Date Climbed: June 10, 2017
Elevation: 14,014 Feet
One year before this trip, I had set up an ambitious goal: to climb nine 14ers in 14 days. Granted, others have done all 58 in just under 10, but that’s for totally different reasons. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a single 14er done the whole vacation. This year, I decided to set a much more modest goal: three 14ers in 10 days, but I would be happy with just one. My main objective was to summit San Luis, as I had heard so much about it’s remoteness and beautiful scenery.
So, on a Saturday morning, as the small town of Creede slept, I took off into the mountains of the La Garita Wilderness. It was still relatively early into the summer season which meant roaring rivers and plenty of snow up high. Because of how remote San Luis is, it was impossible to know what to expect on the route. Would there be too much snow? Would it be an easy dry hike all the way? There was nothing much I could do, but just go for it.
San Luis is a unique 14er, in that one must circumnavigate two massive north facing bowls, cross three saddles, cover 11 miles round-trip, and all of this above timberline. Sounds like a lot, right? The above may sound like a lot of work, but in terms of other 14ers, San Luis is relatively easy in the summer. However, no 14er should be underestimated, and San Luis least of all when winter hits. This remote peak turns into a 30+ mile death march through very dangerous terrain. It is not unusual for San Luis to have no visitors during the cold months. Yet, winter was over… sort of. As I said earlier, it was relatively early in the summer, and the two bowls posed a difficult challenge if there was too much snow.
As I approached the first pass, I received my first look at the behemoth that is San Luis Peak. Being the only 14er in this Wilderness, San Luis towered above everything. Just below the pass I was able to glissade down to the trailhead a few hundred feet below. As I began my first bowl, the remnants of the previous winter’s record setting avalanches blocked much of the trail. The summer trail crosses numerous avalanche paths, and with a record setting four feet of snow falling in nearby crested Butte, it was obvious that all of the paths had run this winter, pulverizing trees and anything else that was in the way. The debris made for slow going, but it was all much better than winter travel!
My biggest worry on this trip would not be avalanches, but hungry bears. I ran into fresh evidence of bear activity in numerous places along the trail. With the thought of a curious bear stalking me for food, I decided to pick up the pace. In less than an hour, I had reached the top of the second pass, crossing much more snow than I had anticipated. The next bowl did not encourage me either, as it had even more snow, and every minute that passed softened the snow all the more. I ate a quick breakfast, rehydrated, and moved on. After crossing a particularly sketchy snow slope, I was able to follow the old remnants of a trail left by previous hikers. I was extremely surprised when I reached the final saddle leading to the summit ridge in less than an hour!
All that lay ahead now was a very long ridge interrupted by several massive false summits. The wind was surprisingly strong for this time of year, and I had to reach for my shell jacket just to protect myself from the chilly wind. It appeared that winter did not want to give up just yet! But, as previous winter excursions had taught me, a little wind shouldn’t stop you! Up I went, quickly at first. But as the trail slowly gave way to loose and crumbly rock and increasing amounts of snow, my progress fell away. The wind complicated the situation even further, as I would delicately balance on one rock, and then would be thrown by a strong gust just as I was shifting my weight to the next. After an hour of grueling travel, the summit was finally mine! After taking a well deserved lunch break on the summit, the wind forced me to retreat. Because of the loose rock, the descent was much slower than it should have been, but much better than going up had been.
Once on the saddle, the real work began. This time, crossing the bowls would not be as simple as it had been. The snow was much softer, and I was terrified that it would not hold my weight as it had on the way up. If I began post-holing, this hike would turn into an overnight excursion. I carefully took my first few steps across the snowfield. Every third step I would sink up to my knees, but once I had made it about twenty steps in, it was supportive again! I could breathe a sigh of relief and moved as quickly as my legs would let me across the steep slope.
As I approached the next pass, the previously sketchy snow slope had turned into an icy slip-n-slide. I sorely missed my trusty ice axe, and had to use my hiking poles in its stead. I had to kick as hard as I could three or four times to make a small platform for my feet. The slope was about 100 feet wide, so this process took a lot of time and energy. I was huffing and puffing by the time I reached the other side, and was forced to take a quick break at the top of the pass. After drinking up the last of my water, I took in the beautiful views below me. I had a choice to make: either reurn the way I had come over the snow and hope it could support me, or travel on the dry ground further down in Spring Creek gulch and hope I could make it back up to the trail on the other side. This is where experience kicked in; although the dry ground sounded quicker and easier, I knew the willows would be muddy, and a shortcut is never a shortcut in the backcountry (thanks Oxford and Belford). I decided to go with the known, and followed my old trail. It was hard work, and the snow was noticeably softer, but at least I knew where I was at the whole time.
After dealing with the avalanche paths, I had one last steep hill climb to the top of the last pass. I could feel the effects of dehydration, and as my strength began to ebb. I had to make multiple stops on the way up. After what felt like hours, I made it over to the other side of the pass. I took one last look back at San Luis, and took a brisk jog back downhill to my old four-wheeler.