Wednesday July 3, 2002
Today, we wanted to climb unnamed Peak 13309 ft, which rises above Clear Lake (11950 ft). I had noticed this mountain months ago while looking at my maps. It seems like you can drive to Clear Lake where the mountain will be only a 1400 ft climb. From the summit, you should be able to get good views of the peaks that surround Ice Lake Basin. My guidebook: "Climbing Colorado's San Juan Mountains" gave a 3 sentence description of this mountain saying that the hike is "easy but very enjoyable". For this reason, I had thought this would be a good mountain for Mary and I to climb together.
Got up in Silverton, Colorado (elevation 9318 ft) at 6:00 a.m. We got ready and left at 7:00 driving the Jeep we had rented yesterday. It was fun to drive a stick shift again. We took Route 550 two miles north to South Mineral Campground Road which was a wide and well-graded dirt road that followed the creek at the bottom of a broad and forested valley. Some of the nearby slopes were ruby red. The early morning sun intensified the color of the slopes and the green of the Aspen and Pine forests. A few tiny pieces of cloud were trapped on treetops above the slopes.
After 3.8 miles, we reached Clear Lake Road. In only 4 miles, this four-wheel drive road goes from an elevation of 9800 ft to Clear Lake at 11950 ft. The road is rated as "moderately rough" but in some places, we found it fairly tricky. It was quite a little adventure.
The road was steep and in many places was only wide enough for only one vehicle but fortunately we did not come across any other vehicles while we were driving this road. At first, the road made many switchbacks going up the forested slopes. The Jeep handled the sharp corners very nicely. It quickly became cloudy and I was not happy about that. In one place, we had a very good view of Vermilion Peak, Golden Horn and Pilot Knob. I stopped there and took a picture. We then went above the timberline where we could appreciate how high we really were. Not having the trees on the edge of the steep drop-offs made the road appear even scarier. This kept reminding me of Trabzon Road in Turkey.
In 1972, my mom, dad, older brother and I went on our first European trip driving from Iran to Great Britain visiting many countries on our way. We had to travel the length of Turkey, which proved to be very interesting. The roads in the western end of Turkey near Istanbul were wonderful, but as one traveled east, the quality of the roads quickly deteriorated. We drove from the town of Erzurum, which sits on the Anatolian Plateau, to the town of Trabzon on the Black Sea coast. I was an impressionable young boy who had just finished first grade. I remember the road snaking up the mountains and finally reaching a high point where a fog filled valley appeared on the other side. I was so impressed thinking that we had gone "above the clouds". That scene and the rough road came to create a legend out of Trabzon Road in my mind. For months I kept telling everyone that in Turkey we had driven so far up the mountains that we ended up above the clouds. (Obviously, Trabzon Road was not a bad enough road that required a Jeep to travel on).
After the last switchbacks, we traveled the length of a relatively flat area that acted as the eastern drainage of a small bowl that was otherwise completely surrounded by steep slopes. The road then ended on the shores of Clear Lake at the bottom of the bowl.
Another vehicle was there with a few people who had come to fish the lake. We got out to take a look. To the south, a long ridgeline rose above the lake. Peak 13309 must have been the high point on top of this ridgeline. The peak seemed to consist of 1000 vertical feet of steep slopes covered with scree and occasional cliffs leading to a good 300 ft high wall on the top. The scree slopes dropped directly into the lake. Above the northwest end of the lake, I could see a high point that was probably one of the many summits of South Lookout Peak (13370 ft). The cloudy and cool weather gave the scree slopes a very grayish and drab aura. It just didn't look very pretty. How on earth were we going to climb this mountain? Where was my "easy but very enjoyable" hike to the summit? It is amazing how you can look at a peak on a map, read someone else's 3 sentence description of it, and get a completely false picture in your mind.
My book said to go to the 12860 ft pass (above the southwest end of the lake) and then follow the ridge to the summit, however, it did not say how to go to the pass from the east end of the lake (where the road ended). We seemed to have two options: we could have hiked the north or the south shore of the lake. At first glance, the north shore, which was partly covered with grass, appeared easier, however when we reached the west end of the lake, we would run into a series of cliffs and very steep slopes. I did not want to risk that and decided to hike the south shore. Mary was saying let's go up an easier slope that lead to the base of South Lookout Peak but I seemed to have been possessed. I was just hell bent on wanting to get to the top of 13309. I had thought about it for months and I was not going to quit now. From up there, I wanted to see all those peaks around Ice Lake Basin and I wanted to play music from Aida while videotaping the scenery. Mary did not want to slow me down so she said she was not coming but then she agreed to try it.
We left at 9:00 and crossed the stream that drained the lake to reach the south shore. Scree started right there. After a short while, Mary said she was going back and left. I continued. It became sunny (and prettier). The scree was really nasty. With each step I slipped down a little so I had to aim slightly uphill just to stay level. From there, I could not see all the way to the 12860 ft pass but I knew that I did not want to go too high or I would run into cliffs. I kept hiking 100-200 ft above the surface of the lake. The going was very slow and I fell down many times. Sometimes I reached really bad slopes where I had to back track to find a better route. I could not even see any break in the wall that formed the summit of the mountain so I did not know how I was going to get to the top. I thought I was crazy for doing this. Maybe I would only go until the 12860 ft pass where I would be able to see Ice Lake Basin on the other side.
As I reached the west end of the lake, the slopes eased up a little and the rocks became larger and less slippery. I found a place to sit down and rest a little. The tips of some of the needles and spires of U.S. Grant Peak appeared above the slopes above me. I began moving uphill and it became steep again and the rocks became small and slippery. As I went farther up, I could see more of the cliffs of U.S. Grant Peak. This mountain appeared as a scary giant. Its black rocky spires looked like the legs of a big hairy tarantula.
I could still not find a way to get to the top and was only hoping to reach a high point on the ridge until a wide and scree filled couloir that seemed to cut through the upper cliffs gradually came into view. I went into this couloir which was the worst part of the climb. I kept falling or slipping down the scree but kept at it until I finally reached the top and the view of Ice Lake Basin suddenly appeared on the other side to the south. I went a little higher to reach the very top, which was a long, narrow and flat area. It was 11 o'clock and had become partly cloudy again. At first, my GPS showed the elevation to be 13280 ft but after a couple of minutes it went up to 13330 ft and stayed there. It indicated that I had hiked only 0.80 miles. Well, it was a very hard 0.8 miles.
The view was most spectacular. I did not even sit for a rest. I kept filming, taking pictures or just enjoying the views. It stayed partly cloudy but after an hour the sky began to look rather ominous. Although this had been a drought year and the mountains had less snow than usual, I dare to say that the scenery was among the most impressive ones I have ever seen.
To the south, the steep slopes of 13309 dropped into Ice Lake Basin, which was a roughly circular area with an approximate diameter of 1.25 miles. The basin drained to the east and ranged in elevation from 11400 ft in the east, to 12600 ft in the west (all above timberline). At least five large lakes (and many small lakes) dotted the floor of the basin. One of those lakes (Island Lake), had a small island in the middle of it. A series of very jagged and colorful peaks formed a very impressive wall on the west end of the basin. South to north, these peaks included: Fuller Peak 13761 ft, Vermilion Peak 13894 ft, Golden Horn 13765 ft, Pilot Knob 13738 ft, Peak 13480 ft and U.S. Grant Peak 13767 ft. The mountain that was closest to me was U.S. Grant Peak. It no longer instilled fear into my heart, however, it did demand much respect. Streaks of red, yellow and ochre painted the slopes of the mountains. These colors combined with the white patches of snow, the various shades of green that grew in the basin and the blue of the sky and the lakes to produce an explosion of colors. This was the site that I had come to see and I must say that my struggles had been well worth the reward.
Beyond Ice Lake Basin to the south, I could see two double summits. It took me a while to realize that these were Rolling Mountain 13693 ft and Twin Sisters 13432 ft & 13374 ft.
To the north, a 300 ft wall dropped down below me onto the scree slopes that I had hiked. These slopes seemed to go down forever leading into the turquoise waters of Clear Lake. I could see the road ending at the east end of the lake. I zoomed on the area with my camcorder to see a few other vehicles that had come there. I had brought my walkie-talkie. I talked to Mary but I was unable to identify her among the few other people that were down there by the lake.
To the north, the many sharp needles that form the summit of South Lookout Peak 13370 ft rose abruptly above the lake. Beyond this mountain, Lookout Peak 13661 ft and the very long east-west running ridge that sits to the north of Ophir Pass Road were well visible.
I was surprised to find a summit registry. In 2002, people had logged in only on June 26th and 29th.
I then connected my CD player to my camcorder and began videotaping while playing parts of Verdi's Aida Opera. I played "Gloria all'Egitto, ad Iside" and "Ballet" from Scene 2 in Act 2. When that famous march came, I went to film U.S. Grant Peak (which has been named after the US president and famous civil war General Ulysses S. Grant). All those hymns of glory and triumph (I don't speak Italian but can certainly read the English translations), along with the very strong music and that wonderful scenery filled me with such an indescribable joy. Every hair on my body was standing erect. I was very happy that I had been able to bring such a "civilized" work of art to such an "uncivilized" spot, combine the two and enjoy them. These two pieces of music lasted 9 minutes and 2 seconds. I wanted to play "Vieni, o guerriero vindice" too but I could see that a nasty looking front was approaching from the south. I knew that I needed to get myself off that mountain pretty fast. I quickly packed my stuff and began to go down at 12 o'clock.
Going down the steep scree filled couloir was terrible. I knew that a storm was approaching and I did not want to be zapped by lightning up there but I simply could not go down any faster. After a while, I suddenly began to hear a very loud noise that sounded like a waterfall. I looked in horror to see an avalanche of scree running down the slopes 100 ft to the right of where I was standing. That was not anywhere I had hiked so I did not know what might have triggered it. A stream of rock 10-20 ft wide was just tumbling down the mountain like water. I wanted to take out my camcorder to film this scary event but my most immediate concern was to save my butt. A voice inside of me said: "screw the camcorder and the theatrics. You don’t want to die on this mountain. Start thinking about what you can do should the same thing happen where you are standing." I must have just frozen in place for a good 20 seconds or so until the avalanche stopped. I then started to inch my way down again until I reached the area where the rock was more stable. I called Mary on the walkie-talkie. She was able to see me. I had come down in elevation a lot but now I had to walk across that long and nasty scree slope above the lake. I turned the walkie-talkie off hoping to save the battery for when I was going to fall down and break my leg.
I then moved onto the scree slope above the lake. Suddenly a very strong wind began to blow behind me. For a few seconds, I felt like I was being chased by a wild animal. The wrath of the mountain was upon me. This was not a very "friendly mountain" and it seemed to want to scare me. It then began to rain slowly and I could hear thunder in the distance. The wind slowed down but it continued to blow from behind. That was good because my face was not getting wet. I kept slipping, falling and cussing at the author of my guidebook. Is this his idea of "easy but very enjoyable"? Well, maybe it really was easy and enjoyable for him.
I knew there were a few rocky areas on my way that I needed to avoid but I could not see far enough ahead of me to plan my route. I then noticed that I had gone down a little too far. At that rate, I would have fallen into the lake before I reached the end of it. I began to aim uphill to offset the gradual slipping down that was caused by walking on loose scree.
I struggled on that slope for what felt like an eternity. As I neared the end, it began to rain hard and I was starting to feel cold. It was around 1:30 when I finally reached the eastern end of the lake and went around it to reach our Jeep. I was still in one piece.
There was only one other vehicle there which was a pickup truck. As I walked by it, a lady inside opened her window and jokingly said: you are in a lot of trouble. Mary came to see me. She had been very worried. She had not been able to see me for the last 45 minutes or so.
We sat inside the car, I changed my clothes and turned on the heater. My nice new boots had been shredded to pieces. The mountain had completely fogged up. I was thinking the view was nice but I wouldn't do this again (2 hours later, of course, I had changed my mind). This must have been the first rain in quite some time. This year, there had been drought and wild fires throughout Colorado.
We waited till the rain stopped and the fog lifted. We then began to drive back. It took us 45 minutes to go down the rough four mile long road to reach South Mineral Campground Road. We then drove to the campground. I wanted to continue on the South Mineral Campground Road so that I could get views of Twin Sisters, Rolling Mountain and Beattie Peak. I may want to climb Twin Sisters or Beattie Peak within the next few days. We drove past the campground. The road became 4WD but it was not as rough as Clear Lake Road and it stayed near the bottom of the valley. After 2 miles, we reached a parking area. I could see Twin Sisters and Rolling Mountain but Beattie Peak was not visible.
We then drove back to Silverton, ate a big meal and went to a laundromat where we had great views of Kendall Mountain rising above the streets of Silverton.