| Laying Siege
Peaks: French Mountain, Frasco Benchmark, Dyer Mountain
Routes: South Slopes to Frascol, West Ridge of French, East Ridge of Frasco, West Ridge of Dyer
Distance Traveled: 8.5 miles on French Mountain and Frasco Benchmark; 4.2 miles on Dyer Mountain
Elevation Gained: 3,300 feet on French Mountain and Frasco Benchmark; 2,300 feet on Dyer Mountain
Participants: stevevets689, Tweak
2009 had been a dark year so far in my climbing. Not one attempt on the top 100 peaks in Colorado until June, when I hiked up the Cottonwood Creek drainage towards Crestone Peak only to be turned back by rain at timberline. A week before that, I climbed Independence Couloir on American Peak, one of the top 200 but that is not my goal. July was coming. The snow was disappearing. I was losing the war. Actually, to put it better, I wasn't fighting.
On the 3rd and 4th of July, I had some time. I was ready to rejoin the fight. I recruited an ally, Josh (Tweak), to help in this battle and we joined forces on the morning of the 3rd, sneaking our way between Colorado's two highest peaks to arrive at the Halfmoon Creek Trailhead. There, at our insertion point unnoticed, we began our assault.
Part I: The French Revolution
The opening of the attack began with heavy artillery. We took Josh's Jeep Wrangler up a rough 4wd road to the south from Halfmoon Creek Road. Everything started with a high creek crossing, followed by several rock steps. At last, the Jeep brought us as far as we would ask it to go and parked it before another, worse creek crossing followed by an even worse rock step. Here we donned our packs, laced up our boots and started on foot.
Josh's Jeep parked on the other side of the creek crossing
We crossed the creek on logs; remaining ruins of an old bridge which was used to bring equipment to the Iron Mike Mine about three miles further up the road. We walked our way up South Halfmoon Creek and our targets started to come into view. The battle plan was to hike up French Mountain and continue around the cirque to Casco Peak, if we could make it that far. Casco began to rear its head first thing as the basin started to open up. To our left, Mount Elbert started to cloud over as if in warning that he might come to his neighbors' defense, but he was too late. Straight ahead the weather was clearing.
Casco Peak from the road
French Mountain from the road with a waterfall in the foreground
Leaving the trees behind we identified all three of the primary targets: French Mountain, Frasco Benchmark, and Casco Peak. The road was still leading us up towards their collective bases so we followed it all the way to the remainders of the Iron Mike Mine. All that is left here is part of a structure and some bits of metal and wood strewn around. Occupations always fail... But our strategy was more of the mindset of "hit-and-run," not occupation.
Mount Elbert from high on the road
We left the road and walked through a slightly boggy area to the base of a steep, wide gully leading up to "Frascol," the saddle between French and Frasco. Here the battle intensified as the mountain started using its first defense: steepness. We slogged our way up the slope, walking up on sometimes slippery tundra, crossing a thin strip of snow, and continuing up on tundra. It took a little more than an hour to reach Frascol. For a few minutes the shots stopped firing and we took a break.
The steep slope to gain "Frascol"
The summit of French Mountain from "Frascol"
When we started the battle again, we realized that our energy reserves were lower than we thought already. Having kept out of the war for so long we had forgotten just how much energy was required in this sort of fight. We struggled on up the short distance to the summit of French Mountain nonetheless, then took another break to try to restore our energy reserves with food and water.
Looking at Casco Peak and Frasco Benchmark from the summit of French Mountain
Mount Elbert from the summit of French Mountain
Our first objective complete, we went on to our second: Frasco Benchmark. Hiking back down to the saddle was easy, but going up the next ridge would be another matter. This time we had a snowy ridge to contend with; the mountain was putting up obstacles for us. Our reserves running lower and lower we post-holed and slipped our way past all the snow, scrambling up the last little bit of "class 2+" terrain to the summit of Frasco. But that was it and we knew it. Our energy was running too low to try to hike down and then back up over 600 feet to the summit of Casco Peak. You win some and you lose some. Besides, with two out of our three objectives complete, we decided we could defend our decision to pull back for the day.
Frasco Benchmark scrambling
Summit ridge of Frasco Benchmark
The descent back into the basin went pretty quickly. We scree-skied our way down the slopes of Frasco until we encountered a snowfield, at which point I began something I only do under the most ideal of circumstances: glissading without an ice ax. I didn't bring my ax because I didn't see a glissade of this length happening, but the snow was very soft and my elbow arrest worked very quickly when I tested it at the beginning of the slide, so I continued on. I used my hands and feet to control my speed and direction, a tactic which worked far better than I ever anticipated. I cruised down, stopped, traversed left, and kept going coming gracefully to a stop a few feet from the end of the field. Josh walked down, since he had not brought appropriate pants for a glissade.
Casco Peak from the slopes of Frasco Benchmark
I slid down one more shallow slope until it wasn't steep enough to maintain forward movement and then I walked with Josh back to the Iron Mike Mine. We surveyed the battleground... Casco would be another day's battle, but French and Frasco had succumbed. Satisfied, we began the long trudge down the road. The Jeep performed admirably once again down the rough road, taking us safely back down out of the mountains.
Part II: A Dyer Situation
After our battle with French and Frasco we needed to refuel, resupply, rest, and plan our next move. We descended into Hel... er, Leadville and went to Wild Bill's to get food and to make our plan. Stomachs full of bacon cheese burgers, we looked in my guidebooks for ideas. The one that finally won out was Dyer's West Ridge, since it looked like a very short but sweet (class 3) route. We also kept in mind that if we had the energy we could continue on to Gemini Peak and Mount Sherman.
We left Wild Bill's and went to Safeway to stock up on food and water for the next day, and then drove up Lake County Road 2 to check out the next day's route. The ridge looked intimidating enough from a distance, with nearly vertical looking sections and some nasty spires near the top. At this point I was seriously hoping we weren't about to get "Roached" by getting on a ridge that's SUPPOSED to be class 3 but is actually somewhere in the 5.4ish vicinity. Only one way to find out...
At any rate, the start of the route is above timberline so we went back down the road a little bit and found a place to make our encampment. I set up a tent while Josh elected to set up his Jeep for sleeping quarters. Next we built a fire... ok well Josh built a fire and I helped gather firewood. Then we sat around the fire getting our armament ready for the next stage of the battle. At last, I let the fire go out and we retired for the evening. I spent my second night alone in a tent, thinking about someone safe, far away, who I was working so hard to protect... or at least impress.
Alpenglow on Mount Sherman
More alpenglow and the Moon
Dyer Mountain's West Ridge
The next morning we got up and ate hot breakfasts, trying to amp ourselves up for the day's trials. When we were ready we drove back up to the outlet of the Dyer Amphitheater, parked the Jeep, and returned to battle. The beginning of the approach sent us around a swampy area to a steep, grassy hill that brought back memories of the day before. The flashbacks made me feel like I was living it all over again. Or not, but it really was a lot like the slope up to Frascol. Beyond this slope was another marsh we had to go around, and another grassy slope. Then grass turned to rock. Rock turned to snow. Snow turned back to rock. Lead turned to gold (yes, we're alchemist soldiers). Some of the snowfields were actually quite solid and steep so we elected to stay on rock as much as possible, even if it was loose. The battle was already hard and it took us a bit longer to get to the saddle at the beginning of the ridge than I thought, but we finally arrived there. The ridge above us now looked much more intimidating than it had from below, not to mention it looked like a bit of a jumbled mess, not a good sign. Retreat was not yet an option however and after a quick period to collect ourselves we started up.
Starting up the slopes into Dyer Amphitheater
The upper part of Dyer Amphitheater
The West Ridge from the saddle
At first the ridge was pretty easy, only breaching class 2 a couple times in the first few minutes. But that couldn't last. We encountered the first buttress and an immediate route-finding challenge. We likely picked the wrong way and ended up in class 4-5 terrain. After surmounting it, we realized that we probably should've either gone up the left side of the buttress or completely around it to the right. At any rate, there we stood on top of it so there was no use looking back.
Typical West Ridge scrambling
The second Buttress
We were then on easier terrain for a while until we arrived at the second buttress, the one which appeared vertical from a distance. This time, distance had made things look more challenging than they actually are. Climbing up the right side of the buttress proved to be easy, basic class 3. From there to much higher on the ridge the difficulty eased to class 2+ to 3. We battled on, figuring a easy victory from there.
We thought too soon. I arrived on the side of a rock rib and saw the spires I had seen from below. How could I have forgotten about those? Downclimbing into the gully between these spires looked like a big challenge, so I climbed up to the top of the first spire. From there into the next col was easy, so we continued that way. Then up and around to the next spire, where we encountered a similar situation. Climbing to the top of the spire proved easier. This time we had to cross snow and then maneuverer down a ramp. I was starting to feel out gunned without my ice ax but kicking steps proved effective. We climbed over one more spire and then the difficulty dropped to a class 2 route around the left side of the ridge. The hard fighting was over.
Josh climbing down the ramp with the second spire in the background
Josh downclimbing the third spire
Easier terrain leading to a false summit
This time we knew we had victory in our hands. We hiked over a false summit and up to the very top of Dyer Mountain, arriving at close to noon. It had taken us far longer than I had expected but the weather had held up through the entire climb. Nonetheless, our reserves had failed us once more and the wind was kicking up. It would be a useless, pointless, bloody attempt to go on to Gemini and Sherman. We ate our lunch and began the retreat.
Josh hiking out below Dyer Mountain's South Slopes
The hike down the Southeast Slopes into Iowa Amphitheater and out on the road took a little more than an hour. Difficulty is everything I suppose, though we were aided by a ride from some folks at the higher trailhead. We returned to camp, took it down and left the mountains. Overall I consider the operation a success, since there were no casualties or even near casualties, and we achieved three objectives. The battle won, we went back to our homes, knowing we would be back for another tour sometime soon. The war is far from over.
To see more pictures from this trip (many scenics and conditions photos) please visit my web album at:
Cliffs in Iowa Amphitheater
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):