Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Little Cone, 11,981', Accessible and Charming

Essence: Some of the finest jewels in the natural world are innocently overlooked. This is surely true of Little Cone. After much trial and error, here is the legal route up Little Cone. Weave around private land on a pleasant trail suitable for all hikers. The last segment is off-trail but even then the mountain is accessible. Hike in the autumn for a full immersion in golden aspen. Walk in solitude through a yellow forest lit from within. Climb the rock island and be completely surrounded by poly-chromatic brilliance.
Travel: From the Mercantile in Sawpit, CO, drive 1.1 miles west on CO 145 to mile marker 81.2. This is three miles east of the intersection of CO 145 and CO 62 coming from Ridgway. Turn left/south on Fall Creek Road, 57P. Zero-out your trip meter. Cross the San Miguel River. Pavement ends at 2.4 miles. At 3.8 miles, bear right, staying on 57P, following the sign to Woods Lake. Enter the Uncompahgre National Forest at 5.2 miles. Cross Fall Creek on a narrow bridge at 6.6 miles. At 7.5 miles, turn right at the sign for Beaver Park. Cross the creek and hang a 180. The road gets a little slower and rougher as it climbs through an aspen forest. Park at 9.4 miles where the road crosses the Hughes Ditch. The trailhead is marked with a symbol of a hiker. 2WD vehicles with decent clearance and tires should be able to make the trailhead.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 9.2 miles; 2,700 feet of climbing
Time: 5:00 to 6:00
Difficulty: Trail, off-trail; navigation moderate; mild exposure on summit ridge
Map: Little Cone, Colorado 7.5 Quad
Date Hiked: September 30, 2015
Quote: What happens when the leaves are falling,
             and the trees are bare? 

            The golden wind revealed!  Hekigan-roku


Little Cone may be glimpsed only once on the pleasant approach to the summit ridge.

Route: The first time we attempted Little Cone, we drove all over the region looking for a place to begin hiking that did not cross private land. Once we settled that (see the driving instructions above), we launched out. Having no route information, we spent another couple of hours working around fences, determined to stay on public land. We turned around 500 feet from the summit as night loomed. This charming peak lies in utter solitude because people do not know how to access it legally. Following, is all the information you need to do it right.

From Trailhead 9,500', go around the gate and walk northwesterly on the east side of Hughes Ditch. The service road is used by backhoes to keep the ditch flowing.

Follow the track through a thick conifer forest with generous interludes of aspen. Keep your eye out for the tiny opening through which you can see our south ridge route to Little Cone, pictured above.

Cross the second side drainage at 1.4 miles. An unobstructed view of the San Miguel Mountains opens. The 14'ers, El Diente Peak, Mount Wilson, and Wilson Peak will be visible for most of the hike. (THW, photo)

Follow the 9,500 foot contour alongside the ditch. At 1.8 miles, the road is blocked by a gate posted private property, no trespassing.

Retreat about 75 feet and cross the ditch on stones. Go up the embankment and onto a trail, shown. In August this was a wet crossing but in September the water was barely flowing. Equestrian travel keeps this path viable. While the trail is not indicated on maps (we stumbled on it during our first peak attempt), it appears to be maintained. Deadfall was freshly cut and cleared from the path.

Climb through a spruce and aspen mix. In 2.2 miles at 9,760 feet, the trail encounters a grassy slope and disappears. We got good and lost here the first time so we named this Maze Meadow. You need to locate the trail as it reappears on the other side of the clearing, kitty-corner. Walk north-northwest in a diagonally rising traverse. Looking at the image below, aim for the place where the tree crowns take a dip. Rejoin the trail in just a tenth of a mile.

The path continues northwest before turning briefly southwest. It comes close to a fence line at 2.6 miles, 10,060 feet. The track turns west to skirt the fence. The grade steepens as the treadway dodges massive aspen. Snowberry and low forest plants echo the crowns of the trees and everything simply glows. This is grouse territory. They seem to favor the thin band of fir trees at 10,600 feet.

The footpath crosses several small clearings before emerging onto a large grassy slope. At 3.8 miles, 11,040 feet, spruce separate to create a spacious opening with a clear view of Dolores Peak and Middle Peak, shown. We have reached the broad south ridge of Little Cone, our climbing route. Leave the trail and turn right/north into the woods.

Plow through trees and forest clutter. Reach a small talus field at 4.1 miles, 11,400 feet. Scamper up the short span of rock. Then enter a grove of scattered trees just west of the ridgecrest, shown. Climbing is fast and easy.

At 11,600 feet, 4.2 miles, the ridge thins and the land constricts at an obvious lookout. The shy mountain finally shows itself. Superb views only get better.

The approach is over. The summit ridge is strikingly beautiful. Ascend on large, stable Class 2 climbing talus. Mount the stone stairsteps that hover atop the curvilinear ridge. Stay near the mildly exposed edge for the greatest pleasure. (THW, photo)

Little Cone lives quietly in the shadow of dramatic Lone Cone, just ten miles west. I like to think that Lone Cone and Little Cone have a mutual understanding. They share a unique western location in the San Juan Mountains and are of similar geological composition, extrusive igneous volcanics. Despite its conical appearance, Lone Cone is not a volcano, and neither is little Cone.

Crest the summit at 4.5 miles. It is long and flat. Walk 0.1 mile past multiple cairn edifices to the abrupt north edge. Bring gear and spend the night under the shelter of krumholtz. Lift your eyes above the mesmerizing variegated yellow sea, for this humble peak is graced with an astonishing vista. Sweeping around you will see the Abajo Mountains, Lone Cone, La Sal Mountains, Grand Mesa, West Elks, Mount Sneffels Wilderness, Sunshine Mountain, the Wilson clan, and Dolores-Middle-Dunn Ridge. In the image below, Telluride is tucked into the crevice image-center. Only in Colorado is there a horizon of infinite protrusions. (THW, photo)

Descend the summit ridge as you came. Regain the incoming trail and turn left.

Savor your walk through the aspen and spruce forest. When aspen leaves cling to spruce branches, I think of them as ornaments. There is nothing more elegant than a tall and lean, white-trunk aspen. Lower branches shed to leave delicate leaves quaking in the slightest breeze at the tastefully decorated crown. The Old Ones are regal and dignified. (THW, photo)

When you arrive at Maze Meadow the trail will be impossible to track. Aim for the break in the aspen, image-right and there you will find the trail once again. (THW, photo)

Little Cone barely emerges from treeline. But it is mighty and beautiful just the same.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Mount Moss, 13,192', and the Towers of Lavender Peak, 13,200'

Essence: Venture to the bulky magnificence of Mount Moss and the mythical Towers of Lavender. From the west tower, my favorite prominence in the La Plata Mountains, there are supreme views of Hesperus Mountain, Centennial Peak, and the expansive Colorado Plateau splaying out to the southwest. This demanding, off-trail, exposed climb is suitable only for proven scramblers.
Travel: From the US 160/550 intersection in Durango, travel 11.0 miles west on US 160 to Hesperus. Turn right/north on La Plata Canyon Road, CR 124. Zero-out your trip meter. There is a brown, US Forest Service sign with mileages right after the turn. After passing the hamlet of Mayday, the road turns to smooth dirt at 4.6 miles. There are several established campgrounds in this area. In 8.5 miles the roadbed deteriorates with sharp, sizable rocks. A 2WD vehicle with good tires and moderate clearance may proceed. Park at 10.6 miles, 9,880 feet. The hike goes west up FS 798. With high clearance, 4WD low, and skill, it is possible to drive up the steep and rocky two-track 1.9 miles to 10,950 feet.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 8 miles and 3,800 feet of vertical from La Plata Canyon Road 
Time: 6:30 to 8:00
Difficulty: 4WD road, off-trail, steep slopes; navigation challenging; Class 3+ scrambling; considerable exposure
Map: La Plata, Colorado 7.5 Quad
Latest Date Hiked: September 25, 2015
Quote: Life is either a daring adventure or nothing at all. Helen Keller

Mount Moss and Lavender Peak on the horizon, as seen from Centennial Peak.

Route: From Trailhead 9,880', walk westerly up FSR 798 for almost two miles. Leave the road and ascend off-trail into upper Tomahawk Basin. Climb steeply to gain the south ridge of Mount Moss. Scramble up the three towers of Lavender Peak before contouring below Mount Moss on your way back to the south ridge.

Walk up FSR 798 through an aspen forest interspersed with talus flows. In 1.0 mile (N37 25.692 W108 03.277), you will reach a juncture with the Tomahawk shortcut trail. For a leisurely ascent, simply stay on the road. For a steep, shorter alternative, punch up a social trail that cuts west of the tailings pile and Tomahawk stamp mill before rejoining the road. The mill was built by the Tomahawk Mining Company in 1904. Exploratory work was done on promising veins in diorite stock. Recovery of precious metals was poor, at most 0.6 ounces of gold to the ton. Mining operations in Tomahawk Basin concluded in 1911.

This image shows a series of steep pitches that must be negotiated to reach upper Tomahawk Basin, the finest in the La Plata Range. Mount Moss is image-center.

At 1.9 miles, 10,950 feet (N37 25.911 W108 03.664), leave the old wagon road as it makes a sharp switchback to the east at the Little Kate Mine. Follow a reasonable social trail up an angled slope to a bench, staying well right of the rock outcrop seen below. Or, as indicated on the map, punch up the ultra steep shortcut.

A faint path utilizes the bed of a historic, steel pipeline. Next, bypass the waterfall, shown, on its right/north. A scant path climbs right of the rock outcrop before turning left through a short stand of willows. Or take the steeper option just left of the outcrop.

Pass a couple of black boulders. The long-abandoned mine road moves closer to Basin Creek, all the while bearing west. The rocky track is particularly useful crossing a large talus field. The gently rising basin butts up against the highly angled slope at the base of the ridge at 12,100 feet.

An unassailable section of ridge flows south from Mount Moss before it is splintered by weaknesses. I have gained the ridge in many locations; they all worked. However, it is easiest to climb the steep, grassy slopes as far to the right as possible--just south of the upper scree field, image-right.

On my last trip up the mountain, I actually stumbled on a short use trail. Looking at the image below, the impenetrable ridge is image-right. Left of it is a gap and then a large ridge fragment, image-center. Just left of this structure is the location of the social trail. After years of experimentation, this is the golden path.

Upon reaching the ridge at about 12,720 feet, turn right/north and almost immediately bypass an obstacle to the west on good rock for about 100 yards, shown. Return to the spine and follow it to the summit of Mount Moss, 13,192 feet. A friend thinks the south ridge of Moss is just a walk, but be prepared for some Class 2+ chunky talus scrambling.

Hesperus Mountain and the three towers of Lavender Peak are a stone's throw to the northwest.

Looking back, the south ridge of Mount Moss terminates at West Babcock Peak. In the image below, starting from the left is East Babcock Peak, Fourth Crest, Middle Babcock Peak, West Babcock Peak, The Knife, and Spiller Peak.

Summit Mount Moss at 3.7 miles. The crest is topped with great sitting rocks. Directly north is Centennial Peak, 13,062 feet, image-right. Amazingly, skilled climbers have traversed the spike-encrusted ridge from Centennial to Lavender Peak and on to Hesperus Mountain. (THW, photo)

If you are tapped or the south ridge of Mount Moss tested your mettle, this is your turn-around summit. Class 3+ scrambling with exposure is required to surmount all three towers of Lavender Peak, shown. The rock is good, the experience superlative. From Moss, descend northwest on well-seated talus to the saddle at 12,880 feet.

As you begin the Lavender ascent, the side walls of vertical couloirs encapsulate banded Centennial.

Cross a stable, thin ridge to the East Tower of Lavender. Welcome to the castle maze.

Face the rock for the more challenging and spirited downclimb. Some people will need a spot. This tower may be flanked on the south. (THW, photo)

Drop into the wedge between East and Middle towers. Traverse west laterally around the base of Middle, shown.

Scale dependable rock, using four point climbing to reach the divot between Middle and West towers. 

Finish on the exhilarating West Tower, approximately 13,200 feet, where you will find the peak register. The zenith is essentially one block of stone with room for three climbers. Be sure to climb Middle as well, easily done. This image was captured by a camera firing remotely from Middle Tower aimed at West Tower.  (THW, photo)

The exact height of Lavender is unknown. Hesperus Mountain, northwest at 13,232 feet, is the highpoint in the La Plata Range. It is the Sacred Mountain of the North, marking the northern cardinal boundary of the traditional homeland of the Navajo. 

For the return, downclimb about 150 feet into the notch between West and Middle towers. Then cut to the east below East Tower. Upon arriving at the 12,880 foot saddle, contour below Mount Moss to regain the south ridge. (THW, photo)

At the insurmountable gendarme, bypass west, regain the ridge, and look immediately for your descent route at about 12,720 feet. The slim use trail is swallowed by tundra 100 feet below the ridge.

Watch for soaring bald and golden eagles, and playful, chortling ravens in the upper basin. The Tomahawk Basin Road is especially pleasant in autumn.

 

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Handies Peak, 14,048', Via Grouse Gulch

Essence: Hike a five mile segment of the Hardrock 100 course from trailhead to summit. Solitude is likely on the extended tundra walk in Grouse Gulch. Intersect the popular peak trail emanating from American Basin. Overall effort seems reasonable on this excellent trail. 
Travel: In a 4WD vehicle with sturdy tires, 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 dirt road is good at first but degenerates to a slow, rocky surface. Park on the left at a wide pull-out at 10.5 miles, just shy of a bridge over the Animas River. Allow 1:30 from Durango.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 10.1 miles; 4,650 feet of climbing
Time: 5:00 to 7:00
Difficulty: Class 1 trail; navigation easy; no exposure
Map: Handies Peak, Colorado 7.5 Quad
Latest Date Hiked: September 20, 2015
Reference: For a description of the full range of trails and routes up Handies Peak, consult Colorado's Fourteeners: From Hikes to Climbs, by Gerry Roach.
Quote: At the summit all alternative routes become one...The summit itself not only occupies no space, although the whole mountain is virtually contained in it, but it is also outside time and all succession, and only the eternal present reigns there. It is utterly inexpressible in its uniqueness; silent is the Knower of the Summit and the whole Universe strains its ears to catch the accents of his speechless eloquence. Marco Pallis

Handies Peak as seen from Pass 13,020', is a gentle behemoth embracing all climbers.

Route: The trail rises from the road between Silverton and Animas Forks at 10,700 feet. Walk east up Grouse Gulch to Pass 13,020'. Give up 620 feet before meeting the incoming trail from American Basin. Follow this heavily trodden track to the peak. The Blue-Line trail is the easier American Basin approach, just 5.5 miles with 2,500 feet of vertical.
 
The image below shows the parking area, 10,700 feet, beside the Animas River.

Walk north up the road and cross the bridge over the Animas River. At  0.1 mile, leave the road and go right/southeast onto the trail, initially an abandoned mining road. Niagara Peak, 13,807 feet, is the fierce and noble prominence in the south.

The track makes long switchbacks up the south flank of Cinnamon Mountain, crosses its drainage at 0.9 mile, and then relaxes as it moves toward the center of Grouse Gulch. The autumnal equinox sun shines in our eyes to the pass. (THW, photo)

The trail modulates with the land, rising in a series of moderately steep and gentle gradations. The treadway, always remaining north of the watercourse, passes the toe of a rock glacier at 11,800 feet. A brilliant blue bottle gentian and scattered yarrow clusters stand out amongst the frosted remains of a glorious wildflower year. Seed heads, grasses, carmine leaves of blue bells, blood orange fronds of alpine avens--countless multitudes of plants hold the very ground down while harmonizing into a monochromatic splendor.

Big cairns dot the way. Pass the bright green stream source at 1.9 miles, 12,500 feet.

Walk briskly and in just over an hour you will surmount Pass 13,020', the divide between Grouse Gulch and American Basin at 2.4 miles. Moderate hikers will gain it in 1:20 after polishing off 2,320 feet, half the total vertical. Bulky, uncomplicated Handies dominates from here on. The unofficial trail east of the pass was anybody's guess a few years ago but now it is clearly established. It makes a trajectory east-southeast.  Cross a seemingly dry streambed with water burbling under rock. (THW, photo)

Bottom out at 12,400 feet, a 620 foot drop from the pass. Join the standard trail at 12,470 feet, 3.3 miles. Click on the image below to see the trailhead in American Basin at 11,600 feet. Handies was an ideal first fourteener for my eight year old boy who set a blistering pace from this location. Mid-summer, American Basin has a reputation for stellar wildflowers.

For hikers coming from Durango, it takes about the same amount of time to begin the trek at Grouse Gulch as it does to drive over Cinnamon Pass to American Basin on a challenging 4WD road. The Grouse Gulch hike is 4.6 miles longer with 2,150 feet additional elevation gain.

A spur trail to Sloan Lake branches right at 3.9 miles, 12,920 feet. Perhaps the most interesting section of trail is the next quarter mile as the rocky path winds through small cliffs. The treadway soon returns to a smooth surface, gradually undulating through tundra to Handies' south ridge at 13,500 feet. The view east is heart gripping and it only gets better. The image below looks south to rippled American Peak, 13,806 feet, and Sloan Lake.

The final approach to the summit is inexplicably smooth for a big bruiser. Just meander up the squiggles.

Crest the broadly rounded summit crown in just over five miles. The bastion is roomy enough for all comers. Settle in on one of the jutting sitting rocks and process the wild heights. Handies is the epicenter of big-boned mountains rippling off in concentric circles.

Many of Colorado's tall ones are so arduous to achieve, descent anxiety wreaks havoc on top time. Handies is an exception which is one reason I have an abiding affection for this mountain. In the image below, two hikers are leaving the peak on the Grizzly Gulch Trail. Wetterhorn Peak and Uncompahgre Peak protrude above their heads. Whitecross Mountain is to their right. Redcloud Peak and Sunshine Peak, lock step fourteeners, are right of the gulch. The ridge leading to Point 13,795' is roiling off in a rock glacier. (THW, photo)

I am looking south to flat topped, 13,841 foot Half Peak, one of my all-time favorites. The Rio Grande Pyramid, is image-right. (THW, photo)

Off to the distant northwest is Mount Sneffels Wilderness. Just on the other side of Cinnamon Pass is a climb so appealing it is a multiple repeat. The Catwalk is framed by Animas Forks Mountain and Point 13,708'.

Returning, the short passage through the rocks is the only exception to an otherwise smooth, sinuous trail.

Turn left at 6.5 miles onto our secondary track. In the image below hikers are heading to the large cairn where the paths diverge. The American Basin trail continues down-valley while our slim pathway makes a rising traverse to Pass 13,020', shown.

Upon cresting the pass, the trail divides. The right track dead-ends at a mine. Veer left, following cairns. When the soil is dry, the trail down the upper west side is like stepping inside a cat liter box. The pitch eases and the way descends gradually through this broad, high alpine basin punctuated with boulders strewn about the tundra. (THW, photo)

This route is above timberline and exposed to lightning from start to finish. If there are storms in the area, postpone your hike. During the monsoons it is wise to get an early start so you are well off the peak and back over the pass by noon.