Category Archives: Colorado

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.

“Lackawanna”

South to La Plata from summit


“Lackawanna” is a nondescript, unofficially-named centennial peak in the Mount Elbert area, just south of the road to Independence Pass. Unlike Oklahoma, which involves a long slog, Lackawanna is a quick couloir climb from the road. Its name, a Ute word for indifference or a shortage of enthusiasm, was bestowed by Chief Ouray when he passed through the area with a raiding party, and one of his braves dared him to climb the peak. He looked at the unexceptional hill surrounded by higher neighbors, then rode on, muttering “meh, lack a’ wanna.”

Looking down wrong couloir

I woke up a bit before 6:00 in a pullout west of the La Plata trailhead, and started off across the road around 6:30. It is hard to get a good view of the mountains from the road, so I somewhat randomly bushwhacked to the base of what turned out to be the couloir east of the correct one. It worked out fine, but for future reference, the correct “Lackawanna Couloir” is the one you can see from the road where the valley broadens and flattens in a willow-choked flat.

Upper wrong couloir

After an easy climb through open woods, I cramponed up a bit of snow, then hopped up some boulders to reach the continuous snow tongue leading to the summit ridge. The snow was pleasantly firm, and I had almost no postholing trouble as I cramponed up into a bowl, then up what turned out to be Lackawanna’s southeast face. The final climb was steep enough that I was glad to have an axe to supplement my worn-down running shoe crampons.

Looking down correct couloir

Topping out, I figured out the wrong-couloir situation, then made a quick jaunt to the summit before descending the correct chute. The initial drop was steep, and the snow was still very hard, so it was a bit of a desperate effort in my worn-out crampons, downclimbing with several kicks for each step. Once the angle eased a bit, I was able to walk down facing outward, and even began postholing occasionally lower down. Though I did not see any wildlife, I saw mountain goat tracks and spoor surprisingly low down.

At the base of the snow, I turned into the woods east of the couloir instead of bashing through the willows. For some reason, the woods here were much less pleasant than those I encountered on the way up, with more deadfall and underbrush, but the road was not too far, and I reached the car by late morning. After a random meal, I headed down to Buena Vista for a shower. The shower was dirtier than I remembered, and despite the “very hot water!” warning signs, the actual water was never warmer than not-freezing, but I managed to make myself a bit cleaner for $2, and I was on the road again before noon.

I hoped to tag Buckskin Mountain, a formless mound across from Democrat, but the weather deteriorated rapidly. I gamely headed out anyways, only to turn around when the lighting started — Buckskin just wasn’t worth risking electrocution. This turned out to be a fortunate choice, as I happened to meet a random Canadian with whom I had interacted online on the way back. It’s a small world of people who get out into the hills in the awkward season.

Oklahoma, Deer

Oklahoma from plateau


These two high 13ers are buried at the head of Half Moon Creek, west of Mount Massive and northeast of Independence Pass. Deer, the more interesting of the two, is slightly lower, falling short of being among Colorado’s highest 100 by 40′. In the summer, they are normally approached via Half Moon Creek from the east, but with that road impassable far below the summer trailhead, they are best reached from the road to Independence Pass. This plowed and dry road was spitefully gated well short of the trailhead, but the mile or two of road walking in either direction was tolerable.

Road-clearing equipment

I woke up at my campsite at the gate at 5:30, but was slow to get started, not hitting the road until about 6:20. Since the day involved much road and not much difficult terrain, I packed light, with only running shoes and snowshoes. I passed some road-clearing equipment, then left the road at the big bend to continue north up Lake Creek. To my surprise and pleasure, the snow was hard enough that I didn’t even need snowshoes as I made my way toward the Continental Divide.

North from Divide

I finally put the snowshoes on below Lake 12,378′, not because I was sinking in, but because I needed more traction. My 10-year-old MSR Lightnings are starting to fall apart, but they still have enough teeth to act as pseudo-crampons. Lake 12,378′, nestled just below the Divide, was of course completely frozen and covered, but I went around it out of excess caution, then finally got my first view of Oklahoma, on the east side of a clear U-shaped glacial valley, somewhat unusual for Colorado.

Massive from Oklahoma

I dropped partway down the north side of the pass, then did a long, miserable sidehill before climbing to the 12,800′ tundra plateau between Oklahoma and Deer. I briefly harassed a ptarmigan here, then headed north up the long, gradual ridge to Oklahoma. There were enough exposed rocks to keep my snowshoes strapped to my pack with only minimal postholing.

Deer’s summit from false summit

With the higher and aptly-named Massive only a short saddle away, Oklahoma is a thoroughly underwhelming peak. I mentally ticked it off, had a snack, then retraced my route to the tundra plain. Despite being northeast-facing, most of the ridge to Deer was snow-free and almost dry. The final steep pitch to the false summit, however, was covered in unstable slush, and it was a desperate slog. I put on snowshoes for this part, then had to take them off again only a few minutes later to deal with the final class 3 scramble to the summit. I found my first register of the summer here, and it was even dry (!), so I signed in, then plotted my path home. After following the ridge south a bit, I made a careful glissade down Deer’s north face, then plodded back to my outward path near Lake Creek. Then it was just wet slush and dry road to the car.

Traver, McNamee, Clinton

Industrial wasteland


With high valleys (Leadville is just over 10,000′), even higher passes, and lots of crappy rock, the Mosquito/Tenmile range is a great place to go in May. Unfortunately, the easy access has made it one of the most thoroughly land-raped areas of Colorado, with both active and abandoned mining junk lying all over the peaks, even up above 14,000′ in places. Mount Clinton and nearby Fremont Pass are the worst of it, bad enough that I have skipped climbing it more than once over the past few years. This time, however, circumstances conspired to motivate me, and it turned out to be my first type I fun day of the season.

Something’s home

After wasting a few hours in Aspen (at $1.50/hr to park…), I drove up toward the Maroon Bells trailhead, planning to do at least Thunder Pyramid, and possibly the Pyramid traverse. To my dismay, I found the perfectly dry road still gated almost 6 miles from the trailhead. I thought about jogging it by headlamp, but ain’t nobody got time for that. Next on my peak list was Holy Cross ridge; I quickly learned that its 8-mile approach road doesn’t open until June 21. On to the next, then… Clinton.

Good place to start…

After a long drive and a fitful night in the familiar Mayflower Gulch trailhead, I continued past the tailings pond and open pit, just over Fremont Pass to my chosen trailhead. Unlike the climbs so far, this one was west-facing with a relatively short approach, so even with a 6:30 start, the snow remained shaded to the top of the first peak, making for much better conditions.

Democrat, etc. from Traver

After an uneventful hike south up the head of the Arkansas River, I turned east into a couloir I had picked out on Traver’s east face. The face is a complicated mixture of steep snow, rock, and talus, making for interesting route-finding. I had left my crampons at home for this one, and while they would have made a couple sections easier, I was fine using snowshoes lower down, and kicking steps along a carefully-chosen line higher up. The line I chose eventually deposited me on the ridge a couple hundred yards north of the summit, which I belatedly realized is very close to fourteener Mount Democrat.

Building on ridge

The long descent to the saddle with McNamee started off easy past a surprising, lone mining ruin. I didn’t see the expected trail or cable car remnants, or a nearby hole, so I’m not sure of its purpose.

Class 3-4 ridge

The ridge then turned into some fun class 3-4 scrambling through several pinnacles, with a chockstone bridge between a couple of them. Beyond, the ridge was broad and easy, with bare rock on south-facing sections and breakable snow requiring snowshoes on others. Between McNamee and Clinton, you are constantly treated to the sights and sounds of the open pit (the Glory Hole, according to the USGS topo) and its polychromatic tailings ponds. While snow conceals some of the ugliness, it is still a disheartening sight.

After my out-and-back to Clinton — one of Colorado’s highest 100 peaks, and my main goal for the day — I returned to (I think) McNamee, then found some nice glissades to speed my return. It was t-shirt weather in the 11,000′ valley, and I baked as I made my leisurely way back to the car. Though it was snowing the last time I was in Leadville, it was a balmy 60 degrees this time. I can’t complain.

Sneffels (Snake Couloir)

Entering Blaine Basin


After a stupid mistake resulting in an unintended day off, I headed around through Ridgway to the north side of Mount Sneffels. I had already done it via the standard summer route, but that was in the pre-dirtbag days, so I didn’t mind visiting again to try a route on the north side, the Snake Couloir. Couloir season doesn’t really start until later this month, so I was expecting difficult conditions, though not quite as bad what I encountered. At least I didn’t get avalanched.

Sneffels from trailhead

The road was blocked by a snowdrift about a mile from the normal trailhead, so I slept on the side of the road there, then got started around 6:20. There was nearly solid snow-cover from the trailhead on, though it was hard enough lower down not to require snowshoes. The trail to Blaine Basin starts as an old road, making it initially easy to follow. I guessed correctly by turning left at an unsigned fork, and soon crossed a creek to join a little-used jeep approach. From there, the trail narrows to a single lane, but it is fortunately well-signed, and has nowhere to go other than upstream.

Slog, slog, slog

The flagging eventually gave out at a signed trail junction, so I took the most direct reasonable path through a headwall. I somehow rejoined the trail, and followed the occasional sawed logs as it side-hilled up into the basin and out of the trees. Finally, the path to Sneffels was clear. The crust was not quite strong enough to support me, so I made my laborious way up toward the base of the couloir, punching through ankle-deep with each step. Fortunately it remained partly cloudy, so it was not too hot, and the snow both stayed solid and did not slide.

Couloir on right

I put away my snowshoes where the couloir began to steepen, assuming I could kick steps from there. Unfortunately the sun had emerged by then, softening the initial northeast-facing section, so after some wallowing, I put snowshoes back on and switchbacked carefully to a choke-point. There the snow remained in the shade, and I was able to boot toward where the couloir turns left.

Looking down choke-point

I reemerged into the sun, and was once more forced to wallow. I wasn’t sure what would happen if I fell here, but didn’t want to find out; it was steep enough that snowshoes were not an option. With some trial-and-error I managed to make my way on top of a cornice at the turn, from which I could admire the view west and scope out the rest of the climb.

Upper couloir

The last-bad way to climb this last part seemed to be to stay on the right side of the couloir. I hoped to make use of the rocks there, but they were all rotten and/or outward sloping. In normal couloir season, you simply follow the center of the couloir to a ridge, then climb a short pitch of low-5th-class rock to the summit. However, frustrated by the soft snow, I ended up cutting right too early, then climbing some scrappy rock on the summit’s northwest side.

Skiers preparing

Reaching the summit, I was surprised to see a rappel in progress, with what I correctly guessed were skier(s) futzing around preparing to ski what I had just climbed, which sounded like much more fun. I enjoyed the views from the sunny and relatively calm summit, then made my way down the skiers’ boot track, hailing them across the way before they started down.

Where the standard route turns right into Yankee Boy Basin, I turned left toward Blaine, taking advantage of a few glissades to catch the skiers as they took a break and transitioned to skin up the way I had descended. I rejoined my tracks from the morning partway down to the basin, then followed them for the slog back to the car for a fairly tough 9-hour day.

Gilpin (N couloir)

Gilpin from couloir base


And so it begins. The start of my season coincided with the largest snowstorm of the year, dumping 6 inches in town and around 2 feet up at the ski hill. This complicated the move-out process somewhat, but it also gave me one final chance to go backcountry sledding before throwing the rest of my belongings in the car and heading north. Since the recent storm had apparently dumped much more snow on the eastern Colorado mountains, I decided to start with a few random peaks in the Ouray area.

Chance it?

Gilpin is a 13er directly across Yankee Boy Basin from Mount Sneffels, with a prominent couloir on its north side. This made it somewhat more interesting than its neighbors, and if I had the energy, I could continue south to Emma. I found something like a campsite on the Camp Bird Road, then continued in the morning, driving to the final “half-tunnel” section, where huge icicles loomed dangerously low. I might have cleared them, but they also might have damaged my car, so I opted to hike the final half-hour of road to where it becomes 4WD-only. Maybe 10 minutes after I left the car, several trucks full of mine workers barreled straight through with no trouble, but I was already far enough up the road that it didn’t seem worth returning.

The road was well-plowed to the active mine, and mostly to where the 4WD road splits, after which it was completely neglected. I put on my snowshoes, then followed the previous day’s skin tracks up the road. They split at the outhouse, and I followed the ones headed southwest toward Emma for awhile, then struck out through untracked powder.

Entering couloir

My pace became pathetically slow as I sunk ankle- to calf-deep with each step, and I was reminded what Colorado is like in May. The day remained warm but overcast, with occasional snowflakes, and it was difficult to read the terrain in the flat light, with very few exposed rocks. I fumbled my way toward the base of Gilpin’s north couloir, keeping open the option of climbing the descent route — the connecting ridge with Sneffels.

Entering couloir

With sun and new snow there could be avalanche problems, but the day remained mostly overcast, so I decided to go for the couloir. It would probably be a slog in the fresh snow, but it would be safe and shorter than the ridge. I climbed the first third in snowshoes, then stashed them in my pack as the terrain steepened. I probably should have put on crampons, but the surface snow under the often knee-deep powder was soft enough that it was easy to continue with boots and ice axe. After some experimenting, I found a path near the right edge of the couloir that involved a manageable amount of postholing.

Couloir from top

As the couloir steepened toward the top, I tried a couple of times to use the rocks to the right, but they were invariably outward-sloping and rotten, and each time I was forced to retreat to the couloir. I was missing my crampons for the final, steep choke-point leading to the ridge, as the old snow was harder here. Climbing became a laborious process of planting my axe, digging a sort of hand-hold, then making a half-dozen kicks with each foot. I eventually beached-whaled over the small cornice, and found myself maybe 50 yards west of the summit.

Emma and Telluride

While gnawing on a partly-frozen bar, I inspected the ridge over to Emma. It looked like way too much work, so I opted for the standard descent down the ridge toward Sneffels. I found bits of use trail and a cairn on the way, but the route down the ridge was not as obvious as I had assumed. I kicked my way down a steep snow-slope just short of the ridge, slowly glissaded for a ways, then wallowed a bit before putting on my snowshoes for the slog back to the road. Though the surrounding peaks peeked out occasionally, the light remained flat, and it was to follow my outbound track until it merged with the larger skin-track. More skiers had apparently passed later the morning, and several more cars’ worth passed me as I clomped down the road to my car for a late lunch.

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.