| No Snow to Speak Of
East Spanish Peak 12,683' (CO Rank 874)
2,383' prominence (CO Rank 49)
One of the joys of living in Colorado is a steady, mostly predictable supply of snow during the ski and snowboard “season,” during which I ride the lifts and mostly forget about summits, except for occasional trips to NM or AZ. Once the lifts stop and the snow melts, it’s time for hiking/climbing above treeline to summits. Winter is for the former, summer for the latter. That’s how it works for me, anyway. You might guess, then, that 2011 has been trying my patience. Plans dreamed up back in March for peaks that are usually dry or close to it by early May have come and gone, but the freaking snow hasn’t stopped.
Listening to and reading about the weekly exploits of some of the ski mountaineers on this site hasn’t made this extended shoulder season any easier. While I work the weekend, do something around town, or hike some low peak, those guys are out in the places where I want to be. Sure, I could grow up a little and simply adapt to what’s in front of me, but I’ll come out and say it: I don’t like hiking on snow or in the cold. Postholing in the trees sucks. Period. Maybe someday, my chatter about getting a splitboard or learning to ski will turn to action, but not yet--not when there are gifts from God like the Spanish Peaks last weekend.
While the eyes of others looked toward Berthoud Pass and Bakerville, my thoughts went southward, toward La Veta. Wednesday, I found this live webcam, which showed me exactly what I wanted to see—the “Breasts of the Earth” looking mighty bare. I think anyone who drives down I-25 past Pueblo has seen these things and wanted to get closer to them. They're spectacular. Right about then, I got an email from Ft. Collins resident ChrisinAZ, who was up for a springtime trip to explore East Spanish Peak and the weekend, indeed, my year, was looking up.
Along the way, we took a detour to the plains to visit Dry Bluff, the unranked, but wild Otero county highpoint.
Since we had ice axes, we brought them along (better safe than sorry) and I put mine to use spearing, then tossing cow pies around.
Here’s Chris, with a token hero shot at the summit.
From there, we took a series of back roads across the plains to I-25. As we dodged random cattle and antelope, we soon saw our destination beckoning.
After a quick stop in Walsenburg, the culinary capital of Huerfano County, we hit the road, stocked with Pizza Hut and Subway’s finest.
While the Spanish Peaks are visible from hundreds of miles away, the closer you get, the more impressive they become.
East Spanish Peak looking dry
We had plenty of time, so we decided to drive around the area, specifically to see if access to class 3 8er Goemmer Butte, pictured below, were possible.
No dice. Private property. No matter. This area is gorgeous, and the vivid green of spring lit up the evening.
Given the scantily clad Spanish Peaks, we were surprised to see that the southern Sangres wore a full blanket of snow.
While I prefer the Wahatoya themselves, the “great dikes” of the Spanish Peaks are a nice piece of eye candy as well.
Dike dwarfed by W. Spanish Peak
Finally, we headed out of town on CR360, taking the 4x4 road that forks right just before Wahatoya Camp. This road starts easily, and should not be difficult for any 4wd with high clearance. I read here that a Hyundai Santa Fe can handle the road (h/t Kevin Baker). I think taking anything with less clearance, even a Subaru, would be a challenge. It gets narrow near the top, so I was glad we didn’t meet anyone else along the way. Passing could be a chore, as there are few pullouts. Driving the road cuts about four r/t miles and 1600' of gain off the hike from the lower TH.
The road tops out around 9850’ with a small parking loop, a TH, and one big fire ring with some flat spots for tents. I had hedged my bets by not bringing a cooler (there’s got to be some snow somewhere, right?) and hoping we’d find some firewood. There was firewood aplenty, but a scan of the surrounding area revealed no snow—ironic since we picked this hike to avoid it, but I'd expected enough to chill some beers. Fortunately, Chris came back a minute later with good news—a single patch of snow was about 30 feet from the truck.
We were in business!!!
As twilight faded to darkness, we sat around the fire marveling at our good fortune thus far. Looking up at the stars, sipping on Colorado-brewed Gordon and Modus, talking about peaks we’ve both done in Arizona and Utah, peaks we look forward to in Colorado and elsewhere, & thinking about our hike of East Spanish was exactly what I’ve needed for a while. I thought to myself, “This is why I live here.”
Contrary to the billboards on I-70, no ski pass from Vail Resorts has anything to do with it.
Honestly, if some act of God had prevented our hiking the next day, I was ok with that, knowing I'd already outdone even the best day spent back in rainy Denver.
I awoke to 40 degree temps and the urge to get going. We decided to leave snowshoes/crampons in the truck, but took our axes and spikes just in case. About ¼ mile down the trail, we met our first obstacle. It was a gutsy call, not going back to the car for crampons, but we crossed this snowfield safely, getting some use from Chris' axe.
The well-defined Wahatoya trail meanders for two miles, gaining only 400ft or so to the saddle between the peaks. Here are some shots along the way.
First peek at our goal
We could see the west ridge and summit ahead.
Suddenly, Chris came to a jarring halt ahead of me, so I asked him why. Here’s why:
Someone had installed what looked to be a flimsy trip wire across the trail.
Thankfully, Chris didn't fall, there were no IEDs attached, and the wire was not strung tightly. We cut it down and moved on.
From the saddle, either peak is doable, though the western of the Wahatoya is more of a handful. There are plenty of comfortable campsites available. An old fencepost marks the spot where you enter Las Animas county and head left (east) toward East Spanish.
We stopped for water and looked at W. Spanish just in time to catch the moon as it went into hiding.
From here to treeline, the trail gets faint at times, but there are plenty of cairns to help. After a short descent, the grade steepens to a grunt, and I grunted more than a few times gaining 700ft in 0.4 miles, reaching the ridge a little below treeline.
From there, the trail fades in and out, and was blocked at times by large snowdrifts, but staying close to the ridgeline made the right path obvious. Treeline comes abruptly, with a line of trees resembling a fence, and the talus begins. It starts loose, but is pretty stable overall.
Here are two shots from about 2/3 of the way up to the summit ridge.
Looking back at W. Spanish
Up we went, crossing a couple bumps on the summit ridge, then topping out.
Views from the summit are tremendous, with clear shots at neighboring peaks of note:
Blanca group, Lindsey, et al
12er Greenhorn Mountain, Pueblo County Highpoint
Looking toward Westcliffe, with Mt. Mestas in the foreground
West Spanish Peak
After soaking up the views, snapping lots of pics, and making a halfhearted attempt to dig out the summit register, we made our way back down the talus, through the still-firm snowdrifts on the west ridge, on to the saddle, then back to the TH.
While the summit of East Spanish Peak falls short of the seduction lines of 14k and 13k, this peak has more than enough to recommend it, even after (if?) the snow melts further north. While the higher peaks are mostly where it's at for Colorado hikers, I've found that really prominent mountains, regardless of summit elevation, often feature expansive panoramas unmatched from peaks surrounded by others of similar height A trip here features vast 360 degree views across the Sangres, Wet Mountains, Pikes Peak, east toward the plains, and south to New Mexico and Oklahoma. It offers solitude, great camping, and a chance to diversify your peak list a little. For me, it provided a chance to rekindle the passion for being out in the mountains that brought me to Colorado in the first place. I'm grateful for the chance to have been there, and hope that someone who reads this puts it to good use and checks out the area.
R/T Miles: 7.5-8.0
Enjoyment level: 100%
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):