Saturday, June 17, 2017

Helmet Peak, 11,969', to Rush Basin

Essence: A short out-and-back that provides a unique perspective on the La Plata Mountains from the westernmost peak in the range. Huge views into the wide-open west from this humble peak out there all by itself. Helmet is the launch point onto a two-and-a-half mile ridgeline traverse to Rush Basin, a hidden high alpine cirque.
Travel: From the US 550/160 intersection in Durango, travel west on US 160 for 24.7 miles to the signed Echo Basin Road and turn right/north on MC 44. Zero out your trip meter. Stay on the main road, passing old homesteads and hay meadows. In 2.4 miles pavement turns to gravel and transitions to FSR 566. The roadbed deteriorates at 3.8 miles where winter plowing stops. The track climbs steadily through scrub oak to a cattle guard at 6.4 miles. Directly east is The Hogback. Grazing ceases and on the other side of the guard are acres of mule ears in early summer. At 6.8 miles take the right fork, staying on FSR 566. Climbing, the road passes through an aspen forest, the floor covered in wildflowers. At 8.0 miles the road forks again; turn right. 4WD with HC and sturdy tires are needed on the choppy track. Turn right/south on FSR 322 at 10.3 miles and cross a talus field at 11 miles. Go over a little pass, elevation 10,951 feet, between The Hogback and Helmet Peak. Park on the rocky parking platform at 11.5 miles. Allow 1:00 to 1:15 from Durango.
Distance and Elevation Gain: Helmet Peak: 2.0 miles round trip with 1,020 feet of climbing. Total for the peak and Rush Basin: 6.8 miles with 2,770 feet of climbing.
Total Time: 2:00-3:00 for Helmet, 5:00 for a leisurely walk to Rush Basin
Difficulty: Off-trail; moderate navigation; no exposure.
Maps: Rampart Hills; La Plata, Colorado 7.5 USGS Quads
Latest Date Hiked: June 17, 2017 
Quote: There is a way that nature speaks, that land speaks.  Most of the time we are simply not patient enough, quiet enough to pay attention to the story.  Linda Hogan

A hiker glissades down the Helmet Peak summit cornice. Hesperus Mountain is on the left and Rush Basin is nestled under Spiller Peak. (THW, photo)

Route: Helmet Peak is due east of the parking platform at 10,960 feet but rock glaciers and spectacular west-face cliffs prohibit a direct approach. Ascend southeast to Saddle 11,580'. Climb the south ridge to the summit and return as you came. For the optional walk to Rush Basin head northeast over three numbered points. Return on a prominent bench before regaining the ridge.

From the parking area at 10,960 feet, unbounded views disappear into the blue distance. The town of Mancos is 4,000 feet below on the valley floor. Point Lookout identifies Mesa Verde National Park and to its right is Sleeping Ute Mountain.

Just beyond the platform the road does a triple split. Take the upper left branch through a talus field.

In 0.1 mile leave the road and launch east-southeast up a slope with a consistent pitch. Follow the glades in the spruce-fir forest keeping the prominent rock glacier rolling off Helmet Peak just to the left/north. There is a maze of roadways on the west-facing slope and you will cross abandoned tracks several times. Reach the treed saddle, elevation 11,580 feet, in 0.7 mile. There is a small opening revealing the western massif of the La Plata range. Gibbs Peak, 12,286', is image-center.

The summit is just 0.3 mile off with 400 feet of climbing remaining. Ascend the Class 2 south ridge, a mix of dirt and talus. A social trail comes and goes; just stay near the ridgetop.

Crest Helmet Peak at one mile.

Situated west of the principle range, the summit provides a unique perspective on westerly faces. On the skyline from the left: Hesperus Mountain, Lavender Peak, Mount Moss, Spiller Peak, Middle Babcock, Burwell Peak, and Gibbs Peak.

Off-image,  Lone Cone is a solitary thrust to the northwest; the San Miguel Mountains are a triple threat; El Diente Peak, Mt. Wilson, and Wilson Peak form a bulky cluster of fourteeners; and Lizard Head juts radically. (THW, photo)

The American West is home and in this moment the sense of cavernous space overwhelms.The Colorado Plateau extends south and west until it falls off the curve of the world. Due west is The Hogback. The first time I climbed Helmet we started west of The Hog to add interest, mileage, and elevation. We climbed a total of 3,650 feet by parking on FSR 566 and dropping through shrubs and deadfall into Hells Hole. After gaining the ridge, we bashed and thrashed our course in a spectacularly and constantly cluttered forest for almost four miles across The Hog. I do not regret it but neither do I recommend it. Of course, hours into the trek, we crossed the very road where your car will likely be parked. In this image, the rock glacier runs right into The Hogback. (THW, photo)

Rush Basin
The ridgetop cross over to Rush Basin adds 4.8 miles and 1,750 feet of climbing. Snowfall during the winter of 2016/2017 was exceptional. We planned to walk to Rush Basin but the ridge, basin, and bench were covered in deep snow. (THW, photo)

To reach Rush Basin simply follow the ridge from Helmet to the northeast, shown. Drop off the summit on a grassy slope, crossing an old wagon road. From the minor saddle at 11,420 feet climb and tag Point 11,490' at 1.5 miles. Continue past Point 11,522', and go over the highest prominence of the hike, Point 12,201' at 3.1 miles.  

The stark and colorful ridge is appealing as seen from the Rush Basin Bench in autumn. There is some easy scrambling on the ridge and the 260 foot descent to the shared saddle with Spiller Peak. (THW, photo)

Descend another 100 feet into the basin at 3.4 miles, elevation 11,840 feet. The west ridge of Spiller Peak, 13,123 feet, rises over the tundra-bound lake, headwaters of he East Mancos River. (THW, photo)

To return, walk southwest on the irresistible and alluring bench, a tableland that rests between the out-going ridge and the river canyon well below. Resist bench suck and climb back to the ridge in about 0.9 mile when the land is just starting to drop off the contour. Further on the gravel-covered hard pan slope is ultra steep. Avoid it. This image was taken from Point 12,070', a thin westerly ridge between Gibbs and Burwell. It provides a superior view of the lake, bench, and ridge to Rush Basin. Helmet is off-image to the left. (THW, photo)

Retrace your steps over the top of Helmet Peak.

Below, Helmet Peak presides over a riot of mule ears on FSR 566.

Helmet's western escarpment is seen from the air in May, 2011.

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