Independence Pass

Upper Indy Northern -- Chap. 9 Section 2

One of Colorado's spring skiing ultimates...

Once Independence Pass Road is open, you'll find a number of excellent tours can be had directly off the pavement. This section covers those north of the road, mostly on the west (Aspen) side of the Continental Divide.

Backcountry skiing Blue Peak, Twining Peak, Colorado.
In the east couloirs Blue (Twining) Peak, north of Indpendence Pass summit on Continental Divide. Mount champion in background. Click image to enlarge.

 

 

Roads and Trailheads

USGS Maps: Independence Pass, Mount Champion USFS Map: White River National Forest

Independence Pass Road

All the trailheads in this section are located on Independence Pass Road (Highway 82), which is reached from the west via Interstate Highway 70 and the town of Aspen. Get there from the east via Highway 24 from Leadville or Buena Vista. For more information see this chapter's main introduction and the section one introduction.

Lost Man Reservoir Trailhead

Drive Independence Pass Road from Aspen about 14 miles, and park in a parking lot on your left (10,360 feet) just before a major hairpin turn. Over the years, authors here at backcountryskiingco.com have noticed that with larger snow banks parking may not be obvious, but the hairpin turn is unmistakable.

Upper Hairpin Trailhead

From Aspen, drive Independence Pass Road about 18 miles to the last hairpin turn (11,400 feet) before the pass summit. From the east (Highway 24), drive to the pass summit, then drop down the western grade 2 miles to said hairpin. Parking is obvious.

Independence Pass Summit Trailhead

Simply drive Independence Pass Road (Highway 82) to the awesome apex (12,093 feet)! Parking is plentiful in the morning but may become limited later in the day.

North Fork Lake Creek Trailhead

This trailhead is located on Independence Pass Road on the east side of Independence Pass, just below a major hairpin turn about 4.5 miles from the pass summit. Trailhead elevation is about 10,780 feet (varies with exact parking).

Map below is a Flash file and may not display on some devices. If not, perhaps you can use our PDF version.


Route 9.2.1 Lost Man Reservoir

Climb rating: Easy skins or nordic wax Ski rating: Novice, S1 Recommended seasons: All with snowcover Starting elevation: 10,360 feet Summit elevation: 10,440 feet Elevation gain: 80 feet Round trip distance: 1 mile Day trip? Yes Map: Independence North

This short trip is a good tyro excursion, and it's the access for harder travels north into the high reaches of the Sawatch Mountains. Drive to Lost Man Reservoir Trailhead (see section introduction). From parking, ski or snowshoe N up the drainage about ½ mile to Lost Man Reservoir. Venture past that reservoir if you dare, but be mindful of various avalanche paths terminating in the valley.

Route 9.2.2 Linkins Peak

Climb rating: Harder skins, easy boots Ski rating: Advanced, S3 Recommended seasons: Spring snow season Starting elevation: 11,500 feet Summit elevation: 12,851 feet Elevation gain: 1,351 feet Round trip distance: 4 miles Day trip? Yes Map: Independence North

You can't beat this tour for alpine feel or accessibility. Indeed, the whole upper Roaring Fork drainage as accessed from here will stun you with possibilities. After the road opens in the spring, you'll find yourself coming back again and again. And one day you'll realize that never in one lifetime could you ski everything you see. Then you'll smile as you gaze at the heights of Linkins Peak and Geissler Mountain, because you know that life is short, you ski hard, and at least you'll glisse some of it.

Drive Independence Pass Road to Upper Hairpin Trailhead (see section introduction). While most other routes in this area start with a tour up the drainage from the trailhead, for Linkins Peak you leave the drainage almost immediately and climb steep terrain W up a gulch to Linkins Lake (12,008 feet). From the southwest side of the lake, climb a distinct broad couloir SW to broad Wet Saddle (12,400 feet) on a huge low-angled ridge. Swing N at Wet Saddle, and continue up the broad ridge to the summit (12,851 feet). For the simplest descent use your climb route. More adventure can be had by descending Wet Gulch or steeper couloirs you scoped from Linkins Lake. Route 9.2.3 Geissler Mountain-East Summit and South Face

Climb rating: Harder skins, easy boots Ski rating: Advanced, S4- Recommended seasons: Spring snow season Starting elevation: 11,500 feet Summit elevation: 13,400 feet Elevation gain: 1,801 feet Round trip distance: 5 miles Day trip? Yes Map: Independence North Photo: [shown on large panorama, and possibly others]

Park at the Upper Hairpin Trailhead (see section introduction) and head N up the Roaring Fork Drainage. Lift your head, gaze ahead, and you'll salivate over a huge anvil-shaped snowface that begs for glisse the way warm rock begs you to climb, or rushing water begs for your boat. What you're looking at is the south face of Geissler Mountain's east summit.

The route is easy. Starting on the right side of the creek, work the drainage to Independence Lake (12,490 feet). From the lake, climb N to obvious Lost Man Pass (12,800 feet), then boot up Geissler's east ridge. Enjoy the south face from the summit. Extremists can enjoy a nice couloir (S4) that drops from the summit down East Geissler's small northwest face. Return from this descent by rounding East Geissler's north ridge at about 12,300 feet to Lost Man Lake, then climb S on to Lost Man Pass where you descend the Roaring Fork drain to parking.

Route 9.2.4 Geissler Mountain -Three Summit Day

Climb rating: Harder skins, easy boots Ski rating: Advanced, S4- Climb rating: Ski rating: Recommended seasons: Starting elevation: 11,500 feet Summit elevation: 13,400 feet Elevation gain: approximately 3,500 feet, varies with exact route Round trip distance: approximately 6 miles Day trip? Yes Map: Independence North

While touring above Upper Hairpin Trailhead, you can't help but notice that Geissler Mountain is a 1 ½-mile long, triple summit ridge of dreams. This tour, one of the most popular amongst us here at backcountryskiingco.com, takes the whole thing, savoring each summit with a special descent all its own. Reach Geissler's east summit (Number One) via route 9.2.3, then descend the south face. If you can make yourself do it, stop making turns after about 1,000 vertical feet. Traverse downvalley a bit, then climb to Geissler Pass (12,800 feet), which is the obvious saddle between Geissler's central (# Two) and east (# Three) summits.

Geissler Mountain ski mountaineering in the backcountry.
Bob Perlmutter skiiing Gessler Three (West Geissler), looking southerly at Independence Mountain and other famous area peaks.

 

From Geissler Pass, boot the ridge W to Central (# Two) Geissler (13,301 feet). From the apex, move along the ridge SW until you notice a perfect run dropping southeast below your feet. Do what comes naturally for a few hundred vertical feet, then climb back up to Geissler's west summit (# Three, 13,186 feet). From that highpoint, drop SW to yet another pass, then glisse down to Linkins Lake and continue down to parking. You'll be tempted at the last summit to continue W into Lost Man Creek. Take care not to do so, unless you've stashed a car and are ready for rough terrain and dirt hiking below timberline.

With developments in modern gear and style, doing the Geissler three summits has become too easy for some parties. To add spice and more vertical, start with Geissler Zero just east of Lost Man Pass, thus doing a 4 summit day. And if you really want a workout, for your last run climb Blue Peak and do one of Blue's northwest couloirs.

Geisslers as viewed looking northerly from Independence Mountain. Click image to enlarge.


Route 9.2.5 Lost Man Loop

Climb rating: Moderate skins Ski rating: Intermediate, S2+ Recommended seasons: All with snowcover Starting elevation: 11,500 feet Summit elevation: 12,800 feet Elevation gain: 1,200 feet Trip distance: 7 miles Day trip? Map: Independence North, Southern Fryingpan South, USGS Mount Champion

This classic loop tour is a good introduction to the huge terrain of the Sawatch. It's also a good learner's trip. While Lost Man Loop is most often skied or snowshoed in spring, it can be done while Independence Pass is still open in early winter. Note that this route passes under innumerable avalanche paths and forces you over a few starting zones, so only ski at times of greatest stability.

At the summit of Geissler Peak, get those skins off and go! If conditions allow, you can ski off Geissler 3 down northwest into the Lost Man Creek drain and finish via the lost man loop. Normally folks ski the eastern terrain on the Geisslers.

 

Here at backcountryskiingco.com, we like to do the Loop this way: Bring two cars and leave one at Lost Man Reservoir Trailhead. Start from Upper Hairpin Trailhead (see section introduction). Head up the right side of the beautiful alpine drainage to Independence Lake, and continue to Lost Man Pass (12,800 feet). Drop to Lost Man Lake, pass by the right (E) side of the lake, then swing a bit right to descend into the drainage below. Follow the gut of the drainage, with small variations, down to Lost Man Creek. Descend Lost Man drainage to Lost Man Reservoir Trailhead, switching sides several times to find the best route and least avalanche exposure.

Route 9.2.6 Blue Peak (Twining Peak) Northwest Couloir

Climb rating: Harder skins, easy boots Ski rating: Advanced, S4+ Recommended seasons: Spring snow season Starting elevation: 11,640 feet Summit elevation: 13,711 feet Elevation gain: 2,071 feet Round trip distance: 3 ½ miles Day trip? Yes Map: Independence North

The Northwest Couloir is one of the steeper traditional routes off Blue Peak. Take any route to the summit of Blue. Boot a few hundred yards down Blue's north ridge until an obvious couloir drops left (W). Descend the couloir, then head down the Roaring Fork drainage to Upper Hairpin Trailhead (see above) where it's an easy walk back up the pavement to your car at Twining Creek. Other similar couloirs can be had by booting down scree in other areas on Blue's westerly reaches.

 

 

 

 

 

Above, Blue Peak as viewed from north, from near summit of Geissler Zero.

 

Route 9.2.7 Blue Peak (Twining Peak) Southwest Flank [following updated by Lou, 5-2011]

Climb rating: Moderate skins, easy boots Ski rating: Intermediate, S3 Recommended seasons: Spring snow season Starting elevation: 11,640 feet Summit elevation: 13,711 Elevation gain: 2,071 feet Round trip distance: 2 ½ miles Day trip? Yes Map: Independence North

Blue Peak is a high bump (13,711) on the Continental Divide east of Geissler Mountain about 2 miles north of Independence Pass as the crow flies. Blue is named Twining on the USGS 7.5 min. quadrangle map, but the name Blue has been in common use since Aspen locals such as Bil Dunaway and Fritz Stammberger skied the peak in the 1960s, and is used here.

This route on Blue Peak is relatively easy (though quite high in altitude) and makes a fine introduction to Colorado glisse alpinism that we here at BackcountrySkiingCO.com highly recommend. As several routes in this chapter do, this one leaves from a turnout on Independence Pass Road (the "Upper Hairpin" on the Aspen side), rather than a bonafide trailhead. To reach the starting point, drive Independence Pass Road to Upper Hairpin Trailhead (see section introduction).

From parking at Upper Hairpin, simply taking a climbing traverse towards Blue Peak to the northeast, only instead of trying to climb the peak directly as you gain altitude, eventually swing east to a bench on Blue's southwest ridge. From there, just follow wide snow-covered slopes that eventually reach a short section of summit ridge.

(Be advised that previous editions of this guide recommended climbing Blue Peak by starting at a notched drainage a few hundred yards up the road from Upper Hairpin parking. The route described above is better up, and better for skiing down.)

You can also reach Blue Peak from the Independence Pass summit by skiing around the left (W) side of Blarney Peak (see maps). Though this option has less elevation gain, a huge amount of flat travel makes it take just as much effort as the route described above, but with with less terrain for ski turns on the way down. On the other hand, climbing Blue Peak from the pass summit is a good idea if you're using Blue to connect to other high routes, especially ones to the east where you're planning on catching a ride back to the pass.

 

Route 9.2. 8 Two Mile Run

Climb rating: Moderate skins, easy boots Ski rating: S4+ Recommended seasons: Spring snow season Starting elevation: 12,093 feet Summit elevation: 13,711 feet Elevation gain: 1,820 feet Trip distance: 6 miles Day trip? Yes Map: Independence North

Reminiscent of long glacier runs elsewhere in the world, this route is quite unusual for the Colorado Rockies. Climb Blue Peak via route 9.2.75, then head down the north ridge about ¼ mile to 13,400 feet. Drop E and a bit N here, to end up at Blue Lake (12,495 feet). The descent to Blue Lake takes steep terrain, but the lines should be plain. Blue Lake will tempt you as you walk down the ridge; don't let it seduce you into descending too soon. Doing so can trap you in cliffy terrain with ultra-narrow couloirs. The descent to Blue Lake is the first quarter of Two Mile Run. To nail the rest, from Blue Lake climb N a short distance to a saddle.

From the saddle simply ride your tool N down a long and thoroughly enjoyable drainage about 1 ½ miles into the head of Lake Creek. Swing S and follow Lake Creek down to Independence Pass Road. As you head down the drainage, you may want to use harder snow that's been shaded on the east side of the valley. If you do so, switch back to the west side of Lake Creek while it has a snow bridge or is narrow enough to rock hop. If you stay on the east side too long, you'll have to do an unpleasant wade crossing to reach the summer pack trail, which is used for your final egress from the valley to Independence Pass Road and North Fork Lake Creek Trailhead (see section introduction).

While most of this route is S3- or less, it's rated S4+ because of steep terrain on the Blue Peak section.

 

Independence Pass summit area viewed from east. Click image to enlarge.

 

Route 9.2. 9 Blarney Peak

Climb rating: Harder skins, moderate boots Ski rating: Advanced, S3+ Recommended seasons: Spring snow season Starting elevation: 12,093 feet Summit elevation: 13,520 feet Elevation gain: 1,427 feet Round trip distance: 2 ½ miles Day trip? Yes Map: Independence North

When you're in the parking lot at Independence Pass Summit, you'll notice an interesting mountain rising to the north. This is Blarney Peak. It looks small, like climbing it would be a bunch of baloney, or blarney. But the view is foreshortened; if you climb Blarney you'll find it to be a worthy. objective.

Reach the summit by simply skiing N across the low-angled area from Independence Pass. Tack slightly left (W), then climb Blarney's visible and wide southwest ridge. You're headed for what looks like the summit from the road, but is actually a small rock-studded ridge just before the true summit. This little false summit is where you'll see the North American version of the famous stone, which may be kissed. Once you get to the false summit rocks, stay slightly west of the ridge to get the reach the true tiptop. Descend your ascent route.

A more challenging (S4-) way off Blarney is to drop the fine couloir NE from a small saddle just 50 feet E of the summit. This takes you down into Blue Lake Drainage. Escape by climbing back to the saddle between Blarney and Blue Peaks, or continue down Blue Lake Drainage to North Fork Lake Creek and hike out to Independence Pass Road. If you take this latter option, note that what appears to be the logical egress down from Blue Lake is blocked by virtually impassable timber. To get around this, trend skier's right at timberline to a small gully and avalanche path. This is detailed in route 9.210.9. Conversely, if you're trying to get up the Lake Creek valley from Blue Lake, use Two Mile Run detailed in route 9.2.8.

 

North side of Blarney Peak as viewed from Blue Peak. Independence Pass is hidden behind Blarney. Click Image to enlarge.

 

 

Route 9.2. 10 The Blarney Mega Ski

Climb rating: Harder skins, moderate boots Ski rating: Advanced, S4- Recommended seasons: Spring snow season Starting elevation: 11,640 feet Summit elevation: 13,640 feet Elevation gain: 4,287 feet Trip distance: 5 ½ miles Day trip? Yes Map: Independence North

Colorado's high passes sometimes allow you to get more downhill skiing than you have to work for. This is one such route (with 5,600 feet of downhill) and has the advantage of your first descent of the day being on east-facing terrain, with the second west-facing. Thus, you're more likely to get just the right amount of sun thawing on each slope. To do this "daily double," climb Blarney Peak via route 9.2.9, then descend from the summit of Blarney E down an aesthetic low-angled shoulder leading to rocky Point 13,065. You've got three choices here, all on steep terrain with fall potential. The most distinct line drops from the saddle south of Point 13,065, where you enter a major slide gully which drops to Independence Pass Road. With good snow, it's possible to glisse this path down to the road, but it's blocked by a cliffy area that's tricky and most often filled with frozen chunks of avalanche debris. To avoid the bad sections of the gully, ski the upper 400 vertical feet, then traverse skier's left to a shoulder. Keep trending left as you work this shoulder. There are many cliffs in this area; proceed with caution.

When you enter timber, keep trending left. Now the crux: Poke your way down to 11,600 feet, and as you trend left you'll find yourself at the top of a smaller avalanche path. Follow this down until it becomes a narrow steep-sided gulch, which is only skiable after heavy winters. To avoid the gulch, head right just as it gets unattractive, and you'll find open timber you can make tight turns through to the toe of the avalanche path. From here, simply continue down the valley about ½ mile to Independence Pass Road. Note: This route may be the only sane way out of the lower Blue Lake drainage, as a dense conifer forest blocks most, if not all other, egress.

To get the Brumley part of your daily double, climb Brumley Peak's obvious west-facing gulch via route 9.2.11. Descend your ascent route.

The two other descent options off Point 13,065 on Brumley: Go to the top of Point 13,065 and descend a broad, steep and rocky westerly face. Or, take an S5 couloir dropping N from the saddle just west of Point 13,065. With either option, use the exit route described above.

Route 9.2. 11 Brumley Peak from Highway 82

Climb rating: Harder skins, moderate boots Ski rating: Advanced, S4- Recommended seasons: Spring snow Starting elevation: 10,780 feet Summit elevation: 13,640 feet Elevation gain: 2,860 feet Round trip distance: 2 ½ miles Day trip? Yes Map: Independence North

When you're at the Independence Pass summit, you'll be awed by the white glistening bulk of Brumley Peak across the valley to the east. This is a direct "vertical explosion" route for the peak, while a more mellow route goes via Lackawanna Gulch. Drive Independence Pass Road to North Fork Lake Creek Trailhead (see section introduction). From the hairpin turn on the paved road, head down the road bank, go several hundred feet upvalley on a dirt road (probably snowcovered), then cross the creek. Head back down the valley a few hundred yards until you're beneath the deeply cut and explicit avalanche gully that splits the timber on Brumley's lower northwest face. Climb the slide path to timberline, trend a bit right and continue to the summit directly or via the north ridge. Descend your ascent route, with variations you scoped on the way up. The creek crossing at the start of this route may be problematic; it's a little too wide to jump, so perhaps bring an extension ladder to lay across. Stay out of the marshy area just south of the trailhead.

Independence Pass backcountry skiing.
On the Two Mile Run off Blarney Peak, looking north.

 

Route 9.2. 12 Deer Mountain from Highway 82

Climb rating: Harder skins, Advanced snow Ski rating: Advanced, S4 Recommended seasons: Spring snow season Starting elevation: 10,780 feet Summit elevation: 13,761 feet Elevation gain: 2,981 feet Round trip distance: 8 miles Day trip? Yes Maps: Independence North, Southern Fryingpan South

Deer Mountain is one of the finest peaks in the Sawatch (it is also covered in the Fryingpan Drainage chapter because it's accessible from there as well as Independence Pass Road). With a bit of map planning, you can use either side to approach any of Deer's routes in this book, so base your access on road closures. Deer makes a good daily double when combined with Two Mile Run on Blue Peak (route 9.2.87).

Start at North Fork Lake Creek Trailhead. You'll probably be on dry ground here. Walk up the old jeep trail, which becomes a foot trail. The trail will lead you up the left side of the valley through open timber. Once you're on snow, don't worry about the summer trail. Instead, take the most logical route up the drainage, swinging westerly at 11,600 feet into a large bowl beneath Deer Mountain's steep west face. At the head of the bowl (about 12,000 feet) climb north up steeper ground to Divide Lake (12,378 feet). From the southern tip of the lake, climb (possible crampons) to Deer Mountain's northwest ridge, and follow it to the summit. Descend your ascent route, perhaps by straying out on the west face, and perhaps descending an obvious couloir system (S4+) that splits the middle of the face (evaluate that during your climb, and possibly climb it if you intend to ski it).