Half On Half

After 2 1/2 months straight of mandatory overtime I was looking for a chance to get out of town and hit the San Juans. Luckily, my friend Jamie from Boulder was looking to head to the Lake City area this fall and I met up with him at the Crystal Lodge on Friday Evening. The drive went well, and the snow-free southern Sawatch was an encouraging sight. However, right as I was getting into Gunnison it started pouring rain, which lasted all the way into Lake City. It rained most of the night and was still raining in the morning when we headed out. It wasn’t about to stop us from at least trying, and we donned our rain gear at the Cuba Gulch trailhead in the morning rain for an attempt on Half Peak. If successful, this was going to be a fittingly named peak not just for its appearance, but because it was to be my halfway point: Number 50 out of the highest 100 ranked peaks.

Right of the bat we hit a glitch, the log bridge over the stream was out! We searched up and down the creek until we could find a suitable crossing, which luckily we found just upstream of the trail and were back on course. The basin is gorgeous, and I would highly recommend a trip this way even if the Centennials are not on your list. We quickly made our way to the trail split that would take us up towards Half Peak. There was a little bit of snow on the trail at this point, and occasionally it made the trail difficult to follow. We soon were above the trees at the base of a large willow field. The willows were shoulder high and covered in a light snow. Good thing we still had our rain gear on, or we would have been soaked. As we got a little higher in the basin the snow helped hold the willows down and we were mostly able to walk on them, but they would occasionally spring snow up at us as we crossed. A ways a head we saw an animal moving through the willows, as it came into view on the snowy slopes adjacent to us we realized it was a small black bear! Probably only 2 or 3 years old. It was the first bear I had even seen in the wild, and luckily it was a safe distance away.

We continued to climb, now above the willows, but in knee deep postholing. I got into a good rhythm breaking trail but the going was slow. The saddle seemed like it would never come, but finally it came into view and we stopped for lunch before heading up the south slopes on Half. Again the snow made for slow progress as the south slopes continually narrowed to the bottleneck ridge. Here we pulled out the ice axes to help negotiate the exposed traverse. We stuck as close to the ridge crest as we could due to the steep snow slopes on either side. In a couple of places the exposure, combined with wind and questionable rock, made for quite the adventure. After a few more exposed towers the final truncated summit plateau was all that remained of our ascent. The slopes gently rose to the highest point, and Half was ours. The descent over the bottleneck was just as treacherous, but we made it safely and decided we had just enough time left to head over to neighboring unnamed point 13,164.

There was only 384 feet of rise from the saddle with half, but the mid-thigh deep soft snow made for a physically demanding ascent, we definitely earned our “extra credit” on this one! We made good time on the descent, even finding a path that lead through the willows that we had missed on our ascent. We headed back to Lake City for steaks and to rest up for tomorrow’s adventure, more peaks!

We awoke to overcast skies, but no precipitation, as we headed to the Grizzly Gulch trailhead. We started up the trail, which quickly steepens as it climbs into the basin above. The trail flattens a bit after this initial climb rewarding climbers with views of our goal Handies and of fellow 14ers Redcloud and Sunshine behind. The trail was wet and muddy, but so far no snow. We kept on and reached snowline near 12,000’ in the heart of the upper basin. The rugged surroundings are spectacular, especially the ridge connecting Handies to PT 13975. We had got a later start, and it was now 11am and it was time to make some decisions. We had originally hoped to climb Whitecross, Handies and PT 13795, but it was looking like we wouldn’t have time to do all three and still get home at a reasonable time. Jamie had already been up Handies, so he decided to head for Whitecross while I went on to Handies, which at 14,048' is Colorado's 40th highest peak.

Initially the trail was easy to follow, though covered in about six inches of snow. I continued to follow the trail as it crossed a stream and climbed to a bench below the Handies-Whitecross saddle. From here the route climbs below the ridge to a flat spot just below the final summit push. This was completely covered in knee deep (or deeper) snow and I thought the slog would take too much time. I instead headed for the saddle with Whitecross and climbed the northeast ridge directly. This at first was a good idea, as despite some moderate scrambling, there was minimal snow. Soon, however, the snow became deeper on the ridge and it became cumbersome to negotiate the various rock towers and I was forced to go around them in the deeper snow. After this section of ridge I rejoined the point where the trail comes up to the ridge. I still had nearly 500 feet ahead of me though. I ditched my pack, grabbed my ice axe and a bottle of water and headed straight up the snow covered slopes. The snow was deep, often mid-thigh, and I used my axe to help me climb. After 45 minutes of fighting the steep snow, I was on the summit ridge with the highest point a short walk away. There was a nice cornice developing on my left (east) side, but the wind had blown the final section of trail clear of snow leading me safely to the summit. I took some pictures and had some water before heading down, it was now just after 1pm.

The descent went much faster than the ascent, all that steep soft snow made short work of the vertical feet and in about 10 minutes off the summit I was back at my pack. From here I chose not to follow the ridge, which would have taken probably just as long to descend as it did to climb. Instead I followed the path of the standard trail, again the soft deep snow made for a quick descent. I was back at 12,000’ in only 45 minutes after having been on the summit. It was exhausting descending such deep snow so quickly, but it was also a lot of fun. Almost like skiing without the skis!

Jamie and I regrouped, both successful in our climbs for the day. The descent of the trail went quickly and after about an hour we were back at the car and on our way back to town. We parted way and headed home. On the drive back there was some light snow (3-5 inches) falling over Monarch Pass and the southern Sawatch looked pretty well socked in. Looked like we picked the right mountains, despite gray skies it stayed dry on us all of Sunday. All in all it was a great trip to the San Juans, the weather was mostly cooperative and we were able to summit 3 peaks. Hopefully I will be able to sneak in a few more before ski season, which judging by the snows this weekend, should start off really well!