Sunday, July 23, 2017

Oscar's Peak, 13,432', Via Blixt Road

Essence: Climb to Oscar's Pass and Oscar's Peak, Point 13,432', on non-motorized Blixt Road near the historic mining town of Ophir. This is a short segment of the Hardrock Hundred Mile Endurance Run with an average grade of 23 percent. Head-high and densely-packed flowers soon give way to a continuous evolving vantage point of the exalted stone wilderness. This is a straight-forward hike--just follow the old wagon double-track as it makes giant switchbacks to the pass. The peak is a short walk west.
Travel: The only navigation challenge is locating Blixt Road which is one of several tracks branching north from Ophir Pass Road. For those traveling from the east link to Yellow Mountain South for a detailed description of Ophir Pass Road. It is 4.1 miles from US Route 550 to the top of the pass. Unmarked Blixt Road is shortly west of Chapman Gulch, 2.0 miles west of Ophir Pass. There is no parking at this juncture so continue downhill 0.2 mile and park on the north side of the road in a pullout at Iron Spring, across from Swamp Canyon Trail, elevation 10,180. This is approximately one mile east of Ophir.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 5.8 miles roundtrip; 3,250 feet of climbing from the parking pullout.
Time: 3:30 to 4:30
Difficulty: Historic wagon road; navigation easy once you locate Blixt Road; no exposure
Maps: Ophir; Telluride, Colorado 7.5 USGS Quads
Date Hiked: July 23, 2017
History: The Ophir/Iron Spring Mining District peaked in the late 1800's when over a thousand people lived in Ophir. Ore was transported to smelters in Silverton over Ophir Pass. Blixt Road linked the Ophir Mining District with Bridal Veil Basin. Brothers Oscar, Gator, and Harry Blixt were sons of a Leadville miner; the three worked the mines outside of Telluride. Blixt Road was built by Oscar. Both Oscar’s Pass and the mountain due west of the pass, Oscar’s Peak, is named for him.
Quote: Clouds move on and the day opens to distance. Whole symphonies live between here and a distant whatever-we-look-at. Richard Hugo

Looking south from Oscar's Peak, the town of Ophir is beside the banks of the Howard Fork of the San Miguel River. The luminous block of peaks rimming the cavernous space include South Lookout Peak, U S Grant Peak, Fuller Peak, Vermilion Peak, Pilot Knob, San Miguel Peak, and Yellow Mountain. (THW, photo)

Route: From the juncture of Ophir Pass Road and Blixt Road, climb north up the south-facing wall of the east-west running ridge dominated by Silver Mountain. From Oscar's Pass climb 300 feet and 0.2 mile west to Oscar's Peak.

From the parking pullout at Iron Spring walk steeply east up Ophir Pass Road. Midsummer, lanky delphinium, cow parsnip, and osha cover the shady floor of the old aspen forest. Continue past the first side road on the left at 0.15 mile. It swings northwest off-route. Unsigned Blixt Road is in another 50 yards, 0.2 mile from the parking area at elevation 10,330 feet. Branch left at an acute angle onto Blixt Road, shown.

The two-track heads north up an established avalanche path, a noteworthy characteristic. Even down in the canyon views are immediate. Hovering above Swamp Canyon is South Lookout Peak, Swamp Pass, U S Grant, and V3.

At 0.35 mile (0.15 mile from Ophir Pass Road), elevation 10,460 feet, the road briefly peters out. Notice a green gate lying on the ground. Turn east/right onto a single track.

After a couple hundred feet of climbing the trail transitions back to an obvious abandoned road that remains a two-track to the pass. Cross a stream in the center of another slide path at 0.7 mile. Climbing consistently, Ophir drops away. Yellow Mountain is image-left. Lizard Head, the Wilson group and Sunshine Mountain are on the right.

Leave the aspen forest behind at 11,180 feet. The track swings parallel to Chapman Gulch while keeping the drainage to the east. (THW, photo)

At 1.35 miles, pass by an old and faded Road Closed sign. "Here to Telluride is a mixture of private and public land. The mine owners haven't fenced you out. Respect their rights and property. Tread lightly." (THW, photo)

Break out of the conifers at 11,700 feet and soon the broad pass is revealed. We inadvertently scared up an elk herd so we took a break to allow them to move on. In this image the elk are on the track where Blixt Road switches to the east away from a secondary mine road at 12,240 feet.

Below, hikers pause beneath the sun west of Point 13,614'.  (THW, photo)

Blixt Road was cleaved into a brick-red, ultra steep talus slope. Oscar laboriously built berms using native rock to stabilize the road. Were it not for his masterful engineering the wagon road would have sloughed off and disappeared some time ago.

Below, hikers are about to top Oscar's Pass, elevation 13,130 feet, at 2.7 miles. Ophir Pass Road is image-center.
(Rich Butler, photo)

Blixt Road goes up and over the pass and heads down into Bridal Veil Basin. For thru hikers going to Telluride there are three options: Wasatch Connection to Gold Hill; East Fork to Bear Creek; and Bridal Veil Basin to Bridal Veil Creek and the Black Bear Pass switchbacks (see Nader's SummitPost).

From Oscar's Pass look north into Bridal Veil Basin. Three Needles are image-left and Lewis Lake is below "Columbine Pass," 13,058'. Although there are more direct routes to Columbine Lake from the east, there are social trail fragments into the basin and over Columbine Pass to the lake.

From Oscar's Pass it is a quick and simple 0.2 mile northwest to the peak on a relatively broad ridge of broken rock. It is a shallower incline than most of the road.

Strong hikers will crest the roomy flat summit in under two hours.

The humble peak doesn't call attention to itself but the panorama is one of the best in Colorado. The mountain resides east of midway on a ridge that spans the Ophir Needles, Silver Mountain, Oscar's Peak, Point 13,614', and Lookout Peak.

It looks like you can continue west on the ridge. However, there is a vertical wall east of San Joaquin Ridge Summit that will likely prohibit travel on to Silver Mountain. 

North, Wasatch Mountain and La Junta Peak form the divide between the Bear Creek and Bridal Veil Creek watersheds. Uncompahgre Peak, the highest mountain in the San Juans, has landmark status far to the northeast. (THW, photo)

We intended to climb Point 13,614' east of Oscar's Pass, image-left, but weather chased us off the ridge. Lookout Peak is to its right. The bright blue dot is Crystal Lake, a short and highly recommended walk from Ophir Pass.

Trotting down Blixt Road there is one flat switchback, shown below. Overall, this is one of those descents that feels steeper (and perhaps more punishing) than the climb. It is hard to imagine maneuvering heavily loaded burros on the steep path. Perhaps equally impressive, the road now hosts the swift and ultralight runners of the Hardrock 100.
(THW, photo)

Monday, July 17, 2017

Molas Pass to Coal Bank Pass Via Jura Knob, 12,614’

Essence: From the first to the last footfall this thru-hike is an immersive wildflower extravaganza in mid-summer. Walk off some fast miles on the Colorado Trail. Woods open to delicate streams and conglomerate boulders embedded in tundra. Climb solitary Jura Knob to be surrounded by big mountains and a bigger sky before scrambling down to the Engineer Mountain Trail. Celebrate on the Engineer Plateau, famous for its floral expanse before finishing in deep woods on the Pass Creek Trail. Expect to share this trek with mountain bikers.
Travel: The thru-hike requires a shuttle. From Durango, drive north on US 550 for 35 miles to Coal Bank Pass. Turn west 0.1 mile north of the pass onto a dirt road that leads shortly to parking for the Pass Creek Trail. Drop a vehicle here and continue north on US 550. Crest Molas Pass, mile marker 64. Take the first signed left toward Little Molas Lake, 0.4 mile north of the pass. Drive 1.1 miles on a good dirt road passing an established campground and park at the Colorado Trail Trailhead. Pit toilet, no water.
Distance and Elevation Gain: If you climb Jura Knob: 15.6 miles with 2,600 feet of climbing. If you forego Jura and stay on the Engineer Mountain Trail: 16.2 miles with 2,700 feet of vertical.
Total Time: 6:00 to 8:00
Difficulty: Trail, off-trail (Jura Knob); navigation moderate; One Class 3 move with mild exposure descending Jura
Map: Map of the Mountains Between Silverton and Durango, 2010
Latest Date Hiked: July 17, 2017
Quote: Returning to daily life after a trip to the mountains, I have often felt as though I were a stranger re-entering my country after years abroad, not yet adjusted to my return, and bearing experiences beyond speech. Robert Macfarlane, Mountains of the Mind

The Colorado Trail contours for five miles above the Lime Creek drainage at treeline. The hike is a complimentary interplay of forest, tundra, boulders, and wildflowers. (THW, photo)

Route: The trek begins on the Colorado Trail near Molas Pass, elevation 10,900 feet, and makes an arc westward and then south to the Pass Creek Trail, concluding at Coal Bank Pass. On the Colorado Trail, track above the Lime Creek drainage to the Engineer Mountain Trail. Off-trail, climb Jura Knob before rejoining the Engineer Mountain Trail. (Trail hikers may take the blue-line option.) Click on this link for standard routes up Jura Knob.

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 popular destination. Hit the trail on the west side of the over-sized parking lot and be immediately enveloped by a shaded big-tree wood. Myrtle blueberry, heart leaf arnica, and Jacob's ladder lavishly decorate the forest floor.

Climbing gently, step up limestone bands and cross a stream at 0.7 mile. Break out into the high open and gain the ridge at 1.3 miles, 11,300 feet. In 1879, the Lime Creek Fire burned 26,000 acres of forest with such intensity it has not yet recovered. A stalwart scorched tree has stood over 140 years. Here, the cross-state trail hooks north. Linger for a captivating view of Engineer Mountain and the La Plata Mountains.

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

The trail maxes out on the ridge at 11,620 feet, 2.0 miles, and veers to the west flank of West Turkshead Peak (Point 12,849'). For the next five miles the Colorado Trail cruises along on the 11,600 contour, give or take 200 feet.
(THW, photo)

Back in the timber, Whipple's penstemon, western valerian, and variegated paintbrush thrive in sunny patches. The track turns west at 3.1 miles and crosses a divide. The North Fork of Lime Creek surrenders to the south and Bear Creek rolls north to its confluence with the South Fork of Mineral Creek.

Below, hikers are tracking under Peak 12,764'. (THW, photo)

Pass by impressive Telluride Conglomerate boulders that peeled off the cliffs above. The "pebbles" are an ageless mix of very hard sedimentary rocks, schists, granites, and quartzites. (THW, photo)

Hikers move along a linear path hovering at treelimit. (THW, photo)

At 5.1 miles, elevation 11,500 feet, an old trail no longer obvious takes off to the north. It takes advantage of a fault in the Cutler Formation and Telluride Conglomerate to pierce the break at the apex of the Lime Creek drainage, shown. This is one of the best routes up the Twin Sisters. Twice in this location I have encountered a substantial herd of sheep and barking white guard dogs.

After crossing the headwaters of Lime Creek the trail curves around to the southwest. I have been along this section of the Colorado Trail many times and here the flowers dwarf humans. Hillsides are enveloped in osha, delphinium, and corn husk lily.

A small basin filled with jumbo boulders marks another fault in the Cutler Formation at 7.3 miles. This is an exit route from Twin Sisters. Now the trail climbs gently and consistently through the krummholz and into the luculent high alpine. Multiple lakelets reside on a perched water table and streams glide lazily through tundra sparkling with marsh marigolds. Just off the bench the sizable local elk herd grazes unaware of hikers above.

Arrive at the junction of the Colorado Trail and Engineer Mountain Trail (EMT) at 9.4 miles. The Colorado Trail goes west, north of Point 12,766’. Leave the Colorado Trail here and turn south on the EMT.

Engineer Mountain Trail
Trail hikers should take the blue-line EMT alternative. Descend 700 feet into the headwaters of Engine Creek flanking Jura Knob on the west before climbing back up to meet the Deer Creek Trail in three miles where the routes rejoin. If the up-climb seems arduous, perhaps the fields of blue bells, rosy paintbrush and king’s crown will distract.

Jura Knob, 12,614'
Walk south for just 0.2 mile on the EMT. At 12,200 feet leave the trail to climb the north ridge of Jura. The pitch is gentle to start and somewhat steeper near the top. Locate a good social trail though broken limestone and summit on the flat broad crest at 10.2 miles.

Jura Knob isn't the tallest mountain around but its singular location affords a sweeping vista of loftier peaks. Looking north from the left is Rolling Mountain, the Ice Lake series, and Twin Sisters. (THW, photo)

Eastward, the enchanting Grenadier Range and Needle Mountains are protected within the Weminuche Wilderness.

From Jura Knob the trek heads toward the eastern slopes of crenelated Engineer Mountain. (THW, photo)

Descend on Jura's south ridge. A delightful block scramble terminates at Corner Wall, a seven-foot downclimb located on the east side of the prominence. This is the easiest attack point. Scramble down Corner Wall facing the rock. Shorter people may need a spot because, while handholds are good, footholds are stingy. The pitch is too radical for dogs. The image below shoots up at Corner Wall.

Stay on the soft ridgecrest to a knoll at 12,000 feet. Then drop south 200 feet to intersect the Deer Creek Trail. The image below depicts the south ridge of Jura with hikers going uphill. (THW, photo)

Intersect the Deer Creek Trail and go right/west. At 12.1 miles, 11,680 feet, come to a signed junction with the EMT. The blue-line and back-line routes rejoin here. Turn left/south. Cross yet another expansive flower-infused meadow and enter a rich stand of conifers. 

The trail climbs lazily until it meets the Pass Creek Trail at a four-way junction at 13.1 miles, 11,720 feet. Leave the EMT and go left on the Pass Creek Trail. The flower show on the Engineer Plateau is superlative. (Chris Blackshear, photo)

From here, the trailhead is 2.4 miles down a well-engineered ultra popular trail for hikers and mountain bikers. The pleasant grade proceeds by sinuous switchbacks. The dirt path is guarded by old and stately fir and spruce trees; limestone boulders are studded with fossils. One mile from the trailhead pass a perfectly round disk of water.

As you take your final steps toward the conclusion of this trek at Coal Bank Pass, in mid-summer you will be engulfed by some of the brightest and tallest wildflowers in Colorado.

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.