Thursday, August 13, 2015

San Joaquin Ridge Summit, 13,460'

Essence: Radiant hike in Telluride's backyard. Utilize ski area roads to gain quick access to the alpine. Off-trail, transcend floral splendor into a chaotic basin where San Juan Volcanics are decomposing beneath your feet and before your eyes. Stand on a thin summit ridge at the 3,000 foot brink of nothingness.
Travel: The hike begins from the San Sophia Gondola Station at Telluride Ski Resort. The free gondola is located four blocks south of Colorado Avenue on San Juan Avenue. Free all-day parking is available at the Carhenge parking lot off West Pacific Avenue at the west end of town. Check the website for gondola hours and Mountain Village access.   
Distance and Elevation Gain: 12 miles; 3,775 feet of climbing
Time: 6:00 to 7:30
Difficulty: Trail, off-trail; navigation somewhat challenging; brief Class 3 scrambling with mild exposure
Map: Telluride, Colorado 7.5' USGS Quad
Date Hiked: August 13, 2015
Quote: This rock is a living rock, a divine wave of energy suspended in time and space, creating a pause of long or short duration in the endless melody. Henry Miller

The crest of San Joaquin Ridge Summit, ranked 303 in Colorado, is narrow. The rockscape falls abruptly away affording an airy vista. (THW, photo)

Route: From the San Sophia Gondola Station, quickly gain elevation while hiking south through the ski resort to the Wasatch Connection. Lose 680 feet and cross the West Fork of Bear Creek. Curve around the base of San Joaquin Ridge, off-trail, and go due south to the saddle east of San Joaquin Benchmark, Pt. 13,446'. Climb east to the summit. 

From San Sophia Station at 10,550 feet, walk south on the ski area road following signs to See Forever Trail. As directed, skirt the ski run, shown, on the road to its west. At 0.45 mile, make a sharp left which puts you out on the ski hill. Wooden steps awkwardly ascend the steep slope.

At about 1.0 mile, the utility road doubling as the trail goes off course a bit. Leave it and just walk steeply up the ridge on a cat track. Go right at the fork at 1.75 miles and immediately right again. Crazy, craggy Palmyra Peak and the staggering mountains in the Lizard Head Wilderness wander in and out through the trees. Below, a hiker walks up the hill beside snowmaking towers. Turn around frequently to watch peaks in the Mount Sneffels Wilderness arise full throttle over Telluride in the north.

The road splits at 2.4 miles, 12,180 feet. The right branch carries on up to the top of Gold Hill. Turn left as indicated by the sign for the Wasatch Connection. In the image below, the two-pronged peak is the northern highpoint of San Joaquin Ridge. Just to its left is San Joaquin Ridge Summit. Further left is Oscars Peak.

Wasatch Connection transitions from road to trail at 3.2 miles. It goes under Revelation Lift which tops out just below Pt. 12,583'. Across cavernous Bear Creek Canyon, mighty Wasatch Mountain trumps La Junta Peak and Ballard's Horn. 

Give up almost 700 feet of elevation on an appealing set of well-crafted laterals and switchbacks.

This pretty trail, with plentiful wildflowers and captivating scenery, bottoms out at the West Fork of Bear Creek at 4.0 miles, 11,500 feet.

Cross the West Fork which drains Lena Basin. The basin and its lake lie comfortably in the constricted curvature of Palmyra Peak and Silver Mountain. The lower Wasatch Trail turns off north to join the Bear Creek Trail and plummet down the canyon to Telluride. Our hike stays briefly on the eastward, upper Wasatch Trail. The image below was taken near the West Fork, shooting up at San Joaquin Ridge and the run-out from Lena Basin.

Leave the trail at a soft, south-running ridge at 12,050 feet, 4.5 miles. There are good views of Silver Mountain from the rise. While Silver is well-armed, it is possible to reach the peak, 13,470 feet, by clambering up either of the two couloirs above Lena Basin, image-center.

Do a tundra walk to the east side of San Joaquin Ridge. Our peak is image-left.

At 12,400 feet, the pitch increases dramatically to reach the upper basin just east of San Joaquin Ridge. Looking at the image below, there are two streams. Climb the one well right of center. We scattered all over the hillside. The best route is close to the tumbling creek.

Since this is such a vital juncture, here's another look at the drainage you must climb.

The upper basin is a primal, elemental, visual shock. Practically void of plant life, it is filled with disintegrating San Juan volcanics--jumbled boulders, broken down remnants. Great fortune! We walk through this lively madness to reach the saddle, shown, and the peak at left.

Again, our group scattered for there are multiple route possibilities. I prefer the center of the basin, down in the trenches with the stones. The throat leads directly to a break in the cliffs, a fun scramble. Watch for boulders on the move; there are plenty of good holds. In this image, four people are heading toward the weakness.

From the top of the break, it is an uncomplicated and yet primordial climb to the saddle. (THW, photo)

Reach startling Saddle 13,250' at 5.7 miles. Don't get up momentum; the south side is an abrupt fall-away, tumbling over 3,000 feet into Ophir Canyon. San Joaquin Ridge Summit, 13,460 feet, is 0.15 mile east of the saddle. Unofficially named, it is ranked number 303 in Colorado. Below, a friend is standing directly above the break in the cliff band where the Class 3 scramble is easiest. If you prefer to avoid the mild exposure, traverse left to bypass the cliff. The trade-off is unstable rock.

Climb the rubble pile with oversized, sliding scree that sounds like clinking ceramic.

The top is flat and skinny. Reach it at 5.85 miles. 

Unfortunately, a vertical wall prohibits further travel east, making it impossible to traverse to Oscars Peak and on to Wasatch Mountain, shown. (THW, photo)

The San Juan Ridge Benchmark, Pt. 13,446', is west of Saddle 13,250'. It is not a legal summit. A determined friend left us at the saddle. He did a sketchy sidehill traverse around the dark knob, shown, to reach the benchmark. He then negotiated multiple gendarmes in the vicinity of San Joaquin Ridge before climbing the three peaks of Silver Mountain from this challenging approach. He dropped down one of the couloirs into Lena Basin.

Return as you came. Upon reaching the West Fork of Bear Creek, you may choose to drop down the lower Wasatch Trail, join Bear Creek Trail, and return to Telluride that way. The trail loses 2,700 feet in just over four miles. However, this description assumes an out-and-back from the San Sophia Gondola Station. So, psych yourself up for the climb back up the Wasatch Connection.

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