Peak(s):  Huron Peak  -  14,006 feet
French Mtn  -  13,940 feet
Frasco BM  -  13,876 feet
Casco Pk  -  13,908 feet
Mt. Elbert  -  14,438 feet
Date Posted:  07/01/2016
Date Climbed:   06/27/2016
Author:  nathanc
Additional Members:   mlayman09
 Climb Ev'ry Mountain, Ford Ev'ry Stream: 48 Hours in the Sawatch   

Last summer, when I was getting ready to move from Denver to Baltimore, one of my mentors from school asked me what I would miss the most about Colorado. I thought for a moment and told him it would have to be the mountains. There just aren't many places in the world where ordinary hikers can enjoy the intoxicating thrill of high altitude like they can in Colorado. Turns out, people out east call their gentle bumps in the terrain "mountains" too; in North Carolina, I ran across a "Welcome to the High Country" sign at an elevation somewhere around 3,000 feet! It's just not the same...

So when I spent a week in Denver for a conference this summer, I couldn't wait to get back to climbing 14ers as well. A quick hike up Grays and Torreys early in the week, with only a mild altitude headache, encouraged me that I'd be acclimated enough to tackle some longer hikes by the end of the week. My old climbing buddy Matt and I had hoped to do the Crestones, but the amount of snow still visible in the trip reports deterred us to seek something a bit easier in the Sawatch Range. Our new plan was to do Huron on Sunday, two Centennials (French and Casco) on Monday, and Elbert Tuesday, then dash back to Denver to re-pack for our flights out Wednesday morning.

The conference stretched late into Saturday evening, but I had to stick around to the end to see one of my mentors receive a lifetime achievement award at the closing ceremony. Matt was kind enough to drive me back to his place even though it was now past 11pm. Needless to say, there would be no predawn start on Sunday. We managed to hit the road around 7am Sunday morning and drove to the Arkansas Valley under a perfectly blue sky.

We rolled into the South Winfield trailhead at 10am and started up the trail to Huron. There's no need of a trip report to follow the standard route on Huron, so I have nothing to add there, but this trail was truly a pleasure to follow. The hike through the wildflower-filled basin was incredibly scenic, and the numerous switchbacks and steps made the ascent up the west slopes a breeze. Huron is one peak I'd be glad to repeat.
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Despite the late start, the weather was still perfect by the time we reached the summit just after noon, and we hung out on top for a full hour.
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Matt modeled his signature Heisman pose with the Three Apostles as backdrop.
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After a quick descent (thanks CFI saving our knees with an awesome trail!), we headed to Turquoise Lake near Leadville for a quick dip to wash off the day's dust. We hesitated a moment before wading into the chilly water, but if we had known how our hike would start tomorrow, this would have seemed downright tropical...
The route description for the French/Casco loop indicated the 110J road had a couple dubious stream crossings, so we decided to scout it out in daylight that evening to see how far we'd be able to drive the next morning. After bouncing up the Halfmoon Creek road in Matt's Jeep, we were surprised to see the 110J road abruptly disappear into the creek just past the turnoff! The water was deep enough and the creek banks steep enough we weren't sure the Jeep could make it across, and there were no obvious places to cross on foot anywhere nearby. To do the hike the next day, we'd have to ford the creek at the road crossing in what appeared to be knee-deep water"not exactly a pleasant idea in the pre-dawn darkness! We retired to camp along the Halfmoon Road and tried to get some sleep with this disturbing prospect awaiting us in the morning.

The alarm went off at 4am in the tent, and by 4:15 we were bouncing back up the road, watching with concern as the thermometer in the Jeep dropped to 33 degrees by the time we pulled up next to the creek. We took off our shoes, tied them tightly to our packs, and took the plunge, barefoot. The force of the water against our legs was disconcerting, and I tried not to think about what would happen if I slipped and had to swim the rest of the way in the dark. Thankfully, it was over quickly, but our feet were already numb by the time we reached the other side.
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After a break to dry off and catch our breath again, we started up the rough road at 4:45. A mile later, we reached the second creek crossing, which the route description indicates will "stop most 4WD vehicles." Staring at the water rushing over boulders in the predawn twilight, we tried to imagine how any vehicle could make it across that. Of more immediate relevance was how we would get across. Although this crossing appeared no deeper than the first one, it was in the middle of a section of waterfalls and rapids that make it too risky to attempt to ford. We decided to bushwhack up the west bank of the creek and see how far we could get. About a quarter of a mile upstream, a large fallen tree came into view which spanned the stream perfectly. Our hearts leapt with relief as we thanked God for providing a log just where we needed it. We quickly scooted across and were back on the road.
As the trees began to thin higher in the basin, we saw the beautiful alpenglow catching the tops of Casco Peak and French Mountain.
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We had to cross several smaller streams on mostly submerged stepping stones. While these were nothing compared to the actual creeks, neither of us could keep our feet dry. Amazingly, some of the snow patches on the road had tire ruts through them, so someone must have been able to drive up the road that spring! As Casco Peak swung into full view in the upper basin, we noted some patches of snow on its east face that could serve as potential glissade routes later in the day. At the old log building marking the Iron Mike Mine, we diverged from the road and struck out north directly toward the base of French Mountain. The route was mostly flat, open tundra, but there was one patch of willows that we had to crash through, which felt a bit like walking through a car wash machine.
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The ascent up the south slopes of French Mountain was solid but fairly steep and quickly took the wind out of me.
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We avoided a few lingering snow patches and reached the saddle at 13,600,' as panoramic views of the southern Sawatch Range began to open up behind us. We especially enjoyed the majestic profile of La Plata Peak just over the ridge. From the saddle, it was a straightforward scamper up the talus ridge to the summit, which we reached around 7:45am. From here, we enjoyed the views north to Massive, east to Elbert, and west towards the Elks as well.
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After retracing our steps to the saddle, we ascended the ridge in the opposite direction to Frasco Benchmark. Parts of this ridge were still covered in snow and required a little care to avoid postholing, even at this early hour. The views from Frasco were every bit as rewarding as from French. The connecting ridge looked quite rugged in retrospect.
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From here, we had to descend further along the ridge to the French-Casco saddle. This part of the route is described as class 2 in the route description, but it seemed more like easy class 3, as I found myself using my arms frequently. Perhaps there is an easier option, but if so, it wasn't obvious to us. The easiest route seemed always to lie along or near the top of the ridge; every time we tried to descend around the side of a point, we encountered steep and loose terrain and decided we'd better off to continue straight along the top.
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The ascent of Casco from the saddle went much more quickly and included some fun slabby rock near the top. We summitted Casco at 10am; the traverse had taken us almost 2 hours.

Having spent half an hour to rest and refuel on the summit, we hiked down Casco's south ridge to a small saddle around 13,200' where the snow still reached almost up to the ridge crest and it looked like we'd have a clear glissade well down into the basin. We carefully picked our way down to it, sat down, and pushed off for the glissade. The snow was soft enough that there was no danger of losing control (like I did last year) but not too soft to stop the glissade entirely. We ended up making two glissades of a couple hundred feet each before hiking down a grassy slope to rejoin the road in the basin.
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The way back was relatively uneventful, and the final creek crossing felt refreshing in the hot afternoon temperatures. After another dip in Turquoise Lake and an hour relaxing on the beach, we headed into Leadville to refuel. With plenty of time to kill, we sampled the fare at Cookies with Altitude, High Mountain Pies, and City on a Hill Coffee, and all three places delivered. A pizza from High Mountain Pies in particular is always the perfect reward for a good Sawatch hike. All that eating made us sleepy, so we headed back to camp and went to bed around sunset"probably the first time in at least 10 years that I've gone to sleep before it got dark!

Thanks to the early bedtime, waking up at 4am again wasn't too difficult, especially knowing that we wouldn't have to immerse ourselves in icy water this time. Hoping to catch sunrise above treeline, we made good time up the excellent North Mount Elbert trail. We actually reached treeline with time to spare, so we pulled on an extra layer to block the wind and settled in to watch the kaleidoscope of colors sift over the Mosquito Range. Although the previous two days had been relatively clear, the smoke from the wildfires seemed to have drifted back in, filling the valley with a purplish-brown haze.
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Inspired by this view, we pushed up the remainder of the trail to reach the summit at 7:30am. It was Matt's third summit of Elbert but my first (and thus an elevation PR by a few feet). We were the first group to summit that day and spent a good while enjoying the warm early light and munching some snacks. We must have passed 40 hikers on the way down and were back at the trailhead by 10am"the same time we started our hike on Huron two days earlier.
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All in all, it was a satisfying few days in the Sawatch with a good friend. Living half a continent away, it may be a while until I can make it back to Colorado again, but until then, I'll eagerly await some more great climbs.



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Comments or Questions
Mtnman200
User
Nice Report & Photos...
07/02/2016 16:58
...and pizza at High Mountain Pies is always a welcome reward.

BTW, in 1992 I drove across the second creek crossing in a stock '87 Toyota 4x4 pickup. The crossing was sketchy then and is definitely worse now.



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