Category Archives: Colorado

Longs (Kiener’s to Cables)

Complete view of the day

Longs Peak is one of Colorado’s better fourteeners, with a dramatic east face and no route to the summit easier than class 3. Unfortunately it is near Greater Denver, making it a circus most of the time, so I have not climbed it since doing so with a friend’s sister in the pre-blog days. That time, we went up the Loft and down the standard Keyhole, and I remember being amazed at the summit crowds, and amused by the people clinging for dear life to the entirely walkable final slabs. This time I returned for two slightly more interesting routes: Kiener’s and the old Cables. The former is likely the only way I will ever climb the peak’s east side, while the latter fits in with Lady Mountain as a relic of an age when the Park Service had a sense of fun.

Field trip

Camped all the way over on the non-Denver side of the range, I woke punishingly early and had a breakfast of coffee and a sandwich as I drove over Trail Ridge Road. This put me at the trailhead just after headlamp time, where I joined a dozen or so people heading out on the week’s best weather day. I passed a number of them, grateful that the gloom hid my ice axe and spared me any curious glances or questions. Longs is often done for speed, so I felt like I should be jogging the pack trail’s tedious switchbacks, but I was either feeling the altitude or just not in the mood. Emerging into the often-windy alpine, I was surprised to see two long lines of what seemed to be High School students heading down, dressed as if for a field trip. A few were chatty amongst themselves, but most of the girls wore the typical teenage affect of straight hair, blank eyes, and downcast faces.

Chasm Lake and the Diamond

Eventually reaching the Chasm Lake junction, I semi-arbitrarily decided to go clockwise, up Kiener’s and down the Cables. Both routes have similar ratings, but in retrospect this is clearly the correct direction, as Kiener’s is more sustained and the Cables Route is not hard to find. I continued hiking along the trail to the old cabin and privy, then followed a fainter path to Chasm Lake. The Diamond glowed intermittently as the sun poked in and out of thin clouds to the east. I picked my way through the boulders around the lake’s north side, then plodded up the snow to what may still be the Mills Glacier. I sat to put on my crampons as I watched someone start up the lower half of the Diamond.

Lambs Slide

The snow in Lamb’s Slide had not solidified, so it was mostly slush with a punchy crust. I meandered some as I plodded up the couloir, looking for firmer spots or trying to follow bits of old boot-pack, but never found a satisfying line. Perhaps because of the unaccustomed altitude, I was feeling sluggish, and frequently stopped to gasp and rest my burning legs. The entrance to Broadway is a chossy ramp just above a black rock band. Here I took off my crampons for the day, put on my pack, and stowed my axe in my usual “samurai carry” in case it proved useful again.

Broadway Ledge

Some hiking on the ledge led to the left side of Broadway, the remarkable ledge splitting the Diamond. Though sometimes no more than a foot and a half wide, it is nearly flat and mostly covered in turf. Apparently it can be treacherous earlier in the season, when it collects steep snow, but now only a couple of easily-avoided snowbanks remained. I continued on the ledge to the Notch Couloir, then headed up and right as the route description suggested.

Start of upper Kiener’s

I think the correct route climbs the couloir a short distance, but I immediately attacked the rocks to its right, finding steep climbing in a chimney with wonderfully positive holds and grippy rock. After some more like this, I found myself in a sort of dark, wet alcove, with exits left and right. I chose the right at random, and found it deposited me on ledge-y terrain where I managed to make things harder than necessary for myself in a few places. Above this, I found easier going on a class 2 mix of grass and small blocks.

Upper Kiener’s

I was enjoying my progress, and the views behind and below, so I did not pay much attention to the route description. Where I probably should have traversed around a corner, I decided to directly attack one of a pair of dihedrals. I tried the left (right-facing) one first but, not liking it, backed off. The right one was positive and more to my liking, but steep enough to make it feel like the day’s crux. I took my time, then panted my way up the easier boulder-hopping to the summit plateau, arriving practically right at the highpoint.

Summit plateau

Thanks to my early start and direct route, there were only about a dozen people on top, and with plenty of room to spread out, I antisocially distanced myself to eat a sandwich and decide how to proceed. I could easily descend the standard Keyhole route, following the painted bull’s eyes, but decided to stick to my plan and descend the cables. I wandered off across the plateau, found a cairn on the right, and meandered my way down class 2-3 ledges and talus, finding bits of trail here and there. I saw a pair of climbers lower down, and aimed for them, descending near the east face, then traversing back left on a helpful bootpack through a couple of minor snowfields.

Playing with ropes

I caught the climbers at the second old eye-bolt, a relic of tougher tourists in a more carefree age. They turned out to be a couple with roles unusually reversed: she was the more experienced climber, showing him how to clip in for a rappel. A brief bout of awkward conversation established that (1) Kiener’s was “in,” and (2) they had oddly gone up the Keyhole trail and chosen to descend the Cables. As usual, a rope was slower than no rope, and by the time I carefully downclimbed the wet crux and passed the end of their rope, the guy was still futzing at the top. I plunge-stepped down a snowfield, then traversed right toward Mount Lady Washington before the muddle/tragedy behind me resolved itself.

Mount Lady Washington does not have quite enough prominence to make it a real peak, but it was the most convenient red dot in the area for me to turn green, and right on the way back. I passed a haul bag and water bladder at an odd spot in the rocks, which I might have bootied had there not been a couple of guys scrambling by on this odd line. Neither had an axe or crampons, so I chopped steps across a small snowfield for one, then continued on the boulder-hop to my minor summit. The talus was almost all wonderfully stable, but large enough that I had to pay attention in choosing my path. The descent to the Chasm junction was long, but possibly more pleasant than the beaten-in trail. I finally put away my hoodie and gloves, stowed my axe properly, rolled up my pant legs, and took off at some semblance of a jog to make the three miles pass more quickly. I passed a steady stream of hikers along the way, headed perhaps for Chasm Lake, and reached the ranger station before lunch. The weather continued to hold, making me wish I had gone for my more ambitious plan, but this loop was enough, and enjoyable besides.

Zirkel, Flattop

Zirkel summit

Mount Zirkel is a prominent but not particularly high mountain deep in the redneck lands of north-central Colorado. It has been a low priority on my to-do list for some time, and seemed like a good way to break up the drive from the Tetons back down to Colorado. My various mapping programs really wanted me to drive around through Craig to get there, but it seemed shorter to head east from Baggs, Wyoming on county roads. This was probably slower, with a long stretch of good dirt, but definitely scenic. It also made me aware of this repugnant resort, with rooms starting at about $2000/night and a perfectly-paved driveway leading from the dirt road to what looked like an overgrown Dick Cheney “cabin.” I continued on pavement toward Steamboat for awhile, then turned off toward the Slavonia trailhead, passing through a herd of dirty sheep guarded by dogs that, surprisingly, did not attack my car.

Glacier lilies on trail

I woke before 5:00 at the very no-camping-y trailhead, ate a leisurely breakfast, and was off well before sunrise, hiking up the trail to Gold Creek Lake, one of two approaches. The first two creek crossings were easy, on a bridge and a deliberately-placed log, but the third required a bit of searching upstream to cross the stream’s two forks on spontaneous deadfall. The snow on the trail was sometimes soft, but it had been cool enough overnight for the stuff in the shade to be supportive. I lost the trail around the Slavonia mine, and continued by picking my way through boggy slopes and snow-patches, aiming for Red Dirt Pass on the northeast side of the valley. The snow turned out to offer the most friendly path here, firm but with a crunchy, grippy surface.

Big Agnes from Zirkel

I continued to find bits of trail above the aptly-named pass, but mostly enjoyed easy cross-country travel across tundra and occasional snow to the final summit knobs, where a final bit of boulder-hopping and ridge-walking led to the top. There was a bit of a cool breeze from the west, so after admiring the east face of Big Agnes, I found a seat on the other side to eat my ridiculous cookie (thanks, Tom!).

Red Dirt Pass

Knowing that I wanted a bit more than Zirkel by itself, I had plotted out a route back south over Flattop to Ute Pass, with a possible detour to Bear Mountain. I retraced my route to Red Dirt, then found more faint use/game trail and easy cross-country to the highest pile of rocks on Flattop’s expansive, verdant plateau. The weather excellent, but I lacked the food and energy for a three-mile detour to Bear, so I headed straight down the pass. (I should bring more of both next time…) The trail was mostly buried on this west-facing slope, so I did my best to link boot-skiable snowfields on the descent.

Gold Creek drainage

I tried to find the trail again down near Gold Creek, hoping it had a convenient crossing log, but gave up and forded the small stream. After wringing out my shoes, I located the trail and slogged back up to the Red Dirt Pass trail to close the loop. Most of the trail was pleasantly joggable on the return, and I even found the energy to jog a few of the short climbs. Below the Gilpin Lake junction I met a surprising number of hikers. Normally peaks this low and far from Greater Denver are quiet during the week, but the parking lot was full when I returned. I took my time eating lunch, then drove back through the sheep and continued southeast, steeling myself for a brief encounter with the Front Range. It has all the traffic, crowding, and regulation of the Bay Area, but at least its mountains are slightly better.

Powell, Eagles Nest

Powell and Peak C from return

Eagles Nest and Powell, also known as Peaks A and B, are the northernmost of the Gore Range’s “letter peaks.” To their south stretches Ripsaw Ridge, comprised of Peaks C through H. I had traversed these peaks back in 2012, skipping H because its summit is indistinct from below, but ran out of energy to continue to B and A. Looking at C from Powell, it looks like it might not have been possible to continue the traverse. Powell is the range highpoint, making it an appealing enough target to brave the horrors of Vail on my way south.

Trailhead from pass

I drove the long, dusty road to Piney Lake, which felt much worse than I remembered, reaching the parking area outside the ranch around dusk. All of the designated camp spots along the way were occupied, but no one seemed to mind my sleeping in the car at the trailhead. I was awakened around 4:30 when two young guys pulled in next to me and packed for what I guessed (correctly) to be a traverse of Ripsaw Ridge. I found their conversation insufferably “bro-ish,” but that probably says more about me and the early hour than about them. I tried to get a bit more sleep, then started at a civilized time when I would not need a headlamp.

Bad side of Kneeknocker Pass

I passed a few photographers on the trail, likely guests of the ranch, photographing a few moose hanging out in the willows, and was passed by a couple of young women out for their morning jogs. Farther up I met a bow hunter, out on the last weekend of the season and unlikely to have much luck in such a high-traffic area. I easily found the cairned trail to Kneeknocker Pass, and turned steeply uphill on a surprisingly nice trail. The sun was finally hitting the ranch and meadows, but I remained in Ripsaw Ridge’s shade. Kneeknocker Pass was supposed to be a wretched talus-slog, but I found a decent path on the left side almost to the top.

Start of ridge

There are two ways to Powell’s summit from the pass: follow the ridge, or drop down the other side a little ways to reach the broad south slope. The other side of the pass was hardpack and ball bearings that looked somewhere between miserable and dangerous, so I opted for the ridge. After some traversing to the left, passing the occasional cairn, I returned to the right side, where I easily gained elevation on some nice slabs. The ridge eventually deposited me on Powell’s summit plateau, from which I made my way to the highest of several large talus mounds. The air was clear, and I had unobstructed views of Holy Cross and the Sawatch to the southwest. Closer, I could see the various side-ridges east of the Gore crest that hold most of the remaining letter peaks. There are also a couple of colorful lakes east of Ripsaw, fed by small patches of ice.

Eagles Nest ridge

The ridge to Eagles Nest looked long and tricky, and I knew nothing about it, but I had nothing better to do with my day, so I took off across the summit plateau to its start. I found generally smooth sailing on the first part, staying near the crest or following ledge systems to the west. Things turned much trickier near the saddle, where there are many small gendarmes and both sides of the ridge seem steep. At the lowest notch, I tried a possible ramp on the west side, chickened out at a dihedral that felt too steep to be safe, then retreated to the crest. Picking my way down the other side, I eventually found my way down a steep gully until I could cross the next rib and reclimb to the saddle. This felt like about low fifth class, harder than I had expected but not unreasonable.

Oh, hi!

Beyond this, there were more towers to go over and around, but the climbing generally became a bit easier. I even spotted a few cairns, suggesting that I was on the correct version of some route. Eventually the gendarmes ceased and the ridge began a steady climb toward the summit. Looking ahead, I was surprised to see five brightly-colored people in helmets. They turned out to be four guys and a woman, who had started early that morning from the north end and had a car shuttle back at Piney Lake. After meeting no one on the higher and much easier Powell, I was surprised to see someone on this more difficult and obscure route. They informed me that it is in Roach’s book, and that the ridge is supposedly easier if you drop farther off the west side.

Powell from Eagles Nest

I continued to Eagles Nest, where I paused to have a snack and check out the view of the small glaciers north of Powell, and the oddly-perched Dora Lake. I then retraced my route along the ridge, planning to drop west and cross the col at the head of Cataract Creek and rejoin the Kneeknocker Pass trail. I had spotted some gullies that did not cliff out as I traversed, and figured I would choose one of them. I ran into the party of five again, passing them as they began their descending traverse, then made my way to the valley bottom without much trouble. I did not say anything, but given their pace, I saw headlamp time in their future.

Goat family

The col worked well, and I was surprised not to find a use trail, since it seems like a useful connector. Stopping near the trail on the other side to get some water, I watched a family of mountain goats graze watchfully not too far away. A few minutes down the trail, I met four inexperienced-seeming people and an unleashed dog aiming to climb Powell. I gave them what route advice I could, told them about the goats, and suggested they leash their dog. They happily ignored me and continued, but I did not hear an altercation. While there were not many peak-baggers out, there were tons of leaf-peepers on the lower trail. I dodged them as I jogged and hiked my way back to the overflowing parking lot. I was hungry, and would normally have taken my time over a meal, but the crowds were too much. I drove back toward Vail, then up a less-traveled side-road, looking for a nice spot to camp. The few flat pullouts were taken, so I finally settled for a flat-ish wide spot in the road. Not ideal, but good enough.

Aiguille du Fleur

Summit plateau and Fleur de Lis

Rocky Mountain National Park is a casualty of greater Denver’s unchecked growth. It was already a bit of a circus when I visited to climb Longs in 2009, and has only gotten worse since. Recently the Park has instituted a “timed entry permit” system, in which one must have one of a limited number of permits to enter the park at a particular place in each two-hour window of the normal day. These permits are “free” through (there is some kind of “convenience fee,” of course), and both the far-in-advance and day-before ones seem to go quickly. Timed entry for the east-side entrances starts at 5:00 AM, and somewhat later for the less-popular west-side ones.

I have long wanted to check out some east-side routes for the next edition of my book, including the Cables and Kiener’s routes on Longs, the 5.6 route on Spearhead, and the long traverse of Glacier Gorge called “A Walk in the Park.” But between the crowds, entry permits, and increasing difficulty of camping in that part of the Front Range, I probably never will. It is sad that these potentially “classic” scrambles have been ruined by unchecked population growth, but there you have it. If I am not willing to put up with the nonsense required to reach them, I cannot recommend them to others. Given that Yosemite seems to be headed toward similar or even worse crowding and restrictions, I may remove Matthes Crest and Cathedral from the next edition.

Almost-lake creek

With the east side of the Park off limits, I decided to check out “Aiguille du Fleur,” a minor tower with a scramble route that I had read about on Steph Abegg’s site. From my camp in the burned-out forest west of Grand Lake, I drove over to the East Inlet trailhead, where I was met with timed entry signs. I had not expected them at a trailhead with no entry booth on this side of the park, and did not know what to do. I had cell service, but there were no reservable permits available online, and the explanation of when one needed a permit was not at all clear. I eventually asked a local guy what the deal was, and he said that, since I had arrived at the parking lot before timed entries started, I was fine. I have no idea if or how they enforce the system at this trailhead.

Blasted trail

I put my annual pass on the dashboard just in case, then started off up the trail. Once past some falls, it stays flat for awhile, crossing some meadows with a meandering, barely-moving creek. The trail then climbs the valley’s north wall to get up a headwall, with impressive blasting in some sections. Along the way there are named, designated camping spots — apparently camping, too, requires reservations. Above the headwall, the valley climbs past a series of lakes, from Lone Pine Lake all the way to Fifth Lake, at the base of Isolation Peak.

Aiguille from approach

I went to the third lake’s outlet, then left the fading trail to cross the small creek and bash south through the woods. Expecting a climbers’ trail here, I was disappointed to find only bits of game path, but the rough part was short, and travel became easier as the side-valley flattened. As the Aiguille came into clear view, I skirted around its slabby apron, taking a gully toward the head of the valley before cutting back toward its sheer east face. Here I could see the obvious ledge leading to the base of the north ridge route, supposedly 5.6. I was slightly tempted to try it, but I was worried about north-facing snow on potentially slabby terrain, and not feeling all that ambitious. Instead I stuck to my initial plan to climb the easier south ridge. If I had extra energy after that, I could continue to Fleur de Lis Peak, then follow the plateau west before dropping to the trail lower down.

Hard side

After an easy gully, I found a short tricky section dealing with a chockstone in the notch between the Aiguille and the ridge to the Peak. Once past this, I found more low-fifth scrambling meandering up and right, which eventually eased off to a hike to the long, flat summit plateau. I had felt off my game on the scramble, which was supposed to be only a bit of 5.4. I walked over to the highpoint, a jumble of boulders on the other side, where I found a cairn and a couple of slings. The views into the valley, and of the cirques to the south, were striking, but other than Isolation, most of the surrounding peaks are just bumps on a high plateau.

Without much energy, I decided to return the way I had come. Back at the other side of the summit plateau, I followed a ramp toward the other side of the notch, and realized I had made my life much harder than necessary on the way up. Other than a step-around and a couple of moves, this way out of the notch would have been a simple walk. I did not find a climbers’ trail on the way down, but managed to follow slightly better game paths. The trail was too rocky to be much fun to run, but I jogged the smoother sections. As I got within a mile or so of the trailhead, jogging again became nearly impossible due to crowds of meandering tourists, including what looked like a wedding party. I ate my meal in the completely full parking lot, then took off south and west toward less crowded places.

Mahler, Richthofen

Richthofen and Mahler

Richthofen is the tallest of a horseshoe of choss-peaks encircling Lake Agnes, south of Highway 14 in the Never Summer Range. Any reasonable access requires entering the loathsome and poorly-named Colorado State Forest State Park, with its arbitrary fees. Fortunately I found a fun workaround: park at Cameron Pass and bike the Michigan Ditch road. Technically you are supposed to pay $4.00 for the privilege of riding on the maintenance road, but no one was patrolling it, and the fee seemed absurd for the absolutely nothing the Park does. The road is there to maintain a canal, one of several, that drags water from Michigan Lakes across the Continental Divide to serve Fort Collins, so the water company keeps it in good shape. The fact that it parallels a canal also means that it is nearly flat, gaining only 200 feet in 6-7 miles.

Choss eating Lake Agnes

I took my time getting started, and was glad to have worn my down jacket, despite which my hands and feet were cold on the shady, fast ride. The road degrades somewhat past Michigan Creek, where it parallels an old wooden pipe made of staves like like a several-mile-long barrel. I locked my bike to a tree in this section, then continued on foot, waiting for my extremities to warm up. I soon joined the well-used trail to the lake, which is apparently popular with fishermen. I saw a couple of them standing around in the cold as I reached the end of the official trail and continued along a clear use trail through the talus on the left side of the lake. From there I followed cairns and faint bits of trail along a stream, then across a mix of slabs, grass, and talus toward the Richthofen-Mahler saddle. The upper part of this was quite unpleasant, a pile of loose talus covered in snow on the north-facing slope.

Mahler west ridge

Richthofen itself would be a short day, so I planned to add on neighboring Mahler and possibly continue to Static and Nohku Crags, a notoriously chossy fourth class feature from which I could descend a gully to near my bike. However Mahler proved more of a challenge than I anticipated. I had seen several deep gashes in its west ridge from the approach, and optimistically assumed that the cliffy ridge would be gentler on the other side, allowing me to easily bypass them. Alas this was not the case: deep, steep-sided gullies extended down from the gaps, forcing one to stay close to the crest. That, combined with the fresh snow and the region’s typical chossy rock, made this fourth class scramble quite engaging. Finally reaching the summit, I saw that it would have been far easier, though miserable and chossy, to come up the north slope.

Static and Nohku from Richthofen

After a careful scramble back to the saddle, I started up the slope to Richthofen. I found multiple faint trails, either animal or human, mostly too steep and loose to be useful on the way up. I fought the loose talus for awhile, then found a pleasant slabby rib I could follow to near the summit ridge. A few false summits created more work than I had anticipated on the way to the top, as did the lingering snow. I found a register with a couple of unexpected but familiar names, added my own, and stared at Static and Nohku Crags for a minute. Getting to Static looked easy, and the Crags looked like something I could probably figure out, but I decided I had had enough for the day. I picked my way back to the saddle, suffered down the talus to the lake, then recovered with a pleasant slightly-downhill bike to the car. Needing fresh food and better rock, I drove down to Granby, then found some National Forest to camp outside the dreaded Rocky Mountain National Park.

Clark, Cameron, North and South Diamond

Clark from near Cameron

I had more plans up north, and a passing front failed to drop enough snow to shut down the “summer” climbing season. However, at the equinox each day was noticeably shorter than the last, and the low northern sun took most of the morning to generate much warmth. I started out to do another Turiano peak, but was miserable and cold on my bike even after 9:00 AM. When two local hunters in an old lifted truck warned me of “lots of griz” in the valley ahead, I decided I had had enough, and was unlikely to accomplish more at these latitudes. I returned to the car and spent the rest of the day migrating south, following the Rockies’ best season, after the thunderstorms and mosquitoes, but before the cold and snow.

Dead forest

The Medicine Bow Mountains northwest of Denver are culturally part of Wyoming, saved from Front Range tourists by a lack of 14ers, but still significantly warmer than actual Wyoming. While access is made annoyingly pricier by Colorado State Forest State Park on the west, the range is National Forest to the east. I have driven by these mountains before, but never stopped to explore them. Clark is the range highpoint, one of a line of mountains in the Rawah Wilderness north of Cameron Pass. Given the State Park issue, I approached it from the east, via the Blue Lake (sigh…) trail. The first part of the trail is an old roadbed, apparently outside the Wilderness boundary, and I probably could have biked it to save some time. A large recent fire utterly torched the area, leaving a standing forest of dead black sticks. The well-maintained trail finally leaves the burn where the valley it follows turns north toward Blue Lake. Following a track I found online, I left the trail just below the lake to head straight uphill to Hang Lake, then followed a spur to Clark’s northeast ridge.

The Rawahs

I had been sheltered from the wind up to this point, and was surprised by a blast from the west when I finally reached the crest. Rather than staying on the crest, I tried to shelter by traversing slightly below on the southeast side. This side-hilling on talus, plus patches of fresh snow, made the traverse to the summit much longer than in would have been in better conditions. I glanced at the snow-filled summit windbreak, had a cold snack on the sheltered side of the ridge, then returned the way I had come.

Traverse to Rawah

I had initially planned to traverse the ridge north toward Rawah, but that would have been windy and miserable, so I decided instead to fill the day by tagging Cameron, a garbage-peak on the sheltered side of the range. Rather than dropping to Hang Lake, I continued along the ridge, then dropped down loose talus then tundra to the pass above Blue Lake. From there, I found a bit of a trail and some cairns leading up Cameron’s south face. This route was mostly sheltered, but the final walk to the true summit was exposed and cold. The peak has a good view of the lakes below South Rawah to the northwest, and of various reservoirs and burned forest to the south and east.

Longs and Never Summers from Clark

Rather than returning to the pass, I foolishly decided to continue along the ridge toward the trailhead, then drop down to the trail before the burned area. This proved steep and loose, with much deadfall, but I managed to find bits of game trail in places, and eventually stumbled out onto the trail. I should probably have run this section, but was neither in a hurry nor feeling energetic, so I simply walked fast. Looking up from the trail, I saw someone ahead of me, and soon realized it was a hunter carrying the head of the largest bull elk I have ever seen on his back. I congratulated him on his hunt, and we talked a bit. After shooting the buck with an arrow from 25 yards, he had spent the past day and a half carrying it out, taking three trips for the meat and one for the head. I did not count the points, but apparently the antlers had six on one side and seven on the other.

Michigan Ditch and Richthofen from South Diamond

Just a few minutes later, I ran into Ranger Fred, the backcountry ranger for the Rawah Wilderness. He was a young-ish ex-military-looking guy originally from Vail, wearing Hokas instead of the regulation ranger boots. He asked me which car was mine, complimenting me on my stylish windshield shade; apparently he was looking for the owners of the other car in the lot, which had been there for awhile. We spoke for a few minutes, then he continued on, telling me to “keep smiling.”

Back at the car, I took my time making some food, then drove back to Cameron Pass. I took a look at the Michigan Ditch path, which looked like a very rideable way to access Mount Richthofen without paying to park in the State Park, then hiked South and North Diamond Peaks to kill some time. Neither peak is particularly interesting, but they do have great views of Richthofen’s north face, and South Diamond has a mysterious chain anchor above its northeast slope, which is far too gentle for sport climbing. Maybe people use it to practice rappeling? Back at the car, I saw a USFS truck pull up, and met Ranger Fred again. He was impressed that I had the energy to get out for even more peak-bagging in his mountains, and we talked awhile longer before he left to return to his camp. Since the pass itself is littered with “no camping” signs, I drove a few miles east to sleep in a large parking lot, planning to return in the morning.

La Plata River peaks

Babcock(s), Spiller, Burwell, Gibbs

Spiller and other Babcocks

Babcock was my last remaining thirteener in the La Platas, a small and obscure range west of Durango. I had visited twice previously, once in 2016 for Sharkstooth and Centennial, and again in 2017 to get to thirteeners Moss, Lavender, and Hesperus from Tomahawk Basin. I did not know much about Babcock, but read somewhere that it is connected to neighboring Spiller (unranked) by a scrambly ridge called “the knife.” That sounded fun, and I needed a place to camp near Durango, so I decided to drive over to the La Platas and check it out.

Boren Creek road

I normally avoid developed campgrounds, but there are many summer homes along the La Plata River, as well as signs admonishing people to camp in developed areas. There are several developed campgrounds along the river, which seem to be free this time of year, so I pulled into the one near the semi-ghost town of La Plata. There were a couple of other groups there, but plenty of room to spread out, so I took a nice spot along the river and settled in for the evening. Just before dark, a pair of tricked-out Sprinters with California plates pulled into the next spot. It seems like I was not the only refugee from the smoke and coronavirus (at least I have better camouflage), though I was surprised to find others in this obscure corner.

Babcock and Spiller from near mine

It was cold and shady in the La Plata so late in the year, so I took my time getting started, hiking the main road a short distance to Boren Gulch. Here there is a 4WD road to a mine around 11,200′, which still sees occasional use by ATVs and a truck or two. It is steep and direct enough to be an enjoyable hike, climbing through aspens along a cascade toward the colorful choss of Spiller and Burwell. The road ends at a small mine, from which a steep slope leads toward Babcock.

Scramble to Babcock

Babcock’s south side starts off as easy grass and talus, then becomes unpleasantly loose. I painfully struggled up and right, linking shallow gullies and patches of grass for a bit of stability. The occasional rock outcrops on the slope are rotten, but better than the scree, so I found a bit of class 3 amusement as I got higher. A few hundred feet below the summit, I finally reached an indistinct south ridge, which offered some slightly more fun and solid third class climbing on the way to the peak.

Couldn’t downclimb this

Reaching the “summit,” I realized that although both the Forest Service and Peakbagger call this the highpoint, Babcock has three summits, and the others are higher. It seemed I would have a bit more hiking and scrambling to do, and perhaps not continue as far south along the ridge as I had hoped. Little did I know… this is what happens sometimes when you don’t read the instructions. The north side of the ridge is steep and jagged, while the south has numerous fins and gullies. The three main summits are separated by steep clefts, with cliff-sided gullies extending far down to either side. I downclimbed into the first gap on class 3 terrain near the ridge, then out the other side on some class 4 on the north side. Pleased with myself, I continued along easy terrain on the south side, only to find another, more serious-looking notch between me and my desire.

Old hardware

I wasted an incredible amount of time here. First I tried a downclimb just left of the ridge, where I passed a couple pieces of rap-tat before getting sketched out by the low-fifth downclimb on rotten rock in a gully and corner. I tried a few options toward the bottom, one time making it to within fifteen feet of the ground, but could find nothing that felt comfortable. I retreated, then tried the next gully south, making less progress, but at least wasting less time, before once again being stymied. I made a final attempt on the north side of the ridge, but the rock was even worse there, and it was too cold to spend much time exploring.

First notch gully

I finally gave up, retreating to the first notch and descending its incredibly loose gully to the south to where it joined the next gully to the west, then chossing up that until I could get on better rock to its left. Ugh. Compared to what I had just endured, the scrambling along the ridge between Middle and West Babcocks was tame, though I did find a rap anchor along the way. I eventually reached West Babcock, where the rock slightly improved, the climbing eased, and I could begin my intended traverse.

Babcocks from the knife

The rock is sometimes not great, but “the knife” is actually fun, with some good sidewalk sections, and some scrambling in between that never becomes tedious. I found a bit of fourth class getting out of a couple of notches, but this can probably be avoided by straying farther from the crest. The views north to striped Hesperus, and behind along the jagged ridge to the Babcocks, are interesting enough to occupy the mind. Reaching Spiller, I found a register book in a cracked blue thermos, signed mostly by people who had done the knife, but had also known beforehand which Babcock was highest.

Hesperus and friends from Spiller

There are mine roads up all the drainages west of the La Plata, and I had hoped to continue all the way to Madden or Parrott before dropping down to one and looping down to the main road south of camp. Unfortunately the ridge wasn’t quite done with me. There is a bit of a use trail down Spiller’s south ridge toward Gibbs, but no clear way back into Boren Creek. Perhaps the trail heads west into Rush Basin, where an apparently well-used road leads to some mines and ruins. There were a few choss-pinnacles along this section, but no major difficulties.

Wire on the way to Gibbs

I could see mine roads leading far up Gibbs’ east ridge so I decided to continue there before heading down. The ridge south from Burwell starts off easy, then turns steeper before reaching the first broad saddle. Beyond, things turn horrible, with two deep, vertical gashes in the ridge, which I eventually bypassed on horribly loose talus to the west. The knife seems to be the only good bit of ridge in the whole area. Once past the gaps and back on the ridge, I found easier terrain and some colorful wires, along with a faint trail leading to Gibbs’ summit.

The whole ordeal had taken much longer than anticipated, so I barely paused before returning slightly to the east ridge, where I found bits of flagging and a use trail leading down to the mine roads. From there I followed the most-traveled branch, which switchbacks gently into Bedrock Creek, where it passes a couple of summer homes on its way to the main road. I finally reached my campground around dinner, far later than I had expected and with less accomplished, and decided to stay in the quiet valley for another night.

Snowstorm, Cumberland

Cumberland from Snowstorm

These are two twelvers at the head of the La Plata river, with a mine road leading to the saddle between them around 12,000′. I hadn’t ridden in awhile, so they looked like a fun half-day to make the drive out to the La Plata campground worthwhile. I met one Jeep near the crest, and a bunch of mountain bikers at the Indian Ridge trailhead, but it was quiet otherwise. I was pleased to note in Cumberland’s register that the Climbing Cooneys are still getting out.

Gap between peaks

The road was too steep and rocky in places to be rideable by me on my touring bike, but mostly good. I stopped to look at some large mining equipment in the basin at the Cumberland Mill ruins, then continued toward what looks like a pass between the two peaks. It actually turns out to be a gap blasted in the ridge, with the road continuing to the Bessie G Mine on the other side, then weirdly wrapping around to cross back over into Columbus Basin. The actual pass is to the north, where the Colorado trail crosses over Kennebeck Pass on its way to Durango. I had no idea that the CT, which descends Elk Creek and climbs to Molas Lake, extended this far west; I suppose this helps explain its greater-than-expected length.

More history… and commerce!

I stashed my bike at the gap, then hiked down the mine road until I could scramble up the steep, grassy slope to the ridge. From there, I fought a strong west wind to Snowstorm’s summit. Lewis Mountain to its south is notably higher and more massive; I would have climbed it if I had planned ahead, but I was just out for exercise. I retraced my steps to my bike, rode a short distance down the road, then took off on a nearly identical hike, scrambling up a steep grass slope to a windy ridge, and thence to a minor summit. This one at least had a nice windbreak, where I was able to eat and peruse the register.

Afterwards, I returned to my bike, then passed a bunch of mountain bikers on my way past the Kennebeck Pass trailhead. Apparently the Colorado and possibly Indian Ridge trails here are open to mountain bikes, and quite popular. At least, a group of guys had found it worthwhile to drive over an hour from Durango, including some semi-rough driving up through Cumberland Basin, to ride here. Back at the town of La Plata, I rinsed off my feet, packed up camp, and headed back into town to resupply before heading back to the San Juans.

A roundup of easy thirteeners

Monumental, 13,147, Aetna, Taylor

Taylor and Aetna from 13,147

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.

Pomeroy, 13,070

Pomeroy and neighbor

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

Bushnell from Twin Sisters

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.

Storm, East Storm, Tower, Macomber

Panorama of all peaks

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.

Looking down Boulder Gulch

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.

Traversing climb toward Storm

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.

Choss and final scramble to Storm

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.

Narrow downclimb

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.

Hard part of East Storm

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.

That’s not good…

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.

Curious raven

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.

Smoke over Silverton

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.

San Juan miscellany

Hayden North and the OVF

Sneffels group from Hayden

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.

OMG crowds

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.

Don’t dive

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

Not gonna try…

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.

Sometimes it works

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.