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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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