Blitzen Ridge for Beginners

Blitzen Ridge Colorado

Climbing Blitzen Ridge, RMNP (with a few pointers for beginners)

I got interested in climbing the Blitzen Ridge in Rocky Mountain National Park this summer, after several acquaintances asked me if it was a good beginner alpine climbing objective. (Alpine climbing here defined as remote & technical rock climbs in the high mountains). On paper, rated 5.4, the climb seems quite approachable.

I free soloed the route in August 2020, finding it enjoyable, but in my opinion, far from a beginner route. This article will be a trip report with some specialized advice for beginner alpine climbers who might be considering the Blitzen Ridge.

A view of the Fource Aces on Blitzen Ridge — steep pyramids of rock with sharp drop offs.
Approaching the Four Aces on Blitzen Ridge.

Blitzen Ridge Route Details

  • Grade: 5.4, II
  • Pitches: I find it hard to imagine doing more than 5 pitches(?) The amount of roped climbing will vary from party to party based on experience and comfort levels.
  • Length: 8.9 or 10.7 miles (depending on descent strategy)
  • Start: Lawn Lake Trailhead (8,500 feet elevation)
  • Summit: Ypsilon Peak (13,514 feet elevation)
  • CalTopo Map: See mileages, both return options here. (I measured mileages using this tool; be aware they might be a bit low).

My Recommendations for Beginner Alpine Climbers

  • Watch the weather. This means both the forecast AND the skies. Bad weather is the biggest hazard in alpine climbing. Choosing a day with a solid weather forecast is the best way to set yourself up for success.
  • Stash a car and descend via the Chapin Trailhead. This saves you several miles of hiking tedious downclimbing.
  • Go light on the rack. This route is long and you will feel the ounces. Set of stoppers and cams from .4–1 should be fine.
  • Consider bivvying at Spectacle Lake. This allows you to break one super long day up into two more manageable days. The downside is you will have to lug your sleeping kit into the cirque.
  • Be bold. The more terrain you can climb without the rope, the faster you will go. The rock on this route is very solid. Most of the climbing involves big ledges and handholds, just with huge drops under you. Keep your mind under control and it will seem easy — because it is!

The problem with climbing Blitzen Ridge as a first alpine climb

Blitzen Ridge is a HUGE day. Depending on the strategy you choose, the day involves at least 10 miles of hiking and climbing, with at least seven thousand feet of cumulative elevation gain/loss. The summit of Ypsilon Peak is at 13,500 feet in elevation — so altitude plays a major factor as well.

Those numbers add up to a big, painful day. Moving fast and efficiently is key. A beginner climber is unlikely to be great at the transitions required by a route like this: quick anchor building, short-roping, moving smoothly from roped to unroped climbing, rappelling, and ideally, simulclimbing.

Savvy use of the above techniques can bring this day into manageable territory with a rope. You can certainly climb the route without them, but you will be climbing well into the afternoon, when thunderstorms are likely in Colorado. Retreat once on the ridge would not be easy.

Advantages to Soloing

Soloing routes like this brings a huge advantage, which is speed and lightness.

Without having to carry twenty pounds of climbing gear on the 10 miles of approach and deproach, one can simply carry a light daypack with water, food, and layers.

The downside is that if you miscalculate, you are all alone. And although the climbing on the Blitzen Ridge is easy, there is always serious exposure.

The final line: Soloing is a personal choice which needs to come from a base of solid confidence and experience.

Trip Report — Blitzen Ridge Solo

Day Starts: Lawn Lake Trailhead

Elevation: 8,500 ft

Time: 5:45 a.m.

I snoozed my alarm for an hour in the dead of night, resulting in a later-than-expected departure from bed. I hit the trailhead in the pre-morning light. No headlamp. There are major wildfires burning in Colorado, and the air smelled of smoke.

I hit the trail at an aggressive pace, heading for Ypsilon Lake, which I reached in a little over an hour. Here I was rewarded with a beautiful view of the climb— a real change from the usual mystery of a pitch-black, 4 a.m. approach!

Blitzen Ridge takes the *entire* ridgeline on the right side of the photo. . The snowy gullies in the center of the face are the Y-Couloirs.

I got a bit lost getting onto the ridge, climbing up a granite gully to Lower Spectacle Lake instead of getting on the ridge via the separate “grassy gully” indicated by the guidebook. Lots of gullies in mountaineering.

I snapped another photo from Spectacle Lakes, had an apple, then gained the ridge. This was maybe third class.

Blitzen Ridge is on the right. The left side ridge is called the Donner Ridge, and was to be my descent.

I cruised along at a great pace and soon hit the “Four Aces”, the crux of the climb. This is where most beginner parties would rope up. This terrain mostly moves horizontally, and is simple enough. One can walk past the first two aces using very exposed but super bomber ledge systems. (Aces numbered from R-L).

The Four Aces in profile. Photo taken from the Donner Ridge, across the cirque.

I climbed directly up the third ace (5.2 or so, not exposed). I summited, then downclimbed past a rappel with some satisfaction. Rappelling’s a time-suck.

The Fourth Ace is widely considered the hardest, and I would have to agree. I went more or less straight up it, trending a bit right but then back left to the summit. This clocked in around 5.6–5.7. Many people skirt right around this tower; a bit easier at 5.4. Plenty of cracks provide good opportunity for roped parties to protect any of the climbing.

More rap stations atop the Fourth Ace. I downclimbed again. Mid-fifth class. After the end of the Aces, there is one final headwall to surmount. A bit more 5.4–5.6ish climbing, depending on the line you choose, which eventually eases up to fourth-class. Once you regain the top of the ridge, the technical portion is over, and it would be best to store the rope.

From here, the ridge seems to go on forever… awesome third-class hiking interspersed with occasional vertical steps or problems. Stay to the left for the best time, here. The exposure, views and position are magnificent.

Huge cornice hanging atop the Y-Couloir exit. Aug 18, 2020.

I hit the summit of 13,514 ft Ypsilon mountain at 10:30 a.m. I found a lone hiker on the summit, setting up a folding chair. He had hiked up the opposite side of the mountain, from the Chapin Trailhead.

From the summit of Ypsilon Mountain, climbers have two options:

  • Descend the Donner Ridge (Class 3) back to Ypsilon Lake, and then return to your car at the Lawn Lake Trailhead.
  • Do the much shorter and less technical hike down the backside of Ypsilon to the Chapin Pass Trailhead. Climbers planning to descend via the Chapin Pass route will need to either drop an extra car off at this trailhead in advance, or hitchhike back to the Lawn Lake trailhead.

I would suggest all beginner parties leave a car at the Chapin TH, and plan to descend that way. This shaves several miles and several thousand vertical feet off of your journey.

However, as I had no car cached, I decided to descend the Donner Ridge.

Descending the Donner Ridge

Looking back on Lower Spectacle Lake from the summit of Ypsilon mountain. The Blitzen Ridge is on the left, while the Donner Ridge is on the right. This photo does a good job of showing just how long these ridges are.

The Donner Ridge is less sharp and exposed than the Blitzen Ridge, which made for a somewhat quicker downclimb. However, the guidebook says the Donner Ridge is only third-class, while I found myself doing fourth and fifth-class moves at points. Overall, descending this ridge is tedious after the excitement of going up the Blitzen.

It does provide you with an excellent view of the Four Aces, though:

The weather started to get a little threatening while I was descending the Donner Ridge, so I bailed down a gully to my right. Weather passed. I got lost, wandered around for a bit. Eventually just followed the water downhill to Ypsilon Lake. No big deal, just a bit of bushwhacking.

From Ypsilon Lake on out, it was a lot of downhill. I threw in a podcast. I thought about running — but my knees hurt, and I didn’t care about the time that much.

I made it back to my car 8h30m after I started, a respectable time, but not an exceptional one. I was at Ed’s Cantina in Estes Park, drinking avocado margaritas by 3.

Takeaways

  • 3/4 stars
  • Soundtrack for the day: Graduation by Kanye West.
  • The position along the ridge and in the cirque is amazing. This is a highly scenic climb!
  • It is a LONG DAY! I had done half a dozen alpine climbs this summer already, so I would say I was in pretty good shape. I still iced my knees that evening.
  • The position of the ridge means you can’t see incoming weather from the West. Go with a good forecast, and move fast!
  • This climb is mostly hiking, third and fourth-class scrambling. If you want to do a lot of technical roped climbing, there are much better objectives in RMNP.
  • Have fun!!

***

Also published at Medium.com

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