Thursday, July 23, 2015

Silverton's Bear Mountain, 12,987', Via Point 12,695'

Essence: Approachable, pyramidal mountain with precipitous relief on three sides. Intimate apex with a grandiose vista. Required summit for Silverton aficionados.
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: Black-line route, out-and-back via Pt. 12,695': 12 miles, 3,000 feet of climbing
Blue-line route, return via basin: 12.1 miles, 2800 feet of vertical
Red-line route, via Pt. 13,042': add 2 miles and 950 feet of gain to Bear Mountain
Time: 6:00 to 7:30
Difficulty: Colorado Trail, pack trail, off-trail; navigation challenging; Class 2+; no exposure. Red-line route has exposed scrambling.
Maps: Snowdon Peak; Silverton, Colorado 7.5 Quads
Latest Date Hiked: July 23, 2015
Quote: Green is the prime color of the world, and that from which its loveliness arises. Pedro Calderón de la Barca

Bear Mountain is on a north-south ridge straddling the breech between the abrupt peaks above Ice Lake Basin, shown, and Sultan Mountain (vantage point). Point 12, 695' is left of Bear.

Route: From Trailhead 10,890' near Little Molas Lake, hike on the Colorado Trail to the divide, headwaters of Bear Creek. Turn north on a pack trail. Leave the trail at Putnam Basin and climb the southeast slopes of Pt. 12,695'. After summiting Bear Mountain, return as you came or via the basin. The red-line approach is explained at the conclusion of this post. 

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 and plunge into deep, big-tree woods. Myrtle blueberry, heart leaf arnica, and Jacob's ladder lavishly decorate the forest floor. Climbing gently, step up limestone bands, cross a stream at 0.7 mile, and gain the ridge in 1.3 miles at 11,300 feet. In 1879, the Lime Creek fire burned 26,000 acres of forest with such intensity it has not yet recovered.

Here, the cross-state trail hooks north. Linger for a captivating view of Engineer Mountain and the La Plata Mountains.

The first glimpse of pyramidal Bear Mountain appears. Pt. 12,695', our first quest, is just to its left. The trail maxes out on the ridge at 11,645 feet, 2.0 miles in. It veers left/northwest of West Turkshead Peak (Pt. 12,849'), and begins a gentle, barely noticeable descent. 

Back in the timber, Whipple's penstemon, western valerian, and variegated paintbrush thrive in sunny patches. The track turns west at 3.1 miles and crosses a divide. North Lime Creek surrenders to the south and Bear Creek heads north to its confluence with the South Fork of Mineral Creek.

An aside about the abundance of green. In 2015, our planet is heating up and drying out. Yet, the San Juan Mountains are awash in record moisture. The heavens open daily to saturate the Earth anew in the trembling, true green of the aspen; the tender, blue green of just-born spruce sprigs; and the squint-your-eyes, electric green of the marsh. Altogether lively and luscious, green bears the promise of renewal and longevity.

Cross the divide and watch carefully for the faint Bear Creek Pack Trail at 3.3 miles. This juncture is 0.2 mile before what is indicated on the 7.5 topo. Leave the Colorado Trail and go right/north. The secondary track punches through willows and contours above the marsh. It grabs onto the 11,400 foot contour and hangs onto it all the way to Putnam Creek. Meanwhile, Bear Creek makes a plunging descent.

Stay on the pack trail through dappled woods to Putnam Basin. There are a couple of choices here. At 4.2 miles, we took a left fork (0.1 mile before the creek), as shown on the map above. The trail soon disappeared and so we made our own willowy way around to the other side of the basin. I wouldn't miss this route; we threaded through Telluride conglomerate boulders. An owl stoically watched our progress. We passed a glistening tarn. A stone's throw away, across the Bear Creek drainage is Sultan Mountain, Grand Turk, and Spencer Peak. (Chris Blackshear, photo)

Perhaps the easier option is to stay on the pack trail. Cross Putnam Creek at 4.3 miles and look for a tertiary track that branches left/west into the basin. Follow this path until it is no longer useful.

The image below shows the southeast slopes leading to Pt. 12,695'. Pick the gentlest option.

Off-trail now, willows give way to hillside flora. Plant platforms are useful between 11,700 and 12,000 feet where the incline is steepest...and most flowerful. Green gentian spike, osha is frilly, and orange sneezeweed mimics the sun.

At 12,000 feet, a friend looks back on Putnam Basin, conglomerate blocks, and Snowdon Peak through the gap.

Dismiss the notion of contouring around Point 12,695'. You would miss one of the best vantage points of the day. More importantly, the go-around is well-armored with small cliffs. Watch for ptarmigan.

Reach Point 12,695' at 5.4 miles. No, it is not a legal summit but it has a wondrous view of the string of peaks surrounding Ice Lake Basin. Don't miss it.

Descend north to Saddle 12,500' where moss campion is having a banner year. At 12,800 feet, tundra transitions to talus. Everything about this peak, including the final Class 2+ climb, is friendly.

Crest Bear Mountain at 6.0 miles. The tiny zenith feels intimate and wondrous. Tuck into the rocks and bask in the fantastical, yet so real, sweep of the horizon. Silverton, shown, is close enough to hear the train whistle. Lake 11,794' sits in a cirque at the base of Bear's tumble-down north face. Sultan Mountain is two airy miles east as the crow flies.

Now for the return. The simplest option, and probably the fastest, is to go back the way you came, the black-line route. From the saddle, it is a 200 foot climb back to Pt. 12,695'. Alternatively, to make a small loop, return on the blue-line route. From Saddle 12,500', drop into the basin on the left/east. From the summit a sporadic game trail is visible.

Looking at the blue-line route from the peak, when the cliff structure on the east ridge of Pt. 12,695' abates, leave the basin and travel south. Do not drop lower than 11,400 feet.

The initial drop from Saddle 12,500' is steeper than anything on the climb so far. A friend calls it "purgatorial." Loose rock flies down resistant soil. But there are mini platforms to secure footing. Elk beds, tracks, and scat are everywhere.

Upon reaching 11,400 feet, simply contour south to Putnam Creek to link back up with the pack trail. Game trails push through the willows; work with benches. Resist the temptation to drop directly to the trail from the basin. We tried it once and failed to intersect it after losing 300 feet. There is a hunter's camp at Putnam Creek. Look here for the pack trail. It is better defined as it crosses the creek. Close the loop and stay on the path back to the Colorado Trail.

Turn left/east, cross the divide, and retrace your steps to the trailhead. In this image, everything is about to get its afternoon drenching.

Red-Line Route to Bear Mountain Via Pt. 13,042': Follow the black-line route to the Bear Creek pack trail turn-off. Continue on the Colorado Trail for almost two miles, contouring under Pt. 12,764'. You will see an obvious fault break in the Cutler Formation to the north. Refer to the Twin Sisters post for help locating the social trail through this break.

Once the pitch softens, about 12,100 feet, turn right and climb 600 feet to the south ridge of Pt. 13,042'. Turn north to reach the summit. So far, so good.

The mile-long ridge leading east toward Bear has "points of interest," to say the least. My notes from 2008 indicate that we were forced off the ridge on the south side to skirt obstacles.  The sketchy section lasted 0.25 mile. Half of our group bailed into Putnam Basin. They had much more difficulty with cliffs than we had by staying on or near the ridge. If you love a good scramble and are not afraid of exposure, this route may be for you.

The image below was taken of Pt. 13,042' from Pt. 12,695'.


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