Sunshine Peak - 14,001 feet
Redcloud Peak - 14,034 feet
Sunshine Peak - 14,001 feet
Redcloud Peak - 14,034 feet
|Surprisingly Steep, Suspiciously Simple|
Finally, time to get some San Juan snowflakes. I've had my eye on several of the San Juan 14ers in winter and just haven't had the time, partners, or motivation to do them... Until this season. Whiley (whileyh) and Judd (CaptainSuburbia) have been real stoked on the winter mountaineering and have pushed me hard to get after some of the bigger, harder peaks. Judd suggested we do Sunshine and Redcloud near Lake City via Sunshine's east ridge, and while neither Sunshine nor Redcloud are particularly difficult in winter, they'd be my first San Juan snowflakes. We'd both done the peaks via their standard routes and I'd also done them by coming up "Sundog" first, while Judd had done the reverse by coming up Redcloud and down "Sundog". Neither of us had done Sunshine's east ridge, which has become the standard winter route due to the year-round access from Mill Creek Campground. The standard route on these two peaks is virtually inaccessible due to the road closing far below the trailhead, and it also travels under numerous dangerous avalanche paths. The east ridge has its own set of issues but mostly the route is fine. The primary concern is that it's just steep.
And I mean steep. This thing is unrelenting. It is, without a doubt, the most consistently steep of the winter 14ers I've done so far. From the moment you leave the car until you top out on the ridge, the angle must never be less than 20 degrees, and is mostly in the 30-degree range. Despite that Judd and I found it in good shape. We were even surprised to find a trail and numerous cairns mixed in with all the snow! We hadn't expected many people to have done the east ridge when dry, certainly not enough to have made such a solid trail at least. The first obstacle - a vertical wall of choss - is immediately off the parking area, which is actually just the closure for the Mill Creek Campground.
Down low the trail was actually quite dry. We were able to get by with just booting for a long way due to dry trail and where there was patchy snow it was solid and supportive.
Old tracks gave us a path to follow up the switchbacks on the insanely steep hillside.
Eventually the snow became too frequent, too deep, and too unsupportive for us to continue on foot. We strapped on our snowshoes and immediately engaged the heel risers.
We had to pause frequently to catch our breath, but given how unrelenting the slope was each little chunk was actually pretty significant. It only took us a couple of hours to reach treeline. Here the angle lowered slightly but was still high enough, visually at least, to be an avalanche concern without the safety of the trees. After looking at a topo map there are areas of 30 plus degree snow, so our caution was warranted.
When the trees and their false security ran out we just made a beeline for the broad ridge top, stopping at a tiny cluster of trees that seemed very out of place that high, above 12,000 feet.
There was a long, gentle expanse on the ridge before the angle kicked back again - it's bigger than it looks. This is the San Juan!
We started straight up the ridge and when the angle grew too high for our comfort we scooted to the left and onto exposed rocks. There were a number of trail segments here, again to our surprise.
As we ascended the ridge grew narrow and exposure to the north (right) grew considerably. All of the exposed areas could be kept well away from.
The volcanic nature of the rock became apparent as the ridge finally dropped away into near vertical gullies of rubble and poised choss.
The interesting part of the ridge didn't last long - this is Sunshine and Redcloud we're talking about here, not exactly mindblowing peaks - before returning to ho-hum snow and talus.
The last several hundred feet up Sunshine went quicker than lower elevation counterparts, probably because the snow was nice and crispy and perfect for snowshoeing. We scoped out Sunshine's northeast face - our intended shortcut to avoid resummiting Sunshine on our way back from Redcloud - and continued up to the summit.
With a long traverse to Redcloud and howling winds we didn't spend long on Sunshine's summit. Judd had done the traverse in reverse with a descent of "Sundog" and I'd done it twice, once via the standard Redcloud/Sunshine combo and once with an ascent of "Sundog", so we both knew how boring this part was. Still, Redcloud wasn't going to climb itself!
We dropped down and made quick progress across the first wind swept part of the connecting ridge.
As the ridge dropped away into Silver Creek drainage to the northwest we were forced off the ridge and onto soft, sun-baked snow. This didn't last long, fortunately, and we were at the saddle.
We left our snowshoes at the saddle since the remaining hike to Redcloud was all on trails with shallow snow cover or on the ubiquitous talus.
This traverse is easy but long, at nearly a mile and a half. It's one of those things where I wish it were shorter so I could just get it over with. Steeper and shorter is better than gradual and long, in my opinion.
Redcloud's summit views, especially of Wetterhorn and Uncompahgre to the north, more than made up for the boring traverse.
It was about 11:20am and Judd and I wanted to get down before the snow lower on the mountain turned into complete mush. Judd also had to make the long drive all the way back to the Front Range - fun times! At least this time we wouldn't have to resummit Sunshine, and we made super fast progress to our snowshoe cache.
From the saddle we were faced with a choice: we knew we could use Sunshine's northeast face as a shortcut, but what was the best combination of fast and safe to cross it? There were patches of rocks down low that we could link together to reduce the amount of gain back to the east ridge, but the snow between the patches was of suspect angles and unknown quality with a massive drop off to the left, so we made an ascending traverse to the drier upper face to avoid the potential bad combo below.
We made separate crossings of the upper face and met back on the ridge where we could finally celebrate that everything was finally all downhill from here. Interpret that as you will.
We stopped at our earlier small stand of trees and took another short break before beginning the steep descent back to our cars.
We were pleasantly surprised to find that the snow wasn't knee deep slush by this point and was actually quite supportive. At about the halfway point down the mountainside we took our snowshoes off, as this was the point where the warmth and solar gain had taken its toll on the snow and we were postholing regardless of flotation. I slipped a few times on the now sopping wet snow and slid each time so I decided to put on microspikes to help keep me planted firmly to whatever surface my feet might land upon. The entire descent off the ridge was lightning fast due to how steep the route was, and we soon found ourselves at the area with intermixed snow and dry ground, and then to pure dry ground where we could largely follow the trail as it weaved through the short cliffs above the road. Once we could see the cars we knew our legs would finally get a well deserved break. That seemed too easy, not like I'm complaining. We packed up our stuff and drove to Lake City where we ate at the American Elk Grill - quite possibly the only restaurant open in Lake City in the winter - happy with our first (suspiciously simple) San Juan snowflakes.
Climbers: Ben Feinstein (myself), Judd D. (CaptainSuburbia)
My GPS Tracks on Google Maps (made from a .GPX file upload):
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