Turkey tourism 2: Bryce

North to main Bryce from below Bryce Point

North to main Bryce from below Bryce Point


After participating in the time-honored American tradition of eating way too much for Thanksgiving, including no fewer than four species of animal, I decided to go for a long trail run in Bryce while the others did a shorter hike. The obvious Bryce run is the Under-the-Rim Trail, a 23-mile route from Rainbow Point at the south end of the park to Bryce Point near the middle. However, with a late Spanish start from Cannonville, the extra driving time to drop me off at the south end would significantly limit the others’ day, so I instead did a 20-mile, 4900-foot meander starting at Fairyland Point and visiting most of the best parts of the park. This was probably more scenic than Under-the-Rim, and while it was crowded in places, I was rarely unable to run, and the trails were wide, smooth, and well-graded. Somewhat to my surprise, Bryce turns out to be a wonderful place for trail-running, making it a fun one-day park.

More good running

More good running

I hiked the initial descent with the others, crossing occasional stretches of hard-packed snow on shaded northern slopes during the descent from Fairyland Point. The park’s southern end is about 1500′ lower than the north, and the snow had all but disappeared by the time we reached the base of the rock formations around 7200′. I took off jogging after about half an hour, stopping to zip the legs off my pants about 10 minutes later, and stripping down to just a t-shirt after the first hour. I think the temperature stayed around 35-45 degrees, so while I was slightly cold in the shade or wind, I was mostly comfortable in summer clothing for the rest of the run.

Queen's Garden trail

Queen’s Garden trail

I cruised the generally downhill rollers to the Tower Bridge turnoff, took a short side-trip to this underwhelming feature, then ground out the climb back to the rim at 8000′ near Sunset Point. While the Fairyland Loop was uncrowded, the descent to the Queen’s Garden was a bit of human chaos. It wasn’t a solid mass, though, so I had fun dodging and weaving, launching around the banked switchbacks and startling a few tourists. The Queen’s Garden trail was built in Zion style, with tunnels blasted through what seemed like an unnecessary number of mudstone fins. This is probably the most scenery-dense part of the park, and I stopped frequently for photos of various Bryce-y things.

Climb to Bryce Point

Climb to Bryce Point

From Queen’s Garden, I continued along the base of the formations on the gradually-climbing east side of the Peekaboo Loop, then began a more sustained ascent to 8300′ Bryce Point. To my surprise, I was still fresh enough to jog the entire climb. I milled around a bit with the tourists while deciding what to do next: it was around noon, and I had agreed to fetch the car from Fairyland Point and meet the others at the Lodge at 2:30. I figured that I could do the 4-mile out-and-back to the Hat Shop, then return via the other side of Peekaboo Loop and Wall Street, thus visiting all of Bryce’s “good stuff” in one fell swoop.

Hat Shop

Hat Shop

Bombing the 1000-foot descent along the start of the Under-the-Rim Trail, I passed two other runners wearing a disturbing amount of fancy logo-encrusted Lycra (“all Euro-tarded out,” as Mike put it). I wasn’t sure what to expect of the Hat Shop, but I was glad I made the detour. It turned out to be a collect of a couple dozen caprock hoodoos, some with impressively large and overhung boulders on top. After stopping to take some pictures and eat a bit more, I steeled myself for the climb back to the rim. I was definitely slowing down by this point, and had to walk some of the steeper parts of the climb.

Double-arch fin along Peekaboo

Double-arch fin along Peekaboo

I returned almost to Bryce Point, then physically and mentally recovered as I bombed back down the snowy trail to Peekaboo Loop. The western part of the loop is longer than the eastern part, and contains much more up-and-down. I ran what I could, hiked some of the steeper bits, and distracted myself by gawking at the scenery, including a couple of impressive arches.

Wall Street

Wall Street

I felt sluggish as I returned to the Navajo Loop junction, so I walked some perfectly runnable terrain while eating the last of my food, then continued toward Wall Street at a slightly pathetic jog. I passed Mike and the Armada a few minutes from the junction, stopping to chat briefly before turning on the gas so they wouldn’t have to wait too long before I came back with the car. The climb up Wall Street was the only part of the trail where the crowds actually got in my way, but I was feeling worked by this point, so I didn’t mind the delay.

Window along the rim

Window along the rim

Once on the rim, I managed decent speed on the rolling but generally downhill commute back from Sunset to Fairyland Point. I had expected this section to be a dull forest run, but it stayed close enough to the rim to have consistently nice views of the nearby hoodoos and some more distant red cliffs to the northeast. I reached the Lodge at 2:30 as promised, then spent the rest of the day shuffling around like a tourist near Rainbow Point. At over 9000′, the southern end of the mesa offered expansive views of the Escalante plateau 2000′ below. It was also much snowier than the rest of the park, and I was barely warm enough in the shade with all my clothes.

Southern Utah food options are usually grim, but we found what looked like a decent pizza place in Tropic. It was clearly the only choice around, as there was a steady crowd the whole time we waited to have our order taken, waited for the food, and waited still more for the bill. Southern Utah: come for the scenery, lower your expectations for everything else.

Turkey tourism 1: Zion

Down-canyon from Observation

Down-canyon from Observation


Mike was spending Thanksgiving in southern Utah with a small contingent of the Spanish Armada, and had some extra room in the car. I had already seen most of the planned route, but trips with Mike and the Armada are usually good fun, so I found myself fighting sleep across the Big Res Tuesday night, en route to Page, Arizona. There is probably some scenery along the way, including Shiprock, but other than sunset on some familiar terrain during the first hour, we saw almost nothing other than the huge and well-lit smokestacks of the Navajo Generation Station, a glowing symbol of our coal-powered future.

Important information (photo by Lidia)

Important information (photo by Lidia)

As usual, I was awake well before the others, and took a first trip through the hotel’s well-stocked breakfast bar before settling in to read and wait for the others to emerge. After a second, “social” breakfast and a sort-of Spanish lesson, we rolled out late for Zion. The park was filling up in anticipation of the holiday weekend, but the crowds were not yet overwhelming as we parked down the road from the Observation Point trailhead.

Slot below Observation

Slot below Observation

We contemplated the fact that falling off cliffs can result in injury or death, then headed up the switchbacks blasted in the sandstone. Zion was developed in the 1920s and 1930s, when man felt the need to assert his dominion over nature, and its roads and trails were constructed using quantities of dynamite and chain that would be unthinkable today.

Exposed, blasted trail

Exposed, blasted trail

The route from the valley to Observation Point was probably somewhere between difficult and impossible in the 1800s, but is now essentially an exposed sidewalk. While it is easy walking, the exposure does get to some people: Linda was unfortunately overcome just below the rim, so only Lidia and I reached the end of the trail. We hung out with a half-dozen others for awhile, taking pictures and fending off the over-friendly chipmunks, then headed back to meet the others near the end of the short November day. We found our hotel in Hurricane, then found semi-decent and only slightly depressing food at some kind of Mormon Chipotle.

Approaching Kinesava

Approaching Kinesava

After considering several plans for Thanksgiving, the Armada dropped Mike and I off at the start of the Chinle “trail” in Springdale, then drove on to do Angel’s Landing while we headed for Mount Kinesava. There is a large dirt parking lot on Anasazi Way just off the main highway, but the useless trail dumps you right back on the road, and is probably longer. We passed some fancy houses, then found the “trail” continuing as a gated road to a water tank where it disappears. Still, Kinesava is hard to miss, so we headed in the right direction and soon found a faint, intermittently-cairned use trail through the sparse desert brush and junipers.

Kinesava semi-exposed traverse

Kinesava semi-exposed traverse

The route follows a slide through the lower cliff-band, then heads up more steep dirt and rubble to a fairly obvious left-to-right ramp leading to the plain between Kinesava and the higher West Temple. The ramp is mostly steep dirt, but there is one semi-exposed section, some third class, and a short but apparently unavoidable fourth class corner near the top. None of it slowed us down much, and we soon emerged on the grassy plain northeast of the summit.

West Temple from Kinesava

West Temple from Kinesava

Neither of us remembered the route description for this last part, but a line straight up the middle of the summit blob looked doable and mostly brush-free. The final climb turned out to be a mixture of easy steep desert stuff and enjoyable class 3 slabs, similar to North Guardian Angel. I managed not to get dropped by Mike, and we were soon enjoying the impressive 360-degree summit view. To the north, the West Temple looked both intimidating and tempting. We had neither the time nor the information to try it, but it turns out that there is a devious route to the summit with only one pitch of 5.6-5.7; now I know what to scramble the next time I’m in the area.

NW to Guardian Angels

NW to Guardian Angels

There are apparently some petroglyphs on the summit plateau, but this was a Mike hike, so there would be no sight-seeing. We retraced our route nearly to the Park boundary, then headed cross-country for a road closer to the entrance, crossing about 100 feet of private property near the end and jogging a bit of “private road.” Our road spit us out right next to the southernmost Springdale shuttle stop just as a shuttle pulled away. Rather than wait, we jogged a mile or so up the road before catching the next shuttle at another of the closely-spaced stops. Then I had an hour or so to nap and listen to the foreign tourists before the Armada returned (successful), and we were on to the next.

Salomon Speedcross Vario

Cheap materials

Cheap materials

I have generally had good experiences with Salomon’s various “Speedcross” and “fell running” shoes, which combine an aggressive tread, adequate foot protection, and reasonably sticky rubber. So when I found myself out of shoes, and found the Speedcross Varios on clearance, I picked up a pair. Though they look more or less suitable for my purposes, the use of standard laces rather than “quick laces” should have tipped me off to what they are: a clumsy attempt at market segmentation between them ($120) and the even pricier Speedcross Pro ($150) and S-Lab Speedcross ($180).

Delaminating sole

Delaminating sole


Though I slightly prefer speed laces, I don’t mind using the regular kind, and had no trouble making the shoes fit. The problem with the Speedcross Vario is its shoddy materials and construction. Soon after I started using them, the soles started delaminating, something I have not experienced in years with non-Walmart shoes. After a bit of cross-country travel and scree-skiing, the toe rand tore and became unstitched, letting sand and gravel into the shoe and making it useless. I stopped using them after only a few weeks, and eventually threw them away with plenty of tread left.

Salomon shoes normally use good materials and construction, so I was surprised and disappointed. $120 shoes should be better than this.

2016 in review

As usual at this time of year, my activities are winding down. While I still have a few things planned between now and the end of the year, the main ambitious part of my season is over. It has been a good year, on par with 2012 and 2014; read on for some of the highlights.

Fastest Known Times (FKTs)

A day well spent

A day well spent


Since I rarely race, FKTs are a good way to keep myself honest. I am already well past my peak potential, and with advancing age, I have very little time to make a contribution or have an impact in terms of pure speed. So this year, I decided to focus on developing some speed, and on deliberately applying it on a few significant outings. This does not include most hard days, on which I do not try for maximum speed, nor does it include
various Strava things, which are not interesting to many people. It includes only broadly interesting objectives for which I focused on speed.

  • Evolution Traverse (Sierra): This was probably the effort that got the most attention, since the Evolution Traverse is a popular objective among California climbers, and has attracted the attention of some well-known athletes. My time could be significantly improved by better route-finding and more daylight (circumstances forced me to do it late in the year).
  • East Fury (North Cascades): This trip to one of the lower 48’s most remote peaks is close to the limit of what I can do in a day (i.e. under 24 hours). Once again, there is room for at least an hour’s improvement with better route-finding.
  • Adams (Cascades): At somewhere over 3000 ft/hr on a suboptimal mix of flattish trail, talus, and snow, this is close to my best effort. A world-class mountain runner could probably come closer to 4000 ft/hr, but doing this route with the light equipment I used — running shoes, no crampons or axe — requires both snow travel skill and intelligent risk management.

Other type II fun

Traverse from Nine to Guardian

Traverse from Nine to Guardian


The speed and endurance I developed for FKTs were useful on a number of longer outings. While these efforts often involved headlamp time and trail running, I was focused less on speed than on enjoying wild and remote places without a miserably heavy overnight pack. The best days were probably those in Colorado’s Weminuche wilderness, east of the Animas River between Durango and Silverton, home to some of the state’s least accessible and most interesting peaks.

  • Eastern Grenadiers (Colorado): The Grenadiers, a line of peaks southeast of Silverton, have better rock than the nearby Needles, and include the iconic Arrow and Vestal, two of the best peaks in the state. Having done the subrange’s main peaks (Arrow through Trinity) in 2012, I returned this year for the more remote eastern peaks. While none of the climbing compared to Vestal’s classic Wham Ridge, the scenery around Silex Lake is spectacular, and the peaks feel especially remote and untrodden.
  • Ruby Basin peaks (Colorado): I had hoped to traverse the peaks surrounding the Ruby Creek Basin, from Pigeon east to North Eolus, then back around west to either Animas or Fourteen. However, the rock proved unexpectedly bad, especially on the east- and southeast-facing descents from Pigeon east, so I shortcut across the basin to Monitor. The traverse would be more manageable in the other direction, going up rather than down the worst rock.
  • NE Ridge of Mt. Williamson (Sierra): I had been eyeing this Sierra semi-classic for several years, and finally got around to doing it this year. Much of the climbing is unpleasant, and there is only a bit of 5th class near the top, but I am glad to have done this landmark ridge.

Type I fun

A rare moment of balance

A rare moment of balance


More than in previous years, I deliberately spent some time this year focused on “type I fun.” This included wandering around the southern Utah desert, flailing on a rope in Squamish and Utah, some casual peak-bagging in the Cascades, and even atypical water-related activities. These breaks allowed me to maintain fitness and avoid burnout for more of the season.

Also along these lines, I would like to thank the friends and chance-met outdoor people with whom I have spent time this year, who broke up the long solitary hours and lifted my eyes from the trail. Mike introduced me to his network of friends over the winter, and kept me honest about my performance limits. Renée introduced me to new places and things I would not have otherwise done, and motivated me with her infectious enthusiasm. The Climbers’ Ranch regulars, too many to name without leaving someone out by mistake, once again made Work Week a social oasis in my summer travels, worth the drive even though I am running out of things to climb in the Tetons. Kate allowed me onto her island for a brief and welcome respite between breaking my hand and finding a suitable brace.

Finally, I would like to thank the readers who have followed along on this summer’s adventure. I will probably have little to say over the winter, but hope to see you again in the spring.

Southern Colorado geological tour

With shorter days and colder mornings come lower ambitions. Feeling more tired than expected after Oso, I spent some time exploring the lesser peaks of southwestern Colorado. While the region’s rock is not usually good for climbing, and its geological history has not created jagged peaks and sheer faces, there is both some interesting geology and an extensive network of forest roads and trails through the turning aspens.

Pagosa Peak

Pagosa from approach road

Pagosa from approach road


This 12,000-er lies at the southeast corner of the main San Juan range, standing above the northern New Mexico plains. From the town of Pagosa Springs, it is a long drive on good dirt roads followed by a short hike up a jeep road and a steep use trail. With a capable high-clearance vehicle, it is an extremely short hike from the unmarked but obvious “trailhead” along that road. Though surrounded by various basalt crags and rubble-mounds, the upper peak is a blob of tuff hard enough to overhang slightly on its southwest side.

I got a late start on the west-facing approach, starting my hike up the jeep road just after another group in a pickup started driving it. The aspens were slightly past their prime, and the road was often covered in golden leaves just beginning to rot. When dry, the first half-mile of the road would be drivable in most passenger cars, but it quickly gets worse, with slick mud, large boulders, and deep ruts. As the road winds its way up Little Pagosa Creek around the south side of Black Mountain, the peak comes into view through the thinning forest.

Where the road switchbacks away from the creek to the southeast, the steep, semi-improved trail continues along the creek. Making the split even more obvious, I met the men in the truck I had seen earlier. Though they had impressive driving skills to get an apparently-stock Tundra up the lousy road, their lowland cardiovascular skills were lacking, and they had turned around below the summit. I followed the well-marked trail to the peak’s south ridge, then along the crest past one false summit. I briefly considered the summit views on this unseasonably-cold day, then hike/jogged back to my car for a late lunch.

Summit Peak

Approaching Summit

Approaching Summit


This unimaginatively-named peak is the high point of Archuleta County, the highest of a cluster of three 13ers in the South San Juan wilderness between Pagosa Springs and Chama. While most people reach it via a long series of dirt forest roads leading to the east side of Elwood Pass, I came at it from the west, via the East San Juan River and the Quartz Creek trail. The river road continues to form the west side of the pass, used by the old army road from Fort Garland to Pagosa Springs. At around 11,700′, Elwood Pass was never easy to cross, and it was long ago abandoned in favor of Wolf Creek Pass to its northwest.

With some unease, I drove through the San Juan river, then made my careful way up the dirt road to Quartz Meadow, where I spent a very cold night. My water jugs had partially frozen, but there was enough liquid for two cups of coffee while I waited for the sun to reach the valley floor. I impatiently started shortly before it did, then had to jog until I could stand in the first sunny patch for 10 minutes to warm myself.

The Quartz Creek trail is in a pleasant state of neglect, still mostly runnable, but clearly unmaintained for a decade or more. I do not understand why it was ever built: the side-creek it climbs to reach the Continental Divide Trail at a plain above 12,000′ is steep, narrow, and loose, and there are no signs of mining in the valley. I followed it up through the woods to the southwest end of a sloping basin west of Summit Peak, then followed a sparse line of cairns across the meadow to pick up the trail’s fading continuation over the divide.

There was more snow here than I expected, and it became more frustrating as I climbed, with a breakable crust over 1-3 inches of powder. Where the trail wanders south over the plain, I headed straight for the slightly less snowy ridge. This required crossing a minor subpeak south of Summit on some gnarly conglomerate, but it was probably faster than following the snow-covered CDT. I signed the register (in a salsa bottle), then considered my next move. My original plan was to continue north to the other 13ers, “Unicorn” and Montezuma, then jog back via the CDT. However, most of the way out and the entire way back would be a miserable slog in the crusty snow, so I decided that one peak was enough.

Returning along the ridge, I dropped from a notch down a steep scree-slope which had some game trails near the top. This turned out to be sketchier than expected, with sections of hard-packed dirt and, lower down, unpredictably hard snow threatening to send me for a ride. Still, it was probably faster than retracing my steps. Happily back on the trail, I hiked and jogged the return, then relaxed after safely driving back through the San Juan.

“Phoenix Peak”

Phoenix summit cairn

Phoenix summit cairn


I had been saving this unnamed centennial peak near Creede for a winter or spring trip, but when my weekend plans changed, I decided to make the short detour north to tag it. Tiny Creede sits at the mouth of a box canyon, with two tall crags just past the north end of town. It seems to have turned itself into a Texan tourist destination, with several small restaurants and gift shops along its main street. I drove straight through, then up the narrow canyon of Willow Creek to camp near the trailhead.

The route starts off along a rough jeep road to Phoenix Park, then follows an old stock driveway up East Willow Creek to treeline. The route is little more than a cairned use trail now, and its lower section has been completely obliterated by a ridiculous maze of beaver dams. Once out of the trees, the driveway disappears completely, and a faint climbers’ trail continues up a ridge to the peak’s broad south face. Though many neighboring slopes are wretched talus-heaps, it is possible to stay mostly on grass to the saddle just south of Phoenix. From there, it is an easy boulder-hop to the giant cairn on the flat summit.

I had contemplated traversing south to La Garita and returning via Halfmoon Pass, perhaps visiting the Wheeler Geologic Area along the way. However, it looked like much of the traverse might be loose talus, and trail 787, my planned return, apparently no longer exists. The cross-country loop sounded too much like work, so I instead retraced my steps for another short day.

Oso

Oso above Moon Lake

Oso above Moon Lake


Mount Oso is the highest of a cluster of 13ers between Vallecito Creek and the Los Piños River in the eastern Weminuche wilderness. This remote area is most easily reached with a high-clearance 4WD from the Beartown trailhead. Without such a vehicle, I decided to approach Oso from the south near Vallecito Reservoir, using the new-to-me Los Piños River trail. I knew ahead of time that it would be a long outing, about 15.5 miles from the trailhead to the pass above Half Moon Lake. However, I underestimated both the difficulty of the cross-country portion in fresh snow, and the quality of the scenery along Lake Creek. This maintained but little-used trail climbs through aspens past craggy granite peaks and mile-long Emerald Lake, by far the largest natural lake in the range.

Granite Peaks Ranch

Granite Peaks Ranch

Knowing I had a long day, I got started by headlamp just after 5:30, hiking and jogging along the edge of the Granite Peaks Ranch. The pack trail continues up a narrowing valley north of the ranch, somewhat reminiscent the Vallecito Creek, though it seems less-traveled. With the previous day’s precipitation, the trail was somewhat boggy, and some normally-easy stream crossings were made more difficult by the ice that had accumulated overnight on the rocks.

North across Emerald Lake

North across Emerald Lake

The trail eventually crosses Lake Creek on a sturdy-looking bridge, then splits, with my branch climbing a narrow side-valley that broadens and flattens as it turns north. After a long, cold climb, I reached the east shore of Emerald Lake as the sun slowly made its way down the opposite slope. The lake sits in the flat bottom of an old glacial valley, dammed by either an old terminal moraine or a large rockslide. The previous day’s mixture of snow and rain had hardened overnight into a slick white crust, so it was slow going around the lake in my lousy flat-soled shoes (the better ones have all been destroyed).

Moon Lake

Moon Lake

Above the lake, the trail shows less use from fisher-folk, but is still maintained as it tunnels through the head-high willows. I found a ford where it crosses Lake Creek, and a log hidden in the brush 100 yards upstream, with a vicious willow-whack required to get back on-track. With the snow melting in the sun, the trail became a sort of “anti-trail,” a muddy, icy stream worse than its banks. I continued along this path as the broad valley narrowed, then climbed steeply to roughly crescent-shaped Moon Lake, where the trail remained completely covered in about an inch of snow.

Peters Peak

Peters Peak

From there, the trail became even fainter as it climbed up to the pass above Half Moon Lake, a dot bearing no particular resemblance to a half moon. Looking east and north, I got my first views of Rio Grande Pyramid and the flat highlands between Silverton and Rio Grande Reservoir. I finally left the trail, climbing slightly toward Oso and hoping that a route would appear up the steep-looking headwall on the ridge ahead.

Lake Mary Alice

Lake Mary Alice

Things turned ugly near the intervening bump on the ridge, with maddeningly-slow loose talus covered in fresh snow. From the notch at the base of Oso’s northeast ridge, I got a look at Lake Mary Alice, sitting like Lake Silex at the bottom of a hostile-looking talus-bowl. The third class climbing along the ridge featured a couple surprisingly steep gashes, and was made much trickier by the fresh snow. In particular, one sloping slab that I would have walked across without thinking became a thought-provoking hand traverse.

Oso from the east

Oso from the east

Just below where the ridge joins the broad south face, it becomes a near-vertical face split by two right-to-left ascending ramps. Partway up the first ramp I could have cut back right to the second. I chose instead to continue on the first, and was rewarded by finding a cairn where it turns the corner onto the southeast face. From there, a mixture of grassy ramps and class 2-3 scrambling led to the south face, where faint goat trails led toward the summit.

RGP from Oso

RGP from Oso

After a cold morning, I was pleased to find the summit sunny and calm enough not to need my windbreaker. To the west, the Needles and Grenadiers rise nearby across Vallecito Creek. Rio Grande Pyramid dominates the view to the east, while Vallecito Reservoir and the plains of northwest New Mexico are visible to the south.

Needles and Grenadiers from summit

Needles and Grenadiers from summit

Rather than retracing my route, I descended the ridge to a red gash, then dropped southeast directly to Moon Lake, avoiding both most trickiness on the ridge and the miserable talus. My shoes sucked as expected on the steep, snow-covered grass, but I reached the trail without any mishaps. Most of the crusty snow had softened or melted, replaced by more mud and water, so it was again slow going until below Emerald Lake.

Porcupine

Porcupine

Finally on reasonably-dry trail, I had some ibuprofen and started the jog home. My legs were somehow still a bit stiff from my race a few days before, so I was more inwardly-focused than usual as I turned toward the bridge at the trail junction. I was startled back into reality by some couple’s dog acting half-heartedly aggressive. Freshly attuned to my surroundings, I noticed a porcupine a short distance down the trail, and darkly hoped that the unleashed dog would find it as well.

American marten

American marten

Since this river trail sees much less horse traffic than the Vallecito, it is actually a pleasant, slightly-downhill run, and I was making decent time toward the trailhead as I passed a man and his dog decked out in hunter orange. A few minutes later, I saw something scamper squirrel-like up a tree near the trail. It turned out to be an American marten, a cute little creature I had only seen once before in the Tetons. I stopped for a few minutes to take pictures as the creature looked down from a branch just out of reach, and the man with the dog caught up again. I was feeling more tired than expected, and was in no particular hurry to reach my car, so we walked together and talked for the remaining miles to the trailhead. I had planned another long-ish day in the area, but was feeling less than enthusiastic, so I found a nearby place to camp; I would decide what to do in the morning.

Storm King, Peak Nine, Silex, the Guardian (15h)

Traverse from Nine to Guardian

Traverse from Nine to Guardian


These peaks on the eastern end of the Grenadiers are some of the hardest to reach in the Weminuche Wilderness of southwestern Colorado. With a high-clearance vehicle, the Beartown trailhead is the closest starting point; without one, Molas Pass is the least-bad option, despite the 1,600′ climb back out of the Animas on the return. Being both remote and overshadowed by their neighbors, they see relatively little traffic, and are wilder than most high Colorado peaks. I was pleased to dayhike them on what may, due to approaching winter, be my last San Juan outing this season. Here is a rough map.

Unsure how long my outing would take, I set off from the Molas Pass trailhead at 5:15, committing to a bit less than 1h30 of morning headlamp time. I had been using my tiny running pack for my longer recent outings, but I chose to bring my larger dayhiking pack to accommodate a more whimsical diet: a box of pop-tarts, a box of granola bars, and a bag of Chex mix (on sale for 960 cal/$!). While the route would involve some running, much of the time would be spent on slower cross-country travel, so the pack would not be too annoying.

Swamp donkey!

Swamp donkey!

I ran the rough trail down Molas Creek as best I could by headlamp, crossed the foot bridge, then followed the trail through the swamp along the railroad tracks. I saw some glowing eyes off in the bog, turned to get a better look, and was surprised to see not elk but… three swamp donkeys! While the Weminuche is home to some northern beasts like the over-friendly mountain goats of Chicago Basin, I had either forgotten or not known that there are also a few moose. I am used to seeing them in the Tetons and parts north, and knew there were some north of I-70, but this is the farthest south I have yet seen them.

Sunrise on Vestal and Arrow

Sunrise on Vestal and Arrow

After that bit of excitement, I put in a bit more headlamp up the Elk Creek trail, then finally got to stow it as I regained the morning’s elevation loss. Leaving the trail at the beaver ponds near 10,000′, I passed one party apparently camped on their way out of Vestal Basin, then crossed the creek on a handful of small logs and started up the steep but well-used climbers’ trail. Where the valley flattens and turns east, the trail obnoxiously dives into the bog. My shoes had almost dried after the previous day’s Vallecito soaking, so I picked my way along fainter trails on the north side of the valley.

Vestal, Arrow

Vestal, Arrow

Following a sort of game trail through the woods, I was embarrassed to stumble right through another party’s camp. I wasn’t quite sure how to behave, but the man outside his tent said “hi” and seemed friendly, so I stopped to talk for a minute. He and his partner had been in the valley for a few days, tagging the peaks at a leisurely pace, and were waiting for things to warm up a bit before heading for Arrow. I told him I was headed for the more obscure Storm King, and he offered some beta on the best route through the Vestal-Trinity pass. They had remarkably bad timing: Arrow’s standard route and Vestal’s excellent Wham Ridge are both more-or-less north-facing, and the previous week’s snow was hardly melting on high north faces. They also turned out to be in for a healthy dose of cold rain on their hike out the next day.

Vestal-Trinity pass at center

Vestal-Trinity pass at center

I found a dry stream crossing near the constriction between two boggy sections, then made my way around snow-patches as I headed up to the plain between Vestal and West Trinity. There are a number of possible crossings of this broad, flat saddle; I chose one near the middle that had some obvious boot- and hoof-prints in the snow, and which also happened to be out of Trinity’s shadow. The still-firm snow made what would have been a loose scree-slog significantly easier, and I soon found myself looking across Tenmile Creek at Peaks Four and Five and, farther away, Pigeon and the Needles 14ers.

West down Tenmile Creek

West down Tenmile Creek

My recent beta suggested staying high on the traverse from the col at 12,600′ toward the small lakes around 12,200′, avoiding the drop to Balsam Lake at 11,450′. At first I found easy travel on a series of descending grassy benches, with bits of use trail and the occasional cairn. As the grass dropped toward the valley bottom, I lost the cairns and found myself on ugly, loose talus. I went back high, finding bits of easier travel near the cliffs at the Trinities’ base, but it was not a route I would want to take with an overnight pack. Looking back from near Peak Nine, it seems that the best route continues on grass, descending to around 12,000′ west of the small lakes.

Storm King from col

Storm King from col

As I made my way up the gentle slope to the Storm King-Nine saddle, I eyed Storm King’s southwest face apprehensively. I didn’t know anything about the route other than that it was on the face, and that it was supposedly easy to lose on the way down. As I neared the saddle, the correct path along the south ridge became more obvious, even before I saw the faint use trail and cairns. This may be an obscure peak, but it is also Colorado.

Silex from saddle

Silex from saddle

Two things became clear from the saddle: First, Peak Nine would be either a quick jaunt or a scary climb on snow-covered rock. Second, there was no way I would be getting to Silex via Silex Lake. Even without the coating of fresh snow, Silex Lake is one of the least hospitable-looking places in the Weminuche, a cold pool in Silex’s shadow surrounded by loose, lifeless talus and scree. If I were going to do more than tag Storm King, I would have to find another way.

Lake Silex

Lake Silex

I made easy work of Storm King’s standard route, which is mostly pleasant class 2-3 with a bit of loose scree in the final chute leading to the summit ridge. I suppose some people may take the chute too far on the descent, but it is not hard to remember where to traverse out toward the south ridge. Along the ridge, I passed a chute that would provide a quick descent to Lake Silex, if I had any desire to go there.

Notch on Storm King and Peak Nine

Notch on Storm King and Peak Nine

It was time to decide what to do next. It had taken me around six hours to reach the summit, so returning the way I had come would make for a short day. The ridge from Peak Nine to Silex looked like it had a decent chance of going, and if not, I could always drop south to Leviathan Creek and make my way back between Peaks Seven and Eight. I decided to try Peak Nine and, if I reached its summit, use the ridge as the least-bad way to Silex and the Guardian. I would figure out how to get home from there if I made it that far.

Traverse from Nine to Guardian

Traverse from Nine to Guardian

Returning to the saddle, I made my way up talus and snow to the notch west of Nine’s summit, then descended a few yard down the south side before taking a class 4-5 chimney/corner out of the chute. Once on the south face, I made an ascending traverse east on solid class 3-4 rock covered in miscellaneous loose stuff. The easiest route apparently stays below the west ridge until east of the hard-to-see summit. I strayed onto the ridge too early, traversed back down, then found a reasonable climb up past some rap junk just west of the top. Luckily, the route never strayed onto the sketchy, snowy north face.

Nine and Storm King from ridge

Nine and Storm King from ridge

There was a bit more class 4 east of the summit, hinting at a grim, slow traverse to Silex, but fortunately the difficulty soon eased off to quick class 2-3. The traverse to Point 13,176′ was mostly fun, with the best route staying on or near the crest. I was feeling energetic, so I tagged the intermediate summit, had a bit of tricky route-finding down to the saddle with Silex, then headed straight up the spine of its southwest ridge rather than traversing the easier but looser south slope. Though it looked potentially loose the rock on the ridge was fairly solid, and offered some fun class 3-4 scrambling on incut holds, then easier class 2 to the summit.

Eyeing the Guardian from Silex, the route along the south face was clear, my route home less so. Like Storm King, both Silex and the Guardian have sheer north faces with no obvious path. The Guardian’s south face looked easy, but it would drop me to Leviathan Creek near Vallecito, way down near 10,000′ and a long ways from home. Hopefully a better way would present itself.

Silex and descent route from Guardian

Silex and descent route from Guardian

I started off on the ridge crest southeast, then dropped onto the south side to get around some sheer steps. From the first saddle, I saw what might be a route east into upper Vallecito near Stormy Gulch. I also saw a nice ledge to the south, where I soon picked up a line of cairns traversing around just below the second saddle, then up to the Guardian’s indistinct south ridge. While the ledges and ramps were easy, they did slope outward slightly, and were covered in debris eager to crash down to the valley below. I passed a couple of small high-altitude evergreens, then turned up some easy class 3 terrain to the summit.

Needles from Guardian

Needles from Guardian

I had just spent almost 9 hours heading away from home; now I had to figure out how to get back. Looking west, even Vestal looked far away, and Molas Pass was farther still. While it looked like I could descend to the south or east, the possible route from the saddle still looked promising, and might be a bit shorter than heading east to the Vallecito Trail and around. I retraced my steps, then headed northeast down talus and turf.

Descent to Stormy Gulch

Descent to Stormy Gulch

The route quickly became cliffy to the east, but I found a reasonable path by heading north to the head of the valley, then looping back southeast near the stream at its bottom. I had been out of water since before Silex, sucking on small mouthfuls of slush and reluctant to eat dry and salty food, so I took the first opportunity to drink and eat Chex mix. I scared off a few elk, then followed their trail downstream.

Looking down Stormy Gulch

Looking down Stormy Gulch

I knew that the Vallecito trail eventually connected to the Elk Creek trail, but suspected that I could save distance and time by going up Stormy Gulch, then either west into Vestal Basin or north to upper Elk Creek. I tried to stay high around Silex’s northeast ridge, finding either an uncairned use trail or a well-maintained game trail leading into the valley a bit downstream of Lake Silex’s outlet stream. I filled my water at Trinity Creek, debated crossing, then decided to continue along the apparent game trail on the south side.

Storm King to East Trinity

Storm King to East Trinity

I had a bit of luck here: though it does not appear on any map, and I did not find any blazes, there is a faint old trail south of the stream leading all the way to Trinity Lake. I even found a couple cairns and a fire ring. This discovery spared me what would have been quite a bit of obnoxious willow-bashing. The east side of the Vestal Basin col looked obnoxious, so I took a detour north to see if I could see my way to the Colorado Trail from the broad saddle. Seeing nothing but ugly talus in the valley to the north, I opted for the safe-but-obnoxious Vestal Basin return.

Looking down Vestal Basin

Looking down Vestal Basin

I took some sort of wrong line down Vestal Basin — it is best to stay high on the north side until past the first steep drop — but had no serious trouble returning to familiar ground. Passing the camp I had bumbled through in the morning, I saw no one at the tents, and decided to pass a polite distance below. However, I heard a shout, and saw the two I had met in the morning sitting on a nearby outcrop. I talked to them a bit, learning that they had successfully summited Arrow, and trying to provide some useful information from my unusual wanderings.

Then they settled in for a leisurely evening, and I took off for the evening slog. I made it about 10 minutes past the train tracks before turning my headlamp on, then jogged the flatter switchbacks out of boredom on the climb. I almost reached the car in under 15 hours, but lost a few minutes to a wrong turn in the maddening trail maze that is Molas Pass. I found my car, put my reeking, destroyed shoes on the hood, then promptly went to sleep.

Jupiter (10h50)

Jupiter from Hazel Lake

Jupiter from Hazel Lake


Jupiter Mountain lies just south of Windom Peak, the southernmost 14er in the Needles Range. Like the Needles 14ers, most people probably reach Jupiter via the train and the Needle Creek trail, but I am cheap, and I had already done the train-skipping run from Purgatory once this year. I therefore decided to come at Jupiter from the southeast, taking the Vallecito Creek trail to Johnson Creek. I had previously used the Vallecito approach to get to Jagged in 2012, and this time would be both shorter and technically easier. However, despite its taking less than 12 hours, this turned out to be “type II fun” for one reason: the log-jam I had used in 2012 to cross Vallecito Creek at the former bridge had washed away, forcing me to ford the thigh-deep water both ways.

Don't put a bridge here

Don’t put a bridge here

After a snafu the day before, I again started up the Vallecito trail by headlamp, this time slightly slower. For some reason this trail is a heavily-used horse-highway, and I passed the time dodging manure, horse-churned mud, and the occasional spatter of blood (hunting season?) on the jog upstream. I did not want to reach the ford too early, but it was still an hour before the sun would hit me when I arrived at the former bridge site. The trail-builders had foolishly sited the bridge in the middle of a huge avalanche path dropping hundreds of feet to the creek from the slope to the (wind-loaded) west. Predictably, the bridge had been repeatedly destroyed, and equally predictably, the Forest Service had simply given up rather than relocating the trail.

Fording this sucks

Fording this sucks

I found a suitable stick among avalanche debris, then sat down on a convenient log to take off my shoes and socks and roll up my pant legs. While it is much easier to ford a stream in shoes, I wanted to stay as dry as possible in the freezing morning. Finally, with my shoes tied around my neck, I grabbed my stick and waded in. Even this late in what is apparently a dry year, the water was about as much as I would have wanted to deal with: thigh-deep and reasonably fast. When I finally emerged cursing on the other bank, my legs tingled and my rolled-up pants were soaked. Moving slowly with stiff hands, I took off my pants to wring them out, put my clothes back on, and jogged unhappily up the trail until I was reasonably warm. I have forded deeper (Moran Creek for Bivouac) and faster (Bridge Creek for Goode) water, but the cold morning made this crossing my most miserable so far.

Detached pillar along Johnson Creek

Detached pillar along Johnson Creek

With the river now unavoidably between me and my car, I continued up the Vallecito trail, then left it on the better-located bridge to the Johnson Creek trail. This much less well-used trail climbs 3500′ from the Vallecito to Columbine Pass, before descending into the popular Chicago Basin. Surprisingly for such an old trail, it is plagued by endless maddeningly-horizontal switchbacks. Perhaps the miners who built it felt uncharacteristic sympathy for their mules, though its “ruling grade” is steep enough to make the flat switchbacks apparently pointless. Being a pack trail, it also features a couple of un-bridged stream crossings where it is difficult to avoid fording.

Organ and Amherst

Organ and Amherst

I passed one large party camped below treeline, drying out their stuff mid-morning before apparently packing out, but otherwise had the place to myself. Johnson Creek is a beautiful approach. Jagged Amherst and Organ mountains bound the creek to the south, and aspens cover the lower slopes. The creek flows through a narrow slot in places, far below the trail, dropping away in steep cascades.

Columbine Lake

Columbine Lake

Knowing little about the terrain, I followed the trail up past Columbine Lake to near the pass, then took off toward the standard class 2 route on Jagged’s southwest face. There was enough snow hanging around on north-facing slopes to force me onto some annoying terrain east of the ridge, but none of it was harder than class 3, and the turf and boulders to the false summit were mostly snow-free. The final traverse to the true summit traverses the north side of the ridge, and the ankle-deep snow was mostly wind-packed and frozen.

Windom and Lake 13,100

Windom and Lake 13,100

My ambitious goal for the day was to traverse southeast to Grizzly and McCauley, two 13ers on the way home, but the ridge to Grizzly looked tricky, with the usual Needles garbage-rock made spicier by the north-side snow. Knowing that I only had one more day of good weather, I decided to save my energy for the morrow. I admired Windom and an impressive lake perched at 13,100′ to its east, then headed home.

Grizzly, McCauley, and Hazel Lake

Grizzly, McCauley, and Hazel Lake

I retraced my steps near the south ridge, then dropped down a gully to Hazel Lake. Not only was this slightly more direct, but cross-country travel would be faster than horizontal switchbacks. While there was some obnoxious talus and brush lower down, most of the route was pleasant grass and slabs reminiscent of the high Sierra. I rejoined the trail near where it enters the woods, then switched into shorts for running comfort at the second stream crossing (easy ford required). Though I was worried about the water being deeper in the afternoon, it seemed to be about the same. I crossed in shoes and socks this time, and it went much faster, with the drying-off process fairly painless in the warm afternoon. The whole outing took just under 11 hours, giving me enough time to buy more junk food and drive around to Molas Pass to prepare for something a bit more serious.

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.