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, and measure from there. 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 8.1 miles in a pull-out just past Boren Creek, and about 200 feet before FSR 794.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 7.5 miles, about 4,000 feet of climbing from the trailhead, elevation 9,240 feet, 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' USGS Quad
Latest Date Hiked: July 29, 2012
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

There is an impassible gap between East Babcock (where the photographer is standing), and Middle Babcock. Shown, is the climber's ridge to Middle's crest. (Thomas Holt Ward, photo) 

Route: Hike northwest up the Boren Creek Road into the basin. Leave the road and climb north into the couloir between 4th Crest and Middle Babcock Peak. Upon reaching the divide with Tomahawk Basin scramble northwest to the summit. 

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 three miles up FSR 794, the Boren Creek Road, to the mine at 11,320 feet. 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 feet. 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 the 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, I am standing at the top of the couloir. The route's ramp is on my left 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, shown. 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 Peak and Burwell Peak, then West Babcock slightly shorter in the center, and Spiller Peak 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.