Unique Conditions of the Pfiffner Traverse in September 2020

Last week on the Pfiffner Traverse Series, I discussed the complexities of planning an off-trail backpacking trip. In this week’s blog post, I am looking at the specific challenges that were presented due to the conditions of the Pfiffner Traverse in September 2020. These challenges mainly have to do with the volatile weather of Colorado’s Front Range mountains. 

Permitting through Rocky Mountain National Park was the primary factor influencing the dates of my Pfiffner Traverse trip. After doing some careful research through the RMNP website, I settled on the dates of September 10th – 16th. I was soon to find out that these dates were to present additional challenges for the hike, as this area of Colorado was under extreme environmental pressures at the time.

pfiffner traverse in September 2020 New Challenges for Hiking the Piffner Traverse in September 2020:

  • Massive wildfire just north of RMNP 
  • Early season snowstorm from Sept 8th – 10th 
  • Colossal tree blowdowns throughout the Pfiffner Traverse (from the storm) 

The conditions of the Pfiffner Traverse in September 2020 added several new layers of complexity to an already challenging trip. For starters, the massive Cameron Peak Fire was burning just north of RMNP, which forced road closures. These road closures included Trail Ridge Road, which accesses the northern terminus of the Piffner Traverse at Milner Pass in RMNP. Secondly, Colorado saw a freak early season snowstorm on September 8th – 9th, which blanketed regions of the Pfiffner Traverse in up to 12 in of snow. Finally, as the snowstorm entered Colorado, it did so with a 70-degree temperature swing that brought voracious winds. These winds blew down thousands of trees in the area, including entire valleys and mountainsides. 

My Chosen Itinerary for September 2020

Generally speaking, the Pfiffner Traverse is hiked in a southbound direction. This is due largely to the scheduling constraints set forth by permitting within RMNP. However, as I planned my hike at the last minute, the only camping permits I could get in RMNP were staggered in the south-to-north direction. As such, I was to hike northbound on the Piffner Traverse from September 10th-16th, 2020. In hindsight, the forced northbound hike was probably a blessing, as much of the snow would melt on the technical, northerly parts of the route before I was to get there.

As the winter storm ramped up on September 8th, forecasters showed it lingering along the Continental Divide until September 11th. Due to blizzard conditions on my start date of September 11th, I was to skip ahead on the route and begin hiking northbound at Rollins Pass outside of Winter Park on September 12th. I made these changes in order to keep up with the permitting schedule I was handed by RMNP. Also, I planned to “flip-flop” back at the end of my trip and finish the most southerly 12 miles before Rollins Pass. 

I drove northbound on CO Hwy 34 through Winter Park and Grand Lake to get my permits from RMNP, I was reminded of the difficulty of the undertaking I was facing. From the drive, you can see almost the entire route along the Continental Divide – which looked more like a scene from January than from early September. 

Next Week in KCG Content’s Pfiffner Traverse Series

For next week’s installment of the Pfiffner Traverse Series, we will take a look at Day 1 of my hike. Important takeaways include the value of flexibility in high-risk decision-making.

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Kent Gruetzmacher

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