Colorado’s “Sawtooth Traverse” – Opportunity Knocking

I’ve been living in Colorado off and on for the last 16 years and have occasionally, rarely, heard of the Mt. Zirkel Wilderness Area just north of Steamboat. When it was suggested that we go check out the alpine climbing in the area, I was immediately skeptical (as is my nature) that we’d find anything worth our time. Any¬†mountains in Colorado north of Rocky Mountain National Park have never really appealed to me as a climber, and only occasionally as as skier, due to their lackluster height and associatively-small topographical relief. Like most guides/climbers, I’m a creature of habit and tend to stick to the areas I know will deliver.

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Upon doing some cursory research, it was further confirmed to me that no real climbing had ever occurred in the Zirkel area, presumably because there wasn’t much to climb: I could find only rumors of climbing and a few useless trip reports of hiking/backpacking. I was about the drop the axe on the trip, suggesting we check out some more of the Indian Peaks or the Sangre de Cristo Range when I stumbled across a photo from a 4-wheeling website of the “Sawtooth Range” in the Zirkel/Big Agnes area. Then I studied Google Earth a little more closely. And then I got psyched.
DSC08096 DSC08100Despite it being the beginning of July, we packed up ice boots, crampons, ice axes and all the technical rock-climbing gear as well as enough food, clothing and bivy gear for three days. The idea was to climb alpine-style (vs. base-camp style) with everything on our backs to enable us to move freely through this relatively unknown and unclimbed terrain. When we arrived at the Slavonia TH, there was still snow lingering well below treeline; still, we opted to leave the heavier boots/crampons behind, taking only one ice axe apiece for the occasional snow crossing. We figured the actual climbing and Traverse would be snow-free and that only accessing the base of the rock would require step-chopping. I wore my Scarpa Tech Ascent GTX “approach boots” and packed a pair of rock shoes; the Tech Ascents climbed so well that despite climbing into the 5.9/5.10 grade, I never put the climbing shoes on.

DSC08102 DSC08107 DSC08108We left the TH around noon on July 1st and hiked 1.25 miles to the Mica Creek turnoff. Soon we were gently switchbacking up the Mica drainage towards, drum-roll, Mica Lake; we hit consistent snow around 10,000.’ We could see Big Agnes off to our right and some cool-looking spine/ridge formations but nothing that compared to what I thought I’d seen on Google Earth awaiting for us ahead. We reached Mica Lake (~5 miles) after a couple hours and briefly debated about which way we should continue. With Little Agnes well to our south and west, we ascended directly up to the “Sawtooth Ridge,” I’ll call it, and took our first look at the jaw-dropping scenery below.

DSC08109 DSC08113 DSC08118DSC08128DSC08133From here we began the Traverse, staying on the ridge as we worked our way eastwards towards Big Agnes. The idea was to either follow the ridge until we saw something else that piqued our interest or, instead, we’d simply stay on the ridge. Less than an hour later, a large buttress that may-or-may-not-be called “The Incisor” soared out of a hanging valley to our left (North). One look at this nearly-1000′ formation and we had to check it out from a closer perspective.

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This part of the State arguably receives more snow than anywhere else in Colorado. I’ve read anywhere from 500″ to 1000″ annually but I don’t believe the latter figure, this is still Colorado after all. But even with summer in full-swing, the Sawtooth Range looked like it had just began to thaw out. Snow was everywhere. Descending steep snow without boots and crampons was a concern but as we descended into the Incisor basin, we found the late-afternoon snow soft enough to accommodate even our relatively flimsy footwear. We set up a bivy below the wall after ~6 miles of hiking and 5 hours of travel and scouting. As the sun began to set, I had a couple hours of daylight to scope out the various routes from below.IMG_3337

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The geological breakdown of the Sawtooth Range is for steep westerly aspects with moderately gentle eastern slopes, the opposite of what I’m used to in the Front Range. There, when the sun rises and you’re climbing an east face, you enjoy the sun’s warmth first thing. But here, deep in this west-facing valley, we were not rewarded with the sun’s dawn warmth. It was a fairly cold bivy. We shook the cold from our bodies as we packed everything up and started climbing up an unknown formation via an unknown route in an unknown area of the State.

DSC08151 DSC08153 DSC08161 DSC08166 DSC08175There was loose rock, as one would expect to find on any rarely or unclimbed alpine formation. We trundled what we could but overall found good climbing on nice rock. The first 300′ to a large terrace a third of the way up the wall was stepped, ledgy and choked with wildflowers wherever the rock wasn’t vertical, never exceeding 5.7 in difficulty. From below we spied a few tantalizing lines but couldn’t decipher their difficulty; with a big day ahead (the Traverse as well as another 600′ of climbing) we chose to tackle the left side of the wall. We traversed the terrace and found ourselves positioned between a large dihedral on the right and overhanging rock on the left with a “stem box” line of weakness through the middle. The overhanging rock looked devoid of cracks for protection and the dihedral would’ve gone at 5.8/5.9 but, again, we chose the easiest line up the stem box (formed by two opposing corners to stem against as one ascends).

IMG_3353 DSC08176 DSC08179 DSC08182 DSC08189 DSC08191 DSC08194The climbing was really fun, with solid protection and the rock often offering up hidden, in-cut holds where I didn’t expect. Another 400′ of 5.7/5.8 climbing took us towards a huge chimney system, a massive cleft with steep rock soaring on both sides. We traversed right on a grassy ramp to a second terrace about 300′ below the summit. Here we could unrope and walk around so we enjoyed a casual lunch in the warm sun, surveying the route ahead and the series of gendarmes and false summits leading towards (and from) Big Agnes itself. Another 150′ of 5.7 climbing took us into 3rd class terrain through which we scrambled to a final mini-pitch to an exposed and climactic summit. We were super-psyched to have onsight-climbed a 1000′ route in apparently unclimbed terrain! It was 11am with hardly a cloud in the sky as we began connecting the aforementioned ridge features towards the summit of Big Agnes.

DSC08197 DSC08203 DSC08204 DSC08208This ended up being more difficult than it had first appeared. There was even a few short sections of 5th-class climbing, requiring us to rope up periodically as we gained a series of false summits. As we approached Big Agnes’ summit from the west, we were blocked by an imposing-looking wall. It looked like we’d have to climb another pitch or two up a very steep, even slightly-overhanging wall to gain the meadows above. But a peek around the left (north) side revealed an exposed but comparatively easy bypass; we stayed roped in but found the climbing barely 4th-class. It was only 50′ to the summit from there.

DSC08209 DSC08210 DSC08211 DSC08212 DSC08213 DSC08214From Big Agnes, as from our previous summits, we could see the long, serpentine ridge that was the “Sawtooth Traverse” leading towards the Mt. Zirkel massif. From our perspective it looked to be quite far and quite arduous travel with many exposed and narrow, craggy ridge crests to be surmounted en route. Fortunately, while the north side is indeed imposing-looking, the south side of the ridge offered much easier travel…at least at first. Just east of Big Agnes’ summit, two gendarmes looked problematic but we were able to easily skirt around their right (south) sides as we descended towards Mica Pass. From the Pass we began a long series of ups and downs as we traversed towards the Zirkel massif, our objective for the morrow, and our bivy and, hopefully, water.

DSC08215 DSC08216 DSC08218 DSC08219 DSC08220The further one traverses the Sawtooth Ridge towards Zirkel, the trickier the travel becomes. We climbed over, along and down so many intermediate peaks that we both lost count. Two prominent peaks guarded the final ridge before the final pass at the foot of Mt. Zirkel itself and we eyed them wearily as we inched our way nearer. We largely traveled unroped but roped up often for steep or exposed sections we had to ascend/descend along the way.

DSC08221 DSC08222 DSC08223 DSC08227 DSC08229 DSC08230 As we hit the low point in the Sawtooth Ridge, just before the last two prominent peaks, I accidentally dropped my trekking pole down the north side and into a large moat 100′ below. Shouldn’t have had it out anyway in such steep terrain. Every time we attempted to “short-cut” around these summits rather than climbing to their tops, we encountered steep, loose and dangerous terrain. It was apparent that the safest and easiest travel was usually directly on the ridge crest itself. After nearly 1.5 miles of ridge-travel in semi-technical terrain, and after 10 hours on the move, we were beginning to feel pretty cooked. We were grateful to find ourselves at a nice, flat bivy below Mt. Zirkel with a nearby stream after 11 hours on the move. In the waning light, we were even able to discern some climbing options on Mt. Zirkel for the following day. A new route and a great ridge traverse, all in days work.

DSC08231 DSC08234 DSC08235 DSC08237 DSC08238 DSC08241We slept well and this second night wasn’t as cold as the previous had been. We were up early and, this time, able to stash our bivy gear as we reckoned we’d be able to pick it up on our way back from the day’s climb. We walked on frozen snow to base of a stegosaurus-backlike ridge feature, chopping steps as the slopes got steeper near the base. A prominent tower protruded high above the start of our spiny ridge and looked to offer a couple route options.

DSC08242 DSC08245The first two pitches were a bit harder than the previous day’s climb had been, with solid 5.9 and possibly a move or two of 5.10 to gain the actual crest. From that point, nearly 400′ up, it was easy scrambling to get to the base of the “white tower.” At this point there was some debate as to how difficult the climbing would actually be; it could’ve been 5.7 or 5.10 and, feeling pretty worked from the days before, we were psyched to not have an epic. So we took a series of gullies (filled with heaps of loose rock, definitely not recommended) to the broad, meadowy slopes that lead to Mt. Zirkel’s true summit. From here we had a great vantage point of both the “white tower” and the terrain we’d covered in the previous two days (Zirkel is the highest point at 12,180′).

DSC08260 DSC08261 DSC08262 DSC08264 DSC08266 DSC08267 DSC08269And then we descended a long, somewhat grassy scree/talus slope back to the base of the spiny ridge on which we’d started to climb and onwards to our cached bivy gear. Some off-trail bushwhacking, creek-fording and marsh crossings awaited as we returned to treeline and the snowless valleys below. Two hours after we left our bivy site below Mt. Zirkel, we were back at the cars and racing back to Boulder.IMG_2069 IMG_2085 IMG_2086

So where’s the “opportunity” mentioned in the title? There are lots of unclimbed routes in this area and, despite what the locals might try to make you believe, the rock is quality. For those looking for adventure and those willing to risk venturing into the unknown, the Zirkel Wilderness Area has a lot of climbing potential. I will definitely be going back to tap into the unclimbed terrain we scouted out on this short traverse of the Sawtooths.

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One Response to “Colorado’s “Sawtooth Traverse” – Opportunity Knocking”

  1. Enjoyed your pictures and comments Andrew. Amazed at the beauty of the formations. Know you and Travis feel so free out there. A great release from the business and noises of the days.

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