“The joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences, and hence, there is no greater joy then to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun.” Chris McCandless
- TRAILHEAD: Silver Creek
- ROUTE: Northeast Ridge from Silver Creek (ascent) and Northwest Face (descent)
- DAY: Friday, August 13th, 2010
- ELEVATION GAIN: 4,300 feet
- ROUNDTRIP LENGTH: 11 miles
- ROUNDTRIP TIME: 7 hours, 15 minutes (includes 30 minutes on Redcloud Summit & 1 hour on Sunshine Summit)
- CLIMBING PARTNER(S): Charlie
- TRAILHEAD: Grizzly Gulch
- ROUTE: East Slopes
- DAY: Saturday, August 14th, 2010
- ELEVATION GAIN: 3,650 feet total
- ROUNDTRIP LENGTH: 8.0 miles (2 miles on Friday, 6 miles on Saturday)
- CLIMBING PARTNER(S): Charlie
The San Juan Range of Colorado is considered by many the most beautiful group of 14ers in Colorado. The San Juan Range of Colorado is located in the southwest corner of the state. It is remote and isolated. The mountains are spectacular in every way. The range comprise of every mountain type; ones that are formidable, dangerous, uncomplicated, desolate, awe-inspiring, and scenic. I was very enthusiastic about my first adventure into the San Juan’s.
Redcloud Peak, Sunshine Peak and Handies Peak were on the list for my first adventure to the San Juan Range. My friend Charlie and I decided to venture towards the San Juan’s for the first time together. Similar to me, Charlie had yet to endeavor into this range. Due to the distance, we wanted to make the most of our brief journey there and decided that Redcloud, Sunshine and Handies would provide a great introduction of the area. These three peaks are in very close proximity to one another and they are very manageable hikes. It also allowed us to do some backpacking and camping in a beautiful watershed sitting beneath Handies Peak.
We both took Friday off from work with the intent to leave really early in the morning. Charlie planned to stay the night at my place since we were planning to depart at 1:00 am. The night before leaving, Charlie and I were both scrambling to assemble our gear. Charlie had a volleyball game preventing him from packing and arriving before 10:00. I had yet to pack and committed to a dinner with Courtney, her maid-of-honor and boyfriend, which prevented me from getting home sooner than 9:00. Courtney was extremely supportive and picked up some groceries for me while I packed. One of the things I wanted to do for myself and especially for Courtney before leaving was to activate my SPOT Messenger that I recently purchased but had yet found the time to activate it. While I packed and complained that it was getting late, Courtney took the reins and activated my SPOT. It is great to have a supportive woman in my life that is always willing to lend a hand, even when I don’t necessarily want it. Thanks babe for helping me get things in order before leaving. I ended up going to bed after 10:30 and I was not looking forward to my alarm going off in 2 hours.
My alarm went off as scheduled while my body said no. In fact, I think my body didn’t just say no…it said heck no! I mistakenly hit the off button. Luckily I have a mind that loves the morning and I always have a hard time sleeping before a climb so I naturally woke up at 1:50. We assembled the gear and were on our way by 2:00. Although we were getting a later start than anticipated, we were on our way.
The drive to the trailhead was enjoyable. We traveled through Woodland Park, Poncho Springs, over Monarch Pass, into Gunnison and then through Lake City. Prior to sunrise, Charlie and I were able to enjoy Perseid Meteor shower on the drive. I counted over 20 meteors as I drove. It was impressive to say the least. The meteor shower was supposed to peak the following night (I guess since it was 2:00 in the morning it would be that night) while we were backpacking and camping at treeline. Charlie stayed awake the entire drive and we were able to have some great conversation.
Once we passed through the quaint town of Lake City, which is a place I would love to return to with Courtney, we headed up Cinnamon Pass. The pass has a portion of road called “the shelf”. It has a substantial drop-off along the driver’s side. I read quite a few trip reports that described this as intimidating. However, I wasn’t unsettled by it at all. I think driving Mosquito Pass when I hiked Belford and Oxford was rough enough that this seemed effortless. We arrived at the trailhead at 7:45 and quickly assembled our stuff.
Our plan was two-fold. First, we would use just our daypacks and hike Redcloud and Sunshine Peaks. We would hike the standard route up Redcloud along Silver Creek and then proceed to Sunshine along the ridgeline. We would then descend the standard route of Sunshine Peak (Northwest Face) back to the trailhead. Once back at the trailhead, we would grab our backpacks and hike approximately 2 miles up the Grizzly Gulch basin and camp at treeline. The next morning, we would hike to the top of Handies, descend back to base camp, breakdown and then head back to the trailhead before driving home. In two days, we would cover three peaks and hike 19 miles along an array of terrain ranging between Class I terrain to needing to complete a Class IV move.
Charlie and I left the Silver Creek Trailhead at 7:55 am and began moving swiftly towards Redcloud. The beginning of the route was through dense ponderosa pines and aspen groves. The majority of this hike was along simple Class I terrain. From the beginning Charlie and I were both feeling in good shape and condition, even though we started the morning at 2:00 am and just completed a six hour drive on about three hours of sleep. Charlie was feeling really good since he avoided his rookie mistake from five days earlier when he ate four donuts before heading up Mount of the Holy Cross.
Silver Creek Basin was stunning. The perfect weather of the day magnified its glory by generating an incredible dark blue backdrop. Contrasting, vivid colors were everywhere the eye looked. Wildflowers and Columbines were prevalent throughout. The assortment of lush green vegetation slowly dissipated into the stark reds and vivid tans of the steep mountain ridges surrounding us above. This transition provided a unique contrast of color and texture, intermixed into with the vegetation and earth was the sweet sounds of a gentle stream. The streambed consisted of bright white rocks that almost seem to come from a different part of Colorado and supplied an additional color to stimulate the senses. In the upper portion the basin, a quiet mountain pond was there to put the finishing touches on this basin.
The most incredible feature I came across was a natural snow tunnel. I had never seen anything like it. The tunnel was right along the trail at approximately 11,600 feet. I was first amazed to see snow at this elevation in August. The snow tunnel was impressive. It was created by the flow of Silver Creek. I actually decided to walk through it. On the outside, the snow was smooth. On the inside, the snow was shaped into hundreds of little inverted peaks pointing toward the ground. It was approximately 50 feet long and the tunnel was about 6 feet high. It was a truly unique feature.
From 11,600 feet to the ridgeline at 13,000 feet, the trail was defined and gradual through the vegetated basin. The stops we took were so I could take photographs of the scenic area. Once we were on the northeast ridgeline of Redcloud at 13,000 feet, the hiking turned to an easy Class II hike. The ridge provided a picturesque view of the Silver Creek Basin and of where we just traveled. This remaining 0.5 mile went quickly and was along numerous switchbacks and on consolidated scree. Nina, Charlie’s dog, provided an ever present watchful eye of the handful of hikers heading up the ridge with us. I loved this view of her watching a hiker below.
We quickly arrived on top of Redcloud Peak, which stands at 14,034 feet, at 10:30. Redcloud Peak was my 28th peak and my 1st summit in the San Juan’s. So aptly named, the rock was solid red. It was a perfect day in the San Juan’s. I obtained my first bird’s eye view of the remaining San Juan Range. Some of them were up close and personal like Uncompahgre, Wetterhorn, Sneffles, Handies, and our next destination Sunshine Peak. In the far distance I could see the Wilson and Chicago Basin groups. The San Juan’s were truly magnificent.
Of course, I had my first Fat Tire of the day. I also made sure to hit my “check-in” button on my SPOT. This was new for me and I hoped that it worked. I needed to get accustomed with hitting this button at critical points along my journey. Joining us on the summit were some great people. I meet Ryan (Baumgara), a couple who had climbed Handies the day before, and an older couple (who had a son that graduated from CU). We all had some great conversation on this summit. Most of the people we celebrated the summit with headed the next peak after about 15 minutes. We began our hike for Sunshine at 11:00.
The next segment was a straightforward 1.5 mile hike from Redcloud to Sunshine. It contained approximately 500 feet of vertical gain. This portion briefly reminded me of the traverse from Belford to Oxford for the distance although it was much easier. The hiking consisted of a mild descent for the first mile and then a remaining push to the summit along Class II terrain. Charlie and I discussed our descent along this portion. We were considering descending the standard route of Sunshine Peak instead traveling the exact way we ascended and needing to resummit Redcloud. This would definitely provide us a different route, new scenery and obstacles, and the route less traveled. I noted the cliff bands that we would need to avoid and we had a great vantage point of the gullies we would need to descend into the valley below. We agreed that staying climbers left of the descent would be best. Finally, prior to making the final push we observed a couple people attempting to fly a kite. They were successful and I briefly watched them enjoy their moment on these peaks.
We arrived on top of Sunshine Peak at 11:50. At 14,001 feet, Sunshine Peak barely makes the cutoff into the elite group of Colorado 14ers. Today, I stood at 14,001 feet with several of our new friends from Redcloud who left the summit before us. We all once again enjoyed a perfect summit with perfect weather. There was now a small steady breeze, but it was cooling to the skin as the powerful sun glared down upon us. The views from Sunshine Peak were also incredible. Traveling the 1.5 miles to the south provided me with an even more picturesque view of the Chicago Basin group to the south. It was amazing how 1.5 miles can really enhance a view. Everyone joined us for approximately 30-40 minutes and then began their descent back towards Redcloud Peak. We stayed on the summit an additional 20 minutes after everyone else and spent the extended time enjoying this peak. Rarely do I have an opportunity to enjoy a summit like this. We spent over an hour on this summit.
Sunshine Peak was a special summit for me. This was my 29th peak. It is my halfway point of the 58 peaks I am planning to climb. I still have the most difficult mountains to go but that doesn’t diminish the fact I am halfway there. This moment was monumental for me. The best part was I was able to enjoy it without any pressure to get off the mountain. I had an hour to think about my journey thus far and to think about the road ahead. I am grateful for every single memory to date and all of the knowledge, growth, and wisdom I have been able to obtain. What an incredible ride thus far! I am only halfway there. I am already looking forward to the next half and the endless possibilities of life ahead of me. I spent a special moment with my Heavenly Father thanking Him for blessings He has provided along this journey.
Charlie, Nina and I left the summit at 12:50. We decided to vary our descent from the rest of the people on Redcloud and Sunshine today by descending the northwest face of Sunshine Peak. This was a difficult Class II route but it shortened the distance and didn’t require a 500 foot ascent back up Redcloud Peak. We descended the north ridge connecting Redcloud and Sunshine to an elevation of approximately 13,700 feet and then quickly left the ridge to begin our descent down the northwest face. The trail from the ridgeline was along sharp scree. From our exit along the ridge, we traveled down to the top several cliff bands at 13,200 feet.
Besides the annoying scree, the major obstacle along the northwest route is the cliff bands that are situated along the base of Sunshine Peak. Completing the traverse from Redcloud to Sunshine provided us the ability to survey the area from above and afforded us some knowledge of potential pitfalls. We knew there were severe cliff bands below the ridgeline connecting Redcloud and Sunshine. As you moved west, the cliff bands became intermixed with scree gullies in-between each cliff band. The gullies seemed to improve in width and slope as you moved west. From up above, we knew that staying west, or climber’s left, would provide the best route through the cliff bands along scree gullies.
As we now stood on top of cliff bands we both recalled that we needed to go west. We avoided the serious cliffs below Redcloud and Sunshine’s ridgeline. Charlie and I began to travel west to a cairn located at the top of a gully. As we stood at the cairn and looked down we could see tracks and decided this must be gully to go down. We figured, there are tracks and a cairn so it must be the best one. That was my first mistake. In retrospect, I should have followed my initial instinct and ventured more west before making the decision. My second mistake was I committed to a traveling a route prior to investigating possible alternatives.
Prior to descending I requested Charlie and Nina stay above while I descended the approximately 250 vertical feet within the gully due to the potential rockfall. We could see that the gully necked down towards the bottom so any rock heading down the gully would pass within a 5-10 foot wide section. I didn’t want to be caught in the neck down segment with a rock headed my way.
I descended first. This gully was steep and loose from the start. I slowly navigated back and forth in a broad sweeping pattern. The weaving narrowed as the gully slowly began to neck down. I would discover that what we thought was Class II quickly became Class III material. I abandoned my trekking poles by sending them down the corridor and along with the rocks that were persistently falling below me throughout. I was now maintaining three points of contact on the mountain as I navigated the terrain. The pitch really steepened at the section that was funneled into a narrow corridor. Then I found myself on a small cliff about 10 feet tall. It was extremely tall, but it required my complete attention because a fall here would send me along a steep Class II delta of sharp rock and scree. I used sound footholds and handholds and downclimbed this rock wall. It was my first Class IV move I have had to complete. Once the nerves subsided, I was proud of myself and excited in my accomplishment.
Now it was Charlie’s turn. I found a protected location to the side of the funnel to observe Charlie and Nina without placing myself in the path of the rock fall. Although Charlie has completed some technical climbing previously and was more familiar with this type of terrain, he had an added obstacle of trying to navigate it with Nina. He did great though. He descended slowly and used extreme caution to keep both him and Nina safe. Once he reached the rock wall, he picked up Nina and carried her through a portion Class IV section and then handed her to me, to assist in getting her safely through. It was impressive to see Charlie steer this segment confidently and with Nina completely trusting in him.
Once we were further below the gully and obtained a greater view of the surrounding area, we realized we went down the wrong gully. We should have trusted our instinct. The gullies to the west were much more manageable and safe. I learned that I need thoroughly assess situations and that following my instincts can sometimes be a safer way to do things. With that said, I was also thankful for successfully experiencing some new terrain including Class IV move. I recognize that I need to become more familiar with this type of terrain so starting small is best.
The next 0.5 miles was a scree slog along the gully. At one point, Nina was successful in a catching a pika. She had attempted to previously catch ones but either they were too fast or she would listen to Charlie’s command to stop. Unfortunately, neither of these two were the case with this one. She caught the little guy and shook the pika pretty hard. Luckily, Charlie was swift and was able to free the pika but it was stunned. It reminded me of how a fish reacts after a hard fight on a fly line. One has to nurse them back after a hard fight. I was hoping this was the case for this little guy. We were saddened by this event and Nina was reprimanded and leashed for the remainder of the hike. We were hopeful the pika would pull through.
After the pika incident, we hiked the quiet drainageway back towards the main trail of Redcloud. It was nice to hike this trail without seeing anyone else. At the junction with the main trail to Redcloud, we paused and met up with Ryan. He was a quick hiker and left Sunshine about 20 minutes before we did but he took the standard route back. Meeting up with him reconfirmed to us that taking the standard route down Sunshine Peak would save time and distance.
The three of us hiked down towards the trailhead together. It was great getting to know more about Ryan. These were his 49th and 50th peaks. Besides hiking, we also had a lot in common and worked in industries that feed one another. When we approached the trailhead he told me his 14ers.com name. I had read some of his previous trip reports and seen some of his postings. We arrived back at the trailhead at 3:15.
Most of the time, this is where I would say what a great hike this was and maybe talk about a valuable lesson I may have learned. However, we still had more to do. We hiked 11 miles, summited two 14ers and completed about 4,300 vertical feet of elevation gain and still had more to do. While back at the trailhead, we replaced our daypacks with overnight backpacks, drank a lot of fluid including chocolate milk, Gatorade and water, and took a brief break before the next leg of the journey. Nina was the lucky one and took a nap under the truck. Once we had our packs together, we began our ascent towards Handies at 3:35 pm.
Backpacking was a struggle from the start. This hike under normal conditions was mild. With a 40 pound backpack, 3 hours of sleep, 11 miles of hiking and 4,300 vertical feet, what one would typically consider easy becomes very challenging. I was sweating, struggling and second guessing our decision to not camp at the trailhead like everyone else.
The route along Grizzly Gulch consistently went from trees to open, vegetated drainageways. Our plan was to make it two miles along the route to treeline. With each open bend, I hoped it revealed our destination. With each open bend, I didn’t find what I was looking for. We pressed on.
At 4:55 we arrived at our campsite at 11,800 feet. Home! We found ourselves situated in the Grizzly Gulch Basin with an unobstructed view of Handies north face and a clear view of the basin below with Redcloud Peak and Sundog (not Sunshine) in the distance. It was worth all the pain.
We assembled camp; I set up the tent and started getting the miscellaneous items situated while Charlie prepared an incredible dinner. He compiled a backpacking recipe utilizing summer sausage, hummus, cheese and tortilla wraps. It was absolutely perfect after the long day and I was so full I felt sick. Charlie and I then got everything together for the evening including filtered water, dishes, and our daypacks ready for tomorrows hike. We relaxed and enjoyed the view. Although it was 7:30 and both of us could have gone to bed, we stayed up talking, watching the sunset on Redcloud, a herd of deer that Nina was so eager to meet. Sitting there made me realize why we choose to hike in. We had the basin to ourselves. Peaceful, beautiful, spectacular. The views were never tiring and the sound of the stream that we sat above was calming. My 1st official backpacking trip in Colorado and I felt incredibly lucky!
At 8:30, I climbed into the tent even though the sun hadn’t set and I was going to likely miss some great parting views. I also knew I would not find the strength to see the climax of the Perseid Meteor shower. Sad that there probably isn’t too many places that could be better for the show but rest was much more important at this point. Before I went to sleep though, I prayed for Courtney. This was one the first times I was unavailable by cell phone. I hoped my Spot was working the way we had hoped but considering this was my first time, I had no idea. I prayed for peace and comfort. I prayed for God’s continued protection and safety. I feel asleep.
I woke up at 5:45 a.m. and mobilized outside of the tent around 6:00 a.m. I assembled my gear, made some iced coffee, and grabbed my camera in anticipation of the alpenglow. Charlie began to move a little later. It was another beautiful day with not a single cloud to be seen and was actually pleasant for an early morning at treeline. Handies Peak began to rise at 6:25 a.m. as the sun slowly revealed its summit in a fire orange.
We began hiking at 6:40 towards our final destination. Our view was completely unhindered from the start. With each passing minute, more of Handies Peak was blanketed in alpenglow. Although the morning air was mild, it still took a little bit to get warmed up. We were still moving at a steady pace but the hiking from a day earlier slowed me down.
As we proceeded up the basin closer to the mountain I observed a large group on top of Handies. They watched the liberated sunrise surround them in a glorious light show. I was a little envious of their position as I can’t wait to watch sunrise on top of a 14er.
The terrain along this route was along a lot of grassy terrain. From the beginning we were hiking along the headwaters of Grizzly Creek until we crossed it at approximately 12,400 feet. We moved away from the creek by traveling north and began the mild elevation gain along more vegetated trails. At approximately 12,750 feet, we came across a rock moraine where we followed the defined trail and cairns over it. Above the rock moraine, the path once again was well defined as it carved its way into the grassy vegetation that was abundant throughout. At approximately 13,400 feet we began traversing up switchbacks in order to gain the north ridge at 13,600 feet. From 13,600 feet the next 100 vertical feet were gradual along the ridgeline until the remaining pitch from 13,700 feet to 14,048 feet. This last segment is the reason this is a Class II hike. It was along small scree that moved beneath each step and was the only difficult portion of the hike.
The two miles from base camp to the summit was brief and nice change from the usual long treks to the summit. We arrived at the summit of Handies Peak at 8:30 a.m. This morning we stood at 14,048 feet. We took our time from beginning to end and the simple pace was pleasurable. We enjoyed the summit with several people who came from the American Basin, on the other side of the north ridge. Once again I had my Fat Tire, with a little bit of opposition from a hiker who didn’t support drinking a beer on top of a 14er, and we descended back towards camp at 9:05 am.
We hiked down with Karen, whom we met just before summiting. She camped at the trailhead and ascended the four miles up that morning. She was a quick hiker. We conversed the entire way back down to our base camp where we arrived at 10:20.
Charlie and I quickly broke down camp, packed up our gear and readied ourselves for the remaining two miles out. Nina’s paws were worn and now sensitive to all of the hiking. She had worn paw protectors for the majority of the hiking but the ground is abrasive and she was done. Charlie realized that we might be packing her out as well.
We left camp 11:05. It was starting to get hot and the shade provided by treeline was welcoming. Nina quickly let Charlie know that she was done hiking. The next two miles Charlie would carry Nina down with her providing him intermit breaks by walking herself down. I would also briefly help Charlie by carrying her down for portions of the trail to give him a break since he was doing the majority of this strenuous work. At one point I looked back and saw Nina on top of Charlie’s shoulders. She didn’t look comfortable but I think she was more tolerant of that position than the alternative of walking out. She was a trooper.
Charlie, Nina and I arrived back at the trailhead at 12:00. I was elated to be back at the truck and pleased with the success of the trip. Three peaks, approximately 7,950 feet of elevation gain, 19 miles, my 1st backpacking trip in Colorado, and incredible views and memories. I couldn’t ask for much more.
After two days surrounded by only a portion of the incredible scenery within the vast San Juan’s, these three peaks wetted my appetite and provided an exceptional appetizer for the main course that is about to come. These mountains not only provided magnificent views, I gained new experiences, and memories that I will never forget. This initial taste of the San Juan’s was satisfying and left me hungry for more.
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