Peak(s):  Mount Ida
Chief Cheley Peak
Bancroft, Mt  -  13,250 feet
Parry Pk A  -  13,391 feet
James Pk  -  13,294 feet
Date Posted:  09/01/2020
Date Climbed:   07/31/2020
Author:  nmedica
 56 Hours on The Pfiffner Traverse  

Overview:

I first heard about The Pfiffner Traverse in early 2020 from a friend of a friend. A quick google search of "The Pfiffner Traverse" led me to Andrew Skurka's website; and, after reading the history of Karl Pfiffner conjuring the line in his mind the 50's and Gerry Roach completing it some odd years later (1987), I was hooked. I was inspired to at least attempt the line. A few months after first hearing about the route, I went for it - unsupported.

Below were the facts:

  • I HAD to be to work on Monday morning, so I only had three full days to finish the line.
  • I was unsupported and couldn't risk not bringing enough food or gear (didn't want to bail for food/gear issues).
  • I wasn't going to set any records having never been on the line (had read about a few DNF's).
  • I wasn't going to be able to detour to peak bag and risk losing time to tedious scrambling sections; I needed to go as fast as possible.

Given these facts, I decided to take a 25lb pack with an ultralight tent, sleeping bag/pad, stove, warm clothing, and ~10K worth of calories. In hindsight, I took way too much food.

I didn't care about scrambling or peak bagging. I didn't care about setting an FKT. I merely wanted to complete the "line" at all costs. The line on a topographic map is as aesthetic as the actual mileage on route. For ordinary mortals such as myself, it's the type of line you may only have the opportunity to get on and legitimately have a chance at completing a few times in your life. I was stoked!

On Friday July 31st, 2020 I had an Uber driver pick me up in the wee hours of the morning (3am) and haul me up to Milner Pass. My wife and doodle were allowed to sleep in. Success number one of the whole affair was having an Uber driver show up at 3am in a COVID-19 world to haul my ass up to Milner Pass.

Pfiffner Day 1 (33.39 miles | 9,997 ft Elev Gain | 14:13):
Carlos and I arrived at Milner Pass just after 5:30am on Friday morning to absolutely no one in the Milner Pass parking lot. A lack of human beings is a common theme on Pfiffner, as A LOT of the mileage is off-trail.

I didn't have a real goal for the first day of Pfiffner. I thought, if I really moved, I might be able to get to Monarch Lake (appropriately mile 42 of the traverse and just over halfway to Berthoud Pass).

I quickly realized making it to Monarch Lake might be possible if I had a trail running pack on, but it wasn't going to be possible with the buffet of food and gear I was caring with me. All told, I made it 33 miles with ~10K gain on day one and made camp at "Upper Lake" (10730 feet). I started moving slower on the off trail miles from Lake Nanita to Upper Lake (some of the most remote and scenic miles of the whole trip) due to fatigue and mild AMS, so I called it at Upper Lake. Due to mild AMS, I didn't have an appetite and opted to not eat any of the buffet calories I was toting along. Ironic.

Pfiffner Day 2 (23.86 miles | 5,482 ft Elev Gain | 9:27):
The next morning I woke up with a slight headache but felt fine, all things considered. I was ready to move on but had an inkling of a thought I might bail at Monarch Lake (main bail point on the whole route).

As the initial miles of day two clicked away, I formed a clear plan of where I wanted to end day two. I wanted to make it to King Lake. I had completed the High Lonesome trail running Loop a few weeks earlier, and I knew where King Lake was. I knew it had camping and a water source, and it would make Sunday a shorter and more manageable final day out. I estimated that making it to King Lake would make day two another ~33 mile day.

It was good to have a plan, but when you're in the alpine and shooting for big 30+ mile day nothing ever goes to plan. After breaking a trekking pole (also my tent pole) and trying to accidentally bail at Monarch Lake by hiking the wrong way out, I made it to the long, below tree line miles up to Arapaho Pass. Looking back, I wonder if I would have bailed had I not realized my mistake and kept hiking out to Lake Granby...

From Monarch Lake you enter a long section of trail up to Caribou Lake (~10 miles) that you can absolutely run if you're not sporting a 25lb pack. The climb up to Arapaho Pass and over to Caribou Pass was spectacular, but storms were starting to form, and I knew my 'plan' for the day wasn't going to have legs for much longer. After dropping down to Columbine Lake (11179 feet) from Caribou Pass all hell broke loose before I could make my way to King Lake. King Lake was seven miles away, all on which were on the Continental Divide. The divide is no place to go strolling in thunder storms.

As you might expect, I was forced to improvise and made camp at 5 pm below Mount Neva. I knew day three was going to require a super early start in an effort to out run the 2-4 pm storm window on the final peaks (James Peak, Bancroft, Parry Peak).

Day 3 (21.80 miles | 6,837 ft Elev Gain | 10:07):
The storms were probably gone by 10 pm on Saturday night. I broke camp at 2:30 am on Sunday and was hiking at 3 am. Ten hours later; I found myself at Berthoud pass having completed the Pfiffner Traverse with 4K uneaten calories to show for it. Also, major success number two of the whole affair; was, having called my wife from the summit of Parry Peak, having my wife show-up within five minutes of my arrival at Berthoud pass to pick me up - nailed it!

Day three was really smooth sailing for the most part. Most of the mileage is 'hike-able' and/or 'run-able' as a lot of the miles are on solid single-track trail or alpine tundra. The scramble from James Peak over to Mount Bancroft may be a little heads-up for the non-scrambling type, but at that point on the route the endorphin surge should carry you home. In my opinion, the day three miles were the easiest miles of the whole traverse. I will say, I made the mistake of thinking it was all down hill from Parry Peak, but you have one final climb up the shoulder of Mount Flora before you bomb (...plod) down to Berthoud Pass.

Conclusion:
In conclusion, the Pfiffner Traverse is one of those lines that should be an undisputed classic. I'm amazed I had never heard of it before 2020. With 80 miles of remote, choose-your-own-adventure trail running, hiking, talus hopping, and rock scrambling - all on or near the the Continental Divide - this line is sure to stand the test of time as a classic. I'm just happy I was able to get in my 56 hours on The Pfiffner Traverse.

Pictures:


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Leaving Milner Pass at 5:30am on Friday morning.
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Early day one miles leaving Milner Pass
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Early day one views
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One of my favorite pictures of the whole outing - taken early on Day one.
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Early day one miles
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Somewhere on the Pfiffner Traverse


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Day one lake stop
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Views abound!
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No trail. Just go up and follow a good GPX line.
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Where is the trail? | Yet another saddle...
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No trails, but I'm getting closer to the first camp for day one.
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No trail. Make sure to do Pfiffner when it is dry; this section as a full-fledge bog would suck!
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The final saddle on day one before the descent to my Upper Lake camp site.
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Looking down on Upper Lake - Night one camp site
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Bi-Polar Saddle - Side A
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Bi-Polar Saddle - Side B
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View of Indian Peaks Wilderness in the background on the way down to Monarch Lake - early on day two.
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Lake on the hike down to Monarch Lake
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Hike down to Monarch Lake
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Long 10 mile section up to Arapahoe Pass.
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Looking back on the trail just before Caribou Pass
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Looking forward to Caribou Pass
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Early single track miles on day three.
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Day three miles in front of me. You can see James Peak in the distance.
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James Peak (left) + Bancroft (center) + Parry Peak (right)
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Looking back on The Pfiffner Traverse from Parry Peak
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Scrambly section between James Peak and Mount Bancroft
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Looking up the final climb up the shoulder of Mount Flora
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Looking down on Berthoud Pass. Wondering if Kelley and Locks will be there to meet me...



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




Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
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 Comments or Questions
TomPierce
Yea! A "normal" Pfiffner report!
09/02/2020 08:38
Your comment about not caring about peak bagging or an FKT caught my eye early on. Your traverse was certainly plenty fast enough and impressive, but gotta be honest, reading about FKT's...zzzzz. I loved your report because it was from the perspective of a "normal" (but badass, burly) guy. Loved your photos as well. Congrats on an impressive accomplishment!
-Tom


69vette
Pretty Sweet
09/18/2020 10:15
I was just up there at Flora over the weekend (first climb up to the Divide) and looking North got my imagination going. Definitely something to consider for the future now that I know itâs âœa thingâ. Iâll have to do a lot more research but just curious for now: how much of the Traverse is on the CDT? Other trails taken? Congrats, sounds exhausting but fun!
-Matt


nmedica
For 69vette
09/18/2020 16:35
You can ride the divide the whole way if you want to, but get ready to do some scrambling and deal with some more tedious terrain. Some folks recently linked the beginning of Pfiffner on the CDT into LA Freeway - sick line. My GPX keeps it really mellow and FAST for 'aspiring mortals.' You only have to scramble a bit from James Peak to Mount Bancroft.



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