Category Archives: States

Outings by state

Gunsight

Gunsight from Comeau Pass


The States’ Glacier National Park is kind of a disappointment to someone familiar with Canada. The climbing is inferior to Canada’s Glacier National Park (i.e. Rogers Pass), and the peaks and glaciers are a lesser version of the Canadian Rockies. With the Going-to-the-Sun road mostly closed, access to peaks in Glacier is low and limited. From the west, the road is drivable only to the end of MacDonald Lake, at 3200 feet. Trails seem to be mostly snow-free up to 6000 feet, and the snow is well-consolidated above that, but the few accessible peaks still tend to require about 6000 feet of gain. Gunsight, a 9000-footer above the recently-burned Sperry Chalet, is one of the easiest summits to reach in the area.

Glacier Basin

It was well above freezing overnight, and the days are long, so there was no reason to get an early start — the snow would be what it would be. A fire last summer had burned a lot of the approach to the Sperry Chalet, as well as one of the Chalet buildings, but the Parks Service had been busy with a chainsaw, and the trail was clear up to where the snow started. It was a long grind up from the lake at 3200 feet to the start of solid snow around 6000 feet, about halfway to the peak elevation-wise. I was pleased to find the snow consolidated, even late in the morning in the woods.

Burned Sperry Chalet

Above the chalet, the trail traverses a ledge to climb a sort of amphitheater, and this ledge was still holding a fair amount of high-angle snow. While I did not need my crampons, I was glad to have my ice axe with me, as a slip would have shot me off a small cliff. Above the traverse ledge, I climbed toward Comeau Pass in a more-or-less straight line, passing mostly-frozen Feather Woman and Akaiyan Lakes. While the peaks mostly seem to have standard white man names, many natural features have Native American names that I suspect were not given by the natives themselves.

Comeau Pass slot

The final 20 feet to the pass is a slot in a headwall that was either blasted entirely, or improved with cut steps and some rock-work. From Comeau Pass, Mount Edwards is a 1000-foot climb to one side, while Gunsight is a 1200-foot climb to the other. I probably should have done both, but I had two more biggish days planned, and opted to only tag the higher peak. I stayed mostly on the rock of the northwest ridge, as the snow on the north face was not as well-consolidated as that lower down. The climb was straightforward except for the transitions between rock and snow.

Summit snow arete

The summit was a narrow snow arete, hard on one side and calf-deep on the other. I tagged the high point, then sat on some rocks on the west side to have a snack and look down at huge Lake MacDonald 6000 feet below. The return went quickly, with a 600-foot glissade down the north face, then some plodding and boot-skiing down to below the chalet. I met a half-dozen people hiking the trail, including two girls with a map, who I encouraged to continue at least as far as the chalet. However, it seems like I have the high country to myself now — I saw some old ski tracks, but no boot tracks, despite the friendly snow. Their loss.

Spoon!

Amphitheater


After Drift, I rallied up to the Tetons hoping to do a lap or two on Buck Mountain’s east face, a broad, fun, moderate ski I had done last June. Pulling in after dark, I found that not only was the Moose-Wilson road closed just north of the Death Canyon trailhead, but the road to said trailhead was blocked as well. I suppose I could have walked the road or driven around to another trailhead, but I was feeling lazy and a bit under the weather, so I just slept there, then bummed around Jackson for the day. I have only seen the town during its hellishly crowded tourist season, and found it pleasantly quiet in the narrow window between when Jackson Hole Ski Area closes and Yellowstone opens. Grand Teton is similarly quiet and pleasant — I seem to have finally figured out how to spend the month of May.

Booting up from the trail

Anyways, I drove up to the Lupine Meadows trailhead to camp, figuring I would ski either South Teton or Teewinot the next day. Some guys I met there suggested accessing Garnet Canyon via the winter route between Braggart and Tadley Lakes, but I stuck to the devil I knew. I also stayed up way too late watching Westworld, so in the end I had a late breakfast and headed for the Spoon Couloir on Disappointment Peak instead.

Guys descending the Spoon

There was intermittent snow on the trail right from the trailhead, but not enough to ski, so I hiked to the Burt Wagon Gulch junction in trail runners, then continued up the lower shortcut a ways before hopping onto the snow in the couloir to its left. I tried skinning at first, but it was too steep, so I put my skis back on my pack and slowly booted up the thing, roasting in a t-shirt in the morning sun. I found myself “racing” two men with snowshoes who were headed in the same direction, and chose the ridge to the right for some reason.

View up the Spoon

My aim was a little off, but close enough, and I soon passed Surprise Lake on the right and Amphitheater on the left, not daring to skin straight across. I saw two men making a very slow descent of the Spoon, and picked up their skin track and bootpack as I neared the base of the couloir. There was a bunch of avalanche debris at the bottom, and a nice runnel in the center, but it didn’t seem to be actively sloughing. The bootpack had been partially covered by slush, probably unleashed when the men skied down, but I still found useful stairs most of the way up. I was still dripping sweat in a t-shirt.

Snake River from above the Spoon

It was late enough in the day that I was concerned about snow conditions, so I skipped the summit and transitioned to downhill mode in a lower-angle spot left of the couloir. I saw no sign of the snowshoers, who had been headed for the standard ledges route left of the Spoon when last I saw them. That looked like a bad idea to me, with multiple small recent wet slides, but who am I to judge?

What are you doing?

Transition complete, I cautiously dropped into the Spoon. There was still quite a bit of slush hanging around the upper couloir, so I had to ski defensively, making a couple turns, traversing to one side, then waiting for the slush to stop moving. The surface had been better scoured lower down, so I was able to ski more continuously, but I still made frequent stops to rest my thighs, since the sticky slush made for exhausting skiing.

The open woods and chute below Surprise Lake were decent, and would have been a lot of fun with better snow. This early in the season, continuous snow extends to within 50 yards of the lowest Garnet Canyon switchback, so I only had to walk from just above the junction. After a warm night, the snow on the trail had been just barely supportive in the morning. On the way back, it was less so, and I had to step carefully to avoid postholing. I returned to the trailhead to see 5-6 cars’ worth of skiers hanging out, who I passed in silence to prepare a pot of glop. And to chase a marmot out from under my car — I have no idea what he was up to, but I’m sure it was no good.

“Drift”

Face to be skied


Welcome to the 2018 season! The early part of this season should be a bit different, because thanks to my “Scott sponsorship” (the man, not the brand), I have AT skis. I was hoping to use them this winter, but the dismal winter in the southern Rockies, among other things, scuttled that plan. Maybe next winter I will pick somewhere likely to have a better winter.

Jacque from parking lot

Instead, I started my ski season in May. Just like last year, where my first run in several years was a survival-ski down the Middle Teton Glacier, I chose something hard enough to guarantee more survival than fun. When I climbed “Drift Peak” near Leadville last spring, I traversed from Fletcher, then plunge-stepped down something I thought might make a good ski run. Since I needed to break up the drive north, I decided to return to Mayflower Gulch and try skiing it.

Moonset over popular run

Mayflower is a popular backcountry ski trailhead, so there was one other person camped there, and two more trucks arrived before I started skinning up the road around 6:30. There were the usual spring dog turds melting out of the track, but still just enough snow coverage to ski from the parking lot. I took my time skinning up the road toward Boston Mine, passing one side-road before taking another that seemed to get a fair amount of traffic. I eventually emerged from the woods at the bottom of a broad, gentle slope that looked to be a popular ski.

Sketchy ski-track

There seemed to be several possible ways to reach Drift’s northwest ridge, so after some annoying sidehilling, I switchbacked and booted up one of them at random. I had come up too early, and had to walk along the ridge a little before picking up the skin track, which made its way somewhat precariously along the ridge crest. No doubt this avoids avalanche danger earlier in the season.

Upper north ridge

From below, I had seen a couple of people switchbacking up the ridge’s headwall, and indeed there was a nice zig-zag track. However, it was steep and side-hilled enough that perhaps it was meant for ski crampons. I carefully followed it for awhile, back-sliding occasionally, then put my skis on my back and slogged up the exposed talus to the summit ridge. A combination of lack of fitness, a heavy pack, and altitude made the climb shamefully slow.

Annoying snow in chute

I sat on the summit for awhile, watching people summit nearby Quandary, then switched to downhill mode and carefully side-slipped around some rocks to the face. This seems to be a popular ski run, showing 4-5 recent tracks made by people much better than me, i.e. able to link nice S-turns. I struggled a bit with the crusty powder and frozen snowballs, making a few cautious turns, then stopping to pant and plot my course.

The slope steepens near the bottom (50 degrees?), and splits into several narrow chutes separated by rock buttresses. I almost started down the wrong one, then followed the tracks skier’s right across a few to the correct one. It was still steep, narrow, and slow, but it went. Finally, on the smoother apron below, my old ski racer instincts kicked in, and I was able to carve some nice super-G turns and then shoot straight down the low-angle slope toward the parking lot. I had planned to spend another day in the area, but the spring snow was obnoxious enough that I decided to try my luck farther north.

Buckskin

Kite Lake road and Democrat


I had taken my skis up to Denver, hoping that enough snow would fall in two weeks of winter to make some easy peaks skiable. Buckskin is one of the last of Colorado’s top 100 peaks I have not climbed, and possibly the last I will bother with. Located near the town of Alma, with a high winter trailhead well above 10,000 feet, it should be skiable from the car this time of year.

Democrat, Lincoln, Bross

I slept at a parking area near the mill on the way to Kite Lake, then got a late start because it looked cold outside. I skied about 100 yards up the side of the road, saw bare dirt ahead and bare slopes above, and returned to the car, driving most of another mile up the road before parking near where I almost got stuck in a snowdrift. I set off again, this time with just mountain boots. Other than the occasional drift, the road was dry with patches of ice all the way to the summer trailhead.

The patches of snow were annoyingly breakable crust over sugar, up to knee-deep in the willows, but they were mostly easy to avoid. I slogged up a talus-slope, then made a short, windy traverse to what I guessed correctly was the summit. After looking around a bit, I decided to plunge-step down a snowy gully for a change, then retraced my steps to the road and the car. The drive home down highway 285 showed more bare slopes, even on the eastern side of the Sawatch where they would normally be wind-loaded. Overall, conditions in central and southern Colorado seem to be about like early November of a normal year. No skiing for me this winter.

Tour de Trampas

Trampas valley


Northern New Mexico’s Truchas Peaks are the most rugged part of the southern Sangre de Cristo range, and the source of multiple streams and rivers, many followed by trails. With “summer” finally (hopefully) coming to an end down here, I decided to get in one more mountain outing before the snow. I have previously used the Rio Quemado to reach Middle and South Truchas, and the Rio Santa Barbara to reach the North. This time I paid my first visit to Rio de las Trampas to tag the surrounding satellite peaks, from Trampas around to Jicarilla. While most of my route was technically off-trail, the local bighorn sheep maintain a decent network of ridge trails in the region, so the only truly cross-country travel was getting on and off the ridge. The route is definitely best clockwise, so that the interesting scrambling is done going up.

I left home a bit before 7:00, heading north through the tiny Spanish towns of Chimayo and Truchas before turning off onto the dirt road through the “town” of El Valle to the Trampas Lakes trailhead. It can be cold in these north-facing valleys, and the sun rises late, so I was in no hurry to start. Though temperatures were comfortable in the valley, probably around freezing, the partially-frozen stream and lakes told the true tale.

Why, hello…

I normally don’t carry navigational aids in familiar territory like the Pecos, but I was glad to have loaded topos onto my “new” phone as I left the trail to climb around 2000 feet to Trampas Peak. The deadfall looked wretched near the Trampas River, but was rarely a problem on my climb up a broad, indistinct ridge leading to Trampas’ summit. Treeline is high this far south, and at 12,170′, Trampas barely peeks out of the forest, so I had scant views for most of the climb.

The man of the house arrives

Emerging just below the summit, I found a large cairn with a stick, and a decent-sized herd of bighorns. At first, I only saw ten or so ewes and lambs, but then the alpha buck, and later an apparent beta, peered over the ridge to see what was happening. I wanted to touch the stick, but even when I approached within 10-20 yards, the sheep showed no inclination to move, despite my supposedly being an apex predator in the area. Coward that I am, I skirted the summit, then stood to watch as the alpha ram made half-hearted attempts to mount some of the ewes, and was roundly rebuffed.

Sheep trail

I was worried that the long, wooded ridge toward 12,453′ would be a deadfall nightmare, but after a bit of meandering in the woods, I found a sheep-trail right on the crest, with few obstacles and good views down into the Santa Barbara drainage. Emerging from the trees, I found myself on alpine tundra covering a quartzite uplift, with fins descending west into the Trampas valley. I found my only register of the day on the summit, with only the party who placed it and a familiar name “moving on borrowed time” having signed. I added my name, then started the day’s crux.

Third class part

The jagged ridge between 12,453′ and 12,880′ seems to be traversed by sheep, despite featuring several seemingly-mandatory class 3 steps, and an optional class 4 one near the end. Fortunately, the rock is solid and blocky, and the sheep have put in a decent trail elsewhere. I followed one ram doing maintenance, who fortunately did not decide to stand his ground, but instead scooted ahead for a few hundred yards before ceding me the trail and dropping north into Santa Barbara.

Jicarilla from Sheepshead

North Truchas is a short jaunt from 12,880′, and the scramble from 12,453′ all the way to Middle Truchas looked fun, but I had work to do elsewhere. Yet another small flock of bighorns watched from a safe distance as I dropped north to a saddle, then made the long trail climb to Sheepshead. I took advantage of the peak’s surprising 4G coverage, then set out on the pleasant grassy stroll to Jicarilla. This part was almost all runnable, but my knee has been acting up a bit lately, so I hiked more than necessary.

Moss carpet

From my inspection of Jicarilla’s east face from the other side, it looked like an obvious avalanche chute just southeast of the summit would be the best descent line. The steep turf on the open slope worked until around 11,000′, where new saplings and a potential cliff band blocked the way. Fortunately the woods were fairly open, so I was able to quickly side-hill down pine duff to the creek. Lower down, I was surprised to find a moss carpet that would fit in better in the Cascades. I quickly found the well-used trail, where the remaining snow had been beaten nearly to ice, then had a casual jog back to the car.

West Needle

Real Mountains across Animas


I had set my alarm for 4:00 AM, planning to harvest some of my last remaining cluster of Weminuche 13ers around Noname Creek, but the prospect of 2.5 hours of headlamp and a long commute across from Purgatory crushed my motivation. Instead, I went back to sleep, then drove on up to Andrews Lake for an easier day to West Needle Mountain. This seldom-climbed 13er, south of Twilight Peaks, is a much more reasonable 15 mile round-trip via the Crater Lake trail and the head of Watertank Canyon.

Traverse toward col

There was only one other car in the lot, but the trail evidently sees quite a bit of horse and foot traffic during the summer. I took my time to Crater Lake, jogging some of the downhills but not in any hurry. Beyond the lake, a trail continues to a gentle saddle at the head of Watertank Canyon, then fades to faint game trails. I descended a bit, then linked benches and ledges on a southward traverse, crossing one obnoxious boulder-field, but otherwise finding fairly pleasant terrain, and a couple of cairns. The rock above looked more like the Grenadiers’ solid bedrock than the Needles’ kitty-litter.

Col from West Needle

After traversing below some buttresses, I climbed a grassy slope to the col just northwest of point 12,932′, finding a well-used game trail and some sheep droppings. The game trail continues on the other side, traversing south before fading well above the lake at the head of Twilight Creek. After crossing more talus, I finally got on West Needle’s northeast ridge. It looked steep from the col, but turned out to be mostly class 2, with a couple class 3 steps higher up. I wandered around the broad summit plateau a bit, then sat down to admire the view of the Real Mountains east across the Animas.

The return was pleasant and mostly uneventful. Though it was t-shirt weather, I met only one other person on the trail, a man with two dogs, one of which followed me for a couple miles before returning to its owner. There were a few young women fishing at the lake, and a couple preparing for an elk hunt, but things were surprisingly quiet for such a pleasant day. I made part of the drive back to Durango before stopping at my usual Lime Creek camping area.

Moss, Lavender, Hesperus

Hesperus from Lavender


The La Platas are an isolated group of 13ers west of Durango, unconnected to the rest of the San Juans. The rock varies widely, from solid granite to nasty red and white choss. I had visited in May 2016, coming in a long dirt road from the west to climb Sharkstooth and Centennial in the snow before being defeated by the ridge between Centennial and Lavender. This time I came in from the east, ascending Tomahawk Basin and traversing across Moss and Lavender to reach Hesperus, the range highpoint. I was planning to also tag Babcock and Spiller, but lacked the energy after some route-finding shenanigans.

Beattie again

There is not much in the way of parking at the junction of the La Plata River and Basin Creek roads, but I found a wide flat spot to sleep, then got a lazy start around 8:00. It had reached 70 degrees in Durango the day before, and it was calm and pleasantly warm once I reached the sun. I followed the old road to the Tomahawk Mine, then found a faint, occasionally cairned trail continuing up the drainage to the Little Kate Mine. Expecting the choss-piles I had experienced on my last visit, I was surprised by Babcock’s sheer north face, and the cliffs and pillars on the ridge leading to Moss.

Steep finish on Moss

Trying to be clever and save time, I headed straight northwest toward Moss’s summit, finding mostly turf with only a bit of loose talus. Unfortunately, Moss’s east ridge and southeast face are quite steep. After some shenanigans along the ridge, I retreated a bit, then found some fun, steep, blocky low fifth class climbing on the southeast face leading to the summit. The descent toward Lavender was an easy talus-hop, as was most of the climb. Near the top, I found a short third class scramble and a move onto the summit block. Leafing through the register, I saw a couple familiar names (hi, Bob!), and was impressed that someone had apparently arrived via the north ridge, which had defeated me before and still looked intimidating.

Lavender, Moss from Hesperus

The traverse to Hesperus was supposed to be tricky, but I found it straightforward, with a bit of optional third class climbing getting through some notches. The rock sharply changes from nice granite to layered red and white choss partway along the traverse, so the best route stays near the crest to avoid sliding talus. I found a solid wind-break on the summit, and a bit of a trail for the standard route up the west ridge.

I retraced my route partway, then side-hilled across the south side of Lavender and Moss before descending Moss’s south ridge. I thought about climbing Babcock, but its northwest face looked steep and snowy, so I wussed out and dropped down a chute to Tomahawk Basin, taking the trail and road back to my car.

McCauley, Grizzly, Hope, Aztec (12h45)

McCauley, Hazel Lake, Hope


While nowhere near as serious as the Sunwapta ford for Kitchener, which comes directly off a glacier and contains chunks of floating slush, the Vallecito ford is still seriously unpleasant. While it is only 10-15 seconds long and no more than knee-deep this time of year, it must be done early in the morning on a dayhike, when temperatures are still below freezing and the sun has not reached the bottom of the deep valley. Unfortunately, the Vallecito trail is the best access to many deep Weminuche peaks, via Johnson or Sunlight Creek, so I force myself to do it once a year. This year I tried to make it as comfortable as possible, starting late at 6:15 and carrying some old running shoes for the crossing.

Lake 13,100 and Windom

I had planned an elegant lollipop route, heading up Johnson Creek, over McCauley and Grizzly, then across the head of Grizzly Creek to Greylock and 13,121′, exiting via Sunlight Creek. This would also give me a chance to take a side-trip to the highest lake I know of in North America, nestled at 13,100′ below Windom. Unfortunately, the north-facing descent into Grizzly Creek was covered in sugary snow, making it somewhere between unpleasant and treacherous, so I had to improvise.

Hunter camp

With my late start, I had less than an hour of morning headlamp, though the day had not started to warm up when I reached the crossing about 1h45 in. There was a thin hand line this time, and plenty of sticks for balance. I put on all my layers, took off my shoes, socks, and pants, put on my wading shoes, grabbed a stick, and walked across as quickly as I could. My cold hands functioned just long enough to get dressed again on the other side, where I left my wading shoes and jogged up the trail trying to warm up again. I met a couple hunters looking for elk, then passed their luxurious camp, with several mules, a large canvas tent, and what looked like a heated tepee.

Sunset on Organ and Amherst

I finally met the sun around 9:00, shortly after crossing the Johnson Creek bridge, and was soon comfortable in a t-shirt on the long, switchbacked climb toward Columbine Pass. I expected to find some backpackers, but I had the place to myself other than a bit of trash left by some previous slob. I remembered the trail’s impressive scenery, with the rugged north side of Organ and Amherst across the valley, but I had forgotten the maddening, pointless switchbacks in the middle part of the valley.

Jupiter, Windom, Grizzly from McCauley

I left the trail in open woods around 11,200′, climbing a mix of grass and talus on the east side of the Hazel Lake drainage, following my descent route from last year. I left the valley before the lake, following a mix of steep turf and class 2-3 rock that deposited me almost directly below McCauley’s summit knobs. The highest, southern one was decorated with a large iron spike.

3rd class traverse

After descending the summit knob, I stayed on or just left of the ridge crest on easy class 2 ground to the saddle with Grizzly. From the saddle, I wove left and right around a few steep bumps, then found an exposed class 3 traverse on the left leading past the final bump, joining Grizzly’s standard route southwest of the summit. From there, I climbed to the ridge connecting Grizzly and Jupiter, then boulder-hopped up its north side to the summit. I examined the snow-covered 1500-foot descent to Grizzly Creek as I ate a Clif bar, and decided I did not want to subject myself to that misery. However, returning directly felt like a waste, so I looked around for other things to climb.

East from Aztec

Hope Mountain is only a minor bump on the other side of Hazel Lake, but as an “amphitheater peak,” it has good views of the surrounding higher mountains. I dropped to the lake, got some water, then made my way up the talus to its summit, where I found a wet “geocache” in a PVC tube. With plenty of time to spare, I decided to tag a peak or two south of Columbine Pass. I took the high trail traversing to the pass, looked for tents in Chicago Basin, then easily side-hilled south before climbing the ridge to point 13,190′, which is not a real peak. I still had some time, so I continued talus-hopping over to Aztec Mountain. This was the last unclimbed peak I cared about in the Chicago Basin area, so climbing it eliminated a future trip across the Animas from Purgatory. Yay!

Route map

I traversed back south of 13,190′, then dropped down the center of the Johnson Creek drainage, eventually rejoining the trail near where I had left it in the morning. The switchbacks sorely tested my patience on the jog down to the Vallecito, where I met the hunters, still looking elk that I believe are still up in the high country. The return ford was much less miserable, as the air temperature was well above freezing. Hike-jogging the long Vallecito trail, I passed one backpacker on his way out, and reached the trailhead a few minutes before headlamp time. Though I did not tag the summits I had planned, I should be able to clean out the remaining peaks around Sunlight Creek in a single trip next year.

South Mineral 13ers

Ice Lake Basin


Though the days are short, and snow lingers on north-facing slopes, the weather continues to hold in the San Juans. I had hoped to tag several 13ers near scenic Ice Lake Basin, but a case of projectile diarrhea left me with little energy. Given the timing, I am guessing I was not careful enough in my water choice on the way back from Organ Mountain. Fortunately I had planned ahead, spending all of $8 on suitable antibiotics while I was in Mexico, so instead of driving back to Durango to throw a couple hundred bucks at the American medical-industrial complex, I swallowed two pills and was back to normal in 24 hours.

SE side of Rolling

Continuing along South Mineral Creek past the campground, I carefully drove up the rocky road to the trailhead for the Rico-Silverton trail to spend a couple of days cleaning out the nearby 13ers. I started with the ones to the west, traversing from Rolling around to Beattie. Based on an online trip report, I made my way around to Rolling’s southeast side, where I found willows followed by loose talus, then a bit of scrambling along the east ridge to the summit. The east/northeast bowl would have been faster and likely better.

Descent off Rolling

I continued along a ridge to the western sub-summit, then made my way carefully down its north face, a sketchy mix of powdery snow and loose rock, to the connecting ridge with V9. I think this face would be similarly unpleasant even when dry. The ridge up to V9 was a pleasant, sunny respite. I had hoped to continue to impressive San Miguel Peak, but the connecting ridge looks loose and complicated. The north side of V9 was more choss and powder, though fortunately less steep than Rolling, and after more careful downclimbing, I finally reached the pass leading to Lake Hope.

Across choss to Sisters

The talus toward 13,300 started out pleasantly solid, then turned loose again higher up; at least it was snow-free. After checking out the summit, I followed some other poor unfortunate soul’s tracks in the intermittent snow along the connecting ridge to Beattie. Now to get home…

Rock glacier descent

I did not like the look of the southeast ridge, so I continued to the saddle with Fuller, then took off across the rock glacier to the southeast. This was as straightforward and tedious as one would expect. I planned to join the road to Big Three Mine, but ended up heading down through the woods almost straight east toward the parking lot. The terrain was mostly open and friendly, with bits of game trail switchbacking down the slope. After a final bit of steep grass, I emerged on the road near the trailhead, where I set out my chair to read for the rest of the afternoon.

Twin Sisters

Twin Sisters from the west

These are the two similarly-high peaks east of the trailhead. I started as before, following the trail south, then turned east when I saw an easy passage through the willows toward the south end of the Sisters. I managed to follow grass most of the way, then slogged up loose stuff to the base of a gully on their southwest corner. There was a strong west wind above the trees, so it was an unpleasantly cold climb up the loose, snowy, shaded gully. When I finally reached the top, I took a few minutes on the sunny east side of the ridge to recover.

Twin Sisters from south

Since the whole massif is loose talus, the only reasonable route is right along the crest. The west wind froze my left eyeball as I stumbled along with all my layers on and both hands balled up in my gloves. A notch between 13,205′ and the southwest Sister gave me an excuse to drop down around the east side, where I took another break to warm up again before continuing to the summit. I found a sheltered spot to peruse the damp register, then added my name.

South Twin from North

The crest of the north-facing ridge toward the northeast Sister was covered in snow with a crust that either broke through to powder, or was too hard for me to get traction in the wind, so I was forced onto the talus on the east side. Happily, once past the saddle I found a sort-of trail of compacted talus, making the climb to the summit a bit easier. The register contained a number of entries mentioning Hard Rock, though the race doesn’t go over the peak.

I continued down the northeast ridge, finally in more pleasant conditions, looking for the supposed Hard Rock 100 trail. Since it starts out on the other side of the valley, I ended up doing a bit of extra cross-country through the woods before picking it up as it makes a rolling traverse to the southwest. Listening to a podcast and concentrating on my footing in an icy section, I nearly ran into a young man doing the same peaks in the opposite direction. After a brief conversation, I continued down some steep switchbacks, then along the valley floor back to my car, and away from this talus-pit.

Electric, Garfield, “Point Pun,” Graystone

Garfield again


Unlike most of the rest of the San Juans, which are made of relatively recent volcanic choss, the Grenadiers are an uplift of ancient bedrock. This is most obvious when looking at the central peaks, Arrow, Vestal, and Trinity, in which the bent rock layers are clearly visible. They are also hard to reach, being separated from the road by the 1600-foot-deep Animas River valley, and not along any maintained trail or abandoned mining road. Though the climbers’ trail into Vestal Basin to the north is much easier to follow than it was when I first visited in 2012, there are no 14ers in the area, so it thankfully has not been “comfortized” by CFI. On my previous Grenadiers visits, I tagged Arrow, Vestal and Trinity, and the eastern peaks from Storm King through the Guardian. This time I came for the western peaks: Electric, Garfield, and Graystone. Being closer to the car, I thought these would be a shorter day, but thanks to some awful terrain, they took a bit longer than the central peaks.

Grenadiers from Molas Lake

It was somewhat cold sleeping near Molas Lake, not enough for my water bottle to freeze, but enough to freeze my Camelback hose, frost the inside of my windows, and force me to fully mummify my sleeping bag. Still, I forced myself out of the car and onto the trail by 5:40 for the usual nighttime commute across the Animas. There was no one camped along the Colorado Trail, and no footprints in the dusting of fresh snow as I climbed to Vestal Basin — I had the range to myself.

Arrow, Electric, and talus notch

I left the trail where it turns east near Arrow, aiming up talus toward a notch between Arrow and Electric containing a permanent-looking snowfield. The talus started out well-behaved, but quickly turned awful. Not liking the look of the notch, I headed to the right, at one point comically falling off a beachball-sized boulder as it slowly rolled beneath me, bruising my thigh. The suck continued up Electric until I eventually gained a third class rib on the south side, which I followed to near the summit. I found two registers: a wad of wet but legible paper in a PVC tube, and some dry pages from a Simpsons calendar in a salsa jar. I have seen a similar Simpsons register on another peak in the area, but I don’t remember which.

Garfield and talus-bowl from Electric

I made my way down the choss toward Graystone, then headed west through the talus-bowl toward its northwest side. Without the snow, I could probably have walked up slabs to its north ridge, but the fresh snow made them slick and impossible. I ended up walking all the way around, to a point where it made more sense to tag Garfield first, then traverse back east along the connecting ridge. I passed “Garfield Lake” on pleasant, dry slabs, then made my way up a turf-y gully to the ridge, where I finally found some fun.

Garfield and Point Pun

The traverse out to Garfield was mostly class 2-3, with one fourth class step that could probably be avoided to the right. I tagged the closer, higher-looking point, then spent 20 minutes tagging the farther one, which had a cairn. The traverse back to Graystone over “Point Pun” was mostly fun class 2-3 on solid rock, with the best line staying near the crest except for detours around a couple notches between Pun and Graystone.

Right (l) and wrong (r) way down Graystone

I planned to return by descending a snow gully between Graystone and Arrow. Unfortunately, I did not traverse far enough — the easiest gully descends from the low point of the ridge — and did some sketchy downclimbing on a mixture of crusty powder, choss, and hard older snow. It was slow, careful work, but I eventually made it back to the talus bowl, hacked through some ice to replenish my water, and made my miserable way back down the talus to the trail. I went straight through the notch this time, finding a suitable passage in the moat west of the permanent snowfield. I again had the trail to myself on the way home, reaching the car a bit after sunset, in time to eat dinner and watch some TV before another cold night at the pass.