- Date: September 3, 2022
- Partner: Randy Weaver
- Height: 14,058 feet
- Range: San Juan
- Route: East Slopes (Class 2)
- Overall Distance: 8 miles
- Elevation Gain: 3,650 feet (car to summit)
- 14ers climbed: 44 separate climbs
- 14ers remaining: 9
- Road Condition to Trailhead: Please see Redcloud Peak, 2020.
My second (and final) 14er of the year happened over Labor Day weekend. Joining me for this climb was my brother-in-law Randy Weaver from northeastern Ohio. This was to be his first try at a 14er and he had spent a considerable amount of time over the course of 2022 training for the attempt.
Randy flew into Albuquerque on Thursday, September 1. Unfortunately, my flight the same day was canceled and I didn’t arrive until the next day; welcome to flying in the year 2022. We immediately rented a 2-wheel drive pickup truck and set off for the long drive up to Silverton, Colorado. Because of the flight cancellation, our “perfect plans” were already off-kilter. There would be no camping nor staged climb. Instead, it would have to be a one-day push from the trailhead. We arrived in Silverton and crashed for the night at the no-frills Kendall Mountain Lodge.
The next morning, long before the sun came up, we set off for the Silver Creek/Grizzly Gulch trailhead. The first time I tried this drive was last year on my Redcloud Peak climb. As previously described, it is a terrible road and I harbored serious doubts as to whether Randy and I would be able to get there in a 2-wheel drive pickup truck. However, what saved us was the high clearance and dry roads and we were able to make it with only a few tense moments. Had there been rain, we would not have been able to make it.
Having arrived at the trailhead, we set off up the trail. By “up”, I truly mean “up” … you climb a lot of stairs in the first half-hour. It’s good trail that continuously climbs and meanders through woods. Not long after we started, we could see Handies Peak come into view. Starting at about 11,500′, the trail broke out into an extensive basin (Grizzly Gulch) and followed alongside a creek. Most people who attempt to climb Handies Peak come in on the standard route from American Basin, which is substantially shorter and easier. If you are looking for more solitude and scenic views with some beautiful wildflowers thrown in, then you will love the East Slopes route. It is reputed to be one of the most beautiful hikes in southwestern Colorado and I now know why 🙂
Around 12,400′ is where things start to get a little tougher. Randy and I took one last breather, pumped some water, and began an ascent up a small hill leading to a rock moraine. From here, once past the moraine, it was a steep and steady sidehill traverse of about 0.5 mile toward the summit. Again, there is nothing terribly difficult about the climb to this point … you’re just punching the clock. As we got past 13,300′, we had to ascend a small stretch of steeper and scoured terrain to get onto the North Ridge. Once on this ridge, you will be faced with what is clearly the steepest part of the hike. You do have to be careful here as the trail becomes rockier and more fragmented. While a fall wouldn’t kill you, you could really hurt yourself.
Once we got past this crux of the route, the trail leveled off and I am proud to say Randy took us the remaining few hundred yards to the summit. He did a great job training for this climb and fighting through the effects of the high altitude, and it paid off. There were a few swollen afternoon clouds floating around blue skies, but for the most part the weather was pleasantly warm with no wind up top. We hung out and chatted with a few other climbers who had come up the standard Southwest Slopes route, had some snacks, and set off for a relatively uneventful return trip.
On the way back down the mountain, I had a chance to reflect on the San Juan Mountains. This has become my favorite part of Colorado and I could easily see myself settling down in a small mountain town out here some day. Beautiful views of rocky crags and wildlife, friendly people who love the environment, and lots of opportunities to recreate in the great outdoors. Every time I come here I feel at home and I depart feeling recharged.
Let’s give Handies Peak a 2.5 on a 1-to-10 scale of 14er difficulty. It is by no means technical, but has enough length and some scrambling up toward the summit to let you know that you’ve accomplished something by the time you get back to the car. Here’s hoping all of you got out at least a few times to enjoy the beautiful autumn colors while the leaves still clung to the trees. Take care …