I have to admit that I approached this climb with a great deal of apprehension. The lack of information on conditions, the new approach route and the limited amount of details contained in the Dawson’s guide gave me more concern than usual.
I arrived at the parking area at the gated closure on the Silver Pick Road at around 5:00 p.m. on May 31, 2006. After a final check of gear, I loaded up my overburdened pack, snowshoes and all. Stopping at the gate I paused to shoot a new photo of the latest access information. The owner of the mining claims has posted a No Trespassing sign on the gate which if a flagrantly illegal posting. Essentially he is saying that you cannot trespass on public lands that lead to his property. Totally bogus!
I had taken the time to trace the route that had been proposed by the CMC and loaded it as a track in my GPS. The lack of signal due to the tree canopy caused me to bypass the first waypoint and continue further up the road. Once the GPS updated I made a beeline for the 4th waypoint. What I did not realize is that I had blown by a small cairn (it is bigger now) that leads to where the new approach route is being put in. I was to later realize that I had missed the first part of the route entirely and most likely made the approach harder that it needed to be. (Remember, I like to suffer!) With the combination of GPS, Map & Compass and some good old fashion terrain navigation I joined the old approach route after the land closure.
Camp at 12,000 ft.
After nearly 3 hours of hiking, climbing and navigating, I located a small tundra and rock covered area adjacent to the trail at 12,000 ft. that made for a decent campsite. I double-checked my position to be sure that I was not on private property. It is adequate to hold a single two-person tent and the nearby stream supplied plenty of fresh water. From this vantage point, the snow slope leading to the gully as described by Dawson is clearly visible. The conditions looked good for climbing and as it turned out the snowshoes were just dead weight on this trip. I was relieved to see that the slopes were free of avalanche debris and that snow appeared to be consolidated. I got camp set up just before the sunset and had time to enjoy the evening alpine glow before settling in.
I was up at 4:45 and making note of the time I was moving at 5:35 a.m. It was not long before I put on my crampons and moved out onto the snow. I tell people (especially in Texas) it is always a good day when I get to wear my crampons. The snow condition could not have been better, the firm surface made for excellent climbing. The snow route is very strait forward; ascend to the top of the bowl and head up the obvious gully to the right of the summit. I was making good time and paused several times to enjoy the view and take photos. Approaching the steep section of the snow I removed my second ice axe and ascended rapidly using the double-dagger stager technique.
Looking Up the West Face Route.
At the end of the snow I decided to keep my crampons on to make the harder 4th Class move into the gully. Climbing some mixed routes in Ouray and having previous experience climbing rock with crampons on paid dividends. There appears to be at least 3 lines that can be taken from this point. I elected to take the center one since it looked less exposed. I was able to use the more solid rock (a San Juan oxymoron) along the sides of the gully for holds all the while jettisoning loose rocks back down. I was a little concerned that I would knock my cached ice axes and crampons down the mountain. About midway I traversed from the right side of the gully to the left to avoid some snow. Approaching the top of the gully I angled left to what appeared to be an obvious line.
Not knowing for sure what to expect at the end of the gully, I imagined that I would mantle up on the last move and find myself starring off some thousand foot precipice. Instead I looked about 20 meters to my left and thought “Is that the summit?’ Well it was! The quick walk on the easy ridgeline was a relief from the Class 4 climbing, making note of the time 7:38 a.m. Damn, that was fast! I surprised myself at how quickly I had made it. I stayed on the summit for 20 minutes taking photos, enjoying a flawless morning with no discernable wind and the warmth of the sun.
The descent of the gully was very deliberate and cautious. I sent rocks flying on multiple occasions. I elected to down climb the same move I had made on the way up with my crampons on since there was steep snow just below it. It was not long before I was out in the bowl. The slope was still shaded and my first attempt at glissading on the hard snow was bumpy and fast. I decided to down climb the remainder of the bowl till I reached the lower 1/3 that was now getting sun-hit and where the softer snow was a much more pleasant ride. I followed the snow all the way down till it terminated about 30 meters from my camp.
You Go Up!
Leaving camp I followed the trail till I reached the turn off on my GPS. It lead me back over the to the steep slope (Class 3+) was difficult to descent with my overburdened pack. Beyond that the scree is horrific. I followed the track out till I reached a point where what appeared to be a discernable trial leading to the final loose shale slope was evident. On the shale slope I could see (or imagined it) signs that someone had traveled that way other than myself and I tried to follow. Doing a descending traverse across the slope I was suddenly on a well improved and cairned trail at the bottom. Someone; I suspect the CMC or 14’ers Initiative has been making the improvements to the West Face Trail. Following it out lead me back to the cairn that I had bypassed on the way in.
In my opinion the West Face Route should not be undertaken when it is dry. The rock I the gully leading to the summit is 100% rotten. The climb up to it without snow will be arduous. The climbing is solid Class 4 above the bowl. Test each hold, test it gain and then don’t trust it. Be deliberate and cautious. You WILL set off rock fall, so wear a helmet and keep your party small! The route (snow slope) steepens to about 50 degrees at the top bowl and the entire area is avalanche prone. When snow is present crampons and an ice axe are a must, bring two and use a double-dagger technique for added safety and speed. Dawson rates the route as an “Intermediate” snow climb recommends that the route be undertaken in the late spring and early summer when snow covers most of the route and the risk of avalanches is lessened.