Saturday, July 14, 2012

Wildhorse Peak, 13,266', and Dragon's Back Exploration (Point 12,968')

Essence: Wildhorse Peak looks intimidating by nature but it is not a huge effort and climbing is Class 2. It is surrounded by one of the largest expanses of tundra anywhere in Colorado. Scramble up nervous rock to scale the Dragon's Back.
Travel From Durango via Engineer Pass: In a 4WD, high-clearance vehicle, 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 CR 2 which is paved for the first couple of miles. The dirt road is good at first but degenerates to a slow, rocky surface. In 11.8 miles, 0.5 mile before reaching the premier ghost town of Animas Forks, bear right on the Alpine Loop and follow the signs for Engineer Pass. It is 4.8 rugged, edgy miles to the pass at 12,800'.  Park half a mile below Engineer Pass on the east side, just before the first tight switchback to the right, at approximately 12,250 feet. Allow 2:30 from Durango.
Travel From Lake City: Turn west onto Second St. In two blocks, go left on Bluff St. In one block, bear a soft right onto Henson Creek Road, Hinsdale CR 20. There is a sign on the right designating the Alpine Loop. Pass Nellie Creek Road in 5.2 miles. Reach abandoned Capitol City in another 4 miles. Continue for approximately 8.5 miles to the parking pullout. It is half a mile east of Engineer Pass, just after a hard switchback to the left. Allow 1:15 from Lake City.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 8.4 miles; 2,375 feet of climbing, includes optional trip to Dragon's Back. Wildhorse Peak alone is 6.4 miles and 1,650 feet of vertical.
Time: 5:30 to 7:00 for the 8.4 mile option
Difficulty: Trail, off-trail; navigation moderate; mild exposure
Maps: Wetterhorn Peak; Handies Peak, Colorado 7.5 Quads
Latest Date Hiked: July 14, 2012
Quote: Never laugh at live dragons. J. R. R. Tolkien

Quirky Wildhorse Peak, image-left, Coxcomb Peak, and Wetterhorn Peak, viewed from Wood Mountain, 13,650'. 

Route: From TH 12,250', walk north across American Flats with a clear view of Wildhorse. Climb the northeast edge of the peak's southeast ridge. Return a short distance off the crest and drop down an east-facing gully. Walk northeast to Dragon's Back, the unofficial name for Pt. 12,968'. Skirt Wildhorse on the return.

Wildhorse Peak: From the trailhead, walk north across American Flats on the Horsethief Trail which comes and goes. At 0.7 mile, intersect the old track, no longer viable (but shown on the Handies Peak topo), coming from Engineer Pass. The "trail" is mostly an abandoned road marked by weathered posts. The road meanders excessively before turning into a more efficient single track. Until then, just cut straight cross-country, paralleling Darley Mountain on the east side.

The wide-ranging tundra Flats are visually stunning and serene. Dolly Varden Mountain rises east of the Flats. American Lake is visible in a depression.

Long before you get there, you will see the sign for a four-way junction rising out of the tundra. Reach it at 1.8 miles. The Horsethief Trail continues north to Bridge of Heaven; west is the Bear Creek Trail to Hwy 550; south is our trailhead near Engineer Pass; and east is the North Fork of Henson Creek (and eventually, Wetterhorn Peak). 

Leave the trail and climb an effortless 300 feet up the mounded slopes that lead to a small saddle southeast of Wildhorse Peak, shown.

From the saddle, it is less than 700 vertical feet to the summit. The grassy slope pitches up steeply. It is most accommodating, exhilarating, and visually fascinating to climb amongst the rocks and towers right next to the northeast precipice. Dragon's Back looks rather ominous, in keeping with its nature.

The false summit, shown, precedes a comfortable 50 foot catwalk to the peak at 3.2 miles. The crest is very small and equally comfortable. The view is celestial with Bridge of Heaven in the west and the Uncompahgre family in the east.

Either descend as you came, or go down the west ridge for 200 feet before doing a southeast descending traverse back to the edge. To return to the trailhead, retrace your steps.

Dragon's Back: Examine openings in the towers for the first plausible descent chute to the east.

I have been down two of the slots. The higher gully presents the easier slide. Both are flanked by vertical cliffs. The image below looks back at one of the chutes. At the base of the defile, descend through large chunks of talus to the valley floor.

Contour beneath Pt. 12,913' to a small pass and then aim for the lake below Dragon's Back. (Richard Butler, photo)

The Dragon guards his bowl.

Exploring the Dragon is climber's choice. It is worth going from the lake to the base of his head, Pt. 12,968'. Then walk along the south side probing for ways to climb onto his back. I have taken three routes to the top of the spine, vainly attempting to summit from different access points. One slope was ultra steep with large, nervous rocks and vertical walls for holds. The other two were relatively easy. Reach the backbone at 12,720 feet, 4.4 miles. I've only been able to scramble (Class 3, exposed) 50 feet up his spine before getting stopped by crumbly, Class 5 pitches. Respect the Dragon. Still, it's great fun and the view off the north side is worth the scramble. If you are serious about topping Pt. 12,968', there are helpful discussions about this technical climb on the internet.

To return, retreat to the small saddle east of Pt. 12,913'. Angle southwest to the saddle at the base of the southeast ridge of Wildhorse. Meet your incoming route there at 5.6 miles. Typically, you can be more efficient walking back across the Flats to the trailhead, 2.8 miles distant. Well, unless you become transfixed by tundra. One could easily wander around in all that freedom until dusk.

Expect to share the terrain with domestic sheep and their dogs. I have seen three large elk herds in this country.

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