Return from Mojanda

Cerro Negro


[I would have more photos for this mostly-boring entry, but my phone croaked. — ed.]

It started raining off and on around 2:30 AM at Laguna Mojanda, so for the rest of the night I did not sleep so much as cower in my bivy, managing the wetness trade-off between rain and condensation. During a short break in the rain around 7:00, I quickly packed up and hit the road, climbing one more rolling hill around the lake, then passing the turnoff to the refugio on the longer climb to the high-point near Cerro Negro. Near a shelter at the crest, I startled what I think were two Caracaras, a colorful type of Andean raptor, which flew off before I could get a photo.

Hotel at Mojanda

Just past the crest, I stashed my pack in the grass and carefully made my way up the pseudo-trail to Cerro Negro’s summit. This would normally be an easy climb, but with the fresh precipitation, it had turned into third class grass and mud, making the climb and especially the descent a bit tricky. The final ridge included several false summits and a bit of third class rock, tempting me to turn around early, but I persevered to the true summit, took in the non-view, then carefully returned to my pack.

Looking down on Tabacundo

About half-way down the road-walk to Tabacundo, a rental car pulled over and the driver rolled down his window to ask a question. After a bit of language negotiation, we determined that our best means of communication was French — he and his wife were from Marseille. On the one hand, this helped us communicate, since my French is much better than my Spanish; on the other hand, this really messed up my Spanish-learning effort, refreshing my confusion of both vocabulary and pronunciation. It was worth it overall, though: after realizing that their rental car would not make it anywhere near the lake from this side, they gave me a ride about half-way back to Carcelen.

Returning to the airport earlier than expected, I took a shower, changed into street clothes, retrieved the BBoG, and hired a cab to the fancy downtown hotel Ted had arranged with point shenanigans. Thanks to the ride from the French couple, I had some daylight to kill, so I decided to do a couple errands. I quickly found cheap groceries along Avenida 6 de Diciembre then, with a bit more searching, found a mountaineering store that sold expensive gas canisters. I deposited my goods at the hotel, then went out to find dinner and check out the city. It was a Friday night, and Quito seemed to be a happening place, but I was there to stand on top of piles of dirt, not to party.

Laguna Mojanda

Laguna Mojando


I hadn’t liked the look of things south of Quito, so I decided to try something in the other direction. There are several volcanoes in the general vicinity of Otavalo, two of which caught my interest: Cotacachi, famous for its steep and loose summit block, and Fuya Fuya, the highpoint of a collapsed volcano containing a large lake, and an easy walk-up. If I felt good and the weather looked okay, I could do the former; otherwise, I could do the latter and sleep at the 12,000-foot lake for acclimatization. Fortunately the lady at the expensive airport bag check place didn’t charge me anything to take out my bag and put it back, so I was able to stash the heavy mountaineering gear before heading north. Unfortunately, my plan to sleep in the lounge was ruined by a lounge guardian who rigorously enforced the 5 hour stay limit for my card. So I took a shower, slept a few hours in the lounge, then tried to sleep a bit more in the food court before heading north.

Once again, the bus ride took a significant portion of the day, with a slow city bus to Carcelen, then a faster regional bus retracing part of the route before heading northeast through Tabacundo to Otavalo. Despite the mountains being hidden in clouds, it was a pleasantly scenic drive, with the road winding in and out of deep canyons beneath hundreds of feet of shored-up hillside. Ecuador apparently doesn’t do bridges. Unfortunately, the ride was also the perfect length to show a terrible Rosario Dawson car chase movie dubbed in Spanish, which I found hard to completely ignore.

Otavalo and its market square are well-known tourist destinations, so I saw the expected gringos and signs in English, but they were few enough not to spoil the place. It may have helped that Otavalo has been a market town since before the white man came to South America. I walked around the edge of the market, keeping a safe distance so as not to tempt the blanket-sellers, then bought a tasty chicken empanada for 85 cents on my way toward the Plaza Bolivar, passing along a wall covered in Simon Bolivar-inspired street art. I don’t know if he is as revered in other South American countries (except Bolivia), but it seems like just about every Ecuadoran town has a Bolivar square and avenue, and often others named for his generals. Even the country’s old currency, the sucre, was named for Bolivar’s compatriot Mariscal Sucre.

Along the way, I passed locals dressed in both modern and traditional clothes. The women’s fashion was particularly distinctive, with blue skirts, white puffy blouses, and either black bowler hats or what looked like folded lengths of felt on their heads. Many of the men also wore bowlers, but they did not seem to be as consistent. The women also carried children or loads on their backs in shawls wrapped over both shoulders and tied below the throat.

The sun finally came out in the plaza, and I sat on a bench to take in the church, city hall, and giant bust of Rumi├▒ahui, the Incan war leader who took over after the Spaniards captured and killed the king. After observing the crowds for awhile, and talking to a couple of adventurous young Colombians backpacking down to Argentina, I went off to look for the bus toward Cotacachi. I found what I thought was the right corner, but the bus that came by was headed elsewhere, and after waiting another ten minutes, I gave up and headed toward Laguna Mojando.

Cobbles to Mojando

From this side, just about any car can reach the lake above 12,000 via a remarkably smooth cobblestone road. However, I had no car and too much free time, and I wanted the acclimatization, so I put on some listening material and started walking up the road. The rain started less than a thousand feet up, and I put on my poncho as it strengthened. It turns out that there is also a “Quechua bus” on this road, driven by a local man in a bowler, serving the native communities in the valley. He graciously stopped when I waved at him, and saved me most of a mile of wet walking for all of 30 cents.

Cheap house?

Higher, the road continues past more scattered homes, both occupied and abandoned, including one for sale for what I took to be “cheese and $200.” Not a bad place to live. The best house, however, was on the other side of the valley, and could apparently be reached by a massive zip-line. Nearing the lake, I finally got some views of Fuya Fuya’s impressive northeast face, one of the few surfaces in the area too steep for vegetation.

Fuya’s east ridge

Reaching the lake, I found one car parked, and a couple people fishing around the lakeshore with a boat. I also found a friendly stray dog who seemed to have chosen a less than ideal place to beg. After tanking up on food and water, I hid my pack, tied my jacket around my waist and started hiking up the trail to Fuya Fuya. Though it had signposts in a few places, the trail went straight up the hillside in a very unofficial way, crossing sometimes-tricky mud and wet grass.

Crux muddy crack

I reached the ridge east of Fuya’s east (easier) summit, from which I could admire views to both sides of… clouds, of course. This is Ecuador — what do you think I would see? Nevertheless, I continued over the east summit and on to the west. There was a fun little third class diagonal crack along the way, made somewhat more tricky in the wet, but I reached the west (true) summit quickly enough, and spent a couple minutes enjoying uniformly gray views before retreating to descend a trail from near the saddle between the two summits.

Back below the clouds at the lake, I filtered some water while the dog looked on, then continued along the road toward a campground and possibly hostel on its southeast side. The cobbles end at a shelter below Fuya, so the road from here on was a mixture of puddles and slick mud. My faithful companion followed at a safe distance, and I felt bad that I had not saved a piece of the sausage I ate on the long hike up the road. My hope to reach the official camping area dwindled as the light faded and the road climbed and descended maddeningly above the lakeshore. Finally, near dusk, I found an established campsite near the lake with a water diversion channel carved around a flat grassy area. It seemed like as good a place as any to put my bivy. The dog hung around for a few minutes, then, hungry and disappointed, took off barking after something I didn’t see. I covered my pack with my poncho and tried to get some sleep.

Iliniza Norte

Summit view


[Please excuse the longer-than-usual posts. This trip was tourism as much as peak-bagging, and descriptions of such tend to get wordy. — ed.]

The long approach began inauspiciously. Unbeknownst to me, there had been an ice storm the night before in Denver, and I slipped on some black ice just three feet from Ted’s front door while carrying my bags to the car. I landed unhurt on my rear, but could have easily banged my head on the doorstep, earning what could have been the lamest “not wearing a helmet” ever to appear in Accidents in North American Mountaineering. I carefully stood up, stubbornly refused to put on crampons or a helmet, then carefully put my stuff in the back of the car. Ted dropped me off at the light rail depot, from which two train rides and a lurching walk carrying my big bag o’ gear got me to the Denver airport well before my flight. I checked the BBoG, then pillaged for breakfast with my Priority Pass and twiddled my thumbs waiting for my flight, delayed by the need to de-ice every plane before takeoff.

Thanks to the delay, my transition in Dallas was somewhat rushed. I had just enough time to find the free food dispensary, scoot past the scarf-wearing Middle Eastern women streaming in and out of the Emirates lounge, and grab some mediocre sustenance before being the last person to board the plane to Quito. Fortunately the sardine-packing algorithm had screwed up, and the late-night flight was empty enough for almost everyone to have his own row, so I managed to get a bit of something approximating sleep before my midnight arrival. I needed it, because customs was oddly busy, and it took me an hour to make it out of security and get my bag. While switching my pack from carry-on mode to mountaineering/camping mode (bivy, bag, tools, boots, etc.), I talked to some older Americans with a tour group, then paid too much to stash the BBoG at the airport.

Now to find a spot to bivy. I was too tired to find the WiFi (pronounced “wee-fee” down here), so I blew up my pad and lay down near some signs in the main terminal around 2:30 AM, noticing too late that someone else was sleeping behind them. Waking up again around 5:30, I found the WiFi, and realized I could have spent a much more comfortable five hours in a lounge across the street. I spent a restless couple of hours there instead, grabbed some coffee and snacks, and began the long bus journey south to El Chaupi.

Of course there are llamas

Quito sprawls across several plateaus at the base of Volcan Pichincha, separated by steep thousand-foot-deep valleys, so roads around the city are windy and indirect. They are also impressive feats of engineering, with hundreds of feet of stabilized hillside above, and one significant tunnel. It took about an hour by local bus to get from the airport, on a mesa northeast of the city, to the southern Quito terminal at Quitumbo. From there, another hour in a nicer inter-city bus got me down the Panamerica Freeway to Machachi, where I got on another local bus to the farming town of El Chaupi. This was an all-purpose bus, carrying a mixture of adults returning from the city and Native schoolchildren of all ages wearing uniforms.

Perros on the way to the hut

I spent the rest of the afternoon walking the road and trail to base camp; later, I learned that a truck taxi (white with a green stripe) could have taken me to the trailhead for only $10. The day started out hot and humid on the good cobblestone road out of town, then became what I learned was typical Ecuadoran soaking drizzle as the road turned to dirt higher up. I could have walked right past the entrance hut, since the guard was having lunch in back, but I stopped in to check out the situation. He didn’t seem overly happy that I did not have a guide, but after I assured him I was only doing the north peak (true in retrospect), and that I had a helmet (false), he had me sign a waiver and let me by. Higher up, I met a stray dog, said a friendly “hola, perro,” and soon had three strays following me the rest of the way. I had planned to camp at the end of the road, but the drizzle continued, so I decided to grind out another 1000 meters’ climb to the hut between Iliniza’s two summits. The drizzle continued almost the whole way, but I was warm enough in just a t-shirt and my $5 poncho as I powered up the muddy hill through the paramo, passing a couple people going down and a couple going up along the way, the dogs easily keeping pace.

Starting out in the morning

Cheapskate that I am, I had planned to simply dry off in the hut before pitching my bivy outside, but the rain continued, and I met several friendly fellow climbers in the hut, including two from Santa Fe, so I paid the excessive fee for room and board. In addition to the Santa Feans, the night’s group included two local guides, a couple Chicagoans, and three Poles who probably should have tried for the summit, but instead descended the next morning. I had a surprisingly large and good meal of potato soup, queso fresco, chicken, and rice, then failed to sleep while listening to others’ thrashing and labored breathing above 15,000 feet.

Iliniza Norte ridge

It was cloudy in the morning, with a dusting of fresh snow on the ground and slightly above-freezing temperatures, so I chatted some with the guided groups and had breakfast and coffee before heading out for the summit a short 1000 feet or so above. I soon left the guided folk behind, fending for myself in the clouds. The route crosses volcanic choss left of the ridge lower down, but the recent moisture helped stabilize it, and I followed occasional cairns and boot-paths across the slope and up to the ridge. Most of the ridge was class 2, with a few class 3 steps made more interesting by the wet snow. Below the summit knob, I headed right of the ridge on what was supposed to be an exposed traverse, though it didn’t feel particularly treacherous. Shortly after joining another route up the north slope, I climbed some steeper terrain back up and left to the ridge, then continued a short distance to the summit cross.

Afternoon walk back to town

I “enjoyed” the traditional Ecuadoran summit view of clouds and mist, then retraced my steps, passing the lead guide as he installed a hand-line on the “exposed” traverse. I met the other guide and the climbers a short ways below, and learned that they had been a bit concerned that I was just some inexperienced yahoo getting into trouble in the hills. This is why I try not to make assumptions about people I meet in the mountains, and prefer to offer information instead of advice.

Back at the hut mid-morning, I debated my next move. The original plan had been to check out the higher, more difficult Iliniza Sur from the route on Norte, then climb the former via its standard snow/glacier route the next morning. Unfortunately I had seen almost none of the south peak, and conditions seemed less than ideal for climbing a rapidly-retreating and crevassed glacier, with fresh snow, warm nights, and low visibility. Also, I had no reading material, and the hut keeper’s English was as bad as my Spanish, so it was awkward to hang out. It did not seem worth my time to hang around the hut for the rest of the day and sleep out in the wet (or pay the hut fee again), so I hiked back to El Chaupi, then reversed my bus trek to the airport to swap gear, get a few hours’ sleep, and figure out somewhere else to go.

Tour de Trampas

Trampas valley


Northern New Mexico’s Truchas Peaks are the most rugged part of the southern Sangre de Cristo range, and the source of multiple streams and rivers, many followed by trails. With “summer” finally (hopefully) coming to an end down here, I decided to get in one more mountain outing before the snow. I have previously used the Rio Quemado to reach Middle and South Truchas, and the Rio Santa Barbara to reach the North. This time I paid my first visit to Rio de las Trampas to tag the surrounding satellite peaks, from Trampas around to Jicarilla. While most of my route was technically off-trail, the local bighorn sheep maintain a decent network of ridge trails in the region, so the only truly cross-country travel was getting on and off the ridge. The route is definitely best clockwise, so that the interesting scrambling is done going up.

I left home a bit before 7:00, heading north through the tiny Spanish towns of Chimayo and Truchas before turning off onto the dirt road through the “town” of El Valle to the Trampas Lakes trailhead. It can be cold in these north-facing valleys, and the sun rises late, so I was in no hurry to start. Though temperatures were comfortable in the valley, probably around freezing, the partially-frozen stream and lakes told the true tale.

Why, hello…

I normally don’t carry navigational aids in familiar territory like the Pecos, but I was glad to have loaded topos onto my “new” phone as I left the trail to climb around 2000 feet to Trampas Peak. The deadfall looked wretched near the Trampas River, but was rarely a problem on my climb up a broad, indistinct ridge leading to Trampas’ summit. Treeline is high this far south, and at 12,170′, Trampas barely peeks out of the forest, so I had scant views for most of the climb.

The man of the house arrives

Emerging just below the summit, I found a large cairn with a stick, and a decent-sized herd of bighorns. At first, I only saw ten or so ewes and lambs, but then the alpha buck, and later an apparent beta, peered over the ridge to see what was happening. I wanted to touch the stick, but even when I approached within 10-20 yards, the sheep showed no inclination to move, despite my supposedly being an apex predator in the area. Coward that I am, I skirted the summit, then stood to watch as the alpha ram made half-hearted attempts to mount some of the ewes, and was roundly rebuffed.

Sheep trail

I was worried that the long, wooded ridge toward 12,453′ would be a deadfall nightmare, but after a bit of meandering in the woods, I found a sheep-trail right on the crest, with few obstacles and good views down into the Santa Barbara drainage. Emerging from the trees, I found myself on alpine tundra covering a quartzite uplift, with fins descending west into the Trampas valley. I found my only register of the day on the summit, with only the party who placed it and a familiar name “moving on borrowed time” having signed. I added my name, then started the day’s crux.

Third class part

The jagged ridge between 12,453′ and 12,880′ seems to be traversed by sheep, despite featuring several seemingly-mandatory class 3 steps, and an optional class 4 one near the end. Fortunately, the rock is solid and blocky, and the sheep have put in a decent trail elsewhere. I followed one ram doing maintenance, who fortunately did not decide to stand his ground, but instead scooted ahead for a few hundred yards before ceding me the trail and dropping north into Santa Barbara.

Jicarilla from Sheepshead

North Truchas is a short jaunt from 12,880′, and the scramble from 12,453′ all the way to Middle Truchas looked fun, but I had work to do elsewhere. Yet another small flock of bighorns watched from a safe distance as I dropped north to a saddle, then made the long trail climb to Sheepshead. I took advantage of the peak’s surprising 4G coverage, then set out on the pleasant grassy stroll to Jicarilla. This part was almost all runnable, but my knee has been acting up a bit lately, so I hiked more than necessary.

Moss carpet

From my inspection of Jicarilla’s east face from the other side, it looked like an obvious avalanche chute just southeast of the summit would be the best descent line. The steep turf on the open slope worked until around 11,000′, where new saplings and a potential cliff band blocked the way. Fortunately the woods were fairly open, so I was able to quickly side-hill down pine duff to the creek. Lower down, I was surprised to find a moss carpet that would fit in better in the Cascades. I quickly found the well-used trail, where the remaining snow had been beaten nearly to ice, then had a casual jog back to the car.

West Needle

Real Mountains across Animas


I had set my alarm for 4:00 AM, planning to harvest some of my last remaining cluster of Weminuche 13ers around Noname Creek, but the prospect of 2.5 hours of headlamp and a long commute across from Purgatory crushed my motivation. Instead, I went back to sleep, then drove on up to Andrews Lake for an easier day to West Needle Mountain. This seldom-climbed 13er, south of Twilight Peaks, is a much more reasonable 15 mile round-trip via the Crater Lake trail and the head of Watertank Canyon.

Traverse toward col

There was only one other car in the lot, but the trail evidently sees quite a bit of horse and foot traffic during the summer. I took my time to Crater Lake, jogging some of the downhills but not in any hurry. Beyond the lake, a trail continues to a gentle saddle at the head of Watertank Canyon, then fades to faint game trails. I descended a bit, then linked benches and ledges on a southward traverse, crossing one obnoxious boulder-field, but otherwise finding fairly pleasant terrain, and a couple of cairns. The rock above looked more like the Grenadiers’ solid bedrock than the Needles’ kitty-litter.

Col from West Needle

After traversing below some buttresses, I climbed a grassy slope to the col just northwest of point 12,932′, finding a well-used game trail and some sheep droppings. The game trail continues on the other side, traversing south before fading well above the lake at the head of Twilight Creek. After crossing more talus, I finally got on West Needle’s northeast ridge. It looked steep from the col, but turned out to be mostly class 2, with a couple class 3 steps higher up. I wandered around the broad summit plateau a bit, then sat down to admire the view of the Real Mountains east across the Animas.

The return was pleasant and mostly uneventful. Though it was t-shirt weather, I met only one other person on the trail, a man with two dogs, one of which followed me for a couple miles before returning to its owner. There were a few young women fishing at the lake, and a couple preparing for an elk hunt, but things were surprisingly quiet for such a pleasant day. I made part of the drive back to Durango before stopping at my usual Lime Creek camping area.

Moss, Lavender, Hesperus

Hesperus from Lavender


The La Platas are an isolated group of 13ers west of Durango, unconnected to the rest of the San Juans. The rock varies widely, from solid granite to nasty red and white choss. I had visited in May 2016, coming in a long dirt road from the west to climb Sharkstooth and Centennial in the snow before being defeated by the ridge between Centennial and Lavender. This time I came in from the east, ascending Tomahawk Basin and traversing across Moss and Lavender to reach Hesperus, the range highpoint. I was planning to also tag Babcock and Spiller, but lacked the energy after some route-finding shenanigans.

Beattie again

There is not much in the way of parking at the junction of the La Plata River and Basin Creek roads, but I found a wide flat spot to sleep, then got a lazy start around 8:00. It had reached 70 degrees in Durango the day before, and it was calm and pleasantly warm once I reached the sun. I followed the old road to the Tomahawk Mine, then found a faint, occasionally cairned trail continuing up the drainage to the Little Kate Mine. Expecting the choss-piles I had experienced on my last visit, I was surprised by Babcock’s sheer north face, and the cliffs and pillars on the ridge leading to Moss.

Steep finish on Moss

Trying to be clever and save time, I headed straight northwest toward Moss’s summit, finding mostly turf with only a bit of loose talus. Unfortunately, Moss’s east ridge and southeast face are quite steep. After some shenanigans along the ridge, I retreated a bit, then found some fun, steep, blocky low fifth class climbing on the southeast face leading to the summit. The descent toward Lavender was an easy talus-hop, as was most of the climb. Near the top, I found a short third class scramble and a move onto the summit block. Leafing through the register, I saw a couple familiar names (hi, Bob!), and was impressed that someone had apparently arrived via the north ridge, which had defeated me before and still looked intimidating.

Lavender, Moss from Hesperus

The traverse to Hesperus was supposed to be tricky, but I found it straightforward, with a bit of optional third class climbing getting through some notches. The rock sharply changes from nice granite to layered red and white choss partway along the traverse, so the best route stays near the crest to avoid sliding talus. I found a solid wind-break on the summit, and a bit of a trail for the standard route up the west ridge.

I retraced my route partway, then side-hilled across the south side of Lavender and Moss before descending Moss’s south ridge. I thought about climbing Babcock, but its northwest face looked steep and snowy, so I wussed out and dropped down a chute to Tomahawk Basin, taking the trail and road back to my car.

McCauley, Grizzly, Hope, Aztec (12h45)

McCauley, Hazel Lake, Hope


While nowhere near as serious as the Sunwapta ford for Kitchener, which comes directly off a glacier and contains chunks of floating slush, the Vallecito ford is still seriously unpleasant. While it is only 10-15 seconds long and no more than knee-deep this time of year, it must be done early in the morning on a dayhike, when temperatures are still below freezing and the sun has not reached the bottom of the deep valley. Unfortunately, the Vallecito trail is the best access to many deep Weminuche peaks, via Johnson or Sunlight Creek, so I force myself to do it once a year. This year I tried to make it as comfortable as possible, starting late at 6:15 and carrying some old running shoes for the crossing.

Lake 13,100 and Windom

I had planned an elegant lollipop route, heading up Johnson Creek, over McCauley and Grizzly, then across the head of Grizzly Creek to Greylock and 13,121′, exiting via Sunlight Creek. This would also give me a chance to take a side-trip to the highest lake I know of in North America, nestled at 13,100′ below Windom. Unfortunately, the north-facing descent into Grizzly Creek was covered in sugary snow, making it somewhere between unpleasant and treacherous, so I had to improvise.

Hunter camp

With my late start, I had less than an hour of morning headlamp, though the day had not started to warm up when I reached the crossing about 1h45 in. There was a thin hand line this time, and plenty of sticks for balance. I put on all my layers, took off my shoes, socks, and pants, put on my wading shoes, grabbed a stick, and walked across as quickly as I could. My cold hands functioned just long enough to get dressed again on the other side, where I left my wading shoes and jogged up the trail trying to warm up again. I met a couple hunters looking for elk, then passed their luxurious camp, with several mules, a large canvas tent, and what looked like a heated tepee.

Sunset on Organ and Amherst

I finally met the sun around 9:00, shortly after crossing the Johnson Creek bridge, and was soon comfortable in a t-shirt on the long, switchbacked climb toward Columbine Pass. I expected to find some backpackers, but I had the place to myself other than a bit of trash left by some previous slob. I remembered the trail’s impressive scenery, with the rugged north side of Organ and Amherst across the valley, but I had forgotten the maddening, pointless switchbacks in the middle part of the valley.

Jupiter, Windom, Grizzly from McCauley

I left the trail in open woods around 11,200′, climbing a mix of grass and talus on the east side of the Hazel Lake drainage, following my descent route from last year. I left the valley before the lake, following a mix of steep turf and class 2-3 rock that deposited me almost directly below McCauley’s summit knobs. The highest, southern one was decorated with a large iron spike.

3rd class traverse

After descending the summit knob, I stayed on or just left of the ridge crest on easy class 2 ground to the saddle with Grizzly. From the saddle, I wove left and right around a few steep bumps, then found an exposed class 3 traverse on the left leading past the final bump, joining Grizzly’s standard route southwest of the summit. From there, I climbed to the ridge connecting Grizzly and Jupiter, then boulder-hopped up its north side to the summit. I examined the snow-covered 1500-foot descent to Grizzly Creek as I ate a Clif bar, and decided I did not want to subject myself to that misery. However, returning directly felt like a waste, so I looked around for other things to climb.

East from Aztec

Hope Mountain is only a minor bump on the other side of Hazel Lake, but as an “amphitheater peak,” it has good views of the surrounding higher mountains. I dropped to the lake, got some water, then made my way up the talus to its summit, where I found a wet “geocache” in a PVC tube. With plenty of time to spare, I decided to tag a peak or two south of Columbine Pass. I took the high trail traversing to the pass, looked for tents in Chicago Basin, then easily side-hilled south before climbing the ridge to point 13,190′, which is not a real peak. I still had some time, so I continued talus-hopping over to Aztec Mountain. This was the last unclimbed peak I cared about in the Chicago Basin area, so climbing it eliminated a future trip across the Animas from Purgatory. Yay!

Route map

I traversed back south of 13,190′, then dropped down the center of the Johnson Creek drainage, eventually rejoining the trail near where I had left it in the morning. The switchbacks sorely tested my patience on the jog down to the Vallecito, where I met the hunters, still looking elk that I believe are still up in the high country. The return ford was much less miserable, as the air temperature was well above freezing. Hike-jogging the long Vallecito trail, I passed one backpacker on his way out, and reached the trailhead a few minutes before headlamp time. Though I did not tag the summits I had planned, I should be able to clean out the remaining peaks around Sunlight Creek in a single trip next year.

South Mineral 13ers

Ice Lake Basin


Though the days are short, and snow lingers on north-facing slopes, the weather continues to hold in the San Juans. I had hoped to tag several 13ers near scenic Ice Lake Basin, but a case of projectile diarrhea left me with little energy. Given the timing, I am guessing I was not careful enough in my water choice on the way back from Organ Mountain. Fortunately I had planned ahead, spending all of $8 on suitable antibiotics while I was in Mexico, so instead of driving back to Durango to throw a couple hundred bucks at the American medical-industrial complex, I swallowed two pills and was back to normal in 24 hours.

SE side of Rolling

Continuing along South Mineral Creek past the campground, I carefully drove up the rocky road to the trailhead for the Rico-Silverton trail to spend a couple of days cleaning out the nearby 13ers. I started with the ones to the west, traversing from Rolling around to Beattie. Based on an online trip report, I made my way around to Rolling’s southeast side, where I found willows followed by loose talus, then a bit of scrambling along the east ridge to the summit. The east/northeast bowl would have been faster and likely better.

Descent off Rolling

I continued along a ridge to the western sub-summit, then made my way carefully down its north face, a sketchy mix of powdery snow and loose rock, to the connecting ridge with V9. I think this face would be similarly unpleasant even when dry. The ridge up to V9 was a pleasant, sunny respite. I had hoped to continue to impressive San Miguel Peak, but the connecting ridge looks loose and complicated. The north side of V9 was more choss and powder, though fortunately less steep than Rolling, and after more careful downclimbing, I finally reached the pass leading to Lake Hope.

Across choss to Sisters

The talus toward 13,300 started out pleasantly solid, then turned loose again higher up; at least it was snow-free. After checking out the summit, I followed some other poor unfortunate soul’s tracks in the intermittent snow along the connecting ridge to Beattie. Now to get home…

Rock glacier descent

I did not like the look of the southeast ridge, so I continued to the saddle with Fuller, then took off across the rock glacier to the southeast. This was as straightforward and tedious as one would expect. I planned to join the road to Big Three Mine, but ended up heading down through the woods almost straight east toward the parking lot. The terrain was mostly open and friendly, with bits of game trail switchbacking down the slope. After a final bit of steep grass, I emerged on the road near the trailhead, where I set out my chair to read for the rest of the afternoon.

Twin Sisters

Twin Sisters from the west

These are the two similarly-high peaks east of the trailhead. I started as before, following the trail south, then turned east when I saw an easy passage through the willows toward the south end of the Sisters. I managed to follow grass most of the way, then slogged up loose stuff to the base of a gully on their southwest corner. There was a strong west wind above the trees, so it was an unpleasantly cold climb up the loose, snowy, shaded gully. When I finally reached the top, I took a few minutes on the sunny east side of the ridge to recover.

Twin Sisters from south

Since the whole massif is loose talus, the only reasonable route is right along the crest. The west wind froze my left eyeball as I stumbled along with all my layers on and both hands balled up in my gloves. A notch between 13,205′ and the southwest Sister gave me an excuse to drop down around the east side, where I took another break to warm up again before continuing to the summit. I found a sheltered spot to peruse the damp register, then added my name.

South Twin from North

The crest of the north-facing ridge toward the northeast Sister was covered in snow with a crust that either broke through to powder, or was too hard for me to get traction in the wind, so I was forced onto the talus on the east side. Happily, once past the saddle I found a sort-of trail of compacted talus, making the climb to the summit a bit easier. The register contained a number of entries mentioning Hard Rock, though the race doesn’t go over the peak.

I continued down the northeast ridge, finally in more pleasant conditions, looking for the supposed Hard Rock 100 trail. Since it starts out on the other side of the valley, I ended up doing a bit of extra cross-country through the woods before picking it up as it makes a rolling traverse to the southwest. Listening to a podcast and concentrating on my footing in an icy section, I nearly ran into a young man doing the same peaks in the opposite direction. After a brief conversation, I continued down some steep switchbacks, then along the valley floor back to my car, and away from this talus-pit.

Electric, Garfield, “Point Pun,” Graystone

Garfield again


Unlike most of the rest of the San Juans, which are made of relatively recent volcanic choss, the Grenadiers are an uplift of ancient bedrock. This is most obvious when looking at the central peaks, Arrow, Vestal, and Trinity, in which the bent rock layers are clearly visible. They are also hard to reach, being separated from the road by the 1600-foot-deep Animas River valley, and not along any maintained trail or abandoned mining road. Though the climbers’ trail into Vestal Basin to the north is much easier to follow than it was when I first visited in 2012, there are no 14ers in the area, so it thankfully has not been “comfortized” by CFI. On my previous Grenadiers visits, I tagged Arrow, Vestal and Trinity, and the eastern peaks from Storm King through the Guardian. This time I came for the western peaks: Electric, Garfield, and Graystone. Being closer to the car, I thought these would be a shorter day, but thanks to some awful terrain, they took a bit longer than the central peaks.

Grenadiers from Molas Lake

It was somewhat cold sleeping near Molas Lake, not enough for my water bottle to freeze, but enough to freeze my Camelback hose, frost the inside of my windows, and force me to fully mummify my sleeping bag. Still, I forced myself out of the car and onto the trail by 5:40 for the usual nighttime commute across the Animas. There was no one camped along the Colorado Trail, and no footprints in the dusting of fresh snow as I climbed to Vestal Basin — I had the range to myself.

Arrow, Electric, and talus notch

I left the trail where it turns east near Arrow, aiming up talus toward a notch between Arrow and Electric containing a permanent-looking snowfield. The talus started out well-behaved, but quickly turned awful. Not liking the look of the notch, I headed to the right, at one point comically falling off a beachball-sized boulder as it slowly rolled beneath me, bruising my thigh. The suck continued up Electric until I eventually gained a third class rib on the south side, which I followed to near the summit. I found two registers: a wad of wet but legible paper in a PVC tube, and some dry pages from a Simpsons calendar in a salsa jar. I have seen a similar Simpsons register on another peak in the area, but I don’t remember which.

Garfield and talus-bowl from Electric

I made my way down the choss toward Graystone, then headed west through the talus-bowl toward its northwest side. Without the snow, I could probably have walked up slabs to its north ridge, but the fresh snow made them slick and impossible. I ended up walking all the way around, to a point where it made more sense to tag Garfield first, then traverse back east along the connecting ridge. I passed “Garfield Lake” on pleasant, dry slabs, then made my way up a turf-y gully to the ridge, where I finally found some fun.

Garfield and Point Pun

The traverse out to Garfield was mostly class 2-3, with one fourth class step that could probably be avoided to the right. I tagged the closer, higher-looking point, then spent 20 minutes tagging the farther one, which had a cairn. The traverse back to Graystone over “Point Pun” was mostly fun class 2-3 on solid rock, with the best line staying near the crest except for detours around a couple notches between Pun and Graystone.

Right (l) and wrong (r) way down Graystone

I planned to return by descending a snow gully between Graystone and Arrow. Unfortunately, I did not traverse far enough — the easiest gully descends from the low point of the ridge — and did some sketchy downclimbing on a mixture of crusty powder, choss, and hard older snow. It was slow, careful work, but I eventually made it back to the talus bowl, hacked through some ice to replenish my water, and made my miserable way back down the talus to the trail. I went straight through the notch this time, finding a suitable passage in the moat west of the permanent snowfield. I again had the trail to myself on the way home, reaching the car a bit after sunset, in time to eat dinner and watch some TV before another cold night at the pass.

Sheridan, Sheep, Amherst, Organ, Emerson, 13,085

Organ (and Oso) from Amherst


As is becoming tradition, I am spending some time in the best part of Colorado (the Weminuche) at its best time of year (late September and early October). I had been impressed by Organ Mountain on the hike up Johnson Creek last year, so I looked at how to tag it this year, and decided on an approach via Endlich Mesa, a new trailhead for me. The road was supposedly “4WD strongly recommended,” but I decided to give it a try anyways. While it is no Como Lake road, it turns out to be awful, with sharp rocks just large enough that I only managed two of ten miles before chickening out and sleeping in a pullout. There is apparently another approach from the west via easier roads, but it was too late for me to drive around.

North across Endlich Mesa

I woke at 5:00, and was on my way up the road by headlamp by 5:30. There is a use trail that shortcuts the road’s maddening switchbacks, but I did not find it in the dark, so I had a long walk before I even reached the official trailhead. The trail starts out somewhat confusing and badly rutted, but all trails seem to lead to the same place, and I eventually emerged from the trees to see a multi-lane pack trail snaking across the endless rolling grass of Endlich (“Endless”) Mesa.

Game trail?

I hike-jogged along the trail to where it drops down to the Durango reservoir, then continued traversing on a well-defined trail to the saddle southwest of Sheridan Mountain. This trail continues through the saddle to traverse Sheridan’s east side to the saddle to its northeast. I could not tell if it was a use/pack trail or one of the area’s many well-defined game trails, which greatly eased my side-hilling on the return.

Sheep Mountain

After crossing a false summit, I found a windbreak and register on the summit, added my name, and admired the glacier-planed slabs of Sheep Mountain’s southwest side. I contemplated the steep northeast side for a few minutes, then started down right, traversing back left on tussocks and faint goat paths. Though steep, the face proved much easier than it looked. Crossing the trail at the saddle, I began meandering toward Sheep, passing numerous streams and tarns as I tried to minimize the up-and-down. Though it looks a bit like a plain from above, the face is split by many crossing gullies, like Humphreys Basin in the Sierra, and progress toward the summit is tricky and frustrating.

Needles, Amherst, Organ from Sheep

Not sure how much time and energy it would take to reach Organ, I aimed straight for the gap between Emerson and 13,085′, which looked from the topo to be the quickest route. Getting off the north side of Sheep involved some sketchy snow and dirt, but I didn’t cliff out, and soon found much easier terrain in the valley. Looking north from the saddle, I realized that this route would suck. Fortunately, the amazing game trail continued down east of the saddle south of Emerson, then contoured around. I took a sketchier high line on the way out, and found the correct, lower line on the way back.

Amherst’s south side

Amherst and Organ are classic Needles kitty-litter, a mixture of gravel slopes and decaying blobs. I made my way easily up the maze of Amherst’s south side, then found decent boot-skiing in the snow and gravel leading toward Organ. While Organ looks like an impenetrable collection of decaying pillars, there is an easy route on its east side, with a couple third class moves and a third class summit block.

I mostly followed the game trail on the way back, deviating to tag Emerson and 13,085′. I should have tagged 13,105′ while I was in the area, but I was eager to return and dreading my long road-walk. I cautiously cut the road switchbacks higher up, then picked up the well-established horse/use trail lower down, reaching my car after a bit over 12 hours. I drove down the nasty part of the road to get that out of the way, then made dinner and slept in a dispersed site off the smoother part of the road.