Ken got the idea to do Pawnee Ridge a couple of years ago when we did Mount Audubon and Paiute Peak in October and had great views of the ridge. The ridge looks very intimidating but was only class 3 according to Gerry Roach’s book. So, we decided to take a nice, “easy” day hike and traverse Pawnee Ridge to Little Pawnee and then on to Pawnee Peak. As always, when we’re expecting something easy, it turns out to be brutally hard.
We decided to hike up the Mitchell Lake trail past Mitchell Lake then look for a place to bushwack over to the ridge. We found a great spot and left the trail. Soon, we were in very boggy terrain and had to jump from dry spot to dry spot. At one point we were in the middle of a field of willows that was crisscrossed with several swift moving streams. It was kind of treacherous to cross but we managed. Eventually we crossed some snowfields then began the grassy hike up to the beginning of the ridge.
At the top of the ridge we strolled along wide open and easy class 2 terrain. We had great views of both drainages. Soon, we were into some fun class 3 scrambling and before we knew it we were on top of Little Pawnee Peak. Believe it or not, there was a summit register on the top. There had been four other people the week before and one person who climbed it in January (that’s an accomplishment!) but those were the only climbers for 2001. I think there were even less in 2000. The register went back to the 70′s. We stayed on the summit maybe twenty minutes then began the very difficult remainder of the traverse.
The main problem with this ridge is the routefinding. There must be 4 or 5 major notches and cliff systems that cut perpendicularly into the ridge which really slowed us down. We’d walk along then suddenly come upon a sheer cliff and had to scout in either direction to find a way down. In all cases, we found a way down though not without some effort. There’s a large tower after Little Pawnee that you top out on that looks impossible to downclimb. Ken spotted a circuitous ramp route that started on the left side and wound it’s way down to the base. We repeated this procedure more than a few times and sometimes we opted for a slightly more difficult climb instead of dropping down very far and climbing back up. Along the way, we had been watching two side-by-side rock towers that looked like rabbits ears. These two towers mark the very difficult part of the climb. We bypassed them fairly easily on the right (north) side but then came upon the final ridge.
The final ridge is a terrifying, very thin, and very exposed ridge. There is no such thing as 3rd class here. First of all, at the notch right below the beginning of the final ridge, it’s impossible to get up onto the ridge without ropes and some excellent rock climbing abilities. We decided to bypass this on the right. However, as soon as we could we decided to try to climb up to the ridge. We started up a very steep but solid gully. About thirty feet up though, we realized we were on a bona fide 5th class route. The exposure was very high too so we wisely turned around but not without a bit of a scare. We bypassed this entire part of the climb on easy 3rd class terrain then, after passing a small gully, regained the ridge which had since become much easier. We strolled along to Pawnee Peak where we took a well deserved break.
We were pretty beat by this point and Ken had been entertaining the thought of climbing Mount Toll but abandoned that. I’d climbed Toll a few years ago so didn’t feel like climbing it either. With this climb of Pawnee, I’ve completed all of the major eastern Indian Peaks. The only notables missing are Sawtooth and Arikaree. We started down and looked for places to glissade. We started out glissade at the Pawnee/Toll saddle. We only had our thin summer hiking pants on so glissade down was more of a painful chafe! Eventually, we arrived at Blue Lake as the weather turned bad and began to rain. It was kind of a relief actually. I took some time to set up a nice slow shot of the waterfall that dumped into Blue Lake. The rest of the hike out seemed pretty long. Somehow I had bruised my left interior ankle bone and hiking was becoming very painful. Fortunately, it alleviated near the end, but we ended up arriving back at the car nine hours later! This was no walk-in-the-park!