Monday, August 10, 2015

Hesperus Mountain, 13,232', Northern Approaches

Essence: Hesperus Mountain is the highpoint in the La Plata Range, yet it is one of the most difficult peaks to navigate. Three northern approaches to the west ridge are discussed--all of them have difficulties. The approach over, ascend a stair-step progression of cliff-slope formations, staying on the ridge, off-trail, all the way to the summit.
Travel: From the US 550/160 intersection in Durango, drive west on US 160 for 27.4 miles to the signal in Mancos. Zero-out your trip meter. Turn right/north on CO 184 towards Dolores. In 0.3 mile, at the sign for Mancos State Park, turn right on Montezuma CR 42. In 1.5 miles, the road turns to dirt. See the west side of the La Platas from a fresh perspective as you pass by scattered ranches. At 5.5 miles, the road becomes FSR 561, West Mancos Road. Pass the Transfer Campground at 10 miles, roll through a mature aspen and ponderosa forest, and turn right at mile 12.3 on FSR 350, Spruce Mill Road. It remains smooth and graded until mile 18.8. Turn on the right spur signed for the Twin Lakes, Sharkstooth Trailheads. The next 1.5 miles require 4WD and good tires. The track is rocky with potholes. There is dispersed camping along the road with ponds and a terrific view of Hesperus Mountain. The West Mancos TH is 20.3 miles from the US 160 and CO 184 intersection in Mancos. Allow 1.5 hours from Durango. The small parking area holds six vehicles.
Distance and Elevation Gain: Black-Line Standard Route, 4.8 miles, 2,685 total climbing; Blue-Line Route, add 0.5 mile; Red-Line West Ridge Route, add 2.0 miles and 600 feet of vertical
Time: 5:00 to 7:00 depending on route
Difficulty: Trail, off-trail; navigation challenging; Class 3 scrambling with mild exposure
Map: La Plata, Colorado 7.5 Quad
Latest Date Hiked: August 10, 2015
Quote: Dibé Ntsaa, "Sheep Mountain," is the mountain First Man and First Woman created for the north. They made it firm to the earth with a rainbow and adorned it with beads of jet black, with plants of many varieties. Trebbe Johnson

Hesperus Mountain marks the northern boundary of the traditional homeland of the Navajo. It is the Sacred Mountain of the North. The eastern cardinal point is Sierra Blanca Peak in the Sangre de Cristo Range; in the south it is Mount Taylor in New Mexico; and in the west, Humphreys Peak near Flagstaff, Arizona. Trebbe Johnson wrote, Navajo land and life is secured within the circle of the sacred mountains.

The banded and resplendent north face of Hesperus Mountain as seen from Centennial Peak's north ridge.

Route: Hesperus Mountain must be climbed via its west ridge. I have explored four approaches, one from the south, and three from the north. There is no easy way to summit. All routes present navigational challenges and demanding climbs. The southern approach from Echo Basin is the most pleasant ascent but presents the greatest navigational conundrum.  

The three northern approaches leave from the West Mancos Trailhead, utilizing the trail for just under a mile. The standard route leaves the trail and goes directly to the west ridge. The final half mile up the ridge is a shared journey for all routes.

Here is an overview of the north side of the west ridge on a shrouded day. The Black-Line Route gains the ridge just as the mountain pitches up. The Blue-Line Route ascends the green slopes slightly west of the standard route. The Red-Line Route comes well to the west and climbs through timber to the ridge.

From the parking lot at 10,900 feet, go south toward Transfer Campground. Eschew the heavily traveled Sharkstooth/Centennial Trail heading east. Our mountain beckons in clear view.

Walk across a bucolic, flower-filled, tree-rimmed meadow on the West Mancos Trail No. 621. Descend into a forest primeval.

In half a mile, cross the creek scurrying from the Sharkstooth/Centennial saddle on a thick log. In 0.6 mile, cross the Sliderock Basin drainage on a sturdy, five-log bridge. The streams join just below the trail to become the North Fork of the West Mancos River. Plow through native honeysuckle and then a delphinium forest seven feet high. Arrowleaf senecio and mountain bluebells compete for sun in this flower fantasyland.

Black-Line and Blue-Line Routes: Take special note of the Two Spruce Portal at 0.85 mile. If the trail starts diving down, you missed it.

Just paces beyond The Portal, at 10,800 feet, turn south/left on a social trail. In 2015, the wildcat path was almost obliterated by flora. The seldom-used route is helpful but you are still going to do some thrashing until you break out of the woods. It won't be elegant. Take heart, it is just one mile from here to the ridge with 1,500 feet of climbing. The route bears essentially south. 

The use trail takes advantage of a gully and emerges at a small talus field. Cairns lead the way to a stand of conifers on a knoll, image-right. Get your bearings here where you can see route options.

Locate the grassy rib, shown below. Either climb the short pitch and walk on its top, or stay close to the base. The Black-Line Route is obvious. It goes directly to the ridge up the shale slide, left of center.

In August, 2015, the way was bejeweled by a range of columbine 500 feet long. There have never been so many state flowers in one place.

Here is a look down the slide. It is steep and laborious scaling the soft, coal-like granules. The rock is loose; not recommended for groups. You may wish to go for firmer territory on either side.

The image below looks down on the Blue-Line Route from the ridge. It provides a more gentle approach to the west ridge. From the grassy rib, walk southwest through the trees and get on the  green slope. Stay on it all the way to the ridge. Off the green, the broken, rolling, medium-size talus becomes annoying. Gain the ridge just west of Pt. 11,891' and walk east to meet the Black-Line Route. The Blue-Line is longer but almost as quick.

The approach concludes at 12,300 feet. The summit climb is 932 vertical feet over half a mile and takes about 45 minutes. The ascent looks imposing but this is the best segment of the journey. Notice a social trail that leaves the ridge and makes for the south side of the mountain. This trail seeks to avoid some of the cliff bands. It baffles me that people use this trail which is a side-hill nuisance until it rejoins the ridge proper at 13,000 feet. The surface alternates between sink-up-to-your-ankles in shale, and slippery, resistant soil. The ridge, on the other hand, leads the scrambler playfully up the mountain.

Begin climbing left of the dark rock outcrop, shown below. Experience the alternating cliff-slope structure of the mountain while walking up through Mancos Shale to the base of the next cliff band. Geologist, John Bregar, explains the stone composition.
Geological Note:
Hesperus is part of the La Plata Mountain laccolith, which is an intrusion of magma between sedimentary layers, bowing the sediments up, where they get eroded off, and baking the sediments in close contact with the magma to hornfels.  The dark and light layers of rock that are so prevalent on Hesperus and Centennial are alternating layers of magma and baked sediment. Generally, the dark layers are sediment, and the light layers tend to be the congealed magma or hornfels.  You could call the relatively thin, tabular bodies of magma sills, but really, the whole mass of the La Plata Mountain laccolith is a complicated mess of intrusive and sedimentary rocks.

The second cliff band presents a Class 3 scramble on good rock. Some slabs are not well anchored so test all holds. This is the only pitch with exposure, assuming you stay away from the continuous, precipitous north edge. This crux can be bypassed safely 100 feet to the south.

 Hold to the north edge of the ridge, surmounting the rising stone staircase all the way to the crest.  

See the summit and the mountain rounds off to reward those whose perseverance and desire propels them past the many obstacles.

Hesperus Mountain is the heartbeat of the La Plata Range. Standing on the small apex, I imagine the mountain pulsating beneath my feet. While this image faces Lone Cone in the northwest, on a clear day, you can see beyond the curve of the world into Utah, New Mexico, and Arizona. (THW, photo)

Hesperus is the tallest eminence and is perfectly located for a comprehensive view. Centennial Peak, 13,062', is the red banded mountain on the left. Skilled climbers have reportedly traversed the technical ridge from Centennial to Lavender Peak. The Lavender to Hesperus segment is exposed Class 3 with one Class 4 move. Image-right is The Knife, the slice between the three Babcocks and Spiller Peak. (THW, photo)

For the return, downclimb as you came. (THW, photo)

No matter which route you used to scale the mountain, the easiest, quickest, and most thrilling descent course is the shale glissade. Looking at the image below, it is located just east of a patch of orange rock at about 12,300 feet. Divert from the ridge to the north/right.

Lose 500 feet effortlessly in just a few minutes.

At the bottom of the escalator, walk down the run-out and then turn northeast, taking direct aim at the treed knoll, just left of center in the image below. Sporadic cairns mark the route back to the trail. You should hit it just west of the Two Spruce Portal. Turn right and recross the North Fork of the West Mancos River. A 200 foot hill-climb takes you back to the trailhead.

Red-Line Route: This route will appeal to hikers who prefer ridge access, though it does have its own set of challenges. From the West Mancos Trailhead, stay on the trail past the Two Spruce Portal at 0.85 mile. It will go against your instinct to move downhill, away from the mountain. Trees transition from spruce to fir with thick patches of heartleaf arnica. At 1.6 miles, pass the West Mancos Trail sign, shown. The trail becomes a two-track, abandoned road. Continue beyond here to a clearcut at 10,200 feet, about 2.3 miles from the trailhead. Leave the road and go through the forest, bearing south. You will get a visual of the ridge when you hit the talus.

The last time I did this hike, we left the trail at the sign, pictured above. This was a mistake. The deadfall throttled progress. Breaking out onto the rock glacier, we moved west until we were past the north slope cliffs, shown. The talus rolled underfoot and the glacier moved across the landscape like ocean waves. The route worked but was something of a pain. (THW, photo)

The image below was taken from the west ridge at 11,500 feet where a social trail appears. The Red-Line Route seeks to avoid the rock glacier, instead, pushing through the woods to the base of the ridge. The best traveling is along the edge between the trees and talus. Caveat--I have not thoroughly explored the Red-Line Route. If you go that way, drop me a comment and let me know how it goes for you.

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