Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Four Peak Traverse: Parrott, 11,857'; Madden, 11,972'; Star, 11,761'; Gibbs, 12,286'

Essence: Located at the southern end of the great west block of the La Plata Mountains exists an extraordinary and sustained ridgeline traverse. Summit four named mountains and three numbered points (four legal summits) while taking advantage of the divide's evolving panorama. South and west, a vast field of open space melds into the blue distance. Challenges on this mostly off-trail adventure include steep slopes, loose talus, a lot of climbing, and some notoriously skittish footing getting onto and off of Gibbs Peak.
Travel: A 1.5 mile shuttle is optional. From the US 160/550 intersection in Durango travel 11 miles west on US 160 to Hesperus. Turn north on La Plata Canyon Road, CR 124. Measure distance 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. The hike begins from Snowslide Gulch at 5.3 miles. There is a large parking pullout on the east side of the road. A no camping sign by a large boulder marks the spot. Drop the shuttle vehicle just north of signed Madden Creek at a small turnout on the right at 6.8 miles.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 9.0 miles; 4,900 feet of climbing
Time: 6:30 to 8:30
Difficulty: Mostly off-trail; navigation challenging; steep slopes; mild exposure and garbage rock on the south and east ridges of Gibbs Peak.
Maps: Hesperus; La Plata, CO 7.5' USGS Quads or Apogee Mapping
Latest Date Hiked: July 1, 2019
Quote: Something hidden. Go and find it.
Go and look behind the Ranges--
Something lost behind the Ranges.
Lost and waiting for you. Go! 
Rudyard Kipling 

Hikers gather on Gibbs Peak, the northern terminus of the traverse. (THW, photo)

Route: Hike generally west on the Snowslide Gulch Trail to the east ridge of Parrott Peak. Off-trail, transition onto the south ridge. From Parrott, hike north cresting Madden, Star, and Gibbs. Descend on the east ridge of Gibbs and intersect Gibbs Road. Leave the road at elevation 10,700 feet and walk northwest and then south to the junction with the upper end of the Madden Creek Trail. Descend southwest to CR 124. Note: the Snowslide Gulch Trail is difficult to locate traveling downhill. A clockwise direction is advised. The blue-line routes are common lateral approaches to the ridge, discussed at the end of this description. The purple-line route is a good bailout option from the ridge north of Peak 11,870'.

Snowslide Gulch Trailhead to Parrot Peak, 11,857'
This uncommon point of access offers the most direct route to Parrott Peak. (The customary route to the ridge through the Root Creek basin requires an out-and-back to Parrott from Saddle 11,540'.) The trail is not maintained and takes concentration to detect. I removed all the loose debris in 2018 but downed timber remains.

From the parking area at elevation 8,760 feet, cross the road and walk 60 paces north to an opening in the aspen. Search around for the path which begins a few feet west of the road. The thin, dirt trail passes by a National Forest sign mounted on two orange posts and then initiates a series of small switchbacks.

At times the trail is perched on a slope high above the creek; elsewhere the two practically meet. The sound of rushing water will alert you to opportunities to peer through aspen to cascades below. The footpath makes several hooks to the right. If you find yourself off the subtle trail, back up and relocate it. 

At one mile, elevation 10,160 feet, the track makes a sharp right turn in a conifer grove and soon becomes undecipherable. Hold your northeast bearing and gain the ridge at 1.2 miles, approximate elevation 10,360 feet.

Off-trail, climb northwest on or close to the ridgetop. There is a talus field at 10,800 feet, shown, where the ridge bends west. Skirt most of the rock before regaining the ridge. Actually, there are some helpful game trails a little south of the ridgeline, below the big and lovely trees.

At 11,700 feet, the east and south ridges merge. A simple and dramatic talus climb takes you to the summit, shown. Crest Parrott Peak at 2.35 miles after 3,100 feet of climbing. Any time you gain over 1,000 feet per mile it is a strenuous effort. Parrott is the southernmost peak on the western massif so it rewards with a unique perspective on the La Plata range. Look across the La Plata River to the east block peak chain. Unbounded views of the Four Corners reveal Mesa Verde, Shiprock, Sleeping Ute Mountain, the Blues, and the La Sal Mountains. 

Madden Peak, 11,972'
It is 0.3 mile from Parrott to Saddle 11,540'. As seen in the image below there is some cliff structure on Parrott's north face. Locate trail fragments slightly west of the summit cone where these hikers are descending. The blue-line route through Root Creek basin joins here. (THW, photo)

Climb 400 feet up Madden's broad and pleasurable southern back on well-seated stone blocks and plates. Below, hikers sign the summit register 3.0 miles into the hike. In the north is the ridge walker's ever-present skyline companion.

Madden Peak is extraordinary for its unbroken simplicity which serves to highlight the immense span of yawning space beyond the range. (THW, photo)

Star Peak, 11,761'
Drop over 500 feet to the Madden-Star saddle--snow lingers late in the trees. I especially favor the flattish rocks on Star's south incline that sound like plates breaking underfoot. Crest the roller at 3.5 miles. It is a curiosity that Star is singled out and named. It is not a ranked summit whereas Peak 11,870' to its immediate north makes the cut. Below, Star is in the foreground with Peak 11,870' to its left. Helmet Peak, the La Plata's far west summit, is image-left. 

Peak 11,870'
Drop an inconsequential 40 feet and then climb the south slope of Peak 11,870'. The finest span of ridgeline is between Star and Gibbs. (THW, photo)

Top out on Peak 11,870' at 3.8 miles. Lone Cone, the westernmost peak in the San Juan Mountains, is on the horizon, image-left. Gibbs Peak is image-center.

Point 11,931'
The scree on the north side of Peak 11,870' makes a delightful tinkling melody. The saddle at 4.0 miles is a bailout location, depicted on the map above with a purple line. If the weather is threatening or you would rather not climb Gibbs you can descend to the Madden Creek Trail from here. Do a descending traverse northeast off-trail. We got good purchase on the steep hillside. Intersect an abandoned road and follow it north to the Madden Creek headwater basin. Descend east on a broad avalanche path to another old mining track where you will intersect the black-line route. This choice requires some navigation savvy and map-reading ability.

Approaching Point 11,931', transition from grass and climb the rocky knob. A short use trail initiates at 11,800 feet and wanders up through the rough spots. 

Top the third and highest roller at 4.7 miles. Gibbs Peak is image-center.

Gibbs Peak, 12,286'
The rocky ridge constricts just enough to be exhilarating.
The lower portion of the Gibbs south ridge is an open gravel field rising to a false summit.

Reach the summit saddle at 12,080 feet where these hikers are assembled. A cliff bars further passage right on the divide. Move west then scramble up skittish and rotten rock to regain the ridge at first opportunity. Test holds on protruding solid-looking rock. There is mild exposure on the sliding scree.

The summit ridge is glorious. It is wide enough to provide security and beaten down from use. 

Gibbs and Burwell Peak, its neighbor to the north, are a tawny rust color and the rock composition is altogether different than the surrounding mountains. The La Platas are a laccolith with a mixture of sedimentary and intrusive igneous rock. The igneous layer in the upper Babcocks is quite thick and granitic. Seen in the lineup below are: Hesperus Mountain, the towers of Lavender Peak, Spiller Peak, The Knife, West Babcock, 4th Crest, and Middle Babcock

Crest Gibbs Peak, the highest and most difficult mountain on the hike at 5.4 miles after a whopping 4,850 feet of vertical gain. Look south to review the entire traverse. Heart-stopping drama is provided by the northern backdrop of severe and imposing peaks.

To The Madden Creek Trail
Work carefully down the east ridge of Gibbs searching out dependable holds amongst the "Gibby crumbles" while being mindful of the exposure. 

After 150 feet the grade decreases and a social trail develops. (Betsey Butler, photo)

Stay on the spine until you intersect an old mining track 0.3 mile off the top at 11,780 feet and turn left. Be sure to nail this trail. It does one switchback and then at 6.0 miles, 11,480 feet, spills out onto Gibbs Road. A cairn marks this important junction. Turn right. At 6.7 miles the road branches right and then left. Continue straight, staying on the main road. 

At 7.1 miles, 10,700 feet, our route leaves Gibbs Road at a hard right turn. (You could stay on the main road and it will take you back to CR 124 at Bedrock Creek, adding a mile to the total distance.) The secondary rocky track bears northwest and then turns south to intersect the purple-line route at 10,500 feet. This image shows Gibbs Peak on the right and the bailout slide path, center.

Continue walking south, the abandoned road succumbing to dandelions and grass. At 8.0 miles, 9,920 feet, a glade of aspen is covered in historic arborglyphs. Make a left here onto the Madden Creek Trail. (The road ends at Madden Creek if you miss the turn.) 

The maintained dirt path descends through a forest of healthy and stately aspen. The trees make this trail an especially beautiful experience and a perfect finish.

In autumn thimbleberry light the way.

As you approach CR 124 at 9.0 miles, turn around to locate a trailside arborglyph. She is the namesake of this "Naked Lady Trail." (Betsey Butler, photo)

Miner's Cabin and FSR 791 Lateral Routes
I hiked to the Parrott-Madden saddle many times before learning about the Snowslide Gulch Trail. The lateral route beginning at Miner's Cabin is steep, fast, and beautiful. Park on the right 6.3 miles up CR 124. Watch for a sign just past a chain-link fence, elevation 8,960 feet.

Walk a few paces down the county road and take the first 4WD track on the west side. Enter an aspen and Douglas fir wood. At 0.2 mile take the right fork. In spring, red columbine, white violet, and orange sneezeweed bloom in the road. 

At 0.9 mile, 9,920 feet, reach the unsigned junction with FSR 795 and turn left. Note: just before the T intersection the road has been deliberately disguised with slash. If you are returning this way watch for a distinctive fallen log, pictured. If the road kicks up a hill, you blew by the turnoff.

Walking west on FSR 795, the road crosses the West Fork of Root Creek at 1.2 miles, 10,040 feet. 

Cross the creek and at 1.25 miles locate a faint abandoned road heading directly west on the south side of the creek. At 10,480 feet the road crosses two branches of the West Fork before ending at 1.7 miles, 10,600 feet. Climb a steep open slope for 500 feet watching for a large grove of old-growth spruce on your left with huge roots on the surface at about 11,100 feet. Locate an old miner's trail just above the stand of trees. The image below shows Saddle 11,540' left of center. The spruce grove is image-center.

The scrappy trail does a rising traverse southwest cutting nicely across a talus field for 0.1 mile to 11,350 feet. Push through a krummholz barrier and out onto an open slope. It is a steep slog with good footing to the saddle at 2.2 miles.

The Old Green Bus Route
An alternative access to Root Creek basin begins from CR 124 and FSR 791, shown, 6.4 miles from Hwy 160. The Forest Service sign refers to this as the Madden Trail but locals still call it the Green Bus Trailhead even though the picturesque bus is long gone. The road rises gently with long switchbacks through a lovely aspen forest to the junction with FSR 795 at 1.5 miles, 10,000 feet. Turn left and walk another half mile to the West Fork crossing.