Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Handies group

Redcloud Peak (14,037 ft.)
Sunshine Peak (14,006 ft.)
Handies Peak (14,053 ft.)

14 September, 2012: Suzanne and I drove up from New Mexico on Friday, the 14th, while Trisha drove down from Greeley. We met at the junction of CO 149 and (Hinsdale) County Rd. 30, just south of Lake City. Trisha brought her camper, and we found a place to park it just above the old townsite if Sherman, where CR4 becomes steeper and rougher, as it heads northwest into the valley between our Saturday target peaks (on the east) and Handies (on the west). We managed to get there while there was still some daylight left, so we had time to set up our camp, cook up a nearly home-made hot dinner, and settle in for a good night's sleep. We set the alarm for 4:30 MDT.

15 September, 2012: In the pre-dawn dark, we made some simple breakfast and Trisha and I prepared our daypacks. Cimarron would hike with us, while Lotto and Suzanne relaxed at camp, perhaps venturing into Lake City for some shopping and lunch.
It was actually after 6 am when the three of us finally climbed into the truck and headed off up the road to the Silver Creek/Grizzly Gulch trailhead. I had thought it was only about two more miles to the TH; we found that it was more like four. We also saw clearly that we could not have gotten the camper to the actual trailhead, as we had originally planned. The road quickly gets not only rough, but steep and narrow in places. At the TH, the road is actually wide and smooth, but in between it's too rough for pulling a trailer.
After taking in the notice on the outhouse door to the effect that there had been a bear encounter (somewhere) in the area (somewhat) recently, we quickly threw on our packs and hit the trail at 6:50 MDT, just before sunrise. The well-worn trail follows Silver Creek (with the creek on climber's right), first northeast, then east, and then southeast as it circles around the north side of Redcloud. We passed the more obscure turn-off the the trail which heads south in between Redcloud and 13er Sundog without seeing it, but we hoped to take that trail down in the afternoon, after climbing Sundog.
An hour or so into the climb, we came out above timberline, and started climbing into the huge basin below Redcloud's northeast ridge. The trail was still totally clear, and we had great views of the gentle (for the San Juans) peaks on the other side of the basin as the sun finally shone over the ridge and onto us.
The trail first heads directly up the ridge toward the false summit. But about ⅓ (?) of the way up it takes a large detour to climber's right, switchbacking out across the north face for a ways. This is definitely a better route than shorter, but steeper and looser, path continuing on the ridge crest. Signs at both ends of this switchback detour show that it is a recent improvement (by CFI) over what was the original route. When the trail comes back to the ridge crest, the false summit is just a short distance away, although it continues to be steep almost to the top.
As with most false summits, the view of the remaining climb to the true summit can seem a bit intimidating, but, in truth, it only involves a climb of just over 100 vertical feet. Accordingly, we blew right past it to get to the top. We got there just after noon MDT. Then, we finally rested and spent nearly half an hour eating, taking pictures, and drinking in the amazing all-around view.
We had the summit to ourselves until just before we were ready to leave. Then Chuck and Dave, two veteran hikers roughly in my age range, strolled up. They told us that they had both climbed Redcloud before (Chuck four times!), but were preparing to make the traverse to Sunshine for the first time. We traded some picture-taking, and departed, expecting to see them again on Sunshine's summit.
The ridge between the two peaks is about a mile and a quarter long, and sports several gently sloped ridge points. The well-worn trail, however, only flirts with the actual ridge crest, staying mostly on the south side. This placement affords nice, ever-morphing views of both “Sundog,” the ranked 13er across the valley, and Sunshine as it is approached. Others have reported ridge run times as low as half an hour for this traverse, but it took us an hour and a quarter.
All along the way, the views continued to be fantastic. As we approached the low point, which is much closer to Sunshine, the views of things not so far away also opened up. We discovered that it was possible to see several points along the approach road (which circles under Sunshine's south and west sides) from where we were. We could see even more of the road from the summit when we reached it just after 2 MDT. And that meant that, contrary to my initial impression, that the summit could be seen from all those points on the road, despite looking up from near the bottom of a valley!
On the final leg of the climb to Sunshine, after the low point, the nice single trail broke down into a wild maze of braided climber's trails. The slope is gently curved all around, so there is no one obvious best way to the top. That, plus the rough nature of the rock, means that it's just operator's choice, and many different operators have made many different choices over the years, none any better or worse than any other. They all lead to the summit, however.
Unlike Redcloud's summit, Sunshine's features a good-sized stone windbreak, plus a pancake-stack cairn roughly three feet high nearby (see photos). We also found an intact register tube with register within, although it was totally filled, and no one had changed it out! I have gotten out of the habit of always carrying a new register as I once did, so the only remedy we could work was to tear a page out of my small notebook and add it to the existing register. Hopefully, someone will change it properly soon. Sitting there, I turned to Trisha and noted that it was hard to believe that this was really my penultimate fourteener.
As expected, Chuck and Dan came out onto the summit not long afterward. We did another round of mutual picture-taking, and then got to discussing descent routes. They were determined to take the shorter route off the northwest face, down through the valley under Sundog, but we had pretty much already made up our minds that we would take the no-guesswork option of retracing our steps. An additional factor in this decision was the unexpected fact that Cimarron was showing signs of fatigue and paw tenderness, and we knew the short route would be rougher, probably trailless in places. It's been so long since we did a peak that we could take her on that even she had gotten somewhat out of climbing shape, too!
So, after another half-hour-plus of summit sitting, we turned around for the long walk down. We stopped numerous times but didn't regret our route choice. We re-summitted Redcloud just after 4 MDT, and descended the basin to timberline in considerably less time than it had taken us to ascend it. In fact, in spite of our relative weariness, we made the return trip in fully two hours less than our outward bound leg, arriving back at the truck about 6:45 MDT. Half an hour later, we bounced back to the campsite, where Suzanne was already well into preparing us a great spaghetti dinner!
After dinner, we updated our 14ers t-shirts, first for the climb of Capitol Peak the month before, and then for our two new peaks. That left me with just one open circle on my shirt, and Trisha with just two on hers. The end was truly in sight. We cleaned up from dinner, set the alarm for 4:30 again (with implicit self-granted permission to snooze an extra fifteen minutes or so, if necessary...) and called it a day.

16 September, 2012: Sure enough, we didn't exactly rocket out of bed at the first alarm. But we were still up, dressed, fed, packed and loaded with our gear in the truck before sunrise. This time, the crew of three was me, Trisha, and Suzanne. We judged Cimarron too worn out to do another climb (a real first), and Suzanne was going to try to make it to the summit of my finisher with me.
We took the truck again, for its clearance. We went past the SC/GG trailhead this time, and tackled the even rougher section of road which curves left around the north side of Handies. After much bouncing and jostling, about a quarter to eight, it brought us to the high (11,XXX ft.) trailhead in American Basin.
Unfortunately, within an hour, Suzanne was showing distinct signs of altitude sickness. We agonized for 20 or 30 minutes about what to do while she rested. Finally, and with real mixed emotions on my part, Trisha and I went on while Suzanne promised to make her way, carefully and slowly, back down to the truck. She just couldn't go on, but she still wanted to make sure that both of us got our summit. As we learned later, she did indeed feel better after descending a bit, so it was the right decision. I just felt bad about having to leave her. Several people coming up the mountain gave us welcome updates on her, all reporting that she seemed fine if tired.
The two of us then hurried along, trying to get up and back down as quickly as we could. The recently improved trail made that fairly easy. We had to remember to turn around every once in a while to take in the gorgeous view of American Basin and Sloan Lake (12,900 ft.), plus the equally amazing long distance views that opened up as we approached the summit.
After passing the lake and finally reaching the southeast ridge, we were able to look over into the basin on the east side of Handies. The awesome realization here was that, due to a sharp turn in the drainage below, this basin is totally invisible from the approach road in the valley below, despite the fact that the road wraps nearly three-fourths of the way around the summit!
On the final approach to the summit, I also found some reason to question the recent down-grading of this route from Class 2 to Class 1, after CFI's recent improvements. That final approach, while clear, still consists of a walk over a hard-packed, rather steep, surface, with lots of loose dist, grit, sand, and pebbles to act as solid lubricant. This could be difficult and, worse, dangerous, for an inexperienced climber expecting an easy hike.
We got to the summit a few minutes after noon MDT, less than two hours after leaving Suzanne. Word had made it up the mountain grapevine that I was approaching for my finish, and we were instant celebrities with the twenty or so climbers already on top. Quite a few of these were people were climbing their very first fourteener, and Trisha and I were sort of instant celebrities.
In a total surprise to me, my darling daughter had brought real champagne, with snap-together plastic wine glasses, to the summit. We shared a toast, and one of the other climbers, an accomplished photographer named Christine Biella, took some great pictures of us. I gave her my email address and she promised to send the photos to me later, which she did indeed do. It was quite a party on the summit, with over 20 people there enjoying the top-notch weather.
We both were feeling more energetic than we had the day before. Apparently, one day climbing (together with the Capitol climb six weeks earlier) was enough to shake off our “winter” out-of-shapeness and start getting us back into good shape. We put this theory to the test by going for the best time possible getting down, because we felt it was only right to get back to Suzanne as quickly as we could. As it turned out, we burned up the trail, and made it from summit to trailhead in 90 minutes—without falling or destroying our knees.
The Redcloud summit video is at:

and the Handies video is at:

and my photos are at:

Long life and many peaks!