| Silverton 13er Jackpot
All I wanted for my birthday was a San Juan 13er. Having never ventured into the San Juans in winter, climbing at least one 13er there was my only firm goal at the start of this winter season. Finding some potential candidates wasn't easy: limited winter access, steep avalanche prone terrain, and the lack of beta made for an interesting task.
While staring at the map, a group of 13ers near Silverton caught my eye. Contour lines sparked hope that some safe routes could be found. To my surprise, a call to Silverton revealed that County Highway 2 was plowed as far as the abandoned mining town of Eureka – a perfect trailhead for these peaks!
With a mediocre weather forecast, we set off for Silverton Thursday afternoon. We didn't know what to expect and wondered whether we were going to discover why nobody ever recommended these peaks as possible winter 13ers. There was only one way to find out – get out there and take a look for ourselves.
2/9/07 - "Proposal Peak"
From Eureka: 9.6 mi, 3800 ft
On Friday we decided to hike up Eureka Gulch and then kind of wing it from there. I had planned out some possible routes, but without actually seeing them it was impossible to know for sure if they would go. We made the short drive from Silverton to Eureka and started hiking around 7. The steep, rugged peaks that surrounded us were a bit intimidating and the narrow entrance to Eureka Gulch didn't seem particularly inviting.
Barely out of the car, we were greeted by an old friend – San Juan scree (later we would meet up with his infamous cousin – San Juan rotten rock). Our first task was to climb a steep 200 foot scree slope to reach the road above Eureka. This was a rather rude awakening. Our reward was a nicely graded and tracked road that led us seamlessly up through Eureka Gulch. The first section of the road was tracked by snowmobiles and snowshoes, a very welcome surprise. When the tracks ended, the edge of the road was melted away for a ways, allowing easy passage.
Four peaks were on our radar: "Proposal Peak", Bonita Peak, Hanson Peak and UN 13,075. It seemed natural to start at one side of this ring of peaks so the southernmost "Proposal Peak" became the tentative initial destination. We left the comfort of the Eureka Gulch road around 11,500 ft (now in snowshoes) and pondered the best way to reach McCarty Basin to the south. An initial short steepish section had to be negotiated if we were to succeed. We chose a line up through a little gully in a large rocky outcropping. Snowshoe removal and a touch of scrambling were required at one point. Our route required briefly passing under some pretty steep slopes but snow conditions were good. The slope angle eased above the rocky section, and we plodded up into the basin.
Step number two was to find a way to safely climb up out of the basin onto higher terrain where the peaks live. From our vantage point, possible ascent routes from further up in the basin looked bleak. One not entirely appetizing idea was to gain the ridge very early. The downside: we'd then have to follow a ridge of unknown difficulty for over a mile to reach the summit. With no better options, we picked out the safest looking route – a short, steepish 250 foot section turning from snow to rock part way up. The snow was good to just below the rocky section where it became a sugary unconsolidated mess. Needless to say, we were happy to reach solid rock.
Step three: Proposal's east ridge. Off we went along the ridge. It was mellow for a while but became progressively more gnarly. Rotten rock, scree, snow, and ice made for very slow going. At one point we found ourselves on a tower that we couldn't downclimb, forcing us to back up and sneak around the tower on the south side (which wasn't exactly easy either). We climbed and we climbed. Proposal wasn't going down without a fight! We finally hauled ourselves triumphantly onto the summit at 1:30 – it had taken 6.5 hours to get here. It was the first winter San Juan 13er for all of us! Celebration was overshadowed though by the need to figure out what to do next. We had hoped to continue along the ridge over unranked Emery Peak and onto Bonita Peak but we all admitted that we weren't comfortable committing to that at this point. The half mile long ridge between Proposal and Emery was gnarly – it looked as bad or worse than Proposal's east ridge. Since it was 1:30 and it had already taken so long, we agreed to call it a day.
Now, how do we get down? Please not that ridge again! Dwight suggested a route that I hadn't considered: descending Proposal's south ridge for a bit, dropping east into Slagle Basin, then southeast into the South Fork Animas River drainage, and following it back to the Eureka Gulch road. From what we could see, this looked promising. Proposal's south ridge was easy and we soon were looking for a way down into Slagle Basin. It was hard to determine the angle of the slopes below us – some looked steeper than they were. We found a pretty comfortable path down (may not be comfortable in lousy snow conditions) and got in a few short glissades.
The going along the South Fork Animas River was slow - we followed along on its left side, along the general path of a trail shown on the map. The snow here wasn't well consolidated, and several rounds of tedious trailbreaking ensued. We could see the Eureka Gulch road for a lot of the trek and it didn't seem to be getting any closer. When we finally neared it, we had to climb 250 feet to reach it. What a welcome site it was. From here it was a short stroll and a fast scree decent back to the car. An immediate round of beer was in order after this 11 hour ordeal.
route map and photos:
2/10/07 - Bonita Peak, Hanson Peak & UN 13,075
From Eureka: 10.6 mi, 5000 ft
Saturday is our day to give it all we got. We plan on spending the night in Silverton again and having all day Sunday to get home, so there's no excuses. We were fortunate to summit one peak yesterday, what makes me think we can summit three today? We get going 45 minutes earlier today and fight our way up the initial scree barrier by headlamp back to the familiar Eureka Gulch road. Its snowing lightly. We hope to start out with Bonita Peak today which means following the road further up the drainage. Along the way, we mentally note a good looking decent route down UN 13,075 (to our right) – Parson Gulch. This is our prize at the end of the day if we make it all the way from Bonita to Hanson to UN 13,075.
Snowshoes once again become necessary and eventually the road is obscured by the snow. Our surefire idea is to follow the road all the way to the Sunnyside Saddle, a good looking route that we'd scoped out the day before. But… I hold out hope for a subtly possible path to the Emery – Bonita saddle. It would certainly be a much more convenient route, but we wouldn't push it if it didn't feel right. We made our way across the gentle basin toward Bonita and then headed southwest up a shallow gully. The snow was good but the angle did measure 30 degrees. The route felt good, the steepness quickly let up, and the remainder of the trek to the Emery – Bonita was a piece of cake. Bonita's summit block looked pretty dramatic but was relatively easy to climb. A few old footprints revealed that we weren't Bonita's only visitor this winter. We topped out around 11 and took only a short break, eager to continue with the task at hand.
The ridge between Bonita and Hanson looked benign and we set off without apprehension. The section between Bonita and unranked Point 13,306 northwest of Hanson was interesting, but not too interesting, if you know what I mean. It was enjoyable. The section between Point 13,306 and Hanson Peak held a few surprises. The worst was a knife edge like section of ridge covered with a mini-cornice on the overhanging north side and ice on the steep south side. Crampons would have come in handy here, but an ice axe suffices. Some scrambling is required in sections, but nothing crazy. We finally arrive on the summit about 2.5 hours after leaving Bonita. Maybe we're really going to carry out our full, intended loop! Things seemed to be going pretty smoothly.
UN 13,075 is less than a mile away and in the direction of our car. Going over unranked Point 13,270 along the way will add a little extra work though. We find nothing on the ridge between Hanson and UN 13,075 to be especially hideous, but the going is still slow. The summit block of UN 13,075 is kind of cool looking, and it's a very easy to climb. We top out at 3:40 (almost 2 hours after leaving Hanson).
We're looking forward to our cleverly planned descent route and keeping our fingers crossed that it holds no surprises. From 13,075 we descend west and then drop into Parson Gulch. A few glissades and some respectable snowshoeing deliver us safely back to Eureka Gulch road. We know the drill from here. An easy couple of miles and a short scree descent and we're done. The last light is fading when we reach the car. My unconventional 12 hour birthday party was a complete success!
route map and photos:
I guess we can now say whether there was a reason why these peaks have never been promoted as winter climbs. Yes – they are all a serious undertaking that should only be attempted in good conditions. That being said, they can be done relatively safely if conditions are right.