Baldy Cinco trip report


It's challenging to make it all the way to the Frickonthorne area (i.e., Summit County) in one day from Arizona and then try to hike the next morning. So, I spent a couple nights in Pagosa Springs so I could do a hike "near" there on the way. This isn't the most convenient location for 13ers, but was a reasonable compromise between driving times to get there, get to some peaks, and get to Summit County the next day. It also gave me the time to stop at Four Corners on the way, which was a reasonable $3, albeit 100+ degrees.

There is a long ridge of 13ers leading east from Spring Creek Pass between Creede and Lake City that ends up reaching 14er San Luis Peak. A very ambitious hiker in ideal weather can get 4 of them on one hike, but it is something like 15 miles and 5000 feet of gain. The first two peaks, Point 13313 and Cinco Baldy, can be easily climbed together, which leaves a slightly more modest trip to get the other two.

It is a 2 hour drive from Pagosa Springs, over Wolf Creek Pass, through South Fork and Creede, and over Wagon Wheel Gap. The Continental Divide National Scenic Trail crosses the highway at Spring Creek Pass and provides the majority of the elevation gain for Baldy Cindo.

I crossed the road at 0822 to start up the trail. Not an optimal starting time, but since I was only going to do the two peaks, I was expecting a 4 hour hike or so. It seems to always take me about 30 minutes to really feel good on a hike at altitude, especially if I'm not well acclimatized. Also, in this case, my two-hour old breakfast still wasn't digesting very well. But, I maintained a 25+ fpm climb rate up the moderately steep trail, which starts on a ridge, then crosses into a prominent gully.

The top of the gully is very abrupt and you suddenly crest onto Snow Mesa, which as expected wasn't living up to its name. I took a short break here. I followed the trail a bit further, but soon you need to angle left to hit the south slopes of Baldy Cinco, of which you have an excellent view. The other option would be to angle left sooner and head up to the saddle between the peaks, but the west side of Cinco is steep and much better done as a descent.

The two peaks from Snow Mesa

After some slightly uphill walking, you start up the first steeper slope. A huge cairn beckons you from on high. The bad news is that because it's so big, it is much further and higher than you think. The good news is that once you get there, the gradient relaxes and you are within about 200 vertical feet of the summit. The footing is good on tundra, and the grade up to the cairn really isn't too bad.

I reached the summit at 1015. A few cumulus clouds had developed and I wasn't 100% happy with the weather situation. I stuck around for a few minutes to take some pictures and video. I was having a bit of trouble getting the lid off the summit register, and then I didn't really care anymore.

As already noted, the west side of Cinco is steep, and there are some gravelly parts. But, I was quickly down to the saddle and then resumed my 25 fpm climb rate. I was concerned about the clouds upstream as I was ascending Point 13313, but when I summited they didn't look too threatening although some virga was falling. At that point, I thought I had a chance for thunder by about the time I got back to the trail. So, on the summit, I only took a few quick pictures, a quick look at my map to see the best escape options, and started down.

I hustled down the fairly steep east slopes, aiming to cross East Fork Cebolla Creek whenever convenient. I descended about 400 feet in 5 minutes but unfortunately the cell rapidly got darker and more threatening. I hoped the darkening was just a change in the lighting, but at 1048, I heard the first thunder.

At that point, I knew I had to start executing my escape plan, which would be to drop down into the East Fork Cebolla Creek drainage. As the map shows, the drainage has a fairly abrupt steepening and narrowing at around 12200 feet. I ignored the slight possibility that it might cliff out there, knowing that I could also traverse over to the trail in the ascent gully if that happened.

Route map

Unfortunately, as I was jogging down the slope as best I could, there was a lightning strike about 2 miles west. I considered dropping my trekking poles and "assuming the position" at that point, but I knew that the steep gully would provide much better protection than squatting down in a wide open hillside. Not that 2 miles is super close, but the storm was coming towards me and any nearby lightning while you are above treeline is serious business.

At least for me, the feeling at this point wasn't so much fear as it was frustration at being in the situation, helplessness, and resignation at knowing how hard it is on my body to "run" down a mountain like this. At times I could actually run, but it's also easy to turn an already dangerous situation into something worse by spraining one's ankle. Luckily, most of the slope down to the drainage is tundra with minimal rocks.

Ten minutes after the first thunder, I dropped into the steep part of the drainage, which I could see was a rocky, managable descent. The drainage is narrow there with steep 40-foot rock "walls" (or so; the entire slopes of the drainage are much taller than that) and I did feel a little safer here. Of course, that's when the graupel started falling and a decent breeze kicked in that was being funneled up the drainage. It really wasn't very cold and without any actual rain I didn't bother to get out my rain jacket.

While cowering at the base of the rocks, I saw another fairly nearby (maybe a mile away) lightning strike to the west and wondered how long I was going to stay there. Perhaps foolishly, I briefly popped my DV camcorder out of my jacket pocket to document my situation for posterity. The worst part is that due to some malfunction (which may have been me hitting the "record" button again), I found out later that I only got one second of video! It would have been a nice saving grace after having gotten myself in such a stupid situation to have had that little record of what happened. I studied my map to get more of a sense of how easy it would be to get down into the trees. The bulk of this storm was now centered just to the south of me and starting to pass my location, but I didn't know what was behind it.

After less than 10 minutes, there had been a decent lull in the thunder and it was all to the south or behind me to the east. The cell wasn't moving very fast, but was certainly continuing its southeast or east-southeast movement. There is another steeper area in the drainage around 11900-12000 feet with a flatter area in between. So, I decided to go for it; probably sooner than one would "officially" be advised, but I didn't want to still be up there if another cell were coming in and at least this cell was sort of behaving itself.

As I stumbled down into the flatter area and was getting closer to some ground willows, I encountered a trail. I would end up traversing above the bottom of the drainage on this trail (which seemed to be a human trail) and then mostly on game trails or otherwise easy terrain. The "real" trail helped a lot through some willows and I could start making good time and shed some altitude. It took about 15 minutes to get into the forest for much better lightning safety, but all of the occasional thunder now was behind me.

Now it was a question of how soon to get up onto the ridge and the ascent trail. I wasn't in too big of a hurry with thunder still around, but it would allow me to go faster. I ended up cresting the ridge at around 11500 feet as blue sky was appearing to the west. From there, I could relax and quickly cruise down the trail to my car which I reached just before noon.

What a great start to a week of hiking, frying myself mentally and physically. I knew the latter might be a significant problem, since I'm not much of an athlete in any case. But, at least I did manage to get the 2 13ers I had hoped to climb. This would have been a very pleasant climb with an earlier start or a better weather day.

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File last modified: 03 July 2008

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