Mt. Princeton

Mt. Princeton (Sawatch Range) – East Slopes (Class 2)

  • Attempted 7/9/15
  • 5 miles round trip
  • 2.5 hrs to summit and 1.5 hrs to return to TH (4 hrs hiking time)
  • Moderate 14er (Class 2)
    • Standard East Slopes Approach
  • +2,100′ net elevation gain to peak (14,197′)
  • Equipment:
    • sunblock (at that elevation, you’ll feel the sun)
    • tech shell (you will want a shell to protect you from the wind)
    • Nanopuff jacket (always layer when attempting a 14er)
    • headlamp (you’ll have to be starting this hike earlier than most 14ers)
    • light gloves (for climbing and warmth)
    • Lunch and lots of snacks
    • Lots of water (I went through 2L of water even before we reached the summit)

What started as a past time has turned into a full-blown hobby on the border of obsession.  This makes for 14er number eleven and I am hoping to hit twenty by the end of the season!  Kevin and I hiked with Sarah this trip – a girl we met on top of La Plata from CU Boulder (whoo!).  We left Arvada around 3:15a and arrived at the lower lot of Mt. Princeton around 5:30a or so (this would be the 8900′ lot).  Any car can get there via paved road.  At the end of the parking lot is the beginning of the offroad trail, which we took with Kevin’s 2006 Subaru Outback.  Before I get anyone’s hopes up, I want to make one thing clear: Kevin is crazy (ask him, he’ll be the first to admit) when it comes to offroading in his outback.  I do not think anyone sane would want to take their outback up there; albeit, he replaced his front shocks recently.  I would definitely advise an SUV with at least 8″ of ground clearance and decent shocks (it would have worked my 2001 Nissan Pathfinder because my rear shocks are old and soft, but I could have done it for sure).  The trail is rated at a 2-3 on trail damage (the site I use to evaluate all my OR expeditions), so I thought this would push his car to the limit.  We made it to the lower lot at 11,000′ at a reasonable time.  We saw a Ford F-150 and a Toyota Rav4 parked at this lot (of which there are a limited number of spots, perhaps 4-5 total).

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Princeton with some low-lying clouds
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If you can’t handle exposure, this OR trail is definitely not for you. This continues on for a majority of the upper trail past the 11,000′ parking area.
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The picture hardly does justice to the obstacles this outback had to tackle
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This guy is asking to call off the side of mountain! It was worse than it looks.
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Some more rocky sections
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Finally, this picture does a descent job of showing the rocks
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Some parking you can find just a minute beyond the 11,000′ lot
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The 11,000′ lot

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So, as I was saying… make sure to take an SUV or short wheel-base truck (maybe a crossover for those who are feeling particularly crazy, it can technically be done).  In my opinion, if you can get to the 11,000′ parking lot, you can probably make it to the summit of the OR trail (which is actually around 12,100′).  Granted, the stuff after 11,000′ is a bit tougher as far as technical maneuvering goes, the trail itself doesn’t require any additional clearance or tougher shocks.  The lower section is mostly whoop-de-doos and the upper section is mostly loose rocks and a bit of light rock crawling.  The hardest part is that the road is so narrow, so passing cars or maneuvering around rocks proves to be difficult.

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The only 3 cars we saw at the top of the OR trail.  Technically, the upper parking lot is just up a section next to the FJ Cruiser, but it was actually a pretty hard rock crawl for just another 20 feet of climbing... not worth the risk if there is space where we parked.
The only 3 cars we saw at the top of the OR trail. Technically, the upper parking lot is just up a section next to the FJ Cruiser, but it was actually a pretty hard rock crawl for just another 20 feet of climbing… not worth the risk if there is space where we parked.

We didn’t really do our research about the trail, so we just got going.  We went up to the upper most parking lot of the OR trail (around 12,100′) and began walking on a loosely-defined trail – but a trail, nonetheless!

The view from the top of the OR trail at 12,100 feet, looking East.
The view from the top of the OR trail at 12,100 feet, looking East.
The beginning of the trail
The beginning of the trail
Things start to get rocky
Things start to get rocky
And then a bit steeper
And then a bit steeper
And then a bit steeper and a bit looser!
And then a bit steeper and a bit looser!

This trail was definitely not a class 2, much more like a difficult class 2.  I compared it to Mt. Sneffels, except that Sneffels was contained in a 50 foot wide gully and this rock felt much less stable.  The problem is that this trail was clearly hiked far less frequently, so the rocks haven’t settled in very well.  We couldn’t figure out the best way to tackle it, so we decided to stay at about 12,800′ and just move horizontal across the scree field until we hit the ridge (as seen in the photo just above this).  Once there, we realized that hiking over the ridge onto the other side of the 13er (Tigger Peak) was actually easier than it looked like from afar.  The scree field was a lot of fun and good practice of a tough “difficult class 2” bordering an “easy class 3.”  Once over the ridge we could see the correct trail to Mt. Princeton below us and then far in front of us, so we decided to continue hiking along the loose boulders on the other side of Tigger Peak (which was much less steep and more stable than the previous side).  To note, we saw people summit Tigger Peak and traverse over via the ridge to Mt. Princeton.  In hindsight, summitting the 13er and taking the traverse over would have been easier, more fun, and quicker; but that wasn’t obvious to us as we hiked up.  Once we hit the trail (around 12,800′) it wasn’t far to the summit.  In fact, the whole hike was only 2.5 miles to the summit from the 12,100′ TH.

It looks far off, but is probably only about a 30 minute hike from here
It looks far off, but is probably only about a 30 minute hike from here
A plaque we saw on the way up
A plaque we saw on the way up

Honestly the hike up from the 13,000′ ridge was pretty stable and not super steep.  If you just took the route we did, the summit pitch was a piece of cake!

Whoa
Whoa
That pano shot never fails
That pano shot never fails

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What is left of the seal at the summit
What is left of the seal at the summit
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I am in love with this photo

The hike down we decided to take the normal trail to the 11,000′ lot.  It proved to be SO much easier.  There were some loose rocks, but nothing like the scree field.  It took us an hour to descend and it was 2 miles to the 11,000′ lot.  From there, we hiked up the OR trail to our cars, which took about 20 minutes or so.  Overall, I think we could all agree that the actual trail was easier to take on the descent and just hike up the road as compared to hiking around Tigger Peak.

Some low clouds that rolled up Mt. Princeton's East slopes
Some low clouds that rolled up Mt. Princeton’s East slopes
The view West - dang!
The view West – dang!
A fluffy friend
A fluffy friend

Overall this was a fairly easy 14er from the upper TH on the OR trail.  It had pretty views (despite our cloud cover) from the summit and wasn’t as crowded as many other 14ers; granted this was a Thursday that we hiked it.  If you take our approach around Tigger Peak, it’ll prove to be good preparation for difficult class 2/class 3 scrambles with loose rocks and route finding required.  I think we all enjoyed the approach on the scree, despite not having any helmets (none of us dropped rocks further then 5-8 feet below us).  I wouldn’t really want to attempt this 14er from the lower lot at 8,900′ – I would definitely tr to get to either the 11,000′ or 12,100′ lot.  I think in the end, parking at either one is going to require some climbing up the OR trail at some point.  We probably finished the trail around 11,500′, so it is all the same either way.  Probably a bit shorter of a trip from the upper lot, but a low fewer parking and turn around spots, so be sure to get there early!

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