The LIGANN Traverse: Lost Tribe Lakes, Iroquois, Mt. George, Apache Peak, Navajo Peak, Niwot Ridge (Indian Peaks Wilderness, Colorado)
Trip date: Sept 08-09, 2018
Note: This trip report has proved more popular than others. Because of this and the description of travel over technical terrain, I'm editing this post for clarity and accuracy. TB Nov 12 2018
As the weekend approached I was faced with my usual predicament: where haven't I been that's within an hour of my bed? On the Pififfner Traverse, bad weather on day 5 forced me to take an all trail bypass around the Crater Lake cirque and also meant that I would miss Lost Tribe Lakes behind Crater Lake. I toyed with the idea of simply doing the route I planned for the Pfiffner Traverse in reverse but I wasn't excited about descending the loose-dirt filled NE Gully of Mt. Achonee.
I was skimming the relevant section of Gerry Roach's book "Colorado's Indian Peaks" and noticed the following description of Mt. Iroquois/Lost Tribe Lakes:
"This is one of the most remote climbs in the Indian Peaks. If you are looking for solitude, this is it....(Lost Tribe Lakes) is the most pristine place in Indians Peaks and is reserved for those willing to work for it... The views (from the summit of Iruquois) will knock your socks off."
It seemed that Roach had simplified my decision making considerably. He had a throwaway note in the route description for Iroqouis about an "Extra Credit" option to traverse over to Mt. George, which he described as a "long and arduous" adventure. Why not keep going to Apache? Hell, you might as well include Navajo Peak. Once you've picked up an acronym, there's no cost to include Niwot Ridge.
This route samples some rarely seen, and arguably some of the best scenery in all of Indian Peaks Wilderness. Even the vanilla "on-trail" portions on Day 1 near the Arapaho Glacier Trail, Arapaho Pass, views of Mt. Neva, and Caribou Lake are world class. However, due to the superiority of the off-trail portions on Day 2, I have named this route the LIGANN traverse after the 6 primary objectives:
(If you're the first to do something, you have license to invent stupid names like LIGANN right?)
I started at Rainbow Lakes and moved towards 4th of July Mine and then to Arapaho Pass. After dropping down to Caribou Lakes, I headed towards Coyote Park and then Wheeler Basin. I was worried about Wheeler Basin being a time-consuming bushwhack but there is actually a spectacular unofficial/use trail that goes several miles. (Someone has since pointed out that this use trail was originally built by a mining operation. More info here). The bushwhack/scramble up to Lost Tribe Lakes is definitely tough but reasonably straightforward. The next day consisted of combining several documented scrambles into one very long route on a ridge. The only real unknown was the section between Iroquois and Mt. George. The only two bits of information I could find was 1) Gerry Roach's claim that it was class 3, and 2) a singular mention of a "class 4 downclimb" in Peter Bakwin's trip report on the Mohling Traverse. Once you've found the best route it felt like easy Class 4. The traverse from Mt. George to Apache was easy (Class 2/3). The final approach to, and the final climb up the "west chimney" on the back/west of Navajo Peak is probably the most technical section (Class 4). The last section between Airplane Gully and the end of Niwot Ridge (at least Class 3 if staying on ridge proper) was surprisingly tough. I was thinking this would be simple talus hopping and would serve as the "dessert" after a hard day. LIGANN had other plans and and deployed her boss. It's probably all class 3 but there's 1.3 miles of it and the route finding wasn't always obvious. I was very happy when it transitioned to tundra.
Advertisement #1: While this route is extremely highly recommended, it's not for everyone. It's over 32 miles/ +9000' vertical gain and features two mandatory sections of class 4 scrambling. Easily my hardest two consecutive days yet. It could be broken up into more days with possible camps at 4th of July Mine, Caribou Lake, or in the bowl north of Niwot Mt. However, given the intensity of the scrambling required I'd probably try to do it with as small of a food carry/pack size as possible.
Advertisement #2: This route skirts the boundaries of the Boulder County Watershed. Officials in Boulder will often bend the rules to support people with adventurous spirits but this seems to a serious exception. Staying out of the watershed requires 7-8 miles beyond what the geography would support. It also requires a lot of discipline...
Caltopo map here: caltopo.com/m/D0A2
The "Land Management" overlay is useful for visualizing the boundaries of the watershed.
In general there's no water between Rainbow Lakes and the Fourth of July Mine. The only exception I found was a weak stream directly below the Old Baldy Ridge at about 12,630 feet (see map). This was pretty convenient and not very far from the trail. (FYI, I filtered this water even though it is likely very clean).
I've been to the area around S. Arapaho Peak 5 times this summer (#1, #2, #3, #4 and now this one). It hasn't gotten old yet but I didn't take too many pictures this time.
I wound up making the bushwhack/climb up to Lost Tribe Lakes in the dark and just before a rain storm. Near ~11,400 feet-ish I found several very strong elk trails with fresh droppings that contoured east-west. These certainly go between the Lost Tribe Lakes and Wheeler Basin. If you knew where to pick them up in Wheeler Basin I bet this would be the best route to Lost Tribe Lakes. I didn't have time this trip to follow them very far.
Troublesome Tower: Class 3/4 crux
Pretty soon (see caltopo map) you'll encounter a troublesome tower en route to Mt. George. You have access to the tower at the base but this looks like serious 5th class, exposed climbing (no thanks). The best bypass I found was to drop ~40-60 feet vertical just on the western side of a gully at the base of the tower. Some options definitely looked worse than others--choose wisely.
Note: I should mention that upon analysis of his GPS track, Peter Bakwin apparently didn't drop as far down the gully as I did when he reached this tower. I'm not totally sure what he did.
The weather had put me in a tough spot. Navigating all the quasi-technical sections along the ridge to Mt. George (only the toughest one is described) had cost a lot of time. At this point the closest exit was "Airplane Gully" just east of Navajo Peak. I was concerned by the approaching clouds but there wasn't really anything to do about it. I just had to hope that it would miss me and if not, find a place to hunker down if it got serious.
I had seen a tantalizing boulder in the talus field some 100 feet below me so I made a run for that. I didn't really know what to expect but hoped it would give me a little bit of shelter.
I was stuck under that rock for about 30 minutes. I kept wondering how far you really had to be from a lightning strike for it to dissipate enough to not kill you instantly. Hopefully, I was outside that range. The storm seemed to be moving north-->south and it just kept looking worse and worse ahead of me (I was looking north).
The lightning wasn't really my biggest concern; lightning tends to decrease in occurrence/severity by the end of the summer and into fall. Most of the thunder I heard seemed to be rumbling cloud-cloud strikes. I was more worried about 1) getting chilled from the ~20 degree F drop in temperature and 2) the possibility of the storm depositing of sheet of ice over my talus highway.
Eventually, I got the courage to crawl out from under my rock and look up at the skies above me.
The "troublesome tower" on Mt. George was tricky but once you found the route it wasn't technically very complicated. I actually thought that Navajo peak was much more difficult. Most of this was because I was coming from Apache which isn't the standard route. I had to climb the Class 4 "West Chimney" route. This shouldn't be confused with the chimney variation of the standard Airplane Gully route on the south face of Navajo. There are good descriptions of this one on page 118 of Derek Wolfe's book and page 60 of Gerry Roach's book.
The views of the long ridge extending from Arikaree to North Arapaho (below photo, right) were the best part the Arapaho Traverse from the previous week (see opening photo from that trip report). The photo below shows the same ridge from the other perspective.
Apparently looking for crashed airplanes can be classified as a "hobby".