Sunday, September 6, 2020

Arrow Benchmark (Point 12,891') and Peak 12,936', from Deer Park

Essence: The view of the Grenadier Range from Point 12,891' (Arrow Benchmark) is so good, to beat it you'd have to go climb the peaks. Look directly south across the Elk Creek canyon to the arc of quartzite geometric configurations we call mountains for lack of a better descriptor. Cover most of the miles on the Whitehead Trail beginning in Deer Park. Arrow Benchmark is a trail and tundra walk. Peak 12,936' is more challenging. The trail begins on a sliver of private land where hikers are granted an easement. It moves through Bureau of Land Management property and soon crosses into the Weminuche Wilderness within the San Juan National Forest. Both peaks are clearly visible from the US 550 overlook on Molas Pass. 2023 Note: LiDAR has elevated unranked Arrow Benchmark by one foot to 12,892' with a rise of 249 feet. Peak 12,936' was elevated to 12,959' with a rise of 395 feet.
Travel: In a vehicle with 4WD low and high clearance, from the intersection of Greene Street and East 14th Street in Silverton, drive east three blocks to the bridge over the Animas River. Measure distance from there and make an immediate right on San Juan CR 33. The track is rocky and very steep. Pass a wooden box car at 2.2 miles. At the 2.9 mile split in Kendall Gulch, turn right on CR 33A. The stream is funneled through a culvert under the road. The track narrows. Shelf segments are protected by trees. Drive through a meadow and then make a couple of steep, tight switchbacks. The road splits at 4.9 miles. The tamer choice is straight ahead on CR 33A to a parking pullout on the left in 0.1 mile. Or, turn right on a technical road requiring ultra high clearance. Drive 0.1 mile and park on a rise on the right, just shy of the Montana Mine. 
Distance and Elevation Gain: 11.2 miles, 2,300 feet; optional Whitehead Peak adds 2.0 miles and 960 feet
Total Time: 6:00 to 7:30
Difficulty: Trail, off-trail; navigation moderate; mild exposure on Whitehead Trail and moderate exposure on Peak 12,936'
Maps: Silverton; Howardsville; Storm King Peak, Colorado 7.5' USGS Quads
Latest Date Hiked: September 20, 2023

If there was something in the air

If there was something in the wind

If there was something in the trees or bushes

That could be pronounced and once was

   overheard by animals,

Let this Sacred Knowledge be returned to us again.

Atharva Veda

The north faces of Peak 12,936' and Point 12,891' are primitive-looking volcanic structures. The trail heads deeply incised Whitehead Gulch, freeing the climber to approach both mountains from welcoming slopes. 
(Thomas Holt Ward, photo)

Route: From Deer Park, hike south on the Whitehead Trail. It swings east around the runout of the west ridge of Whitehead Peak and then tracks above Whitehead Gulch. Head the gulch and hike south to a pass at 12,560 feet. Leave the trail bearing southwest and climb both peaks in either order. Return to the pass and rejoin the Whitehead Trail. Climbing Whitehead Peak is an option discussed at the end of the post.

Whitehead Trail No. 674 
The trailhead is located southwest of the large marsh in Deer Park. From the parking lot for the Montana Mine, walk south on the road a few paces to the mine, elevation 11,625 feet. The unsigned trail begins to the left of the mine entrance. A private property sign and chain are strung across the rocky trail. The sign reads, "No Motor Vehicles Allowed...Hikers & Horsemen Welcome."

The forested portion of this hike lasts mere moments. Walk beside a pretty little stream and reflection pool in a boggy meadow. This is grouse habitat but sadly, the fir trees are quickly succumbing to beetles marching across huge swaths of the San Juan National Forest. Pictured are Peak 13,109' and Point 12,829'.

Deer Park is a massive U-shaped basin open on the west. In 2010, we did a seven-summit circuit beginning with Point 13,409' and finishing on Point 12,829'. We hit the Whitehead Trail below Point 12,462'. 

Pass below a block field. This 3X4 foot breccia boulder is composed of cemented angular fragments of igneous rocks ejected by a volcanic blast or pyroclastic flow. 

There has been some effort to keep the pack trail viable. The thin dirt track is marked with six-foot poles. The path rises very gradually as it moves south to round Point 12,462'. 

At 1.5 miles, cross the wilderness boundary into the Weminuche. This hike's two prominences are visible as well as the Grenadier Range. The West Needle Mountains are remarkably close by, just across the Animas River gorge. From the right is N1, Snowdon Peak, South Snowdon (N2), and N3. (THW, photo)

The trail turns east and holds the contour 1,000 feet above Whitehead Gulch. Head a ravine below Peak 13,109'. 

The thin trail platform is suspended over the drop. It is washed out at about 2.2 miles. The stretch is short but the footing is poor and a slip could send you sliding down a stone funnel.

In 2023 this passage was somewhat improved.
Southern Colorado is suffering under an "extreme drought" in the summer of 2020 so the little lake on a shelf below Peak 13,109' has almost entirely evaporated. Yet, it still bears the reflection of Peak 12,936'. (THW, photo)

Pass an abandoned trail at 3.3 miles. As can be seen on the map above, we took the old route on our return and climbed Whitehead Peak. 

The pathway threads a line between a verdant marsh at the top of Whitehead Gulch and steel-gray cliffs on a troubled, narrow ridge. The pack trail is making for the pass, image-right. 

Round the top of the gulch at 3.6 miles. Engineer Mountain stands out in the westward gap. It's late in the summer now and most of the flowers have gone to seed. Sneezeweed is hanging on along with bottle gentian, yarrow, and a smattering of old man of the mountain.

As you approach the pass, the trail braids. Just stay reasonably close to the guide posts. Reach the pass at 4.3 miles, 12,560 feet. Topping any pass is inevitably a profound pleasure but this one rattles the core definition of what it means to be human on this planet. We are looking at Wham Ridge on Vestal Peak, 13,864' (image-center), and Arrow Peak, 13,803'. Various agents of erosion have scraped and stripped away the sedimentary and volcanic overburden. What remains are ancient quartzite peaks that are best described by mathematicians and poets. The humble hiker must resort to quiet invocations and chants. (THW, photo)

According to the topo, the Whitehead Trail continues east for four miles passing Lost Lake and Verde Lakes, and terminating at the Continental Divide Trail. To climb Peak 12,936' (image-right) and Arrow Benchmark, hike off-trail bearing southwest. I will describe Point 12,891' first because it is within the capability of most hikers but you could switch the order. 

Arrow Benchmark
A well-trodden deer and elk trail spans from the pass to the saddle northeast of the prominence. Follow it into the pink quartzite blocks at the lower end of the east ridge of Peak 12,936'.

Alight on a broad bench. Now the summit is visible and the way is clear. The strong game trail with hoof depressions will get you across a hardscrabble ravine. Reach the saddle at 5.2 miles, 12,620 feet. 

A small lake is cradled on the terrace to the west. Standing prominently on the other side of the Animas River is Grand Turk and Sultan Mountain. (THW, photo)

The final pitch to the rounded summit is fairly steep but little hummocks create steps all the way up. 

Top out on Point 12,891' at 5.5 miles. The silver-colored benchmark reads "ARROW ET 1964." If a blog reader knows what "ET" references, please leave a comment. 

The prominence rounds off deceivingly. In one mile the south slope plummets 3,000 feet to the Colorado Trail running alongside Elk Creek. The vantage point is ennobling. In the image below, to the right of Arrow Peak is Electric Peak, Graystone Peak, Point Pun, and Mount Garfield.

The quartzite arc continues east to encompass companion Trinity Peaks. (THW, photo)

 A group descends Arrow Benchmark in golden sublimity. (THW, photo)
Peak 12,936'
There are two viable routes up Peak 12,936' from the saddle. You could certainly climb the southwest ridge, shown, and descend the east ridge. I preferred the look of the more gradual, grassy pitch to the east ridge, image-right. 

Once east of the cliffs, we left the game trail and ascended easily on a pleasant incline to the ridge just 100 feet off the summit, shown. 

The ridge is narrow and the material is loose. (THW, photo)

The last 40 feet steepens and footing is slick.

From the top of the final pitch, it is a sweet little undulating walk to the summit. The peak register was placed earlier this year (missing in 2023). Looking east, the Whitehead Trail cruises along on the bench above the Elk Creek trench. (THW, photo)

This image looks west along the extended summit ridge and southwest to Arrow Benchmark. (THW, photo)

The summit is yet another superlative vantage point on the Weminuche Wilderness. 

The descent is straightforward. We down-climbed the east ridge, threaded between the dark outcrop and quartzite blocks, then strolled down to the trail at the pass. Reverse this route for the most direct ascent of Peak 12,936'. 
(THW, photo)

Whitehead Peak, 13,259', Side Trip 
The roundtrip spur adds 2.0 miles with 960 feet of vertical. LiDAR has elevated the unranked summit to 13,276' with a rise of only 139 feet.
Curious about the link between the Whitehead Trail and Deer Park Trail, we decided to give it a whirl and climb Whitehead Peak. Looking at the image below, the route climbs to the small saddle just east of the mountain. There are no cairns at either portal to this trail and it has largely disappeared. We found scraps of it here and there. Nevertheless, it is a suitable route if you'd like to get into the Highland Mary Lakes basin which can be best characterized as endless bliss. 

It was easy enough to just grind up the hill to Whitehead Peak. The Deer Park Trail no longer exists on either side of the Whitehead--Peak 13,402' (Mount Rhoda) saddle. In 2004, I did a solo hike from Deer Park. First I climbed an ultra steep gully to Point 13,399' (not recommended). I went on to Peak 13,434', Rhoda, Whitehead, and backtracked to the pass. Even in 2004, the trail was absent but I enjoyed the slide down into the, "...gorgeous high valley, glaciated boulders, stream, and magnificent flowers." You may also traverse the west ridge of Whitehead and hit the trail below Point 12,462'. Or, it appears you can drop off the ridge to the south from the Whitehead--Peak 13,109' saddle. This image looks back at that descent route.

Peak 12,936' and Arrow Benchmark from Molas Pass, US 550, image-left.

Wednesday, September 2, 2020

V7 (Peak 13,042'); Peak 12,764'; Peak 12,601'; Loop Through Putnam Basin

Essence: Walk through multiple high alpine basins. Ascend gentle, softly-rounded ridges free of obstacles to one, two, or three peaks that spin off a 9.5-mile loop. The hike is primarily on trail but you can freely meander and explore a luminous landscape of rolling tundra with nothing between you and the sky. This is a story about relaxed wandering as escapism in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, wildfires ravaging the West, and nation-wide upheaval in the summer of 2020. Grant yourself the gift of an entire day immersed in the lucidity of Nature. The hike is within San Juan National Forest.
Travel: The hike begins on the Colorado Trail at Little Molas Lake. On US 550, Molas Pass is at mile marker 64. The sign for Little Molas Lake is 0.4 mile north of the pass. Turn west and drive 1.1 miles on a good dirt road. Pass an established campground and park at the Colorado Trail Trailhead in a large lot. Pit toilet, no water.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 16.1 miles; 3,800 feet of climbing
Total Time: 8:00 to 10:00
Difficulty: Trail, off-trail; navigation moderate; Class 2; no exposure
Maps: Snowdon Peak; Silverton; Ophir, Colorado 7.5' USGS Quads
Date Hiked: September 2, 2020
Tell me a story.
In this century, and moment, of mania,
Tell me a story.
Make it a story of great distances, and starlight.
The name of the story will be time,
But you must not speak its name.
Tell me a story of deep delight.
Robert Penn Warren

Putnam Basin is enthralling and all-encompassing with rings of rock creating multiple terraces. Two of the mountains on this circuit enclose the basin on the south and west. (Thomas Holt Ward, photo)

Route: Hike west and north on the Colorado Trail to the Lime Creek-Bear Creek divide. Trails on the loop are unmaintained from here. Walk north on the Bear Creek Pack Trail and then west into Putnam Basin. Circle south to a saddle between Peak 12,764' and V7. Climb Peak 12,764', then V7. Descend west to the Lime Creek-Cataract Creek divide and climb Peak 12,601'. Drop south through a cleft into the Lime Creek drainage and intersect the Colorado Trail. Walk east and south back to the start.

Colorado Trail to Lime Creek-Bear Creek Divide
The hike begins on a popular segment of the Colorado Trail frequented by backpackers, mountain bikers, and day hikers. Hit the trail on the west side of the parking lot and enter a shady forest for a short distance. Climbing lazily, step up limestone bands and cross a stream at 0.7 mile. The exposed Paleozoic limestone found throughout this area is a sedimentary layer tilted by the San Juan uplift.

Gain the southwest ridge of Peak 12,849' ("West Turkshead Peak") at 1.3 miles, 11,300 feet. In 1879, the Lime Creek Fire burned 26,000 acres of forest. A stalwart scorched tree has stood over 140 years. Here, the cross-state trail hooks north. Linger for a captivating view of Potato Hill (Spud Mountain), the La Plata Mountains, and Engineer Mountain.

As you walk north, Peak 12,601' (image-left) and Peak 12,764' (image-center), remain visible for a long distance. Far right is Bear Mountain.

At 2.0 miles, 11,620 feet, the trail leaves the ridge and flanks West Turkshead on the west. The track makes a mellow descent through a thriving Colorado blue spruce wood before turning west to cross a divide with a serious bog on the tabletop. Here, the North Fork of Lime Creek surrenders to the south and Bear Creek rolls north to its confluence with the South Fork of Mineral Creek. This hike highlights two geologic formations, Telluride Conglomerate and the red Cutler Formation. The contact line between them is clearly visible on the east slope of Point 12,613', shown.

Putnam Basin
Cross the divide, go uphill a few paces and locate the unsigned Bear Creek Pack Trail on the right at about 3.3 miles, 11,540 feet, shown. This is a quarter mile before the trail depicted on the Silverton quad. This is the beginning of the 9.5-mile loop. If you omit the three mountains, the distance is 6.0 miles.

The one-mile segment to the Putnam Basin trail was obscure and difficult to follow in 2015. In 2020, there was clear passage through the willows on the west side of the marsh. There were mountain bike tracks, presumably following the old pack trail down Bear Creek to Mineral Creek at US 550 just north of Silverton. This is a technical ride on a thin, dirt trail suspended above a big drop to Bear Creek. Descend through an Engelmann spruce forest and cross crystalline water flowing over polished bedrock sheets at the Putnam Basin outlet, 4.3 miles, 11,400 feet.  (THW, photo)

In a few paces, watch for a T intersection. Leave the Bear Creek Trail and turn left onto an unmaintained track. The trail into Putnam Basin is not shown on the Silverton topo but it is indicated on a few maps and, judging from the crushed rock on the platform, it was purposefully engineered. The footpath traverses Putnam Basin, goes over the south ridge of V7, and west to the South Fork of Mineral Creek at the Bandora Mine.

A series of curvilinear cliff bands ring the basin forming rising terraces. The trail stays north of the creek until it has picked up 700 feet and takes aim on the saddle between Peak 12,764' and V7, shown.

It seems lamentable to be doing a one-way trek through this crazy, massive expanse. Flower fields have gone to seed, highlighting the circles of stone. The track takes advantage of a weakness in the Telluride Conglomerate and punches up through the rock band at 5.1 miles. Cross a dry ravine plummeting from the east ridge of V7.  The trail disappears in the tundra as you approach the saddle at 5.8 miles, 12,380 feet.

Peak 12,764'
The first peak on the circuit has 384 feet of prominence; roundtrip is 0.9 mile. It's uniform tundra walking up the gentle roller to the flat, expansive crest. There aren't many mountaintops this smooth. You can't even pull up a sitting rock to take in the striking panorama swinging through the Weminuche Wilderness and the La Plata Mountains.

The summit falls off sharply on the south. The ponds pictured are on a bench beside the Colorado Trail. You will see them up close miles further into the hike. (THW, photo)

Northwest is the array of thirteeners ringing the Ice Lake Basin. To my knowledge, this is one of the few vantage points where you can see the twin summits of Golden Horn, a cloven peak. In the foreground is V7.

V7, Peak 13,042'
Return to the saddle, 6.7 miles. The trail avoids the imposing cliffs on the south side by climbing the ridge toward V7 for 0.4 mile. The track is periodic from here on so if you can't find the trail just head up the ridgeline. At 12,700 feet, the obscure trail turns west and plunges down toward Cataract Basin. V7 is 0.8 mile roundtrip from here on a one-pika width social trail. If you intend to climb just one peak on the loop, choose V7.

There simply aren't sufficient superlatives to describe the wondrous view from the summit. It was truly exceptional to see the world of mountains laid out before us, including a host of fourteeners. V7 is amongst the peaks on the old Vermilion 15 minute quadrangle that were given alpha-numeric designations. V6 (Peak 12,442') is the soft dome to the right of my partner and V5 (Peak 13,156') is  the highpoint on the ridge to his left.

This image takes in the Grenadier Range, West Needle Mountains, Peak 12,764', and V7. (THW, photo)

In 2008, I climbed V7 with some friends, descended the east ridge to Point 12,695', and went on to Bear Mountain. A word of caution--the ridge was so risky that some in the group did a nasty bail into Putnam Basin. In 2020, as we arrived on V7, we scared up a full-grown mountain lion who silently skimmed over the east ridge in mere moments. It was an auspicious and thrilling sight. (THW, photo)

Directly west of V7 is Cataract Basin. The south end is framed by Peak 12,601'. (THW, photo)

Peak 12,601'
From V7, backtrack down the south ridge to the trail--if you can find it. We cut west at 12,740 feet and intersected the trail, losing it time and again despite occasional cairns. No matter; just head down the west slope toward the divide separating Cataract Creek on the north from Lime Creek on the south, 8.5 miles, 12,100 feet. Below, my partner is on the divide and Peak 12,601' is pictured at skyline. The third peak is 1.8 miles roundtrip with 500 feet of climbing. Simply follow the contours of the land to the east ridge and stroll on up to the summit.

Peak 12,601' is another big, soft summit. The route up Twin Sisters flanks the mountain on the north but you could certainly roll right off the crest to the base of the climbing ridge up East Sister.

Cleft to Colorado Trail
Return to the small divide, 10.3 miles, and locate a faint trail penetrating the Telluride Conglomerate and Cutler Formation at the apex of the Lime Creek drainage. A fault break created a cleft allowing passage through the otherwise impenetrable rock band. Footing is loose and slick in the upper reaches. The path weaves between boulders scattered down the sides of the beautiful bowl.

The social trail bears south, tracking along the east side of the basin. Even if you lose the slender path you will inevitably run into the Colorado trail. (THW, photo)
This image looks back to the cleft. Twice in this location I have encountered substantial herds of sheep and barking white guard dogs. In 2020, the scene was peaceful with three bucks crossing the trail.

If you happen to be going in the opposite direction, the junction for the footpath going up and through the cleft is not obvious. The unsigned branch is 5.0 miles east of the trailhead at Little Molas Lake and roughly 0.2 mile before the Colorado Trail crosses Lime Creek. We built a cairn to mark this location.

Turn east and make time on Colorado's buff pathway. There are a few segments of gradual uphill but the miles clip by quickly, minds holding images of a folding landscape, high basins separated by even higher ridges inclining to peaks, linear streams of rock, and sweeping views of the home front. Walk through woods thick with elder spruce and, in late summer, splashes of beet-red fireweed. (THW, photo)

Sprigs of bottle gentian bloom beside the path. (THW, photo)

The previous week, we saw a ptarmigan family puttering around the boulder garden, shown. I am intrigued by Telluride Conglomerate because the "pebbles" are an ageless mix of very hard sedimentary rocks, schists, granites, and quartzites. (THW, photo)

Close the loop at 12.8 miles. We are back in familiar territory and yet the sun angle has changed and with it, the appearance of the land. This hillside floats out ripples of green. Everything is worth seeing twice. (THW, photo)