RT Length: 11 miles
Elevation Gain: 4055’
I had a totally different set of peaks in mind for the 4th of July weekend, but due to the (still) high levels of snow in the San Juan’s my plans changed a bit. I feel a bit out of shape because haven’t been out hiking in 2 weeks: I took my Troop Hammock Camping (it snowed on us in June!) and then to Alaska/Canada for a week, staying mostly at or around sea level. I got home the night of the 3rd late, decided to get in a 2 hour nap and was up and on the road at 9pm, headed to Lake City. To most this schedule may seem crazy, but I suffer from nightmares when I get too much sleep so I’d rather keep myself busy.
The drive up until Lake City was uneventful, except for a cop that pulled me over doing 61 in a 60mph zone coming over a hill in Nathrop. This is the second time this has happened in the same area, which means I didn’t learn the first time. Of course I was let off with a warning, and this time he didn’t try to give me his phone number. Also, he had no idea where Lake City was.
I was about 2 miles from Lake City when I saw it: My first thought was “Wow! A mountain lion!” Then quickly afterwards “Wait, that’s too big to be a mountain lion…” I was asking myself what animal could have a tail like that and be bigger than a mountain lion when it turned and looked at me: White muzzle, pink nose, dark alert whiskers, and tan face. That was definitely a mountain lion! Woot! And a healthy one to boot: I’m talking African Lioness size, brawny and muscular.
I slowed down my truck to get a better look. He(she?) was walking on the side of the road, seemingly not in any hurry. I’ve hiked thousands of miles in Colorado, and this was the first mountain lion I’ve seen here, and also by far the biggest mountain lion I’ve ever seen. Naturalist Nerd that I am, I’ve spent whole days at the Rocky Mountain Wild exhibit at the zoo, just sitting and watching Mountain Lions. Those mountain lions at the zoo had pouchy stomachs and loose skin, but not this guy! He was all muscle.
I was also a Park Ranger when I lived in California, and one time I encountered a Mountain Lion as I was leading a class of 3rd graders to the picnic area. It saw us coming, jumped out of the tree it was lounging in and quickly bounded away (30 lunchtime 3rd graders will do that to wildlife). While collared, that one must have been a juvenile because it had nothing in size on the one currently walking front of me.
After about 30 seconds I came to the conclusion I should try to get a picture. My cell phone was in my lap, so I turned off navigation and clumsily opened the camera app. I took a quick video and tons of pictures and studied him until he eventually turned around and bounded up the hillside. Imagine my disappointment when the video was too dark to see anything, and none of the pictures turned out of him sitting and looking straight at me. The best one I got was of him jumping, which wasn’t too great to begin with. In any event, it was a cool experience. Lake City has some big mountain lions!
The Grizzly Gulch / Silver Creek trailhead was full when I arrived at 2:30am and I had to get creative to find a parking spot in the parking lot big enough to fit my truck.
I headed northeast and was on the trail before 3am, a little jumpy after seeing the mountain lion but confident he was at least 20 miles away from my current location. I just tapped my trekking pole on every rock I saw and hoped I was scaring unwanted encounters away. Also, there’s a trail register at this trailhead; one of those big metal ones that makes a terrible creaking sound when it’s opened and closed, and a big bang when the lid drops. After signing my name and closing the lid I’m pretty sure I scared every creature within a couple mile radius.
Almost immediately there was evidence of avalanche activity along the trail, and while it was still dark and I couldn’t see the downed trees I could smell the fresh pine scent that accompanies an avalanche.
This is a very easy trail to follow, as it parallels Silver Creek all the way to the basin. As the trail began to follow Silver Creek I found myself walking on ice. At first I thought the creek was frozen, but quickly realized the creek wasn’t frozen but covered in a layer of ice several feet thick.
The ice was solid and reminded me of the glaciers I’d just seen in Alaska. It looked like an ice flow, but was most likely caused from avalanches throughout the basin. Mixed in were various tree branches and avy debris
And even areas of rockslides (the creek was flowing swiftly underneath all the debris).
Once in the basin I ascended the slope to the saddle between Redcloud and Point 13,561. This was fairly straightforward, and while it was covered in snow I didn’t need traction.
At the top of the saddle I turned left
The sun was starting to rise so I dug in my backpack for my camera, but unfortunately must have left it at home. Drat! I bring along my DSLR for pictures because taking photos on a phone is difficult with Raynaud’s: any type of touch screen is an issue as my finger touches don’t always register, but it’s much worse when my fingers are cold. I inwardly sighed and crossed my fingers there wouldn’t be too much wind, mentally resigning myself to not getting summit photos today (or tomorrow, as I was staying in Lake City hiking for a few days).
From the saddle I could see the rest of the route before me, and rejoiced it was basically snow free!
I looked left and was greeted with an unexpected view: I’d planned on summiting “Cooper Creek Peak” today as well, but hadn’t realized while going over my topo map there were gendarmes and a rocky ridge involved (and I didn’t have a helmet). Looks like I was only summiting one peak today.
I headed towards the patch of snow on point 13,561
This was easy to cross. Here’s looking back at Redcloud and the patch of snow
I followed a faint trail across the ridge
The path to the summit was tundra mixed with small rocks.
I summited at 6am, thrilled I was able to take photos with my phone (yet upset I was forced to take a selfie). Also, the sun was in my eyes
I turned to head back
The snow patch doesn’t look so bad from here
I crossed back over the patch of snow and thought again about Cooper Creek Peak. It was still really early and I wasn’t tired. I didn’t think I could summit, but I could make it to the halfway point (Point 13,665) and add some extra mileage and elevation gain to today’s hike, helping to keep me at my 10 mile/4000’ average. Here’s the path I took from the saddle
This was more challenging than Point 13,832, but in no way difficult. I just followed the ridge
I just kept to the left of the snow, hiking up surprisingly stable scree
The fun part came at the end. The actual ‘summit’ is the bump to the left
This ended up being quite a fun (if short) scramble to the top!
It reminded me a bit of the final scramble on El Diente (but with a lot less scrambling to get there).
Yes, there were a few chosen class 4 moves and some exposure as well.
From here I could see the summit of Cooper Creek Peak, and once again verified I wouldn’t be climbing the ridge connecting it with point 13,665 today (next time I’ll bring a helmet)
I had a really cool view of PTs 13,811 & 13,832 as well
Here’s a look back on the route
I trekked back to the saddle, having fun taking shadowselfies now that the sun was in the perfect position to do so
Back in the basin the 4th of July weekend was ramping up: I saw a couple dozen people on their way to Redcloud. I was glad I’d started early! The snow was softer on the way out, but I still didn’t need traction.
In the daylight the trail was much easier to follow: I just walked along the river of ice.
I made it back to my truck at 9:30am, making this an 11 mile hike with 4055’ of elevation gain in 6.5 hours
I hopped back into my truck and drove to the next trailhead, anxious to find a spot on a busy 4th of July weekend. No need however, since I was the only one there when I arrived (besides thousands of mosquitoes of course). I forced myself to eat (a bagel, tuna, and some dried fruit) and appreciated the close and clean bathroom. Eventually some dispersed campers wearing tank tops, flip flops, shorts, and backwards baseball camps arrived and I went to talk with them before heading to bed early (I’d only had 3 hours of sleep in the past 48 and needed to do some catching up: Luckily, even though I’m prone to nightmares I’ve never had one while camping so I was hoping to get in a solid 10-12 hours or so).
I talked with the other campers about the trail I was taking for tomorrows hike, as they’d attempted the approach today but were unsuccessful. They hadn’t been able to make it more than 2 miles due to avalanches and high creek crossings. I mentally filed this information away for tomorrow. Between slapping mosquitoes and trail talk I discovered they were camping to celebrate the holiday weekend with a dozen or so of their closest friends and they offered me a Coors Light later if I was interested? I thought back fondly to my days as a young 20-something, dispersed camping in the middle of nowhere with cheap beer, and then thought of the bottle of Knob Creek I had waiting for me in my truck. I thanked them, but they didn’t need a 38 year old parental figure spoiling their fun… and I was pretty sure I was all set in the alcohol department.