Category Archives: Colorado

The Tenmile-Noname Divide (15h)

First view of ridge


Molas Lake is the main access point for the Grenadiers and their surrounding peaks in the northwest Weminuche. Crossing the Animas River a few miles south of Silverton, the trail drops 1500 feet from near Molas Pass, making for a brutal return and earning it “once a year” status for me. I had used it three times before to tag the central, eastern, and western Grenadiers, and will probably have to use it one more time for Peaks One through Three and White Dome. This time I used it to reach the peaks south of the main Grenadiers, between Tenmile and Noname Creeks. These peaks are normally climbed from Noname Basin to the south, after reaching Needleton via the train. However, the train does not work for dayhikers and, after having dayhiked Ruby Basin a few years ago, I knew that reaching Noname from Purgatory in a day would be too much.

Vestal and Lake

While not part of the main Grenadier ridge, they are part of that range geologically, being made of the same quartzite and other old metamorphic rock. Noname Creek appears to be the dividing line between this formation and the kitty-litter granite making up the Needles 14ers and the high 13ers of Chicago and Ruby Basins. The approach is even more absurd for these peaks: after reaching Vestal Basin, one crosses the 12,800-foot saddle between Vestal and the Trinities, then drops to 12,000 feet above Balsam Lake before finally reaching the base of the peaks. My return via Tenmile Creek and the Animas, taken on a whim, was considerably shorter, but far more rugged and probably only slightly faster.

My alarm was set for 3:45 AM, but I woke up at 3:44 and shut it off. I ate my Cup of Sadness, then had enough time for some more coffee before setting off shortly after 4:30, incurring two hours of headlamp. I have never made this approach by day. Jogging down toward the Animas while listening to some upbeat drum-and-bass by FuX, I easily found the dead-eyed drive necessary for such outings; it was going to be a good day.

Vestal and Arrow

I negotiated the two large slide paths in the dark. The first had been mostly cut through, while I had to follow flags through a jumble of downed tree in the second. Headlamp time ended just before the Vestal Basin turnoff. Shortly before that, I passed one guy with a bright headlamp, two apparent hunters with none (bow season has started), and another group of apparent backpackers. Why they were all heading out so early on a weekday, only a few minutes apart, will remain a mystery. The climbers’ trail I had followed in 2012 is now much closer to an official trail, well-trod and easy to follow. I was disappointed to see that someone had even sawed through the deadfall in a couple of places; perhaps soon it will start appearing on official maps.

Vestal-Trinity saddle

I was pleased to find only a single tent in the basin, for some reason pitched in the coldest, wettest, most miserable spot possible, out in a boggy meadow. Passing a nice tent spot in the woods 100 yards farther up, I continued along the now much fainter trail, then left it before the upper willow bog to cross the creek and aim north of Vestal. I found a few cairns this time, and passed right by Vestal Lake, a picturesque spot right at the base of Vestal’s smooth, curving north face. I paused frequently for photos of sunrise on Vestal and Arrow’s layered uplift, then headed toward the saddle.

Seven-Eight Lake

The inexplicably-named “Kodiak High Route” passes through the lowpoint close to West Trinity, but I once again followed the mountain goats to a slightly higher gap farther west. The snow on this north face was annoying, with a breakable crust over several inches of sugar, but I made use of the goat tracks where I could, and soon reached both sunlight and my first view of the peaks I intended to climb, still a valley distant. Knowing that I had to drop to 12,000 feet, I did a better job following the grassy benches east, reaching the valley bottom at the top of the talus headwall above Balsam Lake. I (prematurely) filled up on water here, then continued to the saddle between Peaks Eight and Seven, where I found another convenient lake.

Climbin’ side of Eight

I debated skipping Eight, since it was a side-trip on my traverse, but was glad I did not, as it had the day’s most thought-provoking scrambling. From the lake, I headed up to the right side of the ridge, following a series of steep gullies and corners connected by ledges. The climbing reminded me of the Minarets, with positive holds, but chossy rock and lots of loose debris. It made for careful climbing, especially on the upper, redder rock, which was even more rotten than the stuff below. I did not find a register on the seldom-visited summit, but the views were worth staying around. Leviathan, Jagged, and the Needles looked particularly spectacular to the south, with the snow from an early season storm hanging around on their north faces. That, plus the weaker sun from the west coast wildfires’ smoke, made it feel more like October, my normal Weminuche season.

Seven from Eight

The descent took at least as long as the ascent. I skipped refilling my water at the lake, and headed straight up Seven’s east face. Seven is made of some sort of quartzite, which is slick when wet, and the rock is angled to be slabby on this side. This made the melting snow problematic, especially closer to the top, but fortunately the face was mostly class 2-3, with plenty of options, and soon I was on the summit. I found a register here, and was pleased to see a remark that the traverse from Six went.

Jagged from Six-Seven ridge

Six is, however, far away, and the rock turns to garbage on the descent to the saddle. One side-effect of quartz’s hardness and slickness is that it makes particularly sharp and unstable talus. There were some class 3-4 notches along the way, but nothing to cause more than a few moments’ perplexity. Once past the low point, a broader ridge of black rock led to the next summit. Six is the ridge’s highpoint, and tall enough to make the list of Colorado’s 200 (or maybe 300?) highest peaks, so it sees a bit more traffic from list-baggers. It is also the first peak along the ridge to have a clear view of Noname Creek, particularly deep and broad for the region, and the impressive north faces of Animas, Monitor, and the northern Needles ridge.

Four from Five

Five is the highest of several minor bumps west of Six, reached via an annoyingly chossy but not difficult traverse around a lake to the south. I tagged the summit, signed in, and moved on. Four is even more annoying than Five, another traverse around a lake, but looser and with some seemingly-mandatory class 4 climbing along the ridge. It might be faster to drop down talus to the lake and reascend, but I was tired enough to prefer scrambly traversing to elevation loss and gain. Four is actually two minor bumps past the lake, and it might be more efficient to traverse the talus-slope north of these subpeaks. However, it was undoubtedly loose beneath the fresh snow, so I stayed on the ridge, finding a bit of fun class 4 terrain on the way up the first bump.

Heisspitz from Four

I was faced with a bout of indecision on Four’s summit, which I reached around 2:15. My planned return route was to drop to a slabby bench north of the ridge, follow that east, then drop again to Balsam Lake before making the thousand-foot climb to the Vestal-Trinity saddle. This would be straightforward from Four, but would require crossing a spur ridge if I continued to The Heisspitz, still almost a mile distant. I had a headlamp, and the weather was good, but I felt my will fading. Looking at the map, I somehow convinced myself that, from The Heisspitz, I could return via Tenmile Creek and the Animas. It would involve some 5-6 miles of unknown valley travel, but I figured that either there would be an old trail down Tenmile, or the lack of humans would result in more game trails. As for the Animas… I hoped for a similar situation, and one river ford and a bit of trespassing would get me to a well-maintained “trail.”

Going down…

So off to The Heisspitz I went. I slightly screwed myself traversing too low to the left, but this section of ridge was much better than the garbage between Six and Four, so I made good time to the final climb. There is supposedly some class 2-3 route to the summit, but I ignored it and mostly stayed closer to the crest. I was hoping for some hint in the register about the route up from Tenmile, but found nothing useful. I debated some more, but the return to the Vestal-Trinity saddle looked extremely depressing, so I committed to my plan and started down the west ridge. The rock was shockingly good and slabby, making for easy going to the shallow saddle before Point 12,552′.

The valley bottom looked perilously brushy, but game seemed to be using this as a pass, so I dropped north down the nearly 4000 feet to the creek. The route started out as loose scree, dirt, and snow, manageable but not ideal for descent. After some loose scree, I found pleasant turf in the middle, and remained pleased with my choice. The steep drainage I was following narrowed toward the bottom, with vertical terrain on either side of a creekbed, but fortunately the creek itself did not cliff out, and it was late enough in the season that I could follow the semi-stable talus in its bed all the way to willow country.

Trail!

The final stretch to Tenmile Creek was a miserable thrash. I eventually found the creek, crossed, and thrashed up the other side, hoping to find open terrain or game trails away from the steeper creek bottom. To my surprise and delight, I found the faint trace of an old built trail, which does not appear on any map that I know of. Though it is hard to follow, and I lost it several times, it made the descent to the Animas fairly efficient, while it would have been an utter nightmare otherwise. This bit of ingenuity, exploration, and luck put me in a good enough mood to listen to happy downhill music (Girl Talk — thanks, Renee!). The trail seemed to be improving as I descended, but I lost it again about a half-mile from the river, and never found where it came out. I stayed high on the right, side-hilling my way around the flat creek junction, then dropped toward the Animas.

I should not be here

I found bits of faint path on the east side, but they were intermittent and annoying, so I looked for a potential ford. This would not be possible earlier in the season, but late in a dry year the Animas was no more than knee-deep. I grabbed a stick and forded with my shoes and socks on, then wrung them out on the other bank before finding the “trail.” Its gentle and consistent ruling grade would have been pleasantly runnable if I were fresh, but I spent plenty of time walking when the gravel surface became less than ideal. I finally closed the loop, and had only the slog out to Molas left. Aided by Metallica, I somehow summoned the energy to jog the flatter switchbacks and run the long meadow traverse at the top, and made it to my car just before headlamp time. I cooked up some vegetable curry with eggs, then passed out around 8:30.

This was my first big outing of which I was slightly proud in a long time. I wasn’t sure I would have the mental stamina, but like riding a bike, that is something you never lose. These may be the hardest Weminuche peaks to reach in a day without the train, and some of the least-visited. At this point, I think I only have one or two more long outings to clean out the Needle and Grenadier region. After that, my most remote remaining Weminuche peaks are those east of the Vallecito, including Nebo and Peters. While it will feel good to complete this project, I will miss having an easy reason to visit Colorado’s best peaks.

Ridgway, Whitehouse

Ridgeway and Whitehouse


I had some Sierra plans for the end of the summer, but with much of California on fire, and the rest enveloped in toxic smoke, I thought it best to head elsewhere until the barbecue is over. Mid- to late-September is too late for the Winds, so the natural choice for this time of year is the San Juans, Colorado’s best mountains. The afternoon storms are mostly past, the leaves are turning, and the Front Range tourists are mostly back at work and school (or at least tied up in endless Zoom meetings). I did not have any “must-do” peaks on my schedule this time, but I can always think of something to do in the Weminuche, and it had been awhile since I had done my trio of once-a-year headlamp approaches: Molas, Purgatory, and Vallecito.

Martin Gleeson of Ireland, RIP

I broke up the tedious drive across Nevada with some meaningless peak-bagging: pick something with 2000+ feet of prominence near the road, then bike and hike to the summit. This time I slept near Ely, which was brutally cold as always (34 in the morning!), then rode and hiked up Ward Mountain, a mound with some equipment on top. There was also a small cemetery near the nearby ghost town of Ward, which I found more interesting than the peak.

Coming in the way I did, it made sense to start with something out of Ouray, and Ridgway and Whitehouse fit nicely. Both are easy 13ers lying in the scenic and chossy region between town and Mount Sneffels, reached by the new-to-me Weehawken Trail. Whitehouse is visible from town, rising over 5000 feet in a mix of forest and colorful cliff bands. I had planned to do them as a bike shuttle, tagging “Corbett” before dropping down Oak Creek to town, but the traverse between Whitehouse and Corbett looked annoying.

Dawn on Eiger-rock

I slept at a sneaky spot off the Camp Bird Road, then drove over to the trailhead and finished my coffee before starting a bit after first light. (I would have felt bad camping directly in front of the “no camping here” sign, and didn’t want to pay $10 for a spot at Thistledown Campground across the road.) After too much time on packer-built and -ruined Sierra trails — trenches filled with pulverized dust and manure, interrupted by large and irregular steps — it was a pleasure to climb through a forest on a trail of smooth humus built for humans. Ouray calls itself “the Switzerland of America,” and for once the name felt apt for this sunrise climb. Across the valley, a steep and narrow cascade fell between to peaks to join the main Canyon Creek. The rock on the other side of Weehawken Creek reminded me of the Eiger: improbably steep and utterly rotten. Unlike in Switzerland, I doubt people try to climb these buttresses.

Hoodoos on Whitehouse

The trail mostly stays well above the narrow valley bottom, crossing various side-streams somehow still trickling this late in the season. As is frequently the case in this region, the valley’s sides are steep and decorated with hoodoos. The path eventually gives out in an open cirque, surrounded by Potosi, “Coffeepot,” Teakettle, and Ridgway. From there one can head more or less straight for Ridgway, surmounting a small third class choss-band, then crossing some grassy slopes to gain its south ridge. The main goat-path (and, to a lesser extent, human-path), switchbacks to the saddle between Ridgway and Whitehouse, but I thought the ridge looked easy enough and more direct. Sure enough, with only a couple short sections of class 3 I found myself on the false summit, a short ridge-walk from the top.

Teakettle and Sneffels

Sneffels looked particularly fine from this vantage, as did the peaks along the ridge to Potosi. Snow from the recent early-season storm lingered on higher north aspects, so my perch at the northern end of the San Juans accentuated the whiteness. In the clear Colorado air I could make out Lizard Head to the southwest, the Needles and Grenadiers to the south, and Uncompahgre to the east. There was a bit of noticeable haze over the plains 6000 feet below to the north, but these were the clearest skies I had enjoyed in awhile.

Ouray from Whitehouse

As expected, I found a faint use trail dropping east toward the saddle, skirting below a choss-pinnacle to join the switchbacks of the main approach. Whitehouse’s west side looks intimidating, but I skirted around to the north and soon found the easy class 2 gully leading to the summit plateau near the lower west summit. I had an easy walk to the cairn at the higher east summit, then looked over the abrupt north and east edges. Getting to Corbett looked annoying, with snowy choss and cliff bands getting in the way, so I decided instead to return to the saddle and descent Weehawken. I am getting too old to enjoy bombing down trails as I once did, but this one was soft and smooth enough to be fun for a change. I passed a few people headed in both directions, then hung out at car for awhile, enjoying the cool shade of an aspen grove and deciding where to head next.

The Palisade

The Palisade and La Sals


With the weather making the Colorado mountains unpleasant, I realized that I should have stayed in Moab for another couple of days. Fortunately, southwest Colorado also has low-elevation sandstone towers, and I was able to find another “Cowboy Route” on The Palisade, an obnoxious but not unreasonable drive away. The weather in Grand Junction was not bad, but it rapidly deteriorated as I drove down 141 through Unaweap Canyon in the evening. This byway does not see a lot of traffic or plow attention, so I took my time driving the snowpacked road through a blizzard to the tiny town of Gateway, and continued with some trepidation on the partly-frozen mud road along the Dolores River. I pulled off at the 4WD road leading toward the Palisade’s west side, and hoped it would not snow too much overnight.

Dolores River from approach

The next morning, I was pleased to see only a dusting of snow. However, none of that would melt off the west-facing route before I was done, making me somewhat nervous about the “class 4-5 slabs,” made doubly treacherous by being snow-covered and/or composed of wet sandstone. Still, I set of hiking up the road in my puffy, continuing up the right-hand side of the wash after it ended. I saw a couple of cairns, but there was no use trail on this obscure peak.

Catwalk section

I made a sometimes-sketchy dirt traverse along the base of the cliffs, then easily found the obvious start of the route, a bit of blocky class 3 followed by a traverse to the left. The first crux, a dihedral, went easily thanks to positive holds and stemming opportunities, and I was soon traversing the catwalks above, which were fairly well-cairned. I had been slightly nervous about crossing this section in the snow, but there was enough bare rock on the inner edge of the ledges that I could proceed without too much caution.

Red bump and La Sals

This brought me to the slab crux, which would have been trivial when dry, but was now somewhat more thought-provoking. Traversing left past the shortest section, I found a seam and some blocks that offered more traction and counter-pressure, and carefully made my way to the top, rejoining the standard route at a rappel anchor. I was relieved, believing that I had climbed the hardest part in current conditions. Above, I followed cairns as the route zig-zagged toward a saddle in the mesa between the main summit and a red sandstone dome. I got a bit off-route, taking a harder line than necessary up one rock band, but eventually reached the short 5.4 mantel. I did not like what I saw: even with the cheater step, the first step-up on the small foothold was big, and far from secure with a dusting of snow over wet, crumbly rock. I tried traversing farther left, then nearly gave up before heading right, hoping the ledge around the red bump would offer an easier option.

Summit from red bump

To my surprise, I found that the ledge indeed led around to the top of the mesa beyond the bump. Better still, getting over the bump was only class 2-3, with low-angle slabs that could be carefully managed even when wet. It took awhile, but I was back on-route. From there, I found one more semi-sketchy bit of slabbing and an awkward crack/offwidth on the right, but mostly it was easy hiking to the summit. I passed the shack and box spring along the way — God knows how all that hardware got up there, or why — then found the advertised hammer and egg-beater on the summit cairn.

NW from summit

The views were magnificent, with red rock country and the La Sals to the south and west, and the fading storm over the higher peaks to the east. The sun had finally come out, making it warm enough to hike without my puffy. I took some photos, then reversed my route. The sun was starting to dry the rock, making things a bit more secure, and I was back at the car for a late lunch.

Thimble Rock

I had planned to tag Thimble Rock Point, a minor peak on the southeast side of Unaweap Canyon, but it was awfully cold and windy when I got out to check out the access road/trail and read the interpretive sign. Unaweap is an interesting feature, a canyon with two outlets separated by a minor saddle in the middle, with a wide variety of uplift rock to either side. I was glad to have seen it during the day, but not interested enough to spend the next few hours tromping through the snow. Another time, perhaps…

Fairchild, Hagues, Mummy

Fairchild and Hagues


I was reintroduced to the United States in just about the worst possible way, with a 24-hour layover in Fort Lauderdale for a flight that was delayed by two hours. Rather than sleeping in the airport, I paid $80 for a room at a hotel with an airport shuttle. However, the room wasn’t ready until almost two hours after I checked in, and the shuttle didn’t run early enough to get me to the airport for my flight. So I paid about $7 per hour to use the room — about what I would pay for an entire night in Huaraz — then another $2 to ride the city bus back to the airport. Welcome home!

Welcome home

Fortunately my car was still at Ted’s house, so I spent a night there, then he joined me for some peak-bagging near Estes Park. I had done the southern half of the Mummy Range before Peru via Ypsilon’s Blitzen Ridge, so it seemed appropriate to finish off the range on my return. All of the northern peaks are walk-ups, but they turn out to be a long walk from the Lawn Lake trailhead, so it was a full day.

Ypsilon from Fairchild

We arrived at the trailhead a bit after 6:00, to find a few others already packing up. It had rained on the drive up, and the weather remained unpromising as we started. The Lawn Lake trail was frustrating after the summer’s direct Peruvian trails, with the pointless near-horizontal switchbacks common to American stock trails. It started raining as we reached the open area below Lawn Lake, but there was no lightning and I had my Peruvian trash bag, so I didn’t mind too much.

Never Summer Range

The rain soaked the willows above the lake, which in turn gave me a brief leg-washing. Ted had injured his foot a few weeks before, and was feeling slow, so I took off by myself to tag Fairchild while he headed straight for Hagues, the range highpoint. I made quick work of the talus-hop with my Andean fitness, then jogged the descent and caught Ted a bit below Hagues’ summit. I gather the standard route is class 2 from the other side, but I found some class 4 shenanigans along the ridge that made it the day’s best peak. The summit was somewhat spoiled by a radio repeater, but the weather had cleared enough for good views of the Never Summer range to the west, the lowlands of southern Wyoming to the north, and an unnamed and mostly-frozen lake between Hagues and Rowe Peaks, below what used to be the Rowe Glacier.

The descent to the saddle with Mummy was a somewhat tedious talus-hop, but the terrain improved from there, with an easy climb to the summit and a grassy stroll down its southeast side to the Black Canyon trail. It took a bit of woods-thrashing to find it, then an endless trail-hike to return to the car. After a well-earned burger in Estes Park, Ted headed back home and I drove off to find a place to sleep before the long drive west.

Ypsilon (Blitzen Ridge), Chiquita, Chapin

Ypsilon and Spectacle Lakes


Ypsilon Mountain is one of the better peaks in the Mummy Range in northern Rocky Mountain National Park. While its west slope is unremarkable tundra, its steep, complex southeast face rises 2000 feet from Spectacle Lakes, containing several interesting routes. Blitzen Ridge is one of about ten routes that have been on my list of to-do potential classics for years, and I was pleased to finally check it out in manageable early-season conditions.

Enter the suck

After sharing my normally-peaceful camping spot near Estes Park with some people who rolled in late and noisy, I woke early and was headed up the trail to Ypsilon Lake by 6:00. A guy who looked like a climber had started a few minutes before me, and despite his wearing clunky mountain boots, we leapfrogged for most of the approach to Spectacle Lakes. The trail started out clear and dry, then became a small stream, with the snow going from patchy around 10,200′ to near-continuous by 10,800′.

Blitzen Ridge

It had been warm overnight, and the snow had formed the usual, wretched Colorado spring slush-bog in the trees. I cursed and floundered along an old set of boot-prints to just above Ypsilon Lake, then found relief on some bare, south-facing slabs on the way to Spectacle Lakes. I skipped the lower, easy part of Blitzen Ridge, crossing between the two lakes and climbing a spur ridge and gully to reach the main ridge just below the four crux towers (the “Aces”).

Looking back at a tower

I skimmed the route description on my phone, but mostly just figured out something reasonable to get over the towers, summiting them all but not trying to stay directly on the ridge crest. On the first and second, I followed some grassy ledges on the left side, zig-zagging back and up to gain elevation from time to time. The third felt like the crux to me, with some exposed climbing on golden rock to the right. The route-finding was tricky in places, and I did a bit of backtracking before finding something that felt comfortable.

The route description mentioned a rappel off the fourth tower, but that was clearly a mistake, since descending its uphill side was trivial. The other towers were a bit trickier to downclimb, either staying right on the crest, or traversing sometimes-slabby terrain to the right. I would say the third tower was the crux for me, but the difficulty is very dependent upon route-finding choices.

Summit cornices

The ridge above the towers is no harder than class 4, but remains fun and narrow. The angle of the rock layers rewards staying on or just left of the crest, with inspiring views of Ypsilon’s southeast bowl, with the “Y” couloir and (at least right now) massive cornices overhanging the summit ridge. I had to cross snow in a few places, but the south edge of the ridge crest had mostly melted out, making for almost summer-like conditions despite the lingering snow everywhere else.

Snow flurries over summit plateau

I topped out in a mild flurry of corn snow, looked at the rain- and snow-storms to the east and south, and took off south across the tundra toward Chiquita and Chapin at a purposeful walk. The route description recommended descending the bowl between Ypsilon and Chiquita, but that looked unappealing, and would dump me back in the hellish snow near Ypsilon Lake. Instead, I continued to Chiquita, briefly contemplated descending its broad east ridge, then decided to continue to Chapin and take the hopefully-clear Falls Creek Road back to my car.

This plan mostly worked well. The traverse to Chapin was snow-free, and I also managed to avoid snow most of the way back to Chapin Pass and the road. Unfortunately my luck ran out perhaps a half-mile from the road, and I had some awful encounters with thigh-deep slush, sometimes with flowing water beneath it. I wrung my socks and shoes out once after a particularly nasty bog encounter, then again after stumbling out onto the plowed and mostly dry road. From there, it was a long but not unpleasant hike jog back down to the pavement, then an uneventful road-walk to the car.

“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.

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.