Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Never Summer Traverse, Nokhu to Baker

The Never Summer Mountains. Ah, yes, the name alone makes you want to get out there and get stuck in. Catch sight of the magnificently jagged peaks and ridgelines that constitute the 14-mile range and the siren call gets just a little louder. Pick up a map and feast on the north-south spine that runs from Cameron Pass in the north to Baker Gulch in the south, and you're all in. At least I was.

But despite the obvious aesthetics of the line, very few others have attempted it. Indeed, I could only find interweb evidence of two full traverses, one by the legendary Colorado alpinist Bill Briggs and partner Bart Miller in 1994 (10:45), and one a little more recently by Lisa Foster (24 hours), the authority on obscure (and less obscure) routes in Rocky Mountain National Park. However, for reasons inexplicable to me, both parties had chosen to forego the Nokhu Crags, the dramatic northern bookend to the range, on their ridge runs in favor of dropping east to Thunder Pass. To me, the line demands an ascent of Nokhu.

And so it was that I found myself rudely awoken in the back of an old Subaru Legacy, with partner Cam Cross, at 2:15 on Sunday morning under the moonless shadow of the emblematic spires of the volcanic Crags. The early morning plan was simple: hoof steeply for the northeast ridge of Nokhu, ascend to the spires, then tuck in behind Cam - a former Estes area mountaineering guide - who had conveniently scouted the first four peaks of the route a few weekends prior.

Some 2,300 feet and 80 minutes later, we found ourselves somewhat trivially on the peak. Despite the horrendously loose nature of the rock on Nokhu, there exists a largely solid route to the summit by way of a series of gullies. I would provide the beta, but to be truthful I was no more than a passenger following closely behind the beam of Cam's headlight.

Cam Cross. It was windy out and I had a fairly serious case of goggle envy.
The Crags: basically a slag heap.
But picturesque from certain vantage points.
At four in the morning on a moonless night, there were no views to be had, so we quickly descended our ascent gully and contoured west and south across a series of loose and steep scree fields, negotiating around the western base of the spires until we finally found ourselves on something a little more solid under the southernmost spire of the Crags. From here, our route would head directly south by way of 10 more peaks on the knife-like ridge that defines the north-south spine of the Never Summers.

Another 80 minutes later, and after more very loose ridge negotiation, we were on the summit of Static Peak, an appealing triangle of a bump on the ridge between Nokhu and (the Baron von) Richthofen, the high point of the Never Summers. Despite its prowess as the highest and perhaps most visually appealing summit in the range, Richthofen is in fact a very easy get when ascending from the north. Somewhat appropriately, I think, the sun was also making its first appearance of the day as we made our way up the Baron's north ridge, unveiling the striking beauty of our surroundings from on high. And while the winds were definitely stronger than we would have liked at a steady 20 miles per hour, we both agreed that things could have been significantly worse.

After a brief jog west to Richthofen's sub-summit, I made the executive decision to forego the loose ridge under (what would turn out to be) Tepee Mountain, for easier grassy ledges some 100 feet below. Erroneously, we were under the assumption that the large triangular peak directly in front of us was Tepee, but alas we ducked under Tepee which in fact sits slightly off the ridge to the east, not far from Richthofen. What we thought looked like a triangular tent-like formation was in fact no more than a sub-summit of Lead Mountain despite its dramatic look.

Early rays lighting up Lead Mountain. The triangular peak in the foreground was what we had incorrectly thought was Tepee.
The ridge to Lead Mountain from under Tepee.
A moody Lead Mountain with the beautiful Hart Ridge behind, connecting to Mount Cirrus. 
Tepee is the spire off to the right of the main ridge, under a dominant Mount Richthofen in the top right of the frame. This view is from the summit of Lead Mountain. Mahler, an outlier off the main north-south ridge connects to Richthofen to the west (left) on precariously loose rock. 
Following a fairly significant goat trail across ledges and scree we were soon back up on the ridge and tagging Lead's sub-summit before heading directly for the slightly higher Lead itself, following the very steep western summit slope on frosty rock and into heavy winds. Cam had stashed provisions here on his scout a few weeks prior and we enjoyed a nice 10-minute repose on the leeward side of the peak, camel'ing water and munching on dried apricots, now 4:45 into our morning.

The 10 minutes on Lead had left a little lead in the old pins, and shortly thereafter on the heavily bouldered and steep descent to Hart Ridge, I caught a toe and supermanned shin and knee first into some very unforgiving granite clinging onto a boulder by an arm that was now out of socket at the shoulder. Ooof! The ball was easily popped back into socket, however, while the throbbing from my lower leg was reduced to dull background noise some 10 minutes later, now playing in concert with the low-grade headache that was thumping around in my skull after five hours of effort above 12,000 feet. Fun indeed.

Hart Ridge is a long, sweeping and dramatic connector between Lead Mountain and Mount Cirrus - the first of the cloud peaks, which sits high above the aptly named Lake of the Clouds. We were expecting heinously loose rock on our way to Cirrus along the bumps of Hart Ridge, but were in fact pleasantly surprised by the relatively stable nature of the talus. We stayed largely on top of the ridge with a few forays to the gloriously quiet (and sunny) leeward side, as the terrain dictated. Yes, most things moved, but mainly in a rocking motion rather than a more menacing collapsing motion. And so it was that we found ourselves tagging Cirrus just 65 minutes after leaving Lead, now 5:52 into our morning and already starting to get a whiff of the barn with a majority of the tougher and looser sections of ridge behind us.

Lake of the Clouds under Howard's east ridge.
Howard was next in line and it was something of a gimme, with some tundra at the saddle that actually allowed us to open our stride for a while. From Howard, the impressive looking Cumulous loomed a mile and a half down the ridge. This would be our last long connector, but once negotiated we would be looking at a relatively benign three-peak cruise into the finish on rock that was getting progressively more predictable by the peak.

Across the bumps that connect Howard and Cumulous we stuck pretty religiously to the ridge and nearly always found a non-technical route through. Once we hit the upslope from the low point on the ridge we started to shred on spots of tundra on the eastern side of the ridge, which was now intermixed with increasingly reliable rock. Things were starting to click nicely into gear and it was beginning to look like we'd be close to hitting our 10-hour target and 12:30 rendez-vous with Dana at the Baker/Bowen trailhead.

The north face of the Cumulous summit ridge.
Cumulous done, and with three peaks remaining we were officially smelling the barn on terrain very reminiscent of the bricky, solid and fast (relatively speaking) talus of the Mummies. And so it was that we whipped through Nimbus and Stratus before grunting out the final push up Baker, the end of the line before the descent into Baker Gulch. 

Nimbus, with southern Never Summer Peaks behind. 
Stratus and Baker from Nimbus, both of which we'd tag in a little over three-quarters of an hour.
A quick fist bump on Baker and we were off to the races, unleashing a fun 2,200 foot descent on the southwest slopes of Baker down to the Michigan Ditch and the Baker Gulch Trail for the ~3.5 mile run into the finish at the Baker/Bowen trailhead some 10 hours and two minutes after we'd started.   

Cam checks the watch as he hits Baker, our final peak on the morning, 8:56 after departing from near Cameron Pass. Stratus and Nimbus sit behind. 
Although we had steady winds all morning, we both agreed that we'd dodged a weather bullet. The forecast had called for rains Saturday night, which never came, and for gusts of up to 50 miles per hour on the morning. We may have seen one or two gusts up around that mark, but really the wind ended up being more of an annoyance than a hindrance.

The Never Summers have a reputation for being inordinately loose and chossy, and indeed they are, but the reality on the ground was a lot less treacherous than we had been preparing ourselves for. The route still demands a sustained level of focus, and absolutely no technical hand hold or foot placement should be trusted without first being tested, but this is an incredible line on one of the most inspiring ridges that Rocky Mountain National Park has to offer. Get after it!


Start: A pull-off on the Lake Agnes Road at ~10,200'
Nokhu Crags (12,485') - 1:20
Static Peak (12,580') - 1:22 (2:42)
Mount Richthofen (12,951') - 0:29 (3:11)
Lead Mountain (12,537') -1:35 (4:46)
Hart Ridge (12,500')
Mt Cirrus (12,797') -1:05 (5:52)
Howard Mountain (12,810') - 0:22 (6:14)
Mount Cumulous (12,740') -1:09 (7:24)
Mount Nimbus (12,706') - 0:45 (8:09)
Mount Stratus (12,540') - 0:23 (8:32)
Baker Mountain (12,397') - 0:24 (8:56)
Ditch (10,200') - 0:32 (9:28)
Baker/Bowen (8,900') - 0:34 (10:02)

Total: 10:02:26

~18 miles with ~8,500 of accumulated vertical 


  1. Nice work, Neighbor. Truly an inspiring line. Fun seeing the crushing your doin in the local hills this summer. You have me salivating to get after the Radical Slam & this traverse next year.

    1. Let's get after some next summer, Josh. Always geeked to get out on fun routes.

  2. Great writeup! I've been looking forward to seeing this since you logged this on LoJ.

    1. Hey Dave, yeah it was a great morning, and definitely an outing to add to the list. As you'd imagine, it was pretty slow going, but I don't think we ever hit anything above class IV - a few moderate moves with exposure. Just got to be careful with the loose, crumbly stuff. If you've ever done the Mahler - Richthofen ridge, I think that is worse than anything we saw all morning on the main spine.

  3. less than 2 miles an hour. must have been tough!

    1. Even slower if you consider the three miles of trail at the end.

  4. Im interested in beta for the north ridge up to Lead's sub summit, looks fairy committing, you didn't find it so? Fosters book only has a few lines on it and it's not a well traveled route, remember anything on it?

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