Intro/Stats"American Pk" (13806')
via Independence Couloir
Jones Mtn (13860')
Niagara Pk (13807')
9.2 miles RT, 4700' gain
From American Basin 4WD TH
My wife and I were in the San Juans to attend Dominic and Sarah's wedding at one of my favorite places in Colorado, spectacular Yankee Boy Basin. No need for a church when you're right in the middle of God's cathedral on earth!
Teakettle and Coffepot with seats in the balcony for the wedding:
The happy couple:
I treated my wife to an authentic 4WD outing up Engineer Pass, with the west side being much rougher and dramatic. She was just a wee bit nervous! We waited at the pass to see if some dark clouds would blow over for a chance at easy 13er Engineer Pk, but it was not to be. We checked in late at the Matterhorn Hotel in Lake City and I caught a few z's before heading out at the ungodly hour of 3AM for a multi peak fest in American Basin.
Things were looking dreary as it had just stopped raining and the skies were looking uncertain. I bashed my way up to American Basin and the road was not quite as rough as I had remembered it the first time. It was spooky driving this shelf road in the dark but I thought it was less intimidating as you couldn't see the huge drops! :eek:
Independence Couloir: Too Little, Too Late
I arrived at the American Basin 4WD trailhead before all of the sleeping 14er baggers had awoke. I quietly got ready and set out at 4:30 with some decent moonlight to help guide the way. The skies were beginning to clear up a bit, so things were looking better. I followed the easy Handies trail to 12400' and left it when it starts heading east.
I made my way up wet tundra slopes to a steep scree field below the apron of the Independence couloir on American's north face. The couloir held enough snow to warrant breaking out the axe and crampons, but I was disappointed there wasn't more snow.
I made my way up the left side of the couloir, following a convenient set of old tracks. I didn't measure the slope angle, but measuring on the map it averages 36 degrees, probably a bit steeper at the top.
I stayed on snow as long as I could and the snow ended about 20 feet from the top. This little 400 foot climb only took about 30 minutes, so I'm not sure why Roach calls this a classic. Maybe it's a lot more fun earlier in the season. The remaining climb to the summit of American is a 1/4 mile journey on a decent trail up the west ridge, which skirts a false summit and climbs steeply amidst typical San Juan scree.
A couple of large elk beat me to the summit and they scurried out of view before I could get a pic. I topped out at 6:50, probably one of my earliest summits ever. The weather was looking good to at least make it over to Niagara.
Jones & Niagara Traverse
I was able to follow a faint trail most of the way over to Jones.
A cool view down to Sloan Lake on American's west ridge:
The descent to the saddle is easy, then you are faced with a steep, loose mess of scree to contend with on Jones n.e. ridge.
Nearing the saddle with Jones:
I followed the faint trail on climbers left of the ridge crest, skirting some cliffs above the saddle. Once above the false summit, I stayed on the ridge crest for some minor class 2+ scrambling to the summit. The day was still young and the skies were looking good, although I still had my doubts the weather would hold long enough to make it over to 13535 and Cinnamon.
I signed the register and headed over to Niagara, which is a bit steeper than Jones. Once again, I was able to follow a decent trail, which nicely skirted below a couple bumps on the right.
Niagara's east ridge (left), which ascends nearly 600 feet in .2 mile:
I left my pack at the saddle and slogged up the steep east slopes of Niagara, which was littered with striking sky pilots.
Not sure how these delicate flowers survive the harsh afternoon storms up here! It was only 9:45am, but clouds were already beginning to build. I took in the views for a couple minutes and headed back down to the saddle, taking a much needed break there.
The only drawback to this route is you have to reclimb Jones, which adds another 640 feet, although the trail makes it pretty tolerable. I skirted below the top 50 feet or so on Jones, which was more effort than it was worth sidehilling nasty talus. I took it slow down the annoyingly loose n.e. ridge and was back at the saddle ready to figure out how to get over to 13535.
Loose descent of n.e. ridge:
The Show Stopper
A long line of towers blocks easy passage to the connecting ridge to 13535, so I decided to skirt them on nasty scree to the left. I dropped down to 13040' and did an ascending sidehill across scree and a couple mellow snowfields back to the ridge crest.
A little sidehilling torture:
I committed the cardinal sin and forgot to check my map on my GPS to see where I was at. It turns out I had overshot the ridge that splits off to the north for 13535 and I was down an incorrect ridge heading west! I headed down almost 1/2 mile and dropped 300 feet before noticing that the basin below me to the right was Grouse Gulch, not American Basin! This screwup cost me a summit as a storm was approaching me due west.
I raced back up the ridge, up and over Pt 13444. I caught the Grouse Gulch trail just 1/2 mile south of 13535, but there was no way I was risking it with a nasty storm approaching.
I bombed down the trail and it started raining 20 minutes later, although not hard enough initially to break out a shell. About 5 minutes from the car, a flash/boom variance of 1 second forced me into a trot! I was glad I wasn't high on the ridges! The heavens broke loose just two minutes from the car and a barrage of hail battered me. I scrambled for the keys and hopped in the 4Runner in the nick of time, arriving back at the trailhead at 12:15. You win some and you lose some I guess!