Peak(s):  Redcloud Peak  -  14,034 feet
Sunshine Peak  -  14,001 feet
Handies Peak  -  14,048 feet
Date Posted:  10/16/2020
Date Climbed:   09/28/2020
Author:  eaagaard
 The Giants of Grizzly Gulch   

INTRO: This fall, I climbed Redcloud, Sunshine, and Handies from the Grizzly Gulch / Silver Creek trailhead. I wanted a trip report that wasn’t so dull. I mean, there was no climbing or real drama involved, much less any beta or wisdom to impart. Then I remembered the classic trip report back in 2013 of Mt. Sherman. So this is my attempt to mix up what would otherwise be a meh report, and also pay tribute to the master of the art at the top of his form.

I was mesmerized by the epic story of The Ascent of Shermapangma, where a brave team of climbers risked all to pioneer an alpine climb, without supplemental oxygen, on the mythical Fischer Face route of Shermanpangma. The skill, bravery, and sheer audacity of the feat – along with the incredible photos – left me breathless and unable to sleep. My mind was whirling! I had far less experience than them, but I couldn’t let go of the thought ... I want to do something like that!

I justified my lunacy by reasoning that they spent three years of preparing for the adventure, so I could do the same. But what, exactly, was I going to climb? I knew I didn’t want to try to repeat their climb (which, to my knowledge, has not been repeated by anyone since.)

Finally I settled on not one, not two - but a trifecta of giants in the San Juans. The San Juans are to the Mosquito range as the Karakorum range is to the Himalayas – maybe not higher, but certainly wilder, more remote, and more challenging. Think K2 versus Mt. Everest.

I had the scenario in mind – three summits, all accessible from the same base camp and within a few (arduous) miles of each other. Redcloudchuli, Sunshinjunga , and Himalayandes (often shortened to Handies) all share a common base camp, known as Grizzly Gulch/Silver Creek. This remote base camp requires a difficult and lengthy trek up progressively rougher roads and trails. At a breathtaking 10,500 ft altitude, the trip to base camp is a good acclimatization climb all of its own.

Looking down-valley from Base Camp by moonlight

Base camp by moonlight. Let's unpack. First, notice Himalayndes' snow-covered summit looming over
everything. Next, we have the high-dollar, no luxury ignored expedition camps on the right. In the middle are the
bathrooms - note the light trail from a headlamp. Far left is the economy expedition campsite. And I didn't realize
it at the time, but in the lower left is a hardy soul sleeping on the ground, under the stars.

I imposed another challenge on myself. I’ve always admired the fast, minimalist style of adventurers like Reinhold Messner and even Galen Rowell, the late, great adventure photographer. So instead of an expedition-style assault, I wanted to go it alone, with as little gear as possible, going fast and light. I would eschew hiring guides or porters for this attempt.

I researched the peaks exhaustively, studying trip reports and route maps, and finally concluded that, with training, perfect weather, and a little luck, I should be able to free solo each from base camp. That’s right – no ropes, no gear. Just me and my size 12s, making a lighting assault up each peak in a sustained push from base camp. And did I mention - no supplemental oxygen?

Even with these constraints, of course, I knew I would never match the Shermanpangma expedition in bravery, skill, and audacity. I mean, I don’t even own a pair of Wrangler technical jorts!

After years of preparation – the obligatory acclimatization climbs on Denali and Aconcagua, an extensive conditioning and nutrition program, and settling my affairs with my family – I was ready. But nothing prepared me for base camp. Even on the tail end of the climbing season, it was a bustling mini-city with several other expeditions claiming the flat spots, and a constant stream of OHVs stopping to use the restrooms. Yes, base camp has the incredible luxury of two separate toilets, usually stocked with toilet paper!

I arrived at base camp early afternoon, tired from the long and arduous trek from civilization. I immediately struck out for Redcloudchuli, hoping to summit, make the grueling traverse to Sunshinjunga, and then be back on Redcloudchuli’s summit by sunset. This is normally a minimum 3-day climb from base camp, with a stop at Camp 2 and a bivouac on the traverse. But the full moon was to rise just before the sun set, and I wanted to take pictures from Redcloudchuli. Ambitious? Absolutely. Foolhardy? Perhaps. Nonetheless, I packed snacks, water, and outerwear for the summit and set off.

Aspen porn just above Base Camp
More aspen porn

The trail starts out mellow, rising gently through the forest. Soon I was in a high mountain valley, following Silver Creek around the base of the Redcloudchuli / Sunshinjunga peaks.

Looking down-valley. Himalyandes is prominent on the horizon.
View of the Northeast Col. Redcloudchuli soars up to the right of this photo.

Looking back where I came from, about halfway up the Northeast Col.

A steep climb to the top of Redcloudchuli’s Northeast Col, and then the real climbing began as I traversed west-southwest across Redcloudchuli’s northeast face. One benefit of global warming is that the glaciers guarding this route have significantly declined – although a few crevasses remained. I powered right past Camp 2, feeling strong and confident.

Part of the North Face glacier, significantly diminished in the last decade or two.
Just me and my size 12s in the snow. Didn't need flotation or spikes, really.
Looking down into the valley I came from. The flattish area in the foreground makes up Camp 2.
Wetterhorn (left) and Uncomphagre (right) peeking above the intervening ridgeline.
The false summit (right) and the real summit of Redcloudchuli (left.) Note the gnarly cornice on the near ridge.
Airlines must adjust their routes to skirt the summit.

Soon I conquered the dreaded false summit, and there was the Redcloudchuli massif towering above me. I gulped, caught my ragged breath in the thin air, and started the assault. It was 20 pitches of sustained climbing, beautiful but loose red rock to the summit. (Well, it would have been 20 pitches if I’d been roped. But since I was going free solo, it was actually 20 switchbacks up the ridge.)

The final push!

Finally, there was no more “up.” I had made it!

On the summit of Redcloudchuli!

I spent a couple of minutes celebrating, admiring the views, and contemplating the next leg – the long, treacherous traverse to Sunshinjunga on the far horizon. I checked the sun – plenty time before sunset. Nothing to do but begin. Soon I passed the standard bivvy site for the traverse, one of the few flat spots on the route.

The dreaded Redcloudchuli - Sunshinjunga traverse
Another view, taken later

Darwin awards, anyone?
Here is a wider view from above. The same sign is circled. Not a good idea at all.
Me: That's gonna suck on the way back.

Also me, later: Yep, that sucked.

Gates of Mordor. Pretty sure Justiner rode his bike up this.

Soon after that, I stood before the pile of loose rocks known as the north face of the Sunshinjunga massif. By now, I was feeling the cumulative effects of the day, and the climb to summit Sunshinjunga was arduous. Eventually I reached the summit of Sunshinjunga – objective 2 accomplished! By now the wind was howling, and I quickly down-climbed and headed back along the connecting ridge to Redcloudchuli.

Sunshinjunga's summit block.

I reached the Redcloudchuli summit shortly before sunset and quickly put on my full cold weather gear to ward off the wind and falling temperatures.

In so doing, I discovered I had accidentally snagged my daughter's Twenty-One Pilots socks. Hopefully they mean even more to her now, knowing they have summitted two of the highest, most difficult peaks in the world!

Twenty-One Pilots at the top of the world ... on accident
I love late evening light!
More light and shadows
Gio and his Himalayan wolfhound, Bear. I don't think this counts as unassisted, though - Bear is dragging him up the mountain.
Just another day at the office. 1,400th floor, corner office, great views.

Elevator doesn't work, though.

Dress code: Layers. ALL your layers!

Moonrise. Redcloudchuli's earth shadow is to the left.

As the sun set and the moon rose, I knew my efforts were worth it! All around rose the majestic peaks of the San Juans, bathed in evening light. To the north were Wetterhorn, Matterhorn, and Uncomphagre. Far to the west-northwest was the distinctive triangle of Sneffels. To the west lay Himalayandes, my next objective. And far to the southwest lay the ruggend outlines of the Weminuche wilderness.

Coxcomb, Wetterhorn, Matterhorn, and Uncomphagre at sunset
Gio and Bear admiring the view

Sneffels and company

Soon it was time to make the trek back to base camp. I down-climbed northeast face as the full moon rose to illuminate the sky.

This was not as romantic as it may sound. I slipped and fell on my rear end. In the process, loose gravel slid straight down into my pants and inside *all* my layers. Yes, exactly what you are imagining. I was eventually able to shake most of them down my pants legs and over my boots.

Northeast Col by moonlight

Silver Creek looking silvery in the moonlight

A few minutes later, I slipped again and managed to catch myself before plunging into the abyss. However, I lost a glove and injured my hand in the process. The only medical treatment for an injury in the Death Zone is to descend below the Death Zone. So I hustled down the mountain, praying I wouldn’t pass out from blood loss or lose any fingers to frostbite. Several hours later, I was safely ensconced in my sleeping bag, bandaged hand throbbing. But happy to be alive.

Hand injury in the Death Zone (photo taken later, after medical treatment at Base Camp.)

My adventure was only half over. Himalayandes remained. I wanted to catch this peak for sunrise the morning after the full moon, to capture the moon low in the western horizon at sunrise. So the following morning, I hit the trail at 3:45 for the Himalayandes summit attempt.

Again, I started strongly up the valley by moonlight, although there was a worrisome cloud cover to the east. Soon I passed Himalayandes Camps 2 and 3, quiet and silver in the moonlight.

Before long I arrived at the North Col, an enormous, 200-foot obstacle on the way to the summit. After that was the North Face itself, even steeper and more treacherous than ascending the col. I got off route in the darkness and had to let my finely-honed climbing instincts take over as I made my way up.

I moved slowly and deliberately, testing each hold carefully. I was intensely aware of the consequences of a fall while free-soloing this face. Nonetheless, I arrived at the summit well before sunrise and did jumping jacks to keep from freezing in the intense, 10 mph gale. A muted sunrise slowly lit up the scene.

Sunrise from Himalayandes
Wettherhorn and Uncomphagre barely visible in the morning mist



Lacking the “free helicopter ride” SOS option on my SPOT device (I need to upgrade!!), I made the decision to descend the southwest ridge of Himalayandes, into American Basin, rather than face a down-climb of the North Face route unroped. I knew this meant grueling trail-breaking through a remote mountain valley and navigating rarely-traveled terrain back to base camp. But I felt good about my decision, and on I went.

American Basin from the SW slopes. Sloan Lake is visible to the left.

Sloan Lake

Himalayan Wolf. Big one, and fresh.
Himalayan Pika, doing what Himalayan Pikas do!

Little guy had accumulated an impressive stash.

Nearing base camp, looking back from where I came.

I eventually made it back, having successfully summitted and circumnavigated Himalayandes in a single day - and more importantly, completed my mission of climbing the three Giants of Grizzly Gulch* unsupported, without supplemental oxygen.

I let out a loud “whoop” of joy when I arrived, but nobody was there to hear me except for a tour group who stopped for a bathroom break. They just looked at me as if I was crazy. And maybe I was!

Lest we take ourselves too seriously!

* I know it's Grizzly Gulch / Silver Creek - but Grizzly Gulch by itself sounds way catchier!

Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
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Comments or Questions

Really nice pix!
10/16/2020 15:33
And who hasn't attempted to win a Darwin award?


Great report and photos!
10/16/2020 18:37
I lost it at ‘Airlines must adjust their routes to skirt the summitŁ


death zone
10/16/2020 21:19
what a brutal hand injury! You are lucky to be alive!


GREAT photos
10/16/2020 21:26
Admittedly haven‘t read yet. But you have a great eye for photography. Btw. That‘s a mountain lion track! Thanks for a good report so far!


Great pix's
04/07/2021 18:18
Excellent Photos

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