Peak(s):  Fletcher Mountain  -  13,951 feet
"Drift Peak"  -  13,900 feet
Date Posted:  09/06/2021
Date Climbed:   09/04/2021
Author:  daway8
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 Class 5 Drifting w/2-way breakdown   

My latest venture into class 5 terrain involved taking the ridge direct traverse in both directions between Fletcher and Drift, which meant going down and then later back up the class 5.2 slanted ledge (despite the route description advising people to only go up it - more on that later...).

I personally felt this was significantly more challenging than the reportedly class 5.4 chimney I did recently on the Citadel - how much of that difference is due to different people ranking the routes vs. the natural tendency to feel more secure in a chimney vs a narrow, slanted ledge with significant exposure, I'm not sure since I'm still fairly new to the world of outdoors class 5. I thoroughly enjoyed the Citadel chimney and am eager to revisit it soon, but this class 5.2 ledge is not likely to be on my repeat list (unless I come back for the rappel option and/or maybe with an experienced climber who can show me how to do the ledges in a less sketchy way).

Included in this report will be:

  • Quick mention of the Blue Lakes Trailhead road closure
  • A gallery of the cool weather conditions encountered on the way up
  • A brief analysis of the apparent rappel option for skipping both the 5.2 ledge and the ugly class 3 gully bypass
  • An detailed blow by blow analysis of the class 5.2 ledge action
  • A few other misc route notes
  • My times

Trailhead: closure just below Blue Lakes TH; Route: Follow Quandary West Ridge but veer off to get Fletcher then Drift (class 5 ledge both ways)

Stats: ~7mi RT; ~3k gain; 7h 38min total time (including ~1hr waiting on weather to pass and plenty of time documenting the class 5 section. Moving average was 1.5mph)

As usual, look for large, bolded section headers if you want to jump quickly to the beta of interest.

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Looking back at Fletcher and Quandary with a line showing the upper part of the class 5.2 ledges.


Blue Lakes Trailhead

First off, note that the Blue Lakes Trailhead is not (as of this writing) restricted like the nearby Quandary Trailhead which now requires either reservations or a shuttle ride (though given how massively overloaded this area was by Saturday afternoon I won't be surprised if that changes).

Second, as of this writing, the actual Blue Lakes Trailhead was gated off to block vehicle traffic about 3/4mi below the trailhead. Since the route is fairly short, the extra 1.5mi RT wasn't a big deal. It was unclear if this closure is seasonal or what, but there was a decent amount of parking just before the closure that overflowed in the afternoon.

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Coming back to Blue Lakes Trailhead.
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Almost back to where the road is blocked off 3/4mi before the railhead.


Early Morning Weather Gallery

I've tended over the years to be largely a fair weather hiker (notwithstanding some 60mph winds, -20 degree wind chills and a few other outliers) so an early morning snow flurry and the associated clouds were a bit of a novelty for me. I'll share a collection of photos in this gallery.

This hit between Fletcher and Drift and I slowed/paused enough to let it pass before hitting the class 5 terrain. I've read in detail through the various weather threads on the forum over the last year or so and I concluded (based on the weather forecast and my analysis of the sky) that the incoming clouds were not a serious threat. The snow only lasted a minute or two and was more like little snow pellets - I think perhaps what fancy folks call graupel. Also, even before this, many of the rocks were crazy slippery despite no obviously visible ice - I think I was probably encountering what's known as verglas - a super-thin little coating of ice that goes unnoticed until you nearly wipe out on it.

Overall I lost close to an hour waiting or progressing super slow as I waited for the weather to pass. I'm glad I didn't abort the hike as this brief weather event made for some really neat photos and didn't ultimately create any real issues.

Enjoy the gallery below or scroll to the next text section for the class 5 action.

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Absolutely beautiful weather going up Fletcher - I love the open valley below ringed by ridges and peaks.
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Nearing the Fletcher summit the clouds began to grow.
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On Fletcher looking to Drift it was still good but now the clouds were building fast and I was studying the sky carefully.
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In short order Drift began to disappear.
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Looking west (the direction the clouds were coming from) I could see the sun hitting the distant ground - so I knew this would pass soon.
21337_06
Looking down the valley to the south slopes of Quandary with its summit now hidden.
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For a few minutes it got almost to whiteout conditions just from the clouds.
21337_08
The large hump on the way to Drift is just barely visible past the couple of smaller humps.
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Looking back towards Fletcher as the clouds start to lift a little.
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Veiled mountains.
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As the clouds passed it looked almost like the mountains were on fire.
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Fletcher emerging from the clouds with the summit of Quandary almost visible again.
21337_13
The Atlantic-Fletcher traverse beckoning me once again - some day I want to do that one...
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Drift finally emerging from the clouds, allowing me to be confident to continue to the class 5 action.


Approach to the Class 5 Terrain - Bypassing the Bypass

The route description describes the "Class 5.2 Variation" but it only describes it for coming from Drift to Fletcher and advises you to use the class 3 bypass for going Fletcher to Drift. As such it doesn't give any description of finding the ledges if coming from Fletcher, nor does it describe what to expect after the ledges to reconnect to the main route. This section will fill in those gaps.

After doing the downclimb in the Fletcher - Drift direction I felt I perhaps understood why the route description only advises you to do it in the up-climbing Drift - Fletcher direction.

However, after climbing back up this on the return to Fletcher my conclusion was that it was every bit as sketchy climbing up - and perhaps even slightly more so - than it was climbing down, despite having already done the downclimb earlier that morning.

Therefore I'll give a full description of this in both directions and let the reader decide if/what to tackle...

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The bypass has you turn right at the rust colored rocks - to do the ledges as a 5.2 downclimb, take a direct frontal assault on this class 3 hump.


From the rust colored rock where the route description sends you into some loose, ugly looking class 3 gullies, if you're up instead for a class 5.2 downclimb then just go right over the rust colored rocks and take a direct frontal assault to the top of the hump in front of you.

I recall the hump being class 3, possibly an isolated class 4 move or two depending on how you pick your lines but it's reasonably solid and utterly trivial compared to what awaits you (queue dramatic music...)


Optional Rappel Bypass of the Bypass and the Ledges

From the top of this hump it looks deceptively easy to just stroll down the far side and continue along the ridge. That ~almost~ works, until being abruptly halted by a perhaps 15-20ft sheer drop. Highly skilled and confident free-solo climbers might manage a way down this section but it was way out of my league to attempt.

I could also look over to my left and see what I recognized from the route description as the ledges making up the class 5.2 variation but there was no way to get to it from here I was so I started back up the hump.

21337_15
So close and yet so far - I almost managed to just walk over the hump until encountering this 15-20ft drop that was beyond my skill/comfort level...
21337_16
I could see the ledges from here but couldn't get over to them without going back up to the top of the hump.


However, as I started working my way back up to the top of the hump I saw a rock that looked almost custom designed as an ideal rappel anchor and I noted someone had left some rappel gear on the rock.

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The rappel anchor for the ridge direct route.
21337_18
Looking down the rappel route.


Upon reviewing my photos for this report I eventually realized I could see this rappel rock from the shots I took looking back after having passed the ledges and gone up the next hump. I studied multiple photos and spotted the slim light colored break in the black of this rock and in a blurry close-up (not included) I could just barely make out a hint of the green anchor rope shown above and a slight glimmer that had to be the silver ring.

The below photo shows an approximate line for the ledge route and also circles the rappel rock with a dashed line at roughly where I guess the rappel would go (sending you down, it would seem, just below the crux of the 5.2 downclimb and then dropping below that to where you presumably might need to climb back up just a little bit to the saddle of the notch.

There's a report by jbchalk referring to a 20ft rappel down into this notch but it's not clear if this rock was the starting point and they also refer to getting stopped by a 20ft sheer drop when they had earlier tried to just walk down - likely the same 15-20ft (estimated) sheer drop I encountered.

I had to climb back up a little to reach the rappel rock so I'm going to guesstimate this might actually be more like a 30-40ft rappel from the rock identified (but I'm terrible at guessing heights). If you want to try it you might ping jbchalk to see if he still has any additional notes - though that was a 2012 report so might be too long ago...

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From the top of the hump, start going down to the east towards the valley and look right for a small cairn.
21337_20
There's a small cairn at the top of the ledges. The ledge initially looks too small to be viable but appears better as you descend to it.
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Solid line show the 5.2 ledges route; circle the rappel rock and dashed line the approx presumed rappel line.


The Class 5.2 Ledges

Ok, now finally for the meat of this report. This section of the route is very short and was basically just one or two good holds shy of being not too bad. But that ever so short gap in good holds at a critical spot on a narrow, slanted and exposed ledge is what makes this a true class 5 segment and would totally make the sloppy class 3 gullies a better alternative for anyone not comfortable in class 5. This felt harder than 5.2 to me but maybe I just overlooked some holds.

For reference I'll preface this section by reiterating that I'm still fairly new to class 5 outside of the gym. I'm still very fond of large, blocky holds and get uncomfortable if I'm not on a rope and have my life literally hanging by my fingertips (which is basically what the crux move ever so briefly felt like for me). More experienced climbers tend to do this as part of the Mayflower Traverse and seem to spend all their time describing the much spicier Atlantic-Fletcher traverse with this segment amounting to little more than a footnote (but maybe I overlooked some reports...).

Since there seems to be sparse beta on this section from the perspective of a rookie climber, I'm going to give a super-detailed look at this for other rookies who are considering breaching into class 5 and looking at this route.

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Coming down to the ledge from above - at first it looks too narrow to do.
21337_22
Right foot on solid, flat lip just above the crux.


Had I not already spotted some features I recognized from the route description I likely would have come partway down towards to the ledges and decided that was not a viable route.

But knowing there was a defined route there which was supposedly 'only' a class 5.2, I continued on and saw it got more viable looking as I got closer.

21337_28
Overview showing just about the entire challenging section.
21337_29
Slightly different angle giving a feel for the narrow, exposed nature of this ledge.


This route lacks the comforting embrace of the chimney I did on the Citadel. I suppose technically speaking I was probably more directly exposed to a greater sheer drop on that chimney than at any point on these ledges but this route "feels" much more precarious because the crux happens at a narrow slanted region of the ledge where the rock was smooth enough for my hiking boots to slip when not positioned on a good hold.

21337_40
Taken from over on the next hump, one more view of the ledges with the crux indicated.


I first tried to descend while standing and got close - but not close enough to making that work. I used the lip that my foot was on 4 photos up as a handhold for my right hand and was able to swing my left leg around and fish about to find the Hidden Foothold (Fh) marked in the photos below.

If I then could have found a solid hold for my left hand I could have perhaps gotten comfortably to the Good Foothold (Fg below) and been ok.

Instead I ended up basically crawling and using the holds called out below.

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Labels shown Hand Wedge, Thumb Wedge, and Poor, Good and Hidden Footholds.
21337_23
Close-up of the Hidden (from above) Foothold and the Poor Foothold.


Up at the top of the ledge is a really good Hand Wedge (Hw) which gives the kind of super-solid support I like to have on exposed terrain - I could have easily supported my entire body weight on that hold alone if needed.

Below that point good holds are hard to find. The best hand option I found below (which I used for both descent and ascent) was the Thumb Wedge (Tw) where I literally wedged my thumb into a crack and tried to pinch my fingers on the rock next to it. It was an excellent stabilizing hold but I was not nearly so confident I could support my entire body weight on it if my feet were to have slipped. That sets up the crux which I'll describe in both directions.

For both directions I tried to first go up/down standing but couldn't find the right holds so in both cases I ended up doing it basically crawling/sprawling along the ledge which felt moderately more secure than standing.

Crux move descent: The hair raising move for the descent had my right thumb in the Thumb Wedge (Tw), my right foot on the Poor Foothold (Fp) which looks, and almost is pretty good but slants just enough to leave you zero confidence that your foot won't slide right out. The key move is to get that right foot down to the Good Foothold (Fg) but the problem is my left hand and left foot had next to nothing to work with and I was reluctant to have my full body weight on either the Thumb Wedge or the Fp.

One good hold for either my left foot or left hand would have probably been adequate to allow me to comfortably reach my right foot down to Fg but I just couldn't find it. After a few false starts I reluctantly put weight onto Fp, found a woefully inadequate bump for the fingers of my left hand to grasp and squeezed Tw for dear life as I moved my right foot as quickly as possible to Fg. The terrain was such that had I slipped I would have most likely slipped towards the good foothold and had a possibility or two for a last desperate arrest before plunging off the ledge.

Crux move ascent: Coming up I thought that Hidden Foothold (Fh) was going to make things much easier. There's a great hold directly above for the left hand but the body bending needed to get around that rock face and find the next hold just wasn't working for me. So instead the crux launched with my right foot at Fg (which I discovered actually wobbles just a little but appears solidly wedged in place). I believe I was actually able to stretch up my right hand to Tw (and thus get the photo below of this thumb wedge).

The challenge in this direction is getting that right hand from Tw to Hw. The good foothold (Fg) is too low to reach the Hand Wedge (Hw) from so I again had to have my left fingers grasping at the woefully inadequate bump while my right foot abandoned the security of Fg for Fp and then there was the awkward flailing scramble where the Thumb Wedge (Tw) was basically my most secure point of contact for a brief moment as my left hand and left foot struggled to find purchase on any little thing and I relied all too much on Fp for the brief second needed to transfer my right hand up to the security of Hw.

21337_46
Close-up of the Hand Wedge (Hw in earlier photo)
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Close-up of the Thumb Wedge (Tw in earlier photo)


I'm sure there must be a much easier way to do this - I suspect maybe if I did the right flexing and twisting that perhaps I could have made that Hidden Foothold (Fh) work to my advantage. Perhaps I just didn't feel around enough to find the set of holds that would allow me to have done this ledge standing up.

Or maybe I'm just not comfortable enough yet with puny holds. Climbing shoes would have also likely had enough grip to allow me to do the crux move with only friction holding my left foot but it would have been basically just that one step where they would have been useful. Or maybe some other subtle body position shift would have made all the difference.

As is, I didn't die - or even slip - but it sure felt a lot harder than 5.2 to me. So I guess I won't be moving on to the Atlantic-Fletcher traverse any time soon.

(Documentation note: how is it that I have so many photos from right there in the most sketchy section? Part of the answer is that I did this in both directions and took photos ahead and behind me. The other part is the quirk that I find documenting to be a relaxing distraction - when I start to get nervous, documenting the route helps me calm my nerves - I'm forced to stop and get myself into a secure position to snap the photo and the process of deciding how to frame the photo to show good beta distracts my mind from getting nervous about the move I'm getting ready to make and instead focuses me on how to describe it for others).

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Down below the crux is a step over rock.
21337_43
Past that is one mildly reachy descent.


After getting below the crux the descent was pretty easy. The one other slightly awkward move (but far less exposed and on a notably broader and flatter section of rock) is the couple big blocks right at the base of the ledge system.

There's just enough of a drop that, especially for a solo descent, I found my feet dangling in the air for just a brief second before stretching out a little more for my feet to touch down. But there are awesome handholds so it wasn't bad at all going down or coming up. I found it easiest to just step across to the start of the scramble up the next hump.

21337_25
Left foot about to step down the mildly reachy descent.
21337_26
Circled next to my right foot are various solid handhold options to assist with the mildly reachy descent.
21337_41
This is the mildly reachy descent to the notch saddle (or your starting point for Drift-Fletcher direction).


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Going on to Drift I found it easiest to just step across.
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My 6'2" frame spanning the step across at the bottom.


Below are a couple more photos looking back from the hump closer to Drift in which I was able to mark out the ledges after studying my photos for a while.

These help you to understand the exposure a little better.

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Looking back at the ledges to gain some perspective on the exposure.
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Zoomed in view highlighting the exposed route. Crux is just right of the large dark gash down the middle.


Past the Ledges to the Summit of Drift

The hard part is now over but there's a couple small bits worth a few words and photos.

From the bottom of the notch the standard class 3 route comes up from the right and continues up the sloppy loose rock/dirt on the right side of the hump that comes after the ledges. I took that on the way up and didn't at all care for the crummy slip and slide.

On the way back I took climber's left (which is the right side when you're coming back down) and liked it much better. It's class 3, maybe at times class 3+ but none of the loose dirt garbage on the other side and the rock is relatively stable (but watch out for loose chunks scattered around somewhat generously).

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Taken from the top of the hump before the ledges this shows options for the next hump.
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Same thing but now at the base of that next hump.
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Looking back at the hump above the ledges with Fletcher and Quandary in the background.


After you're on that next hump the route goes back to pretty much a class 2 stroll with some little ups and downs before the summit of Drift.

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Nearing the top of a false summit with the real one in the background.
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Up near the summit of Drift looking ahead to the curious pole.
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Coming back to the drop to the notch before the ledges. Go left for loose crap or right for mostly solid blocks.


The Descent

After having gone back up the ledges (see previous section) and making it to the top of that hump I then proceeded along the ridge for a little ways until I saw a little bit of a ramp providing a descent decent down towards the valley below.

This allows a total bypass of Fletcher (since I did it on the way up) and makes for an (eventually) more or less level stroll through the upper valley to the point where you drop into the lower valley and head back to Blue Lakes TH.

21337_48
Dropping down a hint of a ramp towards the valley. I aimed just right of the route going up Quandary West Ridge in order to drop into the lower valley.


My Times

5:30am start from road closure 3/4mi below Blue Lakes Trailhead

5:46am at Blue Lakes TH

7:05am gained the ridge - Fletcher in view

7:46am Fletcher summit

7:56am continue despite gathering clouds

8:15am at Fletcher-Drift saddle being enveloped in clouds with small snow pellets (graupel?) falling

8:40am slowly inched up to the last hump before the bypass option, debating whether to continue

9:09am continue to class 5 section now that clouds/snow finally passed

10:02am Drift summit

10:40am made it back up the 5.2 ledges to the top of the hump

10:54am start descent

1pm at Blue Lakes Trailhead some tourists ask me where Blue Lakes Trailhead is - and how to get to the lakes near Mt. Sneffles (?!?!?)

1:08pm back at my Jeep at the parking area by the road closure


GPX note: This route starts at the current road closure about 3/4mi before Blue Lakes TH


My GPS Tracks on Google Maps (made from a .GPX file upload):




Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 53


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