Peak(s):  Handies Peak  -  14,048 feet
Date Posted:  04/01/2020
Date Climbed:   02/29/2020
Author:  supranihilest
 Nowhere From Civilization   

Handies Peak in the heart of the San Juan is sometimes considered "the elusive one" in winter - numerous other trip reports reference it as so. Far removed from civilization all routes on this peak become dangerous avalanche traps. Danger doesn't equate to difficulty in Handies' case, at least by Handies' southeast ridge, the standard winter route, but in most winters Handies probably sees only a handful of ascents, perhaps none at all. It's a beautiful peak in all seasons but must be approached with respect in winter.

Surprisingly enough, of the routes on Handies, the southwest ridge is perhaps the only one that starts on a road. The Cataract Gulch trailhead, not-oft known by 14er climbers, serves a number of 13ers near Lake City including Centennial 13er Half Peak. It also serves as the starting point for Handies' southeast ridge, another largely unknown route that hikes the road and then hikes steeply up Boulder Gulch. There's a very short Class 3 section in the middle of the ridge but otherwise the ridge is just a hike. I drove to the trailhead early in the morning after a favorable avalanche forecast and strapped into my snowshoes right at the car. They'd be needed until the scrambling. I started hiking at about 5:30am, still under cover of darkness. I followed a set of week-old snowshoe tracks left by Frozen 14er finisher Amy (blazintoes) the week before.

In addition to Amy's passage a moose came through and trashed part of the trench.

There wasn't much of note along the way to Boulder Gulch, though the scenery was gorgeous. The canyon followed Cottonwood Creek, with steep walls towering above. A couple of large avalanches had decimated stands of trees along the way, with one path being probably a half mile wide.

Looking up towards Boulder Gulch. (Taken on descent).
Looking down from the start of the largest avalanche path. These photos were taken exactly ten minutes apart, the time it took me to snowshoe the entire width of the path. (Taken on descent.)

I had some trepidation as I got closer to the gulch. A massive tower marked the gulch's southern side and I knew I'd be getting into all kinds of interesting terrain but not sure quite what.

I have to climb under the big tower but what's actually beneath it?

After a couple of miles on the road the tracks veered off into the forest. They were filled in with fresh snow but still visible here; up above they'd disappear and I'd have to make my own way.

Amy's old tracks.

The hike stayed relatively flat for a few minutes and then slowly crept up in angle. Far above me sheer walls rose on all sides, and opposite Boulder Gulch another gulch - Square Gulch - cut straight up the mountainside.

Beginning of cliffs on Boulder Gulch's north side.
The "mini-Diamond" in Square Gulch is very reminiscent of the Diamond on Longs Peak. There's even a mini-Broadway cutting across the lower face!

As the gulch narrowed I had a short, dry spot of Class 2+ to navigate (on showshoes...) and then traversed on the northeast side of the nameless creek cutting through the gulch. The creek was bounded by small cliffs perhaps 20 feet high, and the northeast side was slightly less steep than the opposite.

Early part of the gulch.

A short, steep chute led into an open area below the northern cliffs.

Hard to see the angle of the chute but I considered other options since it was rather steep.
More avalanche terrain above the creek.

I crossed over the creek to its southwest side and began sidehilling along a probably 40 degree slope. It got to the point where my snowshoes were no longer biting into the slope. I quietly questioned what the hell I was doing, looking up and down from the cliffs to the creek. If the unlikely happened and the slope slid I'd end up at the bottom anyway, so there was no point in being right in the middle of it. I backtracked to the creek and just snowshoed right up the bed. I could hear water percolating below and hoped that I wouldn't punch through.

The slope I snowshoed about halfway up trying to reach flatter terrain before realizing that wasn't such a good idea.

I snowshoed quickly to get out of the numerous terrain traps present in the gulch. I was only in the gulch for a short time but it felt slow with how hyper aware I was of every feature. I was relieved to reach the upper gulch and far flatter and friendlier ground. I was near treeline now and had a nice view of the southeast ridge from a distance.

Handies' southeast ridge, standing totally alone, from the top of Boulder Gulch.

The remaining approach to the toe of the ridge was easy, and I was surprised to see trees at nearly 12,300 feet. Only one more steep-ish snow slope stood between me and the start of the ridge.

Head straight up that sucker.

Behind me stretched the long, jagged south wall of Boulder Gulch. It connects at a tri-point with Handie's south ridge and American Mountain's east ridge and looks like it might contain good snow climbs and a pile of technical rock climbing.

Welcome to Boulder Gulch.
A traverse of the full ridge would be fun from the far left couloir. The massive buttress on the right tops out at 13,466 feet.

At this point I trusted the snow and just trudged slowly up the ridge. My time to this point was only a few hours but I felt like I had been going slow. The snow here once again proved stable and I found myself nearing the scrambly bits.

A few hundred feet up the ridge.
My snowshoe tracks down the ridge and into the gulch.

Eventually the ridge became to dry and rocky for me to want to dull up my snowshoes anymore. I took them off and piled some rocks on top since the wind had kicked up and I didn't want the shoes to gain flight. That's not what snoeshoes are for, not usually, anyway.

A perfect place for piling rocks onto showshoes. That's not really what rocks are for either, not usually, anyway.
What secrets dost thou holdeth?

I took out my axe and put on my microspikes then followed the increasingly narrow ridge to where the fun began; a bunch of rotten volcanic towers and blobs blocked easy passage. Some easy route finding through a couple of snowy chimneys dispatched the first towers, and the ridge continued to narrow. The right side of the ridge dropped away in a vertical wall, and the left into a series of steep, rubble filled gullies.

Nothin' to it.
Horrendously rotten choss.

Once past the snow chimneys the hardest part of the climb appeared: a wall about ten feet tall, followed by a step, followed by another wall about five or six feet tall. The rock here was incredibly rotten; I had to test every hand and foothold. The ones that moved even a little bit, which was probably about half, I avoided. The loosest rock I would rip out and toss down a gully. It was only a few moves of Class 3 but the exposure to the right was extreme and the rock so rotten that the utmost care had to be taken.

From the top of the chimneys.
Maybe 20-30 feet high in total. The left is a short gully and the right is basically a sheer wall. The quality of the rock is hard to see but rest assured it's terrible.

At the top of the short scramble things immediately became easier. Tundra and thin snow led up the ridge, which had a massive cornice on its northeast side.

Easy Class 2 from here to the summit, which isn't yet visible.
The cornice. This thing was enormous. On the descent I accidentally put my leg through it from ten to 15 feet away from the edge!

Rolling bumps made up the remainder of the ridge, and as I skirted the first on the south side Handies finally came into view.


This section of ridge was just a walkup, with the exception of a short, steep snow traverse I could have avoided if I wanted. Handies' massive east face swept down into Grizzly Gulch; I wondered if anyone had climbed it.


At one of the teeth along the ridge the rotten rock returned but instead of a loose conglomerate it was just mashed together layers of volcanic ash. It was still just a walkup, which is good given the awful quality of the rock.

Crumbly, junky rock.

The remaining distance went quickly.

Final pitch up Handies.
Crushed black ash.
Snowy summit pitch. (Taken on descent.)

Just five hours after starting out Handies' summit was mine. The views nowhere from civilization on Handies are some of the finest of the fourteeners, and the San Juan were beautiful draped in a thick mantle of snow.

Redcloud Peak (left), Sunshine Peak (right), and "Sundog" (foreground).
Coxcomb Peak (left), Wetterhorn Peak (center left), and Uncompahgre Peak (right).
Mount Sneffels.
Weminuche Wilderness.
Centennial 13ers Half Peak (left) and Rio Grande Pyramid (right background).
The ridge making up American Peak, Jones Mountain, and Niagara Peak.

I knew the descent would go quickly but I wanted to get down before the snow softened and got mushy and slick like it did the day before. I also wanted to get the sub-peak that I had skirted earlier. I couldn't tell how much prominence it had but figured I'd tag it and figure it out later.

Point 13,735 in the foreground (unranked and not really anything), Point 13,795 (ranked) in the left background.

The hike between the main and sub-peak was easy and only took about 30 minutes.

Main summit with the snow crossing.
Looking up from the low point between the main and sub-summit.
Teeny little rocky bump that made up the summit.

The small sub-summit wasn't worth it for the sake of the peak itself, but it was for the incredible view of Handies' east face. The eastern routes on Handies from Grizzly Gulch get similar views but this was a unique one that no other route has the privilege of claiming.

The majestic east face of Handies. The entire climb was worth it for this view alone.

I only stuck around long enough to admire the view for a moment then struck off down the ridge. Along the way I accidentally punched my left leg through the cornice all the way to my waist despite being at least ten feet from the edge of it. My left leg was hanging down a sheer face, so I must have been "safe" by just a few inches! Holy shit, not my idea of fun! Soon enough the ridge narrowed into the scramble.

Getting close to the Class 3 bit.
Looking down from the top of the scramble; only a few sketchy feet down.
The maze-like section of interconnected gullies.
One of two gullies I climbed through in the maze.

I reached my snowshoes and took off my spikes and stowed my axe; time to run, I was starting to sink in the snow. I raced down the toe of the ridge into the flats and eventually the drainage. There were a few rollerballs but nothing too concerning, though the snow low in the gulch was so soft and wet that I was sliding on colder layers below and had to use the trees to brace myself on.

Square Gulch. That looks like a triangle or maybe a martini glass to me, but what do I know.

Once back on the road I moved as quickly as possible so I could get this done with. The area of moose postholes ended up being a sloppy pit by the time I retrenched it. There were a few frozen waterfalls that looked like they might make for good backcountry ice climbing along the way. I made note of them for later since I figured they'd be remote enough to never get hacked out.

That's some nice, blue ice.

Returning to the car I had a sense of elation. Handies isn't a hard peak in winter but it does require perfect conditions and may not come in more than a day or two per season so I was happy to have it done on one of those rare stellar days. Thanks for the fun and the privilege, Handies!


Climbers: Ben Feinstein (myself)
Trailhead: Cataract Gulch
Total distance: 11.45 miles
Total elevation gain: 4,817 feet
Total time: 8:24:21
Peaks: One fourteener

  • Handies Peak, 14,048'


Starting Location Ending Location Via Time (h:mm:ss) Cumulative Time (h:mm:ss) Rest Time (m:ss)
Cataract Gulch Trailhead Handies Peak 5:03:49 5:03:49 0:00
Handies Peak Point 13,735¹ 0:32:32 5:36:21 0:00
Point 13,735¹ Cataract Gulch Trailhead 2:48:00 8:24:21 Trip End

¹Point 13,735 isn't really anything but it does have approximately 140 feet of prominence. Not enough to really be its own summit but it looks prominent and has more prominence than other 14er sub-peaks such as "West Evans," "South Bross," "South Little Bear," etc.

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 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 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49

Comments or Questions

Dedication and Consistency
04/01/2020 18:31
I've been reading your reports all winter. You're one of only a handful of folks who put up TRs this time of year, and your photos+story always deliver. The consistency with which you go after winter (now spring) objectives is impressive too. Congrats on another great climb!


Nice read before work
04/02/2020 06:55
Thanks for the nostalgia. Haven€„¢t been able to get up a mountain since Handies. Trying not to get sick or get anyone else sick. Nice pictures.


Winter saw its own shadow
04/02/2020 11:23
@hellmanm: Thanks for the kind words and for reading. This winter in particular has been a great one!

@Amy: Thanks in return for the inspiration! When this pandemic is all over and you can return to the mountains that will be well deserved. Keep fighting the good fight for all of us, and stay healthy!


Nice pictures
04/04/2020 08:34
Always enjoy seeing the San Juan€„¢s from different perspectives. Thanks for posting.


Different perspectives
04/06/2020 13:34
@Will: The San Juan are hands down the best mountains in Colorado. I know Handies is on your list for next year.


Nice - I'll get there
04/08/2020 14:55
This route this time of year has been on my list for a while. This March I was going to tackle it and..... something came up. Next year. Nice job, thanks for the detailed description.


Tick list
04/08/2020 19:10
@druid2112: You're welcome, thanks for reading! This was kind of an unexpectedly nice route, honestly. Good luck with it when you get to it, whether it be next year or another. May the weather gods always be on your side.

   Not registered? Click Here

Caution: The information contained in this report may not be accurate and should not be the only resource used in preparation for your climb. Failure to have the necessary experience, physical conditioning, supplies or equipment can result in injury or death. and the author(s) of this report provide no warranties, either express or implied, that the information provided is accurate or reliable. By using the information provided, you agree to indemnify and hold harmless and the report author(s) with respect to any claims and demands against them, including any attorney fees and expenses. Please read the Safety and Disclaimer pages for more information.

© 2021®, 14ers Inc.