Tempting the Tenmile Range Traverse from Frisco to Breckenridge (360 video)
It rained later that night. And it rained hard.
My roommate walked down from his room and mentioned the lightning. I hadn’t noticed it all that much — I was too busy staring blankly at the Olympics while rolling out the soles of my sore feet on a lacrosse ball. (It works.) But then he said something, and for the rest of the night I saw just about every bright flash through the living room windows. They seemed more intense than usual.
Oddly enough the thunder was quiet — it must have been far away, maybe somewhere over the Continental Divide — and I barely heard the distant cracks over the pounding of rain on the patio. It sounded cold and miserable, and then it would stop for a few minutes as the lightning kept silently popping outside. When I finally eased off the couch to look outside, the scene was like flashbulbs behind paper cutouts of twilight peaks and pine trees.
It had rained earlier that day, but not until the end of our trek was in sight, as in literally a few hundred yards in front of us at 13,633 feet — the summit of Peak 10. The clouds began to billow and darken around 4 p.m. at the foot of the peak, but we rolled the dice and kept chugging up the service road past the decaying remains of Fourth of July Bowl.
We couldn’t turn back — not after nearly 12 hours and 14.5 miles of unbelievable weather above 12,500 feet — and so we hoped and prayed for just 20 minutes more, watching as the clouds sat like fat, grey washrags over downtown Breckenridge to the east. Mother Nature wrung them dry, soaking Main Street and the entire Blue River Valley down to Lake Dillon, but from our perch high above, the wind was blowing just right to hold the clouds at bay. Score one (or two, or maybe three) for our small crew on the Tenmile Traverse.
“How was it?” my roommate asked from the kitchen.
“Long,” I replied. And it was: Our group of three woke up around 3:30 a.m. for a 4:30 a.m. start in Frisco, knowing full well we’d spend at least eight or nine hours hiking from the base of Mount Royal at 9,075 feet to the summit of Peak 10 at nearly 14,000. It’s not the entire Tenmile Range — we’d have to continue another several miles to 14,265 feet at Quandary Peak for that feat — but it’s the standard route locals refer to when they talk about “the Traverse.”
“Was it hard?” he asked. I paused.
“Peak 4 wasn’t easy,” I said and paused again, my thoughts on the lacrosse ball and a nasty knot in my right arch. “And then there was Peak 9.”
Peak One with Zeke
Our trio chose a day in early August for our first try on the Tenmile Traverse. None of us had tempted the entire 14.5-mile stretch before — I relied heavily on local experts like Joe Howdyshell, Nikki Larochelle and others when planning the attempt — but that wasn’t a huge worry because none of us were new to alpine trekking. There was Ben Trollinger, managing editor at the Summit Daily and an avid trail runner who spends countless hours on the trails south and west of Frisco. Then, there was Sara Skinner, a longtime Frisco local who has bagged a slew of 14ers and summited Mount Royal dozens of times. I’d personally been on top of Peak 1 and Peak 10 before — not to mention Peak 6 and Peak 8 (albeit with the help of a chairlift) — and the Tenmile is unique in that you can always see it. The range is hard to avoid in Summit County, like its neighbors at Red Peak and Buffalo Mountain. They’re familiar and with familiarity comes comfort.
Still, the traverse is a serious commitment. It seemed like a relatively straightforward task on the surface — the range is bordered on both sides by towns and highways and civilization, the creature comforts — but I knew well how perspective could change when you roam from the foot of a peak to the slopes. It’s easy to get disoriented (if not quite lost), and so none of us took it lightly.
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We left the Mount Royal trailhead at 4:30 a.m. in near-darkness. The trail there was clear and easy to follow, even with no headlamp, and the air was perfectly brisk. Trollinger packed light, with just water, food and rain gear, while Skinner and I each brought full daypacks with extra layers, plus camera equipment in mine.
It’s ghostly to hike in the dark. Your pace seems faster and the trail seems shorter, and although there are no sights to be seen, even a well-worn route like Mount Royal suddenly feels new. We reached the Mount Royal turnoff after 45 minutes and 1,300 vertical feet — it’s deceptively steep — and continued to Mount Victoria, the next false peak en route to Peak 1. By then the sun had turned the sky a deep, dark purple in the west, leaving a rope of orange along the entire eastern horizon. It made routefinding easier right in time for the trail to fade — not completely, but just enough for a taste of what was to come.
As Peak 1 came into view, we heard the faint whisper of a stereo playing Bruce Springsteen and Pink Floyd. I crested the ridge and saw a smattering of dots winding up the singletrack to the summit.
Sunrise acid trip? I wondered. Trollinger was wondering the same.
After 1.5 hours and nearly 3,000 vertical feet we reached Peak 1, where the music was playing full blast as the sun crept over the Continental Divide. And no, it wasn’t a group of kids spending the last half of their trip on a mountaintop — it was the Zdechliks. Their uncle and father and brother, Summit native and longtime Frisco employee Zeke Zdechlik, died of cancer in 2015. The family was in town for a memorial service the previous day, and before everyone went their separate ways they wanted a quiet moment on Zeke’s home peak.
We chatted for a while as the wind whipped the summit and then went our separate ways: they north to Frisco, us south to Tenmile Peak (aka Peak 2). Funny how small the world can be when you’re on top.
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Peak 2 to Peak 5: On a razor’s edge
By 7:30 a.m. the sun was high and bright, and our trio was making good time to Tenmile Peak. We reached the summit after 3.5 hours at 8:30 a.m., roughly 3 miles and 3,500 vertical feet into the traverse, and quickly moved on to the most precarious stretch: Peak 2 to Peak 4. It’s home to towering spires, scurrying ptarmigans and something known as the Dragon — a sheer formation-slash-false summit between Peak 3 and Peak 4.
During stretches of Class III scrambling on a steep, cairn-marked route, our group spent a few minutes trying to figure out what peak we were on, and with good reason: there is no defined trail. The only routefinding aids were a U.S. Geological Survey marker on Tenmile Peak, those sparse cairns and the sun — not to mention that knife-like ridgeline.
Luckily, we’d had nothing but pitch-perfect weather, with big, white, billowy clouds on all sides and little wind since leaving Peak 1. Just three days earlier it had rained almost nonstop, and so we knew we had to take advantage of the conditions.
Besides, no one wants to get caught scrambling over wet rocks on a ridgeline traverse. I thought of the one (and only) time I was forced to do that in New Zealand, and suddenly the jagged stretch from Peak 2 to Peak 3 didn’t seem bad.
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Peak 4 was a different story. From 9,000 feet on the Breckenridge side (the east), it looks more approachable than the previous three — a simple walk on a consistent grade. But, like all things in the high alpine, altitude brought perspective. To the east of the ridge was an unwelcoming tundra slope and to the west was a sprawling boulder field, accessible only by a thin and vertigo-inducing chute on the Copper Mountain side (the west).
It was easily the most difficult 0.75 miles of the entire traverse. The boulders were thankfully dry, but they slid often and unexpectedly, some as large as a person. Trollinger took the point with a 15-yard lead, just in case he dislodged a chunk of certain injury. We passed a group of mountain goats making quick work of the boulders while munching on tufts of grass. They looked at us and we looked at them, and then both of our groups continued on, they north and we south, until our trio reached the summit around 10 a.m.
To the south was nothing but tundra, with no scree or boulders in sight. At 5.5 miles and roughly 4,000 feet of climbing we were halfway there.
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Peak 6 to Peak 10: High-alpine marathon
Technically the longest stretch of the traverse lay ahead — we still had 9 miles and 4,500 vertical feet to go — but after five hours of adrenaline-fueled scrambling our trio felt strong, confident and just a little loopy from altitude.
“It’s like ‘Sound of Music’ up here,” Trollinger said as we made quick time on the tundra between Peak 5 and Peak 6. We connected with the Wheeler Trail for a stretch and passed a small band of mountain bikers training for the Breck Epic. Their day looked much harder than ours — my legs were happier walking than pedaling at 13,000 feet.
Again, appearances and perspective are deceiving in the high alpine. The brutally steep climb to the Peak 7 summit came just as fatigue set in and our pace slowed noticeably: we reached the apex at 12:30 p.m., eight hours after we left Frisco and about an hour slower than expected.
Never mind the time — we were committed. Between conversations about the best burger in Breck and just how lucky we were with the weather, the 1-mile trek from Peak 7 to Peak 8 didn’t seem as long. Here, Trollinger was forced to walk past Imperial Ridge and Vista Haus to the Peak 8 base — his wife had work and his kids couldn’t be left alone.
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Skinner and I ate a quick lunch on Peak 8 and talked with a young solo hiker who had just come from Peak 10 and Peak 9. All told, we saw less than 10 hikers and bikers on the meat of the traverse — only once we reached the Peak 10 service road was the reverie broken by trucks, dirt bikes and blackened fire rings. Civilization was slowly creeping up the slopes to meet us.
But first, before that left-foot-right-foot slog up Peak 10, we had to reach Peak 9. Even though the route wasn’t technically difficult — no precarious ridgelines or unstable boulders — it was long and required a 400-foot descent before scrambling back up the ridge. This was a far cry from the back-to-back ascents early in the traverse, like a marathon compared to a sprint.
Yet we were still committed, even though our feet felt heavy, and after another brief stop at Peak 9 we made the final push to the Peak 10 service road for the slog. It was 3 p.m., and overhead the clouds were gathering enough to spit shards of glass-like hail. Ahead, the trucks and bikes and motors were driving back to shelter.
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From my perch on the couch I heard the rain patter until it became a torrent. By then, at 8 p.m., the sun had nearly dropped behind the range, leaving only the puppet-show silhouette backlit by lightning. I was fed and showered and ready to nod off to the strains of the Olympic Hymn.
Who was competing? Not sure — probably Michael Phelps — and I was hardly invested. TV was a creature comfort and little more: a warm and relaxing distraction to remind me I was done with the trek, like the lone weather station below the final ridge to Peak 10, or the celebratory beers we cracked for a rushed descent on the service road to Peak 9, where a friend was waiting to give us a leg-saving ride into town for Empire Burger — yet another round of creature comforts, every last one, and for maybe the first time this summer they felt earned.
The lightning popped silently again, first once, then twice, leaving silhouette burns on the walls. I drifted to sleep.
This story originally published Sept. 2, 2016, on summitdaily.com. It appeared in the Explore Summit 2018 summer magazine.
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