Saturday, July 28, 2012

Handies Peak from American Basin

Distance: 5.5 miles round trip
Elevation: 11,600 ft - 14,058 ft
Elevation Gain: 2,500 ft (net), 2,553 ft (cumulative)
Date Hiked: 16 July, 2012
Bathroom at Trailhead: No
Dogs: Off leash

View from the Summit of Handies Peak
The view from the summit of Handies Peak (14,058 ft)
Handies Peak is a Colorado 14er surrounded by jagged and imposing ridges forged in the fiery belly of a long forgotten volcano and finished in the frozen grip of glaciers.  It is considered by many to be the prettiest 14er, particularly via the American Basin route, which is known for its wildflowers and open meadows.  After completing this climb, I can truthfully say that this is an alpine experience par excellence.  It will leave you awe struck ... if only you can get there!

The wide and flat parking area at the far end of American Basin
American Basin is one of the most scenic areas of Colorado
Sunlight kisses American Basin.  That tongue of rock in the distance is a rock glacier. 
The journey to Handies is an adventure from start to finish.  The trailhead is located 20 miles up County Road 30 from Lake City in the San Juan mountain range.  This road, which is still advertised as passable by a 2WD vehicle is a washed out, cliff hugging, 4x4 road that will leave you exhausted by the time you finish.  The week before our trip, a huge landslide came crashing down Sunshine Peak (14,006 ft)  and wiped out huge sections of the road. These were plowed out and bumpy by the time we were there, but it just demonstrates how unpredictable these old back country roads can be.  While not technically difficult to navigate, the road possessed a razor thin margin of error given the one lane expanse and the 1,500 ft drop off waiting to consume the hapless 4-wheeler who bounced off the wrong rock.  I am not sure I would drive that road again in my truck, I would rent an ATV, which is much much smaller.

Indian Paintbrush and Bistwort create a colorful tableau 
An early trail segment
Along the way, the road will pass the Grizzly Gulch Trailhead.  You can climb Handies from this direction, but it is several miles longer.  There is a bathroom at this trailhead, which also serves Sunshine and Redcloud.  Four miles or so beyond this point is the turn off to American Basin.  This road is also 4x4 and is particularly bad just before the large trailhead. After the drive, climbing Handies was a piece of cake!

More wildflowers
Looking back down on the route
Early morning glare at the basin perpendicular to American Basin
The initial part of the route heads into the back side of American Basin, hugging the left side. Wildflowers abound here and it was difficult to keep going because I wanted to stop for every colorful tableau. With the weather pressing, there was no time to waste, however, so we pressed onwards.  At the start of the basin is a large rock glacier, which resembled a large amoeba oozing slowly downhill.  Rock glaciers are different from ice glaciers in that the water is not a solid mass, but exists between the rocks so all you see is flowing (in geologic time) rock.

Starting across the basin
Looking back down on the route
Heading up further
Looking back down on the shelf and entrance to American Basin
Before reaching the rock glacier, the trail banks to the left and climbs steeply up to the shelf (at 1.26 miles) to a cirque that is perpendicular to American Basin.  A smaller rock glacier graces its upper slopes.  The route will actually climb to the right of the basin and then down and across the rock glacier to the other side.  At the top of the route on the right hand side is Sloan Lake (at 1.6 miles and 12,941 ft), which is a destination itself.

Climbing 14ers is fun!
Crossing the rock glacier.  The trail will descend sharply and then ascend again across the glacier up the slope in the distance. 
Looking back at Sloan Lake.  The trail from the shelf to the lake is just visible in the distance. 
Once across the rock glacier, the route switchbacks steeply up the side of Handies.  Green tundra grasses and views back down the route make this segment pleasant indeed.  At the top is a saddle with a primeval view of geologic marvels clawing their way upwards from the valley below.  Is this Valhalla? Surely we are above the cares of mere mortals on such airy heights!

On the switchbacks to the final saddle
Approaching the saddle
The primeval view from the saddle
To the left is the final summit ridge.  It is smooth and steep.  Steep as in Sniktau steep.  I dug out my hiking stick and used it to anchor myself as I plodded upwards.  It was hard to turn around and admire the view.  I passed a woman coming down who was afraid of heights.  She was trembling with each baby step downwards.  I began to get nervous but the decent down this pitch but it was actually very easy, so don't let the steepness bother you.

The summit (second hill) viewed from the saddle
Heading up the summit ridge
This view makes the summit appear very close...but is it?
Heading up the steep section
The view from the summit is grandiose.  Jagged mountains abound and we had the place to ourselves, a rare treat in Colorado. Unfortunately, we had Armageddon brewing directly over us, despite our 5 am wake-up call and hardly spent any time on the summit.  I felt comfortable, and infinitely safer bolting downwards after a few hasty pictures.  Therein lies a life metaphor.  Rarely do life's struggles lead us to lasting rewards.  It is the tenuousness of any achievement that reminds us that like Handies life is more about what happens along the way.  

Looking back down from half-way to the summit
Almost there!
View from the summit
The weather held long enough for us to dawdle on the decent.  We stopped at Sloan Lake, which I will turn into a post of its own, watched Marmots frolicking amongst the wildflowers, practically stepped on a flock of Ptarmigan, and stopped to gawk at a trio of baby marmots just starting to explore their world.  By the time we reached the truck it was starting to pour.  Good timing indeed.

The author (left) and Elaine reveling in Colorado glory!
Lynn enjoys the summit
Climbing Handies is so full of view-gasms that I recommend everyone, not just 14er peak baggers, to consider this experience.  I will leave it up to you how to get to the trailhead.  A private helicopter would be my personal choice.  You can pay for the trip in what you save in post-drive therapy fees!

Back down in American Basin, a cheering squad of Frosty Ball Thistle waved us by. 


Janice K said...

Wow! That was certainly a "mountaintop" experience. Thank you for sharing it.

Sharon said...

What a gorgeous hike and well written report. You are reminding me that there is so much hiking to be done in Colorado outside of RMNP. Can't wait to return!

Anonymous said...

Thank you again. Any pics of the road you mention to get to the trailhead?

sylvia murphy said...

Alas not for the nail-biting sections. I was driving!