Lizard Head lifts its ragged spire above surrounding ridges and valleys in southwestern Colorado, and is surrounded by 41,000 acre Lizard Head Wilderness Area. The Peak is 13,113 feet high (=3997 meters), and rises 350 feet (=107 meters) above the ridge below. They say that it is the most difficult summit to reach in Colorado. Many advised not to climb it because its rock is very rotten and loose.
"When you reach the base, take a picture and go home"
citation from the Guide to Colorado Mountains by Robert Ormes.
I was thinking about this summit for the past 6 months. I hiked around the area, and checked out the peak from all different directions. I picked mushrooms on the trail, I climbed the surrounding peaks, and finally I was brave enough to climb it.
I just needed to find a partner who would be willing to climb it with me. Chris
from Santa Fe send me an e-mail that he is interested in this peak, and will be coming up to southwestern Colorado the last weekend in September. So, our plans were made. And since we needed only one day to climb Lizard Head, we decided to warm up on some fourteener the day before El Diente Prelude
Two main trails approach Lizard Head. The first is Lizard Head trail (forest trail 550). From Telluride drive 16 miles southwest on Colorado 145 to the summit of Lizard Head Pass. The trailhead is right off the road, well marked.
An easier approach is via the Cross Mountain trail (forest trail 637). Drive past the Lizard Head trailhead, and watch for signs on the west side of the road for Cross Mountain trailhead, again well marked.
You don't need a high clearance or 4WD vehicle to reach either of these trails. We used Cross Mountain trail for our approach since it is shorter (only 3.5 miles). I hiked the Lizard Head trail in the past, and remember many mushrooms along the way, and a yummy mushroom dinner that night.
Cross Mountain Trail
We had a pretty late start, but the warm autumn sun was promising, and the weather was excellent. I took my son and Duchess for this hike, always trying to balance how to entertain all my family. I felt guilty to leave them at home.
We met a large herd of sheep right at the beginning of the trail, and Chris spotted a few smart goats leading the sheep. The trail was easy to follow, it slowly climbs up nearly 2700 feet. Below are some photos from our hike.
Telluride Rocks climbing guide by Damon Johnston and Charlie Fowler describes 4 different routes up Lizard Head - very brief descriptions, e.g. 1.5 lines. A Falcon Guide to Rock Climbing in Colorado describes only Southwest Chimney route, which I found out that pretty much everyone uses when climbing this spire (google search). So, since we had most information about this route, and it seemed not technically very difficult (rated 5.8), we decided to go up this way.
We climbed it in 3 pitches, and one long very loose scramble (which I don't count as a pitch).
It was easy to find the start of the climb. There was a little trail, and the rock features were easily identifiable with photos we had. I was first thinking to climb the crack, but it seems like everyone was climbing to the right of the crack, and I was hoping that it would have less loose rock (if everyone climbs there the route should be cleaned). Some people combine pitch 1 and 2 into one long pitch, but we decided to play it safe. I would like to mention that both anchors - pitch one and two were very obvious from the base of the climb, and were in a good condition.
1st pitch (see photo on the left where it is marked) was very, extremely loose. I felt very insecure climbing it, threw down many rocks, and many times was surprised when my handhold came loose. I placed some gear for protection, but was not sure if it would hold. At some point I was clinging to some big boulder, which could potentially fall on me and we could both (me and the boulder) fly down. Luckily, it held. And then, I reached a small plateau, and clipped safely to fixed anchors. This section of the climb was technically easy, rated only 5.6, but the insecure hand and foot holds of unstable rock made it feel much more difficult.
2nd pitch - was not very long, rock was much more solid, and had two fixed pitons en route. Chris lead this pitch, and he chose to follow the face route left of the crack. I was suggesting the off width crack/chimney system, but the fixed pitons were left of it. This pitch is rated as 5.8. It was definitively steeper, and technically more challenging. There were plenty of options to place gear + fixed pitons gave it more protected feel. Chris did not throw any rocks on me.
Loose scree scramble - was pretty long, we ran out of 60 meter rope. I went first, did not place any gear. The loose scree went over the edge of the tower, and basically slip in the scree would lead to a terminal outcome. There is a fixed anchor for people who want to belay on this section. I stayed on the rope, but since I was traversing, the fall would be very, very unpleasant (most likely not fatal).
Pitch 3 rated 5.8, passes a small roof. There is a fixed piton (see photo on your right). Piton was just placed into a crack which opens up downwards. It looked like that the piton may just slide out, but it was tight, and it held. # 4 camelot is really useful here, it fits above the piton into a wider crack. You can even walk it up this crack higher up. Once you stand above this section, the climb becomes much easier, feels more like 5.6. I don't remember whether Chris placed any more gear on this route, but again it is worth to carry # 4 Cam for this section.
Images from the 1st pitch
Images from the 2nd pitch
Images from the 3rd pitch
Summit and descent
Yes, we did it! I was finally standing on the top of Lizard Head.
Obviously, I would never be able to make it without Chris, who led more difficult parts of the climb.
Several observations from the top:
1. the summit log really ancient rusty metal, the paper log inside went many years back - not a real log, but people left there their beta information from their climbs and signed it on the other side of the beta papers. We recognized many names written on it, e.g Amy and Scott from Los Alamos.
2. the views were amazing!
3. and I was able to take a photo of the Lizard Head casting its shadow.
It was not hard to spot rappel anchors. There is a little bit of exposed downclimbing to the rappels. We tied our two 60 meter ropes together and descended via two long rappels.
I wished to take more photos of the evening sun shining on the spire of Lizard Head, but my memory card was full, and we were rushing down. Chris had a long drive to Santa Fe, and my son was waiting for me. So, just imagine, how beautiful it looked...
Chris arrived safely home (took him 6-7 hrs), and we (my son and me) stopped in Telluride for dinner. I did have a glass of wine, and enjoyed having teenage driver to take me home.
My initial impression was - never to climb this crumbly peak again, but now I feel like a woman who had a baby and forgotten all labor pains - I am thinking, I need to go back, and try to go via the crack. We will see...