Dillon and I loaded into his Jeep and made our way south after work on Thursday evening, intent on hiking Gladstone Peak on Friday followed by Rio Grande Pyramid on Saturday (both Centennial 13ers). Anyone who knows the San Juans decently well will probably quickly realize that these two peaks aren’t exactly close to each other; not in a straight line but especially not with regard to drive time between trailheads. Well we knew that, but we suspected we might be able to link up a few mountain passes in Dillon’s Rubicon to make the commute between peaks a tad more interesting. Around midnight we turned off CO 145 and drove south along the San Miguel River towards the Bilk Basin trailhead. The graded switchbacks went quickly and easily and soon thereafter we were laying our heads down for a little shuteye prior to a 3:30am start.
Sitting smack in the middle of three highly popular and somewhat notorious 14ers, Gladstone Peak has to be one of the more overlooked 13ers in the entire state. With the Mt. Wilson/El Diente massif dominating the skyline on the south side of Navajo Basin, and Wilson Peak towering over the ranch lands outside of Telluride, Gladstone does a good job of hiding from most people’s gaze. Yet this peak is far from boring, as it features nearly every characteristic of a classic San Juan rock pinnacle. Steep and pyramidal in shape, Gladstone appears to be un-climbable when viewed from the south. It’s broad East Face would make for an excellent extreme ski descent from Cross Mountain, and it’s North Ridge, the easiest way to climb the peak, is nothing to scoff at. Gladstone may seem like the red-headed stepchild of the Wilson Group, but in reality it fits right in.
I’ve had my eyes on Gladstone for a long time, and after always finding an excuse not to climb it on my several previous visits to the Wilsons (usually because I chose to repeat 14ers with friends instead), I figured it was finally time to make this peak a priority. Bilk Basin seemed like a good approach option as it is relatively untraveled compared to Rock of Ages and Navajo, and the hike to the peak’s North Ridge is arguably more scenic from the east than it is from the west.
From the Sunshine Mesa Trailhead we worked our way southwest along the old mining access road before crossing to the west side of Bilk Creek, then ascended a steep set of switchbacks up past the falls and into the basin proper. With good views of Lizard Head and Sunshine Mountain to our east, we worked our way higher into the cirque between Wilson Peak and Gladstone. This entailed some snow hopping and minor rock scrambling on the south side of the drainage. With nothing between us and the Wilson/Gladstone connecting ridge, we threw on our crampons and engaged the short snow climb leading up to the ridge crest. All in all the snow we encountered was a non-factor and I’m guessing it will be gone in a week or two.
Gladstone’s North Ridge, while certainly loose, didn’t seem as unstable as several other peaks Dillon and I have been on in the past and certainly not as dramatic as some guidebooks indicate. Everything stayed in place for us and after an hour and a half of fun scrambling, we stepped onto the summit of Gladstone Peak. Our friend Jim (Yikes on 14ers.com) was out for a solo day and wound up sharing the summit with us.
After looking around for awhile and taking a few photos we made quick work of the ridge back down to the snow, and then back down to the trail from there. Descending Bilk Basin went smoothly with the exception of the creek crossing, and around 2pm we found ourselves enjoying a beer and sandals back at the trailhead (well actually a little lower down the road as the mosquitoes were quite unbearable at the trailhead).
The only blemish in our 56 hour marathon of sleepless pain was an ill-fated attempt to sit down for a meal in Telluride. Fresh off Gladstone we drove into town intent on ordering a pie from the Brown Dog, only to find the wait was 2+ hours and the restaurant itself couldn’t have even been described as “standing room only”. There was quite simply no room at all. With our plan A dashed, we continued to fight our way through and around an immense number of people in the streets, finding that every restaurant in town was either closed or packed to the brim (note that I refrained from using the “G” word). After stopping at a street vendor for a $9 gyro, only to find out she didn’t take credit cards, we decided to cut our losses and make our way towards Ophir Pass empty handed (or more accurately, empty stomached).
One of the most unique aspects of this trip if I’m being honest was the fact that we decided to drive over Ophir and Cinnamon Passes en route to Rio Grande Reservoir. I had long wanted to check out both of these passes, but because I’ve never owned a 4WD vehicle, I’ve never really had the opportunity. Well thanks to Dillon, that all changed on Friday as we got a hefty dose of classic San Juan four-wheeling under our belts, and cut off a good amount of driving distance at the same time. We drove over Ophir Pass in a rainstorm but by the time we made our way through Silverton (after a quick pit stop at Avalanche Brewing of course) and up towards Cinnamon Pass, we had nothing but blue sky and endless San Juan topography to enjoy.
After taking some time to reminisce of past journeys through American, Grizzly, and Silver Creek Basins, we eventually arrived at our destination for the evening – Thirty Mile Campground on the southern edge of Rio Grande Reservoir. I’ll be the first to admit we were pretty tired at this stage, and the weather forecast wasn’t looking excellent for the following day, but we knew if we could get some food and fluids in us as well as a few hours of sleep, we’d be good to go in the morning. That’s exactly what we did, and in what seemed more like the next phase of a continuous mountain marathon than a new day, we found ourselves trudging up the Weminuche Trail along the southern edge of the reservoir at 3:30am.
We hiked through the dark for what seemed like endless hours until morning’s light eventually stretched out across the landscape and we were able to switch off our headlamps. Soon after we stumbled onto Weminuche Pass, and upon pulling out our map, we were greeted by another set of familiar names/faces. Darin Baker (d_baker on 14ers.com) and Terri Horvath had camped just shy of the pass and were getting started on an attempt at “Window Peak” and UN 13,017 to the south of RGP. They graciously pointed us in the direction of the Skyline Trail, which was good because we were about ready to head up the Rincon La Vaca trail instead (this trail would have worked out but the Skyline takes a shorter, more direct approach to RGP). After losing the trail a few times on the south side of the Continental Divide (which isn’t that uncommon from what I’ve heard), we eventually worked our way up through the basin to the foot of Rio Grande Pyramid.
First climbed around 1875 by the Wheeler Survey, Rio Grande Pyramid sits on a high plateau well east of the bulk of the Needles, Grenadiers, and other central-San Juan peaks. Its relative isolation combined with its distinct pyramidal shape gives it a prominent profile that can be seen from other high summits throughout most of the San Juans. The area surrounding the Pyramid is relatively flat and sprawling, which makes for a unique approach up a long, lush valley before reaching the alpine. I was thrilled to finally be doing this peak, as it’s another I’ve been looking forward to for years.
From the base of the peak we followed the well-worn climber’s trail straight up the gut of the East Face, continued over a flat area, and then up the final 700 feet to the summit. From there we had a field day pointing out most of the major peaks of the Weminuche, as well as the Handies Group to the north and La Garitas to the northeast while we ate the remaining food in our packs.
We spent the better part of an hour enjoying the summit before a set of thunderheads started building in the distance. We decided to get out of there, making quick work of the descent back to the peak’s base. Rather than risk losing the Skyline Trail again on the way out we decided to take the Rincon La Vaca instead, which did add around a mile or maybe slightly more to our day.
Tired and ready for a nap, we plodded into Thirty Mile Camground and capped off our 32 mile, 8,200 foot effort for the weekend. Camp chairs went down, followed promptly by a bomber of Decadent from Ska, followed by burgers on Dillon’s new grill.
All in all this was definitely a hasty journey compared to what it could have been, but at the same time there was a satisfaction in pulling it off and in the time Dillon and I got to spend together on the road and on the trail. Another realization I had is that setting up camp high in the Rincon La Vaca and picking off the other 13ers in the area would make for a great 3 day weekend from Denver. I’ll definitely be back (and I think Dillon will too).
Dillon, thanks for a great couple days down there. Cheers, and thanks for reading!