Friday, July 8, 2016

Whitecross Mountain, 13,542'; Handies Peak, 14,048'; and Peak 13,795' Circuit

Essence: An exceptional and rare opportunity to circle a high basin on a Class 2+ ridge. Walk through a flowery forest into upper Grizzly Gulch basin. Upon gaining the ridge, stay above 13,000 feet and climb three distinctive mountains: Whitecross with its astonishing crest of spheroidal granite boulders; Handies, a popular 14'er; and Peak 13,795', ranked 109 in Colorado.  To close the circuit, descend through a secondary hanging basin with an aquamarine lake. All but  0.4 mile of the ridge is off-trail so expect solitude, except while on Handies, of course. This is a big hike with 5,000 feet of vertical and very little flat terrain. Ridiculous views, naturally. 
Travel From Durango Via Cinnamon Pass: In a 4WD, high-clearance vehicle, from Durango drive 47 miles to Silverton. Turn northeast and proceed up Greene Street, the main drag, to the north end of town. Zero-out your trip meter as you make a soft right onto San Juan CR 2. The dirt road is good at first but degenerates to a slow, rocky surface. In 11.5 miles, 0.5 mile before reaching the abandoned mining town of Animas Forks, there is a brown sign directing you to the right for Cinnamon Pass. You are now on the Alpine Loop.  At 11.8 miles, stay right. Drive over bedrock outcrops with uneven ledges. At 12.1 miles there is a sign where the roads to Engineer Pass and Cinnamon Pass split. Make a sharp switchback to the right. This initial shelf section has some off-camber bedrock. The track is steep, narrow, and rocky. Reach the pass, 12,640 feet, at 14.3 miles. Negotiate four, super tight, ledgy switchbacks. At 16.1 miles, continue straight at the spur road to American Basin. Reach the Grizzly Gulch (and Silver Creek) Trailhead, elevation 10,420 feet, at 20.4 miles. Join the crowds tailgate camping in the parking lot or find private and lovely camps just up the road toward the pass. In 2016 a moose strolled through camp at twilight and a porcupine took up residence under a truck; listen for coyote. There is an outhouse at the trailhead but no water. Allow 2:30 to 3:00 from Durango.
Travel Via Lake City: Drive about two miles south on Colorado 149 and turn right on County Road 30, the Alpine Loop, toward Lake San Cristobal and Cinnamon Pass. Zero-out your trip meter. Stay right near 11.8 miles. After 12.5 miles the road becomes rougher, and between 13 and 14.5 miles it is on a shelf that hugs the south flank of Sunshine Peak. The Grizzly Gulch Trailhead is on the left just shy of 16 miles with a large parking lot on the right. When it is dry, good-clearance 2WD vehicles should make it to the trailhead. Allow an hour from Lake City.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 11.0 miles; 5,000 feet of climbing
Time: 8:00 - 10:00
Difficulty: Trail, off-trail; navigation moderate; Class 2+, mild exposure
Maps: Redcloud Peak; Handies Peak, Colorado 7.5 Quads
Date Hiked: July 8, 2016
Angels we have heard on high
Sweetly singing o’er the plains,
And the mountains in reply
Echoing their joyous strains. 
--Traditional French carol

Peak 13,795', Whitecross Mountain, and Handies Peak viewed from the ridge west of Cooper Creek. The best guides on this circuit are the mountains themselves and the ridges that bear them.

Route: Hike southwest on the Grizzly Gulch Trail, one of the standard routes to Handies Peak. Leave the trail at 12,700 feet and gain the southwest ridge of Whitecross Mountain. Summit Whitecross on an out-and-back and then stay on the ridge to Handies Peak, intercepting the trail at 13,600 feet. From Handies, descend the east ridge and then climb to Peak 13,795'. Return to 13,640 feet and then go roughly north on the Green Ramp, dropping sharply to Lake 12,323'. From there, a social trail descends into the basin. Close the loop at the Grizzly Gulch Trail.

The Grizzly Gulch Trail shares a large parking lot with the Silver Creek Trail. Take the Handies Peak option and in just a few steps cross the Lake Fork of the Gunnison River on a substantial bridge.

The trail bucks up immediately until at 0.4 mile it is suspended above the roaring creek emptying Grizzly Gulch. A flowery forest of yellow, heart leaf arnica contrasts with true-green fluttering aspen leaves. Deep purple monkshood stand tall and regal beside brooks. Columbine grow between the cracks in talus jumbles. Little sunflowers rise up in the Engelmann forest almost overtaken by four-foot tall mountain bluebells. A view of Handies Peak opens at 0.6 mile and before you know it, break out into the stunning basin loaded with high-elevation favorites: hybridized and rosy paintbush, marsh marigold, and Whipple's penstemon. At 12,400 feet cross a stream and the trail switches north.

Make the next switchback to the southwest. Then, at 2.95 miles, 12,700 feet, leave the trail. Climb north on a gentle slope to contact the south ridge of Whitecross Mountain.

At 3.2 miles, just shy of 13,000 feet, gain the ridge and turn north toward Whitecross. The next 4.4 miles will remain airy, above 13,000 feet. 

The ridge ascent is straightforward and it just keeps getting better as the rock formation transitions from extrusive and explosive volcanics to intrusive igneous boulders with over-sized feldspar and potassium crystals. I found the experience of winding up through the spheroidal granitic sentinels quite simply joyful. This summit could not be more perfect.

Reach the northernmost peak on the west side of Grizzly Gulch at 3.7 miles. The summit exudes an atmosphere all its own. Soft round rocks extrude from the tundra rendering a sense of Stonehenge hominess.

From Whitecross Mountain, the Peak 13,795' fang looks entrancing in the southeast. 

The roundtrip to Whitecross is 1.1 miles. Continuing south, the orange and white segment of the north ridge of Pt. 13,577' is class 2+ with some minor scrambling. In this image Handies Peak is on the left, the standard trail on the green slope.

Climb up and over the first gendarme.

Friends stand on a squat tower while another bypasses to the west.

The rock formation shifts and the remaining ascent to Pt. 13,577' is even more delightful. The prominence feels like a legitimate mountain on the north side but it's just a minor bump on the Handies side, giving up some 70 feet to the saddle. Intersect the standard trail at 5.1 miles, 13,600 feet. Now climb the gravelly north ridge of Handies Peak. 

At 5.5 miles, after 4,350 feet of climbing, settle in on one of the jutting sitting rocks and process the wild heights. Handies is the epicenter of big-boned mountains rippling off in concentric circles. The universal view from the bastion's magnificent and roomy crest rivals any in Colorado. Take in the Rio Grande Pyramid, Half Peak, the Ice Lakes group, the Mount Sneffels clan, the Uncompahgre brothers, Wildhorse Peak and Dragon's Back, and the Cooper Creek Peaks. This image looks down on the south slope trail, Sloan Lake, and American Peak. 

The unobstructed east ridge descent is Class 2 talus with a short gravel plunge. The next saddle is at 13,580 feet so Pt. 13,735' does not qualify as a ranked peak. (THW, photo)

Reach Pt. 13,735' at 6.15 miles. Some in our group did a side-hill contour well below which, because of unstable rock, proved more difficult than staying on the ridge. (THW, photo)

Talus on the north side of Pt. 13,735' is loose. The further you are from the edge, the worse it gets. Reach the next saddle, elevation 13,300 feet, at 6.4 miles. From here we stay as close to the edge as reasonable just for the pleasure of it.

Along the way to Peak 13,795' take note of the Green Ramp, our return route, flowing northeast from elevation 13,640 feet. Colorado's #109 is just 0.3 mile away on pleasant tundra to within 100 feet of the crest. There are some intertwined social trails up the stony dome, or, just plow up the west face, cresting at 7.3 miles.

From the blissful descent on the Green Ramp, aquamarine Lake 12,323' entices. We found a rare albino sky pilot near the bottom of the ramp.

This image looks back on the ramp and the northface of Peak 13,795'. (THW, photo)

At 13,060 feet, the ramp cliffs out. Go east on talus into the headwall bowl while making a descending traverse. Near the center of the defile drop 150 feet on scree poised at the angle of repose. Be ready for rock to slide along with you. The saving grace of the Headwall Slide is it gets shallower as you go so hang on! This minor inconvenience buys you so much, completion of the circuit. The slide is not recommended for ascending. Finish on the north side of the lake to avoid the almost vertical toe of the rock glacier. This image looks back at the Headwall Slide from the lake.

Cross the outlet and find an old trail on the southwest side of the stream. The trail is handy for descending a rocky slope even though it goes further west than seems appropriate. Once past most of the talus, just shortcut back to the Grizzly Gulch Trail which is perfectly visible. These hikers are on the old trail dropping into the basin under the purview of Whitecross Mountain.

Once on the trail, it is just two miles back to the trailhead with another 1,400 feet or so to lose.

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