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Archive for July, 2009

Huron Peak

Huron Peak was never high on my list of “must-do” 14ers until several friends told me how pretty the hike was. After Saturday’s 8 hour day on Evans and Bierstadt my father and I decided for a slightly easier hike (ie, less mileage, easier trails, but still a lot of elevation gain). A morning drive brought us to Winfield and another 6:30am departure. Another hiker was just starting up the trail and we three had compatible paces for the 2 mile walk on the 4wd road. We feel into conversation with Eric and decided to continue hiking together as the trail turned east and began climbing (with plenty of switchbacks) to treeline. To the south the peaks of the Three Apostles began to reveal themselves.

Now above the trees we also reached the sun’s rays and quickly warmed up in the still air.

A brief flat walk split the otherwise consistently upwards ascent. Then we returned to the steep climb with a section of trail we fondly called “The Stairmaster.”

The stairmaster was composed of rock steps, each of 10-15 inches in height. Thankfully, the stairmaster didn’t last long and we returned to more gentle trail switchbacking through greenery.

I knew my altimeter was reading low as we climbed above the nearby 13er Browns Peak but still read 200 feet below that summit’s elevation.

We took several breaks as the opportunities presented themselves – mostly when hikers descended past us and were willing to chat. Still, we soon saw the final slopes to the summit.

After 3 and a half hours we made the top to find great views of the Three Apostles again. If I needed a reminder, the couloir on Ice Mountain (Middle Apostle) went higher into my to-do list.

A family on top had printed a sign and let us borrow it for our own summit photos. Unfortunately, it misnamed Huron Peak.

Clouds seemed to be rapidly building to our west so we finished up the summit photos and started back down.

The stairmaster section was passed and we we could forward to the flat meadow to stretch our legs.

Final views of Ice Mountain and West Apostle said their goodbyes as we returned to the trees.

Back down on the 4wd road we started walking back to our cars. With about a quarter mile to go a vehicle stopped and offered a ride. My dad was willing to take them up on it and I took off running – sensing a challenge. Rough roads and a vehicle coming uphill provided the advantage I needed to beat the motorized transportation.

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Mount Evans and Bierstadt are about the closest 14,000 foot mountains to where I live, but I’d held off on climbing them until today. With my dad in town we decided to climb these two peaks and give him his first taste of class 3 scrambling. We drove over from Breckenridge early, but barely snagged a parking spot in the already crowded lot. A long line was forming for the restrooms so we quickly headed out on the smooth trail through the willows including boardwalk sections past the wet areas.

It was cool hiking in the shade as the sun rose on the other side of the mountains. After a few switchbacks we finally met part way up Bierstadt.

We made good time up the peak, keeping a nice steady pace and neither passing many people nor being passed. A large number of hikers were descending from the summit, many with headlamps still on. They’d woken up very early to enjoy sunrise on the summit. Near the summit we found a small patch of snow that was nicely sun cupped and easy to ascend.

The summit was busy with at least a dozen hikers, many donning helmets and getting ready (like us) for the traverse across the Sawtooth ridge.

We started the traverse just ahead of a family with a couple kids roughly 9 years old (and completely equipped with harnesses and ropes). Starting down a rubble gully we quickly moved closer to the ridge crest where the rock was more solid even if the scrambling was tougher.

We passed a few resting hikers who expressed envy for our helmets and my cap with the built-in sun shade. We stayed to the south side of the ridge, generally following cairns and well worn paths around the few gendarmes that existed on the ridge.

To exit the ridge we had to cross to the north side and follow a large ledge, abet one with a fair amount of exposure.

Once we topped out onto the tundra we could remove our helmets and start hiking across the open expanses towards Mount Evans.

Cairns generally led us in the most direct way to the long west ridge of Mount Evans and many marmots kept watch on our progress.

Instead of sticking right to the top of the west ridge, we followed a well cairned path running about a 100 feet below the crest of the ridge. From this vantage point we had satisfying views back to Bierstadt and the Sawtooth traverse.

As we neared the summit of Mount Evans the zoo-like atmosphere broke our hike’s calm. A bike race was being held today all the way up the road and race officials and racers crowded the summit area.

We took a break in the very stable weather on Mount Evans to enjoy my father’s 11th 14er.

Then it was time to begin the return hike across the west ridge.

From the end of the west ridge we bypassed the Sawtooth ridge and continued on grassy slopes across the tundra.

A climber’s trail down a steep gully that broke the cliffs would provide most of our elevation loss.

Ahead we could spy the parking lot, but for the next hour or so it never seemed to get much closer.

Near the base of the gully the wildflowers displays were at their height.

Following a faint trail that had occasional flagging we passed through the willows and avoided the worst of the mud.

Eventually we returned to the main trail to follow the manicured path back to the parking lot for an eight hour loop. A visit to the Breckenridge Brewery helped to forget aches and pains and prime us for another day of hiking.

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Unshaven and just barely qualifying as clean after 8 days in the mountains, Pete and I showed up for the 8am departure from Ouray on a couple tour Jeeps for Yankee Boy Basin with the rest of the small wedding party.

Hiking and climbing friends, immediate family from both sides and a few older friends of Sarah’s and Dominic’s gathered in the alpine for this wedding.

Our Jeep of mostly hikers and climbers found some amusement from the driver’s explanations of ice climbing, mountain weather and avalanches meant for a typical tourist. The ceremony itself was just the right length and in a great spot with rushing creeks behind.

Below us, the tail end of the Hardrock 100 mile race was passing by with runners already on the move for over 27 hours. The wildflowers were beautiful as were the views. I was probably the only member of the hiker group who hadn’t been up here yet.

Clouds began to build and we all started down, with our driver again giving us the tourist route through some old mines when we all wanted to hurry to the reception and avoid the rain that soon came.

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Via Ferrata

Armed with great directions to an “unsanctioned” Via Ferrata somewhere in Southwestern Colorado, Pete and I stopped in a nearby town for a great breakfast then found the unmarked parking area. A short ~1,000 feet hike up including a stream crossing got us to the start of a cairned trail.

The trail passed through some aspens then merged onto a ledge between different layers of rocks. A short little section of Via Ferrata cabling allowed us to practice with our gear and review the process of clipping the cables.

More exposed ledges with no cabling followed with just hiking.

The Via Ferrata started to get interesting as the ledge neatly divided the cliffs above and below.

Traversing around one gully led us through a slightly overhanging spot.

Another spot felt like the narrow boulder spot on the Broadway of Longs Peak.

Getting around a small tree proved to be one of the cruxes, who knew Via Ferratas included bushwhacking?

The exposure increased as we continued along, sidestepping on a narrow rock ledge.

Several hundred feet of air led down to the slopes below.

The most exposed portion of the traverse is the “Main Event” with lots of bolted hand and foot rungs on the nearly blank rock.

The falls at the head of the valley were amazing from this vantage.

Just past the “Main Event” we found a nice ledge to take a break that included a register. I hope the locals who created this route can get the Via Ferrata officially sanctioned. In fact, I’d love to see some of these “Iron Ways” put in other places around the state (they’d have to be in spots without a history of rock climbing and with land manager approval).

After the break we reversed our route to repeat all the fun parts. I’d heard the route continues and we could make a loop, but there’s less cabled sections going forward.

More comfortable with the exposure, we cruised right past all the earlier exposed sections.

Our out and back route took about 4 hours with a lot of time for photos and snack breaks.

Adam’s Photos
Pete’s Photos

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After the star filled and moon-lit hike out of the Animas River, Pete and I slept in a bit (till 6:30a anyway). We stopped in Silverton for a quick breakfast then continued north to the Ophir Pass Road. Just before the pass we pulled over and geared up for a short hike up Lookout Peak.

The weather initially didn’t look very good, plenty of clouds and a little bit of rain. However, it rapidly moved east and the clearing sky convinced us to continue upwards. Once up in a little basin the route up a somewhat grassy slope to the left was obvious.

Once on top of the ridge we just turned north and worked our way around the loose cliffs.

At first I was a little surprised this hike made it into Cooper’s Scrambles book, since it was so loose with almost no solid rock to be found. However, as the name implies, the peak has some amazing views. US Grant Peak was prominent to the south.

The scrambling looked to get more interesting as we neared the summit, with some cliffs forcing us to choose the best option.

We did find one 12 foot section of solid rock that provided some short, but enjoyable class 4 moves.

The really spectacular views came as we nearly reached the summit when Columbine Lake to the east came into sight.

We spent a little while on the summit, enjoying the 360 degree views of the San Juans. Then we slowly picked our way down the loose rubble back to the car.

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Adam’s Photos

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After Pete and I cut our huge Needle Mountains loop short after Pigeon and Turret Peaks we took a partial rest day then launched early from the Molas Trailhead out on the Colorado trail on its 3+ mile descent to the Animas River. Taking off at first light allowed us to admire the morning alpine-glow on a few clouds above the peaks.

Around 7am we had finished the easy part of our three part hike into Vestal Basin.

After crossing the Animas River we hit the Durango & Silverton tracks for a hundred feet or so before picking up the Colorado Trail’s continuation on the Elk Creek Trail.

Another three miles of climbing took us alongside Elk Creek and through patches of Columbines and past small streams.

Just before reaching the major landmark of the beaver ponds a runner came up behind us. He’d gained 2 hours on us after leaving Molas Trailhead at 7:30 and was hoping to climb both Arrow and Vestal Peaks today before running out. We looked painfully slow in comparison with our 34 pound packs. We quickly forgot about his speed when the view of Vestal and Arrow came into sight.

Stage two was now complete and we had only the climber’s trail to follow up into Vestal Basin. First we had to cross Elk Creek were Pete and I found different logs, each more to our individual liking, to walk across.

We picked up a pretty good trail, but with plenty of downed trees to step over or make a detour around. The day was finally warming up and I was glad to be mostly in the shade excepting a few avalanche paths we passed through.

We eventually came out right next to the creek when the map said we should be a few hundred feet above the creek.

A long steep climb straight up loose rock awaited until we eventually found the trail crossing this rock gully at the top. When we next found came out near the creek we were more confident that we were following the strongest trail and that the map’s higher route probably didn’t exist anymore.

As we gained height in the valley the Trinity Peaks made an appearance.

The Wham Ridge of Vestal Peak was certainly the centerpiece of the valley and our major objective for this trip.

We found a shaded campsite around 11,800 feet, and spent the afternoon waiting out periods of rain and sun. We’d originally hoped to climb Arrow Peak this afternoon, but that wasn’t possible with these storms.

In the morning we woke to clear skies and quickly got underway. At the upper meadow, just past our camp, we searched for a stream crossing then began to work our way up into the higher basin between West Trinity and Vestal Peak. Meanwhile, the alpine sunrise was illuminating Arrow Peak.

The north-facing route to the West Trinity-Vestal saddle was still holding snow that was frozen solid. We’d picked out some old steps in the snow and hoped those would be large enough to keep us from having to chop many steps. Unfortunately, they proved to be mostly melted out mountain goat tracks so I started chopping steps for a few hundred feet of laborious ascent.

From the saddle we had a great view to the south including Pigeon Peak.

Enjoyable scrambling (mostly class 3) took us all the way to the summit of West Trinity.

Middle Trinity (the tallest of the 3) looked impressive from here.

We started down to the connecting saddle passing lots of alpine vegetation in the rocks.

A couple cairns led us south from near the saddle to a prominent ledge.

The route descriptions we had were a little confusing about when we should leave the ledge and mentioned a cairned route that we couldn’t locate. Eventually, we headed straight up for what proved to be some low fifth class moves on very solid rock.

Once we reached the ridge above we ran it for some fun 3rd class scrambling to the summit.

The route to East Trinity was obvious from here, a gully led down to the saddle then its mirror image led upwards to East Trinity.

The saddle had a short section of snow that required a little more step chopping with our ice axes then we took some of the more solid rock on the sides of the gully until it steepened. We both took slightly different paths to the summit ridge in exiting the gully.

With our third summit of the day over we continued east off the peak.

Steep slate scrambling took us north to another saddle where we descended back into Vestal Basin.

A high lake provided a interesting foreground for the views of West Trinity, Vestal and Arrow Peaks.

It was a bit after noon when we reached camp but neither of us felt like pushing on for Arrow today. So we hoped today’s weather would repeat itself tomorrow.

4:30am rolled around too soon, but we were still excited with our plans for today. We scouted out a closer creek crossing yesterday and beelined for it this morning and then picked our way up slabs of rock and grassy ledges to Vestal Lake where the Wham Ridge confronted us.

Shaded hiking took us to the grassy ramp that angles up and across the face of this “ridge”. After putting on helmets and harnesses we continued across the ledge to the far, western side.

Here we started up, staying on or near the corner and finding a mix of class 2, 3 and 4 terrain.

I picked out the crack just left of the edge and as we pulled up with it we broke out the ropes and climbing gear. I traversed out a few feet to the crack and setup an anchor then belayed Pete across. We had a pair of 30 meter half ropes that I’d be leading on and the crack was supposed to be 100 feet. Should be close.

The climbing was easier (maybe easier than the 5.4 rating it gets) and I placed a few nuts on my way up. I could see easier terrain just ahead when Pete yelled that I had 30 feet of rope left. Perfect, I’d make it to a nice belay spot.

However, Pete had misjudged and I really only had a couple feet left (those paired ropes are confusing). Luckily, I still had a workable stance where the slack ran out and soon had an anchor to belay Pete up.

Pete rocketed up the climb and then we packed away the gear since the terrain above should back off to 4th class again. We probably stayed further right than we should have as we found a couple 5th class moves and a few old fixed pins.

The rock was solid and fun to climb so we played around with options as we slowly worked left onto the easier terrain.

Soon we topped out on the northern summit and took a while looking at the looser rock that surrounded the southern and higher summit. We decided the rubble gully wasn’t as bad as it looked at first and were soon on the top. Following a guidebook description in reverse for the descent down the south side was problematic however. We got off route and into steeper and looser terrain than either of us cared for. A little belayed climbing and a rappel then we backtracked to where we’d last seen a cairn. There we ignored the description and headed straight down the gully following cairns until the traverse to the Arrow-Vestal saddle looked manageable.

The descent from the saddle was on an awful rubble slope called the “Dues Collector” by one guidebook author for those having to hike up this mess. We somewhat rapidly descended while traversing to avoid an icy snow patch. Then we headed towards the northeast slopes of Arrow Peak while looking back on the Wham Ridge in profile.

The route up Arrow is a rather unique sloping ramp of smooth rock that leads to near the summit. Some snow patches and running water needed to be avoided and the middle was broken with some tallus, but overall it’s a remarkably continuous rock path.

Just below a saddle the ramp merges with the broken rock above we instead of finding an obvious cairned path leading to the summit we took off and did our own route-finding and scrambling on a more direct line to the top.

From the summit we spent a little more time trying to follow an easier cairned path leading down, then we hit our slabs and cruised back to the Arrow-Vestal basin where we spotted a mountain goat.

Once back at camp we snacked and then packed up for the hike out. Pete and I decided to count all the blow downs from the meadow to Elk Creek. Actually, we didn’t count every tree, just every group of trees that forced us off the path, to duck under or to break stride. We both counted over 110 such obstacles, but pretty rapidly reached Elk Creek.

After a short break to admire the final view of Arrow and Vestal from this side, we continued down the Elk Creek Trail to the Animas River. On the way we saw a bighorn sheep at a pretty low elevation.

Our campsite near the Animas proved extremely mosquito ridden. After dinner and hiding out in the tent we grew disgusted with their penetration inside our tent and the warmth we knew we’d have overnight. The buggers especially enjoyed going after Pete and he wasn’t going to get any sleep. So at 9:30 pm we broke camp, only exiting the tent with full rain gear and mittens on to help fend off the bites. By 10pm we were moving up the first switchbacks by headlamp where the mosquitoes became faint.

Above the peaks across the Animas the moon rose in the space of climbing two switchbacks and in open areas I took to shutting off my light to hike by the nearly-full moon. Once we reached the meadows on the plateau above I hiked almost full time without artificial illumination. The peaks around us stood out in the moon slight in a strangely magical colorless landscape while the stars above still glowed brightly. I told Pete I was glad we’d decided to hike out in these conditions.

A bit after midnight we reached the trailhead and just tossed out our sleeping bags next to the car for a wonderful night’s sleep.

Pete’s Photos
Adam’s Photos

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After a long drive we made Silverton with plenty of time to handle all the tasks we had prior to catching the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad to Needleton. First we had to finalize all our gear, including food for 7 days into two packs weighing just over 40 pounds.

Next, I staked out a comfy spot in the shade and watched the tourists while Pete drove my car up to the Molas Trailhead and then rode his bike back down the 5.5 miles to Silverton.

After we locked up his bike we searched out a pasta meal before a final beer at the Silverton Brewery. The 2:45 pm train left town with us on it for the one hour ride to Needleton along the Animas River.

At Needleton we departed with 2 other backpackers but headed in opposite directions.

Pete and I followed the Ruby Creek Trail north through Needleton’s collection of cabins and through a few meadows before starting our climb.

After crossing North Pigeon Creek, we broke off the Ruby Creek Trail and headed east and upwards through mostly open woods. Travel wasn’t too bad and we reached the meadow at 11,740 feet about three hours after leaving the train. Plenty of time to setup camp, eat some dinner and watch the sunset.

Our first night wasn’t very restful, as a mouse spent the dark hours chewing on my tent and even repeated swings with my ice axe shaft couldn’t deter it. Surprisingly, we still got up at 4:30 am and were on the move by 5:30 am.

We climbed upwards in the shaded bowl of Pigeon Peak, but could admire the sunrise on the West Needle Mountains across the Animas Valley.

Once we’d made it a few hundred feet to where we’d have to traverse below the peak on our return we cached our full packs. I single TCU stuck in a crack provided an off-the-ground anchor for the loads to keep them out of marmots’ reach.

Unburdened we continued upwards eventually hitting some icy snow patches that we were mostly able to work around with class 3 and 4 scrambling.

Soon we were admiring the summit views from one of Colorado’s highest peaks (13,972 feet).

To the north we could see the distinctive shapes of Arrow, Vestal and the Trinities 3 ridges beyond. Those peaks were our goal for later in the trip.

We still had a long day planned, so we quickly descended back towards our packs.

Once we loaded up we traversed below the cliffs of Pigeon Peak and set out to cross two saddles toward Turret Peak.

Once we were near the Pigeon-Turret saddle I located some rocks where we could hang our packs while we made another lightened summit trip. Pete took a break behind the rocks but lost control of a roll of TP which looked destined for the creek over a 1000 feet below. Luckily it stopped only a hundred feet down the slope.

We met a group of climbers coming up from Ruby Creek who were headed for Pigeon but could tell us that some of our future route was do-able.

The climb up Turret was easy, but we were pushed on by the weather’s threatening look. At least we had great views of Pigeon’s shear NE face.

In the summit register we found the last signatures from the day before to belong to our friends Sarah and Dominic who we’d see later in the week. Then we returned to our packs and prepared to drop into the Ruby drainage.

We had a couple short glissades down from the pass, then found ourselves picking a route through wildflowers and boulder fields until we finally reached the meadows down below.

To continue with our plans we had another 1000 foot climb to a pass between the Ruby and Noname drainages. Pete admitted that he wasn’t feeling up to carrying the full packs that far (knowing that we still had more passes and peaks in the days ahead). So we decided to descend back to Needleton via the Ruby Creek trail and catch the train out tomorrow.

We picked up a pretty good trail that led to the beautiful Ruby Lake.

After a break we lost the trail in a tangle of blowdowns and avalanche’d trees and ended up bushwhacking and making a couple wild stream crossings.

Before long we caught the trail again and eventually lost it again on some steep cliffs and slabs. After trying to push our way through we finally relented to reality and backtracked to find the turn we missed. When we eventually came across familiar ground we found the aspen tree marked with a carving of a columbine that was mentioned in a guide book.

We camped in the “Campers Meadow” that evening after what turned out to be an over 12 hour day. Mosquitoes were bad outside so we stayed under the tent as much as possible. The next morning we packed up too early and returned to the bridge at Needleton.

We realized we were hours early for the train so played a little frisbee and a card game while waiting with a few other backpackers who eventually showed up.

I tried talking to a few, hoping to get a ride from Silverton up to Molas Trailhead where our car was as neither of us fancied biking up to the pass. I couldn’t get any takers so after the train ride and a lunch in Silverton I left Pete under the same shade tree and walked out of town. Before the first big switchback I was picked up by someone Durango-bound who nicely gave me a lift the rest of the miles.

Pete and I took a rest day for the remainder of Sunday while we formulated new plans.

Pete’s Photos
Adam’s Photos

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