Lessons in Planning a Pfiffner Traverse Hike

planning a pfiffner traverse hike

Last week I introduced the Pfiffner Traverse Series on the KCG Content blog. This week, I am diving into the actual planning of my trip in September 2020. This brief overview will give you a solid grasp on the unique challenges of planning a Pfiffner Traverse hike, as opposed to a normal “on trail” backpacking trip. 

As I walked into the Kawuneeche Visitor Center in Rocky Mountain National Park on Sept 12, 2020, I was filled with both anxiety and trepidation. To thru-hike the Pfiffner Traverse, I needed to acquire backcountry camping permits for the last two nights of my trip. Upon explaining to the ranger that I was planning a 76-mile hike into the park from the south, he looked at me like I was crazy. Namely because, a freak early season storm had just dumped a foot of snow in the mountains.

I proceeded to discuss my hiking credentials with the ranger, who seemed to ease up a bit when I explained I have hiked the Colorado Trail and 2/3rds of the state’s 14,000 ft. peaks. On hearing this, he let me know “it’s full-fledged winter conditions in the high country.” To prove it, they had hung a photo from Sept 11, 2020 in the lobby, with a picture of Trail Ridge Road and Longs Peak caked in fresh snow. With a proper warning in place, he continued to say, “you should be okay on your hike, but you will have to make a lot of tough decisions.” 

This simple yet profound statement from the RMMP ranger came to define my hike for the next few days. In essence, by challenging me in new and unexpected ways, the Pfiffner Traverse forced within me a consistent dialogue of situational high-risk decision making. In what became a constant ritual of internal assessment – driven by necessity – I began to question what motivates me to hike in the first place.

Planning a Pfiffner Traverse Hike

The Pfiffner Traverse is a 76-mile backpacking high-route that follows the Continental Divide through some of the most iconic wilderness areas in Colorado. The route traverses passes, valleys, and ridgelines through the James Peak and Indian Peaks Wildernesses, as well as Rocky Mountain National Park. The route largely travels off designated trails. Therefore, it demands challenging hiking through scree fields, tundra slopes, steep climbs, and thick undergrowth. All of these challenges must be met with the weight of a backpack.

Ultralight backpacking icon Andrew Skurka recently put together a map set and databook to guide interested parties on the route. Skurka’s website tells us “As an end-to-end effort, the Pfiffner Traverse is an expert-level project, requiring excellent physical fitness and backcountry skills, plus a favorable weather window.” While Skurka did not originally pioneer the route, he provided the data and tools to make the trip possible for people such as myself.

In planning a trip on the Pfiffner Traverse, you will encounter several factors that raise the bar in overall difficulty. When considered together, these factors work against one another to hinder successful thru-hikes. They are as such: 

  • Permits for RMNP & Indian Peaks Wildernessplanning a pfiffner traverse hike
  • Tight hiking timetables dictated by the allotted permits 
  • Route-finding that hinders quick movement 
  • Extensive above treeline travel 
  • Class 2 – 3 scrambling 
  • Elevation change of over 700 ft. per mile 
  • No resupply options 

As most experienced outdoors people are aware, mountain travel is not always conducive to pre-established plans. This notion is heightened exponentially when hiking a route rather than a trail. Namely because, routes demand time-consuming “route finding” as well as careful walking on rocks, tundra, etc. Resultantly, tight hiking schedules set forth by camping permits in RMNP immediately clash with slow-going off-trail travel. This tension is felt during the planning process. This anxiety also accompanies you throughout your entire hike of the Pfiffner Traverse. 

To help ease some tension in the planning process, I took Skurka’s map bundle and information and transferred them into my Gaia GPS account (see above photo). In doing so, I attained a “real-time” understanding of my location regarding important waypoints on the route. While Skurka discourages too much GPS use on his routes (as it hinders the development of navigation abilities), my approach fell in line with my abilities and comfort level.

Due to the fact that the Pfiffner Traverse is a route and not a trail (lacking the information available on something like the Colorado Trail), I wanted to educate myself as much as possible on the trip. To this end, the process of transferring the data from Skurka’s hardcopy maps to Gaia forced me to study the route in detail. This “study session” would prove critical in making difficult decisions on itinerary changes.

Next Week in the Pfiffner Traverse Series

In next week’s Pfiffner Traverse Series blog post, we will dive into the specific challenges that I faced when hiking this route in September 2020. These challenges are related to conditions of the route at the time – including snow, ice, wildfires, and tree blowdowns.

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