Peak(s):  Handies Peak  -  14,048 feet
Post Date:  03/21/2014
Date Climbed:   03/16/2014
Posted By:  Kevin Baker
Additional Members:   sdkeil

 Handies Winter Ascent: The Elusive One  

Handies Peak (14049’)
11 miles, 4600’ gain (From Cataract Gulch TH)
Via Boulder Gulch
March 16, 2014

Handies is an easy 14er that is made much more difficult in winter due to steep drainages via Grizzly Gulch to the east or Boulder Gulch to the south. An approach via American Basin is much longer and also has significant avalanche danger. The standard winter route on Handies is via Boulder Gulch, via the south or southeast ridge. I have missed a few weather/conditions windows over the last few winters and it looked like conditions were going to be pretty favorable the last weekend of winter. Shawn Keil signed on for the adventure and we enjoyed staying with Chuck Earle’s group (who were going for Sunshine/Redcloud) at the Backcountry Basecamp lodge in Lake City, which is a steal in winter with a good sized group.

Shawn and I were a bit reluctant to get out of his new Xterra with heated seats at the trailhead as it was a brisk 2 degrees outside! Ah, the luxuries of winter dayhikes! The typical start for Handies is the Cataract Gulch TH at 9600’ and follows the road 2.5 miles west to Boulder Gulch. We set out at 6:20 and enjoyed following and old sled track for a bit, breaking trail for the 2nd half of the approach to the drainage. We ran across a huge slide path coming off some south facing cliffs that were now bone dry. That must have happened very soon after/during a huge dump!

Old slide over the road

Cliffs along Cottonwood Creek drainage

It snowed a bit the day before, but there was only 3-4 inches of new snow to break. The crux of the winter route on Handies is the first 1200’ or so up Boulder Gulch as both sides of the drainage are steep enough to slide, so you take on a lot of risk if you just go up the creek bed. It hadn't snowed significantly in the area for a couple weeks and since this was a south facing drainage, we felt pretty confident the snow would be in great shape. We started out on the right side of the creek in the aspens, and we were floating on top of the snow nicely with no signs of instability. We decided to contour into the creek bed, and found excellent snow to make efficient progress. There was a short waterfall section with a bit of ice that we avoided, otherwise the route worked well.

The advantage to this route is the bushwacking is minimal and treeline is reached in a hurry. I would not want to try this route in iffy conditions though, as there is a huge couloir on the west side that would slide right into the creek if it went. I would either hit this route earlier in the winter with less snow or late after a dry spell since it is south facing.

Treeline and sun come quick

Crossing this couloir in sub-par conditions would be spooky!

Our route of choice to the summit today would be the southwest spur of the southeast ridge, which I heard had a bit of scrambling on it. We took a nice break before the wind started becoming a factor near the nose of the ridge. We were able to stay in snowshoes until a section of 3rd class that we put crampons for. This little section added some fun to the route with some routefinding thrown in and some pretty sweet views.

Shawn high in Boulder Gulch

Square Gulch across the way

The south ridge of American

Quarter's north face

The nose of the southwest spur of the s.e. ridge

A little scrambling!

Shawn on crux 1

Looking for good holds!

Not a bad view of Half

Nearing the s.e. ridge

Once above this section, it was only a matter of dealing with the wind, which wasn’t bad until we hit the southeast ridge. Here it picked up considerably, probably in the 40-45 mph range, but it was only a matter of putting your head down and dealing with it. I had hoped to go sans balaclava and goggles since it was a warm day, but the stinging on the face was a bit much. A balaclava was enough. Shawn ended up losing a sentimental cap that he had worn on many peaks. Maybe somebody can find it on the south face of Handies before the marmots hit it! Luckily, we entered a wind shadow just below the summit and topped out at around 1pm. We had high hopes of adding 13796 and Campbell Creek Peak to the day, but the ridge looked pretty loaded in a steep area and the prospect of getting blasted by the banshees wasn’t too appealing. I also discovered that I only brought 1 liter of Gatorade and I was out, so that put the nail in the coffin!

Handies east face from Point 13735

A cool tower on the ridge.

Looking back at the s.e. ridge.

The last 500 feet

Spindrift off the summit

Wetterhorn group

American and the head of American Basin

Looking n.w. from the summer trail.

We decided to take the more mellow south ridge descent near the summer trail from American Basin to make a nice tour of Handies. The views over to American were inspiring to say the least. We stayed on the ridge until Point 13588 and were able to sneak past a cornice that petered out and head down to Boulder Gulch. We enjoyed the killer views and contoured back to our ascent track, which was wiped out in spots by the wind. The descent went quick as the snow was still in excellent shape. I don’t think I postholed to my knee all day! We made it back to the car around 5:15, happy to grab an elusive winter 14er late in the season!

Sweet looking couloir up to the notch on American/Handies ridge

Our descent route was via this shoulder off the south ridge. We had to skirt a small cornice.

Descending scenic Boulder Gulch with Quarter beyond.

route map

Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):

  • Comments or Questions

Kevin, you're an animal!
03/21/2014 16:54
love that shot of American and the Basin. nice job!

Arizona Bill

Great Climb
03/21/2014 19:00
Super job and a great climb. Such pristine snow! I've never seen so much!


03/21/2014 19:33
Great pics on what looks like a gorgeous day.


03/22/2014 20:05
good work guys.

Oso Blanco

03/22/2014 20:24
Alot more snow that I expected on the peaks in LC! Well done guys!

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