Once in a blue moon I get an opportunity to work out of my company’s headquarters in Durango. As fortunate had it, last Wednesday through Friday were my dates for 2013. A Durango-based work trip, leading into the weekend, in the middle of the driest, most reliable month to hike peaks in the San Juans? Sweet! I was stoked for weeks leading up to the trip. Little did I know mother nature had other ideas. Enter the record monsoonal flows of mid-September, 2013. Watching the forecast throughout the week was downright depressing (not to mention the state of things up north), so I had all but given up on the idea of hiking in favor of visiting some breweries in the area. But when I got off work Friday evening I had a nagging desire to get out despite the weather. As many hikers often find, in Colorado you can’t always make decisions based on forecasts no matter how abysmal they are. Sometimes you just have to go give it a shot and see if things work out. With this in mind I moseyed over Molas Pass to Silverton for a Saturday attempt on the Jones Group, reasoning that it was an easy loop with plenty of bail options if things turned ugly.
I pitched the tent at Silverton Lakes Campground on the northeast end of Silverton Friday night, then went on a stroll through town (including a stop off at Handlebars for a brew). I zipped myself in around 10:00 in hopes the storm clouds would clear overnight for an early start. Well, it wound up pouring all night; I woke up several times to the sound of rain pelting the tent canvas, and there was some thunder in the area as well. The rain lasted through the early morning so I didn’t even bother getting up until 6:00 when it finally relented. Water bottles full, I drove up the muddy shelf road towards Howardsville/Cinnamon Pass, arriving at the Burns Gulch turnoff after eleven miles. The Burns Gulch 4WD road starts on the east side of the road just past the sign for Picayune Gulch. I managed to avoid fording the creek by hiking a hundred yards north over a bridge, then contouring south along the east side of the creek to the start of the 4WD road (as Roach recommends for those who park at the bottom). At 7:00 I was on my way up the 4WD road towards the mouth of the Burns Gulch drainage.
The first mile and a half up the road went quickly with lots to look at in every direction. Burns Gulch is a gorgeous place, and though it’s only ten miles from Silverton, the sense of solitude it provides is very real. Eventually the road gave way to a good climber’s trail. As I continued on up I got plenty of good views of Jones and Niagara, as well as the saddle between the two. Though there were dark clouds swirling over much of the surrounding area, a doughnut hole lingered above Burns Gulch for the better part of my approach.
With clouds rolling in and out of the area at such a rapid rate it was hard to figure out what the weather was going to do. On a few separate occasions I stopped and waited to think about my plight and see if the situation above me improved. It was clear the skies would unleash their moisture at some point in the day, the question was when. If it weren’t for the blue patch directly above me I would have seriously considered turning around, but with the saddle illuminated by a ray of sun it seemed as though I was being beckoned to continue. Eventually I came to a point where the trail petered off a bit and I wound up losing it, but I was able to pick it back up again in the talus field below the saddle.
I hit the 13,200′ saddle and much to my delight, had clear views to the east towards Half Peak and into the surrounding basins. Though Niagara was still enveloped in fog, I was able to make out the faint outline of the summit ridge rising directly above me. With the summit only 600′ away I decided to go for it.
I’m not a huge fan of hiking in fog or through clouds whipping over ridges as I can’t shake the idea that I’m about to walk into an electrical field. Maybe it’s more of a mental thing, but regardless it’s just not a ton of fun in my opinion (especially solo). I made good time to the summit, stayed for all of fifteen seconds, then reversed my route back down to the saddle.
As I descended, the clouds around Jones cleared out, revealing the gentle ridge run to the summit. It went faster than I expected; within twenty minutes of leaving the saddle I topped out on Jones.
At this point I considered my day a successful one and would have been quite content heading back to the car, but as I sat on Jones’ summit refueling on Peppermint Patties and Pop Chips, the skies parted and revealed the route over to American. Once again the timing of the clouds clearing was ideal, and I got a very real sense that I was being tossed a bone to go for American.
Even though the terrain from Jones’ summit down to the saddle with American looks intimidating, the route can easily be kept at class 2. There is some good exposure off the north side of the ridge however.
Back at the American/Jones saddle, I took a long break and admired the views of Snare Gulch and Half Peak in the distance. The wind died down completely and the sun was out in full force. For a moment I got a glimpse of a typical September day in Colorado, just like the ones I remember.
I left the saddle around 11:00 and reconnected with the Burns Gulch Road thirty minutes later. At this point the storm clouds were gaining momentum again, so I was happy to be within striking distance of tree line. When I was about a mile from the car the heavens opened up and it started absolutely pouring. The upside: I was finally able to give the rain gear a true test.
Back in Silverton I found an awning near my campsite, planted myself under it, and watched the rain up and down the valley. Truly amazing stuff for September. I felt fortunate to have gotten out and successfully summited a few peaks given all that was going on in the state. The rain has for the most part been great for Colorado, but I’m ready for some Indian Summer.