Redcloud Peak - 14,034 feet
Sunshine Peak - 14,001 feet
Handies Peak - 14,048 feet
Redcloud Peak - 14,034 feet
Sunshine Peak - 14,001 feet
Handies Peak - 14,048 feet
|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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
Finally, there was no more “up.” I had made it!
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
* I know it's Grizzly Gulch / Silver Creek - but Grizzly Gulch by itself sounds way catchier!
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