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.

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