Miscellaneous Sangre de Cristo photos

I don’t normally do photo-only posts, but here are some highlights from a couple of uninteresting days with interesting scenery.

“Crestolita”, Broken Hand

Crestolita from Broken Hand

Crestolita from Broken Hand


With some early-season snow forecast for the San Juans, I headed east to the drier and warmer Sangre de Cristos slightly earlier than expected. The unsettled forecast led me to make less-than-ambitious plans, including this pair of 13ers just south of the Crestone 14ers. Though I did not get rained or snowed on, this short outing felt about right for a cold and, up high, bitterly windy day.

Looking down Cottonwood Creek

Looking down Cottonwood Creek

I had run part of the Cottonwood Creek approach this spring, but had not seen the upper canyon. Unlike the neighboring Willow Creek trail, which sees a good deal of stock and 14er-bagger traffic, and is therefore wide and graded for wheelchairs, this trail is not passable by horses, and sees little human traffic. As a more difficult alternate approach to the Crestones, and to a few obscure lesser peaks, it sees enough traffic to maintain the cairns and keep the willows mostly at bay, but is faint and blocked by a number of minor blow-downs. It is also blessedly direct, climbing straight up the valley from 8400′ to where the stream splits near Crestolita’s west ridge at 11,000′.

Polished conglomerate slab

Polished conglomerate slab

I passed a tent on the way up, then continued through open woods and across some interestingly polished conglomerate slabs. At the fork in the stream, the only extant trail turns left, looping back as the stream is channeled back west through a cleft in the rock. The trail becomes increasingly faint as it climbs steeply through talus and willows toward Cottonwood Lake. I left it near the second cascade, making my way for a grassy ledge that cuts back south to gain Crestolita’s west ridge above its cliffy toe.

Crestolita from NW

Crestolita from NW

Once on the ridge, I made my way up easy grass and sheep-trails toward Crestolita’s twin summit, looking behind me to see what sort of clouds were coming. Crestone Peak’s and Needle’s summits remained just hidden to the north, as did the tops of Music and Pico Aislado to the southeast. I had a mostly pleasant climb, shielded from the wind until nearly the top. Once on the summit, I pulled the usual pile of wet paper from the PVC register canister, then hid in the peak’s lee to put on all my clothes and read what I could.

Humbolt and Broken Hand from Crestolita

Humbolt and Broken Hand from Crestolita

Broken Hand is close, but watching the wind whip over the ridge between it and Crestone Needle, it took me a few minutes to summon the motivation to replace the wet paper and reemerge from my sheltered spot. I had thought to simply traverse to the saddle east of Crestolita, but doing so would keep me in the wind, so I instead dropped down a loose gully on the north face, then contoured out onto grassy ledges to its east. After a descending traverse to the saddle, I realized I had been lucky: while I had seen a few cairns and nothing harder than class 3 on my route, Crestolita’s northeast ridge looked steep and tricky, and would have been no fun to downclimb in gloves.

Crestone Needle from Broken Hand

Crestone Needle from Broken Hand

From the saddle, it was more easy grass to Broken Hand, where I appreciated the summit for all of 10 seconds, then descended before my eyeballs froze. Being part of a standard 14er route, the west side of Broken Hand Pass featured a CFI-installed trail that extended to the base of the red gully on Crestone Peak (which does not yet have a hand-line). Below that point, the trail back down Cottonwood Creek is somewhere between faint and nonexistent. After a bit of struggle following game trails through willows, I picked up the route I had used on the way up, and was on my way home. The tent was still there as I jogged by, and I smelled a campfire, but I neither saw nor heard the occupants; I’m not sure how they were spending their cold, wet weekend.

Ruby (Ranked) Roundup (~30mi, ~12k gain, 16h15)

Pigeon and Turret from the Animas

Pigeon and Turret from the Animas


Pigeon and Turret are the most visible peaks from Highway 550 of the Needles subrange of the San Juans. They were also the two most interesting peaks remaining to me on the list of Colorado’s highest 100. Doing them as a dayhike involves a long approach via Purgatory Creek and the Animas River, which I had done before to access the Chicago Basin 14ers. While Pigeon and Turret by themselves would be a “big” day by normal standards, I thought of my recent too-easy day on Rio Grande Pyramid, and of the Evolution traverse, and decided to aim higher. Looking at the topo, it seemed possible to start at Pigeon, traverse east to North Eolus (an unranked 14er, i.e. one with less than 300 feet of prominence), then continue west around the north end of Ruby Creek to either Animas or Peak Fourteen. Unfortunately the map is not the terrain, and I did nothing like this traverse. Still, in a bit over 16 hours I managed to tag Pigeon, Turret, Fifteen, Sixteen, Monitor, Thirteen, and Animas. I skipped the ranked Peak Twelve because it was not labeled on my USGS map (oops!), North Eolus because I needed water, and Little Finger and Index because they are both unranked and hard by their easiest routes.

I woke up at my quiet Pole Creek campsite at 3:00, drove over to the residential Purgatory trailhead, and was on my way by headlamp at 3:30 AM. The nighttime commute down from Purgatory and up the Animas was quiet and nostalgic; I should have put DJ Dan back in my musical rotation for the experience. I reached the Needle Creek sign in just over two hours, then continued north into new terrain, past the three shacks and dozen or so “Private Property” signs that make up Needleton, looking for the unofficial Ruby Creek trail.

Dense vegetation along North Pigeon Creek

Dense vegetation along North Pigeon Creek

I passed a tent in the first meadow, then the trail disappeared in the second. I knew I wanted to go northwest, so I searched around the north and west sides of the meadow for the trail’s continuation. It turns out that the trail exits the southwest corner, but I didn’t find it, so I continued in the direction I wanted through open woods, following a sporadic line of reflective thumbtacks stuck in trees. Maybe this was the “trail?” I eventually lost whatever I was following, and simply made my diagonally, then straight uphill on the south side of North Pigeon Creek on faint game trails. After a bit of 4th class ugliness and brush, I stumbled upon the obvious trail a few minutes below where it crosses the creek.

Sunrise on West Needles

Sunrise on West Needles

The most direct approach to Pigeon leaves the Ruby Creek trail to follow the north side of North Pigeon Creek, climbing about 2,000′ to the flat meadow due west of the peak. Guessing that the crest of the next ridge north of the creek would have the easiest terrain, I found a faint trail and the occasional cairn leading uphill. The cairns were frequent enough to be reassuring, but not enough to follow; as with many wooded ridge routes, this one would be harder to find on the way down. Climbing through the woods, I though of the Cascadian nature of the day so far: a long commute along a valley trail, then 5,500′ of elevation gain in 2 linear miles on a climbers’ trail.

Pigeon from the west

Pigeon from the west

Finally emerging into the meadow, I was surprised to see a man in a yellow jacket making his way along Pigeon’s base. I assumed our paths would converge on the northwest face, but I lost track of him shortly after spotting another figure on the grassy class 2 slope above me. He was moving quickly, and I only caught him just below the north ridge and the final class 3-4 scramble. He turned out to be an Asian man from back east, camping out for a week and hoping to clean out the Needles’ 13ers and 14ers. He had chosen the state’s best mountains, and the best time of year to visit them, but unfortunately the weather was uncooperative, with intermittent showers forecast for the rest of the week. I was glad to be dayhiking.

Pigeon from SE

Pigeon from SE

We spoke for a few minutes on Pigeon’s summit, then I tried to downclimb a gully directly to the Pigeon-Turret saddle. After some easier going, things turned steeper and chossy, on some uniquely horrible Needles rock: sharp, marble-sized gravel barely held together by I-don’t-know-what, whose surface disintegrates at a touch. I downclimbed past a couple nests of rap-tat then, chastened, returned to the standard route. Passing the Asian man again, I side-stepped and boot-skied down around Pigeon’s west face, then circled around to reach the saddle on easy grassy slopes from the southwest. Looking back, I saw that it was probably possible to climb Pigeon directly from the southeast by a convoluted class 4-5 path (the first ascent was from this side). Indeed, the traverse between Pigeon and North Eolus would be easier from east to west, going up rather than down the most convoluted choss.

Turret from Fifteen

Turret from Fifteen

I continued up the easy class 2 route to Turret, then spent a minute eyeing the descent to the saddle with Peak Fifteen. It looked like it would go on the south side, so off I went. This proved to be the day’s crux: though the climbing was mostly class 2-3, and never harder than ~5.4, most of it was on outward-sloping gravel and rock that wanted to become gravel, demanding constant paranoia. I passed a bit more rap-tat and a fixed nut near the crux, eventually reaching the saddle.

Fifteen from Sixteen

Fifteen from Sixteen

Looking down the gullies to either side, I saw that the north was near-vertical, the south steep and loose. The only way out was up and over. Fortunately, the rock quality suddenly and dramatically improved, and I had little trouble reaching Peak Fifteen’s summit. I signed the register (hi, Andrew!), then descended the standard route toward the Fifteen-Sixteen saddle. The rock quality again turned awful, but this was less steep than the descent off Turret. I passed a couple nests of rap tat near the ridge, then reached a similar saddle: vertical north, chossy south, better rock to the east.

Sixteen is steep on the north side!

Sixteen is steep on the north side!

Just as I began the short climb to Peak Sixteen, I heard a shout behind me, and saw a man (probably the one in yellow I saw earlier) climbing up the south gully toward Fifteen’s standard route. After a short, shouted conversation and some unhelpful advice on my part, I scrambled up Sixteen on some fun, reasonably solid class 4. I looked over toward the saddle with North Eolus, but things looked complicated and likely to turn bad, so I decided to retrace my steps and contour around below Sixteen’s south ridge.

Little Finger and Eolus

Little Finger and Eolus

The man on Fifteen had found a route well left of the one I used which seemed to go, though he managed to break off a pretty impressive rockfall into the gully I was about to use. The gully itself was less chossy than I had feared, and I had relatively little trouble traversing to the North Eolus saddle. I eyed Little Finger in passing — it is indeed short, and looked doable — but I still had quite a bit of work to do on the other side of the valley.

Animas, Thirteen, Monitor

Animas, Thirteen, Monitor

At this point I abandoned the traverse, dropping down to Ruby Creek for water instead of continuing over North Eolus and Twelve. The first part of the descent was a quick scree-ski along a goat-track. Lower down, I exited right for fear of cliffs and/or ice in the chute. This was probably a mistake, as the gully looked manageable in late season from below, and I had to deal with a bit of sketchy awkwardness to reach the valley floor.

Jagged to Sunlight ridge

Jagged to Sunlight ridge

Since I was no longer traversing, I took more or less the standard route up Monitor’s west face. The view across Noname Creek to Jagged and its long connecting ridge with Sunlight was impressive, as was the view of the strangely-disconnected Arrow and Vestal to the north. The Jagged area again reminded of the Sierra, with the large Lake 12,552′, light-colored rock, and a mixture of turf and slabs.

Thirteen and Monitor from Animas

Thirteen and Monitor from Animas

The ridge down to the saddle with Peak Thirteen was another sketchy choss-fest, but I was used to that by now, and my sixth sense for choss solidity was working well. The rock fortunately improved on the class 3-4 climb up Thirteen’s east side, and the descent toward Animas was straightforward. I found a few cairns on the way up Animas, and the Summitpost printout in the register canister confirmed my plan of descent.

Spiteful cliffs below Animas

Spiteful cliffs below Animas

I returned to the first saddle east of Animas, then scree-skied quickly down most of the thousand feet to the grass below. Thinking I was basically home, I unfortunately strayed a bit too far right, and had to deal with another 50-foot rotten downclimb to reach easy ground. I made my way down mostly easy grass and slabs, with only about 50 years of vicious bush-whacking to reach the “trail” below.

View from Ruby Lake

View from Ruby Lake

While easy enough to follow, I found the Ruby Creek trail both long and surprisingly brushy higher up. However, I was still feeling fresh, and the striking views ahead to the West Needles, and behind to the craggy south side of Ruby Creek, kept my mind occupied. I eventually reached the two meadows near the Animas, and saw that the guy I met on Peak Fifteen had not yet returned to his camp. Hopefully he did not have too long a day.

Lliving llamas

Lliving llamas

I removed my pant legs, then fortified myself with Pop-tarts and Ibuprofen for the long run home. I passed some campers and a herd of grazing (i.e. not dead) llamas near Needleton, then started jogging. I felt freakishly fresh on the net-downhill trail, covering the seven miles to Purgatory Creek in about an hour. I had expected to do this section at night, and was pleased both to have easier daytime running, and to see the sunset on Pigeon and Turret behind me. It took another hour to climb from the Animas to the trailhead, with only the last 5-10 minutes by headlamp. I hadn’t found the elegant traverse I had hoped, but it had still been a satisfying day.

Rio Grande Pyramid

Classic RGP view

Classic RGP view


Rising alone above a low, gently-rolling part of the San Juans, Rio Grande Pyramid is a landmark visible from many peaks in the range. It is also one of Colorado’s more remote major peaks. It has little to offer from a climber’s perspective — it’s a basalt choss-pile a long hike from the nearest road. However, since I’m not primarily a climber, I was looking forward to finally standing on top of it. I remembered that it was remote, but when I looked up the details the afternoon before, I realized that it is only “remote” in a Colorado sense of the word: 20 miles round-trip and 4,400 feet of gain from the Thirtymile trailhead at Rio Grande Reservoir.

Moonset over aspens

Moonset over aspens

I woke to my 5:00 alarm, drove the rest of the way to the trailhead, and started by headlamp just before 6:00 AM. This would be a short day, but sometimes morning headlamp is good for the soul. I spent perhaps a half-hour by headlamp traversing along Rio Grande Reservoir’s southern shore, then turned it off as I climbed through the short, narrow basalt canyon of Weminuche Creek. The canyon quickly opens up into broad meadows, slowly gaining elevation to the nearly-imperceptible Weminuche Pass. Though this trail sees a lot of horse traffic, I found it less repulsive and dusty than the Sierra stock trails I have recently been traveling. Along the way I passed a “sick” llama, staked to the ground and “resting” in a very corpse-like way.

Skyline trail

Skyline trail

At the pass, I turned off the main trail on the abandoned Skyline trail. For some reason this is the standard approach for RGP, though the likely-maintained Divide Trail heads in more or less the same direction less than a mile farther south. Despite the lack of maintenance, the trail is only obliterated by deadfall in one small section, and remains usable through the long brush traverse above Rincon La Vaca. I finally found sunrise a couple hundred feet above the pass, and hiked the climb through sparse woods in a t-shirt.

Approaching the Window

Approaching the Window

As the trail flattens out around 12,000 feet, Rio Grande Pyramid appears in its classic pose, still discouragingly far away. The trail makes a long westward traverse through endless brush, which turns out to be surprisingly runnable on the way down. The standard route up RGP’s east face and ridge is clearly visible the entire way. While Summitpost recommends visiting RGP and the window as separate out-and-backs, that seemed wasteful to me. I decided to tag the Window first, then figure out a line back up the peak from there.

Real San Juans and Window shadow

Real San Juans and Window shadow

There are a mass of more- and less-usable old trails in this area. The most usable are of course the CDT and an equestrian route along part of the Skyline to near 12,600′ on RGP’s east side. I followed the Skyline toward the unnamed lake below the Window, then left it cross-country to pick up a faint old trail climbing through brush and talus just northeast of the Window. Another trail connects the Window directly to the lake.

South face of RGP

South face of RGP

After looking through to the “real” San Juans — the Grenadiers and Needles — I made my way north across the grass toward the peak. RGP’s south side is a mess of rotten cliffs and scree, so I decided to traverse around to the eastern standard route, which was presumably less bad. This worked well: I stayed above 12,800′ across a bench, then briefly contended with some nasty loose stuff before picking up the standard route around 13,100′.

Upper talus-cone

Upper talus-cone

Though the standard route is less bad than the rest of the mountain, it is still a mound of ill-behaved basalt talus, so the climb wasn’t overly inspiring. The summit, however, is well worth the effort. Most of the terrain north, south, and east is a rolling subalpine mix of (dead) conifers, aspens, and meadows. To the west, the Grenadiers and Needles rise 4-5,000 feet above Vallecito Creek. I could easily pick out Arrow and Vestal, but the Needles were too jumbled and unfamiliar for me to identify. Clearly I need to pay them another visit. I signed the surprisingly-busy register, then headed down the standard route.

Starting descent

Starting descent

After getting off the upper talus-cone, I realized I had chosen wisely visiting the Window and RGP in this order: the standard route to the Skyline was a quick boot-ski on the way down, but would be a miserable talus- or sand-slog going up. I had no reason to jog the trail back, but it seemed like the natural thing to do. I passed the “resting” llama, which had attracted a cloud of flies by now, and a few dayhikers near the trailhead, but was surprised by the absence of backpackers and leaf-peepers on a pleasant Saturday. I had some post-hike tuna, then informed the llama’s owner of its unfortunate demise on the drive out. The outing had only taken about 6h45; I clearly needed to raise my sights.

A Bear and a Half

Catwalk to Half's summit

Catwalk to Half’s summit


Grizzly Mountain A and Half Peak were actually pretty easy, but I couldn’t resist the title. Both peaks are on the list of Colorado’s highest 100, and both happen to be the type of half-day peaks I use to break up long drives.

Mine below Grizzly

Mine below Grizzly

I slept just inside Colorado after doing Kings, then continued south, not sure exactly where I was headed. I had potential plans for both the Sawatch and San Juan ranges, so I made my way first to Leadville. There was a fresh dusting of snow on the peaks around town, looking more serious viewed from the north. After a brief stop in Leadville, I headed up toward Independence Pass to tag Grizzly and see what the snow was actually like.

It's fall in Colorado

It’s fall in Colorado

I cautiously drove the badly potholed road past the La Plata trailhead, parking at a three-way split when I probably could have driven another mile. Oh, well. After lunch, I put on my hip belt, tied a windbreaker around my waist, and started up the road. I was used to warm days in the Sierra, and was slightly nonplussed by the hat-and-gloves weather here, even at midday.

Grizzly's east ridge

Grizzly’s east ridge

I passed a woman walking her dogs down the road, then had the place to myself as I continued past the gate to the mine at the end of the old road. From there, a line of cairns continued up the drainage before turning north before Grizzly’s cliffy southeast face. The Summitpost page complained about a loose dirt-chute getting to the east ridge, but I found it fairly pleasant. The key is to follow a vaguely-defined grassy ledge ascending from right to left, which deposits you west of some bumps on the ridge. From there, a semi-defined trail led to the false and eventually true summits.

Sawatch from the NW

Sawatch from the NW

The peaks to the south still looked snowy, but now I knew that only the north-facing slopes were holding snow, and that it was meager. With fitness and a full moon, I was toying with the idea of attempting Nolan’s 14, and I now knew that the snow would not be a problem, but I ultimately chickened out. That level of sleep deprivation and suffering over class 2 terrain didn’t even sound like type II fun to me, and I knew I would have to be extremely motivated to force myself through something like that.

Cataract in its Gulch

Cataract in its Gulch

So it was on to the San Juan. I had been shut down on Half Peak during a wildly over-ambitious San Juan trip this spring, so I knew where to go as I rolled through Lake City late at night. I got a comfortably headlamp-free start around 7:00, again spending plenty of time in hat and gloves as I made my way up Cataract Creek. The creek rises steeply from the steep-walled, flat-bottomed valley above the San Cristobal Reservoir, and while the trail starts out maddeningly flat, it soon assumes a more reasonable grade. Having previously experienced this as a wretched slush-slog, I enjoyed the quick travel.

There were lots of these

There were lots of these

I also enjoyed the San Juans’ surprising late-season lushness. While the Sierra are brown, dead, and bone-dry by mid-September, the San Juans feature running water, bogs, and late-season flowers, including patches of asters and even the occasional columbine. My enjoyment of the greenery was, however, tempered by the decimation wrought by bark beetles in the last 20 years. While aspens and some species of evergreens (blue spruce?) survive, the majority of the conifer forests are dead and gray. I can only suggest that people visit the San Juan now, before they burn, or sometime next century, after they have had a chance to regrow. These mountains are screwed.

Upper Cataract Gulch

Upper Cataract Gulch

Moving on… I recognized the chute I had taken this spring, and realized just how severely I had underestimated the task in spring. Now I continued along the sometimes-faint trail, which crosses the creek a couple of times, then heads far east to avoid the brushy bog below Cataract Lake. Passing the surprisingly large lake, I turned west on the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) to begin circling back west toward Half’s south ridge. The trail meandered through rolling alpine terrain, gradually gaining elevation as it made its way toward some sort of ill-defined pass. I left the trail below the pass, heading straight up to what must be my desired ridge.

Half's summit from south ridge

Half’s summit from south ridge

Half Peak has a distinctive shape. Its north face is 1,000 feet of near-vertical choss (if it were in Canada, people would climb it); its east and west sides are also steep and intermittently cliffy. Its south ridge is a gentle, grassy slope… until it narrows to a slender class 2-3 walkway just below the broad summit. I followed the standard route up this south ridge, looking for a more direct way east to the trailhead, and occasionally turning around to admire the more rugged mountains to the south. I found bits of trail on the isthmus leading to the summit, and a surprising lack of tricky climbing given its narrowness.

Northeast descent from Half

Northeast descent from Half

After lazing around on the summit, I headed over to the east side to check out a direct line home, which had looked reasonable from the south ridge. I found a few cairns near the top, and a bit of chossy, easy third class got me down to the lower-angle slopes below. It was slow going, but definitely faster than going all the way around to the CDT. So far, so good.

Starting down Half's NE side

Starting down Half’s NE side

At this point, I could choose between crossing near Cataract Lake to pick up the trail on the far side of the drainage, and shortcutting down to below the brush-bog on the near side. I chose the latter, since it seemed shorter, and for awhile it worked. I made my way above a small butte on easy grass, then followed some game trails through a couple minor ravines. Unfortunately I had forgotten about the chossy cliffs above where I planned to rejoin the trail. The deer or mountain goats who passed this way had the same problem, and I began following game trails through the woody brush. The trails were surprisingly well-maintained, and saved me from almost all of the grim bushwhacking I had expected, but my “shortcut” saved little or no time over going directly back to the trail.

Morning exercise complete, I headed into Lake City to check in with the world. The library (with its friendly cat) had moved across the street since I last visited, but like most of the small southwestern Colorado mountain towns, it has done a remarkable job resisting change over the past few decades. The town was just beginning its transition from hosting jeep-ers and motorcycle clubs to hunters, before more or less shutting down for the season. I could have stayed around another day for the wine and music festival, but Lake City is not exactly a famous wine-producing region, and the music looked like it would be definitely loud and probably bad. Onward!

Kings Peak

First view of Kings (center)

First view of Kings (center)


After a couple days of type I fun — Tahoe is really nice this time of year, nice enough that even I was willing to submerge myself — it was time to head back east. I had hoped my tires would last through the end of this season, but one of them decided to disintegrate in Nowhere, NV, and I got to enjoy a good part of northern Nevada at 50 MPH on a lousy donut spare. Lesson learned, I preemptively replaced the rest of the tires before heading out into the middle of nowhere.

It's fall...

It’s fall…

Kings Peak is the Utah highpoint, though it feels like part Wyoming. It is located in the middle of the Uinta range, an unusually east-to-west subrange of the Rockies on the far northern end of the state. I had previously tried to tag it on the way by early one summer, and was utterly defeated by the Uintas’ legendary slush-bog season. So when the opportunity presented itself this September, I gladly drove to the middle-of-nowhere Henry’s Fork trailhead, found a nice campsite near the creek for the night, and went to sleep without bothering to set an alarm.

Snowy boardwalk

Snowy boardwalk

I heard some rain overnight, and woke to frozen water on my car, so I was in no hurry to get started. It had been cold enough to snow for at least part of the night up high, and I did not envy the poor folks huddled in their tents somewhere to the south. I got started about when the sun finally hit the trail, jogging the flats and hiking the hills. Thanks to an unofficial annual race, Kings has a stout FKT around 4h30, likely faster than I could manage even on a good day, so I was glad to have the snow as an excuse. The fresh dusting of white also made the Uintas, with their broad valleys and striated rock, look even more like the Canadian Rockies.

South side of Gunsight Pass

South side of Gunsight Pass

I passed some cold-looking backpackers on my way in, and finally hit solid snow just below Henry’s Fork Lake. The trail is usually a multi-lane highway, with several parallel paths worn in the turf, and ample sign of stock traffic. I found a pair of footprints leading partway to Gunsight Pass, but evidently someone had thought better of it the day before. It was cool with the partial cloud cover, and downright cold and unpleasant where the wind whipped through Gunsight Pass.

Climbers' trail and Gunsight Pass

Climbers’ trail and Gunsight Pass

I hid in the lee of the giant cairn for a minute, then tried to follow the climbers’ trail that shortcuts around to Anderson Pass. The drifted snow made this difficult, and often made the trail a useless ledge covered in calf-deep snow. This section felt long and slow, and although I knew which peak was Kings, the fact that it is not much higher than its neighbors made me doubt myself. Most of the Uintas’ 13,000-foot peaks are bunched in this small area in the center of the range, and several of Kings’ neighbors are only slightly shorter.

Kings from approach

Kings from approach

There may be a trail from the Anderson Pass trail to Kings’ summit, but I did not find it, instead slogging up large and miserably loose talus covered in drifted powder. I eventually found the (happily clearly-labeled) summit, watched the clouds for a bit, then turned for home. I had been fortunate to only feel a few seconds of graupel so far, but I could see scattered precipitation all around, and did not relish a long walk home in a flapping garbage bag.

This sucks

This sucks

The final talus-slope was just as slow going down as up, but I picked up a bit of speed once I got back to the trail. Though there was no need, I jogged most of the downhill sections and some of the flats. Doing so made me even more impressed with the FKT, as the trail is horribly rutted and rocky; it would be tough to run with real speed even in perfect conditions. Mine was the second-to-last car to leave the trailhead, and the backpacking couple in the last were not far behind. Apparently the weather had scared everyone off; barring an extended warm and dry spell, I may have been the last Kings hiker this season.

Evolution traverse (VI 5.9 or 5.6, 17h42)

Ridge through Haeckel from valley

Ridge through Haeckel from valley


The Evolution Traverse, pioneered by Peter Croft in the 1990s, connects a long ridge of peaks from “Mount Steven Jay Gould” to Mount Huxley in the Evolution region of the Sierra. Thanks to mostly good rock and to Croft’s imprimatur, it sees a fair amount of attention from Real Climbers. “Evo” has been at the outer limit of my ambitions for the past couple of years, as its 5.9 rating is out of my league. However, this is a “Sierra traverse rating,” not a true YDS rating: as with the similarly “VI 5.9” Kaweah traverse, it can be made easier with a bit of creative route-finding.

After I broke my hand on Fury, I thought I was done with technical outings for the season. But after a successful outing on Williamson’s NE ridge and a scouting trip to Darwin, I decided to give it a try. Since I would rather use this part of the summer elsewhere next year, it was now or never, and I was fairly confident Evo was within my abilities. The short September days would be inconvenient, but if I could manage the 20-21 hours I hoped, there would be enough daylight for the ridge, and I can deal with the long approach and return at night.

Morning on Lamarck Col

Morning on Lamarck Col

I woke to my alarm at 2:00, ate the usual Cup of Sadness, supplemented it by choking down some beet nitrates, then walked the road up to the trailhead as a sort of warmup. I didn’t remember how long the approach to Darwin Bench would take me, but I wanted to have as much daylight as possible for the technical part of the day. Moving by headlamp at the start of an anticipated 20-hour day, there is little running to be done on the Lamarck Lakes approach, as the trail is often steep and/or rough, but I at least jogged a few short flatter stretches for appearances. I had an unpleasant experience getting lost on the way to Lamarck Col a number of years ago, but had no trouble this time, even on a moonless night.

Gould in daylight

Gould in daylight

The other side of the col is still the same mess of cairns and boot-prints higher up. There is a fairly decent and efficient trail lower down, but with no chance of finding it at night, I just brute-forced my way to the bottom, where I picked up the on-and-off Darwin Bench trail. I walked through some people’s camp at night, reached the end of Lake 11,623′ (rather than the normal 11,592′), then headed up some part of Gould that I thought I could make work. Gould is a mess of gullies and fins from this side, and I had not planned to start up at night, but I had crossed Lamarck faster than expected, and did not want to waste time waiting for light.

Mendel from Gould

Mendel from Gould

I turned off the headlamp after a half-hour of blind class 2-3 scrambling, and continued up my gully as it steepened. It was probably a snow/ice climb 10 years ago, but such things are increasingly rare in the Sierra, and I found only dirt and dirty rock. As it got steep, I moved right onto a rib via some class 4-5 terrain, then made my wander-y way to Gould’s summit. I glanced at the register (no pencil), then headed off toward Mendel.

Fun hand-crack before Mendel

Fun hand-crack before Mendel

Having done the traverse through Darwin in 2012, I remembered a bit of route-finding trickiness on this part, and a short headwall with a fun hand-crack. I found the latter, and had no trouble with the route-finding. Still, this is a long connecting ridge, and it took over an hour to reach Mendel.

Darwin from Mendel

Darwin from Mendel

Though Darwin looks close from Mendel, I remembered that this next part was time-consuming and difficult, and that I had rappeled one section in 2012. Despite this difficulty, the first part is a virtual golden sidewalk along the top of the ridge. After this easy early progress, it is a rude shock when the ridge suddenly turns serrated broken, and loses precious elevation. After downclimbing past one or two useless-seeming rap anchors above short drops, I moved to the left side of the ridge, hoping to traverse across some of the more difficult towers on the crest. While I might have spared myself some harder climbing, I certainly did not save time, as I had to backtrack a few times while climbing up and down to connect ledges on the steep, sometimes crappy face. I eventually took a dirty gully back up to the crest, and was much happier.

On Darwin's summit block

On Darwin’s summit block

After a final, unexpected and spitefully steep downclimb into the final notch before Darwin, class 3-4 terrain lead to the summit plateau. I dropped off toward the detached summit block and then, feeling my oats, did the direct Peter Croft-style mantle up the front side. Though a friend of mine was supposed to traverse through, I was surprised to find that my scouting mission the week before was the last entry in the summit log. I signed again, then had a snack while I psyched myself up for the second scary section, from here to 13,332′.

Trickiness south of Darwin

Trickiness south of Darwin

I went down the back of the summit pinnacle, then continued to the first nest of rap tat. The crappy downclimb seemed less scary than a week before, and I went straight across the golden face rather than taking whatever ugly line below it I had chosen then. Even though I had done it in the other direction just a week before, from there to 13,332′ was a mess of haphazard route-finding with a bit of backtracking — this part is confusing! I stayed mostly on the crest, bypassing a few things to the left or right.

Darwin from 13,332

Darwin from 13,332

I got around the crux 5.9 crack downclimb that many people mention on the other (west) side this time, via a convoluted line that involved climbing up a chimney with an unreliable-looking semi-detached 30-foot pillar in front of it. (I banged and kicked it a few times beforehand, and it stayed put.) I may be pretty bad at climbing, but I’m pretty good at alpine hijinks. I downclimbed the fifth class big-talus south of the crack, then stupidly wasted a bit more time before getting on the obvious line to 13,332′.

Haeckel from 13,332

Haeckel from 13,332

I was stoked: although I had a long ways to go, it was less than 10 hours into the day, and I was done with the scary part of the traverse. I dropped off the summit and began the long, downhill boulder-hop to Haeckel Col. It would cost very little time to drop past Lake 12,345′ instead of traversing the tricky little pyramid north of Haeckel, but I was doing fine for water on a cool-ish September day, so I stayed high.

Helicopter above Haeckel Col

Helicopter above Haeckel Col

I heard the all-too-familiar sound of a helicopter just before the col, and paused my music to pay more attention. It approached the col, then made several circles around the Haeckel-Huxley cirque. I made random “I’m okay” gestures when it was near me, but had no idea how I could or should communicate. Taking several trips back to base to refuel, it eventually set up a base camp near Lake 12,021′ and extracted someone from Haeckel’s west face. I saw nothing as I climbed past this section of the ridge, but learned later that it was recovering the body of a woman who had just been doing exactly what I was doing.

Enter the Choss...

Enter the Choss…

After getting past the pyramid, I found Haeckel’s northwest arête to be a fun class 3-4 romp on mostly good rock, and after mostly slow technical climbing and the descent to the col, I had the energy to move quickly. I found the register container stuck shut, and continued quickly along decent rock on the top of the ridge. Wallace is a garbage-mound, and Haeckel-Wallace Col marks the start of the traverse’s chossy section, which continues to somewhere past the aptly-named “Crumbling Spire.” I signed in on Wallace, relieved to see my friend’s entry from a few days ago, then chossed on.

Endless ridge to Fiske

Endless ridge to Fiske

I had done Huxley-Warlow-Fiske in 2009 or 2010, and remembered that doing it in that direction felt like “petting a cat the wrong way” — walk up boulders, then downclimb steep stuff. However, I had not remembered any particularly tricky climbing, and was surprised to find quite a few 5th class sections on what I thought was the home stretch. I was getting tired, and the long traverse to Fiske seemed endless, with each technical difficulty feeling like an affront. Only when I reached the headwall on Huxley, steep enough to be thought-provoking but not scary, did I enjoy the challenge rather than resent the slower progress.

Huxley with Darwin behind

Huxley with Darwin behind

While I was happy with my time as I signed in on Huxley, I was feeling worn down, and apprehensive as I looked at the long route I must take back around Gould, up near the other side of Darwin, and over Lamarck Col, in the lengthening shadows of afternoon. I dropped down the wrong (second) gully about halfway before crossing over into the northern one to pick up a faint bootpack. It didn’t matter: after so many hours on class 4-5 terrain, I barely noticed a few 4th class steps.

Joining the Jolly Manure Trench

Joining the Jolly Manure Trench

I finished my water at the base of the chute — perfect timing! — then refilled a safe distance from the Jolly Manure Trench, crammed down some pop-tarts, then took off at a jog down the trail, finding enough energy to make good time on the gradual descent. I passed the usual assortment of campers settling in for the night, then turned off on the Darwin Bench trail as the JMT dropped through the woods toward Colby Meadow.

Sunset on Darwin Bench

Sunset on Darwin Bench

I had expected to do this section at night, but was thankful to be ahead of schedule making my way up Darwin Bench. While the trail is clear in some places, it fades in and out of existence crossing slabs and boulder-fields; it would be hard to get lost in the early moonlit night, but it would also be easy to lose a lot of time. Knowing that daylight would save me time on Lamarck Col as well, I forced myself to jog some of the flatter sections, and reached the sign at the col around sunset. Realizing that I could go under 18 hours, I ran the sandy upper col in the twilight, passing a couple camping near a random snowbank, then finally turned on my headlamp on the switchbacks just above the creek crossing. I at least managed not to face-plant as I negotiated the rocky trail past Lamarck Lake to Piute Creek, then ran past a few campers to the sign to stop the clock. I whistled happily as I wound down on the walk back to the car. It had been a good day.

Splits

  • Piute TH (2:49 AM)
  • Lamarck Col (4:44)
  • Gould (6:36)
  • Mendel (7:46)
  • Darwin (9:18)
  • 13,332′ (11:31)
  • Haeckel (12:29 PM)
  • Wallace (12:59)
  • Crumbling Spire (1:19)
  • Fiske (2:14)
  • Warlow (3:12)
  • Huxley (4:04)
  • Lamarck Col (7:09)
  • Piute TH (8:31)

Gear notes

I used some trail runners I am familiar with and trust on rock for the whole thing. I took 1L of water over Lamarck Col, filled up with ~2.5L before leaving Darwin Bench, then got another ~1.5L after Huxley. I had ~4000 calories of food: 5 packs of pop-tarts (2000 cal), 6 caffeinated Clif bars (1500 cal), and 3 “sweet ‘n’ salty” granola bars (540 cal). I also consumed a half-dozen salt pills and 600mg of ibuprofen. Other than that, I had standard Sierra hiking gear.

Comparing traverses

Having now done the Evolution and Kaweah Traverses, both rated “VI 5.9,” with similar levels of fitness and climbing competence, it’s worth comparing them. Evolution has a longer traverse section, a slightly harder crux (5.6 vs. 5.4-5.5), and trickier route-finding keeping the difficulty within the realm of things I can solo. However, Kaweah’s climbing is more sustained: once past Second Kaweah, there are no long choss or boulder-hopping sections. Kaweah’s rock quality is also somewhat worse, demanding some caution, though it is better in the steeper parts than one would expect given the Kaweahs’ reputation. Kaweah’s approach (Glacier and Hands-and-Knees Passes) is also much harder than Evolution’s (trail or pseudo-trail over Lamarck Col).

Brief long-term shoe reviews

I had a gig reviewing shoes this spring, which put me in the unusual position of having more than one pair of new trail runners at the same time, and of owning shoes I did not choose. About half the shoes I tested were clearly not suitable for the mountains, and I have now mostly destroyed the ones that were. Here are my impressions of a few that surprised me. The Amazon links are just for reference, mostly for the photos — they’re not affiliate links or anything.

  • Salomon Sense Pro 2: While these were about as durable and comfortable as expected, they performed surprisingly poorly on class 4-5 rock. With relatively thick and soft midsoles and not-so-grippy rubber, they were scarier than I expected when edging or trying to smear on steeper rock. Salomon makes some shoes that work well in the mountains, but these do not.
  • New Balance Fresh Foam Gobi: I didn’t expect these to work well in the mountains, so I avoided using them until I had mostly destroyed my more capable shoes. I took them up the Mountaineer’s Route on Whitney (class 3) and SE face of Emerson (5.4), and found them terrifyingly bad on rock, with spongy midsoles, too much play in the toe box, and completely non-sticky outsoles. They are also not very protective, and would be similarly scary on steep vegetation and turf as found in the Cascades.
  • Adidas Terrex X-King: These feel a little clunky on trails, and the size 11s I tried (they only make whole sizes, apparently) are a bit roomier than I like. However, they really came into their own in the mountains. The aggressive lugs dig into soft surfaces, but are large enough not to squirm on rock. The rubber is predictable and sticky on rock, and the single piece making up the sole, toe rand, and heel cup is a smart, simple, durable design. The quick-lace system and soft upper make the fit highly adjustable, which in my case mostly let me compensate for the shoes being a bit too big. The shape of the toe box and placement of the lugs makes them climb fairly well — I have felt pretty comfortable on some mid-fifth-class terrain. The main downside is the ridiculous $160 retail price.

Michael Minaret

First view of Michael

First view of Michael


From Clyde Minaret, Michael looks like an evil ice cream cone, an impossibly steep pyramid of dark choss. Lying behind the main Minaret crest, it is harder to reach than most of its compatriots: from Agnew Meadows, one must either go around the Minarets to the north or south, or go straight over them. I chose the second option, climbing the Rock Route on Clyde Minaret, then traversing below Eichorn to reach its saddle with Michael. The Minarets are steep, and have a reputation for bad and unpredictable rock; while the class 3-5 parts of the route I took were solid, this reputation makes me too irrationally nervous to enjoy harder scrambling in the area.

Minarets from near Iceberg

Minarets from near Iceberg

I slept through my alarm at Minaret Vista, but still woke early enough to make it through the gate well before it was occupied. Cold air often pools in valley containing Agnew Meadows, so it is often colder there than at the crest 1,200 feet above. With this in mind, I took the time to enjoy some hot coffee, then started out in hat and glittens just after 7:00. After about an hour in the shade, I finally reached the sun on the climb up to Shadow Lake, and became comfortable in a t-shirt while moving uphill. I passed a fair amount of traffic on this short stretch of the JMT, but nowhere near as much as I have earlier this summer.

Eichorn and Clyde from Michael

Eichorn and Clyde from Michael

Continuing past several parties camped at Lake Ediza, I followed the trail up to Cecile, refilled my water, and started up toward Clyde Minaret. While the Starr Route is better climbing on more solid rock, I chose the easier Rock Route, figuring I would get my fill of harder climbing later. I topped out near Clyde’s summit, then turned right on what I remembered as a tricky and non-obvious traverse to Eichorn.

Slanting ledge toward Eichorn

Slanting ledge toward Eichorn

My memory was correct: though the ridge is not long, the correct route is non-obvious and steep in places. The easiest path seems to stay near the crest for the first part, then climb a narrow, slanting series of ledges to surmount a false summit. Past this point, the crest becomes sharply serrated, and the fastest route to Eichorn probably drops down across a sort of bowl, then reascends near the summit. Since I had already climbed Eichorn, I continued across the bowl to its west ridge on chossy class 2 ramps.

Michael from near Eichorn

Michael from near Eichorn

I spent a few minutes studying Michael’s northeast side, then descended to the top of the Eichorn Chute, one of its west-side approaches. After a third class traverse around the west side of two gendarmes separating Eichorn and Michael, and a final bit of fourth class weirdness to the east, I finally found myself at the base of my peak.

While I had a photo of Secor’s route description, it was mostly useless, and I had failed to bring Bob’s more detailed notes. Fortunately, my usual “do the obvious thing” approach worked with only a little backtracking. From the notch, I followed a ramp up and left, then headed straight up when doing so made sense. After a minor misadventure trying to circle around too far east and south, I found some reasonably solid 4th class climbing leading back up and right to the summit.

Register box

Register box

Since it is difficult and not on any list, Michael sees only a few ascents per year, mostly by people doing the Minaret Traverse. I was the second person to visit the summit this year, and only one or two others had passed since Alex Honnold apparently did the traverse in July 2015. Vern Clevenger had placed the register in 1989, shortly before his son’s birth, and visited again with his son only a few pages later.

Starr plaque

Starr plaque

After enjoying my fish, it was time to get off this thing. I contemplated dropping down and around either north or south notch (thanks to global warming, an ice axe is no longer necessary), but decided to simply retrace my steps. I must have been closer to the “correct” route on the way back, because I passed a couple nests of rap-tat, removing as much as I could, and also found the Walter Starr memorial plaque. An early Sierra climber, Starr pioneered many bold routes, and seemed to mostly climb by himself. He also died in a fall near Michael Minaret when he was only 30 years old. I signed the log book, then spent a few minutes lost in somber thought.

Back to business, I took the same line back near Eichorn and Clyde, quickly descending the Rock Route to Cecile. I hiked the rougher trail down to Ediza, then ate my last food and jogged the rest of the trail home, passing a steady stream of backpackers headed in both directions. The outing took a bit less than 10 hours, and took care of a final bit of unfinished business in the area. While I have not climbed all of the Minarets, the remaining ones seem either uninteresting (Bedayan) or scary-hard (Dyer), and the traverse sounds like more fear management than fun.

Darwin (from Haeckel Col)

Haeckel from Darwin

Haeckel from Darwin


I have already climbed Darwin from the north and west, but those who know a bit about Sierra climbing will understand this trip.

Haeckel (l) and Darwin (r)

Haeckel (l) and Darwin (r)

I waited for dawn, then mostly tuned out the surroundings as I made my way around the lake, up the switchbacks, and on into the maze of lakes and trails in Sabrina Basin. It felt like fall, with the aspens starting to turn, the sun rising low and late, and the air cool enough to hike in an overshirt. Over the years I have gone from awe at the basin’s lakes and jagged peaks, to frustration at the length of the horse-ravaged trail, to familiar, benign indifference, and the two hours or so to the Midnight Lake junction passed almost unnoticed.

Haeckel and Lake 12,345

Haeckel and Lake 12,345

After a short deviation toward Hungry Packer Lake, I took off up the broad, slabby ridge toward Haeckel Col and started paying more attention. I had used this route twice in the past, for Goddard and Spencer, and I believe it is the least-bad way for day-hikers to reach peaks between Muir Pass and the Darwin Bench. It is still awfully long, and I was feeling sluggish, stopping frequently and eating more of my food than I needed. Passing some unnecessary cairns, I eventually reached Lake 12,345′ at the base of Haeckel’s north face, then followed a faint boot-pack up the sand and boulders to the pass, just north of the saddle.

West from Haeckel Col

West from Haeckel Col

I was not impressed with my time, and still not feeling fast, so I sat down to eat my fish and decide how to proceed. This would be the natural route to dayhike McGee, but I doubted I had the energy for that. I could also just tag nearby Point 13,332′ and go home, or simply turn around at the pass. Indecisive as usual, I found a comfortable spot and some suitable listening material, then let my mind drift for an hour or so.

East from Haeckel Col

East from Haeckel Col

I eventually decided to at least check out 13,332′, and was about to leave when I spotted a backpacker making his way past 12,345′ toward the pass. Curious to see who it was, I waited another 15-20 minutes for him to reach me. I hadn’t met him (Dale?) before, but he turned out to be widely-traveled in the range. On this trip, he was headed around to Darwin Bench and probably out Lamarck, after spending a few nights in Sabrina Basin eating through enough of his 11 days of food to be able to get over the pass.

Darwin from Peak 13,332

Darwin from Peak 13,332

After we parted, I took off for 13,332′. Having scoped out the initial route, I eschewed the crest, which would cost a lot of difficulty and up-and-down, instead making a class 2-3 traverse up boulders and ledges on the right. This had the side-benefit of protecting me from the wind whipping over from the west. At the summit, I found a register featuring some well-known names from before I was born (Lane, Smatko, etc.), and more recently some more and less familiar ones, mostly doing the popular Evolution Traverse.

I eyed the slope back toward Lake 12,345′, then the ridge north to Darwin, then psyched myself up enough to “at least start on” the latter. After a quick mistake on the east side, I downclimbed past some difficulties on the west, and things fairly quickly turned serious. In general, the ridge to Darwin is a gradually-rising sawblade, with sides steep enough that it is often best to stay on the crest. The rock is mostly good, usually better to the west and dirtier and more rotten to the east (as expected). There are many possible paths, and the one I took is too complicated to describe, but I will describe some highlights.

Got around this somehow...

Got around this somehow…

The first main tower north of 13,332′ is, I think, the crux of the route for many people, with a reportedly 5.9 hand-crack leading up the crest. I explored a bit, and nearly turned around — once past here, my retreat would be a trek down the west side and around over Haeckel Col — but found a series of chossy ledges and low 5th class boulder problems that got me back to the crest past the difficulties.

Some steep ridge

Some steep ridge

Past here I stayed mostly on or west of the crest for awhile, pulling the odd bit of low 5th class or alpine craziness, including some chimneying between giant blocks and a 20-foot a cheval along the crest. I found a few slings in random places, signs of other climbers’ distress. As things steepened toward Darwin, I again dodged some difficulties to the east, then was forced back east for the final climb.

More steep ridge

More steep ridge

I climbed some knobby 5.5-ish face up to a large nest of rap-tat, staying left of the rappel line, then continued up to an impasse. Seeing a cairn on a fin to the west, I retreated a bit, then made an awkward traverse to pass it, at one point trying and failing to go down and around via perpendicular chimneys and a squeeze. I climbed a dirty gully, passed under a chockstone to the east, then returned to the crest for most of the final climb. Shortly below the summit, I was again forced west, this time climbing a dirty and unstable-looking garbage-vein past another rap station. I wasn’t too happy doing this, but I climbed paranoid and nothing broke off. Above, it was smooth sailing to Darwin’s summit.

Blue Heaven and Hell Diver (l) Lakes from Darwin

Blue Heaven and Hell Diver (l) Lakes from Darwin

Most of the register entries were from traverse parties — it’s like the JMT, but for climbers! I added my own swimming-upstream entry, then headed off down the east face and northeast ridge, all of which was supposedly class 4. After some initial steep dirt in a chute that sucked, I found some dirty but more pleasant ledges, and headed generally north to avoid cliffing out at the bottom of the face. I reached the northeast ridge near its base, and found some surprising difficulties, including what I felt was a low 5th class downclimb next to a fixed line.

After a bit more shenanigans getting down from “Darwin Col,” I headed down easier ground to Blue Heaven Lake. In a “what the hell” mood, I went cross-country down the Hell Diver Lakes drainage instead of picking up the trail at Midnight Lake. The middle lake is home to an impressive disappearing act, its outflow buried deep in a talus blockade. I picked up the trail just above the big rock-hop across Bishop Creek, then hiked and jogged back to the car, reaching it with just enough daylight left to rinse off my feet and cook some sort of dinner.