Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Lewis Mountain, 12,681' and Snowstorm Peak, 12,511'

Essence: A daring and airy, exhilarating climb on the longest knife ridge in the La Platas. Snowstorm Peak is a natural extension of Lewis Ridge; together they form a razor sharp arc.
Travel:  There are three trailheads for Lewis Mountain with different climbing outcomes. From the US 160/550 intersection in Durango, travel 11.0 miles west on US 160 to Hesperus. Turn right/north on La Plata Canyon Road, CR 124. Zero-out your trip meter. There is a brown, US Forest Service sign with mileages right after the turn. After passing the hamlet of Mayday, the road turns to smooth dirt at 4.6 miles. There are several established campgrounds in this area. In 8.5 miles the roadbed deteriorates with sharp, sizable rocks. A 2WD vehicle with good tires and moderate clearance may proceed. At 12.1 miles the road splits. FS 498, the track to Columbus Basin, bears right and FS 571, the road to the Kennebec Pass TH, proceeds straight. High clearance, 4WD is necessary from here for either of these steep roads with big rocks and holes.
Columbus Basin: From the split at 12.1 miles, drive up FS 498, rising steeply into the basin. Park at a wide spot where it levels out, about 1 mile. The drive takes just under an hour from Durango.  
Kennebec Pass TH: Proceed past the turn-off for Columbus Basin on FS 571. At 12.6 miles the track crosses a creek while hanging a right hairpin. The TH at Kennebec Pass is at mile 14.2. Park in a large lot that serves the Colorado Trail. The last 2 miles can be demanding on the vehicle and the driver.  Allow 1:15 to 1:45 from Durango.
Eagle Pass: Drive up La Plata Canyon Road for 9.4 miles and park at Lewis Creek. Or, turn right onto CR 124 A, and go up the 4WD road, paralleling the Lewis Creek drainage on the north for about 3 miles. Park at the gate at 11,350'.
Distance and Elevation Gain: Varies widely depending on approach. The counter-clockwise ridge walk from Columbus Basin is 5.5 miles with 2,675 feet of climbing.
Time: 5:45 to 7:00
Difficulty: Old mining roads, social trail, mostly off-trail; moderate navigation; serious exposure on sustained knife edge.
Map: La Plata, Colo. 7.5 Quad
Date Hiked: July 13, 2005
Quote: As the hand held before the eye conceals the greatest mountain, so the little earthly life hides from the glance the enormous lights and mysteries of which the world is full, and he who can draw it away from before his eyes, as one draws away a hand, beholds the great shining of the inner worlds. Rabbi Nachmann
Route: This map shows the three trailheads and corresponding routes for Lewis Mountain. In addition, there is an option to go from The Notch to the Bessie G Mine and on up to Pass 12,200'.

Lewis Mountain may be seen from various locations around Durango. Viewed from Smelter Mountain, 7,725', Lewis appears to be robust, bulky, and alluring. In this image, Lewis is above Bald Knob, 11,637', Snowstorm Peak is right of Lewis, followed by Cumberland Mountain, 12,388'. Perins Peak, 8,346', is in the foreground. The steady presence of Lewis Mountain presides over Durango's backyard.

Lewis is not what it seems when viewed from afar. In this image taken from the slopes of Cumberland Mountain, it becomes obvious that Lewis is actually a knife ridge extending with minimal reprieve for three miles. Snowstorm Peak is the rounded summit below the horizon on the right.

While the ridge may be traversed in either direction, choice of trailhead will dictate the route.

Columbus Basin Route, Counterclockwise Traverse: From the parking area at about 10,720', walk SW through woods and minor cliff bands to reach Lewis Ridge at roughly 11,800'. In 2005, with a friend and her two dogs (Dogs are not a good idea; they need a lot of assistance.), we parked at the end of the first switchback seen in the image below. We walked up the mining track until we were directly above the truck and then scaled boldly to the ridge. Initially, it was a reliable talus field but we were forced to move right to avoid the cliffs, sidehilling on resistant soil with sloughing debris. It was ridiculously steep; when we gained the ridge at 12,350', we'd ascended over 1,000 feet in 0.2 mile. I really can't say what possessed us to approach Lewis in such an audacious manner. It was unnecessary. (THW photo)

The west ridge of Lewis emerges from the trees. Columbus Basin is on the right. The road is visible in a flat opening, a good place to begin the climb. Across the gap is Diorite Peak, 12,761'. (THW, photo)

There are 12 significant serrations on the ridge varying between 50 and 140 feet of elevation change. The stability of the rock varies. Sometimes the footing is good, other times tricky and rotten. Given its length, the ridge is surprisingly free of obstructions. Three times we were forced to bypass briefly, increasing exposure significantly. Once while working around an airy obstacle my hold pulled off the mountain. Test everything. (THW, photo)

Below, climbers are making progress in a clockwise direction having already climbed Snowstorm Peak. Pt 12,655' is the banded, rather rounded serration on the right. The La Plata Quad implies this point is the summit by giving it an elevation designation. But the true crest is just to its left, separated by a small saddle and rising to a height of 12,681'. From the summit, a ridge jets off directly south which brings us to our next route option. (THW, photo)

Eagle Pass Approach: If your objective is to simply reach the summit of Lewis Mountain, this is a reasonable scramble. It is a pleasant and rewarding hike, 2,210 foot gain, up the road from La Plata Canyon to Eagle Pass. If you park at 11,350' where a gate prohibits further progress, walk 0.5 mile to the pass, 11,750'. Climb north on the ridge which culminates directly at the crest of Lewis Mountain, 12,681'.

Two Routes From The Notch:  From the Kennebec TH, 11,600', The Notch is an obvious blown out feature about 1 mile to the southeast. From The Notch there are two choices, each with enticing attributes.  

Snowstorm Peak, Clockwise Traverse: This has been called the cheater route to Lewis Ridge; it is the easiest access, but not trivial. The image below shows the 4WD road coming from the Kennebec TH, hugging the west face of Cumberland Mountain, and vanishing from view at The Notch. After passing through The Notch, 12,000', gain the NE ridge of Snowstorm at first opportunity and climb 511 feet to the summit. Proceed on Lewis Ridge. (THW, photo)

Bessie G Mine to Pass 12,200': Walk through The Notch and continue on the degenerating track for another mile through talus fields on the steep, east face of Snowstorm. The road becomes a trail after passing the mine. In 0.2 mile the trail skirts an east ridge. Staying north of Ruby Gulch, climb west 600 feet in 0.2 mile to Pass 12,200', shown in the 2005 image below at the snow patch. Snowstorm is truly just another extended serration on Lewis Ridge. It is a relatively easy effort from Pass 12,200'. Simply mount Pt 12,420', an obvious red knob, lose 50 feet and climb 141 feet to the crest. Retrace you steps and enjoy Lewis Ridge in a clockwise direction.

To descend from Snowstorm into Columbus Basin, there are two choices. In 2005 we returned over the red knob and from that saddle, plunged 500 feet down the flower-covered slope to historic road switchbacks. A better route would be to proceed on the ridge to Pass 12,200' and follow the social zigzag into the basin, eventually meeting the road. This is the route used for Durango's annual, 15 mile Kennebec Challenge footrace. The race begins in La Plata City, goes to the Kennebec TH, through The Notch, past the Bessie G, scrambles up the east side of Lewis, switches down the social trail into the basin, and back to the start. For that matter, this social trail is yet another way to reach Lewis Ridge initially. 

The summit of Lewis Mountain is more ambiguous than most. Even the map doesn't have it right. There is a sense that the entire rim is the summit, from its thin beginning just above The Notch, swinging around in a great arc, gathering Snowstorm, encompassing Lewis Mountain, refusing to terminate until it is swallowed by the waters of the La Plata River. It is a rim that demands the traveler's unbroken mindfulness. The serrated precipice affords a new perspective on one's inner world and the great circle of the horizon. (THW, photo)