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.


  1. Thanks for this report, so much good info. I had planned on doing this last year but wasn't able to make it. Hopefully going to try it again next year and definitely will use this a main reference!

    1. Thanks! Yeah, it took a few years to get this route dialed. Good luck, and take a buddy along. Debra

  2. Thanks so much for sharing this route. I did it yesterday 7/17/2023. There was a lot of snow in the Babcock Couloir and I didn't have crampons/ice axe so your alternate face route up West Babcock saved the day. I've never done the couloir route, but the face route you suggested was really nice and more climbing less scree sliding and probably less chance of rockfall than what appears to be a talus ricochet couloir. The Knife was a hoot, but requires full concentration and good weather. I appreciated your suggestion to go straight up the notch on the Spiller side rather than traversing down the couloir to the north, as your suggested route was more aesthetic and stayed closer to the ridge and saved energy/time. I continued from Spiller to Burwell which only had a short mini-knife of ~ 100 feet of 3rd class. The descent from Burwell was easy following a ridge and looked like less scree than descending from Spiller. Again thanks for sharing your years of getting this route dialed!

    1. Mountaineer Stan, West Babcock, Knife, Spiller, Burwell--massive! I am honored that Earthline served to assist you on your safe passage. Thank you for sharing your climbing story (so articulately) with Earthline readers. Debra

  3. Hi, Debra,

    I have carefully followed many of your described routes over the years and I am appreciative of your taking the time to share your experiences with such clarity and detail. I was up this route (Middle Babcock, West Babcock, knife, Spiller, Burwell) with some buddies yesterday 2023-7-29 and we kept saying, "Hang on, let's see what Debra thinks." Thank you for taking the time.

    I am certainly no mountaineering expert, but I did complete all 58 CO 14ers several years ago, so I feel like I have some baseline knowledge. I feel compelled to share- the Babcock area has been super ROUGH for me. As in, much rougher than anywhere on the CO 14ers standard routes or any of the four great traverses, including Little Bear-Blanca. This is certainly not an objective fact, but I'm just saying these rocks are super prone to sliding or even completely dislodging from the mountain under load in a way that I have not encountered before. I know you warned about this several times, but I wanted to just emphasize, this area requires a great deal of slow and meticulous hold-testing.

    Last year I summited East Babcock with a friend. To be honest, we were hoping to continue on to complete the knife, but we encountered so much loose and rotten rock we turned around. Yesterday I came back for redemption on the knife and I fell probably 10-15 feet when a microwave-sized handhold completely dislodged out of Middle Babcock (We wanted to loop it in since it's the highest. :-)). I stopped just short of a sizable cliff. I am incredibly lucky that I was left without so much as a broken bone, but y'all please be careful up here!

    -Paul C

    1. Paul, Thank you for this cautionary note to Earthline readers contemplating climbs in the Babcocks. I am so grateful you survived your fall unscathed. In 2021, my partner braced off a boulder in the Middle Babcock couloir with the touch of a finger. It dislodged, brought down a torrent of rocks, and broke his foot! My blog intentionally does not describe any ridge traverses between East, Middle, and West Babcock. These peaks are detailed separately because the traverses are too dangerous. I have plenty of stories to prove it. Thank you for your contribution to Earthline...and well done out there! Debra