The Continental Divide, in Colorado, houses incredible peaks, exposed, technical ridges, and high altitude adventure. The most spectacular terrain lies in Rocky Mountain National Park and its adjacent southern neighbor the Indian Peaks Wilderness. Gerry Roach wrote how Karl Pfiffner envisioned a traverse on the Divide from Milner Pass, on Trail Ridge Road in RMNP, to Berthoud Pass, but never attempted it. Gerry eventually did a 2-week backpacking trip that started and ended in those locations, but avoided all the technical climbing on the Divide itself and strayed significantly from it. He named it the Pfiffner Traverse.
|Heading up Longs Peak at the start of the LA Freeway|
Still inexperienced at massive projects like this, John "Homie" Prater, Lou "The Loobster" Lorber, and I attempted the "Pfiffner Direct" over July 22-23, 2002. Over 1.5 days we made it from Milner Pass to Buchanan Pass where 12 hours with no water weakened us to point of abandoning. Along the way we stood atop every peak on the Divide. To my knowledge this is the only attempt at the Pfiffner Direct, and it highlights the biggest problem of this traverse: water. Or more specifically, the lack thereof. Being directly on the Divide leaves you scant chance of finding much water. The terrain is technical enough where you want most snow-free conditions, but then you have the water issues.
|Descending off Pagoda|
|Still smiling on top of Chiefshead|
Being friends with all the parties above, my interest was rekindled in this traverse and my son Derek, as gungho as only the naive can be, wanted to give it a try. Hence, we picked Labor Day Weekend, as we had the time and hoped for good weather. When the reports looked like stellar, clear, warm weather, we finally committed the night before. It felt strange to pack for something so audacious in just an hour.
|Heading toward the Hourglass Ridge on Mt. Alice|
We each carried Ultimate Direction Fast Packs (thanks, Buzz), Derek a 20-liter and I a 30-liter. We each had a sleeping bag, pad, long pants, long sleeve shirt, hat, gloves, shell, headlamp, and food. We had sunscreen, a SPOT locator, our phones (primarily as cameras), and a tiny 2-man tent. But our biggest mistake was that Derek started with just 84 ounces of fluid and I with 70 ounces. This was just plain dumb. Which is embarrassing to admit for guy with the experience that I have. I know Anton does monstrous outings with little water and Kilian Jornet climbed Denali, round trip on a liter of water (which is the most amazing feat of adventuring with little water that I've ever heard of), but I know that I cannot do that. Yet, I still carried so little. Why? I didn't want the wait and stupidly hoped we'd find some water, despite knowing the chances of that were nil. I'd say "live and learn", except that I've proven that I don't learn. Live, screw-up, and repeat the same mistakes is more accurate in my case.
|Derek climbing up the crux pitch on Isolation|
I didn't find the easiest descent but went directly to a 5.4 downclimb that I was familiar with. Derek followed me down and he was solid. We traversed over to the low point and then up tiring talus to the summit. I finished my first 20-ounce bottle on this summit. Twenty ounces in 4+ hours of difficult terrain. That isn't enough. We were trying to conserve and we needed to conserve, but we were heading for disaster, though we didn't know it yet.
|Taking a break on the slopes of Isolation|
Cordis zipped off and we followed. Down the 3rd/4th class terrain to the horribly loose talus ledge that heads down and back to the east. Then down a steep but easy downclimb to the key ledge that cuts all the way back to the Pagoda/Chiefshead col. We toiled up endless talus and felt the effort. We could see Cordis ahead of us, nearing the summit of Chiefshead and were only 15 minutes behind probably. But when we got to the summit and peered over towards Alice, we didn't see him. He disappeared. That kid moves awfully fast.
|Endless moderate terrain on the way to Buchanan Pass|
Toiling up Alice was when I first knew my dehydration was seriously affecting how we moved. We moved continuously up Alice, but it was slow. Very slow. Over the course of the next 24+ hours we would never recover and never fully hydrate again. Our pace never picked up.
|Our campsite on the edge of the ridge|
We got to Isolation's north face just before 3 p.m. Peter Bakwin told me about a sneak that involved descending 200 vertical feet on the west side, but we opted to tackle the 5.5 pitch out of the notch. I'd done it once before, with a rope. We went slow and solid and I felt the climbing here was the best we did on the traverse. The rock is really good and the climbing not very continuous. It was one of the most fun sections of the entire trip.
|Working along endless tricky sections on the ridge from Algonquin to Paiute|
|One water source we used.|
|Beautiful morning light on the traverse north of Buchanan Pass.|
This was the only part that I had remembered from my previous trip. We scrambled easily up to final headwall, which is quite daunting. My one time up here before, I found a 30-40-foot steep section that was probably 5.6 or 5.7 with some rests, but tricky, insecure climbing in-between. When I did this before I had a rope and belayed my partners up it and hauled up my pack. This time we had no such aids. I went first and made the top, though a bit concerned with the difficulty of the climbing, which is much harder than the climbing on Isolation and more insecure. Derek had some trouble. Enough to get me concerned I climbed a bit higher to more secure ground, took off my pack and dug out the three slings I’d carried to secure the tent. I looped them over a secure rock and dropped them down. It would only help, if at all, on the final crux. Derek’s poles were sticking high out of his pack, as they couldn’t be collapsed much and in the way. I was so stressed and nervous watching him work it out. I could do nothing to help him. He didn’t rush and he took his time to work out the moves that felt solid to him and he got up it.
|Highly complex and technical ground enroute to Paiute in the background.|
|Feeling bad about bailing on the LA Freeway, I moved this boulder onto these rocks as a final workout.|
Despite our failure, Derek was very excited about the attempt. He'd never done anything like it before and now he knows a lot about the LA Freeway. He had an incredible adventure and found his limits. I had a tremendous weekend bonding with my son.
|Blue Lake. We are nearly down to the first real trail since leaving the Keyhole Route on Longs Peak|
Chiefs Head Peak
Red Deer Peak
North Arapaho Peak
South Arapaho Peak
Wow. That looks pretty lame. Lots of room for improvement, I guess. Good thing we didn't make it as that would be a pretty significant asterisk. Derek was up for doing it "right" and I somehow convinced myself that we didn't need the summits. If we'd done them all, we might have bailed at Buchanan Pass. A great father-son adventure and learning experience.
What we learned and what we'd do differently:
When I finished this adventure I could hardly imagine even hiking again and was absolutely sure I'd never try this again. Yet, just a day afterwards, Derek and I were brainstorming how we'd do it differently. First, intimately knowledge of the route is key as tons of time and effort can be wasted finding the correct passages. This effort doesn't just drain you physically, but does as much damage to you mentally.
Next, we should have started much earlier and did almost all of Longs Peak in the dark. This would have saved us hours of daylight that we needed to make Buchanan Pass.
Third, we envisioned the ideal support plan. While the LA Freeway has been done unsupported (currently only by Buzz), it can be made considerably more doable with support. Dropping below the Divide to get water adds time and effort to an already epic undertaking. We'd start with 120 ounces of water each and plan to drink it all by Boulder Grand Pass. At the same time that we'd start from the Longs Peak Trailhead, Sheri would start from Wild Basin and hike into Boulder Grand Pass (9 miles one way) and leave 200 ounces of water. She'd then hike back out and then, with 4WD support, hike into Buchanan Pass with two gallons of extra water where she'd meet Derek and I for the night. Maybe she'd even carry in our sleeping bags, pads, and tent. The next day, she'd hike out, certainly with our overnight gear, and then hike into Pawnee Pass with more water and food for us. Finally, she'd meet us on South Arapahoe Peak with final snacks and drinks. This would be a grueling weekend for Sheri as well, but I think she'd be into it.