Half Pk - 13,841 feet
Half Pk - 13,841 feet
|Spending the day in Cuba|
Half Peak (13,841')
Start Time: 6:00am
End: 3pm (approximately)
Distance: ~11 miles
Elevation gain: ~ 3200 feet
From Cuba Gulch TH at 10,700'
Way back in 2002 when I climbed Handies for the first time I remember looking over at Half Peak and was fascinated by it. The huge flat summit surrounded by cliffs looked crazy from that vantage point. As I continued my journey through the 14ers and the centennials I just never seemed to get back to Lake City to actually climb it. Eventually it was the only remaining centennial I had left around Lake City and it was time to finally climb the mountain I'd looked at years ago. A few weeks prior to this trip I attempted Half from Cataract Gulch. Even though the weather was good that day the fatigue from climbing the previous few days ended up turning us back about 1600 feet from the summit. When my friend wanted to do a climbing trip over Labor Day weekend the opportunity came to try again.
This time I decided to try the shorter way from Cuba Gulch. I knew the route finding would be more difficult this direction but the length of the Cataract Gulch route made me wary of trying it again. Plus I always enjoy trying something new. My friend was up for the challenge and after driving up the 4wd road to the trailhead we geared up with my dogs and set off about 6am.
The lower trail started out better than we expected. We had no trouble with the first creek crossing as there are some nice logs to walk across. We then made our way up the trail and crossed the gorge on a nice wooden bridge. Roach describes 4 creek crossings in his route description and we kept wondering if we were counting them correctly as some of the crossings didn't amount to much. After 45 minutes or so we crossed what we thought was the 3rd creek and started looking for the trail that heads up into Cuba Gulch. We found a strong looking trail headed up and assumed that it must be the right one. The trail eventually started to fade as we neared treeline and we had some trouble figuring out which way to go. We saw the edge of the trees and the start of the willows and debated the best place to venture into the giant valley of willows.
Leaving the trees
Into the valley of willows
Eventually I found what seemed to be a trail heading into the willows so we followed that. I can't describe the next part of the route in any detail except to say somehow we bashed our way higher up into the basin. All I can say is that you need to stay high on the right side of the valley. Resist any temptation to drop down and cross the stream early. Eventually you will find an area of open tundra on the right side of the valley and make easier time. There is still some willow bashing but at least the alleys are more obvious and the torture less frequent. At this point there is supposed to be a stronger trail in upper Cuba Gulch. We found it on the way down but it's really not worth the time and at least for a while isn't much of a trail. There are plenty of ways to get to the saddle between Half and PT 13,164 without the trail.
Maya scouts the way forward
View looking back
The saddle is actually relatively close now
Good view of Half
About 3 hours from the car we reached the saddle and had a snack before continuing.
Looking towards Cataract Gulch and Carson Peak
We had 1000 feet to go and about 1.25 miles according my GPS. The weather was fantastic and the views as we continued higher were breathtaking. The upper slopes of Half are gigantic and you can't really see the upper summit plateau until you are almost there. Instead you are treated to a giant featureless slope of tundra in front of you and a spectacular view of the San Juans in every other direction. Finally I reached a point where I could see the narrow ridge to the summit.
The view back
Up across the tundra
Still quite a ways to go
View back down from near the narrow section
There is the summit
I waited for my friend to catch up and put one of the dogs on leash since his judgement with exposure isn't as solid as Maya. Then we set off across. There are trail segments most of the way but we ended up doing a few easy Class 3 moves as we crossed. At one point Maya scampered up a gully that I wasn't sure about and it turned out that she had definitely picked an easier route than if we had stayed lower. Her route finding skills are starting to be rather impressive.
View from the start of the narrow section
After making it across we continued up the last 100 feet to the summit and soaked in the views. We couldn't see any tents in Cataract Gulch and we hadn't seen a single person anywhere as we ascended. We had miles and miles of San Juan beauty all to ourselves as far as we could tell. After a rather nice summit stay we started down.
Quite the view
Last 100 feet to the summit
Dogs and I on the summit
We had no trouble getting back across the narrow section and made quick time down to the saddle. We considered doing PT 13,164 but decided that since we had a long way back to the car and the clouds had started to build a bit that it was better to just start heading down. We saw a backpacker going somewhere in a hurry across the saddle and were a bit startled to see another human after being alone all this time.
Coming down from the summit
Maya poses in front of the scenery
Trail headed towards Cataract Lake
We followed the trail around PT 13,164 towards the valley and eventually left it and headed back the way we had come. At one point we found the 'trail' that Roach had described. It's barely a trail at all. There's a bit of a beaten down path and a few cairns but the trail is basically a waste of effort to find.
Trail heading back
It is a decent trail for a while
Looking down to the willows
Maya and Jasper in front of Half
We found ourselves back near the trees and contemplated another round of willow bashing. Again, our path was basically whatever we could find that got us through. I had GPS points marked and tried to reach them but it was a maddening effort to get through the mess and back to the forest.
At this point I really thought we were home free. We'd made it back to treeline in one piece. Everyone was more or less unscathed by the willows. And then it started to suck. We tried to find the trail we had ascended. We couldn't find it. We went left. We went right. We followed what looked like might be it. We were within a few hundred feet of GPS points I had marked on the way up but nothing looked familiar. There were downsloping pine needles on mud on top of rocks. We both slipped multiple times. Then we started to cliff out. We were about 100-150 feet above safety but I couldn't get there. Then it started to rain. Now the downsloping muddy paths I was trying to follow were even more slippery.
The GPS at one point said I needed to be 300 feet left. But how? I wound my way up and down to the left and eventually saw a way down that didn't end up in a cliff. I yelled over that I'd found a way and we made our way down to the level of the creek in the valley. Now we had another problem. We started north through the trees trying to find the trail but didn't see anything. Again, the GPS said we were close but apparently not close enough. We ended up in a marshy area of willows and had to bash our way back up to the trees. Then ended up in more willows. Then we hit a creek crossing. Maybe we were on the right track? I got across the creek and finally saw the trail across the clearing. I breathed a huge sigh of relief.
Now back on familiar ground we cruised down to the TH and made it back at about 3pm. The dogs were exhausted. We were exhausted. We were all wet. We'd had a hell of a day in Cuba but it was an awesome summit that I'll never forget.
(no, I will never do this route again, once was definitely enough)
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