Thursday, October 3, 2019

Burwell Peak, 12,664', Traverse To Spiller Peak, 13,123', Via Boren Creek Basin

Essence: Burwell Peak is not a ranked summit but it is the southern highpoint on the rim of Boren Creek Basin. A very steep ascent leads to even more challenge several hundred feet below the summit. The rock is friable but there are enough good holds for an enjoyable push to the crest with its far-flung views to the west. Spiller Peak is best approached from Rush Basin but discussion follows about my 2008 obstacle-dodging traverse from Burwell to Spiller. The summit of Spiller affords an intimate look at the notorious La Plata Knife.
Travel: From the US 160/550 intersection in Durango travel 11.0 miles west on US 160 to Hesperus. Turn right on La Plata Canyon Road, CR 124, and measure from there. After passing the hamlet of Mayday the road turns to smooth dirt at 4.6 miles. There are several established campgrounds in this area. Park in a pullout on the right at 8.1 miles, just past Boren Creek and about 200 feet before FSR 794. Enthusiasts with a dedicated 4WD short wheelbase vehicle may drive up the steep, rocky, narrow two-track 1.7 miles to the split from FSR 794.
Distance and Elevation Gain: For Burwell Peak: 6.2 miles with 3,550 feet of vertical; Spiller Peak adds 1.4 miles and roughly 900 feet of gain.
Total Time: 4:30 to 5:30 for Burwell; add 1:00 to 2:00 for Spiller
Difficulty: 4WD track, mostly off-trail; navigation challenging; steep sections with loose rock and gravelly, resistant soil; Class 2+ with mild exposure for Burwell and Class 3 with serious exposure on the south ridge of Spiller Peak.
Map: La Plata, Colorado 7.5' USGS Quad
Latest Date Hiked: October 3, 2019
Quote: Mountains call their climbers, and the creatures who respond never so much initiate their movement up the slope as they are initiated by it. Rob Baker

Water falls over stone in the center of Boren Creek Basin. Some of the most challenging mountains in the La Plata range ring the bowl: Burwell Peak; Spiller Peak; the Knife; and West, Middle, and East Babcock Peaks.

Route: Climb Burwell first, the black-line route. Hike northwest up the Boren Creek Road. Leave FSR 794 at a split and cross Boren Creek. Climb steeply west to the southeast ridge of Burwell. Return as you came. Those going on to Spiller Peak, the blue-line route, will be faced with a deep gash just north of the Burwell summit. Drop about 400 feet to get below it and another a major obstacle, then sidehill north and reclaim the ridge near the saddle. Climb Spiller's south ridge, return to the saddle and descend through the basin back to the road. 

From the pullout, elevation 9,240 feet, walk up La Plata Canyon Road about 200 feet and start up Boren Creek Road, FSR 794.

Lovely aspen woods enhance the cobbly experience. For those thinking of driving up the road, this image of a hiker descending in the afternoon depicts one of the better segments. Cross Shaw Gulch at 0.5 mile.
At 1.7 miles, 10,480 feet, leave the Boren Creek Road, taking the left hand spur. This is the first branch off FSR 794 so you can't miss it.

The spur ends in a clearing on a platform above Boren Creek. Walk out the bench for a ways until you can get a good look at your options for gaining the southeast ridge. (Burwell Peak is image-right.) I have done this several ways and no matter the route it is a grunt. Climb almost 2,200 feet from the creek to the summit in barely over one mile.

This last time we took the brute force route to the ridge, the more northern of the two tracks on the map above. We climbed the open slope, shown below, and then veered away from the gully. Downfall in the spruce woods was not an impediment. We stumbled on welcome game trails intermittently before intersecting the southeast ridge at 11,520 feet.

We nailed an elegant route on our descent and I recommend using it for climbing as well. It will cost you just 0.1 mile and you will spend more time on the ridge and less time on the high-angle slope. Start up the open slope and then track above the gully, shown, in the trees to its north. Cross the gully at its head, elevation 11,040 feet. Do a rising traverse southwest to the saddle seen in the image below. It is a little counter intuitive, angling away from the mountain, but the gradient is softer throughout the climb. Reach the saddle at 11,220 feet where a post stands in a pile of rocks.

To initiate the climb walk north-northwest across the platform and locate a game/social trail down to Boren Creek. This image was shot on our return.

Cross Boren Creek at 10,500 feet. In 2019, the basin was buried under avalanche debris long into summer. Plants got a late start and the autumn was mild. We collected and ate gooseberries while exclaiming over the number and diversity of blooming plants. For the first time ever I saw an Indian warrior lousewort.

After gaining the ridge, the grade eases somewhat while in the tundra. 

When stone overrules it is time to be on the lookout for the "Rock Stack."

In 2008, I had been warned about the Rock Stack at 11,880 feet. It is a simple matter to bypass it on the right.

These hikers are walking right at the base of the Rock Stack. Exposure is mild.

Return to ridge immediately on a use trail. On my first climb we had almost no information and what we had wasn't helpful. Consequently, instead of returning to the ridge we mistakenly favored the steep north slopes. We entered a dicey zone. Marbles and cobbles slid on resistant soil with scant well-seated boulders for purchase.

The proper route on the open ridgetop is a pleasure. There is a hint of a social trail through gravel and scree. Pass through a short krummholz band at 12,100 with telltale scrawny, determined trees.

For those intent on doing the traverse be watching as you travel up the mountain for a viable place to cut over to the Spiller saddle. Spiller is the crest with the distinctive debris-scoured couloir, image-left.

Groups need to be wary of loose rockfall on the upper mountain.

Manganese oxide coats rock chunks with a sheen as black as ebony gets.

Route finding is a pleasure on the summit block where there are several options.

Near the crest textured bedrock slabs are more continuous. The stone tends to flake so test all the holds.

Crest Burwell Peak at 3.1 miles. For most, this 3,500 foot climb will take the better part of three hours. The La Plata summits on the West Block fall sharply away into the embrace of the American West. The field of vision is never-ending. In this image, Sleeping Ute Mountain is southwest of Cortez, Colorado.

Looking south, Parrott Peak anchors the end of the West Block. Coming north is Madden Peak, Star Peak, Point 11,931', and Gibbs Peak. While it is tempting to turn the Four Peak Traverse into something truly massive, there isn't a way to get from Gibbs to Burwell without dropping off the ridge to the west.

The drama builds swinging around to the peaks ringing the basin north of Burwell. Spiller Peak is followed by the Knife, West Babcock Peak, Middle Babcock Peak, 4th Crest, and finally, East Babcock Peak.

Retrace your steps to La Plata Canyon Road. This image looks down from the summit on the southeast ridge descent.

Burwell-Spiller Traverse
The traverse is about a mile with as much as 1,000 feet of vertical. It will take strong and capable climbers about one hour. It is my least favorite route up Spiller Peak so before getting started, consider returning another day and climbing Spiller from Rush Basin, shown. No matter how you get there the climb is a considerable challenge. Of the three routes accessing the south ridge, the western approach is the most pleasurable.
From my 2008 field notes: Burwell is a sweet peak and we'd climbed it well enough. Our pleasure was mitigated by what appeared to be a daunting traverse to Spiller. Heading directly north was out of the question for we were presented with a 100 foot, vertical walled notch. Downclimbing into it and going up the other side was impossible. We debated our options. We were not put off by the effort, but rather the dubious nature of the rock. In the image below, Spiller beckons across the cleft.

We decided to carry on pitching ever so carefully down the ultra steep east face of Burwell on skittering, broken, rotten rock, shown. Once we were committed to the task, it only grew more daunting. We were forced to drop 400 feet before being afforded the opportunity to turn north. And here we sidehilled until we could make our way up to the ridge just south of the saddle at 12,500 feet, 0.4 mile from the Spiller summit.

It may be safer to downclimb from the summit block on the upcoming route to minimize exposure on the east face. I have not tested this alternative.

Rock on the south ridge of Spiller Peak is fractured and friable, holds are unreliable, and exposure is serious. Please link to the Rush Basin approach for a detailed description of the climb.

Spiller Peak has unique and intimate views of Hesperus Mountain, Mount Moss and the towers of Lavender Peak, and the peaks on the divide between the Boren and Tomahawk Basins, shown: The Knife, West Babcock, Middle Babcock just peeking out, and East Babcock. The traverse from West Babcock to Spiller, the Knife, is by far the most exposed of the four options mentioned.

Descending from Spiller into Boren Creek basin, it was tempting to shortcut early off the south ridge. We debated sliding down a snowy couloir near the summit. Smartly, we declined because we couldn't see clear to the bottom. On another day I gave what appeared to be a wildcat trail a shot and got cliffed out. So we gamely continued down the ridge to a rocky couloir just north of the saddle at 12,500 feet and angled from there into the saddle swale. We were presented with almost 2,000 feet of tedium. There were fun escalator rides down sporadic scree. Most of the rock was too big for that delight, yet not too big to roll and slide underfoot.

We happily glissaded down dwindling snowfields to the Boren Creek waterfall. To bypass, we climbed north, avoided yawning trenches, descended a ridge, and did more snow sliding back to the Boren Creek Road just above our original spur. 2020 Note: See the Knife for an alternative descent route from the saddle that puts you back on the Boren Creek Road at 11,300 feet.

In this October, 2019 image the snow fields are gone and the waterfall is trickling.

No comments:

Post a Comment