When consulted concerning Tabeguache Peak, most guide books contain the warning to not descend McCoy Gulch due to dangerous cliffs and other dangerous natural features. This trip report describes an ascent of the ridge (deemed Zeus' Ridge for reasons you'll see later) just to the west of McCoy Gulch/Creek .
The trip began with myself and two other friends by leaving Loveland, CO at 0500. We arrived in Poncha Springs somewhere around 0815 and had decided, since the plan was to bag Tabeguache and Shavano in a nice and easy short trip, we would see if another trailhead offered a shorter route. In Gerry Roach's Colorado 14'er book, there was one trailhead that was a few miles shorter than the standard Blank Gulch route: Jennings Creek. I had read a few notes about this trailhead regarding its current status from SummitPost and confirmed these warnings in Roach's guide. The warnings stated that the U.S. Forest service strongly discouraged anyone from hiking in this closed area due to dangerous conditions created by severe erosion along the trail. We treated this warning as a small precaution statement and decided to go for it since it may be a significantly shorter trip.
From U.S. 50 we turned North on Chaffee County Road 240 and continued beyond the Angel of Shavano campground/trailhead to try and locate this so-called "closed" trailhead. This sign foretold what was to come
Little did we know that this part of the sign wasn't lying when it said the trail was "OBLITERATED!". We continued along this rocky dirt road in the sarcastically rigid Saturn which was our transportation. Following Roach's mileage indications we thought we were in the vicinity of the closed trailhead (7.6 miles from the CR-240 turnoff). The 'weather clock' kept ticking and we knew we need to be on the mountain very soon if any weather was to be avoided. Large rocks scraping the bottom of the car became more and more frequent so the decision was made, after studying the topography of the area from the map in the 14'er book, to backtrack and take our chances that a small area that looked like it once resembled a trailhead was the old Jennings Creek TH.
Gear on, ready to go, we commenced hiking at around 0900. What we thought was a trail soon disappeared as the gentle slope on which the hike began turned into a steep hillside scattered with trees/loose rock/and the occasional Class 3 scrambling on rocks at the top of the ridge. Oh yeah, there were lots of ants too. So, the trek continued and the general attitude that we were on the old Jennings Creek Trail only persisted for a few more minutes. It turned out that the three of us were actually on the edge of McCoy Gulch. This brought more confusion because we could not tell our location relative to an aerial photo in "the 14'er" book. Confusion brought difficulty in discerning which tall peak, out of about 3 looming above, was Tabeguache. The only real logical option that presented itself was to continue along this ridge to treeline and connect up to the main S.W. ridge of Tabeguache.
Arriving above treeline and topping out on the ridge SW of the summit of Tabeguache at 13,150' we checked the weather to the north where it looked like the most storm/cloud convection was taking place.
Good skies at 1120
At the moment only one relatively small cloud had passed the summit of Shavano and continued down into the valley and yielded precipitation. Nothing to be too concerned with so we pushed on up the ridge.
Within about 45 minutes things were not looking so good. It was becoming time to decide who would win, us or the mountain. Determined to bag at least one summit and already at 13,500' nothing was going to stop us.
Bad skies at 1235 with Tabeguache east summit in back
200 vertical feet later at 1235 and 13,700' this is what it looked like. The exponentially growing intensity of thunder made it clear that this mountain did not want us to gain the summit. With clear skies to the west and the storm to our east, the situation wasn't too dire......yet. About halfway across the South ridge another dark cloud, this time to the NW, complete with lighting and all was on a direct intercept course with our position. Within a matter of minutes it was on us and with nowhere to go for shelter, down was the only option. Even though we specifically knew that descending into McCoy Gulch was a really bad idea, it was the only thing that would bring us safety. Making the straight descent of the wet talus that was loosely strewn over the south slopes while being chased by lightning brought new meaning to fear. One of my partners, Adam, glanced back up to the ridge only about 200 ft. away and saw numerous ground strikes nearing us accompanied by instant cracks and sizzles of the air. This was getting bad. The pea sized hail almost went unnoticed compared to the extreme blows of lightning. McCoy Creek was reached at about 12,360' and, still running, our only focus was to make it into the trees about 500' vertical below.
After reaching some trees that provided a significant height shelter we elected to take refuge there and wait until the electric storm passed. It showed no signs of clearing for about 15 minutes but then the clouds turned from the infamous dark blue/gray to a lighter gray and that signified it was time to keep going before another round hit us. Using the small wrist GPS unit that I had on, we continued to traverse along the contour lines losing a bit of elevation here and there so that we could meet up with our original route up. It was important that we not descend any further into the gulch because of the cliffs which reside near the middle to lower portion of the valley.
Thankful that the storm had stopped we were able to make it back through the thick forest successfully to our original path. The break in the fearfulness was shattered by an abruptly close lightning strike once again. Another storm has begun its passage over us. Ironically we were positioned yet again on top of a ridge, lower this time, but still vulnerable to lightning. It was time to take shelter. During our time sitting there it became apparent that the only true safe place was to get the hell off the mountain and back into the valley where we parked the car. The area was still being pulverized by countless strikes as we literally slid down the steep muddy/rocky/treefallen slopes between McCoy Creek and Jennings Creek. Finally at 10,340' I hear a triumphant shriek from Nick who had emerged onto the road!! We made it.
Leaving behind only torn shreds of ponchos, we ran that joyous last mile to where the Saturn was parked and made it there by 1530.
Once safely on the road, the idea of a nice warm meal to allay the cold produced by the wetness seemed very nice. If you are ever in Buena Vista looking for a down-to-home style place to eat with good food, Jan's Family Restaurant and Lounge is where to go. I had the Roast Turkey dinner and it was great!
What was planned to be a nice and easy Class 2 walk-up turned into a Class 3 bushwhack topped off with an angry Zeus-like lightning storm of reckoning that holds up to this quote by Gerry Roach:
"Colorado is famous for apocalyptic lightning storms that threaten not just your life, but your soul as well".
There is no doubt that our souls were definitely threatened on that 24th day of July 2006.