Horn Peak East Face Ski
Mileage = Approximately 9-10 miles
Vertical = 5,000 ft
Trailhead = Horn Peak TH
I call this a bucket list item for a number of reasons. First, the Sangres see a snowpack like this once maybe every 5 years or so. Second, of all the grand peaks in the Sangres, from the town of Westcliffe, Horn Peak kind of steals the show, and the East Face is its showcase. There’s nothing really special about the route itself – it’s basically a long version of Crystal’s East Face or a less interesting version of Red’s Southeast face. You could argue that it’s a dick waving line, given its proximity and visibility from Westcliffe, only problem is I don’t think anyone in Westcliffe really gives a shit. But regardless of all that, ever since I’ve laid eyes on Horn Peak (after I removed my 14er blinders of course), I’ve visualized skiing this mountain.
2016 has been a trying season for the weekend warrior ski mountaineer. Nothing has really worked out since the beginning of April. Mother Nature has conveniently and consistently planted herself over all of Colorado on every Saturday and Sunday, without fail, for the last 8 weeks or so, in some form or another. Whether its overcast, windy, rainy or snowy – no breaks have been given and at times it seems as if that bitch is toying with us by offering bluebird days on the Fridays and Mondays surrounding the weekend. It’s really quite remarkable and the only way to combat, aside from living off a trust fund, is to blow through all your PTO, which, like most 401k company matches, isn’t offered liberally these days. This particular weekend looked promising early on in the week. It was mostly sunny, nice day time temps and solid overnight freezes. Once Friday rolled around, the wind forecasts reared their turtle head out of mother nature’s preverbial butthole, but regardless of all that, we both felt optimistic about the weekend. So we made a go for it and braved the elements (Denver traffic is now considered an element) arriving to Horn Peak Trailhead with just enough time to set up a tent and enjoy a La Cumbre on a clean, seemingly calm night. I decided to leave the fly off, given the pleasant evening. This would prove a mistake. More on that later.
We awoke around 3am, in hope of a 3:30 start. Of course the double bacon cheeseburger from 5 Guys the night before squashed any hopes of that happening. We hit the trail around 4, and didn’t hit snow for a loooooooong time. We took the familiar Rainbow Trail to the Horn Peak junction, forgot about the 1000 foot slog straight out of the gates, this time with skis and boots on our backs. We eventually reached out first sign of snow and of course when we thought it was safe to transition to skinning, we ran out of snow around the corner and had to shoulder again. There was a prominent 50 foot downhill section where we met up with Hennequin Creek at the bottom before the trail crossed the river to the other side of the valley. This is where we finally said F it and skinned alongside the creek with the goal of heading directly towards Horn’s East Face. For a creekside skin, it wasn’t that bad at all and is probably the most efficient way to reach the base of the peak. The first mile or so you kind of switch from one side to the other, taking the path of least resistance, but you can stay generally on or to the side of the creek. Eventually it opens to a meadow that gets gradually wider the higher you go. It looks something like this…
At some point, before we lost the cover of trees higher up on the East Face, we took a short break. It was around this point where the wind began to be a factor. This coincided with me not being too careful about where I placed my gloves (my only pair I might add) and that’s how I parted ways with them. Mother Nature knew 2 things : That I wasn’t paying attention to them at that very moment and that this was the first time this season I didn’t have my backup mitts with me. Fortunately, and to MN’s displeasure, I would relocate my gloves at the bottom of the line later that day.
Around the time we reached the SE Ridge, the gusts really started to become a factor. No Obligation to Anything Accurate reported 40mph gusts that day, but the both of us were brought to our knees on more than one occasion and I’m pretty positive 40mph gusts wouldn’t accomplish that. Regardless, we were able to soldier on up the ridge with skins on till it got unreasonable and transitioned to skis on the back – which means sailboat in full effect. The final 100 feet was a lesson in something – I’m not quite sure what, but it was a lesson nonetheless and it seemed to go on forever. Luckily, there were no false summits to deal with and the North Face, which we contemplated as a plan B if it looked feasible, was windboard ice, so that made our decision to ski the East Face pretty easy. After taking some pics and enduring the winds, we dropped in :
First some scenic :
Than we dropped in:
We figured by the time we reached treeline, the snow would be too soft to support our weight, but this turned out to be false. Aside from a small routefinding mishap on the descent, we were able to relocate the trail and retrace our steps back to the car. It would’ve been nice to ski a little further down, but beggars can’t be choosers when it comes to skiing in the Sangres.
Was the wait worth it? I’d say so. Its just a big open face that rarely fills in that looks cool from the valley below on a peak that doesn’t see too many visitors each year. Most lines in the Sangres require patience and monumental efforts to reach. Horn has an accessible year round trailhead and a defined, straightforward approach with around 2000+ vertical feet of fun, wide GS turn-style skiing and a dramatic backdrop. There’s no good reason to overlook it in my opinion. I highly recommend it!
Now this was supposed to be a weekend’s worth of ski descents. That never happened, but a couple things of note :
- When we returned to the trailhead later that afternoon, most of our gear that had been left in the tent was strewn out all over the place and the tent body was nowhere to be seen. My first reaction was theft and my blood got piping hot. I took a stroll on down to the nearby Lutheran Camp and miraculously found the tent stuck in a tree. Another thing of note was this was the inaugural usage of this brand new, straight out of the stuff sack Copper Spur 4. Ironically enough, I figured I’d use it solely for car camping and it would last me many years. Fortunately the only injuries were a view small rips in the body’s mesh, but the tent’s innocence was definitely tainted and that gave me an uneasy feeling, especially since this was the 3rd tent we’ve lost or had issue with at this very trailhead. All I can say is the Sangres and their wind can suck it.
- Ben and I, on 3 different occasions, have somehow managed to run in to the most interesting character in the Westcliffe vicinity at the same place – Chappy’s. Confrontation 1 involved myself and a few others after a climb of Herrard and Medano. As we were enjoying our burgers and watching some college football, this individual took it upon himself to meander on over to our table and more or less force us to try his poorly made elk jerky. It resembled human liver, but he told us to “go on now, don’t be rude” in his best Deliverance impersonation, and we very hesitantly took a bite with him looking on intently. I was just glad I didn’t wake up in a bathtub of ice with my spleen missing. Second time was when Ben sat next to said individual and his Russian mail order bride (this was determined through process of elimination). I don’t think any further explanation is needed. Third experience was last weekend. As Ben and I were sitting there on a peaceful Saturday afternoon, all of a sudden we heard a ruckus around the front door, with this same man (accompanied by his dad) threatening someone outside the bar, proclaiming he was going to “kill some motherfuckers” and launching a beer bottle at someone or something out of view. Cops were called and it appeared he was arrested. Besides all that, Chappy’s has damn good burgers and a very friendly staff!
- We found a solid campsite at Gibson Creek with plans to hit an unknown line on Spread Eagle Peak’s Eastern Bowl, based on zoomed in shots we took from the valley earlier that afternoon. We even found we could drive up to within earshot of the base of the line via County Road 173 (which is just before the Gibson Creek Trailhead). Mother Nature, once again, had other plans for us. She howled all night and kept me up for 90% of it. Alarms went off around 4:30 and we both felt extremely unmotivated, but begrudgingly gave it a shot anyway. We were stopped by a downed tree somewhere along 173, and as we geared up, the winds started back up again. We both kind of stared up towards the mountain in silence for a couple minutes, looked at each other and just said F it and retreated back to Denver. But in the end, we both agreed Horn was worth the trip alone and the uncertainty of Spread Eagle coupled with the hellacious winds would’ve probably put a bowlstain on an otherwise enjoyable weekend.
Some parting scenics from Wet Mountain Valley…..