Day 1 Pfiffner Traverse: Risk Assessment in Hiking


16.5 miles 

Start: Rogers Pass Trail (James Peak W.)

Finish: Caribou Lake (Indian Peaks W.)

Actual Hike 

12.92 miles

Start: Rogers Pass Trail (James Peak W.)

Finish: Columbine Lake (Indian Peaks W.) 

Gaia Track Kent Gruetzmacher September 12, 2020

Last week’s Pfiffner Traverse Series post dealt with the unique conditions of the route during September 2020. This week, I will discuss the first day of my trip and my initial experiences with risk assessment in hiking on the Piffner Traverse. 

The difficulty of my chosen hike became further apparent on the drive up to Rollins Pass Trail outside of Winter Park, CO. In driving up the dirt road to the trail access point, there were entire swaths of pine trees blown over that had been sawed through and moved out of the way. They were piled up on the side of the road 8-10 ft high on each side, forming what almost amounted to a tunnel of deadfall. This apocalyptic vision was a harbinger of things to come.

Pfiffner Traverse Hike: September 12, 2020 

To begin my northbound hike (12 miles north of the southern terminus at Berthoud Pass), I joined the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) at Rollins Pass. This section of the Pfiffner Traverse joins the CDT for a long stretch of above-treeline travel. It offers a nice repose from route-finding and affords amazing views in every direction.

Hiking north, I was glad to have my Goretex shoes on, as I continuously “broke trail” through sizable snowdrifts. However, as I had a good deal of “on trail” hiking ahead of me, I was not very nervous about the technical nature of the Rollins Pass area.

As I neared Devil’s Thumb Pass, I had opted for an alternative route continuing on the CDT to avoid the snow and ice-covered traverse along the ridge up to Mt Neva. This alternate route veered westward on the High Lonesome Trail and dropped well below the treeline. I decided to follow this safer alternative as the primary route traversed a “near knife-edge” ridge along the Continental Divide.

When I dropped below treeline on the trail, it quickly became evident that mother nature had other plans for me that day. Looking down the trail, I could not see the forest canopy on the horizon. As such, I figured I would soon be hiking into a large clearing or meadow. However, upon rounding a turn, I soon realized that this “meadow” was in fact an entire valley full of tree blowdowns. Forest damage of this level is akin to what you might see with a massive avalanche. Yet, this damage was caused by the wind.

I quickly realized that my “safe alternate” was impassable. So, I contoured around the mountain on some nice game trails and made my way back up to the primary route on the spine of the Continental Divide.

I contoured around a 12,300 ft peak when rejoining the Pfiffner Traverse and quickly gained the “near knife ridge” advertised by Skurka. This portion of the hike required some careful footing and mild scrambling, but I handled it pretty well. Thankfully, the snow had melted in many of the exposed areas.risk assessment in hiking

As my first day on the Pfiffner Traverse neared its end, I had some serious realizations about the trip. I felt some real trepidation concerning the low elevation alternates that are featured throughout the hike. Namely because, these alternates are supposed to offer safe passage for hikers in the event of bad weather or other emergencies. But, the number of tree blowdowns in the region could render all of these “safety windows” useless.

When conducting risk assessment in hiking, you should always have a Plan B. This alternative plan should offer a safe exit from the trip if need be. Safe alternates actually make routes like the Piffner Traverse possible in the first place. Namely because, these high-routes are influenced by countless variables related to weather, exposure, altitude, endurance, and more. Planning a hike of this difficulty without ample backup plans is extremely dangerous – no matter what your skill level.

In an attempt to meet my 16.5-mile goal for the day, I hiked into the night. Still, I fell short of my plan for the day by 3.5 miles. As an experienced hiker, I know that falling short on miles on the first day is not a good sign. To this end, making up miles is challenging enough when hiking on clear trails with a guidebook and GPS. Looking at the next day, the Pfiffner Traverse would require Class 3 scrambles on steep, snowy terrain. Or, I would have to take my chances with tree blowdown on alternate routes.

Next Week in the Piffner Traverse Series on the KCG Content Blog

In next week’s blog post on the KCG Content Pfiffner Traverse series, we will look at Day 2 of my hike. This part of the trip taught me serious lessons about the power of mother nature compared to my own hiking agenda.

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Kent Gruetzmacher

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