Category Archives: Colorado

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 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.


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.


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.


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.

Cathedral (East face)

Cathedral’s east face

I try not to visit Aspen, as it combines some of the worst characteristics of Jackson and Boulder. But I had yet to do a couple of centennial peaks in the area, Cathedral being the first. The standard routes are south- and east-facing, so an early start would have been good. Unfortunately, I found Castle Creek Road inexplicably closed at what turned out to be a cross-country ski resort, so I slept at another trailhead and got a later start from the gate, which turned out to be about a mile down the road from the trailhead turnoff.

Cathedral’s east and north ridges

After some confusion following various snowmobile and ski tracks, I found the Cathedral Lakes trail, which quickly became solid snow. The trail seems very popular with backcountry skiers, and it was packed enough that I could follow their skin track without snowshoes. I stayed on the north side of the creek past the first headwall, where I finally had to put on snowshoes. Past the second headwalls, I finally emerged from the trees to see Cathedral’s gnarly east and north ridges, and snow-covered Cathedral Lake below.

Wet slide

Rounding the base of this ridge, I finally got a look at my goal. The standard route reaches the south ridge via a snow-filled gully; alternatively, a steep snow-chute diagonals left across the east face, finally depositing the climber about 100 yards from the summit. I had plenty of time to choose a route as I made my laborious way across the rolling snow-plain toward the peak.

Upper chute

Many wet slides had taken place in the past day or two, but I did not see or hear any new activity as I approached the peak, so I opted for the more direct and adventurous east face route. Though I carried crampons, I once again had no use for them, as the snow was snowshoe-soft down low, and almost too soft for step-kicking up high. The face was completely sheltered from the wind and directly in the sun, so I was dripping sweat as I climbed gloveless in a t-shirt. The couloir seemed to have already slid, though I kept my music off to listen for the occasional snowball. I meandered back and forth seeking firmer snow, noticing some ski tracks from a day or two ago.

View down east face

The couloir steepens as it turns left and approaches a rock constriction. Postholing and generally hating life, I stopped yet again to drink some water and catch my breath, only to look up and see a small wet slide coming toward me. It was less than a foot deep, so after a half-hearted attempt to scramble to one side, I simply planted my axe uphill (my legs were plenty well-planted) and turned sideways to minimize my surface area. Once it passed, I continued up the now-cleaner couloir with a renewed energy and sense of purpose.

Reaching the ridge, I was immediately treated to views of Pyramid and the Bells, two valleys to the west, with Capitol farther off and Castle nearby to the south. I tagged the summit, retreated out of the breeze to eat, then made my way down the standard route, with its typical Elk Range dinner-plate choss under variable snow. I took a slightly different line on the way back, following the valley bottom instead of side-hilling along the north side, and other than one steep ravine, it was mostly easier going. Aggravatingly, the road was no longer closed when I reached the car. One more day and I can leave this place…

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.