| West Slopes Route - How Ewe Doin‘?
Peak: California (13,849ft.)
Route: West Slopes
RT Distance: 9.2 Miles
Gain: 4,850 Vertical Feet
All photos courtesy of Google Earth
West Slopes route outlined in green
An aerial shot of my route
It was midweek and I wanted to get another hike in on Colorado's top 100 list, so I came up with a pretty smart plan: Go to Sarah's house in Alamosa Tuesday night, leave when she leaves for work the next morning, hike California Peak in the northern part of the Blanca Massif, and descend in time to meet Sarah when she gets home from work. Would I be too tired from climbing a 14er on Monday? I guess I'll find out.
Wednesday morning came and I woke up faster than Sarah had ever seen me that early in the morning. I was packed and leaving even before she did, at around 6:30 AM. The drive up to the Zapata Falls trailhead went very slowly, as there are a lot of washboards which liked to get my RWD car losing traction, but in time I got there. I was starting up the trail at around 7:30.
The initial part of the trail is super wide and well traveled because it takes you to the locally famous Zapata Falls, which are worth a visit in their own right. However, since I've been there before, I didn't bother to stop by. The trail to South Zapata Lake splits off to the right just before you get to the falls, and that was the day's road.
The trail is excellent and the views are equally so as you hike up the drainage. For the most part the trail is fairly gradual, but it gets steep in places. The embankment to the right is incredibly steep as it drops down to Zapata Creek.
Ellingwood Point from the trail
Apparently I was hiking faster than I thought because it only took me an hour to get across California Gulch, 2.3 miles and 1,500 vertical feet into the route, but unfortunately that would be then end of my unexpected speediness. At this point, the route called for me to turn left and leave the trail. I started hiking up through an aspen grove with a lot of downed timber which slowed my progress by quite a bit. The terrain slowly sharpened into a ridge and got steeper and steeper. Here and there, bits of trail or a couple cairns would become apparent, but for the most part it was me and my own navigation. Luckily, ridges are easy to follow.
Before long I was confronted with a sudden steepness with loose talus. I slowly picked my way up and the ridge became more difficult to follow. I often strayed to the left of the crest because the rocks and trees were really annoying right on it. The trees on the crest started to get really scraggly due to weather exposure. I kept plugging away and started wondering when I would finally get into the openness of the alpine environment above timberline.
The steep route at around 11,100 feet
Well, at around 10 or 10:30 in the morning, I finally made it. The ridge remained steep for a ways above timber, but at least it was open and easier going. At around 12,600 feet the terrain flattened a bit and I was surprised to see a bunch of bighorn sheep rams! We regarded each other as I walked by, and later I found another group of ewes and lambs. This was the first time I had seen this many sheep in my hikes, and the first time I had seen rams.
The route from around 12,700 feet
The route from here was just steepish talus and scree up an open slope with a short summit ridge. I arrived on top at almost exactly noon. There I stayed for about half an hour eating lunch and soaking up the views of the Blanca group, Lindsey, another high 13er nicknamed "Little Huerfano," and the northern Sangres in the distance. Amazingly, the summit register indicated that people had been up here in the past few days, but I was the only one for today.
The Blanca Group from the summit
The Northern Sangres from the summit
"Little Huerfano" and Lindsey from the summit
I spotted the sheep again on the way down and then plunged back into the timber. It was getting really hot and I was running low on water. I did my best to conserve, but ran out when I arrived back at the trail at 10,500 feet. The 2.3 mile hike back to the car was brutally hot, though at least there was a stream to dip my hat into (and promptly get attacked by mosquitoes…)
When I got back to the junction with the Zapata Falls trail, I was no longer alone. Due to the fact that I was carrying an ice ax on my back, I got some funny looks from the tourists. I got back to my car at around 3:30.
All in all, the off trail terrain really wasn't much fun just because it was hot, steep, and loose, but the rest of the trip was pretty rewarding. This was lucky number 13 in my top 100 count, and the cursed number didn't seem to bother anything. Number 14, Grizzly Peak, would come on Saturday. More about number 12 in my next report…
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