If someone is into fourteener-bagging in Colorado, there's a good chance they've already summited Quandary Peak. Nearly 50,000 people summited the mountain in 2020 alone, with almost every hiker climbing up and down the standard class one east ridge route. To most, Quandary is a mountain to avoid – an overcrowded, uphill trudge offering little chance of a true escape into nature. That being said, there's more than one way to climb this mountain and seeking the top via a non-standard option allows experienced climbers to miss the hordes entirely.
Author's Note: The route I'm about to describe requires quite a bit of route-finding and features lots of exposure. A simple mistake can lead to getting lost in a dangerous spot on this route. Hikers are regularly rescued from this route and it's easy to see why. DO NOT attempt this route is underprepared or under-skilled. Extensive research is required prior to embarking on this climb – and that means a lot more than just reading this article.
Outside of the standard East Ridge route, there are three other official ways to summit Quandary Peak – the West Ridge, the Quandary Couloir, and the Cristo Couloir. Both the Quandary Couloir and the Cristo Couloir are considered snow routes (when avalanche risk isn't too high) and should be reserved for those conditions for safety reasons, leaving only the West Ridge as a summer alternative to the crowded East Ridge route.
Rated as class three, the West Ridge route requires climbers to navigate an exposed and dangerous ridge that features loose rock and big drops. It's a major change of pace from the dirt trail that leads most to the top of the peak, covering three hard miles on the way up the mountain and ascending 2,650 feet.
The West Ridge route starts at the upper lake of the Blue Lakes on Blue Lakes Road, just off of Hoosier Pass and about two miles up the road from the standard East Ridge trailhead. Skirting the northern side of the lake before ascending into a green valley, the start of this route delivers great views of surrounding mountains and a serene setting. Through this portion of the route, the trail is fairly easy to follow provided one is good at spotting sparse cairns and has a general knowledge of where they're headed. A common mistake made here is attempting to ascend to the western ridge of Quandary too quickly, while the correct route first takes hikers to the saddle between Quandary Peak and Fletcher Mountain.
Once the aforementioned saddle is gained, the trail quickly gets significantly trickier.
At this point, hikers start their ascent up the west ridge of Quandary Peak. At first, the route is lightly-trodden difficult class two. Route-finding can immediately pose a problem if one is not careful and familiar with where they're headed. While it's obvious that taking the ridge to the summit is the goal, getting off-course is very possible and can leave hikers in unstable rock fields or in loose, cliffside terrain. Don't count as cairns, as they seem to be few and far between, often blending into the surrounding landscape.
The class two approach toward the summit is consistent in gain and can be traveled at a moderate pace if one knows where they're headed. Don't be fooled though – the most difficult portion of this route takes place during the final moments of the climb.
As hikers continue along the ridge, those on the distant summit get closer and closer, eventually near enough to probably hear a loud shout. At this point, the class three climbing starts.
The first difficult wall to ascend has great holds. A few stem moves allow trailgoers to surpass the obstacle with relative ease, though consequences of a fall could be dire. I found that my rock climbing experience helped a lot here, with the climb feeling very natural.
Once this wall is gained, the final crux wall is revealed – a similar near-vertical climb with about twice the height. After a careful downclimb, the base of this crux wall is reached.
The first few moves feel a lot like climbing up a natural staircase with a few more difficult movements to follow. This is another class three section that should feel very natural for those used to climbing on real rock that are also comfortable unroped and exposed.
Once the top of the crux wall is reached, a short five-minute walk to the summit is all that's left.
From the summit, epic views can be enjoyed in every direction.
It's recommended that those coming down from the mountain that have ascended via the West Ridge use either the Cristo Couloir or East Ridge to descend. I ran down the East Ridge, tacking on around 5.5 miles to get back to the Blue Lakes Trailhead. While the Cristo Couloir route is just one mile long, I felt like the rockfall risk would be too high without much snow.
Overall, I found the West Ridge route to the summit of Quandary Peak to be a blast. It offers fun class three climbing that's backdropped by a beautiful scene, with a loop that can take four to six hours for those capable of moving quickly. That being said, this route does require extensive route-finding and does feature exposure that could kill. The level of commitment is also high, with turning around likely difficult at times. Proceed with extreme caution.
Author's Note: Due to the high level of commitment on this route, being aware of the weather is crucial. Do not climb this route if there is a risk of stormy weather. It's also recommended that hikers use a GPS communication device, such as a Garmin inReach.