Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Half Peak, 13,841': Hourglass Summit

Essence: Minnie Gulch approach to hourglass shaped peak with vertical north face. Ranked 88th highest in Colorado. Entire hike above treeline; ultimate tundra experience. Long, prime segment of CDT/CT. Not a gimmie; constricted ridge prior to peak transforms hike into climb. One of the finest vantage points in the San Juans.
Travel: From Silverton, drive up Greene Street, the main drag. Zero-out your trip meter as you make a soft right onto San Juan CR 2. The pavement ends at 2.0 miles. On a good dirt road pass the turnoff to Cunningham Gulch in Howardsville at 4.1 miles. Pass the road into Maggie Gulch at 5.9 miles. Reach Minnie Gulch at 6.5 miles and turn right onto San Juan CR 24. The steep, rocky road climbs switchbacks before suspending itself on a shelf high above the gorge. 4WD (low helpful), moderate clearance, and beefy tires are necessary. In 7.8 miles, pass the first of many mine ruins and wreckage, some classically picturesque. Turn right at the fork at 8.1 miles. Treeline is at 9 miles. Park at 9.5 miles where the road switches abruptly left to end at the Esmeralda Mine. A sign indicates the trail is closed to all motorized vehicles. 
Distance and Elevation Gain: 15.5 miles, 4,200 feet of climbing makes for a big day
Time: 7:30 to 9:00
Difficulty: Continental Divide Trail, Colorado Trail, off-trail; navigation moderate; appreciable exposure for 0.25 mile on Class 2 knife
Maps: Howardsville; Pole Creek Mountain, Colorado 7.5' Quads
Latest Date Hiked: July 22, 2014
Quote: Like sands through the hourglass, so are the days of our lives, and for that live moment we thrive. Binary Star

Descriptively named Half Peak. The 14'ers, Redcloud Peak and Sunshine Peak, are in the same neighborhood on the left.

Route: This is an out-and-back from the Minnie Gulch Trailhead. For a detailed description of all routes to Half Peak, including the Cuba Gulch and Cataract Gulch approaches consult, Colorado's Thirteeners: 13,800 to 13,999 Feet, by Gerry and Jennifer Roach.

From the trailhead, elevation 11,520 feet, cross a streamlet and walk south-southeast up Minnie Gulch. This image looks back at the trailhead.

In mid-July the wildflowers are unbeatable. They flow out of rocks and spill down the hill.

They cross the trail and tumble to the bottom of Minnie Gulch. The scene looks like a Pointillist painting by Georges Seurat. I scribbled down the names of 27 bloomers while covering the first mile.

The path eventually becomes marshy and braided. Just stay above and east of the creek. There is no need to doggedly stay on the trail to the head of the broad valley at 12,760'. Instead, at about 12,550', turn east and ascend a grassy slope, working around islands of rock, to 12,745' at 1.6 miles. Here you will meet the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) and Colorado Trail (CT) sharing the same treadway (N37 49.685 W107 31.181). Where you hit the trail is less important than securing it. Cairn edifices are so herky and beautiful, there must have been a cairn creation contest. This image shows the head of Minnie Gulch and Middle Mountain ridge. (THW, photo)

The hike ambles along the CDT/CT for the next few miles. Turn north, and gradually climb to meet the Continental Divide at Ridge 13,000'. Pass this Parry's primrose showing off.

On the broad ridge at 2.3 miles, two trails meet. One path, blocked off with rocks, leads north passing a small pond. Avoid this trail unless you want extra credit for climbing Cuba Benchmark, 13,019', shown 0.3 mile away.  (THW, photo)

The straightforward approach is to stay on the CDT/CT. The GPS track above reflects exploration in this area: if you wish, climb Pt 13,041' before cutting cross-country down to the main trail. However you go, there is no way to avoid losing 400 feet before climbing once again. This is the first of two places the route gives up considerable elevation on the way to Half Peak. This image shows the first view of the mountain, Cuba Gulch, and a CDT/CT cairn.

One autumn there were four elk herds in the upper reaches of Cuba Gulch. 

After the elevation loss, the trail climbs gradually over the next two miles, heading ever east, until it tops out 300 feet shy of ranked Pt 12,990', seen below after an autumn dusting. It would be an easy climb going or coming.

Staying on the crest of the Continental Divide, the trail nevertheless descends again, dropping 500 feet. Then, it surmounts a steep incline to arrive at the base of Pt 13,164', a ranked 13'er, seen below.

Half Peak dominates the landscape as the trail bends around Pt 13,164'.

At 6.1 miles, reach the base of the mountain. Leave the trail for the final 1.6 mile climb to the peak. Cut east just past a typically muddy area (N 37 50.810 W107 28.232). The climb is gentle for the first 0.5 mile. Stay close to the west side of the broad base, near the cliff. After a roller, The Trudge begins as the grade steepens for the next 0.7 mile. Walking is accommodated on a uniformly gravel surface. At 7.3 miles, the mountain squeezes to form the "Neck Of The Hourglass." For the next 0.25 mile the exposure is grave, dropping over 400 feet on either side. Walking on the almost flat constriction is simple but the rock is not dependable. There is a lot of loose material mixed with good-enough footholds. Stay on top of the ridge except when forced off to the west side, graced with scraps of social trail. 
(THW, photo)

 Watch for two cairns that lead across a short bridge.

Return to the rib and stay on it until the pinch, quite suddenly, opens broadly onto the summit plateau. Continue on the same trajectory, crossing the top of the hourglass, and reach the peak at 7.7 miles. The high point is elusive; there is no registry. However, the 800 foot north face cliff edge is abrupt, even undercut. A rock glacier fans out from the base. (THW, photo)

The view from Half Peak is one of the best in the San Juans. See the distinctive summit from everywhere; see everywhere from it. Wetterhorn Peak, 14,015', is in the center of the image below with Matterhorn Peak, 13,590', to its right, and then Uncompahgre Peak, 14,308'. Handies Peak, 14,058', is  less than 4 miles to the NW, just left of the photo. Turn around and the vista is equally large-caliber.

Tip the hourglass over, returning as you came. The flow of time slows while crossing the Neck, the speed regulator. (THW, photo)

The image below shows the trail ascending the minor pass left of Pt 12,990'.

Regain Ridge 13,000' by walking through an emerald green saturated landscape.

Stay on the CDT/CT a good half mile into Minnie Gulch before short-cutting to the trailhead connector. A fantastical, prize-winning cairn guides the traveler while Sheep Mountain dazzles with cloud-defying sunlight.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Centennial Peak, 13,062'

Essence: Centennial Peak is an excellent first thirteener, approached from the Sharkstooth Trail on the west side of the range. Mileage is short, elevation gain is moderate, and most of the climb is on-trail. The rugged face of the La Platas is seen from the summit. This half-day hike is suitable for most dogs.  
Travel: In a 4WD vehicle with decent clearance, from the US 550/160 intersection in Durango drive west on US 160 for 27.4 miles to the signal in Mancos. Measure distance from there. Turn north on CO 184 toward Dolores. In 0.3 mile, at the sign for Mancos State Park, turn right on Montezuma CR 42. See the west side of the La Platas from a fresh perspective as you pass by scattered ranches. At 5.5 miles, the road becomes FSR 561, West Mancos Road. Pass the Transfer Campground at 10.3 miles where pavement ends. Stay on FSR 561 at 11.1 miles. Pass the Aspen Guard Station at 11.9 miles. Roll through a mature aspen and ponderosa forest and turn right at mile 12.4 on FSR 350, Spruce Mill Road. It remains smooth and graded until mile 18.8. Turn on the right spur signed for the Twin Lakes, Sharkstooth trailheads, FSR 346. The next 1.5 miles require 4WD and good tires. The track is rocky with potholes. There is dispersed camping along the road with ponds and a terrific view of Hesperus Mountain. The trailhead is 20.3 miles from the US 160 and CO 184 intersection in Mancos. Allow 1.5 hours from Durango. The small parking area holds six to eight vehicles.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 5.5 miles, 2,200 feet of climbing
Total Time: 3:00 to 5:30
Difficulty: Trail, off-trail; navigation easy; mild exposure; Class 2+
Map: La Plata, Colorado 7.5' USGS Quad
Latest Date Hiked: August 4, 2023
Quote: I wish to speak a word for Nature, for absolute freedom and wildness. Henry David Thoreau

Mount Moss, Lavender Peak, and Hesperus Mountain from the summit of Centennial Peak. (Thomas Holt Ward, photo)

Route: Hike east on the Sharkstooth Trail to the pass, 11,936 feet. Climb south on an unmaintained trail to the summit.

The Sharkstooth Trail leaves from the east side of the parking lot at elevation 10,900 feet. On a well-established pathway, enter an old growth spruce forest. The trail passes beneath the runout of the Sharkstooth rock glacier. Beside the trail is a massive Colorado blue spruce. The age-old forest duff surface is spongy and soft. The canopy is atwitter with bird songs. In this image, returning hikers gape at streamside brookcress and caraway, head-high purple monkshood, and sprays of osha. 

At 1.0 mile, Hesperus Mountain, colorfully banded, is framed by deep green conifers. Hikers give little notice of switchbacks that lift them to sunny swatches and then glades densely populated with bluebells and corn husk lilies.

In the alpine, reverie continues as the path plows through unimaginably lush gardens of hybridized Indian paintbrush, king's crown, columbine, and phlox. (EJB, photo)

Most hikers will effortlessly cover the 1.8 miles to the Sharkstooth/Centennial Saddle at 11,936 feet, in 45 minutes to an hour. Sizable cairns signal the final passageway to this unmistakable juncture. Here we leave the Sharkstooth Trail which proceeds east to join the Colorado Trail at Taylor Lake near Kennebec Pass. From the pass, Sharkstooth Peak, slithering, shattered, and chaotic, beckons the skilled and daring.

The yellow dots scattered all over the tundra are the cheerful alpine sunflower, Old Man of the Mountain. Warning: there is a generous sprinkling of elegant death camas. One touch of the flower and then your tongue will make you sick. If your dog eats the plant, death will shortly follow.

From the saddle, Centennial Peak is 0.8 mile away with an additional 1,126 feet of climbing. It is straightforward and fun with intermittent stretches of social trail. The image below was shot from Sharkstooth and shows the entire layout to Centennial. Simply walk up the broad ridge staying toward the left/east side. When the ridge becomes narrower, stay on the rib or just west of it. (THW, photo)

Initially, walk up the tundra and then find a use trail that assists with a short, steep, and slippery section.

Clamber up a swath of large talus chunks.

The grade decreases at another expanse of tundra broken by patches of rock sheltering alpine sorrel. Below, hikers proceed to the crest, shown.

The ridge narrows for the final 600 feet and some hikers will be sensitive to the exposure. If anything, it gets more playful. There is a social trail that offers an off-ridge option to the right/west. However, I greatly prefer staying on the rib for the remainder of the summit ascent. There is one exception--the initial obstacle that is more easily surmounted on its west side, shown.

There are a few sections where hands are helpful but it is all Class 2+ walking on stable rock.

The higher you go the more outrageous and intimate your experience becomes. Light bounces off the columnar shafts, towers, and spires of imposing Lavender Peak, only 0.5 mile east of the horizontal bands, pressed down by mighty Hesperus. The contrast is bedazzling.

Reach 13,000 feet and blast up the red path to the summit. Whether or not this is your first thirteener, summit euphoria is guaranteed.

The cliff-framed, rugged face of the La Plata Mountains is seen from the crest where the southern vista is unfathomably wild. This image shows one slice. Jutting from the peak is the ridge that experienced climbers have traversed from Centennial to Lavender Peak. East of Lavender is Mount Moss. If you love a Class 3 scramble, see Mount Moss and the Towers of Lavender, my favorite La Plata Mountain climb.

Historical Note: Banded Mountain was renamed Centennial Peak in celebration of America's bicentennial in 1976. Seen from afar, Centennial has the same horizontal striping as Hesperus Mountain. Both are part of the La Plata Mountain laccolith. The bands are alternating layers of magma and baked sedimentary rock called hornfels.

In July, 2014, by 11:00, thunder was resounding, reducing top time to mere minutes.

We scurried down the ridge back to the saddle.

The author stands beneath a blue hole in an ominous sky. (Chris Blackshear, photo)

Back in the safety of the forest, we took a short interpretive trail diversion, strolling by the historic Windy Williams Mill. The mine and boarding house were abandoned after only 130 days because valuable ore was scarce.

To place Centennial more solidly in the landscape puzzle, here is an image taken from the Colorado Trail on Indian Trail Ridge to the east. Starting from the right: Sharkstooth, Hesperus, Centennial, Lavender, Moss, Middle Babcock, East Babcock, and Diorite.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Sultan Mountain, 13,368'; Grand Turk, 13,167'; Spencer Peak, 13,080'

Essence: String together three thirteeners northwest of Molas Pass. Ascend through lush wildflower biozones, spending most of the day in the tundra. The effort is considerable but the walking is easy; the views unfettered and commanding. The hike is primarily within the San Juan National Forest. The summits of Spencer Peak and Grand Turk are on a block of State Trust Land. Based on new, more accurate measurement technology, LiDAR, the elevation of unranked Spencer Peak is 13,080 feet. The prominence of Sultan Mountain is 1,868 feet. The saddle to its south is pegged at 12,782 feet, giving Grand Turk, 13,167', a rise of 385 feet.
Travel: From the US 550/160 intersection in Durango, drive north on US 550. Crest Molas Pass at 41.0 miles, Mile Marker 64. Take the signed left towards Little Molas Lake at 41.4 miles. Drive on a good dirt road, passing an established campground, and park at the Colorado Trail TH at 42.5 miles. Allow 50 minutes from Durango.
Distance and Elevation Gain : 10.7 miles; 3,600 feet of vertical
Time: 6:00 to 8:00
Difficulty: Colorado Trail, social trail, off-trail; navigation moderate; some exposure on west slope of Grand Turk;
Class 2
Maps: Snowdon; Silverton, Colorado 7.5 Quads
Latest Date Hiked: August 18, 2022
Quote: Deep in their roots, all flowers keep the light. Theodore Roethke

Grand Turk and Sultan Mountain, the double prominence on the right, 4,000 feet above Silverton, viewed from Macomber Mountain.

Route: The classic route up all three peaks is where you dream it to be every time you drive over Molas Pass, shown. From left to right are: West Turkshead Peak, The Cleft, East Turkshead Peak, and Grand Turk. A social trail goes through The Cleft just right of the snow field.

Map: The trek is an out-and-back. Make it a five peak day by adding Point 12,899' and West Turkshead Peak, 12,849', indicated by the blue line. For a shorter, alternative route into "Valley of the Turks," see the end of this post.

The hike begins on a popular segment of the Colorado Trail. The trailhead is a re-supply zone for thru-hikers and Little Molas Lake is its own destination. The parking lot is generous; there is an outhouse but no water. Hit the trail on the west side of the lot, 10,890 feet, and plunge into deep woods carpeted with myrtle blueberry and Jacob's ladder. Climb gently to treeline at 11,100 feet, step up limestone bands, and gain the ridge. In 1879, the Lime Creek fire burned 26,000 acres of forest with such intensity it has not yet recovered. A stalwart tree frames Engineer Mountain. (2023 Note: Sadly, the tree has fallen.)

Continue on the trail as it heads northeast up the broad ridge. Buttercups pump out wattage, highlighting ever beckoning Snowdon Peak.

At 2.0 mile, 11,640 feet, there is a closed trail going east. Leave the Colorado Trail and ascend north-northeast up the ridge until you reach 12,000 feet. The idea is to get around the base of Peak 12,849' ("West Turkshead Peak"), and contour into the "Valley of the Turks". 

Be sure to swing around and look at the peak line-up: the Twilights, Potato Hill (aka Spud Mountain), and Engineer Mountain. The treadway will guide you home on the return.

There are remnants of an old road on the ridge. The route skims just above the largest patch of willows as it curves around West Turkshead Peak. 

The Valley of the Turks awaits. Pick your way through the sky pilots, around patches of corn husk lily, across shallow drainages and stretches of slippery dirt. Finally, pass very near a few large boulders that tumbled off the Telluride Conglomerate rim. 

As you contour, keep a bead on the obvious trail that runs up through the cleft. Cross the creek well up the valley at about 12,000 feet, 3.0 miles. Pitch steeply up alongside a shallow gully for about 150 feet to intersect the trail. Turn north and allow the track to guide you through the appealing cleft at the apex of the valley. This area holds snow quite late so don't push the season on this hike.

The lichen on the conglomerate is so orange. The king's crown so red. The alpine avens so yellow. You'll find yourself thinking you are in an exotic magical kingdom and surely a genie is going to appear and grant you three wishes. If three peaks are your heart's desire, you are in luck!

From the cleft top, walk on a faint trail NNE under Point 12,899'. Head directly for the saddle north of this point and south of Spencer Peak (Point 13,087' on topo), shown. Don't shortcut and miss the saddle.

For here, at 3.8 miles is the "Window of Towers." Bear Mountain is directly across on the near ridge. The mass of peaks will be quite familiar to many and totally psychedelic to all.

From the window turn east and scramble through an outcrop to attain the west ridge of Spencer Peak.

Sultan Mountain
The trail climbs the west ridge and then, about 50 feet from the summit of Spencer, contours below the crest on a good trail to attain the NNE ridge. While our route saves Spencer for the return, it would be easy to simply go over the top. This image was taken from Spencer's NNE ridge. Sultan is on the left, Grand Turk, the right. Notice carefully, a social trail that skirts Grand Turk, a thin thread crossing the west slope at 12,800 feet. Many people will use this shortcut with nary a thought of danger. I find it frightening. The 0.3 mile trail is a thin, off camber trace. Much of the path is on decent rocky chunks but there are sections of loose, slippery dirt and hardscrabble that threaten to slide one into the brink. In 2022, I went up and over the ridge in both directions.

Here's a closeup shot of the trail flanking Grand Turk on the west. (Thomas Holt Ward, photo)
Clinging to the slope along the unpleasant thread are pale sky pilots that waft an elixir of lavender and rose. 

From Saddle 12,776' north of Grand Turk, it is a quick and lovely walk up the south ridge of Sultan Mountain.

From the 13,368' summit at 5.1 miles, the vista is so spiked and complicated it is mind-numbing. The Ice Lake peak cluster in the west includes the color summits: Vermilion and Golden Horn.

Be sure to traipse a mere 0.1 mile NW to Sultan's subsidiary summit. From there, I am checking out Silverton, distinctive Half Peak, and a string of fourteeners. (THW, photo)

Grand Turk
Now for Grand Turk, as seen from Sultan. The Silverton 7.5 topo mistakenly names the third knob to the east the peak at 13,148'. The eminence is actually 13,167', the second prominence. You will find the peak register there. In 2022, the peak register was missing.

From Sultan, return to the saddle. I always feel like I'm on a two lane bridge that falls off decisively on either side. Climb directly up Grand Turk's NW ridge. This short expedition is pure pleasure so don't miss it. Look down vertical chutes to the NE. It is a tundra walk from the first prominence to the peak at 6.1 miles.

Spencer Peak
To reach Spencer, seen below, swing over and down to meet Grand Turk's SW ridge and drop 400 feet to the saddle. There is a use trail clear to the crest at 6.7 miles. Spencer has two faces. On the south it looks like a smooth, green ball. On the north, it's a cone culminating on a perfect, gray point. In 1989, the mountain was officially named for Donald Spencer, an esteemed mathematician who lived for a time in Durango. (THW, photo)

To return to the trailhead, descend the west ridge of Spencer and rejoin your in-coming route. 

Point 12,899' and West Turkshead Peak, 12,849', Optional Additions
Do you wish for two more? From the Window of Towers, climb the east ridge of Point 12,899' and go down the south ridge. Or, go around it. From its southern base at 12,500 feet, climb the east ridge of West Turkshead until you intersect the north ridge. Ascend on tundra to the summit, 0.5 mile from the saddle.

East Turkshead Peak, 12,734'
Below is an image of East Turkshead taken from the slopes of Spencer. The peak is the knob in the center of the ridge. Once, we approached it from the west and got turned back at the vertical cliff just before the summit block.

Alternative Route into Valley of the Turks
This shortcut approach to Valley of the Turks (black line) saves 1.2 miles each way relative to the standard route that starts on the Colorado Trail (blue line). It requires a bit more navigation savvy.  

Measuring from the main parking lot, walk back up the incoming road for 0.25 mile. Pass two closed trails, signed. Turn north onto a distinct dirt path that heads into the timber. The trail soon dissipates but fragments reappear now and then. Hold a north-northeast bearing on a subtle ridge to about 0.7 mile. Turn north-northwest and climb a series of benches. Catch frequent glimpses of West and East Turkshead peaks framing Valley of the Turks. I find it helpful for route finding to take aim on West Turk.

I hesitate to use a tree as a navigation aid but so long as this scorched tree is standing, it signifies that you are on the proper route. From there, keep heading up, staying well clear of the boggy, willow-infested creek. A social trail materializes by a jutting, triangular conglomerate boulder.

The path crosses to the east side of Molas Creek at 1.4 miles, 11,680 feet. Make your way into the valley and do a rising traverse to the cleft trail at about 12,000 feet.

In September, 2021, we started out on the shortcut route. Domestic sheep were grazing in the valley and two white guard dogs did their best to intimidate us for a good distance. We took the standard route back to the Colorado Trail. This image shows the shallow gully we used to transition from the cleft trail to the 12,000 foot, willow-free contour on the west side of the valley.