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.


  1. Hi Deb... love all the information you've shared on La Plata. My wife and I are in process of summiting all the named peaks and most recently climbed Spiller. This one was just about at our limits. From reading all your other descriptions... it seems like maybe only Sharkstooth might be outside our pay grade. However, I figured I'd ask... where in the pecking order Spiller falls in terms of technical climbing, exposure, etc. Specifically.... Hespurus, Babcock (East, Middle, West), Moss, and Lavender.

    1. I'm pleased Earthline has been helpful for your forays in the La Plata Mountains. If you've successfully summited Spiller on its notoriously friable rock, you're probably good for most of the remaining peaks, though they all have their individual challenges and dangers. Progress in roughly this order: Hesperus Mountain from the northern approach, Moss and Lavender, East Babcock, West Babcock, (Spiller), Middle Babcock, Lewis Mountain, Sharkstooth, The Knife. We climbed Hesperus last week for the umpteenth time--oh joy!