Monday, September 26, 2011

Four Peak Traverse: Parrott, 11,857'; Madden, 11,972'; Star, 11,761'; Gibbs, 12,286'

Essence: The only relaxed and sustained ridgeline traverse in the La Plata Mountains. Climb four peaks on the western massif, stopping to gaze into the pure space panoramic of the Four Corners.
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. The trailhead is at 6.7 miles on the west side of La Plata Canyon Road, elevation 8,920 feet.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 11.3 miles; 4,976 feet of climbing
Time: 6:30 to 8:00
Difficulty: 4WD road, off-trail, social trail; moderate navigation; some exposure on Gibbs.
Map: La Plata 7.5 Quad
Latest Date Hiked: September 26, 2011, entire ridge; plus four section hikes
Quote: Something hidden. Go and find it.
Go and look behind the Ranges--
Something lost behind the Ranges.
Lost and waiting for you. Go! 
Rudyard Kipling 
Route: While this circuit could be done in either direction, I have only done it clockwise. Climb to the Parrott/Madden saddle. Do an out-and-back to Parrott Peak. Then walk north on the ridge to Gibbs Peak. Once off the summit block, it's downhill on old mining roads all the way back to the start. The dotted blue line depicts the optional drop from the Madden/Star section hike.

It is most extraordinary to hike along a ridgetop over seven prominences and not be diverted by obstacles. There is plenty of time to contemplate what waits on the other side of the range that fulfills one's deepest longing. First up: Parrott Peak. I have reached Parrott three ways from La Plata Canyon. The simplest begins at the track at elevation 8,920 feet. Simply switchback up the old mining road to a split in 1.5 miles. Go left/south onto a small ridge and then drop to follow the drainage, on either side, west up a steep, vegetated slope to the Parrott-Madden saddle, about 11,557'.

Once I avoided the switchbacks by beginning the hike just to the south of Root Creek and crossing back over to join the road in about 0.7 mile. Another time I walked up the ridge just north of Snowslide Gulch until it joined the east ridge of Parrott which led to the summit.

From the saddle, it is 0.3 mile and about 300 feet up to Parrott. Move slightly west to avoid the cliff at Parrott's base then hold to the north ridge for easy access to the summit, 11,857'. Return to the saddle, the only duplication of the entire trek. In this image, friends are walking north off Parrott's crest on their straightforward way to Madden's broad and welcoming southern back. The easy climb begins on vegetation and then thin slabs of rock. This group went from one peak to the other, 0.7 mile,  up 442 feet, in 33 minutes.

This image looks back on Parrott from Madden Peak, 11,972'. Unbounded views to the south and west revel in the blue distance: Mesa Verde, Shiprock, Sleeping Ute Mountain, the Abajos, and the La Sals. Deadwood Mountain and Silver Mountain are within reach across the La Plata River valley.

It is a mere half mile between Madden and Star Peak. Descend to the saddle, 11,440', before climbing 321 feet to Star, 11,761', on talus. I especially favor the flat rocks on Star that sound like plates breaking underfoot.

Madden and Star Section Hike: On 7/6/01, I climbed solo, enjoying Madden and Star. From Star, I retreated to their shared saddle and plunged to the southeast. It was steep but "green". After intersecting the heavily wooded ENE ridge of Madden at 10,800', I continued to a faint road, turned right/south, and joined the original track. Elevation gain: 3,450 feet; 7 miles; 5 hours. It is possible to access Madden's summit utilizing its east ridge. Of course, you may mix in Parrott.

Madden and Star are topped with whopper cairns.  Star's looks over at Helmet Peak, the La Plata's most westerly and unassuming crest.

It is a curiosity that Star is singled out and named, for there are three additional prominences, two higher, between it and Gibbs Peak. This image, taken from Star, shows Points 11,870', 11,672', 11,931', Gibbs, Burwell, Hesperus and the Spiller-Babcock lineup.

The lovely, contemplative walk upon the divide continues to the highest of these prominences, 11,931'.

Gibbs is 0.7 mile off. After a drop of 81 feet to the 11,850' saddle, it is 436 feet up to the final peak. The lower portion of the south ridge of Gibbs is pleasant, gradually rising to the false summit shown below, then dropping to a minor saddle before the summit block.

At a small cliff, the rock changes and becomes less dependable, or rotten. Still, it is a quick scramble up the west side of the ridge before returning to it at the first opportunity. The final segment is almost flat. Gibbs and Burwell Peak, its neighbor to the north, are a tawny rust color and the rock composition is altogether different than the surrounding mountains. The La Platas are a laccolith with a mixture of sedimentary and intrusive igneous rock. The igneous layer in the upper Babcocks is quite thick and granitic as can be seen from Gibbs with an in-your-face perspective of Spiller Peak, The Knife, West Babcock, 4th Crest, Middle Babcock and East Babcock just coming into view.  A friend extended the traverse by going from Gibbs north to Pt 12,212'. He trotted out the west ridge to Pt 12,070' for a nice angle on things. Big cliffs blocked his passage to Burwell.

From the summit of Gibbs is a traverse review: Parrott, Madden, Star, and the three numbered points.

Work carefully down the east ridge of Gibbs, searching out dependable holds and scraps of use trail. Stay on the spine until it bumps into an old mining track. The road goes down a ridge to the southeast, switches back to the north, and finally down to the main road staying south of Bedrock Creek. It takes about two hours to reach La Plata Canyon Road from Gibbs, dropping 3,200 feet over about four miles. The way home is especially beautiful in autumn.

Thimbleberry lights the way.

Gibbs and Star Section Hike: Many who fall in love with the La Platas want to experience all the peaks, including my hiking partner who was missing Star. So on the afternoon of 9/9/12, he drove a Rubicon up the Bedrock Creek 4WD road (FSR 792, 7.5 miles up La Plata Canyon Road from US 160) and parked at 11,200 feet. There was stream trenching, large boulders in the track, and five trees precariously hanging over the road we ducked under. One narrow ridge section is canted towards the abyss with no place to pull off or turn around. I thought it thoroughly terrifying; he had fun.

The route up Gibbs' east face had degenerated from over-use. On the slick, steep pitch we picked our way to the summit using bedrock holds covered in "Gibby Crumbles." After traversing to Star we decided to explore a new route for the return. Leaving the ridge at the saddle south of Gibbs, we dropped 400 feet down a slippery rubble field on resistant soil. We contoured NE below a series of cliffs, finding improvement at a talus field. Total mileage: 4.5 with 2,300 feet of climbing, 4:22.