Peak(s):  Little Pawnee Peak 12,466'
Pawnee Peak 12,943'
Date Posted:  03/02/2020
Date Climbed:   02/29/2020
Author:  Graham Gedman
 Pawnee Traverse  

The Pawnee Traverse

2/28/2020 - 3/1/2020

17.9 miles, 4869' elevation gain

This winter has been a serious struggle. The past 3 climbs I've attempted have been failures due to bad weather, poor snow conditions and some bad off-road driving on my part. That being said, I've been looking at the peaks surrounding the Indian Peaks Wilderness for a while now. There's some awesome ridges with some great climbing, only downside is the sheer amount of people in this area anytime other than winter. I came up with a solid route and decided to get it done before the horde of people, camping restrictions and absurd entrance fees returned in the summer months. My plan was as follows: park at the Brainard Lake winter lot, pack out to Long Lake and spend the night, early start up to Little Pawnee Peak, do the Pawnee Traverse, Pawnee Peak, over to Shoshoni Peak, the Kasparov Traverse up to Apache Peak, Navajo Peak, Niwot Ridge/Mountain all the way back down to Long Lake. Pretty ambitious, I know.

I attempted this route about a month ago - the weather forecast was perfect, temps in the teens and winds 10-15 mph at 13k'. The weatherman was horribly wrong, temperatures below zero and well over 60mph winds in the basin... I spent a miserable night just below Long Lake just trying to keep my tent from blowing down. Got up early and skipped the Pawnees, just went right to the base of Shoshoni before I had to bail. Well over 100mph winds up high and all the peaks were shrouded in clouds.

I've been waiting for a good weather window for the last month and this weekend was finally looking good. Single digit temps and almost no wind at 13k' - perfect winter weather, and it's not like the weatherman would be wrong again, right? I headed up to Brainard Lake midday Friday - got to the parking lot at 1:30pm and unsurprisingly the parking lot was packed. Lots of skiers and snowshoers. These crowds are exactly what I usually try to avoid, but I knew just two miles down the road there wouldn't be nearly as many people. I talked to a couple folks who just returned to get an idea of the snow conditions. First guy I talked to was an older gentleman on skis - he ignored my question and told me, "You don't look like you're going to make it very far." What? Who says that? I promptly walked away and spoke with a friendly-looking woman and her two kids. I asked if she had walked up the road toward Long Lake and she responded very condescendingly, "Excuse me, no, we were backcountry snowshoeing." I about smacked her, there was 100 cars in the parking lot including two school buses full of kids, there was nothing backcountry happening there. She then proceeded to inform me they did in fact, walk up the road. I don't get it, this is why I try to avoid hiking/climbing where there are a lot of people.

I set off at 2pm with no solid information on the snow conditions. Approach hike wasn't bad at all, it was about 4 miles to my camping destination at Long Lake, for the most part level terrain and no trenching (from all the traffic) up until the Long Lake trailhead. I was getting some crazy looks from everyone I passed, I do look a bit ridiculous with my winter overnight pack (more than 100lbs of gear). Weather was beautiful, not a gust of wind and something like 25 degree temps. I was excited to finally get a proper shot at this ridge traverse.

Brainard Lake with a good view of tomorrow's route

I left the car at 2pm and by 630pm I was 4 miles in, pit was dug, tent was set up and fire was rolling. The pit I dug was freakin' gorgeous. Walls were almost above the top of the tent, large enough to accommodate my 13' long 4-season tent, even came with a detached fire lounge and insulated recliner. Perfectly level and nestled just below a thicket of trees - no wind was rattling my tent tonight. I've never seen a better pit, I doubt anyone else has either. Too bad "pit-digging" isn't a quality women look for in a man.

I'm a modern day snow architect

I was in the bag by 730pm, ready to wake up early for a perfect day of climbing. Set my alarm for 3am and went to sleep in the dead-calmness of wind-free camping, hoping all the forest sharks were still asleep for the winter. I was rudely awakened at 1am - the wind had picked up quite a bit and was loudly howling over the treetops. I hoped this was just a passing event but failed to return back to sleep from the noise, and by 3am when my alarm went off the wind was considerably worse. Great, I thought, weatherman nailed the forecast again. I heavily debated even getting out of the sleeping bag, but decided to go for it anyway. I was breaking trail by 415am.

I only had a short distance to go to break treeline and gain Little Pawnee's East Ridge. Once above the treeline, however, the wind started to really pickup. 40-50mph gusts as I walked up toward the ridge. Right at the base of the ridge there is a small cliff band, about 150' tall facing east. Would've been very easy to just bypass around to the South, but the snow was surprisingly solid, so I decided to just go straight up a gully on the face. I threw on my crampons and kick-stepped up the 75 degree slope. Looking back, this was probably the most satisfying and only fun section of my day. I could see the lights from Boulder/Longmont over my shoulder, where everyone was comfortably asleep in their warm beds, and here I was, 5am and kick-stepping up a cliff face. The rest of the day didn't go as well.

The higher I went on the ridge, the worse the winds got. The wind didn't give much warning when it would gust and it repeatedly knocked me down as I stumbled up the mellow ridge. It got pretty annoying, every minute or two I'd be on the ground struggling to get back to my feet. I quickly learned the best way of battling this was to just hit the deck every time the wind would gust. It was so strong I couldn't even breath during a gust, not an expert on wind speed but I'd peg it around 70mph... Being that every minute or two I'd have to get on the ground and hold my breath, progress was extremely slow. I had a sneaking suspicion my day wasn't going to last much longer.

Brief sunrise looking East towards Longmont from Little Pawnee's East ridge

I battled on at least hoping to catch some alpenglow on the Indian Peaks. It was cloudy and only a brief moment where the sun rose but sat below the clouds, yielding some very temporary alpenglow.

The only moment of alpenglow I captured

Making progress up the ridge

I struggled on up the ridge and was greeted by a lone fox just below the class 3 section of Little Pawnee. Not sure what he was doing all the way up there, no food, water or shelter anywhere near. I pressed on, moving incredibly slow in the wind.

Pawnee on the left, the traverse in the middle, Little Pawnee on the right

The short class 3 section up to Little Pawnee's summit block would've been a lot of fun on a nice day but the wind spoiled it. I was constantly tripping over myself and getting knocked around, but finally made it to the summit at 845am. I was already several hours behind schedule.

Trying to hide from the wind just below Little Pawnee's summit block, looking North

I spent no time on the summit, the wind was too intense and at this point I was getting pretty cold. I managed to take one picture of the traverse ahead before my phone quit on me. I was under the impression that inanimate objects weren't affect by wind chill - temps were in the single digits but apparently that was enough to kill my phone (even though it was tucked in my warm chest pocket). It turned off and did not turn back on until the following morning. I tried to take still shots with my gopro for the remainder of the day, but even my indestructible gopro was struggling in the cold. Half the videos and pictures I took were "corrupted" and could not be viewed after the fact. So the rest of the day was spent on self-preservation and wind avoidance, rather than gathering pictures or beta on the route.

Only picture I got of the Pawnee traverse, Pawnee in the distance

The Pawnee Traverse is pretty awesome, tons of exposure on the South side and lots of great class 4 and climbing to be had. I would've really enjoyed it, but the wind prevented that. I had to avoid the fun class 5 and the mandatory class 4 was unbelievably sketchy. The crux is the downclimb right off Little Pawnee's summit block, which would've been quick work in the summer, but was tedious (to say the least) in the current conditions. Some airy class 4 moves that I had to time around the wind gusts had me thinking "why am I doing this" rather than the anticipated "wow, this is fun!" I don't have much beta on the route, I spent most of my time dropping below the ridge to the North to avoid the brunt of the wind. Crampons were necessary for about 25% of the traverse but just got in the way the rest of the time. It took quite a while to do the traverse but I was on the summit of Pawnee by noon.

The route ahead behind me

On Pawnee looking towards Niwot, Kiowa, Shoshoni, Navajo, Apache and a few other peaks above the IPW

At this point I was pretty convinced my day was over. I did the math and there little chance I could safely get over to Niwot ridge before dark, at least not in those conditions. I was desperate to avoid dropping into the basin as it would mean 3+ miles of trenching back to camp, where as Niwot ridge was windblown and dry - it would involve less than half a mile of trenching to reach my tent. I knew in the back of my head there was I needed a miracle in order to complete this ridge walk but I decided to go for it anyway. At the very least I could go check out the Kasparov traverse before I bailed. Still doing math in my head, I knew if I could reach the end of the class 3 on Niwot ridge by dark I would be good to go that meant I would have to reach the Kasparov traverse, complete it, summit Apache, summit Navajo, and scramble over Niwot ridge in about 6 hours to be safe. There was still a small sliver of hope.

It took another 2 hours to reach the entrance of the Kasparov traverse. I should've taken the hint mother nature was blatantly giving me as I descended into Pawnee Pass - I was walking down a 45 degree slope but I couldn't make any progress. The wind was blowing uphill so hard that I couldn't even let myself fall down the slope. I tried to set up my gopro to get one of those cliche hurricane-force wind videos but I couldn't even keep my gopro from blowing away... Again, I'm not an expert but I'd estimate the wind in this particular section was over 100 mph. Needless to say I struggled on in some "easy" class 2 that was really beating the crap out of me. I actually started to curse out the wind every time it blew, as if that was going to slow it down. It was 2pm by the time I got to the Kasparov, and if the traverse looked do-able I was going to go for it. Upon reaching the entrance, however, a terrible feeling washed over me - common sense. The traverse is pretty gnarly - throw in several month's worth of loose snow and 70+ mph winds and you got a suicidal route in your hands. I reluctantly called it a day. It took over 15 hours of hiking and climbing to reach this point, the Kasparov being the main objective of this trip, but to continue on would be foolish.

Just North of Apache looking out at Lone Eagle Peak

From left to right: Navajo, Apache, the Kasparov

Before I left Friday I tried to find some beta on the Kasparov Traverse in winter but couldn't find any. I think I now know why - in winter conditions this ridge looks like an absolute nightmare. I'm very curious if anyone reading this knows of someone who has attempted or completed it in winter. From what I saw, you would need some serious gear and tolerance for some very exposed 5.hard to send this ridge.

Standing at the entrance to the Kasparov with Apache looming

Just the first few moves on the ridge looked suicidal. There's a very large drift of snow sitting on the ledge where the traverse begins. The ledge is only about 1' wide but there was about 10-15' of loose snow piled up on top of it. Sitting above several hundred feet of a sheer drop, this isn't something you would want to walk across. Doesn't look terrible in the only picture I got, but that drift pretty much rules out the "standard" route on this ridge.

Yea, I wouldn't walk across that either

You could traverse West around the first tower, or even up over it, but that would involve some 5.hard that I was clearly not prepared for. Beyond that, most of the ridge looked doable until just below "The Rook" and "King's Pawn". There is some class 4 and low class 5 to get around (or over) these towers, but in the current conditions I'm not sure they could be safely navigated. All the gullies and faces that aren't vertical were filled with loose snow. Would be very hard to protect these sections, you'd be free soloing hoping the snow doesn't give out from underneath you. After this section it gets even trickier. If you were to go East over towards Queen's Way would be a nightmare just from how loose and steep the snow is. You would have to wrap around the West face of Apache and do some serious route-finding just to find a safe route up.

I don't avidly practice common sense and really love to try stupid/risky routes, but this one exceeded my ability (and risk tolerance). I'll come back for this once it gets warmer, but for now it was time to head home. I could've bagged Shoshoni pretty easily on my way back, but I'm not trying to check peaks off a list (I do it for the thrill and experience), so the extra half mile and 500' of gain just wasn't worth it to me. I unhappily descended down Pawnee Pass into the basin and began my long slog back to my tent. That was the worst part of my day, took 4.5 hours to get back. The wind was definitely playing with me all day - it was constantly shifting direction but only seemed to blow opposite of where I was heading all day... I should've listened to nature, but I stupidly carried on. It was rather ironic as soon as I started back to camp the wind shifted and was at my back (not making progress any easier, was constantly knocking me down), as if nature was taunting me and telling me to "get the f*** off my mountain." Back at camp at 730pm, I was pretty exhausted and I immediately went to sleep in my beautiful pit-home. Woke up late next morning to a perfect wind-less day (of course) and some light snow falling. For how rough this trip was - I had only a few minutes where I really enjoyed myself, it was not a complete failure, but I did have a pretty amazing pit I can brag about.

Are you guys seeing this?!?

Overall this was definitely another character-building trip. I've had 4 or 5 of those this winter so it's safe to say my character is becoming pretty solid. I'll be back for the Kasparov before the horde arrives, but until then I'll keep slogging away.

Some fancy mapwork, exact route shown in red

My GPS Tracks on Google Maps (made from a .GPX file upload):

Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 17

 Comments or Questions

Roll Cloud
03/03/2020 09:01
Did the same loop a couple winters ago and looked back to see this amazing roll cloud! I sent the image to Marty Coniglio of 9News to confirm that's what I saw and he said, Yes!

328i 0 60>

Solid work out there!


Heckuva job
03/04/2020 11:05
Nice, nice report!

Excellent report
03/08/2020 00:33
What a cool report. That last shot with the big drift was excellent.

That is a world class pit.

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