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Grizzly Peak A
Elevation: 13,988 feet
Climbed: Jul 4, 2011
Mountain Range: Sawatch Range
Colorado Rank: 54th
Class Rating: 2+
Latitude: 39.042430
Longitude: -106.597630

Trip Report

Jul 4, 2011

Grizzlies Everywhere

Grizzly Peak is Colorado's highest thirteener, rising to 13,988 feet. In fact, Grizzly Peak was once thought to be a fourteener until the elevation was measured more precisely years ago. [Note: There are three mountains with the name of Grizzly Peak in Colorado. This Grizzly Peak is located in the Sawatch Range. There is also a Grizzly Mountain.]

Grizzly Couloir is a steep, north-facing couloir that holds snow well into summer. It is considered by Gerry Roach to be a classic route. The trailhead to Grizzly Lake and Grizzly Couloir begins at Grizzly Reservoir. I planned to climb the couloir, reach the summit of Grizzly Peak and then descend the West Slopes route.

The trailhead is located by traveling about 10 miles west from Independence Pass or 8 miles east from Aspen, CO, on Hwy 82, then traveling southeast on the dirt, sometimes-rough Lincoln Creek road for 6 miles. The trailhead is across the road from Grizzly Reservoir.

Dark Forest

I left Colorado Springs late Sunday afternoon, July 3, for the trailhead, arriving several hours later as the falling sun torched the mountains with its last act of the day. I set my alarm for 3:00 AM and bedded down for the night in the back of my Nissan Xterra.

By 3:35 AM, I started climbing through the forest on the well-defined, single-track Grizzly Lake Trail, lit only by my headlamp. With so many Grizzlies used for the names of the reservoir, lake, couloir and peak, I wondered how many black bears I might surprise in the dark on this remote wilderness trail. I was somewhat comforted by the fact that while black bears were a possibility, grizzly bears were not. Nevertheless, I maintained an ongoing, imaginary conversation, at loud volume, with past climbing partners. Occasionally whoops of excitement escaped my lips when the reality of my awesome surroundings hit home.

As I gained elevation, the forest began to open up. The trail alternated between forested and wide-open sections, where I could sense the insane scenery that the darkness obscured. In the higher forested terrain, I began to encounter tall snow berms blocking the trail; one was probably 5 feet high or more. These steep-sided snow berms reminded me of those Wild Mike, Randy and I had encountered on our epic hike into Snowmass Lake. The only difference is that these were less extensive than those on the Snowmass approach, but in the darkness cloaking the forest, they still loomed large.

Stream Crossing on Snow Bridge

About the time I really started to get above the trees, I was able to see well enough to douse my headlamp. The intermittent snow berms had been replaced by extensive snowfields. I could often follow footprints in the snow, which confirmed either that I was still on the correct route or I was following someone as crazy as me. Or both. [Note: It turned out that someone had climbed this route the day before. On this day, however, I never saw another human being on the trail or on the mountain.]

During the entire hike, I had been within earshot of a noisy, raging stream, often so close and loud that the sound would have prevented wildlife from easily hearing my approach. The stream is named, surprisingly, Grizzly Creek, and serves as the outlet of Grizzly Lake, which is situated at 12,533 feet, about 3.25 miles from the trailhead. Now, after about 2 miles of hiking, I had reached the point where the trail crosses the stream to continue on the other side. Or so I assumed. The trail had actually disappeared and I was now mostly walking on snowfields bisected by the stream.

I saw a couple of possible places to cross. Possible, that is, if you have the leaping ability, balance and agility of a mountain lion. For me, the biggest possibility I saw involved leaping toward one well-placed rock before plunging into the freezing, surging stream. Since I wished to avoid this scenario, I continued up the snowfields without crossing.

My eyes continued to search for a suitable crossing as I moved further upstream. Soon I noticed that the rumbling stream no longer bisected the snowfield. Instead, the water was gushing into view as it exited its temporary course under the snowfield. My best option for crossing the stream would be to find a strong section of the snowfield and quietly sneak across.

Unlike the massively fractured snow bridge on our approach to Snowmass Mountain in 2008, where a plunge into the violent stream would probably have meant death as you were sucked under a low, downstream section of another snow bridge, this one presented little drama or danger. In fact, I was not entirely sure at which precise moment I was over the stream; it was secretly hiding somewhere beneath the snow. The snow held my weight, easily, I suppose, until I had surely crossed the stream to the other side.

Grizzly Lake

I continued up the trail, sort of. The summer trail, if there was one, was not visible. I was sometimes climbing sections of snowfields that contained intermittent boot prints from previous days. The stream was now visible to my left and below me, as I climbed to the left of a rock formation that obstructed a straight line to Grizzly Lake. Directly in front of me I could see a continuous snow gully that reached to the top of the ridge leading to Grizzly Peak. Partially hidden to the right of this snow gully was Grizzly Couloir. As I passed the rock obstruction, I curved to the right and a mostly-frozen Grizzly Lake came into view, still covered with ice and snow and containing very little open water.

I was in an unfamiliar basin and Grizzly Peak was out of sight beyond the ridges and steep cliffs. As I reached Grizzly Lake, another well-defined couloir had come into view that I could not see during my approach. And this is what caused some temporary route-finding confusion for me.

According to the map, I needed to circumnavigate the lake, following its northern shore to Grizzly Couloir on the opposite side. The well-defined couloir that had just appeared was on the opposite side of the lake. The couloir that I had initially identified as Grizzly Couloir required an even longer circumnavigation, taking me three-quarters of the way around the lake. [Note: If I had instead bypassed the earlier obstruction on the right side, which appears to be the summer trail, then I would have approached Grizzly Lake from the north instead of the east. This would have matched the route I saw on my map and would have prevented the confusion about how far I needed to travel around the lake.]

As I studied the map and played with my GPS unit, I vacillated. The new couloir was the correct one and I made my decision. But the GPS waypoints were not making sense. I reevaluated, studied the location of the rising sun, reviewed the GPS waypoints and decided the original couloir I had identified as Grizzly Couloir was, in fact, the correct route. Based on this assessment, I traversed three-quarters of the way around Grizzly Lake on moderate snow slopes and talus. My ice axe, insurance against an uncontrolled slide down the snow slope, was now in my hand and attached to my wrist via a leash. The freezing, icy water of Grizzly Lake waited patiently below.

Grizzly Couloir - The Climb

I reached the other side of the lake, plus some, and the bottom of Grizzly Couloir. Continuous snow filled the left-curving couloir, reaching to the horizon 1,200 feet above me. Steep granite cliffs lined the west side of the couloir; on the east (left) side, massive granite formations separated Grizzly Couloir from the snow gully that I saw during my approach.

The angle of the couloir was only about 30 degrees at the bottom, with the steepest sections waiting near the top. The snow was solid underneath, but softened by the sun on top, enabling me to proceed without crampons. My boots were gripping well and my ice axe continued to provide security. The climbing was routine, with very little evidence of rockfall. I did not encounter any falling rock during my time in the couloir.

As usual, my pace was slow compared to younger and stronger climbers. The couloir began to kick my butt. What looked like a fairly short climb from a distance began to look and feel longer and longer. I measured my progress in intervals: try to make it to that rock outcropping; reach the shady section of the couloir; now climb to that rock just ahead; only this much further until the sunny section returns; the steep finish is just ahead; focus, focus, focus.

As I climbed higher into the couloir, my position became more and more exciting. I had not applied sunscreen before leaving the trailhead in the dark. Now I stopped to do it in the couloir. I knew anything that I dropped would be gone in a flash, out of reach and tumbling down the slope. I plunged my ice axe, still connected to my wrist, into the snow next to me. I slipped my pack off my back, making sure it was anchored by my ice axe. The same with my climbing helmet. I sat looking at white snow slopes and craggy cliffs and the frozen lake and rugged basin far below. And I knew this was why I live in Colorado.

I also knew that sitting in the couloir would not get me any closer to the top.

When I had climbed in the shady section of the couloir, the snow had been too hard to kick steps into the snow. My crampons were in my pack, but I chose not to retrieve them. Instead, I climbed only a short section in the shade, then moved away from the shadows and into the sun. The softer snow allowed me to proceed by kicking steps into the surface of the snow. Occasionally the soft snow slid and I lost my upward momentum, but most of the time I proceeded higher with each step.

Awesome Snow-Ridge Finish

I had measured the slope angle at various points while climbing Grizzly Couloir. The 30 degree angle at the bottom of the couloir averaged about 40 degrees in the middle. Now, as I neared the top, the angle was about 45 degrees and noticeably steeper. I plunged my ice axe into the snow, then kicked a foothold, stepped up, then plunged the ice axe again. This became a rhythm that I adopted as I gained altitude: plunge, kick, step, plunge, kick, step.

Suddenly, I stepped onto the snow ridge at the top of the couloir, a stunning way to finish the snow climb. In front of me, Grizzly Peak instantly popped into view. Behind me, Grizzly Couloir fell and turned as it dropped to Grizzly Lake approximately 1,350 feet below. The snow was bright, the sky deep blue and the mountain, jagged and hard against the saturated sky.

Climbing solo adds a dimension that does not exist on group climbs. You, and you alone, are responsible for all decisions, good or bad. If you get yourself into a bad situation, you must get yourself out. The risk is higher, and so are the consequences. However, you lose something on solo climbs, as well. That something is the opportunity to turn to your climbing partner(s) and shout, "How friggin' awesome is this?!!!"

I had a decent signal on my cell phone, so I called by brother, Randy, and I called Wild Mike. Both Randy and Wild Mike shared with me our epic adventure on Snowmass Mountain in 2008 and I knew each would have loved the challenge and finish of this climb.

In my euphorically-inspired state, I also called my parents, who may have had a different perspective: our crazy elder son is up in the mountains alone again; let's hope he can get himself off the mountain one more time. <grin>

Grizzly Peak

Grizzly Peak was staring at me from about 1,000 horizontal feet away and was only about 100 vertical feet higher. It looked close enough to touch. I had estimated that I would be on top in 10 minutes. However, after an initial approach on simple dirt trails, I climbed onto the ridge to finish the ascent. I soon encountered a deep notch on the rugged ridge, which forced me back down. I scrambled around the obstruction on the west side of the peak on rough Class 2+ rock, until I was past the notch. I began my upward climb again. About 20 minutes after leaving the snow ridge above the couloir, I was standing on the summit.

I had carried a little extra weight in my pack. Unfortunately, it was not an extra liter of water, which I surely could have used. Instead, it was three rubber balls encased in animal outfits: a bumblebee, a zebra and a raccoon. My mother bought these at Cabela's in St. Louis and mailed them to me in Colorado Springs. These critters were in my pack just in case any juggling broke out on top of Grizzly Peak. Which it did! [Note: While warming up, Mr. Raccoon almost took a ride down the west face of the summit. Luckily, he came to rest after only a few precarious bounces toward the edge.]

After attaching my camera to my ice axe for a summit photo and a short juggling video, I signed the summit register, which was located in a PVC tube. I often don't sign these, but I did this time. Only one person had signed on Saturday and one on Sunday, even though it was a 3-day holiday weekend. Life on the thirteeners is much quieter than it is on the fourteeners. I was soon ready to start down. A few clouds were gathering, even though they didn't appear to be very threatening yet. Weather changes quickly in the mountains.

The Descent

The descent was anticlimactic. Grizzly Couloir is a classic route; the West Slopes descent is anything but. After the initial Class 2+ scramble off of Grizzly Peak, it became a trudge down talus to the saddle between Grizzly and Garfield Peaks. There is actually a small point on the ridge between the two peaks. I dropped off the ridge at the low point between Grizzly Peak and this point.

As I descended, I could see the trees far below and the dirt road at the bottom of the valley running parallel to Lincoln Creek. I did a lot of scree surfing as I worked my way down the long slope. I had removed my gaiters earlier, so occasionally I had to stop and empty my boots of scree.

Eventually I worked my way down to a couple of soft snowfields. After doing a little rock climbing to get down to the edge of one snowfield, I put on my gaiters again. I did a bit of heel plunge-stepping to descend the snow. At times, I could hear melting water trickling beneath the snow, which is not a good sign of solid snow. Twice, my entire leg broke through the snow next to buried boulders and disappeared. The sub-surface area around these buried boulders seemed entirely void of snow. After that, I tried to stay toward the edge of the snowfield where the snow was more consolidated.

After a lot of descending, I finally reached the trees. By now, I had not seen any sign of a trail for a long time. I bushwhacked my way through and around downed trees on the steep forest floor for what seemed like forever. Persistence paid off, as I emerged out of the forest about the time I thought it would never end.

My vehicle waited for me 2 1/4 miles down the road. The remaining hike was uneventful, even though I had to navigate around some large snow-melt puddles that spanned the road from edge to edge.

This is a classic climb that I would consider doing again. The route was relative short; my GPS listed the distance as 10 miles, but most climbing guides list it as about 8 miles. In hindsight, I may have chosen to descend the same route I climbed. The unknown is how bad the postholing may have been as the afternoon sun warmed the snow. All in all, this was a climb that included great scenery and exhilarating positions on a worthy mountain.


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