Posts Tagged ‘san luis’

Tying Up Loose Ends

April 23, 2010

It was time.  Finally, it was time that I finished up the list of Colorado 14ers.  I had done all but a few as of three years ago. I didn’t do the last ones in part because they are on the far corner of the state. But the larger part of it was my dying enthusiasm for the list.

My most recent big push was in July/August of 2003; that year I did 14 Fourteeners in July and August. After doing the four in the Sange de Cristo range, I had invited Brian to participate as desired in my plan to finish the 14er list that year:


I am looking to finish the 14ers this summer.  My approx. plan for 14ers is follows:

  • Capitol (7/26)
  • Sneffels/San Lois (approx. 7/30-31)
  • Chicago Basin Peaks (during vaca?)
  • Telluride Area Peaks (during vaca?)
  • Pyramid/N.Maroon (?)
Interested in any?

Brian could only join me on N. Maroon during a N-S-N traverse of the Bells. But, by the end of that August, Brian asked about my 14er “mania” when I indicated I was interested in a non-14er  adventure.  I responded via email with a telling lack of enthusiasm:


The mania has dimmed a little:  only 1 trip left and I cannot finish without Culebra (next year at earliest).  I’ll get in the last trip in the next few weeks.

What do you want to do this weekend?


It didn’t happen.

Three years later, I had worked up another head of steam and was ready to bag Mt Sneffels & San Luis Peak.  The two represented an odd combination of peaks:  one very well regarded among climbers and the other not so much; on average, I hoped it would be a good trip.

I picked August 9-11, 2006 to do it.

My driving route to collect Sneffels and San Luis covering 770 miles and taking 16.5 hours.

It would be a solo adventure, once again.  It turns out nobody wants to spend 16.5 hours driving 770 miles to climb 2 14ers on the far side of the state, and almost no one will do it.

But that’s okay. While I prefer to climb with friends, I also enjoy the added stress and thrill of climbing alone. I also sleep better.

Day 1 – August 9

As I packed for my trip I realized I couldn’t stand to listen to Paul Simon’s Greatest Hits CD another time.  I decided it was time to pickup a Beatles Greatest Hits, like I had when I was a kid.  I love the Beatles. Heck, I was even looking forward to some free hours to just listen to my old music favorites.

I also threw in a couple of gallons of water, a box of food bars, and a book about Abraham Lincoln. And then I was off.

First on the list was Sneffels. It was the good one, plus I wanted to return home from San Luis via 160 & 285 (a very fast trip home I discovered during a return from Durango).

I left Boulder at midday for South Denver, and then 285 south to 50 heading west toward Montrose.

Climbing two peaks 100 miles apart presents pleasant logistical challenges.  Being sequential, any failure in timing would likely cause the plan to fail.  I had to include sufficient cushions and avoid as many unknowns as possible in my planning to avoid the disaster of going home without both peaks (horrors).  My plan was to plan on the easiest route and then op for more interesting climbing, if any, if my speed and the weather were good.

The two standard options for climbing Mt. Sneffels start from the Yankee Boy basin just outside of Ouray.  There is a class 2+ Lavendar Col scramble and a Class 3 ridge climb.  I decided to aim for Lavender Col but take the ridge, if possible, in order to bag the Tour de Sneffels.

Six hours later, I hated the Beatles.  I couldn’t listen again for over 24 hours.  But I needed to concentrate on my driving anyway once past Montrose.

An overview of the approach to Yankee Boy Basin and climb of Mt Sneffels

The access to Yankee Boy Basin was surprisingly easy.  And the shelf road along the way is definitely something to see. I drove up the County Road 361 until I reached County Road 26 which I took to around 11,200′ to preserve a solid approach effort. I had to hunt a bit for a good place to park & camp.  I couldn’t find anything solid, so I decided to sleep in the back of the truck.

Per my usual method, I wanted to explore the road a bit to be sure I knew where to go when hiking in the dark, but I ran out of daylight. I’d just have to wing it.

Then I went old school.  I ate my luxurious Burger King meal and turned in about 30 minutes after dark.  I don’t think I’ve fallen asleep that early since kindergarten.  But then I woke up at 1am.  I dug out my Abraham Lincoln book and read until 3am when I fell asleep until the alarm went off at 5am.

Day 2 – August 10

So there I was, hiking up County Road 26 in the pitch dark and the only person alive on the planet as far as I could tell.  It added a special thrill to an exciting, stressful situation. I loved it!  It also made me think hard about staying safe (position #1 on map). No one would be looking for my body for several days.

The road led to a big looping trail that I followed to Wrights Lake at 12,200′ (position #2).  The daylight was creeping in and I could see Sneffels and the Blue Lakes Pass. My prep work had indicated that the SW Ridge route was far more interesting than the standard cattle path, so I followed the trail around the lake and aimed myself for the pass.

As I stood atop the pass (position #3), I looked around and saw that I was still all alone. It was an awesome feeling. I looked to the north at the confusing mass of ridges that made up the SW Ridge and thought to myself, ‘this could take some figuring.’  I was right.

I had a copy of Roach’s photo and description, but it didn’t matter.  Neither the photo or description resembled like the mountain I was looking at once I was nose-to-nose with the peak.

I stayed to the left side to avoid some early pinnacles, per the guidebook, and then didn’t know what to do.  I continued to the left of the main features to see if I could see anything useful.  I couldn’t, so I returned and found cairns marking a gully.  I climbed the gully to its dead-end and paused to look around.  I could see back down to where I had hiked earlier, and I could see that I could ascend to the ridge if I had rock gear and a belay.

I decided I’d have to backtrack to the beginning to try another way and started down.  But after a short distance, I found a weakness in the rock that looked promising so I gambled on it.  It led to a notch in the ridge and another gully heading down the other side of the ridge.  I climbed into the new gully and saw that I could scramble up to reach some steep climbing just to the west of the ridge that might lead to the top of the ridge.  I was tempted but was afraid I couldn’t reverse those moves if the path dead ended.  So, instead, I descended the gully to the east to see if I might strike gold.  But no.

Left with only two choices, go all the way back to the bottom or try the hard moves (4th class), I took a chance on the hard moves.  It worked (position #4). The hard climbing lasted only 15 feet and then it was easy scrambling to the top of the ridge.

Once on the ridge, I was able to stay on top the rest of the way to the summit (position #5).  There was some terrific exposure that kept the pressure on even after I was past the route-finding difficulties, but the rock was good enough to be safe.

It was a very good route; one of the best among the 14ers.

The Sneffels summit was a good one.  Clearly it was the tip of a mountain, and the views were awe-inspiring. I sat down for my first break for the day and enjoyed an early lunch and a relaxing few minutes. I figured this was the high point of the trip (literally and figuratively) and should be sure to appreciate it.  I didn’t think San Luis would be so nice.

When I heard voices approaching, I started thinking about my need to get to San Luis before dark. It was time to go.

I scrambled down into the standard route and maneuvered around the snow patches and loose rock to reach the saddle.  I then followed a well beaten cattle trail down under the SW Ridge where I found some Colorado Fourteeners Initiative people working hard on a new trail. I stopped to chat briefly and then continued down to the 4×4 parking lot. I thought I would use the nice lot on any return trips, and then followed the road down to my truck (position #7).

I figured I needed 4 hours to drive back up to Montrose and then over to and down CO-149 to Lake City and then to Creede.  As an alternative, I had a vague notion of the possibility of using back country roads to cut across to Lake City.  I figured it might save several hours; but since I didn’t know the roads and didn’t have any way to figure it out quickly, I decided to simply take the way I knew.  Heck, I was even thinking I might be able to tolerate listening to the Beatles again.

My route up Mt Sneffels

As I drove over to Lake City, I realized that I had not done as much prep work for San Luis since the plan was to do Sneffels first.  The route-finding for the climb was supposed to be easy, but the route-finding on the drive in started to feel confusing as I read and drove.  My drive through Lake City reminded me of an earlier reading-while-driving error (see Flying Blind) and I committed to finding a place in Creede to stop and figure it out.

Yet, I already decided I would use the West Willow Creek trailhead because the drive was shorter and the trailhead was higher and closer to San Luis summit.  Also I decided I would take the longer but more gentle drive offered by Roach.  So I knew to look for 3 dirt roads heading west just south of Creede.  But the directions assumed I was coming from the south (from Creede), while I was coming from the north (from Lake City), so I couldn’t follow the mileage instructions. I hoped it would be obvious.

As I approached Creede, I looked for the three dirt roads on my left.  I could only see 2 dirt roads. Shit.

I continued into town and then back out, staying on CO-149, without learning anything useful.  I turned around and started measuring mileage heading south after crossing the bridge over what I hoped was Willow Creek.  The mileage told me that the turnoff for Bachelor Rd was the right one, assuming that I was measuring from the right bridge.  I thought it was my best bet, so I started up the road to see if the remaining directions would confirm I was on the right road.  The first couple turns did seem to work, even if the road signs were wildly confusing. I continued up the road.

About 1/2 way up the road, I became confident I was in the right place. I eventually found a parking lot near a large mine complex, just like Roach said I would. I parked and started getting ready for the night.

I was worried about how I would hike through the mining area, so I decided to use the 30 minutes before dark to figure it out. I found a passage about the approach that said, “…or continue up a 4×4 road 100 yards before parking lot for 1.6 miles to reach 4×4 parking”.  I looked back down the road I’d driven and saw a dirt road heading up a steep hill.  I thought I should give that a try before dark.

I took off just as another vehicle pulled into the lot.  I made the turn and powered up the steep dirt road.  It was a wandering road through some very isolated terrain and crossing the creek a couple times. I wasn’t certain I was in the right place, so I wanted to hurry to drive the 1.6 miles described by Roach to see it would end in a place that looked promising.

The road abruptly turned up another hill, just as Roach’s book described.  I stopped and walked up the road, and found an old road just as Roach described; I concluded that I had found the 4×4 parking, except that I didn’t see anywhere to park.  I pulled off as well as I could at an old campsite and turned in for the night just as darkness fell upon me.

Below is the sequence I used to find the upper trailhead; numbers noted on map:

  1. Turned west off CO-149 County Rd 505 which becomes Bachelor Rd which becomes County Rd 504
  2. Turned left onto West Willow Creek Road (Google says it is USFS 503) after crossing West Willow Creek and continued end of road (4×2 Parking)
  3. Went 100 yards back up West Willow Creek Road
  4. Turned right (northwest) onto unmarked 4×4 road (Google says it is USFS 503) heading up a steep hill and proceeding north 1.5 miles past Equity Creek Mine and to end of road before it turns uphill again to leave the valley

Day 3 – August 11

I set my alarm for first light.  I needed some daylight to figure out where to go since I wasn’t really sure about where I was.

I started up the old road that led to a ridge and a small bump of a hill.  The road stayed to the right of the hill; once on top I could see a nice trail below me that turned out to be the Colorado Trail. I had found it!

Now it was just a matter of time and weather.

I hurried down to meet the trail and then toward San Luis; I wanted to minimize the chance of getting thwarted by weather after coming so far.  My initial thought was, ‘why is the trail going downhill?’

My campsite was at about 11,500′  Then I hiked to the small bump on the ridge at about 12,500′.  Now I was descending toward the low point in the trail at 11,900′. And that is how the day would go: up and down and up and down, etc. I tried to get my mind right and just hike, but it continued to bother me; somehow knowing that the elevation gain/loss would get me my 3k elevation gain just didn’t help.

The trail also had to contour around two basins to avoid losing even more altitude, so it also gave me a “longer-then-necessary” feeling which added to the boredom. And then the South Ridge route was also boring. I plodded up the ridge to the summit and decided that I would not be back.  San Luis was only worth doing once.

I had thought about bagging Stewart Peak while I was close by, but I did not have the proper attitude.  I knew it meant I would probably not be able to complete the Colorado Highest 100 list, but it just didn’t feel worth it after such a boring day.

I started back toward home. I got back to the truck after hiking 10.5 miles and 3500 feet without a single drop of adrenaline. It might as well have been a Stairmaster Machine.  But at least it was done.  But what an anti-climactic finish!

At least Sneffels was a good one.

Six more hours to get home, and I was done with all the Colorado 14ers I could legally climb. I could almost feel good about it except for the nagging in my mind over Culebra. I had tried the CMC lottery to get a permit, but gave up after not getting selected two years in a row.

Perhaps, someday, I’ll really finish: 57 down and one to go.

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