Monday, July 2, 2012

the Smokey San Juan 1/2 Marathon

San Luis Peak - the Smokey San Juan 1/2 Marathon

NE Ridge from Stewart Creek; 13 miles, 3,600' Elevation Gain

Start: 5:10 PM - Summit: 8:10 PM Sunset/Leave: 8:30 Return: 11:00 PM 

Summit Beer: Ska Brewing Company "True Blonde Ale" in a can.
This was an interesting trip. It all started with our friend Rob, who by the way is old enough to be retired, has climbed over 100 14ers (including repeats, obviously), and runs marathons and Ironmans. He suggested that it would be easy enough to climb 2 seperate 14ers in one day, given the unusually calm evenings in the pre-monsoon June we were having. The problem with highly motivated people is that when a challenge is presented it is often too difficult to deny- and thus was the case for us.

We made it to Creede around 1:30 PM or so, but quickly found out that they were barring access to the whole "Bachelor Loop" area and according the the security guard. Reportedly they are "trying to wrap up filming 'The Lone Ranger'". The security guard informed us that there were "a lot of hard feelings" about the situation, due to the reliance on tourist dollars in the area.  We quickly left Creede driving over 3 HOURS to the Stewart Creek Trailhead, an act I hope never to repeat.  I drove as fast as I could, making good time on the dusty but fairly smooth dirt backroads to the SC trailhead. It really gives you a feeling of how isolated this peak is. We were 25 miles from nowhere.

That mountain back there? Not San Luis Peak. From the road to the trailhead.

See that mountain on the left? Not SLP

This is not San Luis Peak either.

The first 3 miles of the trail gain little elevation as you tromp through powdery dust and pine needles in the forest
The first 3 miles are not exciting. While the valley is pleasant, you are tromping through about 2 inches of powdery dust that quickly infiltrated my ventilated running shoes. The trail was also frequently littered with horse feeces from lazy people who prefer not to walk. The trail generally follows Stewart creek, and gains very little elevation at first.

Flowers near the first of many stream crossings

A nice view but getting smokey. You can see the saddle from here but not the summit. It's deceiving because the summit right of center LOOKS like it could be SLP, but it's just a high point on the ridge to the summit (not visible)
Oh no! The sun is going down and we are far from the summit. We seemed to be "racing the sun" on the way up. This is also BTW not San Luis Peak. (Photo by SZL)

Side note- you end up crossing Stewart Creek at least 4 times on the way up, and 4 times on the way back. There is also a marshy section after the final crossing that soaked into my shoes on the first and return trips. The rest of the stream crossings aren't bad but one had a rather thin and flexible log as the only method of dry crossing.

Looking down into the valley from whence we came. Not too hard to see the smoke.
  This hike is a little difficult in that you think you see the summit, but when you get to the saddle the actual summit is still 3/4 of a mile away! At this point it was getting windy and there was a good amount of smoke in the air. My nose was running and had a slight burning sensation. We didn't cough too much though, so we figured it was OK to keep going.  My hypothesis that the air would be cleaner as we climbed higher was evidently false. The trail is easy enough to follow and isn't really steep anymore at this point. No "class 2" moves were required as all the rocks on the trail are small.
Topping out on the summit after the long slog, lit by the setting sun.

Wetterhorn and Uncompahgre through the Haze

It was cool and breezy on the summit, but not too bad. It would have been a good place to hang out, but the daylight was withering away and the landscape had a surreal quality, between the smoke and the colorful sunset. From the summit, I did not see a single road, powerline, building, parking lot, train, or donut shop.

Dumb, but I love the lighting

Drinking Beer on the summit as the sun sets in the smoke

The eye of Sauron?

Sun is behind the clouds above the horizon (Photo by SZL)
We left the summit as the sun was setting. For the first 30 minutes, we descended as fast as we could in the waning light. Soon enough, the headlamps came out. The slog through the forest seemed to take forever, as the moonless night became very dark. We were tired but not cripplingly so. The quiet enveloping darkness quickly lead to thoughts of encountering wild animals. We made sure to make noise as we plodded along, but at a certain point we contempleted the idea of being stuck on a mobuis strip. Finally, I saw some reflections up ahead in my headlamp.

"It's my truck!" I exclaimed, and quickened my pace. About 10 seconds later, I looked up again, and saw two glowing eyes staring at me.  I convinced myself that because of the distance between the eyes, we were looking at prey and not a predator. We continued to walk, looking at the eyes, and making silly noises. About 10 minutes later, we finally reached the vehicles. It had been a long day. ~10 hours of hiking; 20 miles, 6900' of elevation gain (give or take a little).  With the pitch blackness, our fatigue, and the breeze, I decided that setting up the tent and air mattresses was too much work!

We drove out of the remote area and back to gunnison, checked into the quality inn, took expediant showers and crashed on the beds at 1:00 AM. It's been a while since I've been that exhausted, being up for 20 hours straight.

Final tally for the day: 20 miles of hiking, 6,900' of elevation gain. That's a big day.

San Luis Peak is an interesting 14er that kind of stands on it's own. It's very remote, the 2 routes offer no exposure, and it never gets real steep or sketchy.  The scenery is nice but I wouldn't put it in the highest catagory. I'm glad we decided to grab this one in the evening, just for the experience.

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