Monday, May 5, 2008

Saints John and Wild Irishman Mine Snowshoe

Distance 5.6 miles RT
Elevation: 10,302 ft (Montezuma) to 10, 763 ft (Saints John) to 11, 702 ft (Wild Irishman Mine), to 12,000ft (Ridge above the mine)
Elevation Gain: 1698 ft
Critters: Oliver the cat

Saints John, out of Montezuma, is one of our favorite snowshoes. When the weather is clear, the views are spectacular and the elevation gain makes all those mid-week workouts worthwhile. This year was without a doubt our best experience. There was not a cloud in the sky, we barely saw two other people on the route, and the snow was Colorado powder perfect.

First, I’ll make a quick disclaimer about the distances and elevation gain described in this post. It seems like every book, blog, or reference quotes a different distance and elevation for this trail. To make matters worse there is a sign at the town of Saints John itself that says 11,000 ft, which probably refers to the mine itself higher up the ridge to the right.

The route to the Wild Irishman Mine begins on a forest road that is wide and covered in trees. It switch backs a couple of time before suddenly breaking out into the town of Saints John after only 1.3 miles. By the way, Saints John is not a typo. The town is named for both St. John the Evangelist and St. John the Baptist, which is most unfortunate because I have yet to meet anyone who can pronounce it very well. For history trivia buffs, you be pleased to note that Saints John was the site of the first silver strike in Colorado.

Beyond the town, the trail winds through the trees before reaching a wide valley. There are several avalanche chutes along the steep sides. A recent avalanche on our right had left car-sized chunks of snow sitting surreally next to pine trees. It is worth turning around periodically as one ascends this area for stellar views of Grays and Torreys. At the top, the route turns to the left and becomes significantly steeper. There is one pitch that is very steep. Snowmobiles are allowed on this trail and I have seen them zoom off this pitch, totally blind to anyone ascending from below. It is wise to use caution here and ascend as quickly as possible.

Another sharp turn to the left and a short jaunt through the trees lead to another open meadow. At the far end, flush against Glacier Mountain sits the ruins of the Wild Irishman Mine, complete with private outhouse.

To the right of the ruins is another sharp ridge that ascends another 300 ft or so (we did not have a GPS). The journey to the top of this ridge is well worth the trip. From its summit, a huge bowl opens up in the distance. At the far end is the most dramatic mountain pass I have ever seen. The expanse was only marred by a few snowmobile tracks. On this particular day the weather was practically short-sleeved warm and the 360-degree views of mountain peaks seemed to go on and on forever. These include 12,585 ft Bear Mountain to the northwest across the valley, 12,053 ft Tiptop Peak on the down valley view, followed by 12, 792 ft Cooper Mountain and 14ers Grays and Torreys. We did not want to descend, and it was only fear of the mind numbing skier traffic on I-70 that made us leave this little piece of Colorado heaven.

On the return trip we were met with Saints John most friendly resident, Oliver the cat. He came out to sit with us while we admired the view, and although he had to traverse a fifty-yard swath of snow to find us, he quickly jumped from pack to leg to pack again with casual feline dexterity. By this point we were not nearly as limber as we dragged ourselves to our feet again in order to slug through the last 1.3 miles back to the car.

You might just experience your own religious conversion on the Saints John trail but it won’t be to Christianity. Instead you may find yourself worshiping glorious sunshine, clear mountain air, breathtaking views, and the realization that such wonders of nature are everywhere you turn in this, our Colorado.


Anonymous said...

Beautiful views. I always loved hiking up glacier mtn in the summer. My family actually owns Saints John, or at least what's left of it. There used to be a grain silo house at the end of the road past the mine, but the new owner tore it down to build a fancy new house. I'm pretty sure the bike race "Montezuma's Revenge" passes through the Saints in the summer.

If you haven't yet been up there in the summer, I highly recommend hiking from Montezuma to Glacier mountain. The views of lush green Colorado valleys is amazing.

Have fun on your adventures.

sylvia murphy said...

Thanks for your comments. I have been traveling in Michigan for a while.

We will definitely get out there and hike that area next summer.

Anonymous said...

Who is anonymous? Oliver was my cat. He is in kitty heaven now. Katie

sylvia murphy said...

I am sorry to hear about that. He was a cute cat indeed. We always wondered if that cabin was owned by someone or rented out.

May Oliver rest in peace!

Anonymous said...

Hi, my father worked the Saints John in the60's We lived in Montezuma and my parents worked very hard to keep us alive. The mountains and town are beautiful. But does anyone really know what actually making a life for yourself there really means. Unfortunately my family's dream of living there was taken away. But it is GOD'S COUNTRY there no doubt.

sylvia murphy said...

Wow, what an interesting story. I can't image trying to live there permanently.