Non-peak-bagging activities

Since this site is about peak-bagging, and I spent some time mostly not doing that recently, I haven’t had much to write. This was due to a mixture of bad weather and time spent on “self-improvement” in one sense or another; the line from Fight Club comes to mind, though I think I have been making at least slightly better use of my time.

*So* not worth it.

*So* not worth it.

Better use of a gray day.

Better use of a gray day.

There has been sport climbing, most of it wet, some also featuring slug hazards. There has been fire lookout tourism, a fine thing to do when brush and rocks are too wet to deal with. There has been (mis)use of beater bikes, always a favorite past-time. There has even been some “social” hiking and climbing, which is probably a good psychological counterweight for the solo majority of my summer.

About the only peak-bagging-related thing from the period was a successful early-season speed-run of the Grand. I was nowhere near Andy Anderson’s FKT, of course: he is one of the best mountain runners in the world, and I am not. However, I was pleased with my time, which was very close to my estimate: 4h02 Ranch-to-Ranch, and 2h36 Ranch-to-summit. That puts me about 25% off the record both up and down, which is about what I should expect.

I had hypothesized that the glissades on an early-season attempt might make the descent relatively faster, but this seems not to be the case: though I took only about 11 minutes from the Lower Saddle to the Meadows, I lost time picking my way down the partly-iced-over summit knob and down the awkward snow between upper and lower saddles. Conditions were about as good as I could expect for this time of year, with an Exum-installed bootpack between Lower and Upper Saddles making crampons unnecessary. I spent about 6 minutes total on crampon transitions and 3 minutes enjoying the summit on a perfect day, and probably lost a few minutes in either direction coming from the Ranch instead of Lupine Meadows. Altogether, in dry conditions I could probably shave 10 minutes or a bit more off the ascent: 6 minutes of transitions, faster scrambling from the Lower Saddle up, and a light waist pack instead of a ~5-lb pack. I might not go too much slower on the way down, but even the thought of doing that to my knees makes me cringe.

So anyways, back to more familiar programming.

Lots of Teewinots

2016 version

2016 version

2010 version

2010 version

Teewinot gets a bad rap because its standard route is a good place to get avalanched or fail to self-arrest in the early season, and becomes a crowded scree-chute later on. However, it has the advantages of avoiding Garnet Canyon, allowing a quick bail-out if conditions go bad, and offering 5500′ of vertical with a minimal approach even by Teton standards. As the years go by and I have fewer Teton objectives, I find myself using Teewinot more, both as a climb and as a work-out peak.

My first Teewinot of this year was a quick run up to the Apex, about 2700′ of gain on a steep trail to treeline. I did this to gauge both my fitness and snow conditions in the range. My fitness seemed okay: the climb took about 45 minutes. As I had experienced in the Gros Ventres the day before, the snow line is abnormally high this year: I only hit consistent snow in the last 100′ vertical or so, and the face above seemed to have consolidated.

Approaching past Worshipper and Idol

Approaching past Worshipper and Idol

My second was a bit of exploration and two tick-marks. The Idol and Worshipper are two prominent pillars just south of the standard route. I had passed them too many times to count, but never taken the time to climb them, despite their being only low 5th by various routes. With an easy day planned and a mediocre weather forecast, I decided it was time to check them out.

I made my way to the Apex, much slower now with a pack, then kicked and postholed up through the krummholtz toward the Worshipper. I watched three skiers make perhaps a dozen turns each, then pick their way back through the brush and rocks to their shoes for the long hike back down. It didn’t seem worth the hike to me, but then again, I had just done the same for two pitches of scrambling…

Worshipper from near Idol

Worshipper from near Idol

I started out by trying the Worshipper’s long, east, downhill face, supposedly the easiest route to the summit. While the climbing was not especially hard, the variable-quality rock and outward-sloping ledges were not fun, so I traversed around left into the notch between it and the Idol. This side is shorter, steeper, and harder — 5.4, according to the Ortenburger guide — but also more secure and fun, climbing a near-vertical crack/chimney with a bulge partway and positive holds to be found throughout.

Pulling over the bulge, I was surprised and pleased to see a natural arch directly in front of me, with a small tree in its center. From the top of the chimney, the route goes through the window, then around to the right and back over it to reach the highpoint. Cool! I even found a summit register, a rarity in the Tetons. It only went back a few years, but suggested that perhaps 1-2 parties a year make the climb.

I retraced my steps, passing an old piton-based rap anchor, then traversed and climbed around the north side of the Idol. I made this harder than necessary, crossing some wet, slimy slabs and grinding my way up a chimney rather than going the long way around and traversing in from the northwest. Still, the climbing was still all easier than the Worshipper, with a couple low 5th class moves and some scrambling on the southwest side quickly leading to the top. I appreciated the view quickly, as the weather was getting colder and possibly wetter, then returned to the Ranch to waste the rest of the day.

Moran, etc. from north ridge

Moran, etc. from north ridge

My final Teewinot turned out to be an excellent use of a half-day, timed nearly perfectly to avoid the atypical early-season afternoon thunderstorms. Eric, a squad leader in the 10th Mountain Division, had a couple free days before starting a course, and was itching to climb. After considering more ambitious options on Owen, we gave in to the realities of the forecast and settled on a shorter route on the north side, starting from the col with Crooked Thumb.

With a 4 AM start from the Ranch, we actually had a bit of headlamp time passing through the aspens at Teewinot’s base. Stripping to t-shirts, we made the climb to the Apex in between 1h20 and 1h30, good time with trad gear. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised that Eric was fast: he does this for a living, usually with a much bigger pack.

The snow in the krummholtz was slushy, but above it was firm enough to boot past the Worshipper and Idol without postholing. Above, we traversed around the right-hand shoulder, suffered across some snow already softened by the northeast-rising sun, then followed a grassy, partly snow-covered ledge on around to the couloir leading to the Crooked Thumb Col. This perch has excellent views of Owen’s northeast face, Cascade Canyon, and the seldom-climbed peaks north of Mount Moran. Unfortunately, it is too close to offer a good overview of Teewinot’s north side.

A few pitches of actual climbing

A few pitches of actual climbing

We puzzled over route descriptions and photos for awhile, then descended back east, roped up, and started simul-ing some random terrain left of the north ridge. When we got tired of this, we headed back right, where Eric built and anchor and started leading up the left side of the ridge. Since he passed a couple of old pitons, we figured we were “on route” for some version of “route.” The climbing was varied, fun, and mostly moderate, with the exception of a wide stem followed by some thin face climbing. I haven’t climbed in boots for awhile, but it felt like 5.8 or hard 5.7.

I led the second pitch, whose crux was an undercling/traverse left around an overhang then easier climbing to a broad ledge. One could probably exit left from here, but I thought it would be fun to continue straight up a chimney/crack. This turned out to be incorrect. After thrashing and scrabbling up some sort of off-width, I was forced by my own rope drag to build a semi-hanging belay out of a #2 cam and two tiny nuts. After an awkward sit-on-my-face gear exchange at the belay, Eric led 20 feet more tricky climbing up out of the chimney, then continued across easier ground to just below the summit.

Other than 20 seconds of graupel, we had enjoyed calm, clear weather for most of the climb, and had talked about traversing on to Mount Owen. However, as often happens on a northeast-facing Tetons route, we topped out to find that the weather situation was not as we hoped. With inclement weather coming from the south and west, we quickly packed up and headed for the summit, where I reenacted the photo I took on my first Teewinot climb in 2010. Descending the east face took longer than anticipated. The snow was thin slush over a harder base layer, soft for kicking steps but hard for boot-skiing, so we stuck to the rock for much of the upper face. Back at the apex, I resigned myself to an hour or so of clomping misery descending the dry trail in full-shank boots. The rain and lightning started maybe a half-hour after we reached the Ranch, and continued for much of the afternoon, but our well-chosen mission was complete.

Maple Canyon

Maple Canyon from above

Maple Canyon from above


Maple Canyon is a climbing area in central Utah featuring mostly single-pitch sport climbs on solid conglomerate rock. This means that routes are steep for their grade: 5.9-10a is near-vertical, while 5.12 is massively overhung. Maple also has good cheap camping, is high enough to be cooler than the surrounding desert, and is much less dirtbag-hostile than the hellish sprawl of greater Salt Lake City. We were both pretty worn down, so we ended up spending an afternoon and the better part of the next day hauling jugs and clipping bolts.

Rapping off Haji Tower

Rapping off Haji Tower

After some extracurricular four-wheeling, we returned to the main climbing area to climb Haji Rock, one of the few multi-pitch routes in the area. Renée got most of the real climbing on the first and third pitches, while I “led” the lame but necessary second pitch, which consisted of a step-across, a few easy moves, a search for the bolts, and much time pulling up the remainder of the 70m rope. I was happy to follow the third pitch, a short, overhanging 5.9 to the top of the Haji’s head. After signing the register, one free-hanging and one bouncing rap took us back to our packs.

We finished off the evening in the Zen Garden area, trying out a 5.9 and some 5.10s, and I confirmed that I am basically a 5.9 climber these days. That’s better than I have any right to expect given how little I climb, but kind of pathetic for the amount of time I spend in the mountains. So it goes.

Maples near Orangutan Wall

Maples near Orangutan Wall

Having sampled the right fork our first day, we moved over to the left for the second. Though there had been sounds of manly exertion echoing in the canyon the previous day, the area had not been at all crowded, and the pleasant lack of waiting continued. We found a next of 8s, 9s, and 10s on Orangutan Wall, and worked them from easiest to hardest, alternately belaying from the Maples’ shade and roasting on the sunny wall. My forearms were failing by early afternoon, but I felt I had done enough steep, crimpy climbing to improve at least a little.

We decided to have dinner in Salt Lake before parting ways, and after a startling reminder that speed limits go to 80 in Utah (i.e. everyone drives at least 85), cheap Mexican food was procured. I headed northeast to the forests of western Wyoming, while Renée hoped to run errands and crash in town. With the help of my usual drive-time mix of vile energy drinks and beef jerky, I made it to a nice dirt road off a pass a couple hours south of Jackson. Renée was less fortunate, learning to her dismay that the normally camping-friendly Walmart does not allow overnight parking in metro SLC. I swear that place gets worse every time I visit…

Mount Hayden

Hayden from the rim

Hayden from the rim


To recover from the Nankoweap death march, we spent an easy recovery day on Mount Hayden, a white butte close to Point Imperial. Rising late, we drove out to the overlook, spent awhile sorting gear, looked at the butte just 2/3 of a mile away, then hiked 100 yards of pavement, jumped the fence, and dove into the brush. Before the fire, the Hayden approach was supposedly fairly friendly. However, the usual post-fire scrub has taken over this part of the rim, including the dread New Mexico locust.

Fixed rope in Coconino

Fixed rope in Coconino

The approach descends terribly loose dirt, then follows the ridge right of a bowl before diving into the brush to a break in the Coconino. Here the thrashing began: Renée opted for leather gloves and brute force, while I chose finesse, careful writhing, and a certain amount of bleeding. This part was not bad, as the watercourse was mostly scoured free of soil and plants. We followed a seemingly useless fixed line for awhile, then actually used it to descend a low 5th class step, where it was vaguely helpful.

Enter the suck

Enter the suck

Then we entered the suck. The traverse back south to the Hayden-rim saddle had also burned, and is now home to a thriving locust population, occasionally interrupted by oak-brush. There is a network of faint use/animal trails, with one near the base of the cliff being the best, but finding this one, especially on the way in, is next to impossible. Instead we picked our way through lower down, linking logs, surviving trees, boulders, and even the blessedly spine-free oak-brush to minimize time spent in the spiny horror show.

Hayden from past the bushwhack

Hayden from past the bushwhack

We finally found relief at the red dirt ridge leading southeast to Hayden, where we took a break to sweat and admire our goal. From here it was a fairly painless hike along the ridge and around the butte’s north side to the base of the climb. I took the first pitch, which started with a tricky move from a red ledge to the more solid white sandstone above. After that, it was mostly a low 5th class bushwhack to a sort-of belay ledge full of cactus, dirt, and loose rubble. Though I had climbed sandstone before, I was not used to this gritty variety, which I was slow to trust. I was slowed further by the use of half-ropes, which allow longer rappels and supposedly reduce rope drag on wandering pitches, but mostly just complicate belaying and rope management.

Cruxing toward the brush

Cruxing toward the brush

I belayed Renée up while she freed one rope or the other from plants, then she led up more similar terrain to a bulge with a fist/knee crack, the route’s second harder move. After trying a couple options, she decided she did not want to lead it with so much rope out (i.e. a long, bouncy fall while it stretched), so she belayed me up to an awkward stance, where I thrashed around and acted tentative for awhile before jamming fist, foot, and knee in the crack to reach flatter ground, finding a two-bolt anchor perhaps 20 feet on.

Topping out

Topping out

It looked like scrambling to the summit from there, so I flaked 100 meters of rope, brought Renée up, and we both unroped for the sometimes-exposed scramble. The final 20 feet on the left-hand side of the butte were a bit tricky, but all the holds were there, and we soon emerged on a large, perfectly flat white table. From this perch we could see the Nankoweap route to the north, and the Palisades and start of the main canyon to the south. We could see people at the Point Imperial overlook, but could not tell if they waved.

hayden-6Photos taken, it was time to get off this thing. After scrambling back to the anchor, I threw the ropes and slowly rapped, disentangling the ropes from themselves and the brush as I went. The descent requires two double-rope rappels, so I looked for bolts and slings as I went, but found none as I neared the end of the ropes, so I put in at a comfortable ledge, then shouted for Renée to try her hand at finding them. With some searching, she found a slung block, a decent bolt, and a lousy one, on a pedestal 30 feet up to my left. While she pulled the ropes, I soloed up to the pedestal, then clipped in for an amazingly bush-free rappel onto either (1) our packs, or (2) a yucca patch; I chose the former.

The return went much better than the approach. From the ridge connecting Hayden to Imperial, the route stays near the cliffs and is relatively easy to follow. It descends from the cliff near the Coconino break, where it joins a more prominent but ultimately worse route at an obscured junction. I found this use trail pleasant, but only compared to the morning’s spiny hell. After nearly missing the turn up to the fixed rope, we scrambled the gully, bushwhacked back to the ridge, and struggled up the loose dirt to the paved path. We chatted with some friendly Coloradoans who knew a bit about climbing, then headed south to the campground for showers, water, and a rim-side dinner.

Either the north rim has a population of several million deer, or all 500 of them spend their nights right next to the road. I was happy to follow Renée at safe braking distance as she shooed them out of the way on the drive back to Jacob Lake. She apparently found the experience somewhat stressful. We were both tired, so we pulled off on an abandoned forest road a short ways south, found a mostly level place, and promptly passed out.

Nankoweap hiking

Rooms with a view

Rooms with a view


After more uncharacteristic but not unwelcome water-adjacent activities, we were off to the Grand Canyon for what turned out to be two fairly intense days. The first part of the plan was to backpack the Nankoweap Trail, a less-used and challenging route from the North Rim to the Colorado northeast of the main canyon. I had first become aware of this trail while researching last year’s trip down the Tanner Trail to the Little Colorado. I was interested in seeing it both because it passes through a new-to-me part of the canyon, and because it is the northern part of an old horse-stealing route leading up the Tanner and on south to Mexico. Renée gamely played along.

Just below the trailhead

Just below the trailhead

The trailhead is at the end of a long dirt road following the National Park boundary east, drivable at fairly high speeds even late at night. This being National Forest land, there was ample free camping at the trailhead (i.e. enough for 3-4 parties). We got a leisurely start, eating a decent breakfast and packing various camp-stuff before taking the rolling trail along the forest boundary down toward Saddle Mountain.

Supai traverse

Supai traverse

Where the trail joins another from the north, it crosses into the park and descends steeply south, then contours along the Supai layer to Marion Point. Like most Grand Canyon trails, its course is constrained by breaks in the white Coconino and red-painted gray Redwall cliffs. In this case, the breaks dictate a long and at times semi-exposed traverse to the saddle west of Tilted Mesa. As this traverse is south-facing and dry, I had packed an extra gallon of water to leave at some appropriate-seeming place. My knee was not altogether happy with the extra eight pounds, so I dropped the water at the saddle, a mere 2500 feet down the canyon.

Flora (century plant)

Flora (century plant)

Along the traverse, we had met a couple hiking out, each party surprised to see the other in this little-used corner of the park, and they mentioned making camp at Nankoweap Creek rather than the Colorado. This sounded like a good idea to me, as it would both make the hike out shorter, and justify my caching the water so high up. Below Tilted Mesa, the trail descends southeast across a loose, steep slope, passing through the Redwall via a rubble-pile before continuing to something like the Tonto Plateau. Unlike in the main east-west canyon that most visitors see, where the rock strata are flat and parallel, the layers here are tilted and confusing, with the same rock appearing at different elevations to the south, and across the river to the east. There were also flora and fauna.

Fauna (collared lizard)

Fauna (collared lizard)

Below the Redwall and Muav, the trail enters a scorched desert hellscape, crossing spiny brush, cactus, and sharp rock on its way toward the cottonwoods suggesting some kind of watercourse. Though these water sources are often buried, we found Nankoweap Creek to be 3 feet of swiftly-flowing, though warm and not especially tasty, water. After a break in the shade, we crossed to find a popular-looking camping area, where we ditched most of our gear before continuing downstream toward the river and some rumored ruins.

Nankoweap Canyon

Nankoweap Canyon

The river was farther away than I thought, around endless bends in the lower canyon. Though we found occasional cairns and bits of trail, most of the route was a boulder-hop along one or the other side of the creek. Most of the way down, we found a superior source of water: a virtual spigot of a spring coming from an overhanging rock just above the creek. I quickly topped off my bladder, diluting the Nankoweap-y taste of the contents to an acceptable level.

Rafter beach

Rafter beach

The stream meets the river in a nasty locust- and mesquite-soaked delta, but a trail leads up and south, crossing over a low ridge before descending to two beaches popular with rafters. Just past the ridge, a well-built trail leads from one of these beaches to the cliff dwelling; both even appear on the USGS topo. Though we had the ruins to ourselves for the moment, two parties of rafters were disembarking on the beaches, while more streamed by along the river. As we later learned, this is a well-known landmark and popular stopping-point for those visiting the canyon by raft.

Lintel technology

Lintel technology

Ruin-wise-speaking, we had visited Nankoweap and Grand Gulch in the wrong order: buildings that might have impressed me a few days ago seemed mundane compared to what I had recently seen. Still, it was interesting to note the different levels of lintel technology in adjacent dwellings, with some individuals having a better grasp than others of this important building technique. The inhabitants seemed not to have mastered arches; then again, given the abundant flagstone-like rock, they had no need.

Seeing a herd of rafters approaching, we beat a hasty retreat, passing a line of people in mediocre hiking shape on our return. Having time to kill, we headed to the less crowded-looking of the two beaches, planning to rinse off in the river. However, with high clouds directly above, the air and water were too cool for more than a brief foot-rinse.

Sunset looking south

Sunset looking south

As we photographed (me, easy) and painted (her, less so) the surroundings, a couple of the rafters approached to chat. Our different frames of reference made talking about the canyon difficult: where they dealt in miles along the river, I thought in trailheads. The raft-folk seemed friendly enough, even offering dinner and use of their “groover,” and I was tempted to laze around for a few hours, partake of their board, and try to interact with humans before shuffling back to camp. Renée was not so inclined, and I soon found my self psyched about her plan to hike back out the same evening. Doing so somehow seemed truer to my nature, and I could probably use the fortifying hours of evening headlamp time.

We dumped and replaced our water at the spigot, shoved the camping gear back in our packs, and took off for the rim in cloudy, comfortable conditions. We reached the water cache surprisingly quickly, and I laughed at the absurdity of pouring out three of the quarts I had lugged all that way. I knew the Supai traverse would feel long on the way up, and doing the last two thirds by headlamp made it feel even longer, especially with no moon. However, I underestimated the long slog from Saddle Mountain to the trailhead; though it is all “along the rim,” it gains 1,200 feet over several rolling miles. We finally reached the cars at some ungodly time near midnight, where I diligently resumed my sleep deprivation training.

Grand Gulch

Up-canyon from Split Level

Up-canyon from Split Level

I am not usually much of a desert or ruins person. However, both are necessary parts of any visit to the southwest, and I found them much more tolerable when combined with a trail run. Renée had picked out a path through Grand Gulch going in Bullet and out Todie Canyons, which she claimed was “about 16 miles of mostly runnable trail” (it actually turned out to be 25-ish miles with plenty of bushwhacking and sand-slogging). The route would visit 10 or so ruins and pictographs of various shapes and sizes.

Sunrise on buttes

Sunrise on buttes

We lazed around our campsite in Valley of the Gods — the BLM version of Monument Valley — then drove up the improbable Moki Dugway and through a herd of cattle, set up the car shuttle, and got started running around mid-morning. The trail down Bullet Canyon was well-used and clear, and we passed a few backpackers heading out as we descended. At the first major ruin area, we wasted a bunch of time trying to find a “perfect kiva” before giving up and visiting the more obvious cliff-dwelling guarded by a weird ghost-face. Like many of the other dwellings we visited, it consisted of a well-built lower layer of living quarters, and a more primitive upper one, used perhaps for storage or defense. Sheltered by the overhanging canyon wall, and preserved in the desert air, the buildings’ stick-and-mud construction had survived six centuries surprisingly well.

Corn impression on granary

Corn impression on granary

After passing a granary helpfully labeled with a corn impression, we blew right past the intersection with Grand Gulch, hidden in a mass of cottonwoods, greenery, and use trails leading to campsites. We went most of a mile downstream before realizing our error, but I did not mind at the time, since I was still feeling fresh, and I got to catch a young bullsnake along the way. Returning to the junction, we found that the trail up the Gulch was not nearly as running-friendly as the one down Bullet Canyon. It alternated between bush-whacking through the overgrown sides and following the dry, sandy wash. Neither was particularly fast, and we alternated between abusing our shins on the brush and slogging along in the soft sand.

The Green Mask

The Green Mask

Much canyon later, we found a bit of flagging and followed the short detour leading to the Green Mask Ruin. There we found a couple of backpackers relaxing in the shade, perhaps refilling their water from the supposed spring farther up. Parts of the cave roof had collapsed, destroying most of the structures, but this ruin had the most impressive petroglyphs, from several periods of occupation, including the eponymous green mask. It also had an ammo can with a short history lesson and a summit register, which I dutifully signed.

Split-level

Split-level

Back in the main draw, we passed a few more ruins, but having become either “ruin snobs” or too hot and tired, we only visited the ones closest to the trail. However the last major site, the Split Level Ruin, was worth taking some time to appreciate (it also had the all-important summit register). Though not as sheltered as the first ruin in Bullet Canyon, it was still in good shape, with substantial portions of the buildings’ roofs intact. We tiptoed around the town dump (useful to archaeologists), and peered into the various structures, then picked grass seeds from our socks and went into “let’s get this over with” mode for the slog up to and out Todie Canyon. After a brief scramble near the canyon rim, we had only a final bit of blessedly non-brushy desert slogging to reach my car. There I sensibly sat in the shade and drank water, while Renée performed some kind of stretching ritual. After a fancy dinner at the Bullet trailhead, we made late-night drive back through the cattle and down the Dugway to find the closest reasonable camping in Valley of the Gods and think of easier things to do on the morrow.

Sharkstooth, Centennial

Centennial, Lavender, and Hesperus

Centennial, Lavender, and Hesperus


After some atypical hot-springs-related program activities, I left Renée to tag some peaks in the La Plata mountains west of Durango. Though not as high as their neighbors to the north and east, they are still striking from the south and west, enough so that the highest, Hesperus, marks the northwest corner of the rhomboid Navajo ancestral homeland. Being greedy, I planned to start with Sharkstooth, then traverse my way around to Hesperus via Centennial and Lavender.

I retraced my route to near Mancos, then took off on the long forest service road northeast toward Windy Gap. The road started out as nasty fresh chip-seal, then became nice dirt as it climbed through scrub, pines, and aspens, passing a guard station before a snowdrift stopped wheeled vehicles near Spruce Mill Park, a few miles short of the Sharkstooth Pass trailhead. I strapped snowshoes to my pack, then set off up the road, finding surprisingly consolidated snow made even firmer by frequent snowmobile traffic.

sharkstooth-2Once off the main road, the snowmobile tracks went in all directions, and I followed one for awhile before setting off for Sharkstooth’s southwest side, surprised to only posthole a few times on the untracked snow. Though the snow was well-behaved, the underlying rock was not: as I started up the bare slope to Sharkstooth’s summit, I ran into large, loose talus covered with a dusting of fresh snow. I slowly worked my way up the peak, trying various lines and finding none particularly pleasant, and concluded that the peak is best done completely in snow. Perusing the register on the summit, I was surprised that many people complimented the view, but none commented on the slog. Maybe I complain too much.

Sharkstooth from pass

Sharkstooth from pass

I descended Sharkstooth at about the same pace I climbed it, then followed bits of trail toward Centennial from Sharkstooth Pass. When the trail disappeared, I followed the easy low-angle snow along the ridge to the summit. So far, so good. The ridge to Lavender looked tricky, but I had plenty of energy and daylight to work with, and doubted that these minor peaks would present much of a challenge.

Annoying gap and Lavender

Annoying gap and Lavender

Descending southwest, I found an unfortunate, tricky mixture of hard, steep snow, loose scree, and rotten rock. I would have felt better taking to the snow with crampons and an axe, but I had only running shoes and snowshoes, neither especially useful, so I stayed near the crest, avoiding the precipitous east side. I was making slow but steady progress until I reached a notch visible from the approach, and found the near side vertical to overhanging. There is apparently a way around in the summer, and I could probably have descended around the west with better snow gear, but I didn’t see anything I liked, so I retreated to Centennial, then cut the corner back toward the road.

I probably could have climbed Hesperus from the north, but that would have required 2,000 feet more climbing, the snow was beginning to soften, and the weather was sort of getting worse. After snowshoeing back to the road, I hiked and jogged back to my car semi-defeated, then headed into Mancos for a resupply before leaving peaks and snow behind to dry out in the red deserts of Navajo land.

Northern NM climbing (and failures thereat)

Look at us all trad'ed out

Look at us all trad’ed out


[Lately I have been too busy doing things to write about them. Let’s see if I can catch up.]

Though I have spent more time in northern New Mexico more than anywhere else, it has usually been during non-climbing periods, so I know little about the local crags. It took a visit from an eager out-of-towner to make me acquaint myself with the area. I met Renée as a friend-of-a-friend while ice climbing in Ouray this winter, and she somewhat misguidedly looked me up as a partner and source of information on the southwest part of a whirlwind dirtbag tour of the west. Fortunately she had done her research, so after dinner in Santa Fe, we drove up through the little town of El Rito, and camped a short way off the dirt road to a nearby trad cliff.

Meadows and El Rito Rock

Meadows and El Rito Rock

This being truck-accessible public scrub-land near a town, we woke to the usual collection of junk — old carpet, CRT monitor, toilet seat — as well as an unusual pair of sheep carcasses. We ignored the detritus while eating and sorting gear, waved to some locals, then drove the rest of the way to the crag. Though the road supposedly required a high-clearance 4WD, my Element had no trouble with a bit of careful driving. After a 5-10-minute walk through open woods, we were at the base of the crag. The El Rito crag consists of mostly solid, generously-featured conglomerate rock, with enough cracks and bushes to allow trad protection.

Crux roof

Crux roof

As this was my first trad climbing in almost two years, I happily started off on a mellow 5.7 and gave Renée the first lead. After failing to do anything terminally stupid while belaying and following, I led the easy second pitch to the top. After enjoying the view of fields and cows to the northwest, we jogged around the walk-off to try the next route. I led the first 5.7 pitch, with protection consisting almost entirely of slung shrubbery. The second pitch was a bit more interesting, as the face steepens below a roof, thoughtfully protected by a bolt that can be clipped from below.

After walking around again, we scrambled a 5.3 on the right-hand side, curious why it had three stars in the guide (PDF). Though I would not give it maximum stars, it was fun enough, as was another small tower above it, and the right-side walk-off was not nearly as bad as the guide suggested. Overall, El Rito is fun climbing with easy access and camping, well worth checking out if you’re in the area.

Abiquiu Lake from Pedernal

Abiquiu Lake from Pedernal

With daylight to spare, we decided to tag Coyote Butte, a.k.a. Cerro Pedernal, a small but notable peak between the Jemez and Abiquiu Lake. We stopped by the surprisingly nice El Rito library (a converted WPA-built school) to look up the route, then drove toward the town of Coyote, and followed a good forest road to a bad one leading toward the peak’s south side. Here I felt my new car’s inferiority, and was forced to park partway up before suffering an unplanned oil change. Renée’s truck got us a short distance farther, where the road seems to turn into a rutted ATV track.

Pedernal panorama

Pedernal panorama

From here we bush-whacked straight toward the center of the butte’s broad south face, finding an occasional cairn. As we approached the face, we easily spotted a cave mentioned in the route description, and found a well-worn and -cairned trail leading up the brief third class scramble to the top. Coyote Butte is a long, narrow mesa tilting slightly up to an open summit on its western end. There we found a summit register and excellent evening views of the Abiquiu area and southern Sangres beyond. We chilled and got chilled a bit, then returned to a convenient campsite along the road.

Start of attempted Brazos route

Start of attempted Brazos route

Despite a less-than-perfect forecast, we headed slightly north to climb a long, moderate route on the Brazos Cliffs, one of the largest face in New Mexico. We discovered along the way that, contrary to what multiple maps say, NM 573/162 does not connect US 84/64 to the Brazos Road. Instead, it dead-ends at a river crossing — and more dead sheep.

After fixing that mistake, we found the parking and approach without much further trouble. The approach starts off through summer cottages, then follows an old forest road before climbing and traversing through the woods to the base of the cliffs. It is easy to follow on the way out — just go to the end of the road, then head toward the huge crag — but somewhat trickier on the return, as the route is sparsely cairned and apparently seldom traveled.

First two pitches of Cat Burglar

First two pitches of Cat Burglar


We reached the base of the cliffs a bit late in the morning, then spent far too much time finding the base of the route. After exploring too far, we returned to a water-scoured gully at the base of the “Great Couloir,” looked at it, then scrambled up some awful brushy class 4-5 stuff to its left to reach the base of the route. In retrospect, it would probably have been easier and faster to scramble or climb from the couloir to the base of the first pitch.

And then it sucked

And then it sucked

There were some clouds to the south and west, but nothing directly overhead, so we roped up to simul the first two easy pitches. Though the climbing was not too hard, there was not much obvious protection: Renée placed something like two pieces in the first 50 meters. When we eventually regrouped at the top of P2, a ledge with a large tree and a slung log, the weather seemed to be deteriorating. We dithered for a few minutes, reluctant to abandon the climb, before a flurry of graupel and snow made up our minds. As mentioned in the route description, Brazos rock becomes extremely slick when wet. Had we started later, we likely would have had to either wait out the weather or donate more gear to the crag; as it was, we lost only a sling, a cordelette, and two carabiners on the retreat.

With unsettled weather all around, the rest of the day was best used driving on to the next thing. So much for the New Mexico part of my season.

Cottonwood

Brief glimpse of summit

Brief glimpse of summit


Cottonwood is the northernmost 13er in the Sangre de Cristos, which bound the San Luis Valley to the east. After killing a day in Buena Vista while it continued to storm in the mountains, I ignored the forecast to camp at the Hot Springs Canyon trailhead. Since it wasn’t actually raining or snowing when I woke, I started up the trail, glad to be wearing running shoes after so many days in damp boots. Though it is called Hot Springs Canyon, a sign at the trailhead helpfully points out that all of the springs are on private inholdings; presumably, you get shot for swimming without permission.

Northern San Luis valley near trailhead

Northern San Luis valley near trailhead

It had snowed about an inch the night before, and between that and older snow, the trail was often a stream. It remained cloudy, but there was only intermittent, gentle snowfall as I made my way up-canyon through the pines and aspens. Above a clearing near 10,000′ I started running into old snow, and as the trail climbed, I had to avoid or wallow through a few slush-drifts. I had brought snowshoes, but the snow-cover was not consistent enough to justify putting them on.

Clearing to the south

Clearing to the south

As the trees thinned near Cottonwood’s west ridge, the trail disappeared and I made my way up the old-snow-free west-facing side of the canyon, reaching the ridge near a minor rocky bump. I was treated to a view of the striated peaks around Adams below the cloud deck to the south, and a possible old rock glacier to the north. It even seemed like I might see the sun.

False summit

False summit

The snow on the ridge was wind-packed enough that I rarely postholed, but soft enough to kick steps, and I made good progress to the false summit. From there, I got a brief glimpse of the true summit before the wind picked up and the clouds returned. While it is possible to make a loop of the climb, tagging an unnamed 13er to the south before dropping to the Garner Creek trail, I could see nothing, so I returned the way I came, reaching the car around noon.

After lunch, I spent some time at the homey coffee place in Moffat before continuing to the Cottonwood Creek trailhead near Crestone to try my luck with the forecast once again. Sadly, things looked bleaker than I could handle when I woke, so I simply went for a quick run up to the snowline before heading south. After a painful interlude to race a 50k, I will return to the wilderness next week.

Horseshoe (Boudoir Couloir), Silverheels

Couloir's up there somewhere

Couloir’s up there somewhere


Guess the state...

Guess the state…

Horseshoe, a nondescript blob from many angles, is named for the striking glacial cirque on its east face. The Boudoir Couloir, leading up this cirque to just south of the summit, is a moderate snow climb that makes this peak more interesting. Driving around from Leadville, I took the approach road as far as I could, then retreated to National Forest land to camp. Retracing my steps the next morning, I stupidly managed to wedge myself in the ditch while turning around, but was fortunately able to get a quick tow from another party at this popular trailhead. After passing a thoroughly-wedged jeep (Cali plates, natch), I passed a familiar decrepit building and realized that this was the same road where a young Dr. Dirtbag had spent an hour digging his Celica out with an ice axe. Beware Fourmile Creek, folks!

Looking down at Jay and Brian

Looking down at Jay and Brian

The day started out looking okay, but mists soon rose from the east while clouds approached from the west, and I was hiking in a mild snowstorm by the time I turned off the main road up toward Mount Sherman. Continuing up this faint road, which passes numerous summer cottages on its way to the Peerless Mine, I spotted two figures ahead of me. I caught up to Jay and Brian near a buried tarn, where we exchanged 14ers.com handles, then continued together toward where we hoped the couloir might be.

Dormitory near summit

Dormitory near summit

Once we identified it, I left them while they prepared for the climb. I found mostly good snow for kicking steps without crampons, using bits of old tracks and glissade paths where appropriate. The couloir seemed to have slid during the past couple of warm days, but was quite solid in the current storm. Some slogging later, I topped out to a whiteout on a broad plain somewhere near the summit. After scratching an arrow into the snow pointing toward the couloir, I turned right, then made my way left around an unexpected cornice. This path led me straight to an old building at 13,800′, which turns out to have been the bunkhouse for the hardy miners of the Peerless.

Fleeing ptarmigans

Fleeing ptarmigans

From the bunkhouse, I headed roughly uphill until I saw something I took for a summit cairn, then carefully retraced my steps in my uniformly gray world. I chatted a bit more with my companions on the way down the couloir, then made my way back roughly along the old road. I saw two other people and a dog in the distance, but was otherwise alone in the silent snow, except for the occasional skree-cluck-cluck-cluck of a ptarmigan. I somehow ended up on a different road, passing different summer cabins, but was soon back to the “main drag,” and thence to my car.

Silverheels from approach

Silverheels from approach

Continuing to Fairplay, I stopped just long enough to get online and figure out how to reach Mount Silverheels, then continued to Hoosier Pass, which was the trailhead for the most likely-seeming route. Sitting across Hoosier Pass from the rest of the Tenmile Range, Silverheels shares little of those peaks’ character, looking more like a classic Sawatch talus-pile from all sides. One thing that does give it a Tenmile feel is the high voltage line passing to its west, likely the same one that crosses next to Dyer.

Quandary and friends from Silverheels

Quandary and friends from Silverheels

Leaving the car around 1:00, I snowshoed east up the boot- and ski-path, then made my way across rolling terrain in the general direction of the peak. I saw one skier ahead of me, but he apparently got scared off by a brief squall. Dropping too low, I floundered through the willows warned about in the online route description, then booted my way up one of the ribs on Silverheels’ northwest face. Eventually reaching the summit ridge, I slogged across numerous false summits to the true one, where at least I had more of a view than on Horseshoe.

I dropped down sooner and took a higher line on the return, passing under the power line where it crosses a saddle west of the peak, then side-hilling around some bumps on the way back to Hoosier Pass. It probably would have been more efficient to follow the top of the ridge, but my growing fatigue pushed me to avoid elevation gain and loss. Unfortunately, there was nothing I could do to avoid the softening snow this late in the day, so the last part of the hike was, even on snowshoes, a postholing mess. Oh, well, I got ‘er done.