Navajo Peak

15 Jun 2002 - by Kevin Craig

I've been anxious to hop on what Gerry Roach calls the best mixed (though "combination" might be a better description given the modern meaning of "mixed" climbing) route in the Indian Peaks Wilderness (i.e. the N. Face on Navajo) for a couple of years now, and the weather, conditions, and partners finally came together this weekend to enable me to bag it. It didn't come without a fight though.

Having finished up with most of the CMC Basic Mountaineering School trips, my fellow instructors and I were anxiously looking forward to working on some of our personal goals. Two weeks ago, while trying to work out a climb and partners for Saturday 6/15, I was talking to Bryan Barnett, fresh back from an exciting and occasionally epic attempt at the upper west rib on Denali. Turns out that we both have had our sights set on the N. Face of Navajo for a couple of years and with news that the road to Brainard Lake was newly open, the trip was a go! Diana (my some-time climbing and teaching partner and full-time life-mate) and I met Bryan at 5AM in Boulder for the drive up to Brainard Lake. We'd heard that the road was only open that far, but we found the gate open and everything dry all the way up to the Long Lake TH. Several other parties had also obviously heard about the recent opening of the road and were setting out for various objectives at about the same time. The drive had gone quickly and we were ready to set out at about 6:30 AM.

The first 3.5 - 4 miles of trail went relatively quickly, gaining about 1,100 feet on excellent trail through an area that has a well-deserved reputation for alpine splendor. The alpine and lake vistas, many waterfalls and wildflowers make for a nice diversion during an approach that is otherwise a bit of a flat slog. From Lake Isabelle, Navajo makes for an impressive and intimidating objective; the snowfield appears quite steep and the summit block rises like an impenetrable castle above the connecting saddle to Apache Peak. Above Lake Isabelle, the trail is quite boggy and swampy in numerous places, so bring your gaiters!

At the small, un-named lake at 11,300, we opted to follow the left shore which was entirely snow covered. Despite the fact that an un-checked slip would have resulted in very chilly dip in the lake, the snow was in great condition for traversing and seemed a better option than the talus slope on the north shore. At the west end of the lake, we crossed the inlet stream that was bridged over with snow but clearly audible and climbed the steepening snow slope above the lake to a rock band beneath the next bench. We donned crampons about halfway up this snowfield which made for some tottering walking once we hit the rocks. In retrospect, we probably should have taken our crampons off or waited to put them on, but it looked like we'd hit snow again soon enough. After crossing the combined snow and talus bench, we made our way onto the Navajo snowfield-proper. This is a somewhat odd snowfield in that it's steeper in the middle than at the top or bottom. I imagine that this very convex slope makes for some spectacularly high avalanche danger when conditions are right (or wrong).

With the exception the first dozen feet or so, the snow was quite mature and consolidated, making for excellent step-kicking, though crampons were still a good idea as there were icy patches. About halfway up the snow, we looked down and realized that a fall would be very challenging to arrest due to the steepness (Roach mentions 45 degrees, but I measured 50-55 in places), but, foolishly or not, continued on un-roped. Probably also due to the odd profile, this slope is much longer and takes a good bit more time to climb than it appears from below. We reached the Navajo/Apache saddle and the improbable spire of rock known as "Dicker's Peck" at about 12:30.

I should mention that the day had been spectacular, with crystal blue skies all day, until we were about halfway up the snowfield. At that point, clouds started to build at a remarkable pace and we even heard a couple very distant rumbles of thunder as we finished the snow portion of the climb. By the time we reached the saddle, the sky was well stocked with ominous-looking clouds and a cold wind had picked up. We snacked a bit, staring covetously at the rock pitches above us while trying to decide what the weather was going to do. A couple of rather nearer thunder rumbles and some graupel (in addition to the increased pain in the ankle that Diana had twisted on the approach) made our decision for us. I was up for trying to glissade the snowfield until Bryan pointed out that: "You know, the Orient Express couloir on Denali (the site of numerous descent accidents) really isn't any steeper than this." Right! OK, let's descend roped-up and placing pickets, and that's what we did.

Of course, a serious storm never really developed though the thunder continued and Navajo was intermittently wreathed in cloud. On the hike out, we vowed to return for another go the following weekend.

Fast-forward one week. Same place, an hour earlier and with a slightly different cast. Diana was still nursing her twisted ankle, so I had recruited John Streeter and Bryan roped a coworker (Dustin) with some beginning alpine experience and some time on big peaks in South America.

We were somewhat pessimistic at the trailhead, it having rained a good bit of the night before, and with lots of clouds hanging around in the morning. Still the forecast was for "sunny becoming partly cloudy with isolated T-storms," and we were there with all the gear, so what the heck, we started up the trail. Compounding the weather prediction problem was the significant pall of smoke that lay over the entire valley and surrounding area. This also compounded my breathing problems (I have asthma) as we could smell smoke all the way up to 13,000' (thus I hacked and coughed all the way to 13,000'). We all hoped it was "only" smoke from the Hayman or Coal Seam fire and not some new disaster.

The approach went quickly as we benefited from the previous week's recon. Of note, a large snowfield that had blocked the trail near Lake Isabelle had disappeared in only a week's time. Employing the experience gained the prior week, we waited until just below the Navajo snowfield to put on our crampons. John and I climbed the somewhat shallower right side of the snowfield un-roped, Brian and Dustin roped up and tackled the steeper center section. The snow was once again excellent for kicking steps. We all marveled at the dedication of the skiers whose tracks were evident down the face of the snow. That's a long way to carry skis to get some tracks. This week, we hit the saddle about 11:00 AM and, sure enough, were met with cold wind and increasing clouds. We had hoped to climb Dicker's Peck before tackling Navajo or rappelling back down to the saddle to climb it, but the weather and rapidly softening snow argued for pressing on for our main objective and carrying our packs over the top for a descent of the Airplane Gully.

John and I roped up, and I cast off on the first lead. I had been scoping out the climb on the approach and was pretty sure I'd spotted the landmarks in Roach's description. I headed up a wide shallow groove pretty much in the middle of the face placing gear only to protect the more challenging moves (I really didn't want to run out of gear or especially slings on this potentially wandering route). As advertised, the first pitch is a series of ledges separated by steeper climbing consisting of a few moves of 5th class effort each. While the rock was reasonably solid, each ledge was littered with LOTS of loose rock and I had to be VERY careful not to knock anything down on my partners. I by-passed one section that I named the "lichen garden," that looked like the walls of an enormous and ancient house with peeling gray paint, on the right side via a series of small ledges and soon arrived at where further progress was blocked by a steep wall and a wide ramp ran up and right. There was an intriguing-looking gully to the left, but the ramp matched the Roach description, so I set off up it for about 15 feet before our 60m rope ran out and set a belay. During my lead, the weather cleared off and didn't bother us again for the rest of the day; we could have climbed Dicker's Peck afterall! I called down to John that I had him on belay and he rapidly appeared at my belay station. Bryan who had opted to lead a parallel line shortly after I started, established himself about 10 feet below my position and brought Dustin up.

John re-racked our sparse gear and set of to try to find the final and crux climbing of the route. Roach describes going to the west edge of the ramp to an "improbable and exposed stance" before climbing a 10 foot crack to easier ground. John thought he saw this stance, but decided that he liked the looks of a light brown dihedral with a nice hand crack in the back that was just around the corner from my belay and about 30 feet before the improbable stance. I wasn't thrilled about the grunting and groaning I heard from around the corner as he led up the dihedral/crack, but he soon called down that we had cracked the route. In short order John had set a belay and I began to follow the "grunting" pitch.

I found the climbing to be pretty steep but not much harder than the normal route's 5.2 rating. The crack in the back of the dihedral provided great handholds and there were good if not plentiful feet. The crux was an awkward squeeze through a notch at the top of the dihedral (made more so by the packs we were wearing), but you can eventually find good handholds to pull it off. We eventually settled on a 5.3a ("a" for awkward) rating for this pitch. (Great lead John!) After the notch, it was a hike to John's belay directly below the summit cliffs (light brown despite Roach's description of them as "pink;" he must have been climbing at dawn or sunset!). Bryan and Dustin soon joined us, grinning from ear to ear, and we settled down for a snack to celebrate our success and admire the view.

Paul Pritchard has described the time between when a climber realizes that he's cracked a route and when he actually tops out as one "when the pulse begins to race and the joy overwhelms you and you slow down wishing that the feeling will never end." I've certainly found this to be true, and I think everyone else shared my euphoria on this day. Eventually we all got our fill of being blissed-out and decided we'd better actually climb this mountain and head down. We packed up the gear and ropes and scrambled along a ramp to the summit ridge an thence to the summit itself. WOW! We'd done it!

After a brief detour to attempt a downclimb of the East Chimney (not recommended with heavy packs), we scrambled down to Niwot Ridge and the top of the Airplane Gully (the second major gully and NOT the one with the obvious trail that you come to first). Let me say for the record that you couldn't PAY me to climb this gully or to descend it again. It might be the steepest, loosest gully in Colorado that's actually climbable; something akin to 5th class scree.

It was most interesting and awe-inspiring to inspect the airplane wreckage, however. After over 50 years, there's still an amazing amount and variety of debris. I even found some radio parts strewn about the gully. I can't begin to imagine the despair of the pilots when they realized they were going to hit the mountain or of any survivors of the initial crash; to be marooned beyond any hope of help in a freezing wasteland. Not wishing to stir up any ghosts, I left the wreckage intact and eventually hurried on.

Like many before us, we didn't see the propeller that's reportedly there, but did see the remains of a radial engine. I'm not sure what model of airplane this was, but this engine certainly dates it.

Dale Mitchell adds, in 2011:

I happened to read this report by Kevin Craig and I can help solve the mystery of the propeller passage in his report...

Around 2000 (or 2001??) I thought it would be a cool souvenir and I am the one who carried it down to Long Lake where I was told by the friend that it could not be taken. I ditched it between a couple of rocks near where the stream flows out of Long Lake. (Yes, I'm blushing!) I would be happy to go back up there and point out the approximate location where I left it if anyone is interested in going up with me. I would also fell better in putting it back near where I found it, I just might need some assistance as it was quite heavy.

I live in Greeley and I'm off on most Sunday's and Monday's if I have any interested person(s) who wouldn't mind assisting me (provided it's still there of course). Contact me via my roster entry.

We delicately picked our way down the gully trying in vain not to set off cascades of rock, dirt and scree. Finally, we hit the boulderfield at the base of the gully. What a relief!

After a brief detour to retrieve Bryan's stashed trekking poles, we quickly made our way back to the trail at the east end of the 11,300' lake (after some boot skiing and glissading). We treated some water here as several of us had run out and we still had about 4 miles ahead of us. The hike out was uneventful as we basked in the glow of a successful day in the mountains. All-in-all about 12'ish hours car-to-car, but after the weather broke in our favor, we really weren't hurrying; in fact we were downright lollygagging. Great route! You gotta do it!

Gear recommendations: 60m rope, 3-4 pickets if you want to protect the snowfield, crampons, alpine axe, helmets are a must, 1 set of nuts, black alien, blue alien (both used), 5 other cams to a 2.5 Friend, the first 5 tri-cams (all used), 7 shoulder length slings, 1 double-length sling to protect the move at the top of the dihedral (girth hitch a constriction), cordalette.


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