| Coxcomb- Birthday Party Style!
After a successful, week long expedition in the San Juans with Aaron during early August, we left the Cimarrons on a down note tasting defeat on our final mountain: Coxcomb. The following weekend, he returned to successfully complete the task we started. I wasn't able to make that trip and thoughts on climbing Coxcomb this year slowly faded, but it began to eat at me.
Two weekends ago, over Labor Day, our climbing group ran into Sarah and Dominic on Teakettle. They mentioned they might try Coxcomb the following day, yet she fell ill and their focus turned in other directions. Despite that setback, they were still hoping to climb the peak sometime before the first snowfall. A few days later, we spoke about attempting the mountain together. Jamie and I had my birthday weekend, September 14-16, open. That worked for them. Oh joy; this might end up being the opportunity we hoped for! Anxiously, we watched the forecast praying that we'd beat the snow to Coxcomb.
The long drive to the Cimarrons put us in bed with a scant four hours of sleep before the big climb. Seemingly minutes after falling asleep, Dominic was at the front door of our tent for a 4:30am wake-up call. After fumbling around the dark tent, Jamie and I emerged no worse the wear to meet Sarah and Dominic. At 5:10am, we started up the trail towards West Fork Pass.
As we hiked up the dark trail, there was one distinct difference from monsoon season in that most of the small creeks were just a trickle, not a feet-soaking forge! In and out of the trees we went, and as we began the steady climb towards West Fork, it began to get light enough to ditch the headlamps. After stopping for some photos, we continued towards the pass(12,500') where we arrived roughly two hours after leaving the trailhead.
After scoping out the views, we began our descent towards Wetterhorn Basin.
San Juans south of West Fork Pass
The San Juans, funky 12er included, Southwest of West Fork Pass
Wetterhorn's North Face quickly jumped into view and easily dominated the landscape. Once we reached our lowpoint at 12,100' in the basin, we rounded the corner and the southwest face of Coxcomb began to draw our attention.
Hiking the slope towards the Southwest Face of Coxcomb
From this point, we were able to pick out a route towards the weakness in the cliff bands and set off on the grind upwards.
Up we went at a steady pace across the grassy slopes and scree patches. Sooner than I expected(you move a lot faster on day one of a trip!), we reached a spot below the alcove where class three scrambling allowed easy passage through the lower cliff bands.
Dominic entering a weakness in the lower cliff band with the alcove directly above him
From there, we slogged across the talus to the base of the alcove at 13,400'(previous highpoint). Here we were greeted by the wind…..
After putting on our harnesses, we entered the fray by ascending the fourth-class step into the alcove.
Sarah entering the alcove
As we climbed deeper into alcove, the cliff bands jumped skyward and the obvious route towards the southwest chimney loomed above us.
Dominic and Sarah climbing towards Coxcomb's Southwest Chimney
Upon reaching the base of the southwest chimney, we were unsure of whether or not we needed to the rope. I volunteered to climb to the bend in the chimney. The chimney looked safe enough to free climb, yet the unknown of what awaited us higher up led us to choose the rope.
The Southwest Chimney from its base
The upper section of the Southwest Chimney from the bend
Gladly, Dominic led the chimney. While he was climbing, it began to hail; Sarah and I exchanged an awkward "Oh great, not this!" glance. A couple of minutes later, Dominic called for us to climb towards the belay station. While waiting for the girls to finish climbing the chimney, the short lived hail ceased, but the wind decided to firmly re-announce its presence. By the time they reached the chimney's apex, all of us had added an extra layer or two and hidden our faces deep inside our hoods.
From here, we scurried through the wind along the upper reaches of Coxcomb until arriving at the notch. Thankfully, the mountain gods took pity on us as the wind ceased for the time being at this critical spot. Dominic set the amusing rappel(200 foot rope for a 30 foot rappel) and we cruised down.
Just in case the north face rappel wasn't appealing, we left the rope in place. Going left, we climbed the third-class crack through the opposite side of the notch and regained the summit ridge.
The final stretch to Coxcomb's summit from the notch
A few minutes later, we strolled onto the summit of Coxcomb. The wind even played nice, for the most part. The surrounding view of the astounding, interesting Cimarrons was breathtaking.
With the current break we had from the wind, we decided not to linger. We spotted John Prater's old rappel sling(which Sarah removed) and continued down the gully towards the north face rappel station. The rappel looked safe and reasonable to us, so Dominic returned to retrieve our rope from the notch.
While he was gone, I removed my 60m rope from the bag. None of us had ever completed a rappel this long and we were all looking forward to the experience! Once the rappel was prepared, I volunteered to head down first. That was a mistake because the ropes got tangled halfway down leading to a constant stop-and-start rhythm, if you want to call it that, lower down. Upon reaching the base of the North Face, I signaled up to them and started down the scree slope to remove myself from possible rockfall. Jamie, Sarah and Dominic cruised down the rappel(jealous!) with minimal rockfall.
The North Face Coxcomb rappel(~55m)
The wind kicked up once again as we retrieved the ropes for the final time. Jamie was a little chilly so we hurried towards Redcliff with Sarah and Dominic following shortly.
Heading for Redcliff
The climb to Redcliff was uneventful. We veered in-and-out of the talus while attempting to connect fading trails before obtaining a strong one which led us to the summit. Coxcomb's North Face was dominant from this position.
While we were on the summit, Sarah decided to drop off Redcliff's North Face in order to see if the connecting ridge towards Fortress Peak(U 3) was doable. Fifteen minutes later, she was back reporting that it didn't seem to go.
By this time, it was 1:30pm and we needed to move in order to snag more summits today. The slog down Redcliff's talus was miserable and I quickly fell behind the group by falling on my back multiple times. Ouch! Needless to say, reaching the Coxcomb-Redcliff saddle was a relief.
After plodding down the grass and scree to ~12,000 feet, it was time to decide whether to attempt Fortress today or not. Jamie and Sarah were game, but Dominic and myself had used our energy for the day and were ready to return to camp. After making sure each group had a radio, we split up.
Redcliff from below its saddle with Coxcomb
The descent was bearable as Dominic and me weaved through the scree fields on grassy patches while frequently looking up to locate our girls. Thirty minutes later, we crossed a pair of creeks and a short marshy area and noticed the trail just in front of us! With all the knee bashing behind us, we were able to cruise comfortably down the trail while attempting to contact the girls from below treeline before the 3pm radio turn-on time to check on their progress. Seeing that they hadn't turned theirs on yet, we shut ours down and hiked out.
We arrived at the trailhead ~2:45pm and immediately turned on the radio back on. They periodically contacted us for route finding information and updates of their position. Apparently their adventure was more than they bargained for…..but Sarah can tell you all of that!
Redcliff and Coxcomb from the Wetterhorn Basin Trailhead