Redcloud and Sunshine Peaks
June 8, 2000 - East Ridge from the South Fork of Silver Creek
(Photos from July 2010 climb of Pts. 13,832 & 13,811)
My first trip to the San Juans promised to be off to a good start with a two for one climbing combination. I spent the night before at the Mill Creek Campground and got up early to get to the trailhead at daybreak. The road from the campground to the trailhead is nondescript until you turn onto the Cinnamon Pass shelf road. The first part of the route toward the Pass is a typical mountain shelf road, complete with a deep ravine and steep drop off to the Gunnison River. I parked at the trailhead and hefted the pack for the trip up Silver Creek.
The trail started as a two-rut vehicle track but soon turned to a single walking path heading up creek. Not far above tree line, I climbed over a dam of avalanche debris, snow, rock, and small trees, deposited into the creek bed from the large avalanche run coming down the western flank of Sunshine Peak. On up the valley the trail winds and eventually I arrived at the elevation 13,020 saddle below the north shoulder of Redcloud Peak. I rested at the saddle and watched a fox attempting to catch a pika amongst the rocks. Given the amount of fur filled scat on the trail, I think the fox had a good batting average in his game.
It was early in the season but there was little snow left on the peak below the 13,000-foot level. However, there was snow to climb starting just above the saddle and it sure looked better than the scree covered switchbacks leading to the false summit of Redcloud. I made my way up the snow to the false summit and then walked dry trail to the true top of Redcloud Peak. From the summit, the San Juan range lay before me, which was the good news. The bad news was the building thunderstorm over the Weminuche that seemed to be headed my way . . . I still had one summit to go.
If you have read my other trip reports, I have tried to give honest descriptions of the various stupid or bonehead moves I have managed to commit over the experience of climbing Colorado’s 14’ers. Well . . . as you can guess, I am about to do it again. The storm did not seem to be moving too fast so I set off for Sunshine Peak. The connecting saddle is not a short hop but a good mile hike each way with an appreciable climb down and up in each direction. I got to within about 200 vertical feet of the summit of Sunshine when the storm began to leave no doubt of its next planned stop, Sunshine Peak. Now before you condemn me as a total putz, it is not close yet but the fact that it is coming my way has just become a substantial possibility. I dropped the pack at trailside and made a scramble for the summit, tagged it and got back to my pack. I then set off for the summit of Redcloud once again.
In hindsight, a drop into the gulch and departure via the South Fork of Silver Creek would have been the wisest move but I was not completely sure of the route. The climb up the flank of Sunshine makes its way through a narrow cleft in a cliff band and I was unsure if I would hit the cleft without error when approaching from above the cliff line. I think that I set a record crossing the saddle and soon enough I was headed back down the north shoulder of Redcloud for the saddle below. I made steady time down the trail and made tree line about the time the storm hit, the sky opening up with rain, hail and lightning. As I write this report, I’m almost done the 14’ers but in hindsight, climbing the 14’ers from easy to hard is a great way to become a decent intermediate climber and rack up enough experiences to end up marginally mountain smart. This trip provided the lesson of having respect for an approaching storm, even one far away, and the importance of turning a climb before you must consider the possibility of a fast retreat or worse.
True to form, the storm kept moving and by the time I got to the truck, the skies were free of thunder but still seriously overcast. I was not worried, I had a dry tent and tomorrow, I planned to tackle Handies Peak. I dinnered in nearby Lake City, a suburb of Houston, and made my way back to the camp for the night. The next morning, I awoke to renewed thunder and lightning, an early morning storm that seemed to be just sitting in the valley. I figured it would pull up as the morning went on so I rode on up to the Handies trailhead. Even more rain, more thunder, more lightning all translated into no climbing this day. I shrugged my shoulders, chalked the day up to weather and headed for Cheyenne, I was out of time.