Thursday, October 1, 2015

Dolores Peak, 13,290'; Middle Peak, 13,280'; Dunn Peak, 12,595'; San Miguel Mountains

Essence: Counterclockwise, off-trail loop on a semicircular ridge in the San Miguel range. Arc of continuous, panoramic vistas. One mile of sustained exposure. Remote and arduous, solitude is assured.
Travel: From CO 145 between Dolores and Rico, at mile marker 23.5, turn onto Dunton Road, FSR 535. Zero-out your trip meter. Drive north along the West Fork of the Dolores River. The scenery is pure Colorado. The pavement turns to smooth dirt at mile 13. In 21 miles, pass the luxury resort of Dunton Hot Springs. At mile 22.3, turn left/northwest on FSR 611. At 26.9 miles, where the road crosses Fish Creek, turn right and go another 0.1 mile on a rough road to the trailhead. 2WD vehicles should be able to reach the final turn, if not the trailhead. There are two fabulous camp sites beside Fish Creek at the trailhead.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 8.7 miles; 4,500 feet of climbing
Time: 6:30 to 9:00
Difficulty: Off-trail; navigation challenging; Class 3+ on the west ridge of Middle Peak; considerable exposure on skittish knife and the west ridge
Maps: Dolores Peak; Groundhog Mountain, Colorado 7.5 Quads
Date Hiked: October 1, 2015
Quote: The human spirit needs places where nature has not been rearranged by the hand of man.  Author Unknown

Little Cone, Middle Peak, image-center, and Dolores Peak, image-right, from Dunn Peak. (THW, photo)

Route: The only information we could find on this hike was a brief description by the Telluride Mountain Club. Essentially, we were on our own. Given the chance to do it again, we would perfect the route by climbing the south ridge of Dolores Peak (as the club did) or favoring the west side of Fish Creek. As indicated on the map, we went up the right side of Fish Creek until we were forced to bypass a cascade on the left. (2022 Note: Some friends discovered a slightly better route by crossing to the west side of Fish Creek immediately and staying west, out of the gorge.) We went northerly up the basin to Saddle 12,560'. We climbed Dolores, returned to the saddle, and then climbed Middle and Dunn. The southeast descent through the woods worked nicely.

Our first objective is Dolores Peak, shown. From the Fish Creek Trailhead 10,250', follow the trail that immediately crosses the creek.

The trail runs along an old roadbed before disappearing. We work the east side of the creek. Progress is slow. But not as slow as this hefty porcupine.

Weary of thrashing in the creek bottom, we climb onto an east-side bench. We stumble on a fragmented social trail as it crosses a clearing, appearing to head to the south ridge route up Dolores. Check out Telluride Mountain Club's route map via the link above. Given the obstacles in Fish Creek, it is a reasonable alternative. The picture below, taken on our return, shows the south ridge at the horizon, image-right.

We divert from the scant trail at 0.7 mile and climb steeply through woods cluttered with deadfall. At 1.2 miles, we see an impassible waterfall in the drainage. (THW, photo)

At 11,040 feet, we encounter a ravine and drop into Fish Creek. We are now at the base of a long cascade. The wet rock is icy slick and we must bypass.  (THW, photo)

The west side looks promising so we climb a steep embankment that butts into a talus slope above the Fish Creek gorge, shown. We ascend on decent rock to a bench at 11,620 feet. We are now free of the troubled creek. Rather than a gimmie, the drainage is a slow, arduous slog. In 1:45 we'd only come 1.7 miles.

The hard work over, the shallow talus climb up the center of the basin to Saddle 12,560' is pure bliss. Walk up a stone staircase with a trickling streamlet.

Reach the saddle east of Pt. 12,770', at 2.5 miles. The big, broad breath of land falls away abruptly on the north edge. We are finally on the arc-shaped ridge we'd been eyeing all these years. Today, it is wildly windy and cold. The wind blows steady at 20 mph all day with ferocious 60 mph gusts vowing to blow us off the ridgetop. It is a big player, messing with safety and psyche.

From the saddle, Dolores Peak is only 730 feet of vertical and less than half an hour off. The rock is good and the gentle pitch has soft ripples. We climb up the face, shown, and returned on the north ridge. Reach the peak in just over three miles.

The trek has superlative views and they excel on this mountain. The Wilson cluster is an attention grabber, as well as Lone Cone and Little Cone, shown below on either side of today's arc.

On to Middle Peak. From Saddle 12,560', walk over Pt. 12,770' and give up 60 feet before starting the gentle climb on small, well-seated rock to 13,200 feet. South is Pt. 13,246'. It sits on a sharply swirled ridge encased within the semicircular primary arc. Cliffs near the base of this ridge prohibit a bail-out option here. (THW, photo)

Find your inner tightrope walker because the ridge constricts with scant reprieve between here and the base of Middle Peak's west ridge. It starts out comfortably enough on colorful alternating ribbons of red and white rock. The rock is broken and varied. Some of it is good, none of it is terrible. High-velocity wind is a very real disturbance in the force and diminishes the fun factor.

The ridge is relatively generous to 13,280 feet, image-right. This is the highpoint of Middle Peak and you will find the register here. The topo incorrectly labels Middle Peak at Pt 13,261'. So, if you have had enough exposure, you can happily justify turning around here at 4.6 miles.

The next 0.3 mile to Point 13,261' is a no-nonsense knife, razor sharp, only one foot wide in places. My climbing partner is moving across an exceptionally generous walkway with good rock.

There are no gendarmes but there are serrations in the ridge that are taken straight down the center or a few steps to the south. This image looks back on Highpoint 13,280' from Pt. 13,261'.

Reach Pt. 13,261' at 4.9 miles. The west ridge descent from Middle Peak presents in two sections. The upper part is very steep and rubbly, perhaps ten feet wide. Scoot down slowly and choose your footing carefully for the ridge falls sharply away. Come to a platform, shown. Dunn Peak is in the distance. (THW, photo)

Now the rib pinches and dives steeply. There is just enough good, blocky rock to render downclimbing possible. It is Class 3 with some very exposed diversions off the spine. We come to a fin with a 20 foot drop. There is a possible Class 4, exposed go-around on the left.

I've had enough ruckus play in the unrelenting gale. So we divert south from the ridge at 12,440 feet. We drop into a steep ravine and peddle our way down the angle of repose, anchoring on occasional pieces of bedrock. This image looks up at the fin (center) and escape ravine.

We rest on a small hillock at 12,200 feet, 5.4 miles. Going south from here looks like a plausible return route. But we are determined to complete the ridge. So, on to Dunn Peak. We contour under Pt. 12,249'. This image looks back at the west ridge of Middle Peak.

Dunn is easily won, 500 vertical feet up a red gravel pile. Reach the summit at 6.2 miles. Here is the best view of Lone Cone anywhere.

The image at the top of this entry was taken from Dunn. Appreciate the perfectly curved arc with Dolores Peak just two miles east as the crow flies. The image below puts Dunn in perspective. It was shot from Little Cone looking south to our ridge: Dolores, Middle, and Dunn.

Descend Dunn's broad and gentle southwest ridge to 12,140 feet. Where the ridge gets choppy, leave it and drop a couple hundred feet south to a grassy bench. Walk southeast along the edge of the trees to 11,800 feet. Somewhere in this area, head into the woods, holding a southeast bearing all the way back to Fish Creek, intersecting it above 10,250 feet, the trailhead elevation. There are nice clearings, the woods are free of clutter, the grade is pleasant.

It was a hard-won pleasure to walk the entire ridge. Unrelenting wind roughed me up and added a significant degree of difficulty. My hope for you is nothing more than a soft breeze on a route that leaves you happy. 
The San Miguel Mountains from Sockrider Peak in the Rico Mountains, September, 2022

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