Peaks Summited (in order)
Jagged Mountain (Ranked, 13,824′, #94)
Leviathan Peak (Ranked, 13,528′, #237)
Vallecito Mountain (Ranked, 13,428′, #301)
Peak Seven (Ranked, 13,682′, #158)
Peak Nine (Ranked, 13,402′, #317)
Storm King Peak (Ranked, 13,752′, #125)
Peak Six (Ranked, 13,705′, #144)
Mt. Silex (Ranked, 13,628′, #181)
The Guardian (Ranked, 13,617′, #185)
Hunchback Mountain (Ranked, 13,136, #540)
White Dome (Ranked, 13,627′, #182)
Peak One (Ranked, 13,589′, #194)
26,200 vertical feet
94 hours (August 12th – 16th, 2015)
A couple years back Steve and I hatched a plan for a backpack into the Weminuche with the primary aim being to summit Jagged Mountain. Any idea of taking the train was dashed early on as neither of us really wanted to ride that thing again (it would have been my 5th time) and not long into the conversation we began talking about including other peaks to the northeast of Jagged which the train would have precluded. I had personally never been to Hunchback Pass or the Vallecito Creek drainage for that matter, and so an approach from the north via Beartown was thrown out there as an option and quickly became our primary access plan.
This trip was really meant for last summer, but with several highly stressful life forces (mostly on my side) all opposing our pulling the trigger, we elected to push the trip out a calendar year. It was a tough decision for us at the time, but ultimately the right one as setting off on a trip like this with your heart half in it is never a good idea. Fast forward a year, planning emails started flying across the airwaves between Steve and I in July, and we did what we could to gather beta and opinions on what was feasible to access from where and what peaks could be reasonably combined into our itinerary. As we did our research one thing became clear – the northeastern Weminuche is still relatively limited on beta, which for Steve and I only added to the appeal. Feeling pretty good about our preparations and weather forecast, we loaded up into Steve’s Honey Badger (Rav 4) and headed for Stony Pass on August 12th.
Days 1 and 2: Approach to Leviathan Creek, Jagged Mountain, Leviathan Peak, and Vallecito Mountain
The first day of our trip (half day really, we started from the trailhead at 2pm) entailed a roughly 10 mile, 3,500′ pack up and over Hunchback Pass, down the Vallecito Creek trail, and east into the Leviathan Creek drainage. These numbers were made larger than necessary by Steve and I’s ill-fated attempt to summit White Dome from the pass on our way in. Our little “side jaunt” (which resembled the adult peakbagging version of two kids in a candy store getting their first glimpse of a Giant Gobstopper, dropping everything and running towards it with reckless abandon) cost us a solid hour which would later come back to bite us when we lost the trail in the dark high up Leviathan Creek. We did top out on a cool ridge feature though and got good views to the south at most of the peaks we were going to attempt in the coming days.
Humbled, we continued our hump down the trail to the Vallecito/Leviathan confluence. Under the late-afternoon light we managed to locate the Leviathan Creek trail split (which is cairned but not signed) and after fording the creek in our flip flops, we lost the trail briefly near a horse camp before picking it up again in the meadow to the north of the camp. We followed the Leviathan trail along the north side of the creek, which started off well-defined but eventually petered out in a large grove of skunk cabbage higher up in the basin. Unfortunately for us we were just about out of daylight at this point and found ourselves immersed in one of the worst bushwhacks of all time somewhere north of the lower lake with no trail and no way to gain our bearings. After an hour of aimlessly battling undergrowth, we were through with spinning our wheels and pitched our tent on the side of a hill near a small stream. Pasta was served, after which we promptly hit the sack. The entire experience was a reminder of why Weminuche basins are not to be taken lightly. Bottom line, if you’re trying to set up in Leviathan, make sure to allow ample time to get in there before dark.
At 4am the next morning we set off from our hillside campsite and somehow managed to navigate to the shores of Leviathan Lake in the dark (I’m still not sure how we pulled it off so well, as the terrain through this area is very complex and rugged and we had no idea where we were when we started). Once around the lake we made our way up loose talus to the Leviathan/Peak Six saddle and caught our first full-on view of Jagged Mountain. And what a mountain it is. A tad intimidated but also excited, we contoured around the basin to the north of the peak and arrived at the base of the first crux pitch around 7am.
Jagged Mountain, located in the Needles Range a mile and a half to the northeast of fourteener Sunlight Peak, is generally considered to be one of the hardest (if not the hardest) peak on the Colorado Highest 100 list. The combination of the long approach (whether it be from Vallecito or Noname), complex routefinding, and semi-technical nature of the only reasonable route to the summit make it so. The peak’s summit ridge is comprised of a vast array of large, teeth-like blocks lined up side by side, so many that it’s hard to tell which one is the true summit from afar. Early mountaineers had trouble with this, climbing what they thought was the summit only to realize what they actually obtained was the top of a “Jag” somewhere near the peak’s true apex. That is until Dwight Lavender and a San Juan Mountaineers group finally attained the true summit in 1933. Steve and I were taking guesses at how many summits Jagged sees per year today. If one goes off of the summit register, that number appears to be in the twenties.
The only one of the three cruxes Steve and I had any issues with was the second one, primarily because we couldn’t figure out if we were on route and no easy way seemed to present itself. We ultimately wound up making an exposed mantle move to looker’s right of the second crux which led us above its main difficulties. I’m not sure what other parties have done in this spot but it worked well enough for us.
The third crux is where Roach describes the hardest climbing on the route – a 20 foot crack system that leads up to the notch used to connect the north face to the south face. Steve and I found the difficulties through here to be mainly mental ones as this section is decently exposed, but the rock is solid and the climbing not super difficult with proper care.
Once through the notch we set off across the infamous south face ledge traverse, which went down a tad easier than I was expecting. Once spot that did catch Steve and I off guard was the final summit climb above the class 3 chimney. This section is longer than we were anticipating and one move in particular really grabbed our attention. Once above it however we had smooth sailing to the flat summit.
Steve and I spent 25 minutes on top of Jagged, leaving voicemails for our wives and admiring the 360 degree views of Sunlight Basin, the Pigeon group to the southwest, the Oso group to the east, and the other peaks we were hoping to summit to our north. For me, attaining Jagged’s summit was completely surreal and a large relief to be quite honest. With so much time to dwell on this trip having pushed it out numerous times, I had started to develop a slight sense of anxiety about Jagged over the past several months. Hitting the summit felt like popping the cork from the bottle and relieving all of that pressure, as at that point I had then seen 100% of the route and knew Steve and I would be fine getting back down.
Down the chimney, across the ledge, and back out to the north face, Steve and I rigged up the only rappel we wound up doing all day. We tied our two 30 meter ropes together (thanks again Ryan and Rick) and dropped nearly the full length down to a wide grassy ledge, bypassing the entirety of the 3rd crux and then some.
From there we were surprised at how quickly we managed to get down the rest of the peak, choosing not to rappel the 2nd crux or the 1st one in favor of downclimbing. We hit solid ground again at 10am – the entire peak took us 3 hours up and down including a 25 minute summit stay. Not too shabby.
A few words about Jagged and where I feel it “ranks” in the scheme of things. In his high 13ers book, Gerry Roach plainly and boldly declares Jagged to be, “Colorado’s best peak climb.” In the days since we did it I’ve let the experience of the peak/route sink in, and while I can’t say for sure if it’s Colorado’s best peak climb, I can say I’d place it in the top 3 summer climbs that I’ve personally done in this state (the other two being the Wham Ridge on Vestal, and the standard route on Coxcomb). Jagged is so remote, the route so obscure, and the surrealism of the climb and topography of the area so unique, I have a feeling it’ll be on that top 3 list for a long time to come. As for difficulty, I personally thought it was the hardest of the Highest 100 peaks in Colorado by their easiest routes for the reasons listed above (disclaimer: I have yet to summit Phoenix and Stewart so technically I’m unqualified to make that claim, but oh well). I thought the approach was tougher than Ruby Basin, the hardest move equal to that of Dallas and Teakettle, and the routefinding more complex than any of the others. I know this stuff will always be debated, but it’s fun to finally be in a position to interject my own personal opinion on the matter.
Now for the unfortunate news of the day. After returning to our pole stash we noticed some movement from a distance and then came further around the corner to see an adult marmot scurrying away into the talus. Turns out the bastard had been hard at work on my soft shell jacket and Steve’s trekking pole handles, which led Steve and I to have the following discourse:
Steve: “It’s a pity Rodenack didn’t punt the marmot off Jagged when he had the chance.”
Me: “Pity? It was pity that stayed Rodenack’s foot. My heart tells me these oversized retarded groundhogs have some part to play yet, for good or evil, before this is over.”
Turns out my moment of transcendent wisdom wasn’t just imagined, as it wasn’t the only run in we wound up having with these obnoxious feral rats. I’m not sure if we just got particularly unlucky on this trip or if the Weminuche marmots are just getting more bold with time. Either way if you’re planning to head in there anytime soon, be sure to take the proper precautions.
Moving on, Steve and I took a look at the weather and decided Leviathan was definitely in the cards. We worked our way along a use trail back to the Six/Leviathan saddle and schlepped on up Leviathan’s southwest ridge. At the summit we were treated with superb views of most of the route on Jagged. This alone made Leviathan a worthy summit.
We downclimbed a series of broken class 3 slabs to the Leviathan/Vallecito saddle and topped out on Vallecito 45 minutes later. It felt great to get the first 3 peaks of the trip out of the way, with hopefully many more to come. I think the fact that we were in the Weminuche had finally started to really sink in, and with the hardest peak of the trip already in the bag, I was officially having a blast.
Steve filled and treated our water bottles at the small lake at Jagged’s base before we made our way up to Jagged Pass to have a look at potential routes up Peak Six. Just as we arrived at the pass the storm clouds that had been building all morning finally looked ready to rock. Knowing all to well that dark clouds in the Weminuche almost always translate to rain and lightning, we decided to call it a day. Peak Six had (temporarily) defeated us.
Back at our tent we decided to move camp down into a meadow to the south of Peak Nine. It was a major upgrade from our precarious spot on the hillside with flatter terrain, easier access to water, and better views of the surrounding basin. After a half hour nap in the tent while afternoon rain pattered the fly, the weather cleared and we were treated to an awesome fluorescent sunset reflecting off Leviathan and Vallecito peaks. We scarfed down some dehydrated meals and traded in for the night in preparation for another fun day.
Steve will take the reins from here with part 2 of our tale, whenever he gets around to writing it up.
To be continued…