Tuesday, September 8, 2020

The "Pfast" Pfiffner Traverse attempt.

I first heard of this route years ago, when a friend mentioned it when I suggested something perhaps even a little bit crazier.  The Pfiffner Traverse, as I understand, was conceived by none other than Gerry Roach, and named as an ode to a friend who had inklings on, but (I think) never did a similar route.
The idea is pretty simple- to connect Berthoud Pass and Milner Pass.  Gerry took several weeks to do this, and stayed on the continental divide as much as possible, bagging summits along the way and dropping down to lakes to camp and find water.
The similar route is now known as LA Freeway, and links Longs Peak to Arapaho Peak(s), staying on or close to the continental divide.  It's seen a number of really fast times in the past few years, especially considering the technical difficulties along the way.  I think that would be a fun route to try at some point in the future, however, I will decidedly not be fast on it.
I decided to aim at Mark Oveson's Pfast Pfiffner, his version of the route.  His idea was to get from Milner Pass to Berthoud Pass in a single push, going through the night.  There have been other attempts and completions on different routes (perhaps why many think this traverse is ill defined), but I decided to largely follow his for two reasons.
1. He was the first to do it, and in talking to him some thought obviously went into his route and the design of it.  There is no need to open an alternative (in my opinion).
2. His route largely accomplishes what Gerry's original goal was.
As I thought more about what the Pfast Pfiffner should be, I came to a similar conclusion as Mark did almost ten years ago.  Milner Pass to Berthoud Pass by the path of least resistance, while also bagging as many peaks as possible.
In the end, I did deviate (or planned to do so) from his route in places.  As far as I can tell, he went around some unranked but named peaks, such as Mount Eleanor, but summited others.  I'd do anything on the divide.  I also decided that it likely wouldn't take much more time to summit Isolation Peak versus taking the talus filled cut off he did- the west ridge is solid, and maximum third class.  This added a ranked and named 13er on good terrain versus skipping it on worse and more time consuming loose rock.
I also planned on an alternate route to descent from Ooh Lala to Gourd Lake that seemed as though it had the potential to save some significant time.  While it is longer that the original, it also comes on much better terrain.  My scouting seemed to indicate this was the way to go.
I also took a very close look at satellite photos as well as Google Earth to scope out any possible alternatives, and to plot the best route for myself to avoid talus, trees when off trail, and bushy areas, all of which would slow travel.
While I planned to up the ante in a way and go solo and unsupported, the last thing I needed was a support person.  Someone to really just drop me off at the start, occasionally pay attention to my GPS tracker to see where I was, and pick me up at the end, where ever that might be.  I mentioned to my friend Dave that I was thinking about trying this, and he offered.  Perfect!
Since I was unsupported, I knew how important it would be to find water, hence I decided to go for early July, after most snow had melted off the route proper, but before it was gone enough to still be able to provide snowmelt to drink- in particular, the last 30 miles or so would be incredibly difficult to get through without support or ambient water lurking in places while still staying on route.
As the chosen weekend approached, things were looking great.  The weather was perfect, no storms predicted though warm.  That could easily end an attempt.
The only thing that wasn't looking great was me.  Various body parts have just been in pain this year.  I injured my ankle around Memorial Day and had a break from training.  While feeling better, it still wasn't better.  My right hip has been bugging me for most of the year, and no amount of stretching/foam rolling/laying on a lacrosse ball has made much difference.  And post ankle getting back to running some, I developed shin splints in my left leg.
With all of that considered, I wondered if I should even make an attempt at all.  Even from my last few training runs, it seemed likely that eventually one or more of those things would conspire against me, and I'd have to end the attempt.  On one of them, everything hurt so bad that by mile 20 I was having difficulty deciding which hurt the worst (but eventually concluded it was my hip).
In the end I decided that if it were a race I'd signed up for, I'd still at least try.  While I felt good and confident in my ability to get through the night by myself, my body made me guess that I had less than a 50% chance of being successful.  Heck, I even started a 70+ mile effort with a brace on that ankle, largely for padding from my shoe versus stability.
I guess that tells you something about the type of person I am.  I gave myself a low chance of success on a pretty difficult route with a blazingly fast time to beat.  Every step with my left foot hurt.  My ankle eventually ended up singing even with the additional padding.  And my hip hurt pretty much all the time.  But I still tried.
Dave came to my house the night before I was to start and we headed over to Grand Lake.  I got us an Airbnb, thinking if I wanted to start around 5 am the next morning, I could still get a reasonable night of sleep and have a shorter drive to the start versus a 2+ hour drive from my home.
I got all my stuff ready the night before, packed as logically as I could think.  I pared down some of what I normally carry, but the 8000 calories of food was weight that couldn't be avoided.  I tried to distribute that evenly between the front and back of my running vest.  With the weather, I took minimal extra gear, just my light rain/wind jacket to layer over the long sleeve shirt I started out in and would soon take off.
I actually slept pretty well.  With the windows cracked, it was pleasantly cool, something that has been missing at home.  I had breakfast, a cold brew coffee and some protein powder mixed in oat milk.  All together, about 800 calories.
We headed out to Milner Pass.  I think it took around 30 minutes to get there.  I did one more quick check to make sure I had everything, and off I went.
Photos by Dave.
There was that weird sense of knowing I'd be out there for however long, and seemingly pretty far away from anything.  Dave planned to do some hiking of his own while occasionally checking in on my Inreach, to at least make sure I was still moving.  I could use that device to communicate directly with him in case.  If I decided to stop, I'd know that well in advance- all of my potential bail routes were to the west to be able to be picked up, and of course, all several hours away from that help.
Despite my body parts feeling pretty meh, I initially felt good.  I broke treeline fairly quickly, and could see Mount Ida in the distance.  In these early stages, I even jogged a little when the trail was flat or slightly downhill.  It was a beautiful morning.
To my surprise, two people beat me to the summit.  We talked briefly before I continued on.  I made a quick descent and then climb to Chief Cheley Peak, then visited 12820, the ranked peak in this group.  I headed to Cracktop, which looked a little more adventurous than I remembered, but wasn't a problem in the end.
I avoided the two prominent points along the divide between Cracktop and Mount Eleanor, figuring there was no real point in gaining the additional elevation, and it was quicker to just side hill. 
The first "uh-oh" of the day came before I even reached Eleanor.  I ran out of water.  I was thinking back to my Bear-Milner-Bear from a few years back, and thought I had JUST my 1.5 L reservoir, but I must've carried more.  As it was, I had two empty .5 L soft flasks with me for carrying additional water during those long above treeline water less stretches to come.  Having just one of those prefilled would've made a difference here.
Snowdrift Peak (I think) from near Mount Eleanor.
It was too early to get behind on water or calories, so I kept my eyes open for any possible sources, though as soon as I got over Sprague Mountain and to Eureka Ditch, I'd have all the water I could ever want.  As I approached Sprague, I lustily eyed a few snowfields, first inspecting one on some rock.  I didn't hear anything running there, so I checked out the second one.  Later in the day it would've been flowing quite freely, but it had frozen overnight.  I was able to find some liquid water under a thin sheet of ice, and to eventually scoop out enough to get half a liter or so in my reservoir, plus whatever I could drink directly from it.
I got to Sprague, and was able to descend the other side fairly quickly.  I got to the ditch and started up along it.  Though it's a little bushy, there is a faint game trail next to it, so the going isn't too bad.  But as I kept following it without finding running water, I was getting pretty worried.  From above I saw a small pool in the area, but didn't take any photos to be able to locate it and couldn't see anything from where I was.  I kept along and soon enough I heard running water and located the diversion.  This ditch was built to divert water from the west side to the east side of the divide, but has since been diverted again to keep that water going where it would've originally.  In July, you should always be able to find water in it, it's just sticking with it long enough to find that spot.
 From whence I'd come.
Looking back on Sprague from Eureka Ditch.
Thirst sated for now, I started towards Knobtop, a unranked peak on the divide.  The terrain was kind of annoying, alternating between talus and bushy stuff mixed in with a little tundra.  It's possible that staying slightly north from where I was would've eased travel slightly, but who knows.  I don't think the difference would be more than a few minutes.
This summit was quick, though a little more rocky than I remembered.  I checked out two possibilities for the top, and think it was the southern most one-just wanted to make sure I was doing due diligence. 
From there, it was talus and tundra over to Ptarmigan Point, another unranked summit NW of Flattop Mountain.  No big deal I guess, though it was devoid of Ptarmigans! 
I headed south and was finally on some good trail again.  In fact, I had a good long stretch of trail ahead of me here.  I got to Flattop without issue.
Looking back close to Flattop.
My future...
The start of the North Inlet Trail.  Or maybe it's the end of the North Inlet Trail.  Either way, I was looking forward to being on some actual trail.
There were about ten people in proximity to the summit of Flattop, the single largest gathering I'd see the entire time.  To my surprise, even with the water search near Sprague which felt like it took a long time, I was about ten minutes ahead of where I hoped to be pace wise.  I'd made a loose chart for myself.  I cut directly west until I hit the trail, figuring this would be faster than going back and around. 
I was looking forward to moving here, but already my body was protesting.  Even easy jogging didn't feel great, so I was mostly relegated to fast hiking.  This did not bode well, as I planned to jog this long and relatively easy stretch of downhill to make good time.  I just did what I could to try to keep the pace as high as possible.
I'd never been down this trail before, so I made sure to take in the natural beauty around me.  It was pretty spectacular!
Just have to go all the way down there.  And then more up.  Plenty of that to come.
Down, down, down.  I was thinking I might run into a few people here, but saw no one until I started up to Lake Nokoni.  And discovered the map was wrong, showing the last switchback on the descent crossing the creek- it did not, so I had a short off trail to get more water here. 
Hydration was good, I felt like I was keeping up fine and was peeing clear.  I also thought I was keeping up on food.  Thought!
I passed a group of four shortly after heading up the Lake Nokoni Trail.  While I suppose I did this climb in a reasonable amount of time in the end, I was dying here.  It was shortly after noon, the day was hot, and despite large trees on both sides of the trail, the sun was directly overhead and I was in it and baking the entire way up.  I definitely died a bit on this climb, and had the first signs appear that I was not eating enough, though I didn't recognize them. 
I got to the lake, where I greeted a small group of people before filling up again.  In the little over an hour from my previous refill, I'd drank my entire reservoir and was so hot I could've had more.  Somewhere in this stretch I also took the first Naproxen of the day.  I was trying to avoid using it, but I was just hurting so much.  It felt like a jolt of electricity up my left leg with every step, and my hip was complaining even when I was stopped.
But onward to Lake Nanita.  Though Nokoni and Nanita lie at about the same elevation, 10800 feet, there is a small ridge to climb between them.  I felt like I was really dragging here, and really started to see and feel the effects of the lack of calories.  I got pretty down and was really having a bad time mentally.
On the plus side, since I'd covered this ground before, I knew where exactly to go and where to avoid.  There's a faint social trail around the north side of Nanita that I was off and on, and I stayed north of all the rocky stuff after going around the lake.  It was a little bit of steeper climbing, but I felt the rock really slowed me down last time I was here. 
It felt like it took forever, but I topped out the small saddle NE of Andrews Peak.
I'd guess not many people have been here.  It's very pretty.
The other side is a reasonable descent on a grassy slope, which went quickly.  Then into some unavoidable rock to stay above Lake Catherine.
Lake Catherine.  How many people have ever been there?  It's so far in and without a trail to it, plus has elevation gain in both directions.  Places like this are amongst my favorite in RMNP.
You can see there is a lot of rock here.  You can't go around it, so I did my best to move quickly.  Up ahead, I spied a snow slope which looked too steep to do without gear, but in the end I was able to find a thin passage up on solid ground.
Despite the natural beauty of this wild and untamed place I was really suffering here. 
I wondered why I thought I could do this?  Why was I out here when I could be at home comfortable with my family?  I definitely wasn't going fast enough and felt like crap.  My entire lower body had settled into a dull roar of pain, and I continually questioned myself and being, vowing to never ever try this again and quit running forever.  Why was I out here doing this BS when I could be at home?  My negativity was spiraling out of control.
But I kept on, reasoning that I would climb to the saddle ahead between Ptarmigan's Beak and Mount Alice, message Dave to tell him I was done, then descend the other side and take the East Inlet Trail.  Easy.
Well, I got to the pass and then started down the descent I'd mapped.  While it kicks you out pretty far west below (at Spirit Lake), it looked like about the best way to go.  To trend more to the east would have you end up higher along the trail, but it also looked like there were a number of cliff faces there, and I didn't know if it would go. 
My planned descent route worked, though steep and often covered with enough pine needles to make it pretty slippery.  I got to the lake after what seemed like an eternity.  From looking at my tracker, the descent took me all of twenty minutes.  I was in that divergent world of suffering.  I wanted to throw in the towel so badly, hike down, get picked up, eat some food, take a nice hot shower, and sleep in a bed.  I wanted to, but I couldn't let myself.  I just could not give up. 
And despite all the above, I didn't hesitate to turn east and start up the trail.  I felt I had to keep trying, and I should at least try to get to Monarch Lake, the halfway point of the route.  I'd spent too much time and money, bought gear and food specifically for this attempt, I just needed to keep going. 
I got to Fourth Lake in another reality of twenty minutes which felt like an hour, and despite somehow missing a turn on the trail up to Fifth Lake (though I've been up it several times before and never had an issue), got there in about 30 more minutes. 
I was now about twelve hours in.  I was done and I knew it.  I even said out loud, "I can't imagine doing this for ever twelve more hours, let alone twice that.".  No one was around to hear me.  I saw two or three people near Spirit Lake, and those would be that last that I would see.  I'd hoped to at least be on Isolation's west ridge if not the summit at twelve hours in. 
I made a pretty boneheaded decision here and filled up on water a little bit above Fifth Lake before trucking all that weight uphill.  There was ample running water in the basin above, and it would've been much smarter to fill up there.  But oh well.
It looked like there was another snowfield blocking the way up to the saddle between Isolation and Fleur De Lis, but I was able to find a way around without any trouble.  The best ascent looked like it would've deposited me on the ridge and cut off a little bit of distance, but again, too much snow and it was too steep to try.  It looked like it *might* go, but when I got above it, I was glad I hadn't tried as I would've eventually gone around it anyway.
Finally on Isolation's west ridge. 
I wrote above about my deviations from Mark's route.  Here was the first.  I knew the west ridge was solid, though with a smattering of third class.  Mark had ascended it to around 12600 feet, and then cut SE though a very talusy basin to arrive at the lowest point between Isolation and Ouzel.  He said this took about an hour.  I felt it wouldn't take much if any longer than that to just go direct to Isolation's summit, then descend south to go to Ouzel. 
My previous data from the area seemed to back this up- it took Dave and I almost exactly the same amount of time to descent the west ridge not staying on the ridge and down in the talus as it did to climb back up, staying on the ridge direct.  And if I hadn't been feeling so crappy, I could've done it faster.  As it was, my tracker shows a point on the west ridge at 12300+ feet, and from there it took me 1:20 to get to the summit and then down to the low point between Isolation and Ouzel (where my tracker quite conveniently pinged). 
Despite my want to just keep moving, I took multiple breaks on this climb, which slowed me.  I knew Katie had sent me some photos of our daughter throughout the day, though I'd purposely avoided looking at them until now.  I took my phone out of airplane mode and checked it.  It was just too much to see those photos.  I wanted to be anywhere but where I was at that point.  I was definitely done and texted Katie to say so, and then Dave with an ETA at Monarch Lake, almost six hours in the future.
That was another mindf*ck.  At a race, I'd be able to peel my bib off and turn it in and be done.  Now, it was hours to go to the end.  I was ready for it, but it wouldn't come for quite awhile. 
With the sun starting to go down and for the sake of expediency, I decided to skip the rest of the summits between myself and Monarch Lake, so I did not do Ouzel, Ogalalla, or Oh Lala, though skipping the last was another mistake.
I descended down and then back up towards Ouzel.  The going was fine, with a faint trail visible.  I'd run out of water again, and felt I COULD make it down to Gourd Lake before a refill, but also thought that was hours and hours in the future.  That would've been bad.  Fortunately, I found the remainder of a small snowfield and several melt pools south of Ouzel and filled up there. 
Oh, and the sun set.

This is not the first time I've had the sun set while above treeline, but it would certainly go on to be the most memorable.  Last time I was on a trail too.  This time...
I turned my headlamp on as I passed Ogalalla.  Last time I was there was so long ago it would be fun to repeat the route I did then to see what I think of it now. 
Though I was to have about a half moon this night, it didn't come out until later and it was very dark.  I was super happy to have the Caltopo app with my planned route on my phone to refer to, as it was quite difficult to see much of anything beyond the cone of my headlamp. 
I got to the high point between Ogalalla and Ooh Lala and started down the south side.  I'd looked at this a few weeks ago while scouting and it didn't look like anything at all.  But in the night by headlamp it was a lot spicier, with perceived death falls in all directions.  I kept the pace pretty slow here, and stayed down off the ridge to avoid some difficulties, then decided that going up and over Ooh Lala was wasted elevation, so I contoured around it.  That was a mistake.  It was steep and loose but it didn't look like going up was possible, so I carefully kept at it, constantly checking my phone to see when I was around the peak and on more solid ground.
My second deviation from Mark's route, and one which I felt could cut some significant time despite being longer came here.  He'd descended to the saddle between Ooh Lala and Cooper Peak, then went SE down to Island Lake. I'd gone up to Cooper from Gourd Lake and found the terrain quite bushy and talusy, and this looked like a nightmare descent.  We talked beforehand, and he said he'd done this a few times and felt it was the best; I still had my doubts that it was the best for me.
On one of my scouting days, I went from Ooh Lala south and east to end up at around 12200 on the prominence of land east of Island Lake.  It took me 18 minutes to go about a mile, and the terrain was easy tundra.  I reasoned I'd go this way, stay on that land east of Island and Gourd Lakes, and then either drop to Gourd Lake (if it was dark) or possibly take an avalanche chute all the way down to the Buchanan Pass trail (if it was light). 
It was definitely dark here, obscenely dark.  I couldn't see much beyond my headlamp, though I did spy the glow of Denver in the distance.  I also discovered that my movement and light roused a ton of bugs in the night, and was constantly waving my hand in front of my face and had to largely move with my mouth shut.
I was again quite grateful I'd had the forethought to make myself a digital map I could take along.  I could see where I was and the direction I was going in real time, and was able to make good progress despite the inky blackness all around me.  Without this, I would've been screwed.  It would've taken me so much more time to navigate this terrain by headlamp only.  I jokingly thought that I would have to hunker down for the night until I got daylight, because I just could not see and knew there were steep cliff faces around.  I did not want to become a statistic. 
But with the excellent Caltopo app, I was able to safely follow my track and stay on route despite not being able to see more than 25 feet ahead (or whatever is beyond my headlamp).  I got to the point where I started downhill and it was rocky.  I started to see some trees and decided to cut towards Gourd Lake though I was above the route I'd mapped.
It looked reasonable topo wise as well as on the satellite images, but I ended up hitting some short but steep cliff faces above the lake.  I was slightly north of my route, so I'm not sure if that had something to do with it.  If I do ever go for the Pfiffner again, I will have to go up and take a good look around this area in daylight.