Lessons learned from abandoning and summiting neighboring peaks

Popular Fourteener Quandary Peak is seen through a space in the summit cairn rock pile at Bald Mountain's 13,684-foot summit southeast of Breckenridge in early September 2019.
Antonio Olivero /

BRECKENRIDGE — When attempting to tackle big peaks — the kind that stare down at you from central vantage points in town — it’s important to remember numbers matter little. That’s especially true when hiking some of the more prominent mountains here at the heart of the Rockies, where seemingly solid mountains from afar are essentially eternally disintegrating masses of rubble when traversing them.

I was reminded of this lesson when hiking arguably the two most prominent mountains here in Summit County: east-of-Breckenridge neighbors Bald Mountain and Mount Guyot.

Guyot requires respect befitting of a peak 1,000 feet taller and 3 miles more remote. Yes, the 13,370-foot mountain Guyot is only roughly a 3.5-mile, 3,100-feet-of-elevation-gain hike from the Little French Gulch parking lot. But it’s a hike that demands careful route finding once above tree line. Budget, say, two hours to scale 500 crucial feet of elevation rather than a half hour.

Then there’s Guyot’s taller, yet distinctly-less-tough of a hike in the 13,684-foot tall Bald Mountain, or Baldy.

For Guyot I didn’t really allocate myself enough time to comfortably scale its boulder-filled northwest ridge in time to return to town for a prior commitment. For Baldy, I gave myself far too much terrain to scale than I would have preferred. After 5.5 miles on a driveable Boreas Pass Road, I made the decision to park and walk up the remaining 2,500-plus feet of scree-filled elevation gain that loomed over me in order to ensure my safety to the 11,481-foot Boreas Pass.

But, back to Guyot. The French Gulch Road winter trailhead and parking lot is ideal to reach in summer with most any vehicle, low-clearance included. From there, you’ll trudge about a 1.25 miles along French Gulch Road until about 10,600 feet, with Guyot towering through the trees up ahead. Here you’ll bear left at the super-obvious “Little French GH 63” trailhead sign.

Following this moderate trail to the rocky gulch at about 11,4000 feet is obvious. If your goal is to gain Guyot’s northwest ridge, as was mine, you’ll want to bear right at the couple of junctions you come across.

After the beauty of hiking through wildflowers along Little French Gulch, it’s likely the neighborhood marmots residing in long-collapsed mining structures will alert you — as they did me — to the beginning of the scree-filled slog above tree line. It’s here you’ll want to budget at least twice as much time as it normally takes you to scale, say, 500–1,000 feet of elevation. Attempting to gain the northwest ridge, there is no real trail from here to the summit.

Trekking poles are a must. The scree is super loose, and once you gain the ridge and begin to attempt to find a route along this steep spine, the boulders that move beneath your feet grow in size to that of your kitchen table.

After carefully balancing and maneuvering my way up the seemingly infinite boulders to 12,800 feet, and just 500 feet from Guyot’s summit ridge along the Continental Divide, I decided to turn back. Knowing I’d need to keep an ideal climbing pace in order to make it back down the ridge in time for evening plans, being solo amid loose rock was not a place I wanted to be.

With no evening plans a week later, the bluebird afternoon proved ideal to allot till sundown for the extended Baldy hike I unknowingly set myself up for. From the summit of Boreas Pass, Baldy isn’t too tough: 6 miles roundtrip and 2,600 feet of elevation gain. From my chosen parking spot it was 17 miles and closer to 3,500 feet of elevation gain when you factor in Baldy’s numerous false summits, two of which rise within feet of Baldy’s true summit to the northwest.

After reaching Boreas Pass the hike climbs moderately and obviously to the 12,159-foot Black Powder Pass at the Continental Divide. From here, keep an eye out for cairns and trail in the not-so-loose scree.

Compared to Guyot, Baldy has ample cairns.

Though you may be tempted to skirt some of Baldy’s scree towers once up on the ridge, it’s probably best not to. I successfully skirted one of the towers on the return trip but the rock on the Guyot side of Baldy is loose and the dropoff to French Gulch nearly 1,000 feet below is super steep.

Going out and back along Baldy’s up-and-down spine, the views are stunning all around. Guyot’s knife’s-edge ridges, including the northwest, are also impressive. In a way, Guyot feels much less monstrous down below like this.

At the same time, the sight of the sharp above-tree-line ridges put in perspective just why I turned around a week earlier. Reflecting on rock, it always feels good to know you made, if not the right, at least the safe decision.

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