- Date: September 17, 2021
- Partner: none
- Height: 14,001 feet
- Range: San Juan
- Route: Northwest Peak (Difficult Class 2)
- Overall Distance: 10 miles (returned over Redcloud Peak)
- Elevation Gain: 4,200 feet (car to summit)
- 14ers climbed: 42 separate climbs
- 14ers remaining: 11
- Road Condition to Trailhead: From Silverton, you must traverse Cinnamon Pass via the Alpine Loop. This is a very rough, if not dangerous, road that will require 4WD with a high clearance. You will be crawling along a plethora of rocks, steep drop-offs, and washouts. The scenery is spectacular (at least for the passenger 😆). It is roughly 20 miles to get to the Silver Creek/Grizzly Gulch trailhead and it will take you every bit of 1.5 hours or more to get there (seriously).
After climbing Redcloud Peak the previous day, and catching dinner and some sleep back in Silverton, I returned to the San Juans bright and early the next morning. I felt pretty refreshed, fueled up with coffee, and ready to hit the trail around 8 AM. Once again, you could not have asked for better weather to climb a 14er.
Once again, back up the Silver Creek drainage I went for 1.5 or 2 miles. I then cut across Silver Creek and began to head south into the South Fork of Silver Creek. This turnoff is easy to miss, so pay attention for the cairns and have a map up and loaded on Gaia GPS. Because this route is not the standard route (for good reason), you will have to hike on periodically faint trail that meanders through trees and shrubs.
Around 12,000′ the trail breaks out into a very large bowl. You will enter into fields of rocks, cross over a small rock glacier, and continue over fields of larger rocks and gullies toward the end of the basin. It will be slow going here. In some places, there is no trail.
Now, here is where things get tricky. At the back end of this basin, you will see a series of steep chutes that radiate up the back of the basin. It will be almost impossible to find the right chute unless you have the pictures of the route downloaded on your phone from 14ers.com. You must “stick the landing” here; that is, you must ascend up the correct chute. The chute is a hellacious, steep slot canyon filled with loose rock and talus. If you stay in the middle of the chute, you risk triggering a rock avalanche. As best as you can, stay to the wall on climber’s right and try to find some good handholds among the flaky, rotten rock to secure your position. Test every handhold you use and every rock you are thinking about putting your weight on with your foot. This is a steep piece of terrain and a fall could be dangerous. 14ers.com had this route rated as Difficult Class 2. Truth be told, this section of the route is at least Class 3 territory. Bring your climbing helmet. I knew before I was halfway up the chute that there was zero chance I was returning the same way 😀
At the top of the gully (13,000′), it is fairly smooth sailing across easy terrain to the northwest face. Staying to the right, I accessed the West Ridge. I stayed up on the spine, and pivoted to the northeast. Avoiding the exposed, massive drop to my right, I slowly and carefully picked an obvious line across the rocks leading right to the summit.
Once I was on the summit, I took a break to grab some food and coffee, and to reconfigure my return route. The views from this summit are spectacular; you will see several other 14ers close by. Studying the map, I decided to cross over a saddle to Redcloud Peak and head back to the car via the route I had trod the day before. While it was going to cost me an extra 1.5 miles and tack on another 500′ of ascent to my hike, I was willing to pay that price for a safer experience. The irony of this was that I met a man (Jay) on Redcloud Peak who had come up the same chute I had in the morning and, like me, had decided not to attempt to downclimb it! We hiked out together and enjoyed each other’s company for several hours.
I will give this route a 3.5 out of 10 due to the chute, length of the hike, and route finding. This would not be a route I could suggest to other climbers, unless you replicate the loop route I did and do not care about climbing each of these two 14ers by the 3,000 foot rule. Happy autumn climbing to all of you.