Peak(s):  Middle Pk  -  13,300 feet
Dolores Pk  -  13,290 feet
Date Posted:  11/06/2019
Date Climbed:   11/03/2019
Author:  supranihilest
Additional Members:   whileyh
 Only the Finest Choss the San Miguel Mountains Have to Offer  

At the time of publication for this report there's only one other report on this site for Dolores Peak and none for Middle Peak; this report aims to change that and provide alternative beta for these two mountains. The other trip report didn't talk much about route finding challenges on these peaks and Whiley and I believe the route we took is both a better and safer way to do them, so here goes.

The San Miguel Mountains, a western sub-range of the San Juan Mountains, are known for their incredibly loose and rotten rock. The only peaks probably 99% of all readers here have heard of are the Wilson group of 14ers: Mount Wilson, Wilson Peak, and El Diente Peak. They've been "cleaned up" by gazillions of climbers and have copious beta, photos, etc. to help. No such luck for the 13ers Middle Peak and Dolores Peak, two behemoths in the middle of nowhere straddling the San Miguel and Dolores county borders. These peaks are not of any technical difficulty, they're just massive piles of incredibly loose and often unstable rock. The biggest challenge is thus just how awfully chossy these things are, though Whiley and I had trouble finding what we thought was a good route, trying multiple different options until we finally found an easier way both up and down.

Our "trailhead" wasn't a trailhead in the normal sense of the word. The south side of these peaks is really the only approachable side; the north and east sides are incredibly steep and loose and the west side has no nearby roads. The south side has roads up from Dunton and is also lower angled. From Dunton we drove several miles up Dolores County Road 52 to a hairpin curve and parked there. The coordinates for the hairpin are 37.824137, -108.119925. There was a short spur from the hairpin to a small parking area but this was occupied by what we assumed to be a hunter's truck and trailer. We spent the night on the road and started at about 8am the next morning.

From the very start the peaks were, well, prominent. Middle, Dolores, and 12er Dunn Peak stand apart from the rest of the San Juan and the next closest high peaks, the Wilson group of 14ers, are many miles to the east.

19949_01
Dolores Peak from the "trailhead".
19949_02
Middle Peak.

There's no trail at all from the "trailhead", but the route through the forest was largely obvious: hike towards the enormous mountains. The creek (Fish Creek) could be used as a guide for those times when the forest was thick enough to block the views. We obviously had snow on our approach, just an inch or two in patches. We were able to avoid most of it. We crossed the creek several times as we hiked up the drainage. In the spring the creek crossings would be more difficult and potentially more numerous. Elevation gain in the first couple of miles was minimal and the drainage slowly constricted into a steep-walled canyon. A cliff covered in ice and running water blocked passage. The easy part was over.

19949_03
The frozen waterfall we had to bypass. Photo: Whiley H.

We had read in the other trip report that they had climbed up the eastern side of the drainage to a shoulder below Dolores Peak. We thus headed directly up the steep slope to our right (to the east) which was covered in a thin layer of snow. This initial part from the bottom of the drainage was sketchy and didn't get any better as we ascended through the forest on a rib and then and into a broad, shallow gully.

19949_04
Cliffs on Middle Peak from the rib. We'd eventually descend back to this point and cross the snow, above cliffs, before continuing up the drainage and then to the west side of the creek. Photo: Whiley H.

Once the rib merged into the gully the terrain steepened more and gave way to hard packed dirt with scree on top. There were chossy towers directly above us that funneled us left (north) into the easiest looking gully; several of the gullies nearer to the towers had small cliffs that were obviously extremely rotten.

19949_05
Looking up the gully. Rotten towers of red rock are visible in the center. We made our way around them on climber's left.

The views of Dunn Peak from the gully were stunning and we likely would not have gotten them if we were on a good route; they still were not worth it as the sketch factor in the gully increased.

19949_06
12,620 foot Dunn Peak. Note how little solid looking anything there is on either Dunn or Middle (to the right).
19949_07
Views to the south towards Black Mesa (on the right). Any Half-Life fans out there? The rock is clearly just awful. Photo: Whiley H.

We attempted to stay on vegetated terrain and use the trees sprinkled throughout the slope to aid us up the scree and dirt. The trees proved to be the most useful and we actually would pull ourselves up with them. I always tried to keep a tree directly below me should I fall, so I could potentially grab it as a fall would probably otherwise be totally uncontrollable. There was some Class 2+ to Class 3 scrambling on rotten but short outcrops here and there, and this was somehow preferable to the scree.

19949_08
Just look at how much scree there is. The steepness is actually pretty accurate in this photo. Most of this slope was 35 degrees or higher which is way too high for this kind of chip rock junk. Whiley's comment on this photo: "this is hilarious... most def shows a route no one in their right mind should EVER take".
19949_09
More steep, extremely loose trash. The dirt was so hardpacked it was like climbing on a smooth slab. I tried staying on scree because at least it offered some friction and bite on the slope.

All in all we ascended several hundred feet up the southwest slopes of Dolores before calling it quits. We had both noticed the angle creeping up ever so slightly as we gained elevation, almost imperceptible until we realized we were probably at 40 or 45 degrees with hundreds of feet of chip rock below us. Whiley had her microspikes on to provide some traction and I had one trekking pole for balance; we deemed the risk not worth it as we didn't want to get into terrain so steep we couldn't down climb it. Discouraged we descended back towards Fish Creek slowly so as to not slip.

19949_10
Looking back down the gully on the descent. Yes, it's that steep.

I cannot recommend this route up the southwest slopes. It was incredibly dangerous in the condition we found it in, and some form of traction and an ice axe would have helped in all honesty, even in dry conditions. Perhaps if the entire slope were caked in a thick layer of snow one could turn it into a nice snow climb but due to its southwest aspect it likely never gets enough snow for that. In any case, avoid it when dry.

We descended back to the rib and crossed the snowfield shown earlier. Here's a refresher of that.

19949_04
This was not as steep as the terrain above. Photo: Whiley H.

This snowfield crossing planted us directly back on the creek, but above the first frozen waterfall we encountered. The next obstacle was a set of steps cut into the shale by the flowing water, which of course meant smooth rock made slick by water and ice.

19949_11
With traction this wouldn't be an immediate one way trip over the waterfall below, but otherwise the rock was like walking on Teflon coated glass.

Whiley still had her microspikes on so she crossed the creek here and then traversed on its west side on steep and loose dirt. Starting to sound familiar, isn't it? I wasn't about to get my feet anywhere near such slick rock without some kind of traction so I walked across the creek on a downed tree and then up my own steep and loose dirt slope into a large talus field below Middle Peak. I was now also on the west side of the creek. Whiley and I lost visual contact for several minutes and I called down to her from above that I'd found a way up; she ascended her own way upstream, but still steep and loose.

19949_12
The slope I ascended. This dirt was at least soft and offered some kind of traction.
19949_13
An icy pool Whiley found on her ascent. Photo: Whiley H.

We reunited in the talus field and surveyed the route we had attempted to go up. We both expressed our relief that we weren't on the eastern side of the creek attempting to climb the heinous and dangerous slopes up Dolores. The talus field we were on didn't look like fun but we'll take not-fun over dangerous any day.

19949_14
Our turnaround point is off the frame to the right somewhere. The gully and diffuse rib near the top center are where we probably would have come up, and it's far steeper than it looks. Note the frozen waterfall on the left.
19949_15
Calling Dolores County ice climbers, all three of them! This looks like it might go at WI2-WI3.

The talus field was the key to making this route safer and easier. If you come out for a climb of these peaks make sure to take note of what the talus field looks like both up and down. The best way to approach it is from the western side of the creek; if you're climbing either east/northeast, on any kind of steep terrain, or attempting to navigate around cliffs and waterfalls in the drainage prior to hitting the talus field you'll likely find yourself in more difficult terrain than is necessary.

19949_16
The talus field, looking up towards Middle Peak. This was steep and somewhat unstable but a vast improvement over Dolores' southwest slopes. We didn't go directly up the grass as that was steeper than the talus in the center and left of the photo; we skirted the grass and then cut right to the next bench.
19949_19
Looking down the talus field to the forest. The terrain is nearly flat to where the talus begins, which is far below the usual treeline elevation. If we had ascended this way we would have found no difficult terrain at all until this point. We did descend this way and it was a walk in the park (all hiking, relatively stable and lower angle) compared to our earlier ascent and descent on the east side of the creek.
19949_20
Looking across the drainage to the southeast. The shoulder mentioned in osprey's trip report is clearly visible here but the ascent getting to it is more difficult and dangerous than ascending the west side of the creek.

Whiley and I took a break here for a couple of minutes and discussed what our plans were. We'd wasted quite a bit of time with our adventure up Dolores and were both in a bad mood because of it. We agreed to hike to the top of the next bench and see what things looked like, and then make another judgement call from there. We began up the talus which was a heck of a lot better than the scree across the creek and made quick progress up to the next area.

19949_21
Simple terrain here, just walk right across the open area to the saddle-like area between the two peaks.
19949_22
The view up/north from the saddle-like area in the other photo. We aimed for the grassy slope to climber's left of the strip of snow at the saddle here, as the right side was all cliffs and sketchy looking stuff.

While we couldn't see the route up either peak we liked the look of the route from this point and decided to continue until we could once again see another big section of the route.

19949_23
Cliffs on Dolores' west face.
19949_24
Cliffs on Middle's east face. The obvious peak in center is one of the termini on Middle's crescent shaped summit ridge and not the true summit.

More talus slogging up past what we assumed to be the Middle/Dolores saddle dumped us in yet another talus filled basin.

19949_25
Millions of talus, talus for me. Millions of talus, talus for free.

The saddle in the photo is actually one of two minor saddles, with the bump stuck between them. We slogged our way up the basin and headed for Middle Peak first, since it was the higher of the two (by only a few feet, but still). Middle Peak would also be the easier of the two as its east slopes were less steep than Dolores' northwest slopes.

19949_26
Looking up Middle's east slopes. The summit is down the summit/skyline ridge to the right.
19949_27
Continuing to chug our way up the unrelenting talus which eventually gave way to scree higher up.

The views of the Wilson 14ers as we ascended Middle were mindblowing, rising out of the earth in a singular, massive uplift.

19949_28
Wilson Peak, Gladstone Peak (the two pyramids), El Diente Peak (the more square shaped block) and Mount Wilson (mostly hidden). The basin in the center is Navajo Basin, and on the right is Kilpacker Basin. Photo: Whiley H.

The rock went through several changes as we ascended, some of which have been visible in the photos thus far. From blocky talus to yellow scree and then to exceptionally rotten red rock banded with white, granitic rock. The summit ridge itself shifted between different types of rock several times.

19949_29
Friable, junky rock. The bump in center is not the true summit.
19949_30
Dunn Peak displaying varying types of rock, with a couple different textures visible in the foreground as well.

The hike up from the basin to the summit ridge had lifted our spirits but the summit ridge caused them to soar. Narrow, exposed, and covered in snow, the out-and-back to the point on the ridge that marks the true summit was the last of the spice we'd get for the day and made the troubles we had earlier worth it.

19949_31
The closer of the two summits is the true summit. Most maps have the second, farther summit marked as the true summit but it was obviously not when we topped out on the first. The Google map here on 14ers.com shows the summit as the far one, but the map pin itself and coordinates on the peak page correctly have it as the middle of the ridge.

The ridge wasn't difficult, nothing more than Class 2+, but it required care due to the exposure on both sides and snow on top.

19949_32
Exposed and loose.
19949_33
Last stretch before the summit. The dark red area is actually a small notch with a move or two of Class 2+ on rotten rock that demanded attention.

Expansive views awaited us on the summit in every direction. The majority of the San Juan lie to our north, east, and south, and the vast Utah desert to our west.

19949_34
View towards Middle's sub-summit with Lone Cone and Utah behind.
19949_35
Looking south across Middle's summit ridge to the La Plata Mountains.
19949_36
Sneffels Range. I couldn't possibly begin to name most of the peaks visible in this photo.
19949_37
Wilson group again, now with El Diente and Mount Wilson having more visual clarity.

The summit ridge had pepped us right now. We both agreed that our moods had done a complete 180 in about ten minutes due to how much fun and how visually satisfying the final climb up Middle had been. With smiles on our faces we turned around and retraced our steps back to Middle's east slopes and down towards the flats in the basin.

19949_38
Back down the ridge with Dolores in view. Photo: Whiley H.
19949_39
Fun ridge! Photo: Whiley H.

We hadn't paid much attention to the route up Dolores but it seemed straightforward enough: climb the massive pile of loose junk that's almost identical to the massive pile of loose junk we just climbed.

19949_40
Dolores looking large.
19949_41
Sea of scree, tarn of talus, lake of loose.

We ran/skated down the slope and up onto the bump between the twin saddles to take photos before moving along to collect Dolores.

19949_42
Graceful curves. The other side was sheer walls and rotten ribs for several thousand feet to the valley floor.
19949_43
Dolores. There's several trails, some of which are faintly visible with thin bands of snow. Photo: Whiley H.

Dolores didn't look like a particularly difficult peak from the vantage below its northwest slopes, but it was steeper than Middle. Whereas Middle had no trails Dolores had some trail segments. We intermittently used them and walked directly up the talus when no trail was available.

19949_44
That's a big ol' pile o' rocks.
19949_45
Snow covered trail. Photo: Whiley H.

We grunted up Dolores without much difficulty, reaching its summit about an hour and ten minutes after leaving Middle. It was colder and windier on Dolores but still nearly t-shirt weather, and in November no less! Dolores had two summit register canisters for some reason, so I signed one while we lounged. Middle looked incredible from Dolores, far better than the reverse.

19949_46
Dang, yo.

After ten or so minutes of drinking it all in we began our long descent down the talus to the basin and thence towards the creek and our cars. The going was just as tedious down as up but onward we must go.

19949_47
On the way down. The shoulder mentioned in the other trip report is kind of visible on this photo. I still would not go that way if I had a choice.
19949_20
Repeat photo from above that once again shows the shoulder. The lower outcrop in the center is visible in the photo immediately previous.
19949_19
Repeat photo from above that shows the path of least resistance down into the forest.

We picked our way through the endless rock and eventually into the forest where we meandered a different path than the one we'd come up. Near to the road I found a wallet which had been dropped recently; I took it back with me and dropped it off with the police to return to its owner. We quickly packed up and ate dinner in Ridgway before making our respective long drives home while thoughts of the Wilsons danced in our heads.

19949_48
Parting shot of the Wilsons. Photo: Whiley H.


Statistics

Climbers: Ben Feinstein (myself), Whiley H. (whileyh)
Trailhead: Hairpin curve on Dolores County Road 52 (37.824137, -108.119925)
Total distance: 9.54 miles
Total elevation gain: 4,690 feet
Total time: 7:49:40
Peaks: Two ranked thirteeners

  • Middle Peak, 13,300'
  • Dolores Peak, 13,290'

Splits:

Starting Location Ending Location Via Time (h:mm:ss) Cumulative Time (h:mm:ss) Rest Time (m:ss)
Dolores County Road 52 Middle Peak 4:33:08 4:33:08 0:00
Middle Peak Dolores Peak 1:07:11 5:40:19 9:18
Dolores Peak Dolores County Road 52 2:00:04 7:49:40 Trip End

GPX users please note: I marked a point on the track that says "DO NOT GO THIS WAY" that obviously corresponds with an ascent up Dolores' dangerous southwest slopes. Take heed of that warning! Do NOTgo that way. Download has been disabled because I do not want anyone making the same mistake we did despite the numerous warnings in this report. Once again, heed the warning and stay away from Dolores' southwest slopes!


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 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48


 Comments or Questions
whileyh

Not Dunn Yet...
11/06/2019 16:38
I thoroughly enjoyed your company for these lonely 13ers! Excellent TR for some much needed beta on these two peaks. We will have to come back for Dunn and ridge romp up to MiddleĆ¢‚¬„¢s sub-summit. Extra thanks for dealing with my temper tantrum up that never ending talus field ;)


osprey
You did it the hard way.
11/06/2019 16:54
We did Dolores as a snow climb and did not encounter any talus.
It would make an excellent spring snow ascent and ski descent if you are of that persuasion.


Tornadoman

Nice to see...
11/06/2019 19:16
A report on some lesser done 13ers. Love those Wilson group views!


yaktoleft13


Rise and shine Mr. Freeman
11/06/2019 21:04
"The right man in the wrong place can make all the difference in the world."

Guess Gman was talking about you on that scree slope the whole time!


supranihilest

Respondin'
11/06/2019 22:15
@Whiley: We definitely ain't Dunn with these ones yet, but I have a feeling Dunn's more straight forward! And I was right there with you on that awful talus field, who put all those damn rocks there?!

@osprey: I'm sure it would! Middle also looked like it'd make for a fun and easy ski descent via the east slopes, or an extreme ski descent into its south bowl. That might be too steep though, I wouldn't call myself much of a skier so I'm not sure.

@Tornadoman: Aye, that's the goal with this one! These weren't particularly difficult peaks but I was kind of surprised by the dearth of beta. Hopefully the incredible views of the Wilsons inspire more folks to go after these obscure peaks!

@yaktotheleft13: "So wake up, Mr. Freeman... wake up and smell the scree." https://www.youtube.com/embed/mRtT4HHQef0?start=35


dillonsarnelli

went for these in July
11/07/2019 11:31
I never found the "TH" and after my dog lost a toenail in the talus field and I gave up. haha. Nice job, Ben! Also whileyh has a 14ers.com account like sirkingclayton. who knew!


supranihilest

Yikes!
11/07/2019 15:25
@Dillon: Your poor pup! I hope it made a swift recovery and you two return to these peaks. They're more beastly than they should be but they exist and thus must be climbed!


Jay521

Heck of a reoport!
11/09/2019 14:12
What a day and way to stick to it!


supranihilest

A day indeed!
11/11/2019 20:07
@Jay: Thanks! We were pretty happy with this one, turned out to not be such a bad day!


Matt

Thanks for this
11/12/2019 11:20
It's an unknown slog no more. Every year, I consider these two and end up elsewhere because of lack of beta.
If and when some slogging sounds good, I'm one step closer to going after these.


supranihilest

Beta
11/12/2019 12:32
@Matt: You're welcome, glad this will get you (and hopefully others!) out onto less traveled but no less worthy peaks!


whileyh

Shhhh
11/14/2019 12:15
Dillon, ah shoot my secret 14ers account is no longer secret! ;)
Ha ha I often use this wonderful site to check out conditions/trailhead reports ... I was impressed by how prolific "supra nihil est" was all year and decided to slip into his Insta DMs lol
I love using allllll of the CO peakery sources, especially the absolutely mad routes the Kirk's do on LoJ... But in all seriousness, I am extremely appreciative for this site, lately the overlay functions like Snotel have been the freaking bomb!
And of course the info put up in TRs from people like Ben and yourself are of great value
Looks like you've been doing work in the SJs? I'll be spending my entire 2020 summer there, mostly focusing on Weminuche me thinks. Let me know if you want to join forces for some of those.


Bombay2Boulder

Thanks
10/04/2020 22:10
Thanks for this TR. I knew exactly which route not to take , but I followed the conney's route and had a great time. I will put up a trip report here.



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