Saturday, July 11, 2020

The Knife: West Babcock Peak, 13,100', to Spiller Peak, 13,132'

Essence: The La Plata Knife is a half-mile, exposed scramble across a serrated slice of stone. The three-part climb is the most challenging, both physically and mentally, in the La Plata Mountains. The traverse ranks amongst the finest in Colorado. First, summit West Babcock by way of a sustained, ultra steep Class 3 pitch. The exposure on the Knife is continuous; the crux is Class 4. Rock on the south ridge of Spiller is fractured and friable, holds are unreliable, and exposure is once again, serious. Not sure if this is for you? Use the Lewis Mountain traverse as your test.
Travel: 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 there. After passing the hamlet of Mayday, the road turns to smooth dirt at 4.6 miles. Park in a pullout at 8.1 miles, just past Boren Creek.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 7.8 miles, 4,200 feet of climbing from La Plata Canyon Road
Time: 6:00 to 9:00 (If you summit West Babcock in three hours, figure one hour to cross The Knife, an hour to downclimb Spiller and plunge through Boren Basin to FSR 794, and another hour back to the trailhead.)
Difficulty: 4WD road, off-trail; navigation challenging; Class 3 scrambling and Class 4 crux; serious, uninterrupted exposure; helmets recommended
Map: La Plata, Colorado 7.5' USGS Quad
Latest Date Hiked: July 11, 2020
Quote: To dare is to lose one's footing momentarily. Not to dare is to lose oneself. Soren Kierkegaard

East, Middle, and West Babcock Peaks, the Knife, and Spiller Peak from Hesperus Mountain, 13,232'.

Route: From the pullout, elevation 9,240 feet, walk up CR 124 about 200 feet to FSR 794. Walk northwest up the Boren Creek Road to the mine at 11,300 feet. Leave the road and climb West Babcock Peak. Moving west, cross The Knife and summit Spiller Peak. Descend south to the Spiller-Burwell saddle (You may leave the ridge sooner after you have visually located "the gate.") Plunge down the basin and angle back to the Boren Creek Road.

To West Babcock Peak
From the pullout, elevation 9,240 feet, walk up La Plata Canyon Road, shown, about 200 feet and head northwest up rocky Boren Creek Road, FSR 794. (Thomas Holt Ward, photo)

Cross Shaw Gulch at 0.5 mile. At 1.7 miles, 10,480 feet, the route to Burwell Peak branches left. Stay on the main track to an abandoned mine at 2.8 miles, 11,300 feet.

Boren Basin
Pause and take a moment to get clear about what you are looking at and to locate the proper route up West Babcock Peak. Five peaks ring Boren Basin. Burwell Peak is the southern highpoint. From there, the rim points north to Spiller Peak and then it swings east. Looking at the image below, on the left is the crux of the Knife at the “tooth,” the south wall of the Knife, West Babcock with the smooth stone swale, Middle Babcock, “4th Crest,” and East Babcock. To confuse things, the La Plata quad labels East Babcock as Babcock Peak, 13,149’.  And yet, Middle Babcock is the highest of the trio at 13,180 feet. It is the only ranked summit in the entire span.

There are two standard routes up West Babcock, the couloir route (just west of Middle Babcock) and the south face (or ridge) route, described here. I do not recommend the couloir where all the rocks are abraded and aggressively tumble underfoot.

To get started, climb north toward West Babcock staying to the right of the orange outcrop studded with pyrite. The basin climb is kind of a pain. It’s a combination of grass, scree, talus, and boulders. It’s just steep enough that much of the material is on the move.

Note of Caution: In 2016, I witnessed two, 3 X 3 foot cubes of stone crack from a Babcock couloir and, gathering more boulders, bounce-fly at 100 mph down the center of the basin where I had been moments prior. They skidded to a halt just shy of the 4WD track. It was a narrow and lucky miss. Please be fully aware and understand this location is particularly dangerous.

Rock Buttress Option
At about 12,160 feet you will be alongside a buttress, a dominant feature in the upper basin, an extension of West Babcock’s climbing ridge. You may climb the buttress or continue up the talus slope, flanking it on the east. Looking at the image below, the easiest route cuts left at the rusty brown rock and arrives on a small flat at the north end of the buttress.

To mount the Class 3, exposed buttress, zig and zag to the south ridge as these climber’s are doing. (THW, photo)

This woman is on the lateral to the south ridge. (David Forester Tesche, photo)

Scrambling on the buttress was my son’s favorite segment of the entire climb. “The funnest thing I’ve done this year. I like feeling comfortable in situations that look so insane. The huge wall and the climbing blocks are so cool. It’s rad.” (DFT, photo)

The buttress affords an excellent look at the thin and tumble-prone couloirs separating Middle Babcock, 4th Crest, and West Babcock. (DFT, photo)

North of the buttress is a small flat at 12,400 feet. A narrow, steep, 100-foot gully extends northwest from the flat. The gully is the essential connector to a narrow section of ridge between snow-filled couloirs and cliffs on both the east and west.

The climb pitches steeply from here to the summit with significant rock fall hazard for the next 700 vertical feet. The gully floor is loose with more solid rock on the edges. However, some holds that appear well seated pop off when disturbed. If you must use questionable holds, don’t rely on them. (THW, photo)

South Rib and Swale
Once clear of the gully, ascend the ridge a short distance on the west side. You will soon come to an opening where you may cross over to the east. From here to the crest there is considerable latitude in route options. This image was shot on the ridge above the gully and looks back on the buttress and flat, image-left. (THW, photo)

You may climb directly up the rib, a Class 3 scramble. The west side isn’t an option. A cliff-bound couloir holds snow deep into summer. (DFT, photo)

Climbing the south rib. (THW, photo)

Or, flank the rib on the east by a few feet. If you wish, move further into the broad rock swale. The west side of the trough has some ledges with fairly good rock. (DFT, photo)

The upper mountain pitches ever more radically. (DFT, photo)

West Babcock Peak, 13,100’
I have made contact with the west ridge of West Babcock in three different places. This image was shot while topping out on the summit ridge. We are well above Baker Peak, Silver Mountain, and Deadwood Mountain in the East Block. (THW, photo)

Traverse east to the summit, 3.6 miles, after 3,900 feet of vertical. Having climbed the three Babcocks multiple times over the years, I recommend them all. They are quite different in nature and have unique challenges. (THW, photo)

Among the big tops just to the northwest is Hesperus Mountain, 13,232', the tallest peak in the range. Lone Cone is in the gap. Lavender Peak, and Mount Moss are accessed from Tomahawk Basin. (THW, photo)

It appears that if you got a running start you could leap over West Babcock’s climbing couloir to Middle Babcock.
(THW, photo)

Looking west, climbers are relaxing on Spiller Peak. This image gives you a glimpse of the south descent ridge. Sleeping Ute Mountain lies in repose in the distance. (THW, photo)

The Knife
The westward traverse to Spiller Peak is a half mile with 300 feet of vertical. I crossed the Knife in 2012. My notes provide a good summary of the risky adrenaline-infused thrill: A La Plata Mountains devotee, having by now climbed all of the peaks, this little stretch long eluded me. It has a notorious reputation amongst Durango locals. On this day I was awarded the sweet spot, climbing upon the heels of my friend John who had done this span previously, storing the way in his impeccable memory. Therefore, we rarely stopped to debate alternative routes, allowing us to complete the traverse between the two mountaintops in exactly one hour.

It is best, as always, to stay pinned to the ridge. There are innumerable gendarmes: snaggletooths, standing rocks, spires, and stacks. When we were forced off, we usually deferred to the north and only briefly. Width varied; at times the ridge was one slender block wide, in other places, comfortable. There was plenty of good rock, but a substantial share of rotten as well. I was off-ridge to the north when a hold let go and I was flung backwards over a vertical couloir. I have no idea how I magically regained my position. For our group of five experienced scramblers it was a pleasurable practice in mindfulness.

I'm grateful to have traversed the Knife. But this climb pushes the boundaries of my skill level and my courage. Robert Macfarlane in Mountains of the Mind, speaks eloquently to a growing notion within: "The attraction of mountains is far more about beauty than about risk, far more about joy than fear, far more about wonder than pain, and far more about life than death.”

Therefore, in 2020 I down-climbed from West Babcock with my partner while John escorted my son and a friend across the Knife. We reconvened at the pyrite outcrop in Boren Basin.

To initiate, descend 140 feet. Exposure begins right away. Some subsequent down pitches are significantly steep, almost as challenging as the crux. (THW, photo)

This image shows the first serration on the Knife with Spiller in the distance. You will be snaking on both sides of the ridge. It will be clear whether you’ll be balancing on top or deferring briefly to the north or south to get around an obstacle. (DFT, photo)

My son said the Knife reminded him of the Little Bear-Blanca traverse but it doesn’t last as long. (DFT, photo)

Some sections are very narrow and exposed. (DFT, photo)

The rock is generally good with some loose spots. Test all your holds. (DFT, photo)

This image looks back on the Knife east of the crux. East Babcock is to the right of West Babcock. My son thought the razorback looked even more epic than his photos portray.

The Crux
The crux is located about four-fifths of the way across the Knife. At the deeply incised declivity scramble down into the notch at the base of the tooth. I recall moving to the north and then the south on loose dirt and rubble. This image looks back on the drop.

The crux is a 15-foot, Class 4 pitch on good rock. Dave Cooper in Colorado Scrambles (Colorado Mountain Club, 2009), suggests leaving the ridge and down-climbing into a couloir on the north. (DFT, photo)

Our preferred route goes straight up the wall that is slightly north of center. Some climbers will appreciate a spot.
(DFT, photo)

Past the crux wall, the ridge is ridiculously steep and breathtakingly exposed. Holds are good. In this image you can see a climber working his way up the near vertical crux wall.

From there it is a relatively simple but not trivial climb up the summit block. Complete the traverse on Spiller Peak at 4.1 miles. This image looks back on the Knife, West Babcock, Middle Babcock (just visible), and East Babcock.
(THW photo)

Spiller South Ridge to Boren Basin
The final off-trail segment is the descent from Spiller Peak and the Boren Basin plunge. Rock on Spiller’s south ridge is fractured, holds are unreliable, and exposure is serious. This image was taken in 2017 of climbers ascending the south ridge.

There is some latitude in where you leave the ridge. Once we bailed too soon on what appeared to be a wildcat trail.  That stranded us on resistant gravelly soil directly above a cliff. We clawed our way back to the ridge and continued down to a rocky couloir just north of the Spiller-Burwell saddle at 12,500 feet. The trip off the wide basin rim is a tedious 1,200 foot descent. There is some plunge stepping and scree skiing mixed with large talus and hardscrabble.

In 2020, the group left the ridge at about 12,800 feet. However, they had to make several adjustments when they hit cliffs and scuzzy soil. In time they came through “the gate," image-center. Either way, rejoin the Boren Creek Road where you left it at about 5.0 miles.

This photo shows the crux from the upper basin. The Knife should be crossed on a severe clear day. If you get caught in threatening weather, especially electrical, or need to bail for any reason, it appears that you can down-climb from the deep notch at the base of the crux. It won't be a pleasant descent and it is untested but the last time our group was in the notch it looked plausible.

For those of you who come through the gate, in mid-summer you will walk through a field of columbine. June 10, 2012 was a flawless and flowerful day: valeriana capitata and edulis, blue columbine, red columbine, star flowered false Solomon's seal, alpine kitten tails, phlox, alpine spring beauty, old man of the mountain, thimbleberry, strawberry, osha, corn husk lily, green gentian, king's crown, draba, Richardson's geranium, elderberry, dock, waterleaf, larkspur, woods' rose, purple vetch, fairy candelabra, meadow rue, raspberry, daisy fleabane, New Mexico groundsel, scorpion leaf, alpine groundsel, packera (formerly senecio), chokecherry, scarlet gilia, current, white peavine, Brandegee's clover, Jacob's ladder, mountain parsley, white and purple violets, chain pod, cow parsnip, and bluebells.

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

Baker Peak, 11,949' to Silver Mountain, 12,496', Via Eagle Pass

Essence: Baker Peak is most often climbed by way of Silver Mountain. This off-camber route approaches the neglected summit from the opposite direction, by way of Eagle Pass and Puzzle Pass. This is a multifaceted hike to a fine little mountain on good rock. It isn’t a ranked peak but it sure feels like one. Baker is a remote summit whether you walk or drive up the demanding Lewis Creek Road. Primarily off-trail with steep slopes and ridges, some talus. The traverse to Silver Mountain cranks the hike up a notch with more exposure and effort. This will most likely be a day of solitude.
Travel: 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 there. After passing the hamlet of Mayday the road turns to smooth dirt at 4.6 miles. In 8.5 miles the roadbed deteriorates with sharp, sizable rocks. A 2WD vehicle with sturdy tires and moderate clearance may continue to Lewis Creek Road, CR 124A, at 9.4 miles. Turn right and park just before or after the bridge crossing the La Plata River. Vehicles with 4WD Low, high clearance, and beefy tires may proceed up Lewis Creek Road. The serious track is steep, rugged, and rocky throughout. Because the road is bound by private land, parking is limited to: the beginning of CR 124A at the La Plata River, the Gold King Mine ruins 1.8 miles up the road where the land owner has granted permission, and the upper parking area at 3.1 miles, elevation 11,300 feet.
Distance and Elevation Gain from Upper Parking:
Baker Peak: 5.0 miles, 2,000 feet,
Silver Mountain: 7.0 miles, 3,200 feet
Point 11,900' and Eagle Pass, 7.05 miles, 3,320 feet
Mine Ruins Parking, roundtrip add: 2.6 miles, 840 feet
La Plata River Parking, roundtrip add: 6.2 miles, 1,860 feet 
Total Time: 
Baker Peak from upper parking: 3:30 to 4:30
Silver Mountain: add 1:30 to 2:30
Point 11,900’ and Eagle Pass: add :30
Difficulty: 4WD road, off-trail; navigation moderate; Class 2+; mild exposure for Baker Peak and moderate exposure for the traverse to Silver Mountain
Map: La Plata, Colorado 7.5' USGS Quad or Apogee Mapping
Latest Date Hiked: July 7, 2020 
Quote: You are always nearer the divine and the true sources of power than you think. The lure of the distant and the difficult is deceptive. The great opportunity is where you are. John Burroughs, 1908

One of the charms of Baker Peak is that it doesn't make the playbook legal summits enjoy because there is only 249 feet of prominence from the Silver Mountain saddle. Therefore, it is generally ignored. Pass through curiously named Puzzle Pass, shown, and then climb an unlikely ridge that turns out to be great fun. The traverse to Silver Mountain ups the order of difficulty. (Thomas Holt Ward, photo)

Route: Hike or drive east up Lewis Creek Road shown with the blue line to upper parking on public land. Flank Point 11,900' on a gated service road. Leave the track and descend on the ridge southwest to Puzzle Pass. Climb the northeast ridge of Baker Peak. For the Silver Mountain traverse, climb over Point 11,818’ and continue south to Silver Mountain. Return as you came. The old return route down Tirbircio Creek is no longer an option because it crosses private land. Visit Point 11,900' and Eagle Pass on the return.

In July, 2019, we walked up the Lewis Creek Road from the La Plata River and climbed Bald Knob. CR 124A was blocked by debris and a slidepath at the Lewis Creek crossing shortly before the Gold King Mine ruins, shown. For a description of this road segment, link to Bald Knob

Lewis Creek Road splits at 3.0 miles. Take the left branch which accesses the upper parking lot at 11,300 feet, shown. The road continues on but there is a locked gate in half a mile and no room to turn around. The mileage for this description begins here, 3.1 miles from the La Plata River. (THW, photo)

The road climbs steadily and familiar peaks in the West Block are revealed. Behind me is Burwell Peak (image-left), the ridge running over to Spiller Peak, and East Babcock Peak. (THW, photo)

Walking up the road has its share of pleasures, including an early look at fluted Baker Peak at 0.2 mile. Silver Mountain is on the left blowing clouds from its top. (THW, photo)

At 0.55 mile, climb around or through the gate intended to stop vehicles (but not people). As indicated on the map above, stay on the road as it sweeps under Eagle Pass and Point 11,900’. I’ll talk about visiting them both at the end of this post.

To climb Baker Peak, locate the juncture of the service road and the southwest ridge of Point 11,900' at 0.8 mile. The La Plata topo marks this elevation at 11,776 feet. The drop to Puzzle Pass is about 640 feet. To begin, the ridge is rounded and the grade gentle. The ridge splits at one mile. If you were to go straight south you’d plunge into Lightner Creek. Bear right on the southwest ridge.

Progress slows as the ridge constricts and becomes rock and tree-covered. An old burro trail materializes at about 11,650 feet. It runs parallel to the ridgeline about 50 feet off on the east side. Run it out and return to the ridge at 11,500 feet. There are several, if not many, rollers on the ridge. The steepest is the 150 foot earthen skyscraper that crashes down to Puzzle Pass. The climbing ridge is clear from here, image-center.

Puzzle Pass, 1.9 miles, 11,140 feet, is an historic miner's campsite with a stacked stone stove. Artifacts are scattered throughout the area. Please leave them in place.

The approach over, climb 800 feet up the northeast ridge. Myrtle blueberry and bear scat cover the forest floor beneath old growth spruce. The incline is steep but moderated by fragments of social trail on the ridgetop. Trees give way to small talus and grass above 11,400 feet. (THW, photo)

The ridge narrows with mild exposure. Rock is well seated as you climb the natural staircase.

Pop up onto the northwest ridge. This is a wild and dramatic moment with Silver Mountain appearing in your immediate field of vision. Baker is just three stony bumps away at 2.5 miles. The tiny summit is composed of shattered, fine-grain igneous rock poking up on angle. We love this sweet summit and so do others. There is a lot of history in the peak register, including an entry by Gerry and Jennifer Roach in 2016.

This image looks back on our access ridge. Lewis Mountain may look bulky from here but the entire ridgeline (and that's only half of it) is a delicate thread. Point 11,900’ is image-right. (THW, photo)

If you are thinking of alternate routes down from here, please note. In 2003, on my first La Plata hike I climbed Silver and then Baker. I descended on Baker's northwest ridge to the Gold King Mill, lost to fire that very summer. The ridge has its undulations, adding 100 feet or so to the total. When we reached treeline we plunged on a west ridge absurdly steep. I have since learned that there is a strip of private property at the confluence of Tirbircio Creek and the La Plata River so I have not revisited that route. If you are not going on to Silver, return as you came.

Silver Mountain Traverse
For years we tacked Baker onto our Deadwood and Silver climb. We’d start in La Plata City, climb the three peaks, return to the Silver-Baker saddle and descend Tirbircio Creek. Now that the bailout is off-limits, it requires less effort to do the traverse from the north. Roundtrip from Baker adds two miles with 850 feet of elevation gain going over and 350 feet coming back.

The image below was shot just south of Baker. The double-humped knob, image-center, is Point 11,818’. The crux of this traverse is the north face of the first knob, just beyond the small treed saddle. (THW, photo)

The south side of Baker is one big rock pile. (THW, photo)

Drop into the saddle north of Point 11,818’. The “tree crux” is the most exposed part of this hike. It’s dicey getting around the trees on the west side. (THW, photo)

There is a 1989 benchmark on the first knob. Descend on a short (and fun) razor-thin ridge, shown, and then pitch up to Point 11,818’.

The terrain is inconsequential from here on. The social trail down to the Silver saddle (2.8 miles, 11,700 feet), tracks most of the way to Silver. The krummholz gives out at 11,900 feet. A false summit is followed by a talus ball which you can charge over or skirt around on the west.

As you are topping out on the exceedingly broad, tundra-covered summit look for this reference mark placed in 1936. We couldn’t locate the actual benchmark. The voluminous, outstretched mountaintop is an ideal place for all the time you can spare. But what direction to face? Silver Mountain is visible from all the high points in Durango. You can look east and easily pick out Fort Lewis College, Raider Ridge, and Lake Nighthorse.

Or, look north to the San Miguel Mountains and the Wilson cluster of fourteeners. (THW, photo)

The five ranked La Plata thirteeners are located in the northern tier of the West Block. They are all visible in the image below as well as Baker Peak. (THW, photo)

Retrace your steps over Baker Peak, drop down through Puzzle Pass, mount the earthen skyscraper, and return to the service road. If you'd like to see Point 11,900' and Eagle Pass, it's an easy climb to the prominent knoll with a weather station, radio transmitter, and other communication towers. The lookout is only a few feet shorter than Baker. In this image, hikers are discussing Centennial Peak, the banded mountain between Mount Moss and Diorite Peak.
(THW, photo)

Note: Bald Knob and Baker Peak are accessed from different ridges radiating from Point 11,900'. Strong hikers could climb them both on the same day. They each give up a fair amount of elevation on the approach and the summit pitch is comparable. Together with Point 11,900' and Silver Mountain, they are primary contributors to the Lightner Creek watershed. To the right of Bald Knob in the image below is Durango, the Perins Peak cuesta, Barnroof Point, and Lake Nighthorse.

This image shows Eagle Pass, 11,780 feet, from Point 11,900’. Lewis Mountain may be climbed from the pass but I can’t vouch for that route since I typically approach from Columbus Basin. Plunge west from the pass and you’ll be back on the road in the vicinity of the locked gate. (THW, photo)

I'd like to thank my friend Will for turning me on to the Puzzle Pass approach to Baker Peak.