Intro/StatsPotosi Peak (13786')
June 11, 2010
From Yankee Boy Sneffels 4WD TH (11320')
4.5 miles RT, 3650' gain
Participants: Dwight Sunwall, Dominic & Sarah Meiser, Jean Aschenbrenner, & Kevin Baker
Potosi Peak is an imposing 13er that doesn't get a lot of attention as it is neighbored by higher Mt Sneffels and Teakettle Mountain in the dramatic cirque known as Yankee Boy Basin neary Ouray. It looks like a castle in the sky as it is well guarded on all sides with steep cliffs and impressive towers. Thousands of people drive up the popular 4WD road underneath the steep west slopes of Potosi to soak up the views in this dramatic place or to climb Sneffels, the monarch of the Sneffels Range. I climbed Potosi with Layne Bracy back in 2006 after a successful climb of Teakettle and we were not able to enjoy a rest on the summit as we were being chased by storm clouds.
We have been itching to climb Potosi via its aesthetic north couloir since Dave Cooper featured it in his fine "Colorado Snow Climbs" book. Last year, Dwight, Sarah, and Pete made an attempt of the climb but turned back at the saddle because of poor snow conditions. We camped at the Thistledown campground lower down on the Yankee Boy road and got a few hours of sleep after the long drive across the state.
Sarah drives us up the rough road in the morning and we set out just as it is light enough to go without headlamps. It has been a warm night, but the snowpack in the San Juans is for the most part in a mature late spring stage where wet slides are not near as much of a concern. The route up the west slopes of Potosi wastes no time in gaining elevation (2080' in .9 mile). We plod our way up splitting the cliff bands low and angle our way northeast to a ridge that will take us to just east of Coffeepot, a cool little technical tower that we hope to climb later in the day.
The Fortress That Is Potosi
The ridge provides some relief from the annoyingly loose talus and ball bearing scree on this relentless slope. We crest the ridge and see our goal for the day, the unmistakable north couloir of Potosi.
We avoid nasty sidehilling to the saddle, but have to pay the price by dropping about 400 feet. We have to negotiate a loose gully filled with dinner plate talus poised to sky rocket down the slopes.
We're now at the saddle and are faced with a tricky downclimb skirting around an old cornice that is still pretty sizeable. We go down one at a time and give each other room.
Dwight on the nastiness:
Once past this, we get out crampons, second tools, axes, and harnesses for the snow climb ahead. We bring pickets and two ropes with us in case the couloir is icy. We descend moderate snowfields that are firm, contouring down to about 12600', skirting underneath the cliff bands. We hear a few rocks coming down periodically and it is soon apparent that this couloir is going to be a shooting gallery.
Dominic traversing to the couloir:
We move quickly over to the left side of the couloir and decide to stay close to the side as much as possible to reduce the rockfall threat. A waterfall on the right is sending down small to medium sized rocks periodically. The small ones are hard to see coming. It is by far the most rockfall activity we have seen in a couloir. I felt like I was in the Lord of the Rings movie preparing to seize the castle, being bombarded by rocks from foes above!
Heading up the apron:
A rock a bit larger than a softball comes down and smacks a boulder before ricocheting off to our right. Thankfully that is the only big one that comes down. A small one hits Sarah's helmet and another small one hits me in the ankle. We keep our eyes peeled and stay close to the side. The snow is very firm and is in great shape, as the couloir is shaded for all but the last bit to the top.
In the couloir video
The disadvantage with firm snow is the followers have to work about as hard as the lead climber! I measure the slope a few times and it is no steeper than 45 degrees, although I didn't take the time to measure at the top where we had to break away from the walls of the couloir.
Getting a bit steeper:
Once above the waterfall, the rockfall threat is way less and we can relax a bit. We angle a bit right and enjoy a steeper line to the top of the couloir, which puts you just northeast of the summit.
Jean and Dwight top out:
The summit of Potosi is flat, almost the size of a football field. To gain the plateau, we climb a short stretch of steep snow that has softened up enough to kick great steps.
Coffeepot for Dessert
The weather looks like it will hold for awhile, so we take a long break and soak up the Yankee Boy views.
Teakettle from the summit:
For the descent, we take the standard route, which wraps clockwise across ledges, kitty litter, and loose talus back to the north side. There's no way we are going to descend the couloir! :eek: The melting snow complicates things a bit as some of the slabs we have to scoot down are running with water, but we manage OK and find some cairns.
Jean enjoying some butt scooting action:
Things look different than they did in summer, but we don't have any routefinding issues and traverse above the cliffs at around the 13200' level on the east side. Some snowfields provide some relief from sidehilling on ball bearing scree and talus. We make it down to the saddle and Dominic and Sarah oblige me with a repeat of Coffeepot since I didn't get to do it last time! Dwight and Jean have already checked that guy off, so they descend.
Coffeepot and Teakettle:
It's a historic day as Sarah decides she will try her first trad climb lead! Coffeepot is a short climb of 20 feet or so up a nice chimney that you can wedge yourself nicely in.
Sarah placing a cam on her first lead:
She knows the moves well since it's her third time up and belays Dominic and I. Congrats, Sarah! Getting out of the chimney is cool and kind of feels like a canyoneering move!
Dominic climbing out of the chimney:
The views over to our line on Potosi are splendid to say the least:
We rappel a bit to the east of the ascent chimney and I'm stoked to squeeze in this airy little summit. Here's a short video of Sarah rapping and the sweet views from Coffeepot.
The dreaded ball bearing descent now awaits, but it doesn't seem as bad as the first time I did it. Maybe it's because the knees are getting use to this San Juan junk. The key to the descent is to avoid getting cliffed out at the bottom by going straight down. That has happened to all of us before and Dwight does a good job leading us down a scree gully, then angling southwest and south to a key break in the cliffs at 11600 feet. Our feet our happy to be down as we look forward to the next climb in the mighty San Juans.
View of Potosi from the "trailhead":