| The Mountain Exceeds Expectations
October 17-18, 2009: ~25 miles, 6,500 feet of elevation gain.
Rio Grande Pyramid - Colorado Rank 97
Point 13,278 - Co Rank 417
Point 13,261 - Co Rank 430
Simpson Mountain - Co Rank 711
My destination for this weekend was pretty much up in the air until the last minute. After a call to the Forest Service informed me that there wasn't much snow yet in the RGP area, I decided to give it a try since it was the highest on my "wish list" and the weekend weather looked absolutely perfect. I debated on whether or not to try and track down a partner or two to accompany me, but the last 6-8 weeks have been pretty hectic so I thought I'd escape my 17-hour days of recent and get as far away from a TV to forget how dreadfully horrible my fantasy football team is and just be by myself for a little while. I wasn't sure what the snow levels would be like so I substituted my winter boots for the space normally occupied by my camera bag. I only had a little digital point and shoot for this trip. I wish I had brought my big SLR since I never needed the boots, but hindsight...
I drove out to the trailhead on Friday night after meeting my family for dinner at Outback, arriving a little after 11:00. It wasn't a full night's sleep and I had no idea how little insulation my car had so I basically froze that first night. All of my warmer layers were packed away as I didn't think they were needed until I was in a tent. The alarm went off at 5:00 and I was in no rush to move. I hit the snooze a couple of times before breaking out the thermos of hit chocolate to get me going.
I finally hit the trail around 6:30 and made good progress in the early going. Around 8:00, about ¼ mile past the first stream crossing, I found a grass slope that would lead a couple hundred feet above/west of the trail in the general direction of Simpson Mountain. I thought this would be my best bet to tackle these guys early on as opposed to doing an out-and-back from RGP. Once in the trees, there was obviously no trail to follow so I got some very good topo practice in – I'm actually getting pretty comfortable with a map now. The bushwhack wasn't that bad at all, even considering the 3-4 inches of snow cover. I guess the summer of exploring the Gores have raised my tolerance for deadfall and underbrush. It got a little difficult between 10,900 and 11,200 but nothing too terrible. I found the north fork of what would have been the second creek crossing and followed that to the last incline to the northeast of Simpson. While in the trees, I followed several game trails and even came across a bear track – and he wasn't too far in front of me by the looks of how fresh the print was.
Bear Tracks Found During My Off Trail Work
A Look NE to the Baldy Cinco Group
I made it to treeline at 10:00 amid a vast expanse of willows and marshes just to the northeast of Pt. 12,799 (the NE point of Simpson Mtn). It was an easy walk among grassy tundra over 12,799 to Simpson. The view when I hit the summit ridge literally took my breath away. I now saw why I came all this way… the Grenadiers and Needles in a nice winter blanket was just on the other side of Ute Valley and they were absolutely stunning. I made it to Simpson's summit at noon and took a well deserved break since I was a little worn out from carrying my 40-50 pound pack through all of that snow. The bright side was that the remaining route was virtually snow free and could be negotiated without worry. RGP looked a bit too white from this vantage, but I'd cross that bridge when I got there. I just wanted to enjoy the moment while I was up there.
A First Look at RGP from Simpson
At the base of 13,261
The grass slopes similar to those that offered Simpson's summit plotted the way to Pt. 13,261. My legs were fighting me more and more, but I slowly made my way over to my next destination. I had to go about 100 feet higher than the summer route because of the snowy slope to the NW of the saddle. 13,261 has a very interesting summit pyramid and held some fun Class 2+ terrain from the base up to the summit. I reached the summit around 1:45 and stuck around for 15 minutes trying to get my legs back under me.
RGP from Pt. 13,261 - still looking awfully snowy
Looking back at Simpson Mountain from 13,261
The west side of the 13,261/13,278 saddle
The descent off of 13,261 was pretty challenging. The south ridge/SE face was very loose and slick. Once off of 13,261, Pt. 13,130 really impedes your progress. I skirted 13,130 to the east, avoiding as much snow as possible, but had to endure sidehilling on ballbearings. Under normal circumstances, going right up and over looked to be fun Class 3-4 scrambling, but tired legs, a full pack on my back, and the fact that it was getting late pushed me down and around it. The north ridge of 13,278 was a very easy Class 1+ walk which was just what I needed at that point in the day. I made the summit at 3:45 and studied my options for RGP. If I could just get to the summit pyramid, I was home free. There seemed to be plenty of dry rock up there, just how I would get there was the question. I didn't like the standard route since the gullies were filled with snow and I wanted no part of those since they surely weren't safe. The broad shoulder coming off to the SE held some promise if I could just get up on top of it. Pretty much everything to the South and East was dry so I thought I'd descend and try to get a look over to that side.
RGP from 13,278 - hints that I may have a route up the SE face.
I wanted to get to camp before 5 pm to get situated before it got too cold. So I only stayed on the summit until around 4 pm before heading straight down into the valley. I noticed a small pocket of trees that looked like it would be a cozy little place to set up for the night. About 100 yards to the south of the trail, I settled in around 12,150 feet – right below the mountain I've admired from about every San Juan summit I've stood on.
Home sweet Home
A look up at RGP from camp
The evening was spent cooking dinner, melting snow for water, watching a video that was still on my camera of my daughter swimming on our summer vacation, and reading until it was too cold to have my hands outside of my sleeping bag. I turned off my lamp around 8:00 and I don't think it took but 2 minutes to be out.
Sunset from my tent door
A short while later, I woke up to a harmony of coyote barks. I could make out 1 or 2 adults and a handful of puppies. I was entertained until I realized how close they were to my tent. I then heard 2 other groups to the other side of me and I now realized they were communicating – and I was the topic of conversation. Not sure what to do, I grabbed my knife and headlamp and stood in the doorway of my tent shining the light all around me with a hiking pole in one hand and my knife in the other. After a few minutes I ducked back into my tent and hoped that was the end of it. Coyotes aren't aggressive and luckily this bunch was more curious than brave.
Sunrise from my tent door
I was sound asleep again in no time and slept pretty solid until first light woke me around 6:30. A little prep work and I was on the move by 7:15. From camp, it looked like the se edge of the shoulder was dry, all it would take is a little willow bashing to get to the base of it. I found all of the tracks from the coyotes and they got within 10-15 yards of my campsite – that would have really been an interesting turn of events had they decided to get any closer. The climb up the shoulder was loose-ish, but luckily it was frozen from the previous night – dry, but frozen. That shoulder is huge and offered a very unique perspective of the Window (which I had to save climbing for another trip). Fortunately, I had dry ground between me and my objective. The only real difficult part of the climb was about 200 feet up the summit pyramid where snow blocked the standard route so I had a little slick Class 3 stuff to negotiate. Not too terribly difficult though and I stuck with the ridge most of the way up. It held a little more snow than the terrain to my left, but it was much more solid. I'll make that trade-off any day.
The Window From My Ascent Route
Clear Sailing to the Summit
The summit came abruptly at 9:45 and I didn't take much time to start admiring the absolutely amazing views. RGP is either #1 or 2 for views in the state for me so far. Peak R is tough to beat but this one is right up there. Nothing to do but just sit, eat my chex mix, and realize how fortunate I was to be on this mountain and experience the Weminuche Wilderness in those conditions. No distractions, stress, or otherwise, just me and my thoughts – therapy at its best. I someday hope to be content with my depth of exploration of this state but it seems every trip spawns curiosity of another half dozen places I want to visit. I knew going in that I'd want to come back for Window Peak and 13,017/12,724B (which I'm now penciling in on a loop up Ute Creek) and the Oso massif is very high on my priority list. But, what caught my eye on this trip was that the Eastern Weminuche had some interesting characters popping up on the horizon. If anyone has any beta on that area and/or recommendations, I'd love to hear them.
A look back at the 13ers/Simpson
There was a brand new summit register and the only name on it that I recognized was DelSur's. I felt obligated to sign it since I was probably closing out the 2009 season for RGP. I can't imagine anyone getting up this thing in winter – but would love to hear the epic tale if anyone knows of the feat being accomplished.
Looking up at RGP and my ascent route
After a good 20 minutes, I started to make my way down the loose SE face and was back at camp around 11:45. I quickly packed up and started down the trail. I thought my adventure was over with but the trail held its own obstacles. Up high it weaves through willows and the trail served more as a snow ditch than anything resembling a trail. So, until treeline I would have a nice wet 5 or 6 inches of snow to contend with. Once in the trees the snow dissipated but there was a solid ¼ mile of nasty bushwhacking as trees were downed lying on top of one another creating a maze of pine to negotiate. This stretch was much harder than anything I had encountered the day before when I was miles from a trail. I actually chose to ascend into ankle deep 1 inch pebbles about 60 feet above the trail to bypass the junk. After the trail heads north and starts to descend to Weminuche Pass, the snow was anywhere from 6 to 8 inches deep but the hunters had packed down the trail to the point that it was easy to follow. I was glad that I chose to come up over Simpson because the amount of snow may have deterred me from proceeding as I wouldn't have been very confident that the mountain was climbable given the conditions in this area. I met up with the Weminuche Trail around 1:40 and the snow faded away but now the issue was the mud. The trail was the kind of mud bog that may cost you a boot should you step in the right place. So, instead of following the nice trail out, I chose to wander through the woods about 3-5 feet to either side so I could actually walk and keep my shoes on my feet. I thought the surprises were over but the best was yet to come. As the trail descends into the canyon to the main bridge that crosses the creek, a very slick layer of ice now covered the mud with a slight layer of water running down it. This area took every ounce of concentration in order to keep me upright. From the bridge to the trailhead it basically alternated between ice and mud, mud and ice, until finally, at 3:45, I was back at the car ending one heck of an adventure and an experience I won't soon forget.
The creek from the bridge crossing
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