Saturday, October 28, 2017

Diorite Peak, 12,761', Via "Columbine Hill"

Essence: Diorite Peak is a skyscraper zenith, yet it is surprisingly welcoming and friendly. Anyone in decent shape can crest this mountain. The summit is accessed from the south so it may be climbed earlier in the summer than most peaks in the La Plata Range. For many locals, climbing Diorite in May is an annual rite of spring. Picturesque mining ruins begin just a mile up the trail.  
Travel: From the US 160/550 intersection in Durango, travel 11.0 miles west on US 160 to Hesperus. Turn right on La Plata Canyon Road, CR 124. Measure from here. 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 should suffice. Park at 10.6 miles. The hike goes west up Forest Service Road 798 into Tomahawk Basin. With high clearance, 4WD low, and copious nerve and skill, it is possible to drive up the steep and rocky two-track another 2 miles to 10,950 feet.
Distance and Elevation Gain: For the classic route, 7.6 miles and 3,000 feet of climbing from Trailhead 9,880'
Time: 4:30 to 6:00
Difficulty: 4WD road, social trail, off-trail; navigation moderate; Class 2+ with mild exposure 
Map: La Plata, Colorado 7.5' USGS Quad
Latest Date Hiked: June 30, 2023
Quote: Look at the flowers--for no reason. It is simply unbelievable how happy flowers are. Osho

Dramatic Diorite Peak and route as seen from the east ridge of East Babcock Peak. (THW, photo)

Route: The standard route is an out-and-back, depicted below. It is possible, though considerably more challenging, to turn this hike into a loop, returning through Williams Gulch. This option is the blue dot route, below.

There is room for a couple of vehicles on CR 124, elevation 9,880 feet. Walk west up FSR 798, an abandoned wagon road, into Tomahawk Basin. This image looks back on CR 124 from FSR 798.

Enter an aspen forest occasionally interrupted with talus flows, keeping Basin Creek on the left/southwest. In 0.7 mile, emerge from the woods.

In 1.0 mile, you will reach a juncture with the Tomahawk shortcut trail. For a leisurely ascent, simply stay on the road by bearing right. For a steep and slick alternative, punch up a social trail that cuts west of the tailings pile and Tomahawk stamp mill before rejoining the road, as depicted on the map above. I generally stay on the road going up but take the shortcut on my return. Either way, you can admire at close range the impressive mining ruins.

The Tomahawk Mining Company built the stamp mill in 1904. Exploratory work was done on promising veins in the diorite stock. Recovery of precious metals was poor, at most 0.6 ounce of gold to the ton. Mining operations in Tomahawk basin concluded in 1911. (Courtesy, John Sanders.) Incidentally, word of mouth also reports samples of precious amethyst in the upper basin.

Continue northwest on the road beyond the stamp mill. The track makes a sharp switchback to the right at Little Kate Mine, 1.9 miles. Soon the ridge spanning Mount Moss and Diorite Peak is revealed to the north. Note the low point in the ridge while remaining on the abandoned road as it switchbacks up the south-facing slope.

The road fades and a social trail commences. After the rocky track, the green treadway is a relief, even if the grade steepens. This image shows the start of the trail and the saddle at the top of the ridge you must achieve.

The trail passes close to beautifully crafted stone foundations, while wildflowers grow audaciously in the cracks.

The trail ends at a large mine cavern drilled into the side of the mountain. The next goal is 200 vertical feet away, Saddle 12,360'. Simply climb north up the steep hillside to the minor divot in the ridge. Trekking poles are helpful. You will be stair-stepping up flower platforms on renowned Columbine Hill.

Mid-summer, the sheer numbers of columbine are staggering. These glorious yet gaudy flowers look like a product of the Disney Design Studio. A dazzling assortment of other wildflowers compete with this state champion for all they’re worth. Notable is Brandegee's clover, a study in velvet hot magenta. (THW, photo)

Reach Saddle 12,360', shown below. (A sizable cornice typically lingers in early summer. Gain the saddle just west of the snow field.) Mount Moss is two miles away, directly west. Resist the urge to bridge this dangerous, impassible knife. These hikers are approaching the saddle on the descent.

Diorite Peak, image-left, is less than half a mile from the saddle. (THW, photo)

Turn east and climb on the ridgetop, or just right of the rib on fragments of social trail. These hikers are going down the mountain.

The summit comes into view from a promontory.  Descend to a shallow low point. The final 200 feet of climbing is Class 2+ on solid blocks of rock.

The upper mountain is comprised of the granitic diorite, an intrusive igneous rock dependable underfoot. (THW, photo)

Approach the crest by means of a peninsular stone catwalk, experiencing the thrill of a narrow ridge with only a hint of the expected fright. A columnar cliff on the west face accentuates Diorite Peak's small crown at 3.8 miles. The peak falls off to the east less evenly but just as greatly. On a clear day, the vista of the San Juans is astounding.

In late spring, snow mixed with stony brilliance is visually captivating. Diorite resides as a stand-alone peak smack in the middle of the La Plata Range.  On the West Block the alluring and intimidating Babcock trio are south, Mount Moss is due west. To its north are Lavender Peak, Hesperus Mountain, and Centennial Peak. Across La Plata Canyon is Kennebec Pass; and Cumberland, Lewis, and Silver Mountains.

For the return, the simplest strategy is to walk back on your ascent route. (The Tomahawk shortcut shaves half a mile.) This image shows hikers on top of the ridge promontory southwest of the peak. Saddle 12,360' is off to the right.
(THW, photo)

Williams Gulch Return Route
For those who wish to further their adventure, it is possible to drop down through Williams Gulch. From the peak, retrace your steps for 0.2 mile and contour left around the ridge promontory, seen above. Gain Diorite's southeast ridge, shown below. Descend for 0.2 mile to approximately 12,200 feet, watching for a pleasing way into the basin to the north.

Work down an open slope of flower bouquets and diorite, making an arc that carries you to a rise north of the creek in Williams Gulch. Follow this rise, staying above the creek, to the La Plata Canyon Road.  Do Not get sucked into the Williams Gulch drainage or mistakenly amble to the south side of the stream. This will result in a nasty, nettle infested, willow bashing, trudge of misery. Walk down the main road about 0.5 mile to the trailhead.

2020 Note: The feasibility of downclimbing the north ridge has been questioned. My partner and I probed from Point 12,117', south of Bear Creek Pass on the Sharkstooth Trail. Here's a good look at the ridge from the trail. There are a series of technical obstacles. (THW, photo)

We were stopped by a 50 foot wall not far from Point 12,117'. Bypassing on either side looked unpleasant. But, see T. Horvath's comment below. (THW, photo)

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Spiller Peak, 13,123', via Rush Basin

Essence: Three prominent ridges radiate from Spiller, all of them troublesome for the climber. Three basins surround but only two offer approach. The route to the Burwell-Spiller saddle from the west is more direct and easier than the tedious trek through Boren Basin. Rock on the south ridge is fractured and friable, holds are unreliable, and exposure is serious. However, this route is considerably less dangerous than traversing the east ridge over The Knife.
Travel: From the US 550/160 intersection in Durango, travel west on US 160 for 24.7 miles to the signed Echo Basin Road and turn right/north. Zero-out your trip meter. Stay on the main road, passing old homesteads and hay meadows. In 2.4 miles, continue straight on FSR 566 when the road turns to gravel. The road deteriorates at 3.8 (miles) where winter plowing stops. The track climbs steadily through scrub oak to a cattle guard at 6.4. Directly east is The Hogback. Beyond the guard are literally acres of blooming mule's ears in early summer. At 6.8 bear right at the fork, staying on FSR 566. Climbing, the road glides through an aspen forest. At 8.0 the road forks again; stay left. (A right turn will get you there but the road is much worse.) At 9.9 go right. High clearance and good tires are necessary on the rocky track. At 11.6 turn right; left is 566G. Pass a large meadow with a beautiful view of Helmet Peak. At 13.6 go left onto 566H. We parked in a small clearing at 14.6 miles but you can go another 0.2 and park near a tiny pond. Allow 1:15 from Durango. The road into Rush Basin is no longer viable.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 5.2 miles; 2,700 feet of climbing
Time: 4:30 to 6:00
Difficulty: Off-trail; navigation moderate. The south ridge is Class 3 with serious exposure on rotten rock; helmets recommended.
Map: La Plata, Colorado 7.5 USGS Quad or Apogee Mapping
Latest Date Hiked: October 17, 2017
Quote: Attention is the beginning of devotion. Mary Oliver

Two hikers stand on Point 12,201' and discuss the route up Spiller Peak, image-center. (THW, photo)

Route: Ascend east up a prominent slide path to gain the ridge west of Point 12,201'. Go over the prominence and down into Rush Basin. Climb over a talus field to the Burwell-Spiller saddle, elevation 12,500 feet. Scramble up the south ridge of Spiller Peak. On the return, skirt Point 12,201' on a bench.

From our parking pullout at 10,800 feet, we continued up the road for 0.25 mile to the base of an avalanche path, shown. The pitch is direct and steep--step up on plant platforms. The grassy slope is somewhat easier in autumn with vegetation laid down. You may soften the climb on a network of abandoned roads but that adds considerable distance. At 11,200 feet, veer south on an old mining road if you wish to visit a prospect. Watch for golden eagles circling above the ridgecrest.

In just 0.8 mile, gain the ridge between Helmet Peak and Point 12,201' at 11,900 feet. An alternative and appealing approach to Rush Basin is over the top of Helmet Peak, shown.

Crest Point 12,201' at 1.3 miles, continue east along the ridge and drop to the Spiller saddle at 11,940 feet. Brilliant rock contrasts with a cerulean sky. Yellow October light throws long shadows.

Reach the shore of the tundra-bound lake in Rush Basin, headwaters of the East Mancos River, at 11,840 feet, 1.7 miles. Scope a route to Saddle 12,500', shown. We walked on the subtle tier seen in this image but it was of little help and neither are historic trail fragments.

 The west ridge is tempting but there are serious obstacles and we discard that approach.

Passing across chunky talus requires patience. However, the slope is considerably more stable than the endlessly tedious scree field on the eastside approach through Boren Basin.

Crest the ridgeline in the vicinity of Saddle 12,500' at 2.2 miles. Look deep into La Plata Canyon and across to the eastern block of the La Plata range. From here it is 0.4 mile to the summit. In this image you can see a climber in red starting up the ridge. Stay close to the centerline.

There is nothing especially tricky about this straightforward ridge ascent. But it is complicated by garbage rock. Hand and footholds are undependable. Maintain steely attention. I've been on this ridge five times and it has garnered my respect. Only once did it seem inconsequential--on the descent from The Knife which is downright dangerous by comparison.

Be especially mindful when forced onto open slopes or confined inside chutes.

There are several class 3 scrambles.

Test every hold.

The ridge suddenly opens to a vista of Hesperus MountainLone Cone, and the Wilson group.

The challenge eases as the rocky crown approaches. Cresting Spiller Peak is incredibly satisfying. North are intimate views of Hesperus, the towers of Lavender Peak, and Mount Moss. Adjacent to the south is Burwell Peak. The first time I climbed Spiller I came from Burwell. There is a 100-foot vertical gash in Burwell's summit block. From my field notes: We decided to carry on, climbing ever so carefully down the ultra steep east face of Burwell on skittering, broken, rotten rock. Once we were committed to the task, it only grew more daunting. We were forced to drop 400 feet before being afforded the opportunity to turn north. And here we sidehilled until we could make our way up to the ridge, just south of the low point between the two mountains, Saddle 12,500'.

I also describe the descent from the saddle into Boren Basin: We were presented with almost 2,000 feet of tedium. There were fun escalator rides down sporadic scree; most of the rock was too big for that delight, yet not too big to roll and slide under our feet. 

The four-peak traverse further south on the western block is altogether delightful.  

The image below depicts The Knife, West Babcock, Middle Babcock (the tallest of the Babcocks but barely visible from here), and East Babcock. The Knife is one of Colorado's finest (and notorious) scrambles. However, if you are going to traverse the east ridge of Spiller, start from West Babcock so you can up-climb the near vertical crux.

On this day, I am delighted to once again stand on one of the more inaccessible peaks in the La Plata Mountains with a few trustworthy friends. Perhaps my courage has dwindled some over the years but my devotion to nature has increased--Spiller Peak feels just right.

Retrace your steps into Rush Basin. You may return over Point 12,201' but then you will miss a rather amazing landscape feature, the irresistible tableland that resides between the out-going ridge and the river canyon well below. The routes are the same distance, 0.8 mile. The tundra-topped terrace carries the gentle stream flowing from the lake. The wildcat trail materializes nicely above a willow patch.

Pass above a weakness in the cliffs revealing the East Mancos River. At one time there were more active mines in this basin than anywhere else in the La Platas.

The trail ascends about 100 feet to close the loop on the ridge near the top of the slide path. Be sure to look over your shoulder at Burwell's summit notch so well defined in afternoon light. Spiller Peak appears simple to achieve from this perspective. And it is so long as you give this mountain its due--your undivided attention.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The Golden Cathedral of Neon Canyon

Essence: Begin on an historic stock trail down a Navajo Sandstone slab. Ford the Escalante River several times and walk up Neon Canyon where Wingate walls glisten and textures abound. Enter the Golden Cathedral, a deep glowing grotto. The soaring overhanging roof has three vertical tunnels bored out by water constructing a three-bridge effect. Create a loop by returning overland on the Beeline Route. Must be experienced hiking freestyle and navigating by landscape features in the absence of a trail. This hike is within the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.
Travel: From Escalante, Utah, drive east on Utah State Route 12 for just under five miles. Turn south on Hole In The Rock Road and proceed for 16.7 miles. Watch for a small brown sign with white lettering, "Egypt 10 mi." Turn east and zero-out your trip meter. The road initially presents as flat and graded washboard but it gets rougher as you go. Still, it is vastly improved since my first trip out to Egypt in 2005. At 2.8 miles continue straight. Cross Twentyfive Mile Wash, likely wet, at 3.5 miles. In the Carmel Formation, this ford is potentially the greatest travel impediment, especially after rain. Drive cautiously over a stretch of bumpy bedrock heading a canyon at 8.0 miles. The Egypt 3 slot is marked by a culvert at 9.2 miles. At a "Y", 9.5 miles, go right. Park at ten miles in a large circular lot. 4WD with moderate clearance should suffice. There are no facilities or water at the trailhead. Allow 1:10 to 1:30 from Escalante.
Distance and Elevation Gain: Your mileage will vary but figure no more than 10 miles with about 1,450 feet of climbing.
Time: 5:30 - 7:30
Difficulty: Trail fragments, primarily off-trail; navigation moderately challenging; no exposure; potentially deep wading in the Escalante River (bring water sandals); flash flood hazard in Neon Canyon; perennial, clear water in lower Fence Canyon--water in the Escalante River is generally silty.
Map: Egypt, UT 7.5 USGS Quad
Latest Date Hiked: October 11, 2017
Quote: It is an honor to walk where all around me stands an earth house made of scarlet, of jet, of ocher, of white shell. It is more than beautiful at the center of the world. Joy Harjo

The sculpting power of the waters of Neon Canyon created a mid-channel cavern whose ceiling has three massive skylights (one is a double). From the interior of the chamber the entire structure may be seen in the reflection pool.
(THW, photo)

Route: From the upland rim on the east side of the parking lot, descend the inclined escarpment on a sandstone sheet. Heading northeast, cross the Egypt Bench, a long sandy flat, staying north of the main fork of Fence Canyon. Locate a well-defined trail near the apex of the wedge between the two arms of Fence and descend to the Escalante River, 1,100 feet below the trailhead. Walk and wade downstream to Neon Canyon, not named on the topo. Follow the canyon northeast to the Golden Cathedral. Retrace your steps to the trailhead. Beeline Route option: At the mouth of Neon cross the Escalante and locate a trail up a sandy hill. Walk off-trail westward and meet the down-coming route at the base of the initial slab. This sandy choice is slightly more direct but not much faster. 

After signing the trail register pause at the trailhead, elevation 5,620 feet, to get your bearings. Looking east, on the horizon are the Henry Mountains. Image-center is Point 5,270', the rounded dome rising just east of Neon Canyon. The Beeline Route is a direct shot from here to Point 5,270'. The standard route bears northeast paralleling the north rim of Fence Canyon, image center-left. The initial sandy track is obvious. (THW, photo)

There are two sedimentary strata in this location. The predominant rock in the Carmel Formation is limestone, once a shallow sea shelf. It forms the resistant cap that slows the erosion of the underlying Navajo Sandstone. Dark brown Carmel blocks hurtle down the slickrock.

We flow down the east-facing slope on pink stone and red earth. Cowboys chiseled deep steps for horses and cattle on the zigzagging historic stock trail.

A proliferation of rock stacks makes cairn hopping haphazard inside the bowl. Just bear generally northeast avoiding the steepest friction pitches. We follow curiosity, walking for a time down a fluted rill masterfully sculpted by water and wind. Below, Fence Canyon is image-center.

In about 0.7 mile, you will have dropped 450 feet to the base of the slab. Look back and reference the location of the trailhead. This is even more critical for hikers who intend to return on the Beeline Route.

Standard Route
Once off the slab the trail is not maintained across Egypt Bench, a mix of sandy pockets and sandstone. The proliferation of random cairns makes navigation more difficult than it really is. The juniper-dotted plain is incised with the unnamed north fork and the main fork of Fence. Stay between the canyons. More specifically, head Fence and walk down its left-hand side. There will inevitably be streams of footprints; a clear trail should materialize at about 1.7 miles when you are along the south side of two low-rising buttes. The image below depicts Egypt Bench with Fence Canyon on the right and the soft forms of the north fork on the left.

The platform between the arms of Fence forms a steadily tapering wedge. The trail is distinct to the apex of the wedge at 2.6 miles, elevation 4,700 feet. Walk off-trail out to the point where you can look directly down into the north fork. The old stock trail winds down through broken cliffs on the south side of the wedge, shown. The path drops into the main fork drainageway where large oak trees mix with cottonwood. The north fork, a spring-fed perennial stream, joins the main; horsetails and willows flourish along the watery way. (THW, photo)

Arrive at the Escalante River at 3.3 miles, elevation 4,539 feet. Start wading downstream immediately, skirting around the initial wall, shown. Emerge at first opportunity downcanyon-right. I have been in the river at this location when it was running thigh deep, cold and fast. Trekking poles are helpful. Protect sensitive gear. Wingate Sandstone cliffs are far apart and the river changes its meandering course occasionally as it crosses the wide flood plain. In 2017, we forded three times in the next mile, contrary to what is indicated on the map above.

We are delighted to discover a social trail barging through the tamarisk, willow, rabbitbrush, cottonwood, and tangled riparian habitat. When I was here in 2005 there was no trail and the experience was miserable. From my field notes: We spend the next hour or more tamarisk thrashing, trying to work our way a mile down river without too many crossings. No one in their right mind enjoys the ducking, the seeds and spiders down your back, the scratches, and the floundering that overgrown trails entail.

In 2017, our final river crossing prior to Neon is in and out down-canyon left. (THW, photo)

At 3.9 miles locate a petroglyph panel on a varnished sheer wall above a red bench covered with gray cobbles. The panel is 20 feet high and at least 100 feet long.

Humans have been pecking images into this wall-of-record for over 5,000 years. The abstract geometric petroglyphs are the rock art of hunters and gatherers dating from the middle to late Archaic period, beginning in 3000 BCE. You will also see a cluster of anthropomorphs in Glen Canyon Linear Style from this time period, shown. Note the bear prints and human footprints going up the wall.

Broad shouldered anthropomorphs and distinctive bighorn sheep are that of Ancestral Puebloans, dating from 1000 BCE to 550 CE. 

Elaborate horned anthropomorphs with hair-bobs distinguishes the Fremont Culture, 500 to 1300 CE. Pecked over the top of these ancient images are cowboy glyphs. Beneath an elongated snake, Charles Hall added his inscription in fancy cursive in 1881, shown. In addition to the cowboy depicted below, there are two renegades down the wall with fists raised ready to duke it out. Please, do not touch the wall!

Continuing on the downriver trail, Neon Canyon is the first side canyon on the left. Arrive at the mouth of Neon at 4.3 miles. Walking up the flat sandy floor, delicate green vegetation contrasts with perpendicular shimmering walls. The whole canyon glows. Caution: poison ivy encroaches on both sides of the path. (THW, photo)

Textural and color components create a perpetual tapestry: sheer and lumpy; opaque and shiny; black patina and purple-red Wingate; machined concentric circles and solution cavities. (THW, photo)

A fallen boulder 0.8 mile upcanyon squeezes the entrance into the nave of the Golden Cathedral, an enormous, circular amphitheater. Upon the floor is a shallow glassy reflection pool. The over-arcing ceiling has three apertures, distinctive vertical shafts forming natural bridges. In 2005 we saw no one in the entire region. In 2017, eight hikers came and went while we were inside the cathedral. And yet the silence and peacefulness was undisturbed. Lie down and look up. At just the right angle you can see shafts of light streaming into the upper reaches. (THW, photo)

Sojourners gaze into the earth house mirror. (THW, photo)

 Walking out of Neon a tiger wall folds softly over our heads. (THW, photo)

Return to the Escalante River at 5.9 miles. Most hikers will retrace their steps to the trailhead. For those practiced in orienteering it is possible to create a loop by returning on the Beeline Route. We plotted this alternative from home and were somewhat disappointed to learn from hikers we happened upon that the route was established and named. It diminished the mystery and magic that comes with charting an unknown course. While the Beeline is slightly shorter (about four miles from Neon to the trailhead), much of the walking is in deep sand. This route is ill advised during summer months.

Beeline Route
Ford the river directly across from Neon Canyon. Plow through riverside vegetation and soon emerge onto the open flood plain. Locate the well-trodden trail up a sandy slope. It is just downstream of an east-facing ridge. The image below looks back to the Neon entrance and Point 5,270' from the trail.

Part way up the hill the trail forks--stay to the right. Rising up from the river, the views are fabulous. The sand track climbs for 400 feet and pierces a minor cliff band left of a stone knob, shown.

Emerge onto the southern portion of the Egypt Bench. Here, the established trail ends and you are on your own. You will see footprints and well-intentioned cairns but consider them superfluous. We climb a sandstone dome, Point 5,045', to get our bearings. The east rim of the trailhead upland is visible (and remains so). Take aim on the shallow depression left of center in the image below. Heading west-southwest, keep the main fork of the Fence Canyon trench on your right/north.

Deep sand is interspersed with welcome bubbles of stone. The topography is surprisingly convoluted. The piƱon-juniper forest provides scant cover. Past the slots and fissures in Fence, at 5,060 feet we drop into the shallow, storm-carved channel and play around in the chain of scallops.

Head Fence Canyon and rejoin the slab track. The climb on the stone sheet is indelibly etched in my memory as one of the most pleasurable segments of this (or any) hike. The relationship between footfall and the dictates of stone sustained over the eons is one of symbiotic perfection and will continue to be just so over the coming centuries.