The San Juans were catching on fire, and the Front Range was mostly on fire, so the Sawatch were an acceptable alternative. I had not thought about doing the list of Sawatch 13ers, since there are probably quite a few, and almost all are talus-slogs, so I had not thought about how to do them efficiently. However these four were close to the highway and connected by a ridge, so they seemed like a reasonable loop. I hiked a jeep road and the CDT from Garfield, then looped aroud the peaks before descending to another jeep road. I encountered lots of talus, a few class 3 moves on 13,147, and two people on Aetna, a woman and a man with HAM radio gear. While I summit peaks to turn red dots green on my phone, he does so to talk on the radio from new summits. To each his own.
Looking around for something to do the next day, I came upon a group of five thirteeners between Aetna and Shavano, connected by a ridge and accessible via a jeep road starting from the Angel of Shavano trailhead. I ended up doing only Pomeroy and its neighbor, since that allowed me to bike the road all the way to 12,000 feet, and it was unpleasantly windy. This made for too easy a day, but it was good to get out for a nontrivial ride (about 16 miles round-trip with 2500 feet of elevation gain). The Pride of the West Mine showed more pride in its construction than the average Colorado mine ruin, with a substantial stone ruin containing a nicely-built arch with the name on its keystone. There is a road from somewhere to the large Pomeroy Lakes on the other side, offering other approach and traverse options.
Bushnell, Twin Sisters North
I noticed Bushnell because it has over 2000 feet of prominence, and was along my way at the northern end of the Sangres. Looking it up on the wonderful Climbing Cooneys’ site, I saw that it could be combined with nearby North Twin as another moderate bike ‘n’ hike. The road is ridable (even by me) nearly to the Wilderness boundary, from which an old roadbed continues to almost 11,000′. From there, the climb to Bushnell is steep but easy class 2, mostly on grass with a bit of rock here and there. The descent from Twin Sisters North back to the old road, unfortunately, involves some highly unpleasant loose talus. The ridge between the peaks is easy, but with a cold front approaching, it was unpleasantly windy, with smoke from California blowing into the San Luis Valley, and persistent low clouds to the east.
The two Storms and Tower are ranked thirteeners near Silverton, and Macomber is more or less the end of Tower’s southeast ridge. Doing them would take me up Boulder Creek, new terrain to me, and put a dent in the group of high peaks northwest of Silverton. Other than downloading the topo, I had done nothing to research these peaks, assuming as usual that “it’s just Colorado.” It almost bit me this time, as the ridge connecting the two Storms is unusually narrow and difficult for this part of the San Juans. Though I eventually figured it out, it took longer than expected, and required maximum effort in the chossineering department.
The mouth of Boulder Creek is a pair of old tailings piles covered in disused and sometimes gated roads, and ambiguous “POSTED: NO TRESPASSING” signs. It is critical that they be “posted,” but apparently irrelevant which areas of dirt are off-limits. In this case, someone probably doesn’t want you to walk on the ancient tailings piles, but doesn’t care if you wander through the mess of eroding dirt roads to find the trail. I learned by trial and (mostly) error that the third one up the slope is the correct road, then picked up the trail.
This is an admirably direct trail, climbing steeply up the right side of the gulch with no more than a few switchbacks. Other than where it crosses a rockslide lower down, it is also mostly smooth and runnable. I even saw mountain bike tracks, though it seems too steep to climb, and I would have no fun descending it. Where the trail crosses the creek and jogs left, I turned off to the south, entering the valley below Storm and East Storm. There is a mine shaft and tailings pile here; there seems to be at least one in almost every little valley around Silverton.
The ridge between the Storms looked increasingly problematic, steep on this side, with numerous pinnacles and a vertical-looking step just east of the saddle. Hoping that its other side was gentler, I headed up the slope to the left, aiming to gain Storm’s southeast ridge. This looked steep on the topo, but was mostly the nice steep Colorado turf to which I had become accustomed. I stumbled onto one short section of kitty-litter, and found a bit of class 3, but the former was an unforced error, and the latter a deliberate bit of whimsy. I also noticed an interesting seam in the rock, where crystals had formed on both sides like the inside of a geode.
Things briefly became interesting on the ridge, as I worked my way left of a vertical step, then wove over and around some choss mushrooms. Once I joined the south ridge, it was easy grass to just before the summit. The grass ended abruptly, with the last bit involving some easy third class scrambling over several minor towers to reach the highest. The rock was both rotten and covered in debris, making me slow and cautious, and increasingly uncertain about what lay ahead. From the top, I could see several of the valleys east of the Animas, each with its own road, including the road to Stony Pass. To the other side, I looked at the other side of the colorful mountains for which Red Mountain Pass is named, and a substantial mining operation at their base. I could also make out the switchbacks of Engineer Pass at the northern end of the valley. The other side of the ridge was just as steep and chossy as the one I had seen on my approach, but much higher; things were going to get interesting.
I traversed over to the next sub-summit along the ridge crest, which was shockingly narrow in places. At one point it consisted of a microwave-size boulder with a hole beneath it, which I stepped on gently and quickly. The rock was treacherously sharp: I scraped my thigh through my pants, and managed to sever my headphone cord on another edge. (This is why I only buy cheap earbuds.) The terrain was engaging enough that I did not miss the music. After a section of steep downclimbing, the rock changed from black to gray, and became less sheer. I followed the ridge for awhile, then dropped down a gully to the right when it appeared to cliff out just before the saddle. Returning briefly to the crest, I found a pile of bamboo poles and a “ski area boundary” sign; this perplexed me, since I saw no lifts, and there was only one obvious direction to ski. I traversed around another annoying tower on the right, on heinously rotten red rock, then found myself at the base of the step that had concerned me on the approach.
I examined a dihedral on the ridge, but it looked like nothing I wanted to climb. The left side looked steep and extremely rotten, in addition to being in the shade. To the right, it looked like I could traverse a bit, then cut back up a gully to the crest. This worked as planned, and though obnoxiously loose in places, it was no harder than class 4. Back on the crest, I saw that I still had another step to avoid. This time I went left, making a short, sketchy downclimb into a class 3 gully, which led back to the ridge above the difficulties. From there it was a straightforward scramble to the summit.
Finally looking behind me for the first time in awhile, I was surprised to see a brown plume rising west of Silverton. I watched the fire develop for the rest of the climb, eventually determining that it was in South Mineral Creek near the Ice Lakes trailhead. I later learned that this was the Ice Fire, and several hikers and a dog had to be helicoptered out of Ice Lakes Basin. Though firefighters would jump on it quickly and keep it from growing too large, I took it as a sign that I should perhaps move on.
I had hoped that it would be easy grass to Tower, but there was a bit more choss to contend with. That out of the way, I circled around the basin, crossing the Boulder Creek trail and picking up the faint use trail to Tower. I enjoyed the easy walk, blasting music as loud as my phone’s sorry speakers could manage (not very) and looking down into the deep South Fork of the Animas to the left. It seems that Tower is named for the radio tower on its summit. I found no register, and felt no reason to hang around the equipment.
I planned to continue along the ridge until I had a clear shot on grass back to the creek. As I traversed, a raven checked me out while gliding on the ridgetop wind. I tried to “talk” to it, but it never responded, though it did follow me for quite awhile. Looking at Peakbagger, I realized that the end of the ridge was Macomber Peak, an unranked thirteener. It was right along the way, and hardly any more work, so I decided to tag it and descend from there. I watched the smoke cloud evolve as I hiked the ridge, casting an orange shadow over Silverton.
The descent to the trail was easy but annoying, a mixture of slick grass and small rocks that would unpredictably roll. At least it was direct. Finally back at the trail, I jogged down toward the trailhead, entering the smoke shadow in the lower gulch. I drove into town, hoping to wash up at the public restroom, but it was apparently closed for the season. I picked up a couple of things at the overpriced grocery store, used the Visitor Center WiFi for the last time, then got out of town.
I had orphaned Hayden North on my traverse of the peaks between Red Mountain Pass and Telluride, and wanted to try the Ouray Via Ferrata, so it seemed like a good half-day peak. I found a track on Peakbagger heading straight up a slide path to its east, which I roughly followed. Thanks to plentiful game trails, this worked well, with decent footing on the steep grass, and paths through the occasional willows.
The OVF is on the sunny side of the Ice Park, so it was t-shirt weather in the afternoon. Unlike the ones I had seen in the Dolomites, it was built for tourists rather than WWI mountain troops, so it was both safer and more whimsical, with a cable bridge and ladder. It also had a ranger to make sure that everyone had proper gear; unlike in the Alps, I would not be allowed to scramble the thing. I lucked out by starting just ahead of a large party of newbies, and far enough behind another party that I never caught up with them.
The only sketchy-feeling part of the route was the cable bridge, which tended to resonate. Near the other side, my phone fell through the hole in my right pants pocket and, not tethered by my headphone cord as it usually is, fell into the disgusting yellow Ouray water. I saw it lying in a few inches of water, but not sure what to do with the horde bearing down behind me, I hurried on. I figured it had already either cracked or drowned, and that more time in the water would not cause any further harm. I imagined what a fall would feel like at various points, and there were only a few where one could suffer any real damage.
Being a rule-following person, I stayed clipped in with at least one lanyard, even when the route was just a trail. It was interesting to see the Ice Park without any ice, and recognize the rock underneath the various climbing areas. I wished I had my camera to capture the slot canyon in its fall color, but it was underwater. I finished quickly, then hiked and jogged back to the entrance. The ranger did not object to my scrambling down for my phone, so I went down the first part, hopped across the stream below the cable bridge, and fished what I presumed would be a corpse out of the water. Amazingly the thing came to life, prompting me to listen to the next podcast. I quickly turned it off to dry without frying any components, trying it periodically over the next couple of days, and it amazingly came back to life, with no more than a minor blemish in the screen. I will be sad to see my iPhone SE die, since it is the last good phone that Apple made: small enough to fit comfortably in a pocket, easy to grip with squared-off sides, and having a headphone jack. Hopefully it will survive at least another year or so, and I can pick up a refurbished iPhone 12 Mini once its price drops.
Galena, Peak 13,069
These two thirteeners, on opposite sides of Maggie Gulch, looked like they would make another good bike ‘n’ hike. I was less than enthused to have neighbors at the base of the gulch, but they were quiet in the evening. I took my time getting ready the next morning, since it was cold and shady. As I prepared one of the neighbors came over, a woman with dreadlocks who introduced herself as Brett. She asked if I would be around that afternoon to jump her car, which seemed to have a dying battery. Noticing the ATC clipped to her pocket, I asked what she was climbing in the area, and she turned out to be one of a group highlining across Maggie Gulch.
I eventually started up the road, hiking the steep parts and looking over to spot the line. I eventually did: a thick rope and some tubular webbing stretched across the canyon near some waterfalls, several hundred feet off the ground. It was windy, with the gusts blowing the webbing out sideways from the main line. Amazingly, one of Brett’s friends was trying to balance across, barefoot for better feel and grip. I watched her repeatedly fall on her tether, flip back up to sit on the rope, then cautiously stand and keep walking. I could not imagine enjoying this even if it were warm and calm; it seemed crazy in the cold and wind.
The peaks were pretty standard fare, made a bit more difficult by my phone having a fainting spell, leaving me map-less. This is how I used to bag peaks most of the time, and I still mostly remember how. Riding down the road, I ran into the highliners, and stopped to talk for a bit. I had been puzzling over how they set up the line (bow and arrow? trained bird?), and they told me they hiked down into the gorge and back up the other side, towing a thin line that they then used to drag the main one across. This process took some six hours and sounded a bit sketchy; they were thinking of using a drone next time. We talked a bit more down at the campsite, then they split for home, and I went on to the next gulch.
Camping is best when you can carry all the heavy stuff to one place, leave it there, and go on day trips, returning to the pile of bedding and food each evening. When that is not possible, it is better to pack up camp during the warm part of the day. Unfortunately this was the last day of our backpack, and we had quite a bit of ground to cover, so neither was possible. Instead, we set our alarms for 6:00, ate in the dark, packed up in the cold, and started hiking with full packs around dawn.
Mount Nebo is one of a group of four thirteeners southeast of Hunchback Pass. While they are a comfortable day from Beartown, and a reasonable side-trip on the way out from our camp, they would be painfully difficult to reach from a two-wheel-drive trailhead. This was their main draw to me, as my most likely access to a capable off-road vehicle in Colorado (a.k.a. Dan) was ending. He seemed fine going along for the peaks, as it would mean that he, too, had cleaned out the area’s thirteeners. While many people reach other peaks such as the eastern Grenadiers this way, they are accessible from Molas or Vallecito with only a bit more work.
We slowly ground out much of the long climb to Hunchback Pass with our overnight packs, then stashed gear at the intersection with the Nebo Creek trail. This also happens to be the Continental Divide Trail, but it is blocked by a large tree right at the junction, and shows less signs of traffic than the trail down to the Vallecito. I seem to be in the area at the wrong time of year to encounter either north- or south-bound CDTers, but it seems clear that they are far less numerous than the hordes of PCTers I saw around Ebbetts Pass this summer.
Despite its being mid-October of a dry year, the creek was flowing well far above obvious water sources like lakes and permanent snowfields, yet another testament to the San Juans’ mysterious water storage capacity. Our target peaks were arranged somewhat awkwardly: one north of a high trail pass, Nebo and its neighbor south of the pass, and the last a few miles southeast along the trail. We dropped packs to tag the first, then took the trail out to the last before returning for the last two. This maximized our chances of not skipping any, by getting the easiest done first, then committing ourselves to doing the most remote one.
The first peak was an unremarkable walk, but at least it had good views of Ute Ridge back near the trailhead, and the northern side of the Eastern Grenadiers. The Guardian, Silex, and Storm King all have impressive north faces, with Storm King in particular having an interesting-looking northeast ridge, which Dan had climbed back when he lived out here. I would be more interested in exploring these routes out of Stormy Gulch if it weren’t so difficult to reach in a day. The summit also had a view of our next peak, discouragingly far in the wrong direction. Back to work…
We returned to our packs, then took off across the head of the West Ute Creek drainage to a large lake. This would be our last water source for awhile, so we both tanked up despite the faint notes of algae. We were only separated from Rio Grande Pyramid by one drainage at this point, and with the area’s extensive trail network, it seemed very close indeed. Leaving the trail shortly past the lake, we took off up game trails and cross-country to our peak’s east ridge, finding steep but mostly easy terrain.
The ridge, on the other hand, was mostly a medley of unstable rocks. To the south, a ridge of nice slabs is rising and shaking off (in geological time) the overlaid volcanic garbage, but this thirteener is a pile of loose junk. We stayed close to the crest, finding a bit of class 3 scrambling getting into and out of the notches visible from below, but mostly just suffered, and I questioned my sanity for bringing this upon myself. I am close to finishing the 80-some Weminuche thirteeners, and about halfway through the San Juans’ 260-some; even as a lifetime goal, it’s hard to imagine doing all of Colorado’s 600-ish peaks over 13,000 feet. The rock’s color changed at the summit, but it remained loose on the descent to a sort of plateau. Where the ridge turns slightly south toward the Grenadiers, we dropped down a loose chute, crossed a low saddle, then made a beeline for the next peak. It felt good to be heading back toward our stashed gear, and the almost thousand-foot climb went by fairly painlessly.
Getting down to the saddle with Nebo required side-hilling across some of the day’s loosest terrain, aiming horizontally to make a sliding, descending traverse. Along the way we crossed a layer of clinking, smooth, dinner-plate rock, possibly slate, and took a couple pieces to eat from later. Tired of the loose stuff, I stayed close to Nebo’s sheer north face on the climb from the saddle, while Dan found his own way up some nasty-looking chute to the left. The summit had the expected Grenadier view across the valley, but it was chilly and we had miles to go, so we soon made our way back down our respective routes.
The north side of Nebo and its neighbor is mostly rotten cliffs, so getting back to the trail is actually a bit tricky. I had noticed a notch leading to a steep, rotten chute near the saddle, which seemed to be the best option. The chute proved every bit as loose as anticipated, so we each picked a side and descended together, gleefully raining death on anything below. Once across the talus-fan at the base of the face, we were done with choss for the day, weaving through a few willows to pick up the CDT and return to our gear. From there it was a short but “backpacking speed” climb to Hunchback Pass, then a faster hike down to the trailhead and Dan’s car, again finishing just at dusk.
While Dan dealt with dinner, I went over to the closest flat spot to set up my tent. This would be the coldest night of the trip for me, camping at around 11,000 feet at the bottom of a valley between two streams. It was also Friday night, and the ATVs were out in force. One guy on a quad stopped to warn us, in a familiar northern New Mexico (southern Colorado in this case) Hispanic accent that this was opening weekend of rifle (i.e. “anything goes”) season for elk, and that his party was planning to hunt near where we hoped to hike. It had been some form of hunting season for awhile, but I don’t worry much during bow season (September), since there are few bow hunters, and they have to be both dedicated to the sport, and very close to their quarry to take an effective shot. However many more people have rifles, and someone with a high-powered rifle and telescopic sight can shoot from hundreds of yards away. I hoped my red buff and faded orange hat would be defense enough, since most of my other clothes are either black or elk-colored.
[This is out of order, but the backpack will get caught up soon. — ed.]
Wildhorse, Dragonsback, and Blackwall are three peaks on the northern end of the highlands between Ouray and Silverton, bounded by the Animas and Uncompahgre Rivers, and Mineral and Cow Creeks. They are all impressively cliffy from the Cimmarons to their north, piquing my interest a couple weeks earlier. Most people probably climb them from a friend’s Jeep at Engineer Pass, but with Dan departed into the west, I would have to do things the hard way. This actually turns out to be a blessing in disguise, since the most direct approach on foot is via Bear Creek, the area’s best and craziest trail. Starting just above Ouray, it crosses Highway 550 on a rock arch, then climbs through a narrow canyon, with sections blasted into the cliffs high above the stream, reminiscent of the road to Yankee Boy Basin.
For reasons that remain unclear to me, I had slept near the summit of Red Mountain Pass. I woke well before dawn, drank coffee and worked on my laptop by headlamp, then scraped the frost off the inside of my windshield to drive down to Ouray and poach WiFi. Mint has much better cell coverage than the pathetic Boost Mobile, but it apparently does not include Ouray. Experiences like this make me shake my head at the recent hoopla around 5G: I suspect that millimeter-wave 5G (the actually fast kind) will be relevant to my life about the same time I own a battery-electric car, i.e. sometime around 2030.
It was cold, and I was headed up a west-facing canyon, so I felt no need for an alpine start. Still, I got going around 8:00 (soon to be 7:00 once Daylight Savings belatedly ends), setting a moderately hard pace to stay warm. The trail switchbacks up the hillside north of Bear Creek, then traverses a steep gravel ledge into the slot canyon. When this ledge gives out, the trail is blasted into the wall, forming almost a half-tunnel in a couple of places. A couple of short stretches are decaying, but most of the trail remains in good shape despite the Forest Service likely having neither the budget nor the skill to rebuild it.
Passing the Grizzly Bear Mine, I saw the large boiler I remembered from my last trip this way, decades ago on a family hike. The valley opens up after this, and the trail passes through woods and aspens, their leaves long since fallen, to reach another mine, this one with a larger cabin and more rusting machinery. Here the trail splits, with the more popular branch continuing to Engineer Pass. I took the less-traveled path, heading northeast to reach American Flat and the Horsethief Trail. This looks like another interesting route, climbing a ridge from near Ouray and crossing something called the “Bridge of Heaven;” I added it to my to-do list.
Wildhorse is obvious as soon as one emerges onto the flat, with its jagged skyline and steep but grassy south face sticking out from the rolling plateau. Dragonsback is somewhat hidden, but more distinctive, a volcanic fin with no easy slope to its summit. Though the map shows multiple trails and even a road in the area, they have been mostly reclaimed by grass, leaving only lines of posts propped up by rocks to follow. I followed one such for awhile, then took off straight toward Wildhorse, jogging carefully across the uneven ground.
Other than a sort-of catwalk out to the summit, Wildhorse is almost all walking on steep grass. I didn’t feel like putting in a race-level effort on the climb, but still made a decent effort. The easiest route strays toward the north face and east ridge near the top, where there are some cliffs and pinnacles to admire from a safe distance. From the summit, I could clearly make out numerous fourteeners, including the Sneffels group, Uncompahgre and Wetterhorn, Sunshine and Redcloud, and the distant Needles to the south. I could also pick up cell service from Ridgway or Montrose, allowing me to resume my tradition of summit texting.
I retraced my route for a bit, then contoured around north, trying to cut the corner on my way to Dragonsback. For some reason this slope had not only a fair number of game trails, but a ridiculous amount of poop, giving it a faint unpleasant smell. I have no idea why the elk, sheep, or whatever chose to hang out at this particular location. I continued along the southeast side of a grassy ridge avoiding a bump, then came at Dragonsback directly from the southeast. Dan had drawn a vague line on this side of the peak, it seemed the most likely to be climbable, and besides… “it’s just Colorado.”
Looking at this side of the peak for a minute, I noticed two grass/dirt slopes, one nearly below the summit, and the other somewhat to the right. The right one looked more promising, and the upper peak seemed broken enough that it should be possible to weave through the gullies and pinnacles, eventually emerging on the summit ridge as close as possible to the true summit. This exact approach worked, with almost no backtracking; I even found a few cairns, suggesting that I was near the standard route. I found two fourth class sections, one getting into the final gully, and the other leading up one of two corners to the summit. There was a large piece of rope serving as a rap anchor above the second, which I would have removed if it were less bulky.
I retraced my somewhat convoluted route down Dragonsback, then circled around south before dropping toward Blackwall. I dropped enough to get around a large talus fan, then had an easy walk up another grass slope to the summit. Part of the attraction of visiting Blackwall is its view into Cow Creek, a deep valley separating the Cimmarons from the main body of the San Juans. Though the summit is somewhat back from the edge, I was still able to see down into part of the canyon, and to admire the hoodoos therein.
I had briefly contemplated doing a few more thirteeners south of my approach, but I was low on food, and preferred to save my energy for the run down. After a long tundra traverse, I started the long jog down Bear Creek. I wanted to make decent time, but between fatigue, wearing a pack, and stopping to take photos, I only managed moderately respectable speed. Looking on Strava later, I saw that there are plenty of fast people in the area, and I was nowhere near their times in either direction. Whatever — I also did some peaks.
Another morning, another cold start up Rock Creek. This time, though, we planned to stick together to traverse the peaks extending west of Peters, including three unnamed, ranked thirteeners. Our main information source, the Climbing Cooneys, had done the ridge in two parts, but I assumed the whole thing would work as one traverse. After all, “this is Colorado.”
We took the trail to the first open meadow, then crossed the stream aiming for what looked like a break in the cliffs on the south side. The peaks west of Peters sit on a hanging plateau containing several streams and lakes. We had decided to traverse west to east mainly because descending the trail would be faster, but it was also easier to find a break in the lower cliffs going up rather than down. Our “break” worked, but it was some of the day’s trickier climbing, in places best described as “third class grass.” Above said grass, I aimed for an obvious saddle where the ridge transitions from some red garbage to the harder Grenadiers rock. The saddle offered excellent views down into the Vallecito, and across Roell Creek to Hidden and Lost Lakes. A nearby arete drops southwest toward their intersection, with the rock layers angled so as to suggest good climbing; the approach, though, would probably be a tedious bushwhack. It was also clear that we had ascended too far west, and had some work to do to reach our first intended peak. Welcome to mountaineering, Dr. Dirtbag style!
There were multiple subpeaks along the way, and some obnoxious talus, but this section provided some of the day’s best scrambling, with stretches of sidewalk ridge and fun moderate slabs. Dan had not done much scrambling in awhile, and took a more timid line; I had not done much scrambling with other humans in awhile, and was unreasonably impatient. On the other hand, the waiting gave me time to admire the rock on this section of ridge, and temperatures were pleasant. Reaching the first major subpeak, I was surprised to find a register in a small bottle, naming the bump “P1.” We added our names to the short list of people who had travered this unranked peak, then continued toward our first “real” peak, now much closer. Only a few feet farther along, I found a second register for “P2.” This seemed wrong, so I pocketed it to deposit on a different summit. In retrospect, I believe that “P2” is the ranked Peak 13,302, which has its own register container, and is much more popular than anything on the ridge we were crossing.
There was one notable difficulty in this section, a sharp notch with a cliff to the left and a buttress to the right. I looked at a probably low-fifth-class downclimb along the ridge, then found a fourth class but very exposed alternative slightly down and right. Dan liked neither, and dropped a good 50-100 feet around the toe of the buttress on wht he described as horrible scree. Once past this notch, there were no more major difficulties along the short scramble to the summit.
13,302’s (or P2’s?) register was a tattered printout of a route description in a bottle. Evidently this minor peak rates a writeup for being one of the harder thirteeners in the area, with a slightly convoluted “Colorado class 4” route from the east. We both found the route fairly obvious and not too hard, and thorougly de-cairned it to give future scramblers the opportuntiy to experience the pleasure of figuring out a mountain for themselves.
Passing the handful of pinnacles and gullies on the right, we emerged into talus-land. P3’s north and northwest sides look attractive from this angle, but we were unfortunately approaching from the west and south, where there is only talus leading to the south subpeak. Much of this was unpleasantly loose, particularly the climb toward P3. This is typical for Grenadiers rock: when it is solid, it can be fun to climb, being featured and sticky, but it breaks to form talus that slides against itself and does not consolidate. The eastern Grenadiers around Garfield and Electric are similarly unpleasant.
P3’s actual summit protrudes slightly into the Rock Creek valley to the north, connected to the main ridge by a short, narrow ridge with a bit of third class srambling. Its position out of line affords it slightly better views of its neighbors, and of the plateau in between, including the large and convoluted rock glacier between it and 13,302. This summit also held a slightly better register, with a recent entry from none other than… Mr. Hashtag Vanlife Everywhere! I found myself torn between my contempt at the Instagram-ready cliché of a tag-line, and a growing respect for anyone else who would get out and tag so many remote and obscure San Juan thirteeners. Judge not, lest ye be judged…
The route from P3 to the next peak (P4?) was another disappointing talus slog. We decided to sidehill below the ridge on the way up the latter, which probably saved a bit of time versus going over some minor bumps along the crest. I think we were both getting tired, as the hike across the long summit seemed endless. However, Dan’s pace had recovered dramatically once past the scrambling, so we were not worried about time. My eyes were drawn to the inhospitable talus-lakes at Oso’s base, and to its imposing north face. Such a prominent peak deserves a quality route; perhaps this offers a challenging non-choss path to the summit? It looks too difficult for me to ever find out.
While Dan dodged around south, I stayed on the ridge crest toward Peters. It looks steep and improbable, but is actually reasonable, rarely (and probably avoidably) harder than third class. This part of the traverse, at least, is probably better in the other direction. Peters had first caught my attention on my long dayhike to Oso, when I had briefly hoped to add it to the day’s summit haul before realizing that would be too much work. It felt good to finally stand on its summit just over four years later.
With plenty of time to spare, we took a detour to Buffalo on the way back. It is under 13,000 feet and has less than 300 feet of prominence, so it is beneath most people’s notice, but it seemed like enough of a landmark to be worth visiting, and the south ridge was a quick hike with a short scramble through one notch. We wandered around the flat, rocky summit for a bit, peered over the north side, then dropped to Rock Lake for water before returning to camp via the familiar trail. This being our last night, we celebrated with… more potatoes for Dan, and oats for me, as I had run out of grits. I think I might have used some of Dan’s leftover potatoes from the night before to make my oats really sing on the palate.
I was recently interviewed for Buzz Burrell’s Fastest Known Podcast, discussing a mixture of biographical and speed-oriented stuff. Depending upon how well you know me and how long you have followed the blog, it may or may not be new to you. At the very least, you get to hear what I sound like on a headphone mic, and see a fairly recent head-shot from a cold sunrise in the Weminuche.
On our second peak-bagging day we headed up Rock Creek to tag peaks around Oso, some of the state’s most remote mountains. I had done Oso itself via the Los Pinos river, a long but pleasantly ford-free approach from the south, and had recently failed to reach Irvine via Cave Basin and a series of peaks to its south. I was highly motivated to tag it, “Weminuche Peak,” and another unnamed thirteener on this trip, thereby finishing the area and avoiding future headlamp time. After our normal breakfast — oatmeal with granola for me, and a thick paste of peanut butter, granola, and protein powder for Dan (even he hates it!) — we started hiking up the Rock Creek trail.
Rock Creek is an ancient glacial valley like most in the Weminuche, and after the initial steep rise from the deep Vallecito, it opens and broadens, with frequent glacially-polished slabs evincing how it was formed. The north side is an unremarkable talus mound, while the south is a series of interesting-looking peaks formed from the same uplift as Leviathan and Vallecito to the west. Each of them, from P1 in the west to Peters in the east, has its own unique character, dependent upon the angles of the rock layers and subsequent erosion. P3 falls just short of being another Arrow or Vestal, with its strata being slightly too steep and twisted to form a steep face. Perhaps the drainage’s most striking peak is Buffalo, a minor subpeak north of Peters protruding into the valley, with a steep north face nearly a thousand feet high.
We filled up on water at Rock Lake, then parted for our own individual objectives: Dan sensibly wanted to tag Oso, the area’s highpoint, while I aimed for its minor neighbors. It seemed like the trail should circle west of the lake, so I started off a few hundred yards that way before looking at my map and realizing that it actually went the opposite way. Though the Rock Creek trail is clear and well-maintained, with culverts at several water crossings, the trail over the pass to Lake Creek and Emerald Lake is much fainter. I am not sure why Rock Creek receives such attention, since it seems like just another random connector between two remote valleys in the wilderness.
Once at the pass, I left the faint trail to head cross-country straight for Peak 13,120. Most of this area consists of some type of talus; in this particular case it was large, semi-stable basalt, moderately unpleasant but not truly maddening. After the initial steep climb, the route flattened into a broad summit plateau. Both this peak and neighboring Weminuche have the steep north faces common to peaks in this area. I admired the cold side of the mountain, with its patchy lingering snow, then continued east, staying near the edge where there was more solid rock than talus.
Weminuche is slightly higher and looser than 13,120, but only a short climb from the connecting saddle. Along the way, I paused to look south past a small lake to Emerald Lake, by far the area’s largest natural lake. From the summit, I had an unobstructed view northeast across high rolling terrain to Rio Grande Pyramid, with its distinctive south ridge and “Window.” I am becoming familiar with the local peak-bagging obsessives through the registers on these obscure peaks, and noted that Mark Ott had chosen this peak to finish the Weminuche 13ers, a list I hope to someday complete myself.
Returning to the saddle, I contoured around 13,120, then dropped to pick up the trail at Half Moon Lake. Along the way I saw a speck that was almost certainly Dan, finally done with the long traverse and starting up Oso’s south ridge. Knowing nothing about the peak, I had climbed it via its east ridge, which involves some fourth class shenanigans; his route seems to be standard, both easier and less pleasant. Oso is composed of loose talus on its south and west faces, making for miserable but moderate climbing.
Based on my observations from the summits, it seemed fastest to follow the trail partway to Moon Lake, then side-hill around into the valley leading to the col between Oso and “Soso.” The valley itself is pleasantly grassy, with a couple of small streams running even this late in the season, but the climb to the col is miserable loose rock at the junction of two formations. I found a cairn at the saddle, then found that the other side was even worse, a steep slope of slippery, unstable quartzite talus. I made my way carefully through this tedium, skirted a trick meadow that was actually a bog at its base, then circled around above Irving Lake to the valley northeast of Irving.
I had thought of trying to make the climb a bit more interesting by ascending the east ridge, but it looked jagged and rotten, so I followed the known route to the saddle north of the summit. The slope was more stable than I had feared, but turned into surprisingly steep third class grass near the top. From the ridge, it was mostly easy walking with occasional bits of use- or game-trail to the summit. From the peak’s various humps, I had views south to Vallecito Reservoir, west into Johnson Creek and back east to the hanging valley of Irving Lake.
Most of the way back down the ridge, I shouted and heard first an echo, then a response. I sat down to wait, and a few minutes later Dan emerged at the saddle. He confirmed what I suspected: that Oso’s southwest side is a miserable pile of loose rocks, a nightmare to descend. While he went off to tag Irving, I went the other way to tag “Irving North,” a minor peak with views of Hidden and Lost Lakes, two seldom-seen bodies of water hidden in north-facing hanging valleys.
The obvious return path, via the Oso-Soso col and the trail to Rock Lake, seemed both long and unpleasant, so I had been thinking of another way back. Had I not encountered Dan, I would have traversed the line of thirteeners between the two lakes, then descended north to Roell Creek and the Vallecito. However, I had noticed that the slope directly west looked promising, with a grassy avalanche path leaving a clear route for most of the 3500 feet down to the Vallecito trail. This would deposit us near the Johnson Creek trail, a mere 4-5 trail miles from camp.
Dan and I reunited at the edge of the slope, then started down. There were a couple of unpleasant sections of steep gravel, and one cliff-band lower down, but for the most part it was easy terrain until we reached the aspens closer to the valley floor. Just below the cliffs, I spotted a game trail and followed it south into the woods. Here an excellent series of game trails led down through the steep, open woods, carpeted in fall leaves. With only a bit of deadfall to contend with in the valley bottom, we reached the trail.
Though we could clearly see the Guardian’s south side rising above our camp, we still had a fair amount of hiking to do. The bottom of the deep valley soon fell into shadow, but the surrounding mountains caught the sun for most of the walk. The rocks in Vallecito Creek are stained bright white by some mineral, suggesting that, like Rock Creek, it would be unpleasant to drink, so we filled up at Roell Creek along the way. Again reaching camp at dusk, we had our monotonous dinners and lay down for another long night.
With the approach and load-hauling out of the way, it was time to start bagging peaks. First up were Greylock and an unnamed thirteener neighbor, on the south side of Sunlight Basin. I had only been to the basin from the south via the 13-mile Vallecito approach, so it was a pleasant change to hike only a few miles before crashing through the woods to the creek junction. The water in Rock Creek where we camped is unpleasantly metallic (and turns the rocks orange), so we both filled up on clean water before starting up the well-worn use trail.
We left the trail where it crosses to the south side of the stream, heading through steep woods and then up slabs toward the col west of Peak 13,121. We frequently looked back at Jagged and Peak Ten as we made our plodding way up 2000 feet toward the saddle. Just below the crest, we headed up a break in the peak’s cliffs to reach the sandy plateau below its summit knob. Reaching the true summit involves a bit of non-exposed class 3 scrambling if you do it right, or some exposed class 4 if you do it my way. In either case, the unnamed 13er has interesting views in all directions. To the east, the ridge falls off in a series of reddish granite blobs, reminiscent of nearby Organ Mountain. Looking the other way, one has a clear view of broad Sunlight Basin with its open grass and granite slabs. Leviathan and Vallecito Peaks, part of the ancient uplift that forms the Grenadiers, make up the northern view east of Jagged.
Returning to the saddle, we made our way up choss, turf, and boulders to neighboring Greylock. Its summit sits at the junction of the ridge extending past 13,121, and a long ridge southwest to (unranked) Thunder Mountain. I had thought of doing Thunder as a quick out-and-back, but the slightly higher and much more rugged point 13,140′ gets in the way. It looks like Thunder is probably best reached via Johnson Creek, Grizzly Creek, and its east flank and ridge.
Dan had originally wanted to climb Peak Ten, Jagged’s impressive neighbor and a supposed class 3 scramble. However our pace and the short days did not leave enough time to go all the way across the basin, so we decided instead to tag “East Windom,” the next bump west along our current ridge. A short distance along the ridge, we were surprised to run into a guy out for a hike, with nothing but a belt pack and a jacket tied around his waist. He turned out to be a Durango local, spending the week with his girlfriend camped at Sunlight Lake. After talking for a bit, he continued on to Greylock while we headed west.
With time to spare, I decided to pay a visit to the lake at the base of Windom’s east face. At 13,100′, this is perhaps the highest lake in the United States, and a decent-sized one at that, with two lobes and an island in the larger one. I took some photos, refilled my water, and resisted a faint urge to swim. From there, we wove down some cold slabs to Lake 12,545′, then more steep terrain to Sunlight Lake, where there was a single tent and a person. We chatted with her across the lake for a minute, then circled around to pick up the use trail. Just before reaching it, we again met the guy we had seen earlier on the ridge. Displaying a sad lack of peakbagging drive, he had not continued to 13,121, wandering back from Greylock with plenty of daylight left. We gave him the latest forecast and unexpected good news from the outside world, then took off down-canyon.
Just below the lake, we were surprised to run into a herd of more than a dozen mountain goats. They are fairly common in this part of the San Juans, but I am more used to seeing them in small groups, often a nanny a her kids. As usual for mountain goats, they were not afraid of us, but unlike the tame ones in nearby Chicago Basin, who approach in hopes of food or pee, they kept a respectful distance. Beginning a pattern for the trip, we reached the tent around dusk, making the most of the short days without continuing into headlamp time. We had our usual dinner — grits and sausage for me, a gallon bag of flavored mashed potatoes for Dan (ugh!) — then killed some time looking at our phones before setting into our bags for too many hours of semi-sleep. With the tent zippers closed tight, and a stiff corpse outside as a warning, there were no more invading mice.
Waking from another frigid night in the Cimmaron valley, Dan and I made a quick visit to Precipice Peak, my last 13er in the area. The route leaves the jeep road at the trailhead, heading east along a dry wash. A use trail emerges on the north side after a few hundred yards, climbing the bank on sometimes-treacherous dirt slopes. Once out of the woods, the trail becomes indistinct as it continues to the peak’s south ridge. From there, it is a mostly-easy hike through interesting volcanic terrain to the summit.
Our business done, we drove back through the spectacular aspens (and hordes of leaf-peepers) to Ridgway, stocked up at the Walmart in Montrose, then headed back south. Our initial plan was to drive to Beartown, then hike in to camp and tag a few peaks the next day. I was particularly looking forward to this part of the trip, since I no longer have a vehicle capable of driving the rough 4WD road to this remote trailhead north of the Weminuche. Though I have reached some “Beartown peaks” in a day from Molas Lake, Vallecito, and Los Pinos, doing so is painful, especially late in the season with short days. Dan seemed keen to revisit the area, or at least tolerant of my quest to check off obscure 13ers.
Realizing that our schedule was too ambitious, we slept near Silverton, then drove in the next morning and hiked to our intended camp spot at the junction of Vallecito and Rock Creeks. Seeing new territory in the San Juans is a rarity for me, so the drive itself was a treat. The road over Stony Pass is absurdly steep at times, climbing thousands of feet out of Cunningham Gulch to 12,500′, then descending from the Rio Grande’s headwaters to Pole Creek. The two fords of Pole Creek and the Rio were easy in October of a dry year, but can float a car earlier in the season. From there, a rougher road continues four miles to the (purported but invisible) site of Beartown, then deteriorates further as it climbs to Kite Lake. Dan deftly drove the vehicle through some rocks that put it up on three wheels, then parked near the Beartown trailhead, a short walk from the Stony Pass trail.
I had never been farther up the Vallecito drainage than near its intersection with Stormy Gulch on my return from the Guardian, so the descent from Stony Pass offered plenty of new views. The north sides of the eastern Grenadiers are all impressive, with Storm King’s northeast ridge striking me as a tempting line. From the pass above 12,000′, the trail descends Nebo Creek to the Vallecito, then continues to drop to our campsite around 10,100′. We found a flat spot in the trees a bit above the valley floor, then set up the Alps Palace, our home for the next four nights. I was glad to have the unaccustomed weight of overnight gear and five days’ food off my back.
Dinner and sleep came early, reminiscent of my twelve-hour nights in the bivy in Peru. I fell asleep instantly, while Dan had more trouble due to his leaking pad and sad synthetic bag. I awoke suddenly, though, when something ran lightly across my face. Turning on our headlamps, we quickly spotlighted a large-eyed mouse in the tent. The thing was oddly slow and stupid, not having eaten any of our food, but merely confusedly ambling around the sides of the tent. Not having experienced such a situation before, I was paralyzed by indecision. Not so Dan: putting on a glove, he punched the mouse to death, threw its corpse out of the tent, and wiped up its effluvia. I closed my tent flap more tightly, then settled in for another seven hours of half-sleep. Isn’t camping fun?!
For our third and longest day in the Cimmarons, we headed over to tag a few thirteeners around the middle fork of Cimmaron River. Peaks 13,206 and 13,377 are unremarkable from most vantages, but Heisshorn looks impressive from pretty much any direction and, though easier than Coxcomb, is supposed to be one of Colorado’s harder thirteeners. On a clear day, all the peaks have impressive closeup views of Wetterhorn.
Anticipating a long day, we got a non-pathetic start, leaving the vehicles before 8:00 and once again successfully crossing the creek without soaking any feet. The hike up the basin was starting to get old for me, but I do not plan to return anytime soon, and it is fairly quick and painless. We headed into new territory on the other side, descending into Wetterhorn Basin past the signed but near-invisible Cow Creek trail. Cow Creek, despite its bland name, is supposedly an interesting feature, a deep valley with steep, complex walls. There was a much larger herd of bighorns south of the pass, hopefully hard at work improving the direct traverse to Coxcomb.
We crossed the basin to another trail junction, then followed that trail toward the head of the center fork of the Cimmaron. Trails disappear quickly in the meadows here, so they are marked by posts held up by piles of rocks. This trail faded in and out of existence despite a moderate amount of use, but the posts were in good shape and well-spaced, making it easy to follow. Looking at a map, the area has an incredible number of trails, likely making it a great destination for trail runners. Some of them may be “of historical interest,” i.e. not maintained in decades and almost nonexistent, but many seem to be usable, traversing gentle alpine terrain between the wooded valleys.
We left the trail at the pass, traversing around the head of the basin toward Peak 13,206. There was some dinner-plate talus on the way to the summit, but nothing truly obnoxious. The ridge turns looser and slower toward 13,377, with an intermediate bump and some pinnacles and cliffs to deal with. Game trails help here, as it is not always possible to follow the crest, and crossing the steep, loose sides would be tedious without them. Early September’s snow had mostly melted, but what little remained on north faces was too hard to kick steps.
After a final bit of horrible choss, we emerged on the connecting ridge to Wetterhorn just south of the summit, a short tundra-walk away. I had been eyeing Heisshorn’s south ridge for much of our time in the area; it is intimidatingly steep to the west, with a large and miserable-looking talus fan below, and three sharp notches. I had hoped that the other side was gentler, but it is similarly steep and guarded by talus below. It looked like it might be doable, but the first part looked like tedious loose talus, there were no good opportunities for escape farther along, and the whole thing definitely looked no easier than low fifth. Dan was not interested, and I was not in the mood to experiment, so we retreated toward Wetterhorn, then dropped about 1,000 feet around the east side to join the standard route.
We skirted the base of a large talus-fan, then started up a spur ridge that joins the main north ridge well above the trail pass between the center and west forks of the Cimmaron. The climbing was mostly loose class 2, with a bit of class 3 possible to avoid the talus here and there. Wetterhorn’s shaded north face was an impressive though not photogenic sight to our left, rising about 1000 feet from a pile of loose rock, with a small permanent snowfield on one side. It looked like something that had probably been climbed (in fact it has), but not for the likes of me.
Heisshorn’s north ridge is nearly as narrow as its south, but much shorter and without the notches. Most of it is class 2, with some fun exposed sidewalk sections near the start. The final climb is class 3, either on or slightly left of the crest, on fairly solid rock. I enjoyed finding more good scrambling after so many talus-pile peaks; Dan, who has been doing much less of it lately than I, took his time to adapt. Reaching the summit, we found a register in a thermos, placed just a couple months earlier, that already had multiple parties. I was surprised that this minor, relatively remote and challenging thirteener had seen so much traffic. In the Sierra, a similar non-SPS peak could see less than one ascent per year.
We retraced our path down and across the sidewalks, then took the main ridge toward the pass, finding multiple sets of footprints. We also saw two parties crossing the pass: a couple with a dog, and a group of four less than an hour behind. Like the Climb13ers folks, we shortcut the trail, plunge-stepping down some unpredictable dirt and scree toward the grass below, finding another line of posts and intermittent trail. It might be possible to cut around the head of the valley, but it looked just as fast to drop down to a trail junction, as our return trail climbed the far side to cross the pass next to Coxcomb.
I blindly followed the line on the USFS topo, which is wrong lower down but more or less correct higher up; fortunately there are also posts, and there is only one obvious way to get through an intermediate cliff band. Despite being faint in the valley, the trail seemed well-used in this section as it crossed a boggy stream through some willows. I was getting anxious about our return time, as I had neglected to bring a headlamp, but the view of evening sun hitting Wetterhorn’s west face made the late return feel more acceptable.
Crossing Wetterhorn Basin, we heard voices, and eventually spied a large group hanging out in the talus below Coxcomb, evidently returning from a successful climb (without the big rappel). Despite having only daypacks, they seemed in no hurry; I looked around for tents and, seeing nothing obvious, shrugged my shoulders and continued toward the pass. We weren’t exactly fast up the 400 foot climb, but managed to jog a fair amount of the trail on the other side. We reached the trailhead around dusk, and oddly enough passed a couple of other people hiking the road in the other direction. Headlamp time consisted of about thirty seconds crossing the stream back to the cars. As I was falling asleep, a couple of vehicles passed on the way out; perhaps the large party we had seen below Coxcomb enjoyed evening headlamp, or had waited for the nearly-full moon to finish their hike.