Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Burwell Peak, 12,664', to Spiller Peak, 13,123'

Essence: A crumbly, steep challenge to Burwell that anchors the southern end of the Boren Creek Basin, followed by an obstruction-dodging ridge route to Spiller for an intimate look at the notorious Knife.
Travel: 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. Park on La Plata Canyon Road at 8.4 miles, just past Boren Creek at FS 794.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 7 miles, about 4,400' of climbing from La Plata Canyon Road, 9,240'.
Time: 6:30 to 7:30
Difficulty: 4WD road, off-trail; navigation challenging; steep sections on gravelly, resistant soil; exposure moderate
Map: La Plata, Colorado 7.5 Quad
Date Hiked: 7/8/08
Quote: Mountains call their climbers, and the creatures who respond never so much initiate their movement up the slope as they are initiated by it. Rob Baker
Map: Burwell Peak to Spiller Peak:

Route: Our desire was to climb Spiller Peak. There is no easy way up Spiller so we figured why not approach it from Burwell? Overview: Looking at this image, we climbed the southeastern flank of Burwell (mostly hidden on the left); faced with a deep gash north of the summit, we dropped east 400 feet to get below a major obstruction; we sidehilled north; regained the ridge near the saddle; climbed Spiller; returned until just shy of the low point on the ridge; and descended through the basin to the road.

From La Plata Canyon Road, walk west up the rocky Boren Creek Road, FS 794, for 1.6 miles to 10,550 feet. Take the left spur, shown below, into a clearing. In this image, a hiker is continuing on the main road towards a different destination.

Burwell is now only a mile distant, 2164 feet above. The image below, taken from FS 794, shows the Boren Creek drainage, the southeast ridge of Burwell, and the summit. From the clearing, cross the drainage and make for the thick woods. Climb steeply, using periodic animal trails, favoring the right side of Burwell's southeast shoulder. Near treeline at 11,500' is a boulder stack blocking progress. Hug your way around it on the right. (THW, photo)

After negotiating the obstruction, it is best to gain the tapering ridge immediately but we mistakenly favored the steep slopes right of it. We climbed through the krummholz with its thin band of scrawny, determined trees, amazing views, and great flowers. Aiming for a gash which conceals the summit, we entered a dicey zone. Marbles and cobbles slid on resistant soil, our feet found only a few anchored rocks for purchase. Trekking poles would be a substantial assist. Almost to the top, chunky rock made climbing slightly better. In the image below, Burwell is on the left, Spiller, the right.

Burwell is a sweet peak and we'd climbed it well enough. Our pleasure was mitigated by what appeared to be a daunting traverse to Spiller. Heading directly north was out of the question for we were presented with a 100 foot, vertical walled notch. Downclimbing into it and going up the other side was impossible. We debated our options. We were not put off by the effort, but rather the dubious nature of the rock. In the image below, Spiller beckons across the cleft.

We decided to carry on, climbing ever so carefully down the ultra steep east face of Burwell on skittering, broken, rotten rock, shown below. Once we were committed to the task, it only grew more daunting. We were forced to drop 400 feet before being afforded the opportunity to turn north. And here we sidehilled until we could make our way up to the ridge, just south of the low point between the two mountains, Saddle 12,500'.

There is a bit of a use trail up Spiller but test all holds in the exposed sections. Just before the summit, the climbing gets easier. Despite our trouble, it only took an hour to get from one peak to the other. Once on top we were elated; Spiller's crest was difficult to reach, making it all the more satisfying. I suppose the most direct route would be to ascend the way we descended. Or, one could traverse over The Knife and reach the peak the gnarly way. Spiller may also be climbed from Rush Basin to the west but there are considerable access challenges.

Spiller has unique and intimate views of Hesperus, the towers of Lavender, and Mount Moss. This image shows The Knife, West Babcock, Middle Babcock just peeking out, and East Babcock.

It was a temptation to shortcut early off the southern ridge. We debated sliding down a snowy couloir near the summit. Smartly, we declined because we couldn't see clear to the bottom. On another day I gave what appeared to be a use trail a shot and got cliffed out. So we gamely continued down the ridge to a rocky couloir just north of the low point and angled from there into the saddle gully. We were presented with almost 2,000 feet of tedium. There were fun escalator rides down sporadic scree; most of the rock was too big for that delight, yet not too big to roll and slide under our feet.

We happily glassaded down dwindling snowfields to the waterfall seen center right in this image. We climbed north, avoided yawning trenches, descended a ridge, and did more snow sliding back to the Boren Creek Road just above our original spur.