Saturday, August 19, 2017

Grizzly Peak, 13,738': The Kaleidoscope Summit

Essence: Gentle ascent on-trail to a hanging glacial bench. To summit the high thirteener, choose between scaling a moderate couloir or the Class 4 southeast ridge. The ridge is difficult and demanding, extended and exposed. Radiating colorful ridges splay from the summit toward vibrant, variegated neighboring mountains. Return on the playful south ridge or down the couloir. Only the rugged drive dissuades. 
Travel: This is the tedious factor. In a 4WD, high clearance vehicle, from Durango drive 28 miles north on US 550 to mile marker 49. Turn left at Purgatory Resort and zero-out your trip meter. Advance to the upper parking lot. At 0.3 mile turn right on Hermosa Park Road, FSR 578. There is a small brown sign marking this dirt road. The road makes three big switchbacks. Little spurs head off but the main road is obvious. At 3.2 miles go right, staying on Hermosa Park Road. At 3.6 miles turn right on Relay Creek Road, FSR 579. At 4.8 miles go right on Cascade Divide Road, staying on FSR 579. The painfully slow road is riddled with tire-sucking divots and gigantic potholes. Cross Pando, EZ, and Graysill Creeks and the Graysill Trail. The switchbacks start at 13.8 miles. There is room for several vehicles at the end of the road at 15.4 miles. The land speed record, Durango to the trailhead, is 1:20. Allow two hours.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 7.3 miles, 3,200 feet of vertical
Time: 5:30 to 7:00
Difficulty: Trail, off-trail; navigation challenging; no exposure on couloir route, considerable exposure on the southeast ridge (Class 4), and mild exposure on the south ridge (Class 3). 
Maps: Ophir; Engineer Mountain, Colo. 7.5 USGS Quads
Latest Date Hiked: August 19, 2017
Quote: The summit embraces the entire space of the mountain. Marco Pallis

Grizzly Peak from San Miguel Peak.

Route: From the trailhead at elevation 11,200 feet, walk northerly to Grizzly Meadows. Choose between the standard couloir route noted with the blue line and the challenging southeast ridge route--for experienced mountaineers only. Upon leaving the summit, return via the couloir or the south ridge. Close the loop in Grizzly Meadows.

From the north end of the parking area walk on a well-defined spur for 0.1 mile to intersect the Colorado Trail (note this junction for the return) which shares this section with the Rico-Silverton Trail. Turn right (toward Denver!) and descend to a creek stained white from aluminum hydroxy-sulfate precipitate at 0.5 mile. At 0.7 mile, leave the Colorado Trail veering left uphill on an unmarked social trail. This track makes a rising traverse and bends around the base of Point 12,695' while crossing a scree field. Grizzly Peak comes into view. From the left in the image below is the pinnacle on the south ridge, climbing couloir, summit, and southeast ridge.

The trail tracks above "Grizzly Meadows" at 2.1 miles but you can easily walk down to the lake. The meadows are on a large bench with granitic glacial erratics strewn about. The land falls away dramatically to the east with Cascade Creek occupying the trench. White Creek Falls plummet down the opposing wall. The contrast between the peaceful lake and the hovering southwest ridge of dominant Rolling Mountain could not be more startling.

Couloir Route up Grizzly: The classic way up the mountain is also the easiest and fastest, though it does have its hazards. This image was taken west of Grizzly Meadows where the climb starts. The access couloir is the wide declivity in the center of the picture. While it is not obvious in this photo, there is a cliffy area in the middle of this basin. Stay left on the green ramp until you pass the cliffs. Then move right into the couloir. Saddle 13,400' is one mile from the lake at the top of the couloir. Ascending the mix of green and granite will induce tundra euphoria, guaranteed.

I favor the right/northeast wall of the couloir but the entire gully is accepting, if loose. Groups should be aware of tumbling talus. In this image, one hiker is waiting his turn while two make the descent after visiting the peak.

From the saddle, turn right/north for a relatively easy 0.3 mile, 15 minute walk to the summit on a dirt/rock mix treadway. Before I go on about how captivating the zenith is, let's wait for the ridge climbers to join us.

Southeast Ridge Route: If you are a Grizzly aficionado and intrepid scrambler this ridge may be for you. It takes one to three hours to climb 2,200 feet over 1.1 miles. It is considerably more hazardous and demanding than the couloir route. From Grizzly Meadows walk north. Stay to the right of a marshy area and cross the outlet. The southeast ridge is just coming into view image-left. (THW, photo)

Arrive a the base of the southeast ridge at 2.5 miles, elevation 11,560 feet. 

Mid-summer, the flowers are superb on the lower ridge.

Encounter the first Class 4 obstacle at 12,160 feet, 2.8 miles. I probed this carefully but was not able to find sufficient holds. The weathered granitic blocks are sturdy but features are infrequent and rounded. My son was able to make the climb left of center. As shown on the map, I bypassed to the right/north, returning to the ridge at first opportunity. You can avoid the Class 4 segment by extending your bypass to 12,800 feet.
This image depicts the next Class 4 obstacle.

There is a mix of vertical walls, downclimbs and spans across exposed openings. Cling to the ridge except when it is absolutely necessary to leave it momentarily. The exposure is grave through most of the climb. After a particularly airy ledge walk on ridge-left the challenge eases and progress increases. This image looks down on the ridge. (THW, photo)

There is a false summit at 13,680 feet and then a pleasant 0.2 mile topline walk to the peak at 3.6 miles. San Miguel Peak, 13,752', is two miles away to the north, image-right.

Looking back from the summit ridge, Engineer Mountain caps a wall of slabs on Grizzly's false summit.

The Kaleidoscope Summit: In Durango, Grizzly Peak enjoys a considerable mystique. As viewed from US 550 at mile marker 50 near Cascade, it is somewhat dark and daunting. It may be seen for a fleeting moment in the center of a sky wedge which makes it all the more alluring. Standing on top is altogether different. It is like being inside a spinning kaleidoscope. Twirl yourself to see ridges rippling off in all directions and mountains flying by, each a jazzy splash of color. Vermilion Peak, 13,894', is the highest neighbor, rising to the northeast.

El Diente, Mount Wilson, and Wilson Peak, all 14'ers, are in the northwest.

The most direct and easiest way home is to return via the couloir. Recalling the cliffs in the basin, angle to the right upon exiting from the couloir until you are past them.

South Ridge Descent: The fun factor on the south ridge is extreme, a worthy consideration for scramblers. Pass by the couloir, image-left, and proceed south. (THW, photo)

Scramble to the base of the pinnacle, shown. A rock glacier flows west from Point 13,139'. (THW, photo)

Go around the spire on the left/east and return to the ridge. (THW, photo)

Or climb over the top of it.

Bypass subsequent towering slabs on the west side.

Prior to reaching the saddle, at about 13,040 feet, abandon the ridge, rapidly descending through the basin to the east. Work down through or bypass cliff bands keeping a bead on the lake in Grizzly Meadows, shown. Watch for golden eagles soaring and weasels scampering.

Stay to the right of two large boulders, pictured. Drop almost to the lake in Grizzly Meadows, intersecting the access trail and closing the loop. From here it is less than an hour to the parking area, assuming you do not mistakenly continue on the Colorado Trail all the way to Durango.

Grizzly Peak from US 550.

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