Half Peak (13,841') and Sunshine Peak (14,001')
Climbs in the San Juans
Participants: Gina Pasquale, Steve Doorn and Tasha (the climbing wolf dog)
"Beware the Jabberwillow, my son!
The jaws that bite,
the claws that catch!
The tangled branches that poke
Every inch of your poor bod!"
adapted from L. Carroll's "Through the Looking Glass"
OK, now that I've set the mood....this trip didn't start out too good. But it sure was an interesting weekend!
We left LA around 5pm Friday. After passing N. Hunter, et al, heading north, we had a quick dinner in Del Norte (Stone Quarry Pizza, good, they even have ice cream). I thought I had the evening all figured out: gas up in Creede, watch the last 5 minutes of the Bulls/Jazz game at some bar, then set up the tent in Mill Creek campground and be in our cozy sleeping bags by 11pm. Oh well, so much for planning....when we got to Creede at 9pm with an empty gas tank, we found out that the only gas station there closed at 8pm. Even though there were only 5 minutes left in the exciting game, we left the TV in the bar and had to backtrack 20 miles to gas up in South Fork. So we missed the end game and assumed the Bulls had won the NBA championship.
Then next morning, my karma was bad. It had rained all night, including while Steve was setting up the tent. It was still raining when the alarm went off at 5am. And this was my second attempt at Half Peak, the first try being rained out! When we did roll out of the tent around 6am, the clouds were dark and thick. And, we were camped in site number 13, on Sat, June 13 (not a particularly good anniversary for me: ref. "Accidents in N. American Mountaineering, 1993"). So, I was not a happy, wet camper. But Steve said, "Looks like a clearing trend" and we agreed to give the summit a try, until we heard thunder and would head back down.
We were at the trailhead near the Sherman townsite, at around 7am. Cataract Gulch is appropriately named, a very steep and scenic trail leading to a big lake at 12,000'. The trail takes you past some spectacular waterfalls, one especially worth seeing. At around 11,600', approx. timberline, the trail takes off in a different direction from the topo map. Here's where the fun begins. You don't want to follow the real trail, or the map trail, you want to head for a ridge that goes to Half Peak, right? So, you look past a sea of willows to find your destination. No problem, eh? I hate willows. Some say bushwacking through willows builds character. I say it builds frustration. So, 45 minutes and 0.25 miles later, we hit our ridge and life is good, except that it is now snowing and the jet stream has dropped down on top of us with killer winds!! But, still no thunder so we head on up.
After meeting up with the 13,000' saddle that Garratt and Martin describe to the north of Half Peak, we were faced with a nice 700' snow climb, in perfect condition for crampons. Luckily we had them along. When the snow runs out, you are about 100 vertical feet from the summit and have an exciting view of the N. face of Half Peak. Here you can see why they named it Half Peak: this mountain has been sliced in half! We looked down the marble-smooth granite side face and the views took our breath away. This is a truly awesome mountain! At this point, the book says there is some routefinding and some tricky moves, and this is true. If you stay on the N. ridge proper, you will come to a steep, rotten and exposed chimney system, about 50' from the summit plateau. I would rate this as class 4 climbing. We had to take turns climbing to the summit, because Tasha could not do these moves. Later in the season, after the snow melts, you may be able to find a less technical way up some steep scree slopes, but who would want to? By this time, about 12:30pm, the skies were clear and sunny, go figure? What a view!! And even a nice glissade down that snowfield. We figured this was a 10 mile roundtrip and 4200' climb.
We went to sleep that evening under clear, starry skies, confident that we would have nice weather for a climb of Sunshine the next day. When the alarm went off at 5am, it was raining! How could that be? Welcome to Colorado. We decided, again, that we would climb until we heard thunder. As we were driving to the Shelf Road turnoff, we passed several beaver ponds and Steve remarked how he had never seen a beaver in the wild. Just then, I looked down at the pond and said "There's one!!". So I pulled over and we watched this beaver swim across his pond, then get out and waddle over to his other pond and swim across that one too. Really cool!!
We picked an interesting route for Sunshine, a route I had soloed before and enjoyed: the NW ridge. To get to this ridge, follow the Silver Creek trail for 1.5 miles. When you get to the intersection of the S. Fork of Silver Creek, cross Silver Creek and head up onto the "ridge". Now, if you stay on the ridge through the forest, keep your eyes open for a very peculiar, if not disturbing site. If we saw what we think we did, it is probably illegal so I won't go into detail here. This ridge takes you up and over a separate (by CMC standards), unnamed peak, 13,432'. Descending off this peak is a little tricky and exposed. I would rate it class 3, especially with the knife-edged snow conditions we found up there. It is a little easier later in the year. After you reach the high basin under the west face of Sunshine, don't head for the N. ridge like Roach mentions. Head right, for the W ridge. It is MUCH more interesting looking off the other side of that ridge, and more direct, I think. We summitted at 11:30am, and had about 5 minutes of sunshine on Sunshine. The weather wasn't clearing, but thankfully there was no thunder. For the descent, instead of heading for the saddle between Sunshine and Redcloud, we headed straight down the W. face for a couple glissades. When you get down to the upper basin, you have to collect your senses. You are presented with a series of steep couloirs and cliffs. It is best to choose your descent couloir while ascending the NW ridge of Sunshine. But, on your way down, you have to be careful to pick the same couloir you saw before. It is deceiving up there. We spent several minutes to ensure that we picked the right one. Then, our efforts paid off as we enjoyed a steep glissade!! Traversing the lower snowfield wasn't too bad, just a few trapdoors. We picked up a climber's trail on the right side of the drainage, that led us back down to the main trail at Silver Creek.
Now, to finish up the story of the Bulls/Jazz playoffs....we stopped again in South Fork for gas and asked if the Bulls had won on Fri night. The answer was no, so there was another game tonight, Sunday! Yeah! So we stopped in Alamosa for dinner (The Hideaway: they have big, monster, locally grown, baked potatoes there, try one!) and sat in front of a small TV in the bar. Unfortunately, it was half time while we were eating. We didn't want to stay for the end game, opting instead to head home and try to find the game on the radio. We found a station with a lot of static, but could pick out a couple words now and then. At the Conejos River, we pulled over with one minute left in the game and inched the car back and forth to get the best reception. It was hilarious, but we did hear Michael's winning basket, hurray!! He's the greatest!!