| 3 nights, 4 days, 5 peaks in the Sawatch
This trip has been on the drawing board for several months. I suggested it to some others in a couple posts. I was able to coax one co-worker friend, Adam, to join me in the effort, and he was using it as a warm-up for a 60 mile section of the John Muir Trail later in the month. The idea was straightforward: hike from the Pine Creek TH (near the "town" of Princeton) to the Lake Creek TH (near the "town" of Everett) and summit five 14ers along the way- Oxford, Belford, Missouri, Huron, and LaPlata. It would take 3+ days and cover over 30 miles. I got the green light from the wife and everything was a go.
Image 1 is an overview of the route. The numbers are the rough mileage (according to mapmyrun.com), the red checkered markers are our proposed campsites, and the mountain icons are the summits.
Adam drove down from Ft. Collins Thursday afternoon (7/2) to my place. We consolidated some gear, weighed a few items to determine the lightest options, and off we went. After a stop at Wilderness Sports in Dillon and a late lunch at Smiling Moose, we were headed through Leadville and toward the Pine Creek trailhead. Judging from previous TRs I expected the parking area to be empty, but there were 3 or 4 other cars parked. We weighed our packs with my favorite Harbor Freight fisherman's scale; Adam's pack came in ~34 lbs and mine was ~32 lbs. We signed in and started hiking at about 5:45pm. We wanted to get to Little Johns Cabin ("LJC" @ 10,700') by dark and before any rain started falling.
The beginning and end of the trail was surprisingly flat; most of the elevation gain was in the stretch between 2.1 miles and 3.6 miles. The trail follows a raging Pine Creek until just shy of 10,400' where you reach the first basin and the creek calms considerably. Here the trail merges with the Colorado Trail and you cross a bridge to your right. Within a ¼-mile, the Colorado Trail branches off to the south (right) and you follow the sign for Elkhead Pass (left).
Photo 1 shows the tumultuous Pine Creek.
Photo 2 is a view of the first basin after crossing the bridge around 10,400'.
From the bridge crossing, there is still some 2½ miles to LJC. We knew it would be a close call to be there by dark and to stay dry. I hiked ahead as Adam didn't want to test his bad ankle just yet. About 10 minutes before reaching LJC the skies opened up and it was time to don rain gear. When I got to LJC, I was surprised to see six or seven tents set up around the area. There was another group camped on the south side of the creek (to climb Harvard, someone told me); the smoke from their campfire had told me I was close to LJC. I talked to some of the other campers and scouted out a site for the tent until Adam arrived a couple minutes later. We set up camp, ate dinner, made our plan for the next day (alarm set for 4 am), and went to bed.
Friday, July 3: OXFORD, BELFORD, MISSOURI
That alarm clock sure seems to go off early when you go to bed damp and wake up with condensation on the inside of the tent. We ate breakfast, packed up camp, and hiked 100 yards or so west to a little stream where we filtered some water for the ascent of Oxford. We were done filtering water and were actually hiking by 6:10am. Other TRs were not kidding when they said there is some bushwhacking to be done on this route. First of all, any trail that we were able to find was very broken up and segmented. Secondly, with the morning dew on all the trees and willows, we were both soaked within 10 minutes. The result of this unpleasant start to the day was that I didn't take any pictures until the summit.
Just shy of 11,400' there are some large rock faces that look forbidding to the casual hiker. There is one enormous rock with a smooth west face; we went along the west face of that rock and had to climb up five feet or so by holding on to some tree roots. That was probably the toughest part of the route-finding up Oxford. As we approached treeline, there was a grove of aspen on a steeper part of the slope. We found it easy to go around the left side of the aspens on some large rock to gain the ground above the aspen grove. From this point, the route departs from the stream and stays on the ridge. Lots of rock-hopping/scrambling above 12,000'. I found that as long as we were on the ridge and moving upward, we were moving effectively. By 9am we were on the summit enjoying the wind and lack of a view with some other hikers who came up the standard route from Belford. That was our next destination.
We spent 30 minutes or so on the summit before heading over to Belford. The traverse took us nearly 45 minutes as the saddle is pretty steep on the Belford side. (Maybe it is just as steep on the Oxford side, but we were going downhill.) The clouds that had socked in Belford's summit while we were on Oxford had blown away, but it seemed everything else was in danger of blowing away as well; it was cold and windy there. We stayed for less than 5 minutes before heading down into Missouri Basin. Roach says there is a trail down Belford's west slopes, but I'm now convinced there is not.
Belford's west slope has a lot of loose sand and scree. I believe Adam slipped and busted his tail no less than three times. Taking the trail toward Elkhead Pass and looping around into Missouri Basin would have been far more clearly defined and less likely to induce a fall. I got down into the basin and had to cross what I expected was a simple stream. It turned out to be a stream followed by 50 yards of soggy willows, so any drying my feet had experienced since the early morning bushwacking was negated. I suggested that Adam try to cross the stream further north of my soggy debacle. Meanwhile, the weather had improved considerably since the summit of Belford, so I tried to dry some wet gear in the late morning sun. By now it was about 11:15 am and we needed to get up to Missouri in order to be able to camp at Clohsey Lake that night. We had a snack in the basin and then I packed up my stuff that had dried- except for my still-wet socks and shoes.
As recently as the previous night we had been considering kicking steps in the "C couloir" to ascend Missouri. From where we stood at 12,800' with trail running shoes, no axes, and no crampons, any couloir sounded like a bad idea. Little did I know, I'd get more than my fill of steep snow later in the trip.
Photo 3 shows Adam going ahead with Missouri's couloirs above.
We took the standard trail to the NW saddle at 13,700'. Along the way Adam had some stomach pains, so we stopped for a few minutes while he had a couple Pepto chewables to calm his gut. After 15 minutes or so we were moving again, though Adam was slowed by the discomfort. At the saddle we decided to leave our packs while we went for the summit. (We thought the ridge to our NW was our route down. More on that in a bit...)
Photo 4: My pack at the large cairn at 13,700' with Belford in the background
We traversed the ridge toward the summit until we had to drop down 10' or so and cross a steep snowy slope. Steps were already kicked into the snow, so it was pretty easy to match left and right feet into the existing footprints. Using the trekking poles for additional support provided some mental assurance, if nothing else.
Photo 5 shows Adam crossing this snowy slope.
It is worth mentioning that this area could be bypassed by staying on the ridge crest and climbing up some rock, or more easily, by descending another 15 or 20' to a scree slope below the snow. The summit was not much further from here, and we sure were glad to get there. Our third summit of the day!
Photo 6: Adam isn't one to complain unless things are really bad, so he pantomimed how he felt.
This traverse took twice as long as we anticipated; we estimated maybe 20 minutes each way, but it was easily 30-40 minutes. After 10 minutes on the summit, it was almost 90 minutes before we were back to our packs. At this point we pulled out the map and route description and came to the realization that we wanted to descend the west ridge that was south of us (that we had passed over on the way to and from the summit- d'oh!). We shouldered our packs and headed back up toward Point 13,930'; halfway there we turned right and began descending Missouri's west slopes toward Clohsey Lake. From just above 13,000' I took Photos 7, 8, and 9.
Photo 7: Looking back up the west ridge of Missouri. Can you spot Adam?
Photo 8: Looking north toward the saddle where we stashed our packs (marked by arrow). We almost tried descending that ridge to the left- no thanks.
Photo 9: From Missouri's west ridge looking westward at Huron (far left), Point 13,518' (center), and Browns Peak (right of center). Descending this route gave a great view of tomorrow's route to Huron.
The faint trail fizzled out below the really big cairn around 13k. Nothing but grassy slopes until about treeline, so it was a pleasant descent.
Photo 10 shows Clohesy Lake from a clearing in the trees.
We got down to the lake and hiked to the end of the 4WD road, just above 11k. We were pretty well wiped out and wanted to get camp set up and start working on dinner. Adam was ready to set up shop next to one of the nearby fire rings, but I talked him into finding the Huron trail first, then picking a campsite. We walked down the road toward the TH at 10,800'.
The sign for Huron is just as Roach describes it; the trail, however, is not. We plodded through the woods on this trail for about 20 minutes until we ended up back at the lake- at the throat of the lake to be exact.
Photo 11: We crossed the stream barefoot and Adam almost went in the drink
Now on the west side of the creek, we went 100' or so up the slope in search of a campsite. Forty-five minutes later, frustrated, hungry, and now thirsty too, we came to the conclusion that no acceptable campsites were to be found on this side of the creek. Down we went, back to cross the creek. We stopped there to filter some water.
With my Camelbak full, I went off in search of a reasonable campsite. Adam wasn't too far behind and we agreed on a spot out of the private property and in a little meadow just north of the lake.
Photo 12: Our campsite north of Clohesy Lake
We set up camp, had dinner and enjoyed a nearly full moon to the south. We discussed the game plan for the next day: since Adam has done Huron before, plus his ankle was bothering him from the nearly 6,000 feet of elevation gained and lost during the day, he would pass on Huron and instead walk down the road to Rockdale, cross the creek(s), and head west to Winfield; I would summit Huron, then walk down the road to Winfield; we would meet at the 2WD TH near the Winfield cemetery, just west of town.
Saturday, July 4: HURON
The alarm went off on Saturday at 6am. After breakfast and packing up camp, we filtered more water to top off our reservoirs. At 8:10am I parted ways with Adam, crossed the creek barefooted (again) and headed up the trail. I followed a well-cairned trail through the woods and up into the basin above, gaining the first 1,500 feet in under 75 minutes. I was able to follow cairns all the way above treeline and up the grassy ridge below Point 13,518'.
Photos 13 & 14 show some of the cairns I followed in the basin to the grassy ridge below Point 13,518'.
At this point I knew the route was supposed to gain the saddle north of Huron, and I started to question which peak was Huron and where exactly I was. Atop the grassy ridge, I pulled out my map, the route description, compass (GPS was dead), and even the camera (to look at some pics I had taken on the descent from Missouri) and soon realized that I should be in the basin to my north- the basin east of the saddle/ridge that runs between Browns Peak on the north side and Point 13,518'.
I had two options: A) descend north several hundred feet down what looked like a loose scree slope into the correct basin or B) try ascending the ridge up to point 13,518'. It was decision time; I elected to try the ridge thinking that if it got too difficult I could descend back to the grassy area and go with option A.
I began up the south side of the ridge on some class 3 rock and was pleasantly surprised to see some cairns dotting the way. Not realizing how the rock along the ridge was broken into different "spires" of rock, I was surprised when I had to downclimb a bit before ascending the second bit of rock. There was a steep downclimb from the second segment of rock, and I did not see a route onto the third stretch of rock, so I tried the north side of the ridge.
The rock on the north side was not as solid as that on the south side and it was broken up by stretches of steep sand and scree. Those stretches of looseness between rock proved to be the worst of the whole route, until I came to the snow. There was a big, steep snowfield that I had to cross- maybe 50 yards across by a hundred feet down the slope. With no crampons or axe, I took advantage of the gap between the top of the snow and the vertical rock face, straddling the top of the snow and butt-scooting the first 30 yards of the way across. After 30 yards however, the rock ended on the uphill side of the slope and I had to kick steps into the slope while using a single trekking pole in piolet panne fashion.
There is nothing quite like kicking steps (with trail running shoes) into a slope whose snow is of unknown quality, wondering if your trekking pole will be able to arrest your fall if the snow gives way. I was scared. From there, the rock got looser and the sand/scree got steeper.
Photo 15 looks back at my traverse of the snow slope... ridiculous. You can see three sets of marks across the snow: my poles, my knees, and my feet.
I was scrambling up one stretch of rock, with three limbs on seemingly stable rock and I knew the rock under my left foot was loose. I kicked it loose so I wouldn't be tempted to use it for support and I watched it tumble down, down, down the slope. That gave me reason to pause and reevaluate things. This peak, this route, was not worth any fall that resembled what that rock had just taken. If it didn't kill me, I would be hurt pretty badly, and it would be a crapshoot if I'd even be conscious (no helmet). I thought of my wife and family, and carefully extracted myself from the precarious perch. Backtracking a couple moves, I found a more stable and easier route to the top of the ridge.
From the top of the ridge, I moved back to the south side- back on stable rock. I arbitrarily picked some rocks a ways out and scrambled toward them. Upon reaching them, I realized that I was on the ridge less than 10 yards (horizontally) from the summit of Point 13,518'. "Since this damn pile of rocks caused me so much grief, I'm at least going to stand on top of it" was all I could think.
Photo 16 shows me on the top of Point 13,518' with Huron Peak in the background.
Photo 17 is another version of Photo 9, but with my route shown in red and the correct route shown in green.
I made my way over to the base of the summit ridge at about 13,500', stashed my pack, and headed up to the summit. The 500' to the top took twenty minutes and I was on my fourth summit of the weekend at about 1:30pm.
Descending the standard trail as quickly as I could- actually jogging over some of the less rocky stretches- I wanted to get down ASAP to Winfield as I assumed Adam had been waiting a while. By the time I met up with Adam- around 3:30 or 4- it was starting to rain again, so we waited out the rain under some trees.
When the rain subsided we continued hiking west down the road to the 4WD TH. At 10,700' a rough road branches north and this is the beginning of the trail. We hiked up this road a bit and set up camp on the west side of the road. There were several fire rings in the area that indicated others had camped here before. What a perfect day this was turning out to be- a nearby creek with the cleanest water we'd seen all weekend, abundant sunshine, and a chance to dry out a few items- like the tent.
Photo 18: I had bought two 24 oz Coors Banquet tall boys and carried them the first two days. Adam was kind enough to take them as I went for Huron. After chilling the cans for twenty minutes in the creek near our campsite, it was time to enjoy the 4th of July Colorado style. Pulling them out of the creek felt like something from a Busch Light commercial.
Photo 19: We were treated to nearly cloudless skies and a spectacular moon after sunset.
Sunday, July 5: LAPLATA
We woke up twice during the night to the sound of rain. When the alarm went off at 5am and I still heard rain, I turned to Adam and said, "Let's give it an hour." I rolled over and went back to sleep. By 6am the precipitation had stopped.
Since the previous evening had been so nice, we had all our water ready and waiting for breakfast and our bladders filled. After breakfast and packing up camp, we were on the trail by 7am.
The hiking was not terribly difficult until we were through the muck and mud of the upper basin. The headwall of the basin was the steepest part of the hike and the biggest gasser. On the SW slopes, the route description is right on in saying that time is well spent in cairn-finding. We took our time in that department and had no difficulties. Once we gained the first false summit, it was two more to the top.
Photo 20: Adam and I enjoy the summit of LaPlata.
We met a couple with their yellow lab and another guy on the summit. We began descending as a group, but eventually got split up from the couple and their pup after a decent glissade. The "other guy" turned out to be super nice dude named Matt who sells books (mostly college textbooks) online under the alias bookmans_word. He used to live in Pitkin, CO, but now calls Chapel Hill, NC home. He was generous enough to offer us a ride back to Adam's truck at the Pine Creek TH, which was a 40 minute drive. Thanks a bunch, Matt.
The duration of the hike out, all I could think of was dinner- a Big Pizzle from Wyman's and no more boil-a-bag meals. After getting to Adam's truck and changing into fresh clothes, we stopped in Silverthorne for a quick nibble from Good Times before joining the hellacious 4th of July weekend traffic back to Denver.
As I write this TR (over a week removed now), I realize how ambitious the hike was and how glad I am to have a trip like this under my belt.
Thanks Adam, for the company and for pushing me, and good luck on the JMT. And anybody who can complete something like Nolan's 14 is an absolute maniac. (And I mean that as a great compliment.)
1) If you are going to use a single wall tent like the Rainshadow 2 from Tarptent (3 person tent, 44 oz), be ready to deal with moisture. We were unlucky to have had condensation on the interior of the tent every morning, which meant that sitting up in the tent would get your head (or hat) wet and brushing up against the sides of the tent got the shell of your sleeping bag wet. The first night (by LJC) we set it up in the rain and it was still really humid in the AM; night two (in the meadow by Clohesy Lake) the night was dead calm- even a slight breeze would have carried out the moisture; night three (West Winfield) it rained multiple times in the early morning. We were pretty unlucky in this regard because most nights in the Rockies are much drier than what Adam & I experienced on this trip.
2) The plain egg boil-a-bag meals are pretty rough. The first morning was tolerable; the second was pretty bad, but able to choke it down; morning three was improved because I had one with bacon bits, but I sure am glad there wasn't a fourth morning. On any kind of multi-day thru-hike, I learned that it is important to bring some "treats" for the trail. For me, it was the Coors Banquet and a few ounces of whiskey. Adam raised the bar with his few ounces of Jameson, summer sausage, crackers, Reese's Pieces and other snackage. If his snacks were the difference in our pack weights, I would have gladly carried the extra two pounds (or at least a half-pound's worth).
The one thing I had that was absolutely awesome was a few packs of the GU Chomps energy chews. They taste like Gushers (remember those?) but without all the sugar. Last food comment: I didn't eat any of the lunches I brought, so they are still in my pack and I would not take them if I were to do this again.
3) Having water ready for breakfast in the AM saved us at least an hour on the last day. We should have made the effort every night to top off all our water and to have enough ready for breakfast.
4) I think we lost the Huron trail less than ¼-mile from the sign along the road. We were in a small clearing (less than 10 yards square), where the trail gained 10' or so on either side of this lower area- before we entered the Private Property. There were a couple downed trees in this area to the west, so we didn't even bother trying to go that way. About 20 yards down the trail I stopped to look at my compass to make sure we were going in the right direction. Adam convinced me we were and the compass said we were going generally SW. In hindsight, we should have been going more westerly and explored the very faint trail beyond the fallen trees in this area. My gut tells me that was the direction of the Huron trail.
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):