Tuesday, June 28, 2016

La Sal Mountains, North Block: La Sal Peak to Manns Peak from Beaver Basin

Essence: The La Sal Mountain range is relatively small but it is the second highest in Utah. (The Uinta Mountains rank first.) The La Sals soar 8,000 feet above Moab. The tallest prominence, Mount Peale, elevation 12,721 feet, is in the middle cluster of three summit blocks separated by Geyser and La Sal passes. This hike features five of six ranked peaks above 12,000 feet in the North Block. It tags two other named prominences. Approach the unobstructed, above timberline ridge from the east side of the range. Superb alpine flowers are embedded in the tundra. Social trails assist through many of the talus fields. Optimal in summer, enjoy a refreshingly cool hike while Moab sizzles. 
Travel From South of Moab: In a 4WD vehicle with high clearance, zero-out your trip meter while turning east from US 191 onto Old Airport Road, posted Ken's Lake. In 0.5 mile, turn right/south on Spanish Valley Road. It becomes La Sal Mountain Loop Road in 3.1 miles. Enter Manti-La Sal National Forest at 7.7 miles. Geyser Pass road leaves on the right at 12.2 miles and the Warner Lake road goes right at 14.9. After the  viewpoint at Mason Draw, 20.0 miles, the paved road switches steeply downhill. At the Castleton Gateway Road at 25.9 miles, turn right on FSR 207.
Travel From North of Moab: In a 4WD vehicle with high clearance, zero-out your trip meter at US 191 and Utah 128. Go east on the scenic byway for 15.7 miles. Turn right on La Sal Mountain Loop Road. At 26.4 miles bear left onto the Castleton Gateway Road, FSR 207. 
Travel from Castleton Gateway Road: Measure again from here. Pass the Fisher Mesa Trailhead at 5.2 miles. Bear left as the pavement ends at 5.7 miles. At the sign for Gateway at 7.9 miles, bear right, staying on FSR 207. At 10.4 miles, go right onto Beaver Basin Trail, FSR 669. This is a serious 4WD track. Cross a potentially big creek at 11.3 miles. Pass backcountry camps with porta-potties and biting deer flies. At 11.8 miles, take a right fork while passing a sign for Don's Lake on the left. Go right on road 20. The challenging road is steep and narrow with sharp rocks as it plows through an encroaching aspen and fir forest. There is a roomy primitive camp with a fire ring at 14.5 miles, elevation 10,140 feet. Beaver Creek is directly below. We camped and walked up the road from here the next day but you could drive another mile, shaving two miles from the hike. Wild water, no facilities at the trailhead.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 10.1 miles; 4,950 feet of climbing
Time: 7:30 to 9:00
Difficulty: 4WD track, trail, primarily off-trail; navigation moderate; Class 2; no exposure
Map: Mount Waas, Utah 7.5 Quad
Date Hiked: June 28, 2016
Quote: People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I think that what we’re really seeking is an experience of being alive so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances within our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive. Joseph Campbell

Deep emerald green woods in Beaver Basin contrast with talus fields above timberline and ruddy cliff and canyon country far below. Traverse from La Sal Peak, the northernmost summit in the North Block, to Manns Peak.
(THW, photo)

Route: Begin in Beaver Basin and gain the ridge at Saddle 11,740' between Green Mountain and Mount Waas. Turn north and climb Mount Waas, Castle Mountain and then La Sal Peak. Head back south, skirting Castle Mtn. Climb back over Mount Waas and continue south, climbing Green Mountain and Pilot Mountain. Go over or contour around Dry Fork Peak and then summit Manns Peak. Return to Beaver Basin via the trail from Jackass Pass. Ranked peaks: La Sal, Castle, Waas, Pilot, and Manns. Named peaks without 300 feet of prominence: Green and Dry Fork.

From the camp at 10,140 feet located in Manti-La Sal National Forest, walk or drive up the pleasant two-track. Blooming on the floor of the fir and aspen forest in late June are elderberry, mountain parsley, golden banner, larkspur, and white peavine. Large meadows slip down into Beaver Creek while a Western tanager sings. At 0.7 mile, Manns Peak, Jackass Pass, and Dry Fork Peak beckon from the south end of the hike. This image looks back at camp.

At 1.1 miles, the deteriorating road points northwest, winding into upper Beaver Basin at 10,600 feet. Park here. The trail joining from Jackass Pass to the southwest, our return route, is not obvious, perhaps because of snow sheets. Head northwest, staying north of Beaver Creek, cutting off lengthy switchbacks. Keep your eye out for the uncommon sugarbowl, a large nodding purple flower as you clamber up a slope strewn with avalanche debris. (THW, photo)

Find a pleasant, off-trail route through an uncluttered Engelmann spruce forest, staying on the south side of a talus field. The first objective is Green Mountain-Mount Waas Saddle 11,740', pictured.

Launch into the talus at about 11,200 feet. The La Sal Range is a laccolith. Intrusive igneous rock was forced upward by magma under pressure creating a mountain dome. Sedimentary rock has largely been eroded away leaving the core mound, primarily diorite. Patches of insistent tundra are matted by an untold abundance of purple-pink moss campion. Lingering snow fields made the climb to the ridge more challenging than normal. Underfoot, scree slid downhill at the angle of repose. Once on the ridge at 2.0 miles, this difficulty is over.

From Saddle 11,740', turn north and find the perfectly wonderful social trail winding almost 600 feet up Mount Waas. The highest of the six northern 12'ers is essentially a colossal pile of scree and talus. Summit at 12,331 feet in 2.4 miles. If this is your home turf, visually locate familiar landmarks including Moab, Arches National Park, and Castle Valley. Navajo Mountain and the Henry Mountains are in the southwest; Lone Cone over in the east. Get a comprehensive look at the southern portion of the day's journey, pictured. (THW, photo)

The sojourn north from Mount Waas to La Sal Peak is pure delight. On a fragmentary trail drop 670 feet to the Waas-Castle saddle (11,660') and shoot up the scree-covered south side of Castle Mountain on an accommodating use trail. (THW, photo)

Crest Castle Mountain, 12,044 feet, at 3.3 miles. The prominence is a smooth laccolith dome so surely it was named for the free-standing monoliths under its purview. The Book Cliffs are off in the north.

While there is no trail up La Sal's rounded southwest ridge, there are plenty of foot platforms in the tundra. Alpine flowers are especially diverse and plentiful on the steep slope. Here is a partial list of alpine flowers blooming on the ridge in June: alp lily, minuartia, wall flower, ivesia, phlox, dotted and snowball saxifrage, purple fringe, alpine rock jasmine, mouse ear chickweed, fairy candelabra, alpine sage, pygmy bitterroot, sibbaldia, alpine avens, candytuft, alpine clover, old man of the mountain, deep rooted spring beauty, smelowskia, sulfur paintbrush and sky pilot.

Reach the northernmost crest in the chain at 3.7 miles. La Sal Peak just makes the 12'er cut at 12,001 feet. Walking in freedom on the ridge, without rushing we were three hours into the hike, had climbed 3,000 feet, and were taking a break on our third peak. The baked sandstone covering the broad crest is cap rock on top of laccolith that hasn't eroded off. The mountain falls away softly for 3,000 feet on three sides so there is a strong sense that one is standing at the conclusion of the range. (THW, photo)

Back on the La Sal-Castle saddle (11,660') it is reasonable to contour on the east slope of Castle Mountain to return to the Castle-Waas saddle. It is off-trail but the slope is shallow and rocks are stable. However, you must contemplate whether to climb back up and over Mount Waas or do the wrap-around on its west side. I am unnerved by steep side-hill traverses so this was an easy decision for me. I happily and readily climbed 670 feet to the summit and took the trail back down the other side, losing 590 feet to the saddle. The majority of my experienced mountaineering companions opted for the west-side traverse. Half way across the faint game trail disappeared and they were stranded on a steep slope. At the angle of repose, rock was sliding above and below them as they proceeded. Opinions varied. It was deemed either annoying, exposed, or simply tolerable. Most wish they had reclimbed the peak.

In the image below, our group is gathering on Saddle 11,740' at the end of their Waas wrap. They are fewer than 15 minutes ahead of us. We are back on the saddle at 5.1 miles. There is some very minor cliff structure on the northeast ridge of Green Mountain. Stay right on the ridge and top Green at 5.5 miles, elevation 12,163 feet. While the relief is 423 feet, there is not 300 feet of prominence between Green and Pilot Mountain. Since Pilot is the higher of the two, it is the legal summit.

The relaxed walk between Green and Pilot Mountain is so glorious I wish for it to go on and on forever. At 6.0 miles, we are standing on Pilot, elevation 12,220 feet. As seen in the image below, an abandoned pack trail rises up from the west. (THW, photo)

The south side of Pilot has a copper pit with brilliant blue stones scattered around. Further down the mountain is a quartz vein with sizable chunks of the milky crystal. Jackass Pass is in the Pilot-Dry Fork Peak saddle (11,620'). If the weather is poor or you have had enough, this is your bailout into Beaver Basin. For those continuing on to Manns Peak, you may contour on the west side of Dry Fork Peak, 11,849', on a perfectly good trail, pictured. The easy walk over the top for ridge purists will add 229 feet, not enough to qualify it as a legal summit, but still a sweet pleasure.

Reach the Dry Fork-Manns saddle (11,620') at 6.8 miles. A strong social trail leaves from the saddle and remains consistent all the way to the peak. The trail climbs on the west side of the false summit but you may opt to remain on the ridge all the way to the summit at 7.3 miles, 12,272 feet.

The field of vision from Manns is superb. Directly south is Burro Pass, shown, the most direct route up Manns Peak (via  Warner Lake). Looking at the Middle Block, Mt. Peale is on the left/east, Mt. Mellenthin is center and Mt. Tukuhnikivatz is on the right.

It is only noon and I want to climb Mt. Tomasaki, the southernmost mountain in the North Block but the statistics are daunting. The out-and-back from Manns Peak will add approximately three miles and 1,765 feet of climbing for a grand total of over 6,700 feet. (THW, photo)

From the top of Manns all the North Block peaks are visible except for La Sal which is positioned behind Waas.

Return to the Manns-Dry Fork saddle at 7.9 miles and walk around the west side of Dry Fork Peak on a trail holding the 11,600 foot contour, pictured. Sky pilot is the standout alpine flower in June.

Return to Jackass Pass at 8.1 miles and descend northeast toward Beaver Basin on the established trail.

The underutilized trail is crumbly and steep in the upper basin but switchbacks are helpful. Pass beneath cliffs and then wander down through a pleasant and beautiful forest. Snow in the shady woods hid the trail so my GPS track may be slightly off. Where we closed our loop at 8.9 miles and 10,700 feet, there was no sign. Perhaps we missed it. Otherwise, the Jackson Pass Trail would be hard to find going in the opposite direction. The runout on the road back to camp afforded welcome processing time after walking atop a ridge that is both feasible and boundless.

The La Sal Mountains are a landmark of contrast, orientation, and home ground.

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