RT Length: 13 miles
Elevation Gain: 3706’ (From McCullough Gulch lower gate closure)
There are so many routes up Pacific Peak I wasn’t sure which one to take? I ended up making the decision the night before, and decided on the Southwest Slopes because I liked the way it looked best on a topo map (particularly the headwall area). I arrived at the Blue Lakes road and found the gate closed to the McCullough Gulch Trailhead. So I parked at the closed gate, right next to a small stream of water running off the road. I gathered my gear and was off at 2:30am.
About 20 yards into my hike I heard a loud noise that sounded like a large animal slipping and sliding on the scree below the road and to the right of me. Well… at least whatever it was was running away from me. Quickly. The 2WD dirt road to the trailhead was clear, dry, and easy to follow. I was confused as to why it was still closed, since besides some extremely minor avy debris and a short area with water running by the side of the road, the road was clear.
I hiked on this dirt road for 2.2 miles from the closed gate to the start of trailhead. This is where the snow started, and in the dark obscured the beginning of the trail.
For the next mile the snow was intermittent and soft. I’d need snowshoes for about 30 steps, then not need them for dozens of yards, and then I’d need them again for 30 steps or so.
I crossed a bridge
And headed left on a trail (the road ended here)
This is where I put snowshoes on and wore them for the rest of the hike. This is also where the trail finding became difficult. I kept losing and finding the trail and losing it again, so I gave up trying to stay directly on trail and just headed northwest, keeping the creek to my left and the ridge to my right.
At the end of the boulder field I came across a sign indicating the trail kept going straight. Here I turned right (at the cairn) and followed the gully up and to the northwest, avoiding the large boulders
At the top of the gully I rounded the hillside and was deposited below a lake. I walked around the right side of the lake, found the rock rib, and decided to climb the snow next to it to the notch(so I didn’t need to take off my snowshoes again).
Here’s a look back down from the notch
I was at the top of the waterfall area and just needed to turn the corner to the right to see more of the basin
Wow! Lots of snow here! I headed northeast, skirting what was probably a small lake to my left and couldn’t help but wonder how many feet of snow I was standing on top of? Way to go June 2019 in Colorado! You’ve got the snow thing down!
I kept rounding the basin, staying to the right
Once again: So. Much. Snow! I kept heading northwest towards the end of the basin. It’s best to stay high here so you don’t have to regain elevation.
I made it to the headwall. This is the crux of the route, and I decided it was time to take off my snowshoes and put on my crampons. I got out my ice axe and garden tool (haven’t purchased a second ice tool yet). The sun was just starting to rise
I was pleasantly surprised at the conditions of the headwall: continuous snow coverage that was consolidated just right for crampons. It was tiring, but I had no difficulties gaining the top of the headwall. I mentally high fived myself for choosing this route today. Ok, just a few hundred more feet of elevation gain and I was there! I made it to the saddle between Atlantic and Pacific, singing “Home for the Holidays” as I went. To be honest, I that song was in my head for most of this hike. Oh, and that’s a false summit…
There was a lot of snow here, and some of it felt steeper than the headwall
It seemed pointless to summit the false summit, so I skirted the bump to the left and continued towards Pacific.
From here the postholing began. The snow here looks solid, but it hugs a ridgeline and much of the snow underneath has melted away, leaving a hollow cap. At times the cap was thick enough to support my weight, and at others I postholed up to my waist into (or between) large rocks. I have a few bruises from the fun
Still, it was better than hiking with crampons on the rocks (I was too lazy to take them off, so I stuck to the snow)
I summited at 6:45am
Here’s a look back on the route from the saddle to the summit
The wind was intense here, so I decided to head back down. I made it to the saddle and Atlantic looked very inviting. I’ve already summited Atlantic, and I’m on a bit of a time limit today, so I didn’t feel it necessary to summit Atlantic as well (but it was tempting… you should do it!).
I had to stop and enjoy the view from the area just below the saddle (where the wind finally let up a bit). It was breathtaking!
From here you can see most of the route back. It’s important to follow the basin and stay close to Quandary Peak on your way out to exit in the correct area.
OK, time to start down the headwall.
The headwall was steep (so steep you can’t see the route down it here), but not as bad as a lot of gullies I’ve done lately. It’s supposed to be 40-45 degrees at points, but I was able to walk down the entire headwall without turning and facing the mountain.
At the base of the headwall I switched out my crampons for snowshoes, but kept ahold of my ice axe. I followed my tracks southwest
Rounded the ridge, and walked out of the basin
The snow was really starting to soften up at this point. For June 21, this is a ton of snow!
I made it down past the rib area without incident, and was just getting ready to skirt the small lake when it happened.
I was stepping off a rock and into snow and immediately my left leg sank and slid up to my upper thigh. I’ve postholed thousands of times, but never experienced anything like this: Try as I might, I couldn’t move my leg. It wasn’t hurt, but my snowshoe was stuck in the snow and keeping me from being able to move my foot and leg.
As I’d stepped on and slid into the deeper snow the snow had immediately softened up and settled like concrete around my leg, making it immobile. I thought to myself “So this is what they mean by not being able to get yourself out of an avalanche because the snow settles like concrete” and got to work. Luckily, this hadn’t been an avalanche and I still had my ice axe in my hand, so I started digging myself out. It took me a solid 15 minutes of work to free my leg. Also, my butt was now wet from sitting in the snow for so long. Lovely. At least no one was around to see.
The hike back to the trailhead was uneventful. In the light of day I was easily able to follow the trail and saw things I hadn’t before, like the log bridges and small pools and the actual trail itself…
There was also a lot of evidence of postholing from previous hikers using the trail. I hadn’t seen any of this in the dark (I’d paralleled the actual trail)
There was a snowbridge over the creek, and the creek was raging!
Back on the 2WD road I started seeing other hikers. Quite a few of them actually, and I figured they must have opened the gate. Sure enough, they had and there were cars parked at the summer trailhead as I passed.
I still had 2 miles to go however, but on a positive note, I saw a rather scruffy looking fox on my way back
Yep, the gate was now open
I made it back to my truck at 10:45am, making this a 13 mile hike with 3700’ in elevation gain in just over 8 hours.
Ugh! It looked like some kids had thrown mud at my truck! There was dried mud/dirt on every corner, like someone had used my truck for target practice with mud pies. I was going to have to wash it after picking my daughter up from camp (she’s a counselor at a Girl Scout Camp and off this weekend so I was on my way there now to pick her up). It was a 3 hour drive, and I made it in plenty of time before release. While we were walking back to the truck my daughter said “How did your truck get so dirty?” I told her I it happened at the trailhead this morning. She went and took a closer look, put each of her hands on two of the marks and said “Mom, how big are bears?” That’s when I took a closer look at the blobs and realized no one had thrown mud at my truck: It’d been visited by a bear! I could see swishes of hair and even faint claw marks on the paint. Cool! Maybe that’s the animal I’d heard at the start of my hike? Now I didn’t want to wash my truck! Luckily, I took a few photos before it rained on my way home. I just wish I’d looked at the ground around my truck when I’d noticed the mud… I would probably have seen bear tracks!