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)

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