Peak(s):  Sunshine Peak  -  14,001 feet
Date Posted:  09/11/2019
Date Climbed:   09/10/2019
Author:  northcountry
 Avalanche on Silver Creek South Fork trail  

In 2011, when I still lived in Colorado, I tried the east ridge route to Sunshine Peak from Mill Creek Campground with my 9 year old daughter. Unfortunately, I lost the trail several times and ultimately ended up on a slope that was loose gravel. You know the kind of slope--three steps up then slide back two. It takes a lot of energy away, climbing like that and ultimately we turned back. I've thought over the years that if we could have just gotten a little further, we would have gotten out of the trees and onto the east ridge where we could see the rest of the route all the way to the summit. No way to get lost then.

In early 2012, we moved to western Canada onto the islands off the coast of British Columbia, just below the Alaska Panhandle. So I didn't get back to Colorado for about 6 years until I came back last year to climb in the San Juans for two weeks in late August. The main reason was to show myself that I could still do 14ers in my 60's (and by now I'm in my late 60s, as I'll turn 68 this Saturday). Last year I surprised myself by doing three new 14ers in 8 days (Handies, San Juan Peak, and Redcloud--my daughter, then 16 and a member, joined me for Redcloud) with no ill effects to bring my 14ers list to 13, all after I turned 59. So I decided to come back to the Lake City area again this year and try Sunshine again.

I kept thinking about it and second-guessing myself about which route to use. I really wanted to try the east ridge again, but in looking at all the trip reports I could find on that route, it looked like the same conditions as in 2011--a lot of bushwhacking and route-finding without a lot of cairns to follow. But I didn't really want to go the same route as last year and have to go over Redcloud to get to Sunshine. But I looked closer at the Northwest Face route. It looked shorter and I already was familiar with the first part of the route from my Redcloud climb last year. So yesterday, the 10th of Sept., I decided to try Sunshine via the NW Face route. Had no problem finding the cairn to cross Silver Creek. It's obvious because that's the only valley or gulley with a stream coming down into the south side of Silver Creek; that's the South Fork. So it would be really hard to miss that crossing. Bill's route description mentions "a small trail in the bushes, a few feet to the left". So that helped, but there was also an even smaller trail to the left of that (more on that below). The trail was well-worn and easy to follow.

But only about 10 minutes up the South Fork, all of a sudden I hit a complete blockage of the trail. Not only the trail, but the entire bottom of the valley was filled up with debris consisting of full-size trees and large talus. I went to myself "What the hell happened here?" I hadn't seen any trip reports about it on the website, which I checked the night before. I tried to climb to climber's left (east side of the creek) to get past the blockage. But it was steep, very loose and filled with brush thick enough to cover the view of the ground. I didn't want to place my foot and have it not hit solid ground until I'd lost my footing and tumbled down the slope. I figured, "Bleep this nonsense! Oh well. I'm only about 10 minutes from the main trail. I can still try to continue up to Redcloud and see how late it's getting and, if not too late, head over to Sunshine from there."

When I got back to the main creek, I tried the even-smaller trail I mentioned above, just in case I was mistaken and there was another trail up the South Fork higher up on the east side of the valley that somehow got around the blockage. But that just went 50 yards or so up along the south side of the main Silver Creek. So if you ever try the trail, don't waste you energy on that little trail. The main trail heads pretty much straight up the canyon and bears a little bit left, as Bill describes.

A little ways further up the main creek, I ran into several blockages of ice. I was wondering what was going on there. Last year, there was nothing of the sort. It had been dry trail all the way up. And this year, the driving theme seemed to be that there hadn't been a sharp frost yet. I had that fact driven home to me the entire drive from Denver on Monday. I had so looked forward to coming 3 weeks later this year because I would be climbing in the peak season for the aspens. I couldn't believe that I saw no--as in zero--color on the entire drive from Denver to Lake City. Even went over Cottonwood Pass for the first time in 30 years (Surprise! It's paved the whole way).

So temperatures hadn't been low enough in the San Juans for the amount of snow I was seeing and it was obvious that the snow wasn't fresh. Shortly after I started hiking over these ice blockages, a young BLM ranger came up the creek behind me. He solved the riddle for me. He said that there had been a lot of avalanche activity at the end of last winter and those avalanches were too big in volume to have had time to melt this summer.

He also mentioned something curious about the trail. He told me that BLM doesn't consider the South Fork approach to the NW face to be a trail and that that was the reason that BLM doesn't maintain it any more. I gather from that that they won't be clearing out the avalanche debris. So if you choose this route up Sunshine, be aware of the bushwhacking you'll have to do while climbing to either side of the blockage and that the blockage may not be cleared in the foreseeable future.

I continued up the trail to Redcloud, but the delay from my detour up the South Fork was over half an hour and I hadn't really planned extra time for a detour. This was also only supposed to be an acclimation hike anyway, so I got to the saddle of the winds on the NE ridge at 13,000 ft. and realized with the detour delay that I was later than I had planned. Also this was 3 weeks later than I climbed last year, so I knew that the darkness comes considerably earlier, especially in the canyons, where sundown is really 2 hours earlier than on flat areas. I also thought that if I try Sunshine again next week, that I'd just end up going over Redcloud again anyway. So I didn't really need to do it this day.

But the thought keeps going through my head. Now Sunshine, the lowest of all 14ers, can only be accessed by doing three 14er summits (over Redcloud both directions plus Sunshine itself) or by bushwhacking your way up the south slopes of the east ridge from Mill Creek Campground.

The thought is that the mountain gods just don't want me to go up Sunshine. Think I'll try Uncompahgre tomorrow....Joe from the North Country

 Comments or Questions

NW Face
09/12/2019 06:30
Just so you know, the NW face route is still accessible. I used it in July. Compared to a lot of areas, the avalanche debris in that drainage really wasn't too bad. It probably slowed us by 5 or 10 minutes at the most.

I'd encourage you to give the route another shot. Just arm yourself with the knowledge that you'll have to zigzag a bit and get creative to find a path through


Avalanche Warning
09/12/2019 16:24
I tried the right (east) side of the creek/valley and was slip-slidin' away, as Paul Simon would put it. Maybe across the creek on the west (climber's right) side would work. Thanks for the encouragement.

Ascent of East Ridge on 9/14
09/15/2019 21:33
Joe from the North...sorry you haven't been able to climb that route. I climbed the East Ridge yesterday. It was fairly easy to stay on trail, though I did have to stop many times to look around for the next cairn on the trail. There was no bushwhacking at all. My initial plan was to just summit Sunshine, but I felt that descending the East Ridge would be too risky as it is steep and loose in the trees, so I descended via the Northeast Ridge. I was able to hitch a ride back to the campground, saving me another 3 miles of hiking.


East Ridge
09/16/2019 09:07
Nice to know Sunshine is still workable from the east. If the bushwhacking isn't an issue, maybe I'll try it again from that side. Thanks.

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