Wednesday, June 13, 2007

San Luis Peak
(14,019 ft.)

The Cheyenne Cañon climbing maniacs are off and running to a good start for 2007! After a rigorous climb of Castle Peak on the 2nd, Trisha and I headed off to the wilds of southern Saguache County on Sunday, the 10th, to tackle our first 14er in the San Juan range: San Luis Peak.

It’s a strange fourteener. Even though it’s in the San Juans (a range known for lousy rock and difficult, dangerous peaks), it looks more like a Sawatch rock pile that somehow got mislocated. It’s usually regarded as the easiest fourteener in the San Juans.

And it is truly in the “middle of nowhere.” Aside from Culebra, it is probably Colorado’s most isolated fourteener. Getting to the trailhead required us to venture 20 miles off the main highway (US50), and then, an additional 28 miles on unpaved county and Forest Service roads!

So, after five hours on the road, which took us over Monarch Pass, and then back to within a (relative) stone’s throw of the Continental Divide, we reached the Stewart Creek trailhead. The late-phase moon had not yet risen, and the stars overhead were a glorious carpet of light points in the totally un-light-polluted sky. There were only two other cars at the trailhead.

Our original plan had been to catch a few hours of sleep in the back of the Forester, and we had brought our sleeping bags and pads for that purpose. But just as we were approaching the trailhead, Trisha informed that she felt like she was getting a second wind, and it didn’t take too long for us to decide that just setting off and hiking up in the dark would be a better plan. Given the mountain’s reputation as easy, we hoped that we might actually reach the summit (which the guide books and the sign at the trailhead informed us was only 5½ miles away…) by sunrise. Despite the above-mentioned plan, I had brought my headlamp, against just such a possibility. So we hit the trail at about 12:30 MST.

As promised, the trail is obvious as it heads off up Stewart Creek. A few patches of snow, and a few batches of avalanche-downed timber, obscured it here and there, but we made good time up the initial stretch, after we worked out a technique for walking together that allowed both of us to make good use of the light from the single headlamp. Most of the time we walked hand-in-hand, so that I could keep the light focused where her feet were about to go.

Budding bridge builders.

The route descriptions said that, not far below timberline, the trail crosses from the west side of the creek, and then quickly back. There’s nothing unusual about this. Since none of the trip reports I had read had mentioned these crossings as being particularly important, I had given them no previous thought. As we made our way up the trail, however, Trisha finally asked me about them. Were there bridges? Stepping stones?

I replied that I didn’t really expect formal bridges in a wilderness area like this, but that I really expected no problem: Either there would be useable stepping stones, or a serviceable “bridge” of logs. Otherwise, surely someone would have mentioned it in something I had read in my pre-trip research.

When the trail finally debouched into the creekside, however, it became clear that, at least in early June (with the spring melt in full force), this was not the case. I could see what looked like stepping stones—at least when the water level was quite a bit lower. But trying to ford here with the volume of water we actually found would have meant soaked feet, if not a bone-chilling full-body dump in the swiftly-moving water. So we looked for a log bridge of some sort.

Over the course of the next half hour or so, we actually found several places where it sure looked like people had deliberately laid logs across the creek to make impromptu bridges. The trouble was, in the creek’s current swollen condition, none of them were adequate any longer. Mostly, they just didn’t reach. Plus, they were sagging into the frigid water and, in the cold of the night, were coated with a treacherous skin of invisible ice. We even considered—more than once!—the possibility that we had misread the trail, and that it actually continued along the west bank. But every foray in that direction dead-ended in a thicket of impenetrable brush. Finally, thoroughly frustrated and beginning to get cold from our lack of moving, we went what seemed like a long way downstream, and found a narrow and deep section bridged by a very thick, sturdy, and, most of all, dry, log.

Still unwilling to risk a dunk in the drink, we scooted across this bridge on our butts, and finally picked up unmistakable wisps of a trail on the other side. We had wasted a bunch of time, but we were back under way.

Sure enough, just a few minutes of hiking brought us to what had to be the second creek crossing. A couple of thin logs had been laid across the water. And they were almost sufficient to get us across. Almost, but not quite. Here, too, the problem was that the high water level had coated the wood with ice. We had no choice but to begin scouring the area for a log which we could add to the bridge.

Fortunately, it took us only a couple of minutes to locate a downed tree trunk which was of sufficient length and which we could carry to the creek. Laying it beside the one existing log which spanned the creek, we found that we could cross by getting down on all fours, gripping both logs (including the slippery one) with bare hands, and keeping both feet on the dry one. It was slow, ungainly, and awkward, but it worked. We were back across, and the obvious trail beckoned us onward and upward!

The coming of the light

All this time, we had been awaiting the rising of the moon. We knew that once it rose far enough, we would have a much broader view of our surroundings than was afforded by the headlamp. At last, we glimpsed a yellow crescent through the trees behind us. The filtering of the trees, however, still prevented it from casting much light on our trail, so we continued to navigate by artificial light.

The trail steepens dramatically after the second creek crossing, and we found ourselves slowing noticeably, not only because of that, but also because of the larger and more numerous snow patches and avalanche debris fields we were encountering.

So it was that, just about the time we finally emerged from the trees, high on an uplift many dozens of feet above the creek bed, we finally turned off the headlamp. By this time, dawn had already come to the sky behind us, rapidly washing out the stars and finally revealing the pristine splendor of the landscape all around.

We took a couple of pictures looking toward the silhouetted eastern horizon, unable to identify the peaks we were seeing against the rising sun. I also couldn’t resist taking one of the moon. I was hoping that Mars would also be visible in the photo, but I’m afraid that there was already too much light by that time.

That light showed us the sweeping basin bounded by the ridges connecting San Luis to Organ Mountain (13,803 ft.) to the left and Baldy Alto (13,702 ft.) to the right. I became clear here that we would have to traverse several patches of snow (whether we tried to hold to the trail or not), so we pressed on, hoping that the morning chill would persist long enough to get us over them before we started sinking in.

Occasional cairns assured us that we were, more or less, following the trail, even though it was covered and invisible for substantial stretches. Up near the San Luis/Organ saddle, our intermediate destination, we could also see switchbacks, so we simply took what seemed like the easiest route up, now that we could see where we were going.

The final leg

All this time, the summit had remained hidden from us. Only as we approached the saddle, somewhere around 13,000 ft., did we finally get a peek at it. It seemed tantalizingly close (and, the truth is, it was!), but our tiredness was beginning to take its toll on our speed. Feeling like zombies in the morning light, we were reduced for a time to trudging forward 20 or 25 steps, and pausing for rest. But we were now firmly in the grip of summit fever, and we were certainly not going to turn back, no matter what. So we plodded on, almost oblivious to the passage of time.

Beyond the saddle, a clear trail ascends across the talus, climbing to the climber’s left, on the northeast side of the prominent ridge point which is visible from quite a distance below. Then, well above 13,000, it wanders over an even higher saddle onto the west side of the ridge, and the view to the west suddenly opens up.

The most obvious landmarks thus revealed are the distinctive shapes of Wetterhorn and Uncompahgre Peaks. Nearer at hand, we saw the Handies group, and, still nearer, numerous peaks along the Divide.

We could see tracks, probably made by the couple whom I knew had made this climb the previous weekend, heading up through the snow along the ridge crest. Enough snow had melted, however, to show us that the actual trail wraps around the west side of the last two ridge points before the summit, and we decided to follow the trail to take it easy on ourselves.

At the base of the summit block, a strange trick of perspective made it look more distant than it actually was. In fact, just a few dozen steps led us up to the surprisingly tiny snowfield which mostly covered the also tiny summit. All the same, there, in the middle of the snow, was a small assemblage of dry rocks, upon which the register canister was nestled. I took a set of pictures to try to show just how small and intimate the summit area is, but I don’t think they compare with the reality. There’s only a very small area here that’s more or less level, despite the gentle contours of the mountain overall.

By this time, we both felt renewed energy. The wind had moderated, and we felt no need for additional clothing. In fact, I was comfortable with bare hands, as I set about taking pictures, and replacing the very full register with the new one I had brought. It was a great feeling to sign in as the first two summiteers on a new register, not to mention the first on that day. We had reached the top at 7:10 am: Not my earliest summitting, but it was Trisha’s, and our earliest together.

The view in all directions is truly astounding. We might have been on a planet consisting of nothing but mountains, for all that the eye could reveal. The high peaks were still blotched with snow, but there was lots of bare ground visible, too. We tried in vain, from this entirely new perspective, to identify many peaks.

The only “bad news” was that, just as the week before, we felt that the only sensible thing to do was to abandon any plan to bag nearby 13,000 ft. peaks. In addition to Organ Mountain to the west, Baldy Alto beckoned a fraction of a mile away and, even more enticing, Stewart Peak (13,988 ft.) stood just a little farther away. From the summit of San Luis, both peaks could be gained via a ridge run over gentle terrain, without ever having to descend below 13,100. But to gain the advantage we had hoped for by setting out super early—getting home early instead of late—we had to head down with all deliberate speed, even though it was not even 7:30 in the morning!

The descent

We made our way back down to the Organ/San Luis saddle, and dropped just far enough below the ridge crest to shelter a bit from the prevailing wind, and stopped for our “lunch.” At this point, we finally needed to shed some clothing, as it was turning into a fabulously warm June day. I lay back on the slope (after applying more sunblock) and ate my sandwich with my eyes half-closed, resting and sunbathing at 13,000+ feet. Shortly after getting underway again, we saw the only other people we saw above the trailhead that day—a couple skiing up the snow fields, no doubt with the intention of skiing down.

The sun had already begun to soften the snow substantially, and we were able to boot-ski down many stretches which had offered firm and crisp traction on the way up. In fact, it had actually become too soft and mushy to slide on efficiently. We even did a little postholing, but we had learned a lot about how to avoid the areas where this was most likely.

The boot skiing was so much fun, and so fast, that we ended up going down too far in the immediate vicinity of the creek. We had to climb a ways up a lightly vegetated slope to regain the trail, which leaves the main creek bed while still down in the trees, and follows a minor tributary out into the open. This only slowed us down a bit though, and we were soon making good time down the trail through the trees, despite our earlier tiredness.

At the upper creek crossing, we decided that another log would be a good idea. We found one quickly (in the sunlight) and placed it across the creek. It wasn’t entirely stable, though, and while I made it across without mishap, Trisha slipped and cut her leg on a branch stub. We had to pause briefly so she could bandage it, and we used the stop to remove even more clothes.

In less than an hour, we passed the extensive beaver ponds on the lower creek—which we simply could not see in the middle of the night—and emerged into the open just above the trailhead. This time there was only one other car there. We had made it back at five minutes til eleven.

The total time of almost ten and a half hours didn’t seem too bad when compared to the distance recorded by the GPS unit. Instead of 5.5 miles, it had told us that we had traveled 7.6 miles by the time we reached the summit, making for a 15-mile round trip. Tired but with plenty of day left, we had bagged another one, and gotten our start in a new range.

Photos of the trip are at:

Long life and many peaks!


Post a Comment

<< Home