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Route beta || Pfiffner Traverse: Northeast Gully, Lone Eagle Cirque & Lost Tribe Lakes

In mid-July after a very wet spring, the Northeast Gully was still loaded with snow. An ice axe was mandatory, and crampons are highly recommended.

The Northeast Gully is the most difficult feature on the Pfiffner Traverse: it’s filled with snow through mid-summer, covered with talus and loose scree in late-summer, and always steep. Unfortunately, it’s also a critical connector between Lone Eagle Cirque, Lost Tribe Lakes, and upper Arapaho Creek, all in Colorado’s Indian Peaks Wilderness.

An easy all-trail detour does exist, but it’s decidedly inferior. It entails exiting the high country, by descending nearly to Monarch Lake; and it bypasses two of the top destinations on the Pfiffner Traverse — the Lone Eagle Cirque and the Lost Tribe Lakes basin.

Because of its importance and difficulty, I have decided to post the route description and topographic map for this section of the Pfiffner Traverse. If you have experience with or questions about this route, please chime in. My hope is that this page will help in setting realistic expectations and making good decisions.

Roach’s description

The definitive guidebook for this area is Colorado’s Indian Peaks: Classic Hikes & Climbs, by Gerry Roach. His description for the Northeast Gully is accurate and minimally sufficient:

“The route ascends a northeast-facing gully to Achonne’s south ridge. Hike around the west side of Crater Lake and scramble southwest up a long, grassy ramp under the cliffs on the east side of “Achonee Tower.” Continue south into the upper basin between Achonee and “Hopi.” Climb southwest to the base of the gully at 12,000 feet and ascend it to Achonee’s south ridge at 12,480 feet. The gully has moderate snow in June and scree in August.”

But if you want more details — and perhaps less adventure and fewer surprises, too — then read on.

Field resources

This page includes an in-depth route description. You can: print it, using the print button on the left-side of your screen; or reformat it, by copying & pasting it into a new document.

To download the topographic map for this route, click here. The map has been annotated with my route notes, and will have a scale of 1:24,000 when printed on standard 8.5 x 11 letter paper. As an overview map for this area, consult the National Geographic Trails Illustrated #102 for the Indian Peaks and Gold Hill.

Finally, I am intentionally not offering a GPX file for the route. You can easily create one if you’d like one. But I don’t want to directly enable hiking from waypoint to waypoint — the route demands more backcountry skills than that.

If you benefit from these free resources and wish to do more of the Pfiffner Traverse — either as a thru-hike or section-hikes — then consider purchasing the Pfiffner Traverse Guide. It includes route descriptions, datasheets, and topographic maps for the entire 77-mile Primary Route, multiple alternate routes, and recommended section-hikes.

Orientation

The Pfiffner Traverse Guide assumes a southbound itinerary, from Milner Pass to Berthoud Pass. This route description follows that pattern.

To reach the Lone Eagle Cirque, follow the Cascade Creek Trail south from its junction with the Pawnee Pass Trail. This rugged trail will pass by:

  • Mirror Lake, which affords a spectacular view of Lone Eagle;
  • Crater Lake, from where the Northeast Gully and its approach route can be seen; and,
  • Multiple designated campsites, permits for which are available from Arapaho-Roosevelt National Forest.

Lone Eagle towers above Mirror Lake

To the wall

The Northeast Gully and its approach can be divided into three parts. The first starts at campsite #12, where there is a century-old and roofless log cabin perched on a granite bluff above Crater Lake. From here, your goal is to reach the base of Mt. Achonee, along which there is a steep vegetated ramp that can be followed to the bowl below the Northeast Gully. This route is hardly a breeze, but it at least avoids the impassable cliff bands to the west/southwest of Crater Lake.

A use trail departs from the back of campsite #12. Follow it for a few minutes, until it drops towards Crater Lake. It terminates shortly beyond, when thick brush and short cliffs block travel along the shoreline.

Climb up a moderately angled slope (relatively speaking) to the base of the wall. The route is messy, but at least it’s short. Meadows are often wet, and brush and overgrowth hide rocks and deadfall. Timber has blowdowns. And granite slabs can be steep and ledgy.

West-southwest of Crater Lake, there is a small basin that is rimmed by Point 12130 and Point 12155. Strive to reach the wall near its outlet stream. If this drainage is dry, which may be the case later in the season, look for the varnish stain on the wall’s lower slabs.

Typical travel between campsite #12 and the base of the wall: timber, slabs, and open meadows. It’s a messy route with limited visibility.

Up the ramp

The second segment is more straightforward. Grind steeply upwards along the base of the wall on firm tundra, talus, and one rocky riparian section. When the grade begins to mellow after about 800 vertical feet, leave the base of the wall and aim towards the base of the Northeast Gully, mostly on slabs with some tundra; talus can be mostly avoided by staying downhill of it.

Once it reaches the granite wall at the base of Achonee and Achonee Tower (the two skyline summits), the route follows the vegetated ramp on a diagonal to the left.

Northeast Gully

The Northeast Gully is not the narrow slot that tops out at the low spot on the ridge between Achonee and Hopi. It’s also not the wide slope at the base of Hopi. Instead, it’s the medium-sized chute between them. The maximum slope angle is about 40 degrees — it’s steep.

View of the Northeast Gully from Crater Lake. It’s the middle snow-filled chute. The left route is the Hopi Glacier Route; and the right is an unnamed slot.

After a normal winter, the Northeast Gully will remain snow-filled through June. Rocks begin to show in July. And it’s a pure rock scramble by August. Depending on the winter snowfall and spring temperatures, this timeline may shift by up to a month.

Based on first-hand experience with this route and others, I expect that the scree and talus becomes generally less stable towards the top of the chute, where the slope angle is increasingly greater than the angle of repose. The rocks are free to move for 2-3 months per year; otherwise, they are locked in unstable positions by snow and ice.

Melted-out scree and talus in the Northeast Gully, looking downhill towards Crater Lake.

Recommended equipment

When snow-filled, an ice axe and crampons are strongly advised. The axe is useful for self-arrest and self-belay; and for cutting steps or blocks, especially at the top, where the steepest pitches (and possibly a cornice or rock moat) will be encountered.

If the snow in the gully is firm, crampons will be essential. If it’s soft, they will improve comfort, confidence, and efficiency. I have done the Northeast Gully in both directions on soft snow — a descent without traction, and an ascent with Vargo Pocket Cleats. (I had an ice axe on both occasions.)

Some may be comfortable with my equipment list. But most will want crampons with frontal spikes, such as the Kahtoola K-10 Crampons or Hillsound Trail Pro Crampon.

Achonee-Hopi ridge

After reaching the top of the Northeast Gully, turn left/south and scramble atop the ridgeline towards Hopi on lichen-covered talus that is slick when wet. At the subtle low spot between Point 12707 and Hopi, descend southwest down a narrow tundra corridor. This extra climbing avoids a tedious and lengthy contour across endless talus.

At around 12,200 feet, transition to windswept tundra, and begin to hug the western lip of the Lost Tribe Lakes basin to scout a route down. (It’s also a good vantage point from which to identify some of the route between Lost Tribe Lakes and Wheeler Basin, described below.) A corniced snowfield builds below this ridgeline, which limits descent options early in the season.

Follow an elk trail that drops off the ridge and hooks left/north around the edge and bottom of the snowfield (or would-be snowfield). You have missed the trail if you reach a large boulder on the ridgeline. At the bottom of the descent, turn right/south and follow it across and through scree and small talus. Beyond, the trail continues to the head of the lower Lost Tribe Lake and to the outlet of the upper lake, although on the tundra it’s more faint and less crucial.

Given the difficulties in reaching Lost Tribe Lakes — which sit at treeline and which are surrounded by imposing cliffs below Hopi, Point 12799, Mt George, and Apache Peak — it’s likely to be unoccupied. Enjoy your stay.

The Lost Tribe Lakes basin, as seen from its western edge at the top of the elk trail.

Descent into Wheeler Basin

The optimal route between Lost Tribe Lakes and Wheeler Basin, a hanging valley above Arapaho Creek, is still a mystery to me, even after four attempts at finding one.

From the outlet of the upper Lost Tribe Lake, hike east, gaining some elevation to avoid the wet southeast shoreline of the upper Lost Tribe Lake. After a few minutes, turn southeast and aim for the saddle at the base of Mt George; the knob on the saddle’s southwest side is just 80 feet higher.

One proven descent route uses the second avalanche chute southeast of the saddle. The upper portion is steep but mostly tundra-covered; the bottom is mellower but rockier. Below the normal run-out zone, aim for healthy timber, not the thickets of mangled spruce. However you get down, enter the lush meadow at the bottom of Wheeler Basin and arrive at the creek-side campsite that is marked on the topo map.

I’m hopeful that there is a cleaner route to the west of this avalanche chute, but I’m not certain there is. Try dropping into the first avalanche chute beyond the saddle, and then working right/southwest through breaks in the ledges. This route may be easier to find in the reverse direction: Slightly downstream of the campsite there is a well established elk trail that climbs up along the left side of the wall. Start there, and then work right/notheast through the ledges.

The view of viable descent routes between Lost Tribe Lakes and Wheeler Basin, as seen from near Arapaho Pass. On the right far is the proven avy chute; its base is partially obscured. I think a better route may be just to its left/west.

Wheeler Basin

From the campsite, follow a use trail to Coyote Park in upper Arapaho Creek. It starts on the south side of Wheeler Creek, crosses to the north side further downstream, and then fords again near the mouth of this hanging valley. It is generally easy to follow to this point.

The upper ford of Wheeler Creek along the use trail.

Below the final ford, the trail becomes more obscure, due to a thicker understory and multiple blowdowns. But stay on the trail — it’s still faster than descending to Arapaho Creek and climbing the opposite slope to gain the Arapaho Pass Trail. After dropping to a low elevation of 10,040 feet, it climbs gradually, parallel to the creek about 100 yards away.

Upon reaching an unmapped avalanche run-out zone, the use trail becomes extremely difficult to find or follow. Do your best, and push through to the timber on the other side.

Soon the use trail arrives at the edge of another run-out zone, at the northern end of Coyote Park. Depart the “trail” and descend to the creek, which can be crossed on a logjam, or boulder-hopped later in the season. Hike uphill away from the creek until intersecting the Arapaho Pass Trail, within about 25 or 50 yards. The trail is inaccurately mapped — it is closer to the creek here.

Have questions about or experience with the route? Please leave a comment.


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