Mount Shavano (14,229 ft.) / Tabeguache Peak (14,155 ft.)
Class 2 Snow
Distance: abt. 11 miles round-trip
Elevation Gain: abt. 5,200 feet
“The Indian God of Plenty beckoned and the principle sacrificed herself so that her people could live. Each year, thereafter, the Princess - The Angel of Shavano - reappears and weeps once more for her people. Her tears - the melting snow - fall on the land below and make it fertile.”
This trip report requires a lengthy introduction, because it was two years in the making. David Green was finishing up his twenty years in the Navy, and after reading the book Into Thin Air he was excited about the prospects of one day climbing a mountain. Unfortunately, this Texas native was living in Pace, Florida at the time, about the worst place to live as far as mountaineering is concerned. Athletic and adventurous, David was into snorkeling, spelunking, hiking, and hunting, but his elusive dream was to someday climb a mountain.
About two years ago, I received an e-mail from David. He had seen my web site, and was thinking about moving to Colorado after his retirement. Maybe one day he could join me in climbing a fourteener.
Last week, David showed up in The Centennial State, and we met up to make those preliminary plans a reality. David rented some gear from REI, drove all over the state, and even scrambled to the summit of Castle Rock one windy afternoon.
However, despite all the anticipation and planning, our trip almost did not happen. I only have weekends off work, and by Thursday all the mountain ranges of Colorado were socked in by a huge snowstorm. By Friday evening, the avalanche forecast was dangerously high in every aspect of the northern, central, and southern mountains.
Because of all the fresh snow and quickly rising temperatures throughout Colorado, the wet and heavy snow was volatile and prone to slide. Even if we could avoid the danger of avalanches, all the fresh snow would surely guarantee a long slog to the summit of any mountain, especially a fourteener.
Our hope was to gain reasonable access to Mount Shavano. After reading trip reports of it being mostly dry in that area throughout the winter, I knew of no better place to go. However, with the bleak picture painted by the avalanche forecast, and the warming temperatures, I was not too confident in our prospects of finding an avalanche-safe route.
However, all doubts began to disappear as we crested Trout Creek Pass. The stately Mount Princeton was in full view, and the web cam picture we had viewed of the mountain the night before had not lied: the snow was not very deep. In fact, there was not any snow until around 10,000 feet, and the ridges appeared to be mostly bare.
We stopped at the scenic overlook short of Buena Vista, and marveled again at the views of all the surrounding peaks. We still did not have a great view of Mount Shavano, but I was gaining optimism with the lack of snow on nearby mountains.
On the drive south along 285, Mount Shavano revealed itself, and I was ecstatic. I could see the Mount Shavano Trail from the highway, because the surrounding slopes were so devoid of snow. There was no avalanche danger whatsoever, and better yet, the dirt road we turned onto was bone dry. In fact, as we stepped out of the car to take some pictures of the mountains, we were surprised at how hot the air was. The breeze there was actually warm, with air temperatures probably near seventy degrees!
We proceeded to drive around, exploring some of the nearby jeep trails. We got turned around a couple times by solidified snow drifts, but otherwise the trails were great and the air was warm. I have to admit, after being swamped by work and school in recent weeks, it felt great to go get some mud on the Cherokee again.
With plenty of time to spare, and wanting to make sure we were on track in the morning, I decided we should take a short walk along the beginning of our expected route. We hiked the Colorado Trail the quarter mile to the turn-off of the Mount Shavano Trail, and it would surely be easy enough to find in the dark. Still, the trail was mostly devoid of snow, and I was in awe. After seeing the web cam at Monarch Pass (just down the road), I figured this area would be socked in with a foot or so of fresh snow, and here there was no fresh snow!
On the way back, we stopped to visit the foundation of the original Blank Gulch Cabin, which now hosts a clump of aspens as its only residents. Just over from the cabin sits a stone memorial with a plaque, and all of this is in a pleasant wooded area saturated with sign of deer, elk, and bear.
Shortly after returning to the trailhead, a group of four skiers and snowboarders, plus a dog, arrived. They were the owners of the two vehicles, and they had just ascended the Angel of Shavano. I inquired about snow conditions, and they assured me the snow was still solid, though not the best for skiing. The dog, of course, had had a blast.
Once they were gone, we did not see anyone the rest of the day, except for a total of two or three trucks that drove through the area on the dirt roads. Our next task was to find a good camp site, and finalize our plans for Sunday.
The Camp & the Cook
Our main consideration for a good camp site was no wind. It was breezy pretty much everywhere, but we finally settled on a spot around 9,600 feet, just down from the trailhead. We were right next to a dirt road, and a small creek flowed by us. Just up from camp, there was a small meadow with a watering hole and tracks of game animals all over the place. Here there was also a fantastic view of the mountain we were about to climb, as well as Jones Peak.
After setting up our tents, we got all our gear assembled and our packs ready for tomorrow. Then we drove back up the road to a scenic overlook beyond the trailhead, where we could see Mount Ouray and Chipeta Mountain, the sentinels to the south. The sun was just setting on these magnificent peaks, and we took the opportunity to take some more pictures of God’s creation.
We returned to camp as darkness set in. We got the small stove going, as well as a nice campfire. David got out all the ingredients for his chili recipe, only to realize we had forgotten something after all: a can-opener. Something so simple proved incredibly hard to replicate, but it was a necessity if we were to eat some long-awaited chili. We had four cans of beans and tomato sauce to open, and the next fifteen minutes or so were dedicated to that simple task.
MacGyver would have been proud, though our process was not exactly the cleanest of methods. By using a rock, tire iron, and knife, we were able to access the contents of the cans, but in the end we got mud and tomato sauce all over the place. Come on out bears, here’s your food! In the end, it was worth it. The chili was awesome, and I went to sleep with a full stomach. Now to get climbing...
The sun was already filtering through the trees as we walked the quarter mile along the Colorado Trail to the true beginning of our ascent.
We turned west and began uphill on the Mount Shavano Trail, all the while enjoying the fresh air. It was a pleasant stroll up this snow-free section of woods. We stopped occasionally to catch our breaths and watch the squirrels running about. However, this pleasant walking would be short-lived.
Our original plan was to ascend the standard Mount Shavano Trail all the way to the summit. I had never even considered the Angel until talking to the skiers the previous day. Since that group had already broken trail for us, it only made sense to follow their tracks and check out the conditions of the Angel for ourselves. Besides, David was eager to use some of the gear he had rented.
We took a break to don our gaiters and snowshoes, then continued following the ski tracks toward tree line. We kept postholing off and on, in spite of our snowshoes. At one steeper section, the postholing became especially miserable, and our pace slowed some more.
At last, we made it to an opening without trees. Above us, cliffs leading up to Esprit Point dominated the landscape. The view began to open up, and the snow conditions improved dramatically. We were now approaching the main climb!
At 11,800 feet, we took a long break to eat some energy food, slather on some more sunscreen, and discuss final plans.
At 11 o’clock, ice axes in hand, we started up the Angel of Shavano. Gerry Roach states this climb does not exceed 30 degrees, but I found that hard to believe. It was a shallow slope for a while, but it did not stay that way.
As a safety precaution, I went first and put a good bit of distance between David and myself. He was in sight but out of ear-shot below me, so during the snow climb we stayed in contact by using hand signals. Ascending the Angel was the most fun I have had in the mountains in a long time. The snow was great, the weather was perfect, and the scenery was breath-taking the whole time.
After cresting the steepest part of the slope, I came to the head of the Angel, at 13,000 feet. The “wings” of snow spread off to either side, and I stopped to admire the view and wait for David to catch up.
Below, another climber was approaching. As I left David, I could see that climber catching up with him. From then on, they worked their way to the summit of Mount Shavano together. I pushed onward, looking back often to ensure David was doing well. He had slowed down considerably, but he was still pressing forward.
Some of David’s Thoughts:-I am accomplishing one of my dreams.
-This is the hardest thing I have ever done.
-Whose idea was this anyway.
-I will never make it to the top.
-I think that was actually the “Angel of Death”
The terrain flattened out just before the summit, where I found the 14,229-foot high-point to be obvious. Arriving at 3:15, I stopped only a couple minutes and stocked up on what I would need to take with me. I had tied up my snowshoes at the saddle, and now I left my whole pack next to the summit of Mount Shavano. The pack weighed about forty pounds, and it was a burden I was glad to be rid of.
As I speedily descended the long west ridge of Mount Shavano, I pondered my ascent route of Tabeguache Peak. Unlike its loftier neighbor, Tabeguache was covered in snow, and it was a little intimidating, especially as I started to succumb to the elevation.
The view from Tabeguache Peak was a memorable one. I stopped to snap numerous photographs, but I knew I did not have long to stay. I started back down the northeast slopes of Tabeguache seven minutes after arriving at the summit. Finding patches of steeper, hardened snow, and aided by my ice axe, I enjoyed some speedy glissades. Before I knew it, I was back at the saddle.
My progress was suddenly slow. I took a few steps at a time, knowing that the hiking I was doing was not difficult, but that my body was having trouble handling it anyway. Finally, at 5:25, I rounded a boulder and was overwhelmed with relief to find my backpack lying there. I slumped down beside it and caught me breath, then chugged some water. The sick feeling would not go away.
I congratulated him and shook his hand, then we took some pictures of each other on the summit. The other climber, Brock, had pushed David beyond what David himself thought he could do. I videotaped David and he said a few words, recording the moment as best we could. Unfortunately, time was ticking, and now daylight was becoming an issue. We scarfed down some more energy food and water, signed the summit log, and after a ten minute stay at the summit, began our descent.
David’s Thoughts At the Summit-I feel like I just ran a marathon.
-This is incredible, check out the view, I can’t breathe.
-This is the most incredible and the most painful thing I have ever done at the same time.
-God’s creation is awesome.
We entered the woods just before eight o’clock, and with headlamps on, we trudged through this mess of soft snow for about two hours. The snow was wet and heavy, making the workout all the more difficult and annoying. We had guessed we could make it from timberline in an hour and a half, but it ended up taking more than three hours.
When we finally made it past the deep snow, we still made slow progress the rest of the way out the trail. My legs could not help but move fast, and often times I would quickly get ahead of the others. The past three weeks had culminated into some of the most tiring, sleep-deprived weeks of my life, and more than once I had questioned my sanity on completing this trip. Every time I would get a little ahead of David and Brock, I would lay down on the ground and zone out. I don’t know if I was completely asleep at any point, but it would not surprise me if I was. Above me, the bright moon drew me in like a lighthouse that would never get any closer. I was famished and tired, but I knew we were almost there.
David’s Closing Thoughts
It was great to finally see the jeep at 11pm, sixteen hours after we started. Thanks to Brad and Brock, one of my goals has been accomplished. During the climb, I was thinking “It was awesome but I never want to do this again” Today, I am thinking “Maybe next Saturday”. This trip has been great and a perfect end to a 20 year military career. It will be a story to tell in years to come....