Peak(s):  Lizard Head  -  13,113 feet
Date Posted:  09/14/2008
Modified:  10/10/2008
Date Climbed:   09/13/2008
Author:  scotthsu
 Southwest Chimney, feels like fall!   

Lizard Head, Southwest Chimney (standard route, 5.8+, II)
Partner: Nice Axe (Amy)
RT mileage: ~7 miles (from Cross Mountain TH @ ~10000 ft.)
Vertical climbed: ~3100 ft.
Times: car-to-car ~10 hours
departed TH 7:45am
arrived at base of climb 9:45am
started climbing 10:15am
reached summit 1:20pm
back to base of climb 3:50pm (~40 minutes on summit & 1 hr. waiting for party on p1)
back to TH 5:45pm
Gear: 60m double dry ropes, helmet/harness/belay device, nut picks, set of BD stoppers, set of Technical Friends (every other size up to #4), set of tri-cams (4 smallest sizes), 8 double length runners, various webbing/cordelette/biners

From Climbing Colorado's San Juan Mountains by Robert Rosebrough:
"Lizard Head has an intriguing climbing history. At the time of its first ascent in 1920 by Albert Ellingwood and Barton Hoag, Lizard Head was probably the hardest rock climb then completed in the United States. Armed with three soft iron pitons, hemp rope, and nailed boots, Ellingwood and Hoag made a couple of abortive attempts on cracks near the southwest corner before rounding the corner to the west face. Ellingwood reported that 'most of the enticing small holds crumbled at a touch, and large masses of the loosely compacted pebbles would topple dangerously at a slight pull.' In spite of the difficulties, they struggled up and placed two of their rustic pitons in the lower cliff, saving one for the higher cliffs." (note: the FA was via a different route than the present-day standard SW chimney route.)

This was to be a summer season finisher trip to the San Juans for us. We drove up from Los Alamos, NM on Friday (9/12) and headed over Ophir Pass from the east. We were amazed at how much snow was up there! We did a short climb of Lookout Peak (13661 ft.) from Ophir Pass that afternoon, and there was several inches of snow above ~12500 ft., even on south-facing slopes. We were also thinking of doing the El Diente Mt Wilson traverse this weekend but decided against it with the new snow.

That night (Fri), we slept in the back of the car at the Cross Mountain TH parking area (just off highway 145 with a sign that says no camping allowed). The alarm went off at 5:45am; it was 30 F inside the car. I promptly shut off the alarm and we slept for another hour, finally getting on the trail around 7:45am.

After hiking about 10 minutes, we reached a well-signed junction with the Groundhog Stock Driveway and stayed right on the Cross Mountain Trail (#637). It was a beautiful approach through forest and occasional meadows with views of Lizard Head:

Getting closer with our approximate climbing route shown:

Near the saddle between Cross Mountain and Lizard Head, we left the trail (just out of view to the left of the previous photo) and headed up the SW ridge (left skyline in the previous photo) toward the base of the climb.

Scott grunting up the talus/scree ridge (with snow), pack heavy with trad gear:

We got to the base of the route around 9:45am (still in shade), found a rock in the sun a few steps away, and got geared up. Here's Scott leading the start of the first pitch:

The first 80 ft. was easy climbing (about 5.5) made more difficult by the feeling that every hold might come loose. There is a nice ledge with 2 pitons and webbing about 80 ft. up. I decided to anchor there and bring Amy up since my hands were freezing and I only had 4 runners left at that point with another 75 ft. to go to get to the rap sling anchors at a notch above. I brought Amy up, and when she was almost to the ledge, the ropes must have knocked loose a rock which hit her in the chest and right hand. Luckily, she wasn't hurt. All smiles (and chattering teeth) at the ledge:

Starting out from the ledge, I stepped left across a small gap onto the face. If you look carefully, you can see two runners clipped to old pitons in the cracks. Here, you could have stayed further right in a chimney, but I love face climbing much more. This part felt like 5.7+/5.8 climbing, much more solid rock, and probably my favorite part of the whole climb:

After more exciting exposed climbing on the wall with decent protection in small gaps in the rocks (using cams), I reached a dramatic notch with rappel anchors, to which I anchored myself, and then brought Amy up:

When Amy got to the notch, I handed her the gear and told her to keep going. The next "pitch" was low-angle 3rd class scrambling to the base of the summit headwall. Here's a shot Amy took looking back at the notch:

After reaching the base of the summit headwall, we sat in the sun to warm up for a bit and shared a bar. Here's a photo of the final pitch. There is a slightly overhanging bulge with a piton under it. There was ice in the chimney/crack below and to the right of the bulge and snow above. When I got there, I chose to head left up a pleasant 5.3-5.5ish finish above the snowy section (instead of staying in the obvious chimney):

Scott just below the bulge:

I managed to clip the piton, then moved up and got a #4 Friend into the crack to the right of the bulge. Most of the hand/footholds had ice on them, making this feel much tougher than its rated 5.7+/5.8. I moved up and tried to move the #4 Friend up a little higher in the crack, and one of the lobes folded upward (like an umbrella in the wind)! I was up sh** creek, and my not-in-shape climbing legs started doing the Elvis. I struggled for awhile trying to right the cam but couldn't, fatiguing myself in the process. Finally, I got a smaller cam into the crack and hung off it giving myself a much needed rest! With fresher legs I was able to move up and above the bulge to the snowy part, in the process also freeing the #4 Friend and taking it with me. There were a few exposed sections of rock to step on in the snowy part, but they were still slippery and I was extra careful since I was far above my last piece.

As mentioned above, I headed left above the snowy section for some pleasant easy 5th class climbing with decent protection (small cams). I went all the way to the summit thinking there might be anchors up there, but I found nothing but loose rock, so I came back down a bit and placed a few cams into a crack and anchored myself. Then I brought Amy up. I felt the rope go tight; she later told me her foot slipped off one of the ice-covered footholds around the bulge. Here's Amy nearing the top of the easy 5th class section:

She climbed past me to the summit (at 1:15pm, 3 hours after we started the technical climbing):

Me approaching the summit:

A rewarding summit (with Wilson Peak in the background)!

Group shot!

Needless to say, this was one of the best views of the San Juans I've seen, with the Wilson Group right up in your face, and the Sneffels range and the Vermillion group looking like walls of a fortress surrounding us. We sat up there for about half an hour soaking up the views and great weather.

The summit register was an old rusted metal pipe, and there was one piece of paper inside. Amy signing the summit register (Mt. Wilson massif behind):

The "register" was a photocopied climbing guide of Lizard Head (we did the route labeled South Crack in this guide), with people signing the back of the page (including fellow Los Alamos climbers Jason Halladay and Bill Geist):

The rap anchors were a short distance off to the SE and were pretty easy to spot. Here's me starting the rap down:

We made it back to the notch at the top of the first pitch and heard voices! Another party of 2 was coming up. It was around 2:30pm at this point. Joe (from near Telluride) and Carolina (from Colombia) made decent time up the pitch, while we waited in front of this view for about an hour:

Amy took this shot of the Vermillion group through the notch before she rapped down to the base:

We were glad to be on the ground (around 3:50pm), quickly changed shoes, coiled our ropes, and walked away from rockfall danger to pack our gear for the pleasant hike out. We reached the TH around 5:45pm. Still got smiles on our faces from an amazing climb to an incredible summit!

Climbing endnotes: Although the reputation for Lizard Head is horribly loose rock, it wasn't quite as bad as I was expecting. The first 80 ft. did indeed have loose rock, and it's good to test every hold throughout the entire route, but there were also sections of solid, pleasant rock. The climb felt very serious at 5.7+/5.8 technical difficulty due to the loose rock in places and the fact that we weren't at the top of our climbing game. As for pro, I think you can get away with one set of cams and leave everything else behind (consistent with San Juaneer's suggestion from last year). From the notch, you can break the rap into two sections by using the pitons at the ledge (80 ft. above the ground). I think, but am not sure, that you can rap the top pitch with a single 60m rope as well. Thus, you can probably get away with bringing one 60m rope, but I'd verify this with someone who has firsthand information.

Ellingwood's own account of his first ascent:

George Bell's eminently readable writeup of his climb of the standard route with Jennifer Roach and John Prater:

Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20

Comments or Questions
Great report, I‘m envious!
09/15/2008 02:03
A buddy and I tried this climb about 10 years ago, but a combination of cold temps and HUGE loose blocks made me back off the first lead. Anyway, hats off to you for a great & safe climb, great pics!


09/15/2008 16:45
Congrats guys on a job well done! Andy and I looked at Lizard Head from the other nearby summits and couldn‘t get over how cool that peak looks. We only wish we had the skill to do something of this difficulty! I know you have both been wanting to do this for a while! I am excited for you both!
Amy - I am glad you didn‘t you were ok after getting hit by that rock!
Crazy how much snow is up there already! Ski season is just around the corner!!

09/15/2008 16:46
Amy, I meant to say I am glad you didn‘t get hurt and that you were ok. Clearly I didn‘t proof read my comment until after I posted it!

Kevin Baker
09/15/2008 20:43
Kudos on summitting the toughest 13er in the state! I‘m sure the cooler temps and snow made things even spicier! I‘m going to have to do a lot more rock climbing before taking a shot at this bad boy.

Chicago Transplant
09/15/2008 22:46
Great peak and a great report, this will be invaluable if I ever take this one on. Right now I am thinking of changing my list from the 13ers to the 4000M‘ers just to keep from having to climb this one! (it misses that list by about 10 feet)

thanks everyone for the kind words!
09/15/2008 23:33
it‘s a good thing that i read very few TR‘s on Lizard Head before attempting it; otherwise, I might have wimped out. Also, one of the few I did read was Jason Halladay‘s, who makes everything sound easy It was a fantastic experience. Also, although all the guidebooks rate the SW Chimney route as 5.7+/5.8, I‘d agree with many people‘s comments that being a solid 5.9 trad leader will serve you well on this route. Chicago Transplant, LOL!

Jason Halladay
super cool summit
09/16/2008 05:00
Nice one Scott and Amy! Lizard Head is one fantastic formation and truly a mountaineering achievement to climb. That wide crack on the last pitch must have been quite a bit more challenging with the snow and ice. It‘s tough even in dry conditions. We neglected to bring the #4 when we climbed it so I was glad to see you had one along.
Regarding loose rock, it has cleaned up well over the years...can you imagine Ellingwood busting up that in 1920. Must have been a bit of a nightmare. (And he probably didn‘t have a #4 for the last pitch!)

Nice Work!
09/16/2008 16:13
Nice report. Looks a bit more stout with snow. This one is on tap for me next year. Thanks for the beta!

Thanks for reporting!
09/18/2008 17:21
I‘ve been turned off from this one because I‘ve heard it‘s super loose, but it doesn‘t look much worse than some of the stuff I‘ve been climbing lately. If either of you feel like repeating it next year let me know.

ellingwood da man!
09/18/2008 21:54
jason, yeah while we were on route, i couldn‘t even imagine the difficulties facing Ellingwood on his FA.

Furthermore, you‘re welcome! Hope you get it next year!

CAVUfool, probably safe to speak for both of us, but I don‘t think we‘ll be doing this one again (at least not on purpose). You‘re right, I think the loose rock is manageable, but I still wouldn‘t want to climb beneath another party.

Excellent Report!
09/19/2008 02:14
One of these years I hope to climb Lizard Head. How clean were the raps on the way down, and how many were there?

I‘m very jealous!

09/19/2008 05:03
thanks for the comment, Bill. We did 2 long raps (with two 60m ropes), and I thought they were both pretty straightforward and fairly clean. The first got us down to about midway in the middle scrambling pitch, and then we just downclimbed to the notch at the top of the first pitch. From there, we did one long rap to the base, although you could break that rap into 2 raps if you only had 1 rope (since there are fixed pitons with webbing about 80‘ above the ground).

09/19/2008 13:23
kiefer, thanks! as for using pieces, I think I placed 6 pieces (5 cams and 1 tri-cam) on the first pitch (~160‘) up to the rap slings (we did it in 2 pitches). on the final pitch with the icy bulge, I think I placed 3 pieces (again all cams), plus two more cams for the anchor near the top. A #4 Friend works great for the crack to the right of the bulge (and you can pull on it if you need to).

Amazing report!
10/22/2008 10:35
Kudos to you Scott and Amy! Glad to hear the rockfall on Amy wasn‘t anything serious. As soon as the rope went tight, I‘d be thinking, ”oh, sh*t”.
Awesome report and pics.
Congrats on a highly coveted peak! It sounds like you used quite a bit of the equip you brought.

Nice Axe
Rock fall
11/30/2010 17:28
This was a pretty fun climb and one of few multi-pitch trad routes with a great approach hike. Pleasurable by almost any standard.

Scott - great lead! This is arguably one of the hardest summits in CO. by it‘s easiest route and the ice & snow on the first half of the last pitch made this a particularly heady lead. Scott made good form of it!

One comment about rock fall for the seconders -
As second on the climb, I experienced a lot of rock fall, mostly small stuff, but on occasion, something that could really smart if directly hit. Advice: there are belay stances in rock alcoves close to the rock and under bulges that will protect you from all but the most unlucky of rockfall. Scott dislodged a huge rock on the last pitch that landed 14" from me and I was very grateful to have taken a protected stance.

Gary Brady
Beautiful climb!
02/05/2011 00:22
Looks like you had good time. Thanks for the report. I enjoyed the pictures.

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