Mount Silverheels trip report

Disclaimer

Before I start the real report, I'll give the snow report. My hike started near treeline, and above treeline there was very little snow. Shaded areas, areas that see heavy drifting, and couloirs still have snow. If you want to do a snow climb on the NW face of Silverheels, do it soon. I had a pretty good view of the south couloir on Quandary and it looked OK, except near the bottom which I couldn't see very well. Again, this isn't going to last much longer. The east ridge route on Quandary had nearly continous snow. The east sides of Lincoln and Bross had snow mainly in the gullies.

In March I was really expecting my next trip report (if there was going to be one) to be for some peaks in the Smokies because it looked like I was going to be offered a decent job at a university in Kentucky. I was offered that job, except that in the interim I was offered a better job at CU in Boulder. Heh; I had been sure that finally leaving Laramie, WY after grad school plus one year was going to mean leaving the Rockies. Now, after a two-year hiatus, I could resume my Colorado peak-bagging with much better accessibility.

Some bad timing (not on my part) prevented me from going on a local trip last weekend with some co-workers, so I decided that this weekend I would come up with my own trip. I was unsure about snow conditions, I've been fighting a minor running injury, I hadn't done any hikes yet this year, and I was unsure about how moving down to such a low altitude was going to affect my high-altitude performance (well, I'm exaggerating but I did lose 1800ft moving to Boulder from Laramie). So...I wanted something moderate, with a short drive being a plus. The winner was Mount Silverheels, a very large and significant summit on the north edge of South Park, which barely makes it onto the list of the 100 highest mountains in the state.

Unless I've grievously mis-interpreted the directions to the "trailhead", the route given by Garrett and Martin in their "High 13ers" guidebook starts on signed private property (curiousity got the better of me on a recon trip a couple years ago and even with clever avoidance techniques for the first sign, a second one appears higher up). I decided to start the hike at Hoosier Pass at 11539ft, head east along the Continental Divide, then take a hard right and ascend Silverheels via a route on the northwest side. While contemplating route options, I was planning on climbing a prominent couloir on the northwest face. The only real problem with a start from Hoosier Pass is the 900 extra feet of gain both coming and going.

The 0245 alarm was practically criminal after going to bed at 0040, except that I guess it's not illegal to subject yourself to such an atrocity. I finally summoned the will to get up at about 0315, and headed out at 0350. I was more tired than usual on Saturday anyway, and while getting ready I kept coming up with excuses not to go. The 2-hour drive to Hoosier Pass wasn't doing much for my tiredness, and it wasn't until I got there that I was sure that I was actually going to do the hike.

The first rays from the Sun kissed the peaks to the west of Hoosier Pass at 0544, and I started my hike at 0606. It didn't quite seem right to begin climbing a mountain by walking across a highway.

There is a gated 4WD road starting at the pass which goes up to about treeline, although the upper part was covered in snow. After getting above the trees, the route up the broad Continental Divide ridge ("Hoosier Ridge") continues on tundra. Just before the Sun hit me, I recorded a temperature of 40F, actually pretty warm for June at that altitude. Furthermore, there was no wind, so my long sleeve shirt and long pants made me a little overdressed for much of the hike.

At some point I had to take a right turn off of Hoosier Ridge and under completely dry conditions it's possible to sidehill and save some elevation loss and gain. However, the right side of the ridge was protected by icy snow with cornices in some places. Thus, I had to go all the way up to 12800ft, and catch a blunt north-south ridge. Still, I had to tiptoe down a 20ft section of icy snow here. This ridge empties you into the Beaver Creek drainage, and I crossed the tiny creek on a snow bridge.

From here, one can climb the northwest couloir, but at that point, I wasn't really in the mood for a snow climb. I had not climbed snow in two years, and the max angle is about 40 degrees, and there wasn't much of a runout in case of disaster. Plus, I think I left my guts back in Laramie (that would be the G-rated version). So, instead I climbed the blunt ridge to the left. This starts out on gentle tundra, then steepens and becomes a little rockier, before levelling out again. I weaved left and right to mostly avoid patchy snow. I highly recommend trekking poles for this ridge as the angle is up to 40 degrees in places and the footing isn't always great (this is really the only Class 2 part of the whole hike despite the lack of a trail).

This ridge empties you out onto the - dare I say - blunt summit ridge. After one minor false summit, I was on top. The summit rock shelter was full of snow and ice, so I spent five minutes with my ice axe digging to find the summit register. I was the first person to sign in since February but I saw tracks in the snow on the way up so there were obviously other spring ascents. The summit provides a nice panoramic view of the area and visibility was excellent. The southeast side of the summit was snowcovered, and I didn't sneak out too far onto the snow, figuring that there was a cornice waiting on the windward side of the mountain.

I left the summit at 0934 and retraced my route. By this time, "puffies" were forming over the mountains. Cumulus clouds this early in the day can mean early thunderstorms or not. In this case, the clouds started showing increasing vertical development and lines were forming, both signs of incipient storm development. By the time I made it back to the snow-bridge creek crossing, several potential t-storms were forming; including one right over Silverheels. I still had to slog back up to the ridge high point and I was feeling the effort. Had I been happier with the weather I would have hiked more slowly, but it would be hypocritical of me to take the potential lightning threat lightly.

The best looking cell was about 10 miles SSW pretty much right over 14er Mount Sherman. I finally reached Hoosier Ridge around 1100 just as the precipitation from that cell became opaque. With the small storm cells that often form in the mountains, this is never a good sign, and sure enough at 1118, this cell went boom. It took me a couple minutes to realize the irony of that time...

Flashback:

The date was 21 July 1997 and I had just started my decent off of 14er Wilson Peak. My ascent had been slower than I expected, and the first thousand feet of the descent were non-trivial. At 1118, thunder started in a cell about 2 miles away from me, in the direction I was moving. I was lucky that day as the storm proved weak and only produced about 10 thunderclaps and no cloud-to-ground lightning.

OK, back to the present...

In this case, there wasn't much real danger, unless the clouds overhead started to do the same. I decided to quicken my pace, jogging downhill where I could. Shortly before reaching the trailhead, I encountered the canonical "tourist" hikers; three young-ish people in t-shirts and shorts (to be fair, it was plenty warm enough for such a wardrobe). They were quite blase' about the weather; "it's not 3pm yet". OK, whatever. I don't think it turned into a major storm day in the mountains.

I walked back across the road to my car at 1145, and made it home at 1400. I was sore in various places for the next couple days, but overall I'm pretty happy with the way my body held up. It still seemed wierd to start a hiking season under essentially summer conditions...


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File last modified: 28 December 2004

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