Telluride Peak Traverse: Don’t Look Down

On July 9, 2011 by hiker



Don’t look down, I reminded myself. I could feel my breathing get choppy, and even though we were above 13,000 feet in elevation, I knew it wasn’t from the exertion of being at altitude—it was fear. The serrated ridgeline, sharp and snow-covered, stretched out hundreds of feet ahead of me and I dug my trail running shoes into each icy step, hoping it would hold. Don’t look down.
It was probably a couple of weeks too early in the summer to do it, and I definitely should have brought an ice axe, but the Telluride Peak Traverse still ranks as my all-time favorite hike. The Traverse is one of the new routes in the upcoming third edition of Telluride Hiking Guide, and even later in the season, when the high alpine basins and the knife-edge of a ridgeline are no longer coated with stubborn spring snow, it is a serious adventure.
We parked up at the Bridal Veil Falls power plant and set out from there. The first obstacle was crossing Ingram Falls, which was as frigid and wide-splayed as I’d ever seen it. There was no pattern of rocks and downed trees on which to hop across, so I succumbed, realizing that wet socks and running shoes would be one of the smallest discomforts of the day…and I was right.
Climbing up to the saddle between Ajax Peak and Telluride Peak is a slog, but it was blissfully warm and the views were majestic. Once we reached the saddle, we pulled out some warmer clothes and surveyed the route. Was there too much snow to navigate the ridgeline up to Telluride Peak? Maybe. Should we go for it anyway? Definitely.
We were only a couple of hours into the hike but this was the crux. The ridge was sharp and exposed: falling on either side would mean sliding down a hundred or so yards of snow and landing in the sharp scree, being seriously injured or worse.
Don’t look down.
It was a huge relief to reach Telluride Peak, and the panorama was incredible, from the icy blue of Ptarmigan Lake below to the red and amber-colored peaks that cut the skyline from here to the Weminuche Wilderness beyond Silverton. Telluride Peak would have been an idyllic spot to eat lunch but the clouds were building some height above the cauldron of hot air in the valley below, and we didn’t want to be up that high in a lightning storm, so we kept moving.
Crossing between Telluride Peak and the unnamed Peak beyond (both are about 13,500 feet high) was less intimidating than the section between Ajax Peak and Telluride Peak, because the snowfields were at a lower angle. But as the day grew warmer, more of our footsteps sank in, postholes leaving us in waist-deep snow—wearing shorts. Brrrrrr. Not only did I neglect to wear pants, I also didn’t bring gloves, so I had to dig out my bare legs with bare hands, thinking the whole time about evolution and how people who forget gloves and pants can get weeded out of the gene pool.
Once we reached the final peak, we were greeted by another stunning panoramic view and a peek at the basin where we would start our descent. Below us there was more snow and an ice-covered Ingram Lake…now I know why Ingram Falls were so cold. Getting back to the car should have taken just a couple of hours from here, but it took about four hours, including a not-so-graceful glissade that turned into a sled ride on our backsides. Buttsicles, I kept saying to myself, and because my brain was so oxygen-starved I couldn’t stop giggling. It was even more soggy below, as we plucked our way through willows and muddy snowfields, but eventually we arrived back at the car, wet and exhausted after our seven-hour exploit.
There’s probably a more ideal time to do the Telluride Peak Traverse; maybe a couple of weeks later in the summer, and not during the monsoon season, when electric storms can roll in overhead and make the hike dangerous. But if you are going to try the Traverse soon, bring an ice axe…and try not to look down.