I've been wanting to do this traverse for a while now but was having trouble figuring out the logistics of it. As luck would have it a friend of mine Tim, "The Deuce" (completed the Colorado trail twice, once in each direction!) had adopted the segment of the colorado trail to the west of San Luis pass this year. He had plans to camp out at the West Willow Creek trailhead to the south of the pass on the 15th and do some trail cleanup on the 16th. I took advantage of Tim's good company (and his ride) to make my trip a reality.
Tim dropped me of at the Cebolla trailhead (11,500 ft) north of Stewart at 9:00 am on the 15th of June. There wasnt a cloud in the sky as i started off through the few remaining trees on the pack trail first heading west then south west to timberline, where a vast sea of willows climbs the north slopes of Baldy Chato. The trail, quite clear to this point, disappeared as it entered the willows, but some wonderful soul had placed large wooden posts every few hundred yards in the willows. With almost no effort one can easily work their way through the willows heading toward the next post.
As i began to climb out of the willows at about 12,500 ft i turned due south and began to ascend Baldy Chato. Amazing views of Uncompagre and Wetterhorn rose to the north west as i began to get higher than most everything around me. After a steep stomp i summited Baldy Chato and took in my first view of Stewart, a mile and a half away. The mountains here are amazing. The north east and south sides are rolling tundra and flowers, while the west sides drop off abruptly into gnarly pits filled with rotten spires. I chose my line across the tundra so as to not loose more elevation than the lowest point of the saddle between the two peaks and started off for Stewart.
The traverse to Stewart went quickly, as it was no more difficult than walking across uneven tundra. While theres no trail here, one can see forever and choose a nice easy line to their destination. And so it was that at about 11:00 i summited Stewart, snapped some pictures, texted my wife and Tim to let them know where i was, and started back down the west ridge. The weather was beautiful, albeit windy (go figure, the mountains and all). From 13550 feet to the west of Stewart i took in the view and began to understand the endeavor i had undertaken. San Luis is a long way away!
The route to Baldy Alto that i had read about suggested sticking to the ridge and following it all the way to the saddle, but from my vantage point on Stewarts shoulder it appeared i could do a descending traverse just under a cliff face and come out on the same level as the 13,100 ft saddle just north of Alto. I descended steeply at first then contoured across some large talus to the grassy saddle at the top of Nutras creek where i discovered i wasnt alone. A large elk stood at the saddle staring me down. He let me snap a few pictures of him as i approached then took off steeply down the hill west of the saddle. On looking back up at the ridge route i had just avoided i breathed a sigh of relief. From down here the ridge appeared loose and unpleasent at best. I love it when call becomes a good call!
I ate an apple at the saddle and began the tough climb to Baldy Alto's summit some 600+ feet above me. The going was slow because the north face is steep and my initial adrenaline fueled excitement had worn off leaving me huffing. Finally i topped out on Alto and took in the view of Rio Grande Pyramid off to the south west. Clouds were beginning to puff up but didnt seem overly threatening. It was now 12:00 and San Luis still didnt seem much closer.
I quickly began my descent of the south ridge of Alto only to find the going steep, loose and rotten. I stuck as close to the actual ridge as i could or just to the east of it. There seemed to be an easier grassier way down to the south east, but after a point it appeared to cliff out. After tediously comming down the ridge point i was able to see the rest of the way to the saddle and after a few slippy slides on gravel i found myself once again on tundra staring up at the long ridge to San Luis.
Im not gonna lie, i was hurting at this point, but there really was no turning back now! I ascended and descended two 100 ft ridge bumps which only served to add insult to injury at this point, and came face to face with a long steep ridge which seemed to climb vertically to the upper ridgepoints of San Luis. As i sucked it up and approached the ridge i noticed a discoloring in the rock on the west side of the montain. An elk trail! I began to follow the trail which took a much more leisurly approach up the face of the hill instead of tackling the ridge straight on. In no time i was up the hill and wouldnt you know it, the elk trail joined the Stewart Creek trail at the top, just before the final summit push. I cant tell you how nice it was to be on a trail!
The summit came upon me abruptly as i couldnt believe there wasnt another false one. I took some time to eat a sandwich and gaze upon the long road i had come. The view back to Stewart was sobering. I dont know if its the altitude or just the feeling of accomplishment on a summit but the emotions are always high. After a quick text to the wife, and Tim, i started down the south ridge of San Luis heading for the Colorado trail at 1:45.
While absolutely breathtaking, the rest of the trip was laid back. Once on the Colorado trail the hiking became almost effortless as i meandered from valley to valley on my way to San Luis pass. If youve never been on the trail in this area it truly is paradise. Miles and miles of untouched tundra above timberline, surrounded by countless peaks, points, ridges, and cliffs. Below you are dense forests, and headwaters to the multitude of creeks and rivers that begin in this wonderful place. As i approached the pass i glanced back at San Luis Peak and was awestruck. The mountain looks like a beast from this vantage. Glad i was comming down on this side!
I descended to the pass with renewed vigor where i met Tim who had come up to see if he could meet me, and also check out how bad the willows were on his section of trail. We joyfully headed back down to the trailhead where we set up camp, ate and crashed. It was a good day!
The next day we spent trimming willows, cutting out treefall on the trail, and taking in more of the amazing sites on the Colorado trail west of the pass. Total 2 day trip figures out to 22 miles and over 8000 feet of elevation. While there are some hairy areas on this route, i would say nothing was above a difficult class 2, and routefinding is a breeze as one can see forever up here. Happy trails!!
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):