Peak(s):  French Mtn  -  13,940 feet
Date Posted:  05/24/2007
Modified:  05/27/2007
Date Climbed:   08/21/2002
Author:  Martian Bachelor

 French Mtn from Halfmoon Crk via NNE ridge  

Quads: Mt Massive, Mt Elbert

I did French Mtn by a route I haven't seen described elsewhere. Both Garratt & Martin and Roach Squared describe only a single route on French, up a jeep road to well above timberline and then up the peak's relatively gentle S slopes to a saddle just 300 ft down an easy summit ridge from the top. (One can vary this by first going over Frasco Benchmark to get to the saddle from the end of the jeep road.) Since this is the only route in the books, it's considered the standard route on French. I was looking for something a bit more than a longish Class 2 hike -- much of it on a jeep road -- and I wasn't that interested in going over Frasco. I think I found a good alternative for those wanting more of a mountaineering challenge than the standard provides. My route has the advantage of being shorter in distance, so it puts you on top quicker from the auto trailhead. The entire route is on the Mt Massive quad, but if (like me) you decide to do a Tour de French by descending the standard route, then you'll probably also want the Mount Elbert quad too, though it's not strictly necessary.

The trailhead for this climb is the same as for the standard route, which turns out to be the same trailhead as is used for climbing Mt Oklahoma and some of the routes on Mt Massive. This is near the confluence of South Halfmoon Crk with the main branch of Halfmoon Crk, at 10,245 ft and up the road from the popular Halfmoon Campgrounds and the large marked trailheads for both Mt Elbert and Mt Massive. The road branches here and you'll want to go left and park. It was about ½hr in from Hywy 24 a few miles S of the downtown part of Leadville, with the rough last 2 mi of the road taking up about half the time (and only giving a little more than 100 ft of elevation gain). Both branches of the road continue as jeep roads beyond their split. There were numerous unofficial campsites along the whole upper part of the road. The jeep road up South Halfmoon Crk was both rocky and muddy when I was there, so I'm not sure how far up it you might be able to drive with 4WD. I saw a 6-8 ft length of tailpipe along the road in one of the rough places, so if people are losing parts that tells you it's fairly bad.

From parking, descend a few dozen feet S to cross the creek and then follow the jeep road S a short distance before it attacks the hill by making a big switchback up the slope well W of S Halfmoon Crk which is the extreme NE corner of French Mtn. The farthest end of the switchback occurs at an avalanche cleared area where you can look up the steep slope to a 12,700 ft point on the NNE ridge. The road then climbs SE and S up through the timber before swinging back SE to cross S Halfmoon Crk just below 10,800 ft. It took me almost an even ½hr up to here, which was the extent of my walking up the jeep road. My route turns right, off the road, and goes W and WSW up into the large basin above.

From the road just before it crosses the creek, one might be discouraged looking at this basin because it appears to be filled with nothing but large and very large boulders. You can start out crossing these like I did, but in retrospect I think it would have been much better to have left the road about 100 yds or a little more before (NW) it reaches the stream. This is because the N (right) side of the basin has a more grassy margin, which I couldn't see until gaining about 300 ft vertical on the tedious boulderfield. Even with an early exit from the jeep road, you should still be prepared initially for some slow going over boulder-strewn terrain -- but hopefully there'll be less of it before you get to easier ground than I experienced.

After traversing NW to get off the boulders above the first rise up, somewhere around 11,200 ft, I picked up what looked like a game trail. I don't know if it goes all the way down to the jeep road, but if you're lucky you'll pick it up lower down than I did. It's only faint in a few spots and climbs nicely below the edge of the timber and above the still boulder-filled basin. After a couple of hundred feet vertical it became clear that this was really an old miner's trail, as I spotted the remains of an old cabin on the slopes above which is not shown on the topo map. The cabin is about an hour up from the jeep road, maybe a little less if you avoid much slow bouldering.

From here, the trail continues up the N side of the basin a short distance before crossing the bottom of the now narrower basin at a spot where the boulders thin out. In wetter times I'd suppose there's a stream here. The trail then goes a little further S, into the willows, before I lost it there. It only required a small amount of willow-bashing to get to easier hiking terrain on mostly grass beyond. By then, the head of the basin was clearly in sight to the W-WSW. Continued uphill hiking eventually gets one to about 13,300 ft at a col on French's NNE ridge 2/3rds of a mile from the top. The upper 700 ft or so of the basin measure as having an average slope of a little more than 30°, and it was a little less than 3½ hrs in all up to the col from my car.

The ridge to the summit is rocky to varying degrees and goes over two minor high points which make for the roughest travel along the ridge. The first is less than 200 ft vertical up the ridge from the col. Beyond it you can see the broad and easy NNE slopes of the 13,660 ft NNE sub-summit a little less than ¼mi farther along. It's from here that you first get a look at French's summit pyramid and the ridge leading up the last 350+ ft to the top. The sub-summit has an interesting configuration of large rocks on its SW side, which you descend down through to get to the 13,580 ft saddle at the base of the last stretch up to the summit:


What might be called the E basin on the mountain ascends from the jeep road at about 11,300 ft up to this saddle; it looks steeper and rougher from the topo map than the NE basin but may be climbable as well. At any rate, the last bit of the ridge up was no big deal. It was about an even hour in all to the top from the 13,300 ft col.

Well, just as I got into some small difficulty on Casco Pk across the valley to the SW earlier in the season, French Mtn threw me a little loop also -- though this time it was the weather's fault and not mine. The forecast the night before had been good, as it was on the drive over to the area around dawn. However, when I got in the vicinity of the peaks along Hywy 24, I could see that all the summits were up in the clouds. And it was drizzling lightly when I got to the trailhead. But it didn't last long, and it was mostly sunny and nice the rest of the morning all the way up the NE basin.

But just as soon as I got to the summit ridge, around noon, frozen drizzle fell for about five minutes -- just long enough to slicken up all the rocks. Ten minutes later the sun was out. It was turning out to be what I call a "blow through" day, with waves of bad weather blowing through at intervals. Things held long enough for me to make it to the top, but I wasn't there long before the next batch of clouds, which looked really dark this time, started to envelope all the nearby summits to the W.

Casco Pk from French's summit.

I didn't even get everything tossed into my pack before the graupel started coming down pretty good. By then, all the valleys close by were filling with precipitation. While I hadn't thought much about a descent route, I figured it would be much quicker getting down via the standard route than going back over the NNE ridge I'd come up. So I headed down the SW ridge towards the 13,620 ft saddle which separates French Mtn from Frasco Benchmark. Fortunately, the terrain on this side of the mountain is quite a bit easier than on the side I'd come up, so I was about 2/3rds the way down to the saddle (and staying off the ridge proper) when the first thunder came from overhead. I never saw any flash so I think it was cloud-cloud lightning which caused it, but one can never be sure when the clouds are thick, though there wasn't any static in my vicinity. I was down to the saddle in less than ten minutes. By then the graupel had changed to snow and things were starting to get white. I headed straight down the grassy slopes from the saddle and got a second report of thunder from overhead seven or eight minutes after the first. Then, within five minutes the sun started coming back out, with the air still filled with big, wet snowflakes slowly drifting down.

The slope below the saddle looks awesomely steep from down below on the jeep road just above timberline, but it measures out at only about 30° over the upper 700 vertical feet -- a little steeper nearer the saddle, and a little gentler lower down. This seemed about the perfect angle for a descent: steep enough that you get down quickly, but not so severe that it puts any strain on the knees or takes much braking leg effort to keep from going down too fast. It took about 40 minutes to get down to the first small stream in the valley below -- which was dry -- and a few minutes more to the first one with water running in it; I'm pretty sure this is the one heading E from the upper parts of the basin under the Frasco-Casco saddle to the W.

I was now aiming for an obvious switchback in the jeep road visible across S Halfmoon Crk just above the highest patch of timber. There's an E facing stretch of steep terrain along in here which I stayed just above, heading S, before dropping down mostly grassy slopes to the willows choking the area near the creek. A hopeful game trail quickly led to a cul-de-sac, so I ended up (as always) fighting my way through what were the worst willows of the summer, getting soaked royally this time in the process. The guidebook version has one starting from higher up in the valley, to the W, presumably to avoid this willow hell. I figure I crossed the creek near 12,000 ft, and fortunately the willows weren't as bad on its S side. So I shortly popped out onto the jeep road only a few dozen yards above the switchback. In all, it was about an even hour down to the road from the summit. The soaking in the willows didn't matter much by then because it had started raining lightly but steadily, which continued for most of the 1¼ hr walk down the road back to my car. The sun came back out then so I was able to get warmed up a little, and get things dried out some, before driving out.

To summarize, it was 4 hrs 25 mins up to the summit and 2¼ hrs down. My total trip time of 7 hrs 10 mins therefore includes my standard ½hr of summit time, of which I took about 10 minutes on top and the balance under a tree next to the jeep road on the way down during a pickup in the rate at which it was raining (said time not being included in the descent times given above). If you can avoid the worst of the boulders at the beginning of the NE basin you might be able to shave a few minutes off the ascent time. There was a summit register, but I didn't have much time to do more than sign it.

All in all, I thought this was a good way to do French Mtn, though the weather made it more of an adventure than I had really intended. The route itself was adventure enough and I can recommend it to those who fear they might be bored on the trade route. The NE basin and NNE ridge are considerably more difficult, but still probably don't make it up into Third Class territory; the chief challenges are in navigating the route.

Finally, I can't help addressing the issue of French's elevation. This peak does not have an official USGS elevation stated for it on the topo map. Above the 13,800 ft contour there are three closed 40-foot contours, putting the summit elevation at >13,920 ft. The 13,940 ft elevation usually given for French Mtn follows the practice of adding half the contour interval to the elevation of the highest closed contour. However, the uppermost closed contour on the topo map measures 3.1 mm across in roughly the N-S direction, which translates into about 245 ft horizontal. This is quite a bit larger than the size of the level summit area, which I'd guess is hardly 25 ft across in the relevant orientation. It's only a hunch, but all this has me thinking that French Mtn is maybe not far from having another closed contour at its top, which would put its elevation closer to 13,960 ft. If I were in a betting pool, I'd take 13,952 ft. This would move the peak four spots up in rank. Obviously I didn't have time to make even any rough measures on the summit, so this is all just a guess, for what it's worth.

Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):

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