Peak Exposure

A guide to the best lesser-known alpine climbs in colorado

Often in the mountains, it’s the things you never expect that you remember the most. One summer, a friend and I had planned a traverse from Shoshoni Peak to Apache Peak in the Indian Peaks Wilderness, above Brainard Lake. This jagged ridge crest bristles with spires known as the Chessmen. We had no description of the traverse, but we knew friends who’d done it—we figured we’d climb over the chess pieces when we could and maneuver past them when we couldn’t.

It took us several hours to reach the start. We clambered easily over the first couple of chessmen and skirted the next few along ledges to the east. Until this point we hadn’t bothered with the rope, but near the low point of the ridge we discovered a 60-foot spindle of granite poised over a 1,200-foot drop to the west, like a missile ready to launch. I’d never even heard of this spire, which is hidden from view from the east, but it simply begged to be climbed.

Full Sail: Josh and Amanda Smith climbing the Prow, Kit Carson Arete, Crestone, Colorado.

The climbing was a cinch, about 5.6, but the exposure was breathtaking, and neither of us dared stand on the pinpoint summit. To descend, we draped a shoulder-length sling around the top and rappelled back to the ridge, where billowing thunderheads chased us down a gully toward Isabelle Glacier.

We hadn’t finished the traverse, but we were completely satisfied with our wispy little spire, one of the coolest I’ve ever climbed. We called it Unimpotent Pinnacle, pronounced Un-im-POH-tent, a weak bit of wordplay for a phallic formation that was clearly unimportant in the climbing world. (Perhaps we were inspired by the name of another tower nearby: Dicker’s Peck.) A decade later, our little pinnacle was written up on the Mountain Project website as the Bishop’s Scepter. The sling we’d left on top had been snatched away by the Indian Peaks winds, so there was no way these folks could know we’d been there before. Someone had probably been there before us, too.

That’s the cool thing about Colorado’s lesser-known mountain routes: There’s often more mystery on these climbs than you’ll find on the more-documented and overtraveled routes of Rocky Mountain National Park. The rock may not be as solid and the lichen may be thicker, but there’s still the potential for real surprises. And that doesn’t seem unimportant at all.

the prow
In the Sangre de Cristo Range, the famed Ellingwood Ledges route on Crestone Needle draws the crowds, thanks to its listing in Fifty Classic Climbs of North America. But Kit Carson Peak’s knife-edge south ridge, which rises more than 1,000 feet on the opposite side of the range, is a much better climb—it’s the best technical summit route on any Colorado 14er besides Longs Peak. The exposed, narrow ridge is peppered with conglomerate knobs, and after a short 5.8 headwall near the start the climbing is 5.6 or less. But this is no beginners’ route: There’s a stiff approach (notorious for mosquitoes), and the leader must be prepared for big run-outs between protection on the climb. Approach: Follow Spanish Creek above the town of Crestone, San Luis Valley Best Info:, Crestone Peak USGS quad

wham ridge
Is this the best summit route on a Colorado 13er? It might be—it’s certainly the most elegant in appearance. The north ridge of 13,864-foot Vestal Peak in the San Juans’ Weminuche Wilderness arcs upward in a graceful 1,500-foot parabola that goes surprisingly easily. The crux is only about 5.4, and much of route is pleasant scrambling; experienced climbers may rope up for only a few pitches. Most of the climbing is foot-intensive slabbing on solid quartzite, and you’ll pop out right on the summit, with wonderful views up and down the Grenadier Range. Approach: Via Elk Creek from the Durango & Silverton railroad Best Info: Colorado’s Thirteeners (Roach-Roach),

southeast buttress
The 6.5-mile approach from a trailhead near Lake Granby, far from the Front Range hordes, limits the traffic on Hiamovi Tower (12,220′). The granite is excellent by Indian Peaks standards, and the higher you get on this route of about eight pitches, the more you’ll feel you’re on a neglected classic. The route ascends three stacked buttresses, with big ledges in between, and it can be done at 5.4. However, if you’re comfortable at 5.7, don’t miss the excellent crack-climbing variations on the final two pitches. Approach: Roaring Fork Trail, Indian Peaks Wilderness  Best Info: Colorado’s Indian Peaks (Roach),

the aprons
You can drive to Mt. Evans’ summit, but how much cooler is to get there via a rock climb? The Aprons are broad slabs like Boulder’s Flatirons, but they’re perched at nearly 14,000 feet on Evans’ northeast face, above Summit Lake. At least eight routes ascend the three main formations, with the best climbing concentrated on the Second Apron. Start early to avoid Evans’ notorious thunder-boomers. Approach: Mt. Evans Highway (Colorado Hwy. 5) Best Info: Front Range Crags (Hubbel; hard to find), •

The Hardest 13ers

Colorado’s 14ers get all the press, but many of the 13ers have much harder climbing, despite their less imposing stature. Only 18 people (plus or minus, depending on who’s counting) have climbed all 584 of the ranked 13ers in Colorado. We surveyed list-finishers Dan Bereck, Teresa Gergen and Ken Nolan (plus gleaned tips from interviews with 13er finishers on to get the consensus on Colorado’s toughest. One thing’s for sure: If you’re looking for a challenging peak, head to the San Juan Mountains.

lizard head

Easily the toughest ranked 13er, Lizard Head is guarded not only by three technical pitches (5.8+) but also by horrendous rock. Not surprisingly, it’s been the final summit collected by more than one person on the 13er peakbaggers list.

dallas peak

A complex scramble up the east face gains a fifth-class summit tower (5.0 to 5.2). Gerry Roach described the tiny top in a classic line in his Colorado’s Thirteeners guidebook: “The summit of Dallas is big enough for a Ping-Pong game—just don’t lunge for the ball.”

jagged mountain

Remote, high, and rugged, Jagged’s summit route winds up ledges and chimneys (5.2 or so), and ice on the north face may complicate the ascent. Even if you’re comfortable free-soloing the ascent, a rope is very handy for getting back down.

We also asked the 13er baggers for their favorite peak out of all 584, and the most frequent answer was Coxcomb Peak (13,656’), near Wetterhorn Peak in the northern San Juans. The standard Southwest Chimney route has low fifth-class moves.

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