Peak(s):  Mt. Shavano  -  14,229 feet
Tabeguache Peak  -  14,155 feet
Mt. Antero  -  14,269 feet
Mt. Princeton  -  14,197 feet
Mt. Yale  -  14,196 feet
Mt. Columbia  -  14,073 feet
Mt. Harvard  -  14,420 feet
Mt. Elbert  -  14,433 feet
Mt. of the Holy Cross  -  14,005 feet
Date Posted:  07/17/2014
Modified:  07/18/2014
Date Climbed:   07/09/2014
Author:  pbakwin
 Sawatch thru-hike  

Sawatch 14ers Thru-Hike

When Mike suggested a backpack of the 15 Sawatch 14ers (Shavano through Holy Cross) I thought "OK, that sounds good. Great route." Then he said "I want to do it in 5 days", and I thought "OK, sounds good. And really hard!" It was particularly bold for Mike, as this would be his first real backpacking trip. We selected dates in early July which worked for both of us, coincided with the full moon, and, unfortunately, would likely be at the beginning of the monsoon. In retrospect, June would have been better, though this year was quite snowy. Also, it's just hard to get fit enough and well acclimated to these high altitudes by June.

The first task was to figure out the route, which actually wasn't that hard since most of the way we'd be following routes that have been established by people doing the "Nolan's 14" (Shavano through Massive within 60 hours). Jared Campbell was kind enough to share the GPS track of his successful Nolan's (with Matt Hart), which was an excellent start, and we were able to fill this in with some info from Eric Lee, who has scouted these routes about as thoroughly as anyone. We still needed to connect to Holy Cross, so I got on and drew some lines - "This looks like it will work."

Since this was Mike's first "real" backpacking trip, so he had to spend quite a bit of time (and $) assembling gear that would be both ultralight and able to withstand the hard use that these rugged mountains would no doubt dish out. For myself, the new (prototype) UD Fastpack 30L was the obvious choice since I'd been working with UD on its design. The pack worked great for this trip, had no durability issues and weighed only 19oz. For our shelter, I splurged on a new 8.5'x10' cuben fiber tarp from Zpacks. We were ready to go.

On July 8 we drove to Salida, stopping along the way to leave a food drop at Winfield, and checked into a motel in an intense thunderstorm. "Looks like the monsoon is here," I said.

Day 1: July 9 (Shavano, Tabaguache, Antero, Princeton; 22 miles / 12700' gain)
04:20 Shavano TH
06:45 Shavano
07:32 Tabaguache
08:52 Cross Brown's Creek
10:42 Antero
13:03 Baldwin Gulch TH
15:30 waiting out storm at 11,600' on Princeton
18:13 Princeton
20:34 camp on the CT

We got up at 3:00AM on Weds, July 9, drove 30 min. to the Shavano TH, and were underway at 4:20, marching up the easy trail by headlamp through the most extensive blow-down I've ever seen. Fortunately the Forest Service has cleared the trail, otherwise it would have been totally impassible. We summitted Shavano at 6:45 under clear, blue skies with basically no wind, then strolled over to Tabaguache. Two down, 13 to go.
Mike on Shavano

We had a clear view of our next objective - Antero. I had scouted the route a couple weeks earlier, and we made quick work of it, taking efficient lines into and out of the lovely Brown's Creek drainage. Soon we were slogging up the jeep road, which reaches 13700' on Antero's south ridge. I dropped my pack near the saddle for the final 500' vertical - it felt great to hike without the extra 20lbs for a few minutes. The summit of Antero was busy with people snapping photos and even drinking beer - quite a scene. We didn't linger too long though - plenty still to do today.

Goat on Antero

Returning to the saddle, we took an efficient line down on very loose talus and scree, cutting all the switchbacks on the jeep road down to 11900'. Once back on the road we were able to bum water from a nice couple from Minnesota who were just breaking camp and wrapping up their annual Colorado vacation. There was plenty of ambient water around, but I'm not always so keen on taking water in these heavily mined areas. The Baldwin Gulch jeep road went quickly, and by lunchtime we were strolling down the Chalk Creek Road and then through the little residential community of Alpine. We had a bit of a bushwhack to get into Grouse Canyon, but pretty quickly picked up the excellent use trail on the east side of Grouse Creek and then on up an eastern tributary - a wonderful and super direct route that neither of us had seen before.
Grouse Creek, Princeton

As we neared treeline the thunder and rain started, so we found a protected spot to throw up our tarp and wait it out. After 45 minutes or so the weather settled down so we packed up and continued to grind our way up to Princeton's south ridge.
Upper Grouse drainage, Princeton

The ridge itself was interesting though slow, with quite a bit of rock hopping and easy scrambling.
Princeton south ridge

We finally reached Princeton's summit at 6:15PM, both feeling quite tired from a big 12700' vertical day. We still had to descend the long, trail-less northeast ridge route, which truly seemed endless. It was nearly dark when we finally reached the Colorado Trail and found an excellent campsite near Maxwell Creek. We'd had a 16-hour hiking day, and we were beat!
camp on the CT

Day 2: July 10 (Yale, Columbia; 22.5 miles / 9400' gain)
05:05 leave camp
06:34 cross South Cottonwood Creek (8800')
07:35 cross Middle Cottonwood Creek (Avalanche TH)
09:14 leave CT on Yale East Ridge
11:13 Yale
13:13 cross North Cottonwood Creek
16:43 Columbia
18:23 bail off Harvard at 12900'
19:32 camp Frenchman Creek (11600')

After what turned out to be a restless night for both of us - too warm & too many mosquitoes - we got rolling around 5:00AM, a little later than we'd hoped. We cranked out the miles on the CT, arriving at the Avalanche TH after about 2.5 hours. It was a grind up to the high point of the CT on the east ridge of Yale, and REALLY a grind up the steep, loose east ridge, but we eventually made it to Yale where several day hikers were relaxing.
Yale east ridge

After a brief break we left the other hikers and dove off the northeast side of Yale, down the Nolan's route towards North Cottonwood Creek. Lower down we followed a steep, brushy avalanche gully and encountered a lovely, gushing spring amongst old airplane wreckage. Still lower the avy path became exceptionally brushy with lots of tedious downed timber, and it started to rain. Though unpleasant, the rain didn't disturb us too much at this point since we knew we had a bit of time traipse up the Horn Fork Trail before we got out of the trees - plenty of time for the storm to pass, which it did. We trudged slowly up Columbia's loose southwest slopes, finally arriving on the summit a little before 5:00PM. We didn't linger long as we still needed to get over Harvard and down into Pine Creek, hopefully before dark.
Mike on Columbia-Harvard traverse

The traverse was slow, as always, but more discouraging were the increasingly darkening skies, and it finally started raining again just as we completed the traverse section and began to ascend Harvard proper at around 12900'. There was no way to safely continue, so reluctantly we ditched it down into Frenchman Creek. This was really disappointing, but our spirits were buoyed when we quickly stumbled on the excellent Harvard Trail, of which we were completely unaware. It was getting late, and after a couple of miles we found an acceptable camp site in the trees at 11600', and set up our shelter in a cold rain.

Day 3: July 11 (Harvard; 24.3 miles / 9000' gain)
04:10 leave camp
05:29 back at 12900'
06:58 Harvard
09:28 cross Pine Creek
12:00 Elkhead Pass
13:40 Missouri Gulch TH
15:30 resupply at Winfield
16:40 Sheep Gulch TH
18:20 Hope Pass
19:20 camp at 11200' on Hope Pass Trail

Mike and I both awoke at 2:00AM. I said, "We could get up right now and try to catch up on our schedule. It would be a huge day, but we might be able to do it if the weather holds." Mike agreed, but somehow in our bleariness it took us 2 hours to get out of camp. We slogged back up the damp Harvard Trail by head lamp, losing the trail several times. Back at our turn-around point we were greeted by a beautiful sunrise.
Peter clowning around on Harvard

Eventually we reached the summit of Harvard, and after a brief break picked our way down the north ridge into Pine Creek, which we crossed on a good log.
Mike crossing Pine Creek

Peter in the Pine Creek drainage

By this point it was sinking in that it would be impossible for us to make up the time lost by being stormed off Harvard last night. We were on an aggressive schedule and the nature of the hike was such that we couldn't make up a few miles here and a few miles there - we had to get over the next peak or not. Adding Harvard to an already big day just wasn't going to work, and our 4th and 5th day plans were already huge, and the weather certainly wasn't what we needed. Still, I don't think either of us contemplated simply quitting - we had plenty of supplies and gear and were enjoying being out and each other's company. We quickly decided to rescope the trip and just do what we were able. It was clear, though, that we both were committed to getting to Holy Cross.
Pine Creek Trail

Mike said he'd rather bag Missouri and Huron than Oxford and Belford, which sounded good to me, so we headed up the easy and very lovely Pine Creek Trail. It felt great to just motor along a good trail. We turned up the Elkhead Pass Trail, but as we approached the pass dark clouds started to build over Missouri, so we decided to skip the 14ers and just make tracks over the pass and down into Missouri Gulch. It turned out that the storms held off for a little while, so we were able to get down to Missouri Gulch and have a nice rinse in the creek while it was still sunny. Once we got going up the Winfield Road the skies opened up, which at least kept the dust down on the tedious road section.

It was still raining when we reached our resupply stash near Winfield, and we found a dry spot under a pine tree to sort our stuff. In such weather La Plata seemed like a bad plan, so we trekked back down the Winfield Road to the Sheep Gulch TH and headed up towards Hope Pass, reminiscing about our various experiences in the Leadville 100 which uses this route. Rain continued on and off, but we were spared any electrical activity as we crested the pass at 6:20PM.
Mike makes a call on Hope Pass

We found a nice campsite in the trees on the north side of the pass and set up our tarp in the rain once again. We'd ended up skipping five 14ers, but put in a bunch of road and trail miles, and set ourselves up for a morning ascent of Elbert.
Camp on Hope Pass

Day 4: July 12 (32+ miles / 9000' gain)
06:05 leave camp
07:31 cross Lake Creek
08:20 Black Cloud TH
11:58 Elbert
13:58 Half Moon Creek (CT)
18:51 TH W of Turquoise Lake
21:32 camp in E Fork Homestake Creek (10800')

We got kind of a late start, getting some decent sleep for once. We rolled down the easy and wet Little Willis Trail. While we were strolling up Highway 82 towards the Black Cloud TH, our friend Brian drove up and offered us hot coffee, which I happily accepted. Brian's energy was infectious, and it really boosted our spirits that he was following our SPOT track and took the time to come out and encourage us along. Thanks Brian!
Highway 82

But, we couldn't convince Brian to hike Elbert with us, so at the Black Cloud TH we bid him goodbye and shifted into low gear for the long climb up Colorado's highest peak. We reached the very crowded (it was Saturday) summit just before noon and didn't linger long, heading down the exceptionally busy northeast ridge route - the most popular trail on Elbert. At tree line we encountered mosquitoes, which would plague us for pretty much the rest of the day.

Anticipating storms, we didn't climb Massive (had we intended to do so we would have descended off Elbert via the West Rib route). Instead, we decided to put in as many miles as we could on the Colorado Trail in order to set up for a morning ascent of Holy Cross the next day. Adding Holy Cross to the Nolan's route adds something like 25 miles, but not all that much vertical gain, maybe 7000'.

Grinding up out of Halfmoon Creek on the CT was hot, but we kept moving as quickly as possible in part because of the bugs. Clouds came later and the rain started when we reached the top of the infamous Sugarloaf Powerline, which is featured in both the Leadville 100 bike and run. The last section of the CT into the Timberline Lake TH was wet and seemed annoyingly indirect, just as it always did 85 miles into the 100 mile run. We reached the TH just before 7:00PM, and plopped down in the rain to try to figure out whether to continue. The next section would be a long bushwhack over a pass into Homestake Creek, which neither of us had ever done and we had no idea how it would go or how long it would take. But, somehow setting up camp in the rain and mosquitoes at that relatively busy TH seemed unappealing, so we decided to make a dash for Homestake.

The bushwhack up Mill Creek went reasonably well. We mostly did an ascending contour on the east side of the drainage, trying to avoid what looked like marshy terrain in the drainage itself. When we dropped into the upper drainage around 11300' we discovered a decent use trail, and wondered if the trail ascended the entire drainage, which would have been way easier than our route. In any event, we crested the 11750' pass between Mill Creek and Homestake just before 9:00PM with stunning views all around in a delicate evening light - it was truly an exhilarating reward for our hard effort to get up the pass.
Divide above Mill Creek

Switching on our headlamps, we made quick work of the steep descent into the East Fork of Homestake Creek and eventually found a good trail on the west side of the creek. Now all we needed was to find a camp site, but though the rain had stopped everything was very wet and the ground seemed marshy just about everywhere. After walking down the trail a while we finally noticed an elevated area to the left, and checking it out Mike located the very best campsite of the trip - flat, protected, soft ground and with several nice logs to sit on. Plus NO MOSQUITOES! It made no sense: for hours we'd be plagued by mosquitoes, yet here, in the wettest place we'd seen, there were none! We happily made camp and ate everything we could get our hands on, then fell into a well deserved sleep. We'd set ourselves up for an "easy" 19 mile day tomorrow.

Day 5: July 13 (19 miles / 5700' gain)
05:05 leave camp
06:40 Homestake Res. Rd
07:46 Gold Park / Holy Cross City jeep trail
08:57 Fall Creek Trail / Holy Cross Wilderness Boundary
10:20 reach Holy Cross Ridge at 13000'
12:46 Holy Cross
15:25 Half Moon TH

As we were leaving our most excellent campsite Mike said "I'm going to talk to Diane about moving here." We'd had a good night, but once again not really enough sleep. The route trail out to Homestake Reservoir Rd was easy and very scenic, and, of course, once again wet. I was certainly getting tired of wet shoes!

We soon reached the bottom of the Holy Cross City jeep trail, which turned out to be really rough and nasty - just all "baby head" rocks. A pain to walk - I sure wouldn't want to drive anything on that road. But, we just put our heads down and cranked up, and the going got MUCH nicer when we reached the Holy Cross Wilderness boundary and the Fall Creek Trail. Suddenly we were in beautiful, pristine mountain wilderness, which certainly buoyed my spirits. We left the trail around 11700' and ascended a drainage into a rugged cirque. An excellent but very steep grassy slope led right up to the south ridge of Holy Cross, which was our objective - a very direct and straightforward route.
Heading up to Holy Cross Ridge

Reaching the ridge, the stunning core of the Holy Cross Wilderness lay spread out before us, with lovely valleys and jagged peaks in every direction. We had plenty of time to admire all of this, as we picked our way across an endless side-hilling rock hop for about 2 miles to the final pitch up Holy Cross.
traversing Holy Cross Ridge

Reaching the top well after noon, we had yet another 14er summit to ourselves, as all the other hikers had already started descending in anticipation of the inevitable afternoon thunderstorms. We took a few celebratory photos and headed down.
Peter on Holy Cross

Peter's gear on Holy Cross

Hiking out was uneventful and seemed to go quickly. Once again we didn't want to stop or even slow down because of the mosquitoes. Reaching the TH at 3:25PM, where Mike's girlfriend Diane was waiting for us, was rather anticlimactic, as is often the case with these things. One minute you are totally focused on hiking making miles, and the next you are simply done and it's time to go back to your regular life.

What a great route! We know now that thru-hiking the 15 Sawatch 14ers in 5 days is possible - tough but possible. Maybe we'll go back and try again some day.

TOTAL: 120 miles / 45800' gain in 4d11h5m

My GPS Tracks on Google Maps (made from a .GPX file upload):

Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22

 Comments or Questions

07/17/2014 23:10
You are someone I truly look up to.


This is Tremendous
07/18/2014 00:03
see subject.

D Potter
most awesome story
07/18/2014 01:05
This was like a dream for me as I read the story. Thanks for your descriptive observations and details. A most awesome story.

Doug Shaw
07/18/2014 01:17
I believe I ran into Mike on Grays a month or so back. As he went past me on the descent I noticed his minimal gear and said ”Man, I feel like I overpacked.” He said ”If it helps, I have a 9 pound dumbbell in my pack.” I goaded him to explain. He said he was training for something big in the Sawatch, I said ”Nolan's 14?” ”15”. I had to ask him to repeat it because I thought I'd misheard him. Sounded awesome.

Tough that it didn't work out quite as expected, but it's part of the adventure that things don't always go perfectly. The peaks aren't going anywhere, and something tells me you'll be back.


07/18/2014 14:49
I would love to see or hear about the training that you two went through to prepare for this trip! It's an incredible trip... Very inspiring!

Re Training
07/18/2014 15:58
As far as ”training”, I just love to run and hike in the hills, so I do it a lot. I don't really view it as training as such. Living in Boulder, I'll typically run up Green Mtn most days, or maybe scramble a Flatiron or 2. On weekends I usually find something long to do, preferably up high if conditions warrant. Earlier this summer I did 3 ascents of Longs (N Face, Kieners), a 4-day ”scouting” trip in the Sawatch where I climbed I think 8 14ers, a 16-hour day in the Tenmile Range, and another 16-hour day in Wild Basin. Actually, for this trip I was more concerned about recovery from all those fun outings than getting fit! This is the way my life has gone for many years, but I am slowing down a little now in my 50s!

Another key aspect of a trip like this, in my opinion, is minimizing carried weight. On those STEEP ascents and especially on the more technical sections and rock hopping a heavy pack really slows you down. Plus it's just a lot more fun if you don't feel weighed down by your kit. Mike & I really worked our gear lists to bring only exactly what we needed, and to make sure everything we did bring was as light as possible. The food drop at Winfield helped, since we had to carry food for only 3 days from the start. My starting pack weight with food and 1L water was 20lbs. Mike is bigger, younger & eats more, so his starting weight was slightly more.


will be back for sure!
07/18/2014 17:44
This is too cool for a Friday prelunch read.

Wish I could ask you intelligent questions about the route but unfortuneatly not familiar with any of these obscure basins linking the peaks. I know your homeboy Anton really digs Grouse though haha.

Awesome job to the 2 of you! 50, shmifty, you the man Peter.


great job
07/18/2014 20:15
Strong work gents, glad you were still able to enjoy some trail miles in spite of the horrid weather. Looking forward to one day having a go at the full 15 myself. I will have to pick your brains about the holy Cross portion.



07/20/2014 23:07


07/21/2014 19:51
Holy cow. You have become legend. Thanks for the entertaining read.


Inspirational !
08/08/2014 21:41
Peter and Mike,

Excellent account of your trip, with plenty of useful anecdotes and commentary !!

I have been interested in hiking Colorado for several years, and have known of this site (and the 14ers ”club” in general) this whole time... but only now have I felt compelled to create an account in order to post.

Thanks for giving me the motivation to at least get started down the path toward the summits... albeit only a tiny baby step, and one which will lead me to tons of useful information and inspiration.

It might be feasible for me to hike in 2015, so I will try to plan for that, and will keep everyone updated on my progress towards whatever that turns out to be.

Thanks !

Jason H.

Phill the Thrill

Thank you!
01/26/2018 10:47
For the excellent notes and the .gpx file. I'm planning this for July this year, though I'm looking at a 7-8 day trip, and hoping the weather allows me to climb all 15.

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