Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Sultan Mountain, 13,368'; Grand Turk, 13,180'; Spencer Peak, 13,087'

Essence: String together three peaks northwest of Molas Pass. Ascend through lush wildflower biozones, spending most of the day in the tundra. The effort is considerable but the walking is easy; the views unfettered and commanding.
Travel: From the US 550/160 intersection in Durango, drive north on US 550. Crest Molas Pass at 41.0 miles, Mile Marker 64. Take the signed left towards Little Molas Lake at 41.4 miles. Drive on a good dirt road, passing an established campground, and park at the Colorado Trail TH at 42.5 miles. Allow 50 minutes from Durango.
Distance and Elevation Gain : 10.7 miles; 3,587 feet of vertical
Time: 6:00 to 8:00
Difficulty: Colorado Trail, social trail, off-trail; navigation moderate; some exposure on west slope of Grand Turk;
Class 2
Maps: Snowdon; Silverton, Colorado 7.5 Quads
Latest Date Hiked: July 2, 2014
Quote: Deep in their roots, all flowers keep the light. Theodore Roethke

Grand Turk and Sultan Mountain, the double prominence on the right, 4,000 feet above Silverton, viewed from Macomber Mountain.

Route: The classic route up all three peaks is where you dream it to be every time you drive over Molas Pass, shown. From left to right are: West Turkshead Peak, The Cleft, East Turkshead Peak, and Grand Turk. A social trail goes through The Cleft just right of the snow field.

Map: The trek is an out-and-back. Make it a five peak day by adding Pt 12,899' and West Turkshead Peak, 12,849', indicated by the blue line.

The hike begins on a popular segment of the Colorado Trail. The trailhead is a re-supply zone for thru-hikers and Little Molas Lake is its own destination. The parking lot is generous; there is an outhouse but no water. Hit the trail on the west side of the lot, 10,890 feet, and plunge into deep woods carpeted with myrtle blueberry and Jacob's ladder. Climb gently to treeline at 11,100 feet, step up limestone bands, and gain the ridge. In 1879, the Lime Creek fire burned 26,000 acres of forest with such intensity it has not yet recovered. A stalwart tree frames Engineer Mountain.

Continue on the trail as it heads northeast up the broad ridge. Buttercups pump out wattage, highlighting ever beckoning Snowdon Peak.

At 2.0 mile, 11,647', there is a closed trail going east (N37 45.141 W107 43.136). For the next mile, do a bit of route finding, minimizing willow bashing as you go. In short, the aim is to get around the base of Pt 12,849' (aka West Turkshead Peak) and contour into the "Valley of the Turks". At the junction, shown, leave the Colorado Trail and continue on the same trajectory up the ridge until you reach 12,000 feet.

Be sure to swing around and look at the peak line-up: the Twilights, Potato Hill (aka Spud Mountain), and Engineer Mountain. The treadway will guide you home on the return.

There are remnants of an old road on the ridge. Walk past boulder chunks and then angle to the right/east. The route skims just above the largest patch of willows as it curves around West Turkshead Peak. In about 0.5 mile, an animal/social trail punches through a few willows, rounding the corner into the valley.

The Valley of the Turks awaits. Assess the next goal, to cross the creek well up the valley at about 11,950'. (N37 45.739 W107 42.556) Pick your way through the sky pilots, around patches of corn husk lily, across shallow drainages and stretches of slippery dirt. Finally, pass very near a few large boulders that tumbled off the Telluride Conglomerate rim.

Cross the creek at 3.0 miles and walk up a drainage rib due east for about 150 feet to intersect a trail. Turn left/north and allow the track to guide you through the appealing cleft at the apex of the valley. This area holds snow quite late so don't push the season on this hike.

The lichen on the conglomerate is so orange. The king's crown so red. The alpine avens so yellow. You'll find yourself thinking you are in an exotic magical kingdom and surely a genie is going to appear and grant you three wishes. If three peaks are your heart's desire, you are in luck!

From the cleft top, walk on a faint trail NNE under Pt 12,899'. Head directly for the saddle north of this point and south of Spencer Peak, formerly Point 13,087', shown. Don't shortcut and miss the saddle.

For here, at 3.8 miles is the "Window of Towers." Bear Mountain is directly across on the near ridge. The mass of peaks will be quite familiar to many and totally psychedelic to all.

From the window turn east and scramble through an outcrop to attain the west ridge of Spencer Peak.

The trail climbs the west ridge and then, about 50 feet from the summit of Spencer, contours below the crest to attain the NNE ridge. While our route saves Spencer for the return, it would be easy to simply go over the top. This image was taken from Spencer's NNE ridge. Sultan is on the left, Grand Turk, the right. Notice carefully, a social trail that skirts Grand Turk, a thin thread crossing the west slope at 12,800'. Many people will use this shortcut with nary a thought of danger. I find it frightening. The trail is a thin, off camber trace. Much of the path is on decent rocky chunks but there are sections of loose, slippery dirt that threaten to slide one into the brink. It's only 0.3 mile but in the future I will go up and over.

Clinging to the slopeside along the unpleasant thread are pale sky pilots that waft an elixir of lavender and rose. 

From Saddle 12,776' north of Grand Turk, it is a quick and lovely walk up the south ridge of Sultan Mountain.

From the 13,368' summit at 5.1 miles, the vista is so spiked and complicated it is mind-numbing. The Ice Lake peak cluster in the west includes the color summits: Vermilion and Golden Horn.

Be sure to traipse a mere 0.2 mile NW to Sultan's subsidiary summit. From here, the author is  checking out Silverton and distinctive Half Peak. (THW, photo)

Now for Grand Turk, as seen from Sultan. The Silverton 7.5 topo mistakenly names the third knob to the east the peak at 13,148'. The eminence is actually 13,180', the second prominence. You will find the peak register there.

From Sultan, return to Saddle 12,776' and climb directly up Grand Turk's NW ridge. This short expedition is pure pleasure so don't miss it. Look down vertical chutes to the NE. It is a tundra walk from the first prominence to the peak at 6.1 miles.

To reach Spencer, seen below, swing over and down to meet Grand Turk's SW ridge and drop 400 feet to the saddle. There is a use trail clear to the crest at 6.7 miles.  In 1989, Point 13,087' was named for Donald Spencer, an esteemed mathematician who lived for a time in Durango.

To return to the TH, descend the west ridge of Spencer and rejoin your in-coming route. Of note: Do not be tempted to follow that lovely cleft trail too far into the Valley of Turks. It keeps on going until it dumps you in a sea of willows only to disappear, leaving you wallowing.

Point 12,899' and West Turkshead Peak, 12,849', Optional Additions
Do you wish for two more? From the Window of Towers, climb the east ridge of Pt 12,899' and go down the south ridge. Or, go around it. From its southern base at 12,500', climb the east ridge of West Turkshead for 0.3 mile until you intersect the north ridge. Ascend another 0.3 mile on tundra to the summit.

East Turkshead Peak, 12,734'
Below is an image of East Turkshead taken from the slopes of Spencer. The peak is the knob in the center of the ridge. Once, we approached it from the west and got turned back at the vertical cliff just before the summit block.

Stop in at the Avalanche Brewing Company (fabulous early morning coffee) the next time you are in Silverton and admire Sultan Mountain.

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