Hike Summit: 14er Quandary Peak, one of the best mountains to climb
Some important considerations for hiking Colorado 14ers
October 3, 2015
Quandary Peak (14,265 feet) is a popular beginner 14er due to easy access and an established hiking path making it one of the best mountains to climb in the area. Quandary is probably one of the most attempted (and least attained) summits of Colorado's 54 14ers. Since it attracts many novices, I have seen many hikers turn back after two miles of hiking to treeline, found at about 12,000 feet.
One winter weekend, I began hiking from the trailhead at dawn, surrounded by 20 hikers. By the time I reached the summit, only two hikers were on the mountain. Counter-intuitively, the three hikers who reached the summit were middle-aged, while all of the young hikers in their 20s had quit below 13,000 feet. On 14ers, slow and steady persistence often wins the race.
On this warm fall day, I began my ascent after noon and immediately met two young, disoriented hikers visiting from east of the Continental Divide. I led them north along the U.S. Forest Service access road a short distance and followed the Quandary Trail northwest into the forest. I learned that this was their first attempt to summit a 14er.
While I carried two ice-cold liters of water on my pack and paused frequently to sip, I did not observe them drinking any fluids. I allowed them to set the pace, two miles an hour for 1,000 vertical feet to 12,200 feet, until we reached the krumholz and tundra. Despite the ideal climbing conditions, they were done. I suspect that they were dehydrated, unconditioned to long-term activity and suffering from an anaerobic accumulation of lactic acid in their muscles. I classify them among the "dog walkers", hikers who go up a trail for less than an hour and never get any farther. When they mentioned using a stair-stepper in a gym, I explained that they would probably need to complete 7,000 steps to attain the mile of vertical that is typical to the summit of a 14er.
I continued hiking upward and following the trail west on the ridge, enjoying the view of Hoosier Pass, the Upper Blue River Valley east of Quandary, and Grays (14,270 feet) and Torreys (14,267 feet) peaks at the distant horizon. Climbing through the rock fields and tundra at 12,700 feet, I met a group of mountain goats grazing on the brown turf scattered among the rocks. A couple of kids huddled closely to the sides of their nannies, while an odd one out bleated to call its mother near. I had passed a hunter carting out a goat on my way up the mountain and feared that the solitary kid was now an orphan, victim of a killer in search of an easy trophy.
Proceeding past the first false summit at about 13,000 feet, my pace dropped below one mile an hour. Over the top of North Star Mountain, the section of the Continental Divide separating Summit and Park counties, I could see other 14ers south of Quandary. The easy summits of Democrat (14,148 feet), Cameron (14,238 feet), Lincoln (14,286 feet), and Bross (14,172 feet) are usually approached from Kite Lake, west of Alma and make for a good Colorado hiking trip for anyone wanting to attempt multiple summits in a single day.
After 3.7 miles of ascending along the rock-strewn rib of Quandary, I reached the summit. I could see Buffalo Mountain and the Gore Range spread across the horizon to the north. Holy Cross Ridge formed the western horizon. The sharp, ragged ridge of Fletcher Mountain was the wall immediately west of Quandary, blocking the view of local hiking trails Mayflower Gulch and Clinton Reservoir, both found eight miles south of Copper Mountain. The view from this mountain certainly helps make this one of the best mountains to climb.
As the sun dipped low in the sky, I ate a handful of nuts, drank from the bottom half of my second liter of water, and began descending to the base of Quandary. At about 13,000 feet, the lonely kid began following me. He attempted to join another kid, but instead of comfort was met with a head butt from the horns of the nanny. For a mile, the solitary kid trotted beside me, bleating for his mother. Casting a shadow of melancholy, I saw the kid perched over the cliffs of the south face, searching for his companion. I knew that he would be the first of his cohorts to succumb from exposure when snow covered the mountain and he was unable to share the warm companionship of his nanny.
How to get there
The Quandary Trailhead, east and south of the Ten Mile Range, is 25 miles from Copper Mountain, 18 miles south of Frisco, and 8 miles south of Breckenridge on Highway 9. After passing Goose Pasture tarn on the east side of the highway, continue through the town of Blue River to the switchbacks that lead up to Hoosier Pass. Turn right on Blue Lakes Road and bear right to the Quandary trailhead parking area. The trail ascends through the forest on the west side of the gravel access road.
Map: "Trails Illustrated," Breckenridge, Tennessee Pass, 109. Latitude 40° Summit County Colorado Trails.
Author Kim Fenske has written extensively on hiking trails throughout Colorado. His writing includes, "Greatest Hikes in Central Colorado: Summit and Eagle Counties;" and "Hiking Colorado: Holy Cross Wilderness," available from Amazon Kindle Books.
Originally published in the October 3, 2015 issue of the Summit Daily News and is regularly vetted for accuracy.
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