Monday, July 6, 2015

Tower Mountain, 13,552', and Macomber Peak, 13,222', Via Hematite Lake

Essence: A climber's delight, gain 4,000 feet in 3.7 miles. Pause at Arctic blue Hematite Lake. Then ascend two thirteeners and traverse one of the sweetest ridges in Colorado. From Tower Mountain it is easiest to retrace your steps. Hikers with big mountain experience may descend on Tower's southeast ridge but pay a price with a quad-burning descent back to the trail.
Travel: From Durango drive 47 miles to Silverton. Turn northeast and proceed up Greene Street to the north end of town. Make a soft right onto San Juan CR 2 and measure from here. The road turns to a smooth, dirt surface at 1.9 miles. Park on the right at 3.6 miles, 0.1 mile before the Animas River crossing.
Distance and Elevation Gain: Hematite Lake, 4.0 miles roundtrip with 2,300 feet of vertical; Tower Mountain out-and-back, 7.4 miles with 4,200 feet of gain; loop is 7.0 miles; 4,100 feet of climbing
Total Time: Hematite Lake is a half-day hike; 5:30 to 7:00 to Tower Mountain and back
Difficulty: Trail, off-trail; navigation considerable for the loop; mild exposure
Map: Howardsville, Colorado 7.5' USGS Quad or Apogee Mapping
Latest Date Hiked: August 5, 2019
Quote: I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. Henry David Thoreau

As seen from Tower Mountain, Macomber Peak is tranquil in a cloud shadow while peaks in the Weminuche Wilderness wrangle audaciously for attention.

Route: For the standard black-line route, begin in the Animas River valley and use the Hematite Lake trail to achieve the basin. The rest of the clockwise loop is off-trail. From the lake, gain the ridge and climb Macomber Peak and Tower Mountain. Traverse the ridge between Hematite and Cataract Basins, and plunge back to the trail. If Tower Mountain is your primary goal, consider the red-line route, discussed at the end of this post. 

Hematite Lake, 11,916'
As can be seen on the map, two trails launch from the road. The more gentle and pleasant leaves from the wide pullout on CR 2, elevation 9,640 feet. Look across the road and locate a two-track. It soon narrows to a trail running up a grassy slope heading toward Hematite Gulch.

Marking this slope is a rusted out, bullet-riddled getaway junker with a twelve-foot-tall aspen growing inside the engine compartment. 

Or, save 0.1 mile by parking at the Animas River bridge and climbing steeply up an old road. When it ends at 0.25 mile, angle left to intersect the main trail in about 75 feet.

Hearty miners constructed this consistently steep track through difficult terrain to access mines in Hematite Basin. Trekking poles are helpful as the path claws its way up the draw. The trail stays west of the cascading creek while making a series of steep switchbacks through young aspen.

Step across "Bluebell Creek."

Verdant slopes are alive with a riot of flowers. The climb is forgotten while plowing through the immersive floral experience. Some of my favorites live between the Animas River and Hematite Lake: Rocky Mountain penstemon, solidago, harebell, little sunflower, monkshood, cow parsnip, western valerian, burnt orange agoseris, native honeysuckle, rayless senecio, and the purple Silverton wallflower. (Thomas Holt Ward, photo)

Below, three hikers can be seen on the trail west of an outcrop.

You will know you are gaining on Hematite Basin when the trail weaves around a willow patch and is dispersed amongst marsh marigolds. This image looks back at the Animas River valley and into Cunningham Gulch. (THW, photo)

Ice-scoured Hematite Lake resides in a circular bowl, or cirque. Reach it at 2.0 miles after a respectable 2,300 feet of climbing. The glacially carved lake at 11,916 feet contrasts with the ethereal, cerulean sky.  Most locals turn around at the lake. Adept off-trail climbers may wish to add another segment or two to the hike progressively increasing the level of difficulty. First, climb Macomber Peak, image-left. (THW, photo)

A word about the tempting trail that makes a rising traverse northwest to the mine. It is possible to reach Tower Mountain by launching directly from the mine to the ridge. My climbing partner has done this successfully and the route is favored on the internet. Past the mine, it starts out comfortably enough. Crumbly cliff bands are complicated by the ever increasing pitch. Gravel covers resistant soil. Some climbers will love this direct route: others will feel like the terrain sucked them into a booby trap.

Macomber Peak, 13,222'
For those smitten by the spell of the exceptional ridge that encircles the lake, retreat a short distance and find a social trail. The scrabbly, multi-threaded path passes a mine shaft and then pitches southwest. Footing is a little rough. A big cairn marks the intersect with the southeast ridge of Macomber at 12,200 feet.

The ridge kicks up swiftly. The lake recedes while echoing the brilliant face of Colorado sky. (THW, photo)

There are no obstacles except steepness on the ascent to Macomber Peak.

The "Green Wall" is grunt-steep, sure to slow you down 0.2 mile before the summit at 2.9 miles. (THW, photo)

Macomber is a subsidiary peak of Tower, nevertheless the vista is far-reaching. To the immediate northwest skiers will recognize Silverton Mountain's Velocity Peak and climbers will be enthralled with the daunting profile of Storm Peak.

Tower Mountain, 13,552'
It is a one mile traverse from Macomber to Tower Mountain. The rock on the descent ridge is good and many people will hardly take notice of the mild exposure. But if thin ridges are new to you, it does take some getting used to the landscape moving disconcertedly in your peripheral vision. This image looks back at Macomber Peak. (THW, photo)

Below, hikers stand on the ridge north of Macomber Peak. Grand Turk and Sultan Mountain preside over Silverton. (THW, photo)

It is a mellow, approximately 500 foot climb to Tower Mountain.

Reach Tower Mountain at 3.7 miles. Now the panorama is truly unstoppable. The thirteeners surrounding Ice Lake Basin appear to rest on the southern shoulder of Velocity Peak. The easiest way back to the trailhead is to retrace your steps.

Proceeding east of Tower, the ridge has three knobs that must be wrangled. Rock is loose and friable, the pitch steep. In 2015, the crevices were filled with cornices. We waded through the soft mush, wallowing up to our haunches. After a late melt, we were lucky to pull off the circuit.

The best section of ridge is southwest of Cataract Basin. Look over the edge at three lakes stepping down. Walk in the ecstasy of expansiveness for a mile.

It is a challenge to drop off the ridge to the Hematite Lake trail no matter how you tackle it. I have tried half a dozen routes and all of them have been troubled with rock at the angle of repose and cliff bands. My best suggestion is to stay on the ridge to elevation 12,560 feet. Resist the temptation to descend the south ridge with its cliff armoring in the lower reaches seen below (the black-line route). Instead, locate a south-facing swale that is free of large obstacles and plunge 1,800 feet in less than 0.8 mile (blue-dot route). The swale finishes with a curving talus field. Cross Hematite Gulch and rejoin the trail at 10,760 feet. It is a fast mile back to the trailhead. 

Tower Mountain From Velocity Basin
Essence: Begin in dramatic Velocity Basin and rapidly gain the north ridge of Tower Mountain. Expansive views throughout this exhilarating hike, the easiest approach to Tower Mountain.
Travel:  From Durango drive 47 miles to Silverton. Go up Greene Street, the main drag, past the turnoff of CR 2.  Immediately beyond this point, the road becomes CR 110, Cement Creek Road. Continue on CR 110 past Silverton Mountain Ski Area. When the road splits at 6.6 miles, turn right/south on CR 52. The good dirt road parallels the South Fork of Cement Creek on its east. The road ends in 1.7 miles at the outlet of a beautiful lake in Velocity Basin. Allow 1:30 from Durango.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 4.5 miles; 2,500 feet of climbing
Time: 2:30 to 3:30
Difficulty: Trail, off-trail; navigation moderate; no exposure
Maps: Silverton; Howardsville, Colorado 7.5 Quads
Date Hiked: August 9, 2013

This is the red-line route on the map above. From TH 11,360', climb roughly east and gain Pt. 12,110'. Commonly, people then hike north to Pt. 12,601' as shown on the map. However, I find it faster and easier to go directly east from Pt. 12,110' to the ridge just north of Pt. 12,931'. From the ridge, Velocity Peak, 13,325 feet, and Storm Peak, 13,487 feet, are looking powerful and wondrous. They are!

Bear south-southeast, staying on the ridge all the way to Tower. Hit the highpoints, including Pt. 13,060', shown below. Tower Mountain is on the left.

Reach the summit at 2.25 miles. In this image taken on Tower, Pt. 13,060' tops the shadowy north ridge, the Red Mountains are mid-range, and Mount Sneffels and company are at skyline. Return the way you came.


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