Saturday, January 11, 2014

Peak of the Week: Mount Sopris (12,953 feet or 3948 m)

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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