Peak(s):  West Elk Pk  -  13,035 feet
Castle View Benchmark - 12544
Date Posted:  01/16/2016
Date Climbed:   01/10/2016
Author:  Boggy B
 West Elk East Ridge  

In the wake of a big snow event the week before, we hatched a plan to overnight West Elk via the east ridge in order to avoid any avalanche hazard. Saturday morning we drove to the Mill Creek trailhead. Entering Gunnison, the bank sign advertised the outside temperature: -25F. The morning sun climbed a bit as Kylie and I geared up at the trailhead, and the gauge read -18 when we started.


Trail conditions seemed promising. We began on a broad snowmobile and cross-country track, and though we soon took the Lowline Trail to the right, there was still a nice trench. But this came to an abrupt end after less than a quarter mile, and we realized we'd be earning this one.

Time somehow accelerated as we trenched away the next six hours, splitting from the Lowline Trail where it crosses over the tail of the ridge and continuing along the crest. As slow as we were moving, there was no need to stop to enjoy the surprisingly rugged scenery. Immense pointed towers and jagged dikes emerged like two-dimensional carboard props, all adorned fantastically by fresh snow. It was wild and awe-inspiring.

Hoodoos begin

And it was 3pm already. Thoroughly spent, we picked a spot that would have good exposure to both the setting and rising sun, hammered out a platform on the bountiful snowy real estate, and pitched our tent. The sun vanished behind the broken skyline to the west as we polished off dinner, melted some snow, and got cozy.

Dusk from our first camp

Though we were camped at 10,870', we had climbed out of the Gunnison inversion, and the air temperature probably stayed above 10 degrees all night. We had only put away 4.5 miles of this 20-mile journey and were not feeling optimistic about our chances when we awoke very sore and still tired as the first morning rays lit up our tent.

Morning view from the tent

Camp 1, ~10,870'

Towers below

Carrying not much equipment now, we continued pushing our trench up the ridge towards a headwall. This we bypassed by some towers in the forest and struggled back up through deep pillows, and above it the terrain got even more spectacular, inspiring many inarticulate outbursts of wonder. We traversed underneath a short section of ridge that would have presented some difficulty to snowshoes and then continued along the crest as the forest began to thin.

Crazy sprite

Typical terrain on the ridge


By now we had accepted that we weren't going to reach the summit, but we fully intended to return the next weekend and make use of our trench; so we continued a little beyond treeline and stopped at 12,200', having added 2.4 miles. We returned to the trailhead, descending in three hours what had taken us over nine to climb.

First view of the summit from our highpoint on the first attempt, ~12,200'

The Castle emerges

West castle

East castle

Starting back down

Nifty wall

Snow makes some things easier


The next week brought new snow, but we were not about to dishonor the memory of our effort. We arrived at the trailhead Saturday morning and started two hours earlier than the week before. Our trench was in good condition, and so we made excellent time. By noon we were making camp in the shelter of a stand of pines at 12,100'.

Dawn on our second attempt

What does it mean!?

Mill Basin

Our trench survived!


Doom and gloom

Passing our old campsite

Top of the headwall we bypassed

More wild terrain



Nearing treeline


Camp 2 established, ~12,100'

Looking back

Views from camp


This night was one of the coldest I've spent on any mountain. We slept a few of the 15 hours and spent the rest waiting for the sun; we didn't dare leave the the tent before.

The morning was clear and cold, and we got moving soon after the sun reached our tent. 10 minutes later we had to take Kylie's boots off and massage life back into her freezing toes, stuffing them into big down mitts to warm up. Once satisfied with the condition of her feet, we continued along the ridge, which held deep snow in places and resisted our movement still. Crosswinds had formed some interesting features, but the terrain was fairly low-consequence and--with our route predetermined--the challenge of the day would be the effort to climb the endless hills between our camp and the summit.

Starting out on day 2




Now the unique formations along the east ridge were behind us, but our attention was captivated by The Castle, a remarkable pair of monoliths on the ridge across the basin to the north. Our perspective on them changed as we traveled, revealing more of their unexpected complexity with each step.

We hiked over a point marked 12,282' on the USGS quad, then the Castle View benchmark (12,544'), then 12,696', descended to Storm Pass, and climbed back up to bypass 12,968' as we turned northwest towards the summit. Here we passed another small garden of lively formations before ascending the final slope to reach the beautiful, rimy summit at last. My GPS read 12:20pm.

The Castle

Changing perspective on the east formation
Pt. 12,282

Castle View Benchmark

Pt. 12,696

Pt. 12,968 and West Elk

Final stretch to the summit

Defying gravity

Though I think we both felt a sense of reward, the incredible cold and the effort still before us limited our enthusiasm. We soaked in the immense scenery while scarfing down a bag of Life Saver gummies for the sugar, and began slogging back.

Looking south from the summit

Clouds engulf our neighbor to the west

The Castle from West Elk

We couldn't get enough of this

Mill Basin

A herd of bighorns had made their way up and were foraging along the ridge. They were surprised to see us, and as we continued east they moved ahead of us, destroying our clean track with their deep postholes. At least they offered some entertainment: One of the young ones was really curious about us and would stand staring as we drew near, long after the rest of the group had dashed away.

We got their attention

Long way out

Last one!

Now it's a party

Eventually the herd began to suspect our motives and retreated off the ridge. We reached our tent, packed up, and at 4pm started the 5.7-mile descent as the sun ducked behind the towers and the sky turned pink, then faded to gray, and darkness set in.

With such a solid trench we managed the descent quickly and arrived before 6:30 at the trailhead, where the outside temperature gauge read -5F. Totally exhausted, hungry, and elated to be done walking, we threw our gear in the car and went in search of dinner.


Last look back, West Elk in the clouds


First attempt
Jan 02: 4.5 mi, 2536', 6:10
Jan 03: 9.3 mi, 2507', 7:45
Total: 13.8 mi, 5043', 13:55

Second attempt
Jan 09: 5.7 mi, 3780', 5:10
Jan 10: 15.4 mi, 3779', 10:15
Total: 21.1 mi, 7559', 15:25

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 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40

 Comments or Questions

very cool
01/16/2016 19:12
Most people would only think of doing this one in summer (or fall)....but I'm glad you're not like most people! Great report of a very pretty part of CO!
Congrats to the two of you for earning a cold hard earned winter 13er!


Thats a !#%? Trench!
01/16/2016 20:34
Badlands of Colorado.The rock formations looked crazy good. Very few have seen that area in Winter.The photos were amazing. Love the beam of light, maybe someone got teleported into the Mother ship?
Congratulations well earned summit. Very Bada$$ !!!!!


01/16/2016 21:44
Thanks for the inspiration. That rock formation is something else not to mention the work you two put in. Nice work.

awesome scenery
01/17/2016 00:14
and congrats on reaching the top!

Brian Thomas

very cool
01/17/2016 04:38
Beautiful winter scenery. Thanks for posting!


01/17/2016 17:06
I have seen this terrain from the west in the fall and have wanted to get back.

Thanks for posting!


Gummies are sweet
01/17/2016 17:45
Violets are blue
It's always a treat
Climbing in the cold with you


01/18/2016 10:39
I looked at a few Summer reports for this area recently. Really surprised to see it climbed in Winter, looks like a loooooong trip. Great read and pictures!


a boggy TR?!
01/18/2016 10:35
outstanding effort here from the two of you! pics are alright too i guess.


01/18/2016 16:15
Thanks for sharing!


01/18/2016 18:14
I agree with everything others have said. Amazing....


01/18/2016 19:25
This is the definition of a peak no one cares about - so naturally this is my favorite trip report ever.


Nicely done!
01/19/2016 08:31
I hiked it this past fall but now you have inspired me to try it this winter! Very impressive!


Lovely east face
01/19/2016 10:44
Beautiful photos! Though that peak looks like a possibly lovely (long) ski tour in stable conditions...

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