Peak(s):  Lizard Head  -  13,113 feet
Date Posted:  08/28/2012
Date Climbed:   08/25/2012
Author:  Hoot
 Lizard Head - Southwest Chimney  

Lizard Head (13,113')
Date: 25 August 2012
Climbers: Rich, Nathan, and Hoot
Trailhead: Cross Mountain Trail off Colorado 145
Route: Southwest Chimney (5.8 PG)
Distance: ~ 8 miles round trip
Elevation gain: 3100 feet
Time: 10 hours, 26 minutes total, 2:16 approach, 5:23 climbing, 1:55 return

Three years ago while climbing nearby Gladstone Peak I got a great view of Lizard Head from the north in Bilk Basin. It looked just like the head of a lizard with its mouth open and pointed toward to sky.

The Lizard showing its tongue and teeth

Located about 16 miles southwest of Telluride in the San Miguel range of the San Juan mountains, Lizard Head is an impressive 350' tower formed by the eroded remains of an ancient volcano core. With two 5.8 trad pitches on its easiest route to the summit, Lizard Head is generally regarded as Colorado's most difficult peak to summit. It is definitely the most technical of Colorado's 637 ranked peaks over 13,000 feet*. When first ascended in 1920 by Albert Ellingwood and Barton Hoag using 3 pitons, a hemp rope, and nailed boots, it may have been the most difficult technical rock ascent completed in the United States. In addition to requiring technical climbing, the tower is loaded with loose and crumbling rock. Lizard Head has been on my stretch to-do list for a while.

Rich, Nathan, and I left Colorado Springs around 2:30 pm on Friday afternoon and arrived in Telluride around 9 pm. We shared a room in the comfortable and reasonably priced (for Telluride) Victorian Inn. After a good night's sleep and breakfast in the room, we left a little before 6 am and drove down Colorado 145 over Lizard Head Pass to the well-marked Cross Mountain Trailhead parking lot. There were a few other cars in the parking lot and we were a little worried that we might be behind other climbers. We started hiking from the trailhead at 6:23 am and made good progress up the well-maintained and easy to follow Cross Mountain trail. Along the way we had great views of Lizard Head which became more intimidating the closer we got. At about 11,920', we joined the Lizard Head trail and followed it a quarter mile northwest to Lizard Head's southwest ridge. There we left the main trail and followed a faint climber's trail up the ridgeline through talus and loose white flat shale-like rocks.

Srambling up the west ridge

When we reached the base of the tower at the top of the ridge, we traversed counter-clockwise about 200 feet and came to the easy to recognize start of the first pitch. It took us 2 hours and 16 minutes to reach the start of the climb from the trailhead. We were fortunate to have Lizard Head to ourselves for the day.

For the three of us, we carried two 70m ropes and a rack and a half of cams up to #5. For two climbers, a single 70m rope would have been sufficient (but not a single 60m). While I am reasonably comfortable following on a 5.8 pitch, I am not comfortable leading 5.8 trad. As planned, Rich led the two technical pitches, starting the climb at 9:20 am.

Soutwest Chimney Topo

While Nathan belayed Rich in the cool shade, I took pictures while sitting in the sun. Nathan was able to belay about 10 feet left of the fall line to avoid the rocks that Rich knocked down. Rich had no problems leading up to the intermediate belay station about two thirds of the way up the full 115 foot pitch.

Rich at the intermediate belay station

After clipping into a slinged bolt, Rich continued past the belay station climbing to the left and slinging two pitons on a difficult face. After working that section for a while he eventually moved back to the right toward the chimney above the intermediate belay station and finished the first pitch climbing outside the chimney. He clipped the rope into the rappel slings located on the huge pointed flake to the right of the chimney and then climbed up about 10 more feet and built a belay anchor. Then Nathan climbed on Rich's belay from above. Nathan pulled up the second rope and had no problems aside from cold fingers.

Nathan headed to the chimney above

He climbed in the chimney once he removed most of the protection Rich had set. I climbed up last on Nathan's belay. Low on the pitch I grabbed a hold with my left hand and pulled off a softball sized piece of rock. I continued testing all holds very carefully. The most challenging parts of the pitch for me were getting into and out of the chimney near the top. These moves felt like 5.7+/5.8- to me. I felt very comfortable working my way up in the chimney.

Remaining tied into the ropes, we reversed order and I took the lead on the third class scrambling traverse up very loose rock to the base of the second and final technical pitch.

Hoot on the loose scramble traverse

Roping up is not essential on this stretch, but an unarrested slip in the loose rock here would be very bad. The 70m rope was just long enough for the full traverse. I scrambled a little past the base of the upper pitch and slung a large rock to belay up Nathan and then Rich. The final pitch looked pretty difficult to me although much shorter than the first pitch. Rich built a workable two cam anchor at the base of the pitch and Nathan gave Rich an offset belay from about 10 feet left of the anchor to keep out of the line of falling rocks. As Rich was about to start the final pitch, it began to sleet and the sleet continued for about 15 minutes. The skies did not look too threatening, at least not on our side of the tower, but one of the scattered clouds was right above us. Rich was undeterred by the now wet rock and pushed onward and upward. The crux of the entire climb was a bulge about 15 feet above the base of the final pitch. Using an existing piton and his big #4 cam, Rich protected the move and pulled the wet crux with no problems.

Rich at the 2nd pitch crux in the sleet

Then at a Y junction about two thirds of the way up the pitch, Rich took the clearly more challenging left branch, somewhat to the dismay of Nathan and me. When anchored near the summit, Rich belayed Nathan up the pitch. Once again, Nathan pulled up the second rope and had no problems following Rich. By the time I started the final pitch on Nathan's belay, the rock was already starting to dry, still my fingertips got very cold on the rock. The start of the final pitch was a little awkward but not too bad. The crux was more difficult than anything on the first pitch, but it felt like 5.8 to me. I was able to get a very solid hand jam with my right hand which I used to pull myself up around the overhang. Big kudos to Rich for leading this section especially when wet. Above the crux, the climbing was easier and fun, especially the left branch finish.

I finished the pitch at Rich and Nathan who were anchored about 20 feet below the summit. Then I continued up the loose scree, reaching the summit at 1:07 pm. Lizard head's small summit is one of the coolest summits I've ever been on. The views and exposure were incredible. And with all the loose rock on the summit, it was nice to be on a rope. When viewed from the northwest, the true summit appears to be the lizard's nose. Reaching the rotten towers of crumbling rock to the northeast that form the lizard's tongue and jaw looked like a very difficult and dangerous feat. I wonder if anyone has stood on those summits.

The lizard's tongue and jaw (serious extra credit)

After taking a bunch of pictures and giving a silly "lizard pose" for a summit picture, I climbed back down and past Rich and Nathan, followed the loose ridge of rock to the east, and then very carefully climbed down to a rappel anchor.

Nathan does "the lizard" on the summit

While I was anchored in, Rich and then Nathan checked out the summit before climbing down to my position. While the anchor bolts (two bolts and an old piton) looked very solid in the rock, we wondered how solid the rock was in the tower. After throwing down the ends of one rope, I rappelled down first to a position just below the base of the last pitch. This fun rappel was well placed as there was almost no loose rock along the way. Once Rich and Nathan were down, I belayed the two of them simultaneously down the scrambling traverse. Rich set two cams along the way to protect my descent once they were anchored at the top of the first pitch. Again, a rope was not essential on the scrambling traverse, but it was even nicer to have on the way down. One 70m rope was just long enough for the final rappel down the full first pitch. Rich went down first followed by me and finally Nathan as it began to sleet again. When Nathan touched down at 2:43 pm, we have been roped together for 5 hours and 23 minutes. While two fast climbers could easily cut that time in half, we took our time enjoying the route and made sure we climbed it as safely as possible. Once back down on the Lizard Head Trail we celebrated our great success with high fives.

On the way back down we talked with other hikers and took lots of pictures of the peak. A few rain drops fell on us as thunder rumbled in the distance, but aside from the brief sleet episode, we had very good climbing weather. We returned to the trailhead at 4:49 pm after just under 2 hours of hiking down the trail. The full car-to-car round trip took us 10 hours and 26 minutes. Before starting the long drive home, we stopped in Telluride for a big veggie pizza at Baked in Telluride where I had eaten once before. With one stop for gas and one stop for coffee, we make it home 15 minutes after midnight.

Driving 13 hours in a day and a half to climb two rock pitches may sound a little crazy. But climbing Lizard Head was an incredible experience and I'm so glad I finally got around to it. Rich and Nathan were great partners and I really appreciate Rich taking the lead on the technical pitches.

* John Kirk notes that Lizard Head "is the hardest peak above 12461 with 300+ft of rise. Twin Peaks at 12461 is harder (5.9) and Turret Ridge at 12260 (5.9) is harder. The Index at 13340, is higher in elevation and more difficult, but rises only 240 ft. There are other peaks in CO with 300+ ft of rise in the 5.10+ range."

Parting shot of Lizard Head

My GPS Tracks on Google Maps (made from a .GPX file upload):

Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):

 Comments or Questions
I Man

Very cool!
08/29/2012 02:50
Congrats, great pictures and route info. I hope to do this route someday....when I am ready. Must feel awesome to stand on top


08/29/2012 03:28
Good work.


08/29/2012 04:12
That is some good stuff!


Really nice TR
08/29/2012 14:07
One of the better TRs on the Lizard I've seen Congrats on a nice climb!


Nicely done
08/29/2012 14:57
Great climb and nice TR!


08/29/2012 17:13
Congrats on a fine summit Hoot!


08/29/2012 17:59
I didn't understand the climbing speak but a climb of Lizard Head is very impressive in my book. Great job!


08/30/2012 08:31
amazing! Congrats!


Good job!
09/02/2012 00:42
Way to go Hoot & crew!

Dad Mike

08/12/2014 23:13
Nicely done Hoot. You the man.

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