| Coxcomb & Company: The Glory of the Cimarrons
Coxcomb Pk (13656’)
9 miles RT, 4800’ gain
From West Fork TH (10760’)
Participants: Pete Krzanowsky & Kevin Baker
You Tube slideshow to Coldplay
Memorial Day weekend has arrived and it’s time for a trip to the San Juans! I’ve neglected my 13er pursuit of late for snow climbs and 14er repeats. Time to change that! Coxcomb has been on my short list for a long time, but it seems like it always gets put to the back burner. With the snow pack so down this year, would it be feasible to pull off Coxcomb in late May? A typical spring would mean a longer approach and snowshoes for sure. This year it’s a good bet we can get to the West Fork trailhead and forget the snowshoes!
Pete signs up for the adventure and we decide to do a “warmup” hike on Sat of some 13ers near Redcloud. The insane wind forecast doesn’t deter us as we try to beat the banshees with an early start, but they give us a beat down at the end of the day. Smoke and dust make the hike drab of scenery. Tired legs and we haven’t even started the real adventure yet! It’s all about efficiency and getting the most bang for your gas buck with the 13er pursuit.
We rendezvous at the West Fork trailhead just before dark as we are in separate cars. It’s an adventure just to get to the trailhead as there are fallen trees all over the road from the high winds. Luckily a hero comes through with a chainsaw and saves the day. We even have to drive over a thick branch to get through one spot. I meet Patrick Kelley and his friends at the trailhead and they did Precipice Sat and have Fortress on the agenda for Sun. Nice to meet you, Patrick! The dust and smoke blow out of the area at dusk and we enjoy a crisp night.
Pete and I are off at 5:15 ready for a long day. There is enough snow in the trees to slow us down, but the postholing is minimal. We quickly break out of the trees and follow the trail as it zigs way right to breach the cliff bands below the Coxcomb/U4 saddle.
Heck of a view!
We were considering hitting 12er U4 on the way up, but the ridge looked very iffy from the saddle. Peter spotted a grassy line that looked inviting that would put us right below the summit. How far is it from the summit, Pete asks? Only ½ mile and 1000 feet! We grunt up the steep grass to the ridge staying left of a waterfall and are rewarded with some pretty astounding views of the area from the summit. Coxcomb looks very menacing!
Instead of messing with an unknown ridge run which very likely doesn’t go with snow, we drop back down to the basin and contour on snow at around 12K. We have a little mini snow climb that isn’t steep enough to break out the crampons for. Suncups serve as nice stair steps.
Up over the saddle we go into glorious Wetterhorn Basin. The views on this climb are extraordinary to say the least.
We follow the trail down to about 12100’ when it wraps around the s.w. shoulder of Coxcomb, which is followed by a 900’ grunt to the summit block on the south ridge. We take advantage of a thin strip of snow up a gully and exit when it gets steep. Pete goes left and I go right. Pick your poison as there is a lot of loose talus to deal with.
We meet up just below where the scrambling begins and don the harnesses. We find a nice use trail up to the base of the first crux, a 10 foot 4th class step that is loaded with snow and ice. Great!
Wonder what we are going to find up high in the chimney? According to Cooper, the southwest chimney can be full of ice well into July. It just doesn’t get much sun. Pete doesn’t like the looks of this first crux, so I take a shot at it. It looks like I could just wedge myself in there and mantle up, but there’s one step on ice that I don’t feel OK committing to unroped even though the runout below isn’t far. I stay put while Pete throws me the end of the rope with a cam, builds a quick anchor, and now I’m good to go! I place the cam between rock and solid ice. I yard on it and it seems solid! The little mantle move isn’t bad at all, but my trekking poles jam up against the wall. “Frickin trekking poles!” Pete gets to hear plenty of Nazarene cuss words today and is amused.
I find a solid boulder to setup a quick anchor for Pete and he follows quickly. We’re pleased to see the scramble section above this first crux is dry.
We come to a cairn and find the split in the gully. We can’t see very far up the left chimney, but the right one looks pretty spicy with a lot of snow and ice. We look at the route description to make sure we’re going up the right chimney. We came with enough gear to pull this off safely, and Pete is up to the task of leading. Both of us are pretty green when it comes to alpine climbs, but we worked very well together as a team.
The chimney is hard 4th class/low 5th class with a crux section in the middle followed by an exposed exit. Pete slowly works his way up and is able to protect it well other than the top. It is uncertain how difficult it will get and I’m excited when he announces that he’s in the clear!
We have burned a lot of time and clouds are starting to build, but we’re not overly concerned with just a 10% chance of rain. This is not a peak to get caught on in a storm! It’s my turn now and the chimney is a huge effort trying to cam your way up hauling a 60M rope. My pack feels a bit heavier than a winter day pack. A chimney climb with ice axe dangling, crampons, and a full pack is quite a physical challenge.
Good thing it’s only 80 feet! Canyoneering skills are put to use in this chimney as it makes sense to avoid the ice when you can and stem on the walls.
Exiting the chimney out onto the face is awkward with crampons on, but they stick pretty good when you get used to it! Now all we have is the rappel into the notch!
Excitement builds as we traverse the crest of the ridge, a literal sidewalk in the sky. The notch is obscured until you are right on it. Whoever climbed Coxcomb first must have been bummed to run into that show stopper!
We setup our own webbing for the 20 foot rappel and as expected, there is a snow bridge in the notch. We rappel right on top of it and it actually helps us with the 4th class move out of the notch. We traverse left over big air and scramble back up to the ridge.
We finally reach the summit of Coxcomb at 2:30! We leave one of the ropes at the notch and make sure we can find the correct spot to rappel down the north face before pulling it. Pete goes back and retrieves it.
A rappel of the north face saves a couple hours or more of having to go back the same way and wrapping all the way around Coxcomb again. The drawback is the station has very little room to get a good toss of the rope, plus you have to haul two ropes up. The downclimb to the station is exposed 4th class with some loose rock to watch out for. Pete goes first and he has to do a lot of untangling the rope during his rappel with the limited room he had to work with.
I got pretty chilly waiting for him in the shade and am happy to hear he’s off rappel through the wind. This rappel is very loose and fairly low angle once over the lip, so Pete gets out of the way. We’re down to terra firma now and now have to deal with a little hard snow. We face in for one short section, and then slip and slide our way down a lot of loose talus to the grassy saddle. We’re relieved to be in the clear or so we think!
Closeup of the rap off the north face. The patch of snow near the top is where it starts. Not as steep as it looks!
Redcliff is an enjoyable 500 foot climb on decent talus, which gives way to a nice climber’s trail with some welcomed switchbacks. Even though this peak is easy, it has a lot of character as well, which is true for most of the peaks in the Cimarrons. We retrieve our packs at the saddle and all that remains is to find the weakness in the cliffs back down to the basin. There is a dry patch of scree that we miss, and end up having to traverse way left above the cliff bands, crossing some snowfields. Back on go the crampons just to be safe and we are finally in the clear.
The descent goes very quick as we plunge step down a nice low angle gully all the way to the trail. We’re back at the trucks at around 7:30, a 14 hour plus day! Coxcomb is a magnificent mountain and it will go down as a memorable climb. You can’t go wrong with the Cimarrons if you’re up for the challenge!
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