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. 

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