Seasons in the San Juans

Seasons in the San Juans

Page Type Page Type: Trip Report
Location Lat/Lon: 37.79927°N / 107.82958°W
Date Date Climbed/Hiked: Oct 28, 2014
Activities Activities: Hiking
Seasons Season: Summer, Fall

Part One: Autumn 2014- Alone at the Finish

Colorado Wildflowers Colorado Wildflowers

This report is something I THOUGHT I had posted already, but apparently, I never did. So after some edits, the first part of this report is my finisher from the top 100 highest peaks in Colorado. This was back in 2014. However, without realizing that I never posted it, I went back into Ice lakes Basin for another trip this past July 2019 for some other peaks. Things didn't turn out as planned. 

After writing the second part of this, I found the 90% finished first half from 2014 on an old zip drive. I read it and was kinda blown away at the details and similarities to the second one. So I decided to edit, rewrite and merge the two together into a two-part report. Unfortunately, I only have the two pictures from 2014. Hope y'all enjoy! 

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I know there’s nothing especially heartfelt about chasing lists; we all have our sprints and long-distance goals we’re working towards. Whether we’re chasing the Fourteener’s of Colorado, climbing desert towers, centennials or knocking off a walls technical routes, most of us are tethered by some agenda or itinerary that only means something to the person pursuing it. And I will concede, with such a staggering panoply of peaks and routes at our disposal, lists do serve their purpose. However, there’s another side-benefit that isn’t immediately clear. All those checkboxes leads us to venture to places in the wilderness and backcountry that we more than likely, wouldn’t have considered. It slices up a massive gestalt into manageable pieces that we can digest and appreciate. And I can tell you, for all my own frustrations with lists, they have enabled me to visit places like No Name Basin, the lonely landscapes of Edward Abby, the high plains of eastern Wyoming, Ice Lakes Basin and the massive Weminuche Wilderness. As I was finishing the [Colorado] Fourteener’s, I thought Snowmass Mountain would be a worthy destination to finish on but didn’t make it a priority. But that’s exactly what happened. Steve Gladbach and I stood on its’ summit in a massive blizzard, reigning against the odds in mid-March, a trip that will never be forgotten (RIP my friend). The centennials (top-100 highest peaks) were starting to hash out the same way. I had a short list of peaks that I would have liked to finish on but nothing in particular held my focus; only that Britt Jones and I would have liked to be gracing the same summit together. Choosing which peaks to attempt based off work schedule and weather, the pieces fell one by one in randomness until only Vermilion Peak was left; which fortunately, was one of several I thought would be great to finish on; plus, what better way than to spend several days in the magnificent Ice Lakes Basin, melancholically waving goodbye to a long list, watching it disappear in the rear-view mirror. I won’t say or speak of places outside Colorado because this chase only involves peaks inside said state lines. But of past trips remembered, some of the best along this journey: New Year’s Day atop Pyramid Peak (Elk Mountains) with Sarah & Dominic Meiser, Dwight Sunwall & John Prater, Capitol Peak in January with Steve Gladbach, my first time repelling (ever) on Dallas Peak with Aaron Ihinger and Jamie Princo and a solo venture into the Sierra Blanca’s tackling my first 4th class on Little Bear.

Over the years, I’ve noticed my focus becoming redirected from singular objectives to the crenellations of the trip. I’m still intent on the summit mind you, but I understand there’s a lot more that goes into a successful trip. And I’m not talking about getting there and back. Everything from crunching pine needles underfoot, brushing up against those ‘delightful’ mountain thistles (I call them ‘man-eaters’), to walking on uncertain rock in the alpine all goes into our wilderness experience. These days knocking back a beer or two from some lofty summit is secondary to what I gain from the journey in getting there. And so while cruising down hwy. 550 listening to a mix of Gordon Lightfoot, Jim Croche and Johnny Cash preach about ‘Sunday Morning Coming Down,’ I pulled into the small, dirt switchback in a rather comfortable but pensive mood. I have lost a lot of good friends to these damnable lists and think often (more than what’s probably healthy) about how different things would be if I never got involved in the mountains, having friends like: Kevin Hayne, Chris Pruchnic, Terry Matthews and Steve Gladbach still alive. I’ve even had a couple instances where I should have died myself, but here I am, still plugging away. Then some advocate for the Devil confidently whispers, ‘If that were so Kiefer, you’d never have had the chance to meet and befriend said people.’ It’s a logic I have a hard time arguing against. It’s not fair. I sit at the drivers wheel, staring vacantly out the front window feeling suddenly, very old. I wonder, once I have Vermilion Peak finished, where will this trail take me next?

I decided to take the high road, literally, by starting off at the first switchback up Clear Lake Road (FSR #815). I don’t think a lot of people know about this shorter, spur trail that starts up this road. It shaves off some distance and a healthy amount of elevation. I brought a small bundle of firewood with me that I was intent on using. I lashed it to my pack in singles and suffered the weight for the short approach. As popular as Ice Lakes is in summer, I wasn’t planning on finding any wood anyway. After photographing some grouse on the trail (I saw five of them) and trying to coax an ermine to stay still long enough for a picture, I arrived at what I have to say was a phenomenal camping site. I dropped my pack like a stack of dirty dishes; firewood spilling everywhere and immediately proceeded to ‘clean things up’ by way of disassembling some old smaller fire-rings, picked up some scattered trash and rebuilt the fire-ring I was going to use. It was situated on top of a cliff. So the views back down the valley were magnificent. I decided to take a stroll further up the basin to see where the trail would take me. Autumn was solidly ‘in the air’ as the slowly tumbling breeze turned things a bit chilly and bringing with it, feelings of decaying leaves, wet earth and open fields of grass. It’s a ‘Thanksgiving’ smell. It’s an aroma of Halloween that conjures up pleasant memories of candy corn, apples, giggling through a corn maze (as a child) and of course…of change. South Mineral Campground below was deserted. I initially drove around it looking for a place but elected for a higher road instead. I was the only one in the basin to bear witness to any of this. There were no marmot chirps, no pika barks or deer running through the upper meadows; there was only the static sound of cascading water falling from the heights singing, in accord with the gently-rustling leaves. Indeed, the whole of the basin exuded a sense of vacancy. I found a spot overlooking lower Ice Lake and sat down ‘Indian-style’ for a while. I have to admit, for one of the few times in the backcountry, I sat there wishing I could share this with someone, to share the ending. Edward Abbey once said, 

“Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit.” 

I’ve never known anyone to be wandering around in the forest to be in a perpetual bad mood. The unapologetic beauty of the mountains usually tells negativity to go take a hike (pun intended). So sitting there in a pensive but strangely, satisfied frame of mind, I knew deep down, this was indeed, necessary; solo or not. I don’t always have answers when I leave the mountains, but I always come back to the trailhead with a smile, and that my friend…is necessary. I left my dirt perch and ambled back to camp like a tumbleweed. Night fell on the basin like a tossed black garter. It was made only that more seductive by the great campfire I had burning and a cup of true cowboy-coffee. I sat back against a fallen tree and enjoyed the warmth and crackle of the fire, watching the silhouette of Golden Horn evaporate into the blackness. I was going to finish this damnable list. 

Trifecta Trifecta

 I didn’t feel as happy as I thought I would, sitting there in the night’s chill with flames reflected in my eyes. More than anything, I simply felt, content. I suppose for some people, they need the pomp & circumstance to close certain chapters of their lives. Personally, knowing I’m about to finish a long held goal is usually enough. I raked the fire and let it burn into ashes. I leaned back against the tree trunk, arms folded and watched the luminous ballet in the dark, hundreds of luciferous dancers pirouetting to their deaths. The resolute cold crept up against me forcing me to collect my trinkets. I inched into my tent calling it a day, satisfied; and what a marvelous day it was! I had an agonizing night. Because I normally work graveyard shifts, I’m typically up at 7:00pm and stay up till 8-9:00am. I just simply couldn’t sleep. I thought if I watched a movie on my iPod, it might help to lull me into sleep, that didn’t happen. On top of that, I developed a headache. I forgot to bring my med. kit with me so I had to suffer through it, at times, bringing tears to my eyes. I had enough of sitting up, laying down, sitting up against the inner wall of the tent, that around 4:00am, I just dressed and walked around outside for almost two hours till the sky started to lighten. I’ve only hiked/scrambled a few times on no sleep and I knew at the end of the day, the going is rough. I knew I would summit Vermilion but I was curious how I would fare. 

I was moving slow. I definitely wasn’t going to be setting any speed records today. As much as I wanted to bag Pilot Knob, chances are it wasn’t going to happen on this trip. I gradually turned south at upper Ice Lake and slowly pounced through the super-dry, sugar snow. I followed a few cairns for a while but eventually contoured away and down into a low but shallow valley of sorts towards the Vermilion/Golden Horn saddle. I was studying the cliff band on the approach and found a weakness I thought I might be able to exploit. From its base, looking up at Golden Horn (13,780’/4.200m) is like looking up at an inverted door stopper. I knew there was a climber route heading up into the rocky confusion, but from below it was difficult to see. I followed old footfalls and past disturbances until I came to a cairn. This is basically where things went from a hike to a simple scramble. I welcomed the burn in my quads on this chilly morning. The summit came quickly and without warning. I found a suitable rock and sat down to a light snack. I thought, ‘this mountain doesn’t see many visitors.’ The path up was super loose and scree-laden. And from almost 2,400’ up, I could still make out the lake and saw no movement. It’s rare to have this basin all to oneself. It’s moments like this that I appreciate working the weekends. Granted, it sucks that I can’t always join my friends on their adventures, but when it seems like 98% of the world have weekends off, everyone fighting and jostling for the same things, enduring lines on those two precious days, well, I think I’ll gladly work Saturday and Sunday. I got up and descended. 

Golden Horn isn’t particularly difficult, but it’s steep enough that you don’t want to slip or fall. I reached the first cairn from earlier in the morning and started an ascending traverse towards the Vermilion saddle. The going was rocky, loose and punctuated with small cliffs. At times, there was a social trail to follow but it would meld back into the slope as soon as I noticed it. I hit the saddle around 13,400’ and took a quick break to study the ridge. The upper ramparts and ledges were snowed in. This was no surprise because you clearly see it from below. I continued up and steeled myself for an early taste of winter on the northeast ridge. I enjoy 3rd and 4th class scrambling. It’s a great difficulty level to stay in shape for harder 4th and some easy 5th. Being able to manage loose rock and scree (think Elk Mountains or San Juan’s) proficiently can become a skill. I’ve had some good conversations with Jim DiNapoli over ratings and how, as a technical climber and photographer, this grade level actually scared him because you couldn’t really trust anything. Jim was a good guy; rest in peace buddy. “Huh, look at that.” I said. “I wasn’t expecting that.” I got stopped by a 6’-10’ ice step. I tried going up it but that was borderline laughable. I studied the cliff climbers, right but with the loose rock, I didn’t want to risk a multi-hundred foot fall. The cliff climbers left was worse. I took a couple steps back and surveyed the mountain. I spied a good ledge down below that cut across the entire East Face to the standard route. It was insulated in snow but even wearing shorts, I surmised that it would be dry and shallow. I descended about 150’, climbed down a small cliff and plopped down onto the ledge. 

“Holy shit! You could drive a car on this thing!” I exclaimed. I followed this white avenue across to the Fuller Peak saddle and caught the standard East Ridge route. I misjudged the snow. It was certainly dry alright, but it was also icy as all hell and shin deep, in places, knee deep. I sat down on a dirt patch at the saddle and massaged some life back into my micro-cut and numb legs. I was annoyed. Not at having to take a detour, you have to expect that from time to time. I was annoyed that I couldn’t clear the ice step. I decided to head up Fuller Peak (13,761’/4.194m) first, an unranked peak. I wanted to finish on Vermilion for obvious reasons. Plus from Fuller, I could get a good look at the ridge. I descended back to the saddle, retrieved my pack and started up Vermilion to where my snowy conclusion was waiting. 

Centennial Finisher!!! The summit of Vermilion with a couple buddies!

 The San Juan Mountains from the summit were made even more dramatic by all the early season white contrasted with the brown and cerise-colored rock. I arched my head in a westerly parabola taking it all in. This was it. This was #100! I did it. It was October 28, 2014. I stood on the snowy summit in a bittersweet and slightly sad mood. It was bittersweet because of the 12 friends I had invited, no one came; must be one of those lame weekend things. Despite being alone, I was glad I went ahead with plans and finished. I felt accomplished. I put on a jacket against the breeze, put my half-eaten lunch back into my pack, took a few more pictures and started back down. It was a good day and Vermilion was a good peak. The weather cooperated and I was now a Colorado Centennial finisher. At least I had persistence and determination as my co-pilots. Onto the next!

 

 

Part Two: Summer 2019- Gratitude

Fuller Peak from Ice Lake Fuller Peak. Is this July or April??

“I remember that campsite,” I reminisced. It was flat, quiet and had a good preexisting fire-ring. And then there was that grouse who sauntered by pretending not to be curious, but was probably concerned I wasn’t a threat. I don’t think curiosity is a good personality trait for birds. In the long run, it would be detrimental to their health. I smiled a little bit at the thought as I passed by my old camping spot from a few years ago in lower Ice Lakes Basin. I finished the centennials on Vermilion Peak on that trip. I remember being stopped by an ice step on the North Ridge that I couldn’t clear and having to traverse the whole northeast face in calf to knee deep snow to gain the Fuller-Vermilion saddle and take the easier East Ridge. Now, I was looking for another campsite albeit one closer to the headwall. With peaks like: Pilot Knob, San Miguel Peak, Ulysses S. Grant, Yellow Mountain etc. on my overly ambitious agenda, I wanted as little commute time as possible back and forth from my tent. But alas, things weren’t meant to be. The Fates it seems, had other plans for me. They pulled a bait and switch on me while I was stopped lower on the trail mopping my brow and gawking at all the avalanche debris from the prior spring. My designs for the upcoming days were changed (without my approval, mind you!) and what was planned and set, became unplanned and unraveled. And upon reflection, all I can say is I’m happy for it. I wandered the soggy upper meadows looking for a spit of land dry enough to call home for a few days. I found a sizeable piece of real estate elevated above the Sargasso Sea of skunk cabbage and grass. The catch, is it would entail wading through an icy cascade to reach every time. The whole basin was so awash in waterfalls, swollen creeks and angry rivulets that a life preserver wouldn’t have been out of the question! I took off my shoes and socks and gingerly waded through the creek trying to keep my balance on the uncertain riverbed. I sat down on the far bank underneath some willows and clenched my eyes waiting for the needle pain to subside. Needless to say, that afternoon, I found a way around the glacial deluge. I went to work looking for a suitable, flat area. I found several, picked one and went to work setting up camp for the next few days.

“What the Hell? Why are my clothes all well?” I asked confusingly. I pulled everything out of my pack and smelled them. Shit. It all smelled like beer. And sure enough, I found the culprit. The business end of my camp stove had punctured my only can of beer. So not only did I NOT have anything to enjoy that night, but my pants, socks and underwear all smelled like an IPA. I was a bit peeved but chuckled at the situation. It seems my M.O. on overnight trips is to have something break or spill open. I’ve had to-go containers of spaghetti and a whole apple pie break open in the past in my pack. I laid everything out on the bushes in the sun to dry off then checked the time. It was 3:00pm. I still had almost five hours of remaining daylight left. Time for some peaks!

“You’ve got to be kidding me!” I said loudly to no one in particular and attracting the looks of some people. Ice Lake was full of ice (go figure). The upper basin was equally holding snow normally indicative of May. I was exasperated. I looked around and found an unclaimed rock away from the day-hikers, sat down and stared at all the snow. I was in Antarctica minus all the cute penguins. I tried to make light of the situation by thinking Father Winter had decided to vacation up here so he could hit Colorado again even harder next winter…it wasn’t working. I was planning on spending 3-4 days here, now what? I had no snow equipment with me. I was wearing my summer trail runners and shorts. My crampons broke from a previous climb earlier in the year and my buddy up in Silverplume had my axe. I did have a backup axe with me, just in case, but it was 25 years old (my first axe) and the tip is so worn and rounded, that it’s actually starting to split in two. I sat there feeling the doldrums gradually replace the chinooks in my sail. “Alright, Kiefer. Let’s see what else you can do up here safely,” I whispered to myself and so as not to come across as a complete asshole to the day-hikers who heard me from earlier. I reached into my backpack feeling for my book and notepad, nothing. I stared at the tundra for three seconds with an, ‘I am not amused look.’ I emptied and shook out everything onto the wet tundra like a salt shaker then rummaged through the ensuing yard sale feeling more annoyed, nothing. Not only did I not have the appropriate gear with me, but I had no information on the surrounding peaks. All I knew was that Pilot Knob and “Unconditional Surrender” Grant were ‘fun and challenging,’ to use Roach’s’ parlance. I’m not going to lie. I sat there in a veritable mountain paradise fighting back disappointment thinking how to fill three days of opportunity. I bowed my head slowly and began to feel guilty. The Scottish poet, Robert Burns (1786) said,

 “The best laid schemes of mice and men oft go awry. And leave Us nothing but grief and pain, for promised joy.” (Adapted) 

 

Had I really become that spoiled and shallow that, just because my plans fell through, I should regress to a petulant child unable to see what’s before him? It was sure feeling that way. If anything, I should have reveled in the fact that I had no information. Prior knowledge, books etc. emasculates adventure, to varying degrees. This is why I was so obsessed with the Snowmass-Capitol Traverse and Capitol Peaks East (Cleaver) Buttress. Creativity can thrive in the face of dilemma when we free it of its shackles. I recognized what I was doing and decided to sit there for a good 15-20 minutes to appreciate where I was. I watched the skies, marveled at the hues of blue and white in the lake ice and watched the tourists take selfies on their cell phones. I closed my eyes and felt the breeze blowing across the basin. I let myself become hostage to memory from my last trip and opened my eyes calmer, more relaxed and actually, more accepting. I noticed a trail heading off to the north. I had no idea where it went. I repacked and hopped across the swollen outlet stream like a skipped stone and followed it. It brought me to Island Lake and good views of either V5 or V2 (I couldn’t remember which). I lingered on the edge of a pink snowfield watching some marmots watch me. Pink snow or ‘Watermelon snow’ as it’s sometimes called, is interesting because the summertime only effect is created by a specific specie of green algae that happens to have a secondary ‘reddish’ pigment in addition to the normal green chlorophyll. The red pigment helps protect the chloroplasts (green) from breaking down under the intense UV light of alpine environments. It also helps in melting the ice crystals surrounding the algae providing water and nutrients; and unlike most algae, the species that causes this effect, C. nivalis, is cold loving and thrives in freezing temperatures. It’s always there in the snow (location dependent) but goes dormant in winter. I reversed course and headed back down to camp. I walked around a small, soggy patch of skunk cabbage that I plodded through earlier. So I was going to have an early day, no big deal. There’s worse places to be stuck in (I-70 west of Denver anyone?). At least now I would have the time to think of something else to do for the upcoming days, listen to the new Tool track that just dropped and talk the local mosquitoes out of needing a blood donation. I just hope my clothes were dry! 

Ice Lake Fisheye view Ice Lake- Fisheye view

The next morning, I got an alpine start and left at the ungodly hour of 6:00am. I swear, the older I get the harder it is to wake up early. Years ago while camping at Halfmoon Pass for a January summit of Holy Cross, I woke up at 5:00am in temperatures somewhere around 6°, happy and ready to go. My girlfriend, still wrapped in her sleeping bag, shot me a “What is wrong with you’ kind of look. Even the dog seemed to be saying, ‘Really, dude?’

The social trail that climbed to the saddle of Grant and V-something (It turned out to be V2) was surprisingly dry considering the snowfields present. I lingered at the saddle because the views were so incredible. I felt my spirits lift well above my low-point from the prior day. And really, wasn’t that the point anyway? Grant’s East Face looked menacing and inimical. I walked up the easy West Ridge of V2 and plopped down on the summit where I ended up sharing it with a curious marmot. I started to throw it a piece of teriyaki jerky, stopped and tilted my head back and laughed. I was reminded of the time when Sarah Thompson (Meiser) and I had just finished the Grand Traverse in the Gore Mountains above Vail, Colorado. We were sitting on the summit of Grand Traverse Peak having lunch when I decided to throw some tuna fish to a curious pika. I was getting frustrated that he wasn’t eating it. That’s when Sarah said,

“Ah, Kiefer, I don’t think pikas eat meat.” I turned and looked at her and we both shared a good laugh. So sitting there on V2 watching the nosey marmot, I thought, ‘when was the last time you saw a marmot dig into a rotting elk carcass?’ I started to laugh again. It felt great to be back at elevation. The crispness and thinness of the air has a way of raising ones spirits. The endless panoramas keep my tellurian feet grounded but still allows my mind to wander. Although, the brilliant sunshine of the morning would soon be displaced. The clouds were building vertically with fantastic speed and seemed to be whispering, “Get out!” like some evil phantom. Well, who was I to argue? I made haste back to camp, packed and hiked out under a light rain and heavy thunder. I had two wonderful days and one noisy night at Ice Lakes. Two porcupines wandered into my campsite around midnight and decided to have a quarrel next to my tent, like within a few feet of me. And this wasn’t the first time either. This has happened two prior times, both while camping up West Maroon Creek Valley. Time to hit up some beers in Silverton. I drove south on hwy. 550 towards Little Molas Lake urging my coffee to work quicker. I’ve been wanting to get up the Sultan and Grand Turk since I can remember. And I really have no idea why except that they were in the 13er club. I guess sometimes, all it takes is a cool name to instill interest; although, I have to admit, I was a bit let down by Iron Nipple. I’ve been stalking the 13ers for years like a ninja with A.D.D. but found it necessary to leave the mountains for a while. My love of the mountains was still there mind you, but the passion was gone. A sad but inevitable consequence of chasing lists I believe. This obsession caused me no end of doubt and confusion. So I decided to take a few years off from chasing summits and focused on something a bit more immediate and approachable, the wilderness. And I’m rather thankful that I did. Listening to my inner ‘John Muir’ for a few years, I believe made me more respectful and wiser of the wilderness (not just of the mountains). And as I walked through the broken alpine forest, dew-moistened vegetation and over the occasional rock rib, I knew I had made the right decision. It felt like I was looking at ‘my old home’ through a fresh set of eyes. The embers of my obsession had finally smoldered out. In fact, I think I actually enjoyed the green, narrow alpine valley underneath Turkshead Peak more than I did the ensuing summits. It felt concealed, clandestine.  

 

I’ve learned contingencies can sometimes BE the plan but oft come disguised as part of the journey, not the destination. And speaking plainly (and perhaps a bit metaphorically), the destination is just a conceptual place we aspire to reach anyway. It’s an end to justify the means. The real magic is in the journey and the wisdom that is wrought within us. These were the thoughts and conclusions that bounced around in my head as I walked through fields of penstemon and skunk cabbage (again with the skunk cabbage!). I finally breached Turkshead Pass and made a lazy turn west up a shallow, snow-filled gully towards West Turkshead Peak, the first objective of the day. The pinks and violets of the Moss Campion and Alpine Forget-me-nots were as vivid as butterfly wings from the newly exposed tundra. The Sultan and Grand Turk ended up being mellow tundra hikes which, was fine. Not as ‘exciting’ as Pilot Knob, but nevertheless, it provides for a great opportunity to let ones’ mind wander and wonder at the Parthenon of distant peaks and ridges. The crow’s eye view of Silverton from the summit of The Sultan was amazing. Far off and distant, the battlements of Pigeon Peak, Vestal and The Trinities rose from the serrated walls of the Needle Mountains. After 20 minutes, I figured it was time to go. I stuffed lunch back into my pack and descended the talus to a social trail where I lingered for a bit talking to some fellow hikers.

The insignificance of one person in relation to the cordillera of mountains and wilderness is no less marvelous than that same person is to a bumblebee harvesting pollen from a single thistle amongst thousands. Plans won’t always work out. Ideas and schemes will fail and expectations can often fall short. But when they do, rejoice in the spontaneous! Epiphanies can rise from dormant maxims, like a phoenix, but they’re only rewarded to us when we’re not looking for them. I’m content that after 30+ years of weathering hindsight and constant battles with complacency, I’m still able to find moments of clarity, instances where I can still see with youthful eyes and for what it’s worth, gratitude.

 

On the summit of The Sultan
On the summit of The Sultan
Ulysses S. Grant viewed from V2
Ulysses S. Grant viewed from V2

 

 

Giesecke Point- 5.2 (located on the ridge north of V 2)
Giesecke Point- 5.2 (located on the ridge north of V 2)
Alpine Columbine
Alpine Columbine
Point 13,309 (V 2) summit
Point 13,309 (V 2) summit


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