| Turret Syndrome
“Great things are done when men and mountains meet.” William Blake
Climbers: Steve Gladbach & Darin Baker
Turret Peak (13,835’)
Pigeon Peak (13,972’)
The Needle Mountains
San Juan Range
Trailhead: Cascade Canyon Wye (winter time stopping point along the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad)
Day 1, riding the Polar Express
Day 1: approach to camp 1 (Needleton bridge area)
Day 2: approach to high camp (N Pigeon Creek drainage/basin)
Day 3: climb Turret Peak
Day 4: climb Pigeon Peak, descend from high camp back to camp 1
Day 5: catch train back to Durango
Note: Additional stats (mileage, elevation gain, routes, times) can be found within the report, under the heading for each day.
Views to the W from our high camp
Difficulty: It ain’t easy!
In terms of trip planning, waiting for a weather window and “good” snow conditions are two important factors in a winter trip, two factors for which we were fortunate to get.
In terms of physical effort once there, again, it ain’t easy!
In terms of mental effort, well, I had a few moments to work through.
-- Class 1 snowshoe approach on Day 1 with heavy (~50lbs?) packs
-- Class 2+ snowshoe wallow with off trail route finding on Day 2 that was a tremendous physical effort with heavy packs
-- Snow climbing on Day 3 with snowshoes and eventually ice axe and crampons, including mixed climbing/scrambling on rocks with crampons
-- More snow climbing on Day 4 with snowshoes and eventually ice axe and crampons, including mixed climbing/scrambling on rocks with crampons, punctuated with one ~30m roped section with a low 5th class crux at the top
That was what we encountered in terms of difficulty. There’s harder stuff out there for sure, but this trip led to a great sense of accomplishment for me as well as satisfaction for the way it went down.
13ers above the Ruby Creek drainage
(Highpoints l. to r., Animas, Pk 13, Monitor, and in the distance is Jagged)
Gear: overnight packs, tents, bags, pads, puffy jackets (down) & other important winter attire, Jetboil stoves & fuel, snowshoes, poles, ice axe, crampons, helmet, avy gear (beacon, probe, shovel), 30m/8mm rope, few pieces of rock pro, few slings w/biners, rap rings, and the ever important pee bottle
Resources Used For Trip Planning: weather.com’s 10-day weather forecast for Silverton, NOAA weather forecast, CAIC avalanche forecasts for both S & N San Juan zones, SNOTEL sites for general vicinity, TOPO! mapping software, prior knowledge to area
Snow Conditions: We didn’t come across signs of instabilities (whumpfs, shooting cracks or anything that propagated much outside of our kicked steps) in the snowpack while on our trip.
There were several avalanche debris piles that most likely ran after the last storm cycle, several days back from when we were actually in there. Some of these avalanches started near rocks – some looked like point releases – and others from (probably) stress alone. None of them had large or deep crowns, nor did it appear to have stepped down into deeper layers of the snowpack.
Most of the continuous snow that we climbed on was on NW/W/SW/S aspects, and overall it felt safe to travel on. There were areas we did avoid due to too much wind slab. When crossing under certain slopes or crossing gullies, we spaced out, or would wait for each other to pass so as to only expose one of us at a time.
Looking at Roach’s 13er guidebook some years ago, his description for the N Pigeon Creek approach for Pigeon and Turret appealed to me. A mention of this route on summit post only encouraged me more to do this route. Then, a TR by Jason Halladay using the route sealed the deal for me to visit this basin one day.
Then a couple of years ago I had read on 14erWorld about a SW couloir on Turret, and it mentioned what a great climb it was. I inquired about it from the poster (Cynthia Adams) and I also posted about it asking if anyone else had heard about it. Another member posted a google-earth image of it, and instantly I wanted to climb it.
On a trip into Chicago Basin in May of 2010, I had hoped to get into NY Basin to give the couloir a go. But it didn’t happen.
One way or another, I was going to experience Turret as a snow climb, and maybe Pigeon too.
In April of 2011, I decided to give them a go on a solo trip, attempting to get into the N Pigeon Creek drainage. Well, I only made it to ~10,700’ and turned back for various reasons.
December 2011 comes up, and I mentioned to Steve that I had time off, so if he wanted to pair up for something on his school break – let me know. He calls me. He wants to give Pigeon & Turret a shot.
Oh yeah, I’m interested….
Day 1: Approach to Needleton, Camp 1 (from Cascade Canyon Wye)
~635’ elevation gain
Steve is out in front, “riding” the rails with Pigeon Pk in the distance
A day after Christmas, and Steve is still a little sad about getting a lump of coal in his stocking
We get to Needleton and find accommodations nearby for our tents. We settle in for the night, with anticipation of the hard work ahead of us the next day.
Day 2: Approach to High Camp (N Pigeon Creek drainage/basin below Pigeon Pk)
~3475’ elevation gain (up the lower W/NW ridge of Pigeon)
Steep and deep, with phenomenal views of the W Needle Mountains
Bill Lechner was here
Side hill traversing above treeline to get to our high camp, which is the treed bench in the distance
All is well in ole’ Pigeon camp tonight
Camp is set up, snow is melting in the Jetboils, and we settle in for our first night in the basin. Overnight, winds pick up, and in this basin, the wind tends to circle around and hit from all sides. Although most of the winds felt like they were coming from the E.
I was hoping there wasn’t much snow to transport and load. We’ll find out in the morning….
Day 3: Turret Peak
~3.26mi’s RT (including side trip to scout/break trail for Pigeon planned for next day)
~2080’ elevation gain
~4.5hrs to summit (left camp at ~7:30am, back in camp by ~3pm)
Approach to saddle on S side of Pigeon
Once at the saddle, the slopes leading over to the saddle between Turret and Pigeon looked steep and had quite a bit of snow. Therefore summertime route didn't look like an option for us at this point, so we cut left (N) out of the saddle and scrambled up class 3-4 rock to try to stay above the majority of the snow fields.
After some elevation gain, we started to get on some steeper snow and we stopped for crampons.
Goat tracks were around, but no goats in sight. It’s cool to know they’re still climbing, but not cool that they didn’t want to hang out with us!!
Steve above most of the scrambling sections
Looking down at the saddle and the ridgeline we came up
Jet trails above Turret
We traversed high on the south facing slopes, and headed toward the saddle. At the saddle, we stashed our snowshoes that we had been carrying on our packs and headed for the summit of Turret.
From the slopes of Turret
Snowy ridgeline leading to “summertime” route
Steve on upper slopes of Turret
Ohhh…..this is so sweet!!
Steve on the summit of Turret Peak
Me spreading my brother’s ashes on the summit
La Plata Mountains
Descending “summertime” route; the majority of our route can be seen below
At the saddle, we picked up our snowshoes and descended to the saddle. At that point, we had scoped out a low angle line to the saddle using the lower portions of the south facing slope. With the snow we encountered on the slopes above there, we were confident with the snowpack and would have safe travel.
After reaching the saddle, we continued down towards the valley floor, but then cut high along a bench to wrap around Pigeon’s S side to scope out tomorrow’s route, and to prep a track for our morning start.
Day 4: Pigeon Peak
~2130’ elevation gain
~5.5hrs to summit (left camp at ~6am, returned to camp at ~2pm)
~We made up a winter variation of the summertime route, basically whatever looked safest and efficient
Early morning light while climbing up slopes of Pigeon
Rocky snowy slab scrambling
We ascended up the slopes climber’s left of most cairns we saw, and climber’s left of the main couloir on Pigeon, which splits like a Y near the top; the left branch goes to the N ridge, and the right branch turns and goes S along the “summertime” cairned route.
We topped out along the N ridge, above the left branch of the couloir split. From there, we crossed a tiny saddle, and headed towards the crux of our climb.
Crux is coming up
The crux is the small snow field in the center. The snow field on the upper right side goes along the cairned route, and looked to risky to climb.
Before reaching the crux pitch
Closer look at crux pitch
In the above photo, the lower snow field was avoided, and the upper snow field we climbed roped up.
We approached it from the left side on a wide ledge, with a fixed belay. This is where Carson would be proud of us; we did it old school – because we tied in with bowlines!
We slung a big rock with webbing for Steve’s belay anchor, and I lead out, placing one nut at the start of the traverse, and then got onto the snow. The snow was in good shape for climbing, perfect for kicking steps up the short but ~60degree slope, with very effective ice axe belays. To the right of the snow slope, I placed another nut before going up to some easy class 3 rock ledges.
Then came the crux, the part that required the rope work, or so we thought because a fall here would end badly.
A 6’ low 5th class rock step. To protect the exit, I had to use the pick of my axe wedged in a crack because the one nut I had left was not going anywhere with the rock I had to work with.
I lead through this part, wrapped around a boulder for a terrain belay, and brought Steve up. Crux behind, rope coiled, we continued on to the summit with some class 3 and 4 moves here and there.
A Rewarding Summit
Steve Gladbach on the summit of Pigeon Peak
Chicago Basin 14ers and Turret on the right
Another look at Jagged, with Rio Grande Pyramid and The Window to the E
We retraced our steps carefully, got to the crux where Steve belayed me as I down-climbed it, and then he rapped it.
Descending the same snowline we used for our ascent, everything went well, with the exception of the occasional rock slab under the snow that our crampons liked to skate on.
Looking back at where we just were
Still Day 4: Packing up & Heading Down to Camp 1
~3475’ elevation loss (from camp, not counting from summit)
This is a damn fine trench
Back to Camp 1 at Needleton Bridge area at ~6pm, set up camp one more time, and settled in shortly thereafter. Slept quite well for the first 6hrs or so!
Day 5: Ride the Rail, One More Time
~635’ elevation loss
Thank you Pigeon and Turret, I would love to return and climb you again someday!
Thank you for reading,
Hindsight & Personal Notes
This trip was a great way to end the year! For me, the year started off badly with the sudden loss of my brother Dale. So to end the year with this trip, and to spread his ashes on Turret was special for me.
And to do this trip with a friend, and someone whom I’ve looked up to for 10 years or so, was just as special. Thank you Steve for being a great partner on this awesome winter trip! It seems like when one of us was tired, either physically or mentally, the other was right there to keep us going forward. As the opening quote states, “great things Are done when men and mountains meet!”
Looking back at my solo “attempt” last spring, I’m pretty sure if I had made it into the upper basin, I probably would have been too intimidated to climb the peaks, so I’m glad this trip came together like it did, and we came home safely. I did lose my headlamp off my helmet at the crux move on Pigeon, and bent one of my trekking poles, but other than that, this trip was smoooooth! The butterscotch schnapps was pretty smooth too….