Monday, August 10, 2015

Hesperus Mountain, 13,238', Northern Approaches

Essence: Hesperus Mountain marks the northern boundary of the traditional homeland of the Navajo. It is the Sacred Mountain of the North. The eastern cardinal point is Sierra Blanca Peak in the Sangre de Cristo Range; in the south it is Mount Taylor in New Mexico; and in the west, Humphreys Peak near Flagstaff, Arizona. Hesperus is the highest eminence in the La Plata Range with a rise of 2,844 feet. It is one of the most difficult peaks to navigate with multiple route options from both north and south. The standard route from the north is described with one variation. The upper mountain is climbed by way of the west ridge. Ascend a stair-step progression of cliff-slope formations, staying on the ridge crest to the summit. The height of Hesperus Mountain is 13,232' on the La Plata quad but LiDAR has more accurately measured its elevation at 13,238'.
Travel: In a 4WD vehicle with moderate clearance, from the US 550 and US 160 junction in Durango, drive west on US 160 for 27 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 West Mancos 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 vehicles.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 5.2 miles, 2,750 total climbing; the optional red-line, extended west ridge route adds 2.0 miles and 600 feet of vertical.
Time: 5:00 to 7:00 depending on route
Difficulty: Trail, off-trail; navigation challenging; Class 3 scrambling with mild exposure
Map: La Plata, Colorado 7.5' USGS Quad
Latest Date Hiked: September 24, 2023
Quote: Dibé Ntsaa, "Sheep Mountain," is the mountain First Man and First Woman created for the north. They made it firm to the earth with a rainbow and adorned it with beads of jet black, with plants of many varieties. Trebbe Johnson

The banded and resplendent north face of Hesperus Mountain is seen from Centennial Peak's north ridge.

Route: Hesperus Mountain must be climbed via the west ridge. I have explored four approaches, one from the south, and three from the north. There is no easy way to summit. All routes present navigational challenges and demanding climbs. The southern approach from Echo Basin is the most pleasant ascent but presents the greatest navigational conundrum.  

This description begins at the West Mancos Trailhead and heads south on-trail for a mile. Divert onto a faint social trail. At 11,400 feet, ascend on the “Green Slope Route” to the west ridge. Return on the “Shale Slide Route.” The red line represents an optional extension of the west ridge discussed at the end of this post. The final half mile up the ridgeline is a shared journey for all routes.

The image below shows the north side of the west ridge. The shale slide intersects the ridge just as the mountain pitches up. The green slope is further west. The red-line extended ridge route ascends through timber.

Two trails take off from the parking lot at elevation 10,900 feet. The more frequently traveled Sharkstooth Trail bears east. The north face of banded Hesperus Mountain beckons in clear view. Head south on the West Mancos Trail toward Transfer Campground.

Walk across a bucolic, flower-filled, tree-rimmed meadow and descend gradually through a climax forest.

In half a mile, cross the creek scurrying from the Sharkstooth/Centennial saddle. In 0.6 mile, cross the Sliderock Basin drainage on a sturdy, five-log bridge. The streams join just below the trail to become the North Fork of the West Mancos River. Plow through native honeysuckle and then a delphinium forest seven feet high. Arrowleaf senecio, head-tall osha, and mountain bluebells compete for sun in this flower fantasyland.

Take special note of the "Two Spruce Portal" at 0.85 mile, shown.

Continue on the West Mancos Trail for 0.1 mile past the portal as it goes slightly downhill. The social trail up Hesperus begins at a cluster of large, fallen trees that have been cleared from the trail, elevation 10,800 feet. In 2021, the south-bearing path was clear at the turnoff but almost obliterated by flora and fallen timber in places further on.

The wildcat trail takes advantage of a shallow gully and emerges at a small talus field. A strong social trail is developing on the east side of the talus slope, shown. Cairns lead to a stand of conifers on a knoll at 1.2 miles, 11,160 feet, image-right.

From the treed knoll, follow the cairned route southwest across a slope of broken rock, willows, and tundra to elevation 11,400, shown. (Thomas Holt Ward, photo)

The green-slope and shale-slide routes diverge at 11,400 feet. Climbing the shale slide directly will shave 0.3 mile but it is laborious scaling the soft, coal-like granules. For the green slope approach, go west crossing below a green-topped moraine. Climb southwest, tracking between the runout of a rock glacier and the uphill edge of the willow line. Continue until you have a clear shot of the green slope going all the way to the ridge. This image looks down on the rock glacier and willow line. (THW, photo)

Pitch south, steeply up a thin strip of grass, shown. Trekking poles are helpful. Arrive on the west ridge, east of Point 11,891’ at 1.9 miles, 12,040 feet. Turn east staying on the ridgetop. (THW, photo)

The approach concludes at 12,300 feet, 2.2 miles. The summit climb is 932 vertical feet over half a mile and takes about 45 minutes. The ascent looks imposing but this is the best segment of the journey for big-block scramblers. Notice a social trail that leaves the ridge and makes for the south side of the mountain. This trail seeks to avoid some of the cliff bands. This route can be a treacherous, side-hill annoyance until it rejoins the ridge proper at 13,000 feet. The surface alternates between sink-up-to-your-ankles in shale, and slippery, resistant soil. Alternatively, the ridge route described below leads the scrambler playfully up the mountain.

Begin climbing left of the dark rock outcrop, shown. 

Then scramble up a band of light-colored broken talus. In general, the stone is well seated. 

Experience the alternating cliff-slope structure of the mountain while walking up through Mancos Shale to the base of the next wall. Geologist, John Bregar, explains the mountain's composition.
Geological Note:
Hesperus is part of the La Plata Mountain laccolith, which is an intrusion of magma between sedimentary layers, bowing the sediments up, where they get eroded off, and baking the sediments in close contact with the magma to hornfels.  The dark and light layers of rock that are so prevalent on Hesperus and Centennial are alternating layers of magma and baked sediment. Generally, the dark layers are sediment, and the light layers tend to be the congealed magma or hornfels.  You could call the relatively thin, tabular bodies of magma sills, but really, the whole mass of the La Plata Mountain laccolith is a complicated mess of intrusive and sedimentary rocks.

The second cliff tier presents a Class 3 scramble on good rock. Some slabs are not well anchored so test all holds. This crux is the only pitch with exposure. It may be bypassed safely 100 feet to the south on a use trail that punches up the short wall. (THW, photo)

Hold to the ridgeline, staying sufficiently away from the continuous, precipitous north edge. Surmount the rising stone staircase all the way to the crest.  

The mountain rounds off to reward those whose perseverance and desire propels them past the many obstacles to the summit at 2.7 miles. Hesperus Mountain is the heartbeat of the La Plata Range. Standing on the small apex, I imagine the mountain pulsating beneath my feet. While this image faces Lone Cone in the northwest, on a clear day, you can see beyond the curve of the world into Utah, New Mexico, and Arizona. (THW, photo)

Hesperus is the tallest eminence in the range and is perfectly located for a comprehensive view. Centennial Peak, 13,062', is the red banded mountain, image-left. Skilled climbers have reportedly traversed the technical ridge from Centennial to Lavender Peak. The Lavender to Hesperus segment is exposed Class 3 with one Class 4 move. Image-right is The Knife, the slice between the three Babcocks and Spiller Peak. (THW, photo)
While Lavender may look taller from this perspective, LiDAR has pegged its elevation at 13,237', a mere one foot shorter than Hesperus. (THW, photo)
For the return, downclimb as you came. (THW, photo)

The easiest, quickest, and most thrilling descent option is the shale slide. Looking at the image below, it is located just east of a patch of orange rock at 12,280 feet. Divert from the ridge to the north.

Lose 500 feet effortlessly in just a few minutes. (THW, photo)

The way is bejeweled by a range of columbine. I have never seen so many state flowers in one location.

At the bottom of the glissade, follow a trail to the green-topped moraine and track down the east side. Watch for cairns leading back to the treed knoll. The image below was shot as up-coming hikers climbed toward the moraine from the knoll, image-center. A large cairn typically marks the head of the gully route back to the West Mancos Trail. Turn right and recross the North Fork of the West Mancos River. A 200-foot hill-climb takes you back to the trailhead.

Red-Line Extended West Ridge Route: This route will appeal to hikers who prefer ridge access, though it does have its own set of challenges. From the West Mancos Trailhead, stay on the trail past the Two Spruce Portal at 0.85 mile. It will go against your instinct to move downhill, away from the mountain. Trees transition from spruce to fir with thick patches of heartleaf arnica. At 1.6 miles, pass the West Mancos Trail sign, shown. The trail becomes a two-track, abandoned road. Continue beyond here to a clearcut at 10,200 feet, about 2.3 miles from the trailhead. Leave the road and go through the forest, bearing south. You will get a visual of the ridge when you hit the talus.

The last time we did this hike (August, 2015), we left the trail at the sign, pictured above. This was a mistake. The deadfall throttled progress. Breaking out onto the rock glacier, we moved west until we were past the north slope cliffs, shown. The talus rolled underfoot and the glacier moved across the landscape like ocean waves. The route worked but was something of a pain. (THW, photo)

The image below was taken from the west ridge at 11,500 feet where a social trail appears. The Red-Line Route seeks to avoid the rock glacier, instead, pushing through the woods to the base of the ridge. The best traveling is along the edge between the trees and talus. Caveat--I have not thoroughly explored the Red-Line Route. If you go that way, drop me a comment and let me know how it goes for you.

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