Peak(s):  San Luis Peak  -  14,014 feet
Baldy Alto  -  13,698 feet
Organ Mtn A  -  13,801 feet
Date Posted:  09/12/2014
Modified:  09/17/2014
Date Climbed:   08/31/2014
Author:  jdorje
 Yet Another San Luis Loop  

For some inexplicable reason, I thought it was a good idea to hike San Luis from the West Willow side, and throw on a couple more peaks (San Luis->Baldy Alto->Organ). It worked out, but I really cannot recommend this loop.

Distance: 22 miles (per GPS)
Elevation gain: 7100 ft (per GPS)

One thing I can recommend is the two shortcuts (not to be confused with the twice I lost the trail) I took: first a shortcut, with a decent trail, around point 12540 and dodging San Luis Pass; secondly a semi-bushwhack from the descent of Organ that cut out a huge elevation loss in the wrong direction.


The day started with a 4:30 wake-up and a drive to Creede. Main street in Creede was closed, costing me a few minutes before I realized the road north from town could be accessed from the next road over. While I had expected this trailhead to be much less driving than the Stewart Creek trailhead, this wasn't really the case. From Creede it was almost another 30 minutes drive up to where I parked.

The road above Creede was interesting. Though it would be easily passable in a passenger vehicle, it was quite steep with an abrupt drop in several places right above the town. The lower portion of the road is a loop, but the other end of the loop connects to the west of Creede and looked to be out of the way for me. As the road approaches Equity mine, it's a lot gentler but longer than expected. I saw no road signs at any point, and broke out my GPS to make sure I was going the correct direction. Although it's not well marked, the route is simple: there are no turns, and you simply keep going northwest and uphill. The closest thing to a turn was one point with a ~150 degree switchback to the left. Google maps, OSM, and the USGS quad map (via CalTopo) all showed these roads correctly, and the latter two showed Equity Mine; none of the three showed the trailhead's location however.

Though I had passed about ten unmarked mines previously, Equity mine was well labeled. I parked right before the private property (a parking lot full of day hikers) and took the trail from there, unaware that a cutoff to the left just before would bypass this parking lot and continue for another half mile to the true trailhead. This portion of the road was pretty eroded in places and would require either high clearance or great creativity. Interestingly, the Equity mine is at 11,100'; the trailhead beyond it is at 11500'. To get 3000' of vertical gain would necessitate parking another half mile down the road before Equity. I don't see how this can be faster than using Stewart Creek.

Between the delay and the longer than expected drive, it was 8:45 by the time I got on the trail. This was not a good thing.

San Luis Pass and the Colorado Trail

The route headed straight up the trail toward San Luis Pass, where it would meet the Colorado Trail aka the Skyline Trail. Leaving the parking lot, I walked along a reasonably well-defined trail, but it soon merged with the road that I should have taken to get to the true trailhead. Even after the trailhead (not particularly well marked, as I recall), the "road" continued, in ever worsening condition. Despite not being designed for hikers, it was a sandy and easy route, not the difficult rocks that such roads often turn into. Large puddles covered the road in many places.
Looking back down at the trailhead

Looking up at San Luis Pass and 12540

The trail dipped down into a small ravine as it crossed back over to the east side of the creek. Just after this, it heads east and uphill before taking a sharp turn to the north. I'd already been eying a possible shortcut to the south of 12540, but as I reached this point I saw an obvious use trail continuing up the slope in exactly that direction. This trail turned out to be good all the way up to the saddle, leading to a short descent back to the Colorado Trail (CT) on the other side. This shortcut saved 40 feet (interpolated) of elevation gain and a bit over a mile of trail distance, skipping past San Luis Pass entirely and passing on the other side (southeast) of the unranked, interpolated point 12540.
12540's interesting summit (240 feet high on this side)

San Luis in the far distance, from 12300'

From Pass 1 at 12300', I descended into Valley 1, bottoming out at about 11,920'. This valley was rather long - in the vicinity of 2 miles between Pass 1 and Pass 2, and with 400 feet of elevation loss. I had a long day planned, and probably didn't enjoy the views as much as I should have as I tried to push through quickly. It's worth noting that while the trailhead was on the eastern side of the Continental Divide, Valleys 1 and 2 were on the western side and drained northwest via Spring Creek, eventually flowing into the Black Canyon via Cebolla Creek. However, not much view of the outside world was possible from this remote alpine valley.
Looking downhill (northwest) in Valley 1

The trail had briefly re-entered the trees, but soon left them again as it contoured up toward Pass 2. I took a short break here to admire the views and drink a bit, and I noticed a couple of people catching up with me. I try to make a habit of not being passed on the trail, so like Seabiscuit I let them get just close enough to provide motivation before continuing up to Pass 2. From Pass 2 the trail into Valley 2 was an easy descent and I jogged downhill to pull away. Sometimes the best races are the ones only you know are being run.

Unlike Valley 1, Valley 2 required little descent, though the trail did roll up and down a bit for probably 50-100 feet of lost elevation. However it was again an uphill to Pass 3 at 12620', the beginning of the south ridge of San Luis.
Organ Mountain from the saddle south of San Luis (aka Pass 3)

San Luis

From the south saddle, it's 1400' up San Luis's south ridge. Although there was no point on this part of the route that lacked a quality trail, this ridge would kick my ass and turn this day into a really long one.

I probably should have eaten something during one of my earlier stops, or gotten a better meal the night before. But I had done neither, and as I went up the ridge fatigue set in. On top of this, the wind was brutal. Coming out of the west, it accelerated over the ridge, blowing my windbreaker all around me and making concentration difficult. During one stretch, as I passed a gully-like feature that particularly concentrated the wind, it was impossible to stand in it and I had to descend to the east side of the ridge. Perhaps I should have abandoned the trail and just talus-whacked up the eastern slope. Regardless, it ended up taking almost as long to reach the summit from Pass 3 as it had taken to reach that pass from the trailhead.
Looking south from low on the ridge, toward unr 13155's interesting summit

Looking NW at Uncompaghre

I got to the top shortly after noon, almost 3.5 hours after leaving the car; this part of the route had taken a full hour longer than I had anticipated. Although the wind was intense here too, sitting behind the summit cairn blocked it and gave a restful view toward the east. I rested and enjoyed the summit for 30 minutes, finally eating and rehydrating as several other groups arrived and departed from both directions. Strangely, I seem not to have taken a single picture from the summit, though I clearly remember taking several other people's pictures with their cameras.

Though there was no rain forecast for the day, and the clouds in all directions seemed to support this, I knew the rest of my plan for the day would be a pain to complete. Continuing to Baldy Alto meant descending into yet another valley, with at least a thousand feet of reascent to get back to Valley 2. In fact, the easiest way would be to reascend nearly to the top of San Luis peak before descending the same ridge I had just ascended. Another option was to traverse directly to Organ Mountain from San Luis, but navigating around the Gash on that ridge is not something I really wanted to do solo. Descending into the Stewart Creek valley to hike Organ was possible, but looked like even more work than Baldy Alto. The only other real choice was to sit on top of San Luis until I got bored, then return to the trailhead.

In the end, I decided to make for Baldy Alto. Though I was uncustomarily fatigued, the day was still young and there was plenty of time to get a third wind.

Baldy Alto

The descent off of San Luis again followed a good trail to the northeast, but it wasn't long before I left this trail and continued down the north ridge toward the saddle with Baldy Alto. I took an efficient route that I'd noted from the summit, contouring around a couple of obstacles while avoiding the wind as much as possible. Aside from the wind - not quite as bad on this side of the mountain - this was really easy terrain.

Things would change as I started up Baldy Alto. The mountains in this area are a bizarre combination of gentle hills with rugged to ultrarugged volcanic formations. San Luis demonstrated the gentle hill aspect, with even its steep-ish western face being not particularly mountainous. But the summit blocks of the unranked points in the pictures above are a good illustration of the rugged volcanic aspect, as many of the highest points look like old lava remnants eroded into incredible formations. Baldy Alto is a modest example of both aspects - its northeast and northwest ridges are class 1+ tundra walks, but the south slope/face is swarming with steep rock formations and the southwest ridge (which I would be climbing) crosses several of them.
Baldy Alto from the false (13300') saddle

Though the true saddle with San Luis was a bit further down, the mini-saddle at ~13300 was where the fun started. From San Luis this ridge looked reasonably imposing, but on closer inspection it wasn't hard to find a class 2/2+ route through it all. The rock here was mostly solid, and class 3+ climbing near the ridge proper might have been possible, but I badly wanted to stay out of the wind that was coming across from the west side of the ridge. The 400' up to the summit was probably the best "climbing" of the day.
Baldy Alto summit push

Ouray and Shavano groups from Baldy Alto

Organ Mountain

Although the day was no longer young, I thought I had time to cross over to Organ and get most of the way back to the trailhead before dark. Not eating properly had been my first mistake; this was my second. I underestimated how far into the Stewart Creek valley (Valley 3) I'd have to descend, and also how far it was from Organ through Valley 4 back to Pass 3.
A bone (units are half-centimeters)

San Luis

On the descent, I passed a bone. I'm not particularly good at identifying bones, but this one looked leg-ish. The downclimb was an easy tundra descent, until I got low enough to enter willows. At this point it turned into a rather nasty bushwhack, taking a while to cross the willows and catch up with the Stewart Creek trail. This is the other ("standard") route up San Luis, via the Stewart Creek trailhead. While Spring Creek (Valleys 1 and 2) drains to the northwest, Stewart Creek (Valley 3) and the upcoming Cochetopa Creek (Valley 4) also meet up and drain to the northeast, eventually flowing into the Gunnison River and again through the Black Canyon. Thus, I was still on the western side of the Continental Divide, although in a completely different drainage system.

Soon I abandoned the trail to begin contouring up into the basin below Organ Mountain. If Baldy Alto had been a modest example of the La Garita volcanic formations, Organ Mountain would be the standard-bearer. As I climbed up beneath the peak, its west ridge yielded amazing views. The cracks in the cliff were fascinating; this ridge is known for its huge "gash", but looking up at the ridge I saw crack after crack heading deep into the rock. The pictures below don't really do it justice, as a huge part of the effect was how moving below the cliff completely changed its appearance and allowed looking up each crack in turn. Eventually the gash did come into view, and did not disappoint - though I didn't get a picture from its best angle. With careful routefinding and a significant descent to the south side of the ridge, a class 3 bypass of this obstacle is possible on the ridge traverse.
Organ's West Ridge (shadowy crack visible here is not the Gash)

The Gash (and a lot of other cracks)

If I had felt fatigued before, on my ascent of Organ I was downright tired. My climbing rate was under half what it had been at the start of the day, and I knew that my timeline was in trouble. I considered bailing on Organ to cross straight back over into Valley 4, but this would not have saved much time as the crossover point is not easily reached without making it most of the way up the peak. I also considered bailing down Stewart Creek, but this would be a huge time drag that would also put me out of cell contact probably until the next morning, which would make it very difficult to try to arrange a shuttle back to my car (simply walking back in the morning would probably be faster). I was reasonably well prepared for night, and figured if I could just make it back to the CT before darkness I wouldn't have too much trouble.
San Luis (L), Uncompaghre (M), Baldy Alto (R)

The summit push of Organ was surprisingly challenging. Unlike Baldy Alto, it was quite loose, with large enough talus on steep enough terrain that rockfall was a significant worry. Quite a few large boulders looked ready to fall 5-10 feet if weight was placed on them, and I had to be very careful not to put weight in the wrong spot. As much as the looseness, the danger was caused by the large size of the talus rocks on this approach. Since I was already climbing slowly, this wasn't too much of an imposition however. The summit did not disappoint, with good views of many surrounding peaks as well as the strange contrast of the class 1+ eastern approach (just like Baldy Alto) with the crazy west ridge. Again bizarrely however, I did not take a picture looking down that west ridge.
East Ridge of Organ

Baldy Alto (L) and Stewart Peak

San Luis and Uncompaghre again

Phoenix and La Garita Peaks to the south

Zoom: Stewart Creek, North Pass, Mount Ouray (R), and bizarre weather

Back to the CT

I descended the first part of Organ's west ridge, to reach the easy cutoff down into Valley 4 (Cochetopa Creek). The talus terrain was similar to the north ridge ascent, but steeper. To pass between two obvious pillars, I entered an hourglass formation with a wide gully that would funnel into a small passage between the pillars - the common ascent route after traversing from San Luis. The slope was barely shallow enough that rocks would most likely not fall all the way down the gully. Nonetheless, I stayed on the south side of the gully to avoid the most likely rockfall zone. Between the hourglass, the loose rock, and the deathtrap Gash, Organ seemed like a deceptively dangerous mountain.

Keeping to the south side of the gully had me right up against the back side of the "Organ" formation. From this angle it was pretty impressive; one huge formation (organ pipe) was completely detached from the rest of the mountain; without climbing up toward the organ I could not tell if it connected to any adjacent organ pipes or was simply a freestanding, 100-foot-high pillar. The coloration was unusual also, full of yellows and reds. As I exited from the hourglass and returned to tundra, I looped around to the front side of the Organ for the descent.
The Organ

The Organ

The Organ

The descent along this ridge was slower than I'd hoped: the tundra was not very healthy, and was full of loose dirt sections that were tedious to work through. Somewhere along the way I also realized that my planned route involved a descent to the trail down below 11600', from where I would need a full 1000' reascent to get to Pass 3. This didn't sound pleasant. On the map a traverse across tundra seemed possible, but from up high it was clear that the area marked white (clear of vegetation) on topo was full of willows with the occasional tree. However, as I got close it looked like these willows were sparse enough to allow a reasonable bushwhack. Rather than descend to the creek, I headed straight across toward where the trail leaves the trees around 12000'. This turned out to be a very effective cut-through.
The Organ and the Gash


As planned, I made it back to the CT before dark - though not by much. I followed the trail up the 600' to Pass 3, exiting Valley 4, as the sun set. It was very windy at the pass, and I stopped to add an additional (fifth) layer, leaving me only one more layer in reserve. On standing back up, I was surprised to find myself uncontrollably shivering. It wasn't particularly cold under all the layers, but certainly the temperature was dropping and the wind was the major issue. The real problem though is I recognized my body was going into shutdown mode, when I still had a 5 mile walk back to the car! Shutdown mode is great when I have a bed or warm sleeping bag in which to recover with minimal energy usage, but at 12600' it just wasn't going to work. While I didn't have particularly good bivy gear, I was confident that once out of the wind I could wait out the night easily enough. The problem is there is no shelter in Valley 2 or the first half (from my direction) of Valley 1, so I had to walk forward 1.5 valleys or turn around and redescend into Valley 4.

I decided the best bet was to trick my body to get back into gear, and push on for the trailhead, my car, and ultimately my bed. In the long run this would be a lot less uncomfortable than an unplanned bivy. Avoiding shutdown mode was primarily a mental trick, as I stopped thinking of rest, stopping, or sleeping and simply focused nonstop on moving, with occasional thoughts of the destination. I would say that I entered "the zone" at this point, as my mental focus ramped up despite my tiredness, leaving me in a constant state of mindful focus.

However, it was still a significant distance to the trailhead. With a bright crescent moon out, I found it easier to follow the trail with my headlamp off and simply using the light of the moon. The moon was descending into the west, and as I approached each pass would disappear from sight forcing a switch back to the headlamp; eventually it would set behind the western mountains. The one mile through Valley 2 went by quickly; the two miles through Valley 1 less quickly. Of course "quick" was relative; my speed was greatly limited by my ability to follow the trail and (on uphills) even more limited by my body's energy level.

Early in Valley 1, I noticed a whiff of a distinctive smell: cannabis! Elsewhere there have been complaints about smelling smoke on the trail, but here it was amazing. After looking around, I saw a couple of tents a ways off of the trail; without that smell I'd never have noticed them and could have frozen to death just a few feet from shelter! This might be an untapped mountaineering technology. At this point though I knew I'd be better off just getting back to the trailhead, and I pushed on.

The lower stretches of Valley 1 are below treeline, and were much warmer (less exposed and windy) than the trail up to this point as it crossed tundra. Climbing back up to Pass 1 left this shelter behind, and although it was colder by this time the wind had dropped off, leading me to consider shedding a layer as my body heat built up on the uphill. It wasn't really worth the stop time, however, and had the wind picked up again I might have regretted it. I decided not to try to find the shortcut I'd taken in the morning, but to stick to the trail all the way to San Luis Pass. This was a mistake, but I didn't realize at the time just how much horizontal distance that shortcut had eliminated. My thinking was that the steep trail in the darkness wouldn't have been fun, but it wasn't really steep enough to be a danger and it was a pretty well-defined trail. Looking at the numbers later (via Hillmap) I realized (as I said above) that shortcut had cut off a full mile of horizontal distance: an eternity when plodding along in complete darkness.

One interesting thing about the trail is that it disappears at the passes. I guess this is because hikers stop and walk around a bit to look as they cross the pass, rather than strictly following the trail. At Pass 3 and Pass 2 I had no trouble picking up the trail again, and I became overconfident in this as I made it to Pass 1. Rather than check my GPS or even just look at the topo and evaluate landmarks, I walked for 3-5 minutes in what I felt was the correct direction. Turns out I was headed in the "wrong" direction, approximately 90 degrees off and to the south. From the point I recognized this I could have just headed down the slope, but I felt in the darkness it was probably safer to cut back across to the trail and follow it all the way to the pass as planned. This felt like it took forever, and then it was another forever to hike down the trail to where I'd left it for the morning's shortcut.

Back on the West Willow Creek trail, there was nothing left to do but plod along downhill. At some point the trail widened to become an old jeep road, and was full of puddles. These were not always easy to see by headlamp, and I was thankful for my waterproof shoes. As the temperature warmed, I did eventually shed several layers. At some point I unknowingly passed the true trailhead; anyone camping there was long asleep. I missed the cutoff that I was planning to take to get from the road back to my parking lot; after walking for about two minutes past the point I realized it, turned around, walked two minutes back, realized I wouldn't be able to find this trail in the darkness, and continued the rest of the way on the road. This wasn't much extra distance (aside from the 4 minutes of backtracking), but it did have some extra elevation gain. Heading downhill again, I was passed by a large pickup with a couple of guys headed up to the trailhead to car camp; we had a brief conversation in which I suspect I didn't make a whole lot of sense. It wasn't that I was sleepy or unfocused, but rather that I was too focused on a specific thing to be able to deal with general questions like "do you want a lift" (of course I probably mean a lift up to the trailhead) or "how was the hike" (incredibly probably just meant the hike to San Luis). It felt like thirty seconds later that I was back at my car. It was 12:30 AM and the car thermometer read 32F.

The Drive

Mentally I was still in a mode of hyper-focus, so I figured I'd at least start the drive back to Crestone. After getting the heat going, disrobing down to just a silkweight layer and shorts, and swapping out shoes for sandals, I was ready to roll. The road was easier on the downhill than I'd remembered, though I took the steep portions right above town very slowly. The towns of Creede, South Fork, Del Norte, and Center were dead asleep. Despite driving below the speed limit, particularly in the curvy road along the Rio Grande, the return drive seemed much faster.

At Center I decided to get some gas; since I couldn't stand outside for more than a few seconds without extreme shivering (the thermometer read 47F here, but it was a bit windy), I started filling it and waited in the car. This was the slowest gas pump of all time; I didn't time it but it was in the vicinity of a minute per gallon. Nine gallons later I wondered how my tank was not full yet, and on craning my neck to see the pump in the mirror realized that the cutoff had not worked and gas was spewing out everywhere. This really was not my night. After shutting off the pump (apparently the most dangerous step in the process), I got back in the car to phone-research what I should do. The first thing the internet said was to not use your phone around gas pumps, since it has sparks that can set off any fumes...luckily I was inside the car, with no fumes (that I could smell). The second suggestion was to put the car in neutral and push it out of the puddle of gas...that wasn't happening. The third suggestion was to wait for the puddle to evaporate. It turns out, this really was not my night. Forty-five minutes later, the smell of gasoline was gone and the puddle was a mere dark stain on the concrete; I drove off.

It was almost 4 by the time I got back to my house; though I had no appetite I forced myself to eat a bit and stay awake while I drank some more water and unwound mentally. By 4:20 I realized I had only ten more minutes to make it a 24-hour day. At 4:30 I let myself fall asleep; by 4:31 I was out.


Though tricking my body out of shutdown mode had been easy, getting it to actually shut down and recover turned out to be harder; I need to do some more research on this I think. I only slept about six hours (night 1) before waking up unrefreshed, and had no appetite the next day (day +1). Night 2 was similar, but near the end of Day +2 my appetite returned and I ate voraciously, sleeping soundly that night. By Day +4 my weight had stabilized at four pounds less than when I started, and I set a new PR on a training run.

Ten days later, after writing this, I slept for 10 hours. Perhaps that is the trick to restoring shutdown mode.

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

Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26

 Comments or Questions

Long Day
09/12/2014 15:06
I really enjoyed that part of the state - so different from the rest of the San Juans!

Such a serene area.
09/12/2014 16:33
Nice TR and sounds like a mostly enjoyable trip. Never had the gas overflow happen to me, but always wondered what I'd do. My impatience suggests the put-it-in-neutral option. Thanks for sharing!

Tough day
09/13/2014 02:05
Great report! Way to push through and avoid the bivy.

D Potter
09/13/2014 04:51
You saw sights that few have seen. Thanks for sharing your struggles. Much mental endurance over matter.


Nice report!
04/02/2015 19:45
And I though I had a long day there with 15 hours hiking time Sounds like Organ had some surprises for you as well. Good for you on finding a shortcut back to CT so late in the day - that ridge and Gash is really something, isn't it? It's amazing how your body changes after a long day like that. Thanks for the report.

p.s. Looking forward to more adventures in the Sangres with you later this month!

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