I had been very interested in doing this route ever since I read it's description in Gerry Roach's 14er guidebook. The Angel of Shavano is a combination of three snow-filled gullies that, with a little imagination, resembles a 1000-foot tall angel with upstretched arms. Although your mileage may vary on the angel part, it is certainly a distinctive feature and is prominent from the highways near Salida and Poncha Springs.
In normal snow years, this route is best done in late-May and June, after the avalanche danger lessens, and before it melts out. However, since the central Rockies got clobbered this spring, I figured that mid-July would be good. As was the case two weeks ago, I wanted to do a traverse from the first 14er of the day to the second; in this case, Tabeguache Peak. As was also the case two weeks ago, the weather would prevent the traverse.
It was after sunrise when I reached the area on US 285, and my first view of the Angel confirmed that I had picked a good time to climb it, as the Angel was pretty well defined. The road to the trailhead at 9800ft was a little rough in a couple of spots, but is still plenty accessible in a normal car.
I started hiking a little before 7:30am. The first quarter-mile follows the Colorado Trail as a 4WD road, before turning west onto the well-marked Mount Shavano Trail. There is a trailhead register here, as well as a warning message from the Chaffee County Sheriff:
WARNING IT TAKES 12 HOURS OF DAYLIGHT TO CLIMB TO THE TOP OF MT. SHAVANO AND BACK. DO NOT ATTEMPT TO RETURN BY WAY OF McCOY GULCH. DANGEROUS CLIFFS AND FALLS BLOCK THE LOWER END. RETURN BY THE SAME ROUTE WHICH YOU WILL CLIMB. H.L. THONHOFF, SHERIFF
(the last line was covered with paint, presumably the sheriff has changed)
It seems that the Sheriff's department has had to organize many rescues of hikers from McCoy Gulch. Personally, I think it's scary that anyone that couldn't climb Shavano in less than 12 hours would try climbing it. (Being able to climb it faster, but actually taking that long is a different story.)
To ascend the Angel, you have to leave the trail at around 11000ft and bushwhack into the basin that the Angel melts into. However, the forest is not very dense here and the going is easy on mostly beds of pine needles. There are some rocky parts that are avoided. By about 11600ft, you've cleared the trees and the Angel pops into view, close-up. Very impressive, even though from here you can't see all of both arms. One note is that the weather was deteriorating at this point and there were a few snow flurries above 11500ft. As I got closer, I could see the butt-track from someone's recent sitting glissade, and I was hoping to do the same coming back down later.
But first, I had to climb it. After hiking up a low-angle snow field, I reached the base of the Angel right at 12000ft, and started up at exactly 9am. I used someone's bootprints much of the way up, but the snow was slick and the first part is at too shallow of an angle to kick steps. After a few hundred feet, the angle increases to the 25-30 degree range near the Angel's waist. This part was steep enough to kick-step. The snow was still slick and rather soft, so it wasn't completely trivial; I was glad I had my axe for self-belay. After another few hundred feet of 20-25 degree snow, you have to choose an arm. The right arm (from the climber's perspective) heads more directly to the summit, so I chose it (more on that later). This involved a sustained slope of nearly 30 degrees; again verifying the guidebook's recomendation that you carry an axe. The Angel ran out at right at 13000ft, after a decent 45-minute, 1000ft snow climb.
From here, it's an increasingly steep hike up talus/tundra towards the summit. I could see a large group of people (from Texas as it turned out), descending down a ridge, so instead of hiking directly at the summit I could see, I aimed for the ridge. Unfortunately, as I slowly made my way up, I could see the clouds were coming down. I reached the ridge, and finished off the rocky summit pitch just after 10:30am. On top there was a little wind, but the main thing was that horizontal visibility was down to tens of meters; I could still see down most of the time. I really wanted to hang around on the summit and wait for the weather to clear, but I was worried about a surprise t-storm popping up, and everywhere above treeline would be well exposed to lightning. There was a brief break in the conditions, but it quickly got bad again, so I reluctantly started hurrying back down and gave up on Tabeguache on this day.
By the time I reached the saddle just above the arm of the Angel that I didn't climb, I had pretty good visibility again, but the summit was still socked in. I had been able to see the upper part of this arm from above and the large group had started some glissades from here, and since this arm was longer, I wanted this as my descent route as well. I measured the top of this arm at 13100ft, and I started glissading just after 11:16. After about 300ft, I was being buffeted pretty good in the track I was in, and by the general snow conditions, and I self-arrestted to avoid losing control. However, I knew that there was a decent runout at the bottom and I let 'er rip again. In short, it was a blast. At one point, I got into some softer snow and was spraying up so much snow with my feet that I couldn't see in front of me. I wasn't being too careful with my speed, and I was bumping around pretty good; it would have been nice if I would have had had some virgin snow on which to slide. Later, I got sideways and couldn't get back to feet-first, and ended up on my back going head-first down the slope, a new experience for me. I surprised myself and managed to use my axe correctly and got myself into self-arrest position. I was going pretty fast and after slowing down some, I decided to roll over back into glissade position and made it the rest of the way down, letting the now lessening slope take care of my excess speed. The entire glissade dropped me 1100 vertical feet and lasted less than 4 minutes.
I was quite invigorated by the glissade, so I hiked down a little more before having lunch at about treeline. While eating, I heard some rockfall in the cliffy areas on the south side of the drainage. It looked like the weather had cleared a lot up high, but I was getting some sprinkles where I was.
I headed back down towards the trail, and used the fail-safe method of trail finding; following a creek down to it's intersection with the trail. As it turned out, I had to avoid a rocky area right next to the stream and hit the trail 50ft above the stream.
The fact that I had to bail out of the traverse to Tabeguache had been bothering me, especially because it was the second time in three trips that this sort of thing had happened. However, literally as I was filling out the "Comments" part of the trailhead register, I heard the first thunderclap of a nearby storm. I might have made it down to treeline by then if I had done the traverse, or maybe not. I ended up driving in rain or at least very wet roadways almost all the way home, and it was raining in Laramie when I parked my car.
Finally, back to the choice of an arm. If I were to do this climb again, I think I would have ascended the arm on the left (from the climber's perspective), which leads to the saddle on Shavano's south ridge. The going is easier than a direct climb up the shallow bowl on the SE face. No matter how you do it, though, this is still a great climb.
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File last modified: 28 December 2004