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 vividly colorful Hematite Lake. Then walk on one of the sweetest ridges in Colorado while climbing two 13'ers. Pay a price for the three mile circuit on the quad-burning descent.
Travel: 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 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. Allow 1:15 from Durango.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 7.0 miles; 4,150 feet of climbing
Time: 5:30 to 7:00
Difficulty: Trail, off-trail; navigation considerable; mild exposure
Map: Howardsville, Colorado 7.5 Quad
Latest Date Hiked: July 6, 2015
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. 

As can be seen on the map, two trails launch from the road. The more gentle and pleasant leaves from TH 9,640', shown. The trail is faint in places while crossing open meadow lands. Just aim for the gulch where the track becomes distinct. Or, save 0.07 mile by parking at the Animas River bridge and climbing steeply up an old road. When it ends at 0.24 mile, angle left to intersect the main trail in about 75 feet.

Give credit to the miners. They built this amazing trail in difficult terrain to access mines in Hematite Basin. The path claws its way up grassy hillsides spotted with young aspen and conifer. The track stays left/west of the cascading creek while making a long series of steep switchbacks.

Verdant slopes are alive with a riot of flowers. The climb is forgotten while plunging 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, and rayless senecio. Step across Bluebell Creek.

 This image looks beyond the Animas River valley into Cunningham Gulch.

At 1.7 miles the trail is swallowed by willows, emerges, and then disappears into marigolds. Go through the gap on the left/west, shown. Reassurance cairns mark the obvious route to the lake.

Reach Hematite Lake at 2.0 miles after 2,300 feet of climbing. The glacially carved lake at 11,960 feet is especially pretty today, its earthy color contrasting with the ethereal, cerulean sky.  Most locals turn around at the lake. Macomber Peak is 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.

For those smitten by the spell of the exceptional ridge that encircles the lake, retreat a short distance and find a social trail that mounts a small knob on the southwest side of the basin. The path multi-threads but there is a good use trail. Gain the ridge at about 12,400 feet.

The ridge kicks up swiftly. The lake magically transforms to the brilliant color of Colorado sky. (THW, photo)

At 2.4 miles, Macomber Peak, 13,222 feet, appears. The Green Wall will slow you down 0.2 mile before the summit at 2.9 miles. (THW, photo)

While Macomber is a subsidiary peak of Tower, the vista is nevertheless far-reaching. In this image, Storm Peak is on my right side and Tower is right of center. (THW, photo)

There is a short, Class 2 knife with mild exposure on the one mile trek over to Tower Mountain. Most people will not even notice but if thin ridges are new to you, it does take some getting used to, as the landscape moves disturbingly in your peripheral vision. This image looks back at Macomber Peak. 

Reach Tower Mountain, 13,552 feet, at 3.7 miles. Now the panorama is truly unstoppable. The 13'ers surrounding Ice Lake Basin appear to rest on the southern shoulder of Velocity Peak.

Proceeding east of Tower, the ridge has three knobs that must be negotiated. The rock is loose, 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 west of Cataract Basin. Look over the edge at three lakes stepping down. Walk in the ecstasy of expansiveness for a mile.

At 5.3 miles, 12,500 feet, the ridge bends south toward Hematite Gulch. If there is a pleasing path off this pitch, I have yet to find it. It is exceedingly steep and secondary ridges are well-armored with cliff bands. The descent is tedious, riddled with scree, and drops from 12,500 feet to 10,850 feet in 0.8 mile.

Most recently, we stayed on the ridge, shown. At 5.7 miles, near Pt. 11,679', we plunged west into the trees. How do they stand straight up on a slope so extreme? Nearing the ravine, we rummaged around for a weakness in the cliffs. It was just 0.2 mile on the gully floor to the trail.

I have also descended on the scrambly secondary ridge west of the ravine. Next time, I will take the blue-dot route delineated on the map above. Just plunge your way down the gully, shown. It appears to be free of obstacles.

Reach the Hematite Lake trail at 6.1 miles, closing the loop. 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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