Category Archives: Colorado

West Needle

Real Mountains across Animas


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

Traverse toward col

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

Col from West Needle

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

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

Moss, Lavender, Hesperus

Hesperus from Lavender


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

Beattie again

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

Steep finish on Moss

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

Lavender, Moss from Hesperus

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

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

McCauley, Grizzly, Hope, Aztec (12h45)

McCauley, Hazel Lake, Hope


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

Lake 13,100 and Windom

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

Hunter camp

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

Sunset on Organ and Amherst

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

Jupiter, Windom, Grizzly from McCauley

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

3rd class traverse

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

East from Aztec

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

Route map

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

South Mineral 13ers

Ice Lake Basin


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

SE side of Rolling

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

Descent off Rolling

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

Across choss to Sisters

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

Rock glacier descent

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

Twin Sisters

Twin Sisters from the west

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

Twin Sisters from south

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

South Twin from North

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

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

Electric, Garfield, “Point Pun,” Graystone

Garfield again


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

Grenadiers from Molas Lake

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

Arrow, Electric, and talus notch

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

Garfield and talus-bowl from Electric

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

Garfield and Point Pun

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

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

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

Sheridan, Sheep, Amherst, Organ, Emerson, 13,085

Organ (and Oso) from Amherst


As is becoming tradition, I am spending some time in the best part of Colorado (the Weminuche) at its best time of year (late September and early October). I had been impressed by Organ Mountain on the hike up Johnson Creek last year, so I looked at how to tag it this year, and decided on an approach via Endlich Mesa, a new trailhead for me. The road was supposedly “4WD strongly recommended,” but I decided to give it a try anyways. While it is no Como Lake road, it turns out to be awful, with sharp rocks just large enough that I only managed two of ten miles before chickening out and sleeping in a pullout. There is apparently another approach from the west via easier roads, but it was too late for me to drive around.

North across Endlich Mesa

I woke at 5:00, and was on my way up the road by headlamp by 5:30. There is a use trail that shortcuts the road’s maddening switchbacks, but I did not find it in the dark, so I had a long walk before I even reached the official trailhead. The trail starts out somewhat confusing and badly rutted, but all trails seem to lead to the same place, and I eventually emerged from the trees to see a multi-lane pack trail snaking across the endless rolling grass of Endlich (“Endless”) Mesa.

Game trail?

I hike-jogged along the trail to where it drops down to the Durango reservoir, then continued traversing on a well-defined trail to the saddle southwest of Sheridan Mountain. This trail continues through the saddle to traverse Sheridan’s east side to the saddle to its northeast. I could not tell if it was a use/pack trail or one of the area’s many well-defined game trails, which greatly eased my side-hilling on the return.

Sheep Mountain

After crossing a false summit, I found a windbreak and register on the summit, added my name, and admired the glacier-planed slabs of Sheep Mountain’s southwest side. I contemplated the steep northeast side for a few minutes, then started down right, traversing back left on tussocks and faint goat paths. Though steep, the face proved much easier than it looked. Crossing the trail at the saddle, I began meandering toward Sheep, passing numerous streams and tarns as I tried to minimize the up-and-down. Though it looks a bit like a plain from above, the face is split by many crossing gullies, like Humphreys Basin in the Sierra, and progress toward the summit is tricky and frustrating.

Needles, Amherst, Organ from Sheep

Not sure how much time and energy it would take to reach Organ, I aimed straight for the gap between Emerson and 13,085′, which looked from the topo to be the quickest route. Getting off the north side of Sheep involved some sketchy snow and dirt, but I didn’t cliff out, and soon found much easier terrain in the valley. Looking north from the saddle, I realized that this route would suck. Fortunately, the amazing game trail continued down east of the saddle south of Emerson, then contoured around. I took a sketchier high line on the way out, and found the correct, lower line on the way back.

Amherst’s south side

Amherst and Organ are classic Needles kitty-litter, a mixture of gravel slopes and decaying blobs. I made my way easily up the maze of Amherst’s south side, then found decent boot-skiing in the snow and gravel leading toward Organ. While Organ looks like an impenetrable collection of decaying pillars, there is an easy route on its east side, with a couple third class moves and a third class summit block.

I mostly followed the game trail on the way back, deviating to tag Emerson and 13,085′. I should have tagged 13,105′ while I was in the area, but I was eager to return and dreading my long road-walk. I cautiously cut the road switchbacks higher up, then picked up the well-established horse/use trail lower down, reaching my car after a bit over 12 hours. I drove down the nasty part of the road to get that out of the way, then made dinner and slept in a dispersed site off the smoother part of the road.

Sopris

Sopris from approach


Though short of 13,000 feet, Mount Sopris is striking thanks to its position as the far western corner of the Elk Range. It is also a convenient quick outing for a driving day, and after a pointless screw-up the previous day, I wanted to do something straightforward. (Notes: Snowmass Creek is hard to cross; there is a faint trail up Bear Creek; the Pierre Lakes Basin looks like the Sierra, though I gather the ridges are rotten.)

Sopris east bowl

I got a lazy start from the Sopris trailhead around 6:00, slightly behind a skier. The trail was dry to within 1/2 mile of the lakes, and well-trod until the base of the first lake. Beyond that point, each person had chosen his own path through the woods to the east bowl. I saw several old ski and boot tracks, but somehow managed to pass the skier I was following without seeing him.

Summit cornice and Capitol

The snow lower down was nicely consolidated, but the east-facing bowl higher up was already getting annoyingly soft, and my running shoe crampons were only semi-useful. I tried to follow the old boot-tracks on the way up, which offered a bit more solidity, but even they were starting to decay. Looking back, I saw the skier skinning up with frightening speed, and I pushed myself to stay ahead to the ridge, where the snow solidified and Capitol Peak appeared to the southeast.

Down east bowl

Despite a false summit or two, it was an easy walk to the east summit, where the tracks stopped. I looked over at the west summit, then thought “meh,” admired the steep couloirs on the north side, and headed back before the snow got even softer. I talked to the skier for a bit, a young guy who had moved to the tiny town of Sawatch a couple years ago for unknown reasons. After jogging down the ridge, I dealt with the soft snow via a couple of long glissades (with free slurpee enema), then jogged and boot-skied the better snow lower down. The skier caught me near the bottom, but I ditched him again on the trail, where I could jog and he probably could not.

Okay, that’s enough Colorado for awhile.

North Maroon (Y couloir)

North face of North Maroon


I had intended to do this the day before, but the weather was not cooperative. More significantly, I found a dead man. With ominous clouds overhead, I was the first person on the trail south toward Maroon Peak around 5:00. The tourists had beaten in a good path to Crater Lake the day before, but things were somewhat more confused beyond there, as several paths made their way through the willows. Re-emerging from the woods in the open area south of the lake, I saw a man lying on his back on the snow near the trail and creek. At first I thought he was some weird stoner meditating at 6:00 AM, but he seemed unnaturally still. Getting closer, I saw that he had tied a stick to one leg, there was blood and frost on his face, and one shoe was missing. He was dressed for a dayhike, with a low-top shoes and just an overshirt. I have no idea where or when he fell (I came down the same trail a bit before 5:00 PM the day before and saw nothing), but he seemed to have frozen overnight, perhaps after falling into the creek.

If this were Everest, I would just keep going, but the rules of civilization apply in the Bells, so I turned around to contact someone. I warned the few backpackers I passed on the way back, then had to drive all the way into Aspen to get a cell signal. (For future reference, the ranger camped in the overnight lot has a satellite phone.) It was raining in town by the time I explained the location to the mountain rescue people, and I didn’t feel much like climbing anyways, so I headed up to Basalt to wile away the day.

Looking up from apron

Back down on the Maroon Creek Road that evening, I got rousted from the overnight lot and found a semi-legal camping spot in the lowest campground (the ones above were full) for some mediocre sleep. The next morning, I was up and at the day use lot just before 5:00. There were already a dozen cars there, mostly people photographing the Bells and Maroon Lake, currently home to some Canada geese. I started off with two men from Carbondale who were headed for the standard route on North Maroon; I silently questioned their choice, but said nothing.

I left them when they stopped to shed a layer, continuing to the base of the Bell Cord, where I met a group of three skiers (Logan and two others whose names I missed) planning to ski the couloir. I am a bit slow now, and they were shockingly fast, keeping up with me on skins as I booted up the apron toward the first cliff band. Here they had to transition to crampons, though, and I stayed ahead for the rest of the day.

Bell Cord and Y to the right

As is often the case, the couloirs are not at all obvious from below. After passing through a break in the cliff band, South Maroon’s east face looks like it could be the Bell Cord. However, you actually need to traverse right, at which point the true Bell Cord becomes obvious. Fortunately I remembered the views from the Pyramid Traverse, and the angle at which the couloir should be visible. Several inches of fresh snow had fallen at this elevation, so I meandered back and forth some as I made my way up to the split between the Bell Cord, which leads to the saddle near South Maroon, and the Y, which leads to a point just below North Maroon’s summit.

Up from base of Y

I was glad that the Y, much narrower and somewhat steeper than the Bell Cord, was still in the shade, as the day was already becoming uncomfortably hot on the east-facing slope. Normally I would climb the deep runnel in the couloir’s center, but 4-6″ of fresh snow had collected there, so I stayed mostly on one side or the other. The underlying snow was pleasantly crunchy, perfect for cramponing and daggering my axe. Had it been much steeper or icier, I would have wanted a second tool, but fortunately there were only a couple of short stretches steep and hard enough to merit an actual swing. The views across the Bells’ east face were impressively steep, with icicles hanging off overhangs in the stepped, rotten rock.

Snowmass and Capitol from ridge

Topping out, I got an impressive view of Snowmass and Capitol to the west, and saw that North Maroon’s summit was only a short distance away. The route stayed on the shaded west side of the ridge, where the snow was unpleasantly sugary until near the summit. With a couple 4th class moves and a bit of step-kicking, I reached the summit snow ridge, which I had to myself.

South Maroon from North Maroon

I looked at the traverse to South Maroon, which I had planned to do, but despite the perfect weather, I found no enthusiasm for wallowing through sugar on the shady side of the ridge. After snacking and vacillating, I started down the northeast ridge, expecting to run into my companions from the morning. I soon realized why they were so far behind: the face was covered in 6″ of heavy powder, fine for descending, but a misery to climb.

Booting down north face

As the ridge started to become unpleasant, I looked west and saw some people booting up lower on the other side of the north face. They had made it that far, and hopefully knew what they were doing, so I began a long traverse toward them on a snow bench. The entire north face is a maze of small cliff bands, and I recognized nothing from when I descended it in summer 2010. After a couple short backtracks, I made it within hailing distance of the first climber, a skier stymied by the small cliff band between us. After a false start, I managed to stem down a short corner to the snow apron below, relying on snow and rock instead of the warming, rotten ice.

I finally met my companions from the morning below the cliff band. They were having a long day, being defeated by a line directly up the face before retreating to follow the skier’s path. I downclimbed and glissaded to the base of the face, then stripped down to a t-shirt for the toasty hike back to the parking lot. There were a few dozen people at Crater Lake, which had a thick enough skim of wet ice to bowl snowballs well toward the other side. After that diversion, I passed through an endless horde on my way to the trailhead.

There were cars circling the lot waiting to park, but I took my time cooking lunch, washed my dishes, talked to the skiers I had met that morning, then escaped the craziness. There were probably a hundred cars lined up at the entry station, with their bored passengers wandering up and down the road and wandering obliviously into the downhill lane. Ugh. As I read somewhere recently, “I went to the mountains to find solitude. Then I came to Colorado.”

Pyramid traverse

Traverse from 13,361


I was tired of getting spanked by Front Range weather, so I looked around for some more agreeable weather, and saw that western Colorado was at least passable. This would involve some backtracking, but would not be that far out of the way. “Thunder Pyramid,” a high 13er south of Pyramid Peak near Aspen, was one of my few remaining Centennial peaks. I had hoped to tag it when I did Cathedral, but the (dry) road was gated an infuriating 6+ miles from the normal trailhead, and I lacked the will. With the road now open, Thunder Pyramid would be almost too easy, so I upped the difficulty by climbing it as part of a long traverse from an unnamed 13er to Pyramid.

Bells and west-side choss

With snow, this turned out to be Serious Business, taking nearly 12 hours car-to-car with quite a bit of that spent managing rotten snow and rock above 13,000′. It was good Canadian Rockies practice: the rock around Aspen is similar to what I found up there in 2014, rotten and surprisingly steep, with angled layering that makes one face easier to climb than the other. I have climbed chossier rock, but this was some of the worst rock in the area, significantly more rotten than the Bells.

Crater Lake sunrise

I had planned to get up at 4:30, but it sounded like it might be raining a bit, so I was up at 5:00 and off by 5:30. Given the conditions, I chose to do this the heavy way, with boots, crampons (unused), ice axe, and snowshoes. There were a couple sets of helpful bootprints to follow on the West Maroon trail, which was snow-packed and obscure before the holiday weekend. After bashing through some willows, I saw the print-makers working their way up the Bell Cord couloir between the Maroon Bells. I continued a short distance past their starting point, then crossed the creek on a snow bridge to make my way east into Len Shoemaker Basin.

Nearing ridge and sun

The snow remained supportive yet soft enough to kick steps as I made my way straight up the basin’s outflow, and I was regretting bringing the snowshoes. However, as soon as the basin flattened, I started postholing, and gratefully put on my snowshoes to hike the flats toward the saddle north of Peak 13,631′. I finally got my first taste of sun just below the saddle, where I put the snowshoes away for the day and made my way south — away from my main objective — to tag this nothing-peak. Though I had been watching spindrift off the surrounding peaks all morning, the fresh snow made it look windier than it actually was, and conditions were pleasant on the ridge all day.

Traverse and cornices

I was instantly made aware that the day would involve considerable suffering, as the ridge to 13,631′ was crust over sugar over movable Elk Range choss. Cursing ensued. It also featured some impressive cornices, which I gave a wide berth. I found a couple of awkward rock steps, which would probably have been easier when dry, but met no serious difficulties on the way to the summit. I briefly took in the view, then began the traverse in earnest, over 4 hours after leaving the car.

Snow traversing along ridge

I returned to the saddle, then began the traverse with some easy but frustrating postholing toward the first of many bumps on the ridge. The traverse from 13,631′ to Pyramid took about 4.5 hours, and I was focused too much on immediate problems to give a detailed account. The detailed route description I linked above describes one 5.2 headwall and lots of 4th class scrambling, but I found quite a few sections of what felt like 5th class. This was probably because the snow obscured some ledge bypasses, forcing me along the ridge crest more than when the route is dry. Also, later in the day the east side, which had been baking in the sun all morning, was quite prone to wet avalanches, making it largely unusable.

First headwall

I surmounted the first notable headwall before “Lightning Pyramid” via a sort of chimney just west of the ridge crest, then continued along a snow crest. In general, I found it best to leave the ridge to the west, as the joints are more favorable for climbing on that side. I had hoped to take advantage of the snow to traverse the east side, but by noon or so it had become slushy and prone to avalanche. Making my way along the crest, I kicked off a couple of small wet slabs that expanded to full-on wet avalanches as they made their way well down the face. Dealing with the ridge crest was often the best course, despite multiple small bumps and intermittent cornices. At one point I even did a small section of narrow snow crest à cheval, an unusual thing to do.

Don’t slip; note east-side sloughing

While Pyramid looks close from Thunder Pyramid, the final leg of the traverse seems interminable, with multiple steep subpeaks along the way and few opportunities to bypass them. I finally intersected the semi-standard northwest ridge route just below a 4th class chimney, and followed it to the summit. The current standard route, the northeast ridge, looked way too avalanche-y to try, so I retraced my steps a bit to follow the northwest ridge.

Steep snow traverse on descent

I had done this route in 2010, but did not recognize it with snow. I started down via a steep, descending snow traverse that is probably a ledge in summer, following the occasional cairn. Judging by the cairns I saw, the route follows a series of gullies on and off the northwest ridge. I dutifully did so as well, then headed straight down as soon as I reached a gully that I could see did not cliff out. After some obnoxious knee-deep plunge-stepping, I glissaded part, scrambled around a constriction, then reached the stream at the valley bottom via a combination of hiking, glissades, and boot-skiing.

I rejoined the trail south of the Bell Cord couloir, then stomped through slush back to the car. It was the Friday before a holiday weekend, and the once-faint trail had been beaten to a slushy trench by the tourist hordes. Reaching the car around 5:30, I had some food and debated going into town. However, I wanted to climb an east-facing couloir the next day, which meant waking up extra-early, so I watched some downloaded TV and tried to go to sleep by 9:00 instead.

Edwards

Argentine Peak and Pass


Ah, where were we?

For your humor, I respect you

Edwards, one of CO’s 100 highest, is just east of popular Grays and Torreys, just south of I-70. I probably should have used Stevens Gulch, the standard approach for the latter, but I instead approached from the other side, via Horseshoe Basin near Keystone. Camping is limited while all the neighboring forest roads are gated, so after a noisy night at the one pullout on Loveland pass where you’re allowed to park (there was a crowd of a half-dozen cars and RVs, and a trailer probably housing an A-Basin employee), I headed back down and around to the gate, then started walking the road.

Cabin remains

The snow was firm enough in the morning not to require snowshoes, and I enjoyed the scenery, including power lines and an utterly obliterated vacation home. Apparently the avalanches grow big here, and I’m surprised the builder didn’t look at the terrain a bit more carefully before breaking ground. Once above vacation home territory, the valley opened up and flattened, providing a snowy version of a marsh for a few ducks.

Ducks

Despite some clouds, the snow was softening up, so I put on snowshoes as I finally neared the summer trailhead. I passed more mining ruins as the valley turns north, toward the saddle between Edwards and the fourteeners. The normal route takes the trail to Argentine Pass and follows the ridge, but I saw a chute just west of the summit that looked easier than side-hilling along a snow-filled trail. I could also follow a partially-scoured rise below it, which would be faster than snowshoes.

4-foot pinwheel

The chute was a little steeper than I prefer to climb in snowshoes, with some huge frozen pinwheels suggesting that wet slides were a possibility once it warmed up. “Fortunately” the day showed no signs of doing that, with strengthening winds bringing clouds and perhaps a few showers from the south and west. I reached the ridge, then followed bits of trail to the summit, watching the spindrift fly off north to Stevens Gulch.

Not wanting to descend my chute, I continued on the standard route toward Argentine Pass, following a few cairns along the mostly snow-free ridge, then descended a likely-looking chute and rib before reaching the trail. This was more tedious than expected, with the snow alternatingly hard and punchy, perfectly unsuitable for a glissade or boot-ski, and the rib covered in loose rock and scree. It was still faster than the trail, though, and I was soon snowshoe-plodding back down the gulch and through the house debris.