| Airy summits in the Middle Cimarron
Middle Cimarron of the Northern San Juans
Peaks – Coxcomb (13,656), Redcliff (13,642), "Heisshorn" (13,411)
Camp @ 11,200 feet in Middle Cimarron Basin
Day 1 – Coxcomb via West Chimney/Ridge, Redcliff via Southern Slopes
Quick thing about the San Juan Mountains. With my new job and remnants of unemployment debt I needed to take care of, I thought my trips to the San Juan trips would be very limited in 2010. Thus far, I've spent more time in them than ever before, their pull has proved too strong for my impulses, but reflecting on the magnitude of the trips, I don't have one single regret. Everything seems to work itself out when I head down there, I have a 100% success rate, not so much in terms of mountains climbed, but in having a good time. Whether its taking the train for an adventure into the Weminuche, nearly crashing my car trying to pick the best ski line around Red Mountain Pass, drinking a Modus Hoperandi with the sun on our backs in Yankee Boy Basin or just admiring the mind bending views the range has to offer, I can't think of a better place on earth. I've always joked that if I found gainful employment in Durango, I would cease from searching any further for an enjoyable life, but there is some truth to that. With that said, I found myself getting "dragged" into a further excursion in their reclusive Cimarron Valley with my good buddy Glen.
Glen and I met up in Summit County after work and made way for Gunnison Friday afternoon. Drive went quick and we were at the Middle Cimarron TH by 7:30pm. These route descriptions are all described in Cooper's 50 Classic Scrambles book, so I'll refrain from the gory details, just a little personal opinion and experience. Regarding the drive to the trailhead, allow yourself an extra hour if you are on a timeframe, it takes a while to drive 25 miles down the dirt road from rt.50.
We did most of the approach to our campsite in the dark :
full moon on a surprinsgly clear night
And found the perfect campsite around 11,200 feet give or take 50 feet around treeline and about 100 yards below the Coxcomb Trail turnoff. Glen set up the Hilleberg while I cooked some cheese and bacon bits quesadillas. We broke out of our routine of tortolini and decided to try something different this go around, along with a stack of Salt n' Vinegar Pringles.
a lit up Hilleberg with the moon through the trees
Alarm went off at 345am. For anyone who owns a Hilleberg tent, you probably know how much more difficult it is to get up in the morning. They definitely have the feel of backcountry luxury and seem to be worth every penny, just a FYI. After some cold breakfast and some water filtering, we hit the trail around 445am and veered off the Coxcomb Trail soon after. In the dark, it was difficult to remain on the trail, mainly cause there is no trail at first, you just need to follow the posts held in the ground by the cairn piles here and there. Having done this mountain two years ago, I knew the general vicinity of the route, so we just improvised till the sun popped up.
The morning came with its many perks….
Glen in between a silouhette of El Punto and Heisshorn
Red Sky climbing over El Punto
gaining the saddle to the South of Coxcomb
Upon reaching the saddle to the South of Coxcomb's South face, we had some really nice views of the San Juans. We decided to keep our elevation and traversed across the talus slopes to the SE shoulder. This saved dropping down a couple hundred feet and the talus was surprisingly solid, for the most part. We rounded the corner and found the alcove entrance to the West Chimney and eventually the summit ridge.
The Alcove and class 5 chimney
The climbing here was fun, exposed and involved some tricky maneuvers. Cooper calls this tough class 4 when dry, I disagree. This is exposed, vertical low and mid 5th class terrain in every sense of the word. Just a FYI. The initial climb in to the alcove is a short 4th class move, but upon your first couple moves in the narrow chimney, its 5th class, no beating around the bush. We climbed the left branch of the chimney, I'm not sure about the right chimney.
getting into 5th class move terrain
looking down the chimney crux - Glen
The chimney is barely wide enough for someone to fit through and involves some acrobatic moves with all 4 limbs. The exposure seems a lot worse on the descent and we decided to rappel the 80 or 90 feet to safer ground on the way back. Once we topped out on the chimney, we had the notch along the summit ridge to look forward to.
Glen checking out the cooler looking side of Wetterhorn
The views in all directions were distracting. I tried to wait till the summit to enjoy them, this ridge is damn exposed. Sheer couple hundred foot drop-offs on either side. This is an incredibly dramatic mountain and aesthetic climb, perfect intro to tougher 5th class routes.
Glen set up the rappel at the notch and we dropped the 20 or so feet to the col, left the rope there and traversed the rest of the exposed ridge to the summit.
I'm coming back for atleast Courthouse and Precipice
Glen checking out the edge at the summit
We saw some people on both Wetterhorn and Uncompaghre, as well as a group meandering up Redcliff. Since we didn't have enough rope to reach the saddle between the two, we had to backtrack and traverse around Coxcomb on its northern slopes, more on that later.
It was still early and clouds weren't threatening, so we retraced our steps back to the alcove entrance. Glen belayed me back up to the rappel station and he decided to solo it (he's a much better climber than me). Upon reaching the top of the chimney, we used a sling already in place with a locking biner, reinforced it with our 2nd to last sling and made the rappel down to the bottom of the chimney. Since we had time, we rappelled down the alcove entrance to the talus slopes below, greeted another group going up and made our way for the northern slopes of the peak towards the saddle with Redcliff.
Rappelling the chimney.
Note to all climbers : DO NOT TAKE THIS ROUTE!!! The northern slope of Coxcomb is a mud/rock slide waiting to happen, ending in a massive cliff into West Fork Basin. If you don't have enough rope to rappel from the summit to the saddle and you want to climb Redcliff, my suggestion is to retrace your steps all the way back to Middle Cimarron and climb up the middle of the cliff bands, that holds a weakness, to gain the saddle between the two peaks. It's a lot longer but a lot safer. Its actually not longer cause it took us 2 hours to traverse this loose crap.
Anyways, enough of the drama, we made it and it sucked, but a lesson learned, or something like that. F'ing mud. We charged up Redcliff, signed the register, ate some grub and made our way for the weakness in the cliff bands at the saddle, making it back to camp around 1pm, just as it began to drizzle a bit.
After a hearty quesadilla meal, some Dales and New Castles and the rest of the chips, we took a load off for a bit while it began to pour. It rained from 2pm till about 7pm, on and off pretty hard. We hit the sack around 9pm, but not before I got a nice shot of the sky turning red with a small break in the clouds to the North….
painting the sky red
Day 2 – "Heisshorn" and pack out
Alarm went off at 4am, but we slept in till about 6, on the trail very soon after. The skies had cleared and we set our sights on "Heisshorn" (or unnamed pt.13,411). As we reached the hills below the pass linking Middle and East Fork Valleys, we were greeted with some otherworldly views of the basins and most strikingly, Precipice Peak.
shelf above Middle Cimarron
Precipice Pk - one hell of an aesthetic looking peak
Wetterhorn/Matterhorn from the saddle
Heisshorn - knife edge
"Heisshorn" actually didn't look too bad till you view it up close and are on the middle of the ridgeline. There are 3 sections of note : 1) The exposed knife edge 2) The even more exposed knife edge that goes straight up and finally 3) The sketchiest class 4 section I have ever encountered on a mountain to date beneath the summit block. From the saddle till halfway up the ridge, Glen and I were joking, quoting movies, laughing, enjoying life. Without even needing to acknowledge the intimidating view of the rest of the route, things got silent pretty damn fast. "Heisshorn" is a peak I'm glad I did and I'm 150% sure I'll never do again. I had a vision as I was downclimbing off the summit of plunging 1500 vertical feet to my death. What made this so scary was the fact I was leaning on a ridge spine that could've made this happen for me. For the first time in my life, I got a slight sense of vertigo, at a bad time and reached my comfort level, if not immensely exceeded it. I think Glen might've too, which is saying a lot, cause he doesn't spook easily in the mountains. He handled it better than me cause he's a better climber. There were no close calls and we climbed it extremely cautiously and conservatively, but the rock was so unstable, nothing was 100% certain.
Glen w/ the rest of Heisshorn
Matterhorn and Nellie Creek basin
Middle Cimarron Valley
Like I said, extremely exposed
The Heisshorn and its exposed summit
We reached the summit a little before 9am. The views were probably the best of the entire region, being smack dab in the middle of it all, but to be honest, I was so uneasy, I didn't want to linger and lose any sort of concentration. There were 14 names since 2007 when the register was implemented. This comes as no surprise, had this mountain been any more popular, I'm convinced the majority of the rock would've shed off bit by bit and it would no longer reach 13,000 feet anymore, its that loose!
The downclimb off the ridge from the summit was about as serious as it gets. We had to scale a knife edge littered with loose rock, a 1000 foot freefall to our right and series of steep ledges to our left. I let out a breath heard from the Weminuche when I reached the first sign of "stable ground". No such thing exists on this mountain. Glen didn't show as much blatant anxiety as I did, but he definitely agreed this was a sketchy mountain. Its guidebook worthy and an exhilarating climb, just don't make a habit of going back for seconds, your luck will run out, as well as solid rock to grip on to, I get chills just thinking about it. If you enjoy crapping your pants, then this is the mountain for you. You can crap your pants till your hearts contempt and I honestly don't think your partner below you will mind being crapped on cause he'll/she'll be glueing him/herself to any sort of solid hand and foothold.
The gentle slopes of Uncompaghre to the East calmed my nerves, even more so when we reached the saddle.
Uncompaghre Peak from the West
We reconnoitered for a minute to discuss our interest in "El Punto". The talus riddled slopes and our hunger levels had us at a mutual "f**k that". We were both burnt out with loose rock and wanted to get home at a reasonable hour for a change. We also agreed that you don't HAVE to climb everything in a guidebook. Bottom line, we were on safe ground, we were content, there was no reason to add "El Punto" to the list for the weekend.
El Punto from the saddle
We got a nice parting shot of "Heisshorn" on the way out
Heisshorn from down low in the valley
And made way back to camp to pack up and head out.
Most people say hikes out are uneventful, but this afternoon was the exception. It was a damn fine pleasure, sans the cows and their poop. The sun was still shining, the flowers were in prime bloom and we had some cold beers in the car to look forward to, as well as some pizza at Amica's in Salida.
Shots of the hike out…..
Coxcomb on the way out
3 things to remember regarding the Cimarron. 1) Don't traverse around Coxcomb to Redcliff 2) Don't underestimate the "Heisshorn" and 3) Don't miss out on this basin, its amazing
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):