- Date: July 4, 2018
- Partner: none
- Height: 14,042 feet
- Range: Sangre de Cristo
- Route: North Ridge via South Zapata Creek (Class 3)
- Overall Distance: 11.5 miles
- Elevation Gain: 5,500 feet (TH to summit)
- 14ers climbed: 19
- 14ers remaining: 34
- Road Condition to Trailhead: The dirt road to the South Zapata trailhead is 3.5 miles from CO-150. Any 2WD car can make it if they take it slow over the rocks and ruts. There is plenty of parking at the trailhead.
This trip marked my first 14er of 2018. I had originally meant to backpack several miles up the trail the evening before in order to get a head start the next day. Alas, on the drive down to Alamosa from Denver, I had to take substantial detours to avoid the 11,000 acre Weston Pass fire. It was already sunset by the time I pulled into Alamosa, so I decided to car camp instead.
There is a no-frills campground run by the BLM right at the trailhead (Zapata Falls Campground) that is perfectly located to do this hike. I watched some thunderstorms rolling in off in the distance for a few minutes, quickly pitched my tent, and then settled in for a few hours of sleep.
I hit the trail at dawn, as the Great Sand Dunes were reflecting the first rays of the morning sun. Pay attention when you are walking out of the trailhead not to take the side trail to Zapata Falls. Otherwise, it is a brisk 4-mile hike up to South Zapata Lake (3,400 ascent). The trail is clearly marked and I felt good as the temperature was cool.
When I got to the lake, I decided to head up the C2 couloir to get on top of the headwall. This is steep Class 3 pitch with no trail. It was filled with loose talus and scree on top of hard-packed sand. For every two steps forward, I took one step back. As this was my first 14er of the season, I was not in the tip-top shape I wanted to be in, so I crawled up to the top of the headwall and was a bit tired. If you attempt this route, be sure to make a note of where you are so that you don’t inadvertently head down the much more dangerous Crossfire couloir on the way back.
From here, the route to the summit was plainly visible. However, again no trail was evident. I headed along the spine of the headwall to the east and picked my way as best as I could through tons of small rocks. As the headwall rose, it bended to the south. The sun was up in full force now and I stopped frequently to get water and rest. When I got to a large prominent outcrop of rock, I tried skirting it to the right and it became dangerously steep. STAY TO THE LEFT! I backtracked several hundred yards, and got on top of the spine. Even though there was massive exposure to the left (a 2,000′ + drop-off), I ignored it since the going was much easier. Pulling myself up with a few good handholds here and there, I was able to get onto the summit.
From the top, I could see three other 14ers in the Sangre de Cristo mountain range. There were several active fires I could see billowing smoke to the southeast and from time-to-time an airplane or helicopter would approach them presumably to drop water. With the exception of a bighorn sheep, the entire time I had been hiking, I had not had any company until now — a young couple from the university in Alamosa who had come up a different route.
Coming down entailed backtracking, slowly picking my way through the endless rocks. Even then, a few times I lost my footing coming down the C2 couloir and took a hard fall. Had I not had my hiking poles, it would have been miserable. I was really relieved to make my way back to South Zapata Lake and get back on defined trail. By now, I had been frequently drinking water to the point where I had to carefully ration out what I had left for the remainder of the hike. When I got to the car, I guzzled a very warm bottle of water I had tossed in the backseat 🙂
There are a few spots of ascent heading back to the trailhead, so all told, I would put the total ascent on this hike at 6,000 feet. The Class 3 designation is appropriate. If you are in great shape and move along, you could probably do this trip in 6 hours. If you are in reasonable shape and take a few stops for picture and snacks, then it will take you around 9 hours. I would not recommend this climb to someone who is not in shape nor as a first 14er. If I had to give it a 14er difficulty rating, I would say somewhere around a 6.5, maybe a 7, would be appropriate.
If you like solitude, adventure, remote country with big mountains, and camping options, then you should try this route.