Eureka Mtn A - 13,507 feet
|Eureka Mountain West Ridge|
I hadn't been planning a climb for this day, but on awakening I checked the weather and it looked perfect for a late start. There aren't many monsoon days that don't have thunderstorms forecast for the afternoon, but when you get one with a 20% chance or less it's a shame to waste it. I'd been eying Eureka Mountain for some time, including two "failed" attempts - one when I bushwhacked up San Isabelle creek for hours, only to arrive at the San Isabelle-North Crestone "pass" way too late to continue up to the top, and the second when I was distracted into climbing 13054 instead.
Distance: 14 miles (per GPS)
Elevation gain: 4923 ft (per GPS)
The route here is the North Crestone Trail, up to the North Fork of the North Crestone (NFNC) Trail, up to the "pass" that cuts over into the San Isabelle basin. (This isn't really a pass, as it doesn't cross the mountains. It is a glacial formation whose name I cannot find, cutting across between basins.) The lower part of this trail is long, flat, and long. From the trailhead at ~8550' it's about 2.5 miles up to the "three forks" intersection at ~9800'. There are a couple of switchbacks, but it's mostly straight walking. The first section is on an old 4wd road; this road is no longer drivable though still shown on some maps. The start of the route is at the 2wd parking lot at the top of the North Crestone Campground. Although this is already pretty well into the canyon, there is still a long ways to go before you get anywhere. In short, it's a long walk.
At the three forks intersection, the trail splits into three upward paths. To the right, the main trail continues toward North Crestone Lake (the
"Lake Fork"). Also to the right, is a nice efficient trail up to Comanche Pass ("Middle Fork"); alas, I would not be taking this one. Off to the left goes the "North Fork", up into the large area that includes Venable Pass, the Groundhog Basin, and yet another spur trail up to the San Isabelle "pass". Though the snowmelt-bred mosquitoes were dying down by this point in the summer, the biters were bad around the fork and stayed awful until around 11000'. I put up with them longer than I should have, before stopping for full-on mosquito gear in the form of long sleeves, long pants, and a head net. They weren't quite bad enough to warrant gloves, but it was close. The trail starts on the east side of the creek, but crosses over several times; there were also multiple places where it was rerouted slightly due to downed trees and a bit of effort was needed to avoid losing the trail.
Despite the obstacles of mosquitoes and distance that this basin seems to always offer, I made good time down low. From three forks, it's another 4 miles up to the "pass" at ~12460. I probably did push too much during the mosquito sections, and this lead to me slowing down a lot once I was out of treeline and the views got good. After passing the groundhog basin, the trail contours around inefficiently to the right/east before splitting in a T; the trail to climber's left goes over into the San Isabelle basin while the one to the right heads to Venable pass. A few minutes can be saved by cutting off this unnecessary contour, which I did on the descent.
Around the treeline area there's an obvious empty area, which appears to be a large and old burn. A few young trees and the occasional dead husk are the only markers in a landscape of grass and willows. Around this time Eureka came into view briefly; it had previously been blocked by the shoulder of its south ridge and would soon disappear as I moved directly underneath the peak. The picture I got of it does not show the whole thing, but does show the "false summit" to be overcome on the way up the mountain. Despite the lack of photographs, I studied this obstacle pretty closely.
I had already passed a pair of hikers descending from a multi-night camp and ascent of the excellent Venable peak. In my several visits to to the North Fork basin previously, this already exceeded the median and average number of hikers I passed by about 2; little did I realize it was only the beginning. Somewhere above 12k, I passed another pair of hikers descending from an ascent of Eureka. While trying to avoid letting my mind get blown by the sudden popularity of the area, I did get a bit of beta. They said that the ridge had a few scrambly places, that they climbed the south (higher) summit, and that the north summit looked challenging. Having been previously unaware of the dual-summit nature of the peak, I foolishly didn't inquire further on the topic. Nor would this be the end: right after I arrived at the San Isabelle "pass", I watched 4 hikers and 2 dogs ascend up from the San Isabelle side. This group, who sounded like they were from Westcliffe, had ascended Hermit Pass, camped at Rito Alto lake, crossed two "passes" into the North Crestone basin, where they intended to camp a second night before crossing Venable Pass and take the Phantom Terrace trail over to Comanche Pass before descending for a loop. Certainly a fun outing.
My pace had been pretty slow, and I ended up sitting around at the "pass" for a long, enjoyable time trying to decide if it was going to rain. In the end I felt no more waiting would be helpful for my decision and just headed up the last ~1100 feet of the Eureka west ridge.
Though I had eyed the ridge closely from below and determined that bypassing the false summit to the south would be an easy tundra walk that saved some unnecessary elevation gain, I was unable to make use of this information. Up until the false summit at 13200', the ridge is an easy tundra walk. However, it turns out there is a very narrow window to actually exit from this tundra to bypass the rocky false summit. Although doing so would probably keep the difficulty at class 1-2, I missed the cutoff until I was up in the rocky area with no exit to either side. I continued up to the top of the false summit (still class 2), where the rest of the route came into view. It was a class 3 descent off of this summit, that included about 15 feet of real but non-exposed scrambling, then some more class 2 up to the summit block. Though the descent from the false summit was certainly the crux of the route technically, I'm not sure it was any harder or more dangerous than contouring around would have been; the amount of elevation loss was pretty minimal. I will say, this section was a lot more fun to climb (on the way back) than it was to descend.
After the false summit, I went straight up the ridge. This was more tundra walking, with a few rocky sections. The last 20-40 feet up to the summit were pretty fun, going right up the summit block along a series of large slabby boulders. It reminded me of what the Sunlight summit block looks like, only without the exposure; this section probably wouldn't be fun when wet. All in all, this was a fun little ridge: nothing loose, with maybe 100 feet of mildly exposed scrambling and 1000 feet of beautiful tundra walking. It could be compared to the west ridge of Adams, though lighter on both the scrambling and the exposure.
Though I'd been told about it earlier in the day, I had completely neglected the possibility of multiple summits. So when I got to the top of the westnorthwest summit and saw a second, cairned, summit to the ESE, I was more than a bit surprised. I popped out my phone and attempted to consult the internet, but unlike most Sangre summits this one didn't give me 3g. As near as I could tell (and confirmed later), LoJ listed the southeastern summit as higher. I couldn't check this until later, but 13ers.com cops out by marking the summit halfway along the ridge. The USGS database also appears to have the summit marked at the eastern end of the ridge. (A note on nomenclature: the ridge runs almost straight east-west; however, the hikers I'd talked to earlier referred to a north and south summits. The eastern summit is very slightly further south.)
Having plenty of time, I decided to scramble over to the eastern summit. This was easier than it looked, though looser than anything I'd passed so far.
So here's what I know. The first picture above was taken about 1 foot above the NW summit, as I sat on a convenient block right below the tiny summit block. The second picture was taken 3-6 feet above the SE summit, as I was sitting or standing on that summit as I took it. Despite this, the NW summit stands well above the horizon while the SE summit is visibly beneath it; those two pictures alone should convince anyone the NW summit is higher. Secondly, my barometer showed about 1/4 of a millibar of pressure increase as I moved to the SE summit, corresponding to about a 7 foot loss of altitude; of course, measuring altitude by barometer is not the most precise (I suspect the difference is more than 7 feet). Third, while the SE summit was a boring grassy knoll with a class 2 trail bypassing the summit block and leading up to it, the NW summit was a tiny, exposed rock absolutely covered in sheep (not goat, since there are no goats in the Sangres) scat where I had to look carefully just to find a clean place to sit. We all know that sheep would not be fooled by a fake summit. Neither summit had a register that I could find, though I did not look deep under the rocks and scat of the NW summit.
Oh well. I risked the wrath of the gods by knocking down the cairn on the SE summit, then contoured around the summit block of the NW summit along a rather steep slope with an obvious use trail. Back on the west ridge, I considered my alternate plan for the day: continuing north across to Hermit and Rito Alto peaks, then descending the Rito Alto basin. Sadly, that would mean getting to the Rito Alto trailhead very late, where I'd still have to convince someone to drive up from Crestone and give me a ride back. These peaks would have to wait for another day. I will say that the north ridge of Eureka looked spicy, though I suspect there is an easy way through the cliffy obstacles it seemed to present.
Instead, with an eye on the line of thunderstorms over the wet valley (very non-monsoon-like) that was vaguely moving in my direction, I headed back down the ridge.
From the uphill side, the challenge of the false summit seemed quite a bit more obvious. A rather obvious trail (visible from the spot I took the above picture, but not particularly easy to see in the photo) contoured around the rock formation on the south side of the ridge. Unfortunately, it went right under the snow, which I wasn't about to cross and didn't seem worth bypassing. Bypassing the formation on the north is not a good idea, as is obvious from the photo. Further, the scrambling up to the top of that formation would be easy on the ascent, so that's what I did. I am 90% sure there is a class 2 bypass on the south side of the ridge, which might make the summit class 2 with some route finding through the summit block. Sticking to the ridge proper is probably the best way up the mountain, however.
Unfortunately, I had one final obstacle to overcome. I had used hiking poles on the route up, which were rather essential during the creek crossings. On crossing the false summit, I put these in my pack to free my hands for easy scrambling. On reascending the false summit, I took them back out again. My mind must not have been working because when I stopped shortly after this to take in the views, I simply left them there on the mountain and continued down. This was quite the mistake, and I didn't realize it until the first creek crossing thousands of feet below. I suspect the marmots got a good meal out of the sweat I left on them...
A bit of rain on the hike out was no deterrence, as I planned ahead and geared up for the mosquito crossing between 9500 and 10500 feet. From the high point just west of the three forks creek crossing, I jogged the last 2+ miles out. All the time I'd spent resting and admiring views on the high portions of the trail left me with plenty of energy to hoof it out. Eureka is a good mountain, and the West Ridge route is quite fun. The 6.5 mile, 4000 foot approach needed to get to the start of the ridge is pretty tedious, and can only be justified by appreciating the beautiful basin it passes through. Fortunately, this isn't hard to do.
My GPS Tracks on Google Maps (made from a .GPX file upload):
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