Category Archives: Type II fun

Northern Pickets traverse (East Fury to Challenger, VI 5.7, 28h32)

Northern Pickets pano


The central northern Pickets are arguably the most remote peaks in the lower 48, so it was only a matter of time before I had to try them. I had visited both ends of the northern Pickets: Challenger in 2014, Luna in 2015, and East Fury in 2016. On this last effort I had been planning to go for more, but I was stopped after a single pea by route-finding errors, a lack of drive, and the realization that I had underestimated my objective.

And so it begins…

While it is possible to pick off the peaks one-by-one, for the sake of efficiency and style I wanted to nab them all and claim the coveted Northern Pickets Traverse. I had estimated that it would take me 24-30 hours with a shuttle from Hannegan Pass trailhead back to my car at Ross Dam. Unfortunately I was unable to set up a shuttle on short notice, forcing me to either hitch, or use a different route. Not liking my chances of finding a ride first thing in the morning after rolling in late to Hannegan and taking a dirt nap, I used a significantly longer and harder route, descending the cross-country Eiley-Wiley ridge to Beaver Pass, then “running” 20 miles of trail back to my car. This put me at the upper end of my estimated time range.

Smoky dawn on Luna

I got a few hours’ sleep at the Ross Dam trailhead, but it is noisy right by the highway, and I was too wired to sleep, so I turned off my midnight alarm, drank my Cup of Sadness fortified with beet nitrates (found at a Walmart full of obese tweakers in Bellingham), and started down the trail around 12:15. The toads seemed more numerous than last year, and I even met a few on the trail down to the dam. It is around 17 miles to where you leave the trail for Access Creek, so this would normally be far too early to start, but I had a good GPX track of the cross-country route from last summer, so I could do it at night without losing too much time. This was key to giving myself as much daylight as possible to deal with the ridge and unknown de-approach.

Upper East Fury

The approach worked about as well as it ever does. I bashed down to the river, where I almost immediately found the remnants of the log bridges I had used in 2014. I wasted only a bit of time dithering (I still hate getting wet), then forded barefoot to try to keep my feet dry and minimize the damage they would suffer in the evening. I found a bit of a boot-pack along the subtle ridge right of the creek that is least brushy. My worst mistake was crossing south one slide path too early, but that did not cost much time. As a result, I reached East Fury’s summit in only 10h15, vs. the 11h30 I took last year.

Luna, East Fury from West Fury

Now it was time to launch into the unknown. The final scramble up East Fury consists of shockingly mobile large talus, and the same continues on the way to West Fury. Beckey’s guide suggests that this traverse takes multiple hours, but I found most of it to be standard chossy 4th class, and reached West Fury in under an hour. The first ascent register was still in good shape, and I was surprised to supposedly be the 19th “party” to visit.

West Fury descent

Up to this point, the best exit would be to retrace my steps. Once I headed down the west ridge, things would become more complicated, possibly involving a long and unfamiliar cross-country route around the north end of the range. I steeled myself, then followed the first ascent route down the west ridge. Starting slightly east of the summit, I descended a chute, then made a descending choss-traverse back west to the ridge. I followed that a bit, then made my way down dirty, ledge-y terrain on the other side to gain the small glacier northwest of the peak. From there, I easily kicked my way back across to the saddle with Swiss.

Good rock on Swiss

I made my way more or less up and over several small pinnacles of mediocre rock on the way to Swiss, a broad NW-SE summit with a permanent snowfield on its southwest side. I found the rock pleasantly solid, climbing a line on its southwest face and descending near the northwest ridge. I stuffed some snow in my Camelbak, then tossed that out when I found running water below the snowfield. This was a valuable find, as running water is scarce on the rest of the ridge, and it was hot enough to be sweating in shorts and a t-shirt on the crest.

Spectre (l), Phantom (r)

Given the time and my longer-than-desired descent route, I skipped “Spectre Peak” without a second thought, then spent some time considering my route to the saddle with Phantom. The ridge itself looked unusably steep, the gully to its west at least somewhat navigable. Looking back, I think a line just right (east) of the ridge would have been better, blocky low 5th on decent rock. My chute was a garbage-fest with a tricky chockstone, and the traverse back to the ridge was outward-sloping dirt and death-choss.

Challenger and Crooked Thumb

The rock was somewhat less chossy on the way up Phantom, but still not great. I mistakenly climbed a lower summit to the northeast, earning zero bonus points, then found the original register on the true summit. It was in bad shape, and probably not long for this world, being protected by only a bashed-up tin canister and a plastic bag. There appeared to be even fewer entries than on West Fury, but I was concerned enough about my position that I did not pay much attention. Phantom is about one third of the way from West Fury to Challenger, and if things continued apace, I would be lucky to make it off by dark.

The misery continued descending off Phantom, with tricky route-finding on rotten rock on its left to bypass steps in the ridge. Considering the prospect of a bivy or a very long night made me think of efficiency: I turned off my GPS to save batteries for night-time navigation, and skipped the ridge crest whenever I thought it would save me time. As I made my slow way north, I was examining my escape route down the west side and up between two of Challenger’s lower summits.

Challenger from Crooked Thumb

Fortunately things improve considerably at “Ghost,” a subpeak of Crooked Thumb. I could have gone up some line along the south ridge, but Beckey mentions that Roper had climbed an “exposed class 4” route on the west face. Good choice! The rock reminded me a bit of the Tetons’ golden granite, and I had my first fun in awhile romping up steep, solid rock with incut holds.

The ridge from this point looks long, but the climbing remains mostly fun, with the best route generally on or near the ridge, and the descents to the north usually easier than the climbs from the south. Reaching Crooked Thumb, I found quite a bit more traffic in the register than on previous peaks, though still only a party or two per year.

Final ridge to Challenger

Since I was not rappeling, I had to make a substantial deviation west to reach the first saddle on the way to Challenger. From there, I stayed near the ridge to enjoy the fine, exposed climbing, deliberately not thinking of the grim headlamp time that awaited. Challenger’s summit ridge is a wonderful finale, a series of narrow fins with the holds angled so that the easiest route climbs right along the spine. I let out a whoop of joy, looked around for a summit register, then made the short downclimb to the Challenger Glacier.

Eiley Ridge

I had three options at this point: exit to Hannegan and hitch (16 trail miles), traverse to Whatcom Pass and take the trail back over Beaver Pass (25-30 trail miles?), or descend Eiley Ridge directly to the pass (20 trail miles). Given the time, I should have sucked it up and chosen the second, but I optimistically and foolishly took the new-to-me Eiley Ridge descent. Things started out great, with a nice hogsback of snow providing a clear path around the yawning summit crevasses, and easy jogging on the lower glacier to Challenger Arm.

I climbed Point 7374′, then was forced to sketch my way down a dirt-chute to the snowfield on its northeast side. I got more water at a tarn near frozen Wiley Lake, then continued making good time on snowfields south of the ridge to Eiley Lake. So far, so good — I thought I would be near the final bushwhack down to Beaver Pass by headlamp time.

Challenger

Unfortunately I made a mistake here, straying too far southeast of the ridge. There are several places where it is temptingly easy to descend directly east here, but they lead to Luna Creek, which is supposedly one of the worst places in the world. When I realized what had happened, I tried to fight though some scrub pines back toward the ridge, then tried side-hilling across steep grass and flowers to rejoin the ridge. Unfortunately the ridge rises again; maybe the correct route goes over Point 4984′, but I have no idea, and that was not an option for me now.

Before it got dark, I had programmed my GPS with a point a bit south of the pass, so I turned it on, turned on my headlamp, and continued via IFR. My strategy was to traverse until the point was directly down-slope, then bash my way toward it. I found plenty of wretched scrub, blueberries, and alder, but also some surprisingly open groves of big trees. Unfortunately all of it was steep and slick, but I suppose sliding on your butt is an efficient way to lose elevation.

I’m a size 10

There was much less devil’s club than I expected when I finally reached the valley bottom, but I reached my random point without hitting the trail. I did my best to bash due east, and almost fell as I stumbled out onto the trail. At the first stream that seemed safe-ish to drink, I got some water, downed a couple ibuprofen, rinsed my feet, and switched to my dry socks. My calluses were all white, soft, and wrinkled, so I knew my feet were in for a beating, but I hoped that the clean (and thinner) socks would reduce the suffering.

Moonset from Ross Dam

On a normal outing, this return would take about 4.5 hours, 3 to Ross Lake and 1.5 back to the dam. I started off at a reasonable jog, but realized shortly after Luna Camp that it would not last. I could motivate myself to jog with a mixture of Rammstein and reminders that the more I jogged the sooner it would be over, but it was a pathetic shuffle. As I neared the lake, I tripped more often, and was worried I might face-plant into one of the toads, which are even more disturbing after 3 hours’ sleep and 27 hours on the move. I could probably have gone to sleep curled up on the trail, but I wanted to do this in a single push, and did not want to be woken by a ranger’s boot or the splat of a toad to the face. I took in the moonset while crossing Ross Dam, and for once was grateful to be finishing in evening headlamp time — at least it wasn’t quite dawn.

Robson (Kain Face to SW ridge, 14h50)

Robson from visitor center


Mount Robson is the highest peak in the Canadian Rockies, towering over its neighbors in the northwest part of the range. A bit under 2000 extra feet make it a completely different beast than its neighbor to the northwest: while Whitehorn succumbed to a fast-and-light assault in about 12 hours, Robson is Serious Business, requiring ice tools, real crampons, and mountain boots. I think it should be doable in 12 hours by the easiest and most direct route (southwest ridge), but I can’t imagine that route being in condition for fast-and-light gear.

Part of what I try to do when exploring new ranges is to dispel their mystery and the accompanying irrational fear. My previous Robson encounter, while successful, had something of the opposite effect. This time, better weather and information resulted in a much better experience, though the mountain still tested my ability and nerve.

Robson from near col

The classic route on Robson is the Kain Face, traditionally reached by a long hike around to Berg Lake, then a hazardous ascent of the Mousetrap Icefall. Both of these factors led me to choose the southwest ridge back in 2014. Since then I have learned of the Patterson Spur approach, which avoids both distance and hazard, and turns out to be shockingly well-flagged. This allowed me to climb the classic, aesthetic route in 14h50 car-to-car. Doing so required balancing contradictory time constraints: on the one hand, I did not believe I could do the approach at night; on the other, the Kain Face and Robson Glacier receive morning sun, so they are best climbed early. I split the difference, starting at 3:22 to hike the Berg Lake trail at night, and climbing the face mid-morning in sloppy but not hazardous conditions.

Patterson Spur near center in sun

The Patterson Spur trail is well-disguised from the hoi polloi, but if you know where to look, you can find a faint boot-path, which soon turns into a reasonably-maintained and extravagantly-flagged climbers’ trail ascending through the woods around the toe of Robson’s south-southeast ridge. The trail peters out in a large slide path, where the route crosses the outflows of some hanging glaciers, then follows the streams toward the Robson-Resplendent col. Occasional flagging and maintenance lead up the slope, with some vegetable combat, to a broad cirque of talus and ledges.

Resplendent

I found an occasional cairn here or there, but there are many possible paths up the slope. The eventual goal is to cross left across the small glaciers’ terminal moraines, then ascend an indistinct ridge (the Patterson Spur) to the R-R col. Getting onto the ridge via rock looked tricky, so I booted up the side of the glacier to its right, then continued the long, meandering climb, finally meeting the sun a few hundred feet below the ridge. From a starting elevation of 2780′ at the parking lot, this approach climbs to around 9,000′ at the col, covering a bit less than two thirds of the total elevation gain.

Robson from R-R col

R-R col is distressingly far from the Kain Face, and this part of the Robson Glacier looked uninvitingly crevassed, so I was happy to follow a recent boot-pack along the ridge, scrambling a mixture of rock and softening snow. I was hoping that the people I was following knew what they were doing, but discovered at the top of a snow-slope that I was wrong. The ridge is separated from the glacier by a bergschrund for its entire length, and becomes more difficult near a large notch at Robson’s SSE ridge. The party ahead had dithered for awhile, then retreated, briefly checking out a likely ‘schrund crossing before… admitting ignominious defeat? Being made of sterner/stupider stuff, I carefully crossed the ‘schrund where they had chickened out, briefly wallowing thigh-deep before reaching ankle- to calf-deep snow on the glacier.

Down face to Robson Glacier

The Robson Glacier looked like serious business, with gaping crevasses on the direct line to the Kain Face, so I took a cautious, roundabout line near the ‘schrund. I tried to minimize the wretched postholing by crossing old slide debris, but it was still slow going, and I was concerned about the state of the face above me. I sweated my way around to the base of the route, and finally put on crampons.

Kain Face ‘schrund

There is another ‘schrund near the base of the Kain Face, and it proved more difficult than I had anticipated. Even where the gaping pit was filled with slide debris, it presented an overhanging slush-cliff that I could not climb. Finally, traversing nearly all the way to the right-hand side, I found a place where it was just filled in enough to carefully cross. I don’t entirely understand how the snowpack changes on Robson, but it seems like the face may be completely inaccessible later this summer.

Across Kain Face toward Resplendent

Above the ‘schrund, I climbed a few hundred feet of steep, calf-deep slush plunging both tools for security. The slush eventually thinned, and I climbed a good bit of honest-to-God ice with a thin covering, allowing me to engage my front-points and tools for real. I hadn’t climbed any ice in awhile, so I over-gripped my tools and stuck them too deep for awhile. As the angle began to ease, the face grew an unpleasant layer of aerated junk over the ice. My feet still fell solid, but I was less confident about my tool placements.

Summit climb

Finally reaching the SSE ridge, I was confronted by another 1000 feet of easy ridge-walking and nontrivial climbing. The ridge starts out broad, and the snow was perfect for cramponing on the left side, well off the cornice. I was no longer sheltered from the wind, which kicked bits of rime past me toward the Robson Glacier, but it remained perfectly clear, and I was warm enough while moving. I stopped from time to time to turn away from the wind, warm my face, and admire the view of Resplendent and the large, complex glacier.

Rimed-up crevasse below summit

The climb steepens toward the top, passing around or over rime formations on the edge of the summit glacier. The snow remained pleasantly firm, and I could French-step much of the slope, front-pointing up occasional steeper bits. Just below the summit, I found a rime-encrusted crevasse right across the ridge. It looked like it might be possible to go around it on the right, but that would be awfully close to the cornices, so I traversed left, crossed a well-bridged part, then climbed a pitch of weird snice covered in inch-long rime feathers, finally reaching the broad summit plateau.

Rime sculpture

In addition to the 2-3 equally high humps I remembered from last time, I found a number of huge, trippy rime towers, fed by the clouds that often blanket the peak. The sky remained clear for me, though, and I looked down in all directions on a sea of lesser peaks. I was partly sheltered from the wind in the lee of a rime-blob, but didn’t linger long, as I had a lot of descending to do. With a clear view of nearly my entire descent route, it was easy to follow the edge of the summit glacier down to the top of the Schwartz Ledges, climbing between two rime towers.

Looking up from Little Robson

After much inward-facing downclimbing, I reached the normal rock transition and removed my crampons. As I was here a bit earlier in the season than last time, the ledges still held patches of evil slush protecting ice. After a slip, I tried to continue along the edge of the glacier, only to find knee-deep slush-wallowing. I glissaded one small, tame section, then made the annoying transition back across the ice to the rock, then avoided snow as much as possible on my way toward the icefall hazard.

Schwartz Ledges

With some obnoxious downclimbing and a brief shower crossing under some ice, I found a ledge leading across the famous icefall gully on which I could step across the lingering snow in the couloir. After crossing the col to Little Robson, difficulties from the snow decreased, though it still interfered with the easiest path in a couple places. Perhaps because of this, I found this section more difficult than I remembered, including a low 5th class dihedral. Nearing the final ice-dodging section just above the hut, I heard the occasional rock pinging down the side of the glacier. Pausing before crossing the gully, I heard and then saw a dozen or so rocks large enough to brain me whiz by, encouraging some haste.

Welcome home!

I took a break at the Forster hut, eating my last sandwich and wringing out my soaked socks. The hut looked abandoned, with the door ajar and a dead rat on the doorstep. Fortunately I had passed this way before, because the trail down to Kinney Lake is similarly neglected, and rapidly returning to nature. It is particularly easy to lose at either end, overgrown on top and blocked by deadfall on bottom. Also of note, the handlines on the 4th class step partway down are nothing but untrustworthy tat now. Fortunately I knew where to look up high, and only lost the route for a bit. My feet, wet for hours, ached in my boots, and my hands, covered in small cuts from the sharp rock, suffered as well grappling with roots and branches.

Finally emerging on the wide tourist trail, I limped the remaining 5k to the trailhead, barely passing the occasional tourist. At the car, I gratefully stripped out of my wet boots and filthy clothes, then drove up to the visitor center for some slow wifi before returning to the trailhead to pass out in the car. I had emerged victorious, but with a healthy respect for the Great White Fright.

Whitehorn (S ridge, 11h55)

Upper Whitehorn Glacier


Whitehorn is, by a hair, the northernmost 11er in the Canadian Rockies. However, Mount Robson towers 1500 feet higher across the valley, so Whitehorn sees relatively little attention. The classic route follows the west ridge, with a long approach circling all the way around the mountain counter-clockwise from the Berg Lake trailhead. I chose the similarly-difficult south ridge because it has shorter approaches, following the trail for 6-7 miles before ascending either to the Whitehorn Glacier, or to a valley to its south. I went up the latter and down the former, and found both to be rugged and little-used.

SW approach goes up that

Since I was doing a ridge route, I got a lazy start a bit before 6:00 (PDT) with my usual lightweight mountaineering gear, making the miles of well-graded trail past Kinney Lake much more pleasant than in boots. The day was looking predictably and depressingly smoky, and Robson’s ice-capped summit was hidden in a small cloud, but the weather looked reasonable for what I was attempting. The guidebook made the glacier approach sound less reliable, so I opted for the glacier-free southwest ridge approach, leaving the trail at a talus slope a bit more than 9 km in.

Sketchy dirt-ledge

The route immediately started to suck in numerous ways. First, I climbed up almost 1000 feet of loose scree and hard-packed dirt. I was aiming for the mouth of a hanging valley south of some cliffs, so at some point I dove into the woods, trying to follow faint game trails and open areas up and left. I believe I was “on route,” as I eventually found a scary, exposed dirt ledge that led, after a bit more bush-whacking, to the desired valley, where I found a lone, useless cairn.

Looking down SW ridge approach

I stayed mostly on the north side of the valley as I climbed west, side-hilling on a mix of turf and talus. I passed a large piece of old avalanche snow, then continued along a stream toward the alpine. The mosquitoes and black flies were out in force, often making it possible to kill more than one with a single swat, but as long as I kept moving, they were bearable.

Looking up SW ridge to S ridge

I eventually turned north, crossing some rolling terrain to a milky lake in a large talus-bowl, where the bugs at last relented. The route gains the southwest ridge north of a sharp fin, via a mixture of choss, rotten steps, and a couple of snow patches soft enough not to need crampons. The climb to the junction with the southeast ridge is similar, mixing talus-walking with route-finding through crumbly cliff bands.

Nice sidewalk

At the ridge junction I finally got a reprieve, as narrow but nearly-flat ridge is topped by long sections of exposed sidewalk. The final climb, however, is the choss of nightmares, blobs of outward-sloping garbage flaking off in dinner-plates. At one point I gently bumped my head on an overhang, and a chunk fell off and hit me back. The guide calls it 5.3, but YDS ratings make no sense to me on such terrain; it’s all sketchy.

Longstaff and Swiftcurrent Glacier

The smoke seemed to be thinning, and I had reasonably clear views of Mount Longstaff and the large Swiftcurrent Glacier to the west, and almost all of Robson to the east. There was no sign of any recent visitors. I hung out on the slightly chilly summit for awhile, then sketched my way back down to the ridge junction. The glacier looked pretty tame, so I decided to try that route on the way out. The southeast ridge was steeper and more rotten than the southwest, so I got on some snow to the right as soon as I could, plunge-stepping down to a saddle at the top of the glacier.

Lower Whitehorn Glacier

While there are some large crevasse-fields, there was a pretty clear route down to the low-angle part, where I made my way to the northeast edge. There turned out to be a long tongue extending from the south side down to about 6500 feet, not visible from above, and I spent some time descending on more- and less-pleasant rock to get around it. Below, I found the route much as described, with some difficulty and an old piton in a black cliff-band. Below, I crossed the glacier’s outflow streams on generally pleasant scree and gravel, aiming for the south side of a gash they had carved in the lower cliffs.

Almost 10k feet from summit to lake

Here I finally found more consistent cairns, though no discernible use trail or even game trail. I would have been reluctant to descend this way if I did not know that there was a path, as it looks from above as if it will cliff out in several places. But there are just enough breaks in the cliff bands, and I soon found myself on a small trail near the Whitehorn ranger cabin, which joins the main trail next to a fun-looking suspension bridge. I jogged the downhills and flats on the way back, picking up my pace a bit when I realized I could make it back in under 12 hours. I had optimistically planned to do Robson the next day, but I felt sufficiently beaten-up to deserve an easy day.

Oso

Oso above Moon Lake

Oso above Moon Lake


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

Granite Peaks Ranch

Granite Peaks Ranch

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

North across Emerald Lake

North across Emerald Lake

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

Moon Lake

Moon Lake

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

Peters Peak

Peters Peak

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

Lake Mary Alice

Lake Mary Alice

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

Oso from the east

Oso from the east

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

RGP from Oso

RGP from Oso

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

Needles and Grenadiers from summit

Needles and Grenadiers from summit

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

Porcupine

Porcupine

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

American marten

American marten

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

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

Traverse from Nine to Guardian

Traverse from Nine to Guardian


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

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

Swamp donkey!

Swamp donkey!

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

Sunrise on Vestal and Arrow

Sunrise on Vestal and Arrow

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

Vestal, Arrow

Vestal, Arrow

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

Vestal-Trinity pass at center

Vestal-Trinity pass at center

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

West down Tenmile Creek

West down Tenmile Creek

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

Storm King from col

Storm King from col

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

Silex from saddle

Silex from saddle

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

Lake Silex

Lake Silex

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

Notch on Storm King and Peak Nine

Notch on Storm King and Peak Nine

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

Traverse from Nine to Guardian

Traverse from Nine to Guardian

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

Nine and Storm King from ridge

Nine and Storm King from ridge

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

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

Silex and descent route from Guardian

Silex and descent route from Guardian

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

Needles from Guardian

Needles from Guardian

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

Descent to Stormy Gulch

Descent to Stormy Gulch

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

Looking down Stormy Gulch

Looking down Stormy Gulch

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

Storm King to East Trinity

Storm King to East Trinity

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

Looking down Vestal Basin

Looking down Vestal Basin

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

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

Jupiter (10h50)

Jupiter from Hazel Lake

Jupiter from Hazel Lake


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

Don't put a bridge here

Don’t put a bridge here

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

Fording this sucks

Fording this sucks

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

Detached pillar along Johnson Creek

Detached pillar along Johnson Creek

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

Organ and Amherst

Organ and Amherst

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

Columbine Lake

Columbine Lake

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

Windom and Lake 13,100

Windom and Lake 13,100

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

Grizzly, McCauley, and Hazel Lake

Grizzly, McCauley, and Hazel Lake

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

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

Pigeon and Turret from the Animas

Pigeon and Turret from the Animas


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

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

Dense vegetation along North Pigeon Creek

Dense vegetation along North Pigeon Creek

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

Sunrise on West Needles

Sunrise on West Needles

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

Pigeon from the west

Pigeon from the west

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

Pigeon from SE

Pigeon from SE

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

Turret from Fifteen

Turret from Fifteen

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

Fifteen from Sixteen

Fifteen from Sixteen

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

Sixteen is steep on the north side!

Sixteen is steep on the north side!

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

Little Finger and Eolus

Little Finger and Eolus

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

Animas, Thirteen, Monitor

Animas, Thirteen, Monitor

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

Jagged to Sunlight ridge

Jagged to Sunlight ridge

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

Thirteen and Monitor from Animas

Thirteen and Monitor from Animas

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

Spiteful cliffs below Animas

Spiteful cliffs below Animas

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

View from Ruby Lake

View from Ruby Lake

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

Lliving llamas

Lliving llamas

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

Evolution traverse (VI 5.9 or 5.6, 17h42)

Ridge through Haeckel from valley

Ridge through Haeckel from valley


The Evolution Traverse, pioneered by Peter Croft in the 1990s, connects a long ridge of peaks from “Mount Steven Jay Gould” to Mount Huxley in the Evolution region of the Sierra. Thanks to mostly good rock and to Croft’s imprimatur, it sees a fair amount of attention from Real Climbers. “Evo” has been at the outer limit of my ambitions for the past couple of years, as its 5.9 rating is out of my league. However, this is a “Sierra traverse rating,” not a true YDS rating: as with the similarly “VI 5.9” Kaweah traverse, it can be made easier with a bit of creative route-finding.

After I broke my hand on Fury, I thought I was done with technical outings for the season. But after a successful outing on Williamson’s NE ridge and a scouting trip to Darwin, I decided to give it a try. Since I would rather use this part of the summer elsewhere next year, it was now or never, and I was fairly confident Evo was within my abilities. The short September days would be inconvenient, but if I could manage the 20-21 hours I hoped, there would be enough daylight for the ridge, and I can deal with the long approach and return at night.

Morning on Lamarck Col

Morning on Lamarck Col

I woke to my alarm at 2:00, ate the usual Cup of Sadness, supplemented it by choking down some beet nitrates, then walked the road up to the trailhead as a sort of warmup. I didn’t remember how long the approach to Darwin Bench would take me, but I wanted to have as much daylight as possible for the technical part of the day. Moving by headlamp at the start of an anticipated 20-hour day, there is little running to be done on the Lamarck Lakes approach, as the trail is often steep and/or rough, but I at least jogged a few short flatter stretches for appearances. I had an unpleasant experience getting lost on the way to Lamarck Col a number of years ago, but had no trouble this time, even on a moonless night.

Gould in daylight

Gould in daylight

The other side of the col is still the same mess of cairns and boot-prints higher up. There is a fairly decent and efficient trail lower down, but with no chance of finding it at night, I just brute-forced my way to the bottom, where I picked up the on-and-off Darwin Bench trail. I walked through some people’s camp at night, reached the end of Lake 11,623′ (rather than the normal 11,592′), then headed up some part of Gould that I thought I could make work. Gould is a mess of gullies and fins from this side, and I had not planned to start up at night, but I had crossed Lamarck faster than expected, and did not want to waste time waiting for light.

Mendel from Gould

Mendel from Gould

I turned off the headlamp after a half-hour of blind class 2-3 scrambling, and continued up my gully as it steepened. It was probably a snow/ice climb 10 years ago, but such things are increasingly rare in the Sierra, and I found only dirt and dirty rock. As it got steep, I moved right onto a rib via some class 4-5 terrain, then made my wander-y way to Gould’s summit. I glanced at the register (no pencil), then headed off toward Mendel.

Fun hand-crack before Mendel

Fun hand-crack before Mendel

Having done the traverse through Darwin in 2012, I remembered a bit of route-finding trickiness on this part, and a short headwall with a fun hand-crack. I found the latter, and had no trouble with the route-finding. Still, this is a long connecting ridge, and it took over an hour to reach Mendel.

Darwin from Mendel

Darwin from Mendel

Though Darwin looks close from Mendel, I remembered that this next part was time-consuming and difficult, and that I had rappeled one section in 2012. Despite this difficulty, the first part is a virtual golden sidewalk along the top of the ridge. After this easy early progress, it is a rude shock when the ridge suddenly turns serrated broken, and loses precious elevation. After downclimbing past one or two useless-seeming rap anchors above short drops, I moved to the left side of the ridge, hoping to traverse across some of the more difficult towers on the crest. While I might have spared myself some harder climbing, I certainly did not save time, as I had to backtrack a few times while climbing up and down to connect ledges on the steep, sometimes crappy face. I eventually took a dirty gully back up to the crest, and was much happier.

On Darwin's summit block

On Darwin’s summit block

After a final, unexpected and spitefully steep downclimb into the final notch before Darwin, class 3-4 terrain lead to the summit plateau. I dropped off toward the detached summit block and then, feeling my oats, did the direct Peter Croft-style mantle up the front side. Though a friend of mine was supposed to traverse through, I was surprised to find that my scouting mission the week before was the last entry in the summit log. I signed again, then had a snack while I psyched myself up for the second scary section, from here to 13,332′.

Trickiness south of Darwin

Trickiness south of Darwin

I went down the back of the summit pinnacle, then continued to the first nest of rap tat. The crappy downclimb seemed less scary than a week before, and I went straight across the golden face rather than taking whatever ugly line below it I had chosen then. Even though I had done it in the other direction just a week before, from there to 13,332′ was a mess of haphazard route-finding with a bit of backtracking — this part is confusing! I stayed mostly on the crest, bypassing a few things to the left or right.

Darwin from 13,332

Darwin from 13,332

I got around the crux 5.9 crack downclimb that many people mention on the other (west) side this time, via a convoluted line that involved climbing up a chimney with an unreliable-looking semi-detached 30-foot pillar in front of it. (I banged and kicked it a few times beforehand, and it stayed put.) I may be pretty bad at climbing, but I’m pretty good at alpine hijinks. I downclimbed the fifth class big-talus south of the crack, then stupidly wasted a bit more time before getting on the obvious line to 13,332′.

Haeckel from 13,332

Haeckel from 13,332

I was stoked: although I had a long ways to go, it was less than 10 hours into the day, and I was done with the scary part of the traverse. I dropped off the summit and began the long, downhill boulder-hop to Haeckel Col. It would cost very little time to drop past Lake 12,345′ instead of traversing the tricky little pyramid north of Haeckel, but I was doing fine for water on a cool-ish September day, so I stayed high.

Helicopter above Haeckel Col

Helicopter above Haeckel Col

I heard the all-too-familiar sound of a helicopter just before the col, and paused my music to pay more attention. It approached the col, then made several circles around the Haeckel-Huxley cirque. I made random “I’m okay” gestures when it was near me, but had no idea how I could or should communicate. Taking several trips back to base to refuel, it eventually set up a base camp near Lake 12,021′ and extracted someone from Haeckel’s west face. I saw nothing as I climbed past this section of the ridge, but learned later that it was recovering the body of a woman who had just been doing exactly what I was doing.

Enter the Choss...

Enter the Choss…

After getting past the pyramid, I found Haeckel’s northwest arête to be a fun class 3-4 romp on mostly good rock, and after mostly slow technical climbing and the descent to the col, I had the energy to move quickly. I found the register container stuck shut, and continued quickly along decent rock on the top of the ridge. Wallace is a garbage-mound, and Haeckel-Wallace Col marks the start of the traverse’s chossy section, which continues to somewhere past the aptly-named “Crumbling Spire.” I signed in on Wallace, relieved to see my friend’s entry from a few days ago, then chossed on.

Endless ridge to Fiske

Endless ridge to Fiske

I had done Huxley-Warlow-Fiske in 2009 or 2010, and remembered that doing it in that direction felt like “petting a cat the wrong way” — walk up boulders, then downclimb steep stuff. However, I had not remembered any particularly tricky climbing, and was surprised to find quite a few 5th class sections on what I thought was the home stretch. I was getting tired, and the long traverse to Fiske seemed endless, with each technical difficulty feeling like an affront. Only when I reached the headwall on Huxley, steep enough to be thought-provoking but not scary, did I enjoy the challenge rather than resent the slower progress.

Huxley with Darwin behind

Huxley with Darwin behind

While I was happy with my time as I signed in on Huxley, I was feeling worn down, and apprehensive as I looked at the long route I must take back around Gould, up near the other side of Darwin, and over Lamarck Col, in the lengthening shadows of afternoon. I dropped down the wrong (second) gully about halfway before crossing over into the northern one to pick up a faint bootpack. It didn’t matter: after so many hours on class 4-5 terrain, I barely noticed a few 4th class steps.

Joining the Jolly Manure Trench

Joining the Jolly Manure Trench

I finished my water at the base of the chute — perfect timing! — then refilled a safe distance from the Jolly Manure Trench, crammed down some pop-tarts, then took off at a jog down the trail, finding enough energy to make good time on the gradual descent. I passed the usual assortment of campers settling in for the night, then turned off on the Darwin Bench trail as the JMT dropped through the woods toward Colby Meadow.

Sunset on Darwin Bench

Sunset on Darwin Bench

I had expected to do this section at night, but was thankful to be ahead of schedule making my way up Darwin Bench. While the trail is clear in some places, it fades in and out of existence crossing slabs and boulder-fields; it would be hard to get lost in the early moonlit night, but it would also be easy to lose a lot of time. Knowing that daylight would save me time on Lamarck Col as well, I forced myself to jog some of the flatter sections, and reached the sign at the col around sunset. Realizing that I could go under 18 hours, I ran the sandy upper col in the twilight, passing a couple camping near a random snowbank, then finally turned on my headlamp on the switchbacks just above the creek crossing. I at least managed not to face-plant as I negotiated the rocky trail past Lamarck Lake to Piute Creek, then ran past a few campers to the sign to stop the clock. I whistled happily as I wound down on the walk back to the car. It had been a good day.

Splits

  • Piute TH (2:49 AM)
  • Lamarck Col (4:44)
  • Gould (6:36)
  • Mendel (7:46)
  • Darwin (9:18)
  • 13,332′ (11:31)
  • Haeckel (12:29 PM)
  • Wallace (12:59)
  • Crumbling Spire (1:19)
  • Fiske (2:14)
  • Warlow (3:12)
  • Huxley (4:04)
  • Lamarck Col (7:09)
  • Piute TH (8:31)

Gear notes

I used some trail runners I am familiar with and trust on rock for the whole thing. I took 1L of water over Lamarck Col, filled up with ~2.5L before leaving Darwin Bench, then got another ~1.5L after Huxley. I had ~4000 calories of food: 5 packs of pop-tarts (2000 cal), 6 caffeinated Clif bars (1500 cal), and 3 “sweet ‘n’ salty” granola bars (540 cal). I also consumed a half-dozen salt pills and 600mg of ibuprofen. Other than that, I had standard Sierra hiking gear.

Comparing traverses

Having now done the Evolution and Kaweah Traverses, both rated “VI 5.9,” with similar levels of fitness and climbing competence, it’s worth comparing them. Evolution has a longer traverse section, a slightly harder crux (5.6 vs. 5.4-5.5), and trickier route-finding keeping the difficulty within the realm of things I can solo. However, Kaweah’s climbing is more sustained: once past Second Kaweah, there are no long choss or boulder-hopping sections. Kaweah’s rock quality is also somewhat worse, demanding some caution, though it is better in the steeper parts than one would expect given the Kaweahs’ reputation. Kaweah’s approach (Glacier and Hands-and-Knees Passes) is also much harder than Evolution’s (trail or pseudo-trail over Lamarck Col).

Northeast ridge of Williamson (~13h45)

Upper ridge from Symmes saddle

Upper ridge from Symmes saddle


While California’s highest peak, Mount Whitney, hides well back from the Owens Valley, its second highest, Mount Williamson, stands strikingly close to the eastern edge of the range. Its long, twisting northeast ridge, rising 8000 feet from the sloping valley bottom, is one of the more striking features seen while driving along highway 395. This long, waterless ridge, rated between class 4 and 5.6 depending upon whom you believe, is something of a classic “type II fun” Sierra climb.

Sunrise on the dirt-slope

Sunrise on the dirt-slope

After three solid days, the last a dayhike to Bolton Brown out of Red Lake (ugh), I took a day off, then drove down to Independence to camp at the base of the ridge. When my alarm woke me entirely too early, I felt stiff and unmotivated, and decided to take another day off and try a later start. An hour-plus bushwhack by headlamp was not how I wanted to start my day, so I got an irresponsibly late start around 5:45, using my headlamp just long enough to make the surprisingly tricky crossing of Shepherd Creek before pocketing it to begin the ‘schwack. I knew I had a few hours at the end of the day descending Shepherd Pass that I would almost rather do in the dark.

Looking down litterbox

Looking down litterbox

The first 3500 feet do not follow a well-defined ridge, but instead climb a steep slope of decomposed granite — basically kitty litter with trees and brush. As on the similar start to the northeast ridge of Lone Pine Peak, I was able to find some game trails to make it more manageable, but it was still a slog. Fortunately the slope is angled so that I remained in the shade for most of the climb, staying cool and saving my precious water.

View back down lower ridge

View back down lower ridge

Above this initial climb, the ridge becomes narrower and flatter, entering a new regime of suck. From 9900′ to where it turns south around 11,000′, the ridge is mostly uneven on top, with steep, sandy, brushy terrain on the south side, and often unusably steep rock on the north. The easiest path usually stays close to the crest on its south side. I found an old paint can hanging from a tree, and possibly some old boot-prints, but there were very few signs of human passage.

Looking down from above first south turn

Looking down from above first south turn

Around 10,500′, the ridge is cut by a double notch, which presents the first real climbing challenge. I got into the first notch via some 4th class on the crest or to its north, then continued along and up the right (north) side on class 3-4 ledges and slabs. The terrain on the left may have been less steep, but the lack of brush on the right made it seem preferable. From here to the southward turn I stayed close to the crest, which offered brief stretches of quick hiking broken up by boulder problems. After a morning of brush, I welcomed something more like climbing.

Crux-y section

Crux-y section

Passing the turn, I stayed right of the crest, diagonaling up class 2-3 terrain to where the ridge flattens out near another notch. It might be easiest here to head far right and climb the talus-slope, but I thought it would be more fun and sporting to stay somewhere near the ridge. I found the first crux near a step in some reddish rock that was just a bit too large to jump. Climbing down the left side of the ridge, I found a few pieces of rap tat, which I climbed past and around via some tricky traversing right and down, to where I could regain the ridge at a notch.

Arch!

Arch!

Farther up, where the ridge splits, I was again forced down the left side. This time, I was surprised and pleased to find a natural arch burrowing through the notch that had caused me to leave the crest. I passed through to the right side of the ridge, then climbed some easier class 2-3 slabs to where the ridge flattens and turns back north. I am amazed that I did not find any mention of this arch on Summitpost, since it seemed natural to pass through it on the climb.

Difficulties before East Horn

Difficulties before East Horn

The ridge becomes easy talus here, and it looks like it should be smooth sailing to the top of the East Horn. But the rock turns ominously reddish as the ridge makes another jog south, usually a sign of rotten, shale-y rock in the Sierra. After climbing the crest of the garbage-fest for a bit, I crossed again to the right side to avoid some decomposing towers, then began slogging the final talus-slope to the East Horn. Due to a combination of altitude and late-season fatigue, I was painfully slow on this final easy climb.

Crux chimney

Crux chimney

With most of the distance and elevation gain out of the way, it was time to deal with the bulk of the technical difficulty. I dropped left of the ridge a bit on some broken terrain, then returned to the crest as the left side dropped away. Where the crest got serious before the first of two notches, I downclimbed to some rap tat, where I was momentarily stymied. Looking back, I saw that I could traverse back, down a sort of dihedral/chimney, then forward again to the base of the apparent rappel. This second crux felt about as hard as the first, definitely harder than 4th class, but not 5.6 as some claim. The rock was decent, and I felt reasonably secure in running shoes.

I could have climbed back up to the ridge crest from here, but I remembered that there is a second notch, and I suspected that going too high would lead to more difficulties. Instead, I traversed some crappy dirt-ledges, crossed a partially ice-filled gully, then crossed some outward-sloping ledges to emerge near the base of the second notch. While not as hard as the chimney, this section was probably more intimidating, made worse by leftover snow from the unusual storm a week before.

Knife-edge past West Horn

Knife-edge past West Horn

Back on easier class 3 terrain, I quickly scrambled to the top of the West Horn, where I saw that the difficulties were not quite over. Rather than guessing the route, I took the time to read Secor on my camera, which said to drop 200 feet (vertically? straight-line?) on the right side before passing through a notch. I dropped part of this distance, then saw a ledge/crack system that might save some elevation loss. I don’t think it saved time or effort, but it certainly added some interest and spice. Returning to the ridge crest before the notch, I was surprised to find an incredibly sheer knife-edge. Resisting the urge to further tear my pants with an a cheval, I carefully hand-traversed along this section, gasping in relief when the ridge once again broadened.

I traversed down into Secor’s notch, and found easier terrain leading to the gap with the true summit. A final traverse left around a slabby knoll led to the summit sand- and talus-plain. I was tempted to skip the summit, but made the trudge to see if the old register was still there, and to enjoy my summit fish a bit over 9 hours into the day. The register was intact, but the talus gnats had apparently migrated up from Lake Helen of Troy since I was last here in 2012, so I moved on quickly, cramming down some pop-tarts as I boulder-hopped toward the tourist route.

Williamson from near Shepherd Pass

Williamson from near Shepherd Pass

The rest of the day was familiar: slide down the loose chute, hop across the Williamson Bowl, then make the surprisingly long hike past Tyndall to the Shepherd Pass trail. For better or worse, I was fast enough to do the trail entirely in daylight. The top section, which switchbacks down a steep scree-slope, was partly destroyed as usual. Below Anvil camp, I saw signs of a trail crew re-routing (and doubtless lengthening) the trail where it crosses a dirt-gully. Though frustratingly low-angle, the trail is at least pleasantly runnable from here to the base of the dreaded sand hill, and I had enough energy to make good time. I hiked the hill, hated life down the endless switchbacks into Symmes Creek, then appreciated the newly-improved water crossings on the final stretch to the parking lot.

As I was parked a mile or so away at the mouth of Shepherd Creek, I slowed briefly in the parking lot while preparing to jog the road. A man just packing for a late start to a backpack hailed me and asked me my name; I gave it warily, figuring I had offended some authority or other. Instead, he turned out to be the guy who had videotaped me coming down the very same trail on my 14er record run in 2012. After getting over the amazing coincidence, we talked for awhile, then he got back to packing while I jogged and hiked the remaining distance to my car. I had not felt fast for most of the day, but I think my time of around 13h45 is fairly respectable.

East Fury (20h45)

Traverse toward Fury

Traverse toward Fury


East Fury anchors the southern end of the core Northern Pickets, which wrap around Luna Cirque to Challenger. The easiest way to reach it requires 17 miles along the Ross Lake and Big Beaver trails, a heinous bushwhack up Access Creek, and a long traverse over snow and rock along the ridge west of Luna Peak. While I had hoped to do something much more ambitious, simply tagging East Fury by itself was a serious undertaking, significantly longer than doing Luna by the same approach last year.

Planning something bigger, I did some sleep manipulation and napping to be at least somewhat rested for a start just after midnight. The advantage of doing the Big Beaver approach at night is that you don’t have to think so much about how long it is. The main disadvantage is the giant toads, which squat in the middle of the trail and galumph in some random direction if you give them time to think. I made the Big Beaver junction in about 1h20, and was at somewhere near the start of Access Creek by 3:45 AM, much better time than I had expected.

Luna from the wrong place

Luna from the wrong place

I was not really prepared to start the cross-country in the dark, but I had a map and GPS, and Access Creek sucks no matter what, so I put on my pant legs and headed off into the woods. After thrashing down to the stream-bank and looking around a bit, it was light enough for me to pick out a decent ford: I saw no sign of last year’s complicated log bridge. I splashed through the slow, thigh-deep water without bothering to take off my shoes or pants, as I figured they would be soaked by brush anyways.

Slog up to Luna-MacMillan saddle

Slog up to Luna-MacMillan saddle

I cut back and forth as I climbed the other side of the Big Beaver, periodically checking my coordinates to try to figure out where I was relative to Access Creek. Unfortunately my map wasn’t high-resolution enough to be much use, as the creek is completely undetectable from as little as a hundred yards away, so when I finally got a clear view around 4500′, I saw that I was well above the creek on the south side of its valley. After a descending traverse with much misery and trashing through pines and berries, I crossed to the north side for a bit, then crossed back south to pick up the “trail.” I estimated I had lost an hour or more versus the correct route.

Fury from Luna Col

Fury from Luna Col

At least I knew where to go from here, and I made quick work of the gully up to the saddle with MacMillan Creek, which still held a bit of avoidable snow. After a short break enjoying the view of the Southern Pickets, I made the long traverse to the Luna saddle, where I got my first glimpse of Fury, far to the west along an undulating ridge.

After unnecessarily traversing around the first bump, I stayed mostly on top of the ridge, which is mostly broad and flat. I found a few cairns at one point where the route deviates north, and some typical Cascades rappel-junk where it deviates south. Though none of it is difficult, the traverse is long, made longer by the remaining patches of soft snow.

Southern Pickets, Outrigger, SE glacier

Southern Pickets, Outrigger, SE glacier

Shortly before where the ridge turns to sharp, red choss, the route traverses south across a bowl, going under some rock buttresses to reach the Southeast Fury Glacier. The glacier itself was both badly broken up and covered in soft snow, so it was faster to follow the ledge-y third class rock to its right most of the way up, then traverse a bit of snow to the saddle just east of the summit, which is hidden behind a snow dome from this direction. I crossed the top of the glacier, then cautiously kicked my way up the left side of the snow dome before transitioning to more third class rock to reach the summit, about 11h35 from the car.

Baker and West Fury

Baker and West Fury

It was a perfect day, with most of the Cascade visible, and even Rainier making a ghostly appearance far to the south. The rest of northern Pickets stretched out to the west and north, as well as the long return route from Challenger to Beaver Pass. I thought about traversing over to West Fury, which is not that far away, but the ridge looked like complicated choss, and I was a bit demotivated by the morning’s Access Creek fiasco. Instead, I sat around perusing the register, eating, and taking photos, then began my return.

Luna and Prophet

Luna and Prophet

The steep snow slopes were unpleasantly soft, so I stuck to rock around the snow dome. The northeast side of the glacier was flat enough to plunge-step and boot-ski partway, before crossing the rocks at its edge. Now that I knew the route, the return to Access Creek was efficient, but still took quite a bit of time. Anticipating vicious insects and brush below, I put my pant legs back on before descending to the creek, putting up with sweaty legs.

The correct route above the creek crossing was mostly pleasant, with a decent path beaten through a thin strip of berries and alder. At a wider strip of brush near 4000′, where the woods are close to the north side of the creek, the current route crosses to dive into the relatively open woods. I tried to cross on some logs instead of just fording, and was rewarded with both wet feet and a bashed hand when I slipped. The best route stays in open woods somewhat near the creek higher up, then strays farther away onto an indistinct ridge as the creek steepens and turns north. I had to contend with some vicious blueberries when I lost it in a couple of places, but still made pretty good time down to the Big Beaver. Here you stay left above the swamp, then reach the stream junction mostly in blueberries.

Weird clouds and Ross Lake

Weird clouds and Ross Lake

I recognized the series of logs I had used the previous year, but one was either submerged or gone. Fortunately there is a reasonable ford immediately upstream. After a bit of devil’s club and other misery, I lucked into the correct path into the woods, and was back to the trail much sooner than expected. Only 17 miles to home!

The bugs were out in full force, and I was completely swarmed by flies in the brief time it took to remove my pant legs for the hobble/jog. I ran a few miles to a place that seemed less buggy, then stopped to quickly wring out my socks before trudging on. The final stretch from Big Beaver to Ross Dam was as miserable as last time, though at least it was still light. My hand ached, my back was sore where my (unused) crampons had been poking it through my pack, and my feet, which had been damp or wet most of the day, were working on blisters. I crept up the spiteful climb from the dam to the trailhead, humbled by the unexpected difficulty of my larger plan (not this year…), but pleased to have dayhiked one of the most remote peaks in the lower 48.