The Monte Cristo Creek Cirque

On September 1, 2001, I hiked Quandary with my wife, Susan.  We were looking for something easy and I had never done the standard route on Quandary, so we chose it and had a nice hike up.  My only previous visit to Quandary had been up the Monte Cristo couloir and was the scene of the longest sustained glissade I ever had, at least in the 13 years since. Let’s just say I’ve liked Quandary ever since.

While on the summit, I decided to spice things up a bit. I asked Susan if she’d be okay descending alone so I could climb down the west ridge to bag Fletcher Mountain, a Colorado Centennial.  She agreed to meet me in the parking below the Blue Lakes dam, and I started down the ridge.

Almost immediately I was thinking I’d have to bail. The ridge was significantly harder than I expected with a series of ledges with loose rock covered by snow.  And with my non-collapsible ski poles sticking out of my pack trying to push me off the mountain every time I bent down, I had to work hard to avoid the many opportunities for long and short falls along the way. But in between my chances for fame, I was able to notice the beautiful cirque surrounding the Monte Cristo Creek (that fills the Blue Lakes below Quandary).  Since I was about to finish my 2nd peak in the area, I made a mental note to come back and tag all the remaining summits in the Monte Cristo Creek cirque.

I finished the hike to Fletcher and returned down a very pretty valley below Quandary to reach the Blue Lakes dam and my wife.

Two peaks done; four more to go.

My routes up the various peaks in the Monte Cristo Cirque

Monte Cristo Creek Cirque Peaks and Dates Climbed

  1. Quandry Peak (14,265′) – June 14, 1997
  2. Fletcher Mountain (13,951′) – September 1, 2001
  3. North Star Mountain (13,614′) – April 7, 2002
  4. “The Drift” (13,860′) – May 4, 2002
  5. ‘Ol No Name (13,698’) – May 11, 2002
  6. Wheeler Mountain (13,690′) – May 17, 2003

Brian thought it was a fine idea and signed on. Following the 2002 ski season, we decided to get started right away. We figured we’d get it done in 3 weeks, assuming everything went well.

North Star Mountain – April 7, 2002

No Name summit looking toward Wheeler with Lincoln off in the distance

We started with North Star primarily because it is a ridge route.  The idea was to avoid postholing in the early season, unconsolidated snow.  It didn’t work.

We started from Hooser Pass with a plan to stay on the ridge-line which was also the Continental Divide. Fairly quickly that plan proved unviable, and we modified it to simply stay as close to the ridgeline as practicable (and moving left when necessary).  The repeated gaining and losing altitude made the climb more arduous that would be suggested by the short 3 mile approach starting from 11,542′  and only climbing to 13,614.

The descent included a rather poor ski effort over rather poor snow.  I managed to nearly fall off a cornice and tweak my knee, in separate incidents.

The effort took 7.5 hours to cover 6 miles.


A Blowout – April 27, 2002

Brian bundled up for the brutal windstorm. Fletcher in the background.

We returned to the Monte Cristo Creek Cirque in late April after a 2 week detour to bag the nearby Atlantic & Pacific and to make an attempt on Longs. It was a classic case of mountaineering ADD.

Our target for the day was “The Drift”.

We started up Blue Lakes Road around 7am only to find the road blocked about 1/2 way up and hurricane winds in our faces. We pushed on hoping for a break in the winds.

Joe bundled up against the windstorm

Visibility varied between zero and 50 feet, but I knew the way and we made good progress over firm snow. Unfortunately, the higher we got, the stronger the winds got.  The winds would gust up every few minutes and push us to the ground. We made it to the base of Fletcher (13,400′) before we decided to call it off and save our noses.

“The Drift” – May 4, 2002

We came back the following week to settle up with “The Drift”. This time the weather was perfect. The only problem we faced was the many “summits” in the vicinity.  Our approach wandered a bit and took us around to touch the various points that might have been “The Drift”. The descent was worth the trip.  Brian recalls:

We struggled to guess which couloir to take, since all the bumps on the ridge looked the same from below.  There were some places near the top where we were scrambling over nearly dry rock and loose scree

Brian looking for another adventure near the Blue Lakes dam

‘Ol No Name – May 11, 2002

While it wasn’t really on the original list and we were way behind schedule, Brian thought we should the climb the peak we saw just to the south of “The Drift”, in-between Drift and Wheeler. Even though we couldn’t find a name for the thing, it looked higher than Wheeler; I agreed.

On the next trip, this time in May, we took the southern route into the Monte Cristo Creek Basin.  The descent down the dam added an interesting element to the adventure.  Since we approached from the south, we took the southern couloir to the summit to save us from hiking around the east rib.  This led to some interesting scrambling as the snow at the top was soft and melted out in key spots; I had to do some exposed scrambling over loose rocks. Brian recalls:

We hiked up to a minor ridge, then crossed over it into another bowl.  We put on crampons at a point of avalanche debris.  The final part before the summit was extremely steep snow (to me), and I only stayed on it because it was soft enough to punch my arms into it.

Brian admiring an old mining shack below Quandary

But the descent was magnificently steep!

To avoid the willows along the creek on the warmer hike out, we used the central rocky area to travel as far east as we could before descending to complete the hike out on the snow.  But the willows take their toll.  Just the short distance I had to cross was a nightmarish mind and body breaking exercise.  If there is one thing worse than hiking on soft snow, it is hiking on snow covered willows. My sanity was only retained by thoughts of how great the descent had been from the peak.

Unfortunately, this also signaled the end of the Spring snow climbing season for 2002.  The last chunk of rock (and snow), Wheeler, would have to wait until 2003.

Brian standing on a chunk of cornice that had fallen

Wheeler Mountain – May 17, 2003

A year later we remembered to come back.  We chose the NE Couloir to finish off the last peak in the Monte Cristo area, Wheeler.  Starting again on the snow-blocked Blue Lakes road, we again took the southern route. The willows were buried deep and so the hike in and climb started well but soon degraded into a snow-over-loose-rocks misery and then a scary semi-technical rock climb. Brian recalls:

Wheeler was steeper and drier than the others.  We had worked our way around the back side, and went up a 40-ft low-angle dihedral, stemming ski boots on rock edges, and hooking the self-arrest poles on holds.

The tiny summit and great views tipped the scales back to the good.  The fun, scary descent down the NW couloir solidified the day into a great experience.

And we were done.  We’d climbed all the peaks in the Monte Cristo Creek Cirque. And it only took 2 years.

Overall, bagging the peaks in the Monte Cristo Creek Cirque was an enjoyable experience. The unexpected pleasure was our getting to know the terrain so well that it felt like a backyard: the terrain, trails, and, to a lesser extent, the weather became less wild and even friendly.

It still reminds me of what Edward Whymper said about preferring to climb favorite mountains again and again because they become like old friends. I couldn’t agree more.

See all trip reports


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