Friday July 5, 2002
I wanted to climb the 13807 ft Niagara Peak today. My guidebook gave a 2 sentence description of this mountain making it sound like it was going to be a straight forward hike. Since only 2 days ago I had found Peak 13309 much more difficult than what my book had said, I was wondering if I could trust it. I had thought if Niagara proved to be too difficult, I could try the nearby 13860 ft Jones Mountain. These two mountains are connected to each other via a 13200 ft saddle and rise on the opposite sides of Burns Gulch which is a minor branch of the Animas River.
Woke up in Silverton, Colorado (elevation 9318 ft) at 6:00 a.m. Got ready, said goodbye to Mary and went on Route 110 heading for the ghost town of Howardsville. Route 110 is a well-graded dirt road that follows the Animas River at the bottom of a broad valley. This area used to be a hotbed of mining activity in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Today, ghost towns, abandoned mines, equipment… litter the area. It had rained yesterday and now everything was wet. It was mostly clear but fog still filled the parts of the valley that were in the shade. I could see fresh snow on the tips of the mountains at the far end of the valley.
After the ghost town of Eureka, the valley became narrow and the road became rough but it was still passable by any car. To the east, I could see rocky and very steep slopes. These were the slopes of peak 13419, which rises to the west of Niagara.
Eleven miles after Silverton, I reached the junction of Burns Gulch Road (10740 ft). The junction was marked. Behind me, I could see two triangular peaks rising above a small valley, which was Burns Gulch. These two peaks were Niagara and Peak 13419 ft. Niagara had a 1000 ft wall/steep rocky slope that dropped into the upper Burns Gulch. This wall had much fresh snow on it from last night. Burns Gulch seemed to bend a little so I was not able to see the 13200 ft saddle at the end of it. I sure did not want to climb that wall but fortunately, the route via the saddle seemed to avoid the wall.
Burns Gulch Road is a rough Four Wheel Drive road that climbs the gulch to around 12000 ft. I still had the Jeep we had rented on Tuesday and wanted to drive the road to shorten my hike. I turned on the road but quickly found out that it was wide enough for only one vehicle. I hate roads like that. If you reach an obstacle, you may not even have enough room to turn around. You will have to back your way out. I quickly gave up on the idea of driving, went back to Route 110 and found a place to park (Route 110 becomes 4WD after this point and gives access to Lake City via Engineer or Cinnamon Pass). I found two other vehicles there but nobody was around. Since Niagara and Jones are high 13ers, I was thinking that they are probably popular and I may run into other climbers today but I never did.
I started hiking on Burns Gulch Road at 7:45. The gulch was in the shade but the early morning sun was shining over Niagara's wall. It was now partly cloudy and I was hoping that it was going to clear up. I was feeling guilty that I had left Mary behind. Alpine meadows covered most of the slopes around the road but there were occasional stands of Pine trees. After a short while, I went past the bend of the gulch and the 13200 ft saddle and Jones Mountain came into view. Only Jones, Niagara and the saddle seemed to be covered with fresh snow. The sun was now beginning to shine into the gulch from above the slopes of Jones Mountain.
As I went further up Burns Gulch, the magnificent wall of Niagara became even more impressive. I soon went above the timberline and reached a small rocky stream that crossed the road. The wall of Niagara towered above the origin of this stream. Small white flowers grew among the rocks on the banks of the stream. I went past an abandoned mine and reached a big talus field at around 11800 ft where the road faded away. I was now at the base of the scree slopes below the wall of Niagara. A trail was not visible but the route to the saddle was obvious.
To reach the saddle, I could hike the scree slopes on the right side of the valley (the slopes of Niagara) or the grassy slopes on the left side of the valley (the slopes of Jones). I did not want to trample the beautiful alpine tundra but at the same time I did not want to get stuck on a nasty scree slope like I had been on Wednesday. Fortunately, the scree here was not very steep or slippery so I stayed on the right side. At just above 12000 ft, I reached fresh snow. It had now become all sunny. The scree slopes had little snow. In one place I had to cross a grassy area. I was intrigued by the beauty of the alpine tundra. A thin layer of snow gave a white background to the short grasses and tiny flowers of different shapes and colors. I noticed a few dog paw prints in the snow.
I then stopped somewhere over the scree slopes to take a rest. I could see the very rocky ridge that connected Niagara to Peak 13419. As soon as I put on my backpack and began to hike, I heard the loud howl of a pack of wolves from somewhere up the rocky slopes of Peak 13419. This went on for a good minute or so. It was scary. There I was, spotted by a pack of wolves, all alone up in the mountains. Like Wednesday when I saw that scree avalanche on Peak 13309, I wanted to take out my camcorder to record the howl but I was scared and my first instinct was to save my butt. I finally did take out the camcorder but only managed to capture a few dog-like barks at the end of the howl. I had heard the howl of wolves only on TV (I don’t even know if wolves inhabit Colorado. Maybe they were just Coyotes but that was no consolation). I was wondering what to do. I did not want to go back down but I knew that they had probably seen me and whether we were going to run into each other was now completely up to them. Was that howl their dinner bell? Where they regrouping to come to get me? I was concerned but the bear mace and the big knife that I carried gave me a sense of security (maybe a false sense of security). Although I wanted to avoid them, I was telling myself if the bastards came, they would find out that I was no easy lamb. I would fight them.
I then continued to go up the scree slopes. A few times I heard a rock rolling and I immediately turned to see if I was being chased by a wolf. As I neared the 13200 ft saddle, the grassy slopes disappeared. Scree came to cover everywhere and the snow became much more. It became so bright that I couldn’t open my eyes without my sunglasses. I could see only two colors: the white of the snow and the black of the rock. I was running into small bands of cliffs where I had to use my hands to climb. The rock was rotten. It kept pulverizing in my hands or under my feet. I was afraid that I was going to fall and puncture the bear mace that I was hanging from my backpack's belt. That would be very bad. I was telling myself: where the heck are you going up these snowy slopes, with a bunch of wolves behind you? If you fall and get injured, who is going to rescue you? (well, Mary knew where I was). This is your vacation. You are supposed to sleep late and enjoy the company of your wonderful wife. Mountain Gods must be mad at me for not bringing Mary. That is why I don’t seem to be having any fun (I don’t believe in "Mountain Gods". That is just a funny expression).
I finally reached the 13200 ft saddle and the view of the other side suddenly appeared. There were a few small lakes down there on a fairly large grassy plateau that was roughly 12500 ft high. I could see the 13821 ft Rio Grande Pyramid in the distance. Jones Mountain was directly to the north while Niagara, which was much closer, rose to the west. I could see steep rocky and snow covered slopes all the way to the summit. I was having doubts about going to the summit but eventually I did move on.
At times, I was able to find a faint trail over the rocky slopes. Some of the cliffs continued to remain brittle, crumbing under my feet. The route took me by the edge of the big wall of Niagara. I could see that if I were to slip, I would go down for quite some time. The slopes were steep and the going was slow. I was very glad when I reached the summit just after 11:00 o'clock. My GPS said that I had come 2.9 miles and showed the elevation to be 13810-13815 ft. That was very accurate.
Right in front of me to the north, the steep slope/wall of Niagara dropped down into upper Burns Gulch where the big talus field and the green grassy slopes were situated. Burns Gulch Road traveled the length of the gulch to reach Route 110. With my camcorder zoomed, I could see occasional vehicles moving on Route 110.
Jones Mountain was directly across Burns Gulch. Unlike Niagara, it did not have a wall. A thin layer of fresh snow made it sparkle under the partly cloudy sky. A very high looking peak had risen above Jones Mountain just behind it. I soon realized that this mountain was the 14048 ft Handies Peak. I was seeing its western slopes, which looked very different than its eastern slopes that I had climbed in 1998. Handies was the only other mountain that had fresh snow. The very distinctive looking summits of Uncompahgre (14309 ft), Wetterhorn (14015 ft) and Coxcomb (13656 ft) were well visible in the northern horizon.
To the northeast, I could see Redcloud (14034 ft) and Sunshine (14001 ft) Peaks.
I now had a much better view of the plateau that I had seen from the saddle. Dotted with small lakes, this plateau which drained into Cottonwood Creek, appeared very beautiful. I later realized the high peak that I could see in that direction was the 13841 ft Half Peak. Rio Grande Pyramid was much farther away.
The giant pyramid of Mt. Sneffels (14150 ft) soared into the sky in the northwestern horizon. I could see the flat top of the 13786 ft Potosi Peak and the other 13ers around Sneffels.
To the west and southwest, the mountains around Silverton (Kendall Mountain 13066 ft, Sultan Mountain 13368 ft…), the mountains around Vermilion Peak (13894 ft) and the peaks of the Grenadier Range (highest point 13864 ft) were well visible.
The summit registry seemed to indicate that in summer, this mountain was usually climbed a few times a week. I then noticed a vehicle moving up Burns Gulch Road. It went to the end of the road and parked there.
It was around 12 o'clock when I saw a storm approaching. I did not want to end up struggling down the loose crumbling rocks in fog and snow so I quickly packed my things and began to go down. A few drops of rain mixed with flakes of snow started to fall. I felt much better when I reached the 13200 ft saddle but I still needed to tackle the rotten small cliffs below the saddle. I looked around and came to find a trail that went below the saddle via a route that avoided the small cliffs. The trail took me by a huge patch of snow and reached the grassy slopes. The storm never came. The clouds began to clear slowly and later it became mostly sunny.
I found the grassy slopes very beautiful. The fresh snow had melted away and the temperature had become just right. A very pleasant and gentle breeze was blowing. Small colorful flowers carpeted the slopes and birds were singing. To better enjoy the area, I began to hike slowly and sit down often. The trail had mostly faded away. I then noticed somebody moving way down the slopes. I zoomed with my camcorder to see a lone lady sitting among the flowers. Her long hair was dancing in the breeze. Since everything else had turned out to be so beautiful, I was jokingly telling myself that I was seeing an angel. It was ironic how in the morning I had been so hesitant and apprehensive, being afraid of the wolves and scared by the rocky snowy slopes. Now the storm had not precipitated and everything had become so wonderful. I was even seeing an angel. Maybe in the morning "Mountain Gods" were mad at me for leaving Mary behind, but she must have intervened on my behalf.
I then slowly moved down until I reached the lady. She and her girlfriend (who was not there) had driven up Burns Gulch Road. We talked a little and then I continued to go down slowly. When I reached Burns Gulch Road, both the ladies and their vehicle were there. They were nice and offered to drive me down but I thanked them and said I'd rather hike down.
As I was hiking down the road, I turned around often to get a view of the magnificent wall of Niagara behind me. When I reached the first trees, I found a nice grassy area where I could sit down. I positioned myself such that I could see the summit of Niagara between a couple of pine trees. I took a picture there that I like to think of as the most beautiful picture of this trip.
I then saw a rather rough looking guy driving up the road in a huge pickup truck. He asked where the road went and I told him it ended just a little further up. He soon turned around and went back. I thought if I had told him there were a couple of babes waiting for him up there, he may not have gone back so soon.
It was 2:40 when I reached my Jeep on Route 110. I rested for a while as the four wheel drive vehicles and ATVs went by every now and then. I then drove back to the ghost town of Howardsville and went on Cunningham Gulch Road. I had great views of the 13552 ft Tower Mountain and the Steep Hematite Gulch in front of me. I may want to climb Tower Mountain in the next few days.
I then returned to Silverton and went to the Jeep Rental place to see if I could keep the Jeep one more day but they wanted it back. I walked to our motel and rested until Mary came. We then went to a restaurant. It began to rain. We had to walk back to our motel in the rain. I had shorts and a T-shirt on and felt very cold.