IntroductionBrad's Mountaineering Homepage
Mount Shavano (14,229 ft.) / Tabeguache Peak (14,155 ft.)
Class 2 Snow
Distance: abt. 11 miles round-trip
Elevation Gain: abt. 5,200 feet
“It had not rained all summer and it was driving the Indians from the land. The Indian Princess came to pray at the foot of the mountain for rain to end the drought.
Mount Shavano and the Angel
“The Indian God of Plenty beckoned and the principle sacrificed herself so that her people could live. Each year, thereafter, the Princess - The Angel of Shavano - reappears and weeps once more for her people. Her tears - the melting snow - fall on the land below and make it fertile.”
This trip report requires a lengthy introduction, because it was two years in the making. David Green was finishing up his twenty years in the Navy, and after reading the book Into Thin Air
he was excited about the prospects of one day climbing a mountain. Unfortunately, this Texas native was living in Pace, Florida at the time, about the worst place to live as far as mountaineering is concerned. Athletic and adventurous, David was into snorkeling, spelunking, hiking, and hunting, but his elusive dream was to someday climb a mountain.
About two years ago, I received an e-mail from David. He had seen my web site, and was thinking about moving to Colorado after his retirement. Maybe one day he could join me in climbing a fourteener.
Last week, David showed up in The Centennial State, and we met up to make those preliminary plans a reality. David rented some gear from REI, drove all over the state, and even scrambled to the summit of Castle Rock one windy afternoon.
However, despite all the anticipation and planning, our trip almost did not happen. I only have weekends off work, and by Thursday all the mountain ranges of Colorado were socked in by a huge snowstorm. By Friday evening, the avalanche forecast was dangerously high in every aspect of the northern, central, and southern mountains.
Because of all the fresh snow and quickly rising temperatures throughout Colorado, the wet and heavy snow was volatile and prone to slide. Even if we could avoid the danger of avalanches, all the fresh snow would surely guarantee a long slog to the summit of any mountain, especially a fourteener.
Mount Ouray and Chipeta Mountain, near sunset
Saturday, the eighth of April, found us on the road. We figured we had a better chance to summit something, and do so safely, if we scouted out our options on Saturday before committing to the climb. My jeep was packed to the brim with hiking, climbing, cooking and camping gear, not to mention plenty of food, water, and clothes. Whatever we did, wherever we went, at least we were going prepared.
Our hope was to gain reasonable access to Mount Shavano. After reading trip reports of it being mostly dry in that area throughout the winter, I knew of no better place to go. However, with the bleak picture painted by the avalanche forecast, and the warming temperatures, I was not too confident in our prospects of finding an avalanche-safe route.
However, all doubts began to disappear as we crested Trout Creek Pass. The stately Mount Princeton was in full view, and the web cam picture we had viewed of the mountain the night before had not lied: the snow was not very deep. In fact, there was not any snow until around 10,000 feet, and the ridges appeared to be mostly bare.
We stopped at the scenic overlook short of Buena Vista, and marveled again at the views of all the surrounding peaks. We still did not have a great view of Mount Shavano, but I was gaining optimism with the lack of snow on nearby mountains.
On the drive south along 285, Mount Shavano revealed itself, and I was ecstatic. I could see the Mount Shavano Trail from the highway, because the surrounding slopes were so devoid of snow. There was no avalanche danger whatsoever, and better yet, the dirt road we turned onto was bone dry. In fact, as we stepped out of the car to take some pictures of the mountains, we were surprised at how hot the air was. The breeze there was actually warm, with air temperatures probably near seventy degrees!
My initial fears of avalanche danger were erased, and before long my qualms about trailhead accessibility were taken away as well. By around lunch time, we found ourselves at 9,800 feet, at the Blank Gulch Trailhead. Two other cars were there, with no occupants. We also were glad to find a small bathroom, until we realized it was locked.
We proceeded to drive around, exploring some of the nearby jeep trails. We got turned around a couple times by solidified snow drifts, but otherwise the trails were great and the air was warm. I have to admit, after being swamped by work and school in recent weeks, it felt great to go get some mud on the Cherokee again.
With plenty of time to spare, and wanting to make sure we were on track in the morning, I decided we should take a short walk along the beginning of our expected route. We hiked the Colorado Trail the quarter mile to the turn-off of the Mount Shavano Trail, and it would surely be easy enough to find in the dark. Still, the trail was mostly devoid of snow, and I was in awe. After seeing the web cam at Monarch Pass (just down the road), I figured this area would be socked in with a foot or so of fresh snow, and here there was no fresh snow!
On the way back, we stopped to visit the foundation of the original Blank Gulch Cabin, which now hosts a clump of aspens as its only residents. Just over from the cabin sits a stone memorial with a plaque, and all of this is in a pleasant wooded area saturated with sign of deer, elk, and bear.
Shortly after returning to the trailhead, a group of four skiers and snowboarders, plus a dog, arrived. They were the owners of the two vehicles, and they had just ascended the Angel of Shavano. I inquired about snow conditions, and they assured me the snow was still solid, though not the best for skiing. The dog, of course, had had a blast.
Once they were gone, we did not see anyone the rest of the day, except for a total of two or three trucks that drove through the area on the dirt roads. Our next task was to find a good camp site, and finalize our plans for Sunday.
The Camp & the Cook
As we drove around looking for a good spot, we came across a small herd of half a dozen mule deer and snapped some pictures of them before they wandered off into the woods.
Our main consideration for a good camp site was no wind. It was breezy pretty much everywhere, but we finally settled on a spot around 9,600 feet, just down from the trailhead. We were right next to a dirt road, and a small creek flowed by us. Just up from camp, there was a small meadow with a watering hole and tracks of game animals all over the place. Here there was also a fantastic view of the mountain we were about to climb, as well as Jones Peak.
After setting up our tents, we got all our gear assembled and our packs ready for tomorrow. Then we drove back up the road to a scenic overlook beyond the trailhead, where we could see Mount Ouray and Chipeta Mountain, the sentinels to the south. The sun was just setting on these magnificent peaks, and we took the opportunity to take some more pictures of God’s creation.
We returned to camp as darkness set in. We got the small stove going, as well as a nice campfire. David got out all the ingredients for his chili recipe, only to realize we had forgotten something after all: a can-opener. Something so simple proved incredibly hard to replicate, but it was a necessity if we were to eat some long-awaited chili. We had four cans of beans and tomato sauce to open, and the next fifteen minutes or so were dedicated to that simple task.
MacGyver would have been proud, though our process was not exactly the cleanest of methods. By using a rock, tire iron, and knife, we were able to access the contents of the cans, but in the end we got mud and tomato sauce all over the place. Come on out bears, here’s your food! In the end, it was worth it. The chili was awesome, and I went to sleep with a full stomach. Now to get climbing...
David makes his way up the Mount Shavano Trail
We enjoyed a calm night, illuminated by a three-quarter moon. A solitary gust of wind startled me awake at 5:30, ten minutes later than when my alarm should have woken me. David was comfortable in his zero degree bag, but he had slept no more than an hour, probably due in part to the anticipation and the altitude. It was chilly outside, somewhere around twenty degrees, which motivated us to tear down camp quickly. Still, it was not until seven o’clock that we had all our gear ready and we started walking from the Blank Gulch Trailhead.
The sun was already filtering through the trees as we walked the quarter mile along the Colorado Trail to the true beginning of our ascent.
We turned west and began uphill on the Mount Shavano Trail, all the while enjoying the fresh air. It was a pleasant stroll up this snow-free section of woods. We stopped occasionally to catch our breaths and watch the squirrels running about. However, this pleasant walking would be short-lived.
Our original plan was to ascend the standard Mount Shavano Trail all the way to the summit. I had never even considered the Angel until talking to the skiers the previous day. Since that group had already broken trail for us, it only made sense to follow their tracks and check out the conditions of the Angel for ourselves. Besides, David was eager to use some of the gear he had rented.
Unfortunately, our trek to timberline was not exactly a piece of cake. At first, we followed the footprints through the snow with ease, but the quickly warming snow soon softened, and we found ourselves sinking to our knees.
We took a break to don our gaiters and snowshoes, then continued following the ski tracks toward tree line. We kept postholing off and on, in spite of our snowshoes. At one steeper section, the postholing became especially miserable, and our pace slowed some more.
At last, we made it to an opening without trees. Above us, cliffs leading up to Esprit Point dominated the landscape. The view began to open up, and the snow conditions improved dramatically. We were now approaching the main climb!
Thick evergreen forest remained to our right, but we avoided this completely and walked instead up the sun-baked, glacier-like snow leading to the base of the Angel. The sun was incredibly bright and the temperatures remained warm, but I had been previewing snow conditions and I was confident the Angel was safe.
At 11,800 feet, we took a long break to eat some energy food, slather on some more sunscreen, and discuss final plans.
At 11 o’clock, ice axes in hand, we started up the Angel of Shavano. Gerry Roach states this climb does not exceed 30 degrees, but I found that hard to believe. It was a shallow slope for a while, but it did not stay that way.
As a safety precaution, I went first and put a good bit of distance between David and myself. He was in sight but out of ear-shot below me, so during the snow climb we stayed in contact by using hand signals. Ascending the Angel was the most fun I have had in the mountains in a long time. The snow was great, the weather was perfect, and the scenery was breath-taking the whole time.
After cresting the steepest part of the slope, I came to the head of the Angel, at 13,000 feet. The “wings” of snow spread off to either side, and I stopped to admire the view and wait for David to catch up.
The altitude was already taking a toll on David at 12,000 feet. By the time he joined me at the head of the Angel, he was exhausted. Still, I assured him we were past the hard part. Unfortunately, time was disappearing quickly. David no longer had aspirations of reaching more than one summit, but I wanted to get to as many places as possible, as my time in Colorado is waning. I asked David if he minded me going ahead to tag Tabeguache Peak before meeting him on Mount Shavano’s summit, and he had no problem with that.
Below, another climber was approaching. As I left David, I could see that climber catching up with him. From then on, they worked their way to the summit of Mount Shavano together. I pushed onward, looking back often to ensure David was doing well. He had slowed down considerably, but he was still pressing forward.
Some of David’s Thoughts:-I am accomplishing one of my dreams.
-This is the hardest thing I have ever done.
-Whose idea was this anyway.
-I will never make it to the top.
-I think that was actually the “Angel of Death”
Tabeguache Peak, from Mount Shavano
I was feeling great on this day, and I soaked up the whole trip to the summit of Mount Shavano. The final summit climb was surprisingly steep, but mostly snow-free. I was bolstered onward from the Esprit-Shavano saddle by increasingly amazing views to the west.
The terrain flattened out just before the summit, where I found the 14,229-foot high-point to be obvious. Arriving at 3:15, I stopped only a couple minutes and stocked up on what I would need to take with me. I had tied up my snowshoes at the saddle, and now I left my whole pack next to the summit of Mount Shavano. The pack weighed about forty pounds, and it was a burden I was glad to be rid of.
As I speedily descended the long west ridge of Mount Shavano, I pondered my ascent route of Tabeguache Peak. Unlike its loftier neighbor, Tabeguache was covered in snow, and it was a little intimidating, especially as I started to succumb to the elevation.
Looking back at Mount Shavano
After reaching the Shavano-Tabeguache saddle, I took a quick break and then started up the eastern slopes of Tabeguache Peak. I had definitely slowed down a little, and the deep snow was not helping. I picked my way between spotted sections of talus, trying to avoid the deeper snow as best I could. At one point I had a rather airy and exciting climb up the crest of a spine of hardened snow. I was surprised at some of the drop-offs to the west.
I am sure there is a trail to this summit in the summer, but I found myself completing a fun scramble over snow and talus to reach the mountain’s highest point. My summit time was 4:10, a tough 55 minutes from when I had first stood atop Mount Shavano.
The view from Tabeguache Peak was a memorable one. I stopped to snap numerous photographs, but I knew I did not have long to stay. I started back down the northeast slopes of Tabeguache seven minutes after arriving at the summit. Finding patches of steeper, hardened snow, and aided by my ice axe, I enjoyed some speedy glissades. Before I knew it, I was back at the saddle.
Summit of Tabeguache Peak
Suddenly, it hit me. I had been enjoying this day to the max, and to this point the altitude had been no problem for me. As I started back up the long ridge to Shavano’s summit, however, I found myself ill. I did not want to move forward, and I felt a strong urge to throw up. Previously I was going my own way, pressing onward wherever I pleased. Now, every footstep was a struggle. My mind went back to all those times I felt the altitude before, the difficulty breathing and the light-headed feeling that would not go away. Now I was feeling for David, and I realized how much he had been pushing himself on this climb, almost from the start. I prayed he could make it to the summit.
My progress was suddenly slow. I took a few steps at a time, knowing that the hiking I was doing was not difficult, but that my body was having trouble handling it anyway. Finally, at 5:25, I rounded a boulder and was overwhelmed with relief to find my backpack lying there. I slumped down beside it and caught me breath, then chugged some water. The sick feeling would not go away.
Summit! David on Mount Shavano
But then, I forgot all about my pains when I heard a close voice. I looked, and twenty feet away, the other climber was stepping up to the summit block of Mount Shavano. A few steps behind him was David, obviously worn out–but on the summit! I was elated he had made it, fulfilling one of his dreams! I could tell he was not enjoying the moment as much as he would have hoped. His body just did not like the altitude. But the important thing was, he had made it!
I congratulated him and shook his hand, then we took some pictures of each other on the summit. The other climber, Brock, had pushed David beyond what David himself thought he could do. I videotaped David and he said a few words, recording the moment as best we could. Unfortunately, time was ticking, and now daylight was becoming an issue. We scarfed down some more energy food and water, signed the summit log, and after a ten minute stay at the summit, began our descent.
David’s Thoughts At the Summit-I feel like I just ran a marathon.
-This is incredible, check out the view, I can’t breathe.
-This is the most incredible and the most painful thing I have ever done at the same time.
-God’s creation is awesome.
Descending the talus below the summit was tedious, but everything leveled out as we got closer to the saddle. The sun was getting low to the horizon, and the Angel had already been in the dark for quite some time by now. I was a little concerned about Brock, because he did not have an ice axe, but it turns out the glissade was not as dangerous as I expected. We took turns sliding down the Angel, and though conditions were not the best for that sort of thing, it was still a fun and speedy descent.
That was the end of that. Below the Angel, “fun and speedy” turned into “miserable and slow.” We put our snowshoes on as we headed back into the forest, but the minimal amount of postholing we all remembered would turn out to be more than any of us expected. Turns out, the warm temperatures below 11,000 feet had softened the snow considerably. What snow we had walked on top of this morning, was now a postholing nightmare.
We entered the woods just before eight o’clock, and with headlamps on, we trudged through this mess of soft snow for about two hours. The snow was wet and heavy, making the workout all the more difficult and annoying. We had guessed we could make it from timberline in an hour and a half, but it ended up taking more than three hours.
When we finally made it past the deep snow, we still made slow progress the rest of the way out the trail. My legs could not help but move fast, and often times I would quickly get ahead of the others. The past three weeks had culminated into some of the most tiring, sleep-deprived weeks of my life, and more than once I had questioned my sanity on completing this trip. Every time I would get a little ahead of David and Brock, I would lay down on the ground and zone out. I don’t know if I was completely asleep at any point, but it would not surprise me if I was. Above me, the bright moon drew me in like a lighthouse that would never get any closer. I was famished and tired, but I knew we were almost there.
David’s Closing Thoughts
David Glissades the Angel
Coming from Florida I was not acclimated yet to the altitude or the long hike. The glissading was cool and cut some nice time off of the decent. I learned how to do a self arrest with the ice axe. Then we reached the timberline and I thought we would never quit postholing on the way down. Coming from Florida all I wanted to see was some snow. After postholing for almost two hours I never wanted to see snow again.
It was great to finally see the jeep at 11pm, sixteen hours after we started. Thanks to Brad and Brock, one of my goals has been accomplished. During the climb, I was thinking “It was awesome but I never want to do this again” Today, I am thinking “Maybe next Saturday”. This trip has been great and a perfect end to a 20 year military career. It will be a story to tell in years to come....