Peak(s):  San Luis Peak  -  14,014 feet
Baldy Alto  -  13,698 feet
Stewart Pk  -  13,983 feet
Date Posted:  09/03/2014
Date Climbed:   08/31/2014
Author:  SurfNTurf
Additional Members:   binvers2
 The Casual Route (...on San Luis)   

The Casual Route (...on San Luis)

PEAKS: San Luis Peak (14,014'), Baldy Alto (13,698'), Stewart Peak (13,983')
ROUTE: Northeast Ridge to San Luis, then ridge run
DATE(S): Aug. 30 to Sept. 1, 2014
RT GAIN: ~3,500' from high camp
RT DISTANCE: ~6.5 miles from high camp
RT TIME: ~7 hours from high camp (including sunrise summit of San Luis)
CLIMBER(S): Jeff (SurfNTurf), Kate (binvers2), Remy

It's been a somewhat disappointing summer. The responsibilities of "real life" have made a habit of interfering with mountain ambitions, and I've too often found myself hiking half-days in the Front Range instead of more interesting weekend-long escapades in the San Juans or Sangres.

Kate and I had planned Wham Ridge over Labor Day as our major summer goal, but once again, the necessary time and money just weren't available. We kept the long weekend open, however, and eventually settled on backpacking excursion through the La Garita Wilderness. The highlight would be a sunrise summit of San Luis, which we had mulled for Mt. Ouray the previous Labor Day before saying "screw that" and sleeping in.

We departed Denver at 7 a.m. Saturday morning to avoid the heinous Friday evening traffic. Best decision of my life. The cruise down to Monarch Pass went quickly and without headaches. The 32-mile dirt road to reach the Stewart Creek Trailhead was another story. Somehow I'd dismissed it as not much to worry about, but the road is surprisingly rough in places for a low-clearance 2WD vehicle and it ended up taking us more than an hour from the Highway 114 turnoff. The vehicular approach from the Creede side is much less stressful and infuriating.

At any rate, we began hiking at 12:30 p.m. The rough itinerary was to camp at treeline, sunrise summit San Luis on Sunday and then carry over the Organ/San Luis saddle to create a loop out on the CT/CDT. The reality was we had a map, loose goals and open minds. We'd just play it by ear and decide what we felt like doing as the weekend went along.

The approach hike was so short we overshot timberline by a solid 500 feet, expecting to find one last stand of trees to serve as a base. That grove never came, and a graupel storm convinced us to throw up our tent on the closest flat area at around 12,400'. With a water source, an established flat dirt platform and a sheltered location from adverse weather, our hurried campsite ended up serving as a pleasant home away from home.

Hiking up the Stewart Creek Trail on Saturday afternoon.

Waiting out a graupel storm and going over the route.

Hiding inside our tent from the wind and graupel, we decided to be lazy about the following morning and hike San Luis with light summit packs. It would mean having to climb the Organ/San Luis saddle twice, but whatever. It seemed like a good idea at the time, plus it would free me up to potentially tack on Baldy Alto and Stewart Peak.

The weather finally broke in the early evening and we escaped the tent to explore our environs. It was truly an awesome campsite. One of the draws of the La Garitas was seclusion, but we'd been surprised to see two or three other groups leaving the trailhead with overnight packs. Crowds definitely weren't an issue up near 12,500'. After a breathtaking sunset we crawled into the tent for an early bedtime, with the alarm set for 3 a.m.

Stretching our legs after the storm.

Sunset on Organ Mountain.

Nope, not a bad campsite at all.

The idea was to be on the summit of San Luis by 5:30 a.m. We met our goal easily, despite wasting a lot of time trying to scare off some unknown creature stalking us from a few hundred feet away. All we could see was its eyes. The damn thing was probably a mule deer, but for the sake of this story we'll call it a close encounter with some sort of mutant mountain lion/bear-hybrid.

It turns out 5:30 a.m. is a bit too early for a sunrise summit in late August. A cold hour-long vigil ensued. The wind was pretty brutal, a steady 15-25mph in the frigid morning dark. Of course, it was all worth it once the lightshow began. It was the first sunrise summit for both us, the realization of plans we'd made and broken probably a half-dozen times, and we enjoyed every second.

Here comes the sun.

Blood red over the Sangres.

Getting closer.


Cool. Now warm me up.

Sun rising above the clouds.

Warming up, finally.

Taking it all in.

San Luis mountain shadow.

Once the sun was finally bestowing its warmth upon us, it was time to decide what to do next. It was early (...obviously...) and I saw no reason not to wander over to Baldy Alto. Kate was more interested in feeling her fingers again, so she opted to descend to the tent with Remy. I'd noted a mellow spur that lead down from Baldy Alto almost directly to our camp, and figured that by taking that after my summit I'd return to the tent only a few minutes after she did.

The hike over to Baldy Alto was straightforward. A few sections looked somewhat difficult from afar but were easily bypassed, usually to the right. The summit was slightly more blocked from the wind than San Luis, but I didn't linger for more than 30 seconds. Stewart looked so tantalizingly close across an easy ridgeline of tundra. I quickly estimated I could be there and back within an hour and took off at a jog. Kate was waiting, and there was still a chance she'd want to pack up camp and continue on our loop.

Might as well go for a morning stroll.

Ridge bumps to Baldy Alto.

Stewart from Baldy Alto. Looks close, right? There and back in an hour, right? Fail...

Man, was I wrong. Stewart is a very deceptive two miles away from Baldy Alto, and it took my estimated hour round-trip just to reach the Centennial's summit. Contouring across the tundra had been easy enough, but a long section of wobbly talus had slowed me considerably and I'd underestimated the required distance/gain. Luckily the summit was being peppered by 40-45mph wind gusts and I had no excuse to linger. I snapped a few photos, signed the register, played with a weird jawbone (later determined to be a beaver) and took off after about five minutes.

Rather than try to stay even and minimize the elevation gain across the talus section, as I had on the ascent, I aimed for the ridge proper along the Column Ridge/Baldy Alto saddle. The talus had been worryingly loose, and a broken ankle on a solo hike in an insanely unfrequented area would be bad news. As always, the ridge proper was much more stable and even had a bit of fun exposure. Before long I was staring up at my last 600' of gain for the day back up Baldy Alto.

The lack of sleep finally caught up to me and I slogged up the tundra slope, having to stop for a standing break five or six times. Finally reached, the Baldy Alto summit remained blessedly blocked from the incessant wind. I stopped to truly enjoy the setting for the first time all day. The last person to sign the summit register had been on August 11, which was mind-boggling to me considering how easy of an add-on Baldy Alto is to San Luis. As I'd hoped, there was a mellow descent line that deposited me a hundred feet or so from the tent. I arrived right as Kate was waking up from a 2.5-hour nap.

Elk herd around 13,200'.


Summit of Stewart Peak.

Jawbone on the Stewart summit cairn.

#summitselfie in the wind.

Looking back at the day's work.

The spectacular San Juans.

Column Ridge.

One more saddle...

Soul-crushing slog back to Baldy Alto.

San Luis, from the summit of Baldy Alto.

Organ Mountain and my orange tent waaaay down below.

See, it's down there.

Never gets old. My favorite mountains...

Descent ridge the obvious tundra line in the bottom of the photo.

Almost home.

With the wind increasing, storm clouds building and my legs burning, we decided not to go back over the Organ/San Luis saddle. Instead we rested for an hour before packing up camp and moving about 1,000 feet down to more established sites below treeline. Even after all this, we were settled in our new location by 1:30 p.m.

The rest of the trip was passed as lazily as possible. It was amazing just to spend some time relaxing in the wild, with no screens or worries or tight itineraries. By 7 p.m. I could barely keep my eyes open and we passed out for a blissful 12 hours of sleep.

I'd entertained the idea of trying for Organ Mountain on Monday morning, but I didn't see the point in ruining a perfectly relaxing weekend by being a slave to a list. The Centennials will get done eventually. As I learned from the 14ers, there's no parade or Swedish Bikini Team waiting at the finish line. Enjoying the journey is more important than reaching its end.

We'd packed up camp and were hiking out the remaining two or three miles by 8 a.m. Mornings in the mountains are simply gorgeous, and even the otherwise boring flat trail hike to the car was euphoric. This was one of those weekends you never want to end. Well, except for the stupid hour-long dirt road romp back to the highway. The dreaded Labor Day traffic wasn't even that bad. We were back home in Denver by 4:30 p.m., with plenty of time for me to rosterbate to my fantasy football teams before the start of the short work week.

Columbines at our low camp.

Perfect morning for a hike out.

We made him carry all our trash. Sucker.

One last water break.

Until next time...

Thanks for reading.


Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
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Comments or Questions

09/03/2014 19:12
No Swedish Bikini Team???

Jon Frohlich

Real life....
09/03/2014 19:28
I'm finding that even with less frequent trips out I'm appreciating the ones I do even more. Looks like you guys definitely had a great weekend!


Nice write up!
09/03/2014 19:54
”...stupid hour-long dirt road romp back to the highway.” Exactly, how I feel about that drive. Thanks for the write up SurfNTurf!!


09/03/2014 19:59
I should've added Baldy Alto when I did San Luis last month. I'd love to head back that way and check out some of the other peaks - thanks for the TR!

Steve Climber

Nice work Remy!
09/03/2014 20:04
and I guess Jeff and Kate...sounds like a perfect way to spend a weekend.

Doug Shaw
09/03/2014 23:38
As I was scrolling down through that sequence of sunrise photos, in my head I heard the opening fanfare of ”Also Sprach Zarathustra”... pretty cool!


You worry too much
09/04/2014 01:11
Organ is not a centennial, so you didn't lose out on an opportunity to get closer to the finish line.

Pretty area of the San Juan Mtn's. Stewart stands out as a favorite cent' hike for me.


Beautiful pics!
09/04/2014 03:29
Great trip report!


09/04/2014 14:40
Jay -- My mom did buy me dinner, though.

Jon -- Definitely agree man. When the trips aren't all blending together there's more opportunity to savor them.

John -- Did you just write an entire message of positivity?

Teddy -- Just do it whenever you go hit Stewart! Column Ridge and Baldy Chato are right there, as well.

Shitshow -- Need to get Remy on some ice tools this winter.

Natalie -- Thanks for your TR, it helped a lot with planning.

Doug -- All I could hear was that one song from Frozen.

Darin with one R -- I guess that shows how seriously I'm taking the Centennial list.

buckeyejes -- Thanks!

D Potter
09/15/2014 03:07
Awesome. I am envious.


Just lovely
04/02/2015 19:45
Sounds like you took the time to appreciate the basin! You know, Organ will always be there - maybe just a bit more crumbly True to that ridge between Baldy Alto and Stewart seems to never end - and I also went over the ridge on the way back, felt much more solid. The herd of deer must be a fixture there too. They like that spot.

p.s. Be thankful you didn't have to drive on a donut tire on that road. Seriously. It took for-ever.

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