| 2013 RTM Climbing Trip (Part 1): From the Sawatch to Coxcomb
The Republic of Texas Mountaineers' goal for 2013 was to climb six fourteeners so that my teenage sons (Randy (18) and David (17)) could complete the fourteeners and so that I could complete my second “tour of duty” of the fourteeners. We also planned to climb a variety of centennials and bicentennials, including Coxcomb Peak. Due to Coxcomb’s well-known difficulties, we needed to learn some technical climbing skills and spent Tuesday, May 14, 2013 at Enchanted Rock with Scott Harris of Mountain Madness (www.mtmadness.com). Scott did a good job teaching us belaying, lead climbing, and rappelling, and we were cautiously optimistic that we could tackle Coxcomb successfully.
August 9, Friday. Randy, David and I left our home in Austin at 5:05 AM and drove through Salida and Poncha Springs to Marshall Pass (861 miles!). We had planned to drive up Forest Service Road 243G to get closer to Mt. Ouray, but a sign at the start of this road stated “Administrative Use Only,” so instead we set up camp on a hill south of Marshall Pass.
Our campsite near Marshall Pass
After dinner, David and I checked out the trailhead for tomorrow’s climb of Mt. Ouray while Randy took sunset photos from the hillside above our campsite.
Sunset near Marshall Pass
Mt. Ouray from near our campsite close to Marshall Pass
August 10, Saturday. Rain had fallen during the night, but skies were clear when we got up. We left the tent up so it could dry but packed up everything else and drove the short distance to the trailhead at a cabin just east of Marshall Pass that is known as the Hutchison-Barnett Cabin. This cabin is open to the public for use, and if someone hadn’t already been in it when we arrived last night, we would have stayed in it.
We set out on foot and hiked north through the trees more or less directly to the summit of Mt. Ouray (13,971’). The weather was beautiful today. The summit register was wet, and we did our best to dry it out.
The summit of Mt. Ouray (13,971')
After returning to the trailhead, we took the time to explore the Hutchison-Barnett Cabin now that it was vacant and were amused by the poor spelling and grammar on a sign inside the cabin.
The Hutchison-Barnett Cabin near Marshall Pass
Sign in the Hutchison-Barnett Cabin
Bunks in the Hutchison-Barnett Cabin
We returned to our campsite, took down our tent, and headed toward Frenchman Creek northwest of Buena Vista. Randy’s boots had leaked water from the wet grass this morning, so we bought him a new pair in Buena Vista before taking Forest Road 386 to the 4-wheel drive trailhead at 10,300’. Some rain fell but had stopped by the time we parked in the small parking area, right after someone else left. We packed our backpacks and were on the trail in 45 minutes.
The Frenchman Creek Trail (formerly known as the Harvard Trail) provides access to Mt. Harvard and Mt. Columbia from the east. We initially planned to climb these peaks in 2012 but postponed the trip after learning that a windstorm had left quite a lot of downed timber across the trail. More recently, we’d heard that the Forest Service had cleared a lot of the deadfall, so this approach was now a “go.”
After making sure not to make a wrong turn onto the Colorado Trail around 1½ miles from the trailhead, we continued to a nice campsite just below timberline (≈11,900’). Rain had begun falling about 30 minutes earlier, so we hastily set up the tent and retreated into it. It was very windy here, and we were glad we had not camped above timberline.
David and Eddie at our campsite along Frenchman Creek
Mutant tree across the creek from our campsite
August 11, Sunday. In 1985, my dad and I climbed Mt. Harvard and then stayed on the ridge to Mt. Columbia, but this time we decided to climb Mt. Columbia first so that our descent from Mt. Harvard could be at least partly on a trail (specifically, the old Harvard Trail that descends into the Frenchman Creek drainage from the 12,980’ saddle between Mt. Harvard and Unnamed (UN) 13,374. We also decided to traverse below the Harvard-Columbia ridge rather than stay on the top of the ridge.
Some light clouds made for a nice sunrise but made us wonder about today’s weather. Regardless, the climb up Mt. Columbia was straightforward. From just above timberline, we left the trail right before it crosses to the north side of Frenchman Creek and headed up the grassy slope. As long as you’re going uphill, you’re heading in the right direction. Just make sure not to go too far to the right, or you’ll end up on some ugly scree.
David on the east ridge of Mt. Columbia
Looking down from Mt. Columbia's summit at our ascent route. We climbed on the grassy ridge (climber's left of the small snowfield)
Once we reached Mt. Columbia's east ridge, we simply followed it to the summit of Mt. Columbia (14,073’). There was no summit register, and the clouds were building already. We headed along the ridge toward Mt. Harvard and then dropped below the ridge on the Frenchman Creek side to avoid the difficulties of the ridge. Once we were below a 13,516’ ridge point, we did a climbing contour onto a grassy slope and climbed toward Mt. Harvard’s east ridge. Higher up, we were able to find and follow a nice climber’s trail up the east ridge. Hail began and continued as we neared the summit of Mt. Harvard (14,420’). We did not even consider looking for a summit register but instead beat a hasty retreat. We were unable to find the old Mt. Harvard Trail until we’d descended to the valley.
August 12, Monday. We slept in late and then broke camp. Now it was my turn for boot trouble: one of my soles was coming loose. After stopping in Buena Vista for new boots, we drove via Saguache toward Nutras Creek. The last 25 miles were on an unpaved road that was muddy and slick due to rain. When we reached the Nutras Creek trailhead at 11,020’, the rain let up just long enough for us to set up our tent at the one established campsite here.
August 13, Tuesday. We drove about two miles to the Stewart Creek trailhead. Unlike last evening, there was not a cloud in the sky when we set out on foot up the Stewart Creek Trail. In two separate areas near the creek, we saw a female moose. Neither appeared to have a calf, but the calves might have been hidden from view. Much of the area along the Stewart Creek Trail has been devastated by pine beetles running amok because the winter temperatures are no longer cold enough to kill them; there were lots of dead trees.
Dead pine trees along Stewart Creek
Randy at the San Luis Peak - Organ Mountain saddle (San Luis Peak is behind him). Can you see the climbers on the summit?
Here's a zoomed view: Two climbers on the summit of San Luis Peak (from the San Luis - Organ saddle)
We followed a new Colorado Fourteeners Initiative (CFI) trail to the summit of San Luis Peak (14,014’), which we reached at 10:05. There was no summit register. A guy we’d seen at the trailhead arrived about 10 minutes after us, and we took photos for each other. As we started down from the summit, another guy arrived from the west.
Randy, Eddie, and David at the summit of San Luis Peak (14,014')
We descended to the 13,100’ San Luis Peak – Organ Mountain saddle and then climbed east up Organ Mountain’s west ridge. The weather was becoming threatening (some hail fell), so upon reaching an ugly gap in the ridge that would have required a sketchy downclimb on crumbling rock, we decided that Organ Mountain would be best left for another time. After returning to the saddle, we followed the trail back to the trailhead, where we talked to a Green Bay Packers fan from Oshkosh, Wisconsin before driving back to our campsite at Nutras Creek.
August 14, Wednesday. The sunrise this morning was pretty as we took the Nutras Creek Trail toward Stewart Peak. After just over two miles, we reached a side stream and promptly lost the trail but were able to find it again.
Early morning sun over the Stewart Creek Trail
After another half mile, we left the trail and followed obvious paths northwest through the thankfully dry willows and the remains of pines trees (dead due to pine beetles) to the east ridge of Stewart Peak. From here, it was an easy climb up the ridge to the summit of Stewart Peak (13,983’). We continued toward Baldy Alto (13, 698’) and reached its summit after an easy ridge climb.
Baldy Alto (taken the previous day)
San Luis Peak from Baldy Alto
Baldy Alto (left) and San Luis Peak from Stewart Peak
Clouds were building by the time we headed down, and light snow and hail fell as we descended to Nutras Creek. The willows were a nuisance but fortunately were dry despite the recent rain. We found the Nutras Creek Trail and followed it back to our campsite.
We packed up and began the long (≈25 miles) drive back to pavement. After driving through Gunnison and Sapinero, we turned onto the unpaved road to Owl Creek Pass and continued four miles (the last two on a jeep road) to the end of the road along the West Fork Cimarron River. We drove back down the road about ¼ mile and stopped at a campsite that included a table attached to several trees. We got our packs ready for tomorrow’s attempt on Coxcomb Peak, one of the hardest of the 200 highest mountains in Colorado.
The table at our campsite along West Fork Cimarron River
Coxcomb Peak (taken the next day as we returned to our campsite in the afternoon). Coxcomb looks unclimbable from all sides.
August 15, Thursday. Lots of stars were visible when we set out on the trail. Given the difficulties that we knew were ahead, we took along a 60 meter dry rope, an assortment of nuts, eight quickdraws, plenty of webbing for making slings, and several rap rings. After reaching the 12,500’ pass west of Coxcomb Peak, we descended on the trail several hundred vertical feet, crossing three or four dry drainages in the process, before leaving the trail and climbing north-northwest up rock and grassy slopes and then northeast to the base of the summit block.
The view looking down from just below the chimneys on Coxcomb Peak
A short couloir leads to the bottom of two chimneys. The chimney on the (climber's) left is easier to climb, and we never felt the need to place protection as we climbed it. (If the rock was wet, that would be another matter.) While we were very careful not to knock any loose rocks down the chimney, a helmet nevertheless is a must in the chimney.
From the top of the chimney, the slope lessened and it was a simple matter to climb to the summit ridge. Here, we turned right (east) and followed the narrow, exposed ridge to a notch in the ridge. A conveniently-located rock provides a good place for a sling, and we took turns rappelling about 25 feet to the bottom of the notch. The other (east) side of the notch is less steep and can be easily climbed back to the summit ridge. From here, a straightforward but highly exposed walk along the narrow ridge brought us to the summit of Coxcomb Peak (13,656’). Not surprisingly, the makeshift summit register had very few signatures.
David and Randy at the notch on Coxcomb's summit ridge. The summit can be seen behind them.
"Look, ma, no hands!" Randy is about to rappel into the notch.
Randy and David on the summit of Coxcomb Peak
Uncompahgre, Matterhorn, and Wetterhorn from the summit of Coxcomb Peak
Redcliff from the summit of Coxcomb Peak
We returned to the notch, and David and I belayed Randy as he climbed up first. Randy then belayed David and me while we climbed out of the notch. It would be possible to climb out of the notch unroped, but the exposure is dramatic and it's nice to have the security of a belay while climbing. Rather than downclimb the chimney we had ascended, we elected to rappel down the face between the two chimneys. It's about an 85’ rappel, so our 60 meter rope was long enough. A 50 meter rope would be cutting it close and might be a few feet too short, however.
Randy rappelled down first and then stood off to the side while I followed. Everything was going great until I suddenly came to an abrupt stop about halfway down the face. I discovered that one of the accessory straps on my daypack had followed the rope into my prusik and had gotten jammed there. Not a problem; I always carry a pocketknife… except that earlier I’d loaned my knife to Randy so he could cut some webbing to the appropriate length for a sling, and Randy and the knife were now some 40 or 45’ below me.
Randy tied one of his boots to one of the ends of the rope and put the knife in his boot. I then pulled the boot up, retrieved my knife, and lowered the boot back to Randy. I cut the offending strap off of my daypack and worked the remaining piece of strap out of the prusik; the rest of my rappel went without incident. David then rappelled down the face, and we packed up our climbing gear.
David, beginning to rappel down the face between the two chimneys. The chimney to the right is the harder one to climb.
David is almost done rapelling down the face.
We descended to the trail, returned to the pass west of Coxcomb Peak, and began descending toward the trailhead. Cows on the trail blocked our way below the pass, pooping in the creek and, in general, tearing up the trail, hillside, and meadows. This has been an ongoing problem in the West Fork Cimarron River drainage for at least 25 years, and we wondered why the Forest Service allows (end even seems to encourage) cows to destroy a beautiful wilderness area.
We broke camp after returning to our campsite, pleased to have climbed a difficult mountain that definitely tested our abilities. After driving to Ridgway, we checked into the overpriced Ridgway Lodge and Suites for the night. Tomorrow would be a rest day, as it would have been too much for us to drive to the Rock of Ages trailhead today as originally planned.
For Part 2 (Wilson Peak, Gladstone Peak, and the El Diente/Mt. Wilson combo platter), go to: http://www.14ers.com/php14ers/tripreport.php?trip=14319
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