If there was a Colorado mountain I had to summit in 2005, Hagerman Peak was it. After seeing the pictures of it in Gerry Roach’s book, Colorado's Thirteeners
, and hearing about its exposed summit, beautiful surroundings, challenging ridges, and general obscurity, I had hoped to make it there before winter set in once again. I had tried to make it to the trailhead back in June, but was turned around when I ran low on gas, and settled instead for the summit of Castle Peak
Friday night, September 9th, I found myself again driving toward the Crystal Trailhead. Saturday promised bright skies and no precipitation, but as I started driving up the high four wheel drive road around Sheep Mountain, rain was pouring. Several miles into my journey, I could no longer go any further when the steep road turned into a muddy, hopeless mess. Figuring I was close to the pass, I decided on a camp there. I pulled off to the side of the road and slept, fitfully.
I had intended to begin hiking at 4 AM, but at 4:30 thunderstorms and hail hammered the area, and I was not about to leave my jeep. By six o’clock, the skies were still ugly, but the precipitation had stopped. I got my gear together and started hiking up the road, hoping I was close to the upper four-wheel drive trailhead described by Roach.
An hour later, after constant walking up a steep, switch-backing road, I found myself not at a pass, but on top of a hill. I was standing on a plateau of sorts, looking at Hagerman Peak and Snowmass Mountain
. They were much too far away. Stumped, I looked at my maps and thought aloud for a few moments, then it hit me. I had somehow turned onto another road the previous night, one that led up to the summit of Sheep Mountain, where I now stood. I watched the ominous clouds and my wristwatch, and realized Hagerman Peak may have eluded me once again.
I rushed back down the nasty dirt road, running part of the way, until I made it back to my jeep. I had not driven downhill 100 yards when I saw an unexpected obstacle: a tree had fallen in the early-morning storms, it’s trunk laying down a steep bank, hanging across the road at waist- height, and securing its top on the opposite, lower bank. Fortunately, the tree was not huge, and after 15 minutes of sweat and mud, along with a little ingenuity, I got the darned thing out of my way. This was not turning out to be the dream-hike I had been hoping for.
After a quick descent, I came to where the road split, which I had not seen the night before. In fact, there was even a small sign for 115, pointing me in the right direction, or I should say, “left” direction, since that had been my grave mistake. This, correct road turned out to be much easier, and more efficient in getting me where I wanted to go. I parked at a small, little-used trailhead just after the road began to switchback and descend into Lead King Basin.
By 8:30, four and a half hours after my planned departure time, I was hiking up a trail, surrounded by wildflowers and beautiful scenery. And, it would not take long, wouldn’t you know it, to realize I was not on the correct trail. I had apparently started my hike too far to the west, but I would not give up! I hiked over a steep hill and then through the basin below Meadow Mountain, where I finally met up with the trail I had been trying to find. It contoured around the lower grassy benches of Meadow Mountain, and into the upper cliffs of Lead King Basin. As I contoured with the ridge, the scenery to the east
opened up, and I was in awe immediately. The Maroon Bells were the most notable feature of the terrain, but all of the scenery was simply breath-taking in its entirety, incapable of being expressed through a mere photograph.
This trail, much less used than the standard trail from the depths of Lead King Basin, only gains about 200 feet of elevation as it follows the available ledges around Meadow Mountain’s eastern ramparts to Geneva Lake. It winds along steep grassy slopes and through implausible rocky cliffs en route to its juncture with the main trail at the lake. All the while, the scenery is incredible
. As I rounded my way into Lead King Basin, I could plainly see the huge waterfalls careening down the slopes, and Snowmass and Hagerman rising mightily behind it all.
As I came to Geneva Lake, the sun was out strong and my spirits were high. I previewed Snowmass Mountain’s “S” Ridge, but decided to stick with my plans for Hagerman’s Southwest Ridge
, which was also plainly visible. I followed the trail around the awesome alpine lake, continuing east toward Trail Rider Pass.
After coming out of the trees, a close-up view of Hagerman Peak’s eastern slopes opened up. I started up the first gully
, and made my way to the visible saddle on the southwest ridge. There were no trails or cairns from here on out, and I suddenly found myself to be very tired and slothful. Fortunately, the weather would not be an issue, so I was able to take my time.
Eventually, I made it to the saddle, then bypassed a small buttress
and found myself facing the difficulties of the southwest ridge. I packed up my trekking poles, donned my climbing helmet, and started straight up this main buttress. Though intimidating at first glance, this section was a lot of fun to climb. Most of the rock was fairly solid, and the steep class 3 climbing made me feel like I was finally getting somewhere.
Above the buttress, the terrain was still rough, but easily navigable for the middle section of the ridge. I did not gain much elevation for a while, and little scrambling was required, except for a small descent into an interesting notch along the ridge.
I had been able to preview the route for a while, and it was clear that I was about to come to the main event
: the steepening final 900 feet of rock leading directly to the summit. Part of this I bypassed with some boulder-hopping and talus-hiking on the eastern side of the ridge, but for the most part I stayed on or near the jagged ridge crest, scrambling along it. I continued snapping photos along the way, of Geneva Lake
, Trail Rider Pass, the Maroon Bells, and any other scenery that caught my eye. This was one of the most beautiful views I have had thus far in Colorado.
Two hundred feet below the summit, a detour to the west is required, following a gully of sorts
up to the final crest of ridge. This steepening gully consisted of huge blocks, some which were quite loose, but for the most part it was not too bad.
Back on the top of the ridge, I scrambled the final, somewhat exposed and knife-edge-like crest to the summit. I had finally arrived, at 15:30, and it had all been worth it! Besides all the other mountains I had mentioned, I now had fantastic views of Snowmass Mountain, Capitol Peak
, Snowmass Lake, and the tremendous cliffs of Hagerman Peak’s north face. What a mountain, and what a place! Two other people had signed the register on this sunny day, though I saw no-one during my entire hike.
The wind was pretty nasty atop this Elk sentinel, so I did not stay very long. I scrambled over toward Snowmass Peak and took some more pictures, then began my long descent of Hagerman Peak’s south face
The descent of the loose rock, scree, and dirt, was, in a word, miserable. It required some delicate footing and patience, both of which I was low on at this point in the day. I made it though. Then I picked my way through a boulder-field at the bottom of the steep slopes, and followed the creek back down to the Trail Rider Pass Trail, completing my afternoon loop.
The sun was getting lower to the horizon
now, allowing for some more great photo opportunities. As I approached Geneva Lake, I was greeted with some reflection photo opportunities, as well as great views of Snowmass Mountain’s well-defined “S” Ridge. Several people had set up camp next to Geneva Lake and were enjoying the evening solitude of the Maroon-Bells Snowmass Wilderness. Part of me envied them, as the evening stillness set in on the wilderness and grandeur, but a bigger part of me was looking forward to getting back to my jeep, and getting home to my nice warm bed.
And wouldn’t you know it, I missed my trail. I ended up descending the entire standard trail down to the four wheel drive trailhead at the bottom of Lead King Basin. This did allow for some more photos, of the waterfalls and the now yellowing aspens, but I was getting quite tired by this point.
I arrived at the dirt road as darkness began to set in, and started the arduous and seemingly endless hike up the switch-backs toward my vehicle–ironic to finish my day the same way I had started, hiking up a dirt road. I had been praying for a vehicle to pass by, going uphill, and after about a half mile and 400 vertical feet of walking, my prayers were answered. It was a good thing, too, because I was still a long ways in both distance and elevation from my jeep. A woman and a man in a Jeep Wrangler, my angels of the day, were kind enough to give me a ride that final distance. I was surprised to find out they had made the same mistake as me the previous night, going up the four-wheel drive road on Sheep Mountain and having to turn around. They successfully ascended Snowmass Mountain today, likewise conquering their mistakes.
I thanked them heartily as they dropped me off at my jeep at 20:00, fourteen hours after I had first begun hiking mistakenly up Sheep Mountain. Altogether, including that first stint, I figured I had completed 14.6 miles and 5,900 feet of elevation gain on this sunny September day. For all the difficulties, however, the climb and the scenery were classics in my book, and I will gladly go back to see that special place again.
By the way, once I got in my jeep to head home, nothing more went wrong. I didn’t take any wrong turns, no more trees fell, and the weather was perfect. Still, that was one long day!
© 2005, Brad Snider