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.

Miscellaneous Sangre de Cristo photos

I don’t normally do photo-only posts, but here are some highlights from a couple of uninteresting days with interesting scenery.

“Crestolita”, Broken Hand

Crestolita from Broken Hand

Crestolita from Broken Hand


With some early-season snow forecast for the San Juans, I headed east to the drier and warmer Sangre de Cristos slightly earlier than expected. The unsettled forecast led me to make less-than-ambitious plans, including this pair of 13ers just south of the Crestone 14ers. Though I did not get rained or snowed on, this short outing felt about right for a cold and, up high, bitterly windy day.

Looking down Cottonwood Creek

Looking down Cottonwood Creek

I had run part of the Cottonwood Creek approach this spring, but had not seen the upper canyon. Unlike the neighboring Willow Creek trail, which sees a good deal of stock and 14er-bagger traffic, and is therefore wide and graded for wheelchairs, this trail is not passable by horses, and sees little human traffic. As a more difficult alternate approach to the Crestones, and to a few obscure lesser peaks, it sees enough traffic to maintain the cairns and keep the willows mostly at bay, but is faint and blocked by a number of minor blow-downs. It is also blessedly direct, climbing straight up the valley from 8400′ to where the stream splits near Crestolita’s west ridge at 11,000′.

Polished conglomerate slab

Polished conglomerate slab

I passed a tent on the way up, then continued through open woods and across some interestingly polished conglomerate slabs. At the fork in the stream, the only extant trail turns left, looping back as the stream is channeled back west through a cleft in the rock. The trail becomes increasingly faint as it climbs steeply through talus and willows toward Cottonwood Lake. I left it near the second cascade, making my way for a grassy ledge that cuts back south to gain Crestolita’s west ridge above its cliffy toe.

Crestolita from NW

Crestolita from NW

Once on the ridge, I made my way up easy grass and sheep-trails toward Crestolita’s twin summit, looking behind me to see what sort of clouds were coming. Crestone Peak’s and Needle’s summits remained just hidden to the north, as did the tops of Music and Pico Aislado to the southeast. I had a mostly pleasant climb, shielded from the wind until nearly the top. Once on the summit, I pulled the usual pile of wet paper from the PVC register canister, then hid in the peak’s lee to put on all my clothes and read what I could.

Humbolt and Broken Hand from Crestolita

Humbolt and Broken Hand from Crestolita

Broken Hand is close, but watching the wind whip over the ridge between it and Crestone Needle, it took me a few minutes to summon the motivation to replace the wet paper and reemerge from my sheltered spot. I had thought to simply traverse to the saddle east of Crestolita, but doing so would keep me in the wind, so I instead dropped down a loose gully on the north face, then contoured out onto grassy ledges to its east. After a descending traverse to the saddle, I realized I had been lucky: while I had seen a few cairns and nothing harder than class 3 on my route, Crestolita’s northeast ridge looked steep and tricky, and would have been no fun to downclimb in gloves.

Crestone Needle from Broken Hand

Crestone Needle from Broken Hand

From the saddle, it was more easy grass to Broken Hand, where I appreciated the summit for all of 10 seconds, then descended before my eyeballs froze. Being part of a standard 14er route, the west side of Broken Hand Pass featured a CFI-installed trail that extended to the base of the red gully on Crestone Peak (which does not yet have a hand-line). Below that point, the trail back down Cottonwood Creek is somewhere between faint and nonexistent. After a bit of struggle following game trails through willows, I picked up the route I had used on the way up, and was on my way home. The tent was still there as I jogged by, and I smelled a campfire, but I neither saw nor heard the occupants; I’m not sure how they were spending their cold, wet weekend.

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.

Rio Grande Pyramid

Classic RGP view

Classic RGP view


Rising alone above a low, gently-rolling part of the San Juans, Rio Grande Pyramid is a landmark visible from many peaks in the range. It is also one of Colorado’s more remote major peaks. It has little to offer from a climber’s perspective — it’s a basalt choss-pile a long hike from the nearest road. However, since I’m not primarily a climber, I was looking forward to finally standing on top of it. I remembered that it was remote, but when I looked up the details the afternoon before, I realized that it is only “remote” in a Colorado sense of the word: 20 miles round-trip and 4,400 feet of gain from the Thirtymile trailhead at Rio Grande Reservoir.

Moonset over aspens

Moonset over aspens

I woke to my 5:00 alarm, drove the rest of the way to the trailhead, and started by headlamp just before 6:00 AM. This would be a short day, but sometimes morning headlamp is good for the soul. I spent perhaps a half-hour by headlamp traversing along Rio Grande Reservoir’s southern shore, then turned it off as I climbed through the short, narrow basalt canyon of Weminuche Creek. The canyon quickly opens up into broad meadows, slowly gaining elevation to the nearly-imperceptible Weminuche Pass. Though this trail sees a lot of horse traffic, I found it less repulsive and dusty than the Sierra stock trails I have recently been traveling. Along the way I passed a “sick” llama, staked to the ground and “resting” in a very corpse-like way.

Skyline trail

Skyline trail

At the pass, I turned off the main trail on the abandoned Skyline trail. For some reason this is the standard approach for RGP, though the likely-maintained Divide Trail heads in more or less the same direction less than a mile farther south. Despite the lack of maintenance, the trail is only obliterated by deadfall in one small section, and remains usable through the long brush traverse above Rincon La Vaca. I finally found sunrise a couple hundred feet above the pass, and hiked the climb through sparse woods in a t-shirt.

Approaching the Window

Approaching the Window

As the trail flattens out around 12,000 feet, Rio Grande Pyramid appears in its classic pose, still discouragingly far away. The trail makes a long westward traverse through endless brush, which turns out to be surprisingly runnable on the way down. The standard route up RGP’s east face and ridge is clearly visible the entire way. While Summitpost recommends visiting RGP and the window as separate out-and-backs, that seemed wasteful to me. I decided to tag the Window first, then figure out a line back up the peak from there.

Real San Juans and Window shadow

Real San Juans and Window shadow

There are a mass of more- and less-usable old trails in this area. The most usable are of course the CDT and an equestrian route along part of the Skyline to near 12,600′ on RGP’s east side. I followed the Skyline toward the unnamed lake below the Window, then left it cross-country to pick up a faint old trail climbing through brush and talus just northeast of the Window. Another trail connects the Window directly to the lake.

South face of RGP

South face of RGP

After looking through to the “real” San Juans — the Grenadiers and Needles — I made my way north across the grass toward the peak. RGP’s south side is a mess of rotten cliffs and scree, so I decided to traverse around to the eastern standard route, which was presumably less bad. This worked well: I stayed above 12,800′ across a bench, then briefly contended with some nasty loose stuff before picking up the standard route around 13,100′.

Upper talus-cone

Upper talus-cone

Though the standard route is less bad than the rest of the mountain, it is still a mound of ill-behaved basalt talus, so the climb wasn’t overly inspiring. The summit, however, is well worth the effort. Most of the terrain north, south, and east is a rolling subalpine mix of (dead) conifers, aspens, and meadows. To the west, the Grenadiers and Needles rise 4-5,000 feet above Vallecito Creek. I could easily pick out Arrow and Vestal, but the Needles were too jumbled and unfamiliar for me to identify. Clearly I need to pay them another visit. I signed the surprisingly-busy register, then headed down the standard route.

Starting descent

Starting descent

After getting off the upper talus-cone, I realized I had chosen wisely visiting the Window and RGP in this order: the standard route to the Skyline was a quick boot-ski on the way down, but would be a miserable talus- or sand-slog going up. I had no reason to jog the trail back, but it seemed like the natural thing to do. I passed the “resting” llama, which had attracted a cloud of flies by now, and a few dayhikers near the trailhead, but was surprised by the absence of backpackers and leaf-peepers on a pleasant Saturday. I had some post-hike tuna, then informed the llama’s owner of its unfortunate demise on the drive out. The outing had only taken about 6h45; I clearly needed to raise my sights.

A Bear and a Half

Catwalk to Half's summit

Catwalk to Half’s summit


Grizzly Mountain A and Half Peak were actually pretty easy, but I couldn’t resist the title. Both peaks are on the list of Colorado’s highest 100, and both happen to be the type of half-day peaks I use to break up long drives.

Mine below Grizzly

Mine below Grizzly

I slept just inside Colorado after doing Kings, then continued south, not sure exactly where I was headed. I had potential plans for both the Sawatch and San Juan ranges, so I made my way first to Leadville. There was a fresh dusting of snow on the peaks around town, looking more serious viewed from the north. After a brief stop in Leadville, I headed up toward Independence Pass to tag Grizzly and see what the snow was actually like.

It's fall in Colorado

It’s fall in Colorado

I cautiously drove the badly potholed road past the La Plata trailhead, parking at a three-way split when I probably could have driven another mile. Oh, well. After lunch, I put on my hip belt, tied a windbreaker around my waist, and started up the road. I was used to warm days in the Sierra, and was slightly nonplussed by the hat-and-gloves weather here, even at midday.

Grizzly's east ridge

Grizzly’s east ridge

I passed a woman walking her dogs down the road, then had the place to myself as I continued past the gate to the mine at the end of the old road. From there, a line of cairns continued up the drainage before turning north before Grizzly’s cliffy southeast face. The Summitpost page complained about a loose dirt-chute getting to the east ridge, but I found it fairly pleasant. The key is to follow a vaguely-defined grassy ledge ascending from right to left, which deposits you west of some bumps on the ridge. From there, a semi-defined trail led to the false and eventually true summits.

Sawatch from the NW

Sawatch from the NW

The peaks to the south still looked snowy, but now I knew that only the north-facing slopes were holding snow, and that it was meager. With fitness and a full moon, I was toying with the idea of attempting Nolan’s 14, and I now knew that the snow would not be a problem, but I ultimately chickened out. That level of sleep deprivation and suffering over class 2 terrain didn’t even sound like type II fun to me, and I knew I would have to be extremely motivated to force myself through something like that.

Cataract in its Gulch

Cataract in its Gulch

So it was on to the San Juan. I had been shut down on Half Peak during a wildly over-ambitious San Juan trip this spring, so I knew where to go as I rolled through Lake City late at night. I got a comfortably headlamp-free start around 7:00, again spending plenty of time in hat and gloves as I made my way up Cataract Creek. The creek rises steeply from the steep-walled, flat-bottomed valley above the San Cristobal Reservoir, and while the trail starts out maddeningly flat, it soon assumes a more reasonable grade. Having previously experienced this as a wretched slush-slog, I enjoyed the quick travel.

There were lots of these

There were lots of these

I also enjoyed the San Juans’ surprising late-season lushness. While the Sierra are brown, dead, and bone-dry by mid-September, the San Juans feature running water, bogs, and late-season flowers, including patches of asters and even the occasional columbine. My enjoyment of the greenery was, however, tempered by the decimation wrought by bark beetles in the last 20 years. While aspens and some species of evergreens (blue spruce?) survive, the majority of the conifer forests are dead and gray. I can only suggest that people visit the San Juan now, before they burn, or sometime next century, after they have had a chance to regrow. These mountains are screwed.

Upper Cataract Gulch

Upper Cataract Gulch

Moving on… I recognized the chute I had taken this spring, and realized just how severely I had underestimated the task in spring. Now I continued along the sometimes-faint trail, which crosses the creek a couple of times, then heads far east to avoid the brushy bog below Cataract Lake. Passing the surprisingly large lake, I turned west on the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) to begin circling back west toward Half’s south ridge. The trail meandered through rolling alpine terrain, gradually gaining elevation as it made its way toward some sort of ill-defined pass. I left the trail below the pass, heading straight up to what must be my desired ridge.

Half's summit from south ridge

Half’s summit from south ridge

Half Peak has a distinctive shape. Its north face is 1,000 feet of near-vertical choss (if it were in Canada, people would climb it); its east and west sides are also steep and intermittently cliffy. Its south ridge is a gentle, grassy slope… until it narrows to a slender class 2-3 walkway just below the broad summit. I followed the standard route up this south ridge, looking for a more direct way east to the trailhead, and occasionally turning around to admire the more rugged mountains to the south. I found bits of trail on the isthmus leading to the summit, and a surprising lack of tricky climbing given its narrowness.

Northeast descent from Half

Northeast descent from Half

After lazing around on the summit, I headed over to the east side to check out a direct line home, which had looked reasonable from the south ridge. I found a few cairns near the top, and a bit of chossy, easy third class got me down to the lower-angle slopes below. It was slow going, but definitely faster than going all the way around to the CDT. So far, so good.

Starting down Half's NE side

Starting down Half’s NE side

At this point, I could choose between crossing near Cataract Lake to pick up the trail on the far side of the drainage, and shortcutting down to below the brush-bog on the near side. I chose the latter, since it seemed shorter, and for awhile it worked. I made my way above a small butte on easy grass, then followed some game trails through a couple minor ravines. Unfortunately I had forgotten about the chossy cliffs above where I planned to rejoin the trail. The deer or mountain goats who passed this way had the same problem, and I began following game trails through the woody brush. The trails were surprisingly well-maintained, and saved me from almost all of the grim bushwhacking I had expected, but my “shortcut” saved little or no time over going directly back to the trail.

Morning exercise complete, I headed into Lake City to check in with the world. The library (with its friendly cat) had moved across the street since I last visited, but like most of the small southwestern Colorado mountain towns, it has done a remarkable job resisting change over the past few decades. The town was just beginning its transition from hosting jeep-ers and motorcycle clubs to hunters, before more or less shutting down for the season. I could have stayed around another day for the wine and music festival, but Lake City is not exactly a famous wine-producing region, and the music looked like it would be definitely loud and probably bad. Onward!

Kings Peak

First view of Kings (center)

First view of Kings (center)


After a couple days of type I fun — Tahoe is really nice this time of year, nice enough that even I was willing to submerge myself — it was time to head back east. I had hoped my tires would last through the end of this season, but one of them decided to disintegrate in Nowhere, NV, and I got to enjoy a good part of northern Nevada at 50 MPH on a lousy donut spare. Lesson learned, I preemptively replaced the rest of the tires before heading out into the middle of nowhere.

It's fall...

It’s fall…

Kings Peak is the Utah highpoint, though it feels like part Wyoming. It is located in the middle of the Uinta range, an unusually east-to-west subrange of the Rockies on the far northern end of the state. I had previously tried to tag it on the way by early one summer, and was utterly defeated by the Uintas’ legendary slush-bog season. So when the opportunity presented itself this September, I gladly drove to the middle-of-nowhere Henry’s Fork trailhead, found a nice campsite near the creek for the night, and went to sleep without bothering to set an alarm.

Snowy boardwalk

Snowy boardwalk

I heard some rain overnight, and woke to frozen water on my car, so I was in no hurry to get started. It had been cold enough to snow for at least part of the night up high, and I did not envy the poor folks huddled in their tents somewhere to the south. I got started about when the sun finally hit the trail, jogging the flats and hiking the hills. Thanks to an unofficial annual race, Kings has a stout FKT around 4h30, likely faster than I could manage even on a good day, so I was glad to have the snow as an excuse. The fresh dusting of white also made the Uintas, with their broad valleys and striated rock, look even more like the Canadian Rockies.

South side of Gunsight Pass

South side of Gunsight Pass

I passed some cold-looking backpackers on my way in, and finally hit solid snow just below Henry’s Fork Lake. The trail is usually a multi-lane highway, with several parallel paths worn in the turf, and ample sign of stock traffic. I found a pair of footprints leading partway to Gunsight Pass, but evidently someone had thought better of it the day before. It was cool with the partial cloud cover, and downright cold and unpleasant where the wind whipped through Gunsight Pass.

Climbers' trail and Gunsight Pass

Climbers’ trail and Gunsight Pass

I hid in the lee of the giant cairn for a minute, then tried to follow the climbers’ trail that shortcuts around to Anderson Pass. The drifted snow made this difficult, and often made the trail a useless ledge covered in calf-deep snow. This section felt long and slow, and although I knew which peak was Kings, the fact that it is not much higher than its neighbors made me doubt myself. Most of the Uintas’ 13,000-foot peaks are bunched in this small area in the center of the range, and several of Kings’ neighbors are only slightly shorter.

Kings from approach

Kings from approach

There may be a trail from the Anderson Pass trail to Kings’ summit, but I did not find it, instead slogging up large and miserably loose talus covered in drifted powder. I eventually found the (happily clearly-labeled) summit, watched the clouds for a bit, then turned for home. I had been fortunate to only feel a few seconds of graupel so far, but I could see scattered precipitation all around, and did not relish a long walk home in a flapping garbage bag.

This sucks

This sucks

The final talus-slope was just as slow going down as up, but I picked up a bit of speed once I got back to the trail. Though there was no need, I jogged most of the downhill sections and some of the flats. Doing so made me even more impressed with the FKT, as the trail is horribly rutted and rocky; it would be tough to run with real speed even in perfect conditions. Mine was the second-to-last car to leave the trailhead, and the backpacking couple in the last were not far behind. Apparently the weather had scared everyone off; barring an extended warm and dry spell, I may have been the last Kings hiker this season.

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).

Brief long-term shoe reviews

I had a gig reviewing shoes this spring, which put me in the unusual position of having more than one pair of new trail runners at the same time, and of owning shoes I did not choose. About half the shoes I tested were clearly not suitable for the mountains, and I have now mostly destroyed the ones that were. Here are my impressions of a few that surprised me. The Amazon links are just for reference, mostly for the photos — they’re not affiliate links or anything.

  • Salomon Sense Pro 2: While these were about as durable and comfortable as expected, they performed surprisingly poorly on class 4-5 rock. With relatively thick and soft midsoles and not-so-grippy rubber, they were scarier than I expected when edging or trying to smear on steeper rock. Salomon makes some shoes that work well in the mountains, but these do not.
  • New Balance Fresh Foam Gobi: I didn’t expect these to work well in the mountains, so I avoided using them until I had mostly destroyed my more capable shoes. I took them up the Mountaineer’s Route on Whitney (class 3) and SE face of Emerson (5.4), and found them terrifyingly bad on rock, with spongy midsoles, too much play in the toe box, and completely non-sticky outsoles. They are also not very protective, and would be similarly scary on steep vegetation and turf as found in the Cascades.
  • Adidas Terrex X-King: These feel a little clunky on trails, and the size 11s I tried (they only make whole sizes, apparently) are a bit roomier than I like. However, they really came into their own in the mountains. The aggressive lugs dig into soft surfaces, but are large enough not to squirm on rock. The rubber is predictable and sticky on rock, and the single piece making up the sole, toe rand, and heel cup is a smart, simple, durable design. The quick-lace system and soft upper make the fit highly adjustable, which in my case mostly let me compensate for the shoes being a bit too big. The shape of the toe box and placement of the lugs makes them climb fairly well — I have felt pretty comfortable on some mid-fifth-class terrain. The main downside is the ridiculous $160 retail price.