Take 5: The Mosquito-Tenmile Range Traverse with Nikki LaRochelle
August 23, 2016
Nikki LaRochelle is first to admit she occasionally gets lost in the woods.
For several years now, the art-school graduate from Colorado State University has been a beast on the Colorado ski mountaineering circuit, winning Arapahoe Basin's winter rando series in 2015 and taking second at the Elk Mountain Grand Traverse with partner Eva Hagen in 2016. The A-Basin series is straightforward — skin up, ski down, all on in-bounds territory — while the Grand Traverse is a bit more intense: It's held at night, in the dark, on a 40-mile course with 7,800 feet of elevation change between Crested Butte and Aspen.
Still, LaRochelle says she can get turned around in the Golden Horseshoe area of Breckenridge — a veritable Bermuda Triangle of the Rockies — and so she's gone out of her way to learn everything she can about local trails and route finding. It only helps she can practice on home turf, where the chances of getting seriously lost are slim for an elite endurance athlete.
"As long as you have enough time, I don't think our mountains are terribly confusing," she said. "If you get lost, at some point you just keep pointing downhill and you'll end up in Copper or Breck or even Leadville.
All of LaRochelle's prep time will come in handy when she and her husband, Brad, embark on a beast of a trek: a 30-hour, 37-mile trip from Weston Pass on the far southern end of the Mosquito Range to Peak 1 high above Frisco, most of which is above 13,000 feet — with no defined trail.
It's something neither of them has done before and few people have done in a single stretch in summer. To prep, Nikki and three friends finished the Tenmile Traverse in 6.5 hours this July, and the husband-wife duo has scouted bits and pieces of the mega-traverse in hopes of making a first attempt this September.
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Shortly after the LaRochelles returned from a rainy trip to Alaska with their daughter, Penelope, the Summit Daily sports desk caught up with Nikki to talk about winter training in summer, her meandering at Heinous Hill and why the stretch from Atlantic to Fletcher peaks might be the worst part of the Mosquito-Tenmile Traverse.
Summit Daily News: How was the trip to Alaska?
Nikki LaRochelle: It was good. It was really rainy, which was challenging, but that made me appreciative of Colorado. It basically rained on us the entire time. If you ever go there, just keep that in mind.
SDN: Where did you and the family spent time in Alaska?
NL: We were kind of all over. We went north to Denali, then to Hatcher Pass, then to Homer, where we took a boat to Halibut Cove. This was our first time to Alaska. We just wanted to check it out, see those big peaks, explore. Everything is big there, just in general. I think my husband and I want to climb Denali at some point, (and) you've got to see what it's like first.
SDN: Other than Alaska, what else has been on your adventure calendar this summer?
NL: I've been trying to take summer easy in terms of racing because I do so much in the winter. I've done a couple of trail races but not many. Instead, I'm trying to link together traverses I haven't tried before — the ones that aren't as obvious or aren't as typical. One was starting in town: I ran up Peak 8, then to Peak 9, then ran down the Wheeler Trail to the west ridge of Quandary (Peak). Sometimes I do them hard, sometimes I do them slow.
SDN: What do you like about finding these new and different routes, instead of doing a few favorite trails on repeat?
NL: I think it's good from a terrain perspective to get off the singletrack, to do some bushwhacking and exploring. It develops skills. When you're on scree — when you're off a dirt path — it's more challenging and tiring. It's good practice. It's also a way to build skills for wayfinding. I'm not naturally good at that, so I've been working on cardinal directions and finding my way.
SDN: You might not be "good" at it, but you still enjoy it?
NL: Yes, in the last two years, I've spent much more time looking at Google Earth, looking at maps, memorizing trail names, just trying to do what I can, so that I'm not getting lost. The Golden Horseshoe area is like that for me.
SDN: It can feel like a Bermuda Triangle sometimes.
NL: Yes! That's what happened to me this morning. I went up Heinous (Hill), then back down Heinous, and I just couldn't figure out where I was for a little. But, as long as you have enough time, I don't think our mountains are terribly confusing. If you get lost, at some point you just keep pointing downhill and you'll end up in Copper or Breck or even Leadville. As long as the weather isn't threatening, you can manage OK.
SDN: How do these summer treks prepare you for touring in the winter?
NL: It's relevant in terms of elevation gain and ascending. I used to measure routes in miles, but now it's more about the elevation. You can do an effort that's only six miles, but it might take forever because it's on tricky terrain or steep terrain.
SDN: Sounds about like the Tenmile traverse. What do you like about that route?
NL: I just love how I feel on top of Peak 1. At 3,700 feet, it's one of the biggest climbs we have in the county, and, when I stand on that summit, I'm already feeling tired. Peak 10 looks really, really far way, but you keep going, and, all of a sudden, it feels more achievable as you go along.
SDN: What's your personal favorite part of that route?
NL: I like that technical section between (Peaks) 2 and 4. It's not terribly technical, but it's fun scrambling. I love going up the ridge to summit Peak 4. That's my favorite section.
SDN: And what section kills you?
NL: I'd say when I'm standing on Peak 6 ridge, Peak 7 just looks like a massive wall, and it's really quite steep on that north face. It feels like a grind to me. Once I'm on top of 7, I feel good. It can feel long toward the end, for sure, but by then I'm ready to go.
SDN: Looking ahead, how do you feel about connecting Weston with Tenmile?
NL: It seems borderline impossible to me. I truly don't know if I can do it. I think there's more of a likelihood that I won't, but, then again, if something is totally achievable it just doesn't seem as interesting. At times, it seems manageable, and then we'll go and do a section of the route, and it just feels like, "No way." Mileage wise, it's only 37 miles — that's not terrible — but you spend most of the time above 13,000 feet. It's also tough terrain. It's slow, it's tiring, you're doing half of it at night — I just don't know if I can do the whole thing.
SDN: But that's part of the appeal.
NL: Right. I think of how frequently people don't do something when it feels impossible. When it feels that way, I think most of us are likely to not give it a try.
SDN: What other sections have you done?
NL: We've done chunks here and there. The only one we haven't done is from Buckskin, which is just south of (Mount) Democrat, to Mosquito Pass, and then Horseshoe to (Mount) Sherman. Those are two chunks in the middle that we haven't done yet. We just haven't gotten around to it. We were looking at doing Democrat south as far as we can, but these are moments when it seems impossible. That traverse from Democrat to Buckskin took 45 minutes longer than we expected.
A lot of that, too, comes down to access. It's easy to get to Democrat, and it's easy for Sherman, but there's no direct access to the middle. It's tricky to break it down into small chunks. Those, though, we're not as worried about. They're just not terribly technical, as far as we can tell from looking at maps.
SDN: Will the traverse require gear, or will it just be scrambling?
NL: The one tricky section is between Atlantic and Fletcher. That ridge is super sketchy. We went and checked it out, and I really don't think I would cross the ridge proper — it's too dangerous. I think we'll do it by descending into McCullough Gulch and then onto Fletcher. You could carry gear into that section, but that's a lot of extra weight and gear for something you can get around anyway.
SDN: Have you date set for an attempt?
NL: If we can get some efforts in this next month, I think the best timing would be mid-September. The weather is pretty stable then — you have less light, but that's more important for me. We need to get those longer efforts first, just see if our bodies are ready for it. I wouldn't give it a go unless I think my body is ready for it.
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