A Pair of Cimarron Classics: Coxcomb and Redcliff

Tommy admiring the drop of the south side of Coxcomb Peak's summit ridge.

Tommy admiring the drop off the south side of Coxcomb Peak’s summit ridge.

Partners: Brian and Tommy
Route: Climb of Coxcomb’s standard from West Cimarron Basin with a traverse around the east side of the peak to Redcliff
Stats: 10ish miles, 4,300 vertical feet or so, 9 hours give or take a few hours (who the hell knows, who the hell really cares?)

After a successful outing on Dallas, Matt, Brian, Tommy, and I motored over to West Cimarron Basin and found a place to lay our heads for the night. Where we ended up was undoubtedly some of the best car camping real estate any of us had ever seen. A large, grassy field with easy stream access and views of Chimney Rock and Couthouse greeted us with open arms. We pulled in with just enough daylight left to throw out the camp chairs and enjoy a few brews under the waning sun. The evening gave way to some lively, IPA induced conversation about our day on Dallas and who knows what else. We hit the sack around 11pm in preparation for our day on Coxcomb. It had been way to long since I had gotten down to the San Juans. I was well reminded of what I’ve been missing.

The next morning we woke up around 5am and enjoyed a free shuttle service to the upper TH courtesy of Matt. From there we made our way through West Cimarron along a well maintained trail. Being able to see Coxcomb from the TH gave us a good sense of what the day held, or so we thought. This was Brian’s third trip up the peak, though he had done it previously from Middle Cimarron only. Looking at the map we figured we could simply gain the pass heading over to Wetterhorn Basin, then stay high and traverse underneath Coxcomb’s South Face until we hit the standard route. This is what we wound up doing and it worked out, though in hindsight it would have made more sense to drop all the way down into Wetterhorn Basin and follow the trail around. The terrain in between the pass and Coxcomb’s standard is complex and time consuming. It’s better to just sacrifice the elevation.

Upper-West Cimarron Basin, looking north at Courthouse and Chimney Rock. Photo by Tommy.

From the pass (as I just mentioned) we stayed high and slowly worked our way across a series of undulating scree filled gullies and loose boulder fields. The sidehilling we had to deal with, in addition to the 2,500′ scree slog we faced the day before, had all but turned my feet into ground beef. If I learned one thing this weekend, it’s that San Juan 13ers feature some loose, nasty rock.

After about forty minutes of traversing, we gained a large grass slope and ascended to the base of a small gully which spat us out below the class 4/5 chimney we needed to find. It had taken us a few hours to get to this point, much longer than we had anticipated, but the weather looked to be holding fine and we had nothing but time on our hands. We took a long break and admired the beauty of Wetterhorn Basin and the surrounding peaks. Like I said, it had been too long since I’d been to the San Juans. This place is awesome!

Brian and Wetterhorn. Photo by Tommy.

Coxcomb’s South Face cliffs. Photo by Tommy.

Coxcomb is an incredibly unique peak in terms of appearance, as well as the experience of climbing it. As far as its geology goes, it’s one in a million. The main summit ridge, despite being nearly a half mile long, is no more than twenty feet wide at any point, forming a nearly perfect rectangle of alpine rock. All four sides drop off in sheer cliffs, and thus getting onto the summit ridge via the easiest means possible still involves a class 4/low-5 effort. Coxcomb is widely considered to be one of the most difficult of the highest 200 via the easiest route available, and is likely in the top ten most difficult of all ranked peaks above 13,000′ by that same standard. That said, it’s very doable for a competent scrambler, as well as someone confident in setting up rappels. I found it to be a perfect mix of difficulty, uniqueness, and fun.

The lower portion of the chimney is class 3/4 scrambling…

…then the route narrows and ramps up a notch in difficulty. Photo by Tommy.

Starting the class 4 section.

Brian working his way up the chimney.

The chimney, though tight and exposed, features lots of stemming opportunities and large hand holds which made the climbing go quickly. From the top of the chimney, the route heads up about fifty vertical feet over a hanging talus field to the crest of the summit ridge. This is where the spectacular nature of our position really dawned on me for the first time.

Brian and I on Coxcomb’s spine, Uncompahgre in the background. Photo by Tommy.

After a ridge run that felt like walking a pirate plank for a few hundred feet, we arrived at the notch that bisects the ridge. This notch drops thirty feet down to a narrow platform and requires class 4 climbing to get out of on the other side. From what I’ve read most parties rappel into the notch, leave the rope, and then use it to top rope the class 5.6 pitch on the way back. Sounded like a good plan to us…

On rappel. Photo by Tommy.

Photo by Brian.

An airy traverse to the north across broken ledges had us back on top of the ridge with the true summit in sight.

Brian and I nearing the airy summit. Photo by Tommy.

The ridge continues for another hundred yards beyond the notch and then ends abruptly at the summit at the far east end of the peak. We sat around for twenty minutes enjoying a perfect day in the San Juans. With better visibility than the day prior, we were able to pick out quite a few peaks in the distance.

Uncompahgre, Matterhown, and Wetterhorn as seen from the north. Photo by Tommy.

Redcliff acts as a separator between West and Middle Cimarron basins. Photo by Tommy.

After taking in the views and downing some grub and fluids, we said our goodbyes and headed back across the ridge. We downclimbed back to the notch and took turns belaying each other up the other side. This pitch is rated 5.6 on Mountain Project and certainly feels like it too. Despite the climbing being relatively easy, the position of the pitch will give you butterflies…

Brian on the 5.6 section.

Tommy working it.

After this we ridge hopped back to the top of the chimney and set up an eighty foot rap which served to get us back to the lower gully. From there we dowbclimbed the class 3 portion of the gully back to the base of Coxcomb’s South Face and solid ground.

On rappel again, Brian, then myself, then Tommy:

Photo by Tommy.

Photo by Tommy.

Photo by Brian.

Coxcomb often gets climbed along with Redcliff as they share a saddle and are almost exactly the same elevation. Undoubtedly the best way to link up Coxcomb’s standard route with Redcliff’s is to rap Coxcomb’s North Face. We talked about this option but the rap requires two 60 meter ropes, and we happened to be one rope short. The other options (which all include descending the standard route) are to either contour around to the west side of the peak, which involves dropping several hundred feet into Wetterhorn Basin before climbing to the pass and then to Redcliff, or traversing around the east side of the peak, which at the time we admittedly knew nothing about. A third option does exist, and that option is to drop north through a notch at the far west end of the peak proper and then traverse east above a series of large, steep cliffs to the Redcliff/Coxcomb saddle, but this option is not recommended due to the nature of the terrain. For more details on why this isn’t recommended, check out Brian’s trip report from a few years ago.

Being on the exact opposite side of the peak as our ride, and with two realistic options available to us, we decided a circumnavigation of Coxcomb seemed appealing; we headed for the Wetterhorn/Middle Cimarron Pass to the east of the peak. Upon gaining the pass we hugged the northeast wall, attempting to stay as high as possible while traversing around to the north.

Redcliff from the northeast side of Coxcomb.

The route we took around Coxcomb. Stay high! Photo by Tommy.

A cool shot of Wetterhorn, taken as we headed around from the pass.

Our gamble paid off as we were able to successfully traverse around to the Coxcomb/Redcliff saddle without encountering any major difficulties. It’s always nice when a gamble like this pays off in the mountains (I’d say reversing the route we took is a viable way of climbing Coxcomb from West Cimarron, possibly an even better way than traversing around the peak to the west). Still intent on bagging Redcliff, I dropped my pack on the saddle and scampered to the top. Brian and Tommy started their descent back into West Cimarron.

Redcliff’s summit, looking north at Fortress and Precipice.

After catching back up with Brian and Tommy, we enjoyed a gradual descent back into the basin. An hours later we strolled into the TH and met Matt who had hiked Courthouse earlier in the morning. Afterwards, he plopped down a camp chair, cracked open a beer, and enjoyed premier views of upper-West Cimarron followed by an afternoon nap. Sounds pretty dang good to me! Coxcomb was also pretty dang good, a peak I’ll be repeating at some point. That’s a guarantee.

Parting shot of both peaks.

As prompted by Matt and Brian we made a pit stop at Amica’s Pizzeria in Salida to break up the drive home. Though they were out of IPA, the pies were top notch and made for a fine end to our San Juan weekend. I’d recommend checking Amicas out sometime if you happen to be in the area. Oh, and thanks again for dinner, Matt!


Great weekend out there gents.

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