Monarch of Eagle's Nest Wilderness
Updated: Feb 5, 2022
This story was created on the land of the Ute Native American Tribe
As soon as I discovered this rarely visited area of Colorado back in January of 2021, I thought about it almost daily. I studied whatever trip reports and route descriptions I could, though there really wasn’t all that much information, at least not on official sites. I knew I’d be in the minority of people visiting these peaks, and that excited me more than I can say.
In early July, I climbed the western-most mountain in the range, and the whole time I was on it's slopes I was face to face with the imposing eastern wall of the range’s monarch. A 13,586 ft peak that stands magnificently over the entirety of the range. The thought of being on top of it and the journey to get there was beyond enticing.
Later in the month, I reached out to my friend Brooke to see if she wanted to attempt a climb. She was in, and we left the following weekend. The route is an obscure one, the trail supposedly marked by a small cairn next to a fallen tree a little ways after a waterfall. We hiked to the point where this marker was supposed to be, and it wasn’t there. We wandered for another hour or so and attempted to bushwhack up to higher elevation to try and reconnect with the trail, but it was too late. Dark clouds rolled over the peaks and the sound of thunder filled the air. It was time to call it off.
We rushed to make camp next to the waterfall as rain and hail poured down on us and once sheltered, we enjoyed a relaxed evening, waiting out the storm. The next morning, we awoke to sunny skies and after some deliberation and food rationing, we decided to make another attempt to reach the upper basin. We returned to the point where the turn off was supposed to be and found that the trail was indeed there! The cairn marking the turnoff had been destroyed, so that’s why we’d missed it the first time. We rebuilt the cairn and continued on, passing through meadows of aspen, pine, and more wildflowers than we’d ever seen, all with the backdrop of increasingly stunning mountains.
It was a paradise. The air was clear and filled with the scent of thousands of flowers. We took several breaks along the way to sit in the meadows and breathe, stopping our journey for a moment and immersing ourselves in the peace that this place offered.
We pushed on, making our way up a brutally steep incline through the forest until we broke through tree-line, and at last, the terrain relented, opening up to a stunning alpine meadow with mountains towering all around it. This was home for the night. We made camp, walked in the river, and took some time to enjoy the solitude on our own. The approaching footsteps of a mountain goat and her kid scared me out of a half-conscious meditation but I laughed when I turned around and saw them curiously walking towards me. I kept my distance and watched them move across the valley.
Shortly after, another storm rolled over the peaks and we settled in for what would be a long afternoon and evening of being stuck in the tent, sheltering from relentless rain. For close to 7 hours we attempted to sleep, talked, listened to a podcast and studied the route for the summit attempt which, to our dismay, included a section with an 84% grade. Ouch. We started to wonder if our climb would even be feasible anymore with all this rain.
But late that night, the storm broke and the rain stopped. We had a chance, and we were determined to take it.
The alarms went off early the next morning and we dragged ourselves out of our sleeping bags into the crisp, humid air that often follows a mountain rainstorm. From our base camp to the summit was only one mile, but that mile was over 2,200 vertical feet on terrain ranging from 2+ to mid-4th class. Definitely the most challenging vertical either of us had ever done in such a short distance. Our first objective was to hike to the top of a pass that stood half a mile and over 1000 feet above us. At 3am, that was...character building, to say the least.
After reaching the saddle, we had a choice to make. One option was to take the standard route which required us to hike down another 200 feet on horrible rock and then straight up a scree field for another 1500. That wasn’t sounding like much fun. Our other option was to take the southern ridge. I’d never heard of or seen any information about this route before, but we’d talked to one lone climber the day before who said he found a way. It was a gamble, we had no idea what obstacles the ridge would hold or if we’d even be able to find a way. Even still, it was an easy choice. Something about this place activated an almost primal desire in us to explore. We made the decision to take the ridge with the rules that we would not climb anything we didn’t feel comfortable climbing down and vice versa, and that we would keep going until it no longer made sense to go.
We began climbing as the darkness of night gave way to the deep blue and purple hues of dawn. The rock was solid and had lots of grassy ledges to aid in our traverse. There were several chimneys, gullies, and small towers to be climbed but they offered a fun challenge that never felt overly dangerous. Far below us, a few clouds settled over the river in a way that made it look as if the clouds themselves were a river!
Slowly but surely, we found our way up the ridge. Only once did we truly get off course and end up having to backtrack after dead-ending on a huge cliff. As we climbed, the views grew more and more beautiful, with Peak C, a truly legendary mountain dominating both the landscape and our attention. I can’t tell you how many times I stopped to look back at it. After climbing one final gully, we found ourselves on a stunning alpine plateau with the summit in full view, only a short distance away. Just one last push.
Five hours after we left camp on the morning of July 31st, we stepped onto the summit of Mt. Powell. The view that awaited us was nothing short of awe inspiring. As far as we could see, there were layers and layers of mountains with alpine lakes scattered around their bases. Clouds drifted in and out of the valleys in what seemed like a dance with the wind as their song. Each mountain held it’s own layer of clouds, creating an immensely deep scene that pulled me in and captured all of my attention. I scanned every detail of the landscape, obsessed with the intricacies of each ridge of mountains and the ever-changing shape of the clouds.
On day one when we had gotten off course and been forced to wait out the storm, I was frustrated with myself, with the information I’d read, with the weather, etc. I’d wanted to see this place for so long and the prospect of having gone so far just to turn back without even seeing the mountain deeply disappointed me. But little did I know, right? The truth is, if we’d tried to make it all the way up to our intended base camp that day, there are a dozen other difficulties we would have encountered and there’s no way we would have made it. And if we’d summited on the day we originally planned, we would not have seen the view that we did.
As I stood on the summit staring out into the layers of cloud and stone, I was humbled. My schedule was way off, the weather had been relentless, and the route I knew about had been almost out of the question, and yet here I was, on the summit of a mountain I’d been dreaming about for months looking at a view that I could never have fathomed. Life is funny like that. We can plan all we want, but it’s not really up to us. All we can do is lean into our callings, relentlessly pursue our own becoming, and believe that when we do those things, there is no question whether or not we will end up exactly where we’re supposed to be, seeing exactly what we’re supposed to see.
Discussion question for the comments: Unexpected difficulties often lead to positive outcomes that we never could've seen coming? Has a situation like this ever happened in your life? What was that like?