Monday, January 27, 2014

Hot Route: Thomas Lakes (Mount Sopris)

Mount Sopris from the north
Mount Sopris seen from the north
Mount Sopris is probably one of the most picturesque and most frequently climbed 12,000-foot peaks in the state, certainly in the west slope. Despite clocking in at only 12,953 feet, Sopris is a powerful mountain. When viewed from the north it has astonishing prominence, towering more than 6,000 feet above the valley floor below. Another unique feature of Mount Sopris is that each of its twin summits measure in at exactly the same elevation, creating a sort of conundrum for peak baggers. Many choose to just stand on the east summit, which is logical when climbing the standard Thomas Lakes route, as it is the first summit you come to. I would strongly suggest, however, making the out-and-back to the west summit, which provides a better view of Glenwood and allows you the confidence knowing that you truly toured this magnificent peak's amazing top.

From the intersection of Highway 133 and Main Street in Carbondale, follow Hwy 133 south for about 1.6 miles and turn left (east) on Prince Creek Rd. After cruising through some small open ranch properties, continue along the road as it veers east. Veer right at a confusing, triangle-shaped intersection about 7.8 miles after the 133/Main Street intersection. Continue along the narrowing dirt road for a little less than two more miles to a large parking lot with a bathroom on the left. It should be passable in the summer for most passenger cars though some clearance might be recommended. Can be tough in the winter.

Thomas Lakes
Mount Sopris in the Elk Range of Colorado
Storm over Sopris from the meadow at 9,500 feet
This is the standard route and though there are several more rugged possibilities on the peak's south and west aspects, 99.9% of summer ascents on Mount Sopris are done this way. It can be done in one day though a night at the beautiful Thomas Lakes makes hauling a light backpack well worth it. Start up the wide trail up a mild incline for .6 miles to the first major switchback. At mile 1 the trail turns south and emerges from the trees shortly after. At mile 1.4 you reach a common "shortcut" that climbs directly south up a steeper slopes. This shortcut cuts off a large switchback. Taking the shortcut will save you almost half a mile and both have a well-beaten trail. Taking the old road, however, you will wind around a hill, and climb up a short steep section to reach a meadow at mile 2. There is a beautiful view of the mountain from here at 9,500 feet. Ahead you re-enter the trees and wind though a beautiful aspen-pine area with a trickling stream. At mile 3.4 you reach the first pond, and at mile 3.7 you reach the first lake. There are several number campsites in this area.

Mount Sopris from Thomas Lakes
Mount Sopris from Thomas Lakes
Hike between and around Thomas Lakes and follow the well-defined trail as it switchbacks up a hill and reaches the northeast ridge proper at 10,600 feet. The trees are noticeably thinning here and you will get the feeling you are nearing treeline. The trail levels out briefly before starting up the meat of the climb. Pick your way through the talus along the beaten path as the route steepens. Some amazing views of capitol open to the southeast. Pass the hardest steepest section (class 2) at mile 5.7 (~12,000 feet), veer westerly, still following the beaten climber's trail and the ridge. Bypass a false summit on the left (south) to reach a spot we always called "the Grassy Knoll," a peaceful patch of flat grass at 12,400 feet. There isn't much left so we always took advantage of a good rest here.

Follow the ramp up mostly stable talus as it makes the final climb to a bump at 12,900 feet. You are very close. Hike another .15  of a mile (6.6 miles total) gradually up to the east summit. Enjoy the view.

The final ramp to the East summit
For those that want to get the full twin-summit Sopris experience, be prepared to add 1.5 miles and 560 feet of total elevation gain onto your already lengthy day. From the east summit, hike .3 miles to the 12,660-foot saddle between the two summits (making it just shy of qualifying as two separate "ranked" peaks), and back up 280 feet and .35 miles to the west summit. Pat yourself on the back. Though you may feel tired, take heart knowing you got the full Sopris experience.

Part of the route lies in the Snowmass-Maroon Bells Wilderness Area and special wilderness regulations apply. Please only camp in the designated and numbered spots around the lakes. There are some very good sites here and if you are climbing the peak on a weekend or any day when there is a chance that all of these sites might be full, get there early or consider doing just the single day method.

Mount Sopris: A Mountain and a Totem- A look back on my first climb of Mount Sopris, a summit that launched my mountain-climbing career.

 Just Say No! to John Denver Peak- an article against the fizzled-out movement to rename the East summit of Mount Sopris John Denver Peak

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Sunday, January 26, 2014

VIDEO: Finding and Climbing the Petit Grepon

This entertaining video documents one couple's quest to summit Petit Grepon in Rocky Mountain National Park. Petit Grepon was made famous after its inclusion in Steve Roper and Allen Steck's famous 1979 book Fifty Classic Climbs of North America.

Monday, January 20, 2014

The Five Most Prominent Colorado Peaks

Mount Elbert in June
Mount Elbert is Colorado's most prominent peak
with 9,093 feet of topographical prominence
It seems obvious, but one of the most common debates in the mountaineering world is what exactly constitutes a mountain. It may be empirical, and it seems that you know a mountain when you see one, but when it comes to records and ticklists and media credit, there is a need to come up with a strict definition of the word. In Colorado, for example, there are several peaks whose status as either "official" (sometimes called being ranked) or "unofficial" is determined by topographical prominence.

So what is topographical prominence? Simply put it is the height of a given peak above its highest connecting saddle with a higher peak. In other words, if two peaks were connected via a ridgeline and saddle, if the lowest point on the saddle was at 13,800-feet and the lower peak was at 14,200-feet and the higher peak was at 14,400, the lower peak would have a topographical prominence of 400 feet. The prominence of the higher peak would depend on its connecting saddles or ridges with a higher peak.

In Colorado, mountaineering tradition has generally decided that in order to be "official" a peak must have at least 300 feet of topographical prominence. As Gerry Roach states in his famous guidebook Colorado's Fourteeners: From Hikes to Climbs, "There is nothing sacred about 300 feet. It is just a round number that seems to make sense in Colorado." In other parts of the country or world, different requirements have been adopted by local climbers. But this 300 foot mark in Colorado has drawn an arbitrary line in the sand whose rigid definition is not always accepted.

For example, North Maroon Peak, the closer and more apparent of the two Maroon Bells as seen from Maroon Lake, has only 234 feet of topographical prominence and is not considered "official" but is included in almost every list of 14er aficionados. On the other hand, North Massive, which has very close to 300 feet of prominence, is generally considered a sub-peak of Mount Massive and infrequently climbed by Colorado peak baggers.

So what are Colorado's most topographical peaks? The following is the list of Colorado's five winners:

1. Mount Elbert (summit elev.= 14,433 feet; topographical prominence= 9,093 feet)
No surprise here, you have to go all the way to the Sierra Nevadas in California to reach higher ground than Elbert. As a result Elbert stands above all the others in this category.

2. Pikes Peak (summit elev.= 14,110 feet; topographical prominence= 5,530 feet)
It was once proclaimed that Pikes was the highest peak in the state. And though surveys later showed there were actually 29 peaks whose summits were higher, it is easy why early Colorado climbers saw this massive singular peak and estimated it to be the state's ruling monarch. Pikes sits alone, far away from other 14,000 foot mountains. And from the east especially, it looks like a very large mountain. And it is. Therefore it is not shocking that Pikes is second on this list.

Crestone Peak
Crestone Peak, Colorado's fifth most prominent
3. Blanca Peak (summit elev.= 14,345 feet; topographical prominence= 5,326 feet)
As the queen of the Sangre De Cristo Range, a range known for rugged and prominent peaks, it is again no surprise to find gigantic Blanca at the number three spot on this list.

4. Culebra Peak (summit elev.= 14,047 feet; topographical prominence= 4,827 feet)
Perhaps the most anomalous peak on the list, frustrating Culebra of the Sangre De Cristo Range lands at number four. Culebra is Colorado's southernmost fourteener and one of the only of the state's highest peaks whose summit is on private property. Though it is legal to climb Culebra, you must pay a hefty entrance fee. As a result of its isolation, even at a paltry 14,047 feet Culebra finds itself in the elite class in terms of prominence.

5. Crestone Peak (summit elev.= 14,294 feet; topographical prominence= 4,554 feet)
As mentioned before, the Sangres are a range known for steep ramparts that leap from the lower valley that surround them. Therefore the fact that three of the five most prominent peaks in the state reside in this range is logical. When any climber looks on Crestone Peak, he doesn't need any number to know that it is a singular and majestic peak. But this anchor for the heart of the Sangre De Cristo Range deserves a spot on this list and on every Colorado climber's ticklist.

Honorable Mention:

6. Uncompahgre Peak (summit elev.= 14,309 feet; topographical prominence= 4,242 feet)
7. Mount Wilson (summit elev.= 14,246 feet; topographical prominence= 4,024 feet)

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Copyright notice: This website and all its contents are the intellectual property of and its authors. None of the content can be used or reproduced without the approval of

Climbing and mountaineering are dangerous!! Please see the DISCLAIMER page
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