Boulder man hikes Mosquito-Ten Mile from Trout Creek Pass to Mount Royal (podcast)
September 15, 2018
In the wee hours of a late June night three months ago, the patrons of the Moose Jaw in Frisco reacted to quite the sight bursting through the front doors.
Was the haggard, tired man looking for a drink? Was he lost and in need of directions? Did somebody steal his car?
As the man walked past the bar, he completed the final steps of his more than four-day odyssey from Trout Creek Pass 15 miles northwest of Buena Vista to Frisco's Main Street. It was a hike that required right around 60 miles of bushwhacking, talus-trudging and rock-tower skirting along the Mosquito and Ten Mile ranges. And the daredevil drama's high point came fewer than 24 hours prior, when the man carefully negotiated a harrowing traverse between the remote Fletcher Mountain and Atlantic Peak southwest of Breckenridge.
As he approached the billiard table in the rear room of the Moose Jaw, the man's brother tapped him on his shoulder from behind.
"Justin," the brother said, "you passed me. I'm right here."
Waiting for the 37-year-old Boulder resident Justin Simoni at the Frisco bar were two cheeseburgers prepared hours earlier, when the establishment's kitchen was still open. And one Pabst Blue Ribbon beer.
That late-night supper, along with pints of much-needed water, served as Simoni's trophy after his latest backcountry accomplishment. In 2017, Simoni became the first person to ever fully self-support climbing the state's 105 highest peaks only using his bike as transportation.
LISTEN: In this unabridged conversation, Justin Simoni reflects on: sleeping cliffside at 13,000-feet; in what ways the Mosquito-TenMile traverse was harder than his thru hike of the state’s hundred highest points; what kind of intercontinental outdoors journeys he’s mulling for the future; and much more
This time around, Simoni returned to the Mosquito-TenMile range with the goal of becoming the first person to record a self-supported thru-hike from Trout Creek Pass to the base of the Mount Royal trail in Frisco. Others had completed the traverse from Weston Pass east across State Route 24 from Twin Lakes. But no one had ever followed this remote ridgeline all the way from Trout Creek Pass to Frisco.
To boot, most who complete some of the most dangerous segments of the Mosquito-TenMile complete it in the reverse direction. Particularly the mile-and-a-half along super-loose ridgeline between the 13,951-foot Fletcher Mountain and the 13,841-foot Atlantic Peak.
"It's also one of the highest ridgelines in the Lower 48," Simoni said. "There's about 18 miles where it's above 13,000 feet, which is phenomenal. Nowhere else in the Lower 48 can you find that."
So Simoni set out from Trout Creek Pass at 9,487-feet with a planned elevation gain of about 29,000 feet between him and his burgers at the Moose Jaw. Over the first part of this journey — nearly equivalent to the elevation of Mount Everest — Simoni would hike the wooded ridge and its subpeaks through the Ponderosa Pine and aspen, bushwhacking the county line separating Park and Chaffee counties.
Without a trail to follow, Simoni found this dense bushwhacking much harder than he anticipated. It'd take him a good chunk of his overall journey — about 25 miles — to reach treeline before the rocky tundra began.
Through this first stage, Simoni began to realize just how different this experience would be compared to his Colorado Hundred Highest point hike the year prior. Rather than easily re-filling his water bottle thanks, in part, to the plentiful snowpack the year prior, Simoni was hard-pressed throughout to find water sources other than patches of lingering snow atop the ridge.
"(It's) one reason why not many people try this traverse," he said.
At the outset of his trip, he began with four liters of water at Trout Creek Pass. He also brought with him in his 35-liter pack four days worth of food.
"I was already out alone in places you usually aren't hiking in," he said. "So, it's definitely, like, a bit of a balance to figure out how much is too much, how much is too little?"
Marmut and East and West Buffalo peaks were the most prominent mountains Simoni traversed over the more-wooded first portion of the trip. It took him much longer than he'd hoped. At Weston Pass was when Simoni decided to dump out three of his four liters of water in order to lighten up his load. Entering the dry high-altitude ridgeline, it was a decision that forced him to eat slushy snow to battle dehydration between here and Breckenridge Ski Resort a couple of days later.
Now fully exposed, the first thing Simoni noticed was that the conditions were so windy his ears hurt.
Battling that element about 30 hours into his overall trip, Day 2 consisted of hours and hours of talus hopping. Along this portion of the ridge, the veteran climber found himself enjoying the Class 2 terrain so much that he broke out the Alive 2007 album by the electronic artist Daft Punk. Its songs helped him to enter into a happy rhythm that felt endless.
"Since it keeps blending into other songs," Simoni said, "I don't know when the end of the record is going to be, so I lose track of time myself."
Mountains familiar to Simoni from his Centenntial trip, such as the popular 14er Mount Sherman, highlighted this second stage of his trip. It's also the last location where he'd see another human soul until the Moose Jaw, as the more remote Class 3 terrain of 13,615-foot Dyer Peak greeted him next.
Simoni started moving on his third day before sun up, feeling terrible and battling his asthma without an inhaler. Totaling just 10 miles on Day 3, Simoni ended that night almost at the summit of 13,900-foot Drift Peak. Following the ridgeline, Simoni noticed he kept happening upon bail gear left by climbers previously removing themselves from the area's danger.
"So I was like, 'OK, I'm in the danger," he said. "I'm going to stay in the danger."
Simoni stole another few hours of sleep in a tiny alcove near the summit of Drift Peak, waking up to a sunrise scene he compared to being "in the middle of the Alps."
The Queen Stage
Day 3's travails wouldn't compare to Day 4's difficulties, though, as Simoni knew he had the "Queen Stage" of his expedition next, from Fletcher to Atlantic.
"This is the stuff," he thought to himself.
Unknowns abounded with each hold and rock for Simoni through this stretch. He thought to himself, "if I get to a point where I'm above my comfort level, I'll just bail."
To tackle it, Simoni segmented out every few hundred feet. And unable to climb most of the rock towers on the ridgeline, he felt out routes around the loose, disintegrating rock to get around each tower and to keep as high of elevation as possible.
"It was kind of like this insane game of route-finding," he said.
He got past snowfields, scree-filled gullies and steep-faced slopes. With each step, he realized just how bad this terrain was for traversing in this fashion.
"I don't think I've ever been in a situation where the terrain was that terrible, between Fletcher and Atlantic," he said.
The most dangerous singular moment came when Simoni managed to maroon himself near the top of one of the towers. The handholds having disappeared, he relented to trying a less-safe route down.
"You just have to keep your adrenaline in check and make very wise decisions — not make next move based on feeling, fear, worry or fatigue," he said. "You enter into a different realm where, 'I am just something here and I have to get over there.'"
In the traverse's shadowy, dark-rocked environment, Simoni eventually had his safety epiphany when he realized a tower he was scaling was actually the south ridge to Atlantic. Once he summited the peak, he collapsed in relief.
Everything from there on was fast-forward in the wake of the four grueling hours to conquer Fletcher-Atlantic's 1.5 miles. Atlantic gave way to Pacific Peak gave way to Crystal Peak, and before Simoni knew it he was at the "Sound of Music-like" alpine terrain of Breckenridge Ski Resort. The Daft Punk was back on. With each 1,000 feet he'd descend between here and Mount Royal, his cerebral fuzziness gave way to a focused drive to finish.
To conclude Day 4, Simoni raced the sun across the Ten Mile's numbered peaks before he was greeted by a Summit County local at sundown. With the heavenly salmon sunset behind it, a mountain goat relented to give up Peak One's 12,805-foot summit for a good 10 seconds, maybe 20.
"Right on the peak, right on the cairn," Simoni said. "I talked to it because I was in that state of mind of kind of going crazy. Like, 'Hey, mountain goat. Can I go here? Can you move?'"
It was the first time Simoni had returned to the summit since his brother and he suffered from altitude sickness in a hail storm as teenagers. Thinking back to the photos of him with his hair standing upright in an electrical storm, Simoni basked in the moment before groggily tackling Mount Victoria and Mount Royal on the way down.
And once at the Moose Jaw, Simoni had returned to civilization. Even if it meant he didn't find his brother on first glance.
"Relentless forward motion is kind of my forte," Simoni said in Frisco on Friday. "Stick with what you know when you're in a weird situation."
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