Saturday, August 4, 2012

Grizzly Peak, 13,738': The Kaleidoscope Summit

Essence: Easy trail to a hanging glacial valley. Choose between a moderate couloir or Class 3+ ridge route to the peak. Radiating, colorful ridges splay from the summit towards vibrant, variegated neighboring mountains. Only the rugged drive dissuades. 
Travel: This is the tedious factor. From Durango, drive 28 miles north on US 550 to mile marker 49. Turn left at Durango Mountain Resort and zero-out your trip meter. Advance to the upper parking lot. At 0.3 miles, turn right on Hermosa Park Road, #578. There is a small, brown sign marking this dirt road. The road, graced by aspens, makes three big switchbacks. Little spurs head off; the main road is obvious. At 3.2 miles, go right, staying on Hermosa Park Road. At 3.6 miles turn right on Relay Creek Road, #579. At 4.8 miles go right on Cascade Divide Road, staying on #579. 4WD, high clearance is necessary to drive the 8-9 miles to the end of this painfully slow road, riddled with tire-sucking divots. Cross Pando, EZ, and Graysill Creeks; other tributaries of Cascade Creek; and the Graysill Trail. The road switches up a few hundred feet before the end. The land speed record, Durango to the trailhead, is 1:20. Figure on 2 hours.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 7.5 miles, 3,000 feet of vertical
Time: 5:30 to 6:30
Difficulty: Trail, off-trail; navigation substantial; no exposure on Couloir Route, considerable exposure on the Southeast Ridge (Class 3+) and South Ridge (Class 3) routes.
Maps: Ophir; Engineer Mountain, Colo. 7.5 Quads
Latest Date Hiked: August 4, 2012
Quote: The summit embraces the entire space of the mountain. Marco Pallis

Grizzly Peak from San Miguel Peak.

Route: From the trailhead at elevation 11,240 feet, walk northerly on-trail to Grizzly Meadows. From here there are two routes to the peak--the Class 2+ couloir route and the exposed Class 3+ southeast ridge route. Upon leaving the summit, return via the couloir or the Class 3 south ridge. Close the loop in Grizzly Meadows.

Locate a trail leaving from the north end of the parking area and walk on a well-defined spur 0.2 mile to intersect the Colorado Trail (note this junction for the return) which shares this section with the Rico-Silverton Trail. Turn right and descend to a creek stained white from aluminum hydroxy-sulfate precipitate. Follow the Colorado Trail until shy of a mile and then go left, uphill, on a well-established social trail, sometimes marked with a cairn. This track bends around Pt. 12,695' on a rising traverse for another mile to "Grizzly Meadows".

The meadows are in a hanging glacial valley with granitic glacial erratics strewn about. The land falls away dramatically to the east with Cascade Creek occupying the trench. White Creek Falls plummet down the opposing wall. The contrast between the peaceful lake and the hovering southwest ridge of dominant Rolling Mountain could not be more startling.

Couloir Route up Grizzly: The classic way up the mountain is also the easiest and fastest, though it does have its hazards. This image was captured west of Grizzly Meadows where the climb starts. Our objective is the crest on the right. The access couloir is the wide declivity in the center of the picture. While it is not obvious in this photo, there is a cliffy area in the middle of this basin. Stay left, on the green ramp, until you pass the cliffs; then move right into the couloir. Saddle 13,400' is one mile from the lake at the top of the couloir. Ascending the mix of green and granite will induce tundra euphoria, guaranteed.

I favor the right/northeast wall of the couloir but the entire gully is accepting, if loose. Groups should be aware of tumbling talus. In this image, one hiker is waiting his turn while two make the descent after visiting the peak.

From the saddle, turn right/north for a relatively easy 0.2 mile, 15 minute, walk to the summit. Before I go on about how captivating this zenith is, let's wait for the ridge climbers to join us.

Southeast Ridge Route up Grizzly: If you are a Grizzly aficionado, this ridge may be for you. It takes a little longer than the couloir route and is considerably more hazardous. From the main lake in Grizzly Meadows, shown, walk north, immediately passing a lakelet on its left/west. Stay to the right of a marshy area nestled at the base of steep terrain. Now you are at the foot of the southeast ridge (around the corner to the left of this photo), about an hour, 2.6 miles, from the trailhead. (THW, photo)

Begin the ridge climb at 11,520'. Holds are excellent and firm on weathered blocks of granite.

In 15 minutes, after about 480 feet of vertical, the way is blocked by a knob. It may be scaled but it is an exposed proposition. Go around on the right, returning to the ridge at first opportunity. It is possible to do most of the climb on the ridgetop; how much depends on your skill and comfort level. Once we did a less-than-fun sidehill venture for 0.3 mile to the north before curving around a ridgelet, and climbing the second ravine (shown below) to regain the ridge.

Further up the spine encounter another impassible mass. Negotiate this one on the left. From here, most the off-ridge maneuvering is to the left/south. Cling to the ridge except when it is absolutely necessary to leave it momentarily. This is primarily a Class 3 scramble with a few airy Class 3+ moves. The ridgeline climb is just over a mile. There is a false summit and then a pleasant topline walk to the peak at 3.7 miles, shown below with climbers gathering. (THW, photo)

Looking back while approaching the peak, Engineer Mountain caps a wall of slabs on Grizzly's false summit.

The Kaleidoscope Summit: In Durango, Grizzly Peak enjoys a considerable mystique. As viewed from US 550 at mile marker 50 near Cascade, it is somewhat dark and daunting. It may be seen for a fleeting moment in the center of a sky wedge, which makes it all the more alluring. Standing on top is altogether different. It is like being inside a spinning kaleidoscope. Twirl yourself to see ridges rippling off in all directions and mountains flying by, each a jazzy splash of color. Vermilion Peak, 13,894', is the highest neighbor, rising to the northeast.

San Miguel Peak, 13,752', is a mere two miles away to the north.

El Diente, Mount Wilson, and Wilson Peak, all 14'ers, are in the northwest.

The most direct and easiest way home is to return via the couloir, as described above. Recalling the cliffs in the basin, angle to the right upon exiting from the couloir until you are past them.

South Ridge Descent Route: The fun factor on the south ridge is extreme, a worthy consideration for scramblers. This image shows Grizzly's southern ridge and Pt. 13,139', image-right. From the summit, return 0.2 mile on the shared couloir route. Instead of going down the gully on the left, proceed south-southwest. Very soon, the ridgeline is barricaded. Drop off to the right/west and then return to the spine.

Notice the high pinnacle in the image below. Go around it on the left/east, and return to the ridge. Of note, there is some debate whether it is possible to summit Pt. 13,139' from the south ridge. Prior to reaching the saddle, at about 13,000 feet abandon the ridge, rapidly descending through the basin to the east. Watch for golden eagles soaring and weasels scampering. Drop almost to the lake in Grizzly Meadows, intersecting the access trail and closing the loop. From here, it is well under an hour to the parking area, assuming you do not mistakenly continue on the Colorado Trail all the way to Durango.

Grizzly Peak from US 550.

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