Sunday, July 23, 2017

Oscar's Peak, 13,432', Via Blixt Road

Essence: Climb to Oscar's Pass and Oscar's Peak, Point 13,432', on non-motorized Blixt Road near the hamlet of Ophir. This is a short segment of the Hardrock Hundred Mile Endurance Run with an average grade of 23 percent. Head-high and densely-packed flowers soon give way to a continuous evolving vantage point of the exalted stone wilderness. This is a straight-forward hike--just follow the historic wagon doubletrack as it makes giant switchbacks to the pass. The peak is a short walk west.
Travel: The only navigation challenge is locating Blixt Road which is one of several tracks branching north from Ophir Pass Road. For those traveling from the east link to Yellow Mountain South for a detailed description of Ophir Pass Road. It is 4.1 miles from US Route 550 to the top of the pass. Unmarked Blixt Road is shortly west of Chapman Gulch, 2.0 miles west of Ophir Pass. There is no parking at this juncture so continue downhill 0.2 mile and park on the north side of the road in a pullout at Iron Spring, across from Swamp Canyon Trail, elevation 10,180. This is approximately one mile east of Ophir.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 5.8 miles roundtrip; 3,250 feet of climbing from the parking pullout.
Time: 3:30 to 4:30
Difficulty: Historic wagon road; navigation easy once you locate Blixt Road; no exposure
Maps: Ophir; Telluride, Colorado 7.5 USGS Quads
Date Hiked: July 23, 2017
History: The Ophir/Iron Spring Mining District peaked in the late 1800's when over a thousand people lived in Ophir. Ore was transported to smelters in Silverton over Ophir Pass. Blixt Road linked the Ophir Mining District with Bridal Veil Basin. Brothers Oscar, Gator, and Harry Blixt were sons of a Leadville miner; the three worked the mines outside of Telluride. Blixt Road was built by Oscar. Both Oscar’s Pass and the mountain due west of the pass, Oscar’s Peak, is named for him.
Quote: Clouds move on and the day opens to distance. Whole symphonies live between here and a distant whatever-we-look-at. Richard Hugo

Looking south from Oscar's Peak, the town of Ophir is beside the banks of the Howard Fork of the San Miguel River. The luminous block of peaks rimming the cavernous space include South Lookout Peak, U S Grant Peak, Fuller Peak, Vermilion Peak, Pilot Knob, San Miguel Peak, and Yellow Mountain. (THW, photo)

Route: From the juncture of Ophir Pass Road and Blixt Road, climb north up the south-facing wall of the east-west running ridge dominated by Silver Mountain. From Oscar's Pass climb 300 feet and 0.2 mile west to Oscar's Peak.

From the parking pullout at Iron Spring walk steeply east up Ophir Pass Road. Midsummer, lanky delphinium, cow parsnip, and osha cover the shady floor of the old aspen forest. Continue past the first side road on the left at 0.15 mile. It swings northwest off-route. Unsigned Blixt Road is in another 50 yards, 0.2 mile from the parking area at elevation 10,330 feet. Branch left at an acute angle onto Blixt Road, shown.

The two-track heads north up an established avalanche path, a noteworthy characteristic. Even down in the canyon views are immediate. Hovering above Swamp Canyon is South Lookout Peak, Swamp Pass, U S Grant, and V3.

At 0.35 mile (0.15 mile from Ophir Pass Road), elevation 10,460 feet, the road briefly peters out. Notice a green gate lying on the ground. Turn east/right onto a single track.

After a couple hundred feet of climbing the trail transitions back to an obvious abandoned road that remains a two-track to the pass. Cross a stream in the center of another avi path at 0.7 mile. Climbing consistently, Ophir drops away. Yellow Mountain is image-left. Lizard Head, the Wilson group and Sunshine Mountain are on the right.

Leave the aspen forest behind at 11,180. The track swings parallel to Chapman Gulch while keeping the drainage to the east. (THW, photo)

At 1.35 miles, pass by an old and faded Road Closed sign. "Here to Telluride is a mixture of private and public land. The mine owners haven't fenced you out. Respect their rights and property. Tread lightly." (THW, photo)

Break out of the conifers at 11,700 feet and soon the broad pass is revealed. We inadvertently scared up an elk herd so we took a break to allow them to move on. In this image the elk are on the track where Blixt Road switches to the east away from a secondary mine road at 12,240 feet.

Below, hikers pause beneath the sun west of Point 13,614'.  (THW, photo)

The steep face is prone to sloughing but talus berms on the downslope side stabilize the road.

Below, hikers are about to top Oscar's Pass, elevation 13,130 feet, at 2.7 miles. Ophir Pass Road is image-center.
(Rich Butler, photo)

Blixt Road goes up and over the pass and heads down into Bridal Veil Basin. For thru hikers going to Telluride there are three options: Wasatch Connection to Gold Hill; East Fork to Bear Creek; and Bridal Veil Basin to Bridal Veil Creek and the Black Bear Pass switchbacks (see Nader's SummitPost).

From Oscar's Pass look north into Bridal Veil Basin. Three Needles are image-left and Lewis Lake is below "Columbine Pass," 13,058'. Although there are more direct routes to Columbine Lake from the east, there are social trail fragments into the basin and over Columbine Pass to the lake.

From Oscar's Pass it is a quick and simple 0.2 mile to the peak on a relatively broad ridge of broken rock. It is a shallower incline than most of the road.

Strong hikers will crest the roomy flat summit in under two hours.

The humble peak doesn't call attention to itself but the panoramic is one of the best in Colorado. The mountain resides east of midway on a ridge that spans the Ophir Needles, Silver Mountain, Oscar's Peak, Point 13,614', and Lookout Peak.

It looks like you can continue west on the ridge. However, there is a vertical wall east of San Joaquin Ridge Summit that may prohibit travel on to Silver Mountain. 

North, Wasatch Mountain and La Junta Peak form the divide between the Bear Creek and Bridal Veil Creek watersheds. On this day, we could see clear to Uncompahgre Peak. (THW, photo)

We intended to climb Point 13,614' east of Oscar's Pass, image-left, but weather chased us off the ridge. Lookout Peak is to its right. The bright blue dot is Crystal Lake, a short and highly recommended walk from Ophir Pass.

Trotting down Blixt Road there is one flat switchback, shown below. Overall, this is one of those descents that feels steeper (and perhaps more punishing) than the climb. (THW, photo)

Saturday, July 15, 2017

East Babcock Peak, 13,149': Tomahawk Basin and Boren Creek Approaches

Essence: Fun, adrenalized Class 3 scrambling on an ultra thin ridge to a summit with mind-numbing, heart-wrenching views of nearby peaks. While East Babcock is not the highest of the Babcock Brothers, that honor belongs to Middle Babcock, it is the only one with a designated elevation on the La Plata 7.5 Quad. The summit can be scaled only by way of the east ridge which may be approached either from Boren Creek or Tomahawk Basin. Both routes are described, followed by their shared journey upon the delightful razorback ridge to the crest.
Travel to Tomahawk Basin Road: 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'. The hike goes west up FSR 798, the Tomahawk Basin Road.
Travel to Boren Creek Road: From Durango, follow the travel instructions above but park on La Plata Canyon Road at 8.4 miles, just past Boren Creek at 9,240'. The hike starts west up FSR 794.
Distance and Elevation Gain via Tomahawk: 7.4 miles, 3,300' of climbing
Distance and Elevation Gain via Boren Creek: 8.2 miles, 4,000' up
Time: 6:15 to 8:00
Difficulty for both: 4WD road, minimal social trail, off-trail; navigation challenging; Class 3 scrambling on knife edge with good holds, significant exposure.
Map: La Plata, Colorado 7.5 USGS Quad
Latest Date Hiked: June 15, 2017
Quote: Keep your eye fixed on the way to the top, but don't forget to look right in front of you. The last step depends on the first. Don't think you're there just because you see the summit. Watch your footing, be sure of the next step, but don't let that distract you from the highest goal. Rene Daumal, Mount Analogue.

East Babcock, "4th Crest", and Middle Babcock, 13,180', from Tomahawk Basin.

Route Map For Both Approaches:  

Route Via Tomahawk Basin:
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. 

At 1.9 miles, 10,950' (N37 25.911 W108 03.664), leave the road where it makes a sharp switchback to the east. Navigation is tricky for the next mile. The goal is to reach upper Tomahawk Basin, keeping Basin Creek on the left/south. Follow a braided social trail WNW up a steep, slippery slope to a bench, staying well right of the rock outcrop seen below.

The route briefly utilizes the bed of a historic, steel pipeline.

The next aim is to get above the waterfall. A faint social trail climbs to the right of the rock outcrop, just right of center in this image. Then it plows through a stand of willows.

At the next level, pass a couple of black boulders. The track moves left, closer to the creek, all the while bearing west into the basin. It is particularly useful crossing a large talus field.

When the climbing levels out in the upper basin, angle over to the creek. Where you cross the creek is not critical; do so somewhere between 2.5 and 2.7 miles, between 11,800 and 12,000 feet (N37 26.005 W108 04.496). Zigzag southwest, utilizing ramps of tundra strewn with talus. Here, one gets the impression this mountain really wants to be climbed.

Ascend with a clear view of the imposing north faces of the four Babcocks. Their spires are like cactus spines, warning one not to encroach. And yet, all but 4th Crest allow passage. Reach a flat reprieve at 12,260 feet.

Rounding left/east of East Babcock's NE ridge, the view of Saddle 12,760' sharpens. Work up the field of large and rickety talus. The rock is bigger and more accepting near the base of the ridge. With about 300 feet left to climb, there is a remarkable rim of talus, rather like a road, that leads SE to a social trail. The trail crosses a scree field and hits the saddle between Pt 12,860' and East Babcock (N37 25.645 W108 04.422), at 3.4 miles.

Since climbers approaching from Boren Creek will also reach Saddle 12,760', I will explain that route before discussing the summit stage.

Route Via Boren Creek: Be patient walking up Boren Creek Road, FSR 794. By 0.3 mile, the track is filled with bowling ball rocks. Walk through a mixed forest with good flowers, passing a lovely waterfall at 0.5 mile. Leave the road at 2.4 miles, 11,180 feet (N37 25.235 W108 04.557). Looking at the image below, climb the ridge just beyond the shallow drainage in front of this hiker.

Scale NE on the small ridge until it starts to wane. Cross a shallow gully and gain a south facing ridge, 0.2 mile from the road.  A view of the east ridge of East Babcock opens, seen below. The next goal is to gain the ridge left of Point 12,255'. I have done this three times, each differently. Regardless, it is a major sidehill slog with 700 feet of climbing on broken rock obscured under wildflowers so fabulously thick and tall it is impossible to see your feet. (THW, photo)

Return note: If you plan to return via Boren Creek, do not allow yourself to get sucked into Shaw Gulch or be tempted by the prominent southern ridge just west of Shaw. Rather, go back to the road as you came.

The best feature of the Boren Creek route is the additional climbing on the east ridge of East Babcock. Head west, going over the top of Point 12,860', and down to Saddle 12,760' at 3.8 miles (N37 25.645 W108 04.422). The Tomahawk Basin route joins at this location. In the image below, East Babcock is on the far left, then Point 12,860'.
(THW, photo)

East Ridge of East Babcock from Saddle 12,760': From the saddle, it is 389 feet of climbing for 0.3 mile on a knife edge to the summit. In places it is only a foot wide with substantial exposure. And yet, there is an abundance of solid rock, the holds are generally good (test!), and the scrambling is Class 3. While concentration is paramount, the underlying feeling is exhilaration. As a friend observed, "The entire knife is the crux."

No one in his senses would step to one side on a climb if a hold were available in the direct line; every deviation from that line is dictated by the presence of some obstacle and by the climber's own inability to surmount it. Marco Pallis

East Babcock provides a rare and ideal climb, for one may follow the axis to the summit without even once deviating from the ridge.

Of the peaks in the La Plata Range, the Babcock Bad Boys and their spinoff sister, Spiller, are the most challenging--lusty, wild tangles of rock. Shown from the left are: Spiller Mountain, The Knife, West Babcock, and Middle Babcock. Clearly, there is no passage from East to Middle Babcock. (THW, photo from peak)

Hesperus Mountain, Lavender Peak and Mount Moss are less than two miles away to the northwest.

The approach to East Babcock, especially from Boren Creek, is somewhat tedious. However, the 0.3 mile ridge experience is the definition of fun. It is impossible to feel anything but pure happiness on this thin but accommodating spine. (THW, photo)

The author descending; it is over too quickly. (THW, photo)

The mountain is graced by an abundance of wildflowers, including deep purple columbines. A partial list of those in attendance: alp lily, moss campion, purple fringe, mouse-ear chickweed, snowball saxifrage, sulfur paintbrush, alpine sage, Grey's angelica, elegant death camas, Fendler's sandwort, and burnt orange agoseris.

East Babcock Loop: The loop, a truly grand tour, starting up Boren Creek Road and exiting via Tomahawk, is 10 miles and 4,000' feet of climbing. This includes 2.7 miles on La Plata Canyon Road. If you must choose, go by way of Tomahawk Basin where beauty is startling, big, and bright.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Potato Hill (Spud Mountain), 11,871'

Essence: "Spud Mountain" is a little potato-shaped summit ringed by noble peaks. Seen from everywhere, it is favored by locals who just have to check it out--time and again. The climb is short but rugged. The way through dense woods is anything but obvious. A narrow but safe boulder ridge leads to the crest. An alternative scramble up the west ridge is described.
Travel: From Durango, drive north on US Route 550. Two miles south of Coal Bank Pass there is a tight left hairpin. At mile marker 55.2 park in a large pullout on the left/west. Allow 35 minutes from Durango.
Distance and Elevation Gain: Standard route is 1.4 miles each way with 1,800 feet of total vertical.
The west ridge scramble shaves 0.1 mile on the way up. Coal Bank Pass to the summit (not recommended) is 2.6 miles with 1640 elevation gain, one way.
Time: 3:00 to 4:00
Difficulty: Off-trail; navigation challenging; standard route is Class 2+, west ridge is Class 3; mild exposure
Map: Engineer Mountain, Colorado 7.5 USGS Quad
Latest Date Hiked: July 5, 2017
Quote: In the end, you won’t remember the time you spent working in the office or mowing your lawn. Climb that goddamn mountain. Jack Kerouac

Some locals make Potato Hill an annual affair. Others are content to simply visit Potato Lake at the southern base of the peak. These are two very different hikes starting from disparate locations. (THW, photo)

Route: The standard black-line route leaves US 550 and heads east. Climb the north ridge to the summit. The west ridge route has optional scramble tracks and climbs 660 feet in just 0.2 mile. The purple-dot route links from Coal Bank Pass. Yes, you start higher in elevation but the effort and frustration is far greater.

From the US 550 pullout at elevation 10,120 feet, cross to the east side of road and dive into the woods. Climb steeply through a scraggly fir and aspen forest heading east.

After 0.4 mile at 10,400 feet intersect a broad avalanche path. Walk on and over the deadfall.

Follow the avi path to approximately 10,700. This snap looks down the swath. Grayrock Peak is image-center.
(THW, photo)

As you close in on the top of the path you will see an open talus bowl beyond sparse trees. That's the next goal. The west ridge route is discussed later. However, in the image below, it is toward the left glistening in sun.  (THW, photo)

At 0.8 mile, 10,800 feet, enter the talus field. Continue east up the obvious appealing route.

Standard Route on North Ridge
At 0.9 mile, pass the west ridge scramble route and continue climbing east-northeast. There is a flat reprieve at the base of the north ridge of Potato Hill at 1.1 miles, 11,440 feet. Look around for a sporadic social trail that assists in the talus slog.

At elevation 11,700 feet the ridge narrows and becomes playful. There is a feeling of protection in the relatively stable blocks.

A small false summit signals imminent arrival on Potato Hill at 1.4 miles. The peak register dates to 2006. Older sheets are present but in ruins.

The view is sterling and unique. Potato Hill creates its own divide between Lime Creek, east, and Mill Creek, west. Engineer Mountain needs no introduction. In this image to its right is Grizzly Peak, Rolling Mountain, Vermilion Peak, and Twin Sisters.

For a Potato Lake overview walk out the southeast ridge. The rock is less stable on this narrow spine. (THW, photo)

Lime Creek is almost 3,000 feet below and out of sight. Across the gap is North Twilight Peak, Middle, and South. (THW, photo)

If you dare, descend to a tiny pinnacle but no further.  A friend in blue sits on the pedestal.

Snowdon Peak is in the center of this descent image.

Returning, be sure to turn northwest out of the avi path at 10,400 feet. The path continues but it becomes impossible to move through the piles of downed timber. Continue northwest until you hit the highway. If you get drawn off to the south you will miss 550. It can be confusing and messy in here with swampy areas and gullies. Be mindful.

West Ridge Scramble
This option is for scramblers looking for a playful alternative to the standard route. At 0.9 mile, 11,100 feet, make a sixty degree turn and head east-southeast up into the rock. Looking at the image below, this is shortly before reaching the spine of the west ridge and just above my friend. Multiple choice--pick a line that appeals to you.

The rock is an extrusive, fine grained granitic. There are plenty of good solid blocks but a number of holds cut loose when I tested them.

We went looking for fun and chose a Class 3+ route.

It is a 0.2 mile pitch to gain the north ridge and rejoin the standard route at 11,760 feet. (THW, photo)

Coal Bank Pass Temptation 
Starting at 10,660 feet is not the advantage it seems. The route is longer and harder. The volume of deadfall is annoying. There are big swamps. The final slope to the north ridge flat at 11,440 feet is very steep. The forest is heavy and you can't see where you are going making route finding difficult. If you insist, carry a GPS and stay near the east side of the ridge. Admittedly, there is a rewarding view of Potato Hill looking very much like a spud.