The mountains around Boulder Colorado have been my escape for the last several years. It started with hiking, and then scrambling, in Boulder's Flatirons. Gradually my attention turned farther west and to higher elevations. Even though the Flatirons will always be special to me and hold some of my favorite memories, they eventually transitioned from a primary objective to a shoulder season and poor weather resignation. Instead, most weekends I had a trip planned to the alpine mountains along the continental divide in Boulder's backyard: Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP), Indians Peaks Wilderness, and occasionally the James Peak Wilderness just to the south. This isn't meant to insult the Flatirons but simply to emphasize the majesty of the Front Range. My affection for this area grew from weekend overnight winter backpacking trips in RMNP. I'd leave home on a Saturday to start hiking/snowshoeing to my chosen frozen lake. Sunday mornings were always special--waking up in an incredible natural cathedral and venturing out further onto tract-less snow is as close I get to a religious experience.
My introduction to the Pfiffner Traverse was in Gerry Roach's book on the Indian Peaks Wilderness. The basic route starts at Milner Pass in RMNP, through all of Indian Peaks, and finishes at Berthoud Pass just beyond the James Peak Wilderness. Gerry described his route, which he'd named after his friend Carl Pfiffner, as the "ultimate mountaineering adventure in the Front Range". This description caught my attention but I quickly moved on after reading that it would take 1-2 weeks. This just seemed too long, and frankly, too bizarre.
As I got more interested in backpacking I came across a Youtube video of this yahoo, Andrew Skurka, who spent 6 months traveling solo around Alaska. The entire video is remarkable and worth watching but a short segment at the end caught my attention the most. When I learned that he was developing a high-route based on Roach's idea of the Pfiffner Traverse, the abstract notion of completing such a route seemed more plausible. Last fall I decided to make an attempt in summer 2018.
I'd like to thank Andrew for developing an excellent guide for the route as well as cheerfully answering my emails with naive questions about the route as well other questions about gear, natural environments and wildlife for unrelated trips.
I decided I needed to increase the intensity of my adventures to prepare for this incredible trip. Many of my weekend backpacking trips and day-hikes would get close to or exceed the level of difficulty I was expecting for the Pfiffner Traverse. I even invented my own mini high route in Wild Basin, my favorite region of RMNP, that can be accomplished in a 3 day weekend (provided you have ice-axe or wait till snow melts out). My attempt failed due to unexpected snow conditions in a remote trail-less valley but I was encouraged at what my body appeared to be capable of. This trip also taught me the importance of "novelties" like hot food, the unnecessary luxury of a shelter floor or mosquito-netting, and the wisdom of knowing when to bail given the planned intensity of next day.
These lessons proved critical for the Pfiffner Traverse. With the route being this hard I knew that I had to feel near my best everyday. I was forced to admit that I simply didn't eat enough my usual dry/"no cook" food on even short backpacking trips to not pay for it after three days. This obviously doesn't apply to everyone but it was important to learn this about myself. To travel efficiently I had to keep excess weight to a minimum, minimize sun exposure which can result in exhausting sunburns, and maybe most importantly, accurately read the terrain to find the easiest route in case I had to modify my planned route in the field.
Planning and Logistics
Despite having Skurka's guide at hand, a successful high route required an enormous amount of independent planning. Through my other adventures I'd confirmed to myself what other people have long known--in mountainous conditions it's elevation gain/loss and the type of terrain that matters. The total distance is largely meaningless. For instance, on one spring hike I walked over 30 miles and climbed ~3400 feet, but since it was nearly 100% on trail or roads, I felt remarkably good after I finished. Contrast this with a day hike in one of my favorite spots around Boulder which covered about 16 miles. Even though this was just over half the length I was completely wrecked afterwards. Not only did this one have far more climbing (about 5000'), but it was largely off-trail, on loose dirt and scrambling over sandstone. On both of these types of terrain your torso has to respond to unstable ground below you to stay balanced. This can be tremendously exhausting!
I've found the elevation descent to be just as important as the gain but for different reasons. On climbs I get tired which can be counteracted somewhat by simply eating more, but on steep descents I can get knee pain. This one is harder to deal with and in practice sets my daily limits. These experiences gave me a good metric for how much climbing I should include per day. I rounded my chosen value down to give some flexibility in case of poor weather, unexpected altitude effects, or terrain surprises.
On the whole, weather was better than I was expecting. When I did get rain on days 1, 5 and 6, it didn't turn out to be accompanied by terrifying thunderstorms. Even so, the rain on day 5 meant that I had to bail on the crux of the route, and take an all trail bypass which resulted in my largest distance and second largest elevation gain of the trip. Rain the following day (Day 6) kept me pinned in my shelter till 2pm which meant a short day and it looked like I would have to take an extra day. Luckily I had a extra day of food for just such an event. Weather the next day (Day 7) was great, but my family was doing weather recon for me and informed me that day 8 was going to be dicey. I decided to do two days in one and go ahead with the final section which consisted of 10 miles above tree line, the majority of which was between 12,5000-13,500 feet. I wound up summitting the last of 5 thirteeners, Mt. Flora, completely in the dark and finished at Berthoud Pass around 10:30 pm.
Having a conservative plan that included some "cushion", meant that on days 5 and 7, when weather required me to have more gas in the tank than expected, my body delivered I was able to finish the route in my planned number of days and food supply.
The majority of gear I used would not be surprising to people familiar with ultralight backpacking in mountainous terrain. The big 4 came in at just over 3.5 lbs: pack, shelter, sleeping bag, sleeping pad. I won't go into details here, but simply offer this weight as a rough idea.
However, I will off some thoughts on things that were especially useful and possibly unconventional.
At the beginning of the trip I was packing stakes, groundcloth and shelter at the bottom of my pack, underneath my trash compactor bag (used for waterproofing). At the end of the first day, rain kept me off the divide for a couple hours--just waiting for blue skies. I stopped a couple times to get my shelter out to stay dry but since it was at the bottom of my pack I had to remove everything to reach these items. By the end of the trip I was keeping my shelter near the top and the stakes on the outside in case of another impromptu rain delay.
I kept the stakes in a simple Tyvek mailing envelope. I wrote how many/what kind of stakes I started with on the outside of the envelope which was helpful in the morning to make sure I hadn't forgotten one.
I chose a small frameless backpack that just barely fit all my stuff at the beginning of the trip. This worked but it was annoying. Food was the overwhelming majority of what I was carrying. Every morning (and because of the reasons above, after several breaks) I had to go through backpacking Tetris to get everything to fit. I suspect another 5-10L capacity would have simplified this quite a bit. I wouldn't have filled it up but it would have made reaching down to the bottom much much easier.
The shoulder straps have small elastic/stretch pockets where I keep three key items:
I got a brand new pair my favorite shoes (Altra Superiors) out of the closet for this trip. For shorter hikes these are the perfect shoe to me. The downside is that they don't hold up to high abuse. The weak point is the outsole and sidewall which don't handle rocks and talus well. I had an older pair resoled with climbing shoe rubber (actually "dot rubber") and these were fantastic. Unfortunately at the end of the first day where I was trying out the resoled pair, I blew a hole in the sidewall on sharp-edged talus. This is the second time this has happened with these shoes. I had planned on sewing them up and reinforcing them with gear repair tape before this trip but ran out of time. Some photos showing the wear of the wear on the pair I used for the Pfiffner Traverse and an (essentially) brand new pair can be found here.
Using data from my GPS tracks:
7 days/6 nights
Total distance: 99.18 miles
Total Elevation Gain: 31,330 feet
The total distance above is larger than the 77 miles of the primary route. This results from (1) the 11 mile bypass I was forced to take on day 5 due to weather, (2) some wandering and (3) the standard GPS error that overestimates distances due finite resolution and oversampling. I cut the obvious errors out of the track before calculating this but smaller ones still remain.
(clicking on the links goes to reports for individual days)
Day 1: 12.32 mi/ 4341' (annoying weather)
Day 2: 15.72 mi/ 4987'
Day 3: 12.59 mi/ 4243'
Day 4: 8.56 mi/ 2951'
Day 5: 23.7 mi/ 6105' (bad weather)
Day 6: 6.06 mi/ 2426' (bad weather)
Day 7: 20.23 mi/ 6277'
I highly recommend this trip. Even with this area basically being my backyard playground the terrain was almost entirely new to me. Most of the access points are on west side of the divide which can add 1-2 hours of driving from Boulder.