Tour de Buffalo
“Doesn’t it seem a lot harder than we thought?” “Yeah…”
“Just for the record, do your feet hurt as much as mine? “Yeah…”
We were 2/3’s of the way through our Tour De Buffalo; two 13,000′ feet peaks in the Buffalo Peaks Wilderness Area south of Fairplay, CO and the long, hot slog traversing rocky 45 degree slopes was testing our ankles and toasting our feet.
After an early start from Colorado Springs, I picked up Mike in Divide and at a little after 4:00 am we were headed toward the peaks, East (13,300′) and West Buffalo (13,326) Peaks. Following some instructions from the net we traveled 8 miles north of the US 24/285 interchange until we came to Buffalo Peaks Road, a decent gravel and dirt road that heads into the wilderness area. We went another 8.3 miles to the trail head, meeting some open range cows along the way.
Our information from a previous climb of the peaks said to follow an old unused logging road that switchbacks up toward the east peak. We found what we thought was the road and with only one minor misstep onto a wrong side trail, we made upward progress as the sun was rising on the peaks. I, like others, will not try and describe which road to take as there are a maze of them but this topo map from another trip report shows the correct one.
As we reached tree line and overgrown “road” turned to a trail and snaked it way through dense willows in the general direction of the eastern peak. I did not tell Mike at the time as he was leading, but I wondered what we it would be like to run into a bear in those willows! Once free of the willows it was a grassy, wild flower covered slope to reach the east ridge of East Buffalo Peak.
We took time at this point and earlier on the way up to look at our probable descent route and also back at the trail head because bushwhacking was assured and we did not want to miss our reconnect point on our way out. It is probably at this point I decided to purchase a Garmin GPS for the trail to set way points. I was concerned about a bushwhack through the woods and not being able to find the return trail and if I had a GPS I simply would have marked the spot.
The grass slope was moderate and we dispatched about 700′ in short time when we saw and heard an elk herd to our east. We also saw 3-4 bighorn sheep higher on the ridge toward the summit watching us casually. The ridge was trail less, as was most of this mountain, and comprised of talus, medium size rocks, and boulders. The usual rock hopping ensued knowing that each step could either be a loose rock or a one that was solid. Although we were originally going to do one long switchback up the face, it became obvious that staying closer to the ridge after rounding a point was a better route. We worked our way up the ridge while listening to the bugle of the elks behind us and watching the sheep ahead of us.
At 8:30am the sky was clear, sun bright and about 55 degrees with a light wind. We reached the summit which is a broad grassy plateau at 13,300′. It was great to be on our first summit before 9:00am. At the summit cairn, someone with a sense of humor had dragged the bleached bones of an elk or sheep and placed them right at the summit marker. The traditional summit register in the PVC pipe was obtained by reaching through the rib bones. 🙂 Signing in we saw there had been a party of two there the weekend before but then no others before March 07, probably this party. The next earlier ascent was in Oct 06.
After about 5 minutes enjoying watching a bighorn check us out we started down the west connecting ridge to West Buffalo Peak. The almost 500′ drop went by fast on moderate terrain and Mike took the lead out on ridge where we elected to stay as close to the ridge edge as possible. Mike was stronger than me as I had started to bonk from lack on food so he did the route finding and led over the scrambles. It was mostly fun with great views north down into the cirque. We stopped about halfway across the ridge to eat and replenish our energy stores for the last 200′ to the summit, where we again saw some bighorns.
The summit marker was found in a stone bivy ring and we signed the register noting that a large party from Texas had summited that week. We also noted a large number of flies on the summit which I found to be unusual. The flys and a few mosquitoes would follow us on the descent, I guess due to the moist conditions. Rather than walk down a nice grassy slope, we rock hopped down the north ridge beating up our feet a bit. Hind sight is always better, and it would have been much easier to go down the slope and then cut back to the ridge…oh well, and it would not be our last questionable judgment call on this hike! Off the rock but now on a 35 degree grassy slope, we traversed over to the ridge edge and hit it right at the edge of a snowfield we had marked in our minds as the descent route.
We descended the face to the right of the snowfield until I suggested we cross it. This was a no fall area as the run out ended in steep rock, but the snow was soft and we were able to dig in with our heels. When I got within about 10 feet of the far side I realized it fell off in a 20 foot cliff. No way could we get off this side safely so we retreated and circled underneath it.
Our plan all along had been to hike around the base of this large cirque, under West Buffalo Peak, under the connecting ridge, and back under East Buffalo peak and rejoin the trail in the willows. We had this as our plan because 1) we knew of no trail coming off West Buffalo Peak back to our trail head (I think there is one now) 2) The large forested drainage we would have to cut through would be trail less and chances of getting turned around were good and 3) We did not know how dense or how many blow downs there might be that would delay our trek.
So we doggedly stuck with our plan, and picked out a traversing line where the tree line met the rocky cirque slopes. Let me just sum this portion out as saying it was tough. The slopes were 45 degrees, rocky, treacherous, and without a trail. The heat soared with a vengeance, and the insects we encountered early on stayed with us. It was a tough hour of traversing this additional 2 miles.
With nothing to do but march on, we finished the traverse, and worked our route through the same willows we had started the day in, finding our exit to the logging road “pretty easy”. The walk down the logging road normally would have been a pretty fast affair in the heat and desire to get to the trailhead, but our feet were beat up a bit and we adopted “shuffling speed.”
The maze of roads bit us one last time when we went straight when we should have taken a left (we guess) and the road came to an end with the trail head about 300′ below us on a steep slope. Too tired to do anything other than slide down the slope to the trail below, we did, and within 10 minutes we were back at the Xterra.
We had added maybe 1.5 hours and 2 miles perhaps to our trip due to our route choices, but now when we drive by these mountains on weekends, we can say we have been to those summits! The wildlife, remoteness, and lack of crowds are the true value in hiking in this wilderness area. I said I would never do it again coming off the mountains, but if I were to find that there is a trail coming off West Buffalo Peak, I might be convinced…
Beta: 10 Miles+, 3800′ elevation gain, 7.5 hours