Category Archives: Colorado

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 recreation.gov (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.

Geode-seam

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.

Nebo area

Neighbor and Nebo


Camping is best when you can carry all the heavy stuff to one place, leave it there, and go on day trips, returning to the pile of bedding and food each evening. When that is not possible, it is better to pack up camp during the warm part of the day. Unfortunately this was the last day of our backpack, and we had quite a bit of ground to cover, so neither was possible. Instead, we set our alarms for 6:00, ate in the dark, packed up in the cold, and started hiking with full packs around dawn.

The Guardian and Silex

Mount Nebo is one of a group of four thirteeners southeast of Hunchback Pass. While they are a comfortable day from Beartown, and a reasonable side-trip on the way out from our camp, they would be painfully difficult to reach from a two-wheel-drive trailhead. This was their main draw to me, as my most likely access to a capable off-road vehicle in Colorado (a.k.a. Dan) was ending. He seemed fine going along for the peaks, as it would mean that he, too, had cleaned out the area’s thirteeners. While many people reach other peaks such as the eastern Grenadiers this way, they are accessible from Molas or Vallecito with only a bit more work.

Storm King

We slowly ground out much of the long climb to Hunchback Pass with our overnight packs, then stashed gear at the intersection with the Nebo Creek trail. This also happens to be the Continental Divide Trail, but it is blocked by a large tree right at the junction, and shows less signs of traffic than the trail down to the Vallecito. I seem to be in the area at the wrong time of year to encounter either north- or south-bound CDTers, but it seems clear that they are far less numerous than the hordes of PCTers I saw around Ebbetts Pass this summer.

Eastern Grenadiers and Dan

Despite its being mid-October of a dry year, the creek was flowing well far above obvious water sources like lakes and permanent snowfields, yet another testament to the San Juans’ mysterious water storage capacity. Our target peaks were arranged somewhat awkwardly: one north of a high trail pass, Nebo and its neighbor south of the pass, and the last a few miles southeast along the trail. We dropped packs to tag the first, then took the trail out to the last before returning for the last two. This maximized our chances of not skipping any, by getting the easiest done first, then committing ourselves to doing the most remote one.

Ute Ridge from first peak

The first peak was an unremarkable walk, but at least it had good views of Ute Ridge back near the trailhead, and the northern side of the Eastern Grenadiers. The Guardian, Silex, and Storm King all have impressive north faces, with Storm King in particular having an interesting-looking northeast ridge, which Dan had climbed back when he lived out here. I would be more interested in exploring these routes out of Stormy Gulch if it weren’t so difficult to reach in a day. The summit also had a view of our next peak, discouragingly far in the wrong direction. Back to work…

Second chosspile

We returned to our packs, then took off across the head of the West Ute Creek drainage to a large lake. This would be our last water source for awhile, so we both tanked up despite the faint notes of algae. We were only separated from Rio Grande Pyramid by one drainage at this point, and with the area’s extensive trail network, it seemed very close indeed. Leaving the trail shortly past the lake, we took off up game trails and cross-country to our peak’s east ridge, finding steep but mostly easy terrain.

“Fun” balancing act

The ridge, on the other hand, was mostly a medley of unstable rocks. To the south, a ridge of nice slabs is rising and shaking off (in geological time) the overlaid volcanic garbage, but this thirteener is a pile of loose junk. We stayed close to the crest, finding a bit of class 3 scrambling getting into and out of the notches visible from below, but mostly just suffered, and I questioned my sanity for bringing this upon myself. I am close to finishing the 80-some Weminuche thirteeners, and about halfway through the San Juans’ 260-some; even as a lifetime goal, it’s hard to imagine doing all of Colorado’s 600-ish peaks over 13,000 feet. The rock’s color changed at the summit, but it remained loose on the descent to a sort of plateau. Where the ridge turns slightly south toward the Grenadiers, we dropped down a loose chute, crossed a low saddle, then made a beeline for the next peak. It felt good to be heading back toward our stashed gear, and the almost thousand-foot climb went by fairly painlessly.

Beginning traverse to Nebo

Getting down to the saddle with Nebo required side-hilling across some of the day’s loosest terrain, aiming horizontally to make a sliding, descending traverse. Along the way we crossed a layer of clinking, smooth, dinner-plate rock, possibly slate, and took a couple pieces to eat from later. Tired of the loose stuff, I stayed close to Nebo’s sheer north face on the climb from the saddle, while Dan found his own way up some nasty-looking chute to the left. The summit had the expected Grenadier view across the valley, but it was chilly and we had miles to go, so we soon made our way back down our respective routes.

Exit chute

The north side of Nebo and its neighbor is mostly rotten cliffs, so getting back to the trail is actually a bit tricky. I had noticed a notch leading to a steep, rotten chute near the saddle, which seemed to be the best option. The chute proved every bit as loose as anticipated, so we each picked a side and descended together, gleefully raining death on anything below. Once across the talus-fan at the base of the face, we were done with choss for the day, weaving through a few willows to pick up the CDT and return to our gear. From there it was a short but “backpacking speed” climb to Hunchback Pass, then a faster hike down to the trailhead and Dan’s car, again finishing just at dusk.

While Dan dealt with dinner, I went over to the closest flat spot to set up my tent. This would be the coldest night of the trip for me, camping at around 11,000 feet at the bottom of a valley between two streams. It was also Friday night, and the ATVs were out in force. One guy on a quad stopped to warn us, in a familiar northern New Mexico (southern Colorado in this case) Hispanic accent that this was opening weekend of rifle (i.e. “anything goes”) season for elk, and that his party was planning to hunt near where we hoped to hike. It had been some form of hunting season for awhile, but I don’t worry much during bow season (September), since there are few bow hunters, and they have to be both dedicated to the sport, and very close to their quarry to take an effective shot. However many more people have rifles, and someone with a high-powered rifle and telescopic sight can shoot from hundreds of yards away. I hoped my red buff and faded orange hat would be defense enough, since most of my other clothes are either black or elk-colored.

Wildhorse, Dragonsback, Blackwall

Wildhorse across plateau


[This is out of order, but the backpack will get caught up soon. — ed.]

Bear Creek slot canyon

Wildhorse, Dragonsback, and Blackwall are three peaks on the northern end of the highlands between Ouray and Silverton, bounded by the Animas and Uncompahgre Rivers, and Mineral and Cow Creeks. They are all impressively cliffy from the Cimmarons to their north, piquing my interest a couple weeks earlier. Most people probably climb them from a friend’s Jeep at Engineer Pass, but with Dan departed into the west, I would have to do things the hard way. This actually turns out to be a blessing in disguise, since the most direct approach on foot is via Bear Creek, the area’s best and craziest trail. Starting just above Ouray, it crosses Highway 550 on a rock arch, then climbs through a narrow canyon, with sections blasted into the cliffs high above the stream, reminiscent of the road to Yankee Boy Basin.

For reasons that remain unclear to me, I had slept near the summit of Red Mountain Pass. I woke well before dawn, drank coffee and worked on my laptop by headlamp, then scraped the frost off the inside of my windshield to drive down to Ouray and poach WiFi. Mint has much better cell coverage than the pathetic Boost Mobile, but it apparently does not include Ouray. Experiences like this make me shake my head at the recent hoopla around 5G: I suspect that millimeter-wave 5G (the actually fast kind) will be relevant to my life about the same time I own a battery-electric car, i.e. sometime around 2030.

Totally safe trail

It was cold, and I was headed up a west-facing canyon, so I felt no need for an alpine start. Still, I got going around 8:00 (soon to be 7:00 once Daylight Savings belatedly ends), setting a moderately hard pace to stay warm. The trail switchbacks up the hillside north of Bear Creek, then traverses a steep gravel ledge into the slot canyon. When this ledge gives out, the trail is blasted into the wall, forming almost a half-tunnel in a couple of places. A couple of short stretches are decaying, but most of the trail remains in good shape despite the Forest Service likely having neither the budget nor the skill to rebuild it.

Boiler at first mine

Passing the Grizzly Bear Mine, I saw the large boiler I remembered from my last trip this way, decades ago on a family hike. The valley opens up after this, and the trail passes through woods and aspens, their leaves long since fallen, to reach another mine, this one with a larger cabin and more rusting machinery. Here the trail splits, with the more popular branch continuing to Engineer Pass. I took the less-traveled path, heading northeast to reach American Flat and the Horsethief Trail. This looks like another interesting route, climbing a ridge from near Ouray and crossing something called the “Bridge of Heaven;” I added it to my to-do list.

Wildhorse summit ridge

Wildhorse is obvious as soon as one emerges onto the flat, with its jagged skyline and steep but grassy south face sticking out from the rolling plateau. Dragonsback is somewhat hidden, but more distinctive, a volcanic fin with no easy slope to its summit. Though the map shows multiple trails and even a road in the area, they have been mostly reclaimed by grass, leaving only lines of posts propped up by rocks to follow. I followed one such for awhile, then took off straight toward Wildhorse, jogging carefully across the uneven ground.

Coxcomb, Wetterhorn, Uncompahgre from Wildhorse

Other than a sort-of catwalk out to the summit, Wildhorse is almost all walking on steep grass. I didn’t feel like putting in a race-level effort on the climb, but still made a decent effort. The easiest route strays toward the north face and east ridge near the top, where there are some cliffs and pinnacles to admire from a safe distance. From the summit, I could clearly make out numerous fourteeners, including the Sneffels group, Uncompahgre and Wetterhorn, Sunshine and Redcloud, and the distant Needles to the south. I could also pick up cell service from Ridgway or Montrose, allowing me to resume my tradition of summit texting.

Dragonsback

I retraced my route for a bit, then contoured around north, trying to cut the corner on my way to Dragonsback. For some reason this slope had not only a fair number of game trails, but a ridiculous amount of poop, giving it a faint unpleasant smell. I have no idea why the elk, sheep, or whatever chose to hang out at this particular location. I continued along the southeast side of a grassy ridge avoiding a bump, then came at Dragonsback directly from the southeast. Dan had drawn a vague line on this side of the peak, it seemed the most likely to be climbable, and besides… “it’s just Colorado.”

Wildhorse from Dragonsback

Looking at this side of the peak for a minute, I noticed two grass/dirt slopes, one nearly below the summit, and the other somewhat to the right. The right one looked more promising, and the upper peak seemed broken enough that it should be possible to weave through the gullies and pinnacles, eventually emerging on the summit ridge as close as possible to the true summit. This exact approach worked, with almost no backtracking; I even found a few cairns, suggesting that I was near the standard route. I found two fourth class sections, one getting into the final gully, and the other leading up one of two corners to the summit. There was a large piece of rope serving as a rap anchor above the second, which I would have removed if it were less bulky.

Cow Creek from Blackwall

I retraced my somewhat convoluted route down Dragonsback, then circled around south before dropping toward Blackwall. I dropped enough to get around a large talus fan, then had an easy walk up another grass slope to the summit. Part of the attraction of visiting Blackwall is its view into Cow Creek, a deep valley separating the Cimmarons from the main body of the San Juans. Though the summit is somewhat back from the edge, I was still able to see down into part of the canyon, and to admire the hoodoos therein.

I had briefly contemplated doing a few more thirteeners south of my approach, but I was low on food, and preferred to save my energy for the run down. After a long tundra traverse, I started the long jog down Bear Creek. I wanted to make decent time, but between fatigue, wearing a pack, and stopping to take photos, I only managed moderately respectable speed. Looking on Strava later, I saw that there are plenty of fast people in the area, and I was nowhere near their times in either direction. Whatever — I also did some peaks.