Sunday, July 29, 2012

Middle Babcock Peak, 13,180': Highest of the Babcocks

Essence: The highest of the Babcock Peaks with fine views of the range. A knife ridge with fantastical scrambling on the summit block.
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: 7.5 miles, about 4,000' of climbing from the 9,240' trailhead on La Plata Canyon Road.
Time: 5:30 to 6:30 
Difficulty: 4WD road, off-trail; navigation challenging; Class 3 scrambling with good holds, significant exposure
Map: La Plata, Colorado 7.5 Quad
Dates Hiked: 8/14/08, 9/22/09, 7/29/12
Quote: What I am after is less to meet God face to face than really to take in a beetle, a frog, or a mountain when I meet one. Joseph Wood Krutch
Middle Babcock Peak Map:

Middle Babcock is one of my La Plata favorites. While the climb to the base of the mountain is exceedingly familiar and rather tedious, the summit block is pure pleasure. I have become friends with all the rocks! I have guided many people up Middle; the youngest was 16, the eldest, in his 70's. The first time I relied on the verbal instructions of an enthusiastic friend.

Walk not quite 3 miles up FS 794, the Boren Creek Road, to the mine at 11,320'. The image below, taken from the grassy hillside above the mine shows the four peaks of Babcock. They are, from the left: West Babcock, Middle Babcock, 4th Crest, and East Babcock. The La Plata quad is remiss because it only gives the elevation of East, 13,149'. However, Middle is the highest of the four Babcocks at approximately 13,180'. Pick your way up through a mix of grass and stone, onto the talus, and then into the generous couloir between 4th Crest and Middle Babcock. The passageway is stable enough to accept a group of people favoring the west wall.

Note of Caution: In 2016, I witnessed two, 3 X 3 foot cubes of stone crack from a Babcock couloir and, gathering more boulders, bounce-fly at 60 mph down the center of the basin where I had been moments prior. They skidded to a halt just shy of the 4WD track. It was a narrow and lucky miss. Please be fully aware and understand this location is particularly dangerous. 

The tipping point between Tomahawk and Boren basins is also the cleft between 4th Crest and Middle Babcock. The cliff-framed vista restricts one's field of vision, emphasizing the commanding view. Close in is an abandoned climbing rope slung long ago around a thin, solitary tower. Below, the author stands at the top of the couloir, the route's ramp is to the southwest. Walk up the rubbly grade about 50 feet to meet Middle's summit ridge. From here, the peak is less than a quarter mile northwest. (THW, photo)

The ridge is the definition of Class 3 fun. When it tapers to two feet, there are always stable holds to be had amongst loose rock. Below, three climbers are at the top of the initial climb which is the steepest offering. Directly behind them is the southwest flank of East Babcock; Silver Mountain is across the La Plata River valley. (THW, photo)

Two stone pillars are the principal obstacles. I have done this three ways; the simplest was to hug my way around them. I have dropped off a few feet to the north, greatly exposed, and descended considerably to the south. Your choice. This is the only place we were ever tempted to leave the spine.

 As you can see, the summit rapidly appears, always before I am ready. (EJB, photo)

This image is a stitched panorama taken from Middle Babcock. From the left are Gibbs and Burwell, then West slightly shorter in the center, and Spiller on the right. (THW, photo)

The return trip is almost identical to the ascent. We always stop for lunch at the rock outcrop a goodly way down towards the mine. You can see it in this photo. Walk out the top line of stone and balance on the miniature pedestal. Watch for eagles and peregrine falcons in the upper basin. 

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Wetterhorn Peak, 14,015', and Matterhorn Peak, 13,590'

Essence: These adjacent peaks offer a premier Colorado mountain experience in one day. Wildly contrasting, Wetterhorn excites wonder and respect. Vanquish your fear! Matterhorn, a ranked 13'er, is seldom visited. Enjoy the peacefulness of this restorative peak.
Travel From Durango via Engineer Pass: In a 4WD, high-clearance vehicle, from Durango drive 47 miles to Silverton. Turn northeast and proceed up Greene Street, the main drag, to the north end of town. Zero-out your trip meter as you make a soft right onto CR 2 which is paved for the first few miles. The dirt road is good at first but degenerates to a slow, rocky surface. In 11.8 miles, 0.5 mile before reaching the abandoned mining town of Animas Forks, bear right on the Alpine Loop and follow the signs for Engineer Pass. It is 4.8 rugged, edgy miles to the pass at 12,800'. Drive down the east side 9 miles to the ghost town of Capital City at 25.6 miles. Turn left on North Henson Rd and continue for 2.7 slow miles to the upper TH at 10,720'. Allow three hours from Durango.
Travel From Lake City: Turn west onto Second St. In two blocks, go left on Bluff St. In one block, bear a soft right onto Henson Creek Road, Hinsdale CR 20. There is a sign on the right designating the Alpine Loop. Zero-out your trip meter. Pass Nellie Creek Rd in 5.2 miles. Reach abandoned Capitol City in 9.2 miles and turn right on North Henson Rd. The track gets rough but can still be driven by most good-clearance vehicles. The Matterhorn Creek TH, 10,400', is at 11.2 miles. IF you have 4WD, HC, proceed 0.7 mile to the upper TH at 10,720'. Allow one hour from Lake City.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 8.8 miles, 4,848 feet of vertical from Trailhead 10,720'
Time: 6:00 to 7:30
Difficulty: Trail, off-trail; navigation critical for Wetterhorn, easy for Matterhorn; Class 3; considerable exposure on Wetterhorn, no exposure on Matterhorn
Maps: Uncompahgre Peak; Wetterhorn Peak, Colorado 7.5 Quads
Dates Hiked: September 3, 2011; July 15, 2012
Quote: The outer world is necessary to activate the inner world. They are not two worlds but a single world with two aspects: the outer and the inner. If we don't have certain outer experiences, we don't have certain inner experiences. Thomas Berry.

Looking west to Wetterhorn Peak from Matterhorn Peak.

Wetterhorn Peak and Matterhorn Peak Map: This map was drawn free hand without the aid of a GPS. It's not exact, but it is close.

Route: From the upper TH, pass the gate and walk north on the east side of Matterhorn Creek for 0.7 mile to a signed junction. Don't be tempted by the Wetterhorn Cutoff Trail, as likely as it sounds. Rather, take Ridge Stockway Trail #233. It makes a sweeping switchback to the southeast before resuming its northerly course. Trees are left behind at 11,600', exchanged for a day in the tundra. About 2 miles from the TH, just above 12,000', the trail splits. The track to the right leads to Uncompahgre Peak. Bear left. In the image below, Wetterhorn is glowing on a rainy morning presaging a successful climb on an improbable day.

If there is no threat of rain, you may just as efficiently climb the two peaks in either order. Generally, it is best to climb aptly named Wetterhorn, or "Weather Horn," first. Wet rock greatly increases the hazard on this mountain. The hiker below is just past the split with the Uncompahgre Peak Trail. Wetterhorn is on the left and Matterhorn, the right.

The sublime trial turns northwest and then west, ascending to Pass 13,090' in just under 3 miles from the TH. Walk through a town of picas and marmots living in the friendly boulders beside the path. 

From the pass, shown, the horn is 0.5 mile away with 1,000 feet of climbing remaining. It will take an hour if navigation goes without a hitch. Climb the obvious ridge trail. There are some slippery, steep sections with resistant soil. Enter the boulders; the trail is still clear with no confusion. But soon, you will be faced with many choices, cairns leading in different directions to dubious, braided routes. Look for a large cairn that guides you onto a rising traverse. It goes up the southwest side of the ridge and then onto the rib. If you stay on the original trail too long, you'll get drawn into Class 3+ obstacles and towers that, in fact, will get you there but greatly increase the challenge. For reference, note the so-called Ship's Prow just left of the peak in the image below.

Scramble up the spine. Make it a policy to cling to this ridge, with one exception. Well up the convoluted ridge, you will come to an obstacle forcing you off the rib to the right/east. A few moves and you'll be faced with a choice to either make a seemingly unlikely scramble back to the ridge, or do a cairned lateral traverse. Do the short climb. My notes indicate the lateral was vastly exposed on resistant soil, "15 minutes of terror." Back on the ridge, work your way along the base of the Ship's Prow.

Just north of the Ship's Prow, is an 8 foot barrier with good holds. Usually, there is a cairn on top of the pitch to guide you. On top you are faced with the final challenge, the near vertical, stair-step 150 foot wall to the top. It is in a shallow gully. If there are climbers on this wall, rest on The Ramp while you wait for them to complete their climb. In this photo, the author is descending, facing the rock, as a friend walks up The Ramp. (THW, photo)

While the climb is greatly exposed, the holds are superb, there are plenty of ledges to steady yourself, the rock dependable. This group scaled the wall together because rain was imminent. Some people will prefer the reassurance of a fixed rope.

Looking at the image below, a few feet above the upper climber's white helmet is a horizontal ledge. Go left along this shelf until you reach the ridge at skyline. This move is clear when you get there. Bust up the final pitch to the rounded and generous summit.

The panorama from the crest is as commanding as can be in Colorado--14'er quality. Matterhorn and Uncompahgre are to the immediate east. Just 2.5 miles as the crow flies to the northwest is Coxcomb Peak and to its right, Redcliff, shown.

For the downclimb, return down the spine to the lateral ledge and re-enter the gully wall as these climbers have done. Some moves are best done facing the rock. Note The Ramp and Ship's Prow on the right side of the image.

Pausing on a secure platform while taking turns.

From The Ramp, looking back at friends on the wall. (THW, photo)

Climb back down the 8 foot pitch and find yourself at the base of the Ship's Prow. This enticing structure may be easily and quickly scaled from its right/west side. It affords a grand perspective on the entire adventure.

Return navigation is considerably more obvious and affords the opportunity to fix what you botched going up! In the image below, climbers have retreated well down the ridge. They are clamoring through boulders towards the large cairn at the trail.

From the trail above Pass 13,090' are incomparable views of Matterhorn and Uncompahgre.

To climb the lovely, beguiling Matterhorn, stay on the main trail wending your way back through the pleasant boulders harboring picas.

Leave the trail at about 12,400' and cut east to intersect the rounded south ridge of Matterhorn. Depending on where you hit it, you will be approximately 0.5 mile and 1,000 feet off the summit. It takes about an hour to span between the Wetterhorn trail and Matterhorn's crest. Simply walk up the slope from one rounded bench to another.

Begin the Class 3, super fun, 300 foot scramble to the summit. Stay on or close to the ridge. After Wetterhorn, Matterhorn feels like a delightful walk in the park.

I have considerable affection for this peak. It seems almost diminutive compared to the massive 14'ers on either side. Since is doesn't measure up to that magic number, Matterhorn is somewhat neglected. Maybe that's a good thing for you are sure to experience solitude on this beautiful mountain. From the top, Wetterhorn is a casual glance away to the West. (THW, photo)

Uncompahgre Peak, 14,309', is so close in the east that very strong climbers can summit the two 14'ers in one day. For an excellent description on how to combine these high peaks, see Gerry Roach, Colorado's Fourteeners: From Hikes to Climbs.

To return to the trailhead, walk down Matterhorn's south ridge 1 mile, dropping to 12,200'. Here you will intersect the very obvious Uncompahgre Peak Trail, not far from where you left it in the morning. Turn right/SSW, retracing your steps 2 miles to TH 10,720'. While walking back, revel in the myriad of experiences these two magnificent mountains gave you. Just think; that's all inside of you now.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Wildhorse Peak, 13,266', and Dragon's Back Exploration (Point 12,968')

Essence: Wildhorse Peak looks intimidating by nature but it is not a huge effort and climbing is Class 2. It is surrounded by one of the largest expanses of tundra anywhere in Colorado. Scramble up nervous rock to scale the Dragon's Back.
Travel From Durango via Engineer Pass: In a 4WD, high-clearance vehicle, from Durango drive 47 miles to Silverton. Turn northeast and proceed up Greene Street, the main drag, to the north end of town. Zero-out your trip meter as you make a soft right onto CR 2 which is paved for the first couple of miles. The dirt road is good at first but degenerates to a slow, rocky surface. In 11.8 miles, 0.5 mile before reaching the premier ghost town of Animas Forks, bear right on the Alpine Loop and follow the signs for Engineer Pass. It is 4.8 rugged, edgy miles to the pass at 12,800'.  Park half a mile below Engineer Pass on the east side, just before the first tight switchback to the right, at approximately 12,250 feet. Allow 2:30 from Durango.
Travel From Lake City: Turn west onto Second St. In two blocks, go left on Bluff St. In one block, bear a soft right onto Henson Creek Road, Hinsdale CR 20. There is a sign on the right designating the Alpine Loop. Pass Nellie Creek Road in 5.2 miles. Reach abandoned Capitol City in another 4 miles. Continue for approximately 8.5 miles to the parking pullout. It is half a mile east of Engineer Pass, just after a hard switchback to the left. Allow 1:15 from Lake City.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 8.4 miles; 2,375 feet of climbing, includes optional trip to Dragon's Back. Wildhorse Peak alone is 6.4 miles and 1,650 feet of vertical.
Time: 5:30 to 7:00 for the 8.4 mile option
Difficulty: Trail, off-trail; navigation moderate; mild exposure
Maps: Wetterhorn Peak; Handies Peak, Colorado 7.5 Quads
Latest Date Hiked: July 14, 2012
Quote: Never laugh at live dragons. J. R. R. Tolkien

Quirky Wildhorse Peak, image-left, Coxcomb Peak, and Wetterhorn Peak, viewed from Wood Mountain, 13,650'. 

Route: From TH 12,250', walk north across American Flats with a clear view of Wildhorse. Climb the northeast edge of the peak's southeast ridge. Return a short distance off the crest and drop down an east-facing gully. Walk northeast to Dragon's Back, the unofficial name for Pt. 12,968'. Skirt Wildhorse on the return.

Wildhorse Peak: From the trailhead, walk north across American Flats on the Horsethief Trail which comes and goes. At 0.7 mile, intersect the old track, no longer viable (but shown on the Handies Peak topo), coming from Engineer Pass. The "trail" is mostly an abandoned road marked by weathered posts. The road meanders excessively before turning into a more efficient single track. Until then, just cut straight cross-country, paralleling Darley Mountain on the east side.

The wide-ranging tundra Flats are visually stunning and serene. Dolly Varden Mountain rises east of the Flats. American Lake is visible in a depression.

Long before you get there, you will see the sign for a four-way junction rising out of the tundra. Reach it at 1.8 miles. The Horsethief Trail continues north to Bridge of Heaven; west is the Bear Creek Trail to Hwy 550; south is our trailhead near Engineer Pass; and east is the North Fork of Henson Creek (and eventually, Wetterhorn Peak). 

Leave the trail and climb an effortless 300 feet up the mounded slopes that lead to a small saddle southeast of Wildhorse Peak, shown.

From the saddle, it is less than 700 vertical feet to the summit. The grassy slope pitches up steeply. It is most accommodating, exhilarating, and visually fascinating to climb amongst the rocks and towers right next to the northeast precipice. Dragon's Back looks rather ominous, in keeping with its nature.

The false summit, shown, precedes a comfortable 50 foot catwalk to the peak at 3.2 miles. The crest is very small and equally comfortable. The view is celestial with Bridge of Heaven in the west and the Uncompahgre family in the east.

Either descend as you came, or go down the west ridge for 200 feet before doing a southeast descending traverse back to the edge. To return to the trailhead, retrace your steps.

Dragon's Back: Examine openings in the towers for the first plausible descent chute to the east.

I have been down two of the slots. The higher gully presents the easier slide. Both are flanked by vertical cliffs. The image below looks back at one of the chutes. At the base of the defile, descend through large chunks of talus to the valley floor.

Contour beneath Pt. 12,913' to a small pass and then aim for the lake below Dragon's Back. (Richard Butler, photo)

The Dragon guards his bowl.

Exploring the Dragon is climber's choice. It is worth going from the lake to the base of his head, Pt. 12,968'. Then walk along the south side probing for ways to climb onto his back. I have taken three routes to the top of the spine, vainly attempting to summit from different access points. One slope was ultra steep with large, nervous rocks and vertical walls for holds. The other two were relatively easy. Reach the backbone at 12,720 feet, 4.4 miles. I've only been able to scramble (Class 3, exposed) 50 feet up his spine before getting stopped by crumbly, Class 5 pitches. Respect the Dragon. Still, it's great fun and the view off the north side is worth the scramble. If you are serious about topping Pt. 12,968', there are helpful discussions about this technical climb on the internet.

To return, retreat to the small saddle east of Pt. 12,913'. Angle southwest to the saddle at the base of the southeast ridge of Wildhorse. Meet your incoming route there at 5.6 miles. Typically, you can be more efficient walking back across the Flats to the trailhead, 2.8 miles distant. Well, unless you become transfixed by tundra. One could easily wander around in all that freedom until dusk.

Expect to share the terrain with domestic sheep and their dogs. I have seen three large elk herds in this country.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Bald Knob, 11,637', Via Eagle Pass

Essence: Visit historic mining structures while walking to Eagle Pass, the dramatic low point between Lewis Mountain and Silver Mountain. Climb the easternmost peak in the La Platas almost entirely below timberline.
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. In 8.5 miles the roadbed deteriorates with sharp, sizable rocks. A 2WD vehicle with good tires and moderate clearance may proceed. The Lewis Creek Road, CR 124 A, is at 9.4 miles. If you park here at 9,540', it is a 2,210' climb to Eagle Pass. A 4WD, high clearance vehicle can make it to a gate prohibiting further progress at 11,350', just 400 feet shy of the pass. We drove up the Eagle Pass Road 0.7 mile and parked at a small mine opening at 10,000'. The road improves after that. The distance and elevation gain is calculated from there.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 10 miles, 3,300 feet of climbing
Time: 5:30 to 6:30
Difficulty:  4WD road, social trail, off-trail; considerable navigation required; no exposure.
Maps: La Plata, Monument Hill 7.5 Quads
Date Hiked: July 4, 2012
Quote: Just as a white summer cloud, in harmony with heaven and earth freely floats in the blue sky from horizon to horizon following the breath of the atmosphere--in the same way the pilgrim abandons himself to the breath of the greater life that. . .leads him beyond the farthest horizons to an aim which is already present within him, though yet hidden from his sight. Lama Govinda 
Route: Hike up CR 124A to Eagle Pass. Walk the ridgetop ESE to Pt 11,391'. Drop south to the saddle at 11,000'. From there, a social trail scales the peak.

I fell in love with the La Plata Mountains on my very first hike, a solo climb up Madden Peak and Star Peak in 200l. I was attracted by the geology, flowers, proximity to Durango, and the small scope of the range. Each subsequent visit was recorded in my field notes and on my archive map. Over time the ink took over the map and it now has its own story to tell. I'm not a list completer and I never intended to summit all the La Plata peaks. I climbed them out of affection, often more than once, and as it happens, Bald Knob was my final mountain of the 25.

Bald Knob is the easternmost peak in the range easily spotted from all over Durango. It resides to the southeast of Lewis Mountain.

From 10,000 feet, hike up the rocky road for almost three miles to the pass. It stays on the north side of Lewis Creek in heavy woods with fine views of Baker Peak and Puzzle Pass. Historic mine structures are picturesque.

East Babcock on the western side of the La Platas is seen to the right of this three story structure.

Upon reaching Eagle Pass, 11,750', walk past the locked gate and climb 100 feet south to the top of a rocky knob with towers. From here, the western La Platas are lined up, Barnes Mountain is low in the east, Silver Mountain rises in the south, and Lewis Mountain beckons. Eagle Pass is one of the primary access points for climbing to the summit of Lewis.

This is a good place to get your bearings. Bald Knob is the obvious high point ESE. Walk out the ridge for 1.5 miles to Pt 11,391', dropping 459' net and climbing a total of 280 feet up three rises. There is no trail on this fine little ridge with a mix of trees, rock, grass, and flowers.

At Pt 11,391' the ridge splits into two arms. Descend the SSE ridge to a saddle at 11,000'. Locate an unexpected, lovely social trail that has shallow switchbacks all the way to Bald Knob. It stays in the woods on or just off the peak's north ridge. Breaking out of the trees on the broad crest, walk west to the true summit for a unique view of the La Platas and Durango.

Orange sneezeweed on the summit was covered in butterflies.

Descend on the same trail back to the saddle. Interestingly, there is a trail leading from here east into Chicago Gulch. The Colorado Trail crosses this drainage where it joins Junction Creek a mere 1.5 miles away. Now scrounge around and find a beautiful social trail that contours west along the south side of our access ridge. Staying 40 to 150 feet off the ridge, plowing through heavy woods, it climbs easily and gradually. It rises briefly to the ridge at the low point between Pt 11,670' and 11,600'.  It may be followed all the way back to Eagle Pass. Before the pass, the trail becomes more obscure as the terrain opens. Therefore, it could be quite difficult to locate on the outgoing trip to the mountain. The trail joins a road that glides around the south side of the knob leading directly back to the pass.