An ascent of steep grassy slopes interspersed with boulders leads to a high talus basin below the Animas-Thirteen-Monitor cirque. From here the route gets more interesting as you have to locate a loose ramp and then pick your way around two towers with 3rd and 4th class scrambling on Monitor's north side before you can reach the 3rd class ridge to the summit.
This route is described from a high camp in Ruby Basin seeing as most people camp here anyway. From this point Monitor is about 2100' above you but only 2/3 mile away as the crow flies. It is a steep route! The overall stats for the route with ups and downs is about 2400' vertical and less than 2 miles round trip.
This peak makes a nice "add-on" the morning before hiking out to catch the train, but we forewarned - we did this in combination with Thirteen and Animas and even with a 4am start we made the train with less than 15 minutes to spare!
Where to begin? Sounds like a simple enough question, but for this peak it depends on your time and how much dough you want to shell out. The approach route starts on the east side of the Needleton Bridge. You can reach Needleton by train from either Durango (9am train, 11.30am arrival) or Silverton (2.45pm train, 3.45pm arrival) or you can hike in from the Purgatory Flats trailhead, which is about 9 miles one way to Needleton. From Needleton the journey to Ruby Basin can be quite an adventure!
The Ruby Basin Trail is notorious for being difficult to follow, the description below is from my personal experience, but yours may vary. Even among our group we didn't go up the same way we went down, and some of us got into some bushwhacking nightmares. The GPS waypoints in Dave Cooper's "Colorado Scrambles" book are for the most part very accurate, though we found a couple of them were not directly on the trail. If you have them they can save you a lot of time. Expect to lose the trail a few times, we did!
From the east side of the bridge take an immediate left (literally one step off the bridge) and follow the well maintained path past a few private cabins being sure to stay on the trail to respect property owner's rights. The trail continues on until it reaches a nice meadow where at current lies a fallen tree with the middle section cut out, pass through this a few steps as look to your right for the Ruby Basin trail as it comes out of the woods. This part of the meadow is grown over, so the trails do NOT intersect!
Follow this trail as it enters the woods, passes another meadow on the right edge, and then enters the Wilderness area. The trail will then begin a seemingly endless ascending traverse to a small unnamed creek commonly referred to as "North Pigeon Creek" among climbers. To this point, the trail is good.
Cross the creek, and avoid the temptation to contour back around the ridge to your left. Instead, go forward a few steps upstream and locate a steep trail to your left and climb it. (We did not go this this way on the ascent and had to bushwhack off the other trail, but we did end up on this trail on our descent.)
Somewhere there is allegedly another trail here that goes to North Pigeon Creek, but we did not see it. Also there is allegedly a tree marking the trail with a columbine carved in it, but we again, did not see it. Continue on the trail to a small ridge that splits the North Pigeon and Ruby drainages.
Descend about 100 feet on some steep slopes and continue on the trail. Make some good mental notes about this area, there are some side trails to watch out for on the return that can lead to epic bushwhacking! The trail continues to traverse towards Ruby Creek, then ascends along the south side of the creek. At one point it crosses some willows and another some talus, where it can be a little difficult to follow. Again, make mental notes for the return!
The trail continues along the creek and is generally easier to follow here, but there is a lot of deadfall that complicates things. Keep your eyes open to make sure you don't lose the trail. The trail will lead you to the west end of Ruby Lake just about 10,800' where you will cross two streams on logs and then wrap around the north side of the lake on a reasonably strong trail past a few campsites.
Past the campsites the trail goes into the talus again, just stay low along the shoreline and you will be fine. The trail picks up again on the east end of the lake near a sandy stream inlet to the lake. The trail stays close to the stream, and is in reasonable condition, though overgrown in places. The terrain makes a steep jump at this point (around 11,000') and the trail takes a surprising left into the willows. We found this out on descent, but on ascent we lost the trail when it went into the willows. The trail stays relatively close to the creek. After this roughly 300' steep climb you will enter another talus field, cross it and then find a sea of willows interspersed with grass. The trail weaves through this and is not that easy to follow. Just keep going generally in a southeast direction above the creek as the terrain keeps on rolling its way to the 11,600' meadow which provides most people with their "base camp" in the area. The meadow is pretty obvious, its big and its flat.
From the Needleton train stop you have come about 4 1/2 miles and ascended some 3500'. This is a difficult approach and route finding here can be a serious issue, take all that into consideration for your descent and allow plenty of time if you have a train to catch!
Access slopes seen from high camp in Ruby Basin.
Now that you are in the meadow, climbing Monitor is the 'easy' part! Well maybe not really... but at least you can see your route. Its that big steep grassy slope
above you to the east. You will likely be climbing it in the dark one of the next few mornings, so study the slope now to find the path of least resistance through the willows and rocks. We found the left side worked very well, it was grassier and we could always find our way around the rocks when we came upon them.
At 12,400' the slope relents a bit and starts to become more of a talus basin. Stay along the bottom of the cliff walls and follow them to the base of the access ramp. This is probably the only reasonable way to access the Peak Thirteen-Monitor saddle! It was fairly obvious when we were climbing it, but then again we knew what to look for because we previewed it from Pigeon the day before. Follow this ramp to the top and then traverse over to the south shoulder of Peak Thirteen.
From here you have a nice overview
of the route before you. You will have to traverse around the right side of the two towers and then up the steep gully beyond to reach the north ridge. This all starts with a short downclimb
of a grubby loose kitty litter slope.
Then you ascend rocks on the flank of the first tower
(3rd with some easy 4th class) to a small notch with a cairn. Traverse across a loose gully on a climbers trail and then descend around the second tower
to another cairn below you (3rd and 4th class). You are now at the bottom of the gully
that leads to Monitor's summit ridge. There is a white rock rib that runs down the middle of it almost like a bony spine. You can climb the loose dirt on either side, or the more solid 3rd class directly on this spine to reach the ridge.
Climbing the ridge you will now finally be in sunlight, a welcome feeling if its a cold morning. Follow the enjoyable 3rd class ridge
to the summit and relish the views of the neighboring peaks, Fifteen and Turret are especially impressive. Reverse your route back to camp and hope your memory was good and that you left yourself enough time to catch the train... the pack out is longer than you think (trust me!).
Other than a helmet, most summer and early fall climbs should be dry enough to not warrant any gear.
Spring ascents will likely require axe and crampons, possibly a second tool.
Winter avalanche danger would be extreme and this peak should probably be avoided.
GPS with Dave Cooper's waypoints programmed in could provide quite useful on the ascent and descent of the Ruby Basin trail. While there were long stretches we didn't feel they were necessary, it was a nice comfort to see we were on track in those places where the trail fizzled out on us. That and you own saved track for the descent can help make sure you make the train on time!