Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Uncompahgre Peak, 14,309'; Peak 13,106' (Nellie Point); and the Ridge Between Them

Essence: Climb Colorado's sixth highest peak and traverse the east ridge, a sloping shelf on the south with an escarpment on the north. Ascend a playful and neglected thirteener. The inevitable communal experience on Uncompahgre is followed by solitude for the remainder of the hike. The fourteener's 700-foot-tall vertical northeast wall contrasts with immense swaths of tundra and Nellie Point's fractured volcanic blocks. I once counted 80 species of wildflowers mid-summer. The hike lies within the Uncompahgre National Forest. The first recorded ascent was by the Hayden Survey in 1874. Surely they were preceded by the Utes who named the mountain "hot water spring" in reference to the "miracle waters" in Ouray.
Travel from Lake City: From Lake City follow signs to the start of the Alpine Loop heading toward Engineer Pass. Travel in a narrow canyon cut by Henson Creek. A sign marks the Nellie Creek Trailhead turnoff 5.2 miles from Lake City. There is ample parking for those who must walk the 4.1 miles up FSR 877, Hinsdale CR 23. High clearance, 4WD low, and sturdy tires are mandatory. The track is rocky and steep. In about 0.7 mile watch for a two-tiered waterfall on the left. At 1.8 miles, cross Nellie Creek and make a hard left. At 2.2 miles the road forks; take the left switchback. Cross the creek again at 2.6 miles. There are multiple camping sites in an open meadow at 3.5 miles and more opportunities at the trailhead. Allow 25 to 45 minutes to climb FSR 877. There is a large parking lot and pit toilet at the trailhead but no treated water.
Travel from Silverton: Allow three hours to drive the 30 miles from Silverton to the Nellie Creek Trailhead. For specific instructions, please see my Wetterhorn Peak post. The west side of Engineer Pass is a perilous, no-nonsense shelf. It is a test of ground clearance and has several very steep pitches. For 1.5 miles the visibility of on-coming traffic is restricted and pullouts are few. It is 13.3 miles from Engineer Pass, 12,800 feet, to the Nellie Creek turnoff.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 9.7 miles; 3,750 feet of climbing for both mountains
Total Time: 6:00 to 8:30
Difficulty: Class 1 trail to the Uncompahgre crux and then Class 2+ with mild exposure; navigation easy. Off-trail to Nellie Point; low Class 3 on the Nellie Point summit ridge with mild exposure; navigation moderate.
Map: Uncompahgre Peak, Colorado 7.5' USGS Quad or Apogee Mapping
Latest Date Hiked: August 28, 2018
Quote: Walking along the plateau lip, one has the sense of being lifted, as on a mighty shelf, above the world. 
Nan Shepherd, The Living Mountain

A hiker traverses the Nellie Point summit ridge while absorbing the full might of big-boned Uncompahgre Peak and its monoclinal east ridge. (Thomas Holt Ward, photo)

Route: From the Nellie Creek Trailhead bear west on the Uncompahgre Peak Trail to the south ridge. Hike north to the summit. Descend the south ridge to elevation 13,440 feet. Leave the trail and walk north to the east ridge of Uncompahgre. Traverse east to a pass at elevation 12,380 feet and then climb Nellie Point. Backtrack to the pass and return to the Uncompahgre Peak Trail via the Big Blue Creek Trail. 

Uncompahgre Peak 
Peak 13,106', unofficially named Nellie Point, rises directly north of the Uncompahgre Peak Trailhead, elevation 11,420 feet. Cross into the 102,721-acre Uncompahgre Wilderness immediately. Tragically, the spruce-fir forest in this region is succumbing to beetle kill.

The trail parallels Nellie Creek on the north. The beautiful path is in superb condition with stone steps and log water bars and risers. In half a mile walk through a cluster of highly textured solidified lava boulders with diamond shaped vesicles that have tumbled from Nellie Point. The commanding fourteener is visible throughout the hike. (THW, photo)

At 0.9 mile, 11,900 feet, pass the junction with the Big Blue Creek Trail, our return route. Rise from the deep recesses of the lower basin into a world of tundra at tree limit. (THW, photo)

Rock glaciers sliding into Nellie Creek indicate that Peak 13,158', "Noncompahgre," is but a remnant of its former self.

In the high basin Nellie Point is backlit by morning sun.

As the grade kicks up toward the south ridge signs caution hikers to stay on the trail to protect endangered floral species. Respect the tundra. The Matterhorn Creek Trail branches south at 2.5 miles just before our track intersects the broad south ridge at 13,000 feet.

Several fissures in the ridge create westward visual corridors. Seen below are Wetterhorn, Matterhorn, and Coxcomb peaks. Wetterhorn Peak, 14,015', presents daring fourteener devotees with a thrilling exposed ledge assault.
(THW, photo)

Switchback up a southeast-facing slope on a superbly crafted trail. In 2005, I saw a family of foxes hunting in the boulders. In 2018, there were many picas and a few marmots. Reach the base of the south-facing cliffs and cross over to the west slope at 13,840 feet. The Uncompahgre crux begins. There are two choices; the image below was shot where the trail braids. One route ascends in front of the spire, image-center, while the second pitches up on the far side of the spire's fin.

I prefer the first gully but some people consider it frightening. Climb a wide staircase with stone ledges. There is dirt on surfaces but the steps are solid. Exposure is mild over the 120 feet of vertical gain.

In this image I am topping out of the couloir at 14,000 feet. The spire is image-right. (THW, photo)

The more popular route remains on the main trail until it passes to the north side of the next wall. The surface is a pounded dirt/stone mix with mild exposure. This image looks down on that route.

The challenge over, scamper up the backslope of Uncompahgre, reminiscent of Mount Whitney--massive and grand. The most notable difference is rock type. The lower-48 champion is solid granite. Uncompahgre was formed by three separate lava flows; the upper surface layer is comprised of quartz rhyolite. In 1998, I aborted my climb at 14,200 feet because lightning was striking the mountaintop. Other people chose to disregard the warning. Be wise; the mountain will be there.

Crest the tallest peak in the San Juan Mountains at 3.8 miles after 2,900 feet of elevation gain. The summit is extraordinary for its expanse but the straight down plunge on the northeast face is a little spooky. 

Uncompahgre is a visual bastion. To the northwest, Precipice Peak and Dunsinane Mountain straddle the Middle and West Forks of the Cimarron River. (THW, photo)

Eastward lies our ridge traverse and Nellie Point's lengthy razorback ridge.

East Ridge Traverse
Return to the south ridge. The first westward breach occurs at 4.7 miles, 13,440 feet. Leave the trail and descend east on a pleasant slope. Work your way north to the east ridge of Uncompahgre. The easiest route is down a green ramp on the south side of a subtle outcrop, shown image-right. Aim for the big bounders on the basin floor and then cut up to the ridge. This image was taken from the east ridge looking back on the pastoral scene with hikers on the standard trail at skyline.

Gain the ridge at about 5.2 miles. One of the delights of this segment is the uncommon vista of Uncompahgre's imposing east face. (THW, photo)

Begin walking east, rising up and over subtle Point 13,017'. Other than one short section of ridgecrest boulders this is sweeping tundra country. The ridge slopes gradually up from the south and plummets north onto a rock glacier runout that terminates in an exquisite verdant basin.

Stay close to the precipitous precipice for the most exciting adventure. But be wary of cliff suck because rim rock is eroding from the wall.

Just before the saddle there is a fascinating cluster of shiny black, brown, and blue stones impregnated with streaks of translucent crystals. (THW, photo)

At 6.8 miles, elevation 12,380 feet, cross the Big Blue Creek Trail at the pass. Nellie Point is left of image-center.

Peak 13,106' (Nellie Point)
It is 1.5 miles roundtrip to the crest; allow up to 1.5 hours. Climb the first tier, capped by a vertically-faced orange rampart. The ascent transitions from a gravely mix to tundra and stone. It is never too steep. Stay near the cliff for an astonishing visual experience and sensation. A tall cairn rests on the level platform at 12,800 feet.

Now ascend through random fallen boulders. What appears to be the summit cone is actually the western terminus of a ridge.

The angular blocks with sheered faces are great fun. They are clean of the usual gravel found on volcanic surfaces. We climbed on the north side of the false summit.

Once on the ridgetop, the subtle highpoint is a good distance off. The spine is as playful as you want to make it. Squeeze through cracks; hop from one plate to another.

Reach the summit cairn and peak register at 7.5 miles. If signatures are an accurate indication of visitation this is a very quiet thirteener resting in the shadow of its lofty neighbor. Look south to see your vehicle at the trailhead. Look back on the day's entire route and an astounding rendering of Uncompahgre. If you have more miles and time to spare, walk out to Peak 13,091', Little Nellie Point, shown below just right of the cairn. I can't vouch for this option but it looks tempting. (THW, photo)

Return To Trailhead Via Big Blue Creek Trail
Retrace your steps and intersect the Big Blue Creek Trail on the pass. The trail makes sweeping switchbacks down a south-facing hillside to meet back up with the Uncompahgre Peak Trail at 8.8 miles. In the afternoon light of autumn, golden grasses and scarlet alpine avens combine to create a velvet landscape. (THW, photo)

The three Uncompahgre brothers are seen in relationship from Engineer Pass: Wetterhorn Peak, 14,015'; Matterhorn Peak, 13,590'; and the monarch, Uncompahgre Peak, 14,309'.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Three Needles, 13,481', and Peak 13,477' (T10 South Summit), From Porphyry Basin

Essence: Climb two peaks on the divide between Mineral Creek and Bridal Veil Basin. This half day loop begins in exquisite Porphyry Basin adorned with waterfalls, lakes with stone shores, and fellfields of smooth flat rocks. The crenelated fortress wall of Three Needles appears impenetrable and, yes, the small domed summit with its lofty view of Blue Lake is a rewarding challenge. Climb through angular, fractured blocks to the south summit of T10. The mountain's two crests are a vertical tie with a 0.2 mile spiked ridge of separation. The divide forms the boundary of the Uncompahgre and San Juan National Forests. The drive into Porphyry Basin requires a 4WD vehicle and considerable nerve.
Travel: Measure distance beginning in Silverton at the southwest end of Green Street where US 550 makes a sweeping turn. Head north toward Ouray. Drive 9.3 miles to mile marker 79.5 (0.8 mile south of Red Mountain Pass) and hook a sharp left (almost a 180 degree turn) onto FSR 822. This is a hanging shelf road requiring 4WD-low and high clearance. In 2015, the road was widened for a reclamation project but some drivers (and passengers) will find it frightening. There are numerous parking options as you go up the track. Cross a stream and park at a turn-around 2.6 miles from the highway. The road is blocked from further travel at the Bullion King Mine ruin. Allow 45 minutes from Silverton.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 3.4 miles; 1,800 feet of climbing from Bullion King Mine. It is  2.6 miles with 1,450 feet of vertical from US 550 up FSR 822 to the trailhead. 
Total Time: 3:00 to 4:30 from Bullion King Mine
Difficulty: Abandoned mining track, mostly off-trail; navigation moderate; the summit block of Three Needles is Class 3 with moderate exposure.
Maps: Ironton; Telluride, Colorado 7.5' USGS Quad or Apogee Mapping
Latest Date Hiked: August 19, 2018
Quote: A mountain has an inside. Nan Shepherd, The Living Mountain

Three Needles forms the west wall of idyllic Porphyry Basin. This route ascends the couloir closest to the summit.

Route: From the trailhead walk south and then west up an abandoned mining road to Bullion King Lake on the black-line route. Skirt the lake on the north and enter Porphyry Basin. Climb an east wall couloir, walk briefly on the west side of Three Needles, and then scramble north to the summit. Return to the basin and climb the southwest ridge of T10 South. Descend on the east ridge and then go south down a slope to the start. The blue line represents FSR 822 from US 550 to the end of the track.

In 2015, FSR 822 was closed to the public while the Colorado Department of Reclamation, Mining and Safety reclaimed the Bullion King Mine site. The mine closed in the early 1900's. A massive 20,000-cubic-yard heap of mine waste left behind threatened the Mineral Creek (and Animas River) watershed. As it was, 10,000 feet of tunnels leaked about ten gallons of acid mine drainage per minute. You will notice evidence of reclamation.

In contrast, a feathery waterfall plummets over a cliff beside the road. It is the outlet stream of Bullion King Lake.
(Thomas Holt Ward, photo)

The Approach
A trail leads out of the parking area at 12,360 feet and onto an abandoned mining track. Stay with the two-track while it makes a couple of bends and then swings west and enters Porphyry Basin. (THW, photo)

The alpine basin is constrained by Point 13,375', Three Needles, and Peak 13,477' (T10), off-image on the right. The landscape is incandescent with splendor.

In 0.6 mile the road ends at Bullion King Lake, elevation 12,540 feet. The gorgeous lake is a draw for people who enjoy four-wheeling and a short hike.

Hikers converse on the stone embankment. The trail seen south of the lake climbs to 12,800 feet and essentially holds that contour to resplendent Columbine Lake. (THW, photo)

A social trail on the north side of the lake ascends into Porphyry Basin. Off-trail, bear northwest across the high alpine. If you have the time, roam freely on the stone field and visit several shallow tarns. Mid-summer, the wildflowers are glorious.

T10 South is visible from the expansive terrace. In this image the north summit is in shadow.

Walk by Porphyry Lake, elevation 12,780 feet, at one mile. This is a good location for plotting your Three Needles climb. Looking at the image below notice two couloirs left of the summit. The south gully rises to a substantial, flat-floored notch. The gully closest to the summit block makes a right bend upon reaching the base of the solid cliffs. I have been up and down both couloirs and they each work acceptably.

Small scree prone to sliding underfoot predominates in the south gully so progress is somewhat tedious. Plus, upon reaching the south ridge you will spend more time traversing north along the exposed west side of gendarmes. The northern gully has larger rock and a south wall to grab for holds. This description uses my preferred north couloir.

Next, notice the rock moraine west of the lake. You can go around it however you please but the right side has a useful, stable ramp.

Above the moraine, cross a broken talus and scree field aiming for the base of the north couloir. In this image it begins at the first patch of orange rock.

The couloir was wide enough for our group to spread out. Helmets are recommended. It is steep but not perilously so. Choose your steps carefully because large rocks break loose and slide. We saw no evidence of recent use.

Gain the south ridge at 1.6 miles, 13,380 feet. Rock stacks have quirky shapes. I'm not exactly sure why the peak is called Three Needles because there are spires, towers, and free-standing blocks on all three ridges radiating from the crown. It occurred to me that these delightful shapes were once buried deep inside the mountain. I feel grateful to be living in this precise geologic Earth moment when these eroded forms are exposed. (THW, photo)

Blue Lake rests immediately below in a massive cirque. Its waters contribute to Bridal Veil Creek, a tributary of the San Miguel River which flows through Telluride. (THW, photo)

Three Needles
The summit is less than 100 vertical feet and 0.1 mile off. Moderate exposure is complicated by the friable nature of San Juan explosive volcanics. Coarse gravel is distributed over all surfaces. A climber's trail traverses along the west side to an opening on the northwest ridge. Along this trail there are at least three passages to the summit ridge. The first is located just feet away. In the image below, people are standing at the top of the couloir. Climb the rising ledge.

These hikers are making their way from the summit ridge down to the ledge. (THW, photo)

The second opportunity is a ten-foot crack with excellent holds.

For the third option, walk to the opening in the northwest ridge and backtrack about 15 feet to this Class 3 wall. 

This route deposits you on a steep and exposed rubbly slope for a short distance.

All three routes lead to this pleasant scramble as you near the zenith.

Mount the tiny summit dome at 1.7 miles. For reference, it took our group of eight an hour and ten minutes from the trailhead. In the summer of 2018 the West was plagued by massive wildfires. The views on this day were obscured by smoke. All the clear images shown were captured on previous hikes. (THW, photo)

My attention was riveted on the geometrics of surrounding standing rocks. The next divide to the west separates the Bridal Veil and Bear Creek watersheds. It is possible to traipse over Oscar's Peak, Wasatch Mountain, La Junta Peak, and Ballard's Horn in one long day from Telluride. (THW, photo)

We ambled south on the ridge for a full-circle vantage point on Blue Lake. (THW, photo)

Here's a look at the summit from the south ridge near where we downclimbed the crack.

Peak 13,477' (T10 South) 
Plunge step down the couloir and cut northeast to the Three Needles-T10 saddle at 2.2 miles, elevation 12,940 feet.

From here it is only 0.3 mile to the top of Peak 13,477'. The ridge cuts away on the west and slopes off to the east. Stay on the ridgeline or slightly east all the way. There was a consensus in our group that this peak was a super fun climb and never scary. However, getting over to T10 North looks as daunting as its reputation.

We were enthralled by the fractured squared-off blocks arranged helter-skelter. They exude a playful presence.

Those who climbed Three Needles will appreciate the profile of the multi-spiked peak from T10. (THW, photo)

The massive summit rounds off at 2.5 miles. These men are looking out over the Mount Sneffels Wilderness rising north of Telluride. (THW, photo)

We scrambled about half way to T10 North, not quite to the saddle at approximately 13,380 feet. We were turned around by a collection of gendarmes and spires. It appears to be a straightforward climb to the northern twin from Black Bear Pass though I have not done this. (THW, photo)

T10 South doesn't have many visitors. This is rather surprising considering how attainable it is. Alone, it would be a moderate loop hike. (THW, photo)

To the north is Black Bear Pass, a rightfully notorious 4WD road that is one-way westbound going into Telluride. North of the pass is Trico Peak. The name derives from Tri-County. San Juan, Ouray, and San Miguel counties converge on the apex. It is possible to traverse from Black Bear Pass to Imogene Pass over Trico, Peak 13,510', and Telluride Peak.

East Ridge
The Bullion King Mine parking area is visible from T10 and returning is straightforward. The east ridge descent is entertaining, the shallow spine broken apart leaving haphazard angular blocks strewn about. The boulders are crumbly and yet they possess perfectly straight edges.

While these hikers are going around a minor obstacle it is equally enjoyable to stay on the ridge to the saddle at 12,900 feet, 3.1 miles. (THW, photo)

Turn south to close the loop, plunging down a perfectly easy tundra slope. In August of 2017, the whole region was pixelated with wildflowers. (THW, photo)