Canby Mountain trip report


I was hoping for a better day than Wednesday, but I knew I had probably missed the best weather on the trip on Thursday recovering from my charge down Sultan Mountain. I had slept a lot during that recovery and then I couldn't get to sleep for shit Thursday night/Friday morning. I struggled out of bed later than planned after less than 3 hours of sleep.

I groggily left Montrose and made the more than interesting drive up through Ouray and the nasty shelf road that extends several miles above that. You are on the downhill side on the ascent, and during most of that stretch if you make any significant mistake, you die. No shoulder, no guard rail, no kidding! I realized that in all my years of hiking I had never actually driven this section of US 550, which is the true "Million Dollar Highway" section and is the area below Red Mountain Pass where avalanches have taken many lives in the cold half of the year. I had been up to Ouray to take the Camp Bird road to Mount Sneffels, but not above that and I had been to Red Mountain Pass from the south, but not beyond that.

This part of the drive is inherently slow, but I made it the 60 miles to Silverton in 80 minutes. The hike of Canby is made via the Ston(e)y Pass Road, and that turnoff is exactly 5 miles from the initial turn into town. Immediately after, you have the choice between the high road (signed as San Juan County 4A), or the low road. Both are fine, but the high road is in a bit better condition. These two roads join together again about 1.7 miles from the main road. Immediately, the road forks again; right is signed as a Dead End, but it a bit more than that as it should be the approach for Highland Mary Lakes.

The left fork is signed for Stony Pass. This turns out to be a very popular jeep/ATV/motorbike route. In fact, other than the perhaps the steepness and a few marginal clearance issues, you could just about get a regular front-wheel drive car all the way up to the pass. I understand that people are generally going over the pass to more distant adventures, but this road seems to further the idea that people are more interested in 4WD vehicles than actually taking them on a real 4WD road. One can probably get anything like a Subaru all-wheel drive or maybe even a 2WD pickup truck all the way to the pass.

I drove my car about a quarter mile up the steep road to the first switchback and parked near the gated entrance to some private property. The 4WD crowd was just getting out of bed and planning a big breakfast, so I had the road to myself for a while. I started hiking at 0746, later than planned, but at least there were just a few cirrus clouds around and had been no showers that morning. As on Wednesday, it was rather warm considering the hour and the altitude.

The road doesn't quite do what the older maps say, but you simply want to stay on the obvious main road as it switchbacks up into the drainage. There is a shortcut, but it was gated and signed as private property. The main road is stedily moderately steep, with just a few flatter or slightly downhill parts. A hiker would want it to be a little shorter and steeper, but overall not bad and it had a smooth walking surface.

The drainage is fairly steep, so I was in shadow for quite a while. The switchbacks continue, but nothing ridiculous. An hour into the hike, I was above 12000ft and took a short sit down break, admiring the pretty basin and taking a look at the peaks I planned to climb. From Stoney Pass at around 11600ft, you go left to Canby Mountain and/or right to unnamed Point 13165, which Roach calls "Stony Pass Peak". I hoped to do both, but Canby was the higher priority.

Stony Pass

I reached the pass at 0917. It is signed as 12650ft, but on the map, it is at 12588ft. The route up Canby does not start from here, but just past the pass where you can see a clear grassy line. Plus, you can't just shoot straight up the ridge because the pass side of Canby is cliffy in multiple places. So, one has to angle up and to the left before coming back right at some point. Even if the angle were constant, you are only one-third of a mile from the summit, with a gain of 900 feet!

Canby Mountain from Stony Pass

Interestingly, this is part of the Hardrock 100 mile race course and they had already marked this part of the course. So, I followed the markers to the faint trail that is depicted on the topo map. Once I could see a clear grassy path up to Canby's northwest ridge, I cleverly left the race course and headed up. This got really steep and had a lot more pea gravel than I expected. That was the only tactical error of the day, but didn't lose me any time compared with the longer route I took on the descent.

Once on the ridge, it was an easy stroll on talus with some near vertical drops to the left (northeast). I reached the summit right at 1000. There are significant drops on three sides and you get a good "top of the world" feel, enhanced by the typical San Juans "surrounded by mountains" views. This really reminded me why the San Juans are so nice with these views of countless steep pastel peaks with no civilization. Unfortunately, some cumulus clouds were slowly building up, but I was at least able to enjoy the summit for a little while. There was not much snow left on the peaks, which I guess is good for the Hardrockers.

Summit view Summit view

I was concerned enough with the weather that I decided that I shouldn't do Point 13165. I could see the likely route, which is just steep at the top, but it would be something like 30-45 minutes round trip from the saddle. I didn't want to descend my steep detour on the ascent, so I hustled down the northwest ridge to the saddle where the Hardrock trail came in and followed that back down to the pass. It has a somewhat awkward sidehilling part that would certainly be annoying during the race, especially if it is late in the race and/or at night.

I reached Stony Pass again at 1035 and decided that I probably only had about 45 minutes of likely lightning safety. I knew from GPS that it was 3.75 miles along the road and that I could get down that in an hour without trying too hard, so I figured I would be down in the trees by the time anything got going. That pretty much worked out as I reached my car at 1133 in somewhat threatening skies. I didn't get anything more than sprinkles as I was driving out, but the weather did not get any better and I bet there was some lightning later. The descent itself wasn't particularly eventful except being a bit concerned about the weather. I was able to enjoy the first half of the descent before the clouds built up too much. It is a very pretty basin and quite nice except when a vehicle came up, which was more frequent as I descended. (Do ATVers and motorcyclists get hit by lightning very often? That was the question on my mind as everyone was heading up late in the morning.)

So, at least this hike had some semi-worry free moments and I didn't have to run back down the mountain. I still moved faster than I would have in perfect weather and lost the other summit, which was the smart choice. If nothing else, this was my "diamond" 13er, my 75th (including 14ers, too, of course). However, I decided not to extend my vacation an extra day and just go straight home the next morning. On the way out, I could see thunderheads over the San Juans from Cortez before 1130, so it was probably another marginal day.

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File last modified: 03 July 2006

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