Thursday, July 31, 2014

Sangre de Cristo 13er Trio-Horn, Fluted, and Adams

After my last trip in the Sangre de Cristo Range, I was eager to return.  I look at the ranges rugged profile from my house everyday and look forward to further exploring the peaks.  My last blog I wrote about hiking the Comanche-Venable Loop over the July 4th weekend.  After reading info on other routes in the range and looking over maps, I decided to hike the peaks just south of the Comanche-Venable Loop. 

Just a few miles to the south is the Horn Creek Trailhead.  From Horn Creek, several trails are accessible.  On the morning of July 21, I woke at 4AM to get an early start.  My goal for the day was to climb Horn Peak via the Horn Peak Trail, then travel off-trail to Fluted Peak and Little Horn Peak before descending into the Horn Lakes Basin.  I would return to the trailhead via the Horn Creek Trail after visiting three 13000 foot peaks.

I began my hike just before sunrise.  Just a few minutes into the hike I saw the sun rise to the east over the Wet Mountains.  A mile or so on the Rainbow Trail brought me to the Horn Peak Trail.  The trail traveled through woods for no more than two miles before reaching treeline.  Although the trail is shown on the map as going to the summit, it fades away quickly on the grassy alpine slopes.  A few posts marked the way just as the trail entered the tundra.  Despite the lack of trail, the route to the summit was pretty straightforward.  A beautiful grassy slope led to the first bump of the ridge.  After reaching the first bump, the route was less steep but rockier as I followed the ridge to the summit.  Upon reaching the summit the views opened up to 360 degrees.  Particularly stunning was the view toward the Crestone’s jagged profile.   The sawtooth arĂȘte between Horn and Fluted Peak that stood before me also looked quite impressive.


First view of Horn Peak

Reaching treeline

Grassy slopes of Horn

Crestone Needle coming into view

Approaching Horn

View over Little Horn to the south

After a short rest to enjoy Horn Peak’s summit, I headed for Fluted Peak.  Much of this traverse follows a jagged ridge.   Most of the traverse is pretty straightforward although there are a few stretches that require some scrambling.  At least one spot it was easier to drop off the ridge to avoid a steep scrambling section, but generally I stuck to the ridge.  Since it was still early in the morning and somewhat breezy, I had to stop and put on a heavier layer while on the traverse.  It was a challenge to focus on the trail and not the far-reaching views in every direction.

View to the north

Ridge between Horn and Fluted

Looking back at Horn

Fluted Peak

At the low point on the ridge between Horn and Fluted I dropped off the ridge and traveled across the grassy slopes below to head more directly to Fluted.  I followed what appeared to be bighorn sheep herd paths across the slope.  The slope was covered in sheep tracks as well as scat.  I never did see any sheep though.  This slope was heavily covered with colorful wildflowers.  I regained Fluted Peak’s summit ridge by climbing a short couloir.

Grassy slope below Fluted Peak

Wildflowers above Dry Lakes

Looking back at Horn from Fluted

Approaching Fluted Peak

Horn Peak and Little Horn Peak framing
Dry Lakes from Fluted's summit

I reached the summit of Fluted Peak quickly.   The views are far flung in every direction.  However, the view toward the Crestones and Kit Carson Mountain are most impressive.  I sat on Fluted’s summit and had lunch while enjoying the scenery.  As I looked toward the Crestones, I decided I would not visit Little Horn Peak.  Instead I decided to head to Mt Adams, just over a mile as the crow flies.  13931 foot Mt Adams is a loftier and much more rugged peak.  I was looking forward to its challenge and the grandstand views it was sure to have of the jagged Crestones.

Not a bad view from where I had lunch

Mt Adams is the pointy peak above the lake

Another look toward the Crestones and  Humboldt

Crestone Lake

From Fluted’s summit, the ridge that connected it to Adams appeared quite rugged.  I didn’t have detailed info on the routes to Adams so I would have to find my own route.  I thought it might be easier to descend into the basin between the two peaks above Crestone Lake and regain the ridge of Adams part of the way up the peak.  That route turned out to be more challenging than I anticipated.  I lost a fair amount of elevation in the process.  Then I reached the area above the lake.  The area was a jumble of rocks that made for slow travel and much of the footing was unstable.  As I reached the slope to the ridge, I encountered lots of scree and talus.  As I climbed to the ridge, the slope became steeper and the travel more challenging in the loose rock.

Lots of rock below the ridge on Adams

Looking down the slope to the ridge on Adams
above Crestone Lake

Travel was much easier when I reached the ridge.  Much of this ridge required scrambling.  Sticking to the ridge, a few sections may have approached class 4 moves, although descending just off the crest of the ridge made easier passage possible.  Despite the rockiness of the ridge, there were a lot of wildflowers and the air smelled sweet from them.  Having wasted a lot of energy on the scree and talus, I had to take a short break before I reached the summit to grab a snack.  While I was resting, I saw a pair descending from the summit, the first people I saw so far.  They descended on a different route so I never did pass them.

Mt Adams Ridge

 The last bit of terrain to the summit is quite steep.  With a little route finding I reached the final hump to the summit with basic scrambling although one route required climbing a vertical chimney.  The summit views were as good as I expected.  The close up views to the 14000 foot peaks of Crestones and Kit Carson Mountain were amazing.  I could look back on the summits of Horn and Fluted Peaks as well as much of my route.

Looking toward the final bump of Adams

View from Adams

Kit Carson and the Crestones from Adams

Close up of the Crestones

Another look south from Mt Adams

More jagged peaks

The descent to valley is nearly as challenging as the climb.  Just below the summit I began dropping east toward the Horn Lakes.  This required descending about 2000 vertical feet in about a mile over the mostly grassy slopes.  As I approached the lakes, I reached bands of cliff.  I was able to descend chutes between the cliffs with no real down climbing.  The grassy slopes were filled with wildflowers.  When I finally reached the basin near the lakes, I encountered thick sections of willows that were difficult to traverse.  About an hour after leaving the summit I reached the Horn Creek Trail that led me back to the trailhead. 
Fluted (left) and Horn (pointier peak) from Adams

Horn Creek basin from Adams

The slope I descended from Adams to the Horn Lakes

Steep walls above Horn Lakes
Adams is on the right

Another look at the steep walls

Little Horn Peak from the Basin

One last look back before entering the woods

I reached my car just after 3PM, a little more than 9 hours after I started the hike.  I don’t have the exact mileage or elevation but the trip was in the neighborhood of 13 miles with nearly 5 miles off trail and somewhere around 7500 vertical feet of climbing.  I crossed paths with a few groups around the Horn Lakes and saw a pair in the distance on the summit of Adams.  I basically had the entire alpine stretch of the trip to myself.  Despite a few high clouds, the weather never appeared threatening.  I’m lucky I had such nice weather.  Just a few days earlier I was forced to turn around on a hike as I encountered a thunderstorm above treeline and thunderstorms are quite common this time of year in the afternoon in the mountains.

This hike was more challenging than the Comanche-Venable Loop.  The views on this hike were quite impressive and the vast wildflowers added to the experience. This trip isn't for anyone that is uncomfortable with exposure, scrambling, route-finding, or traveling off-trail.

More wildflowers along the descent from Adams


Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Hiking the Comanche-Venable Loop

The past month has been quite hectic.  On June 13th Puma and I made our move from Maine to Colorado.  The weeks leading up to our move were busy planning the logistics, packing, and deciding which of our belongings moved with us.  After 52 hours of driving cross-country with our belongings, four dogs, four cats, and a pregnant goat; we arrived in Colorado.  After a couple weeks of settling in, things settled down a little bit and I finally had the time to head to the mountains.

Over the 4th of July weekend, I decided to do my first serious hike since I have been in Colorado.  I have done a couple of easy hikes and short mountain bike rides close to home but nothing too serious.  It has been nearly 15 years since I have hiked in Colorado and was eager to play in the Rockies again.  From our house, we have outstanding views of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.  After staring at these glorious peaks for several weeks, I decided my first destination should be somewhere within the Sangre de Cristos. 

View of the Sangre de Cristo Range from my house.

I headed to Westcliffe, Colorado early Saturday morning to hike the Comanche-Venable Loop.  I heard good things about this hike and figured it was a good place for my first trip.  The drive to the trailhead was a good start to the trip.  Along the way, the local wildlife was out and about.  Just on the drive I saw two coyotes, turkeys, numerous mule deer, a large herd of elk, and a pronghorn antelope. 

Shortly before 7AM I was on the trail.  My hike started around 9000 feet in elevation on the Venable Lake Trail.  The trail traveled through the woods in the beginning, staying relatively close to Venable Creek.  There were occasional peeks at the surrounding mountains but not much to see in the first couple miles in the forest.  The highlight of this section was a short spur trail that led to Venable Falls.  Not too long after the falls, the trail made its way to the lower reaches of timberline. 

Venable Falls

Not too long after leaving the woods

Venable Lake Trail travels through the drainage of Venable Lakes and is nestled between Spring Mountain and an unnamed peak.  The trail travels close to the stream in an open grassy meadow with fine views of the peaks that surround the drainage.  The trail passes through gentle terrain as it rises toward the Venable Lakes, which sits above treeline.

Higher up on the Venable Lakes Trail

Venable Peak is the rocky peak in the middle

One of the Venable Lakes

After the trail passed the first lake, it became rockier as it approached Venable Peak.  The trail passes below the nearly vertical face of Venable Peak across Phantom Terrace.  Phantom Terrace is a ledge that is not visible until you reach it.  The ledge is probably only 3 or 4 feet wide at its narrowest with a nearly sheer drop below.  In slippery conditions Phantom Terrace could be a dicey section but with beautiful blue skies and dry trail, the passage of this section was pretty simple.  Crossing Phantom Terrace was probably the most interesting section of trail on the hike.

Spring Mountain

Phantom Terrace crosses this face of Venable Peak

The trail across Phantom Terrace

After crossing the Phantom Terrace, the trail reaches the pass between Spring Mountain and Venable Peak.  There is no trail to either summit.  I first climbed 13334-foot Venable Peak, the high point of my outing.  Along the way, a marmot played hide and seek with me.  As I approached, it climbed out of sight, just to peek its head out at me as I approached.  From the summit I was rewarded with fine 360-degree views.  I didn’t linger long too long at the summit before descending.  Small wildflowers covered the grassy alpine tundra beyond the pass.  Much of the hike at the upper elevations smelled like a florists.

Looking down the Venable Basin

Views to the south near the pass between Spring and Venable

View to the north from Venable

Another look to the south

Looking south from the shoulder of Venable

Nearing the summit of Venable

Spring Mountain is the closer peak with Comanche 
above the snow patch 

From the pass between Spring and Venable, the trail traverses below Spring Mountain before reaching Comanche Pass.  I skipped the trail and headed up Spring Mountain’s ridge to its 13244-foot summit.  The summit register was not signed since last October.  I ate a quick snack at the summit while enjoying the grand views.  I headed down the southern ridge of Spring before rejoining the trail near Comanche Gap. Spring Mountain had the rockiest ascent of the three peaks I climbed on the trip.

A closer look at Spring with Comanche to its right

Approaching Spring Mtns summit

The Venable Lakes from Spring's summit

Looking down the ridge from Spring toward Comanche

The Comanche Lakes from Spring's ridge

Before heading into the Comanche Lakes drainage, I headed for the summit of Comanche Peak’s trailess13277-foot summit.  It is a fairly short and straightforward jaunt to the peak however up its grassy slopes.  Comanche probably had the best view of the three summits with its fairly close look at the rugged higher peaks nearby to the south.  There was a couple on Comanche’s summit as well as another larger group that I passed on my decent.  This was the only one of the three peaks that had anyone else on it.  As I searched through my pack on Comanche’s summit for a snack, I discovered something very useful inside for a hike to a Colorado peak, a bag of Canadian coins.  It was left in my pack from when we moved.

Comanche Peak from Comanche Pass

Looking south from Comanche's summit

Me on Comanche

Looking back at Spring Mountain and Venable Peak from 
the summit of Comanche Peak

My return to the valley followed the Comanche Lakes Trail.  Unlike the Venable Lakes Trail where I only briefly saw the lakes, the Comanche Lakes were in view most of the descent.  I stopped several times to take in the views looking back toward Comanche Peak as I descended.  Several groups were camped near the lakes.  I was also scolded by several groups of marmots as I descended.  Shortly after 1PM I was back at the trailhead.

Comanche Lakes from the pass

Looking back at Comanche as I descended

Comanche Lake with the summit in the background

A pair of marmots

Up close and personal with a marmot

This hike is fairly popular.  It is one of the few hikes in the Sangre de Cristos that can be hiked in a manageable one-day loop.  The trailhead was quite full when I arrived and even fuller by the time I returned.  Despite the busy parking lot, I didn't see too many people on the hike.  I passed only a handful of groups the entire trip.

The Comanche-Venable Loop is a beautiful hike that is well worth the effort.  The loop is about 13 miles long and I added a little over a mile with my side trips to the nearby summits.  With the side-trips to the three summits, I climbed just over 5000 vertical feet.  For a more leisurely pace, this hike could easily be made into an overnight trip with numerous places to camp along both trails and plenty of water.  I passed a few people with fishing rods, as the lakes are apparently productive for trout as well.

The parting shot of Comanche Peak before I entered the trees

The scenery along the hike is magnificent.  More than half the trip is above treeline.  Looking at the rugged peaks of the Sangre de Cristos helps the mileage pass by quickly. The trails are fairly easy as well.  The trails climb gradually with several switchbacks.  After hiking Maine and New Hampshire’s steep and rocky trails for the past eight years, the well-graded trails were a nice change of pace.  The gradually climbing trail helps with the effects of altitude as well.  This hike was a great reintroduction to the mountains of Colorado.