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Handies Peak
Elevation: 14,048 feet
Climbed: Aug 4, 2003
Mountain Range: San Juan Range
Colorado Rank: 40th
Class Rating: 2
Latitude: 37.913100
Longitude: -107.504000

Trip Report

Aug 4, 2003

We made a trip to the San Juans, in southwestern Colorado, during the week of August 3, 2003, to tackle Handies, Redcloud, and Sunshine Peaks. This trip included my brother, Randy, Randy's neighbor, Mike, and Mike's son, Josh. All hailed from St. Louis, MO. I was the only one from Colorado. Having two Mike's on the trip was potentially a bit confusing. During our pre-trip planning sessions, Randy's neighbor emerged as Wild Mike and I became Mountain Mike.

I was the only member of the party who had any previous experience climbing a 14er. My experience was meager, having climbed Pikes Peak twice in 1989 and Mount Princeton in 2001. The others in the party had never before attempted a 14er; therefore, they were not sure what to expect.

I was the oldest in the party at 46, but hoped my acclimation to the Colorado altitude would offset this liability. Wild Mike was a few years younger, Randy 8 years younger, and Josh weighed in at only 21 years old. Josh was definitely the stallion of the bunch, but that was not enough to prevent him from succumbing to severe blisters and sunburn. Handies would be the only peak that Josh, and his dad, would attempt that week.

We set up camp on the afternoon of Sunday, August 3rd, near the Grizzly Gulch and Silver Creek trailheads. These trailheads are located next to each along the Alpine Loop, giving access to three mountains from one location. We planned on climbing Handies on Monday morning and Redcloud and Sunshine on Wednesday.

Several climbing parties were camping in the area. One group, consisting of three young women, had climbed Redcloud and Sunshine on Sunday. Liz, who seemed to be the spokesperson for her group, described their climb, including an area she said depicted the "Sound of Music." Liz was a seasoned climber, although it had been the first 14er for one of the women. They planned on climbing Handies on Monday, as did we. It turned out we would cross paths several times the next day.

I set my watch alarm for about 5:30 A.M. We decided that was the very latest we wanted to sleep to allow for a descent start time. We wanted to gain the summit and be well on our way down the mountain before any potential lightning storms made their appearance later in the day. However, I apparently did not hear the alarm, for suddenly I awoke and saw it was already 6:30 A.M. We all started scrambling about camp, getting ready as quickly as we could. We were about one hour delayed, but it did not make a difference. Scattered clouds did roll in that day, but we never encountered any storm clouds or dangerous weather.

We crossed the trailhead bridge that spans the Lake Fork of the Gunnison River, which eventually becomes a respectable river feeding into Blue Mesa Reservoir. Here it was still a mere stream, which on this August day could have been crossed with a little rock-hopping.

After crossing the bridge, we were on our way. After months of anticipation, we were actually on the trail. The sun had not yet appeared over the surrounding mountains, leaving the forested trail somewhat gray and dark. We began climbing immediately, working our way single file along the well-defined trail.

The Grizzly Gulch trail paralleled a stream as we continued to climb. After about 3/4 of a mile, we began to break in and out of the trees, as the trail crossed occasional talus fields. This was when we caught our first glimpse of Handies, looming large and imposing at the head of the valley. As the valley continued opening up before our eyes, the scenery was spectacular.

At approximately 1 3/4 miles from the trailhead, we left the trees behind for good. We were crossing a land of green grasses and scrubby plants, strewn with rocks and granite boulders. Trees were becoming a rare sight; those that existed had found refuge from the harsh elements in gullies along the stream bed.

We tried to remember to drink enough water to stave off dehydration, stopping periodically to drink, eat, and take in the fantastic surroundings. I carried three liters of water, as well as an MSR MiniWorks water filter. If I had known with certainty that we would encounter streams at appropriate intervals, I might have carried less water and replenished my supply along the trail.

At one of our rest stops, Randy pulled out his copy of Gerry Roach's book, Colorado's Fourteeners, which he had stashed in his pack. We were following the route that Roach described in his Second Edition as "28.11 East Slopes II, Class 2 *Classic*." From trailhead to summit, this route is 3.8 miles long, with an elevation gain of 3,650 feet.

We crossed paths with Liz and her companions in a wide-open section of the Grizzly Gulch basin. With Handies rising majestically behind us, we gave Liz our camera and posed for a group photo. We did the same for them, snapping a photo on their camera of the three women climbers.

We continued to climb upward and onward, usually hiking within sight of the stream, watching it become smaller each time we passed its confluence with another tributary. The sight of several cascading ribbons of sparkling water flowing down the mountain, through vividly green mountain meadows, was exhilarating.

By the time we reached the upper Grizzly Gulch basin, the sloping sides of the meadow gave way to rugged, craggy cliffs, some still harboring remnants of last winter's snows. Huge deposits of scree, some in the form of alluvial fans, accumulated at the base of the cliffs. Above, skies were a rich, saturated blue, as wispy white clouds floated past the rugged mountain ridges.

Randy's feet had developed some hot spots inside his boots, so we stopped for trail-side repairs. With the application of some Moleskin, Randy was able to protect the trouble spots and prevent any further problems from developing. Josh also had problems with his feet, developing severe blisters before the problem was fully realized. This, plus an acute high-altitude sunburn, would prevent Josh, and his dad, Wild Mike, from climbing Redcloud and Sunshine two days later.

Near the top of the upper basin, the trail angled to the right as the grass abruptly ended and talus took over. We worked our way along the trail as it climbed higher and higher. Eventually, we clambered onto a ridge at a point 13,577 feet above sea level. This was quite a milestone, since we were now less than 500 vertical feet from the summit.

As we worked our way along the ridge, the trail was very well-defined, bordered by alpine tundra and exposed chunks of lichen-covered granite. Orange and grayish-green lichens provided some colorful visual relief, as did the green alpine vegetation that clung close to the ground.

The ridge continued its ascent toward the summit, as we plodded along through this oxygen-deprived environment. Each heavy, labored step brought us closer to our goal. The terrain became steeper, and the exposed rocks became more block-like, many with two or three sides exposed to the thin air, while one or more sides remained loosely anchored to the mountain. Finally, the summit pitch was upon us.

The summit pitch was quite exhilarating, as the angle was steeper than anything encountered to this point. As we worked our way up and around the block-like rocks, the mountain sloped away on both sides of the ridge. This was one of the most memorable sections of the climb, although also one of the shortest.

Once past this summit pitch, the actual summit of Handies Peak was only a short, anti-climatic stroll away. Within minutes, Josh and I had hiked up the final, gentle slope and stood on the summit. Randy and Wild Mike were still a ways below the summit, so Josh and I moved down to watch them and also to take a few final photos of the Handies ascent.

Soon, all four of us stood together on the Handies Peak summit. The views were spectacular in all directions. Every way we turned, we were confronted with stark, rugged mountains, with Wetterhorn and Uncompahgre looming to the north, and Eolus, Windom, and Sunlight visible further away to the south. Sneffels rose in the northwest, and Mount Wilson, El Diente, and Wilson Peak pierced the western sky.

Our original plan was to descend via the East Ridge Route, completing what Roach describes as a classic, circular Tour de Handies. However, based upon the physical ailments of some of our party, as well as some uncertainty regarding our planned descension route, we decided to reevaluate. No one on top had any experience with the East Ridge Route. After some discussion among ourselves and other climbers on the summit, we decided to descend via American Basin. From the American Basin trailhead, we would try to hitch a ride back to camp.

We headed in a southwesterly direction as we left the summit, following a ridge that dropped sharply away on our left-hand side. Initially, the descent was unpleasant, with pea gravel making for a slippery descent. Some of this was due to following a direct line down the mountain, rather that following a switch-backed trail. The footing improved as we descended further below the summit.

Even from the summit, we could see Sloan Lake nestled into the cirque at the top of American Basin. Above the cirque rose a steep, jagged headwall, dark and imposing.

A cirque is a steep hollow, often containing a small lake, or tarn, at the upper end of a mountain valley. Cirques and tarns are both formed as a result of past glacial activity. Both are commonly found in the high valleys of the Rocky Mountains.

As we descended upon Sloan Lake, its emerald green waters sparkled as sunlight danced off its surface. White clouds hovered just overhead in a deep blue sky, floating past the craggy headwall, and reflecting from the surface of Sloan Lake. At 13,000 feet, we reclined and rested along the shore of Sloan Lake.

Randy and Wild Mike discussed whether they should take a dip in the cold waters of the lake, but decided against it. Later, they learned that Liz and her friends had taken the plunge. It became a standing joke how Liz and her pals were continually "out-adventuring" us. They hiked farther, more often, and sometimes faster, seemed to tire less, and, as we soon learned, took more icy plunges into alpine lakes.

We took one last look at Sloan Lake and began the next leg of our descent. As we dropped below the lake, the trail began to switch back and forth through beautiful alpine meadows. We passed a couple who had heard a commotion at their Lake San Cristobal campground the night before, then, before it slipped into the darkness, saw the bear that was making the racket. We passed the couple and continued to drop lower into the valley, stopping briefly to watch a cascading rivulet, as the small stream spilled its water over boulders on its journey to the basin floor.

Passing a vibrant field of wildflowers, Randy and I paused to absorb the color and beauty of that scene. As the sun played hide-and-seek with the clouds above, I tried to capture the moment below. With my camera ready, I waited for the sun to make its next appearance, and then took a few photos of the sunlit wildflowers.

By the time Randy and I resumed our descent, Josh and Wild Mike were well out of sight, far ahead of us on their way down the mountain. We would not see them again on the trail, since they had already hitched a ride back to camp by the time Randy and I got to the American Basin trailhead.

Randy and I hiked past the trailhead parking area, continuing to the Alpine Loop road. There, we waited and watched for vehicles that might be willing to give us a ride. Several Jeeps passed, each filled to capacity. Finally, I walked a few paces up the road to wait in the shade of a small tree. Soon after, a blue Chevy Suburban left the American Basin trailhead parking area and stopped next to Randy.

By the time I drew close, Randy said the couple had already agreed to give us a ride. Under his breath, Randy told me what they had said about the dog in the back seat, that the dog wouldn't bite, but we should not look at this dog. Apparently, this would only annoy the dog and increase his agitation.

We rode the last few miles back to camp in the very back of their Chevy Suburban, bouncing on the floor among other cargo. The dog rode in the back seat, although it was hard to tell without looking directly at the dog.

On the way down, we saw Wild Mike coming up the road in his truck, so we had the driver flag him down. Josh and Wild Mike had already made it back to camp, so he was on his way to pick us up. Seeing we didn't need a ride, Wild Mike drove on, planning to offer Liz and friends a ride back to camp.

Randy and I made it back to camp without suffering any dog bites and thanked the couple for the ride. Wild Mike soon rejoined us, after Liz and company had declined his offer of a ride in favor of walking all the way back to camp.

Quite some time later, as we sat in our camp chairs at the trailhead parking lot, we finally saw Liz and her friends coming down the Alpine Loop road. They didn't look too exhausted, considering the extra miles they had traveled.

As they drew closer, we noticed something else; they were dragging and carrying that night's firewood along that dusty road.


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