IntroductionNote that this report deserves to be broken up into 9 different sections, but due to the circumstances of the trip, it will remain as 1 very long report. It will be a very long read, so sit back and enjoy.
Think about it... 10 days, no work and all play, 14 San Juan 14ers, and a brand new Jeep. I was ready to rock and roll on this trip. I had been planning the San Juan Showdown for about 2 months now, when I started talking to some friends about it near the end of the previous semester of school up at CU. Well it turned out that none of my friends could commit to the whole trip, so I was heading out solo. The plan was to climb solo for the first three days, then meet up with Ryk whom I met on 14ers.com. It turned out that my buddy James would join in for the last leg of the trip as well, which was a real bonus.
I got off work early on Thursday (We work the 9/80 schedule so we get every other Friday off and work 9 hours a day). I left at 12:20 to drive to Lake City for the first leg of the trip. The plan was to climb Uncompahgre and Wetterhorn on Friday, Redcloud and Sunshine on Saturday, Handies on Sunday, then cruise over to meet Ryk in Yankee Boy Basin. The drive went really well, with only a little construction on 285 and a few delays right out of Gunnison before heading south on 149 to Lake City. The scenery was really gorgeous out of Gunnison, as I had never been in this area of Colorado before. Once I got to Lake city, I took the north part of the Alpine Loop, and drove for 9 miles to the 4 wheel drive road and another 2 to the actual trailhead. The road wasn’t too bad for the Jeep, but not suitable for most sedan drivers. I would imagine a skilled driver could get a Subaru up, but that would be a lot of effort. On the way up I saw a beaver near the side of the road, gnawing on some wood. It was a positive sign to the multitudes of wildlife I would see on the trip.
I checked the registry at the trailhead, and there were very few people who had been in the area during the week, so I knew I was in for an adventure. I had never soloed a peak before, so I was planning on being extra careful. Unfortunately my cautious climbing habits wouldn’t be enough...
Day 1: Friday, June 29thI woke up at 2:30 am after having slept very little. The moon was up all night and was keeping me awake in my small bivy sack, but had finally decided to tuck away behind the mountain at 2:15. In addition to the moonlight, I hadn’t done anything active in the last couple days, so I had a multitude of energy that when combined with my anxiety for the solo, caused me to toss and turn all night. After a little headlamp surgery, I was ready to go at 3:00 in the am. The plan was to hike over to Uncompahgre first, bag that at around sunrise, then come back over to Wetterhorn, then get back to the car by noon.
To be honest, I was struggling a bit at the beginning of the climb because of my sleep deprivation. I was still making it about 2 miles an hour, but I had to stop every so often. This all changed very quickly. It was about 3:30 when I was approaching treeline. Just when I had left all but the last clump of trees, I noticed a yellowish glint to the right of the trail. It was very dark, so I couldn’t quite tell what it was. I knew that the CFI was doing a lot of trail work around this area, so I figured that it was a reflective flag for something. But as I was thinking this, I noticed that it wasn’t a single glint of light, but actually two. Suddenly I stopped, my heart racing. Eyes! My worst nightmare was unfolding in front of me as I watched, and it watched, and the glowing red orb of the moon was setting to the point that I couldn’t see anything at all past the beam of my modest little light. And just when I thought it was bad, two more sets of eyes opened up to the left, similar to the first. It appeared as though I had walked up on a sleeping family of mountain lions, a mother and two cubs. I knew that I had to do something fast, or I would quickly be a new flavor of meow mix, so I quickly whipped out my ice axe and helmet to use as a sword and shield, and started barking like a police dog. I had remembered reading somewhere that the cats are afraid of dog barks. I don’t know the validity of that claim, but it seemed to save me. I barked and slowly backed away from the eyes. As I barked the second two pairs of eyes backed up the hill a ways, while the first stood still. I backed off several hundred feet before returning to the trail above the meetingplace, and walked backwards for about a quarter mile, facing the eyes, and continuing my aggressive barking. It seemed to work! I was elated but terrified at the same time. I started to hike very quickly now, looking over my shoulder and wielding my ice axe every few paces. I made it to the saddle next to the Matterhorn Peak by 4:00am, which means I had to have been hiking about 3 to 4 miles an hour.
At this point I was getting a little tired, but I was paranoid as could be. Everywhere I looked now I thought I saw a cat. Every rock that caught my light, every sound I accidentally made, every whisper in the wind was something out to get me. I decided that I should sit down for a while and wait for it to get a little lighter. It is amazing how much of a morale boost a little bit of sunlight is. After a little more light and a small snack I continued along the trial to Uncompahgre. It was easy to follow even in the poor light, and I got up to about 13,400 before the sunrise hit. It was a really neat sunrise, and definitely boosted the morale a bit. I got to the top by 6:30 and snapped a couple pictures, then continued on.
I retraced my steps and then contoured around the side of the Matterhorn to get to the Wetterhorn trail as high as possible. The ridge up Wetterhorn was great and was a really fun climb. The last part was really neat and one of the best scrambles I have ever been on. I reached the top of Wetterhorn at 9:30.
By this time my adventures from earlier in the morning were in the back of my mind from the great climb I just had, but I was quickly reminded as I saw the undeniable image of mountain lion tracks in the muddy trail as I hiked back to the car. Again I brandished my axe-like sword and became paranoid. When I passed the place where I had originally seen the eyes, there were loads of tracks. I knew that I had been really lucky, and when I reached the car it was such a relief. The scariest part was that if something had happened, I would have been alone. I checked the register when I got down, and only one other person had signed it, though I saw not a trace of anybody the whole day. Fortunately the big man upstairs was looking out for me, and I was lucky enough to continue on my trip.
Day 2: Saturday June 30thAfter driving to the Grizzly Gulch trailhead the day before, I awoke to the sound of other people getting ready to climb. I was relieved that I would not be alone for this climb. I started the climb at 7:00am because of the good weather signs I had the previous day, and was rewarded with some incredible views of the freshly bloomed San Juan wildflowers.
The climb up Redcloud was really simple. You just follow the trail up to the saddle, and then from the saddle it is a quick class 2 scramble to the summit. I passed several parties on the way up, and was on the summit at 9:05. I then started the traverse over to Sunshine at 9:30 and arrived at 10:30. I spent about 30 minutes at this summit as well, then decided to climb back up to Redcloud to descend the normal route. It took me only 30 minutes to make the traverse in the opposite direction, and I was on the summit of Redcloud again at 11:30. Then I followed the normal route down to the trailhead, and returned at 1:00pm.
Compared to the previous day, this was a really mellow and easy climb. It was nice to see other people too, it adds a nice feeling of comfort as opposed to being completely alone. As I didn’t have anywhere to go because I was climbing Handies the next day, I just hung out and enjoyed the scenery. The San Juan mountains are a beautiful place.
In the evening a nice guy by the name of Cully showed up and we decided to group up for the climb the next day.
Day 3: Sunday July 1stToday was another gorgeous day. We started hiking at 6:20, and the scenery was absolutely amazing. The flowers were out in full force, and the soft morning light really made me happy to live in Colorado. The Grizzly Gulch trail was one of the best I had ever been on, and I highly recommend it over the American Basin slog. The cliffs and buttresses to our left added a really cool element to the valley as we climbed up the north side of Handies. I got some really great shots of the flowers and the trail.
Near the top of the climb there were several snow fields that we had to cross, and some of them we post-holed through, but it wasn’t too big of a deal. We reached the top at 9:30 and stayed for about an hour. The view was unbelievable. We could see the entire San Juan range from the top. We stayed for about an hour before beginning the descent. The weather was bright blue skies for the third day in a row, and I couldn't have been happier.
At the end of the day I drove over Cinnamon pass to Silverton, then to Ouray. I hung out in Ouray for a little while, then made the drive up to Yankee Boy Basin. This was one of the coolest 4wd roads I have ever been on, and I really enjoyed the sights to be seen.
Day 4: Monday July 2ndLast night Ryk showed up and we set up camp right next to the creek there at the Yankee Boy Basin 2WD trailhead. We awoke at 5:30 and quickly were on the trial. We had the option of driving up further on the road in my Jeep, but we were feeling good, and did not think that this was necessary, so we started hiking at the normal trailhead. Ryk is a runner in really good shape, so we were making really good time up the trail.
I think it took us about an hour to 1.5 hours to reach the intersection of the Sneffles trail and the Blue Lakes Pass trail. The whole way up was not too steep, and was in fact quite enjoyable. The flowers were not out as much in Yankee Boy as they were elsewhere so far on the trip, and this was because there was still a considerable amount of snow everywhere. I forgot my camera in the car for this part of the trip anyway, but there were some great views to be had. Potosi, Teakettle and Dallas peaks were really impressive as they towered above us on the climb up Sneffles.
From the aforementioned trail junction, we hung a right towards Sneffles. At this point we really had no idea what to expect of the mountain. We had heard previously that the mountain was unclimbable due to the postholing and the snow. We knew this to be erroneous, as every peak is climbable right? We brought up crampons and ice axes to ensure our success of the ascent based on the few vague descriptions of the route we had collected at the trailhead. Once at the trail junction we saw that the entire gully and couloir on Sneffles was covered in snow. This was really great news. We had an early start, so we knew that the snow wouldn’t be too soft, and we were able to climb on the snow for about the last 1000 feet of the climb, which made navigating very easy. Also because we started so early, the notorious rockfall on Sneffles was essentially non-existent.
I hate to admit it, but this was my first couloir climb in snowy conditions. My virgin strap-on crampons were in for a treat, as we climbed with great speed and got to the notch near the summit at about 8:00am. At this point we shed our aluminum components and scrambled up the final pitch to the summit. It was an incredible view! With the striking 13ers in the area, and a view of nearly all of the other San Juan 14ers it was very rewarding. The weather continued to be excellent and we spent a good deal of time on the summit soaking up the view.
Eventually, however, we decided to descend. Of this we made quick work following our tracks back down to the bottom of the main gully on Sneffles. Because of the location of this gully, the sun was only just starting to shine as we reached it, so it was still really hard snow, not soft enough to glissade or post-hole. On the way down we encountered a couple from Texas making quick work of the couloir as well, and then another group attempting to climb without crampons or ice axes. I imagine this would have been entirely possible given the rapid softening of the snow, but I would have felt very insecure attempting this climb without that sort of protection. After a brief hike back down to the trailhead, we packed up and headed out to Ouray. So far I was 6 for 6, with seven more peaks ahead of me.
We stopped for food at a little bar and grill in Ouray, and then hit the road. I filled up the Jeep at one of the two gas stations just north of town, and we headed to Ridgeway to take the road over Lizard Head Pass. We continued on 145 and then hit the turnoff for Dunton, CO. Right at the turnoff from the highway, there is a grassy parking area. Ryk parked his car there, and then we both hopped in the Jeep to continue to the Navajo Lakes Trailhead. The road was very well maintained and would be easily driveable by almost all vehicles.
We began the 5 mile trek up to the Navajo Lakes at 4:20 pm. It was a really nice hike, with lots of aspen, columbines and skunk cabbage. The last part of the hike climbs up some incredibly steep switchbacks to gain elevation to the north of some really steep cliff sections. We reached the Navajo lakes with full packs by about 6:45. There were ample camping spots all around the lake, and Ryk and I hiked to a spot just north east of the lake and called it good. I took some pictures and talked to a few people fishing in the lake, and then proceeded to sleep at about 8:00.
Day 5: Tuesday July 3rdWe awoke at about 5:00 to begin the climb up El Diente at about 5:30. From gathering beta from a few other people in the area, we determined that the best route would be up the northeast side of the summit on a fairly steep snow couloir. It turned out that the couloir wasn’t quite completely filled in anymore, so we had to do a bit of steep mixed climbing in addition to the snow. I can safely say that the steepest part of the climb was about 50 degrees for a 20 foot section, and then moderately sloped between 30 to 45 degrees for the rest of the climb. We had to scramble up a rocky section to reach the couloir, and then once we gained the El Diente – Wilson ridge, we needed to scramble up the final ¼ mile of the ridge.
We reached the summit at about 9:30. We left the summit at 9:45 and backtracked across the ridge to traverse to Mt. Wilson. The final section on El Diente was pretty solid class 3 climbing for a few moves, but mostly exposed class 2. This seemed to be the case for the whole ridge. There were a few sections of class 3 climbing spread throughout the mostly class 2 scrambling. There are a large set of towers halfway through the traverse that pose the most danger. We climbed onto the south side of the ridge and dropped about 300 feet to avoid these towers and then climbed back up again to reach the ridge.
Fortunately the route was fairly well cairned the entire way, but good routefinding skills were required as well. After we reached the ridge, we stayed on the crest for another ¼ mile or so before reaching the obvious saddle next to Mt. Wilson. From here it was another ¼ mile to the top of Mt. Wilson. This is the section that a lot of people rappel if traversing from Mt. Wilson to El Diente, but it was only high class 3 climbing with a few class 4 moves mixed in coming from our direction. We completed this crux section and then continued up the class 4 ridge to the summit of Mt. Wilson. We reached the top at about 12:30.
The scariest part of this traverse was no doubt the loose rock. We wore helmets for the entire day, and they were very handy. The traverse took a lot longer than it should have mainly because we were checking every rock we put weight on before trusting it to make sure that it didn’t dislodge. Aside from the loose rock though, the traverse was very fun. From the summit of Mt. Wilson we were greeted with great views of Lizard Head, Wilson Peak, and we could even see Ship Rock in New Mexico.
We stayed for a little while, and then headed back down the class 4 summit pitch. There are really 2 options for this part. You can either climb difficult class 4 ledges on the northeast side of the summit which are very loose but not very exposed, or you can climb the north ridge proper. The ridge itself is very very exposed, with about a 200 foot vertical drop to one side, but the rock is very solid and the moves are only class 3 at best. I suppose the choice is a hard one to make, but it is easier to assess the situation once you get up there. From the top of Mt. Wilson we ran into a snow field on the well cairned trail down from the saddle, and decided to save our legs and glissade down the side of the peak.
We chose a clean path of snow and were able to glissade about 2000 feet down the side of the mountain. Because it was the afternoon, the snow was quite soft and we were able to get going fairly fast while staying in control. The last 200 or 300 feet of vertical we completed a standing glissade, and were down in the valley very quickly after departing. This was the best glissade I’ve ever had! At this point is was getting to be late in the afternoon, and although the weather was amazing without any hint of a cloud, we were tired from the mentally taxing traverse and the steep climbing, and were nearly the bottoms of our water reservoirs. We decided instead of tackling Wilson Peak, we would climb it in the morning.
Day 6: Wednesday July 4thWe got up at 4:00am and proceeded to hike up from the Navajo basin at about 4:30. The goal for today was to climb Wilson Peak and then backpack out of the Navajo lakes area to drive to Durango. The hike up to the Rock of Ages saddle went really quickly, and there were only a few snow crossings to worry about. We were on the saddle at 6:00am, just in time to see some great views of the Mt. Wilson – El Diente traverse as well as Gladstone peak and the other surrounding areas.
There was also a really cool mining shack just below the saddle which was completely full of snow. From the Rock of Ages saddle, we continued to climb the south side of Wilson Peak. Ryk had climbed this one before about 12 years ago, and was climbing it again with me so that I didn’t have to go it alone. In the last 12 years the trail has improved considerably, and there is a very well cairned path that we took all the way to the summit.
This saved a lot of time as we were expecting to be hopping up loose talus the whole way up. One the way we got some more amazing views of Gladstone and Lizard Head peaks, as the sun was just peeking up its head over the horizon. The straightforward trail zigzagged around the south face and over a few snow fields upon which we donned our ice axes.
Then the last 100 feet was some of the worst climbing I’ve ever seen, on the worst rock I’ve ever been on. Everything was loose as we completed the final class 3 pitches on the north side of the peak. Rocks were pulling out of the wall everywhere, so we had to be extra careful. We finally made it to the summit at 7:30. I was surprised to see so much trash at the top of the peak, but soon discovered that it was the remnants of a plane crash that occurred on September 15th last year. Some poor soul got lost in a storm on his way to Telluride and didn’t quite make it over the peak. It was kind of ominous seeing all of the wreckage and weathered personal belongings on the summit. We didn’t stay on top for too long because of this.
The descent was just as straightforward as the climb up, and we made it back to camp at about 9:30. We then packed up camp and hiked down back to the cars which we reached at about 12:30 after a leisurely stroll down the trial. We then drove on 145 out to Cortez and then to Durango. Ryk was gracious enough to share his hotel room with me and we each took well needed showers before heading out to see the 4th of July festivities in Durango. We got caught in some of the tourist trap areas, but it was neat just walking around and looking at people. There were so many different types of people there, it was the biggest social melting pot I had ever seen. After the fireworks we heated back to the hotel to get some well deserved sleep.
Day 7: Thursday July 5thToday we headed to Chicago Basin to climb the Eolus group of 14ers. We drove our cars down to the train station in downtown Durango at about 7:30am, and then drove two blocks east into some residential housing areas. The station charges $7 a day to park in their lot, so we decided to forgo the $21 and park in the neighborhoods in the area. We found a nice spot in front of a derelict house and parked our cars. I was a little worried about a break-in, but in the end nobody messed with our vehicles for the three days that we were gone. We walked back to the station and then picked up the tickets we had reserved a few weeks before.
At 8:15 we walked up to the train and deposited our packs in a boxcar in the front of the train, and then walked back to our reserved seats near the rear of the train. The train was packed full of people who were on vacation, and there wasn’t an empty seat anywhere, except for mine. The seats are partitioned in threes, and two large tourists had reserved the two next to mine. I stood up politely to let them in, but once they sat down I only had about 2 or 3 inches left on my seat. I ended up standing for most of the 2.5 hour train ride. It wasn’t too bad, but it would have been nice to have the option of sitting in the seat that I paid $65 for. The train departed at 9:00am and reached the Needleton stop at 11:30. There were some cool views along the way, but compared to everything I had already done in the last week, I might have had more fun watching the grass grow.
Once we got off the train we had a 7 mile pack into the upper Chicago Basin. Those 7 miles wouldn’t have been so bad if they didn’t have 4,000 feet of elevation gain. We were making pretty good time at first, but then it started to rain. I knew the rain would hit eventually. I had been hiking for a week with the best weather I had ever seen, so it was about time. The rain quickly turned to hail. We bailed into the trees for a little while, hoping that the hail would subside for a little bit. It did eventually, and we continued up on the trail.
We reached the upper part of Chicago basin at about 4:00 and set up camp right below the sign that says “No Camping Beyond This Point”. We were immediately greeted by the notorious mountain goats I had heard so much about, and they made us feel right at home. They were very friendly, in fact, too much so. It turns out that they liked licking up the salt from our urine, and that’s why they hung around so much. I did get a little worried when they tried to drink from the fountain though, and at this point I got a little angry and tried to scare them off. The weather continued to be pretty bad for the rest of the evening, and it even rained overnight before clearing up in the early morning.
Day 8: Friday July 6thWe awoke from a rainy night to see that the skies had cleared almost completely, leaving us with a large 6 hour window to try and bag the two peaks of the day. Starting out at 6:30, we headed up the steep and arduous trail to Twin Lakes. It took nearly an hour to navigate the degrading climbers trail all the way to the lakes.
We did run into about 6 or 7 people working on the trail over the next few days, but they said that it was a 4 year project to completely redo the trail and repair all the eroded sections. It should look really great when it is finished, and will provide an easier path on a more gradual climb up to the lakes, but at this point, still expect to make the long haul up to the lakes.
Sun started to hit us just over the horizon of Sunlight peak as we reached the lakes, and we thus discovered why it was named so. Continuing on the trail we climbed up to the basin between Sunlight and Windom peaks. We decided to climb Sunlight first while the snow was in good condition. There was still large amounts of snow on these peaks, and we were rewarded with the comfort of using all of the aluminum and steel we had hauled up to Chicago Basin the previous day. After about an hour of climbing up the couloir we made it past the sunlight ridge traverse an onto the unofficial summit of Sunlight Peak.
It was a really beautiful summit as we had great views of Sunlight Spire, Eolus, and the majestic Grenadier range. It had taken a little over 3 hours to make the climb as we took turns scrambling up to the final summit block at 10:00. I even built up enough courage to stand on the summit! It was very airy, but a very rewarding experience.
After a moderate break on the summit, we descended Sunlight and contoured around the basin to the saddle of Windom, which we reached at about 11:15. At this point the clouds were beginning to build in the sky, and we were drenched from all of the post-holing/swimming that we just had to do to get to the saddle. We tried to stash some gear to make the ascent up Windom easier, but the marmots swarmed our stuff right away, so we scared them away and re-packed everything for the climb. At this point we knew we had a good chance to summit, but the clouds were building quickly. I led the way to the top, reaching the summit in just over 20 minutes from the saddle. This was basically an all-out sprint to the summit over the moderate class 2 terrain.
I snapped a couple quick photos of the top, and then began the descent just as Ryk and James reached the top several minutes later. We hastily made our way down, and were down to the lakes before we heard our first clap of thunder. Once we made it back to camp at 1:00 the skies opened up, and we jumped into our tents for a nap. Aside from more interesting encounters with the resident goats of the area, nothing else of interest happened that day.
Day 9: Saturday July 7thToday was the final day of the trip, and we were going to make it count! We left camp at 6:00am with plans of summiting Eolus, Nort Eolus, and then hiking out of Chicago Basin to meet the train at 3:45. We made it by a couple hours, plenty of time to spare.
The climb required another climb of the brutally steep terrain from the upper Chicago Basin to Twin lakes. After we reached this point, we cut left and followed an incredibly good trail up to Mt. Eolus. After a quick snow climb and some easy scrambling, we reached the saddle between Eolus and its northern counterpart at 8:00am. We gave ourselves a 2 hour turnaround time to be back from both peaks and back to the saddle by 10:00 in order to make it back to the train on time. It only took 30 minutes to reach the summit of Eolus from the saddle.
We enjoyed the typical San Juan view (incredible), and then began the down-climb a few minutes after arriving. The trail from the catwalk up the ledges of Eolus was very easy to navigate due to the multitudes of cairns marking the route. I would say that it is easily climbable at a class 3 level, but if you feel comfortable doing so, some class 4 moves could be used to save time.
We were back at the saddle by 9:15 and then took less than 5 minutes to scramble to the top of North Eolus. This was a real treat, as I had now been successful for 13 out of 13 attempted peaks in the last 9 days. We soaked up the view of the other Chicago basin peaks, as well as the rugged terrain to the north that was eagerly calling my name. The descent to the camp took just over an hour, and we took a nice long while to break down camp because we were ahead of schedule. We made it back to the train by 2:00pm, with just enough time to squeeze in a nap before it arrived.
The train broke down a few times on the way back from Needleton, mainly because the axles were overheating. You’ve gotta love 1920’s technology, just as reliable as my PC. We got back to Durango about 2 hours behind schedule, and this really ruined my plans for the next day. My original itinerary called for a climb of San Luis Peak the following day, but by the time I got even remotely close to the trailhead, it was already 1:00am.
This was the end of my journey, and I drove to my Grandparents’ house in St. Elmo to spend the night.
EpilogueA lot of time and planning went into this trip, and because of this it turned out to be very successful. I was incredibly lucky with the weather, as it only rained twice the entire trip, and I met some great partners who helped maintain motivation. Many times in the first few days I considered giving up and going to a local hot springs for a break in the itinerary, but the trick to completing the showdown was to stick to the schedule. I knew once I made an exception in one part of the schedule, the rest was vulnerable to collapse. The fact that I was so successful with the summits created incredible motivation to keep going, but it was my partners who ended up giving me the most motivation. When James told me on the train back into Durango that he wasn’t going to do San Luis peak with me the following day, I knew I wouldn’t have a chance. I didn’t want to solo another peak, and the late start time just wasn’t doing it for me.
The purpose for doing this type of trip was to save gas money $3.50/gallon during some parts of the trip. I figured the more mountains I climbed in this area, the better, as I wouldn’t have to return for a while. The fact that I covered so much ground was actually detrimental to this goal, however. I gained an appreciation for the utmost beauty of the San Juan range, and I will probably return many times in the next decade to climb the bountiful 13ers in the area, no doubt more beautiful and remote than the 14ers I climbed.
I also discovered an important thing on this trip. After talking to some tourists on the train who couldn’t understand why I would want to climb a mountain or a peak, I discovered the beauty of climbing. It is something that we do for very little or no praise from others, but for the satisfaction of ourselves. So many things we do in our lives are based on the accolades and approval from other people, but with climbing, I can spend my entire life in the mountains without caring what other people think. The self-accomplishment I feel after pushing my body to the limit is a greater reward than any “congratulations” or “gnarly dude” from any other person. With climbing mountains, I find peace in myself, and that is the ultimate reward.