Sultan Mountain and Grand Turk trip report

Disclaimer

By way of introduction, I was finally able to take a trip from Arizona to the Colorado mountains at this time, hoping to climb a slew of 13ers. Unfortunately, the summer monsoon was beginning by this point, and I didn't get as much climbing in as I had hoped. However, I did manage to climb my first 13ers since I had to leave Colorado in August 2004 and the San Juans are just as pretty as they have always been. Now for the first hike...

Rough day. Once I decided that this was my hike for the day, I was off. These peaks make up the dramatic southwestern skyline of the town of Silverton, 4000 feet below and just 2 miles from the summit of Sultan. If you have driven up the Alpine Loop road out of Silverton up into the mountains, these are the peaks looming ahead of you on the last couple miles of the drive back into town as depicted below.

Grand Turk and Sultan Mountain

No matter what, it tends to be a slow drive up to the Silverton area and I was coming in from Bloomfield, New Mexico so I had to cross both Coal Bank Pass and Molas Pass. Unfortunately, there is construction on both of them at the same time, which seems a little excessive. I knew about the rock work on Molas Pass from the CDOT road condition reports that show up at a site from which I get weather information. However, having to stop for a couple minutes on the way up Coal Bank was a surprise. Then, I didn't quite beat the 7am start time advertised for Molas Pass and had to wait several minutes there.

The signed turnoff for Little Molas Lake is visible once you cross Molas Pass and is only a half-mile past the pass. Turn left and drive another half-mile and find a place to park before the road starts turning south. There was a good pullout/camping spot that was taken by a couple of vehicles, and this might be the standard starting point. After looking around, I found a spot where I could park off the road at 0.6 miles from pavement.

I was definitely concerned with the weather as I could see showers off in the distance on the drive and the road was wet around Molas Pass, presumably from the showers I saw on the Weather Channel radar loop a little after 5am. But, I started hiking at 0726, hopeful that things would work out.

At first, you have to charge through the trees northward, up and over various folds in the terrain. If you look at a topo map, you can see that this area is a little irregular and with the tree cover, you will waste a bit of effort getting through here.

Once you clear this first part and get out of the trees, you can get a glimpse of the first goal, the entrance to a rather lumpy saddle at around 12,500ft ("Saddle #1"). There was a small finger of snow here, just below some distinctive rock features. The jagged ridge to the right is a 12,734-foot highpoint that doesn't satisfy the 300-foot rule to make it a separate summit. Ridge to the left is part of Point 12849, a ranked peak which I hoped to climb on the way back, just a short 350-foot jaunt from the saddle area.

Saddle #1 from treeline

There doesn't seem to be one particularly good route up this drainage as it becomes more distinct with a decent flow of water at the bottom. It is pretty obvious where you need to go, but from below it is easy to get into the patches of ground willows and other deep foliage. The upper part of the drainage is mostly clear, but steepens rapidly up to where it flattens out at 12,400ft.

Here, I found a trail that extended down and to the southeast, which I kept in mind for the descent. As again indicated on the topo map, Saddle #1 is a little weird. Furthermore, one wants to skirt a 12899-foot highpoint and more directly approach a saddle between this point and another unranked 13087-foot point ("Saddle #2"). It sounds more confusing than it is, but you have to make sure you know where you are heading.

Anyway, my worries about the weather were not easing, but I was still hoping to make it all the way to Sultan via Grand Turk by 10am, which is my usual preferred latest summit time in Colorado (as opposed to the asinine noon recommendation one often sees). There is a sufficient trail that traverses across the steep southeastern slopes of Point 12899, but again, it was hard to find from below and I mostly missed it, making my own traverse more difficult. But, I reached the Saddle #2 without too much hassle.

From here, the route is much more obvious, following ridges. First, one has to almost completely climb Point 13087. It does not quite make the 300-foot rule, but isn't too far off, and I had expected to reach its summit. However, the trail through the grassy and gravelly slopes skirts the final 30 vertical feet or so on the left (northwest), so I decided I would reach the summit on the way back if all went well.

Did I mention that I was unhappy with the weather? I could see some weak cumulus buildups to the north through west and I knew those would be moving towards me as the morning progressed. A person without much mountain experience wouldn't have been fazed, but it doesn't take much at all in the high country to cause trouble. From here, one has to descend to a 12820-foot saddle that leads to Grand Turk ("Saddle #3"). However, you can also easily see the trail traversing across the west face that allows you to completely skip Grand Turk on the way over to Sultan Mountain, or at least allow you to avoid climbing Grand Turk twice while coming and going. I half considered skipping Grand Turk and going straight toward the higher Sultan to make sure I got the most significant summit in case I had to retreat. However, I changed my mind. This worked out in reality, but if putting oneself in a potentially dangerous situation is bad whether or not something bad happens, this was a bad decision.

Grand Turk summit from south

A bit after starting up from the saddle, the main trail does the traverse over to Sultan, with a weaker path continuing up Grand Turk. I reached the western 13180-foot highpoint at 0925, and hurried over to the eastern highpoint, which is probably higher and had a small cairn. The descent to the saddle that separates Grand Turk from Sultan ("Saddle #4") was steep in spots and in general the route gets progressively looser due to gravel and dirt.

From Saddle #4, it is about 600 vertical feet to the summit of Sultan, the farthest point from your car on the route. This involved some steep gravel and dirt, that I made even steeper with my route choice. Not the best route for making good time, but my trekking poles helped a lot and again I was able to see a better route for the descent.

Sultan Mountain summit from Saddle #4

Unfortunately, the nearest interesting cloud went boom at 1004. From the visual and from my altimeter, I knew I was only about 2 minutes from summiting. Plus, the storm was directly behind the summit from my perspective. The thunderclap wasn't very loud and I really wanted to get a good look to see what was going on and assess how serious the situation was, i.e., did I need to consider stranding myself off-route just to get lower fast. So, I did the canonical peakbagging thing and summitted at 1006. I was on the summit for literally less than 60 seconds, taking a couple of quick photos, dictating a hurried note into my voice recorder, and turning around. If nothing else, I would have a photo of the storm that killed me.

The storm that didn't kill me Silverton from Sultan

Understand that most people would not think this was necessarily a thunderstorm just from looking at it. I have to confess to being in a bit of denial, not quite believing that the weather was going to get that bad that early. However, at least I could see that this storm probably wasn't a serious threat as it was just barely enough to produce lightning, it was a few miles away, and was moving perpendicular to my escape direction. However, more clouds were forming from this point through northwest and west. I knew I would need nearly an hour to get off all of the ridges on my ascent route and be safer and really didn't think I had that quite that long for the stuff northwest and west. But, I could get away from this storm by backtracking.

So, I backtracked my route to my car as fast as possible, about 3.5 miles on the ground. Based on my ascent, soon after dropping off Sultan, I walked and slid down a dirt scar to get to a lower traverse than my ascent near the ridgecrest. This probably didn't save any time, but did get me a bit more lightning safety. After being nearly calm on the ascent, the wind was picking up a bit due to the showers in the vicinity, which was fine because I had been rather warm at times on the ascent. I was glad I had brought plenty of clothing in case it would start to rain (or snow), so I wasn't too worried about that possibility and none of the cells looked very wet.

Unless you really have your acclimatization nailed, there's just no overdrive gear for moving quickly uphill. The trail for the traverse across Grand Turk's west slopes was adequate for quick movement, but gained about 100 feet and I felt very slow in the occasional thunder I would hear from behind. After the traverse, there was a short descent to Saddle #3, followed by the 200-foot climb up to just below the summit of Point 13087. Very disheartening now that I could start to hear faint thunder from the clouds moving in from the northwest.

Obviously, I wasn't going to reach this minor summit as I had planned and I got through the gravel to the grassier ridgecrest that led down to Saddle #2. At least at this point I would have gravity almost completely on my side, with no significant ascents left, assuming I was able to find the best route between Saddle #2 and Saddle #1 across the southwest face of Point 12899. (Again, this route is maybe not as complex as it sounds, but it is not a no-brainer. Be prepared.)

That worked out great, and I was able to make good time, including a fair amount of running. I had been trying to run when I could, but some places are pretty steep and/or don't have a good running surface. Plus, I was getting really worn out. It is worth noting that while my distances are puny, I do run regularly in real life, including hills and trails, and it is a skill that can come in handy on a mountain.

By the time I reached Saddle #1, thunder was getting closer from the cells to the northwest, but I was feeling better here as I was finally off the ridges. I was able to make it from the summit to this point in about 50 minutes, so even though it felt really slow, I was moving pretty good for this route.

Little Molas Lake and beyond from Saddle #1

Again, I took advantage of my a posteriori information on the best routes I saw on my ascent and began descending the trail I mentioned before. Again, this made for decent running. However, the trail soon crapped out at a dry wash, so I had to descend more gravel and dirt to get where I wanted to be. The rest of the route is off-trail, but from above I was able to better avoid the willows. I didn't pick a particularly good entrance into the highest trees. At one point, I was forced down to the very bottom of the main drainage, but that nearly cliffed out at one spot, so I traversed out of that.

The odd thing was that as I was descending the upper parts of the slope, I heard voices up at the saddle! I have no idea where they came from, but they must have been hidden away in another part of the saddle when I came charging through. They weren't hollering for help, so I didn't have time to worry about what they were doing.

Thunder was becoming more frequent from the west and northwest, and I was running out of gas. Once down to the trees, I took advantage of GPS, which I had barely used on the ascent. That vectored me most directly to my parking spot, which was well-buried in the trees. I was slowed down again by the uneven terrain, and just a third of a mile from my car, a very loud thunderclap occurred ahead of me. Great. I figured this might mean cloud-to-ground lightning. How ironic would it be to get struck by lightning a few minutes from the car? Well, I knew the odds were exceedingly low, but I quickened my pace again as well as I could at this point.

The terrain funneled me down to the road a few hundred feet from my car and I trotted the final distance after hearing the third loud thunderclap. I finished at 1120, a ridiculous sub-4 hour total, and just 1:13 from the summit. I occasionally climb a mountain for speed, although rarely something this high, and I'm not sure that I would have beaten this time! As a normal hike, I was thinking at least 5 hours and Pixler's old guidebook gives 5.5 to 6.5 hours. Unfortunately, there was a wide variety of wildflowers on the slopes up to (and in?) Saddle #1, but I didn't take any photos of them on the way up, and certainly not on the way down.

I quickly threw my stuff into the car and collapsed into the driver's seat for a few minutes. The rain started and escalated to graupel after a bit, with continued thunder. I slowly changed clothes, but my legs kept wanting to cramp up if I moved into the wrong position while wrestling with my clothing. I managed to drink one quart of sports drink (Gookinaid Hydralyte) but did not eat anything at all during the hike. More rain at times driving back over the high passes, and very heavy rain with small hail and intense lightning north of Durango and into the north side of town. Just a bad weather day in the mountains.

So...a successful day in terms of results. I.e., I climbed the two main peaks I set out to climb and didn't get myself killed. On the down side, I was way too high on a mountain in a thunderstorm and set a new record for the most thunderclaps heard during a hike (about 30 or so). I also pushed myself way too hard on what was to potentially be 4 straight days of hiking.


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File last modified: 22 September 2006

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