Sunday, June 10, 2012

The Knife: West Babcock Peak, 13,160', to Spiller Peak, 13,132'

Essence: An exhilarating, exposed scramble across a serrated slice of stone.
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.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 7.5 miles, 3,900 feet of climbing from La Plata Canyon Road
Time: 7:30 to 8:30
Difficulty: 4WD road, off-trail from the mine; navigation challenging; Class 3 scrambling; breathless and sustained exposure; helmets recommended
Map: La Plata, Colorado 7.5 Quad
Date Hiked: June 10, 2012
Quote: To dare is to lose one's footing momentarily. Not to dare is to lose oneself. Soren Kierkegaard

East, Middle, and West Babcock Peaks, The Knife, Spiller Peak from Hesperus Mountain, 13,232'.

Route:  From TH 9,240', walk up the Boren Creek Road to the mine at 11,320 feet. Leave the road and climb West Babcock Peak. Moving west, cross The Knife and summit Spiller Peak. Descend south to the Spiller-Burwell saddle. Plunge down the basin, skirt a waterfall and return to the Boren Creek Road.

West Babcock Peak: The first objective of our compatible group of five was to summit West Babcock via its face, not the couloir route. We walked briskly almost three miles up shady, crisp FSR 794, the Boren Creek Road, to the sun in the upper basin, observing a golden eagle circling overhead. The image below shows the traverse in context as seen from the mine, elevation 11,320 feet. Starting on the right and moving left is East Babcock, 4th Crest, Middle Babcock (high point), West Babcock with its smooth face, The Knife, the crux at the "tooth", and Spiller Peak. We slogged up the familiar incline. Then, keeping the straight, thin couloir coming off West to our right, we climbed a rib of stone.

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.

Looking down on our route, from the obvious knob, image center-right, we climbed the "smooth stone" face of West Babcock, favoring the west side.

The pitch is actually rife with loose boulders. We climbed as lightly as fairies, skimming over the surface, testing holds, gaining the ridge just west of the summit. We crested West Babcock in under three hours from the trailhead. 

Hesperus Mountain, the towers of Lavender Peak, and Mount Moss are intimately close in the northwest.

The Knife: A La Plata Mountains devotee, having by now climbed all of the peaks save one, this little stretch, not even a mile, long eluded me. It has a notorious reputation amongst locals in Durango. On this day I was awarded the "sweet spot," climbing upon the heals of my friend, John, who had done this span previously, storing the way in his impeccable memory. Therefore, we rarely stopped to debate alternative routes, allowing us to complete the traverse between the two mountaintops in exactly one hour.

It is best, as always, to stay pinned to the ridge. When we were forced off, we usually deferred to the north and only briefly. John called the innumerable blocks, spires, obstacles, and sawtooths, "jiggity jaggities." Width varied; at times the ridge was one slender block wide, in other places, comfortable. There was plenty of good rock, but a substantial share of rotten as well. I was off-ridge to the north when a hold let go and I was flung backwards over a vertical couloir. I have no idea how I magically regained my position. For John, as leader, it was, "the ridge that never ends," but for the rest of us experienced scramblers, it was a pleasurable practice in mindfulness. This image shows the first serration on The Knife with Spiller in the distance.

The Crux. At the deeply incised declivity in the ridge, we carefully scrambled down to a minuscule saddle. We moved to the north and then the south on loose dirt and rubble. Below is a picture looking back/east from the pinch. 

Faces to the tooth, we dismissed exercising the standard route which leaves the ridge, downclimbing into a couloir on the north. For a detailed description of this route, please see Dave Cooper's, Colorado Scrambles, a Colorado Mountain Club guidebook, 2009. Instead, we climbed straight up the wall that is slightly north of center. Great holds are mixed in with loose debris. Choose carefully. It is ill advised to traverse in the opposite direction. If you must, take a rope. Once past the first 15 feet, we were on a ridiculously steep pitch, breathtakingly exposed, but blessed with sufficient holds. In this image you can see a climber working his way up the near vertical crux wall.

Now past the crux it was a relatively simple, but not trivial, climb up the summit block. This image, taken from Spiller, looks back on The Knife, West Babcock, Middle, just visible, and East (THW photo).

We relaxed on top for the better part of an hour before descending the south ridge of Spiller. The rock is fractured, holds unreliable, exposure serious. This image was taken in 2017 of climbers ascending the south ridge.

We made the mistake of leaving the ridge too soon on what appeared to be a use trail.  That was a disaster, stranding us on resistant soil covered in gravel directly above a cliff. We clawed our way back to the ridge and continued down to the Spiller-Burwell saddle. The trip off the wide basin rim was endlessly tedious through broken rock. Following the central depression, we came to the top of a waterfall where we turned left and, in time, dropped back to the Boren Creek Road. This photo shows the crux from the upper basin.  

Flowers. I dutifully write down the names of blooming plants seen for the first time each summer. Today's list was surprisingly abundant: valeriana capitata and edulis, blue columbine, red columbine, star flowered false Solomon's seal, alpine kitten tails, phlox, alpine spring beauty, old man of the mountain, thimbleberry, strawberry, osha, corn husk lily, green gentian, king's crown, draba, Richardson's geranium, elderberry, dock, waterleaf, larkspur, woods' rose, purple vetch, fairy candelabra, meadow rue, raspberry, daisy fleabane, New Mexico groundsel, scorpion leaf, alpine groundsel, packera (formerly senecio), chokecherry, scarlet gilia, current, white peavine, Brandegee's clover, Jacob's ladder, mountain parsley, white and purple violets, chain pod, cow parsnip, and bluebells.

It was a flawless and flowerful day.

2017 Note: I'm grateful to have traversed The Knife. Part of me wants to return to get better photos, to experience the risky adrenaline-infused thrill once again. But this climb pushes the boundaries of my skill level and my courage. I doubt I will return. Robert Macfarlane in Mountains of the Mind, speaks eloquently to a growing notion within: "The attraction of mountains is far more about beauty than about risk, far more about joy than fear, far more about wonder than pain, and far more about life than death."

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