Thursday, September 8, 2016

Climbing Electric and Lakes Peaks

Those of you that read my blog regularly know that I frequently visit the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.  They are literally in my backyard.  Not only are they close to home, they are quite an impressive mountain range.  The Sangres are a long and narrow range that rise abruptly from the surrounding valleys with jagged ridgelines and summits.

When I originally moved to Colorado, I had far reaching views of the Sangres from a Cottonwood Peak all the way to the Crestones, taking in more than 20 miles of the range and countless peaks.  This was the inspiration for many of my early hikes in Colorado.

Two peaks that have been on my radar since I moved to Colorado are Electric and Lakes Peaks.  Electric Peak, at 13,598', is the highest peak in the northern part of the Sangres north of Rito Alto Peak.  It's visible from much of the Wet Mountain Valley and can be seen from many other peaks in the Sangres.  Lakes Peak is a little more hidden from the Wet Mountain Valley but stands less than 2 miles from Electric Peak.  On a previous hike, I was within a mile of Lakes Peak but passed it by as it was in the wrong direction on a nearly 20 mile day that already climbed 5 summits.

Up until this trip, every outing I have made in the Sangres began on the east side of the range.  I already live on the east side and this makes hiking here convenient.  Unfortunately access on the east isn't easy with limited trailheads.  The route to Electric and Lakes from the east featured a long approach that probably would have exceeded 20 miles that didn't seem too encouraging..

With summer winding down, I didn't want another year to slip by and miss climbing these two mountains.  I decided to tackle the peaks from the west side of the range from the San Luis Valley.  The San Luis Valley has more trailheads than the east side.  The only problem is to reach these trailheads, I have to drive completely around the northern part of the range since there are no roads through the Sangres.

I originally planned this hike last week.  A very active monsoon was in place however and thunderstorms were pretty much a given.  To make it a little more interesting, many of these storms were dropping snow at higher elevations.  Early season snow dustings tend to be quite nasty.  Sparse coverage of rocks can make travel treacherous, especially off trail. 

A week passed and the small amounts of snow at elevation appeared to have melted.  The day after Labor Day looked promising.  My destination was the Major Creek Trailhead, just south of Villa Grove, Colorado.  Even though I was at the trailhead before 630AM, it was just barely light.  A few miles before the trailhead, I saw a lone bull Elk along the road.

The mountains before the sun crossed the ridge
near the beginning of my hike
The trailhead sits at a modest 8800' in elevation.  The beginning of the hike took me through a juniper and pinyon forest with cactus and yucca quite abundant.  After a short climb the trail dropped back down to Major Creek.  Much of the route followed close to the creek.  Vegetation encroached the trail at places.  As the trail climbed, it made its way through large stands of aspen.  The lower vegetation was already beginning to show some autumn color.  A few of the aspen leaves were just starting to show a little yellow.  The trail travels through a couple meadows where it nearly vanishes in the high grasses.  Usually, trampled vegetation could be found to follow the trail.

Rock features along the trail
Looking up the Major Creek valley
Entering a meadow
An earlier view of the alpine terrain
The trail climbs very gradually, never gaining too much elevation.  After 5 miles, I reached the upper basins of Major Creek just below treeline.  At this point the trail only climbed 1600' or so. From here, I needed to climb over 2000' in a relatively short distance.

Talus field below Lakes Peak
Entering the upper basin
Upon entering the upper basin meadows, I immediately lost the trail in high grass.  On the map, a trail switchbacks its way to Electric Pass, the nearly 12,500' saddle between Lakes and Electric Peaks.  Studying the terrain ahead, I had an alternative plan instead of climbing to the pass.  The south side of the basin featured a fairly gentle ridge that climbed toward Electric Peak.  I could climb this ridge and loop around the basin, eliminating re-hiking the same terrain in the alpine area.

Looking toward Lakes Peak
I climbed the ridge to left of the jagged section
Climbing higher in the upper basin
I made my way up the ridge on moderately loose scree.  Once on the mellow ridge, I made decent progress.  As I gained elevation, I could see the trail descending from Electric Pass.  As I neared the ridge crest, I found a faint trail.  I assumed I was enroute to Electric Peak.  As I reached the ridge crest, I saw the hulking mass of Electric was at least 1000 feet above to the east.  The trail I found led to unranked 12er Mt Niedhardt.  Since the elevation gain was modest and I was probably less than a half mile away, I continued out the somewhat jagged ridge to the 12,844' "summit" of Mt Niedhardt.  Mt Niedhardt is really just a high point on the end of the ridge more so than an actual mountain, but it does offer nice views nonetheless.

Lakes Peak
Looking across Lakes Peak
Making my way up the ridge
Mt Niedhardt
Looking back down the ridge I climbed
Heading toward Niedhardt
Mt Niedhardt at the end of the ridge
Next I was on to Electric Peak.  Rather than retrace numerous jagged spines on the ridge back from Niedhardt, I dropped below them and sidehilled in the tundra toward the base of Electric's summit block.
Lakes Peak in the distance from the Niedhardt-Electric ridge

Electric Peak
The area below Electric's summit features a large flat area of tundra that leads toward its small subpeak, UN 13,220.  While it was already breezy, as soon as I crested the slope to this flat section, I was blasted with wind.  I'm not talking a breeze, but a full on gale.  It's tough to estimate wind speeds but this had to be gusting over 60MPH.  I actually had to stop, lean into the wind, and brace myself with my hiking poles so I didn't get thrown around. 

Lakes Peak with Cottonwood in the back left
Making my way toward Electric Peak
The Crestones beyond Rito Alto Peak
The last 500' of Electric Peak leaves the grassy tundra and climbs modestly up chunky rock.  I had to stop numerous times to brace myself as the wind blasted me.  It seemed no matter my line up the mountain, I couldn't escape the wind.  I stopped to put on my winter hat at one point.  I reached the summit around 1030AM.  I was able to partially block the wind from the large summit cairn to take a few pictures.  Even with the cairn blocking my wind, I still was getting blasted pretty good and didn't linger very long. 

De Anza (center) and Gibbs Peaks (Left)
Looking back at Mt Niedhardt
Eagle Peak with the North Brush Basin in the foreground
Another look at the distant Crestones beyond Rito Alto
At 13,598', the views are quite impressive from Electric Peak.  A long stretch of the Sangres are visible from the Blanca group to the south to the northern end of the range near Salida.  Because the skies featured broken clouds, I had only partial visibility to the west beyond the San Luis Valley and to the north toward the Sawatch Range.

Eagle Peak with Wulsten Baldy beyond
The tundra is looking like autumn with Lakes
Peak and Cottonwood Peak behind it
A closeup of the Crestones and Kit Carson
with the Blanca group in the distance
I continued to get blasted by wind as I dropped off Electric's summit and headed north over the flat tundra section. If the wind continued all the way to Electric Pass, I debated weather if I should climb Lakes Peak.  Even with gloves, my hands were starting to get a little chilly.

Flat tundra below Electric Peak, the tiny bump
ahead is UN 13,220
Coming from the south UN 13,220, the subpeak of Electric, doesn't look like much.  From the flat tundra, there is barely any elevation change to the top of the subpeak.  The north and east sides of UN 13,220 are quite impressive.  To the east, the mountain drops dramatically at a cliff face toward the upper Branch Lake Basin below.  Heading north the peak drops steeply some 800 feet to Electric Pass.  Continuing north toward the pass, the route dropped steeply with the cliff face a few feet to my right.  Fortunately the wind became more manageable when I passed UN 13,220's high point.  Descending this ridge from UN 13,220 is probably the crux of the entire route.  Some of the rock could be bypassed by dropping west of the ridge, but this would require some seriously steep sidehilling.

Looking back at Electric
Another clear view toward the Crestone Group
Looking into the North Brush Basin
Lakes Peak with Cottonwood back left, Eagle Peak far right,
and Wulsten Baldy beyond Eagle
A good look at Lakes Peak from UN 13,220
A closeup of UN 13,220
UN 13,220 looks intimidating from the north
As I dropped toward Electric Pass, I had a nice in your face view of Lakes Peak's southern ridge.  From this angle, the route up Lakes looks excessively steep and quite imposing.  Since the worst of the wind never caught up with me, I decided to continue up Lakes Peak, some 900' or so above.

Lakes Peak from Electric Pass
Despite the steep appearance of Lakes south ridge, the climb was rather easy and I made it to the summit in just over 20 minutes.  The lower reaches feature grassy slopes and the rock was quite solid and slabby, almost ramp-like, at places.  Although still moderately gusty,even at the summit, the wind wasn't nearly as bad as it was on Electric Peak.  I stopped for a break for the first time of the day and had a much need snack on the summit.  I was back down at Electric Pass at noon.

Cottonwood Peak beyond Thirsty Peak from Lakes's summit
Wulsten Baldy on the left and Eagle Peak on the right
North from Lakes Peak
Looking at the peaks I climbed earlier from Lakes Peak.  UN 13,220
in the foreground, Electric Peak above it to the left, and
Mt Niedhardt at the end of the ridge to the right.
Yet another look at the Crestones coming down Lakes Peak
Crestones closeup
UN 13,220 with Electric Peak behind it
I descended back to the upper Major Creek basin using the trail from Electric Pass.  As I dropped into the basin, the trail was quite obvious until it reached the meadow in the basin.  I don't know if I would have ever found it on my way up.  There are two small cairns that are hidden by overgrown grass leading to a very faint, almost indistinguishable tread.  A blowdown with a double trunk lays across the trail hiding the few clues to the route.  If you plan on hiking this duo of 13ers from Major Creek, I highly recommend gaining the ridge to the south of the basin and approaching Electric from that direction.  Traversing up and down UN 13,220 from Electric Pass probably isn't worth it.

Looking east from Electric Pass
Looking down the Major Creek drainage
The jagged stretch below the ridge I originally climbed
Descending from Electric Pass
My descent back to the trailhead went rather quickly.  Within the last mile or two from the trailhead, there are numerous rock outcroppings rising above the trail on the right.  Looking at these outcroppings I noticed a natural arch in the rock.  As I continued I noticed a second arch in the same rock formation.  Had I not just done the lengthy hike, I may have scrambled up the rocks and checked them out, but I was ready to be done for the day and the terrain to the arches wasn't exactly straightforward.

Arch in the rock outcropping
Two arches in the same outcropping
After the rock outcroppings I was back in the pinyon and juniper forest.  I nearly stepped on a smooth green snake close to the creek, this was the first time I ever saw one of these that wasn't dead along a road.  Close to the trailhead I found a deer leg with some hair still on it, possibly the left overs from a mountain lion's meal.  I also came across a decaying dead rabbit that was in two pieces in the middle of the trail.  I was back at my car about 215PM.

Mt lion leftovers?
More random bones
Odd decaying rabbit carcass
One last look at UN 13,220 near the trailhead
Looking into the San Luis Valley
Because of off trail travel above treeline and making my own route I don't have exact numbers, but this hike was at least 16 miles and gained over 6000' in elevation.  I have seen trip reports climbing Lakes and Electric directly from Electric Pass from Major Creek listing the trip at 16.5 miles and around 6500' of elevation gain.  Despite the distance and elevation gain, I didn't find this hike as tiring as others I have done in the Sangres.  I think the long gradual climb along Major Creek makes the hike seem less difficult.  There wasn't excessive areas of scrambling compared to some Sangre peaks either which helped.

I'm glad I finally got to climb these two peaks.  This hike was in the works for a long time now.  I'm already concocting new trip ideas in the future in the Sangre de Cristos.  It seems like you can't pick a bad destination in the Sangres.

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1 comment:

  1. Outstanding photos & detail. And you don't see all the wind in the pictures.