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Reader Q: Do I need an ice axe or crampons on the Pfiffner Traverse?

The north side of Haynach Pass in late-June after a wet winter. Notice the cornice. An axe may be useful for chopping steps over it, if a break cannot be found through the rocks.

A question from reader Stan P. of Alexandria, Virginia:

I am planning to attempt the Rocky Mountain West section-hike of the Pfiffner Traverse in mid-July with a friend. Every summer we do a trip out West, so our gear is mostly dialed already. But we’re uncertain if we’ll need axes and crampons. Thoughts?

This is a great question, because the answer is both nuanced and consequential. A multitude of factors are at play, and you want to be right — or else you’ll be carrying several pounds of unnecessary equipment, bailing off your intended route, or exposing yourself to excessive risk. This exact conversation is had each spring for other high routes and for standard thru-hikes, especially after heavy winters when early-season conditions will extend into the normal backpacking months.

Looking down the Northeast Gully towards Crater Lake, 2000 vertical feet below. Snow lingers in the gully longer into the summer than anywhere else on the Pfiffner Traverse. If it’s snow-filled and you don’t have an ice axe and crampons, I would advise taking the all-trail bypass around it. This photo was taken in mid-July after a wet winter.

Let me start with some background for other readers. The Pfiffner Traverse is a 77-mile high route in Colorado’s Front Range, encompassed within Rocky Mountain National Park, Indian Peaks Wilderness, and James Peak Wilderness. It can be completed in its entirety as an end-to-end thru-hike (budget 7-10 days), or in sections using the nine recommended loop itineraries, the shortest of which can be completed in a weekend (or in a day by a very strong hiker/runner).

The Rocky Mountain West is the longest recommended section-hike, at 42 miles. It starts near Grand Lake, Colo., joins the Pfiffner Traverse a few miles south of Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park, and follows the Continental Divide (directly atop it, or on a pass-and-valley route to the west of the crest) to East Inlet, where it peels off the Pfiffner Traverse to return to Grand Lake.

Stan: Note that mid-July is a very popular season in the park for backpacking, so backcountry campsite reservations are strongly advised. The reservation system opens on the first Saturday in March; in 2018, that’s March 1. If you wait for a day-of permit, you’ll have to pick among leftover sites or recent cancellations; no permits are held for walk-ups.

The switchbacks in upper Hallet Creek, above July camp — look for the cuts across the slope, mostly in the trees on the upper left. Notice the large avalanche path on the right side of the image, which indicates slope angles at least in the low-30’s. This photo was taken in late-June after a wet winter.

Variables

Do you need an ice axe or crampons on the Pfiffner Traverse. The short answer is, “It depends.” Some considerations:

1. Current conditions

Ideally, you would see a report from another Pfiffner Traverse hiker immediately before you go, like in a backpacking forum, on a social media platform (try #PfiffnerTraverse), or on this website. But I wouldn’t count on it: hiker traffic is not yet heavy or steady, and only a fraction might post a report afterwards. Observations from even two weeks ago are of dubious value, especially when the snowpack is rapidly changing in June and July.

2. Time of day

Throughout the spring and summer, the snowpack is in a general state of melt. This trend is interrupted most nights, however, when radiant heat loss and colder ambient air temperatures cause the snow to firm up or crust over. When hard, even low-angle snow can be problematic or impassable without traction. By noon, these same sections will be unremarkable.

The south side of Cooper Peak Pass, in mid-July after a wet winter. It isn’t steep (about 30 degrees), but it could be problematic in the morning if it’s firm or crusty.

3. Winter snowpack and spring melt

About three-fourths of the annual precipitation in the Front Range falls as snow, mostly in the six months between November and April. The greater the snowfall, the longer it will linger into the summer. It sticks most persistently on high and shaded (i.e. north-facing) slopes, and on leeward slopes where it piles up. In the Front Range, windblown snow collects deepest on the eastern side of ridges.

Use SNOTEL data to determine whether it’s an average winter, or drier or wetter than normal. After extremely dry or wet winters, “normal” conditions may arrive or be delayed by several weeks.

Summer conditions are further affected by spring temperatures and weather, too. For example, a wet and cold spring can rescue a below-average winter, putting conditions on a more normal timeline.

4. Individual comfort and skills

If you have prior early-season backpacking or mountaineering experience, you may need less equipment or less robust equipment than conventional wisdom would suggest. For example, on steep but soft snow, you may feel comfortable with just an axe, using it to self-belay while kicking steps.

5. Route

What sections of the Pfiffner Traverse (or its alternates or section-hikes) are most likely to be problematic? There are no glaciers or permanent snowfields on the route, and most of it is snow-free by early- or mid-June. In only a few spots will snow linger into July or August after a normal winter:

Product recommendations

An ice axe can be used for self-arrest and self-belay, and for cutting steps. For the Pfiffner Traverse, a simple lightweight axe like the Petzl Glacier Literide ($100, 11 oz) or CAMP Corsa Nanotech ($160, 9 oz) will suffice. Additional weight can be saved with the Sukluk 46 Ice Tool (4.5 oz, $175), but the product disclaimer concerns me. This guy had a good experience with it, but otherwise reviews are hard to find.

My system for a mid-July thru-hike after a wet winter. On the steepest pitches, I self-belayed up or down with the axe, with the Pocket Cleats giving me a little bit of extra assurance on my foot placements. I think most backpackers would have wanted full crampons.

Crampons improve foot purchase, especially on firmer and steeper snow. For the most aggressive hiking crampon, go with the Kahtoola K-10 Crampon ($100, 22 oz) or Hillsound Trail Pro Crampon ($80, 24 oz). As a just-in-case option, consider the Vargo Pocket Cleats.

Several traction devices occupy the space in between: lighter but less capable than the K-10 and Trail Pro, and heavier but more trustworthy than the Pocket Cleats. Example: Hillsound Trail Crampon ($65, 16 oz). They perform best on crusty or packed snow, but they’re not meant for steep slopes and they don’t bite well into softer snow.

The relationship between traction and weight is inverse: the heavier the device, the better the purchase (with a rate of diminishing returns). Left to right: Pocket Cleats, Micro Spikes, and the original aluminum-spiked Kahtoola KTS crampon.


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5 Responses to Reader Q: Do I need an ice axe or crampons on the Pfiffner Traverse?

  1. Dave Eitemiller November 28, 2017 at 8:00 am #

    Another epic route Andrew, to my surprise and without doubt well worthy of being alongside the Wind River High Route and Sierra High Route. Both of which I have done in full or in part.

    We traveled the full Pfiffner Traverse in late-August this year (22-27 Aug 2017 to be exact). Being so late in the season and given the snow conditions we had seen in other parts of Colorado we expected to have limited if any issues crossing the two passes of most concern – Paiute Pass and Northeast Gully. We carried no traction or axes as a result. As expected, on either of these passes, we encountered no snow which we could not get around easily. Places with lingering snowfields actually provided welcome relief to navigating talus and in all of those cases it was lower down from the crux of these passes and on much more gradual slopes

  2. Skyler W November 28, 2017 at 7:28 pm #

    Having done sections from early-June through late-July, and the full Pfiffner Traverse in late-August (27th-Sept 1st), I agree that it is quite seasonally dependent and route dependent. While I carried additional traction (microspikes) during all the June sections, I only used them when ascending to the Primary Route from the east (large snowfields and slight cornices leading up to the Divide), and when crossing snowed-over sections that were more direct than the Primary Route. For the most part, the snow was pliable enough by 10am or so to kick/cut steps with trail runners/hiking poles.

    In mid-July, attempting Paiute Pass via the direct route without an axe seemed unwise, but fortunately the alternate ascent was snow-free enough to leave a decently direct line of class 3-4 fun. In late-August, the direct route of Paiute Pass was entirely clear of snow, except in the deepest shadows, and the Northeast Gully was almost clear as well. In retrospect, as Dave said above the remaining snow was actually a welcome relief, and I wish I’d ascended the snowy patch near the top of the Northeast Gully rather than hand jam up the loose dirt slope.

    To me, the ideal conditions for the Pfiffner Traverse sound like late enough in the season for snow to have melted off most of the trail, but early enough that you still have some around for a change of pace and that the middle of the Northeast Gully still holds enough snow to ascend to near the top without having to touch dirt.

    • Andrew Skurka November 28, 2017 at 7:55 pm #

      Thanks for sharing.

      For readers unfamiliar with Paiute Pass, the “direct route” ascends straight up the bowl below the pass. The alternate route zigs and zags through some cliffs and ledges to the west of the bowl, and reaches the ridgeline about 50 vertical feet higher than the true pass and a bit to the west. There’s a more in-depth description in the Guide and here, https://andrewskurka.com/2017/pfiffner-thunderbolt-paiute-pass-lake-indian-peaks/

  3. Martin K November 29, 2017 at 9:36 am #

    I traveled on the Pfiffner Traverse at the last week of September 2017, later than I wanted to because of other commitments. When I started the forecast was for snow storms the first 3 days. The weather caught up with me right below Mt Ida and I had to make a quick and precarious descent to Timber Lake. More snow the next 2 days. Eventually, I aborted the route. I did only bring a 32F sleeping bag and the nights were colder than that but especially the off-trail section were/would have been much harder and more time-consuming to complete and snow-covered talus also posed a risk of injury in particular since I was traveling solo. On the passes that I climbed, I was comfortable in regular boots but spikes/crampons may have been useful for someone less experienced. Some pics here: https://martinkuster.smugmug.com/Outdoor/n-W9hQ6c/Rocky-Mountain-NP/i-6M8hW3B

    • Andrew Skurka November 29, 2017 at 9:37 am #

      Ironically, you should have went in October. Conditions were perfect again!

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