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XL Mountain (or whatever you want to call it)

Also Known As: Mt. Herard, Mt. Seven


Solo Hiker: Gary Swing


  • Elevation:  13,350 feet
  • Revised Standard Rank:  353
  • Zenith Rank:  87
  • http://www.geocities.com/Yosemite/Campground/2216/zenith.html
  • Starting Elevation:  9,160 feet
  • Elevation Gain:  5,100 feet plus 120 more for Point 13,297"
  • Round Trip Distance: 15 miles
  • Difficulty: Class 2, Classic Hike
  • USGS Quad: Medano Pass 7.5 minute

I have contributed a fair number of trip reports to Steve Parker's Colorado Rocky Mountain Trip Reports website (http://www.parkerpress.com/CRMTR/Links.html). His website lists hikes alphabetically. At the time I did this hike, Steve had trip reports listed for every letter of the alphabet except for X. So, I set out on a whimsical effort to fill this gap.

The obvious question, of course, was "are there any peaks in Colorado starting with the letter X?" After extensive research at the Denver Public Library, I think I can confidently answer this question with an unequivocal maybe.

I found two possible candidates. X Rock is the only natural geographic feature in Colorado that the U.S. Geological Survey officially recognizes as beginning with the letter X. X Rock is a pillar low on the south ridge of 12,164 foot Mount McCurdy in the Tarryall Range. However, it doesn't qualify as a summit in any meaningful sense of the word.

I also found two sources identifying an XL Mountain in the Sangre de Cristo Range. Joseph Milligan's "Roadside Guide to the Colorado Mountains: Interstate 25 Skylines" mentions it and refers back to Robert Ormes' series titled "Colorado Skylines." Ormes wrote that the name XL Mountain was given to him as the locally used name for this highpoint by Billy Garritson, a resident of Westcliffe. The name XL Mountain is apparently derived from a stock brand.

The validity of this peak name is somewhat questionable, to be sure. The U.S. Geological Survey lists the peak's official name as Mount Herard. I didn't find the origin of this name. Others have called the summit Mount Seven. Ormes stated that the name Mount Seven refers to the entire massif with seven distinct summits (of which XL is the highest).

I figure that if centennial peakbagger Chris Wetherill can use Ormes' original name Three Corner Table for Half Peak, then I can use the name XL Mountain for Herard, Seven, or whatever else the peak's name may be this week.

I chose to use the most obvious approach to XL Mountain from Medano Pass east of the massif. I left my home in Denver about 3:50 am and drove down I-25 to Colorado Springs. From there, I took state highways 115, 67, and 96 southwest to the town of Westcliffe. I believe that the turnoff for the Medano Pass Road was about 24 miles southeast of Westcliffe, but I forgot to write down the milage at the time.

As I drove toward the trailhead, I regretted choosing this day for my hike. The early morning sky was filled with dark, ominous clouds as far as the eye could see. Not a very auspicious way to start out. I expected to be stopped by thunderstorms long before reaching the summit. Nonetheless, I resolved to give it a try.

I drove 7.9 miles west on the marked dirt road for Medano Pass. I stopped at the first pullout after a sign indicating that the road ahead was for four-wheel drive vehicles only. The road was in terrible condition, especially for the first four miles where it passes through ranch land. It was deeply rutted and in great need of maintenance. I would not recommend driving on it without a high clearance vehicle.

I inhaled my morning dosage of asthma medicine, put on my hiking boots, and headed west up the road on foot, beginning at 7:35 am. The sign I had just passed indicated another 2.5 miles to the pass, but I covered the distance in less than 40 minutes. From my parking spot, the road climbed steeply at first, followed by a surprisingly long, nearly level stretch of terrain before reaching the pass.

Medano Pass was marked with a sign indicating six more miles to the Great Sand Dunes. The name Medano is Spanish for "sand hill." The pass was previously known as Pike's Gap from Captain Zebulon Pike's winter crossing in 1807.

The west side of the pass drops steeply, with some rough spots that would definitely require high clearance four-wheel drive vehicles. About a half mile beyond the pass, I turned sharply to the right on another jeep road marked with a sign to the Medano Lake Trailhead. My map showed this jeep road continuing west to Medano Lake at 11,500 feet, so I was quite surprised when it ended abruptly a few minutes later.

Three guys were camped at the end of the road where a trail continues up to the lake. They asked me where I was camped, and I told them I had just driven down from Denver. They invited me to join them for breakfast, but I thanked them and declined. I asked them if this was the trail to Medano Lake. They confirmed that it was. They said they had hiked up there the day before and cautioned me to be prepared to get very wet.

I crossed a log over Medano Creek and started up the good trail. It began as an old road now closed to vehicles, but if the road ever went as far as Medano Lake, the vegetation would suggest that it has been closed for several decades. This is now part of the roadless Sangre de Cristo Wilderness Area.

Below treeline, everything along the trail was soaking wet. It had obviously rained a lot here the night before. The lower part of the trail passed through some nice stands of aspen. There were abundant wildflowers, including columbine along the trail, as well as approximately 700 trillion flies. The trail crossed Medano Creek two more times. At the second crossing, I just plodded through the shallow water as there was no convenient dry crossing.

The trail was overgrown by some willows near a small pond, immediately before Medano Lake. As the trail passed the lake, it moved to the right of the willows at treeline, ascending west up a broad grassy ramp to a higher basin. This ramp was on my far right side, just below cliffs on the southeast side of 13,153 foot "Mount Medano" and to the right of a high, thin waterfall. The Medano Lake Basin was surrounded by impressive cliffs.

From the upper basin, I had originally planned to hike up to the 12,500 foot saddle between XL Mountain and Mt. Medano, but this route would have been a little longer than necessary and it looked like there would be some loose rubble to contend with. Instead, I climbed southwest up steep grass to reach XL's north ridge about 150 to 200 vertical feet above the saddle. Then I followed the ridge south up into the clouds, which were now fluffy and white, rather than dark and ominous. There was near-zero visibility as I climbed up into the clouds.

I reached XL's broad, flat summit at 11:35 am. There were several rock cairns in the area. A homemade summit register was stashed inside one of them in a vitamin jar. It listed the peak's name as Mount Seven and incorrectly gave the elevation as 13,297 feet. (Point 13,297 is on the ridge southeast of XL's summit.) Garratt and Martin give an interpolated elevation of 13,340 feet for the summit (Colorado's High Thirteeners), while the USGS Geographic Names Information System lists it at 13,350 feet.

XL Mountain was a beautiful peak with a nice route. The route above treeline reminded me once again that some of the these thirteeners just have way too many wildflowers on them. On the one hand, it was nice to be up in the clouds; but on the other hand, I was disappointed that I couldn't see the Great Sand Dunes.

I had considered climbing the easy ridge up to Mt. Medano along with XL, but I decided I just didn't feel like it. I didn't get enough sleep the night before, the hike was long enough already, and visibility remained poor. I took a little stroll along the narrow ridge to Point 13,297 and relaxed there for a while. I ate lunch and took a few pictures while I waited to see if I could get a view of the dunes. Sections of the clouds lifted occasionally, but not in the right direction.

After my rest, I headed back up to the summit and began to descend at 12:45 p.m. I saw just two other hikers at Medano Lake when I passed by. As I approached Medano Pass again, I had a nice view of 12,006 foot Mount Zwischen to the south. (Clouds had hidden the mountain earlier.)

Mt. Zwischen is the last alphabetical summit in Colorado recognized by the U.S. Geological Survey. The word "zwischen" is German for "between." Mount Zwischen is halfway between Mosca and Medano Passes.

Inevitably, storms did chase me down from the mountains. Thunder and lightning began as I rounded Medano Pass. It started raining a few minutes before I reached my car at 3:55 p.m., and soon it was pouring outside. The drive back down the muddy road in heavy rain was much worse than the drive up, but somehow I managed to reach the highway without being washed away in a flood. I got back on the road to Colorado Springs where I was able to join the approximately 700 trillion other people parked on Interstate 25.


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