Tuesday July 9, 2002
The 13552 ft Tower Mountain was another peak that I had noticed on the map and had decided to climb. I had not read anything about it anywhere but I had been able to identify it in one of the pictures that I had taken last year on Route 550 south of Silverton. In that picture, the west face of the mountain could be seen rising above Boulder Gulch. I originally wanted to climb Tower Mountain from Boulder Gulch but a few months ago, I had noticed the much shorter but steeper route via Hematite Gulch on the southeastern face. Yesterday, I had checked out this route from the summit of Canby Mountain 6.5 miles away. USGS maps show a trail that starts on Route 110 and goes up Hematite Gulch to a place near the summit of Tower Mountain 12500 ft high. During the last few days, I had noticed that a lot of these trails that the maps show do not really exist so I couldn't be sure that I would find a trail. The hike to the summit of Tower Mountain requires a 4000 ft vertical climb. This is more than any other peak that I had climbed during this trip. Today will be the 9th day in a row that I go mountain hiking. I was wondering if I was pushing myself to the limit.
Woke up at 6 a.m. in Silverton, Colorado (elevation 9318 ft). I got ready, then drove four miles west on Route 110, which follows the Animas River at the bottom of a valley, to near the ghost town of Howardsville. Just before reaching Howardsville (before the bridge over the Animas River), a small stream comes down the slopes on the left side of the road. I parked there (elevation 9650 ft). This area is the beginning of Hematite Gulch. From there, I could not see the summit of Tower Mountain. I could only see the narrow and steep gulch going roughly 2000 ft above. Growths of tall Pine and small Aspen trees were scattered around the gulch. The rest of the slopes were either grassy or rocky and bare. I had come to this spot yesterday and found a two-track that seemed to climb Hematite Gulch on the left side of the stream.
I began hiking up the two-track at 7:10. After only 4-5 minutes, the two-track dead-ended into the creek. There was no sign of a trail anywhere. That was very disappointing. I did not want to bushwhack my way 2000 ft up the gulch. My maps showed that the trail remained on the left side of the creek so I stayed on the left side and went up the slopes among the bushes for a short distance until I happened to reach a well-established trail. The trail made one switchback after another and quickly went up the slopes away from the creek. Most of the slopes were just grassy but sometimes I went through forests of Aspen trees that were no taller than 6-7 feet. I did not see any evidence of logging, avalanche, fire or anything else that might have killed the old trees. The fact that all the Aspen trees were so small was very puzzling. I was very happy that the trail was there. Without it, I could have never bushwhacked my way through the vegetation. I never saw anyone on the trail so I don't know who maintained it so well.
After going up in elevation 1000 ft or so, I reached a forest of mature pine trees. A deer saw me and quickly ran away. I told myself: where there is deer, there must also be bear. The trail went through the forest and then reached a meadow. I could see Hematite Gulch continuing another 1000 ft above. The trail seemed to go directly up a very steep grassy slope. As I looked closer, I noticed that the trail actually made an endless number of switchbacks as it went up the grassy slope below an impressive cliff. What at first I had believed to be the trail, was a gully 3 feet deep by 4-5 feet wide that went straight up the slope across the many floors of the switchbacks. As I continued up the trail, I kept having to cross the gully. This was not difficult but became a nuisance. I could look behind me across the valley of the Animas River to see the 13478 ft Canby Mountain that I had climbed yesterday gradually coming into view.
At around 11800 ft, I finally reached the top of Hematite Gulch. The switchbacks ended and I reached a relatively flat area above the timberline that was covered with grass and colorful flowers. The summit of Tower Mountain finally appeared. I continued on the grassy area until I reached a huge talus field. A horseshoe-shaped basin opened up in front of me. I was standing at the mouth of the horseshoe. The walls of the basin were made of scree slopes and occasional cliffs. These walls were no shorter than 13000 ft in elevation. To the left, the 13222 ft Macomber Peak formed one end of the horseshoe while the summit of Tower Mountain was directly in front of me at the far side of the horseshoe (the right end of the horseshoe was not named). The turquoise waters of small Hematite Lake could be seen at the bottom of the basin 50 ft below me. There was a cute little island near one of the shores of the lake. The lake was completely surrounded by higher ground. The stream that drained it must have just percolated through the talus field I was standing on to appear on the other side at the top of Hematite Gulch. I don't know much about geology but I liked to think that the basin used to house a huge glacier. I could see a continuous line of cliffs half way up the right wall of the basin. Maybe this line used to mark the surface of the glacier. That means the glacier must have been up to 1000 ft deep.
The trail crossed to the right side of the basin and went across a scree slope 100 ft above Hematite Lake to reach a grassy area. I was then at the bottom of the basin, beyond Hematite Lake, heading toward Tower Mountain. The trail faded away gradually. The slopes were not steep and I was hiking over beautiful and easy terrain where there was an overabundance of colorful flowers. As I reached the end of the basin, The slopes became steep and covered with scree. The grass went away but the flowers continued. There didn't seem to be much dirt under the scree but small plants that had very colorful flowers grew all over the place at a distance of 1-2 ft from each other. That was one of the strangest things I had ever seen: scree slopes covered with flowers! I had to be careful not to step on the flowers.
As I went higher, the flowers went away and the slopes became steeper. Going became slow and tedious. I took frequent rests and kept looking at my GPS altimeter only to see that I had gone up 20-30 ft. At times, I came across what looked like the remnants of an old trail. Each time I tried to follow the trail, it quickly disappeared. I noticed a long and narrow orange stripe that originated on the top of the slopes and stretched a good 600 ft or so down the wall of the basin. The slopes over the stripe were covered with orange colored gravel. The gravel was less slippery than the adjacent scree so I hiked over the stripe until I reached a little 13400 ft saddle at the base of the summit where the other side appeared. I was suddenly awe-stricken by the view of The Red Mountains on the other side. I had seen them before but today they looked like something out of this world. They glowed so brightly when the sun shined on them. With much joy and anticipation, I scrambled up the last 150 ft to reach the summit before 11 o'clock. I had the whole place to myself. I did not see a single person the whole time that I was on the mountain.
After a few minutes, my GPS went to show the elevation as 13550 ft. It showed both the distance that I had hiked and the distance from trailhead on a straight line as 2.0 miles That made no sense. All those switchbacks had surely increased my hiking distance (when I went back, the round-trip distance was shown as 4.6 miles).
To the northwest, the slopes of Tower Mountain went down very gently to form a high ridge that eventually connected to Storm Peak (13487 ft), Velocity Peak (13325 ft), Emery Peak (13310 ft) and Bonita Peak (13286 ft). I had seen these mountains from their other side. Storm and Velocity did not appear as steep and rocky as they did from their other side. Five miles to the northwest, The Red Mountains covered an area 2 miles wide. Their highest point is Red Mountain #3 (12890 ft) which we had climbed on July 1. The giant pyramid of Mt. Sneffels (14150 ft) and the other high 13ers around it, rose far above The Red Mountains 14 miles away.
To the west and northwest, all the 13ers on the west side of Route 550 north of Silverton could be seen. I could even see The Wilsons (highest point 14246 ft, 22 miles away) rising above Ophir Pass. South of Ophir Pass, the jagged peaks around Vermilion Peak (13894 ft) were visible.
To the southwest, the east end of the town of Silverton was only 4 miles away but 4230 ft below. The 13368 ft Sultan Mountain towered over Silverton. I could see Route 550 climbing the slopes of Sultan Mountain to reach Molas Pass (10900 ft), which was a big forested plateau, at the base of the West Needle Mountains.
The 13222 ft Macomber Peak, which only a couple of hours ago was looming far above me, was now below me to the south less than a mile away. A high ridge that formed part of the wall of Hematite Basin, connected it to where I was standing. Beyond Macomber Peak, the 13ers that form the Kendall Mountain Complex (highest point 13451 ft), were well visible. The tips of the jagged Grenadier Range (highest point 13864 ft) rose above the peaks of Kendall Mountain Complex.
The horseshoe-shaped Hematite Basin stretched below me to the southeast. The turquoise waters of Hematite Lake appeared as a circular piece of gem that sat at the mouth of the horseshoe 2000 ft below. Beyond Hematite Lake, Hematite Gulch dropped another 2000 ft down to the bottom of the valley of Animas River. Because the drop was so steep, I could not see the gulch from the summit. I could however, see the Cunningham Gulch Road, Stony Pass Road and the 13478 ft Canby Mountain. Immediately to the right of Canby but much farther away, was the 13821 ft Rio Grande Pyramid which looked like the shadow of Canby Mountain.
To the east and northeast, I could see Sunshine Peak (14001 ft), Niagara Peak (13807 ft), Jones Mountain (13860 ft), the tip of Uncompahgre (14309 ft) and Wetterhorn Peak (14015 ft).
A pile of rock marked the summit but I did not find a registry. It was partly cloudy and was very pleasant. Like I did on the last few days, I connected my CD player to the camcorder and played another one of Rossini's Overtures while I videotaped. This time I played Semiramide.
I left at 12:20. going down the scree slopes was very easy. I quickly reached the area where the flowers were. I sat in a few places to enjoy the views. In front of me across the valley of Animas River, I could see Canby Mountain and the peaks around it. The walls of the basin rose above me to the right, left and behind. Tiny Hematite Lake made an excellent background for the colorful flowers that grew around me. Butterflies were everywhere.
It became cloudy and I heard thunder a few times. I went by Hematite Lake and reached the switchbacks on top of the steep Hematite Gulch. A strong but very pleasant wind began to blow and a few drops of rain fell. I could hear my favorite mountain bird. I was filled with happiness and satisfaction. The sights, sounds and the smells of the mountains surrounded me. This turned out to be such a wonderful mountain. I thought of it as a grand finale for a very good and successful Colorado trip. I hiked 9 days in a row and except for Beattie Peak, I was able to reach the summit of the other 8 peaks that I had chosen.
As I went down the switchbacks, I reached an area of small Pine trees. These looked like cute little Christmas trees.
When I reached the area near the two-track, I decided to continue on the trail to find its origin on Route 110 but the trail disappeared so I went back to the two-track and reached my car around 3 o'clock. Only then did it rain a little.
I then drove to Cunningham Gulch Road to take a look at Hematite Gulch and Tower Mountain. I sat there for a while and then drove back to our hotel in Silverton. We ate at a restaurant and then sat at the hotel's backyard where I had good views of Kendall Mountain. I then went to Memorial Park for a walk. I could see the red summit of Ohio Peak (12673 ft). Macomber Peak (13222 ft), Galena Mountain (13278 ft), Kendall Mountain (13066 ft), Snowdon Peak (13077 ft), Bear Mountain (12987 ft) and Sultan Mountain (13368 ft) were also in good view.