Colorado hiking and climbing: Quandary Peak

Northeast of Quandary Peak.

Colorado’s Tenmile Range has a claim to fame that most skiers are pretty familiar with. Many of its peaks surround the town of Breckenridge, the one-time mining town that transformed itself into a ski destination and gentrified home to those wealthy enough to build and live here.

Most skiers don’t give much of a thought to the range’s greatest peak, however.

At 14,265 feet, Quandary Peak is the highest mountain in the Tenmile Range, its massive bulk and sweeping east ridge rising above the range like a huge behemoth from the deep.

A look back at the trail going up Quandary Peak’s east ridge. It’s well-defined and easy to follow the entire route.

Quandary Peak is a complicated mountain, offering many routes of varying difficulty to its summit, but for those new to hiking and climbing the 14ers this mountain is a popular destination. Following its east ridge, it’s a straightforward hike leading to a steeper, final summit pitch which gives those who make it to the top some amazing views of the Tenmile as well as the nearby Mosquito Range.

Quandary was not my first 14er, but it was a great place for me and my brothers to go for some family time in the alpine countryside. For oldest brother Mike, it was a repeat of a hike he’d done many times before. For middle brother Steve, it was his first. I was somewhere in the middle.

Looking west toward Quandary Peak’s summit pitch.

There’s a lot to like about this mountain, especially for the 14er newbie. The path is straightforward, relatively short and absent of any danger from falls. No one is going to go hurtling off the east ridge into some airy void below.

Instead, you’re offered nonstop scenery the entire way.

Breaking through treeline, a sharp, long neighboring ridge follows you as you head west. The summit pitch comes into view fairly soon after you leave the trees, looking like a massive pyramid that is often graced with snow well into the summer.

Mountain goats. They’re not afraid of people at all.

What we found interesting was how accustomed the wildlife was to people. Anyone who has spent time hiking in the Rockies is used to the smaller creatures – pikas and marmots come to mind – who follow you around looking for handouts.

But usually the larger animals keep their distance.

Not so with the mountain goats. When we ran into them, they seemed unconcerned with our presence, looking for things to nibble on as we passed within 20 feet of them.

Now a warning: If you’re looking for solitude on Quandary, you’ll have to pick a time when casual mountain enthusiasts aren’t there. Expect crowds in the summer and early fall, and even late spring.

My brothers making the final march to the summit.

If you can get beyond seeing other hikers, Quandary’s reward comes at the end.

The topography surround Quandary is dramatic and complex. To the north, a bowl rimmed by sharp, lower peaks often holds the snow well into summer and is an impressive backdrop.

Another thing I like about the mountain is its accessibility. It’s just a few miles from Breckenridge, with its east ridge trailhead just off the state highway.

Mike, me and Steve at Quandary Peak’s summit.

That makes it perfect for the beginners looking for a challenge – and like any 14er, Quandary’s elevation will test even the fit. Proximity to town means that a group outing can end with a victory dinner and a cold one.

For the three of us, it was a great bonding time. Steve proved to be more than up to the task, hiking strong all the way to the top. He led the way for the three of us at the summit, reveling in his hard-won victory.

It ended up being a huge day. The weather was spectacular, the ascent beautiful, and at the end of it, all of us had that blessed fatigue from a good day outside.

Tenmile Range awesomeness north of Quandary Peak, as seen from the summit.

Camaraderie is something that can be developed on lots of mountains, certainly on peaks tougher than Quandary (mountaineers call it “the brotherhood of the rope” for a reason). But a small group outing on a peak like Quandary is what feeds that 14er addiction, lights a fire for the outdoors and helps people learn to appreciate the high country beyond the resorts.

ROUTE INFORMATION: Quandary’s east ridge trail is well-marked and easy to follow. The trail is also well-maintained and has, in recent years, added a small wooden bridge crossing a gully higher up toward treeline. Start hiking from the parking lot at the trailhead as it goes up through the trees. This the second-steepest part of the ascent, but it very manageable. Once breaking through the trees, the trail levels out as you follow Quandary’s long east slope toward the summit pitch. The trail gets a little rockier, but is still a good path and is unexposed. Reaching the summit pitch, follow the rocky path up the ridge’s south edge. The route then levels out for a couple hundred yards as you approach the summit. It’s rated Class 1 hiking and is 6.75 miles round-trip.

Looking south of Quandary Peak as seen from near the summit.

GETTING THERE: From Breckenridge, drive 8 miles south on Colorado 9. Turn west on the Blue Lakes 850 Road. Drive a few hundred yards and turn right on the McCullough Gulch 851 Road. Drive 0.1 mile to the trailhead and parking area.

EXTRA CREDIT: When there’s snowpack on the mountain, Quandary’s Cristo Couloir and Quandary Couloir are able to be used to reach the summit. Both are considered difficult class 2 snow climbs with moderate exposure. Quandary’s west ridge presents a larger challenge year round; it’s rated class 3 with higher exposure and is well known to be problematic in terms of route-finding for the uninitiated. For more on these routes, see this link.

FUN FACT: Many mountains can be associated with personalities. In recent years, the personality for Quandary Peak was a golden lab named Horton. Horton the Quandary Dog was owned by a family who lived near the mountain and had a lifelong habit of taking off from home, hitting the east ridge trail and summiting the peak with hikers. It’s thought that Horton summited Quandary Peak hundreds of times. Horton passed away last year. You can read more about him here. Then watch him in the short video below.

Bob Doucette

On Twitter @RMHigh7088


9 thoughts on “Colorado hiking and climbing: Quandary Peak

  1. What a great view and hard to believe the mountain goats let you get that close to them. Would love to hike something like that with my brother some day. Thanks for all the great info and photos. Stay safe.

    • For whatever reason, the goats have become accustomed to people who hike and climb the mountain. They truly are unconcerned by the presence of humans.

      That was a great time for me and my brothers. Steve was getting ready to deploy to Iraq, but little did we know, this would be the last time all three of us would be together until just before Mike passed away last year. So that makes that trip even more special. It was a great time, we bagged two peaks, and most of all, really connected with just the three of us.

  2. I’m sorry to hear about your brother and that makes the trip just that more special. I’ve worked with my brother on a daily basis for the last 20 years. It would leave a huge hole in my life if something was to happen to him. There’s a special bond that just can’t be replaced. You take care and stay safe.

    • Total route length is about 7.5 miles. The most recent beta from the mountain shows the route snow-free until the last 50 yards near the summit. That part is level, unexposed and the snow is avoidable. So good conditions for hikers. Go for it!

  3. Great article, almost makes me want to hike another 14er if I didn’t know better! Loved the views, the family bonding, and the story about Horton.

  4. My husband and I will be traveling that way to hike Quandary at the end of July. We figured hiking a 14er would be a great way to celebrate our 14th wedding anniversary. Any thoughts on if we will run in to snow during that time period? Thank you!

    • The snow is melting out fast, so mu guess is by late July, the route will be snow-free. Any weather you might get at that time of the year will be rain, sleet or maybe grauple (it’s like a soft snow-hail hybrid), but not snow. However, be aware of afternoon storms and plan to start our hike around dawn, if not before, to avoid getting caught in any storms when you’re above treeline. Lightning is no joke!

      Enjoy your anniversary climb! Quandary is a scenic mountain, and I’ve enjoyed it both times I’ve been there. As a bonus: Good eats in Breckenridge!

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