The High Lonesome: Sangre de Cristo High Route, CO

Most people look at Colorado’s Sangre de Cristo Mountains and see a line of peaks. Our scout saw an opportunity: pioneering the range’s first traverse.
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Most people look at Colorado’s Sangre de Cristo Mountains and see a line of peaks. Our scout saw an opportunity: pioneering the range’s first traverse.

[excerpted from "The High Lonesome", Backpacker, June 2015]

"....Every day, we woke up at 5 a.m., made breakfast in the dark, packed up, and charged back up to the spine of the Sangres. We stamped out about 10 miles a day before the afternoon storms hit, staying on the ridge and picking our own routes up tundra and talus, scrambling up boulderfields near the tops of the peaks. Every day, we topped out on a handful of summits, some named, mostly not, all high. We looked out over the San Luis and Arkansas River valleys, which seemed perfectly flat 5,000 feet beneath our shoes, dotted with green crop circles and veined with dirt roads.

The beauty of the traverse was that we could go anywhere we wanted, making up our route on the fly. But our freedom raised a question I hadn’t considered until we got on the ridge: Where should we go? Jim and I talked daily about what would count as success for us. Was the goal a pure ridge traverse, crossing every high point? Or was our trip more like the Haute Route in the Alps—point to point, without concern for summits? Should we try to tag all of the 80-some named and unnamed peaks on the entire ridge?

We decided on a modified Haute Route, tagging as many summits as we deemed feasible and taking the few marked trails when we could (a total of 7 or 8 miles). I wanted to put together a route that other people could safely backpack in the future, so we avoided anything harder than class 4.

The days and the miles slowly added up. We signed every summit register we found, and tried to take a selfie on every peak. I wondered about what it was like at the gorgeous alpine lakes far below. Every afternoon, we dropped off the ridge when weather came in and set up our camp at one of them.

I started to feel calm when we regained the ridge each morning, where we could see the rest of the range ahead and look back to see where we’d come from. We never returned to a campsite; every day brought an unmarked and unknown route southward, so the ridge became a sort of home, the only familiar thing we had. My quads burned in protest and my body burned through every ounce of extra fat. But after a week, it started to feel like we might actually be able to pull it off...."

Ridge traverse navigated and mapped by Brendan Leonard and Jim Harris from Sept. 3 through Sept. 13, 2013.

Trail Facts

  • State: CO
  • City: Denver
  • Distance: 104.3
  • Land Type: National Forest