Peak(s):  Sunshine Peak  -  14,001 feet
Redcloud Peak  -  14,034 feet
Date Posted:  01/24/2008
Modified:  11/11/2009
Date Climbed:   01/18/2008
Author:  sgladbach
 MLK winter weekend in the San Juans- Part I  

MLK winter weekend in the San Juans- Part I

Sunshine /Redcloud 7 miles 5500' 11 hours

As the first of the winter's three-day weekends approached, I found myself plotting a strategy to best utilize the time. However, there were several sticking points. The first problem was that the winter snowpack has been dangerous. In the preceding week we suffered the season's third fatal avalanche , the second to occur in the East Vail couloirs; his partner barely survived. A very young woman died on the south face of Little Bear and, again, her partner had a miraculous survival story. Two more skiers vanished at Wolf Creek; they are presumed dead subsequent to a 7 day search after four feet of new snowfall in the 24 hours following their disappearance. Six snowmobilers survived a storm in the south San Juans while another was saved after a complete burial by some alert passersby. All in all, a ten-day stretch that would make the most experienced Colorado mountaineers become queasy.

Secondly, I had trouble finding winter-savvy partners who were interested in the North San Juans and had the ability to get away. I decided to go as conservative as possible. I believed that Sunshine, Redcloud and Handies had routes that could be negotiated under current conditions (moderate danger below timberline and considerable at and above timberline). I decided to add a fourth day to the weekend and took Friday off work to boot. The day before I left, Ken Nolan and Jean Aschenbrenner called to tell me they were interested in Wetterhorn. Great!, I decided, I'll join then for Saturday through Monday and save Handies for another weekend. A solo attempt on Sunshine and Redcloud would make a fine Friday day-trip.

I drove down to Lake City on Thursday and again stayed at the Town Square motel. Last time in town I decided not to use this motel again, but they are the only motel who would allow my dog inside and the previous night's temperature had stopped dropping just short of -30F. The hot water heater wasn't lit; I did it myself, but, when I stepped in the shower, I realized the pipes were frozen and there was now no cold water in the shower!. These guys could use some quality control.

Friday morning I left the motel at 6:00AM to drive up to look for Ken Nolan's recommended route on Sunshine; it runs due-north straight up a rib from the 9513' benchmark on Cinnamon Pass road to the 12,500' minor plateau on Sunshine's east ridge. When I arrived, the darkness made the route difficult to pinpoint. What I could make out looked a little too steep for the dog and possibly snow-loaded. Ken still tells me this is the best winter route and is often bare of snow in the winter. Nevertheless, I chose a different approach.

I drove mile east back down the road and parked along the side of the road near the 9464' benchmark at a meadow where Bent Creek crosses the road. I put on my snowshoes and at 6:30AM I began the 5 hours of what turned out to be some very hard trench building. I headed north across the meadow and found the left side of Bent Creek, heading along a NW climbing traverse in search of the east ridge.

First light in the east

Early view of Handies

The snow started calf-deep (and never got any more shallow), then proceeded to undulate to a depth high enough to cause considerable self-esteem issues if you were to get caught with your pants down. My dog quickly caught on that he didn't want to be the one breaking trail. He dutifully took up a position in the trench behind me. When I'd look back to check on him, he'd be lying in the trail licking his paws, looking bored and giving me an occasional yawn. However, he was pretty cold. Traveling in deep snow is harder on him than being above timberline in wind and colder temperatures. He was getting dog-gone cold.

Cooper in up to his back

Give me a break!

Get me outta this %$#^

This portion of the trip was definitely the crux; it was challenging to convince myself to keep going and that I still had a chance to make both summits. Finally, at 12:15PM, I arrived at the 12,500' bench of the east ridge that Ken had told me to aim for had I had chosen his route.The weather had been clear and cold, but was beginning to deteriorate.

View back down the east ridge from 13000'

View to the summit of Sunshine (Heh!) from 13000'

I had 2000' to go to the Sunshine summit and another 1000' round-trip if I wanted to include Redcloud (and I very much did. I would have considered it a failed trip had I needed to return and repeat the route to claim a winter ascent of Redcloud). Fortunately, as soon as I stashed my snowshoes on my back, the travel sped up. I summited Sunshine 1 hours later only to be greeted by strong 50mph winds blowing in from the west. It was 1:30PM and I really wanted to fight my way across the ridge, even with a -30F wind-chill blowing at right angles to my route.

The visibility was poor, but the route simple. I had to hold my left hand to the side of my face for the entire traverse to Redcloud and my right hand on the return . The goggles, hat, and facemask were just not cutting it. The dog was cold, but warmer than in the snow trench below and now seemed very happy. The poor visibility turned every small rise into a false summit. I still made decent time, considering the conditions, arriving at Redcloud at 2:50 PM.

Sign at the Sunshine/Redcloud saddle discourages a westerly descent

The return was a little slower and the last 500' to reclaim Sunshine's summit were discouraging; I arrived at 4:10PM.

The trip down went quickly. Since there was no trench above timberline and the visibility was 50', I did have a little issue finding my broken trail for the descent through the trees. After a short panic attack, I found the route just before a headlamp became necessary. I put my MSR snowshoes back on my feet, but somewhere in the next two miles, one of the 8" add-ons came off in the snow. If you are in my track in the next week or so, keep an eye out for my tail! It's hairy, but cute. Once in the trench, the plod back to the car went smoothly except for one hassle with the dog. When I got to a point where my trench dropped 30' over a steep rocky area, the dog, who was ahead, went around a different way. When I reached the bottom and he wasn't there, I looked back upslope to where I last saw him and called and called. No dog. Frustrated, I turned to head further down, hoping he would hear me leaving and decide to catch up. As I turned around, I tripped over him, where he had been dutifully standing right behind me, looking up at me asking, "What is your problem- let's get going?!".

We arrived at the car at 6:15, stashed the gear and warmed up the car. We arrived at the motel at 7:15PM where Ken Nolan immediately came to greet me and finalize plans for the next morning. We decided which rope I would take and he vocalized his plan for a 5:00AM start. I balked. I told him Cooper and I would sleep-in a little bit and try to leave at 6:30AM. We were tired; I'd try to catch up before the trail had to be broken at the 4 mile mark.

Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):

 Comments or Questions

A Lot of Snow
01/25/2008 03:54
Good job Steve. Looked cold on the ridge.


Great job!
08/28/2008 00:37
Way to solo these in the winter and less than perfect conditions!


Cool pooch!
01/28/2008 19:04
He looks like a great mountain buddy; hope he didn‘t get any frostbitten paws! Congrats on an ambitious outing.


If Cooper could talk...
01/29/2008 18:00
I wonder what he‘d say... Awesome work Steve. That‘s a lot of work for one day in crappy conditions.


Easy day for you
02/03/2008 16:07
Only seven miles this time. That‘s got to be your winter equivalent of a winter stroll. Congrats again!

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