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.

Dyer (West ridge)

West ridge on return

West ridge on return


After two fairly long days, I burned a good weather day on a short, easy peak to give myself time to catch up and dry out. This was probably a mistake, as it may have been the last good weather I will see for awhile. Dyer is a classic Leadville-adjacent peak, with a standard route that passes a mine tailings pond, then follows one of the high-voltage power lines leading to the rich, ski-resort-heavy eastern side of the Tenmile Range. While somewhat contrived, the west ridge route turns Dyer into a fun third class scramble.

Elbert and Massive

Elbert and Massive

I parked less than a half-mile past where the approach road turns to dirt, and booted my way on to where the standard and west ridge routes diverge. After the previous day’s miserable snow, I was surprised to find snowshoes unnecessary not only on the road, which sees a fair amount of snowmobile traffic, but even going cross-country to the saddle between Dyer and West Dyer.

Start of west ridge

Start of west ridge

After a bit of obnoxious broken terrain, the ridge turns into an enjoyable class 3 scramble. While it may be possible to “cheat” on the south side, the north side of the ridge is mostly vertical. Staying near the ridge crest, I found some loose blocks, but mostly solid rock, mixed with snow that was mostly wind-packed on the south side and frustrating otherwise. There were some bits of exposed traversing near the top, which may not be an issue in summer conditions.

Exposed bit of ridge

Exposed bit of ridge

The route’s main downside is that it leaves you several false summits away from the true one. However, that is a small price to pay to avoid the standard “brain cancer” route, which follows a high-voltage power line for awhile before ascending gentle snow (or talus). I made a loop of it, returning via the standard route to reach the car well before lunch.

Casco, “Frasco”, French

Casco and Frasco from French

Casco and Frasco from French

After a most un-Sawatch day (steep peaks, solid snow), I headed north to tag a couple high 13ers near Mount Elbert in more typical conditions. French and Casco are two ho-hum peaks overshadowed by neighboring Mounts Massive and Elbert, two of Colorado’s highest. They can be climbed via an old mine road leading to near 12,000′ in the basin northwest of Elbert.

French from Halfmoon Road

French from Halfmoon Road

People were driving as far as the Mount Massive trailhead on Halfmoon Creek road, but I chickened out a mile or so short, worried about getting up a slushy hill on my afternoon return. With so much road-walking on the menu, I opted for running shoes and bread-bags instead of my permanently damp mountaineering boots. The road was an easy walk to where I turned off on the South Halfmoon fork and crossed Halfmoon Creek. I found a dry crossing after a bit of exploration, but noted unhappily that the snow was already soft enough to require snowshoes. Once across the creek, I followed the road up into the basin, where it disappears into open willows, then continued toward what turned out to be the Casco-“Frasco” saddle. This is not the “right” way to climb these peaks, but spring snow is forgiving.

Casco ridge

Casco ridge

After kicking my way up to the saddle, I made my way slowly up the obnoxious ridge to Casco. The wet snow conspired with a west crosswind to make my feet uncomfortably cold, so I spent 10 minutes on the sheltered side of the summit wringing out my socks and warming my feet inside my balaclava. Feet temporarily re-warmed, I awkwardly snowshoe-skidded back down, then headed for Frasco. My feet were once again uncomfortably cold, so I found a sheltered spot to again wring out my socks and try to re-rig the plastic bags to better protect my feet. I was tempted to just head down, but French was close enough for me to force myself to get it done.

Frasco and French from saddle

Frasco and French from saddle

The ridge to “Frasco” was tricky, but became dramatically easier between there and French. I paused just long enough to take a few photos from the summit, then headed straight down the south slope to intersect my outward track. My snowshoes became too treacherous on the steep, softening slope, so I plunge-stepped down to near the Iron Mike Mine, then put my snowshoes back on to make my way through the woods to South Halfmoon Creek.

Leadville from French

Leadville from French

Partway through the woods I began postholing. This was the Sawatch hell-slush I knew so well, a knee-deep Slurpee that would continue for nearly 2,000 vertical feet to the main Halfmoon road. I stopped one more time to wring out my socks and warm my feet where the road crosses the creek, then continued a short way before plunging straight down through the woods. Since I was postholing with nearly every step on the road, fighting a few trees to pick up the lower switchback would be faster. I didn’t even try to find a dry crossing of Halfmoon Creek — my feet could not get wetter. I just splashed across, wrung out my socks, and let my feet slowly warm up on the long walk back to the car. Time to find some friendlier mountains…

Ice (Refrigerator Couloir), North Apostle

Apostles from the north

Apostles from the north


Ice and the other Apostles are a strikingly rugged sight in a range composed mostly of giant, placid ant-hills. Ice Mountain is unique among major Sawatch peaks for having no route easier than class 3. I was torn between traversing all three Apostles (North Apostle, Ice, and West Apostle), and doing the Refrigerator Couloir on Ice, the center Apostle. I had naively hoped to do both — climb the Fridge, hop over to North Apostle, then back across to West — but ended up skipping West Apostle on a challenging day.

First view from the approach

First view from the approach

I got started a bit before 6:30 near the lower Huron trailhead, as the road was still blocked by snowdrifts. The cold night had hardened the snow enough that I did not need snowshoes until after entering the Refrigerator Couloir, over three hours into the day. This surprised me, as there had been a late-season snowstorm only two days before, and I have suffered the hellish slush-bog of a Sawatch melt in years past.

Following the stream

Following the stream

Thanks to the party who I had met the day before, I had a fresh, fat snowshoe track to follow, and therefore had easy going and no route-finding trouble between the end of the road and the base of the couloir. While the summer route evidently follows the right side of the creek leading out of the Apostle cirque, there was enough snow to simple boot along the creek itself as it winds through its narrow slot.

Ice detail showing Refrigerator (r) and ridge (l)

Ice detail showing Refrigerator (r) and ridge (l)

The Refrigerator is hidden as one approaches the peaks, but fortunately I could simply follow the track as it climbed through a steep slot toward the base of North Apostle. Entering the couloir, the friendly snow turned to heavy powder a foot or more deep with a thin, breakable crust. Even following the previous day’s track was a grim wallow: I put on my snowshoes, then duck-walked up the least-bad line, usually managing not to slide backward. It was brutal work, and I was conscious that once the sun warmed the upper couloir there was a decent chance of a wet slide.

West Apostle from Ice

West Apostle from Ice

Perhaps 100 feet from the top, the previous day’s party had given up. I tried exiting left onto rock, but found nothing I particularly wanted to climb, so I returned to the main couloir to brute-force my way to the ridge. Things definitely became sketchy as the couloir steepened: the new snow would no longer support my snowshoes, so I had to kick each step a half-dozen times to burrow down to the pre-storm layer. While I did not manage to kick off a wet slide, it certainly felt like I could have. The cornice presented a final obstacle. Stomping down a solid platform near the left side, I chopped and burrowed at the top until, after a couple tries, I managed to “beached whale” onto the ridge and writhe to security.

North Apostle from Ice

North Apostle from Ice

Looking around, I saw a cool balanced block to the west, and the summit a short distance to the east. I carefully snowshoed straight up the ridge, headed south to what might have been a slightly higher point, then returned to the junction of ridges leading to the Apostles. Traversing to both Apostles was clearly out of the question, as the west ridge was long and involved in fresh snow, and the north was steep enough to be invisible from the summit. Not wanting to descend the warming couloir, I decided to try the ridge to North Apostle.

Ridge-work

Ridge-work

Switching to boots and ice axe, I peered over the edge, and saw a complicated-looking ridge with a sheer east side and ribs extending west. I was surprised and relieved to discover that even the steep snow on the ridge was nicely consolidated. Using a mixture of the ridge crest and the left (west) side, I carefully picked my way toward the saddle. This involved cleaning off snowy 4th class rock to find footholds, and plunging my axe for (psychological?) protection while downclimbing steep snow. It felt good to do something like “real mountaineering” for the first time in awhile.

Easy North Apostle

Easy North Apostle

From the saddle, North Apostle is straightforward class 2, so it was all over except the slogging. I tagged the summit, admiring views of neighboring Ice and Huron, then awkwardly snowshoed down to rejoin the path. The snow had softened enough to require snowshoes, but had not turned to Sawatch hell-slush, so I made it back without straining myself in about 8h30 for one of the better days I’m likely to have this month.

Emerald, Iowa

Iowa and Emerald from approach

Iowa and Emerald from approach


After a wretched slog up and down Hope Mountain in a white-out, and a forced rest day when I woke to snow and sleet at 10,000′, I was finally granted a few days’ good weather. The first order of business was Emerald Peak, a typical Sawatch rubble-mound near Missouri Basin. The most direct approach is via the seldom-used road to Clohesy Lake. Having been turned around by epic high water in Clear Creek when I last wanted to use the approach in 2010, I looked forward to exploring this valley between Huron and Missouri. I was not disappointed: the rugged side of Huron and its neighbors to the north is far more scenic than the rolling terrain in Missouri Basin.

Higher up-road

Higher up-road

I forded the first two of three branches of Clear Creek in my car, then rock-hopped across the last in the morning, hiking the rocky and soon snow-covered 4WD road to its end just before the lake. Clohesy Lake was just starting to emerge from the snow, but the snow above was deep and consolidated enough that I could tromp straight over the willows, swamp, and stream in the bottom of the valley rather than hunt for the supposed trail in the woods.

Looking back to Huron

Looking back to Huron

After heading south along the valley bottom for awhile, I arbitrarily decided to head straight up through the woods to the east, emerging nearly dead-east of Emerald’s summit. As I climbed toward the plain to its southwest, the impressive Apostles emerged above the valley rim behind me. With the fresh snow, a direct attack on Emerald would be frustrating, so I looped south, passing near the ruins of an old building before making my way up the gentler south ridge to the summit.

Iowa and Missouri from Emerald

Iowa and Missouri from Emerald

The weather was starting to deteriorate, with clouds to the southwest and a strong wind driving me on toward Iowa after only a brief stop. Iowa has just enough prominence from nearby Missouri to count as a peak, and does not rank among Colorado’s highest 100, but it was more or less in the way of my getting home, so I tagged it, looked at the frozen-shut summit register, then dropped down its west ridge until I could slide, plunge-step, and glissade back to Clohesy Lake. Despite the oncoming clouds, the day had warmed enough to soften the snow and make it much less cooperative than in the morning.

After a post-hike meal, I headed up-creek to the ghost town of Winfield and the trailhead for my main objective in the area, the Apostles. Having had the mountains to myself for awhile, I was surprised to find a group of four having just attempted what I planned to do the next day. They had found thigh-deep wallowing in the couloir (which sounded like an avalanche risk to me), and turned around short of the summit, two of them having a good ski while the others snowshoed home. I thanked them for plowing a trench, then turned in to read for awhile.

Fletcher (“Super Black and Tan”), Drift

Fletcher and drift afterward

Fletcher and drift afterward


With the forecast calling for yet another day of mixed weather, I headed north for the snack-sized peaks of the Tenmile range between Leadville and Fairplay. Most of these peaks can be climbed from either side with a similar amount of effort, from trailheads between 10,000 and 11,000 feet. Though avalanche season is more or less over, prevailing winds make the west side safer. After checking out my options, I decided to climb Fletcher via its northwest face from Mayflower Gulch, a trailhead I have previously used for Pacific, Crystal, and Atlantic.

Fletcher and Drift on approach

Fletcher and Drift on approach

I went to sleep in the parking lot in a snowstorm, and woke to a cold morning and a dusting of fresh snow. While the colder temperatures were good for snow conditions, it took me longer than usual to make a hot breakfast in my sleeping bag and extract myself from the car, and I did not get started until 7:15. No big deal — Fletcher is only about 3 miles and less than 3,000′ of gain. I left my snowshoes at home, and was pleased to find not just a well-packed path to the Boston Mine, but a supportive crust in the open terrain above.

Which couloir?

Which couloir?

Approaching Fletcher’s northwest face, I debated which of two similar-looking couloirs I should follow. The left-hand one looked snowier, easier, and less direct, while the right-hand one had an obvious rock finish, but apparently led directly to the summit. Reaching the base, I encountered more breakable rain crust over sugar, which was annoying but far better than the previous day’s slush.

I debated my couloir choice while putting on my crampons, then decided that I wanted both more challenge and less snow, and headed right. It might or might not have been the “Black and Tan couloir” whose route description I had found, but either appeared to go. I managed to keep the sun just below the ridgeline to my left as I front-pointed up the snowy part of the couloir, and it was cool enough to climb at full effort in my shell and heavy gloves. Though I found occasional névé, most of snow continued to have a breakable, supportive crust, so climbing was slightly inefficient, but it was easy to find a rest stance.

Looking down crux

Looking down crux

Reaching the mixed finish, I began to question my judgment. The underlying “black and tan” (black and gray, really) rock was mostly garbage, and the solid bits often sloped outward or lacked cracks in which I could wedge a crampon point or ice axe point. Much of it was covered with a layer of thin ice and sugary snow that rarely provided a solid stick or plunge. It may have been only class 3-4, but it has been awhile since I did this sort of scrappy climbing in crampons and gloves, so I made this short stretch look hard and sketchy.

Quandary from Fletcher

Quandary from Fletcher

Topping out, I found myself in the sun a short ridge-walk below the summit. Following a boot- and ski-track for the final stretch, I found the summit surprisingly calm and pleasant. I checked out the neighboring peaks, but saw no fellow mountaineers, not even on nearby Quandary. There must have been people on this easy fourteener on a nice spring day, but perhaps not a summer-sized crowd.

Drift from Fletcher

Drift from Fletcher

With plenty of day left, and the weather behaving itself, I decided to traverse over to neighboring Drift Peak, which was supposed to be fun third class. After an easy walk down to the saddle, Drift’s gendarmes provided some route-finding challenges. I was forced to backtrack twice descending the last one, eventually finding a path down the south side, then back toward the ridge via a step-around to a ledge system. After that, it was easy going to the summit, where I found another old boot-pack.

Unnecessary snowshoes

Unnecessary snowshoes

I took off my crampons, then made my way down the broad, snowy north face. This would have been a good ski, but I am not a skier, so I contented myself with some plunge steps and a long sitting glissade. Dropping through the lower cliff-band via a steeper chute, my ill-advised glissade forced me into an awkward, powdery self-arrest; after that, I plunge-stepped. After boot-skiing the final slope to the valley, I passed a couple of snowshoers on the still-supportive crust, then met several AT skiers getting a late-morning start.

Unappealing Clinton (heh...)

Unappealing Clinton (heh…)

Reaching the car around noon, I had a hot lunch and thought about what to do with the rest of my day. The weather remained basically decent, and I should have tagged Clinton Peak on my way back over Fremont Pass, but tromping up to an unremarkable summit right above a hideous molybdenum mine did not appeal, so I instead retreated to the Leadville coffee shop, which is open Sundays (!). Maybe I’ll come back for Clinton from the other side, where I won’t have to see the mine until the very end.

Cronin

Cronin from road junction

Cronin from road junction


Cronin is a nothing-burger peak west of Antero, accessed via Baldwin Gulch. Later in the season, a climb would be accompanied by the constant noise of jeeps enjoying one of the highest 4WD roads in the country. However, with the road still blocked low down by snow, the back-country was quiet. With a dubious weather forecast, I was looking for a half-day peak, and Colorado’s 75th highest fit the bill.

cronin-2Waking at the base of the jeep road, I made myself a hot breakfast in the car, then got started up the road around 6:30. I had last been this way in late May 2010, driving the then-dry road in a more capable car than I have now. I passed the road-walking time listening to some saved-up podcasts, then put my snowshoes on at the Baldwin Lake junction, where the snow became continuous and Cronin loomed above to the south. The route description for Cronin’s north ridge said to leave this road about a mile from the junction, so I picked a likely looking spot and set off through the woods.

Upper Cronin ridge

Upper Cronin ridge

One miserable slog later, I reached open ground near the toe of the ridge, and took off my snowshoes for the lower section that was scoured almost completely dry. The ridge was easy going, with what might have even been a faint use trail in places, and I made good time as I watched clouds approach from the south and west. Higher up, the ridge was once again covered in soft snow, so I tackled the final part with snowshoes, suffering for my lack of acclimatizion and fitness.

Grizzly and points west

Grizzly and points west

With better weather and/or a bit more motivation, I would have continued to neighboring Grizzly Peak, at the head of the valley, but I instead dropped straight to Baldwin Lake, then picked up the other road back to the junction. It had been a warm night and a warmer day, and the snow, barely supportive in the morning, was becoming unpredictable bottomless hell-slush. Step, step, step, sink-knee-deep, curse, repeat.

FUN!

FUN!

I spotted another set of tracks below the junction, and soon met their maker, a “kid” from Minnesota out on a weekend scouting trip. (I say “kid” because he looked young to my middle-aged eyes, but he was actually in his late 20s with a wife, kid, and career. Yikes.) He definitely looked the tourist, with loafers and a camera strapped around his neck, but handled the slush-drifts without complaint. We talked for the remaining hike to the car, and I tried to suggest a few quiet places he could camp with the family — “avoid 14ers and jeep roads” — but his interests and Minnesota background are alien enough to me that I was probably of little use. After fish, it was time to head north to the next mediocre-weather objective.

Venado, Latir

Venado from "turd ridge"

Venado from “turd ridge”


I had originally meant to hike Lobo Peak near Taos, but the trailhead camping looked bad, and the peak too easy, so I continued through Questa to a nice, quiet spot at Cabresto Reservoir. This is not just a nice place to camp, but the trailhead for Venado and Latir, two 12,000-foot peaks within shouting distance of Colorado. Like North Truchas, I had tried to do these two during a previous winter, only to be turned around by bottomless slush, so a bit of vengeance seemed in order.

Bull Creek emerging from snow

Bull Creek emerging from snow

Waking to gray skies, I figured out a better way to attach snowshoes to my pack, then set of more quickly than I had the day before. After rounding the reservoir at 9,200′, the trail climbs consistently along a creek leading to Heart Lake. I started hitting intermittent snow around 10,000′, but it was still firm in the morning, and I continued without snowshoes as I turned onto the Bull Creek trail, which climbs to the 12,000′ saddle between Cabresto and Venado Peaks. I followed ski and boot tracks until the latter gave up in deep snow, then put on snowshoes, lost the trail, and floundered along the path of least resistance through the woods south of Venado.

The quick way to Venado

The quick way to Venado

Emerging in a clearing, I saw that the southeast ridge of Venado’s southeast subpeak was both tree- and snow-free, so I ignored the trail to efficiently gain 1,000′. Though I saw no bighorns, this is apparently a popular place for them to hang out, as evidenced by the carpet of their dung covering parts of the ridge. I crossed the subpeak, then put my snowshoes back on for the final climb to Venado’s summit.

Latir from Venado

Latir from Venado

I had thought of hanging out on top for awhile, or possibly making an out-and-back trip to nearby Virsylvia, but the vicious, eyeball-freezing wind immediately changed my mind. Instead, I continued as quickly as possible along the so-called trail toward Latir, then left it for the summit at the north end of “Latir Mesa.” (Latir is not really a peak, but just the high-point of a rolling alpine plateau stretching northwest to southeast for over a mile.)

Lucky encounter with trail sign

Lucky encounter with trail sign

Latir’s summit was once again too windy for comfort, so I followed the line of large cairns marking the supposed trail to where it drops down a cirque toward Heart Lake. I played hide-and-seek with the trail for awhile, finding a buried sign and some blazes on trees, then followed it more easily as it descended to shallower snow, finally taking off my snowshoes just above the Bull Creek junction. With my new attachment method, I was even able to comfortably jog the descent to the reservoir, arriving with plenty of time for more fish and a long drive up into Colorado.

North Truchas

North Truchas from saddle

North Truchas from saddle


Out of the house, into the car, and up the road north: so begins another season.

The Truchas Peaks are the most rugged and remote section of New Mexico’s tail end of the Rockies. I snowshoed Middle and South Truchas a couple of years ago, and was completely shut down trying to ski North Truchas last winter, so I decided to finish it off as my first act of 2016. The shortest route is about 25 miles round-trip with 4100 feet of elevation gain, mostly on a well-maintained pack trail. In early May, however, the last half of the trail is completely buried in snow.

Distant Chimayosos

Distant Chimayosos

After a quiet night at the Santa Barbara trailhead, I got a leisurely start around 6:30, hiking along the Santa Barbara River with snowshoes flopping awkwardly on my pack. The trail soon enters a narrow canyon, with sharp rock buttresses rising to the west. North Truchas’ eastern neighbor Chimayosos Peak comes in and out of view at the head of the canyon, as the trail slowly gains elevation along the river’s eastern bank.

Creek crossing

Creek crossing

After a bit of confusion at an intersection, I continued up the west fork trail, passing several campsites and crossing a couple of large meadows. Near the head of the canyon, where we had been turned around by unconsolidated snow when skiing last year, I found that the trail crosses to the west side and doubles back a short distance down-canyon before switch-backing up the steep west slope to No Fish Lake. The lower switchbacks were intermittently snow-covered, but the snow was hard enough to make snowshoes unnecessary. Higher up, it became softer and continuous, forcing me to finally put on snowshoes as I awkwardly side-hilled up the buried switchbacks.

Slog, slog, slog

Slog, slog, slog

I lost the trail in the woods where the valley flattens out below the lake, but had little trouble making my way through the woods toward the Chimayosos-Truchas saddle to the southwest. I thought I saw a couple of bighorns near the saddle, but nothing but droppings of indeterminate age when I reached the sign. The final climb to Truchas had been blown partially snow-free, so after snowshoeing through some krummholtz, I picked my way up the steep grass in running shoes before snowshoeing the final 100 feet to the summit.

Pecos Baldy (l) and Truchas from North Truchas

Pecos Baldy (l) and Truchas from North Truchas

After taking in the view of the other Truchas Peaks and Pecos Baldy to the south, and the Taos-area peaks to the north, I thought about tagging nearby Chimayosos as well, but decided to take an hour-long summit nap on this calm, warm day. I had felt painfully slow on the final climb, and guessed that Chimayosos would take longer than it looked like it should. The snowshoe back was mostly uneventful, though the snow-and-log bridge I had crossed in the morning had softened enough that I repeatedly broke through to the log, and once to the stream. Whatever — my feet were already soaked, and the day was warm.

At the trailhead, I finally met the only other soul I had seen all day, a fisherman checking out the river and apparently leaving empty-handed. I prefer not to leave my fish to chance: in less than five minutes, I had pulled out a can and spread it on a couple of tortillas for my first traditional summer meal. On to the next one!