Wednesday, August 24, 2022

"Velocity Peak," 13,325', From Boulder Gulch

Essence: You could hike up Peak 13,325' from the town of Silverton; it's that close. The mountain forms the western wall of Boulder Gulch, a cascade-riddled gorge that plummets radically south, terminating at the Animas River. The climb begins on the Boulder Gulch Trail, steep but manageable for most hikers. However, the off-trail southeast ridge segment is recommended for experienced mountaineers due to steepness of slopes, a stretch of razorback ridge, and two gendarme workarounds with serious exposure. Mindful concentration is required--those who vanquish their fear will revel in this climb. Lists of John refers to the peak as East Storm but locals have called it Velocity Peak for decades. In April, 1982, Austrian Franz Weber broke the world's speed skiing record by rocketing down Velocity Peak at 126 mph on the final day of the International Speed Skiing Championships. The hike is on public land managed by the Bureau of Land Management.
Travel: Drive up Greene Street in Silverton to the north end of town. Make a soft right onto San Juan County Road 2. Drive 1.5 miles up the paved road and park in a large dirt lot on the right near placards for the Mayflower Mill Tailings Ponds.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 7 miles; 4,000 feet
Total Time: 5:00 to 6:30
Difficulty: Trail, off-trail; navigation moderate; Class 2+ with considerable exposure
Map: Silverton, Colorado 7.5' USGS Quad
Latest Date Hiked: August 24, 2022
Quote: Most of us are forgetting that from the beginning we are approaching death. Life is absurd…but you can fill it with ideas, enthusiasm. You can fill your life with joy. Reinhold Messner
Cliffs belt Velocity Peak on three sides. Access is by way of the southeast ridge, shown. This image was shot from the Storm Peak plateau. Tower Mountain forms the east wall of Boulder Gulch, image-right. (Thomas Holt Ward, photo)

Route: From parking, walk north on the west side of the tailings and intersect a dirt road. Turn right and cross the Boulder Gulch trench. Hike north on the Boulder Gulch Trail. When the treadway crosses to the west side of the basin, pitch north off-trail to the peak. Return as you came.

The placards in the parking area, elevation 9,487 feet, pay tribute to the Mayflower Mill and Tailings Ponds. In 1870, the Little Giant gold vein was discovered high in Arrastra Gulch on the south side of the Animas River. This resulted in the first profitable hardrock mine in the Silverton area. Extracted ore was sent via tram to the Mayflower Gold Mill located north of the Animas River on County Road 2. The mill operated from 1930 to 1991, the longest running mill in the history of the San Juan Mountains. The mill produced 1,940,100 ounces of gold; 30,000,000 ounces of silver; and 1,000,000 tons of combined base metals. In 2,000, the mill was designated a National Historic Landmark. It is owned by the San Juan County Historical Society and is open for self-guided tours in the summer.

To get started, cross County Road 2 and walk up the track on the west side of the tailings. This road is gated and closed to vehicle traffic. 
Double-headed Sultan Mountain is the undisputed guardian of Silverton.
When the road turns to the right in a quarter mile, leave the track and walk a few paces straight ahead. Turn right on a secondary two-track. Watch for a cairn on your left marking a faint social trail leading up to a more established dirt road that runs to gulch from town. Turn right and walk to the creek crossing at 0.6 mile. When I climbed Velocity in 2010, we drove from Hillside Cemetery to road's end near the stream. In 2022, a locked gate barred motorized traffic. While you may walk to the Boulder Gulch Trail on this road, it'll cost you an extra mile. 

The creek crossing was a tangled mess and the trail barely functional in 2006 when I first hiked up Boulder Gulch. In 2022, improvements were evident. There's a sturdy metal bridge strung across the creek and a wooden post marking the trailhead. The trail begins as steep as a staircase and then moderates slightly.  It's been engineered with switchbacks and the platform was dug generously into the steep southwest slopes of Macomber Peak. Credit goes to the Silverton Singletrack Society. Their website features the Boulder Gulch Trail, a screaming mountain bike descent that drops 3,700 feet in less than four miles. The ride begins in Velocity Basin north of the divide. Cyclists are required to carry their bikes for 1,700 feet to Point 12,931' and the beginning of the trail. This brutal hike-a-bike may explain why we saw just one set of tracks. We enjoyed a day of complete solitude.
The path climbs steeply through the aspen forest. Soon the flickering ones reach their upper limit and the woods are shaded by spruce and fir. At 9,900 feet, cross an extensive blockfield generated from cliffs above. The trail platform has been smoothed by repositioning great quantities of rock, the Singletrack Society's noble effort to defy gravity.
At 10,300 feet, a thin thread of water barrels down an all-stone ravine. The walls on either side of the gulch are so severe and the canyon so declivitous, the gulch could just as well be called a gorge.
At 10,500 feet the forest resumes. The San Juans were hammered by daily monsoons in 2022 and the earthen floor was a mass of mushrooms. The treadway was smooth dirt, the grade moderated, and we could hear the watercourse coming up to meet us. Idyllic. At 10,800 feet the timber parted for good and the view opened in the narrow corridor. (THW, photo)
The distance walked was short but the gulch is lengthy. It felt like we were penetrating deep into the basin when actually we were far from the divide at its head. Summer flowers were waning by mid-August, leaving groves of harebells and bottle gentian--harbingers of fall. Tundra predominates in the rapturous basin and the southeast ridge of Velocity comes into view.
In 2006, I climbed Point 13,248', shown, with a friend in a vain attempt to summit Storm Peak from the south. From Point 13,248' we crossed the flat to Point 13,254' and descended to the saddle only to get turned back by an imposing 80-foot block. As consolation, we retraced steps and proceeded south on the ridge to Point 12,174'. We then made the ill-fated decision to pitch down the southeast ridge to the tailings ponds. We dropped to 10,400 feet only to be cliffed out. We clawed our way back up 400 feet and now committed and desperate, did a series of Class 5 downclimbs through cliff bands and chutes. It was "nasty and intense." (THW, photo)
This image looks down the plunge toward the Animas River. (THW, photo)
Still on-trail, cross to the west side of the gulch at 2.2 miles, 11,440 feet. The trail used to effectively disappear in the tundra but now it continues to the divide. Someday I will follow it to the top of the basin and climb the northwest ridge of Tower Mountain. (Please link to August, 2023 post.) For those going on to Velocity, it is 1.1 miles up the southeast ridge (image-left) with almost 1,900 feet of vertical. Whew.
Going up, we stayed on the trail for one big switchback, postponing the punishment for 0.2 mile. It was rewarding to see the cascades draining glacially carved lakes sitting in the cirque southeast of Storm Peak, the sentimental master mountain in this compact area. (THW, photo)

The bees gravitated to golden asters blooming beside the trail. (THW, photo)
We launched off-trail from the very center of the ridge. It was flowers-in-your-face steep. There was some chipped rock rolling underfoot but the plant platforms were helpful. There are two cruxes on this climb. We could see the first one, the "Throne," from the grassy slope well below.

These climbers are hefting up the slope to the lower crux at 12,660 feet. (THW, photo)

Approach the Throne on a gray ridgelet of stone. I first climbed Velocity with a hiking club from Durango. The Throne was intimidating enough to turn back a few people.

Decide for yourself how you want to attack this beast. On both of my visits, at the base of the wall we crept a few yards to the right, hooked left, and pitched up an opening to the centerline. Then we climbed straight up the bulb of rock. The initial short traverse is severely exposed and the footing is troubled with rubble. I used the wall to steady myself but don't expect the friable volcanic rock to remain attached. 
Spider up the bulb. It's a short pitch that requires laser focus. Holds are tiny but they offer friction.

This image looks down on the Throne. (THW, photo)

A false summit lies just up the ridge, image-right. This photo illustrates the seemingly impossible traverse between Velocity and Storm Peak. (THW, photo)
Go right over the top of the false summit at 12,960 feet.

Velocity Peak shows itself, finally. The ridge is open and friendly as climbers approach the upper crux. (THW, photo)

Confront the upper crux at 3.3 miles, 13,100 feet. The image below was taken on our return and depicts the challenge well. Both times we worked around the gendarme on the east side (below, left of the plug). Walk for about 80 feet on a slanting platform at the base of the wall. There's no scrambling but the footbed is rubbly. The slope to the east is effectively vertical for 500 feet so this is a no-slip zone. The placement of every footfall matters. In 2010, our group splintered once again here. However, my amygdala-compromised friends don't even recall this crux. (THW, photo)
The upper mountain is relatively straightforward. We worked our way up and over the next outcrop on its left. 
(THW, photo)

The ridge thins for a sustained stretch. It is three feet wide in places. The only difficulty is the integrity of unseated rock. (THW, photo)

Arrive on the two small summit domes of Velocity at 3.5 miles. There's no peak register, alas, and no alternative exit from this tiny crest. Storm Peak is a stone's throw to the west, neighbors, yet impossibly far apart. There is a perilous route to the summit of Storm via the west ridge. Click on the link for another Reinhold Messner quote, a synchronistic, unplanned occurrence!
North of the divide is Velocity Basin, the Reds, and the Sneffels group. Follow along the north ridge of Storm for a glimpse of the Silverton Mountain ski lift (off-image). Velocity Basin is a popular backcountry ski destination for locals.

North and east is nearby Proposal Peak (image-left), Uncompahgre Peak, Handies Peak, Jones Mountain and Niagara Peak, and Tower Mountain, directly across Boulder Gulch. Of note: Some friends climbed Velocity from the vicinity of the northeast ridge. It was steep and loose, the holds were poor, and it was exceedingly unpleasant. But it can be done.
Below, the savagely ragged Grenadier Range and Needle Mountains in the Weminuche Wilderness just make it above Silverton's impressive peaks and high basins contributing to the headwaters of the Animas River. Altogether, Velocity Peak provides a comprehensive view of the never-ending mountaintops in the Southern San Juans. (THW, photo)
The final two images afford differing perspectives on Velocity Peak. The first was shot in the autumn of 2016 from Storm Peak looking east to Velocity, image-right.

This photo was shot in 2013 from the north ridge of Tower Mountain. Storm is image-center. A substantial escarpment complicates the northeast ridge of Velocity Peak.

Tuesday, August 2, 2022

Seigal Mountain, 13,274'; Gravel Mountain, 13,577'; and Peak 13,688'

Essence: The walk to Denver Pass from the west is easy, fast, and high alpine beautiful on abandoned mining tracks. From there, Seigal Mountain is a relatively gentle, welcoming, off-trail climb suitable for families. Effort is minimal and yet the 13er yields a panoramic vista payback. Return by way of Lake 12,536' to see waterfalls spilling into the Horseshoe Creek gorge. Denver Pass provides access to Gravel Mountain and Peak 13,688'. Gravel is a laborious and tedious proposition. The ridge to Peak 13,688' is enjoyable but exposed. Based on new, more accurate measurement technology, LiDAR, the bicentennial has been elevated to 13,702 feet. Our plan was to climb Point 13,708', the north end of the "Catwalk" from Denver Pass, but we were stymied by rain. While there are private holdings throughout this region, the hike is entirely on public lands administered by the Bureau of Land Management.
Travel: In a 4WD vehicle with high clearance and sturdy tires, drive up Greene Street in Silverton to the north end of town. Zero-out your trip meter as you make a soft right onto San Juan CR 2. The dirt road is good at first but degenerates to a slow, rocky surface. At 11.4 miles take the signed right fork toward Engineer and Cinnamon passes. When the road to Cinnamon Pass cranks to the right, stay on the road toward Engineer Pass. Park at 13.3 miles on the right, across the road from a shack and just before the turnout for Denver Lake. You can avoid driving over a large bedrock boulder by parking at Denver Bridge and hiking from there. Driving through the ghost town of Animas Forks adds 1.1 miles.
Distance and Elevation Gain: Seigal Mountain and Lake 12,536', 3.5 miles; 1,400 feet. Gravel Mountain and Peak 13,688', add 4.0 miles and 2,400 feet, measured from Denver Pass. 
Total Time: 2:00 to 3:30 for Seigal. Add 3:30 to 4:00 for the Gravel pair.
Difficulty: Trail, off-trail; navigation moderate; Class 2; no exposure on Seigal; mild exposure on the ridge between Gravel and Peak 13,688'.
Map: Handies Peak, Colorado 7.5' USGS Quad
Date Hiked: August 2, 2022 (Seigal); July 6, 2013 (Gravel and Peak 13,688')
Quote: Hiking is not escapism; it’s realism. The people who choose to spend time outdoors are not running away from anything; we are returning to where we belong. Jennifer Pharr Davis

As seen from Point 13,704', Seigal Mountain has a humble, classic profile when compared with its neighbors. The ease of this climb is a great deal of its charm. (Thomas Holt Ward, photo)

Route: From the parking pullout, walk east on a series of old mining roads to Denver Pass. Climb north to Seigal Mountain. Visit Lake 12,536' on your return. For those going on to Peak 13,688', from Denver Pass descend east into Hurricane Basin and pitch up Gravel Mountain. Peak 13,688' is an out-and-back to the south.

Seigal Mountain is visible (off-image-left) from the parking pullout, elevation 11,900 feet. South of the peak is Denver Pass, Point 13,708', the Catwalk, and informally named Animas Forks Mountain. Please visit Earthline for a description of the Catwalk circuit that includes Wood Mountain. 
Walk up the road a few feet and cross the stream flowing from Denver Lake at a culvert. Cut east a few steps to access an old mining track. The west slopes of Seigal are pockmarked with adits and a bevy of criss-crossing roads. There is no best route up the gentle incline. Just aim for the pass either on the zigzag or barge straight up. Turn around to see Denver Lake nestled below Denver Hill (image-right), and Houghton Mountain. The glacial valley of California Gulch is just south of Houghton. The Mountain Queen at the head of the gulch is one of the oldest mines in the western San Juan region. Ore was shipped over Engineer Pass in the 1800s by pack train and wagon to the smelter in Lake City. More recent operations centering around Animas Forks were initiated by World War II and postwar demands for gold, silver, lead, copper, and zinc.
In spite of the lengthy extraction history and the ever-present sound of motos on the Alpine Loop, the basin is an oasis of rolling tundra and wildflower abundance. The deeply incised Horseshoe Creek gorge bifurcates the bowl.

Below, hikers are striding over to check out the lake. Seigal Mountain and the path to Denver Pass are behind them.
We hadn't expected to find a trail to the pass. It was a one-boot-wide footpath but nonetheless an exhilarating discovery.
It is a defining, even imponderable moment to surmount Denver Pass at 1.3 miles and see into a whole new world. Especially this one. San Juan Mountain's highest 14er, Uncompahgre Peak, is locked forever in communion with Wetterhorn Peak, one of the more heart-skipping and unforgiving in Colorado's collection. Inconspicuous between them is one of our all-time favorites, Matterhorn Peak.

Scattered on the 12,900-foot saddle are mining debris, decaying telephone poles and wire. The pass is the launch point for three destinations: Seigal Mountain (north), Gravel and Peak 13,688' (east), and Point 13,708' and its companions (southeast). (Betsey Butler, photo)

Seigal Mountain
It's a mellow ascent for less than 400 feet to the crest. Footing is good, rocks are well seated, there are lots of plant platforms, and it's never too steep. There are occasional faint fragments of social trail.
We passed a stick lodged in a rock cairn and I wondered what its story was. We went over three rollers that fooled me every time. Flowers were past peak but we spotted ubiquitous alpine avens, purple fringe, alpine sandwort, bluebell, snowball saxifrage, and moss campion. Below, hikers are approaching the true summit.
Almost there. This image looks down on the sweet little rollers, the glacial cirque holding teal waters, and across to the undeniable fierceness of Animas Forks Mountain. (Richard Butler, photo)
Arrive on the broad, roomy summit after just 1.6 miles. It was such a quick run up Seigal I was bowled over by the first caliber view. Well to the south the quartzite Grenadier Range and Needle Mountains slash the sky.
To the north, beyond the summit plateau and Engineer Pass is Darley Mountain, irresistible Wildhorse Peak, Dragon's Back, and Coxcomb Peak--the odd shaped series. (THW, photo)

Here's another take on the upper echelon peaks to the northeast as seen from Seigal. (Richard Butler, photo)

For those going on to Gravel Mountain (image-left) and Peak 13,688', this is a good vantage point for reconnoitering the route from Denver Pass (image-lower-right) to Hurricane Basin. It looked like a clean shot up Point 13,708' (LiDAR, 13,715 feet, rise 294 feet) but rain was imminent.

We decided to visit Lake 12,536' as consolation and it turned out to be a delightful diversion. Approaching the lake shore are runs of sparkling volcanic rocks. (Betsey Butler, photo)
The perfectly round lake flows into Horseshoe Creek, the banks lush with thick moss and queen's crown. (Betsey Butler, photo)
The water holds at lake level for a few yards and then plummets into the gorge in a series of waterfalls and cascades. It's a simple matter to rejoin your upcoming track or free range back to your vehicle. (Richard Butler, photo)

Gravel Mountain and Peak 13,688'
I climbed both peaks on July 6, 2013, a year before I began this Earthline blog. I wasn't carrying a GPS unit but I was keeping field notes and drawing routes on maps. These peaks are close by but they are a significant increase in effort compared with Seigal. The image below was shot from Point 13,708' (on the Catwalk circuit) and shows the boarding house and climbing route. If you are approaching Gravel from Henson Creek, see SummitPost for a description of the east ridge route. (THW, photo)
From Denver Pass we went, "...down a mix of grass, mostly broken rock, 600 feet into Hurricane Basin to the Golconda Boarding House, elevation 12,300 feet, 0.8 mile. It is a sturdy log structure, very picturesque." Since our visit, in 2014 the Hinsdale County Historical Society stabilized the boarding house and an adjoining compressor/blacksmith building. 

It is a 1,300 foot climb over 0.7 mile to Gravel Mountain. I wrote a few choice words (not suitable for this blog) describing the slog up this aptly named peak. "Every step had some slippage backwards on scree. It was rather miserable but I was stoic." Gravel is an unranked summit with 157 feet of prominence. It initiates the tamer of two possible approaches to Peak 13,688'.

To reach the bicentennial, descend to the 13,420-foot saddle. "It was easy and fun to the ranked summit. However, it is quite narrow and one must be mindful." It took us 30 minutes to cover the half mile traverse. On Lists of John, the LiDAR measurement for the peak is 13,702 feet with a rise of 348 feet.
From our perspective on the mountain that day, the south ridge traverse to Wood Mountain looked dangerous and I penciled an "X" on my map. However, the passage across the arĂȘte is beautifully described in Liba Kopeckova's SummitPost entry. She concurs with Robert Ormes that it is loose third or fourth class rock. Below, the spiky ridge is seen from the saddle west of Wood. Peak 13,688' is center-left. (THW, photo)

Here's a look at the east side of the south ridge of Peak 13,688' (shot from Wood Mountain). (THW, photo)

We essentially retraced steps by returning to Gravel, sliding back down the west slope, and hoofing it back up to Denver Pass.