Notes on writing a guidebook

Although I have written the word-count of several books here online, my 14er guide is the first thing I have published, unless you count my PhD thesis, which probably exists in physical form somewhere in the bowels of the UCSD library. I learned a lot in the process, and thought I would share some of my experience for readers who might want to publish something of their own.

To self-publish or not

From what I could find online, I would receive at most 15% royalties going through a publisher. In exchange for their 85% cut, they would provide editing, typesetting, printing, shipping, and inventory management. They might (or might not) also distribute it to some stores, but as a new author, I would probably receive little to no marketing.

Going through a print-on-demand shop, I can make over 50% of a reasonable cover price after shipping, even when printing in small-ish batches. I already knew how to typeset and do a reasonable job self-editing. It was marketing and distribution where I was weakest, and a publisher seemed unlikely to help much in those areas, so I decided that a publisher was not worth it to me.

There is also an intermediate route: selling print-on-demand through Amazon, with the advantage that they handle shipping and inventory. However, my profit going this route would be at most 20-25%, and Amazon would probably use part of their 40% cut to underprice local stores and sales through my own site. I don’t think it’s worth it.

Electronic or not

Though people increasingly use their smartphones for navigation, I prefer physical maps and guides. (I don’t even own a smartphone.) If I preferred smartphone navigation, I would create a guide that takes advantage of the phone’s sensors (GPS, compass) and interactivity. This guide would, of course, be impossible to translate into print.

Similarly, a well-laid-out print guide is impossible to translate to a tiny phone screen. I have seen crude ePub conversions of some print guidebooks, and the position and quality of figures and photos are inevitably butchered. For a guide to be readable to many people on many devices, the text has to be resizable and reflowable, which destroys the careful layout and often breaks page references.

One legitimate use-case for an electronic version is to print out a handful of relevant pages to carry on an outing. They are both disposable and lighter than a book, and I could see myself using such a thing instead of photographing guidebook pages and trying to read them on my camera screen as I do now. I don’t think “piracy” would be nearly the issue it is with mass-interest content like TV shows — there aren’t enough 14er climbers to establish a reliable torrent, and the PDF is large enough to be hard to thoughtlessly put on the web. However, I still prefer physical things, so for now the book will remain print-only.

Creating a manuscript

First, always submit a PDF! Some places take word documents, but different versions of Word print the same document differently, ruining your careful layout.

I briefly considered using Apple’s Pages, which produces decent documents, but ultimately opted for LaTeX. While it is complex and sometimes maddening, it offers beautiful typesetting, and I had already learned it in school. It is not designed for fancy internal layouts with background photos and color swatches, and text in various colors flowed to match, but I am not artistic enough to create that kind of book. I did use Pages for the cover, though — its output was good enough, and I could match the font.

Maps

I spent countless hours creating and tweaking the maps before settling on their current form. My initial plan was to upload my GPX tracks to CalTopo, print out a 6×9 map at a scale to cover the area I wanted, and voila! This, of course, failed miserably. First, GPX tracks are noisy, so it was easier to draw the routes where I knew they should be. Second, map-making is an art, and automatically-created topos are terrible. Google’s “terrain” feature is the least-bad, but of course its license forbids my using it. Open Street Map topos are ugly, with overlapping labels, different features displayed at different scale, and too many other problems to mention. They’re “good enough” for tooling around on a computer, but not for print.

The only usable base map set I found was the USGS 7.5′ quads. They have some infelicities, like the contours in meters in parts of the Palisades, but they are designed by professionals. Unfortunately, to cover all routes at true 1:24,000 scale would require many pages of mostly uninteresting maps. I eventually settled on true-scale maps for the most interesting portions of routes, with a variable-scale “key map” showing the locations of the detailed ones. Like all labels, the route labels were best done by hand.

Distribution

With increasing use of print-on-demand, many smaller bookstores sell approved books on consignment with a split ranging from 70/30 to 50/50. A 50/50 consignment is an insult to the author, since after printing and shipping cost, he makes almost nothing, a fraction of the bookstore’s huge cut. Better stores will track your sales quarterly, while worse ones will make you drop by periodically to count the books on the shelf. Larger stores do not seem to offer consignment arrangements, instead working with a list of publishers; I have not yet figured out how best to deal with this.

But bookstore placement is as much about marketing as sales. By far the best distribution mechanism for me is through my website, since I don’t have to give anyone else a cut (the $5 S&H covers PayPal, padded envelope, and USPS media mail). I am still deciding how to handle this while on the road this summer.

Marketing

Though I have some “social media” presence, I am clearly not very good at the game, as evidenced by the fact that, other than a shoe-testing gig, I have never been sponsored, despite approaching a few companies. Maybe I should use more hashtags. I know and/or am known by enough fellow climbers to sell a moderate number of books, but reaching beyond that sphere is an ongoing challenge. I hope to give some presentations to clubs and at outdoor stores, both this winter and while traveling this summer. We’ll see how well that works.

Books have arrived


FedEx delivered the “first edition” to me today. Those of you who have paid already should receive your books in about two weeks (that should have been one, but… reasons). Please let me know if you don’t. Those who have expressed interest but not paid should do so by the end of the month to guarantee that you will receive a copy. After that, the remaining books will be sold first-come, first-served, and I will begin charging for shipping and handling. Once this batch is gone, you will have to wait for another printing.

Update January 26, 2017: As of this afternoon, books have been shipped to everyone who had sent me money and an address by yesterday. According to the USPS website, they should arrive in 2-8 days. Thanks again for being a part of this experiment!

The book is happening!

Cover (front and back)


To my surprise, the book has already received enough interest for me to print and mail a batch. By now, those who have expressed interest either in comments or by email should have received instructions for what to do next. For anyone else who wants to buy a copy (check out the sample chapter (PDF)!), there are two ways:

  1. Via PayPal. Please remember to include a mailing address.
  2. Via email. I’ll give you an address where you can send a personal check.

In either case, let me know if you want me to write anything in the book.

Either way, you should probably order soon. I need to print copies in decent-sized batches, and don’t want to have boxes of unsold books lying about my abode (or in my car — I still live there quite a bit). I will print some extras, but once those are gone, you will have to wait until enough people have signed up for another batch.

Also, some people have expressed interest in an electronic version alongside or instead of the printed one. The book is not designed to work well on a phone, and Kindle guidebooks suck in my experience. However, it is the right size to be printed 2-up on standard 8.5×11″ paper, and I can see the advantage of carrying a printout instead of a book. Please comment or email if you would buy such a PDF; I’m still weighing the pros and cons of offering one.

California 14er guidebook

Cover (front and back)

Please see the book page for ordering information.

[This project has been kicking around my hard drive for long enough; it’s time to do something with it. — ed.]

A couple of years ago, I began thinking about writing a guidebook to California’s 14ers in the spirit of Gerry Roach’s Colorado’s Fourteeners. Rather than covering a comprehensive list of routes with cursory detail, my book would cover a few popular routes on each peak more thoroughly, with color topos and labeled photos of crux sections. With only 15 peaks and a handful of routes on each, I could climb them all myself and gather consistent measures of difficulty and time required.

So here it is. With some proof-reading help (thanks Ted, Mike, and mom and dad!), I have finished the photography, writing, map-drawing (thanks, Matt and CalTopo!), and typesetting, and figured out the mechanics and cost to get it printed. The final step, by far the hardest for me, is marketing. To make money, I need to print books at least 100 at a time (1000 would be better), and that’s where you, dear reader, come in. Take a look at the sample chapters (PDF), and let me know in the comments or by email if the book is worth $19.95 to you. If at least 100 people get back to me, I’ll ask for the actual money (cash, check, or PayPal), then print and ship the books (6″x9″, 93 pages).

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.