Thursday, July 31, 2014

East Babcock Peak, 13,149': Tomahawk Basin and Boren Creek Approaches

Essence: Fun, adrenalized Class 3 scrambling on an ultra thin ridge to a summit with mind-numbing, heart-wrenching views of nearby peaks. While East Babcock is not the highest of the Babcock Brothers, that honor belongs to Middle Babcock, it is the only one with a designated elevation on the La Plata 7.5 Quad. The summit can be scaled only by way of the east ridge which may be approached either from Boren Creek or Tomahawk Basin. Both routes are described, followed by their shared journey upon the delightful razorback ridge to the crest.
Travel to Tomahawk Basin Road: 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. In 8.5 miles the roadbed deteriorates with sharp, sizable rocks. A 2WD vehicle with good tires and moderate clearance may proceed. Park at 10.6 miles, 9,880'. The hike goes west up FS 798, the Tomahawk Basin Road.
Travel to Boren Creek Road: From Durango, follow the travel instructions above but park on La Plata Canyon Road at 8.4 miles, just past Boren Creek at 9,240'. The hike starts west up FS 794.
Distance and Elevation Gain via Tomahawk: 7.4 miles, 3,300' of climbing
Distance and Elevation Gain via Boren Creek: 8.2 miles, 4,000' up
Time: 6:15 to 8:00
Difficulty for both: 4WD road, minimal social trail, off-trail; navigation challenging; Class 3 scrambling on knife edge with good holds, significant exposure.
Map: La Plata, Colorado 7.5 Quad
Dates Hiked: 10/3/09, Boren; 6/17/12, Tomahawk; 7/31/14, Boren to Tomahawk Loop
Quote: Keep your eye fixed on the way to the top, but don't forget to look right in front of you. The last step depends on the first. Don't think you're there just because you see the summit. Watch your footing, be sure of the next step, but don't let that distract you from the highest goal. Rene Daumal, Mount Analogue.

East Babcock, "4th Crest", and Middle Babcock, 13,180', from Tomahawk Basin.

Route Map For Both Approaches:  

Route Via Tomahawk Basin:
Walk up FS 798 through an aspen forest interspersed with talus flows. In 1.0 mile (N37 25.692 W108 03.277), you will reach a juncture with the Tomahawk shortcut trail. For a leisurely ascent, simply stay on the road. For a steep, shorter alternative, punch up a social trail that cuts west of the tailings pile and Tomahawk stamp mill before rejoining the road. 

At 1.9 miles, 10,950' (N37 25.911 W108 03.664), leave the road where it makes a sharp switchback to the east. Navigation is tricky for the next mile. The goal is to reach upper Tomahawk Basin, keeping Basin Creek on the left/south. Follow a braided social trail WNW up a steep, slippery slope to a bench, staying well right of the rock outcrop seen below.

The "trail" briefly utilizes the bed of a historic, steel pipeline.

The next aim is to get above the waterfall. The less than obvious trail climbs to the right of the rock outcrop, just right of center in this image. Then it plows through a stand of willows.

At the next level, you will pass a couple of black boulders. The track moves left, closer to the creek, all the while bearing west into the basin. It is particularly useful crossing a large talus field.

When the climbing levels out in the upper basin, angle over to the creek. Where you cross the creek is not critical; do so somewhere between 2.5 and 2.7 miles, between 11,800 and 12,000 feet (N37 26.005 W108 04.496). Zigzag southwest, utilizing ramps of tundra strewn with talus. Here, one gets the impression this mountain really wants to be climbed.

Ascend with a clear view of the imposing north faces of the four Babcocks. Their spires are like cactus spines, warning one not to encroach. And yet, all but 4th Crest allow passage. Reach a flat reprieve at 12,260'.

Rounding left/east of East Babcock's NE ridge, the view of Saddle 12,760' sharpens. Work up the field of large and rickety talus. The rock is bigger and more accepting near the base of the ridge. With about 300 feet left to climb, there is a remarkable rim of talus, rather like a road, that leads SE to a social trail. The trail crosses a scree field and hits the saddle between Pt 12,860' and East Babcock (N37 25.645 W108 04.422), at 3.4 miles.

Since climbers approaching from Boren Creek will also reach Saddle 12,760', I will explain that route before discussing the summit stage.

Route Via Boren Creek: Be patient walking up Boren Creek Road, FS 794. By 0.3 mile, the track is filled with bowling ball rocks. Walk through a mixed forest with good flowers, passing a lovely waterfall at 0.5 mile. Leave the road at 2.4 miles, 11,180' (N37 25.235 W108 04.557). Looking at the image below, climb the ridge just beyond the shallow drainage in front of this hiker.

Scale NE on the small ridge until it starts to wane. Cross a shallow gully and gain a south facing ridge, 0.2 mile from the road.  A view of the east ridge of East Babcock opens, seen below. The next goal is to gain the ridge left of Pt 12,255'. I have done this three times, each differently. Regardless, it is a major sidehill slog with 700 feet of climbing on broken rock obscured under wildflowers so fabulously thick and tall it is impossible to see your feet. (THW, photo)

Return note: If you plan to return via Boren Creek, do not allow yourself to get sucked into Shaw Gulch or be tempted by the prominent southern ridge just west of Shaw. Rather, go back to the road as you came.

The best feature of the Boren Creek route is the additional climbing on the east ridge of East Babcock. Head west, going over the top of Pt 12,860', and down to Saddle 12,760' at 3.8 miles (N37 25.645 W108 04.422). The Tomahawk Basin route joins at this location. In the image below, East Babcock is on the far left, then Pt 12,860'.
(THW, photo)

East Ridge of East Babcock from Saddle 12,760': From the saddle, it is 389' of climbing for 0.3 mile on a knife edge to the summit. In places it is only a foot wide with substantial exposure. And yet, there is an abundance of solid rock, the holds are generally good (test!), and the scrambling is Class 3. While concentration is paramount, the underlying feeling is exhilaration. As a friend observed, "The entire knife is the crux."

No one in his senses would step to one side on a climb if a hold were available in the direct line; every deviation from that line is dictated by the presence of some obstacle and by the climber's own inability to surmount it. Marco Pallis

East Babcock provides a rare and ideal climb, for one may follow the axis to the summit without even once deviating from the ridge.

Of the peaks in the La Plata Range, the Babcock Bad Boys and their spinoff sister, Spiller, are the most challenging--lusty, wild tangles of rock. Shown from the left are: Spiller Mountain, The Knife, West Babcock, and Middle Babcock. Clearly, there is no passage from East to Middle Babcock. (THW, photo from peak)

Hesperus Mountain, Lavender Peak and Mount Moss are less than two miles away to the northwest. (THW, photo)

The approach to East Babcock, especially from Boren Creek, is somewhat tedious. However, the 0.3 mile ridge experience is the definition of fun. It is impossible to feel anything but pure happiness on this thin but accommodating spine. (THW, photo)

The author descending; it is over too quickly. (THW, photo)

The mountain is graced by an abundance of wildflowers, including deep purple columbines. A partial list of those in attendance: alp lily, moss campion, purple fringe, mouse-ear chickweed, snowball saxifrage, sulfur paintbrush, alpine sage, Grey's angelica, elegant death camas, Fendler's sandwort, and burnt orange agoseris.

East Babcock Loop: The loop, a truly grand tour, starting up Boren Creek Road and exiting via Tomahawk, is 10 miles and 4,000' feet of climbing. This includes 2.7 miles on La Plata Canyon Road. If you must choose, go by way of Tomahawk Basin where beauty is startling, big, and bright.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Half Peak, 13,841': Hourglass Summit

Essence: Minnie Gulch approach to hourglass shaped peak with vertical north face. Ranked 88th highest in Colorado. Entire hike above treeline; ultimate tundra experience. Long, prime segment of CDT/CT. Not a gimmie; constricted ridge prior to peak transforms hike into climb. One of the finest vantage points in the San Juans.
Travel: From Durango, drive north on US 550 for 47 miles to Silverton. Turn northeast and proceed to the far end of Greene Street, the main drag. Zero-out your trip meter as you make a soft right onto San Juan CR 2. The pavement ends at 2.0 miles. On a good dirt road, pass the turnoff to Cunningham Gulch in Howardsville at 4.1 miles. Pass the road into Maggie Gulch at 5.9 miles. Reach Minnie Gulch at 6.5 miles and turn right onto San Juan CR 24. The steep, rocky road climbs switchbacks before suspending itself on a shelf high above the Minnie Gulch gorge. 4WD (low helpful), moderate clearance, beefy tires are necessary. In 7.8 miles, pass the first of many mine ruins and wreckage, some classically picturesque. Turn right at the fork at 8.1 miles. Treeline is at 9 miles. Park at 9.5 miles where the road switches abruptly left to end at the Esmeralda Mine. A sign indicates the trail is closed to all motorized vehicles. Allow 1.30 to 1:40 from Durango.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 15.5 miles, 4,200 feet of climbing makes for a big day
Time: 7:30 to 9:00
Difficulty: Continental Divide Trail, Colorado Trail, off-trail; navigation moderate; appreciable exposure for 0.25 mile on Class 2 knife
Maps: Howardsville; Pole Creek Mountain, Colorado 7.5 Quads
Dates Hiked: October 2, 2008; July 22, 2014
Quote: Like sands through the hourglass, so are the days of our lives, and for that live moment we thrive. Binary Star

Descriptively named Half Peak. The 14'ers, Redcloud Peak and Sunshine Peak, are in the same neighborhood on the left.

Route: This is an out-and-back from the Minnie Gulch TH. For a detailed description of all routes to Half Peak, including the Cuba Gulch and Cataract Gulch approaches consult, Colorado's Thirteeners: 13,800 to 13,999 Feet, by Gerry and Jennifer Roach.

From TH 11,520', cross a streamlet and walk SSE up Minnie Gulch. Looking back at the TH.

In mid-July the wildflowers are unbeatable. They flow out of rocks and spill down the hill.

They cross the trail and tumble to the bottom of Minnie Gulch. The scene looks like a Pointillist painting by Seurat. I scribbled down the names of 27 bloomers while covering the first mile.

The path eventually becomes marshy and braided. Just stay above and east of the creek. There is no need to doggedly stay on the trail to the head of the broad valley at 12,760'. Instead, at about 12,550', turn east and ascend a grassy slope, working around islands of rock, to 12,745' at 1.6 miles. Here you will meet the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) and Colorado Trail (CT) sharing the same treadway (N37 49.685 W107 31.181). Where you hit the trail is less important than securing it. Cairn edifices are so herky and beautiful, there must have been a cairn creation contest. This image shows the head of Minnie Gulch and Middle Mountain ridge. (THW, photo)

The hike ambles along the CDT/CT for the next few miles. Turn north, and gradually climb to meet the Continental Divide at Ridge 13,000'. Pass this Parry's primrose showing off.

On the broad ridge at 2.3 miles, two trails meet (N37 50.237 W107 31.087). One path, blocked off with rocks, leads north passing a small pond. Avoid this trail unless you want extra credit for climbing Cuba Benchmark, 13,019', shown 0.3 mile away.  (THW, photo)

The straightforward approach is to stay on the CDT/CT. The GPS track above reflects exploration in this area: if you wish, climb Pt 13,041' before cutting cross-country down to the main trail. However you go, there is no way to avoid losing 400 feet before climbing once again. This is the first of two places the route gives up considerable elevation on the way to Half Peak. This image shows the first view of the mountain, Cuba Gulch, and a CDT/CT cairn.

One autumn there were four elk herds in the upper reaches of Cuba Gulch. 

After the elevation loss, the trail climbs gradually over the next two miles, heading ever east, until it tops out 300 feet shy of ranked Pt 12,990', seen below after an autumn dusting. It would be an easy climb going or coming.

Staying on the crest of the Continental Divide, the trail nevertheless descends again, dropping 500 feet. Then, it surmounts a steep incline to arrive at the base of Pt 13,164', a ranked 13'er, seen below.

Half Peak dominates the landscape as the trail bends around Pt 13,164'.

At 6.1 miles, reach the base of the mountain. Leave the trail for the final 1.6 mile climb to the peak. Cut east just past a typically muddy area (N 37 50.810 W107 28.232). The climb is gentle for the first 0.5 mile. Stay close to the west side of the broad base, near the cliff. After a roller, The Trudge begins as the grade steepens for the next 0.7 mile. Walking is accommodated on a uniformly gravel surface. At 7.3 miles, the mountain squeezes to form the "Neck Of The Hourglass." For the next 0.25 mile the exposure is grave, dropping over 400 feet on either side. Walking on the almost flat constriction is simple but the rock is not dependable. There is a lot of loose material mixed with good-enough footholds. Stay on top of the ridge except when forced off to the west side, graced with scraps of social trail. 
(THW, photo)

 Watch for two cairns that lead across a short bridge.

Return to the rib and stay on it until the pinch, quite suddenly, opens broadly onto the summit plateau. Continue on the same trajectory, crossing the top of the hourglass, and reach the peak at 7.7 miles. The high point is elusive; there is no registry. However, the 800 foot north face cliff edge is abrupt, even undercut. A rock glacier fans out from the base. (THW, photo)

The view from Half Peak is one of the best in the San Juans. See the distinctive summit from everywhere; see everywhere from it. Wetterhorn Peak, 14,015', is in the center of the image below with Matterhorn Peak, 13,590', to its right, and then Uncompahgre Peak, 14,308'. Handies Peak, 14,058', is  less than 4 miles to the NW, just left of the photo. Turn around and the vista is equally large-caliber.

Tip the hourglass over, returning as you came. The flow of time slows while crossing the Neck, the speed regulator. (THW, photo)

The image below shows the trail ascending the minor pass left of Pt 12,990'.

Regain Ridge 13,000' by walking through an emerald green saturated landscape.

Stay on the CDT/CT a good half mile into Minnie Gulch before short-cutting to the trailhead connector. A fantastical, prize-winning cairn guides the traveler while Sheep Mountain dazzles with cloud-defying sunlight.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Sheridan Mountain, 12,795', Via Endlich Mesa Trail

Essence: Pleasant, fast trail hike across a gently rolling, expansive, tundra-topped mesa straddling the Florida and Vallecito drainages. Steep, enjoyable climb to peak at north end of the mesa. Superlative, uninterrupted views. Outrageous hike, worth the jarring, slow drive to the trailhead.
Travel: In Durango, zero-out your trip meter at the corner of East Animas Road, CR 250, and Florida Road, CR 240. Go north on CR 240. At 12.0 miles (Helen's Store), continue straight on CR 243, following the sign to Lemon Reservoir. In 13.7 miles reach the Lemon Dam. Drive on a gravel road along the east side of the lake, passing a campground. At 19.1 the road splits. (To the left is Transfer Campground.) Turn right on FS 597, East Florida Road. For the next very slow 10.7 miles, the road is rocky and riddled with large potholes requiring 4WD, high clearance. After rain, the potholes are ponds. The track climbs steadily but is not steep or exposed.  At 25 miles, pass a series of clearings chock full of orange sneezeweed, encircled by heavy conifer and aspen forests. At 27.4 miles go right, avoiding FS 597C. At 29.2 miles bear right again, avoiding FS 597D. At 29.6 miles go left at an unnamed fork. Reach generous TH parking at 29.8 miles. Guaranteed, this jarring road will leave you feeling like a bobble-head doll. Allow 1:30 to 2:00 from Durango.
Distance and Elevation Gain : 12.1 miles, 2,450 feet of climbing
Time: 5:30 to 7:00
Difficulty: Fast trail, off-trail; navigation easy; no exposure; Class 2
Maps: Lemon Reservoir; Vallecito Reservoir; Columbine Pass, Colorado 7.5 Quads; Weminuche Wilderness, Trails Illustrated #140
Dates Hiked: July 4, 2013; July 11, 2014
Quote: There are always flowers for those who want to see them. Henri Matisse

Route: The bulk of the distance is quickly made on the Endlich Mesa Trail (EMT). Only the final 0.5 mile and 700 feet of vertical is off-trail.

Several vehicles will inevitably be in the trailhead parking lot. Here's why. The EMT is popular with backpackers. Wonderful possibilities exist. For instance, walk north all the way to Columbine Pass. From there it is a quick drop into Chicago Basin, the basecamp for access to remote 14'ers and high 13'ers. 

The trail is grossly eroded, braided, and somewhat ambiguous. However, there are gigantic cairns leading due east from TH 11,297'. Spur 534 contacts the EMT coming up from the south in 0.6 mile. If you have some confidence in your navigation abilities, just shy of 0.5 mile, leave the spur and go NE to intersect the trail at 0.9 mile. Both routes are depicted on the map above. Make a mental note of where you intend to leave the main trail on your return to the TH.

The ridge is broad and treed for the first mile. The trail utilizes an old road.  Orange sneezeweed is the predominant flower in July.

The trail traipses through a rich field of dusky, rosy paintbrush and elegant death camas at 1.2 miles. Be careful not to brush against this ultra poisonous plant. And then, oh my goodness! Have a first look at the San Juan's jaggedy horizon, the reason the parking lot folks are backpacking: Pigeon, Turret, Eolus, Windom, Sunlight...

In 1.4 miles, at Point 11,958', the trail drops 100 feet down a limestone outcrop. Lining the limey path are Colorado Tansy Asters, a fairly rare plant that is on the species-of-concern list. Enter the Weminuche Wilderness.

This hike is utterly astonishing with near constant visual overload. Flowers are underfoot, in the ever-nearing distance are monumental peaks, and all the while, walk on what has to be Colorado's biggest swath of uninterrupted tundra. If you have favorable weather, walk over to Crevasse, 12,300'. Like Endlich Mesa in general, its western slopes are softly rising tundra, with a near vertical craggy drop to Vallecito Creek on the east edge.

The trail meanders through scattered, spheroidal granitic boulders. Great slabs mound up from the grass. It is a gradual uphill to Pass 12,307' at 4.0 miles.

This vantage point affords the first view of Sheridan Mountain, the double prominence in the image center. From the pass, the trail drops 300 feet. Once, I contoured along the west slopes of Pt 12,470'. I got cliffed out and dropped down the west ridge back to the trail.

At 4.7 miles there is an unsigned junction, shown below. The formal Endlich Mesa Trail descends left/north to City Reservoir. To reach the peak, continue straight on the "Sheridan Mountain Spur Trail." This elk, sheep, and human multi-thread, contours around Pt 12,442', shown below, center.

The trail goes to an eastern overview before contouring. Looking carefully at the image below, people are taking a shortcut, regaining the trail at the base of Pt 12,442'.

On the north side of Pt 12,442', a secondary trail goes west to the City Reservoir. Leave the trail and climb the rather steep, south ridge of Sheridan. The surface is crushed granite and flora.

There is a false summit after 520 feet of climbing. Either go around it on the west or through the top boulders. Drop 50 feet to a saddle and climb 150 feet to a second inconsequential false summit before seeing the actual peak. Now descend 20 feet to the final saddle. Sheridan is glad for the infrequent visitor. It has a welcoming stone stairway that leads directly to the zenith. (EJB, photo)

The unexpected greets you. Below the mountain to the north are glaciated sheets of granite interspersed with water pockets.

In the northwest, the line-up you've been looking at all day, is close and calling.

I've been caught in the rain on both trips back from Sheridan. Once, the storm was severe, dropping hail and torrents of water, lightning flashing so close I felt like a sitting duck for miles. I hope to return on a good weather day for I'd like to walk along the eastern edge of Endlich Mesa while traveling back to the trailhead.