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. 

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