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Atlantic Peak
Elevation: 13,841 feet
Climbed: Jul 12, 2015
Mountain Range: Tenmile Range
Colorado Rank: 86th
Class Rating: 2
Latitude: 39.413500
Longitude: -106.125900

Trip Report

Jul 12, 2015

I'm writing this three years after the actual climb, so I'm relying on my memory to get the facts straight. However, after reliving the climb through photographs and reviewing my GPS track, more of the details of this climb are emerging.

I drove to the McCullough Gulch Trailhead late in the afternoon of July 11, 2015. I had identified an unnamed lake at 11,920 feet of elevation on my topo map. This seemed a likely place to camp for the night, so after parking at the trailhead, I took off up the trail. According to my GPS, I started hiking at 6:13 p.m.

As I hiked higher, I encountered a pretty decent-sized snowfield along and across the trail. It was July, so the snow was well-consolidated, which made it pretty solid to walk on when I couldn't avoid it. To the south, the long, rugged east ridge of Quandary Peak rose high above my trail.

By 7:30 p.m., I reached the northeastern tip of the small lake, which for lack of any other name, I called "Lake 11920." After another 15 minutes of exploratory hiking along the north side of the lake, I found a likely spot to spend the night, just above a snowfield that still lingered next to the lake. My tent was on soil just flat enough and big enough to accommodate my 1-person tent, a Big Agnes Fly Creek ultralight.

It didn't take long to discover that at least one adult mountain goat and its kid also preferred this section of rocky slopes above the lake. I took a few photos and one video of the large, sturdy goat trotting right up to me. I used my trekking poles to fend off the goat and its sharp, black horns. She seemed friendly enough, but with me being (apparently) the only person on this section of the trail, I played it safe.

I pitched my tent and then boiled some water for a freeze-dried meal. Later I strung some parachute cord between two trees and hoisted my food bag up and out of the way of any bears. At least I hoped it was high enough to discourage any unmotivated bears. I also wanted to discourage any inquisitive mountain goats. After wandering around on the rocky north side of the lake and taking a few late-evening photos, I bedded down in my tent for the night.

I had initially planned to leave my tent, backpack and other supplies at base camp while I climbed Atlantic Peak the next day. Upon rising that morning, I realized that the ever-inquisitive mountain goats were unlikely to let things alone. I decided to tear down my entire campsite and pack my gear higher onto the mountain. The extra weight would not be ideal, but I figured I could work it out.

By 8:24 a.m., my camp was on my back and I was heading up the trail. Almost immediately I came to a noisy, rushing stream that crossed the trail and blocked my way. After a bit of navigating, I crossed the stream still dry and intact. I didn't realize then how much harder it would be to cross again in the late afternoon, after the sun had warmed the snowfields and released more water down the mountain.

It was a slow, methodical trek, as I navigated my way up an often-undefined trail. I worked my way up and around some pretty rugged rock formations, climbing quickly above the lake's west end. As I climbed, I noticed that I hadn't been completely alone that night. I passed a campsite not far from the trail.

After the initial steep climb beyond the west end of the lake, the terrain relaxed. Suddenly the view to the west opened up and I was treated to the sight of Fletcher Mountain's snow-draped east face. Fletcher's craggy north ridge stretched to its right, with "Atlantic Peak" temporarily out of sight.

Within moments, however, Atlantic Peak stepped into view, as well. Now, on the treeless alpine tundra, tiny flowers, some yellow and others purple, carpeted the ground beneath my feet. The horizon was dominated by Fletcher Mountain on the south connected by a gnarly sawtooth ridge to Atlantic Peak on the north. Large snowfields still persisted along this expansive ruggedness, including one that I would need to climb to gain the summit of Atlantic Peak. My ice axe was riding snuggly on my back for just this purpose.

I slogged along, climbing slowly past a few very small alpine lakes, following a trail when there was one, and hopping across talus the rest of the time. Then, I was abreast of Lake 12695.

The reason for my ice axe was now in front of me: a moderate snow slope that would lead to higher sections of the mountain. I took off my heavy pack and pulled from it a small summit pack. I packed it with my wind jacket and pants, first aid kit, water and other possible necessities. I stashed my big pack in plain sight, among the rocks and talus, and hoped that any marmots in the vicinity would be kind to it while I was gone. With the summit pack on my back and the ice axe in my hand, I turned toward the snowfield.

After miles of trudging along under the weight of my full backpack, carrying the summit pack was a joy! Curse those mountain goats at base camp and the potential mischief that they harbored behind those sly smiles.

The snow slope now before me stretched below the east side of the connecting saddle between Atlantic and Pacific Peaks. I had climbed Pacific Peak on July 22, 2012, approaching from the Spruce Creek drainage to the north. On that climb, any snow remaining from the prior winter was confined to small pockets that could be easily avoided.

There was nothing particularly memorable about this snowfield, other than the fact that there was no way around it. The snow was softening due to the warmth of the sun. It was almost noon and sunny, with scattered clouds floating across the azure sky. I had not brought crampons with me nor did I need them. I was able to kick-step my way up the steeper sections of snow. My ice axe would allow me to self-arrest if I slipped, preventing a wild ride down the snow slope that would have ended in the rocks and talus below me.

It took about 15 minutes to huff and puff my way up the snow. In fewer than 10 more minutes, I was standing on top of the Atlantic-Pacific connecting saddle, with snow temporarily replaced by talus. Snow-covered Atlantic Peak was south-southwest of me, only 500 vertical feet above me on my left.

Sometimes I walked on talus; other times snow cushioned my footsteps. The final uphill push was slow and methodical. Surrounding mountain peaks and valleys came into view. Quandary Peak was fully visible southeast of me, Pacific Peak visible whenever I looked behind me to the north and as I reached the summit, Fletcher Mountain was fully exposed right in front of me to the south. By 1:04 p.m., I stood atop Atlantic Peak. It was a slow climb, even slower than my often sloth-like paces in the mountains. The extra weight that I carried on my back for most of the climb didn't help.

After almost 15 minutes relaxing on the summit enjoying the panoramic view, I snapped a summit photo and then started my descent. I took a more direct line as I descended from the summit, looking for the easiest footing and terrain.

I soon reached the top of the soft snowfield below the saddle. With my ice axe in hand, I plunged my heels into the soft snow and continued my quick and direct descent down the snowfield.

Warm sunlight softens snow. It also makes it especially slippery. I knew this. Still, without warning, my feet exploded and slid out from under me. Instead of walking on the snow, I was now sliding down the slope.

Hard snow can be almost like ice. It makes it hard for an ice axe pick to bite into the snow. If you can't get a bite, you continue to slide until the pick bites. Soft snow is just the opposite, but the result can be somewhat similar, though far less scary. You will slide.

As soon as I fell, I dug my ice axe pick into the soft snow under my body. Because the snow was so soft, I continued to slide for some distance, although my speed decreased quickly. After a brief but unexpected ride, I came to a stop, still high above the talus below.

Practicing the art of self-arresting with an ice axe is a good thing to do. You don't want to try self-arresting for the first time when you actually need it, like when the end result is tumbling into rocks or off a cliff. I had previously practiced diving downhill on snow, including head first, feet first, belly down and belly up. In all cases, you want to end up on your belly with your head facing up the mountain and your ice axe buried in the snow beneath the weight of your body. This was the end result of my just-concluded slip-and-slide session below the Atlantic-Pacific saddle.

I reached the bottom of the snowfield without experiencing any more adventures. I located by stowed backpack, which was in the same condition as I had left it. Thank you, marmots! After reorganizing my gear, I hefted the pack onto my back and headed down.

Sometimes the terrain looks different while descending the mountain than it looked during the ascent. On the way up, I had followed a more-or-less prescribed route, based on guide books and other information. Now, knowing some of the challenges I encountered on the ascent, I opted to take a different route down. I chose to follow the long, flowing tongues of snow that filled the gullies below me.

The soft snow presented its own set of challenges. Walking on firm snow is very pleasant; post-holing up to your thigh in soft snow is not. I did my best to follow the route that offered the firmest snow. Sometimes I guessed wrong, but overall, the snowy descent wasn't that bad. In the final analysis, though, it was kind of a toss-up as to which way was better. I was essentially bush-whacking my way down the mountain, but without the bushes.

Eventually the snow ended and I was on solid ground. However, I still needed to find a way to drop down past some fairly steep and cliffy terrain above the west end of Lake 11920, where I had camped. I decided I would down-climb next to a cliff on my left. With my large pack still on my back, it was challenging.

Some of the step-downs were pretty big. With the cliff to my left, I was able to steady myself by grabbing handholds on the cliff and stepping down to the next level. At one point, I pivoted and my leg swung into some protruding rock along the cliff. No big deal, I thought.

After some more climbing, balancing and talus hopping, I was below the steepest section. The biggest challenge of the descent was behind me, at least for now.

As I narrowed the gap between me and the lake, I could look around more leisurely, no longer focused solely on finding handholds and footholds along the steep cliff. I could also afford the luxury of taking a few photos. I grabbed my camera phone and focused on the scene before me. The image was distorted and unfocused. I thought that sun flare on my lens was the issue, so I tried again. It didn't help. I looked at the back of my phone and saw that the camera lens was completely fractured and destroyed. When my leg had swung into the rock along the cliff, the lens on my camera phone took the brunt of the impact. There would be no more photos on this trip.

I stashed my phone into my pocket and continued toward the lake. The only thing separating me from the lake was the rushing stream that I needed to cross. It was a small challenge in the morning. Now, with the increased volume of water due to melting snow, it seemed impossible. I was at the same place where I had crossed in the morning. Now, at 4:30 in the afternoon, there was no way that I was going to cross the rushing water here.

As much as I wanted to go down, I went up. I followed the course of the stream up the mountain, now bush-whacking for real, fighting my way up the slope. At every opportunity, I checked for safe passage across the rough and tumbling water. Here? No. How about this spot? Not safe. I continued higher.

Eventually persistence paid off and I found a place where I could navigate the wild water. Using my trekking poles for balance and trying to ensure my large backpack didn't send me tumbling, I ended up on the other side of the stream. The last obstacle was truly behind me now!

I picked my way down the rocky terrain until I again reached Lake 11920, the site of my sleep-over with the mountain goats. The remaining miles of my descent would be on the well-defined trail that I had traveled the previous afternoon. It was an uneventful descent from this point on. I reached my vehicle at the McCullough Gulch Trailhead at 5:51 p.m. I turned off my GPS, loaded my gear into my Xterra and headed for home.

July 11, 2015

"Planning" is too strong of a word when describing my intent to climb Atlantic Peak on July 12, 2015. "Might" is a better word to describe my intentions.

I do plan on backpacking from McCullough Gulch Trailhead at 11,080 feet of elevation and spending the night near treeline. I am considering spending the night near an unnamed lake at 11,920 feet. This lake is only 1.5 miles from the trailhead.

If the weather cooperates and I feel strong the next morning, I will head up the trail to the west and attempt to hike to the summit of Atlantic Peak, one of the top 100 ranked peaks in Colorado.


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