Thursday, July 9, 2015

Animas Forks Mountain, 13,722'; The Catwalk; Pt. 13,708'; and Wood Mountain, 13,650'

Essence: A classic, off-trail loop incorporating the best of Colorado in just five miles without the usual massive elevation gain. Climb three mountaintops and traverse three distinctive ridges, including the airy Catwalk. Most of the hike is highly elevated above 13,000 feet, affording spectacular views in every direction. A small scare factor adds excitement. Finish with a gentle descent through the tundra. An iconic, ridge lover's fantasy. Driving to the trailhead is a bonus for 4WD aficionados.
Travel: In a 4WD, high-clearance vehicle with sturdy tires, from Durango drive 47 miles to Silverton. Turn northeast and proceed up Greene Street, the main drag, to the north end of town. Zero-out your trip meter as you make a soft right onto San Juan CR 2. The dirt road is good at first but degenerates to a slow, rocky surface. In 11.5 miles, 0.5 mile before reaching the premiere ghost town of Animas Forks, there is a brown sign directing you to go right for Cinnamon Pass. You are now on the Alpine Loop. At 11.8 miles, stay right. Drive over bedrock outcrops with uneven ledges. At 12.1 miles there is a sign where the roads to Engineer Pass and Cinnamon Pass split. Make a sharp switchback to the right. This initial shelf section has some off-camber bedrock. The track is steep, narrow, and rocky. Park on the left at 12.9 miles. Allow 1:45 from Durango. For 4WD vehicles without HC, park at the outhouse just beyond the Cinnamon Pass turnoff. 
Distance and Elevation Gain: 5.0 miles; 2,700 feet of climbing. If starting from CR 2, add 800 feet and 1.6 total miles.
Time: 3:30 to 5:00 from TH 11,760'
Difficulty: Off-trail; navigation moderate; Class 2+; moderate exposure
Map: Handies Peak, Colorado 7.5 Quad
Latest Date Hiked: July 9, 2015
Quote: Climbing is the lazy man's way to enlightenment. It forces you to pay attention, because if you don't, you won't succeed, which is minor — or you may get hurt, which is major. Instead of years of meditation, you have this activity that forces you to relax and monitor your breathing and tread that line between living and dying. When you climb, you always are confronted with the edge. Hey, if it was just like climbing a ladder, we all would have quit a long time ago. Duncan Ferguson.


The Catwalk is a 0.4 mile-long knife ridge between Animas Forks Mountain, shown, and Pt. 13,708'. Named by locals in Durango on their first traipse across the spine, The Catwalk is not designated thus on a map.

Route: The standard loop route rotates clockwise from Trailhead 11,760'. The blue-dot route is suggested for those without high clearance.

From the parking area, walk up the road a few paces and find a good place to penetrate the green slope on the left.

The initial climb between the road and Pt. 13,704', is the most physically challenging part of the day. In just over a mile, gain 1,944 feet. Climb northwest on footstep size tundra platforms. Gain the south ridge at about 12,550 feet. In the image below, Pt. 13,704' is the light colored prominence. Animas Forks Mountain is on the right.

Tundra concedes to talus at 13,100 feet. From here on, the hike is enveloped in a world of stone. There's nothing tricky and no serious scrambling.

Across the Animas River trench, Niagara Peak, 13,807', is among Colorado's highest peaks. There are mesmerizing views of the Weminuche Wilderness throughout the circuit. Stare at these whacky spikes all day and the puzzle remains disassembled and the wonder, undiminished.

At 1.13 miles, reach Pt. 13,704', and garner the first glimpse of The Catwalk. Relish the bumpy, playful ridge running east to Animas Forks Mountain, 13,722'. This highpoint is not named on any map so locals gave it a place-appropriate moniker.

When the soil is moist the north ridge plunge is soft and effortless. When dry, gravelly ball bearings slide off resistant soil and the descent can become difficult. Drop to the southern end of The Catwalk at 1.4 mile. (THW, photo)

The star of today's show is a topographical squeeze. It is such an obvious feature on the Handies Peak quadrangle, I'm not sure how it remained in obscurity for so long. Actually, except for a handful of friends in Durango, this stellar circuit is largely undiscovered. The first half of the 0.4 mile-long knife is the narrowest. Expect to put a hand down for stability. Those who love a constricted pinch will find the traverse pure joy. If you are at all afraid of heights, avoid what some others have nicknamed The Spine of Death. Below, my climbing companion takes his first steps onto the backbone.

There are a few fairly level, built-in sidewalk segments. The taper widens to offer options, some daring, others tame. The Catwalk is as playful and enlightening as you make it. We all tramp upon the planet. But to traverse across the thinnest slice of earth is a rare privilege requiring mindfulness.

At 1.9 miles, reach Pt. 13,708', the second legal summit. Not every point numbered on the topographical map is a ranked peak. In Colorado, there is a consensus that for a summit to be legal, it has to rise at least 300 vertical feet above the low point between it and the next prominence. Point 13,708’ makes the cut with just eight feet to spare for the elevation of the low point in The Catwalk is 13,400 feet.

 Drop off the crest on your eastward way. In this unlikely place, stumble on a social trail on the south side of the ridge. Trust the track to lead directly to the saddle at 13,300 feet at 2.4 miles.

The divide leading to Wood Mountain is the most visually appealing of the loop. Rock is drenched in deep earth cinnamon, paprika, and rufous. Brilliant strings of sawtooth sentinels warn of desire mixed too intimately with danger.

Eschew the trail and cling to the ridge as it mounts to a secondary point at 13,560 feet. This is the terminus of Gravel Mountain's south ridge, seen here from the saddle.

Below, my companions are nearing the top of Wood Mountain, 13,650', the third peak on the loop. The final ridge is a rapturous thrill but not harrowing. Erosive forces, as artistic as any sculptor's knife, have sheered off the north face to reveal the interior characteristics of the mountain's heart. Top out at 2.8 miles.

This image, captured from Wood Mountain on a sunny day in September, looks back on Animas Forks Mountain, The Catwalk, Pt. 13,708', and a hiker on the ridgecrest. (THW, photo)

North is Gravel Mountain, 13,577'; Coxcomb Peak, 13,656'; Wetterhorn Peak, 14,015'; Matterhorn Peak, 13,590'; and mightiest of them all, Uncompahgre Peak, 14,309'.

Turning south, Handies Peak, 14,048', is literally within walking distance. Cinnamon Pass is center right in the image below, and our final ridge goal is Pt. 13,122'. Do a gravel glissade down the southeast slopes. Watch for big chunks of quartz crystals. Walk out to the dark knob at the end of the ridge. Retreat a few steps and then glide southwest down the tundra, alongside Cinnamon Creek. Parry's primrose drink directly from the stream, marsh marigolds bloom where snow melted 15 minutes ago, purple candytuft carpet the turf, and the alp lily charms according to its sweet nature. This hike could not be more perfect.


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