Quandary Peak is a mountain I’ve wanted to try for some time. I’ve heard about its spectacular views, its distinctive east ridge and a number of tales from people who have reached its summit.
It’s also a peak that many try as their first. So this made a great place for myself and my two brothers, Mike and Steve, to go up Steve’s first ever 14,000-foot peak.
Quandary Peak is the highest mountain in the Tenmile Range. It’s long east ridge rises from the surrounding terrain like some monstrous whale breaching the ocean surface. Its trailhead is easily found near the highway leading south out of Breckenridge.
Much of Quandary Peak’s route to the top is above treeline. It’s just one of the reasons it’s so intriguing. We started out early, about 5:45 a.m., and began the ascent through the trees. Our pace was decent, not too fast, but it only took us about 45 minutes to pass through the pine and aspen groves that cover the peak’s lower slopes. The trail is well-marked and fairly easy, and even sports a wood-plank bridge that spans a small gully right at treeline.
Not long after hitting treeline, we had our first wildlife encounter. Three white mountain goats stared at us from the rocks above, then moved down across our path before retreating further down the slope. They came within just 20 feet of us, and even with a young one in tow, didn’t seem to fear us much at all. I’ve had similar experiences in other places with deer, marmots and bighorn sheep, but such close encounters never cease to amaze me. Even on a busy mountain like Quandary Peak, there is still enough wildness to satisfy my urge to be free of civilization.
Once above treeline, we trudged up the slopes until we reached a flat portion of the east ridge. This comes at a great time. Even though the trail is not steep by 14er standards, it’s still an uphill slog at high altitudes that makes your body beg for a break. A nice easy stroll for a few hundred yards gave us time to contemplate the final pitch.
The summit awaited about 1,000 feet above us. We’d need to pick our way through a rocky trail and over some boulders on the steepest part of the route. As is common on many of these mountains, the route gets steep at all the wrong places — where the air is thinnest and right at the end. We snarfed down a little food, downed some water and headed up.
At this point, it’s no longer a question of hiking for a set amount of minutes before taking a break. Being a flatlander, my body just isn’t accustomed to the lack of oxygen above 13,000 feet. So I resolved to go for 50 steps up, stop, take 10 deep breaths, and then repeat the process. I seem to get stronger at the heights, but I think a lot of that has to do with my slower pace down low and by breaking it up into smaller chunks.
It’s at this point I want to confess something. As much as I try to stay in shape, I found myself being the slowest of the three brothers. And Steve, who’d never done one of these before, had confided that he didn’t get to do much training at all before coming out to Colorado with me. Still, he was strong on the trail and was ascending at an even pace with my oldest brother, Mike, who lives in the Denver area and keeps himself in top condition year-round. I chalk it up to the fact that different people adjust in different ways to altitude, and also that maybe my older siblings just are a little tougher when it comes to getting winded than I am.
Quandary’s summit pitch doesn’t let up until you get close to the top. There was still some snow, but it was mostly avoided until the final 200 yards or so. At that point, the route eases up. We had to walk on snow, but by now it was hard-packed and level, so it was not unlike walking down a snowy neighborhood sidewalk. I’ll note here that the presence of snow did not require the use of snow gear (ice axe, crampons, helmet, etc.). This is generally true of most Colorado peaks in mid-July.
Quandary’s summit views are spectacular. To the south, a sharp neighboring ridge acts as a divider between Quandary and four neighboring 14ers in the Mosquito Range. To the north is an amazing (and huge) natural amphitheater filled with snow surrounding a high mountain lake. Back east, you can actually see the road leading to the trailhead. Pike’s Peak is also easily seen to the south. West are still yet more fantastic alpine scenes. High-fives and congrats went all around as we attained the 14,265-foot summit.
It was a bit cold and windy that day, so we ate quickly, drank our fill and started to head back down. We ran into more mountain goats, who this time passed within 15 feet of me.
As time passed and fatigue set in, the trail started to beat up our knees a bit. This is pretty common for me, and one of the reasons I dislike downclimbing so much. I was wishing for a three-mile zipline to the trailhead right about then. But once you get to treeline, the downclimb goes pretty fast. Landmarks abound. And before we knew it, the trailhead parking lot was within sight.
I can’t say there’s anything we did that I’d do differently, but I did have one too many layers on that made me sweat a bit lower on the trail. Cold sweat, coupled with lower temps and steady, strong winds don’t make for a good combination. I’d apply that lesson a couple days later.
We celebrated our victory with, of all things, a nap at the lodge and then some fresh chili made by yours truly. Good food, good conversation and good company. I think that’s what makes doing these peaks special.
A couple of closing thoughts. First, I was impressed with the size of the mountain. Viewing it from the road, it looks absolutely huge. Gerry Roach, author and expert of Colorado’s peaks, calls it “the monarch” of the Tenmile Range. It’s easy to see why. Second, even though this is considered an “easier” 14er, I’d warn flatlanders and novices that there’s no such thing as an “easy” 14er. Technical? No. But getting to the top of any 14er is hard work and makes for a long day. Something to keep in mind.