Coxcomb Pk - 13,656 feet
|Additional Members:||Mountain Trash, Apple|
Coxcomb Pk - 13,656 feet
|Additional Members:||Mountain Trash, Apple|
|A Cimarron Ascent|
A Cimarron Excursion...
Every time that I've driven to Ouray for climbing or vacation, I always cross my fingers that the stretch between Montrose and Ridgway has a clear, cloudless view of the Cimarron Range. The unique peak shapes silhouetted across the horizon are unlike other areas that I've seen in Colorado, and the range has always piqued my interest since starting trips into the San Juan.
I finished my 14er journey in 2020, and I don't care to repeat the vast majority of the peaks included in that group again - the idea of another early morning hike up Missouri Gulch, or another $150 ticket-to-ride and a long weekend to re-tread into Chicago Basin, is wholly unappealing when the state has huge areas offering new experiences and things to see. With some rock climbing under my belt over the last few years, and its relative obscurity outside of the major list-checking obsessives, something like Coxcomb, with a fairly benign 5.6 route guarding its summit, has become highly appealing to me at this time.
Apple and I took a trip into West Cimarron basin, and arrived the evening of August 19th in a downpour. The forecast for the 20th was questionable at best, with potentially better weather coming on the 21st, but we'd never been to the area and wanted to scope it out more than anything. We woke up the next morning with a sheet of ice on the car, and everything above treeline dusted in new snow. We decided to scrap the plan for Coxcomb entirely, and spent the day going up Courthouse Mountain - this was an easy hike, and I think the views from the summit were probably worth the trip on its own.
A few weeks later, we were considering options for another trip, and decided that we'd like to give Coxcomb another shot, potentially getting there during aspen season on Owl Creek Pass. We firmed up plans to meet in the basin with some friends and attempt the peak on Saturday, September 18th.
A Roadtrip in Autumn...
Apple and I left Denver on Thursday, and took a trip over Cottonwood Pass, through Crested Butte, and over Kebler Pass before finding a decent camping spot in the West Elks for the evening. On Friday, we stopped in Paonia for a glass of wine and a bite to eat, before making our way south and east over Cerro Summit and into the Cimarron River basin.
We pulled into a camp spot in the basin in late afternoon after searching for something easy and accessible for a few cars. The area had a ton of out-of-state campers, mostly there for hunting. We got a spot directly under Chimney Rock and next to the road, with easy and quick access the next morning to drive to the upper trailhead. A few evening beers were followed by cold temperatures that chased everyone into bed at a decent time, and we were in high spirits with the prospect of a new and interesting summit and good weather the next day.
A Walk in the Alpine...
My alarm went off at 5:00am and I crawled out of bed, making Apple some coffee and oatmeal on the hood of the car while Jo and Adam got ready as well. I let Apple sleep for as long as possible; she had been coughing in her sleep, and hadn't been feeling great for the past few days, so I wanted to make sure she was rested and fueled before we started what would probably be a long day at elevation. At 6:00am, we left the campsite in Adam's Tacoma and made it to the upper trailhead around 30 minutes later. There's some nasty terrain and a crossing of West Cimarron River, so you'll need a fairly serious vehicle to get to the trailhead without an extra ~3 miles round-trip.
The trail up the drainage was mellow and enjoyable, and though we were all freezing getting out of bed, within 15 minutes we had our headlamps off and jackets stored away. The path meanders in and out of forests and along the banks of the river, before breaking out of treeline at the base of Coxcomb. From here, the trail switchbacks several times as it gains the saddle between West Cimarron and Wetterhorn Creek. As we got nearer, the wind picked up slightly, and cresting the top brought us back into the sun and re-energized us for the descent into the next basin.
We took a short break once we were in the sunshine and out of the wind, getting some snacks before the quick 500ft descent into the Wetterhorn Creek basin. Views of Wildhorse, Sneffels and Wetterhorn itself began to open up at this point; a very interesting and unusual perspective of these peaks. After making it to the bottom from the pass, the trail cut east across a flat tundra plateau for a short time. We almost immediately left it and began reascending back towards the craggy summit ridge of Coxcomb.
There are several drainages in this area coming off of the peak - we started ascending sooner than later, and I think it made a big difference. Waiting too long, it looked like the terrain became extremely loose and chossy, while we mostly stayed on grassy slopes with intermittent rockhopping and small amounts of scrambling. We kept our eyes peeled for an obvious weakness at the top of the slope, and picked our way up.
A large gully breaks the southern face of Coxcomb and allows you to gain the ridge. Adam and I made it to the base, unloaded our climbing gear, and waited for Apple and Jo to catch up. While there, clouds began to build over the Wilsons and farther out in Utah - we exchanged nervous looks, and eventually the sun was engulfed completely in cloud. Apple and Jo eventually made it up to our waiting spot, but at that point Adam and I were both cold and fearful that brooding clouds were going to bring precipitation, or worse, once we were farther above, on the exposed and technical portion of the peak. We decided to wait and see what would happen - two hours later, after being blasted with wind, sitting through a 30 second snow flurry, and starting to shiver, the sun broke through the overcast sky. We both asked several times, "Go? Stay? Proceed?" With warmth coming down from the sunshine, bringing blood back to our hands and feet, we geared up and went.
A Cimarron Ascent...
We didn't really know what to expect on the route - some online have claimed that gear placements are bad, that the climbing is loose and scary, others have talked about nearly soloing the entire thing. With four people climbing, we didn't feel we had to skimp on gear; we brought doubles of C4 1, 2 and 3, a set of stoppers, and 5 alpine draws - basically enough to stitch up anything we thought we might come across on two pitches of rock. Adam and I tied into the ends of the rope, and would have Apple and Jo tie into the middle and get belayed up one at a time.
I climbed up into the gully, jamming hands and hanging off the crack between the cliff and a detached boulder at the base. I thought about maybe putting a piece in to prevent a groundfall, but Jo and Adam gave me a spot and I felt comfortable and in control, and after a minute of stemming and fiddling around, I pulled myself up and over the lip and into the gully proper, probably 10 or 15 feet off the deck. I didn't see any good placements yet, so I called for slack, and hiked and scrambled up the right side of the gully towards some cracks and boulders. I took a few minutes to set up an anchor, probably using 50 or 60 feet of rope to get to my belay spot, and called off belay.
Apple tied in and climbed to me, then Jo, and Adam coming up last. We wanted to share leads here, so I swapped what free gear I had with Adam, and sent him up the second pitch towards the ridge. Apple, Jo and I stayed on the climbers right side of the gully to keep out of the line of fire, and Adam crossed and ascended up the chimney on the left. After a few minutes, he called out that he was safe, and he started to belay us up to him, Jo going first, then Apple, and finally I cleaned my anchor and went. Adam had a single cam, number 2, along the way, and set up his anchor using a tat rappel point that people were using for descents. We got to the top, stowed what we needed, and everyone was all smiles - the hard part was way easier than we were expecting, and the weather and summit were clear for us.
Here I kiwi coiled the rope, and we all walked up to the ridge crest to get our first feel of the final moves towards the summit-proper. As we gained the top, the West Cimmaron basin opened to us thousands of feet below to the north, with Wetterhorn and Uncompahgre towering over the landscape to the southeast. There was no sense of danger from taking a tumble; the ridge crest was at least ten feet wide. But it felt like we were mice walking across the blade of a knife as we scampered away from the gully and onwards to the summit.
The final obstacle was a single short rappel down a notch that breaks the summit plateau into two sections. I got to the notch first, checked the tat and hardware, tossed the rope and rapped. I walked to the summit and began flaking out the second rope from my pack while Adam, Jo and Apple followed and pulled the rope - most people leave the rope in place and use it to reascend the notch on their way back, but we made plans to rappel directly off the north face of the summit and wouldn't need to return.
We all got to the summit, hugged and shouted, ate copious amounts of cheeses and chips and jerky and candybars. I don't know if I've ever been on a mountain with this good a view, and with this fun and adventurous feeling getting to its summit. After being spooked by the weather, I felt a bit of relief getting past most of the difficulties. We only needed to enjoy the view, and then get down one last rappel to relative safety.
A Cimarron Descent...
We finished up and prepped for the descent - I had read online that the north face could be rappeled with a pull line or two ropes, but there was conflicting information about how much. Some claimed that a 70m would be best, some said that 60 was sufficient, some said that 60 was overkill, and then some even said 50m would be fine. We hedged just a little bit here - we brought a skinny 8.5mm 50m alpine rope, and we also packed a skinny 8.5mm 200ft/61m canyoneering rope. Our plan was to climb the route using the 50m line, and then rappel using the 200ft rope while using the 50m as the pull.
It took a few minutes here to get everything settled and the anchor inspected - there was quite a bit of tat wrapped around a car-sized boulder 20 feet from the summit, and hardware was already present to make the rappel quicker. Only word of caution - the rappel station sat on the brink, covered in dinnerplate talus, and is downsloping from the summit. Being as careful as possible, I still managed to send two fist-sized rocks over the edge while flaking out and prepping. Our plan was to have people one at a time walk down and anchor in, rappel, call off when down, and then the next person would proceed.
Everything looked safe, and I tossed the ropes down - at this point is was getting windy, and getting the ropes cleanly to the bottom was a mess. I didn't think I could actually get them to the ground below from the rappel station; they were blowing back up and getting caught on every rock possible, so eventually I went over the edge with the plan to re-toss as needed. At the very worst, if the beta was wrong and I ran out of line, I could make an obnoxious and embarrassing jumar back up.
I had to stop at least three times on the way down to re-coil and toss the rope; any and everything was snagging it. I passed a small ledge on the way down that had a tat anchor slung around a rock. You could probably do this using a single rope and two rappels, but the webbing and this intermediate anchor was certainly suspect. Eventually I managed to land the rope on the ground and let out a sigh of relief. Within a minute, I touched down at the base of the north face - the 50m alpine rope had a meter or two of slack on the ground, and there was ten meters worth of the second rope in a pile; plenty of rope.
Apple came next, followed by Jo, and finally Adam made his way off the summit and down to the earth. The last obstacle was pulling the rope free - it came whistling down after wrenching it once or twice. We packed up, let out another holler that we were now out of the dangerous portion of the day, and headed north, down the talus covered slope towards the saddle separating Coxcomb and Redcliff.
The slope back down into the basin was pretty miserable, if I were being honest. Portions were scree, others were just loose dirt, sometimes grassy slopes, but always headed down-down-down; it was hard to get into a decent cadence or rhythm with the ever-changing terrain. I think this was still the right move, and certainly more adventurous, than returning back over the standard route, down the south side's own talus and choss field, and then reascending back over the pass. But after hours of hiking and climbing, we were all pretty beat and eager to get back to camp.
We eventually made it back to the main trail, took a breather and stomped back to the trailhead mostly in silence. Apple began to really struggle at this point, worn out from the day and coughing quite a bit - she couldn't catch her breath and was very slow getting back to the truck. As soon as we made it back to our camp site and got a bite to eat, she crawled into bed and went to sleep before the sun was down. Adam, Jo and I had a single beer and enjoyed the sunset, snapped a few more photos of the area before conceding to our exhaustion and turning in.
We woke up the next morning, had breakfast, and headed out and back to civilization. Jo had a few more days off of work, and headed towards Lake City to see if she could find any aspens. Apple and I drove over Owl Creek Pass and had lunch with Adam in Paonia before heading back over McClure Pass and towards home.
Coxcomb Peak was a really incredible experience - if you're looking for an introductory alpine climb, it ticks the boxes for views, solitude, exposure, technical skill, distance and exertion. Adam and I climbed Peak C via it's 5.4 Northwest Ridge earlier in the season, and while it was fun, there was a spice about Coxcomb that I think I enjoyed more. I'm not grade-chasing alpine climbs - maybe it was the view in the Cimarron without the forest fire smoke from earlier in the season...? Who knows. But I'll definitely come back to this area again while it still has a wild feel to it.
A Finish to the Weekend I Wasn't Expecting...
After unloading the climbing gear, taking a shower, and having dinner, I fell asleep on the couch watching TV, exhausted from the trip and the long drive home. I woke up at 5:15am with Apple telling me to get up and go to bed, since she was going to work. I told her I would, that I loved her and hoped she would have a good day, and then I closed my eyes again. She shook my arm harder again, getting me fully awake and off the couch.
It was too early though - 3:30am. And she wasn't telling me to go to bed - she needed to go to the hospital.
I got up, put on my clothes and a jacket, and ran the red light of every intersection I encountered. Two years of her working exclusively on a COVID-19 unit in the middle of a pandemic, taking care of people sick and dying and clawing for life, and now my wife, with whom I had just shared an incredible outdoor experience with, was in the hospital. Was she having a stroke? Pulmonary embolism? A heart attack... at 40 years old? Good god, she exercises more than anyone I know. What's happening?
The pandemic has had us on edge for years now - not in the way that we're tired of seeing it on the news or some article dug up online, but the real dread of having to deal with it in the flesh and blood day in and day out. Coronavirus can cause damage to your body that can last a lifetime, even if you had a mild case in the past, or even if you were asymptomatic. I took her home a few days later, cooking meals and making her rest for a week and to stay still - that's hard to do for someone who has been steadfast on grinding out nursing work in 2021 because it's the noble thing to do. But she's doing better now.
I've been scared plenty of times in the outdoors. On Coxcomb, I was worried that we may have bitten off more than we could chew, or that we may have had the weather collapse on us on the summit, or that someone would get hit by a rock, or that maybe I'd misjudged our descent and I'd get stuck on our ropes like a lure at the end of a fishing line. But I don't know if I've ever had my stomach in a knot or had to swallow my fear quite like this. I thought people and the city and our home were the safe place, and that standing on the brink of oblivion, staring over the edge of a cliff, being kept alive and breathing by a nylon cord smaller than my little finger - that was the danger.
What a weird time we live in when your basic and essential foundations and comforts can be shaken, and so suddenly, in ways you're not expecting. A better appreciation for what you have, to not waste time? I'm not a soothsayer or a guru - I just hope that we can have more time together in the years ahead like our trip to the Cimarron.
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