In December of 2003 I had begun to think about potential locations for a family trip to Colorado in June. I wanted a destination that would be beautiful, somewhat free of crowds, and offer some easy routes to the nonclimbing members of my family. The Grizzly Gulch Basin and Silver Creek Basin area near Redcloud, Sunshine, and Handies proved to be the ticket. We arrived at the base of both routes at 10,409 feet on June 7 to the sight of sizable snowfields and corniced ridges, a sight I had expected but was not quite prepared for. Camp was set up, and we decided to take a casual stroll a little ways up the Silver Creek Basin trail.
The next day my mother, brother, and I “attempted” Handies. We still weren’t feeling terrific due to the extreme altitude from whence we had arrived, (1000 feet above sea level, Oklahoma City) so while we weren’t expecting to summit, we sure wouldn’t complain if we did. We made pretty decent time through the trees, but began to feel the affects of the altitude by about 11,800 feet. By this time we could see our quarry clearly, and much to our chagrin it was covered with snow, with the north ridge, the last stretch before the summit, heavily corniced. A couple hundred feet later, we had begun to tire when, looking up the 2000 foot south face of Whitecross Mountain, we saw three deer running playfully across the immensely steep angle that I would only truly appreciate two months later. Snowline was at about 12,000 feet, and from there routefinding became increasingly difficult. I have never done any climbing in the snow, and we had neither snowshoes nor crampons, much less ice axes. I moved to the front of the pack and began to kick steps up some of the steeper slopes, but the exertion eventually became too severe, particularly considering that it was only my first full day at altitude (I’m the king of lame excuses!). We turned around, took a brief moment to admire the views toward Redcloud and Sunshine, and began to descend. Due to the beginnings of dehydration caused by my foolish failure to drink enough, I was beset with a splitting headache a few short minutes later. What a wonderful start to 3 days of climbing… I launched into a typical descent, ending at almost a jog, before relaxing in a chair back at the campsite.
The plan was to climb Sunshine and Redcloud on the ninth and Handies and Whitecross on the tenth. After my snowy experience on Handies, I decided to take it easy again and not feel obligated to push for the summit on Redcloud, but to allow myself two chances to climb it. My mother, father, and I started up the Silver Creek trail at about 5:45. Tree line arrived notably faster on this trail than on the Grizzly Gulch trail, and the sun rose over the course of the next two miles as we pushed towards the upper Silver Creek basin, sliding over multiple sections where snow still crossed Silver Creek, resulting in stretches of solid snow up to 50 yards wide. The cool temperatures the night before had left interesting ice formations, and the time spent admiring them could scarcely have been time better spent. Near the location on the trail from which the view of Redcloud’s immense rock glacier is most spectacular, the trail crests a small rise into the basin at 12,200 feet. As one steps up above this rise, all sound from the Creek ceases and he is enveloped by an awe-inspiring silence. From here the next mile of the route is visible, along with the 13ers north and east of Redcloud that feature prominently in views toward Wetterhorn and Uncompahgre. Eventually we came to a sign that pointed us to the left. The trail dove under the omnipresent snow at that point, and was not again visible. We opted to be lawbreakers and rebels, ascending the old route. The routes merge at a level patch of ground near the final 400 feet before the northeast ridge of Redcloud. From this patch of ground we encountered a sea of white. I found a section that seemed to be narrower than anywhere else, and after 30-40 yards of waist deep postholing had arrived on solid ground again, with a clean path leading to the ridge, but alas, it proved to be too much for my valiant mother, who had pushed her limits the whole trip long. We descended, again stopped a full 1200-1300 feet short of the summit.
The next day my father and I set out at 5:15, determined to salvage at least one summit from the snowy trip. A few short hours found us at the previous days high point, looking again at the deep snow. The earlier start and better time, made possible by continued acclimatization and smaller group size, brought us to the snow early enough to walk across on firmly consolidated snow, never sinking more than an inch or two. The view from the ridge proved magnificent, and for the first time we found ourselves looking up to the true summit. We started up the infamous scree slope that finds itself the subject of an inordinate amount of pictures—I have another one of my own if anybody finds Summitpost lacking in views from this angle (I count 10). I found this slope to be less than enjoyable; switchbacks were few, and I found myself losing two steps for every three I gained. After what seemed like hours of this, I found myself looking up at the final 150 feet before the summit, a sharply switchbacking trail up a moderate slope. I can contribute a picture from here to supplement the four already submitted. The summit was mine a short time later, shared with 30-40 mile an hour winds. Seven eighths of a mile later, we found ourselves looking 300 feet up at the summit of Sunshine, snow up to our waists and only getting deeper. We decided to not risk a potentially painful fall in either direction, realizing that we were not in Washington, so the mountain would still be here tomorrow. We turned and left, having summitted only one of our four objectives. Despite this, it was still a good trip.
A week and a half later, I embarked on a month and a half long trip to Peru. I had been talking with a relative about a possible trip back west, but no solid plans had been made when I left. I spent the full time completely isolated from anything that was happening back home at altitudes from 10000-12000 feet in the Peruvian Andes near the town of Cajamarca, although I was sadly unable to do any substantial climbing. The flight home left me waiting in the Newark, New Jersey airport for a delayed plane, and I decided to phone home. At that point in time it appeared that we would be climbing Mount of the Holy Cross in the Sawatch Range, but alas, it was not to be. I discovered, a few short days before we left, that I would be returning to the San Juans for attempts of Redcloud, Sunshine, and Handies. Since my return from the first attempt, I had become interested in an unnamed 13,561 foot wedge and a nearby centennial 13er (UN 13832), and still wanted to climb Whitecross. I would now get my chance. We left Oklahoma City on the afternoon of August 3 and drove to Beaver, Oklahoma to pick up another climber before spending the night at Black Mesa State Park, which kindly provided me with a picnic table bench to accommodate a beautiful open air bivy in fine alpine style. There is no hope for me.
The next morning we drove the rest of the way, set up tents and relaxed before the next day's climbing. I’m a big fan of climbing in very small groups, as big groups tend to start later and take longer. Unfortunately for me, however, I don’t plan every trip I’m involved in, and so I roll with the punches when I have to. The next morning we got a terrific super-alpine start at 7:45 (ouch) as we attempted Handies. I had persuaded one of the other group members to accompany me up Whitecross, but by 8:15 the sky began to cloud over, albeit with unthreatening clouds. I wasn’t excited, but continued onward. I had started near the back of the pack, but inside of a mile I had passed everybody else. As I arrived in Grizzly Gulch, I was able to look up at the east face of Handies. It was bare of snow, but clouds concealed the true summit. I found that time went much more quickly when I wasn’t struggling through snow, attempting to follow where the trail possibly was, and quickly arrived at the north ridge. A short time later, I arrived at the summit, the second party of the day, third in my party, as I had been conserving energy for Whitecross as well. I relaxed for a minute or two, enjoying the view of my outstretched hand, although I could barely see it, before turning to descend. In my time at the summit the clouds broke once, allowing me to see a sliver of the American Basin, but other than that the famed views eluded me.
A 12 year old boy in the group had outclimbed his father, so my climbing partner, named Bill, and I descended with him to about 12,600 feet, a position from which I would monitor the weather and how I felt before deciding whether or not to attempt Whitecross. The mist continued, as it had for hours, and so Bill and I elected to go for it. We ascended the 300-foot talus slope to the low point of the Handies-Whitecross ridge. The ridge walk to Whitecross was wonderfully pleasant, if quite wet, and I soon arrived at the summit blocks. I judged the left block to be slightly higher, and found a Class 3 gully that led me to the true summit, where I found a summit register that lacked a cap or paper, and more stunning views of clouds. The descent of the 2000 foot southeast face left my legs screaming, but I eventually regained the trail. At about 2:00 I ate two small pieces of beef jerky for lunch well below tree line before finishing off my descent. I had survived day one, but I could feel my legs, and was quite tired from the short turnaround from Peru to America, Oklahoma to Colorado.
A night relaxing at camp and drying out was followed with a phenomenal night’s sleep on the lumpy ground. The next day presented another 7:45 start, as we drove from Mill Creek Campground, where we were camped, to the Silver Creek Trailhead (I don’t ask questions, I just climb). An uneventful morning brought me to the 13000 foot ridge between Redcloud and UN 13561. From here I elected to go left, to the wedge, with the hope of descending its southeast ridge for a summit of UN 13832. The rock proved loose but the climbing fun as I ascended the Class 3 ground to the top of the beautiful wedge. The views were substantially better, and I was able to take a less than common picture of Uncompahgre peering out from the behind the eastern flanks of UN 13691. The day was growing late, and I decided to continue on to Redcloud and Sunshine rather than to attempt UN 13832. The loose scree that had caused me such trouble two months before was no longer an issue, as a new route cut dramatically across the northeast face of Redcloud, adding distance but leaving substantially better footing. I arrived at the summit amidst a brief period of sleet. I reveled in my second ascent of Redcloud for the time it took to walk across the summit and begin descending the other side.
After descending to about 13,900 feet I attempted to take some pictures of the mountains to the west, but for some reason my camera wouldn’t let me. I pocketed it and continued toward Sunshine. About halfway there I decided I would descend the Mill Creek Route, as it would be near 12:30 or 1:00 when I reached the summit and it would quickly drop me to the campground. After summitting I started down the east ridge, which contained a very clearly defined trail over stable talus. Eventually the trail disappeared as the rock became grass. At this point I was hopelessly lost, as I had been expecting to see tree line at this point, from which I would hopefully be able to pick out the route down that I had seen in one of Aaron Johnson’s pictures, but I could see nothing but the grassy tundra that defines the expansive east ridge of Sunshine. So, feeling the urge to get down, I did the most logical thing I could think of, and went down. Eventually I was able to make out the two clusters of trees Aaron made reference to and after a couple of hours of pretending that I was following a trail, I arrived back at the campsite, quite exhausted. My camera never did work again, and much to my chagrin, when I arrived home I found that my 65 or 70 pictures had been deleted. Curses upon it.