Sunshine and Redcloud Winter Ascent
Date: Saturday Mar 17, 2012
Time: 6:20am – 6:20pm
Stats: 10 miles, 5700 vertical
Crew: nkan02 (Natalie), awilbur77 (Adam), Yikes (Jim)
Gear: microspikes and snowshoes desirable; ice axe not required
Final weekend of winter approaches and I’m eager to get another summit in. Lurking the forum produces two possible trips. The more ambitious trip is Holy Cross, which with its roughly 30 miles quickly drops off the list of candidates. The second trip offering is Sunshine/Redcloud. I had hoped to grab these two several weeks ago, but that trip was cancelled due to some major storms in the San Juans which drove up the avalanche danger. Also, being only 10 miles RT, it had to be easy. Right?
Typically winter trip planning was in force, with the group growing to about ten or so, and then dropping to three the night before. What, isn’t anyone interested in the San Juans? Interest possibly dropped off when the CAIC increased the avalanche danger to Considerable due to unseasonably warm temperatures. Our beta indicated that the south facing slopes of Sunshine would likely be dry, so a forecast which covers a hundred mile distance may not be dependable. We would play it by ear and see what conditions had to offer.
The plan was to car camp on Friday night and head up early Saturday morning in the dark. Since I prefer not to waste time searching for the trail in the dark, I drove down early and hiked up 700’ vertical to assess the trail and capture some GPS tracks. As expected, the lower section of the trail was very dry, with minimal drifts. I drove back to Lake City for dinner, choosing at random one of the three “saloons”. Nothing fancy, but it beats a Cliff Bar. The Mill Creek campground had open outhouses which were stocked with TP and even had solar power lighting. The campground was snowed in, so I had to don the snowshoes for the trek. Natalie and Adam pulled up around 10pm, made our introductions and settled down for some good old back-of-the-car sleeping.
We headed out at the late hour of 6:20am. I’m used to the 4am -5am start required for tackling these peaks in the winter. But with the short RT mileage and the late sunset, we figured we could sleep in a bit. Since I had hiked the first ¾ mile the prior day, the first section went by quickly. The timing worked out that we reached the prior day’s high point right when we started to get some daylight. That helped us navigate the faint, not always obvious trail.
Adam and Natalie getting ready for the steep hill
From 10,100 to 10,900, the trail heads straight up the hillside. And by straight up, I mean straight up; no kindly switchbacks were offered.
Typical section on the steep hill
Across the valley
Eventually the trail cut across a large talus slope, headed through some aspen and then we had to deal with snow. At first the snow supported our weight, but we quickly started sinking thigh deep and had to don the snowshoes. Natalie had ditched her snowshoes around 10,200, so she had to suffer around treeline. After wallowing in deeper snow, we spotted a trench graciously left by some prior party. Without the trench, it would have been considerably more difficult reaching tree-line.
Deeper snow near tree line
I can’t imagine climbing that steep hillside in deep snow (yeah, I’m talking about you Gladbach). We eventually reached treeline and climbed up a large snow slope. The angle looked a little scary to me, but Natalie pulled out her handy-dandy slope meter and measured it well below 30 degrees. Also, the snow was very bulletproof and we didn’t experience any cracking or whompfing.
Snow slope above tree line
Adam taking a break in the flats
Natalie resting up for the ridge
Jim taking in the views
After reaching the “flats” above treeline, Adam started having issues with his knee. He quickly realized that the summit wasn’t possible in his condition and decided to head down. We discussed whether or not we should head down with him, but he told us to continue to the summit while he would slowly make his way down to the cars. Since we were immediately above the trench, I figured the risk of splitting up was somewhat reduced by having a clear direction down.
The ridge up to Sunshine was mostly windblown, with several patches of hard snow. We were hoping to cover as much ground as possible before the warm temperatures softened the snow. As it turned out, even with the warmer temperatures, the snow above treeline never softened up.
Start of the ridge proper
Typical ridge conditions
Natalie coming up the ridge
The Sunshine summit was reached around 12:10. We were able to text Adam to confirm he was okay, but we were unable to make any voice calls. That text to Adam was the last cell reception we had all day. Even text messages would not go through on Redcloud (I successfully made cell calls during a summer ascent). From the summit, we could see the long traverse over to Redcloud. It looks gentle due to its length, but it took a lot of energy to make the round trip.
Jim with a grimace
The traverse was very dry except for the area around the “notch”. We had to swim through deep snow for a short section. Other than that section, things went well. A false summit hid Redcloud for much of the traverse, and the view of the remaining distant was disheartening. One foot in front of the other, and with much grumbling, we eventually reached Redcloud around 2pm.
Natalie enjoying Redcloud summit
The winds really picked up on the way back. The conditions swung rapidly back and forth, between warm-and-calm to cold-and-gusty. We could see a storm approaching from the west, but it didn’t look like it would arrive any time soon.
On the traverse back to Sunshine, we were pretty tired and didn’t want to gain any unnecessary elevation. We spotted a likely traverse across Sunshine that would save us several hundred feet. The slope angle wasn’t too steep, but there were several snow slopes that dropped several thousand feet to the valley floor. We definitely took our time and cautiously crossed the traverse.
Traverse back to Sunshine
Natalie finishing the traverse
After reaching the main ridge, we quickly dropped down the mountain, collecting snowshoes and water bottles stashed lower down. The wind really picked up and threatened to knock us down. At the flats, we were able to see Adam’s snowshoe prints heading down the snow field. With some confidence that he was below us, we followed his prints down. We kept our eyes open for an ice axe that fell off Natalie’s pack, but were unable to locate it. When we reached the talus crossing, I put my snowshoes onto my pack for the rest of the day. The remainder of the hike consisted of very steep downhill on duff, with some muddy spots that challenged us to remain on our feet. We happily reached Natalie’s snowshoes around 10,200 and shortly later the trail started leveling off.
We saw signs of boot prints heading down the hill, but it wasn’t until we reached the road and saw that Adam’s car was gone that we were confident that he made it out safely. He sent a text message later that evening saying he had a small adventure getting down, but made it back to his car around 3pm. The drive from Lake City to Gunnison provided some excitement, with plenty of deer crossing the road around dusk. Another hour of easier driving to Salida, where I was rewarded with a hot shower and comfortable bed.
Sunshine/Redcloud from Mills Creek – harder than I was expecting. I figured the 9 miles would be much easier than the 14 miles I recently did for Greys/Torreys. But with the super steep hill climb and the extended time above 13000, it was definitely a challenge.
My GPS Tracks on Google Maps (made from a .GPX file upload):
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
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