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. Measure from there. 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 feet. 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 8.1 miles, just past Boren Creek at 9,240 feet. The hike starts west up FSR 794, just up from the parking pullout.
Distance and Elevation Gain via Tomahawk: 7.6 miles, 3,300' of climbing
Distance and Elevation Gain via Boren Creek: 8.2 miles, 4,000' up
Total Time: 5:30 to 8:00 depending on route
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. (Thomas Holt Ward, photo)

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 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, 10,920 feet, 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 northwest up a steep, slippery slope to a bench, staying well right of the rock outcrop seen below.

The route briefly utilizes the bed of an 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. The next objective is the saddle between Point 12,860' and East Babcock. 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; East Babcock is on the left. 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 northeast ridge, the view of Saddle 12,740' sharpens. (2020 note: The saddle elevation stated on the map is incorrect.) Work up the field of large and rickety talus. The rock is bigger and more accepting near the base of the ridge. About 300 feet off the saddle there is a remarkable rim of talus, rather like a road, that leads southeast to a social trail. The trail crosses a scree field and hits the saddle between Point 12,860' and East Babcock at 3.55 miles.

Since climbers approaching from Boren Creek will also reach Saddle 12,740', 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. Looking at the image below, climb the ridge just beyond the shallow drainage in front of this hiker.

Scale northeast 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 12,740' at 3.8 miles. 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 12,740': From the saddle, it is 409 feet of climbing over a quarter mile on a knife-edge to the summit. This segment of the trek is for proven Class 3 scramblers experienced with foot-wide passages and serious exposure. A fall would be catastrophic. There is an abundance of solid rock and holds are generally good. Test them all. 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.

Alight on the softly rounded, roomy-enough apex at 3.8 miles. Of the peaks in the La Plata Mountains, the Babcock peaks and Spiller Peak down the way are among the most challenging--lusty, wild tangles of shattered rock. Shown from the left are: Spiller Peak, The Knife, West Babcock, and Middle Babcock. Clearly, there is no passage across the abyss between East and Middle Babcock. (THW, photo)

Hesperus Mountain, Lavender Peak and Mount Moss are less than one and a half miles away to the northwest. 
(THW, photo)

The approach to East Babcock from Boren Creek is somewhat tedious. However, the 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 10.2 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.


  1. Hey Debra, hope you had a great climbing season, today went up direct to saddle 12760’ then up the C3 ridge, wow! was that spicy with my 10 yr old dog, found an easier (C2+) route down, just east of summit a couloir goes down the south face pretty much the entire way edging slightly east, slow and steady though, sadly no visual on David Lunde today

    1. East Babcock in November, post snow! That is a crowning achievement. Thank you so much for your comment about your alternative route. Can't wait to get up there and have a look at Brian's Couloir! We are all watching out for David--so tragic. Thanks to you we tracked down a copy of the San Juan Mountaineers' Climber's Guide through inter-library loan. Good to hear from you. Debra