Trip date: July 01-03, 2018
Advertisement: After several fatal accidents in RMNP since June 2018, I feel obligated to mention that the day before I started this trip there was a fatality on Mt. Meeker. The exact route he took is unclear but it is likely it was the "West Ridge" I was trying to avoid. Had I not gotten off-route myself I may have found him. I remember thinking that the weather looked absolutely horrible the day before I started and I was glad I wouldn't have to deal with that. Be careful. -TB, Dec 01, 2018
Wild Basin is probably my favorite area of RMNP. The approaches are long but you are rewarded with solitude and breathtaking scenery. This enormous drainage is bounded by Longs Peak and Mt. Meeker on the north, the continental divide on the west and the Indian Peaks Wilderness to the south. Last winter it occurred to me that it should be possible to put together a ~30 mile, mostly off-trail backpacking loop through this area. This route would also serve as a test piece for the Pfiffner Traverse which I have planned for later in the summer.
At first I just wanted to hit areas that weren't accessed by maintained trails (like Keplinger's Lake, Moomaw Glacier etc) but gradually I started to think about including some scrambling on high peaks and ridge lines. Like the northern areas of RMNP, as well as Indian Peaks Wilderness and James Peak Wilderness, the western side of the continental divide in Wild Basin presents gentle slopes and easy travel. However, given the total vertical elevation gain this would require (12k-14k feet) it seemed reasonable to break this trip up over three days. This would require finding appropriate places to drop down to camp.
A pure ridge traverse of Wild Basin can't avoid 4th/5th class climbing. Since I didn't want to get above Class 3 for this I'd need to coordinate camps with bypasses of these technical sections. As I started researching routes I learned that Peter Bakwin had done a genuine "Wild Basin Traverse". This route which he first attempted in 2013, and completed in 2016, would hit all the major peaks along the crest of Wild Basin (1x 14er, 7x 13ers, 4x 12ers and 2x 11ers). Cordis Hall made an attempt this past year. Not only were both of these guys trying to do this in a single day, they weren't shying away from the more technical parts of the route. This is an absolutely MONSTER accomplishment: my goals were much more modest.
The primary technical sections I wanted to avoid:
Of these four, the west ridge of Mt. Meeker was the most annoying in the route planning stage. It was only Class 3 which I am comfortable with but I wasn't sure how I'd feel about the exposure on the knife-edge. Unfortunately, it didn't look like there was a good bypass going west from here. This would come early on Day 1 and if I decided that I didn't like what I saw when I got up there, the only real option would to turn around and head back to the trailhead. This would have spoiled the whole trip! The best option seemed to be to tackle the South Ridge of Meeker (Class 2). This route would be somewhat convoluted and didn't have quite same aesthetic appeal as the pure traverse but it seemed like the best option.
Planning this one was almost as much fun as doing it. Almost.
These are the primary books I used to plan the route:
The night before the trip start I car camped on USFS lands off of Johnny Park Road. There were a bunch of people already there but it was by no means full, which I was worried about for a Saturday night in the middle of the summer. Just before sundown I climbed up a nearby hill to get a look into Wild Basin.
Just before I reached Sandbeach Lake, I ran into Paul Magnanti who was leading/guiding a group on a backpacking trip. I had met him earlier this year at a talk he gave in Boulder about his walk across southern Utah. He started his talk with a quote from John Steinbeck's book "Travels with Charley":
"...once a bum always a bum. I fear the disease is incurable."
Something about this quote resonated with me and I was motivated me to read the book which my Dad had talked about many times since I was a kid. Paul is definitely a refreshing voice in the hiking/backpacking community because he's just so damned down to earth.
After Sandbeach Lake the maintained trails ended and the real fun began. I avoided climbing out of Hunter's Creek proper (which was the most direct route to the base of Mt. Meeker) because I'd read that the bushwhack was unbelievably bad.
I had climbed up the South Ridge of Meeker to about 13k' (within 1000 ft of the summit). I didn't know if it was the altitude or what but I kept thinking "this doesn't feel like Class 2 scrambling". I was going really slow trying dead end after dead end. At this point I'd already done 6000' of climbing for the day (in only 7 miles!) which tied my personal single day record for max vertical gain. It was about 2pm and at this pace if I went for the summit I might not be down by 5-6 pm. There were periodic gusty winds but otherwise the weather was spectacular.
Ultimately I decided I probably shouldn't risk the weather turning bad so I headed down. Weather aside, it seemed like a wise choice since I still had two more hard days ahead of me and I didn't want to wear out the first day.
On the descent I realized I was totally off route. I'd tried going up the east side of the South Ridge but I found myself on the west side on the way down. This was relatively easy talus hopping which is standard class 2. I stowed this information away for next time and continued down to look for a good spot to camp in the "Hunter's Creek cross country zone".
This cirque below Pagoda, Longs and Meeker is probably the most spectacular place I've been in my entire life.
The next morning I got up before dawn and packed up for the long day. First stop was Keplingers Lake about 0.5 mile north.
The west ridge of Chiefs Head Peak gets really narrow but never becomes a knife edge.
Once I reached the top of Mt. Alice it was smooth sailing. It would be gentle tundra all the way to Tanima.
After Tanima, I'd reached one of the technical obstacles I wanted to avoid. The plan was to drop into the valley below Isolation Peak and The Cleaver. From here I'd continue south, visiting Moomaw Glacier, Mahana Peak and then back up onto the continental divide.
Unfortunately, this valley was completely filled with snow and scree and the descent looked like it would be really steep. Their weren't any trails in this valley and I bet this is why. There were some grassy ledges on the south side of Tanima Peak that looked inviting. I fumbled around with these for a while looking for a route that avoided the steep scree/snow but eventually gave up. I had plans the next evening which would require a relatively speedy exit on Day 3. Ultimately, I bailed on part two of my planned route and descended down Boulder-Grand Pass towards Thunder Lake.
Dead ends in the valley between Tanima Peak and The Cleaver/Isolation Peak. I wanted to avoid the snow since I didn't have an ice axe. Maybe better in August but there would still be scree. I tried descending the grassy ledges off of Tanima peak. I didn't find a good route here and don't recommend going this way.
I learned a lot from this trip: about Wild Basin and general things about planning and doing high-routes. First, it's reasonable to accept that you may not complete your planned route. Second, there's a looong time between a pre-dawn start and sundown. Given the intensity of these routes, mainly the vertical elevation gain per day, it's not sustainable for me to be moving for all 15 hours. I could probably do this for a single day but then I'd be totally wiped and the rest of the trip would be a disaster. For the Pfiffner Traverse I'll probably bring a tiny book (or some other form of entertainment) and a blindfold so I can take naps during the day. Both days when I stopped around 4-5pm I was ready for bed but the sun was still very bright and I couldn't fall asleep.
Two other new things I tried were (1) hot food--very novel I know, and (2) no bug net of any kind at night. The hot food is definitely better and the benefits seemed worth the small added weight of the pot/stove. I think I've struggled a bit on previous trips by not eating enough calories. It's much easier to consume enormous meals of macaroni and cheese than Clif Bars. For this trip I ate about 4000 calories a day. The lack of a bug net worked pretty well on the first night but less-so on the second night. It's peak bug season at the moment (which, honestly, is still not very bad in this area) but in a month or so the bugs should completely gone, even in swampy areas.