Sunday, July 29, 2018

Lizard Head Platform and Black Face, 12,147'

Essence: This hike probes into the Lizard Head Wilderness to stand directly under the 400 foot-tall monolith, a volcanic neck visible across vast distances. Extend the hike on the Lizard Head Trail to the summit of Black Face. Scramble up the eponymous outcrop. This description returns to the Cross Mountain Trailhead but there is an option to do a popular thru-hike over the Black Face ridge to Lizard Head Pass. Walk in the shadow of Mount Wilson (14,246'), Wilson Peak (14,017'), and Gladstone Peak (13,913'), and take in region-wide vistas. The 41,486 acre Lizard Head Wilderness was designated by Congress in 1980 with the passage of the Colorado Wilderness Act. Much of the hike is located on the boundary of the San Juan and Uncompahgre National Forests.
Travel: The trailhead for the Cross Mountain Trail is located on the west side of CO 145, two miles south of Lizard Head Pass at mile marker 57.4. Watch for a brown US Forest Service sign directing into a large parking lot. No facilities, no water. 
Distance and Elevation Gain: 12.8 miles; 4,100 feet of climbing; if you do the thru-hike to Lizard Head Pass and have a shuttle you save two miles. 
Total Time: 6:30 to 8:00
Difficulty: Primarily Class 1 trail, some off-trail; navigation moderate; some exposure on the optional southeast ridge of Lizard Head; Class 2+ scramble up the Black Face outcrop, an add-on.
Maps: Mount Wilson, Colorado 7.5' USGS Quad or, Trails Illustrated 141: Telluride, Silverton, Ouray, Lake City
Latest Date Hiked: July 29, 2018
 How wonderful is Cold Mountain
 Climbers are all afraid
 The moon shines on clear water twinkle twinkle

Wind rustles the tall grass
Bare twisted trees have clouds for foliage

A touch of rain brings it all alive
Unless you see clearly do not approach.
Han-shan c.800

Lizard Head, a vertical pillar of exfoliating rotten rock, is Colorado's most difficult and dangerous summit climb--the easiest route is class 5.8. Albert Ellingwood and Brandon Hoag made the first ascent in 1920. This image was captured from the summit of Black Face under a brooding sky. (Thomas Holt Ward, photo)

Route: The hike described is the black-line route. Ascend north on the Cross Mountain Trail. At the junction with the Lizard Head Trail go northwest to intersect the west ridge of Lizard Head. Pitch up a climber's trail to the base of the tower. Descend on the southeast ridge back to the Lizard Head Trail and walk east to Black Face. Return to the Cross Mountain Trailhead. Or, continue east on the Lizard Head Trail to the pass (blue-line route) and your shuttle vehicle or bicycle. It is a 2.3 mile walk down the old railroad grade back to the start.

Cross Mountain Trail #637 (CMT) initiates at the confluence of Lizard Head Creek and Snow Spur Creek, a north tributary of the Dolores River. The trailhead (pictured), elevation 10,040 feet, is in the center of one of Colorado's most extensive and beautiful meadowlands. Sign the trail register, cross a narrow bridge and rise up out of the headwater valley.

Lizard Head and the Black Face summit and outcrop are visible from the valley floor. (THW, photo)

The first 2.5 miles are thickly wooded with interspersed clearings. The Groundhog Stock Trail branches left at 0.6 mile. From here, the CMT is open to equestrians and hikers only. The packed earth and weathered stone path maintains a consistent gentle grade. Enter the Lizard Head Wilderness at 1.9 miles, 11,200 feet.

The trail levels out for a welcome reprieve as our quest draws near. The path flanks west of Point 12,038'.

Upon entering the capacious world above the trees the highest peaks in the San Miguel range announce themselves: Wilson South, Mount Wilson, Gladstone Peak, and Wilson Peak. Cross Mountain is in the foreground.

The CMT ends at a signed junction with Lizard Head Trail #505 at 3.3 miles, elevation 11,940 feet. Turn right if you are doing the standard thru-hike to Lizard Head Pass. (THW, photo)

Lizard Head Platform
Turn left for the easiest route to the Lizard Head platform via the west ridge where there is a considerable break in the cliff band encircling the earth pillar. (THW, photo)

The Lizard Head Trail crosses the saddle between Cross Mountain and Lizard Head, descends north through Bilk Creek Basin, threads between Wilson Peak and Sunshine Mountain, and terminates at the Wilson Mesa Trail. Leave the trail at 3.7 miles, about elevation 12,060 feet, and cut up to the west ridge.

A thin climber's trail will materialize at 12,200 feet. The unmaintained track makes short switchbacks in broken gray rock up the steep and narrow spine. Having seen Lizard Head from dispersed mountains over the years it was a startling and powerful sensation to approach the base of the monolith. The standing rock exudes a strong presence.

Mount the platform at 4.1 miles, 12,780 feet. The terrace is sloping and covered with stones of every size that have flaked from the tower which rises vertically overhead. Lizard Head is notorious for exfoliating in the presence of humans. Do not tarry beneath this beautiful structure.

As we rounded the corner we watched a father and son team whom we knew rappel a south wall crack at the completion of their successful climb. It was a rare and chance privilege to share this celebratory moment.

The southeast ridge descent to the Lizard Head Trail is more difficult and exposed than the west ridge. It is a route, not a trail. If you have doubts, return the way you came. For the southeast route, walk under the south face of the column. (THW, photo)

Scrutinize the Class 3 winter snow route up the east face of Mount Wilson from this vantage point. (THW, photo)

There is only one weakness in the ramparts girdling Lizard Head on the southern slopes. This image was taken from the Lizard Head Trail shooting up at the descent route. (THW, photo)

A cairn marks a bypass around an orange knob. Leave the ridge at 12,560 feet and work your way down the slope threading through breaks in the cliff faćade. Drop 200 feet on a slippery surface comprised of San Juan explosive volcanics. There is some exposure. The grassy hillside leads directly to the Lizard Head Trail.

San Bernardo Mountain and Black Face are in the foreground vista. (THW, photo)

The downward plunge requires patience and nerve. (THW, photo)

Meet back up with the Lizard Head Trail at a beautiful overlook at 4.6 miles, 12,100 feet. If you backtracked down the safer west ridge it is only 0.6 mile further to this point.

Black Face
The trail gives up over 500 feet in the next mile. It crosses open tundra and then does a long sweeping switchback to bypass a rocky slope. In August, blooming beside the trail there will be a superb display of star, arctic, and bottle gentian. (THW, photo)

Bottom out in the saddle at 5.7 miles, 11,500 feet. This is a principal divide with water flowing north to the South Fork of the San Miguel River and south to the Dolores River. Enter a healthy conifer forest and start climbing.

The trail doesn't deviate from its eastward orientation. At 11,900 feet emerge into the big open, the peak visible straight ahead. (THW, photo)

Reach the highpoint of the Black Face ridge at 6.8 miles. You may well have some company somewhere along this accessible and spectacular divide. For two full miles you will be hiking on a smooth trail above tree limit. In this image, hikers are standing on the summit. Over the lengthy Yellow Mountain ridge are South Lookout Peak, V3, and US Grant. (THW, photo)

For thru-hikers, it is four miles down to Lizard Head Pass. One of the great features of that route are the west-side views of peaks typically reached from Ice Lake Basin: Pilot Knob, Golden Horn, and Vermilion Peak. Beattie Peak and V8 bridge to San Miguel Peak and Sheep Mountain.

It is six miles from the summit back to the Cross Mountain Trailhead. Walk 0.1 mile west to the Black Face outcrop.

It is a thrilling add-on to cross a short and safe ridge before doing a Class 2+ scramble to the top of the suspended buttress. (THW, photo)

On the return there is a 0.3 mile trail segment not yet walked just before the junction with the CMT. Black Mancos shale blanketing the southern slopes of Lizard Head contrasts sharply with bright green elfin timber in the krummholz.
(THW, photo)

Thursday, July 26, 2018

V5 (Peak 13,156'), V6 (Peak 12,442'), and Point 12,988' From Clear Lake

Essence: V5 and V6 are companion mountains with radically different characteristics. V5 challenges with steep slopes, a lengthy couloir with loose rock, and a significant barrier wall. V6 is a relatively easy stroll and could be hiked independently of V5. Combining the peaks is exciting, playful, and satisfying with an unusual number of diverse features. The views are stellar of nearby Ice Lake Basin summits, the mighty Clear Lake cirque, and mountains radiating from the fulcrum of V5.
Travel: From Silverton, in a 4WD vehicle with high clearance, drive north on US 550 toward Ouray for 2.0 miles. At the sign for the South Mineral Campground turn west onto San Juan CR 7 (FSR 585). Turn north on Clear Lake Road, FSR 815, 3.7 miles from US 550. The rocky surface is steep with hairpins; 4WD low is helpful. The track becomes a mild shelf as it approaches Clear Lake. The road is popular with the four-wheeling crowd recreating at the lake. Park 7.9 miles from the highway in a three-vehicle pullout. This is just as you enter the upper basin and before the road heads down to the lake shore. Clear Creek is to the west and an old roadbed to the east.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 6.0 miles; 2,550 feet of climbing for both mountains.
Total Time: 4:00 to 5:30
Difficulty: Mining track, mostly off-trail; navigation moderate; steep slopes; low Class 3 with some exposure on the south wall of V5's summit ridge.
Maps: Ophir; Silverton, Colorado 7.5' USGS Quads or Apogee Mapping
Date Hiked: July 26, 2018
Quote: So, simply to look on anything, such as a mountain, with the love that penetrates to its essence, is to widen the domain of being in the vastness of non-being. Man has no other reason for his existence.
Nan Shepherd, The Living Mountain

When seen from the north rim of Paradise Basin, V5 is both powerful and majestic. The conical shape, color, and rock uniformity of V6 (image-left) makes the distinctive mountain easy to identify from US 550 and summits in the locale. (Thomas Holt Ward, photo)

Route: An abandoned mining road accesses the couloir that penetrates the V5 summit ridge. Walk northwest to the crest. You may bypass the V5 couloir by taking the blue-line route and upclimbing the South Wall. Traverse to V6 by downclimbing the South Wall on its west face. Use a game trail to bypass the obstacles on the east ridge of Point 12,988'. Walk east on the ridge and climb the V6 summit cone. On the return, link back up with the south end of the wagon road at a prominent mine identified on the map. Do an out-and-back on the return route if you wish to climb V6 only.

From the parking pullout, elevation 11,860 feet, cross the Clear Lake Road and start up the mining track. It initially presents as a trail but soon widens. Dodge talus blocks that have sloughed from the slopes above. This shot of the parking area was taken at the end of the hike.

A wall of San Juan explosive volcanics rims the road on the east. This garbage rock is pretty to look at but increases the challenge for climbers. (THW, photo)

Wildflowers take over the roadbed and the sun powers over the climbing ridge. (THW, photo)

V5 Couloir Route
At  0.8 mile, 12,460 feet, leave the road and climb the steep hillside. Aim for the block field in the center of the image below.

The couloir bifurcates. Head into the north/left branch. Notice the two distinctive blocks image-center. Climb to their base and then head into the gap on the right.

The couloir is steep, the rocks are loose, the holds undependable. We had a sizable group which increased the hazard in spite of everyone's considerable climbing experience. (THW, photo)

These climbers are going right of the blocks described above. It appears that they are at the top but more climbing awaits. (THW, photo)

Our group split up; some went for the northern route, shown. I climbed in the throat of the couloir which worked beautifully.

The gully terminates on the ridgeline at 13,060 feet, no more than five minutes from the summit. (THW, photo)

Crest the impressive little peak at 1.1 miles after just 1,300 feet of climbing. For reference, it took our group of ten one hour to summit. You may be more efficient by going directly up-slope rather than hiking on the road's sweeping switchbacks. The peak register dates to 2007. Even though the sky was hazy from several regional fires, in the east we could see Wetterhorn Peak, Uncompahgre Peak, and Half Peak. Mountains encircle Clear Lake, a colorful blend of emeralds and sapphires. Starting from the left in the photo below the peaks at skyline are: Grizzly Peak, Fuller Peak, Vermilion Peak, Golden Horn, Pilot Knob, V2, V4, US Grant, V3, three unnamed 13ers above Clear Lake, South Lookout Peak, Palmyra Peak, and Peak 12,935' in Paradise Basin. (THW, photo)

V5 and South Lookout Peak are occasionally climbed as a pair by traversing the ridge between them. The north face of V5 is vertical and must be bypassed on the west. I have been on the ridge and it is troubled and tedious. I believe it would be faster to return to Clear Lake and initiate the South Lookout climb from there. All of the various approaches, including from Paradise Basin, utilize east face gullies. In the image below, the mountain to the right of South Lookout is a grassy, pleasant ascent. Explore Paradise Basin by climbing Peak 12,935' and traversing to Point 12,860' to overlook Crystal Lake.

South to Point 12,988' 
In the image below hikers are walking south from V5; the first has just past the couloir notch. (THW, photo)

At the top of the next rise arrive at the South Wall of the summit ridge. The low Class 3 downclimb is located on the west face. Test all holds; the route is somewhat exposed. I am standing a fair distance down the wall. Two friends have dropped about 100 feet to the base. (THW, photo)

Finish by scrambling down this crack.

The South Wall marks the definitive end of the V5 summit ridge.

Alternative blue-line route up V5: South Wall of Summit Ridge
I enjoyed our route because it incorporated the best of two divergent worlds--a couloir and a wall. If you prefer to avoid the couloir, climb V5 thusly. At 0.9+ mile from the parking pullout, elevation 12,520 feet, there is a large cairn on the mining track. This is the first opportunity to climb a grassy slope to the ridge, shown. The further south you go on the road the easier the climb but the further you are from V5. The ridge is gorgeous, smooth walking so take your pick.

South of the summit wall it is a friendly stroll across the tundra to Point 12,988', shown. Enroute, look carefully and you will see an unreal brilliant blue dot--Ice Lake.

Crest Point 12,988' at 1.7 miles. This prominence marks the southern end of the ridge emanating from South Lookout Peak. The spine swings east and tracks well above the South Fork of Mineral Creek. We hoped to stay on the eastward ridge but the upper section is cluttered with gendarmes and bad rock. Below, hikers stand on the turning point; V5 is off to the right. (THW, photo)

East to V6, Peak 12,442'
Descend 200 feet south down a rubbly slope. Three trails trampled in by elk head east on the southern slope of Point 12,988'. We took the highest trail over but they all work beautifully.

The game trails track below the ridge obstacles. This superb route was an unexpected gift from the animals.

The three trails merge and lead onto the ridge at 12,300 feet. The divide is broad and beautiful, the walking unobstructed, flat, and easy.

Drop into the saddle at 2.8 miles, 11,980 feet. I followed an elk track most of the way up the summit cone, shown. This is a friendly mountain with manageable steepness. The fire-colored scree is remarkably uniform and stable. Deep rooted spring beauty burrow into the mountainside. (THW, photo)

Crest the softly rounded summit at 3.1 miles. The space is big and welcoming but this 12er doesn't see many humans. Mike Garrett placed the peak register in 2008; it lists only one visitor in 2016 and 2017. The red symmetrical mountain is easily recognizable from US 550, Anvil Mountain, and the local surrounds. Two ridges drop eastward into Mineral Creek. The elk appear to transfer between watersheds by charging over the top of V6. (THW, photo)

On the return you are looking at the imposing east face of the traverse from V5 to Point 12,988'.

We nailed the route back. We took the lowest of the three elk trails, shown, gaining the southeast ridge of Point 12,988' at 12,400 feet.

The game trail continues west to crest the south ridge at 12,700 feet. From there, we walked northwest while losing some elevation. At 12,560 feet, 4.8 miles, we were at the mine where the abandoned road terminates. We simply stayed on the track all the way back to Clear Lake.

Between the flowers and the view this access road was actually quite beautiful. A Snow Apollo butterfly was alight upon an old man of the mountain. (THW, photo)

Mountains shed into Clear Lake and the great receiver throws off light and color to astound the few that walk along the old wagon road. (THW, photo)