Monday, June 18, 2018

Telluride Summits: Oscar's Peak, 13,432'; Wasatch Mountain, 13,555'; La Junta Peak, 13,472'; and Ballard's Horn, 13,145'

Essence: Climb four summits and two prominences on the divide between the Bear Creek and Bridal Veil Creek watersheds. Ride the Telluride gondola to access the start and to close the loop. Diverse features throughout. The smooth See Forever Trail contrasts with exposed Class 3+ scrambling; a narrow ridge separates broad basins. An abandoned mining shelf road is blasted from the cliff face; an anchored rope crosses an eroded ravine. Sky high views of Telluride and continuous, evolving vantage points overlooking the southern San Juans Mountains. All-day effort with long miles, substantial elevation gain and even more loss.
Travel: The hike begins from the San Sophia Gondola Station at Telluride Ski Resort. Access the station by riding the free gondola either from Telluride or Mountain Village. Free all-day parking is available at the Carhenge parking lot off West Pacific Avenue at the west end of town and in a covered lot in Mountain Village.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 14.5 miles; 5,600 feet of climbing; 7,300 feet of descent
Total Time: 9:30 to 11:30
Difficulty: Trail, off-trail; navigation challenging; a short Class 3 wall and moderate exposure on Wasatch Mountain; Class 3+ with serious exposure on the north ridge of La Junta Peak.
Map: Telluride, Colorado 7.5' USGS Quad or Apogee Mapping
Latest Date Hiked: June 18, 2018
Quote: So there I lie on the plateau, under me the central core of fire from which was thrust this grumbling grinding mass of plutonic rock, over me blue air, and between the fire of the rock and the fire of the sun, scree, soil and water, moss, grass, flower and tree, insect, bird and beast, wind, rain and snow—the total mountain. Slowly I have found my way in. Nan Shepherd, The Living Mountain

A hiker crests the southern prominence of Wasatch Mountain. Mount Sneffels bridges the gap.
(Thomas Holt Ward, photo)

Route: From San Sophia Station, hike south up See Forever Trail to the Wasatch Connection. Descend south to Bear Creek and take the Wasatch Trail southeast to McCarron Junction. Climb south off-trail to Oscar's Peak. Then head north and crest Wasatch Mountain, La Junta Peak, and Ballard's Horn. Double back to the La Junta saddle and drop west to intersect the La Junta Basin Trail. Descend to Bear Creek and return to Telluride. For those parked in Mountain Village, ride the gondola from Telluride Station.

From San Sophia Station, elevation 10,540 feet, utilize a ski area road to gain quick access to the alpine. Walking south, it is tempting to go straight up the ridge at 0.2 mile but hikers are asked to branch right on See Forever Trail. At half a mile, make a sharp left onto a single track, #415. It quickly returns to the ridge. Already the visual field opens to decorated Palmyra Peak and the San Miguel Mountains containing the fourteener Mount Wilson and neighbors.
(THW, photo)

Cat tracks spin off--hold to the ridge on See Forever Road. Below, hikers approach Gold Hill. Oscar's Peak, the most southern summit on the divide, is image-left.

At 2.45 miles, 12,200 feet, the Wasatch Connection branches left from the road. The trail now gives up 640 of the 1,770 feet just climbed. The track makes big swings highlighting the massive wall across the drainage. Skim by towers composed of disintegrating San Juan Volcanics. We will be in this formation much of the day. Snow lingers long here so don't start your hike too early in the season. (THW, photo)

The connect trail bottoms out and ends at Bear Creek, 4.0 miles, 11,560 feet. Just before the creek is a signed junction. The lower Wasatch Trail branches north, plummets downcanyon and segues into the Bear Creek Trail below the falls. Our hike crosses the creek following the eastward, upper Wasatch Trail. The stream is the headwaters of Bear Creek. It drains Lena Basin and the lake held within the constricted curvature of Palmyra Peak and Silver Mountain, image-right. San Joaquin Ridge is on the left. (THW, photo)

The trail is excellent all the way to the divide, air lifting hikers through a series of basins. Reach a signed junction with the East Fork Bear Creek Trail at 4.8 miles. It heads north-northwest to link with the lower Wasatch Trail. At 12,200 feet, enter "Merry Gold Flat." A gently flowing braided stream courses through tundra bejeweled with happy marigolds.
(THW, photo)

The upper East Fork basin is wide open and uncluttered. The flowers throughout our journey in 2018 are sparse because southern Colorado was experiencing an exceptional drought.

Top out on the Bear Creek, Bridal Veil divide at 6.3 miles, 13,060 feet. At John McCarron Junction, the Bridal Veil Basin Trail radiates east; the Wasatch Trail comes up from the west; and Blixt Road heads south over Oscar's Pass and down Chapman Gulch into Ophir.

Oscar's Peak, 13,432'
While there are occasional bits of use trail on the divide our route is primarily off-trail until we meet up with the La Junta Basin Trail. The north ridge of Oscar's Peak is a big pile of talus and scree with sky pilot and deep rooted spring beauty tucked into the rock. The climbing experience is similar to the east ridge, the access route for those climbing via Blixt Road. Crest Oscar's Peak at 6.6 miles. For those counting, the east ridge rises just 292 feet from the shared saddle with Point 13,614' (eight feet shy of the 300 required) so Oscar's is not a ranked summit.

However, the view is stellar. East is Bridal Veil Basin, Point 13,614', and Lookout Peak. South, the town of Ophir is tucked 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.

North is our traveling ridge. Wasatch Mountain has two distinct prominences south of the summit, shown.

Wasatch Mountain, 13,555'
Begin climbing on flat orange plates. The ridge begins constricting but the ascent is simple to the south prominence, approximated as Point 13,420'. The spine narrows on the north side and rock is poised to cut loose, exposure moderate. Be mindful while straddling the ridgetop down to the next saddle. Between here and the middle prominence is a short Class 3 wall, shown. Climb straight up the middle searching out solid holds amongst the fractured stone.

I have seen different sets of elevations attributed to the two prominences on Wasatch Mountain. The  middle crest is Point 13,500' using standard approximation. (THW, photo)

Drop 80 feet to the next saddle on brick red ridge rock.

Summit Wasatch Mountain at 7.8 miles after 4,500 feet of climbing. While the bulk of the elevation gain is beneath us, the overall effort is only half accomplished. The highest point on the divide, Wasatch has one of the best views in the southern San Juans. Seen below, the La Junta Basin falls away, Telluride is on the valley floor looking pretty darn insignificant beneath behemoths at skyline: Dallas Peak, Gilpin Peak, Mount Sneffels, Cirque Mountain, Teakettle Mountain, and Petosi Peak. Further afar is Uncompahgre Peak and the Rio Grande Pyramid.

La Junta Peak, 13,472' 
From Wasatch drop on the northeast ridge, a big talus pile, and descend east to Lake 12,815', pictured. Note: the La Junta Basin Trail leaves the divide in this saddle south of La Junta Peak. In 2013, I took this footpath down to the Bear Creek Trail and into town. This is a good bailout choice for those who do not wish to contend with the exposed northwest ridge of La Junta Peak.

A social trail skirts the initial outcrop on the right and then kicks very steeply up the rounded southwest ridge of the mountain. At this point in our multi-peak day we were grateful for the assist up the big pile of uniformly small rock.

Crest the large, rounded summit at 8.8 miles. The lookout to peaks above the San Miguel River Valley is downright startling. (THW, photo)

The north ridge of La Junta, shown, looks imposing from the summit and it is. The drop to the saddle with Ballard's Horn presents a high level of exposure and requires wits and skill. There are three large obstacles. If this is not your idea of fun or safety, turn around and exit on the La Junta Basin Trail. Note: there may be a work-around on the west slopes of the mountain. If there is a viable trail I can't vouch for it. Personally, I am not fond of sloughed-off side trails on ultra steep slopes.

The first obstacle is a bulbous outcrop. Bypass it on a decent trail in violet-colored chipped rock on the west side of the mountain. The ground was fairly soft after a rain so it worked comfortably. Return to the ridge.

In the image below the first obstacle is at skyline just left of center. Getting around the second gendarme, also shown, was not memorable. (EJB, photo)

This image looks back at the third and most challenging vertically-faced outcrop ridge-center. Downclimb from the highpoint by hugging a knob on the west. The hand and footholds are friable, the ledge narrow, the exposure vast. Then do a Class 3+ downclimb through a crack on the left, also considerably exposed. I needed a spot. Then move back toward the center and descend to the ridge.

Peak 13,145' and Ballard's Horn
From the saddle, elevation 12,820 feet, a social trail skirts left of minor ridge obstacles. This might be the easiest climb of the day. (THW, photo)

Crest the final peak of the hike at 9.5 miles. The rather small summit is over-shadowed by Ballard's Horn roughly 100 feet downridge to the north. Don't neglect this outstanding feature. (THW, photo)

I shot this next image from Ballard's Horn looking north to Ballard Mountain, elevation 12,804 feet. In 2013, I set out with my partner to follow the "Seven Summits Ridge Trail" from Ballard Mountain to Oscar's Peak. Perhaps that trail existed once upon a time but, if so, it is now highly fragmentary. For a short discussion on climbing Ballard Mountain, see the end of this essay.

From the shared saddle with La Junta Peak plunge west down the green slope to an old wagon road doubling as the La Junta Basin Trail. (Chris Blackshear, photo)

Turn right and follow the big zigzags to the creek draining La Junta Basin. It is essential that you cross to the west side of the creek at 11,700 feet. The trail gets confusing and elusive after the crossing. Search for cairns and it will materialize. Make a point to stay on the west side of a water-bored trench. The overgrown trail goes north to the base of the fins and spires shown. It is possible to walk to the platform between the pillars.

The trail turns east and descends through willows. From this location try to get a bead on where the trail crosses the creek and tracks across the talus field on the other side. Some helpful person recently painted arrows at the creek crossing at 11,280 feet. Watch this slippery crossing. A friend did a face plant in the creek and got a nasty gash. The path heads northeast across a scree field that is obliterating the track. It functions beautifully in spite of its marbly surface. Walk through a corridor of astounding standing towers on either side of the drainage.

The route goes down the right side of a small ravine to a large wooden mining structure in ruins at 10,900 feet. Shortly thereafter is the next challenge. The trail crosses a sharply angled ravine that has collapsed. We were just barely able to cross this hillside unassisted in 2013. It has disintegrated substantially since. Thankfully, a rope is strung across the stretch and anchored to a boulder at midpoint. The maintenance crew has got a fight on their hands to keep this spectacular trail open.

Misting waterfalls course down a sheer wall. A two to three-foot wide shelf trail hangs above the abyss.

At 10,600 feet, miners blasted a road out from the face of the cliff. Walk under the overhanging roof.

The dirt path makes 39 switchbacks down through a peaceful wood. The unrelenting downward plunge is a little tedious. At the confluence of La Junta Basin Creek and Bear Creek the trail becomes tangled. We hunted around and found a log across Bear Creek downstream of the confluence but most of us just waded across. A footpath rises up from the log to the Bear Creek Trail at 13 miles, 9,400 feet.

This popular local's trail is actually a dirt road passing through a prettily fluttering aspen forest. It is a welcome gradual runout after a strenuous hike. When you hit the pavement walk one block north and one block west to the Telluride Station.

Ballard Mountain, 12,804'
We climbed Ballard Mountain in June, 2013. I shot the peak from Baked in Telluride. Ballard's Horn is seen right of Ballard Mountain.

To climb the mountain, walk up Bear Creek Trail about one mile to a narrow left spur. Go down a  grassy slope to a double log bridge across a narrow, carved spot in Bear Creek. Bear right at the first fork. Switchbacks are steep and unrelenting all the way to the northwest-facing ridge. At the Deertrail junction, go right and switchback to a rocky bench at 11,000 feet beneath a pinnacle. We looked around here for the trail. Walk straight up the north ridge and eventually climb on a steep and loose trail to the summit couloir. Pick your way up through rotten rock 300 feet to the summit.

Our goal was La Junta Peak and Basin. We followed the ridge south to the cliff at the base of Ballard's Horn at 13,000 feet. We explored the west side of the cliff and didn't like it so we backed up and contoured on a west-side trail that soon disappeared on exposed slopes below the horn. We retreated.

Friday, June 15, 2018

San Bernardo Mountain, 11,861', and Black Face, 12,147', Lizard Head Wilderness

Essence: Two mountains radiate from a central point--climb one or both. Black Face is a simple trail walk that climaxes on a lengthy summit ridge. San Bernardo Mountain has an off-trail finish and is more demanding. Both mountains are low in stature compared with nearby peaks. San Bernardo in particular is neglected in spite of the fascinating rock stacks on its surface. The hike is visually rewarding with dappled light in the aspen forest and long-reaching views to colorful and disorderly mountains to the east and monochromatic towering fourteeners to the west. Wildflowers are full-spectrum. This hike lies within the Lizard Head Wilderness and Uncompahgre National Forest.
Travel: Lizard Head Pass is located on CO 145 south of Telluride. At the pass turn west and park in either the upper or lower paved parking lot. Pit toilets, no water. The trailhead is 95 miles from Durango.
Distance and Elevation Gain: San Bernardo Mountain is 8.0 miles with 2,200 feet of climbing. Black Face is 8.0 miles with 2300 feet of vertical. Climb them both: 11.4 miles, 3500 feet of gain.
Total Time: 4:00 to 5:30 for one. Add two to three hours for both.
Difficulty: Trail, off-trail (San Bernardo); navigation moderate; no exposure
Map: Mount Wilson, Colorado 7.5' USGS Quad or Apogee Mapping
Latest Date Hiked: July 9, 2018
Quote: I’ll tell you what hermits realize. If you go off into a far, far forest and get very quiet, you’ll come to understand that you’re connected with everything. Alan Watts

While San Bernardo Mountain is surrounded by much higher peaks its strong appeal is apparent from the eastern slopes of Sunshine Mountain.

Route: From Lizard Head Pass walk northeast on the Lizard Head Trail. Enter the Lizard Head Wilderness and climb west to the junction with the Wilson Meadows Trail. For San Bernardo Mountain, take the Wilson Meadows Trail to the south ridge. Climb off-trail to Point 11,822' and walk the summit ridge west to the crest. Return to the Lizard Head Trail and ascend on-trail southwest to Black Face, the blue-line route.

From the parking lot, elevation 10,280 feet, Lizard Head Trail #505 heads northeast across an open grassy hillside. It is a perfect surface--well graded, smooth and soft. In early summer the flower field is vibrant with corn husk lily, wild iris, dock, ball-head waterleaf and purple violet. In autumn tall grasses are at seed and among them are clusters of golden eye and groves of cow parsnip.

Southeast is Sheep Mountain, image-right. (THW, photo)

The east is brilliantly lit with Yellow Mountain, Pilot Knob, Golden Horn, Vermilion Peak, Fuller Peak, and Beattie Peak.

In half a mile, walk through a wall of trees and enter an old growth fir and aspen forest. Thriving in filtered light are waist-high stands of delphinium, osha, cow parsnip, mountain bluebell, and elderberry, along with columbine, strawberry, snowberry, and white violet. Brookcress crowd together beside a stream. In autumn, red is on the ground and gold in the air. Spent geranium and fireweed leaves flame and baneberry clumps are the color of rubies. 

The trail barges through talus yards, undulating gently.

The climbing begins upon crossing into the Lizard Head Wilderness at 1.6 miles. The trail switches up making for the saddle between Points 11,302' and 11,747'. Trout Lake is visible through an opening in the vertically-shafted aspen.

Large stands of spruce add a strong presence. On the forest floor are heart leaf arnica and orange sneezeweed; false Solomon's seal, yarrow, fleabane daisy, and white peavine; purple vetch, meadow rue, and death camus. A blockfield tumbles off Point 11,747'.

In springtime the saddle is covered in kittentail, buttercup, globe flower, Jacob's ladder, and western valerian, shown. (THW, photo)

Reach a signed junction at 2.3 miles, 10,900 feet. The Lizard Head Trail goes left at the shallow fork and ascends to Black Face. That pleasant trek is described later. For those climbing San Bernardo Mountain, take Wilson Meadows Trail to the right.

San Bernardo Mountain, 11,861'
Follow the Wilson Meadows Trail for half a mile. Note that it has been rerouted since the USGS topo was published in 1953. Pass an unmarked pond (down below the trail) and descend slightly to cross two creeks watering marsh marigold and Parry's primrose.

At 2.8 miles the south ridge of San Bernardo suddenly appears (but you cannot see the summit) and the trail splits. The Wilson Meadows Trail is signed and goes left. You have a choice here. Either get on the ridge immediately or follow the right-hand trail through the woods on a round-about course to the ridge.

To begin, the ridge is covered in thick clumps of grass with wallflower and chainpod thrown in. Stay just to the right of the trees and soon the alternate trail will emerge out from the forest. This helpful social trail skirts a landmark-sized washed out ravine on its east only to multi-braid and disappear. Head to the ridge crest.

Viewing opportunities of Lizard Head and companion peaks get better with every upward step. At 11,500 feet, the stone structure of the mountain breaks out onto the surface. I thought perhaps the formation was Telluride Conglomerate but a geologist friend thinks this is a conglomerate lens within Dakota Sandstone. The pebbles in the Dakota conglomerates are generally much smaller than the larger cobbles of the Telluride.

The south cliffs of the mountain are too steep and rubbly for a direct assault.

We decided to climb the east prominence, Point 11,822', first and then walk the summit ridge west to the peak. This worked beautifully. Lose a little elevation, walk past a skanky tarn, and then up an accommodating ramp, shown. 

The rocks alone make this simple climb to an unranked subsidiary summit a delight. Tucked into stone groupings are alpine flowers: minuartia, alpine avens, king's crown, candytuft, moss campion, dotted saxifrage, alpine clover, and old man of the mountain.

Top out on Point 11,822' at 3.7 miles. The eastern prominence affords a unique vantage point. Look northeast to the Ophir Needles and see the Ophir Pass Road rising out of the Howard Fork trench.

The treed summit ridge swings west to the highpoint of San Bernardo Mountain.

Above the ridge live the ragged giants: Lizard Head, Mount Wilson (South Peak), Mount Wilson (14,246'), and Gladstone Peak (THW, photo)

Initially, the ridge over to the west summit is a little slow, complicated by a krumholtz barrier and crumbly rock stacks. Once past the saddle, elevation 11,700 feet, it is easier to stay slightly north of the ridgeline. Crest San Bernardo Mountain, shown, at 4.2 miles.

We are the first to sign the peak register in 2018. Judging from the very few entries since Gerry Roach placed the register on September 26, 2004, people don't pay this fine mountain much mind. It stands in the shadow of some of Colorado's highest peaks. And yet there must be something special about this mountain because we are keeping company with people who have sojourned from distant lands: Bhutan; Columbia; Mexico City; Hamburg, Germany; and Tanzania.

Trees favor the mountain all the way to 11,800 feet but the small stone summit is wide open to the high horizon. In the image below Wilson Peak is the grey fourteener left of Sunshine Mountain, image-right. While Sunshine is in the neighborhood, its east ridge is climbed from the Lake Fork of the San Miguel River. (THW, photo)

Below, Point 11,822' is image-left and over on the right are V8 and Twin Sisters.

The safest way off the peak is to return 0.2 mile to the saddle and drop steeply toward the tarn. A large coyote charged away from the watering hole. I shot this image of Black Face from the south ridge. The mountain is a whole lot more interesting than it appears from afar so if you have the time, weather, and energy you are already most of the way there. Return on the Wilson Meadows Trail to the Lizard Head Trail junction at 5.7 miles with 2,000 feet of vertical behind you.

Black Face, 12,147'
From the signed junction, Black Face is 1.7 miles afar with 1300 feet of climbing remaining. The Lizard Head Trail switches steeply up on the northerly side of the east-northeast ridge. The earthen path is so smooth and steady, flowing upward is almost effortless. Douglass fir are good shady company. The trail is rerouted from the topo--it now skirts Point 11,747' and then gains the ridge at 11,640 feet. 

Approaching treelimit, the lookout eastward is astounding.

From the ridgecrest you can see the entire route up San Bernardo Mountain. (THW, photo)

The ridgetop and summit vista is beyond dramatic. While the San Miguel Mountains command primary attention, the relief is high enough to see clear over to Uncompahgre Peak.

Below, hikers approach the summit of Black Face. (THW, photo)

From Black Face, the Lizard Head Trail continues west and links with the Cross Mountain Trail. While this hike is an out-and-back, the thru-hike linking the Lizard Head Trailhead with the Cross Mountain Trailhead is popular. Or, create a loop by walking on the old railroad grade back to the start.

Lizard Head, a 400 foot-tall vertical pillar of exfoliating rotten rock is Colorado's most difficult and dangerous summit climb--the easiest route is 5.8+. Albert Ellingwood made the first ascent in 1920. This image was captured from the summit of Black Face under a brooding sky. (THW, photo)