiple false summits (I counted about 6 on the way back). Finally topping up on the bone dry summit of Mt. Princeton at 3pm. Yep, it is going to be a long day. I turned off my GPS to guarantee I have some battery life left for the return in the dark (and I had spare batteries for my headlamp).
Dry standard route from Mt. Princeton summit
Dangerously loose scree on Pt. 13,971
I did not stay long, just enough to drink some water and swallow some food, which took about 15 minutes. I set a goal to myself to be back on Pt. 13,971 by 4pm and I did. Well, the talus on Pt. 13,971 is incredibly loose. I almost got my left hand caught between boulders as they shifted unexpectedly. Earlier, I made a decision to descend the ridge earlier as I was concerned that negotiating class 3/4 on the way back would eat up a lot of time again. So I picked the first acceptably looking gully for the descent and dropped in.
Descending into the Grouse Canyon
The gully was loose and unpleasant, but no worse than the West slopes route on Columbia, and with snow, it got easier about half way. Even rather thin & soft, the snow was able to hold loose rocks in place. I did not glissade but used plunge-stepping, as I did not want my tailbone to find out the rocks were too close to the surface.
Plunge-stepping (or post-holing?) begins
Now was the time to pick the best line to avoid post-holing (I did not bring snowshoes).
Ha-ha. Not sure that snowshoes would help though. This late in the day the snow did not support much weight.
And just like that, I came across the Elk antlers. I found only one at first. And at just over 3 pounds (weighted later), it did not seem to be too difficult to carry. No sooner than I thought "I wonder what happened to the other one?" I saw the second piece. The bad news was that it weighted over 5 pounds. Well, I decided to carry it anyway and use it for support instead of poles.
For the next hour and a mile, I post-holed mercilessly, aiming to merge with our original route, and while resting, took ridiculous pictures.
Antero with antlers
The part I was dreading the most - the return to the TH in the dark turned out to be almost a non-event. I merged with our original gully shortly after 6pm and from there, was able to find sections of the trail marked with cairns. GPS certainly helped on those occasions when the trail disappeared for a while.
the "freeway" back to the TH
Some people get motivated thinking about a pie, a bacon cheeseburger or a country barbeque at an obscure Fairplay location. When I realized that I had a good chance of getting back to the TH before or shortly after dark, my pace really picked up (I also stopped post-holing, which probably helped). The idea that I might just be able to avoid downclimbing some waterfall in the Grouse Canyon (with antlers!) at 10pm greatly helped to accelerate my pace in the final two miles. My eyes were getting used to finding the trail in the waning daylight, but I was finally forced to put on a headlamp at about 8pm. Ten minutes later I was back at the car.
P.S. The 5-point elk antlers were measured at - left: 34 inches & 3.4 lb; right: 39 inches and 5.6 lb, carried nearly 3 miles and 3K elevation loss to the TH. They are now at taxidermist being mounted on a board. His first question was: did you kill it?
My GPS Tracks on Google Maps (made from a .GPX file upload):
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
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