Sunday, September 30, 2018

Mount Elbert, 14,440', Via East Ridge of South Elbert (Point 14,134')

Essence: Just a few dozen feet below California's Mt. Whitney, and the highest point in Colorado, Mt. Elbert is the iconic Rocky Mountain 14er, with all the good and bad that entails. The route described here provides a respite from the crowds and groomed trail by ascending via the east ridge of South Elbert, and continuing from there along Elbert's south ridge to the summit. The route is pure high-country bushwhack over stunning tundra and talus including some optional scrambling challenges. Descent is easy and quick along the classic east ridge of Mount Elbert itself.
Travel: Directions to South Mount Elbert Trailhead. Turn west from US Route 24 onto CO 82 just south of mile marker 191. This is the Twin Lakes, Independence Pass turnoff. In 4.0 miles, turn right on Lake County Road 24. Pass the Lakeview Campground at 5.0 miles. The lower South Mount Elbert Trailhead is on the left in 5.4 miles, elevation 9,600 feet. 4WD vehicles may proceed another 1.9 miles. Turn left on FSR 125B located just beyond the lower parking lot. The dirt road climbs through an aspen forest. There are some ground clearance challenges, particularly at a creek crossing 1.6 miles up the track. There are many parking pullouts and dispersed camping sites, some quite large. At 1.9 miles the road splits. Most vehicles should park here, elevation 10,440 feet. It is possible to drive another very rocky 0.1 mile up 125B to the actual trailhead at 10,520 feet with limited parking. (Note that earlier editions of the Roach books describe a different route, which is no longer available.)
Distance and Elevation Gain: The described hike over South Elbert is 11.7 miles with 4,360 feet of climbing from the upper trailhead. It is 10.8 miles roundtrip with 4,000 feet of vertical on the standard Mount Elbert Trail. If you begin at the lower South Mount Elbert Trailhead, it is a 2.5 mile walk up the Colorado Trail.
Total Time: 7:00 to 9:00
Difficulty: Trail, off-trail; navigation moderate; (optional) Class 2+ on the east ridge of South Elbert with mild exposure
Maps: Mount Elbert, Colorado 7.5' USGS Quad, or Trails Illustrated No. 127, Aspen, Independence Pass, CO
Note on the Elevation:  The 7.5' topo still shows Elbert's elevation as 14,433 feet.  However, this was corrected to 14,400 in 1988 after some re-evaluation of the measurements.  This sparked a bizarre war between proponents of Mount Massive versus Mt. Elbert for the title of highest mountain in Colorado; a contest which at one point involved people piling up rocks on Mount Massive's summit, only to be later knocked down by their opponents. The matter is now considered settled in the latter's favor.
Latest Date Hiked: September 30, 2018
Guest Author: Thomas Holt Ward
"It's colossal for sure, but if you look closely, it seems so tranquil. I can't help but believe it means us no harm."
— Mazli on Dinrall, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

The top of Colorado as seen from South Elbert. (Thomas Holt Ward, photo)

Route: From the upper South Mount Elbert Trailhead, follow the trail to 12,000 feet.  Turn off-trail west contouring across Bartlett Basin to the base of the east ridge of South Elbert (use the blue line for more open travel).  Climb this ridge and continue northwest to meet the south ridge of Mount Elbert, following that to the summit.  Descend by the well-marked and engineered South Mount Elbert Trail.

The Hike: From the upper entrance to the South Mount Elbert Trail #1481 at 10,520 feet, immediately cross the creek draining Bartlett Gulch on a sturdy bridge and begin walking through a thick aspen forest. (Debra Van Winegarden, photo)

In late September, only a few brilliant leaves still adorn the white limbs. The ground is covered likewise with the dry red leaves of rose hips, fireweed, geranium, and myrtle blueberry, all half-covered in the golden confetti from above.
(THW, photo)

At this point, travel is actually along the Colorado Trail.  In just 0.3 mile, meet the old turnoff for the peak trail.  Dedicated crews have gone to great trouble to render this option as uninviting as possible.  Respect their wishes.  Continuing, at 0.35 mile, pass a right turnoff to the Lily Ponds and their impressive beaver lodges.  At 0.4 mile find the new turnoff for the mountaintop, bearing left.

A sign here indicates extensive rerouting of the original trail currently underway in order to make the trail sustainable under the heavy load of 14er peak-baggers and other aficionados of high places. The work is to be completed sometime in 2019. (THW, photo)

Take note of signs indicating that this is now a no-poop zone for the remainder of the hike, another necessary measure to handle the great popularity of "highest" places. (311,000 people climbed Colorado's 14ers in 2017.)

The excellent new trail eventually leaves the aspens for conifers at 10,780 feet.  While this reroute is less direct, and adds some distance, it provides a wide flat treadway on a gentle grade.  Steeper sections also sport both stone and wooden stairs. Open also to bicycles and horses, these were necessary improvements. Beefy, well constructed log pole fences also protect many of the switchbacks from the temptation to shortcut. Some of these run for tens of yards--the most serious attempt I've seen at stopping this particular kind of trail abuse.

At 1.7 miles, the trail pops into the open briefly with views of Twin Lakes below and La Plata Peak on the horizon. (THW, photo)

At 1.95 miles, you emerge from the forest and your goal looms unmistakably in front of you.

At 2.6 miles, just over 12,000 feet, by a short stretch of new log fence, leave the main trail and walk south about 100 feet to a rounded ridge where you can see Bartlett Basin and the east ridge of South Elbert. Although this route is described in Roach's definitive 14ers guide, we found no sign of a social trail or cairn to mark this spot.  However, the exact location is not critical.  When you reach the rounded ridge, the view into the basin will open up and you'll be able to study your route from there. (DV, photo)

Approach the basin approximately as in the photo above, heading for a point in the basin a little to the right of the hiker's head.  Try to reach the basin at around 12,200 feet. The terrain is mostly open, but it is helpful to avoid a very large boulder field just below this altitude. From the opposite side, you can see this more clearly.  Try to penetrate the boulder field at a narrow point near the lake in the foreground below.  (This is the blue line on the map above.) (THW, photo)

Once you've crossed the basin heading south, angle a bit to the east to meet the ridge itself near its base at around 12,000 feet. The basin is classic high altitude tundra without any trace of the crowds trudging up the main trails. It is tempting to forget the mountain entirely and enjoy the afternoon sitting by one of the peaceful ponds.

The ridge ascent starts easily on dirt and loose talus, but quickly transforms to larger and more solid blocks. Now definitely on route for the summit, I was surprised to find no trace of a trail or even a footprint.  This ridge provides solitude climbing to one of the busiest peaks in the nation. (THW, photo)

There are some minor obstacles along the ridge, and one more significant one at a small prominence (Point 13,227') just before a saddle below the final climb to South Elbert.  All of these can be easily bypassed on the south side of the ridge, which slopes away more gently than the steep north side.  However, that final obstacle does offer some fun low Class 3 scrambling (passing almost directly over the peak, but slightly to the right).  Passing this point, the view ahead opens up again. (THW, photo)

It is easy walking to the low point of the saddle, where a social trail surprisingly appears.  The trail leads nicely up the center of the ridge for awhile and then disappears.  You're on your own on a steep pitch after that, but the footing is excellent rock-and-tundra all the way up. The easiest path is in the center, or a little to the left in this section. Eventually, the slope rounds off until you're standing on the almost flat top of South Elbert (Point 14,134' on the 7.5' topo) at 5.1 miles.

The route from South Elbert to Elbert is shown on some maps as the Black Cloud Trail.  As you drop 234 feet to the saddle at 13,900 feet, this trail appears intermittently, generally vanishing in rocky sections.  There are maybe a few cairns, but the route is pretty obvious.  This is a beautiful area of green tundra and rock ledges and fast easy walking on gentle inclines.

Once the climb begins, the final ridge is very rocky in large talus, but with no significant obstacles. At the bottom of this climb, there is no discernible trail at all. As you approach the summit, sections of trail appear, but you will pass through several areas of large talus with only occasional and seemingly random cairns.  Just stick as close to the center as is practical and you will repeatedly regain the trail.  (Looking back down the ridge. DV, photo)

There is never any doubt about the destination, however, which is always visible, and generally well populated with humanity.  You may even hear them before you see them. (DV, photo)

A little over 500 feet of climbing later, and 1.3 miles from South, you will abandon solitude and join the infectious exuberance of the day's conquerors of Colorado's gentle giant.  The day we summited was far from ideal, cold, with wind gusts exceeding 60 mph, but the throng of young and old did not seem to mind. (THW, photo)

Having climbed over 4,300 feet in 6.4 miles, you have reached one of the biggest views in the country. Magnificent hardly covers it.  Not far away stands a somber company of 14er nobility--Capitol Peak, Snowmass Mountain, Castle Peak, La Plata Peak and the row of Collegiates--Mount Massive missing the crown by a mere 11 feet. (DV, photo)

The descent is by the heavily traveled, well-marked and increasingly engineered South Mount Elbert Trail that you started out on.  The path is mostly gravel with wide open views and long switchbacks until you re-enter the krumholtz at around 12,200 feet and the forest proper soon after.  The return path will add 5.4 miles, a little more direct than the ascent.

Saturday, September 29, 2018

North Massive (Point 14,340'), From Windsor Lake

Essence: Ascend a popular trail to exquisite Windsor Lake. Then climb in solitude off-trail to the Continental Divide, the principal allure of this out-and-back. Float along between 13,000 and 14,340 feet. Crest two peaks in the chain of five Mount Massive summits above 14,000 feet, unranked Points 14,169' and 14,340' (North Massive). You won't find social trails or even footsteps on this broad platform with fascinating rock features along the cliff edge. The divide is its own planet, dropping steep and deep on both sides. Tundra expanse devolves to fellfields and then talus. Spend the day in the Mount Massive Wilderness and San Isabel National Forest.
Travel: In Leadville, from Harrison Avenue turn west onto West 6th Street and start measuring from there. Turn right at a T intersection in 0.8 mile. This is Lake County Road 4 which goes all the way to the trailhead. In one block bear left at the Y. At 3.4 miles, the road splits. Bear slightly to the right, following signs for the Turquoise Lake Recreation Area. Cross the dam at 4.4 miles. At 7.9 miles the road splits; take the left branch toward Hagerman Pass (closed in winter). Lake County 4 turns into a good gravel road, 2WD suitable. Pass the Native Lake Trailhead at 11.5 miles. Go another 0.1 mile to a very large parking lot at the Windsor Lake Trailhead. No facilities.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 11.7 miles; 4,000 feet of climbing
Total Time: 7:00 to 10:00
Difficulty: Trail, mostly off-trail; navigation moderate; Class 2+ with no exposure.
Map: Mount Massive, Colorado 7.5' USGS Quad, or Trails Illustrated No. 127, Aspen, Independence Pass, CO
Latest Date Hiked: September 29, 2018 
Durango Mountain caballero
Take me for a ride
On the backbone of this mighty land
The Continental Divide
To the place where earth and heaven
Meet the mountains and the sky
In the heart of Colorado, Rocky Mountain High

John Denver

Gerry Roach said this trek is for "aficionados of the high and wild." A hiker stands on the Continental Divide and contemplates the steady rise to Mount Massive (14,421'), Colorado's second highest peak. (Thomas Holt Ward, photo)

Route: From the Windsor Lake Trailhead ascend southwest on-trail to the lake. Climb southwest off-trail to the Continental Divide. Walk south on the ridgecrest over five numbered points, turning around on North Massive. With a shuttle in place, thru-hikers could continue south to crest all five of the Massive summits above 14,000 feet.

In 1893, the Busk Tunnel Railway bored a passage under the Continental Divide for standard gauge trains traveling between Leadville and Aspen. The last train to travel through the Carlton Tunnel was in 1919. The tunnel is used today for water diversion.

From the signed Windsor Lake Trailhead, elevation 10,796 feet, cross the tunnel outlet on a combination of grates and planks beside a small black structure. The trail twists around in this constricted area. Following "Trail" signs carefully, cross a second stream, and enter the Mount Massive Wilderness.

Walk through a healthy mixed conifer forest. The trail splits at 0.3 mile. Take the left branch and cross Busk Creek, the Windsor Lake drainage. The path is quite steep in places. At 0.9 mile, pass a small unnamed lake which could be dubbed Lower Windsor.

Reach Windsor Lake at 1.1 miles, elevation 11,620 feet. The appeal is obvious. Even though the water is low in drought-stricken 2018, the gorgeous setting is undiminished. There are two white sandy beaches, vertical granite cliffs on the north shoreline, and the east wall of the Continental Divide rises sharply to the west. On this morning waves lap at the shore presaging a windy day up on the divide. (THW, photo)

As seen in the image below, lakeside is a good place to determine a route to the ridge. We decided to gain the divide north of Point 12,875'. A narrow grassy slope rises to a small gap at skyline right of image-center. We enjoyed this so much there was no need to seek an alternate route on the return. I expect the broader and lower saddle south of Point 12,654' would work as well.

Social trails radiate from the lake and then dissipate. As indicated on the map above we took different routes to and from the base of the ridge. There are extensive bogs in the region, the more southerly track avoids them. Ascend the grassy hillside shown in the center of the image below.

Walk southwest toward an interior ridge. Do a rising traverse to the ridgetop. We found a game trail there. This image looks back on the lake, the bog above the grassy hill, and the interior ridge.

Here's another look at the slope leading to the gap or notch where we met the divide, image-left.

The landscape with its granite boulders is reminiscent of the Sierra Nevada. The slope is both beautiful and friendly with excellent footing. (THW, photo)

Top out on the Continental Divide at 2.2 miles, elevation 12,680 feet. This very place is as constricted as the ridge gets throughout the hike. The west side plummets 2,300 feet to the Fryingpan River located in a trench between the divide and a string of unnamed thirteeners charging up the other side.

North Massive is 3.3 to 4.0 miles away depending on route. Turn south and do a Class 2+ climb up a 60 foot knoll.

Pass east of a prominent standing rock, a marker for the return trip. And then, VoilĂ ! Emerge on an exceptionally broad linear platform with chunks of embedded granite. Turf is plentiful at first but transitions to fellfields and blockfields as you travel south. On this day an icy wind blew consistently 50 to 60 mph. We agreed to take the most efficient route to North Massive as indicated on the map. On our return we explored along the escarpment. If you are doing a thru-hike, consider adding an extra 0.7 mile and walk along the sensational eastern perimeter. (THW, photo)

The image below was shot from about 13,600 feet. Starting on the left is Mount Massive, Massive Green, North Massive with three shallow humps, softly rounded Point 14,169', and conical Point 13,801'.

Watch for quartz chunks while doing a talus climb up Point 13,801'. At 4.8 miles, break above 14,000 feet. The Mount Massive ridge stays above this elevation for most of the next three miles. At 5.0 miles, top Point 14,169', the northernmost of the five summits. The east-facing glacier indicated on the 1994 topo has shrunk considerably. The ridge splits and takes the Continental Divide off to the southwest to climb Mount Oklahoma, shown. The Massive ridge swings southeast.

The north face of North Massive is a big pile of boulders. Notice the hiker beginning the climb.

North Massive has a roomy, flat summit. Reach it at 5.5 miles after 3,760 feet of vertical. The peak register contains three random scraps of paper going back to 2013. In contrast, we could see many people standing on Mount Massive to the south. In this image, a trail skirts Massive Green. (Who would want to miss the summit?) Mount Elbert is on the right. There are different strategies for cresting the five Mount Massive prominences. In 2015, we climbed the Southeast Ridge topping three. I highly recommend this thrilling and solitary hike.

We wish to continue but the high-velocity windblast is a battering ram and we've had enough. There is a short section of Class 3 between North Massive and Massive Green, shown. Some web entries suggest flanking this outcrop on the east side before returning to the ridge. The Leadville grid is visible below.

Descend along the east edge for a stellar return experience. This image was shot from the vicinity of Point 13,125' looking north. (THW, photo)

Gaze down on Pear Lake and Notch Lake. (THW, photo)

On a small jutting peninsula west of Notch Lake you will find a playful world of granite stacks.

Leaning forms frame Windsor Lake. (THW, photo)

Approaching Point 12,875', a golden eagle glided a few feet off the tundra piercing the intersect between mountains and sky on the Continental Divide.

Monday, September 17, 2018

Middle Mountain, 12,984', and Peak 13,069'; Upon the Minnie and Maggie Divide

Essence: From afar, the Middle Mountain Ridge looks straightforward but when approached from the south the traverse offers several challenging surprises. This delightful loop has all the elements of a great hike: a gradual tundra-immersed trail to the base of the divide; long ridgecrest trekking with extraordinary views of the San Juan Mountains; narrow segments on good rock; Class 3 scrambling; and some exposure. Hike over seven numbered points (just one is a legal summit) on the divide between Minnie Gulch and Maggie Gulch. 
Travel: From Silverton, drive up Greene Street, the main drag. Zero-out your trip meter as you make a soft right onto San Juan CR 2. The pavement ends at 2.0 miles. On a good dirt road pass the turnoff to Cunningham Gulch in Howardsville at 4.1 miles. Pass the road into Maggie Gulch at 5.9 miles. Reach Minnie Gulch at 6.5 miles and turn right onto San Juan CR 24. The steep, rocky road climbs switchbacks before suspending itself on a shelf high above the gorge. 4WD (low helpful), moderate clearance, and beefy tires are necessary. In 7.8 miles, pass the first of many mine ruins and wreckage, some classically picturesque. Turn right at the fork at 8.1 miles. Treeline is at 9 miles. Park at 9.5 miles where the road switches abruptly left to end at the Esmeralda Mine. A sign indicates the trail is closed to all motorized vehicles.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 6.3 miles; 2,500 feet of climbing
Total Time: 4:30 to 6:00
Difficulty: Trail, off-trail; navigation moderate; Class 3 with moderate exposure
Map: Howardsville, Colorado 7.5' USGS Quad or Apogee Mapping
Latest Date Hiked: September 17, 2018
Quote: All the most exciting charts and maps have places on them that are marked ‘Unexplored’. Arthur M. Ransome

Hikers stand on Middle Mountain with Point 13,037' looking somewhat ominous to the south. After neglecting this ridge for years, favoring surrounding peaks, we were delighted by its prominent location and surprised by its rugged nature.

Route: From the Minnie Gulch Trailhead ascend south-southeast to the head of the basin on the Continental Divide. Gain the Middle Mountain ridge and walk north-northwest over Peak 13,069' and five numbered prominences. Climb Middle Mountain and then backtrack to descend an east-facing slope to close the loop at the trailhead.

From the trailhead at elevation 11,520 feet, cross a side stream and walk up Minnie Gulch all the way to the back of the basin. There is a clear view of the divide's east slopes so analyze exit possibilities as you go. There is not one tree on the entire hike. This is a wide open, immersive experience through tundra that rolls on forever. Watch and listen for herds of elk. At 12,600 feet, the path becomes braided, marshy in summer, and obscure. Just stay east of the creek.

In mid-July, wildflowers flow out of rocks and spill down the hill. They cross the trail and tumble to the bottom of Minnie Gulch. The scene looks like a Pointillist painting by Georges Seurat. 

Arrive at the Colorado Trail and Continental Divide Trail at a signed junction at 1.8 miles, 12,700 feet, 40 feet below the pass. The Middle Fork of Pole Creek Trail descends south.

Turn right/southwest on the CT/CDT and follow it to the south end of the Middle Mountain ridge. As you switchback up the cross-state trail turn around for a view of Crown Mountain, Niagara Peak, Jones Mountain, American Peak, and Handies Peak. Cuba Ridge constrains Minnie Gulch on the east. (THW, photo)

Leave the trail at 2.2 miles, 13,000 feet, and crest Point 13,038'. Unspectacular agates are scattered in this location. The divide runs southeast to northwest with a gradual slope on the dryer south side and cliffs on the snow-prone north (Point 13,053', shown). It gets interesting where this typical pattern is interrupted by rock faces, outcrops, and gendarmes (Peak 13,069').

Stellar views are continuous. To the southwest, Vestal Peak and Arrow Peak in the Grenadier Range compliment nearby Canby Mountain. The Rio Grande Pyramid is visible off-image. Even the triumvirate peaks at the back of the Ice Lakes Basin are visible. (THW, photo)

A hoodoo and straight shot to Peak 13,795' with its distinctive rounded summit knob are north of Point 13,053'.

Peak 13,069'
This summit is the pinnacle of the divide and the only legal prominence. (For a peak to be ranked it must have at least 300 feet of vertical rise from its neighbor's saddle on both sides.) Approach the mountain in friendly terrain. This is the best hiking any ridge can offer--two to three feet wide and sheer on both sides. While the lead hiker is skirting a preliminary knob, below, you may climb right over the constricted top.

The summit block is wonderfully narrow with good safe rock, the sensation incredibly sweet. Crest the mountain at 3.0 miles. Only a few people have signed the peak register.

The view encompasses pretty much everything in the Silverton area. Look over to Half Peak and down into Minnie Gulch, the best access to Colorado's 88th highest from Silverton.

Most hikers free of a fear of heights can climb Peak 13,069'. The traverse increases in difficulty on the north side of the prominence where scrambling experience is required. This is a good (and worthy) turn around point if you are uneasy. It is a steep Class 2+ pitch down the north face gully. Hit it head on or work into it more gradually with a zigzag starting on the right. (THW, photo)

This image was shot looking back on the Peak 13,069' north ridge.

Pass directly over Point 12,996'. In 2013, I bailed from the ridge into Minnie Gulch quite easily down tundra slopes starting from Point 12,884'. (THW, photo)

Point 13,037'
This prominence has three knobs The first presents as a wall about 50 feet tall, seen below. It is located 0.3 mile before Point 13,037'.

Two members in our party took it head on but were foiled by a gash on the north side of the initial pitch.

They downclimbed to the east and then mounted a Class 4 crack, shown. Most troubling was the loose rock between the crack and the top of the knob. (THW, photo)

The prow can be bypassed by hugging the cliffs on the east and regaining the ridge wherever you deem best.

Walk over the top of Point 13,037' at 4.5 miles. (THW, photo)

Middle Mountain, 12,984'.
While Middle Mountain does not qualify as a ranked summit, reaching it is the biggest challenge of the hike and the most satisfying achievement. Below, climbers begin the descent from Point 13,037'. Out front it looks like we're about to fall off the face of the earth. Is there a way? (THW, photo)

We sent out a scout who probed until he found a Class 3 route. Work down slightly west of center to a mid-level platform, shown.

Then descend into a chimney just east of center. The holds are very good. It was pretty darn fun and it is such a great feeling when a passage is realized through what appears impossible. We will reach Middle Mountain after all.
(THW, photo)

The ridge is further protected by a grand and imposing gendarme. Bypass safely on the west. (THW, photo)

This image looks back on Point 13,037' and the gendarme.

Once past these obstacles, summiting Middle Mountain is a breeze at 4.9 miles.

We debated our exit plan. The ridge drops off dramatically just north of the summit. We'd scoped a slide path while driving up Minnie Gulch; it appeared viciously steep and harsh. We agreed to retrace our steps over Point 13,037'. This proved to be an excellent choice. Back in known territory the upclimb was fast and comfortable.

Leave the ridge on either side of the middle knob of Point 13,037', somewhere in the vicinity of 5.4 miles. This is about as soon as you can easily descend while backtracking south and before the 50 foot wall. The tundra-covered slope drops in waves, all pleasurable.

I've been in Minnie Gulch when wildflowers take over all thought. And I've passed through in autumn when the entire landscape is radiating gold. This is Silverton splendor at its finest. (THW, photo)