I recently completed another mountain project, The Pfiffner Traverse. It’s history is steeped in multiple pioneers like world-class mountaineer Gerry Roach, and most recently, Andrew Skurka dusted off Gerry’s original route from the 1980’s. Still an obscure adventure, I needed to finish what I’d started four years ago.
About the Pfiffner Traverse route
From the expert, here’s what Andrew Skurka, writes about his creative pioneering, “The Pfiffner Traverse is a 77-mile backpacking high route that follows the Continental Divide and the crest of Colorado’s Front Range between Berthoud Pass and Trail Ridge Road, navigating through the James Peak and Indian Peaks Wilderness Areas, and Rocky Mountain National Park. It can be attempted as a thru-hike (in 6 to 10 days, on average), or completed in sections with overnight trips, long day-hikes, and adventurous trail runs.
As an end-to-end effort, the Pfiffner Traverse is an expert-level project, requiring excellent physical fitness and backcountry skills and a favorable weather window. Forty percent of its length is off-trail, with up to Class 3 in difficulty. Oxygen is always in short supply: the route drops below 10,000 feet only twice, and it climbs five 13,000-foot peaks. Vertical change is never-ending, with 760 feet of ascending or descending per mile. And there are no convenient resupply opportunities.”
What is a high route?
Borrowing again from the pioneering Andrew Skurka, here’s how he defines a high route ” A high route is designed to be the finest backpacking experience available in a single mountain range, watershed, or canyon system, offering an unrivaled concentration of best-of features.” Want a detailed explanation of the mental adjustments required for high route adventures? Read more from Skurka.
Stand out moments of the route
Two National Geographic moments stand out as visceral proof we walked where few people tread. Three regal bull elk reigned over evolution valley as we crept upstream after the thunderstorm passed, the fog cleared to unveil the monarchs of the protected glen. We walked in silence, aware our steps were on hallowed ground.
The second, a heard of hundred and fifty elk migrating up a broken-backed alpine spine, mom’s audibly prodding their calves, bulls leading the processions. Not a quarter-mile behind, the herd, a brown bear spooked by our presence, thrusting with NFL juking power up impossible terrain. Another silent moment of awe for our trio.
The low point that I won’t soon forget
Typical of high routes, we walked endless miles on talus, loose rock, and boulder fields. Unstable, and precarious surfaces are part of the package when navigating these unseen trailless landscapes. Unfortunately, I took a hard tumble after stepping onto one boulder that jettisoned me into a full summersault landing hard. At first, in disbelief, we realized I was not critically injured, just bloodied and bruised. My first thought was, how far am I from the nearest road, and can I walk out? After the spiked adrenaline cocktail diluted in my bloodstream, and my friends Dave & Chris prayed over me. Advil, a cup of hot tea and grace, we proceeded on. After our adventure, I learned that I hid my car accident like pain more than I realized.
Why did it take you four years to finish the route?
Dave, Chris, and I traveled the first 57+ miles together, and I peeled off early to return home for a previous commitment. They proceeded and finished the route 36 hours later. I vowed to return to complete the remaining Devils Thumb Pass, five thirteen thousand foot peaks concluding at Berthoud Pass. Without an available buddy, I went for a satisfying solo adventure and a nice shuttle ride from my mom back to my car after we stopped for a Dairy King soft-serve ice cream in Empire, CO.