Posts Tagged ‘ypsilon’

Blitzen Ridge, At Long Last

September 6, 2010

Mt Ypsilon and its Donner (left) and Blitzen (right) ridges

Blitzen Ridge.  It has officially been on my Climbing Goals list since 1/1/2000.

Unofficially, it was added the day I climbed Ypsilon Mountain from Chapin Pass (a walk-up) and marveled at the majesty of the entire area on July 11, 1999 (see Mummy Range Weekend trip report).

One of the key problems in accomplishing this goal is I never get to see it; I’m always driving to Estes Park in the pre-dawn dark, and I’m always climbing in the Longs Peak, Glacier Gorge or Loch Vale areas which are far to the south.  Out of sight, out of mind, I guess.

Still, every few years or so I’ve been reminded of it in some way.  Each time, I mentioned it to Brian for consideration and always get a similar negative answer, all of which boil down to: too much hiking for too little climbing. The fact that this statement is essentially true led me to never push very hard.

But in the year, 2010, I decided I would finish a number of my long-standing goals. I started my lobbying efforts early, and was unintentionally aided by the fact that our climbing skills have fallen far enough to severely limit our RMNP alpine rock climbing options.  Earlier in 2010, we’d done everything in RMNP we could think to do: Spearhead North Ridge, Notchtop Spiral Route, Hallet Great Chimney, Zowie Standard Route, Sharkstooth NE Arete, and we even bagged one of my long-standing goals, the Solitude Lake Cirque, a linkup of Arrowhead, McHenry, Powell and Thatchtop.  And, so, with a perfect weather forecast, Saturday, September 4, 2010, was the time to dedicate ourselves, finally, joyfully, to climb Blitzen Ridge.

Interesting story about the first ascent and naming of Blitzen Ridge

On about Sept 1958, a group of Yale students did the first ascent of the Blitzen Ridge. After a forced bivy on the summit, they walked down to Fall River Pass (where the RMNP Alpine Center is located) in the morning and hitch-hiked down. They named the two ridges “Donder” and “Blitzen” intending the names to mean ‘thunder’ and ‘lightening’.

~from a Charles Ehlert email published by Andy in the Rockies

Oddly, the ‘Donder’ ridge is now named ‘Donner’. It is impossible not to recognize the reindeer names, and a little research revealed to me that naming of Santa’s raindeers has changed over the years.  ‘Dunder and Blixem’ (Dutch) from the 1823 poem “A Visit from Saint Nicholas” (i.e., “twas the night before…”) by Henry Livingston, Jr. became ‘Donder and Blitzen’ in later versions by other authors, and eventually became ‘Donner and Blitzen’ in the 1923 song Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer.  ‘Donner’ is the german word for ‘thunder’. Unfortunately, ‘Blitzen’ means ‘flash’ in german; it was used instead of ‘Blitz’ which is the german word for ‘lightning’ because of the need to rhyme with the name ‘Vixen’.  Still, it works for me.

The Plan

The plan was a simple one, and was designed to finish the ridge climb with the least amount of hiking possible.  It would also approximate the route used by the first ascent party in 1958, minus the hitchhiking.

The Blitzen Ridge route map

We would start from the Lawn Lake trailhead at the bottom of Old Fall River Road and hike to the bottom of Blitzen Ridge via the Ypsilon Lake trail spur.  We would climb the ridge and then descend from Ypsilon Mountain to Chapin Pass, where we would use a stashed vehicle to drive back to the starting point.  Yeah, driving would save ~4 miles of hiking and scrambling, but it would still be a hard day: 10+ miles of hiking & climbing from the Lawn Lake Trailhead (8540′) to the summit of Ypsilon Mountain via Ypsilon Lake and Blitzen Ridge to cover over 5000′ of elevation gain in 12 hours.

“Opened in 1920, Old Fall River Road earned the distinction of being the first auto route in Rocky Mountain National Park offering access to the park’s high country.” (

I also hoped to check out the ‘Louis R. Leving Grave’ that is indicated on my GPS map as situated on the Blitzen Ridge.

On 2 August 1905, Louis Raymond Levings lost his life on the face of Ypsilon Peak…his body is buried there and a bronze tablet was erected where the body lies, to his memory.
~ Estes Park Archives

The Day

We met in Boulder @ 1am and drove up to RMNP in single file order. We drove past the Lawn Lake Trailhead at 2:10am on our way up Old Fall River Road to stash Brian’s truck at the Chapin Pass Trailhead.  The road was in good shape, but still narrow and winding in places and so slow (and explaining why it is a one-way road). It took a little over 30 minutes to drive the 9 miles; then we dropped Brian’s truck at what seemed to be a parking spot (next to the sign forbidding overnight parking).  We then continued up the one-way road in my 4Runner to the Alpine Center and then down the new Fall River Road to complete a 30 mile loop to reach, again, the bottom of Old Fall River Road and the Lawn Lake Trailhead.

And so it began.

Position 1

I was delighted to start on-time.  I figured some part of my start-up plan wouldn’t work and we’d start late; I was glad to have the extra time.  We actually arrived 20 minutes early.  But my estimate of 1 hour to position the cars was actually low by 15 minutes, and that was with no traffic at all.

When we pulled into the Lawn Lake trailhead, the lot had half-a-dozen cars already parked.  I couldn’t believe it; we wouldn’t be first on the rock. Brian suggested some of them might be headed toward Lawn Lake; I agreed it was good to have hope.

I had expected a cold, windy day, based on a forecast for Longs Peak on But it was not cold, nor was it windy, except for the occasional gust. I packed away my extra clothes against the chance that the weather might change once we got above treeline.  And at the last minute, to save on weight, I decided to leave behind my extra water and only bring 1 liter of water and an extra (empty) bottle.  My plan was to drink a liter and refill both at Ypsilon Lake.  I figured 3 liters would be too little water for a 12 hour hike & climb, but still enough to get me home.

Position 2

In my preparation for the trip, trying to remember my previous 3 visits many years ago, I couldn’t recall a cutoff for Ypsilon Lake from the Lawn Lake trail. I was worried that the Ypsilon Lake trail would be hard to find, and worried that not finding it would be a quick end to a long plan. I decided to bring my GPS primarily for the purpose of finding the cut-0ff in the pitch dark.

We started up the excellent Lawn Lake trail making good time in the pitch dark. At about 1 1/4 miles in, I pulled out my GPS to guide us. But it was all unnecessary. At 1.5 miles along the Lawn Lake trail, we came upon a small sign indicating the turnoff.

So far so good.

Position 3

The Ypsilon Lake trail started as a fine trail but eventually reminded me of the Knobs Shortcut to the Glacier Gorge trail; it was rough and dark. Still, I only lost the trail once as we worked our way past Chipmunk Lake and, finally, Ypsilon Lake at approximately 5am.  In the dark, Chipmunk Lake looked like a swamp; Ypsilon Lake looked magnificent.

In my preparation research, I could not find any certain evidence of a ‘best’ way around Ypsilon Lake to reach Blitzen Ridge.  Roach wrote of heading north from the east end of the lake, while Rossiter indicated to hike up a grassy gully on north side of the lake.  I guessed ‘clockwise’ but wasn’t sure.

Once we arrived at the lake, I decided to take a couple minutes to see if a trail went counter-clockwise; it didn’t. And we did find a climbers trail to follow clockwise. The plan was still working.  But at this point, I forgot to do something important.

Position 4

Our first view of Mt Ypsilon and the ‘Aces’ (see the shadows)

We followed the climber’s trail across a good bridge and for another 30 feet before completely losing all sign of a trail.  We continued hoping to find a trail, but willing to bushwack our way eastward, moving up or down depending on the obstacles. I was looking for a talus field that was supposed to mark Rossiter’s ‘grassy gully’ that led to the start of the ridge. In the dark, the talus field we found 1/2 way around looked more like landslide debris; but we took it.  It was very steep, but it went to the start of Blitzen Ridge, which we reached at 6am.  Still on plan.

But then I realized that I had forgotten to get water at the lake.  Shit.  One liter of water for 12 hours of high altitude exercise = bad day.  I started making an effort to breath through my nose instead of my mouth.

And, under the circumstances, I was glad to finally find the cooler temperatures and higher winds above treeline.

Position 5

It was still too dark to see any landmarks, but my GPS confirmed that we were on course.  The next step was to follow the ridge as it turns from a rounded hill to a sharp-edged ridge.  When we reached a point were we could see the Spectacle Lakes, the sun had come up enough to expose the scenery. Mt Ypsilon’s Y-Couloir and accompanying Donner and Blitzen Ridges are wildly spectacular; in my opinion, the area rivals Longs Peak, my favorite mountain in the world.

Brian examining the long way up Blitzen Ridge

The only odd thing was that we couldn’t see the Aces on the ridge.  Eventually, we saw the shadows of the Aces on the Donner Ridge wall, highlighted by the morning sun. By 7am, we arrived at the base of the 1st Ace; it was an impressive pinnacle.  To climb to the top of it would be a time-consuming undertaking.

Position 6

Our plan was to skirt the 1st two Aces. I took the 1st lead and did a descending traverse on 3rd and 4th class terrain to get below the 1st Ace and then continued with an ascending traverse over somewhat easier terrain to get by the 2nd Ace and to the base of the 3rd Ace.

Brian followed, arriving at 8am, and then prepared for his climb of the 3rd Ace.

Position 7

Brian’s lead of the 3rd Ace

The 3rd Ace was the one we had to climb, according to the route beta.  Brian, delighted for a chance at some real climbing, worked his way up the 3rd Ace, taking the hardest path when possible.

When I followed, the route felt a bit harder than 5.4, but that made sense.

When I arrived at the top, Brian indicated that he couldn’t find a rappel anchor. Now that was a bother, as we brought two ropes specifically for the 2-rope rappel off the 3rd Ace.

I climbed out to the ridge edge to see if I could find an anchor or a place to set one without leaving iron behind; I couldn’t. The going was easy enough that I shouted to Brian that I was going to down climb and place gear to protect his down climb. I admit it would have been better if I had taken the rack; I only had the 5-6 pieces I cleaned from Brian’s lead.

I continued down until running out of rope, but I could see it was going to work. Brian followed and then we scrambled the rest of the way to the saddle between the 3rd and 4th Ace.

Position 8

The plan for the 4th Ace was to pass it on the right.  I had read that the best path comes of climbing up for a bit before turning right.  Looking at the 4th Ace from high on the 3rd Ace, I couldn’t make sense of this advice; and worse, the rock looked hard to climb. But once up close, the obvious weakness in the rock started up and right, right off the ground. It was my lead so I started up, following the slight ramp to see where it would lead.

The climbing was easy but the protection was scarce. I worked far enough right to see a probable path around the corner about 50 feet away.  And then Brian yelled out that I only had 20 feet of rope left.  Shit.

I brought Brian over and then he finished the climb by turning the corner to find a nice walking and scrambling path to the foot of the Headwall. He brought me over and then we scrambled to the Headwall, which would be Brian’s lead.

And then I forgot to look for the brass plate marking Louis Raymond Leving’s grave.  Oh well, I guess it will wait for me.

The Blitzen Ridge ‘Headwall’

Position 9

Brian indicated that he’d read that climbing the white pillar was the best start to the Headwall.  I didn’t think he meant ‘easiest’…he didn’t.

Brian’s lead up the Headwall 1st pitch

He started up the SE corner and found the hardest climbing of the day.  It was a balancey climb in a strong wind. I was surprised to be able to make it without a fall; I’m sure Brian was pleased with himself.

But we had another 125 feet of steep rock to reach the top of the Headwall.  I ran the rope out 75 feet up some 4th class rock and then led a 50-foot pitch to reach the top of the Headwall near a notch in the ridge. Brian came up and then we unroped, based on the advice we’d read (but absolutely not based on the look of the rock).

Position 10

The first 50 feet or so were wickedly exposed, but the rock was good.  The key was to get to the top of the ridge as quickly as possible. Once on the ridge, the difficulty was primarily past.  It was mostly 2nd & 3rd class movement; the hardest part was avoiding the overhanging rocks just out of sight that jumped out to bash my helmet at any moment of weakness.

The last 100 feet was the easiest terrain since before the Aces.

Position 11

Ypsilon summit: enjoying our first break after 10 hours of hiking and climbing

I reached the summit at 1:30pm and sat down for my first official break of the day. I had saved 1/3 liter of water for my lunch. I was surprised that I didn’t feel dehydrated, but it had not been a hot day (so far, I should have realized).

I found Brian trying to use the sun to melt some found ice into his water bottle.  We sat and chatted about the day; I insisted that the Blitzen Ridge was a great idea.

Brian asked if we were behind schedule; he thought I had mentioned a plan to summit at noon. The weather had been so good all day that I didn’t pay any attention to the time.  I dug out my trip plan and found that our 7 hour climb was the high-end of my predicted range (5-7 hours).   We decided to stay awhile and enjoy the views.

I claimed that we could have gone faster if we hadn’t tried to make the technical climbing portions interesting. I was probably right, but it was all good. A good climb and a good plan.

After a 30 minute break, it was time to head down; but not before stopping to appreciate our path over the many obstacles on the Blitzen Ridge.

Position 12

I had a mind to find the best compromise between shortest line between two points and avoiding losing any altitude that I’d have to re-climb. I followed a cairned path much of the way as I bypassed Chiquita and aimed for the saddle between Chiquita and Chapin, finding and losing the path at least a dozen times.

Brian had the energy to bag Chiquita on the way past.  I skipped it since I had already done these peaks on my Mummy Range Weekend adventure some years ago.

Once at the saddle, the trail became excellent and we made good time back to Chapin Pass, finally seeing other people for the first time in the day.  But it finally started getting hot, and I started feeling thirsty.  I wished I had stashed some water in Brian’s truck; now I’d have to wait for the long ride through RMNP.

As we approached the trailhead, the sight of Brian’s truck (13 hours after leaving it) was a sight for sore feet.

We made it.

Panorama of descent path to Chapin Pass trailhead

All that was left was the drive back to my 4Runner at the Lawn Lake trailhead.  Naturally, the traffic was horrific with all the tourists gawking at the aliens dressed as elk.  But, as a mere passenger, I was permitted to sleep and catchup on the lost sleep of the night before (I only got 2 hours of sleep: 10pm to midnight).

And once back at my vehicle, I started home immediately, and I drank 2 liter of water as I drove home.

Another great trip.

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A Mummy Range Weekend

March 21, 2009

I had a free weekend on July 10-11, 1999 and decided I’d go after the seven 13ers in the Mummy Range.  

I had recently hiked to Mummy Mountain, and from the summit had seen how close and accessible were Fairchild and Hagues.  I decided then that I would return to get them all in a day.  Reading Roach’s 1988 RMNP book for planning information, I learned that the Mummy Range included Ypsilon, Chiquita and Chapin as well.  I figured I could get them all in 2 days:  

  1. Starting from the Lawn Lake trailhead (8530′), use the Lawn Lake trail to reach Lawn Lake (10900′), and then climb the cirque bagging in order, Fairchild (13502′), Hagues (13560′), Rowe Peak (13,400′), Rowe Mtn (13184′) & Mummy (13425′).
  2. Start further up Old Fall River Road at the Chapin Pass trailhead (11020′) and use Chapin Creek Trail to get access to the west side of the Mummy Range to bag in order, Chapin (12454′), Chiquita (13069′) & Ypsilon (13514′).

Day 1

It was going to be a long day.  I was going to hike 21 miles and 6,800 feet of elevation gain, if my body and the weather held out.  I decided to gamble a bit on the weather and water availability to reduce weight; I only packed a rain jacket, two 1-liter bottles of water, and iodine pills.  The  “plan” was for the rain and related cold wind to stay away, and for me to be able to find enough water to drink an estimated 6 liters (13.2 lbs) without having to carry more than 2 liters in my pack at any one time (4.4 lbs).  With such a small load, I figured I could do it. 

I started hiking at 6am along the Roaring River, and was amazed at the wild river bed that looked like it contained a wild amount of runoff in some years. Later, I found out that the dam on Lawn Lake had failed in 1982, and the water carved out the river bed as it roared into the town of Estes Park.

The trail was completely empty of humans.  Walking on an excellent trail didn’t exactly feel wild, but the sense of adventure was certainly heightened by my isolation.  My adrenaline was running high; I was feeling very good.

I broke out of the trees just after reaching Lawn Lake.  I could finally see the peaks I was attempting; I could see the entire cirque.  Based on my trip planning, I was thinking that I needed to cross over to the SE slope of Fairchild, but the route didn’t seem obvious.  I decided to head over to Crystal Lake and use “The Saddle” approach.  But first, I finished the last of my initial 2 liters and refilled both bottles.

A view of Cystal Lake with Fairchild Mtn beyond.  My route followed the right skyline to the summit.

A view of Cystal Lake with Fairchild Mtn beyond. My route followed the right skyline to the summit.

Unlike all other Colorado lakes I’ve seen, Crystal Lake has perfectly clear water.  I suppose that is where the name came from.  It reminded me of spring-fed lakes I had played in as a kid in Florida.  I was tempted to go swimming, but managed to stay focused on making progess; I had a long way to go.   I did make a mental note to return someday for a swim.

To get a good view of Crystal Lake, I had come in too close to take a direct route up the slope toward “The Saddle” (actual name on map).  Rather than take the detour to get around the cliffs surrounding the lake, I decided to climb up one of the steep gullies. As is almost always the case, I regretting my casual acceptance of unnecessary risk about half-way up the loose, steep rock.  But I made it, and then worked my way up along the rim to the summit of Fairchild where I took my first break.


A view of Fairchild (and Ypsilon) from Mummy. I ascended the cliff band to the right of Crystal Lake and then to the summit. Then I traversed right to The Saddle and further right to Hagues Peak.

I didn’t know the Mummy Range well so I didn’t know that right behind me was Ypsilon, less than 2 miles away.  I thought it was an impressive looking peak and took a picture, but I had no idea about the possibility of linking all the peaks together.  

I started down to The Saddle after only a few minutes, and enjoyed the beautiful flowers.  It was the biggest collection of mountain flowers I had ever seen;  I made my second mental note of the day:  to return to this incredible spot with others to share it with them.

Beautiful flowers on "The Saddle".  My route ascended the slope to the left to Hagues, and then followed the skyline to Mummy on the right.

Beautiful flowers on The Saddle. My route ascended the slope to the left to Hagues, and then followed the skyline to Mummy on the right.

Approaching Hagues, the hiking turned into scambling and then to climbing. Near the summit level, the difficulty felt 4th class; but I was insisting on the direct path.

 As I was climbing up a crack leading to the summit level, a roaring sound from above got my attention.  As I heaved my bulk over the top, I quickly looked up to see a B1 bomber doing a low-altitude, tight turn; he looked like he was having some fun before heading off over the Continental Divide. It was a strange feeling. All alone deep in the mountains and watching an air show.  

At this point, I could feel the mileage of the day.  I was tired, and I was out of water.  As I looked over at Rowe Peak and beyond it to Rowe Mountain, I was thinking that I was moving too slowly (and getting slower), had a long way to go, and was far above treeline.  I thought I’d be taking too big of a chance by doing the 2 mile round trip over that tricky terrain.  I was disappointed to skip the Rowes, but I needed to start heading back down very soon.

I tagged the Hagues summit and took off for Mummy with an eye for water. On the Hagues side of the saddle between Hagues and Mummy, I found a mossy puddle.  It was nasty water with lots of floating and suspended matter.  Worried that I wouldn’t find anything better, I filled one of my empty bottles.  I reasoned that one liter of bad water might keep me alive, but that two liters of that nastiness would definitely kill me.    

Looking back at Hagues from the summit of Mummy.

Looking back at Hagues from the summit of Mummy.

I pushed my body to keep going with some speed.  I was tired, but I could make hard 20-30 step pushes followed by a bent over, hands on knees rest. And, the ascent to Mummy was mercifully short.  On the Mummy summit, I decided I needed to thin my blood with some of my water supply.  

To my mind, it was like drinking a liter of loogey, chewing to keep from choking.  

Loogey (lōō-gē)

  1. A chewy substance that is difficult to swallow. 
  2. An unidentifiable mass of goo of probably disgusting origins.
  3. A blob of snot. lung butter.

With a queazy stomach and somewhat less tired legs, I started down the south slope toward the Black Canyon trail.  The thunder in the distance encouraged me to take advantage of the downhill terrain.  I always feel stronger going downhill for some reason; it’s a mystery.

Near the bottom, I cut the corner to reduce the distance to the Black Canyon trail and get below treeline.  The Black Canyon trail quickly led to the Lawn Lake trail and the Roaring River.

The hike out along the Roaring River was an unending death march.  But water was nearby and I was below treeline.  I managed to get my 6 liters of water on the day, and I was very happy to reach the car and end my suffering.  I had hiked just over 19 miles and accumulated just over 6,500 feet of elevation gain in 12 hours.  That was enough; I figured I’d do the rest of the Mummy Range some other weekend.  

When I got home, I found a message from my friend, Joe.  He wanted to join me on my final day in the Mummy Range.  Now I had to continue with my Mummy Range weekend.   At least the suffering was so high that I knew I’d be proud of myself when it was all done.

My route through the Mummy Range

My route through the Mummy Range

Day Two

I picked up Joe and we drove to RMNP and up the Old Fall River Road to Chapin Pass trailhead.  

The first mile or so was through the trees, but it thinned out quickly as we approached Chapin.  As we broke above treeline, we saw two big bull elks giving us the eye.  They both had massive racks, and we had none. We gave them room by doing a rising traverse of the Chapin flank.

A view of our route taken on the drive out

A view of our route taken on the drive out. Ypsilon is further to the left of Chiquita.

We continued on to the northern most of the two Chapin summits. Once there, I admitted to Joe that I was tired.  He expressed some surprise at my slow pace.  I didn’t feel like explaining.

My tiredness was not going to be resolved or even aided by a break on the summit of Chapin, so we continued hiking, now heading to the Chapin-Chiquita saddle.  My morale was boosted by the impressive views down to Chiquita Creek.

We continued hiking, now heading up the long ascent to the Chiquita summit. When I could afford to take my attention from my footing, I enjoyed a spectacular view of the areas I had investigated in great detail the day before. Oddly, it still didn’t occur to me how those peaks could be linked to my current location.  From the Chiquita summit, Joe and I enjoyed the great view of Ypsilon’s Donner Ridge before heading down Chiquita’s northern slopes to the Chiquita-Ypsilon saddle. 

The climb up Ypsilon Mountain was another grind for my tired body.  Joe kept looking back at me, wishing I’d move faster as we hiked up boulder-filled terrain. Once we could see down into the basin, we were lost in wonder. The Spectacle Lakes basin is very impressively boxed in by the the Donner and Blitzen ridges. 

Sitting on the summit of Ypsilon, the pieces of the puzzle came together in a rush.  My eyes followed the line from Fairchild to Ypsilon, and I thought, that looks doable.  Suddenly, it hit me…I should have gone that way!  

Looking for excuses anywhere, I complained that Roach didn’t say anything about the possibility of linking all of these peaks together.  I wondered out loud if perhaps no one had done it before.  The prospect of being a trail blazer burned in my mind and powered my failing body as we hiked back to the Chapin Pass trailhead.  We managed to get lost for a short time and had to take a detour around a giant Porcupine, but we made it.  We had taken 7 hours to climb almost 7 miles and approximately 3,200 feet of elevation gain; the weekend total was nearly 26 miles and 9,800 feet in 19 hours.

When I got home, I quickly dug out Roach’s RMNP book to confirm my assertion that he makes no mention of the linkup.  Of course, I quickly found his “Mummy Mania” description and regretted not being more careful in my research.  Using this route would have saved me 11 miles and 3700 feet.

Mileage and elevation gain for my Mummy Range weekend

Mileage and elevation gain for my Mummy Range weekend

Wow, what a lesson!  Even though I wasn’t very smart, I still retained a measure of pride for the effort to reach 6 Mummy Range summits in a weekend.

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