Category Archives: Colorado

Southern Colorado geological tour

With shorter days and colder mornings come lower ambitions. Feeling more tired than expected after Oso, I spent some time exploring the lesser peaks of southwestern Colorado. While the region’s rock is not usually good for climbing, and its geological history has not created jagged peaks and sheer faces, there is both some interesting geology and an extensive network of forest roads and trails through the turning aspens.

Pagosa Peak

Pagosa from approach road

Pagosa from approach road


This 12,000-er lies at the southeast corner of the main San Juan range, standing above the northern New Mexico plains. From the town of Pagosa Springs, it is a long drive on good dirt roads followed by a short hike up a jeep road and a steep use trail. With a capable high-clearance vehicle, it is an extremely short hike from the unmarked but obvious “trailhead” along that road. Though surrounded by various basalt crags and rubble-mounds, the upper peak is a blob of tuff hard enough to overhang slightly on its southwest side.

I got a late start on the west-facing approach, starting my hike up the jeep road just after another group in a pickup started driving it. The aspens were slightly past their prime, and the road was often covered in golden leaves just beginning to rot. When dry, the first half-mile of the road would be drivable in most passenger cars, but it quickly gets worse, with slick mud, large boulders, and deep ruts. As the road winds its way up Little Pagosa Creek around the south side of Black Mountain, the peak comes into view through the thinning forest.

Where the road switchbacks away from the creek to the southeast, the steep, semi-improved trail continues along the creek. Making the split even more obvious, I met the men in the truck I had seen earlier. Though they had impressive driving skills to get an apparently-stock Tundra up the lousy road, their lowland cardiovascular skills were lacking, and they had turned around below the summit. I followed the well-marked trail to the peak’s south ridge, then along the crest past one false summit. I briefly considered the summit views on this unseasonably-cold day, then hike/jogged back to my car for a late lunch.

Summit Peak

Approaching Summit

Approaching Summit


This unimaginatively-named peak is the high point of Archuleta County, the highest of a cluster of three 13ers in the South San Juan wilderness between Pagosa Springs and Chama. While most people reach it via a long series of dirt forest roads leading to the east side of Elwood Pass, I came at it from the west, via the East San Juan River and the Quartz Creek trail. The river road continues to form the west side of the pass, used by the old army road from Fort Garland to Pagosa Springs. At around 11,700′, Elwood Pass was never easy to cross, and it was long ago abandoned in favor of Wolf Creek Pass to its northwest.

With some unease, I drove through the San Juan river, then made my careful way up the dirt road to Quartz Meadow, where I spent a very cold night. My water jugs had partially frozen, but there was enough liquid for two cups of coffee while I waited for the sun to reach the valley floor. I impatiently started shortly before it did, then had to jog until I could stand in the first sunny patch for 10 minutes to warm myself.

The Quartz Creek trail is in a pleasant state of neglect, still mostly runnable, but clearly unmaintained for a decade or more. I do not understand why it was ever built: the side-creek it climbs to reach the Continental Divide Trail at a plain above 12,000′ is steep, narrow, and loose, and there are no signs of mining in the valley. I followed it up through the woods to the southwest end of a sloping basin west of Summit Peak, then followed a sparse line of cairns across the meadow to pick up the trail’s fading continuation over the divide.

There was more snow here than I expected, and it became more frustrating as I climbed, with a breakable crust over 1-3 inches of powder. Where the trail wanders south over the plain, I headed straight for the slightly less snowy ridge. This required crossing a minor subpeak south of Summit on some gnarly conglomerate, but it was probably faster than following the snow-covered CDT. I signed the register (in a salsa bottle), then considered my next move. My original plan was to continue north to the other 13ers, “Unicorn” and Montezuma, then jog back via the CDT. However, most of the way out and the entire way back would be a miserable slog in the crusty snow, so I decided that one peak was enough.

Returning along the ridge, I dropped from a notch down a steep scree-slope which had some game trails near the top. This turned out to be sketchier than expected, with sections of hard-packed dirt and, lower down, unpredictably hard snow threatening to send me for a ride. Still, it was probably faster than retracing my steps. Happily back on the trail, I hiked and jogged the return, then relaxed after safely driving back through the San Juan.

“Phoenix Peak”

Phoenix summit cairn

Phoenix summit cairn


I had been saving this unnamed centennial peak near Creede for a winter or spring trip, but when my weekend plans changed, I decided to make the short detour north to tag it. Tiny Creede sits at the mouth of a box canyon, with two tall crags just past the north end of town. It seems to have turned itself into a Texan tourist destination, with several small restaurants and gift shops along its main street. I drove straight through, then up the narrow canyon of Willow Creek to camp near the trailhead.

The route starts off along a rough jeep road to Phoenix Park, then follows an old stock driveway up East Willow Creek to treeline. The route is little more than a cairned use trail now, and its lower section has been completely obliterated by a ridiculous maze of beaver dams. Once out of the trees, the driveway disappears completely, and a faint climbers’ trail continues up a ridge to the peak’s broad south face. Though many neighboring slopes are wretched talus-heaps, it is possible to stay mostly on grass to the saddle just south of Phoenix. From there, it is an easy boulder-hop to the giant cairn on the flat summit.

I had contemplated traversing south to La Garita and returning via Halfmoon Pass, perhaps visiting the Wheeler Geologic Area along the way. However, it looked like much of the traverse might be loose talus, and trail 787, my planned return, apparently no longer exists. The cross-country loop sounded too much like work, so I instead retraced my steps for another short day.

Oso

Oso above Moon Lake

Oso above Moon Lake


Mount Oso is the highest of a cluster of 13ers between Vallecito Creek and the Los Piños River in the eastern Weminuche wilderness. This remote area is most easily reached with a high-clearance 4WD from the Beartown trailhead. Without such a vehicle, I decided to approach Oso from the south near Vallecito Reservoir, using the new-to-me Los Piños River trail. I knew ahead of time that it would be a long outing, about 15.5 miles from the trailhead to the pass above Half Moon Lake. However, I underestimated both the difficulty of the cross-country portion in fresh snow, and the quality of the scenery along Lake Creek. This maintained but little-used trail climbs through aspens past craggy granite peaks and mile-long Emerald Lake, by far the largest natural lake in the range.

Granite Peaks Ranch

Granite Peaks Ranch

Knowing I had a long day, I got started by headlamp just after 5:30, hiking and jogging along the edge of the Granite Peaks Ranch. The pack trail continues up a narrowing valley north of the ranch, somewhat reminiscent the Vallecito Creek, though it seems less-traveled. With the previous day’s precipitation, the trail was somewhat boggy, and some normally-easy stream crossings were made more difficult by the ice that had accumulated overnight on the rocks.

North across Emerald Lake

North across Emerald Lake

The trail eventually crosses Lake Creek on a sturdy-looking bridge, then splits, with my branch climbing a narrow side-valley that broadens and flattens as it turns north. After a long, cold climb, I reached the east shore of Emerald Lake as the sun slowly made its way down the opposite slope. The lake sits in the flat bottom of an old glacial valley, dammed by either an old terminal moraine or a large rockslide. The previous day’s mixture of snow and rain had hardened overnight into a slick white crust, so it was slow going around the lake in my lousy flat-soled shoes (the better ones have all been destroyed).

Moon Lake

Moon Lake

Above the lake, the trail shows less use from fisher-folk, but is still maintained as it tunnels through the head-high willows. I found a ford where it crosses Lake Creek, and a log hidden in the brush 100 yards upstream, with a vicious willow-whack required to get back on-track. With the snow melting in the sun, the trail became a sort of “anti-trail,” a muddy, icy stream worse than its banks. I continued along this path as the broad valley narrowed, then climbed steeply to roughly crescent-shaped Moon Lake, where the trail remained completely covered in about an inch of snow.

Peters Peak

Peters Peak

From there, the trail became even fainter as it climbed up to the pass above Half Moon Lake, a dot bearing no particular resemblance to a half moon. Looking east and north, I got my first views of Rio Grande Pyramid and the flat highlands between Silverton and Rio Grande Reservoir. I finally left the trail, climbing slightly toward Oso and hoping that a route would appear up the steep-looking headwall on the ridge ahead.

Lake Mary Alice

Lake Mary Alice

Things turned ugly near the intervening bump on the ridge, with maddeningly-slow loose talus covered in fresh snow. From the notch at the base of Oso’s northeast ridge, I got a look at Lake Mary Alice, sitting like Lake Silex at the bottom of a hostile-looking talus-bowl. The third class climbing along the ridge featured a couple surprisingly steep gashes, and was made much trickier by the fresh snow. In particular, one sloping slab that I would have walked across without thinking became a thought-provoking hand traverse.

Oso from the east

Oso from the east

Just below where the ridge joins the broad south face, it becomes a near-vertical face split by two right-to-left ascending ramps. Partway up the first ramp I could have cut back right to the second. I chose instead to continue on the first, and was rewarded by finding a cairn where it turns the corner onto the southeast face. From there, a mixture of grassy ramps and class 2-3 scrambling led to the south face, where faint goat trails led toward the summit.

RGP from Oso

RGP from Oso

After a cold morning, I was pleased to find the summit sunny and calm enough not to need my windbreaker. To the west, the Needles and Grenadiers rise nearby across Vallecito Creek. Rio Grande Pyramid dominates the view to the east, while Vallecito Reservoir and the plains of northwest New Mexico are visible to the south.

Needles and Grenadiers from summit

Needles and Grenadiers from summit

Rather than retracing my route, I descended the ridge to a red gash, then dropped southeast directly to Moon Lake, avoiding both most trickiness on the ridge and the miserable talus. My shoes sucked as expected on the steep, snow-covered grass, but I reached the trail without any mishaps. Most of the crusty snow had softened or melted, replaced by more mud and water, so it was again slow going until below Emerald Lake.

Porcupine

Porcupine

Finally on reasonably-dry trail, I had some ibuprofen and started the jog home. My legs were somehow still a bit stiff from my race a few days before, so I was more inwardly-focused than usual as I turned toward the bridge at the trail junction. I was startled back into reality by some couple’s dog acting half-heartedly aggressive. Freshly attuned to my surroundings, I noticed a porcupine a short distance down the trail, and darkly hoped that the unleashed dog would find it as well.

American marten

American marten

Since this river trail sees much less horse traffic than the Vallecito, it is actually a pleasant, slightly-downhill run, and I was making decent time toward the trailhead as I passed a man and his dog decked out in hunter orange. A few minutes later, I saw something scamper squirrel-like up a tree near the trail. It turned out to be an American marten, a cute little creature I had only seen once before in the Tetons. I stopped for a few minutes to take pictures as the creature looked down from a branch just out of reach, and the man with the dog caught up again. I was feeling more tired than expected, and was in no particular hurry to reach my car, so we walked together and talked for the remaining miles to the trailhead. I had planned another long-ish day in the area, but was feeling less than enthusiastic, so I found a nearby place to camp; I would decide what to do in the morning.

Storm King, Peak Nine, Silex, the Guardian (15h)

Traverse from Nine to Guardian

Traverse from Nine to Guardian


These peaks on the eastern end of the Grenadiers are some of the hardest to reach in the Weminuche Wilderness of southwestern Colorado. With a high-clearance vehicle, the Beartown trailhead is the closest starting point; without one, Molas Pass is the least-bad option, despite the 1,600′ climb back out of the Animas on the return. Being both remote and overshadowed by their neighbors, they see relatively little traffic, and are wilder than most high Colorado peaks. I was pleased to dayhike them on what may, due to approaching winter, be my last San Juan outing this season. Here is a rough map.

Unsure how long my outing would take, I set off from the Molas Pass trailhead at 5:15, committing to a bit less than 1h30 of morning headlamp time. I had been using my tiny running pack for my longer recent outings, but I chose to bring my larger dayhiking pack to accommodate a more whimsical diet: a box of pop-tarts, a box of granola bars, and a bag of Chex mix (on sale for 960 cal/$!). While the route would involve some running, much of the time would be spent on slower cross-country travel, so the pack would not be too annoying.

Swamp donkey!

Swamp donkey!

I ran the rough trail down Molas Creek as best I could by headlamp, crossed the foot bridge, then followed the trail through the swamp along the railroad tracks. I saw some glowing eyes off in the bog, turned to get a better look, and was surprised to see not elk but… three swamp donkeys! While the Weminuche is home to some northern beasts like the over-friendly mountain goats of Chicago Basin, I had either forgotten or not known that there are also a few moose. I am used to seeing them in the Tetons and parts north, and knew there were some north of I-70, but this is the farthest south I have yet seen them.

Sunrise on Vestal and Arrow

Sunrise on Vestal and Arrow

After that bit of excitement, I put in a bit more headlamp up the Elk Creek trail, then finally got to stow it as I regained the morning’s elevation loss. Leaving the trail at the beaver ponds near 10,000′, I passed one party apparently camped on their way out of Vestal Basin, then crossed the creek on a handful of small logs and started up the steep but well-used climbers’ trail. Where the valley flattens and turns east, the trail obnoxiously dives into the bog. My shoes had almost dried after the previous day’s Vallecito soaking, so I picked my way along fainter trails on the north side of the valley.

Vestal, Arrow

Vestal, Arrow

Following a sort of game trail through the woods, I was embarrassed to stumble right through another party’s camp. I wasn’t quite sure how to behave, but the man outside his tent said “hi” and seemed friendly, so I stopped to talk for a minute. He and his partner had been in the valley for a few days, tagging the peaks at a leisurely pace, and were waiting for things to warm up a bit before heading for Arrow. I told him I was headed for the more obscure Storm King, and he offered some beta on the best route through the Vestal-Trinity pass. They had remarkably bad timing: Arrow’s standard route and Vestal’s excellent Wham Ridge are both more-or-less north-facing, and the previous week’s snow was hardly melting on high north faces. They also turned out to be in for a healthy dose of cold rain on their hike out the next day.

Vestal-Trinity pass at center

Vestal-Trinity pass at center

I found a dry stream crossing near the constriction between two boggy sections, then made my way around snow-patches as I headed up to the plain between Vestal and West Trinity. There are a number of possible crossings of this broad, flat saddle; I chose one near the middle that had some obvious boot- and hoof-prints in the snow, and which also happened to be out of Trinity’s shadow. The still-firm snow made what would have been a loose scree-slog significantly easier, and I soon found myself looking across Tenmile Creek at Peaks Four and Five and, farther away, Pigeon and the Needles 14ers.

West down Tenmile Creek

West down Tenmile Creek

My recent beta suggested staying high on the traverse from the col at 12,600′ toward the small lakes around 12,200′, avoiding the drop to Balsam Lake at 11,450′. At first I found easy travel on a series of descending grassy benches, with bits of use trail and the occasional cairn. As the grass dropped toward the valley bottom, I lost the cairns and found myself on ugly, loose talus. I went back high, finding bits of easier travel near the cliffs at the Trinities’ base, but it was not a route I would want to take with an overnight pack. Looking back from near Peak Nine, it seems that the best route continues on grass, descending to around 12,000′ west of the small lakes.

Storm King from col

Storm King from col

As I made my way up the gentle slope to the Storm King-Nine saddle, I eyed Storm King’s southwest face apprehensively. I didn’t know anything about the route other than that it was on the face, and that it was supposedly easy to lose on the way down. As I neared the saddle, the correct path along the south ridge became more obvious, even before I saw the faint use trail and cairns. This may be an obscure peak, but it is also Colorado.

Silex from saddle

Silex from saddle

Two things became clear from the saddle: First, Peak Nine would be either a quick jaunt or a scary climb on snow-covered rock. Second, there was no way I would be getting to Silex via Silex Lake. Even without the coating of fresh snow, Silex Lake is one of the least hospitable-looking places in the Weminuche, a cold pool in Silex’s shadow surrounded by loose, lifeless talus and scree. If I were going to do more than tag Storm King, I would have to find another way.

Lake Silex

Lake Silex

I made easy work of Storm King’s standard route, which is mostly pleasant class 2-3 with a bit of loose scree in the final chute leading to the summit ridge. I suppose some people may take the chute too far on the descent, but it is not hard to remember where to traverse out toward the south ridge. Along the ridge, I passed a chute that would provide a quick descent to Lake Silex, if I had any desire to go there.

Notch on Storm King and Peak Nine

Notch on Storm King and Peak Nine

It was time to decide what to do next. It had taken me around six hours to reach the summit, so returning the way I had come would make for a short day. The ridge from Peak Nine to Silex looked like it had a decent chance of going, and if not, I could always drop south to Leviathan Creek and make my way back between Peaks Seven and Eight. I decided to try Peak Nine and, if I reached its summit, use the ridge as the least-bad way to Silex and the Guardian. I would figure out how to get home from there if I made it that far.

Traverse from Nine to Guardian

Traverse from Nine to Guardian

Returning to the saddle, I made my way up talus and snow to the notch west of Nine’s summit, then descended a few yard down the south side before taking a class 4-5 chimney/corner out of the chute. Once on the south face, I made an ascending traverse east on solid class 3-4 rock covered in miscellaneous loose stuff. The easiest route apparently stays below the west ridge until east of the hard-to-see summit. I strayed onto the ridge too early, traversed back down, then found a reasonable climb up past some rap junk just west of the top. Luckily, the route never strayed onto the sketchy, snowy north face.

Nine and Storm King from ridge

Nine and Storm King from ridge

There was a bit more class 4 east of the summit, hinting at a grim, slow traverse to Silex, but fortunately the difficulty soon eased off to quick class 2-3. The traverse to Point 13,176′ was mostly fun, with the best route staying on or near the crest. I was feeling energetic, so I tagged the intermediate summit, had a bit of tricky route-finding down to the saddle with Silex, then headed straight up the spine of its southwest ridge rather than traversing the easier but looser south slope. Though it looked potentially loose the rock on the ridge was fairly solid, and offered some fun class 3-4 scrambling on incut holds, then easier class 2 to the summit.

Eyeing the Guardian from Silex, the route along the south face was clear, my route home less so. Like Storm King, both Silex and the Guardian have sheer north faces with no obvious path. The Guardian’s south face looked easy, but it would drop me to Leviathan Creek near Vallecito, way down near 10,000′ and a long ways from home. Hopefully a better way would present itself.

Silex and descent route from Guardian

Silex and descent route from Guardian

I started off on the ridge crest southeast, then dropped onto the south side to get around some sheer steps. From the first saddle, I saw what might be a route east into upper Vallecito near Stormy Gulch. I also saw a nice ledge to the south, where I soon picked up a line of cairns traversing around just below the second saddle, then up to the Guardian’s indistinct south ridge. While the ledges and ramps were easy, they did slope outward slightly, and were covered in debris eager to crash down to the valley below. I passed a couple of small high-altitude evergreens, then turned up some easy class 3 terrain to the summit.

Needles from Guardian

Needles from Guardian

I had just spent almost 9 hours heading away from home; now I had to figure out how to get back. Looking west, even Vestal looked far away, and Molas Pass was farther still. While it looked like I could descend to the south or east, the possible route from the saddle still looked promising, and might be a bit shorter than heading east to the Vallecito Trail and around. I retraced my steps, then headed northeast down talus and turf.

Descent to Stormy Gulch

Descent to Stormy Gulch

The route quickly became cliffy to the east, but I found a reasonable path by heading north to the head of the valley, then looping back southeast near the stream at its bottom. I had been out of water since before Silex, sucking on small mouthfuls of slush and reluctant to eat dry and salty food, so I took the first opportunity to drink and eat Chex mix. I scared off a few elk, then followed their trail downstream.

Looking down Stormy Gulch

Looking down Stormy Gulch

I knew that the Vallecito trail eventually connected to the Elk Creek trail, but suspected that I could save distance and time by going up Stormy Gulch, then either west into Vestal Basin or north to upper Elk Creek. I tried to stay high around Silex’s northeast ridge, finding either an uncairned use trail or a well-maintained game trail leading into the valley a bit downstream of Lake Silex’s outlet stream. I filled my water at Trinity Creek, debated crossing, then decided to continue along the apparent game trail on the south side.

Storm King to East Trinity

Storm King to East Trinity

I had a bit of luck here: though it does not appear on any map, and I did not find any blazes, there is a faint old trail south of the stream leading all the way to Trinity Lake. I even found a couple cairns and a fire ring. This discovery spared me what would have been quite a bit of obnoxious willow-bashing. The east side of the Vestal Basin col looked obnoxious, so I took a detour north to see if I could see my way to the Colorado Trail from the broad saddle. Seeing nothing but ugly talus in the valley to the north, I opted for the safe-but-obnoxious Vestal Basin return.

Looking down Vestal Basin

Looking down Vestal Basin

I took some sort of wrong line down Vestal Basin — it is best to stay high on the north side until past the first steep drop — but had no serious trouble returning to familiar ground. Passing the camp I had bumbled through in the morning, I saw no one at the tents, and decided to pass a polite distance below. However, I heard a shout, and saw the two I had met in the morning sitting on a nearby outcrop. I talked to them a bit, learning that they had successfully summited Arrow, and trying to provide some useful information from my unusual wanderings.

Then they settled in for a leisurely evening, and I took off for the evening slog. I made it about 10 minutes past the train tracks before turning my headlamp on, then jogged the flatter switchbacks out of boredom on the climb. I almost reached the car in under 15 hours, but lost a few minutes to a wrong turn in the maddening trail maze that is Molas Pass. I found my car, put my reeking, destroyed shoes on the hood, then promptly went to sleep.

Jupiter (10h50)

Jupiter from Hazel Lake

Jupiter from Hazel Lake


Jupiter Mountain lies just south of Windom Peak, the southernmost 14er in the Needles Range. Like the Needles 14ers, most people probably reach Jupiter via the train and the Needle Creek trail, but I am cheap, and I had already done the train-skipping run from Purgatory once this year. I therefore decided to come at Jupiter from the southeast, taking the Vallecito Creek trail to Johnson Creek. I had previously used the Vallecito approach to get to Jagged in 2012, and this time would be both shorter and technically easier. However, despite its taking less than 12 hours, this turned out to be “type II fun” for one reason: the log-jam I had used in 2012 to cross Vallecito Creek at the former bridge had washed away, forcing me to ford the thigh-deep water both ways.

Don't put a bridge here

Don’t put a bridge here

After a snafu the day before, I again started up the Vallecito trail by headlamp, this time slightly slower. For some reason this trail is a heavily-used horse-highway, and I passed the time dodging manure, horse-churned mud, and the occasional spatter of blood (hunting season?) on the jog upstream. I did not want to reach the ford too early, but it was still an hour before the sun would hit me when I arrived at the former bridge site. The trail-builders had foolishly sited the bridge in the middle of a huge avalanche path dropping hundreds of feet to the creek from the slope to the (wind-loaded) west. Predictably, the bridge had been repeatedly destroyed, and equally predictably, the Forest Service had simply given up rather than relocating the trail.

Fording this sucks

Fording this sucks

I found a suitable stick among avalanche debris, then sat down on a convenient log to take off my shoes and socks and roll up my pant legs. While it is much easier to ford a stream in shoes, I wanted to stay as dry as possible in the freezing morning. Finally, with my shoes tied around my neck, I grabbed my stick and waded in. Even this late in what is apparently a dry year, the water was about as much as I would have wanted to deal with: thigh-deep and reasonably fast. When I finally emerged cursing on the other bank, my legs tingled and my rolled-up pants were soaked. Moving slowly with stiff hands, I took off my pants to wring them out, put my clothes back on, and jogged unhappily up the trail until I was reasonably warm. I have forded deeper (Moran Creek for Bivouac) and faster (Bridge Creek for Goode) water, but the cold morning made this crossing my most miserable so far.

Detached pillar along Johnson Creek

Detached pillar along Johnson Creek

With the river now unavoidably between me and my car, I continued up the Vallecito trail, then left it on the better-located bridge to the Johnson Creek trail. This much less well-used trail climbs 3500′ from the Vallecito to Columbine Pass, before descending into the popular Chicago Basin. Surprisingly for such an old trail, it is plagued by endless maddeningly-horizontal switchbacks. Perhaps the miners who built it felt uncharacteristic sympathy for their mules, though its “ruling grade” is steep enough to make the flat switchbacks apparently pointless. Being a pack trail, it also features a couple of un-bridged stream crossings where it is difficult to avoid fording.

Organ and Amherst

Organ and Amherst

I passed one large party camped below treeline, drying out their stuff mid-morning before apparently packing out, but otherwise had the place to myself. Johnson Creek is a beautiful approach. Jagged Amherst and Organ mountains bound the creek to the south, and aspens cover the lower slopes. The creek flows through a narrow slot in places, far below the trail, dropping away in steep cascades.

Columbine Lake

Columbine Lake

Knowing little about the terrain, I followed the trail up past Columbine Lake to near the pass, then took off toward the standard class 2 route on Jagged’s southwest face. There was enough snow hanging around on north-facing slopes to force me onto some annoying terrain east of the ridge, but none of it was harder than class 3, and the turf and boulders to the false summit were mostly snow-free. The final traverse to the true summit traverses the north side of the ridge, and the ankle-deep snow was mostly wind-packed and frozen.

Windom and Lake 13,100

Windom and Lake 13,100

My ambitious goal for the day was to traverse southeast to Grizzly and McCauley, two 13ers on the way home, but the ridge to Grizzly looked tricky, with the usual Needles garbage-rock made spicier by the north-side snow. Knowing that I only had one more day of good weather, I decided to save my energy for the morrow. I admired Windom and an impressive lake perched at 13,100′ to its east, then headed home.

Grizzly, McCauley, and Hazel Lake

Grizzly, McCauley, and Hazel Lake

I retraced my steps near the south ridge, then dropped down a gully to Hazel Lake. Not only was this slightly more direct, but cross-country travel would be faster than horizontal switchbacks. While there was some obnoxious talus and brush lower down, most of the route was pleasant grass and slabs reminiscent of the high Sierra. I rejoined the trail near where it enters the woods, then switched into shorts for running comfort at the second stream crossing (easy ford required). Though I was worried about the water being deeper in the afternoon, it seemed to be about the same. I crossed in shoes and socks this time, and it went much faster, with the drying-off process fairly painless in the warm afternoon. The whole outing took just under 11 hours, giving me enough time to buy more junk food and drive around to Molas Pass to prepare for something a bit more serious.

Miscellaneous Sangre de Cristo photos

I don’t normally do photo-only posts, but here are some highlights from a couple of uninteresting days with interesting scenery.

“Crestolita”, Broken Hand

Crestolita from Broken Hand

Crestolita from Broken Hand


With some early-season snow forecast for the San Juans, I headed east to the drier and warmer Sangre de Cristos slightly earlier than expected. The unsettled forecast led me to make less-than-ambitious plans, including this pair of 13ers just south of the Crestone 14ers. Though I did not get rained or snowed on, this short outing felt about right for a cold and, up high, bitterly windy day.

Looking down Cottonwood Creek

Looking down Cottonwood Creek

I had run part of the Cottonwood Creek approach this spring, but had not seen the upper canyon. Unlike the neighboring Willow Creek trail, which sees a good deal of stock and 14er-bagger traffic, and is therefore wide and graded for wheelchairs, this trail is not passable by horses, and sees little human traffic. As a more difficult alternate approach to the Crestones, and to a few obscure lesser peaks, it sees enough traffic to maintain the cairns and keep the willows mostly at bay, but is faint and blocked by a number of minor blow-downs. It is also blessedly direct, climbing straight up the valley from 8400′ to where the stream splits near Crestolita’s west ridge at 11,000′.

Polished conglomerate slab

Polished conglomerate slab

I passed a tent on the way up, then continued through open woods and across some interestingly polished conglomerate slabs. At the fork in the stream, the only extant trail turns left, looping back as the stream is channeled back west through a cleft in the rock. The trail becomes increasingly faint as it climbs steeply through talus and willows toward Cottonwood Lake. I left it near the second cascade, making my way for a grassy ledge that cuts back south to gain Crestolita’s west ridge above its cliffy toe.

Crestolita from NW

Crestolita from NW

Once on the ridge, I made my way up easy grass and sheep-trails toward Crestolita’s twin summit, looking behind me to see what sort of clouds were coming. Crestone Peak’s and Needle’s summits remained just hidden to the north, as did the tops of Music and Pico Aislado to the southeast. I had a mostly pleasant climb, shielded from the wind until nearly the top. Once on the summit, I pulled the usual pile of wet paper from the PVC register canister, then hid in the peak’s lee to put on all my clothes and read what I could.

Humbolt and Broken Hand from Crestolita

Humbolt and Broken Hand from Crestolita

Broken Hand is close, but watching the wind whip over the ridge between it and Crestone Needle, it took me a few minutes to summon the motivation to replace the wet paper and reemerge from my sheltered spot. I had thought to simply traverse to the saddle east of Crestolita, but doing so would keep me in the wind, so I instead dropped down a loose gully on the north face, then contoured out onto grassy ledges to its east. After a descending traverse to the saddle, I realized I had been lucky: while I had seen a few cairns and nothing harder than class 3 on my route, Crestolita’s northeast ridge looked steep and tricky, and would have been no fun to downclimb in gloves.

Crestone Needle from Broken Hand

Crestone Needle from Broken Hand

From the saddle, it was more easy grass to Broken Hand, where I appreciated the summit for all of 10 seconds, then descended before my eyeballs froze. Being part of a standard 14er route, the west side of Broken Hand Pass featured a CFI-installed trail that extended to the base of the red gully on Crestone Peak (which does not yet have a hand-line). Below that point, the trail back down Cottonwood Creek is somewhere between faint and nonexistent. After a bit of struggle following game trails through willows, I picked up the route I had used on the way up, and was on my way home. The tent was still there as I jogged by, and I smelled a campfire, but I neither saw nor heard the occupants; I’m not sure how they were spending their cold, wet weekend.

Ruby (Ranked) Roundup (~30mi, ~12k gain, 16h15)

Pigeon and Turret from the Animas

Pigeon and Turret from the Animas


Pigeon and Turret are the most visible peaks from Highway 550 of the Needles subrange of the San Juans. They were also the two most interesting peaks remaining to me on the list of Colorado’s highest 100. Doing them as a dayhike involves a long approach via Purgatory Creek and the Animas River, which I had done before to access the Chicago Basin 14ers. While Pigeon and Turret by themselves would be a “big” day by normal standards, I thought of my recent too-easy day on Rio Grande Pyramid, and of the Evolution traverse, and decided to aim higher. Looking at the topo, it seemed possible to start at Pigeon, traverse east to North Eolus (an unranked 14er, i.e. one with less than 300 feet of prominence), then continue west around the north end of Ruby Creek to either Animas or Peak Fourteen. Unfortunately the map is not the terrain, and I did nothing like this traverse. Still, in a bit over 16 hours I managed to tag Pigeon, Turret, Fifteen, Sixteen, Monitor, Thirteen, and Animas. I skipped the ranked Peak Twelve because it was not labeled on my USGS map (oops!), North Eolus because I needed water, and Little Finger and Index because they are both unranked and hard by their easiest routes.

I woke up at my quiet Pole Creek campsite at 3:00, drove over to the residential Purgatory trailhead, and was on my way by headlamp at 3:30 AM. The nighttime commute down from Purgatory and up the Animas was quiet and nostalgic; I should have put DJ Dan back in my musical rotation for the experience. I reached the Needle Creek sign in just over two hours, then continued north into new terrain, past the three shacks and dozen or so “Private Property” signs that make up Needleton, looking for the unofficial Ruby Creek trail.

Dense vegetation along North Pigeon Creek

Dense vegetation along North Pigeon Creek

I passed a tent in the first meadow, then the trail disappeared in the second. I knew I wanted to go northwest, so I searched around the north and west sides of the meadow for the trail’s continuation. It turns out that the trail exits the southwest corner, but I didn’t find it, so I continued in the direction I wanted through open woods, following a sporadic line of reflective thumbtacks stuck in trees. Maybe this was the “trail?” I eventually lost whatever I was following, and simply made my diagonally, then straight uphill on the south side of North Pigeon Creek on faint game trails. After a bit of 4th class ugliness and brush, I stumbled upon the obvious trail a few minutes below where it crosses the creek.

Sunrise on West Needles

Sunrise on West Needles

The most direct approach to Pigeon leaves the Ruby Creek trail to follow the north side of North Pigeon Creek, climbing about 2,000′ to the flat meadow due west of the peak. Guessing that the crest of the next ridge north of the creek would have the easiest terrain, I found a faint trail and the occasional cairn leading uphill. The cairns were frequent enough to be reassuring, but not enough to follow; as with many wooded ridge routes, this one would be harder to find on the way down. Climbing through the woods, I though of the Cascadian nature of the day so far: a long commute along a valley trail, then 5,500′ of elevation gain in 2 linear miles on a climbers’ trail.

Pigeon from the west

Pigeon from the west

Finally emerging into the meadow, I was surprised to see a man in a yellow jacket making his way along Pigeon’s base. I assumed our paths would converge on the northwest face, but I lost track of him shortly after spotting another figure on the grassy class 2 slope above me. He was moving quickly, and I only caught him just below the north ridge and the final class 3-4 scramble. He turned out to be an Asian man from back east, camping out for a week and hoping to clean out the Needles’ 13ers and 14ers. He had chosen the state’s best mountains, and the best time of year to visit them, but unfortunately the weather was uncooperative, with intermittent showers forecast for the rest of the week. I was glad to be dayhiking.

Pigeon from SE

Pigeon from SE

We spoke for a few minutes on Pigeon’s summit, then I tried to downclimb a gully directly to the Pigeon-Turret saddle. After some easier going, things turned steeper and chossy, on some uniquely horrible Needles rock: sharp, marble-sized gravel barely held together by I-don’t-know-what, whose surface disintegrates at a touch. I downclimbed past a couple nests of rap-tat then, chastened, returned to the standard route. Passing the Asian man again, I side-stepped and boot-skied down around Pigeon’s west face, then circled around to reach the saddle on easy grassy slopes from the southwest. Looking back, I saw that it was probably possible to climb Pigeon directly from the southeast by a convoluted class 4-5 path (the first ascent was from this side). Indeed, the traverse between Pigeon and North Eolus would be easier from east to west, going up rather than down the most convoluted choss.

Turret from Fifteen

Turret from Fifteen

I continued up the easy class 2 route to Turret, then spent a minute eyeing the descent to the saddle with Peak Fifteen. It looked like it would go on the south side, so off I went. This proved to be the day’s crux: though the climbing was mostly class 2-3, and never harder than ~5.4, most of it was on outward-sloping gravel and rock that wanted to become gravel, demanding constant paranoia. I passed a bit more rap-tat and a fixed nut near the crux, eventually reaching the saddle.

Fifteen from Sixteen

Fifteen from Sixteen

Looking down the gullies to either side, I saw that the north was near-vertical, the south steep and loose. The only way out was up and over. Fortunately, the rock quality suddenly and dramatically improved, and I had little trouble reaching Peak Fifteen’s summit. I signed the register (hi, Andrew!), then descended the standard route toward the Fifteen-Sixteen saddle. The rock quality again turned awful, but this was less steep than the descent off Turret. I passed a couple nests of rap tat near the ridge, then reached a similar saddle: vertical north, chossy south, better rock to the east.

Sixteen is steep on the north side!

Sixteen is steep on the north side!

Just as I began the short climb to Peak Sixteen, I heard a shout behind me, and saw a man (probably the one in yellow I saw earlier) climbing up the south gully toward Fifteen’s standard route. After a short, shouted conversation and some unhelpful advice on my part, I scrambled up Sixteen on some fun, reasonably solid class 4. I looked over toward the saddle with North Eolus, but things looked complicated and likely to turn bad, so I decided to retrace my steps and contour around below Sixteen’s south ridge.

Little Finger and Eolus

Little Finger and Eolus

The man on Fifteen had found a route well left of the one I used which seemed to go, though he managed to break off a pretty impressive rockfall into the gully I was about to use. The gully itself was less chossy than I had feared, and I had relatively little trouble traversing to the North Eolus saddle. I eyed Little Finger in passing — it is indeed short, and looked doable — but I still had quite a bit of work to do on the other side of the valley.

Animas, Thirteen, Monitor

Animas, Thirteen, Monitor

At this point I abandoned the traverse, dropping down to Ruby Creek for water instead of continuing over North Eolus and Twelve. The first part of the descent was a quick scree-ski along a goat-track. Lower down, I exited right for fear of cliffs and/or ice in the chute. This was probably a mistake, as the gully looked manageable in late season from below, and I had to deal with a bit of sketchy awkwardness to reach the valley floor.

Jagged to Sunlight ridge

Jagged to Sunlight ridge

Since I was no longer traversing, I took more or less the standard route up Monitor’s west face. The view across Noname Creek to Jagged and its long connecting ridge with Sunlight was impressive, as was the view of the strangely-disconnected Arrow and Vestal to the north. The Jagged area again reminded of the Sierra, with the large Lake 12,552′, light-colored rock, and a mixture of turf and slabs.

Thirteen and Monitor from Animas

Thirteen and Monitor from Animas

The ridge down to the saddle with Peak Thirteen was another sketchy choss-fest, but I was used to that by now, and my sixth sense for choss solidity was working well. The rock fortunately improved on the class 3-4 climb up Thirteen’s east side, and the descent toward Animas was straightforward. I found a few cairns on the way up Animas, and the Summitpost printout in the register canister confirmed my plan of descent.

Spiteful cliffs below Animas

Spiteful cliffs below Animas

I returned to the first saddle east of Animas, then scree-skied quickly down most of the thousand feet to the grass below. Thinking I was basically home, I unfortunately strayed a bit too far right, and had to deal with another 50-foot rotten downclimb to reach easy ground. I made my way down mostly easy grass and slabs, with only about 50 years of vicious bush-whacking to reach the “trail” below.

View from Ruby Lake

View from Ruby Lake

While easy enough to follow, I found the Ruby Creek trail both long and surprisingly brushy higher up. However, I was still feeling fresh, and the striking views ahead to the West Needles, and behind to the craggy south side of Ruby Creek, kept my mind occupied. I eventually reached the two meadows near the Animas, and saw that the guy I met on Peak Fifteen had not yet returned to his camp. Hopefully he did not have too long a day.

Lliving llamas

Lliving llamas

I removed my pant legs, then fortified myself with Pop-tarts and Ibuprofen for the long run home. I passed some campers and a herd of grazing (i.e. not dead) llamas near Needleton, then started jogging. I felt freakishly fresh on the net-downhill trail, covering the seven miles to Purgatory Creek in about an hour. I had expected to do this section at night, and was pleased both to have easier daytime running, and to see the sunset on Pigeon and Turret behind me. It took another hour to climb from the Animas to the trailhead, with only the last 5-10 minutes by headlamp. I hadn’t found the elegant traverse I had hoped, but it had still been a satisfying day.

Rio Grande Pyramid

Classic RGP view

Classic RGP view


Rising alone above a low, gently-rolling part of the San Juans, Rio Grande Pyramid is a landmark visible from many peaks in the range. It is also one of Colorado’s more remote major peaks. It has little to offer from a climber’s perspective — it’s a basalt choss-pile a long hike from the nearest road. However, since I’m not primarily a climber, I was looking forward to finally standing on top of it. I remembered that it was remote, but when I looked up the details the afternoon before, I realized that it is only “remote” in a Colorado sense of the word: 20 miles round-trip and 4,400 feet of gain from the Thirtymile trailhead at Rio Grande Reservoir.

Moonset over aspens

Moonset over aspens

I woke to my 5:00 alarm, drove the rest of the way to the trailhead, and started by headlamp just before 6:00 AM. This would be a short day, but sometimes morning headlamp is good for the soul. I spent perhaps a half-hour by headlamp traversing along Rio Grande Reservoir’s southern shore, then turned it off as I climbed through the short, narrow basalt canyon of Weminuche Creek. The canyon quickly opens up into broad meadows, slowly gaining elevation to the nearly-imperceptible Weminuche Pass. Though this trail sees a lot of horse traffic, I found it less repulsive and dusty than the Sierra stock trails I have recently been traveling. Along the way I passed a “sick” llama, staked to the ground and “resting” in a very corpse-like way.

Skyline trail

Skyline trail

At the pass, I turned off the main trail on the abandoned Skyline trail. For some reason this is the standard approach for RGP, though the likely-maintained Divide Trail heads in more or less the same direction less than a mile farther south. Despite the lack of maintenance, the trail is only obliterated by deadfall in one small section, and remains usable through the long brush traverse above Rincon La Vaca. I finally found sunrise a couple hundred feet above the pass, and hiked the climb through sparse woods in a t-shirt.

Approaching the Window

Approaching the Window

As the trail flattens out around 12,000 feet, Rio Grande Pyramid appears in its classic pose, still discouragingly far away. The trail makes a long westward traverse through endless brush, which turns out to be surprisingly runnable on the way down. The standard route up RGP’s east face and ridge is clearly visible the entire way. While Summitpost recommends visiting RGP and the window as separate out-and-backs, that seemed wasteful to me. I decided to tag the Window first, then figure out a line back up the peak from there.

Real San Juans and Window shadow

Real San Juans and Window shadow

There are a mass of more- and less-usable old trails in this area. The most usable are of course the CDT and an equestrian route along part of the Skyline to near 12,600′ on RGP’s east side. I followed the Skyline toward the unnamed lake below the Window, then left it cross-country to pick up a faint old trail climbing through brush and talus just northeast of the Window. Another trail connects the Window directly to the lake.

South face of RGP

South face of RGP

After looking through to the “real” San Juans — the Grenadiers and Needles — I made my way north across the grass toward the peak. RGP’s south side is a mess of rotten cliffs and scree, so I decided to traverse around to the eastern standard route, which was presumably less bad. This worked well: I stayed above 12,800′ across a bench, then briefly contended with some nasty loose stuff before picking up the standard route around 13,100′.

Upper talus-cone

Upper talus-cone

Though the standard route is less bad than the rest of the mountain, it is still a mound of ill-behaved basalt talus, so the climb wasn’t overly inspiring. The summit, however, is well worth the effort. Most of the terrain north, south, and east is a rolling subalpine mix of (dead) conifers, aspens, and meadows. To the west, the Grenadiers and Needles rise 4-5,000 feet above Vallecito Creek. I could easily pick out Arrow and Vestal, but the Needles were too jumbled and unfamiliar for me to identify. Clearly I need to pay them another visit. I signed the surprisingly-busy register, then headed down the standard route.

Starting descent

Starting descent

After getting off the upper talus-cone, I realized I had chosen wisely visiting the Window and RGP in this order: the standard route to the Skyline was a quick boot-ski on the way down, but would be a miserable talus- or sand-slog going up. I had no reason to jog the trail back, but it seemed like the natural thing to do. I passed the “resting” llama, which had attracted a cloud of flies by now, and a few dayhikers near the trailhead, but was surprised by the absence of backpackers and leaf-peepers on a pleasant Saturday. I had some post-hike tuna, then informed the llama’s owner of its unfortunate demise on the drive out. The outing had only taken about 6h45; I clearly needed to raise my sights.

A Bear and a Half

Catwalk to Half's summit

Catwalk to Half’s summit


Grizzly Mountain A and Half Peak were actually pretty easy, but I couldn’t resist the title. Both peaks are on the list of Colorado’s highest 100, and both happen to be the type of half-day peaks I use to break up long drives.

Mine below Grizzly

Mine below Grizzly

I slept just inside Colorado after doing Kings, then continued south, not sure exactly where I was headed. I had potential plans for both the Sawatch and San Juan ranges, so I made my way first to Leadville. There was a fresh dusting of snow on the peaks around town, looking more serious viewed from the north. After a brief stop in Leadville, I headed up toward Independence Pass to tag Grizzly and see what the snow was actually like.

It's fall in Colorado

It’s fall in Colorado

I cautiously drove the badly potholed road past the La Plata trailhead, parking at a three-way split when I probably could have driven another mile. Oh, well. After lunch, I put on my hip belt, tied a windbreaker around my waist, and started up the road. I was used to warm days in the Sierra, and was slightly nonplussed by the hat-and-gloves weather here, even at midday.

Grizzly's east ridge

Grizzly’s east ridge

I passed a woman walking her dogs down the road, then had the place to myself as I continued past the gate to the mine at the end of the old road. From there, a line of cairns continued up the drainage before turning north before Grizzly’s cliffy southeast face. The Summitpost page complained about a loose dirt-chute getting to the east ridge, but I found it fairly pleasant. The key is to follow a vaguely-defined grassy ledge ascending from right to left, which deposits you west of some bumps on the ridge. From there, a semi-defined trail led to the false and eventually true summits.

Sawatch from the NW

Sawatch from the NW

The peaks to the south still looked snowy, but now I knew that only the north-facing slopes were holding snow, and that it was meager. With fitness and a full moon, I was toying with the idea of attempting Nolan’s 14, and I now knew that the snow would not be a problem, but I ultimately chickened out. That level of sleep deprivation and suffering over class 2 terrain didn’t even sound like type II fun to me, and I knew I would have to be extremely motivated to force myself through something like that.

Cataract in its Gulch

Cataract in its Gulch

So it was on to the San Juan. I had been shut down on Half Peak during a wildly over-ambitious San Juan trip this spring, so I knew where to go as I rolled through Lake City late at night. I got a comfortably headlamp-free start around 7:00, again spending plenty of time in hat and gloves as I made my way up Cataract Creek. The creek rises steeply from the steep-walled, flat-bottomed valley above the San Cristobal Reservoir, and while the trail starts out maddeningly flat, it soon assumes a more reasonable grade. Having previously experienced this as a wretched slush-slog, I enjoyed the quick travel.

There were lots of these

There were lots of these

I also enjoyed the San Juans’ surprising late-season lushness. While the Sierra are brown, dead, and bone-dry by mid-September, the San Juans feature running water, bogs, and late-season flowers, including patches of asters and even the occasional columbine. My enjoyment of the greenery was, however, tempered by the decimation wrought by bark beetles in the last 20 years. While aspens and some species of evergreens (blue spruce?) survive, the majority of the conifer forests are dead and gray. I can only suggest that people visit the San Juan now, before they burn, or sometime next century, after they have had a chance to regrow. These mountains are screwed.

Upper Cataract Gulch

Upper Cataract Gulch

Moving on… I recognized the chute I had taken this spring, and realized just how severely I had underestimated the task in spring. Now I continued along the sometimes-faint trail, which crosses the creek a couple of times, then heads far east to avoid the brushy bog below Cataract Lake. Passing the surprisingly large lake, I turned west on the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) to begin circling back west toward Half’s south ridge. The trail meandered through rolling alpine terrain, gradually gaining elevation as it made its way toward some sort of ill-defined pass. I left the trail below the pass, heading straight up to what must be my desired ridge.

Half's summit from south ridge

Half’s summit from south ridge

Half Peak has a distinctive shape. Its north face is 1,000 feet of near-vertical choss (if it were in Canada, people would climb it); its east and west sides are also steep and intermittently cliffy. Its south ridge is a gentle, grassy slope… until it narrows to a slender class 2-3 walkway just below the broad summit. I followed the standard route up this south ridge, looking for a more direct way east to the trailhead, and occasionally turning around to admire the more rugged mountains to the south. I found bits of trail on the isthmus leading to the summit, and a surprising lack of tricky climbing given its narrowness.

Northeast descent from Half

Northeast descent from Half

After lazing around on the summit, I headed over to the east side to check out a direct line home, which had looked reasonable from the south ridge. I found a few cairns near the top, and a bit of chossy, easy third class got me down to the lower-angle slopes below. It was slow going, but definitely faster than going all the way around to the CDT. So far, so good.

Starting down Half's NE side

Starting down Half’s NE side

At this point, I could choose between crossing near Cataract Lake to pick up the trail on the far side of the drainage, and shortcutting down to below the brush-bog on the near side. I chose the latter, since it seemed shorter, and for awhile it worked. I made my way above a small butte on easy grass, then followed some game trails through a couple minor ravines. Unfortunately I had forgotten about the chossy cliffs above where I planned to rejoin the trail. The deer or mountain goats who passed this way had the same problem, and I began following game trails through the woody brush. The trails were surprisingly well-maintained, and saved me from almost all of the grim bushwhacking I had expected, but my “shortcut” saved little or no time over going directly back to the trail.

Morning exercise complete, I headed into Lake City to check in with the world. The library (with its friendly cat) had moved across the street since I last visited, but like most of the small southwestern Colorado mountain towns, it has done a remarkable job resisting change over the past few decades. The town was just beginning its transition from hosting jeep-ers and motorcycle clubs to hunters, before more or less shutting down for the season. I could have stayed around another day for the wine and music festival, but Lake City is not exactly a famous wine-producing region, and the music looked like it would be definitely loud and probably bad. Onward!

Sharkstooth, Centennial

Centennial, Lavender, and Hesperus

Centennial, Lavender, and Hesperus


After some atypical hot-springs-related program activities, I left Renée to tag some peaks in the La Plata mountains west of Durango. Though not as high as their neighbors to the north and east, they are still striking from the south and west, enough so that the highest, Hesperus, marks the northwest corner of the rhomboid Navajo ancestral homeland. Being greedy, I planned to start with Sharkstooth, then traverse my way around to Hesperus via Centennial and Lavender.

I retraced my route to near Mancos, then took off on the long forest service road northeast toward Windy Gap. The road started out as nasty fresh chip-seal, then became nice dirt as it climbed through scrub, pines, and aspens, passing a guard station before a snowdrift stopped wheeled vehicles near Spruce Mill Park, a few miles short of the Sharkstooth Pass trailhead. I strapped snowshoes to my pack, then set off up the road, finding surprisingly consolidated snow made even firmer by frequent snowmobile traffic.

sharkstooth-2Once off the main road, the snowmobile tracks went in all directions, and I followed one for awhile before setting off for Sharkstooth’s southwest side, surprised to only posthole a few times on the untracked snow. Though the snow was well-behaved, the underlying rock was not: as I started up the bare slope to Sharkstooth’s summit, I ran into large, loose talus covered with a dusting of fresh snow. I slowly worked my way up the peak, trying various lines and finding none particularly pleasant, and concluded that the peak is best done completely in snow. Perusing the register on the summit, I was surprised that many people complimented the view, but none commented on the slog. Maybe I complain too much.

Sharkstooth from pass

Sharkstooth from pass

I descended Sharkstooth at about the same pace I climbed it, then followed bits of trail toward Centennial from Sharkstooth Pass. When the trail disappeared, I followed the easy low-angle snow along the ridge to the summit. So far, so good. The ridge to Lavender looked tricky, but I had plenty of energy and daylight to work with, and doubted that these minor peaks would present much of a challenge.

Annoying gap and Lavender

Annoying gap and Lavender

Descending southwest, I found an unfortunate, tricky mixture of hard, steep snow, loose scree, and rotten rock. I would have felt better taking to the snow with crampons and an axe, but I had only running shoes and snowshoes, neither especially useful, so I stayed near the crest, avoiding the precipitous east side. I was making slow but steady progress until I reached a notch visible from the approach, and found the near side vertical to overhanging. There is apparently a way around in the summer, and I could probably have descended around the west with better snow gear, but I didn’t see anything I liked, so I retreated to Centennial, then cut the corner back toward the road.

I probably could have climbed Hesperus from the north, but that would have required 2,000 feet more climbing, the snow was beginning to soften, and the weather was sort of getting worse. After snowshoeing back to the road, I hiked and jogged back to my car semi-defeated, then headed into Mancos for a resupply before leaving peaks and snow behind to dry out in the red deserts of Navajo land.