| A Four Garita Night
"Baldy Lejos" – 13,100
From W. Willow Creek TH
Approx 14.5 mi, 5000 ft
Dwight and I set off on Thursday after work for the San Juans. This was kind of a unique trip in that we had no idea what we were going to climb before we left! Between hiking and working there's little time for planning these days. The San Juans are still oozing with 13ers we've never climbed so we figured we could just wing it this weekend.
On the drive we somehow concluded (don't ask me how) that we should spend the weekend near Beartown which is a remote area on the eastern edge of the Grenadiers requiring a very lengthy 4WD approach. It can be reached from Creede or Lake City (past the Rio Grande Reservoir) or from Silverton. We figured it would be quickest to go through Creede… plus I'd never been through Creede so it would be something new for me. However, we had no desire to go 4wheeling for hours in the middle of the night so we decided to drive to Creede and climb something in that area on Friday and then make the long drive to Beartown afterwards.
OK, sounds reasonable. We then began looking for something to climb near Creede the next morning. We eyed a nice loop hike that would take us over 4 ranked 13ers…. but when I started looking at the stats and factoring in the horrible monsoon weather forecast I became concerned – our chances of completing the loop before the storms hit looked very low, even if we started very early. It had been raining on and off on the drive and I was expecting the wet weather trend to continue. Hmmmm. The dire weather forecast called for drastic measures, bordering on insanity. Even though we'd both worked all day and had been sitting in the car for many hours, we decided to just go for it…NOW. The nearly full moon (which was unfortunately obscured by heavy cloud cover) was scheduled to set at 2:30am so there was no sense dawdling… the earlier we got going the more moonlight we'd have. There would then be a "blackout" period before dawn. As far as we knew, the peaks in the La Garita area are known to be gentle and it seemed like it would be safe to climb them in the dark. Sometimes you just have to adopt the "hike now, sleep later" mentality.
Once we reached the West Willow Creek TH (alternate TH for San Luis Peak) we quickly got ready and started hiking at 10:55pm. From the parking area we continued west on the nice 4WD road (505). Our first objective was the westernmost peak, UN 13,034 (if UN 13,034 is your only destination, you can easily drive up 505 and park a lot closer). At about 12,500 ft we left the road and continued west across the wet, soggy grass. Our feet were soaked in no time. We made our way to the first significant saddle on the ridge north of UN 13,034, losing and regaining a little elevation along the way. Once on the ridge, we followed it south toward the summit. We soon ran into some interesting terrain – a short section of nicely exposed class 3 scrambling on (wet) lichen covered rock. We weren't expecting this! We had no way of judging the exposure because our headlamps didn't penetrate far enough into the darkness – when we looked down it just looked like a bottomless abyss. We carefully found our way up the slippery rocks to the summit without any trouble. At 1:20am we were enjoying our first Garita. The party was just beginning.
After a very short summit stay (12 minutes), we retraced our steps north along the ridge and continued on gentle, WET, rolling terrain toward UN 13,111. After the moon set it became a bit darker (not much though since it was so cloudy anyway). We just tried to stick to the ridge and were at its mercy for navigation. This strategy required us to go up and over pretty much every last little bump in the not so straight ridge (which wouldn't be necessary if we could have seen where we were going). After what seemed like a hundred false summits, we finally had our second Garita at 4am. Our feet and the lower portion of our pants were soaking wet so we only enjoyed a 17 minute summit stay in the chilly night.
At 4:17 we headed to "Baldy Lejos", still going strong. There weren't as many ridge bumps along this portion (thank God), but the terrain was rockier. At this point we were really looking forward to daylight so we could navigate more efficiently! We got our wish soon enough, and for the first time we began to see our surroundings. We were right on schedule to hit the summit just before sunrise! We topped out at 6am – our third Garita. The sun was about to rise but we had no intentions of ending the party. This party was going to last WELL past dawn! We sat around for a few minutes waiting for the sunrise so we could snap some photos of nearby Stewart Peak and San Luis Peak. Finally, at 6:24 we decided it was time to move on… our last objective, UN 13,285, was more than four miles away and would require significant elevation loss and gain.
We contoured around UN 13,111 on its northeast side, aiming for San Luis Pass. The side hilling wasn't too bad, but the going was a little slow and tedious. We took another lengthy break in the sun before we got to the pass. We stumbled upon a large group of campers who seemed a little surprised to see us in such an obscure place at such a strange time. They assumed we were off track and looking for the Colorado Trail. We knew darn well where we were going, but kindly thanked them for their help instead of trying to explain what we were doing. We soon arrived at San Luis Pass and followed a trail that deposited us on the ridge well north of UN 13,285. Once on the ridge crest we hiked over gentle terrain south toward the summit. As we got nearer, we began to see how cool the summit area of this mountain actually is – the cliffs along the north side of the final portion of the ridge were very cool. We found a spot where a flat, sloped wall resembling a dam (see pics) formed the north part of the ridge. It was very unique and looked like it might provide some good, solid climbing. Unfortunately we didn't have time to investigate further. Finally, at 10:30 we had our fourth and final Garita. A look at the skies told us that the weather probably wasn't going to hold out too much longer. We were pretty drunk at this point anyway off of our four Garitas so it was time to head "home" (to the car).
We left the summit at 10:46 and made a beeline west toward the car. This required some moderate willow bashing but luckily the millions of game trails weaving around the area made things a little easier. We ended our binge at 12:05, chased our Garitas down with a beer, hopped in the car, and tried to get some sleep. The storm began shortly afterwards.