| Wild Basin Traverse
Wild Basin (almost) Full Traverse
August 29, 2013
Wild Basin is a huge drainage in Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park. Hikes to the peaks at the head of the Basin always entail long approaches, usually 18+ miles round trip. It is aptly named: everything in Wild Basin is remote.
A pdf map of the route is here.
After doing a traverse of adjacent Glacier Gorge last year, I began to think about doing a similar traverse of Wild Basin. While I’d climbed the major peaks in the Basin over the years, my knowledge of the area was relatively limited, and I thought this would be good motivation to get more intimate with this spectacular alpine playground. I knew this traverse was going to be TOUGH: it is 30+ miles with more than 14,000’ of total elevation gain, and I’d be bagging a 14er (Longs Peak), six 13ers, and an assortment of lower peaks to boot. Plus, there are also some significant technical difficulties, such as the breathtaking west ridge of Pagoda, the infamous north ridge of Isolation and the complex and chossy ridge connecting Ogalalla and Elk Tooth. This route seemed like the limit of what I could accomplish in a single day, which is always motivating for me. Plus, I’d never heard of anyone linking it all up!
The “rules” for ridge traverses are simple: You don’t have to stay exactly on top of the ridge at all times, you just have to tag all named and significant summits along the way.
So, I left the Copeland Lake trailhead just before first light on August 29, walking and jogging up the Sandbeach Lake Trail. After just over a mile, I turned right and started bushwhacking up the steep, brushy and rocky southeast ridge of Lookout Mtn. The ridge provided excellent views of much of Wild Basin in the orange glow of early morning light. After an hour or so I scrambled up the remarkable little summit block of Lookout and surveyed the route up the massive Meeker Ridge.
The distinctive summit block of Lookout Mtn, with Mt Meeker in the background.
Dropping down to the Lookout-Meeker saddle, I found a nice cairned “use” trail through the trees, and was soon marching steadily up Meeker Ridge on talus and grassy slopes. It was tempting to stop and pick bright red wild raspberries along the way, but I figured I had lots to accomplish today. By the time I topped out on Meeker I was just over 3 hours into the route and had already ascended more than 5800 vertical feet. It was 9:00 a.m., and the day was bluebird, windless and already warm.
On the summit of Meeker. Longs Peak in upper right, Chief’s Head is just over my right shoulder, Pagoda is behind my head.
I covered the familiar ground from Meeker to Longs Peak quickly, and notched my 49th lifetime ascent of this magnificent peak. The summit of Longs was busy with hikers as usual. I took a short snack break then went skipping down the Homestretch slabs off towards Pagoda. I nailed the sneak through the cliff band on the connecting ridge and was soon standing on the remote summit of Pagoda. Though a worthy peak in its own right, and the fourth highest in the Park, Pagoda sees very little traffic. I soaked in the view, snapped some photos, and steeled myself for the difficult terrain ahead.
While the approach to Pagoda from the east is relatively easy (class 3), getting off the west side of the peak is notoriously hard. The standard route along the jagged west ridge boasts a 70’ pitch of very exposed 5.7 climbing, which I had rappelled on the Glacier Gorge traverse. With no rope for a rappel, I would need to find another way. I carefully picked my way down Pagoda’s huge and complex south face, zig-zagging across ledges and slabs. I tried downclimbing a steep dihedral, but the holds became too thin for my liking, so I had to retreat. The remoteness and dizzying exposure was intimidating! Traversing farther east, I was able to scramble down to a scree-covered ledge. Descending east along the ledge, I came to the only good source of running water I’d see all day, which was ironically running right down the best route! Avoiding the slippery wet rock, I was able to carefully climb down to another ledge at about 12,600’, and then traversed back west to just below the spectacular west ridge. Done!
Pagoda’s spectacular west ridge and intimidating south face.
Longs, Pagoda and Meeker (left to right) from the west.
Once off Pagoda I breathed easier of the thin alpine air. I took a little break on Chief’s Head, recalling my first ascent of this remote summit 22 years ago, when my wife and I first ventured into Wild Basin on a backpacking trip. From here to Ogalalla I would be on the Continental Divide and in the heart of the Basin.
Isolation Peak is left, the difficult North Ridge notch is right of center.
Relatively gentle, pleasant hiking took me over Mt Alice and Tamina Peak. The ridgeline tightened up again as I approached The Cleaver, a little pinnacle at the base of the intimidating north ridge of Isolation Peak. The initial pitch of this ridge is supposed to go at a fairly moderate 5.4. Yet, twice I’d been stymied here by a combination of tricky climbing, scary exposure and weather. This time I wanted to fire it off. But, having already ascended nearly 10,000 vertical feet in the past 8 hours, I was feeling tired and not completely solid, so I balked. One thing about getting older is that prudence starts to trump enthusiasm. Plus, I knew of a sneak. Working around to the west, I descended for 150’ on a grassy ledge then followed another grassy ramp up to a steep gully that gained the north ridge above the hard part. Soon I was traipsing along the easy upper slopes to the summit of Isolation.
Looking south from Ouzel.
What the … ?”
Onward! I reached Ogalalla, the final 13er of the day, feeling a bit wobbly. Clouds had been building for quite a while, and now thunder rumbled off to the south, with rain showers apparent to the south and east. Not good. I quickly but carefully descended off Ogalalla’s steep, loose (really loose!) east ridge. I noticed that my route-finding skills were not up to their usual standard, and I fumbled around a little for a good route. Eventually I was standing on Elk Tooth in a light drizzle. It was my second ascent of Elk Tooth, the first being over 20 years ago.
Descending the east ridge, I forgot the clear instructions to drop north off the ridge at 12,200’, and found myself amid more steep, loose and difficult terrain. At this point in the day I found it more prudent to climb back up a bit and descend recommended route, and soon found myself stumbling through the brushy, cliffy Cony Creek drainage. To complete the full traverse I still needed to climb back up to the ridge, summit diminutive and easy St Vrain and Meadow, and then run 8 miles back to my car. It was late and raining, I was tired. I could do it, but this just didn’t seem that fun anymore. So, I made a quick decision to call it good, and simply jog the easy Pear Lake trail on out. I arrived at my car just after 9 p.m., after over 15 hours out, feeling well satisfied with a great day out.
Splits for the day.
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):