Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Bridal Peak (Formerly T11), 13,510'; and Peak 13,159' Via Mill Creek Basin

Essence: This mythic hike was my favorite of the summer in 2019. It features all of the elements one could wish for on a Colorado mountain trek: quick access trail with good visuals, alpine basins, ridge walking, the ultimate blue lake, two rather challenging peaks, and free-range wandering. Hike on a clear day so you can let this wondrous ramble stretch out into forever. Light scrambling and some exposure off-trail.
Travel: In a 4WD vehicle with decent clearance and sturdy tires, from Silverton drive 4.7 miles north on US 550 toward Ouray. Pass under power lines and turn west on Ophir Pass Road, San Juan CR 8. Go steeply downhill, cross Mineral Creek, and start up toward the pass. The track makes the first sharp hairpin to the right three miles from the highway. At 3.2 miles, the road makes a second switchback to the left. Leave the Ophir Pass Road here and go straight on a good shelf road. Park at 3.8 miles where the track starts heading downhill. There is room for three to four vehicles. 
Distance and Elevation Gain: 11.2 miles; 3,500 feet of climbing
Total Time: 6:30 to 8:30
Difficulty: Trail, off-trail; navigation moderately challenging; Class 2+ with mild exposure
Maps: Ophir; Silverton; Telluride, Colorado 7.5' USGS Quads
T11 Name Change: Peak 13,510' was noted on some old USGS maps as Bridal Peak but it was never formally designated. Dwight Lavender catalogued it T11 according to a naming convention in the 1930's (referring to the Telluride 15 minute map). The name T11 held for over 80 years. Bill Mahoney and Jeff Burch of Telluride successfully petitioned the USGS to designate Bridal Peak the official name in 2014.
Date Hiked: August 28, 2019
Quote: The violets in the mountains have broken the rocks. Tennessee Williams

The summit ridge of Peak 13,159' has fractured into massive blocks. The hike features two of the five ranked mountains ringing Columbine Lake in the Mill Creek Basin. Periodic glimpses of the lake lend the hike an otherworldly essence. (Thomas Holt Ward, photo)

Route: The black-line route represents our hike but you can tailor it to your skill and fitness level. Begin on an unnamed trail off Ophir Pass Road and hike east suspended above the Middle Fork of Mineral Creek. Leave the trail and hike west on the east ridge of Peak 13,159'. Or, stay on the path and segue onto the standard trail to Columbine Lake, the blue-line route. If you are up for it stay on the ridge between Point 12,740' and Point 13,051'. We bailed, got on the standard trail, and went over Pass 12,520'. To complete our bypass we ascended south to the saddle between Point 13,051' and Peak 13,159'. Climb both and then drop on the west ridge to Columbine Lake. Hike north off-trail to Bridal Peak before linking back up with the trail to Pass 12,520'.

Peak 13,159'
From the parking pullout at 11,480 feet, walk back on the road you drove in on for about 200 feet. The trail begins on the uphill side of the road. This image looks down on the small parking area from the trail. Beginning in 2019, we saw dirt bikes or their tracks on this trail, unfortunately. According to the Recreation Program Manager for the Columbine Ranger District the standard Columbine Lake Trail and this upper access trail are designated motorized single track trails.

The Middle Fork of Mineral Creek begins in Paradise Basin south of the Ophir Pass Road. In the image below, Peak 13,156' (V5) is on the south side of the basin and South Lookout Peak is west. On the north is the delightful and mellow climb to Peak 12,935'. (THW, photo)

The thin trail platform cuts across a steep south-facing slope while progressing generally east. It crosses four swales, all plummeting to the Middle Fork. In just under half a mile cross the outlet from a lake tucked in a glacial basin well above the trail. A path zigs and zags up into the cirque through ultra green tundra. After a big winter, flowers bloomed late and lingered well into August. Notice the south walls and crests of Peak 13,159' and Point 13,051' at skyline.

At 1.5 miles, the track turns north and begins a series of switchbacks to Point 11,892'. Soon, a secondary path branches right; avoid it. The sweeping turns are elegant, not in any hurry to leave the healthy spruce and fir forest.

At 2.1 miles, 11,960 feet, the trail leaves the east ridge of Peak 13,159' and drops into the basin to the north. Notice the standard trail climbing through the basin to Pass 12,520', shown. The easiest route to Peak 13,159' begins from the pass. For that matter, those climbing the peak have the option of taking the standard trail to begin with. It is a shorter distance to the pass (2.1 miles) but there is more vertical from the trailhead, elevation 10,360 feet.

We had been curious about the east ridge for awhile so we left the trail here and began climbing west-northwest. We flanked the first outcrop on the south. The steep and loose side slope was a little dicey and we were relieved to be back on the ridge at 12,400 feet.

It was a straight forward climb to Point 12,740' at 2.6 miles.

We were high enough now for a fantastic view of the peaks ringing the Ice Lake Basin. From the left: Fuller Peak, Vermilion Peak, Golden Horn, US Grant, South Lookout, Lookout Peak, and Peak 13,300'. Sitting in front of South Lookout is another angle on Peak 12,935'. (THW, photo)

From the saddle, Point 13,051' is only 0.15 mile away with a climb of 400 feet. I wasn't comfortable with the steepness of the climb on garbage rock and the green wall looked like a potential tumbledown. While you may elect to give the ridge a shot, we bailed and dropped 200 feet to the standard trail, shown. Our one-mile bypass turned out to be the golden route up Peak 13,159'.  (THW, photo)

We reached Pass 12,520' at 3.0 miles. Our ridge exploration turned out to be the same mileage as the trail option. From the pass, the view of the black Mill Creek ravine and peaks to the north is astounding. Bridal Peak is image-left.

We stayed on the trail looking for passage back to the east ridge. A quarter mile from the pass we initiated what turned out to be a pleasant climb to the saddle between Point 13,051' and Peak 13,159'.

At 3.6 miles, 12,940 feet, we were back on the ridge just west of Peak 13,051'. It was a fun little scramble up the rock pile.

Return to the saddle and initiate the climb to Peak 13,159'. Stay north of the gendarmes.

The forces of Nature are breaking this mountain apart: water, sun, and flowers. The summit ridge is a collection of fractured blocks. It is great fun leaping over cracks and dropping into crevices. Mount the small summit at 3.9 miles. The mountain lends a new perspective on familiar terrain. In the center of everything is electric blue Columbine Lake.

Columbine Lake
The west ridge block descent is delightful on the upper mountain. (THW, photo)

The ridge gets trickier and there is mild exposure as you descend. There is no social trail in the loose volcanic material. Below, notice the small flat followed by a drop.

I am working slowly down the dive. (THW, photo)

Walk on the north side of the blades. (THW, photo)

At the 12,780 foot saddle you may leave the ridge and head down to the lake. We were curious about the tundra knoll to the west so we crested it at 12,880 feet. This is a gorgeous lake overlook for visitors who are not into climbing mountains off-trail.

From here we strategized the approach to the south ridge of Bridal Peak; the summit is about an hour away. We decided to cross the outlet at lake level and then work our way across the benches on the north. (THW, photo)

I have been to Columbine Lake many times. Its clarity and color changes but its emotional impact is always joyfulness.
 
Bridal Peak, 13,510'
Cross Mill Creek and then bear northwest ferreting out a course over rolling terrain. Pass two not-blue ponds and walk north to the south ridge aiming for the base of the peak. You may go by way of Columbine Pass or gain the ridge north of the lilac-colored hill, shown.

From the divide look into Bridal Veil Basin. The approach over, we were surprised to find a social trail all the way up the south ridge to the summit. The beautiful little trail minimizes the sense of exposure on the somewhat narrow ridge.

We crested Bridal Peak at 6.1 miles and immediately fell in love with this stunning volcanic mountain. The stone's fissures and horizontal layers are reminiscent of T10 and Lookout Peak. The summit is well positioned for a superb view. In the center of Bridal Veil Basin is Lewis Lake. Ringing the basin is Peak 13,614', Oscar's Pass and Peak, and Wasatch Mountain and La Junta Peak. (THW, photo)

In the neighborhood to the north is Blue Lake, Three Needles, and T10. Further off is the Mount Sneffels Wilderness, Wetterhorn Peak and the monarch, Uncompahgre Peak. (THW, photo)

The east ridge going toward Point 13,434' has been reduced to a row of spikes. Way off on the horizon looking substantial by contrast is Half Peak, a centennial.

Return to Trailhead
We had a bluebird day so we took our time wandering through the basin while keeping an eye on Pass 12,520', far left in the image below. You can make out the standard trail crossing the north slopes of Peak 13,159'.

We came upon a quartz vein that went on for a quarter mile. We crossed under two sets of cascades. And we checked out this impressive stone tetrahedron. (THW, photo)

Standing on Pass 12,520' we could look over our initial ridge from the outcrop we flanked to Point 12,740'.

From the pass, descend for 0.6 mile to 11,920 feet. There may or may not be a cairn marking the junction where this route leaves the standard trail. It is a mellow, hardly noticeable ascent back to the east ridge. The smooth iron-clad crest across Mineral Creek and US 550 is Anvil Mountain. It looks massive from here but it is 1,000 feet shorter than Bridal Peak.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Lewis Mountain, 12,740', and Snowstorm Peak, 12,511'

Essence: The Lewis Mountain ridge is narrow and exposed for a full three miles. There are several access points. This stem and loop begins in Columbus Basin and gains the ridge via a historic mining trail that climbs to a pass at 12,180 feet. From there, Snowstorm is a quick out-and-back. There are three segments of knife edge between the pass and Lewis Mountain summit. Because of the arc's length and airy nature the traverse is recommended for experienced and agile climbers.
Travel to Columbus Basin Trailhead: In a 4WD vehicle with good clearance and sturdy tires, from the US 160/550 intersection in Durango travel 11.0 miles west on US 160 to Hesperus. Turn north on La Plata Canyon Road, CR 124, and measure from here. After passing the hamlet of Mayday the road turns to smooth dirt at 4.6 miles. There are several established campgrounds in this area. In 8.5 miles the roadbed deteriorates. At 12.1 miles the road splits. Turn right on FSR 498, the track to Columbus Basin. (For the Kennebec Pass Trailhead proceed straight on FSR 571 for 2.1 miles.) The road is steep and the rocks are sharp. Drive for 0.9 mile and park in a wide pullout on the left. A distinctive fallen log cabin is on the right.  
Distance and Elevation Gain: 5.8 miles with 3,000 feet of climbing for both mountains. Lewis Mountain alone is 4.6 miles with 2,300 feet of vertical.  
Time: 5:00 to 7:00
Difficulty: Forest Service road, old burro trail, mostly off-trail; moderate navigation; consistently moderate exposure with considerable exposure on low Class 3 knife sections.
Map: La Plata, Colo. 7.5' USGS Quad
Latest Date Hiked: August 18, 2019
Quote: As the hand held before the eye conceals the greatest mountain, so the little earthly life hides from the glance the enormous lights and mysteries of which the world is full, and he who can draw it away from before his eyes, as one draws away a hand, beholds the great shining of the inner worlds. Rabbi Nachmann

The mystique of Lewis Mountain is simple. It is not what it appears. Viewed from College Rim, the bastion (right of image-center) looks robust, bulky, and alluring. Its steady presence presides over Durango.

In reality, the mountain takes the shape of a loosely draped necklace. All along the thin thread are numerous steep-sided prominences. This image was shot from the south ridge of Snowstorm Peak, an extension of Lewis Mountain ridge. 

Route: After trying several approaches and iterations on the Snowstorm-Lewis ridge, the black-line route is my favorite. Alternative routes are discussed at the end of this post. From the parking pullout ascend on FSR 498 as it switchbacks into the upper basin. Segue onto a trail that climbs northeast to the pass at 12,180 feet. Walk north to collect Snowstorm Peak, return to the pass and traverse south, then west, and finally northwest in a mighty arc. Leave the ridge once you are well into the trees and bear east back to the start. 

Pass 12,180'
From the Columbus Basin Trailhead, elevation 10,980 feet, walk south on FSR 498. The road gains elevation consistently and pleasantly. The major switchback at 0.3 mile might dissuade you but the rarely traveled road is an efficient path. You certainly could walk up through the basin but it takes longer. This image of the log cabin and parking was taken on our return.

It is a little tricky transitioning to the pass trail and staying on it. To help navigate, this image was taken from the northwest ridge of Lewis Mountain. You will be walking up the road that is on the lower left. The road swings east and crosses the outlet of the small lake that sits high on a hill, shown. The trail begins soon after this crossing and wanders up the hill. If you lose the path (likely) look for it as you top the hill to the north of the lake. Notice the trail making a rising traverse to the north across a scree slope. It then switchbacks up the headwall to the pass. Snowstorm Peak is far left.

Specifically, at 1.2 miles, 11,680 feet, cross the drainage, look for a cairn marking the trail and hang a right. The footpath is indicated periodically with large cairns. Once on top of the hill make sure you nail this indispensable path as it points north. The old burro trail is a sweet route. Other headwall routes have been tried and rejected as too steep.

Note: In 2005, I climbed to the northwest ridge of Lewis starting in the vicinity of the second switchback. It was fiercely steep on resistant soil with debris at the angle of repose. After circling over Lewis and climbing Snowstorm we retreated to the saddle south of the "Red Ball." We then plunged down to the abandoned road on the east side of the basin, not a repeat route. To complicate matters, we had two big dogs with us who needed a lot of assistance, including hefting, to complete the circuit.

Runners: This trail is integral to Durango's annual Kennebec Mountain Run. The footrace race begins in La Plata City, ascends on CR 124 and FSR 571 to the Kennebec Pass Trailhead, goes through The Notch and along the east side of the ridge past the Bessie G Mine. Then runners take the burro trail to the pass, descend through Columbus Basin, and return to the start.

This image was taken into the sun but it attempts to show the trail leaving the road and the switchbacks to the pass, image-left. Crest the pass at 1.8 miles, elevation 12,180 feet. This also happens to be the low point between the two mountains.

Snowstorm Peak, 12,511' 
The spur to Snowstorm is 1.2 miles roundtrip with 700 feet of climbing. The walk is pretty tame with just one short narrow stretch. There are six knobs on the ridge. One rocky outcrop may be easily flanked near the crest on the east side. The Red Ball, Point 12,420', is a false summit. Snowstorm is an excellent vantage point. On a clear day even Lone Cone, the westernmost peak in the San Juan Mountains, is visible.
 
Lewis Mountain, 12,740'
Return to the pass at 3.0 miles, shown. It is one mile to the Lewis Mountain summit, image-center. Once I counted 12 serrations and yet the ridge is surprisingly free of obstacles. There are a couple you may wish to bypass. Once, while working around a lofty gendarme my hold pulled off the mountain. Test everything.

If you are not comfortable with what you see heading south, turn back. Since my previous visit a fragmentary wildcat trail had developed. It made easy work of the second crest, shown. Note two other hikers out in front of us.

Half a mile from the pass the first and longest section of knife commences.

"The Blade" is the first obstacle. Some people straddle the rock's spine. There is a small ledge on the west side with decent footing. The hand holds vary in dependability so be methodical.

Below, I have come around The Blade. (Thomas Holt Ward, photo)

The second knife leads to a crest at the apex of the arc, shown. On the La Plata Quad this prominence ranks equal with the summit. But when you get out there, the true zenith is clearly the one with a south ridge pitching down to Eagle Pass. Below, two figures are standing on top. The map does not note or number the highpoint of Lewis Mountain so the exact height is unknown.

The third knife leads to the summit at 3.9 miles. The mountain presents a full-circle viewpoint. Look out over Durango, Lake Nighthorse, companion peaks east of the La Plata River and those across the waterway on the West Block: Parrott Peak to Sharkstooth Peak. Indian Trail Ridge points to the greater San Juan Mountains: the San Miguel Mountains, Mount Sneffels Wilderness, and the Grenadier Range and Needle Mountains in the Weminuche Wilderness.

Return to Columbus Basin
The next series of serrations add up to 300 feet of elevation gain while descending the northwest ridge. The challenge decreases. One friend said this segment is super fun; another said it is one of the most beautiful strolls. But it remains airy so don't let your guard down. First, climb the banded prominence with the broad, flat top. The ridge dives. Ahead is Tomahawk Basin ringed by the three Babcock Peaks, Mount Moss, and Diorite Peak. Centennial Peak is close by to the north.

In mid-August, Arctic gentian were blossoming on the ridgecrest. (THW, photo)

The final push is a steep 230 foot climb to Point 12,530'.

Below, I am standing on the next knob with Lone Cone to my left. (THW, photo)

The last roller has big beautiful blocks with dotted saxifrage growing in crevices. The road and switchback are location indicators.

Stay on the narrow ridge as it goes into the trees at 11,800 feet.

While it is tempting to start the eastward plunge anywhere along here, there is a lot of cliff structure. The ridge broadens as it swings southwest at 11,600 feet. Initiate the drop where you wish. A social trail leaves the ridge making for a bench below. That works. We lingered looking for the golden path and found it. We started rolling off the ridge at 5.35 miles. We hit a big flat and then stuck to gentle slopes pointing east all the way to the road. It was a floriferous year and we waded through Grey’s angelica, monkshood, osha, corn husk lily, bluebell, American bistort, king's crown, arrowleaf senecio, orange sneezeweed, little sunflower, death camus, rosy paintbrush, elephant head, and columbine.

Alternative Routes: Kennebec Pass Trailhead to Snowstorm Peak via Northeast Ridge
This is the blue-line route on the map above. Park in a large lot that serves the Colorado Trail. Snowstorm is 1.5 miles south with 1,000 feet of vertical. From the trailhead, elevation 11,620 feet, walk southeast on an old mining road that still carries occasional 4WD traffic. Curve under the west slopes of Cumberland Mountain and go through The Notch, an obvious blown out feature. The image below shows The Notch and the northeast ridge, a quick but not trivial climb.

After passing through The Notch at 12,000 feet continue on the road until you are past the short razor-topped ridge. Initiate the climb. You will have to move a little east to get around some cliffs before returning to the ridge. If you don't like the looks of the ridge, you have two choices. You can climb the ultra steep east slope of the mountain, shown, or take the red-line route to the Bessie G Mine.

This image was shot from Snowstorm Peak. It looks down on the northeast ridge, the razorback remnant, and the road flanking Cumberland Mountain.

Kennebec Pass to Pass 12,180' via Bessie G Mine 
This is the red-line route on the map above. It is about two miles with 950 feet of climbing. Walk through The Notch and continue on the degenerating track for another half mile. The road becomes a trail after passing the mine. The footpath mounts an eastward ridge and then climbs the north side of Ruby Gulch to the pass. The image below was shot from the Lewis Mountain ridge looking back at the trail coming up from the Bessie G to the pass.

Lewis Mountain from Eagle Pass
If your objective is to simply summit Lewis Mountain, take the purple-line route on the map above. Drive up La Plata Canyon Road for 9.4 miles and park at Lewis Creek Road. Or, turn right onto CR 124 A and go up the 4WD road, paralleling Lewis Creek on the north for three miles. The track is steep, rugged, and rocky throughout. Turn-around parking is at elevation 11,360 feet. From the upper parking the summit of Lewis Mountain is 1.1 miles with 1,400 feet of climbing.

I have not taken this route but I know plenty of people who have. The image below was snapped from Eagle Pass on a day I was climbing Bald Knob. Please link to that post for a description of the beautiful walk to Eagle Pass. Then climb north on the ridge which culminates directly on the highpoint of Lewis Mountain.

Lewis Mountain is the longest single-mountain ridge hike in the La Plata range. There is a sense that the entire spine is the summit, from its thin beginning just above The Notch, swinging around in a great arc, gathering Snowstorm, encompassing Lewis Mountain, and refusing to terminate until it dissipates in the waters of the La Plata River. It is a rim that demands the traveler's unbroken mindfulness. The serrated precipice affords a new perspective on one's inner world and the great circle of the horizon.

Lewis Mountain from Smelter Mountain, February, 2014.