#124 Baldy Alto – 13,698 & Stewart Peak 13,983

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RT Length: 11 miles

Elevation Gain: 3961’

Colorado had it’s first measurable snow Thursday and Fridays are my hiking days. Of course I paid extra close attention to the weather and it looked like the San Juans were going to be cold and windy but the snow would be negligible.  I had a few other peaks in mind closer to home, but I’ve learned the hard way while the trail may be snow free, it’s unlikely the roads/highways would’ve been snow plowed at the early times I like to hike.

I’d thought about sticking closer to home but didn’t want to waste a full free day when I could be above treeline, summit or no. Also, I had some new winter gear I wanted to test out and the area with the best forecast for the entire state was near the Eddiesville Trailhead in the San Juans.  I made it a late start because (at the trailhead) it was supposed to be 1* until 7am, when it jumped to 7*.  It was going to be cold, and I figured sunlight would help.

I left my house at 1:30am and arrived at the Nutras Creek Trailhead at 6:30am, surprised to see a tent set up near the trail but no vehicle. It’s a 24 mile drive on a dirt road to this point, and I wondered how they made it here?  My dashboard said it was 14* and I already considered today a win (to be fair, it went all the way down to 0* on my drive in and back up to 14*, so the forecast was in the correct range).  The creek crossings were negligible, just a trickle at the first and completely dry at the second.

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Not knowing how much snow had actually fallen here yesterday I’d brought both my summer and winter hiking boots. It was icy on the way in and there was a sprinkling of snow on the peaks nearby so I opted for the winter hiking boots, just to err on the side of caution.  The last time I was here to summit Stewart Peak it had rained and my feet had been soaked in the first 10 minutes and were solid blocks of ice on the peak.  I didn’t want that to happen again.  The winter boots were overkill but also the correct choice.

I’ve needed new gear for a while, and this year saved up money to purchase better winter equipment. All of the centennials I hiked in cold conditions I did so wearing a snow bib I’d bought for $2 at a garage sale in 1998. After an intense winter/spring hiking season this year the bottom half were ripped to shreds thanks to my wonderful microspikes and snowshoes.  The jacket I’ve been wearing was a great jacket from a great brand, but I’ve sewn up over two dozen holes and it no longer keeps me warm/waterproof.  I need to wear compression socks when I hike (and basically for any activity that requires shoes) and I wear wool socks over them but the ones I’ve been wearing haven’t been keeping my feet warm.  My goal this winter season is “no blue toes” so I was trying out a new pair of socks (over my compression socks).  Also, gloves.  By far my most expensive purchase was when I splurged on a new pair of Alti Mitts last month:  I’m super excited to try them out.  These would be cumbersome but could be game changers.

So, I bought new socks, gloves, and ski pants (woot! No more taking off half my layers to use the restroom!).  Roxy makes a pair of outdoor snow pants that almost fit me.  The smallest size they make is one size too big for me, but I found they fit better if I wear yoga/moisture wicking pants underneath them.  Bonus: They’re not from the kids section and they kind of make it look like I have a figure instead of looking like the Michelin Man.

Finally, a new jacket. I’ve been in the market for a long time for a new winter mountaineering jacket but I’m frugal and don’t want to spend $500+.  I’ve gone to REI, Sierra Trading Post, and several other outfitters looking for something that would keep me warm without breaking the bank and came up empty.  I was in an online forum for people with Raynaud’s and someone very highly recommended a simple mountaineering jacket. I was exceedingly suspicious due to the (very low) price and because it was synthetic and made in China, but I purchased it on Amazon and figured I’d give it a go early in the season.  When it arrived I was doubly skeptical:  It came in a small 12x12X4 inch plastic case and didn’t look robust enough to keep me warm.  I left the tags on it in case it didn’t perform as advertised so I could return it and try again.

Fancied out in all my new gear I hit the trail at 7am, being careful to be quiet since the campers were not yet awake.

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The first 2 miles of this trail follow Nutras Creek southwest on an easily identifiable trail. I could see a light dusting of snow on the nearby peaks.

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Anywhere there was water or where water accumulated there was ice

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After 2.2 miles of hiking on an established trail I came to an area where I was close to the creek and it looked easily crossable. I’d need to be on the other side to summit Baldy Alto. I chose to summit Baldy Alto first today because I’ve already summited Stewart Peak and I wasn’t entirely confident my new gear would allow me to summit more than one peak today. The creek looked frozen solid until you stepped on it and then you plunged into the water, realizing it wasn’t more than an inch or two thick.  At its lowest point about 5 feet across.  My little legs weren’t going to be able to make that jump so I walked up and down the creekbed looking for a better way to cross (a log, large rocks, etc.).  When I couldn’t find one I added a few medium sized rocks to the creek and made my way across.

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There was loose talus on the other side. My goal was to make it to the trees and then up to treeline.

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There was no trail, and once again the talus was very loose and would slide out from underneath me when I took a step. Once in the trees I just kept aiming southwest, looking for treeline

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Just before treeline I came across an area where it was obvious elk frequently bedded down for the night. It felt special just to be hiking through the place.  Treeline actually came fast and I aimed for the ridge, knowing most of this hike would be above treeline.  Here I passed willows through game trails and some lose rocks (all class 2)

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I was about halfway up the slope when I heard what sounded like a flock of seagulls conversing with a group of horses. Curious, I turned and noticed a herd of elk coming down the slope of Stewart peak. So cool!  They were making trails through the willows like nobodies’ business.  I followed them with my eyes, watching where they were headed.  I’d half expected them to make their way to the bedding area I’d just passed, but they turned and headed west, following the drainage.  I kept an eye (and ear) out for them as I made my way up the ridgeline.

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Last time I was here I hadn’t been able to see the summit due to clouds, so I wasn’t sure where the actual summit was. That ridge was long.  It felt like it took forever to climb, and every time I thought I was at the summit I realized it was a false summit and it was over the next hill.

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The worst part? The wind.  Those 20-30mph winds never stopped.  The wind never got below 20mph, and several times I was knocked down by a gust.  I’m assuming the gust would have to be over 50mph to make that happen, so the forecast had been a bit off.  Wind chill with 30mph winds was forecasted today at -20, so it was cold, cold, cold.

The best part? My winter gear was working fabulously!  There was no way I’d still be hiking in these conditions if I was wearing my old jacket/gloves.  No way.  I could tell the wind was frigid but it was tolerable.  Snot was freezing to my balaclava and the top of my jacket which was a little annoying but I wasn’t miserable. I’ve found a lot of hiking is about being in a constant state of some sort of discomfort and getting past it to obtain your goal. Cold, yes.  Miserable, no.  Woot!  I have found gear that works!

Finally, after 3 or 4 false summits I made it to a cairn and I could tell I was almost to the actual summit of Baldy Alto

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I’m not sure when I summited (I feared taking off my gloves for any reason due to the cold/wind to check my phone/time/etc), but I found with my new camera if I had a tool I could manipulate the buttons to take timed photo without taking off my gloves like I’d needed to with my last one. I found a pointy rock and made it happen (those buttons are small!).  It took about 15 minutes, but it worked!  High-Five to my new gear for making this possible!  Not sure how to take a video yet in these conditions (but I’m working on it).  There was no summit register.

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Despite the unrelenting winds I wasn’t unbearably cold and due to the minimal elevation gain/trail length I wasn’t tired yet at all, so I decided to take the ridge over to Stewart Peak. This is the route I took.  The elk are in the red circle at this point.  I could see but not hear them (the wind drowned out all other noises except its own howls).

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I aimed for the saddle. I’d been watching the elk for about 3 hours and thus far they hadn’t noticed me because I was downwind from them, but as soon as I hit the saddle that changed.  They could smell me now (if it hadn’t been for the intense wind headed their way the fact I’d been sweating for the past few hours meant I’d be hard to miss at this point even in lesser winds).  Their heads picked up and then each one looked at me and quickly fell into a procession.  They started moving together as one up the basin and onto the ridge I’d just crossed.  I found it intriguing a herd of elk would be intimidated by a single person.  They were all eyeing me, trying to sneak past me like a freight train.  I stood in awe for a moment, and then fumbled for my camera in the -10-20* weather (maybe colder with the higher than anticipated winds?). Knowing pictures would never do the experience justice I held the camera at my chest and just kept shooting, leaving my eyes free to take it all in.  It was magnificent, like something you’d see watching a documentary on National Geographic but on a much grander scale because I was in the middle of it and the reason behind their behavior.  I saw their eyes staring at me, their hooves stomping the dirt to dust, their heads moving up and down, the warm breath puffing from their noses into the cold air, and the muscles in their legs charging them forward.  They each looked at me individually but moved as one, up and over and down the hillside.  Wow.  Just… wow.  I didn’t want the experience to end, but they’d moved on and it was time for me to do so as well. The pictures really don’t do justice to the occasion.

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This next part of the hike was class 2, up and over the ridge on large, loose talus.

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I continued along the ridgeline to this point. I’d thought this was Column Ridge and the point beyond was Point 13,795, but apparently the point beyond is the only one that’s a 13er (it’s not ranked).

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Oh well, that’s what I get for not taking out my map. There was a marker here though…

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Time to head over to Stewart Peak. This was an easy trek

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The last part looked like it might be tricky, but it wasn’t. I just continued up and over class 2 terrain

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And then walked the rest of the way to the summit.

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No videos today of the summit(s) due to cold/wind. I was able to get another summit photo again using a pointy rock.  I had a pencil and stylus in my pack, I just didn’t want to take off my pack to get them out because my gloves are cumbersome.  I’m thinking I’ll keep them a little more handy next time, and this week I’m going to attach longer strings to the zippers of my pack so it’s easier to open/close with my bulky gloves.  Also, I’m smiling in this picture.

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There was a summit marker here too… but no summit register

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The hike today had seemed too easy. The most difficult part was dealing with the insane wind.  I hadn’t thought about it before starting out, but I didn’t know how to tighten the strings around the hood of my new jacket to make it fit my face, and once out there hiking I wasn’t able to figure it out without taking my jacket off.  Since I wasn’t about to take my jacket off in these conditions I resorted to placing my hand on top of my head to keep the hood from blowing off when hiking into the wind.  Not ideal, but it worked.

The trek down from Stewart Peak was actually kind of fun. I decided to just “wing it” since I’d been here before, and I didn’t take out my topo/etc.  I just followed the ridge to the end and aimed for the creek, knowing it would lead me eventually to the trail.

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I’m not recommending this approach unless you have good route finding abilities and you like to rock climb because I made it to a section I’d label as class 4. I love to boulder so I went through this area with vigor instead of looking for another way around, but if this not your cup of tea follow the standard approach down Stewart Peak to the creek.

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Also, there are tons of game trails here that look like actual trails but lead nowhere. It’s a bit… misleading.

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By keeping the creek in sight I was easily able to link up again with the trail out.

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The entire time down I was thinking of how much easier this hike had been taking Baldy Alto first instead of Stewart Peak: the elevation gain had been more gradual and if I were to do this loop again I’d start with Baldy Alto. Once I made it to treeline the wind stopped and I could hear elk conversing with each other through the area I’d hiked that morning.  That got me wondering if there’s more than one herd up there, or if it was split up?

I made it back down to the trailhead and there was more gear at the campsite than when I’d passed it this morning. There was a young gentleman of about 25 years sitting in a camp chair, dressed head to toe in camo.  There were guns and archery equipment propped against the trees and a second tent set up.  He stood up when he saw me and said hello and asked me where I’d been.  I could tell by his accent he was from the south and my heart melted a little bit.  Apparently the check engine light had gone on in their vehicle so the rest of his party had gone to Gunnison to get it checked out.  They were here hunting elk and had spent last week in Wyoming hunting antelope.  He dripped of congeniality.  I’m a sucker for a well bred southern man and if he’d been around 40 years old and single I would have prolonged the conversation by telling him where he could find those elk.  Instead I wished him good luck and went back to my truck to clean up and head home.

I started at 7am and finished at 2pm, making this an 11 mile hike with 3961’ of elevation gain in 7 hours.

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Please don’t judge me (too harshly) and know no one is paying me to say this, but the jacket I got was the Wantdo Waterproof Ski jacket (I’m not yet sure if it’s actually waterproof but others tell me it is).  It worked so well and exceeded my expectations, especially for such a low cost jacket (under $100).  I’m not sending it back and look forward to an awesome winter adventure season!  The gloves and socks and pants were phenomenal as well.

#121 “Lightning Pyramid” – 13,722 & “Thunder Pyramid” – 13,932

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RT Length: 12 miles

Elevation Gain: 5062’

After summiting Vestal Peak I changed in my truck into new hiking clothes. I re-braided my hair, ate a packet of tuna and drove to Maroon Lake.  It rained the entire 5 hour drive there and I was seriously worried my hike in the morning would be in danger. Originally I’d planned on hiking, taking a day off to rest, and then hiking again on Sunday but the weather forecast for Sunday called for 80-90mph winds so I decided to alter my schedule a bit.  I was not impressed with the rain.  It was raining when I fell asleep in the cab of my truck but I thankfully I awoke to a clear, starry sky at 2:30am.

The parking lot was full of both hikers and photographers eager to get a glimpse of the fall colors. I debated going back to sleep for a few minutes but in the end decided I should probably get going.  I was on the trail at 3am.

I followed the trail to Crater Lake

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And then followed the West Maroon Creek Trail until I’d made it 3.7 miles.

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This trail is so much nicer to walk when there’s no snow! Route finding was negligible

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After 3.7 miles I crossed the West Maroon Creek (which didn’t have much water)

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And headed east through the willows

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Until I reached the base of the slope to the first access gully. This was difficult to figure out in the dark: The last time I was here the willows were completely covered in snow and I just climbed right up, but today those willows were taller than I was.

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At the top of this gully is another gully

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And at the top of this gully (you guessed it) another gully

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Now the rocky gullies started including areas of tundra

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Now I was almost to the upper basin.

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Once in the upper basin the sun started to rise and I had a good view of “Lightning Pyramid”. Traditionally you climb this peak as a couloir climb in the winter/spring, but obviously that wasn’t an option for me today and I’ve already been here in winter conditions:  I wanted summer.  I headed across the rocky basin, aiming for the couloir.

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This next part in italics is personal and has no relevance on the trip report. Feel free to skip it if you’re just here for route information.

I’m going to summarize this as quickly as possible: I don’t consider myself to be an overly religious person.  I grew up in the church but no longer attend (please don’t invite me to your church: I have personal reasons for why I don’t go).  I do believe in God and find him more in the mountains than in a building surrounded by people.  Often when I hike I have conversations with God.  I do most of the talking, but surprisingly I started to feel him talking back (rarely, but it happened).  I’m going to be honest here:  If someone told me God spoke to them I’d think they were daft, so I totally understand if you think that of me, but I think what I’m going to say needs to be said (for me at least).  Also, once again, I’m not a ‘preachy’ person and will most likely never mention anything like this again in a trip report. 

For some reason I’m a ‘people-pleaser’. I have a need to be liked and I go out of my way to be friendly and helpful. I feel I need to be ‘perfect’. I don’t do well with rejection.  I’ve always been an avid hiker but started seriously tackling peaks after I got a divorce.  My ex had supervised visitation of the kids one day a week and on that day I’d go hiking.  After my 13th summit of Pikes Peak I met someone on the way down who asked me which other 14ers I’d done.  My response: “What’s a 14er?”

Obviously I was immediately hooked and after about 20 14ers I was hiking and talking to myself/God about how amazing Colorado and the mountains and hiking (etc) are and felt God speak back to me. He told me to hike all of the 14ers in Colorado solo.  This idea intrigued me:  I was both excited and scared.  I wasn’t sure I could do it.  Also, I didn’t really know why I should?

After hiking about 30 14ers solo I was sitting in a Girl Scout board meeting and Girl Scouts had just partnered with The North Face. We were brainstorming fundraising and marketing ideas and suddenly it all became clear:  I could be the first woman to solo all the 14ers!  Girl Scouts focuses on first women to do ‘stuff’.  We could market this jointly with The North Face, the girls would get exposure to outdoor experiences and(hopefully) some free gear.  It all seemed clear now:  This must be why I was doing this!  I felt I had purpose and direction. 

I was so excited when I summited all 58 14ers solo because I felt I was doing it for a cause. Anyone who follows the 14ers site knows what a disaster that turned out to be, and honestly I just wanted it all to go away. 

I kept hiking because I like to hike. On my first centennial after finishing the 14ers I felt God telling me to keep hiking the rest of the centennials solo and I balked.  Once again, I wasn’t sure I could do this (hello class 5?) but after mulling it over I was willing to give it a shot.  I knew I’d write up trip reports and post them to my website because that’s what I do, but he told me to keep posting to the 14ers site as well (I did not want to do this, but I did). 

If you were to ask me why I was hiking all of the centennials solo I’d tell you I didn’t know. I honestly didn’t know, but I also wouldn’t have told you it was because “God told me to” because then you’d think I was totally nuts.  But that was why I was doing it:  Because God told me to.

Then Thunder Pyramid happened. At first I was confused because I knew I’d summited, and then embarrassed, angry, and frustrated.  Why was this happening to me?  Not only were people commenting on the 14ers site, but they were going through my LinkedIn page and challenging my accomplishments, posting negative comments on my website, facebook, and Instagram (sorry David for ghosting you:  I honestly thought the feeling was mutual).  People unfriended me both online and in person.  They made up reasons to ‘prove’ I was lying and if they couldn’t find negative information they assumed or made it up. The dislike button was hit on my trip reports and I took it all very personally. 

The hardest part was just because they were loud didn’t mean they were right. I knew I wasn’t lying but I couldn’t change their minds.  I’m also sure they think their behavior was justified.  I think it bordered on harassment.  It was definitely bullying.   

So here I was, halfway to the summit of PT 13,722 and all of this was going through my head, in addition to the anti-climatic day I’d had yesterday when I’d finished hiking the centennials solo and didn’t ‘feel anything’. I was asking God why I just couldn’t get excited about finishing the centennials solo?  I didn’t want to post anything on the 14ers site because I didn’t want to go through the drama again.  I mean, I know I shouldn’t care what other people think about me…

That’s when it happened. As soon as those words went through my head everything stopped and suddenly it felt as if I was getting the biggest, warmest, most enveloping hug I’d ever had. Overwhelmed I broke down and started crying big crocodile tears, taking huge breaths in and out between sobs. 

That was it: I wasn’t hiking for a cause or to help others but because God wanted to teach me a lesson. He wanted me to realize it doesn’t matter what other people think.  He just chose to show me that lesson through something I love:  hiking. 

“Wow” I thought: “He had me hike all the centennials solo to teach me not to care what other people think”. A simple lesson we teach out kids and that everyone knows but that I have difficulty accepting.  This moment was so powerful I got out the altimeter/compass on my phone and took a picture of where it happened.  I thought about just saying it was at 12K but ultimately figured that diminished the experience. 

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I wiped away my tears, looked at the mountain in front of me and thought to myself “So, if it doesn’t matter what others think of you why don’t you just turn back and go home?”

The answer? “Because I Love to hike” 

With light shoulders and a renewed purpose I started off again. It took about 10 steps before another thought overcame me: “Why did God think I needed to learn this lesson?  What is he preparing me for where I need to be ok with not caring what other people think about me?”  (I squinted and closed my eyes, crossed my fingers and repeated:  Please not politics, please not politics, please not politics).

Ok, moving on…

I trudged up the talus towards the couloir. This talus was nasty and each step hurt my ankle (not sure what I did to it yesterday, but it felt bruised).  I made it to the base of the couloir and had a decision to make:  How was I going to ascend this thing?  It looked like it contained (more) nasty scree, so I decided to take the rocky rib to the right.  This is the route I took:

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I need to stress this might not have been the safest way to ascend. The rock was extremely loose and I had to check and re-check hand and foot placement with every step.  It was sustained class 4 bouldering for a good 1000’ of elevation.  It was slow going, but I love bouldering and that’s just what this was.

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I stayed closely to the right of the couloir for as long as I could, but eventually I had to enter the couloir for the last part of the climb. This area was very loose and I’d suggest you stay as close to the rib on the right as possible.

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Here’s looking back down the rock rib/couloir and into the basin

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I made it to the top of the couloir and turned right (south), carefully climbing up the ridge

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This was actually much easier than it looks (and easier than the climb to this point). I made it to the top of the ridge and saw an easy path to the summit of “Lightning Pyramid”

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I summited at 10:20am

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Lightning Pyramid summit:

Ok, now time to head over to my old friend, “Thunder Pyramid”. I couldn’t find a lot of specific information about this traverse, so I had a lot of figuring out to do.  I’d heard heading straight up and over the ridge wasn’t fun, and it in fact didn’t look like much fun, so I decided to scope out another way.

I headed back down to the saddle

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Once there instead of hiking up the ridge I decided to stay level with the saddle and hike across the right (east) side of the mountain. This was surprisingly easy

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Here’s looking back at “Lightning Pyramid”

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I stayed at the same level as the saddle until I came to a gully. This area took some careful footwork but little climbing.  It may have risen to class 3, but realistically was class 2

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Next I came to a gully. This gully was very loose and I kept to the left side for stability, holding onto rocks and handholds in the boulders where available.  This felt like class 3

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At the top of this gully was another gully. I just aimed for the snow.

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At the top of this gully is where the route picks up with the standard route up “Thunder Pyramid”. I turned right (north) and ascended the ridge

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The top of the ridge wasn’t the summit however. I took the solid route up, the dotted route down.  If I were to do this again I’d take the dotted route both ways because it doesn’t lose elevation.

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I summited “Thunder Pyramid” at 12:15pm. It took me just under 2 hours from “Lightning Pyramid”. Unfortunately, most of the pictures I got at the summit I realized were blurry when I got home (still figuring this new camera out)

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But I did get one “ok” picture

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Thunder Pyramid summit:

Up until this point doubt had crept into my mind: maybe what others were saying was true and I hadn’t really summited “Thunder Pyramid” last time. Maybe I’d ended up close but not exactly there?  I’d been in a hurry because I’d been having a Raynaud’s attack and I didn’t take my normal number of summit photos/videos (I don’t usually get videos in winter conditions because it’s a death sentence for me to take off my gloves to operate the camera).  So today I walked all over that summit, looked around and confirmed what I already knew:  Yes, I had indeed summited the last time I was here.  Also, the weather today was absolutely perfect!  Those 50mph winds never materialized.

I decided to head back down the way most people hike up. I made my way back to the ridge and down the gully

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Check it out! Now I know why it’s called the “White Gully” (Last time everything was white)

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The descent down “Thunder Pyramid” was no more fun than the ascent up “Lightning Pyramid”, and considering both the gullies and couloir I’d say it’s probably easier to do Thunder first and then traverse over to Lightning. Also, I know this is usually done as a snow climb, but I felt much safer on the scree and talus than I had on the snow.  When it was covered in snow I felt like if I slipped I’d fall and never stop sliding.  Here I knew I could slip but I wouldn’t fall very far.  This climb wasn’t ‘easy’ but it definitely wasn’t as difficult as I’d anticipated.

Hiking down was like déjà-vu (as it should have been)

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I made it almost to the bottom of the gully and turned left

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And descended the slopes into the basin

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Also, I found a shell

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I made my way back to the West Maroon Creek Trail and hiked out, loving the fall colors in the daylight.

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There were a ton of people around Maroon Lake when I got there, all enjoying the fall colors. The base of the lake resembles the Snowmass log jam

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While the 50mph winds never materialized on the summit(s) today it was really very windy at the lake. I decided to head to my truck to clean up and then watch the sunset.  There was a line of cars waiting for a parking spot and I had to tell no less than 50 of them I wasn’t leaving.  None of them took it well, but it had been a long day, and I figured I’d earned watching a good sunset.

I made it back to my truck at 5:15pm, making this a 12 mile hike/climb with 5062’ in elevation gain in 14 hours.

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I enjoyed the sunset

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And as soon as it was over I hopped in my truck to drive home. There was a line of vehicles waiting for a parking spot that lasted for over half a mile down the road.  The shuttle had stopped for the day and I drove 2 people down to the bus stop because they’d missed the last bus.  They were a nice couple from Georgia who were happy not to have to walk those 13 miles back to their hotel.  I hope they enjoy Colorado as much as I do!

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#100 Vestal Peak – 13,864

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RT Length: 23.5 miles

Elevation Gain: 8020’

After a full week of work in Tennessee where I gorged myself on comfort food (fried chicken, fried oysters, collard greens, cornbread, etc.) and went highpointing in Mississippi because I could, my flight got in at 1:30pm and I drove from Denver to Molas Pass and slept for about 3 hours in my truck before waking up at 1:30am and hitting the trail.  There was one other truck in the large parking area when I arrived.

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I checked the weather reports and anticipated rain/snow/wind for today so I put on my snow pants and went light on gear. Initially I’d planned on camping in the Vestal Basin and hiking Arrow and the Trinities as well, but with snow in the forecast I decided to make this a one summit/day trip.  The trail started at the south end of the parking lot.  It was really easy to follow and had plenty of signs

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For about a mile the trail stayed pretty much level, and then it descended 1500+ feet down to the Animas River

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At 3.8 miles I crossed a small creek

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And heard a rustling in the bushes. I knew there was an animal about 6 feet off the trail, and it felt larger than a coyote but smaller than a bear. I tapped my trekking pole loudly against a rock a few times to flush it out/scare it away.  Usually when I do this the animal quickly runs in the opposite direction, but this time it started advancing towards me in the dark.  Thinking this was not a good sign I braced myself as the animal came closer to me, moving through the tall brush.  Was it a rabid raccoon?  A baby bear? (I swung my head from side to side:  Oh no!  Where’s mama???) and then suddenly it was on the trail in front of me and I realized it was a rather large beaver.

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This beaver wanted nothing to do with me, it was just aiming for the trail as an escape route, and kind of looked like a land manatee (BTW, I just finished reading the book “On Trails” by Robert Moore and the experience of hiking has broadened for me and I was immediately reminded of why animals are attracted to trails. It’s a good book with no direct conclusion but connects many aspects of hiking:  you should check it out).

Seeing the beaver was cool: it was much larger than I thought they’d be.  The downside?  I had the “Beaver Song” in my head for the next 2 hours. Not as much fun as it sounds…

At 3.9 miles I crossed the bridge that goes over the Animas River

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Turned right (southeast) and followed the train tracks for about a dozen yards, crossed the tracks, and followed the trail up the mountainside.

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At 4.7 miles I came across the trail register and signed it in the dark.

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The trail parallels Elk Creek

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At 6.1 miles I came across the first area of avy debris. I’m guessing there were 3-4 slides all in close proximity that kind of ran together.  I’d heard there’d been avalanches here and to just follow the marked tape through them, but was surprised at how dense and large the debris was.  I was able to follow the marking tape easily through the first area but got lost in the second and ended up climbing a little higher than necessary.

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In the daylight I had no issues getting across the debris, but noticed there’s still ice and snow under the logs that’s melting and forming caverns, so be careful where you step! There were flies circling the debris.

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After the avy area I came across some beaver ponds and turned right (south). The best place to do this was just after the large boulder:  the trail parallels a pond at this point

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There was a good camping spot after the beaver ponds. Side note: anyone else’s carabineers hanging off your pack double as bear bells?

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Mile 7 was the mile of creek crossings. What I couldn’t tell in the dark was this was some extremely clear water (it was refreshing on the way back to dip my bandana in it and cool off).  All of the creek crossings were easy and had several options (rocks and fallen trees abound)

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The trail continued to climb up the mountainside. There were frequently fallen trees on the trail (not from avalanches) but they were all passable and for once I celebrated in being short because I could pass under them easily.

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This part of the hike was really cool because I started hearing elk bugling. I tried to get some of it on video but it’s hard to hear (turn your volume to the max).  The bugling lasted for over an hour and came from all directions.

Elk Bugling:

The trail was well defined all the way to the basin. I reached the basin at 9.1 miles, just as the sun was coming up.  There was a light dusting of snow on the Trinities.

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I followed the trail through the willows and lost one of my gloves. No worries though, because of my Raynaud’s I always bring at least 2 pairs (I had 3 today).

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There’s an obvious campsite in the basin. I turned right (southwest) at the campsite at 9.8 miles- 11,380’, careful not to make too much noise because the campers were obviously still sleeping.

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The trail crosses another small creek

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And then climbs up the hill to another (rocky) basin/amphitheater

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This is where the trail ends. I made my way over the talus, hiking closer to Arrow than Vestal

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The goal is to gain the saddle at the top of the gully. This was harder than it sounds because that scree/talus is terrible.  I was glad I’d worn my helmet.  I strapped on my microspikes and took the solid line up, dotted line down.  I’d do it the same way if I did it again.

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Once on the saddle I headed southeast around the backside of Vestal

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This eventually led me to an area of the mountain separated by a gully. Here I turned left (north) and climbed what I’d consider class 3 terrain towards the summit, careful not to go into the gully, aiming for where the gully originates.

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At the top there’s a false summit, but the true summit isn’t far off

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I summited Vestal Peak, my 100th Centennial, at 10am, after 8.5 hours and 11.4 miles of hiking.

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Vestal Summit:

Despite the forecasted winds and cold temperatures and rain/snow it was a perfect day! I spent over half an hour on the summit, something I’ve rarely done, and took pictures of the Grenadier range and the beauty of the San Juans

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Knowing the weather was nice now but it was supposed to turn I decided it was time to head back.

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Here’s the path I took back down into the talus basin

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It wasn’t pretty. In fact, I did something to a ligament in my ankle and it became very sore on the way down (still hurts, but it’s just bruised)

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I decided to keep my microspikes on until I made it back down to the camping area. As I approached the area above the campsite I could hear someone shouting excitedly about nothing in particular and it looked like there were two people just finishing tearing down their tent.  I figured it was a parent and child out camping and slowed down a bit to give them time to head out before me.

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At the camping area I sat down for a bit, enjoyed lunch (peanut butter and pretzels) and took off my microspikes.

Here’s a look heading out of the basin

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I found my lost glove (woot!) and caught up to the couple within about a mile of hiking. They were two girls in their early 20s who were out backpacking together.  They seemed like they were having a terrific time (or high on something:  I don’t judge) and were wonderfully boisterous.  One of their boyfriends had dropped them off at one trailhead and was picking them up tonight at another one so they could make it a longer trip.  We chatted for a bit and then I was on my way.  The best part about the conversation?  No one mentioned we were women out here alone.

The hike out was beautiful in the daylight. I made it back to the beaver pond area (I suspect the beavers moved to down by the Animas river because there’s no current sign they’re here anymore).

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The avalanche area was much easier navigated in the daylight. I followed the Elk Creek Trail back to the Animas River

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There were a few waterfalls along the way

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I made it back to the trail register and even though it was sunny it started raining. For the rest of the hike it rained and didn’t stop.  I was glad I’d worn waterproof clothing, even if it hadn’t been needed for much of the day.  The rain was nice in the beginning but eventually the thunder started and I got a bit antsy.  It was a beautiful hike out though, and much better than the trail back to the Purgatory trailhead (I’d take Molas over Purgatory any day).

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The downside to the rain was the mud. It got really bad about half a mile before the trailhead and mud was starting to stick in layers to my boots.  The last mile felt like it took forever to finish, but that was most likely because by this time I was quite tired.  I’d made a good decision to make this a day trip:  as I turned and looked back at the Vestal Basin I could see it was covered in dark clouds full of rain/snow/graupel/etc.

I made it back to my truck at 5:30pm, making this a 23.5 mile hike with 8020’ of elevation gain in 16 hours.

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I changed in my truck into new hiking clothes and took a quick wet-wipe bath. I re-braided my hair, ate a packet of tuna and drove to the next trailhead.  It rained the entire 5 hour drive there.

#99 “Phoenix Peak” – 13,895

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RT Length: 12.5 miles

Elevation Gain: 4441′

The last couple of trip reports have been rough to write: I’m traveling for work and using my work laptop computer for these write-ups which isn’t ideal. My work laptop doesn’t have simple functions like spellcheck (so please go easy on me there), everything I have is a “reader” and the keypad is slow, inaccurate, and last night it stopped working altogether. I googled the nearest computer store and this morning walked 2 miles to buy a computer mouse. I’m hoping the problem’s solved, but not holding my breath as the laptop is several years old and I’ve taken it to dozens of states and multiple countries so the hardware has been switched several times (I work for a software company, so this is a security measure). Side note “just in case”: I’m using this computer during off working hours, and not using it on company time.

After summiting Rio Grande Pyramid yesterday I hopped right back in my truck and drove the short drive to Creede, CO. I knew the ‘easy’ road in (503) had been washed out, so I was getting creative and took in the 502. I Google wasn’t going to get me there, so I’d created the route on Caltopo and turned it into a gpx file. I credit this ability to those who’ve challenged my summits, as a few months ago I wasn’t even aware this sort of thing was possible because I don’t use a GPS when hiking. Now knowing this is a possibility with Strava it’s opened up a lot of back country roads for me! Woot! I made it to my desired area with no difficulties.

At the north end of Creede I took the West Willow Creek Road up past numerous mines and then turned right onto a 4WD dirt road after the Midwest Mine (County Road 502).

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From this point on I was glad I’d creaded a GPX file, as the roads itersected a few times and it was nice to know I was going in the right direction. The road was easy 4WD with little room for passing but luckily I was the only one on the road on this Friday afternoon.

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There were 2 hairpin turns where I had to back my truck up a couple of times to navigate, but my Tundra had no problem making it to the 502/502-1A junction.

When I made it here I got out of my truck, looked at the 502-1A 4WD road and said “nope”. I wasn’t doing that road to my truck (this ended up being a stellar idea). I carefully backed in to a spot big enough for 2 vehicles if we both parked nicely and got out my maps/info for tomorrow. I’d parked next to a small creek that hadn’t been on the map but I knew where I was on the road.

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Today had been a long day so I had some tuna, a few pieces of beef jerky, some dried fruit and two shots of whiskey before heading to bed rather early (5:30pm?). I was parked at the beginning of 502-1A and a little worried because the area was so small that I’d impede traffic but on the positive side I didn’t see one vehicle that night.

It was a cold, cold night. My altimeter told me I’d parked at 10,000′, and the forecast told me it was supposed to be a low of 30* at the summit (a few miles and several thousand feet of elevation away). It was colder than 30* where I parked. I woke up halfway through the night and put on socks (they were off because they needed to air out after yesterday) and I even got out an extra sleeping bag and put on my knit hat. It was so much colder than last night! I was thrilled when my alarm went off at 2:30am, and puzzled when the first thing I saw was a vehicle coming down the road at me. Kind of interesting the only vehicle I’d see at all was one at 2:30am. They didn’t stop and I never saw them again, so I’m not sure where they were headed. I put on my winter gear (winds were expected again today and it was already below freezing outside). I was on the trail by 3am.

I started the morning with a Raynaud’s attack in my hands and was worried this would prematurely end my hike. I put on my gloves and pumped my fingers back and forth: this hasn’t happened in a while and I wasn’t happy.

Immediately I was glad I’d decided to park my truck and hike to Phoenix Park. The road was what I’d consider “extreme 4WD”, and nothing I’d subject my Tundra to. The pictures don’t do it justice; you need high clearance and a good dose of insanity to navigate this road.

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The only downside? The road started around 10K and seemed to loose hundreds of feet in elevation. It was actually only a couple hundred feet, but it felt like forever and I was worried it would ‘hurt’ on the way out.

After 1.6 miles I made it to the turn off from the 4WD road to the trail (787)

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Well cairned but not well established, the 787 quickly crosses a stream

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and comes across an avalanche area. I’m not sure when the avalanche occured, but there’s a trail to the left of trampled down grass to follow

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This trail doesn’t look like it’s used often, and would be difficult to follow if it weren’t for the numerous cairns marking the way as I headed northeast

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Still hiking in the dark I was now starting to get really cold. I switched my gloves for my mitts and trudged on, glad there wasn’t any wind. At 2.3 miles I came across another stream crossing and then quickly another at 2.4 miles

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At this point I began to regain all the elevation I’d lost earlier in the morning. I could tell I was surrounded by raspberry bushes and lots of shrubs and plants turning fall colors, all covered in frost. I scared a bunch of ptarmigans at one point and they scared me as well. About halfway to the top of this area I could smell sheep (I used to raise them, and they have a very distinctive smell). Since it was dark I decided to figure out where they were: I hit my trekking pole harshly against a tree and heard to my right a loud snap, bleat, and rustling. The sheep went in the opposite direction and I continued on, following the cairns. I crossed one final stream at 4 miles. Here is where the trail ended.

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I headed south until I came across a cairn with a large wooden pole, turned right (east) and followed the slope in the dark

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Here there was a solid trail for about 200 yards that went along the ridgeline

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and once I made it to the end of the ridge the trail disappeared. From here I just needed to head to this point, and there was no exact way to get there so I took what I felt was the path of least resistance. Note, this point is NOT the peak, but it’s close.

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Halfway to the ridge it became windy. By ‘windy’ I mean sustained 40mph winds with a few icy 60mph gusts thrown in. It was so cold my water bladder froze (something I hadn’t anticipated with a forecasted low of 30* on the summit). I kept pumping my fingers back and forth, put on my balaclava, and trudged on, noticeby tired from yesterday’s 25 miles. I heard an elk bugle in the distance and thought how amazing it was to be out here all alone.

The sun began to rise as I was halfway to the point

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The wind never stopped. There’s a lot I could say about the cold for the rest of the hike, but I’ll end it here: it was cold, cold, cold. And windy. The kind of cold and wind where the snot dries as it’s flying from your face and then comes back and freezes to your cheek (another reason I like to hike solo: not the most glamerous of moments).

At the top of the ‘point’ I could see the rest of the route before me. Thankfully it was short and there was a well developed cairn to welcome me.

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I just followed the ridge to the left as it swung around to the right

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The rocks here were looser than expected but it was an easy final hike to the summit.

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I summited at 8:15am

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“Phoenix Peak”:

From here I could see unranked 13er la Garita Peak, but it wasn’t on my agenda today because I needed to get back home to watch my daughter perform at halftime. After getting a quick summit photo and video (the cold is telling me this may be the last of the year) I headed back down.

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Here’s the route back down. Be careful not to desced too soon (specially if you ascend in the dark). There are two ridges you can take back down, and the correct one is the second one you see from the summit.

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I made it back to the large cairn

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and headed back down the hill (stay below the boulders)

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The wind stopped just where it started (about a mile and a half below the summit) and I was able to warm up. Back in the treeline I took off my gloves and balaclava and tried to crunch the tube of my water bladder to get water to flow. It was light now, so I stopped when I came across a large raspberry patch. I picked one and it crumbled in my hand. Curious, I took a closer look and upon further inspection realized they were frozen! Not completely frozen but frozen enough to add a small crunch and a much needed flare to their refreshment (for in the sunlight I was now warm). I picked a handful and ate frozen raspberries for the next 10 mintues, wondering why there weren’t any animal tracks near here? The currents weren’t as tasty, so I left those for the birds.

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The sheep were gone and I never saw any elk, but I did see and hear dozens of crows on my way down. I wondered what had died? There was a stream along the avalanche area

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and here’s a look out from the last stream crossing back onto the 4WD road

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It was still 1.5 miles back to my truck, and as I walked this road I was thankful I hadn’t taken my truck this way: it was worth the walk, and actually not that bad. The last few hundred feet of elevation gain I’d been dreading was all completed in the shade and didn’t slow me down that much.

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I made it back to my truck at 10:30am, making this a 12 mile hike with 4441′ in elevation gain in 7.5 hours.

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I drove home and made it in plenty of time to be at my daughter’s performance. I put all my dirty clothes in the laundry and when I changed it found a dead grasshopper in the bottom of the bin. Sorry little guy! I’m sure it got caught in the holes in my snow pants (I REALLY need a new pair, but despite shopping at multiple stores can’t seem to find one that fits).

#98 Rio Grande Pyramid – 13,821

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RT Length: 23.5 miles

Elevation Gain: 5115′

I finally received my new camera in the mail and was quite excited to try it out. I left my house at 8pm and arrived at the Thirty Mile Campground at 1am after a long but easy 2WD dirt road in. There’s a designated area for backpackers/hikers to park.

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I really wanted to get out on the trail, but as soon as I parked my truck it started raining. Hmph! It was supposed to stop raining at 1am, but from the looks of things the rain was just getting started. So I got all ready to go and then leaned the drivers seat back and tried to get some rest. I set my alarm for 20 minute intervals, and after the fourth time realized the rain wasn’t going to stop so I might as well get going. I put on my poncho and snow gear (I’m still in the market for waterproof pants, choosing instead to get the Alti Mitts this month because keeping my hands warm is more important) and headed out on the trail.

This is the start of the trail. It follows the Weminuche Trail.

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I signed the trail register (which was a mess!!! It needs a new notebook) and was off

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The beginning of the trail is easy to follow, if a little muddy. Since it was raining I expected the mud. I hiked alongside the Rio Grande Reservoir and after a little over a mile I turned left and headed up the drainage area. As I was hiking here I heard a loud “snap” and figured I’d scared a deer.

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There was an easy creek crossing

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and lots of mud (mixed with horse manure)

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After turning the corner to the left (south) I encountered a small boulder field

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Before coming to a well built bridge at 2 miles. I crossed the bridge and turned left. It was still raining.

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From here the trail switchbacked a bit through some aspen trees

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and was a bit washed out in areas but there were side trails to navigate the damage

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From here I hiked for what seemed like forever along the CDT. Forever. It was relatively flat hiking and I could tell I was in a basin, with lots of large boulders strewn about and open space.

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At 4.2 miles I came to another stream crossing

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and continued hiking in the mud (and rain) to another stream crossing at 5.3 miles

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There also seemed to be camping here

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Still on the CDT, I went right here

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and kept following the CDT

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After 6.8 miles I came to the CDT Junction and once again stayed right

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Now heading west I passed a small pond and celebrated the rain stopping (finally!!!)

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I entered and exited trees and came to an area that looked good for camping after about 8.5 miles

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I entered the trees again

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and after what seemed like forever (9.5 miles actually) I made it to treeline! Still on a good trail I passed another small boulder field

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At the top of the boulder field I had a choice to go left or right. I went right (although both ways will get you where you need to go). Overall, I felt the way I chose was shorter (at least, it should have been if I’d taken the direct route the first time and not got bogged down in the willows).

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I made it to the top of the hill and this is what I saw. All I needed to do was to make my way around the willows to the gully and ascend the rest of the way to the peak. Also, it was evident it had been snowing on the peak while it had been raining on me this morning

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Here I lost the trail, and initially tried to cut across the willows and head straight for the gully. That didn’t last long: there were little streams everywhere and boggy areas and the willows were saturated with water (so I became so as well). It looked like there were trails through the willows, but they always ended at a stream and an area of willows too thick to pass.

I retraced my steps and went right (northwest) and trudged up the hillside. Eventually I found a surprisingly intact trail and followed that around the mountainside and up towards the gully (on my way back I followed the trail further, knowing where it began).

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Here there were still willows but they were much more manageable. An added bonus was the sun was starting to warm things up and evaporate the rain. I was still “soaking wet” but now I was able to dry off in the sun.

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Once out of the willows I followed the cairns up the hillside and aimed for a class 2 gully

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This gully wasn’t really that bad…

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and at the top there was a cairn

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All I had to do now was head straight up the slope to the summit. Unfortunately, here is where the sprinkling of snow began. It didn’t require traction, but it did require careful footing, as a lot of the snow had turned into ice.

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The boulders were a bit loose, but I found several dirt paths that led straight up

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After hiking for 11.7 miles I summited at 8:50am

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Summit:

It was really, really windy at the summit, and while it had looked clear while hiking up from below, now I wasn’t so sure. The wind and snow made it cold, and looking at those clouds I wanted to make it down as soon as possible. Those mitts has been a good choice.

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Route finding on the way down was much easier than on the way up.

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Here’s a look at “Fools Pyramid” if you’re thinking of attempting it. I had another big day tomorrow and I was worried about the potential snow for today so I didn’t head that way, but it’s definately something I’d consider in the future. I found a really great camping spot near treeline (before the boulder field by a stream) that I’d like to hike into some day, spend the night, hike “Fools Pyramid” and PT 13,261, camp again, and hike out the next day. Today was not that day.

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Once at the top of the basin here’s the route back on the CDT

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The further I descended the more the wind picked up. I heard what sounded like gunshots and realized I was hearing trees falling over. I kept looking at the clouds, wondering if it was going to rain again, but the wind seemed to blow them away as quickly as they came.

On my way down I came across a strawberry patch and even a few raspberry bushes.

Back down in the basin I had a clear view of the trail in the daylight. What I thought might have been tents in the dark ended up being large boulders. The wind here became insane. I’d stir up a bird as I was walking on the trail, and startled, it would try to fly away, only to be swept sideways in the wind. This happened about a dozen times (the birds were sheltering from the wind in the bushes) and I felt bad every time one took to the air. They were usually pushed by the wind sideways into bushes.

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Just before I made it back to the bridge I came across someone who had all the right equipment but looked too clean and tidy to be a thru hiker. I asked him where he was going and he said he’d just started and was trying to find a lake. I’d travelled pretty far and hadn’t seen one, and told him as much. His response was it was 180 miles in. I was jealous, and wished him luck.

The last 5 miles took what seemed like forever for me to complete, and I was glad I’d chosen not to summit those two other peaks: I was tired!

I made it back to the trailhead at 2:30pm, making this a 23.5 mile hike with 5115′ of elevation gain in 12 hours.

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#97 Jagged Mountain – 13,824

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RT Length: 46 miles

Elevation Gain: 11,481’

Elapsed Time: 47 hours, 11minutes

50 meter rope was perfect (but tie the ends, because it was close)

I knew the risks going in: The weather didn’t look all that great and my first day in would be from no sleep from the night before, but I’m used to these circumstances and decided to go ahead and attempt Jagged Mountain this weekend.

If I were to do this climb again and I had the time availability I’d stretch it into 4-5 days.   Unfortunately, with my work/volunteer/mom schedule I knew I’d never get that much time off in a row, so my plan was to hike up to the base of Jagged Pass the first day, either summit Jagged that night or the next morning, hike back down to the Animas River the next day and camp somewhere between the cutoff to Noname and the base of the Purgatory Trail, and hike out the third day, with the understanding I could change plans as I went (one of the benefits of solo hiking).

I’d spent quite a bit of time going through my gear to make it lighter, and I think I shaved off about 10lbs, making my pack a much more manageable 35lbs (including rope, harness, webbing, etc.)

I drove the 6.5 hours to the Purgatory Trailhead and was on the trail by 2:30am. This is the third time I’ve hiked in from Purgatory, and the third time doing so in the dark.  I decided to get some stats from Strava this time.

  • First Trail Bridge @ 4.3 miles, 2 hours of hiking.
  • Second Trail Bridge (cutoff to Chicago Basin) @ 9.9 miles, 4 hours 30 min of hiking
  • Needleton Bridge @ 10.8 miles, 4 hours 50 min of hiking

The Needleton Bridge area has some private property surrounding it, and several social trails to cabins. This is the correct trail to bring you towards Pigeon Creek and Noname Creek.  It starts just to the right of the Needleton Bridge.

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The path here is easy to follow and brings you to the “campers meadow” / Aspen Grove at the turnoff for the Pigeon Creek approach to Ruby Basin

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From here the path was much better than I’d anticipated. There were cairns and a semi-worn footpath to mark the way north through the forest, paralleling the Animas River

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Then, for no reason whatsoever (except of course the river below) comes Water Tank Hill.   It’s worse than it sounds: 200’ straight up the side of the mountain (and then back down to the river afterwards).

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When I got to the top of Water Tank Hill I noticed the water tank was actually on the other side of the River. I decided this would be a great place to take a rest.  As I sat down I noticed a Black Bear racing over the tracks and through the yellowish/green grass in the middle right of this photo.  I was reaching for my camera when I saw her cub bounding after her.  I wasn’t fast enough to get a picture, but thought to myself:  Cool!  About 10 years ago I’d taken the trail from Durango to Silverton and asked one of the workers how often they saw bears, and he said in the 25 years he’s worked there he’s only seen one.  I felt pretty special to get to see this pair this morning.  I also asked myself what they were running from?

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I sat here for a bit and had breakfast (I decided to force myself to eat this time). Beef Jerky and Almonds for breakfast isn’t all that bad.  After a short rest I put back on my gear and headed down Water Tank Hill, which was just as bad as the way up

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Back at river-level the trail was once again straightforward. I thought to myself how this trail was much easier than the Pigeon Creek trail (but to be fair I’d done that one twice in the dark both ways, and I was doing this one in the daylight).

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I crossed several creeks

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And turned right (east) and followed the Noname Creek trail. Once again, the trail was easy to follow (but obviously not maintained)

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It follows the Noname Creek. I found a patch of raspberries growing as the crow flies from the raspberry patch on the trail to Ruby Creek, as well as thimbleberries (which always seem to grow alongside raspberries)

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The difficulty came when I reached the first avalanche area (I think there are 3 in total, but two of them kind of run together). I’d heard to avoid most of the debris to cross the creek, and so I did so.  This ended up being a terrible idea (maybe I crossed at the wrong section?).  There were trees piled on top of trees that reached heights well over my head.  This made crossing the river a bit dangerous, as the trees weren’t stable and there were huge gaps.  Hundreds of trees criss-crossed the creek.

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Eventually I had to cross the creek again and there was still avalanche debris to contend with

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The above picture is deceptive, as there are still large areas of trees piled on top of each other to cross and no clear path to take. The trees are tumbled together and rotting.  I had to secure each step carefully, even if it looked like the log was solid (some would roll).  Crossing this area took a long time, and is not something I’d recommend doing in the dark.  As I came out of the 2nd avalanche area I realized what I should have done was stick more to the left (north) and I told myself I’d do that on the way back.   I was so excited when I reached a trail again!

About half a mile after I found the trail again I hiked a bit up a hill and found myself at the Jagged Cabin, which was more run down than I’d anticipated. I made it here after 18.2 miles in 10 hours, 42 min.  I’m sure the avalanche area slowed me down…

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I took off my pack and rested for a bit, going over the next part of the route.

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I put back on my pack and headed east through willows and more forest and more uphill. I went left at this junction and came across another small avalanche area that was annoying but not difficult.

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I entered another clearing and went left again, up the hill to the basin below Jagged Pass

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Here route finding was a bit of a challenge because there were so many trails, but as long as I stayed on a trail and kept the stream to the right of me I was headed in the correct direction

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It started raining halfway up this hill, and this is where my troubles began. I’d totally expected it to rain (each day called for rain between 12-5pm).  I just hadn’t anticipated how drenched I’d get from just a little rain.  You see, I was hiking through overgrown grass and willows

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The rain collected on the plants and soaked my pants as I walked through them. I think it’s worth noting everything I was wearing was “waterproof”, including my socks, pants, and jacket(s). Within 15 minutes I was soaking wet.  No worries though, because I had a change of clothes in my pack and I could dry off once I reached my campsite.  Here’s the rest of the route to the small lake I camped at.  There was no trail here and the route I took included some boulder hopping

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I made it to my campsite at a pond just below Jagged pass (12,210’) after 21.1 miles and 13 hours 30 minutes of hiking. Note, this is NOT the unnamed lake at 12,522’

Jagged Campsite:

It was about 4:30 in the afternoon. I set up camp quickly, thankful the forecast only called for rain until 5pm.  Camp was just a tarp, bivy, and sleeping bag, so setting up didn’t take long.  I changed my clothes, laid out my wet pants and socks to dry, ate dinner (more jerky and nuts) and filtered some water.  There were flies and mosquitoes, but the flies seemed particularly interested in me.  I’d been sweating all day and they were intrigued.

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As I was filtering I found an umbrella that had seen better days. I wondered how it got here?  In any event, it soon became “useful” (not really) as it started raining again.  I quickly packed up the clothes I’d set out to dry and sat under the mangled umbrella, watching the rain.

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The rain didn’t look like it was going to stop anytime soon, so around 5pm I decided to take a nap. I woke up around 7pm to a fantastic view of my campsite in the evening glow.

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I was also a little bummed: Had I just missed my opportunity to summit Jagged by taking a nap?  There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, so the rain couldn’t have lasted too long.  Oh well, it had been a long day, so I decided to go back to sleep to prep for tomorrow.

It rained most of the night. On the positive side, I was nice and warm and dry inside my bivy and sleeping bag.  I woke up several times:  a few because it got stuffy and I couldn’t breathe (but due to the mosquitoes I’d wanted to keep my set up as air tight as possible).  Another time it was to rain, and once to a very loud grinding noise coming from below me.  It sounded like a rabbit slowly biting through a carrot, and a little like a hand saw slowly cutting through wood.  I heard this a few times and figured out it was most likely a marmot burrowing below me, extending its tunnels (or something).

At 5am I woke up to clear skies and sat in my bivy for a full half hour just gazing at the stars. I could make out dozens of constellations, a few satellites, and at least 4 meteors flying through the sky. I was pleasantly surprised at the lack of clouds.

Curiously, I thought I saw a flash light up the mountains. The first time I saw it I thought my eyes were playing tricks on me.  The second I looked around for lightening (sure that was what it had been).  No clouds, so it couldn’t have been lightening.  The third time I saw it I thought maybe it was someone hiking in the dark and their flashlight was causing it?  That didn’t make much sense, and I couldn’t see anyone with a flashlight below, so I ruled that out as well.

I didn’t want to move, not only due to the amazing nighttime view but also because it was a bit chilly; but I needed to get a move on.

I left all my nonessential gear under my tarp, put on my helmet, and even though it was dark I headed in my intended direction. There was a grassy slope to the left (north) of me I took to a rocky area and up and over the pass

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I made it about 5 minutes before I had to stop because I couldn’t see anything and it was getting dangerous traversing over the wet, rocky area. I sat in one spot for about 20 minutes, allowing the sun to rise before continuing on.  As I sat there I could see what I hadn’t been able to from below:  a storm to the west.  It had been lightning I’d seen, but luckily the storm seemed to be petering out.

This gully was full of rocks and nasty scree that took careful foot placement but was straightforward

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At the top of the gully I turned right (south) and got my first good look at Jagged Mountain

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I spent some time planning my route. Here’s the route I took, staying below the areas of snow and just to the right of the gully.

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This area is steeper than it looks

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Here’s the path to the first crux, just to the right of the gully

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I turned to look back on the way I’d come and noticed that storm that looked like it was going away wasn’t. In fact, it was coming right at me! Ugh!  It was only around 7am and it wasn’t supposed to rain until noon but yet here was obvious rain headed my way.   I was glad I wasn’t in the Vestal Basin right now.

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The rain started falling and I got out my poncho, put my back to a rock, and sheltered in place for half an hour, waiting for the rain and graupel to stop. While I sat there I did a lot of thinking.  I knew due to this rain the rocks would be wet, so I’d have to be very careful.  Also, I needed to set a turn back time, which I set for 12pm.  In my mind I was thinking this rain could be a good thing:  It wasn’t supposed to rain until noon and it was raining now: maybe this would be it for today? (insert God laughing here).

Once the rain stopped I set to work at the first crux. You’re supposed to go over these grassy slopes, but I wasn’t able to get over the first bit.  I wished I’d brought my rock climbing shoes!!!  I tried and tried and tried but I just wasn’t tall enough to get myself up and over the first rock:  I had no traction with my feet and nothing to hold onto with my hands.  There had to be another way?

I went to the right and found another area that looked “easier”. I attempted to gain the slope this way but wasn’t able to pull myself up here either. Ugh!  So I went back and tried the slopes again, but it just wasn’t working.  I went back to the second area, took off my pack, and was easily able to climb up.  This was no good though because I needed my rope to rappel.  So I attached a small rope to my pack and tried to haul it up after me:  the rope broke.  Face palm.

Ok, next idea: I rummaged around in my pack for my knife but was unable to find it?  My idea had been to use it kind of like an ice pick for leverage on the grassy slope (since there were no rocks/etc. to grab onto).  I was upset I couldn’t find my knife, but I did find my microspikes and decided to put them on.  These gave me the traction I needed to pull myself up and onto the slope from below.  I then made my way around and finished the first crux.  (The dotted line is how I think you’re supposed to get over this area, but I wasn’t tall enough to make it happen).

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The climbing became steep. I’m assuming this is the second crux

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There weren’t cairns here but I knew I was on the right track because I kept seeing anchors set up. I inspected each one on my way up and they all looked good enough to use on my way down.

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I made it to the notch, got my first good view of the sky and turned left. It looked like the weather was going to hold out for me today after all!

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Here’s that airy traverse. There’s a lot of exposure here but luckily for me the rocks were dry and it was a short section.  I took the solid line, but if I hadn’t been wearing my backpack I could have fit through the hole where the dotted line is (behind the rock is a tight fit with a pack).

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I was feeling pretty good about myself at this point as I rounded the corner and saw the chimney. It used to be a class 3 chimney but there had been a rockfall and the top two rocks in the chimney were “new”. I’d heard they weren’t that difficult.

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So I decided to just go for it. Indeed, the first part of the chimney was easy.  Easy until I came to the place just below those new top two rocks.  They were positioned in such a way they were overhanging the rocks below.  I tried and tried and tried but I wasn’t able to get around the rocks, so I retreated to the bottom of the chimney and studied the route again.

It looked like the way to get over this area was to balance on the ledge to the left and haul myself over. So I tried again, but that crack was smaller than a pencil and there was no way I was going to be able to balance on it without rock climbing shoes.  Drat!

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I was getting seriously frustrated and tried several more times from numerous different angles and was unsuccessful. What was really demoralizing was I was so close to the summit!  I went back down the chimney (again), took off my pack, and studied the rocks.  There had to be a way up and over this area, and I had to bring my rope with me (there was no way I was soloing down the chimney without a rope).  I told myself I was going to keep trying over and over again until my turnaround time at noon.  I was kicking myself for the second time today for not bringing along my climbing shoes, but I wasn’t ready to give up yet.

I just needed a little bit of leverage. That’s when I got an idea!  I put on my climbing harness, attached my rope to the belay device (because I’d need the rope on the way down but couldn’t carry it up in my hands).  I took some webbing and carabineers with me and left everything else (including my camera) at the base of the chimney.

I climbed back up the chimney again and this time when I made it to the rocks at the top I turned around and faced away from the chimney. What I did next I’m sure isn’t kosher, so I’m not going to describe it in detail (but if you’re interested I’ll tell you at a 14er HH). It involved a lot of upper body strength, some webbing, and a move I learned in elementary school when I’d play on the bars at recess.  My feet made it up and over the right side of the chimney first and I hauled the rest of my body over, thrilled I’d figured this problem out!!!  Here’s the route I took and a look back down from the top of the chimney

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There was an anchor set up about 10 feet from the top of the chimney that looked sketchy. I was glad I’d brought my webbing and rope up with me and decided to secure it now before summiting, lifting and pulling the rope hand over hand until I had it all above the chimney.  I didn’t need a lot of webbing but I’d been unable to find my knife, so if you get up there and wonder why someone left all that webbing I can assure you it wasn’t on purpose:  I just didn’t have anything to cut it with (I did have more webbing in my pack however, so this wasn’t all of it).

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I summited Jagged Mountain at 10am

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Jagged Summit:

Here are some summit views and a pretty robust anchor set up if you want to rappel the 165 feet down instead of heading back the way you came (that’s a lot of rope!)

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Jagged Mountain was by far the most challenging summit I’ve ever attempted. I was very proud of myself for not giving up, even when I seriously wanted to.  Now I just had to get back down to my campsite safely.  I turned to exit the way I’d come and rappelled back down the chimney, retrieved and recoiled my rope and put back on my gear.

Here’s looking at the traverse back to the notch

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I used every anchor station on the way back down, collecting and recoiling my rope after each descent (that’s exhausting!)

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I brought a 50 meter rope with me and it was exactly the right length. I rappelled 4 times (including the chimney) and on the last rappel to right above the snow my rope just touched the ground (a great reason to tie a knot in the ends of your rope!).

I was coiling my rope here when I saw the flight for life helicopter heading towards the Animas River. I said a silent prayer for those involved (stay safe adventuring out there friends!), put on my microspikes and headed back to the pass, keeping an eye on the weather.

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At the pass I took a selfie just because I could and because, hey, it’s Jagged

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Here’s the route to my campsite (note I camped below the unnamed lake: I didn’t see a reason to hike all the way up there?) and the path out through the basin.

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I made it back to my campsite around 12:45pm, making this about 6 hours campsite to summit to campsite: that’s a long time for 2 miles round trip!  (I blame it on the rain…)

It had been my intention to hike back to my camping area, eat lunch, gather my gear, filter some water, and head back. Mother Nature had other plans.  As soon as I made it to my camping area it started to rain, so I turned myself into a tarp burrito and rested for about an hour. When it became apparent the rain wasn’t letting up anytime soon I had some choices to make.  I didn’t have any dry clothes but the ones I was wearing because I’d been unable to dry my wet clothes from yesterday.  I could:

  • Stay where I was and wait out the rain and hike back the entire route tomorrow. By doing this I’d be chancing the snow forecasted for tonight and the conditions would be similar to today since the sun wouldn’t have been out to dry the rain
  • Hike back now in the rain and stop somewhere along the way to camp in wet clothes
  • Hike all the way to Purgatory in wet clothes (approximately 20 miles)

I knew I’d gotten more sleep last night than I usually get in 2 nights time so I was well rested. I also knew if I tried to sleep in wet clothes I would just shiver all night (and sleeping naked wouldn’t have been any good since I’d need to put on wet clothes in the morning and hike out anyway, so I might as well just hike out now).  I have a lot of energy and need to exhaust myself to go to sleep:  staying put didn’t mean rest.

Curiously, the umbrella that had been there yesterday was now gone. I’m assuming a marmot took it?

I decided to hike out, so I packed up my gear (found my knife in my sleeping bag: It must’ve fallen out of my pocket last night) and in the beginning tried to use my tarp to shield me from the rain (in case you’re wondering, it didn’t work). I was soaking wet in the first 5 minutes.  Everything, including my waterproof pants, socks, jacket, and shoes were sopping wet. I could actually see the water oozing out of the top of my shoes and when I put my arms down I saw water dripping out of my sleeves.

It rained. And rained.  And rained.  After about 2 hours I screamed (to no one in particular) ‘”STOP RAINING!”  It didn’t work and it didn’t really matter:  the ground and trees and bushes were going to be wet for days (the forecast called for more rain/snow).

My main concern was getting past the avalanche area while it was still daylight. I stayed north this time and went over some boulders, avoiding trees where I could, which ended up being the better idea.  There was still no trail to follow, but I was able to pick up faint game trails at times through the 3-4 foot brush.  The difficulty of the avalanche area was compounded by the rain and slick conditions.  I was slipping and sliding over tall-grass camouflaged wet rocks and trees; the only consolation being I was doing it now instead of tomorrow (in worse conditions).

In case I didn’t describe it properly last time, the avalanche area is full of enormous trees and branches piled on top of each other in various states of decomposition and some areas are like trap doors: they looked olid but you could fall right through them.  My shins and thighs and forearms are covered in bruises.  My hiking pants are completely torn up and I’m in the market for a new pair.  I kept falling and about halfway through my phone stopped working (I’m guessing because it was waterlogged).  I didn’t dare get out my DSLR in these conditions so I mentally resigned myself to losing pictures/my track, which stunk because I really wanted them from this climb!

Thankfully I made it out of the avalanche area and back on the Noname Trail in the daylight, and from there booked it down to the Animas River. I wanted to get as much of this hike done in daylight as possible so I wasn’t taking breaks.  I was taking “bend over to get the weight off my shoulders and pump my thighs up and down” breaks though, usually for 5 seconds worth of ujjayi breath before continuing on.

As I hiked I looked for fresh animal racks in the mud and unfortunately didn’t see any. There were brief periods where the rain stopped, but I’d only get about halfway dry out before it started raining again.  I didn’t bother being careful crossing the creeks:  my feet were already soaked, so a little creek water wouldn’t hurt any.

I made it to about a mile before Water Tank Hill when a man surprised me. He was dressed head to toe in rain camo.  “Oh, I didn’t see you” I announced (well, duh) and we talked for a bit.  He looked like a hunter but I noticed he had a tripod in his pack and guessed he was a photographer.  He had an accent that suggested Eastern Europe. He was soaking wet as well and had no idea how he was going to get dry tonight.  When I told him I was hiking back to Purgatory he first said “wow, that’s a long way!” and then asked me if I’d come this way on my way in.  We had a laugh over 200 feet of “why am I doing this?” (Water Tank Hill) and then I was on my way.

I made it up Water Tank Hill and decided to take a short break. It was 8pm.  I played with my phone again and was finally able to get it to turn off and reboot.  Once it was done I was able to open my phone again: yes!!!  I hadn’t lost my data and it looked like my tracker was still going.  I was still soaking wet and my feet felt like I was hiking in water shoes, but this, this was a major win!

From here it didn’t take long to make it back to Needleton, where I breathed a huge sigh of relief, knowing I still had 11 miles to go but they would all be on a well established trail with no route finding. I just needed to keep going, slow and steady.

I’ve hiked the Animas River Trail several times, and it’s getting easier to know where I am and how much further I have to go, even in the dark. For the first time I didn’t see any campers (most likely due to the weather forecast).  I stopped for another break at the base of the Purgatory Trail.  Despite not having time to filter water I still had plenty so I didn’t filter any now.  I had some peanut butter and was on my way again to hike the last 4.3 miles up to the trailhead.

I’ve done this last part three times: once in the daylight and twice now in the dark.  Let me tell you, hiking up Purgatory in the dark is the way to go!  The daylight sun in demoralizing.  Sure, tonight I was soaked due to the rain, but I wasn’t gulping down water every few seconds to stay hydrated.  Also, the first couple of times I hiked this trail I got frustrated due to all the ups and downs in elevation.  It’s no fun to gain elevation just to lose it again.  So I changed my mindset this time:  I was going to have to do the last mile directly up from the river anyway: I might as well enjoy the downhill times while I could.

I made it back to my truck around 1:45am, making this a 46 mile hike with 11,481’ in elevation gain in 47 hours. I took off all my gear, cleaned myself up, and decided to take a nap before heading home.  I tried for 30 minutes to fall asleep, couldn’t, and got up and just drove home (too much sleep yesterday?)

There had been a 30-70% chance of rain today from 12-5pm, but it had rained at 7am, 12-5pm, 7pm, 8-10pm, and as I turned my truck on to leave it started pouring again…

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#96 Dallas Peak – 13,809

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RT Length: 12 miles

Elevation Gain: 5445’

There are a lot of really good reports on this mountain, but I’m visual and like a lot of pictures so I’m adding what I have to what’s already out there…

In keeping with my “sleep is for amateurs” theme this month I made it home yesterday just in time to pack up the truck and make it to the campground before dark.  I helped my daughter set up her tent and then walked around the campground talking with the other families (I was hosting a Girl Scout Family campout, which was pretty chill, seeing as how everyone was basically “family camping” at the same spot).  We’ve done this for the past 10 years now so I know every family has their own routine.  Most go off roading and a few go into town.  Everyone canoes/kayaks.  My daughter wanted to get her homework done the first day so she could enjoy the weekend, so I decided to let her do that and I’d go hiking.  4 hours away.  (Hey, in my mind the trailhead was 6 hours from my house, and by combining it with this trip I knocked 2 hours of the drive there and 2 hours back).

I was able to fall asleep around 8:30pm and got up at 10pm to drive the 4 hours to the Mill Creek / Deep Creek Trail (please do not confuse this with the Mill Creek Campground: you won’t end up in the right spot).

While sleep may be for amateurs, I’d had less than 4 hours sleep in the past 48 due to my South Colony Lake hike yesterday, and I found on the drive to the trailhead I was more tired than I’ve ever been driving. This scared me, so I pulled over to the side of the road and spent 5 minutes trying to fall asleep.  This didn’t work, but it did give me about another half hour of driving in before I felt too tired to go on and decided to set my alarm for 20 minutes.  20 minutes was the magic number, and I was able to effortlessly drive the rest of the way to the trailhead, hike all day, and make it back to the campground without feeling the need to sleep again.

I was surprised to find the trailhead is at the end of a shelf road, and even more surprised to find so many vehicles parked there.

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I was on the trail at 2:45am, a little disappointed in how heavy my pack was containing all my gear (60 meter rope, harness, belay device, webbing , etc.). I put on my helmet at the trailhead before starting the hike.  The trailhead was very easy to find.  I followed it northeast along the Deep Creek Trail.

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After about half a mile I turned left (west) at this junction and continued on the Deep Creek Trail

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The trail switchbacked 5 or 6 times up the mountainside and then curved north around it, following a well defined trail

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After a total of about 1.7 miles there’s another trail junction. I turned right (north) here

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And followed the Sneffles Highline/Deep Creek Trail north through some aspen trees

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And switchbacked another 8 or 9 times up the mountain, transitioning through pine trees and then tundra mixed with pine

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I was enjoying the lights of Telluride as I hiked in the dark, but I wasn’t enjoying the soreness in my shoulders.   I took an ibuprofen and trudged on.  This is where the trail looses about 300’ of elevation for no good reason.  Luckily it’s not too drastic of an incline because it’s dispersed over half a mile, but it still hurts on the way out.

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This decrease in elevation will take you to the base of Dallas Peak. Here you leave the trail and find your own way up the grassy slopes towards the cliff bands.  Here is the route I took:

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I started this in the dark, and just followed the tundra north, which eventually led me to a gully and a rocky cliff area. There was a lot of loose rock and scree here that slowed me down quite a bit (that and I was tired from all the hiking I’d already done this week).  This is also a good time to put on your microspikes.  I’ve heard there’s class 3 scrambling here but was able to find a class 2+ scree route by following social trails.

Just before making it to the cliffs I turned right (northeast) and followed some cairns to the ridge

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You continue following to the left (northwest)

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Until you see a gully to your left. Ascend via the class 4/5 section to the right of the gully.  There are plenty of hand/foot holds here, and at the top there are anchors to rappel down (I didn’t, but if the rocks were wet I could see how this would be useful).

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Once I gained this section I made my way to the base of the summit block and changed my gear, putting on my climbing shoes (totally worth carrying them) and harness. At this point I was exhausted:  My gear was heavy and that mile of scree/talus had taken a lot out of me.  Here’s the first part of the route:

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This was as fun class 5 chimney climb that took some fancy footwork (only because I’m short). At times I was pressing my back to the rock for leverage and using my palms for support.

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Here’s looking back down on this section

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Here is where the route gets tricky. Even though you want to summit by going straight ahead (west) this is not the way to summit. Continue right around to the north side of Dallas.

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Cairns weren’t helpful here. I kept finding areas that looked ‘summitable’ but for me weren’t.  It was getting frustrating but I refused to give up:  I’d make it half or even three quarters of the way up a line only to find the hand/foot holds ran out, and I knew there had to be a safer way. In total there were two obvious areas I tried that didn’t work before before coming to the correct one at the bottom of a small dirt filled gully on the north side of Dallas

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Here’s what it looked like from the bottom

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I was able to climb up this area without ropes, although it was slow going and I was careful with every hand/foot hold. I was very glad to have my climbing shoes.  I summited at 9:15am.

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Dallas Peak:

I was quite thrilled with myself for making it up without ropes, and decided to spend a long time on the summit, enjoying my success.

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The way off Dallas Peak is to rappel to the southeast

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There was quite a bit of webbing already set up.

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The only problem? This guy.  He refused to move, and quite honestly I didn’t want to scare him and have him bite/sting/fly all around me.  So I talked to him for a bit and told him if he didn’t move, I wouldn’t kill him.  This arrangement seemed to work, as he never left his spot.  He was about 2 inches long.

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I set up my gear and threw my rope over the side. It got tangled, so I had to haul it back up, untangle it, and throw it again.  Success!  On the way down it’s instantly committing.  You aim for the hole (the hole is the halfway point down).

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I double checked my set-up, leaned back and felt secure, so I unhooked my slings and started down, aiming for the hole in the rock

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When I made it down to the hole I found it was a ledge: I could have set up a second rappel from here if need be (but my 60 meter rope was more than long enough).  Here’s what it looks like looking up and down from the ledge.

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I leaned back one more time and started the rappel down through the hole, noticing there was a rope that had been left there. When I made it to the ground I saw a sign on the rope asking others to leave it as they found it, as its owner is coming back this winter to retrieve it.

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I unhooked my belay device, pulled my rope through and recoiled it, mentally thinking through the rest of the descent. I felt confident I could descend the class 4 section without rope, so I put it away in my bag.

Here’s the way I rappelled down

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I decided to keep on my climbing shoes until I made it back down past the class 4 section. I wasn’t disappointed, as the rock was easier to navigate than it had been on the way up wearing climbing shoes.  I felt very secure down-climbing this area.  Also, it looks very different on the way down

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Here’s a look at the way down from the ledge. I stuck to the left (east) of the snow and just aimed for the obvious trail below that cut across the side of the mountain, so glad I was doing this now in the daylight

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I made it back to the trail and all I could think about was making it back to the campground as soon as possible: I’d promised my daughter I’d make dinner.  I found some raspberries along the way that were delicious, so that settles it:  Raspberries in the San Juans just taste better.

I made it back to my truck at 1:30pm, making this a 12 mile hike with 5445’ of elevation gain in 11 hours

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I made it back to the campground around 5:30pm and we stayed up and chatted around the lake/campfire until late into the night. This is how I spent the rest of my Labor Day weekend, relaxing in the beauty of one of my favorite Centennials…

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