In The Shadow of Giants

Here’s a little known fact of climbing peaks, the best views are usually not from the tallest peaks, but instead from the ones right next to them that are almost as tall. Case in point, today’s climb.

Today I climbed a pair of Centennial Thirteeners (and a third “unranked” one) that are nestled behind the two tallest peaks in the entire state. First, I have to say something about the drive in, the two tallest peaks in the state, Elbert and Massive, are just to the west of Leadville, and driving through Leadville this morning to get to the trailhead, the valley in between Leadville and the peaks was in an inversion. An inversion is when the clouds drop to the valley floor, and surrounding higher elevations are above the clouds. It’s almost like a really low fog, but depending on your altitude you are above it, and the skies are clear. It also snowed on their summits Friday night (yes, it still snows in July!), so it was really cool to see the peaks with a fresh snow on the summit shrouded in clouds.

Okay, on to the climb. The peaks on today’s menu are French Mtn (13,940), 63rd tallest, Casco Peak (13,908), 69th tallest, and the Frasco Benchmark (13,876), unranked because it only rises 256 feet from the ridge connecting it to French. These shy peaks lie just to the west of Mt Elbert, the state’s tallest peak, and literally across the street. There is an old mining road that leads along the South Halfmoon Creek and separates French and Elbert from each other. In fact you can climb Elbert from the same trailhead, and I saw people on the trail on their way to do just that. That leads to a second secret of peak climbing, I saw no one else climbing the same peaks as me, so if you want solitude, climb a thirteener instead of a fourteener. Okay, back to the route, at the end of the mining road ( a distant 3 1/2 miles from the trailhead!) lie the remains of the Iron Mike Mine. (I wonder if it’s named after “Da Coach", or the boxer). From the mine’s two collapsed cabins, you leave the road and climb French’s south slopes. As you reach the summit, the views are just amazing. You can see Elbert a mere 2 miles away (and only 500 feet taller), Massive 4 miles away, La Plata (the states 5th highest peak) is about 10 miles away, and in the distance you can see Leadville in the wide valley below.  I took a little snack break up their as I enjoyed the view.

Casco Peak is about 1 1/4 away along a ridge that never drops below 13,200 feet, which crosses over the unranked summit of Frasco Benchmark along the way. Frasco is a US Geological Survey benchmark, that lies at the intersection of 3 ridges. It took and hour and a half to complete the traverse all the way to Casco's summit, and it was a little tricky in some spots, but taking care to stay below the rock towers kept the route relatively easy. All of those rock formations above the ridge made it an incredibly impressive route, that looks harder than it is. After a quick break on top of Casco, I descended back into the basin and to the mine. I had been climbing above 13,000 feet for over an hour and half! Needless to say, that was a bit tiring, even living at 7500 feet, that much time at that altitude starts to affect your endurance, especially after that 3 1/2 mile approach to the mine. All in all the circle tour of these high peaks is over 11.5 miles, and took me about 7 hours to complete, now that is a full day. It’s a good thing I started at 8am too, because 10 minutes after getting back to the car it started to rain, and even mixed with a little light hail. The afternoon storms never fail… So the moral of this story is: Want a view? Want solitude? Then climb a Thirteener.