Jones Mountain & Niagara Peak
July 3, 2011 - via Snare Gulch
My wife and made a combined climbing touring 4th of July weekend, combining a wondering of the streets of Creede, Lake City, Silverton and Ouray with a day of climbing and a crossing of Cinnamon Pass. Not that we both climbed . . . I simply slipped a pair of 13'ers into the brew using the old alpine start trick.
Following the wandering through of Lake City, we drove the Cinnamon Pass Road up to the Sherman cutoff and then proceeded past the Cataract Gulch trail head up to the base of Cuba Gulch. I was not sure if one could still go beyond that point but given the description of the "Snare Stairs", I figured Cuba Gulch would be about it for us. Given that it was a holiday weekend, I knew that EVERY developed camp spot in EVERY Colorado mountain range would be full but I suspected that there would be a few commando opportunities along the upper stretches of this 4WD road. I was correct and we camped at the Cuba Gulch trail head, alone and without the comfort of others who now seem to accept that a car alarm, radio, and cell phone constitute basic camping necessities. Yes, I am a Luddite.
I set the alarm for 4:45 and figured I could get a fast start and cover half the climb before the Mrs. concluded breakfast. I was up on time and on the trail by 5:05 or so, knowing that I had about 11 miles of climb ahead of me and that if the weather and legs held out, I'd score both Centennial Jones Mountain and Bicentennial Niagara Peak, Jones' saddle mate. The guide indicated that the road leading up Snare Gulch would lead to a point above 12k after negotiating the "Snare Stairs" a series of 12 switchbacks that provide about 700 feet of elevation. The trail started off as road, progress blocked by signage indicating the prohibition of wheeled vehicles and a few logs over the road. However, not far along, the road is cut by a deep stream cleft and then after about a half mile, the switchbacks start.
I tramped up the "Snare Stairs" as the series is called, still in the dark, counting off switchbacks knowing the magic number was 12. Though the turns proper are tight, most of the legs have a bit of length to them and as one climbs the aspen make more and more progress in their effort to reclaim the road. After ten turns or so, the talus sloughs preclude the possibility of all but the most modified traffic, sans a few hours work with a dozer. Once the stairs are done, I hiked on to an old cabin, now with sufficient light to see the route and summit in the distance. The trail passes the cabin, adds two additional switchbacks in the process of breaking the tree line and presents the option of two routes to the summit of Jones.
I'd decided to follow the road proper around the base of an extension of Jones as it climbs into the basin that is terminated by the Jones/Niagara saddle. Alternatively, one can make a direct assault on the slopes of Jones, but I had a "two for one" day in mind and really figured it was easier to hike the road to 12k before climbing the anticipated snow or grass slopes. I crossed the creek at the head of the valley and looped around the Jones spur, crossing a snow field here and there, using the axe to protect from a slide as the snows were still firm enough to give one a permanent snow school lesson.
The road crossed into the left valley and was further cut by snow slopes here and there that again were easily crossed, with the confidence of an axe. At about 12K, the road passed in and out of low angled snow fields before finally bringing me to a small iced over lake. I'd been cutting from road section to road section for a bit but at the lake I bid the road good bye. My next goal was the saddle, which was well protected by a firm snowfield, giving solid foot placement only in the most shallow parts. However, I elected to avoid the saddle proper as the snow offered a fast ridge route to a break in the Jones ridge that would cover about one quarter of the elevation needed to arrive at the summit.
The snow route landed me on the ridge which I then crossed over to gain a view of the summit and route ahead. The summit was protected by an intermediate hump that was cut on its flank by a climber's trail. I traversed the hump and then a shallow saddle before taking the well set climber's trail up through the talus, leading to the summit of Jones Mountain. The summit came easily and provided ample sights of the San Juan range, inclusive of the substantial snow still in place after the late Spring accumulations. All the old regulars were there . . . Wetterhorn, Uncompahgre, the Wilsons, the Grenadiers and of course Rio Grande Pyramid looking in from the far perimeter.
I took my summit photos and then proceeded back down the ridge toward the saddle. I was a bit on the tired side but I'd come that far and the route up Niagara was melted out enough to present a mostly dry foot ascent. The traverse along the intermediate slope passed and then I was bouncing down through the class two ridge to the saddle proper. The route up Niagara was a well trod climber's trail that led first to another class 2 section and then along the back of the spiny ridge to a short snowfield guarding the summit. The route was obvious and I stood upon the summit of Niagara about an hour after the summit of Jones. I took another series of summit photos and then started back down to the saddle, passing another solo climber making her way toward the summit.IThe saddle gave me the chance to again break out the axe as the easiest route was going to be a direct snowfield crossing to connect with the grass slopes leading down to the end of the ascent road. I crossed with no problem and within a half hour, I was again connecting road segments before dropping onto the portion of the road that traversed that projection of Jones. At this point the skies were telling me to keep moving as the now developing thunderheads started painting the sky a dark gray in the direction I had to go. No lightning yet but it was in the cards for sure and I elected not to dally around on my trip down. I again crossed the now soft snow fields atop the road, looped around the nose, crossed the stream, and made my way past the cabin right at tree line.
After a GU at the cabin, I was off for the Stairs, which came soon enough but were also a bit more tiresome on the trip down as I'd managed to blister one heel and abrade a toe on the opposite foot. Damn boots, three years and honestly, I've never liked this particular pair . . . their soles are about 75% worn and they pushed me too far on this trip. Regardless, I played the compartmentalization game, put the blister out of mind and made good time back to the camp, arriving at 12:45 and ahead of any precipitation or fireworks.
Overall, almost an 8 hour day, a bit of a later alpine start, but the opportunity to add another Centennial and Bicentennial to my tally . . . and I had a good climb too!