Lizard Head and Gladstone

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Lizard Head Peak, August 13th, 2016.

Good friends are indispensable in this life: both necessity and luxury. I knew Ryan was extremely busy this year with both wedding plans and a trip to Peru, so I’d assumed a prior talk about him repeating Lizard Head to lead me up was not in the cards. But when I omitted Lizard Head in my list of summer plans at the engagement party for him and Steph, he prodded: “Not interested in the gecko, anymore?” or something along those lines.

I informed Ben we had a lead climber for this pesky little gila monster of the San Juan’s “finest” rock. Then suddenly the date was set for a week and a half out and I had this horrid dream: Ryan stood at the anchor many fathoms above me, while I clawed hopelessly at the rock like a chihuahua trying to run on marbles, and he – oh, such self-disgust – he hauled me up.

So Ben and I got one night at a climbing gym before setting off to meet Ryan at the Cross Mountain trail on Friday night, August 12th. We arrived around 10 pm and Mr. Marsters had just turned in. After we rose a racket next to his vehicle, he strolled about the parking lot while still in his sleeping bag, as Hugh Hefner would in his smoking jacket. Or maybe he was like a misplaced teletubby. In any event, he showed no disdain when Ben disclosed our one feeble act at preparation.

Ben and I settled in quickly, sleeping between the cars. It was a brilliant clear night and the Perseids meteor shower had peaked the preceding two nights. As I lay in my bag gazing upward, I saw several shooting stars – probably more than I’d seen in all my life. Later in the night, I woke up and saw another dozen or more in just a few minutes. A sudden light, then a straight line quick as lightning that faded as it streaked. I gazed like a wide-eyed first-year student at a cosmic chalkboard written upon and erased at the literal speed of light.

So to the climb. 4:30 or whatever dreadful dark hour came too fast and we quickly got up, geared up, lit up (headlights, no smoking) and headed up the trail. Ryan and Ben gabbed ahead while I gasped behind, begrudging them my years relative to them that seemingly weighed me down like a lead ingot.

The sun had been up for maybe 20 minutes when we reached the loose choss pile that constitutes the base for the Lizard Head. A climber’s trail weaves up the north side of these igneoguana scales. After that, we traversed south beneath the tower’s west wall to the climbing pitch, and Ryan pointed out the original route pioneered by Albert Ellingwood, which I had not realized differs from the standard route.


The youngsters make way for the geezer to lead the way up the choss.

The morning sun put on a show for us, glazing the puffy clouds floating in the sappharine sky. This is a sunrise to remember, and it augured a great day in store.

Looking north to El Diente and Wilson, in a perfect sunrise.

Looking north to El Diente and Wilson, in a perfect sunrise.

Then the fun began! Ryan led the first pitch with two ropes, while Ben belayed. At the top of the first pitch, Ryan anchored and we then followed behind, each on a rope. Ben cleared the gear while I carried our pack of consolidated food, water, etc.


Ryan makes his way up.


Seemingly in no time, he’s near the top.

From is vantage above us, Ryan enjoyed our efforts. Ben evidently found the difficulty at one point to be no more than class 3 and opted to face out from the rock. Moments later, Ben heard a “wow” from above and looked down to see me finish a rarely-attempted full body horizontal stem – shoulder on one side, both feet on the other.

Ben and I telling Lizard Head to "bring it."

Ben and I telling Lizard Head to “bring it.”

Limited space atop the first pitch.

Limited space atop the first pitch.

After the first pitch, it’s a short choss-walk to the second climb. I found this section to be much more challenging. I belayed Ryan on this pitch, so I watched intently as he navigated the crux: the main crack gets overhung by a large roundish protrusion. Ryan managed to stem, with his back against the right-hand wall and feet on the opposing side of that rounded piece. Then I watched Ben follow: where Ryan continued stemming the whole way, Ben reached to a foothold on the lower part of the rounded rock to move upward.

Ryan leading the second pitch.

Ryan leading the second pitch.

My turn came and I was stymied. I couldn’t do as Ryan had done – trouble with where to place my feet- and I didn’t have the leg length to replicate Ben’s move. My stupid dream came back to me as I felt the tension of the top rope holding me in place. I asked for some slack. I contemplated the puzzle for a while and finally managed my way up. I’m sure it was ugly.

After that section, it become much more straightforward and you can even move out of the crack and onto the face.

Ben's go pro snaps this shot of Ryan at the rap station and me reaching it.

Ben’s go pro snaps this shot of Ryan at the rap station and me reaching it.

After topping out at the rap station, it’s a simple scramble over a rock outcrop sprinkled with kitty litter and then a stroll to the small, very crumbly-appearing summit.


Ben lounges on the summit; I just heard something fall out of the pack as I gaze at the majesty of the Wilson group, and Ryan captures the scene.

We took a bit of time to enjoy the views on this splendid sunny day. I think I was numb: I felt no elation, no huge surge of accomplishment. Numb is the wrong word, perhaps. I truly was in the moment. My eyes took in the majesty of my surroundings. And the precariousness: the summit where Ben is perched was a small spot of rubble, with huge drops on three sides. It was somehow though just “ho-hum,” no more magnificent than say, the summit of Heisshorn or Jagged. It’s only been since I have been away from that airy perch amid such beautiful scenery that I have realized the magnitude of reaching that summit. A video Ben took from the top:

After enjoying the summit for 20-30 minutes, we reversed course to the rappel station and rapped off the top. Going down to the lower rap station, the easy class 3 scramble took on more gravity – going down is always harder – but in this case, it involved hugging an exposed outcrop to drop into a narrow notch.

Here we suffered some poor timing. Voices in French from below: a pair of climbers ascending, and so we waited for the better part of an hour. One of the climbers was French; the other was a Pittsburgh native scientist who works for CERN and was taking some time to vacation while checking on a family property in the Telluride area.

View from the summit of Ryan rapping.

View from the summit of Ryan rapping.


Ben rapping off the upper pitch.

Once they were by, it was our turn to rap down. Here’s how you know a good climber from a poor one: as I saw the terrain beneath me, I marveled at how I’d gone up, but Ryan later remarked to me how he saw all the holds he had missed.


Ryan’s at the lower rap station. I’m taking a bit longer to get down there.

Once down, our trio parted ways: Ryan and I to tackle Gladstone, and Ben, who’d already skied it (showoff) headed back to the car to enjoy beer and sunshine. He took both ropes and the climbing gear, so that we could proceed lightly.

The way before us to Gladstone was straightforward. After descending the base of Lizard Head, we traversed high in the south (left) side of the basin, trying to make a direct path for the peak while minimizing elevation loss or effort.


Gladstone appears at right. This photo is taken on the return, looking back, and I can’t recall our exact path but we stayed well left of the prominent ravine.

We crossed the basin swiftly; once engaging Gladstone’s south face, our pace slackened. Our ascent path went up the angled snowfield; the terrain above that was like the boulder field to Long’s keyhole, but tilted an extra 25 degrees. It was not bad; pretty sure footing and much more secure than the stories I’ve heard and the brief portion I’ve encountered of Gladstone’s northeast ridge.

Once we got higher, Ryan veered more directly to the summit, picking his way up the accommodating ledges. I had intended this trajectory as well, but found myself drawn to a south-facing chute. The chute proved fun – treacherous in spots, with loose rock, but mostly big stuff and the left-hand wall provided solid handholds when needed. Most of it was class two, but the chute provided a couple class 3 and even one class 4 move.


Looking down the chute from near the top, above a steep step made more complicated by San Juan shingles, with Lizard Head in the background.

I emerged at the top of chute, peeked around the ridge, and found Ryan looking for me. From there, we only took a few minutes to stroll the ridge to the top. And my, what views Gladstone affords!


The view northwest to Navajo lake and, in the distance, Lone Cone.


The view south/southeast, to Lizard Head and the Vermillion Group (Pilot Knob, Golden Horn, Vermillion).

Days like this are moments that last years. We’d been atop Lizard Head at a bit past 8 in the morning, now we stood here at bit past one, but those five hours now occupy the space of a week in my mind. To relish the sunshine and drink in both earth and sky on a day without fear of thunder is a blessing.

But all things pass, so down we made our way. The climb back to the Lizard Head saddle proved more arduous than I expected; in large part because my knee, which I’d experienced some pain with in recent weeks, began popping and “giving in” randomly as I walked. By the time we reached the trail, I was hobbling and Ryan managed to find an “old man walking stick” for me. I was thankful the injury happened after these two great summits. This would be my last climbing/hiking day for over a month, but I was grateful to spend such a truly wonderful day on two iconic summits with two good friends.

7 thoughts on “Lizard Head and Gladstone

  1. Brandon Chalk

    Fantastic story, Steve! Just awesome. You are so right in that days like this will last years and years. So happy to hear you guys had a great climb! Young Marsters is a good lad. Congrats on climbing the Lizard. I love that climb.

  2. Ben

    What a fun day. One of my most memorable ones to date. Special thanks of course goes to Ryan for the lead. And thanks for the great recap, Steve.
    Here’s to keeping those nightmares at bay 🙂

  3. Floyd

    Excellent recount of the day Steve. Sorry to hear about your leg, but hopefully the additional time off and the mud/snow season allows you to come back stronger next year. It was also nice to finally meet you at last month. Maybe the stars will align and we can finally hit a peak together. We’ll need others though since neither one of us has the greatest track record for route finding….

  4. Steve Cummins

    Brendan- Glad you enjoyed it – thanks!
    Floyd-great meeting you! Never fear on the route-finding; Ben has introduced me to the very cool topo map app by Phil Endicott.


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