The Arapaho Peaks hold a special place in the hearts of Boulderites. Not only are they clearly visible from Arapaho Street in downtown Boulder, but we draw our drinking water supply from the large glacier nestled in the cirque on their east face. Perhaps calling them two separate mountains is a bit of a stretch. Really, the north and south 'peaks' are just the ends of the sharp ridge which runs around the cirque and there is less than a 200' drop between the 'summits'. Never-the-less, they are impressive and the northern peak is the highest point in the Indian Peaks Wilderness (at 13,502') and the highest point on the Continental Divide for a very long distance. On a more personal note, North Arapaho is the highest point I have yet climbed to and my first time above 4 kilometers (wheeee!) under my own power.
Early in the morning, I was met by my partner in stupid mountaineering adventures Nathan Smith. We were also joined by some climbing friends of mine Justin and Kristie Van Voorst. After a brief debate, we climbed into the VanVoorstmobile and headed for the 4th of July Trailhead enjoying the rising sun and setting moon.
When we finally left the car, at about 8:15, the weather was gorgeously clear and the sun had just risen behind the low ridge to the east. The temperature was a chilly 26 degrees and the wind was steady and strong. We quickly reassessed our plans for hiking clothing donning all the emergency gear we had. Chilly! Hiking up the steady, moderate incline toward the 4th of July mine warmed us considerably, but the fierce wind still bit our ears and faces. Fortunately, everyone had brought gloves this time and hats. I was glad of my sunglasses as well, not just from the wind, but also for glare off the fresh dusting of snow. The several streams crossed by the trail were iced over and we had an entertaining time trying to make headway at a few of these.
Once we reached the mine, we set out on (for me) new terrain. The trail winds steeply up the eastern flank of South Arapaho rising about 1500' in a mile and a half. As we rose higher, the spectacular vista of Mts. Neva and Jasper in the foreground gave way to higher, snowier peaks to the south. Diamond Lake was visible far below whipped with white-caps but quite blue none-the-less. Turning westward on the occasional switchback we faced the wind and progress was difficult. A light snowfall from the night before was quickly being drifted in low spots (like the trail) and sastrugi and other fanciful snow sculptures were being carved all over the place. Harsh and anoxic, but utterly gorgeous!
Hiking up the trail from the 4th of July Mine toward the saddle. South Arapaho looks pretty steep from here.
At the saddle. Still looks pretty steep.
Yup, still steep. Huff, puff.
Pause for breath, look down. One of these things is known as "Old Baldy".
At length we gained the saddle between South Arapaho and "Old Baldy", a smaller summit to the east. This gave us our first view down into the Arapaho Cirque and the glacier it contains. The Arapaho Glacier is the largest in the Front Range and also one of the most southerly in the US. Unfortunately, it is also off-limits being in the Boulder municipal watershed.
The wind was blocked a bit here by the impressive bulk of South Arapaho rising to the west. On the north face of the ridge dropped impressively down to the glacier below while the south side was a bit more gradual, but still precipitous. We followed the faint trail up the crest of the ridge (erring more to the south than the north) thankful for the bootprints of the two parties we'd seen ahead of us. The climb was steep but easy on large blocks of rock. The snow was not a problem either to my surprise and the occasion small patches of ice just made things interesting, not dangerous.
With burning lungs, we finally topped out on a false summit and ambled over to the true summit of South Arapaho. It's quite a place! The views are, of course, staggering and a small three-sided rock wall provided a sheltered spot for a bit of lunch and map consultation. Some enterprising group mounted a round plaque up there on a rock-and-concrete pedestal showing sight lines to other notable mountains and their distances. I was pleased to see that Pikes Peak and the Flattop Range (100 and 85 miles away, respectively) were clearly visible in the distance. Even to the east the flat horizon of the Plains was clearly visible. A propeller plane flew by a few thousand feet below us in the valley.
On the summit of South Arapaho. Kristie, Justin, and myself.
Nathan mugs on the summit.
Kristie and Justin and the view to the south. Some of those mountains are over 50 miles away.
The Boulder watershed and the view to the east. Kansas is out there somewhere.
Justin and Kristie decided to turn around at this point but offered to wait for Nathan and I should we want to try for North Arapaho clearly visible across the ridge. We parted company and headed northwest toward the start of the ridge. North Arapaho was clearly visible in the near distance to the north and the connecting ridge looked broken and rough, but not too bad. I was mostly concerned about the wind and snow.
Our previous conquest, Mt. Neva. Doesn't look so bad from up here.
After all the scrambling on the ridge, the descent back down to the saddle was trivial. Much of the snow present on the way up had melted in the rising temperatures. The wind was still strong, but much more manageable now (plus we were facing away from it). Various other people passed us on the way up to see the view. Apparently only four of us were hearty enough to do the traverse; or foolish.
Things had calmed down so much by the time we reached the mine we were forced to stop and strip off several layers. The retreat from the mine, back below tree level was without incident and I encountered far less foot pain and general fatigue than I had expected. We got back to the car at 4:30 to find Justin and Kristie sacked out having a nice nap. Back to Boulder quite satisfied with ourselves.
Great hike with stunning views. Total distance 9.2 miles with an elevation gain of about 3500' and a personal high-point of 13,502'. The ridge traverse, even in the snow and ice, was not that bad and could probably be managed by any careful, strong hiker. Even for those less ambitious, the summit of South Arapaho (8 miles round trip) is a spectacular destination and well-worth the trip.
The Wilderness Journal