A loop of Sunshine and Redcloud fit the bill for our “warm-up” 14ers in our 2012 Summer trip. We planned to follow that with a three-night camp in Chicago Basin and ascent of those challenging peaks. Sunshine and Redcloud promised to be scenic walk-ups providing an extended time at elevation to help acclimate those of us who needed it.
My brother Mark and I flew in from Illinois on a Saturday morning. We joined up in Denver with Dear Daughter, Maryjane, and her boyfriend, Dennis, and headed out on the long drive to the San Juans.
We had enjoyed the back-country charm of the Wagon Wheel Resort when we visited Lake City several years prior, and found it just as appealing this time around. We had seen the aftermath of a bear visitation to the resort last time, when one tipped over a dumpster right outside our cabin, pried off a metal lid and spread trash all over the drive as he dined.
When we pulled up this year with dusk approaching, bear were again in the forefront of everyone’s minds. The man at the front desk was so concerned about an uninvited visitor he wouldn’t take time to process a credit card from paying guests. He basically threw the key at Mark, pointed him toward the cabin and said, “I gotta get the trash put away before that bear comes around,” or something to that effect. Superfluous details like payment would have to wait.
There were no dumpster-diving critters this time, but when Mark stepped out onto the porch at daybreak the next morning, he saw a big black bear scurrying down the driveway away from him. Someone told us a local drifter had been severely mauled not long before our visit.
We left the townfolk to deal with the bear and headed for the Silver Creek trailhead, hitting the trail at 6:11 a.m. Our plan was to take on Sunshine first via the Northwest approach described on 14ers.com. The trail was beautiful in the morning light and the turnoff up the south fork of Silver Creek was easy to find, with a clearly visible creek crossing marked by cairns.
Following the south fork of Silver Creek, with Sundog watching over us
As we followed the trail running roughly alongside the creek, the 13er Sundog dominated our view, its rugged east face brilliantly living up to its name. We hadn’t even considered incorporating it into our route. When I saw later how little it would have added in mileage and elevation gain, I wished we had.
The Love Shack
The trail departs the creek bed to climb up to a stand of trees with the remnants of a cabin which we named the “love shack.” Once we cleared that, the basin opened up before us, with Sunshine rising ahead. But first came an interesting feature of the route, a rock glacier. We were ignorant as to exactly what that term meant, but concluded, correctly as it turns out, that there must be ice somewhere down under all that rock. Mark declined my suggestion that he dig down to try to find the ice while we were there.
Headed for the basin.
The leading lip of the rock glacier looked like it would be loose to climb, but it turned out a solid trail went right up it. The top brought a long stretch of talus-hopping. A lot of the talus was stable, but some was tippy enough to demand care to avoid a potential twisted ankle or worse. This feature led to the crux of this “difficult class 2” route, a steep gully providing access to Sunshine’s west ridge.
Clearing tree line
Beginning up talus at the base of the steep gully, with the rock glacier behind
The center of the gully was full of scree the consistency of coarse sand, the type of surface where every step up slides back down about a half-step. We avoided that by taking to rock along climber’s right. It turned out to be highly fractured and not very stable. Overall, it lived up to the “difficult” rating. It was steep enough that a fall might have serious consequences. I thought the soft scree would probably stop you from going too far if you fell, but I wouldn’t want to test that theory.The combination of sand/scree and fractured rock reminded me a little of some spots on El Diente, but the degree of slope and the ultimate runout weren’t nearly as bad as on ED.
Didn't get a good shot of the steep gully. This is looking down from above it, with the rock glacier clearly highlighted by the morning light
Above that was a small high basin with no discernible trail. We traversed it forward and slightly left toward the west ridge, closely following the route description. Soon cairns appeared marking a trail leading the rest of the way up to the ridge.
Maryjane and Dennis coming up the west ridge of Sunshine
The ridge provided a natural point to rest, take in the views and refuel in preparation for the easy push to the summit. The ridge walk provided beautiful views both north and south. To our left lay the basin we had ascended. To the right (south), the mountain falls away in more impressive form to the valley we had driven up via the shelf road from Lake City. As we ascended we could survey the valley far to the east, where golden aspen stands highlighted the otherwise green forests.
Some rugged terrain on Sunshine's south face
At 10:08 a.m. the four of us stepped up to the summit together. It was 24 hours pretty much to the minute from the time our flight had touched down at Denver International Airport the day before.
MJ highlights a past experience, Uncompaghre; with Wetterhorn pointing skyward at the far left
OK, our Sunshine summit pics sucked. This is people messing with gear and cameras; it only looks like everyone is Facebooking on the summit.
We hung out at the summit for 20+ minutes and headed for Redcloud at 10:32. It took a bit over 20 minutes to descend to the saddle, and just over an hour total to arrive at Redcloud’s summit. Even though they are easy ones by 14er standards, hitting two summits on our first full day in Colorado was a good feeling.
Heading down for the Sunshine-Redcloud saddle
Wouldn't want to tangle with those cliffs on Sunshine's north face
Our paths crossed with several other hikers on this weekend climb. Most noteworthy was a pair of girls who summited Redcloud from the standard northerly trail shortly after we came up from the south. One of them had seen both soles blow off her boots on the way up. Her climbing partner had enough tape on her to crudely re-attach one of them, but when the second sole came off, she summited with what amounted to a moccasin on one foot. We admired her determination, and gladly furnished some duct tape to help her make repairs for the descent.
Redcloud summit, with weather beginning to build in the clouds
We left Redcloud on the standard trail right around noon. The weather had held up pretty well, but clouds building to the west as we descended prompted us to hurry to at least get off the ridge before some precip hit. The nice trail helped us get well down into the Silver Creek drainage, below 12,000 feet, by the time the rain reached us.
Down the standard trail on Redcloud's northeast ridge
We ended up experiencing only two short squalls – the second one coming after we were below tree line. But it was our first time experiencing rain on a summit climb, after 18 fourteeners. (We went through some rain hiking up to camp once before.) We made a point to appreciate our good fortune in weather, and to remind ourselves that even a short squall would be a serious matter at 14,000 feet.
Tarn high in the Silver Creek drainage, with deteriorating weather
Dear Daughter’s boyfriend Dennis has more experience with rain than us, after three fourteeners. He and Maryjane had hiked to South Colony Lake to climb Humboldt a few weeks before our visit, and got soaked on the way up. Dennis discovered then that the cheapo raincoat he thought he had bought for that trip turned out to be rain paints, not much good without a coat.
Dennis had exchanged the rain pants, making sure to get an XL raincoat this time. When he pulled it out for today’s rainstorm, he discovered he had a child’s XL. This made him two-for-two in getting soaked on 14er trips – but only from the waist down this time.
Can't quite grasp what, but something looks wrong with that raincoat
We struggled to maintain a decent pace the rest of the descent. We eventually reached the point where we had turned off the main trail on the way up, a very welcome landmark. The re-entry into a soft forest trail was also welcomed by aching knees. Mark and I reached the trailhead around 2:41 p.m.
The trip took us oldtimers 8 ½ hours; the youngsters were maybe a half-hour or so faster on the return. I don’t have exact mileage or elevation gain figures, but a study of the map indicates the route was probably around 10 miles and 4,300 feet of elevation gain. It was all easy hiking except for that gully.
We returned to a bear-free night of rest in Lake City. The next day we would drive the same road to Cinnamon Pass and on to Silverton and Durango, going by Handies for the second time in four years without climbing it. Next time we will surely see the summit of that beautiful peak, but all our attention for this trip was now focused on Chicago Basin.
Mother and calf moose grazing alongside the road. We watched carefully for Papa Bull; no sign of him.
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