After cruising through the Sawatch, I had to once again cross west over the Continental Divide – this time with an unruly bear canister in tow, to dash off the Elk Range.
A fairly stout portion of the tour was awaiting me, featuring some interesting climbing, some fairly loose and dangerous routes, and some unknowns for me with Hagerman, Cathedral, and Thunder Pyramid.
Timing wasn’t very good. It was coming up on Labor Day weekend. I certainly didn’t want to visit the Maroon Bells at that time – an already busy area would be a mad house (lots of people = lots of potential rockfall), so I opted to take the range in a strange order: first Capitol, Snowmass, and Hagerman in the west, then Cathedral, Castle, and Conundrum at the east side of the range; and finally the Bells and Pyramids right in the middle.
I questioned framing this leg of my Tour of the Highest Hundred as a, “Fastpack from Hell”, as the numbers really don’t compare to the Crestones, Sierra Blanca – let alone the mighty Weminuche. A motivated person, starting early with fine weather, could potentially do this course between sunrise and sundown. Unfortunately, that wasn’t my situation, when I left my bike far above Creede, CO in the summer of 2017.
The Weminuche. This was the make-or-break section of my tour. A large project within an enormous project. Lots of terrain to cover, lots of mountains to top. Technical scrambling in a desolate setting. For example, Jagged Mountain’s easiest route rated at 5.2 is one of the technical cruxes of the whole trip and is located more than a dozen miles from any trailhead. Jagged is also one of the more remote peaks in the Highest Hundred itinerary. I also planned to take Vestal’s Wham Ridge (5.4) to summit, rather than the easiest, if much looser, Southeast Couloir. I would have to descend the Southeast Couloir anyways, but Wham Ridge seemed too incredible to pass off in the name of speed.
Let’s talk logistics of even getting in there. There are nine peaks of the the Weminuche (sans the isolated Rio Grande Pyramid, which I did in a separate trip). First the good news. Five of the them: Jupiter, Windom, Sunlight, North Eolus, and Eolus are clumped into one area, easily accessible from each other in the quite popular (for Weminuche standards) Chicago Basin.
Now the bad: Turret/Pigeon, Jagged Mountain, and Vestal Peak are spaced quite far away from each other, separated by gnarly mountain passes, with no trail connecting them together.
Further complicating matters is the weather: it can be terrible, especially in the monsoon season, which is when I inevitably hit the area. With the trip being a multi-day affair and my goal of moving quickly, I could only afford bringing just so much food in my 35 liter pack, which limits how long I can stay out for. Margin of error is low, or I would face the problem of needing to go back into town to resupply, and making yet another unplanned backpack approach in, which I imagine would feel completely demoralizing for someone like me going for clock time.
For Seekers of the Self-Powered Way, there are only a few access points that make sense to gain these summits. The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad is often used to cut down time/distance to access many of these peaks. For me, that would be of course: off the table.
To make the Tour of the Highest Hundred work, my general strategy was to keep the number of separate trailheads I needed to visit by bike as low as possible, while designing my route on foot to tag as many mountains in an area as possible. Transitioning to/from bike-mode/hike-mode and superfluous riding are big time sucks.
One of the largest puzzles is the Sierra Blancas. Even enthusiastic peak baggers will separate this group of mountains into >= two trips:
Approaching from the east for Mt. Lindsey and “Huerfano Peak” via the Huerfano/Lily Lake Trailhead
Approaching from the west to access Ellingwood Point, Little Bear, and Blanca via Lake Como Road
And well, also approaching from the west for California Peak (if the Centennials are part of your goal), which is accessed from an altogether trail head: Zapata Falls.
Three different trips to three different trailheads is a lot of bike riding for six mountains that sit close together. Visiting the eastern trailhead, then the western ones means either crossing a northern mountain pass (Mosca Pass), or going around the entire southern end of the Sierra Blancas (La Veta Pass) – I was willing and needed to do one, but not both.