| Gladstone - North Ridge Direct
It's a long scramble to the summit.
Gladstone Peak is 13,913', making it a whopping 87' shy of receiving exponentially more attention. It is the 67th highest named peak in Colorado and sits just outside Telluride, meaning it requires a long drive to even get started. It is loose, difficult, and surrounded by three 14ers, including Wilson Peak (the face of the Coors can) and one of the four Great Traverses (between Mt. Wilson and El Diente). If you are there to climb Gladstone, it is because you made it a specific target...
Standing as the proud rhinoceros-like vanguard at the east end of Navajo Basin, Gladstone was the first peak I took in when I first visited the Wilsons for the basin's 14er trifecta. Even then, Gladstone was by far the most aesthetic of the group, although it was a puny 13er. I blanched, fully incredulous, when I saw someone in the midst of rain, hail, and snow make for Gladstone's north ridge during that first visit. The soloist's partner had opted not to join him, casually citing as cause the tremendously loose, tippy rock that persisted on the ridge (not the weather). Numerous trip reports reiterated this theme: loose, tippy, dangerous. Even the ones that did not explicitly discuss the unreliable footing--i.e., the snow climbs--emphasized snow as a means to ease passage to the summit. Combine that caveat with Gladstone's distance from Denver, and it remained hovering lower on the to-climb list than it deserved.
The time came in June 2012. Nolan and I had settled on a swing through the San Juans to explore some new peaks that appealed to us. Our itinerary called for a visit to Pigeon and Turret before capping our trip with Gladstone. Fires forced a change of plans, and after P&T we fled the smoke-choked air and returned to Denver. Gladstone would wait.
***To the firefighters, volunteers, coordinators, paramedics, and emergency personnel, thank you and stay safe. Your work is beyond compare.***
Fast forward to June 2013. For all the obvious reasons, as well as our own selfish ones, we hoped for no fires. Fortune was not with Colorado. Following a slow winter and continuing drought, fires again ignited the land. Smoke from the fires covered much of the Front Range, Sangres, lower Sawatch, and eastern San Juans. Largely spared, however, were the western San Juans. Gladstone sped up the list.
Our concerns about Gladstone's loose rock remained. From the route info and reports, we distilled one common truth: the rock on the ridge's flanks was terrible, considerably more so on the western flanks. The ridge, however, appeared to offer steadier rock (context!) with a trade-off of higher difficulty in climbing. Our choice was easy: give us a solid ridge scramble over boulder-dodging any day. We would attempt to run the ridge and adapt on the fly. This promised to go smoothly.
Looking up, this is what happens if you don't stay on the ridge.
Bill's trailhead description here is very good. The one thing I would add is that a mile after turning onto FR 645, you come across a creek crossing (Bear Creek; we saw no bears). If you have a high clearance 4WD, you can continue through this crossing to the Rock of Ages (ROA) Trailhead (TH), which is 1.25 miles up the road. The crossing is deeper than it looks, particularly in early season and late afternoon. If in doubt, park. The hike is gentle and will go fast, and there is parking for a few cars before the crossing so long as nobody's a jerk. The road is passable for any vehicle to this point. 2WD cars face a bumpy ride for the 2.2 miles from the soft right until the turn onto FR 645, but nothing show-stopping. Once you turn onto FR 645, the road is practically smooth until the creek crossing.
The road in/out.
Do not follow Roach's driving directions. They predate the use agreement and will lead you directly into private property. They are fine until the right-turnoff for FR 645 (at which point, Roach suggests you continue straight).
The trail to the ROA saddle could not be more well-marked; signs abound. One note, however: Bill's mileage on this is juuuust a bit off. Currently it is listed at 3.7 miles roundtrip. It is more like 4.3 miles from the ROA TH to the ROA saddle. One way. There is no real opportunity to re-up on water, either.
The ROA saddle. Still a ways away.
We encountered several snow crossings before the ROA saddle that would have proved tricky in the morning without an axe, although it could be done if you were either careful or willing to climb a little out of your way.
Sunrise over Wilson Peak.
From the ROA Saddle.
Once at the saddle, take in Gladstone's north ridge.
Gladstone reveals herself (from ROA saddle). Looks like a jurassic stingray from here.
There are many opportunities to gain the ridge. Most involve dropping into Navajo Basin and then scurrying up a rotten gully. Leave grace and dignity at the saddle. This is, in fact, what we did. (Scurried up gully, left dignity. Sigh.)
From the ROA saddle, we identified a short, low-angle gully that gained the ridge just north of a large, unmistakable fin. We figured that would leave us in the junk for the shortest time and get us to a superb starting point on the ridge.
The long ridge. The arrow indicates our ascent gully.
The gully was garbage and the most tedious part of the whole day.
Our ascent gully. Not recommended.
The first obstacle greeting us upon exiting our ascent gully.
Were we to do this again, we would simply follow the ROA trail up towards the ridge as though we were going to Wilson Peak. We did not do this at the time, as there appeared to be three imposing towers that could have required serious scrambling. We needn't have worried. We opted for this route on the way out, instead of putting ourselves in harm's way by descending any of the sketchy gullies (we'd heard and seen rock slides roll through these gullies all day). These towers are easily bypassed on the eastern/Bilk Basin side. Even so, they go relatively easily.
This is the route we had opted against for the ascent but opted for on the return. Looks harder than it is. Bilk Basin is on the right, ROA on left.
From here, the route is essentially a ridge run. Unless you prefer ankle-bending, slide-inducing, death-defying side hilling on questionable terrain. If so, by all means, drop to the eastern side and good luck to you. There's no real way to describe every route decision we made. Instead, I'll just say most decisions were straightforward, but we had to constantly ignore the temptation of serpentine use trails on the eastern side (sure, the fruit looked delicious, but nothing good could come of that choice).
Checking out the route.
The few times we followed use paths off the ridge, we quickly encountered nasty loose slabs and crumbling slopes that required side hilling on unstable ground; we would immediately "retreat" to the ridge.
A closer look at the ridge. And if you think this looks loose....
Stay the course.
One note: as you run the ridge, TEST EVERY HOLD.
Yes, the ridge is incalculably more solid than the slopes, but that doesn't mean you can be complacent. Test it and test it again.
A word about Nolan. Some people get sick at high altitude. Nolan has reverse-altitude sickness: he gets stronger the higher he climbs. The guy's a gazelle--springing from rock to rock, then just hanging out while us mere mortals grunt and heave and clamber to him.
Nolan and the Wilson-Diente Traverse.
Another note: sometime after the fin but before the ridge steepens in the final push to the summit, you cross an attention-grabbing mini-knife edge. It's not a huge deal, but some people prefer to mentally prepare for this sort of thing beforehand instead of simply stumbling upon it. It's a lot like Capitol's knife edge, with bomber holds up top and cracks for your feet on the sides.
Nolan loves knife edges.
I am just fine with knife edges.
Sorry For All the Text. Predominantly Pictures From Here.
Nolan loves Gladstone's ridge run.
It may be tempting to try to cut corners, but cheaters never win.
And they get f---ed by loose rock.
Nolan loves Lizard Head.
Looking back at difficulties past and future. NBD. Just reverse the course.
That side hilling use trail sure looks tempting. NO.
Going up! I promise it's more stable than it looks.
It's a long way back. Or, if you're a glass-half-full type of person, "We've come a long ways! Yay!".
The summit's just in reach.
A word about the summit. Some summits have geological markers. This one has a crowbar.
The great Wilson-Diente Traverse.
After taking in the views, swatting flies, and generally enjoying an exceptional summit, we started our descent. Nothing too remarkable, just be sure to save enough energy and focus for it. Great stuff.
Plenty of down climbing. Or up climbing. The ridge undulates.
The ridge option made this an immensely enjoyable day. The rock was relatively solid (again, context!), the views were spectacular, and the climbing was challenging but not absurd--all in all, greatly enjoyable.
We had been dreading this peak, and we both wound up loving it. A solid class 4(+?) ridge run makes a huge difference vis-à-vis a class 3 boulder-dodging affair. Sure, it was tiring, but in the best way. I'd do it again in a heartbeat, were it not so far away.
Gladstone. And lots of it.
We stopped in Ridgeway at the Colorado Boy Brewery. After a sample flight and some fine, fulfilling pizzas, we hit the road.
Thanks for reading!
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):