Peak(s):  Hesperus Mtn  -  13,232 feet
Centennial Pk  -  13,062 feet
Date Posted:  12/22/2019
Date Climbed:   11/02/2019
Author:  supranihilest
Additional Members:   whileyh
 A Sacred Navajo Mountain and a Centennial That's Not A Centennial  

In the far southwest corner of Colorado, near Cortez, is a group of six 13ers packed into a sub-range of the San Juan Mountains called the La Plata Mountains. They're far removed from the main bulk of the San Juan and most people probably have no idea they even exist. For those that do the only thing they probably know about them is how rotten the rock is. Exceptionally rugged, they also contain several gnarly scrambles, including the traverse between Babcock Peak and Spiller Peak, and the traverse from Hesperus Mountain to Lavender Peak (named after Dwight Lavender, one of if not the most prolific San Juan first ascentionists and namesake of the Lavender Col on Mount Sneffels, amongst other notable facts) to Mount Moss. The former goes at Class 4 and the latter at Class 3 and both are worthy of any Colorado climber's attention. The Hesperus-Lavender-Moss traverse was what my friend Whiley and I set out to do. Until that day we had never met, so getting after a gnarly, remote scramble together would be a good test of whether we would make good climbing partners in the future.

Whiley and I met at the lower, 2WD Sharkstooth Trailhead outside of Mancos at 7:30 and were on the trail shortly after 8. The weather was clear, sunny, and cool. Winds were calm. This area of the San Juan had seen very little snow. In other words, it was looking to be a near perfect day. We hiked down the road towards the upper trailhead just a short distance before cutting hard right into the forest. There was no trail to Hesperus, our initial target, so we had to blaze our own. There was some snow in the forest, maybe an inch or two of pure sugar, and it didn't slow us but did get our feet wet. We stopped at a clearing with a small pond and got our first views of Hesperus Mountain. The north face of the mountain formed an impressive wall with bands of rock thickly layered on top of each other.

19970_01
Mount Hesperus with early season blues.

We were aiming for the west ridge, which we intended to do the entirety of. Other GPX tracks we had all went up a steep gully near where the ridge gets steep (shown in the photo above where the ridge starting on the right goes from flat to angled). We figured our route would be a little easier, since the gully was snow-filled and would otherwise be loose, and we wanted to explore the mountain a little more. Instead of heading through the forest towards the gully we curved slightly southwest, down a steep, eroded hillside and into the drainage for the North Fork of the West Mancos River. This made for a little elevation loss, maybe a couple hundred feet, and put us on a more direct course with the toe of the ridge.

19970_02
The west ridge in full. We angled for the obvious forested toe.
19970_03
Looking down towards the West Mancos River, showing the slight drop and flat-ish terrain en route to the ridge. That bush nearly ate me alive. Photo: Whiley H.

The bottom of the drainage was quite nice and scenic. Small, frozen creeks meandered through the trees and trickled over mossy hummocks. We had to cross a number of these small streams, the widest of which was a couple of feet at worst. I wish I could say the forest continued all the way to the ridge, but alas, the choss of the La Plata reared its ugly head in short order as the trees ended abruptly at a moraine of the large rock glacier fed by Hesperus and Centennial. Sharkstooth Peak (hereby simply referred to as (the) Sharkstooth) had a rock glacier all to itself, photos of which will be shown later in the report.

19970_04
A snowy rock glacier and ridge. We aimed for the trees on the far right, thinking they'd hold the slope together better than the open areas.
19970_05
A black hole of talus. Photo: Whiley H.
19970_06
Me getting sassy with our uphill swim. Photo: Whiley H.

We hiked across the rock glacier's many ups and downs and eventually to the base of the ridge. To this point the talus was merely irritating, being snow covered and angular. The ridge was another matter. It wasn't exceptionally steep but it was exceptionally loose, with the top layer(s) of rock slip sliding all over the layers below. We crawled on all fours more than once on the ascent.

19970_07
Well golly gee, this ain't good.
19970_08
Me crawling up the hillside. This was truly a case of two steps forward, one step back. Photo: Whiley H.
19970_09
This shows the angle of the suck, as well as Sharkstooth's distinctive shape, almost as if it was like a, uh... it's not quite coming to me, a bears tooth maybe? Or a jellyfish tooth? Some kind of critter canine, in any case.

All in all there was several hundred feet of attempting to skate uphill before the ridge flattened out and became mercifully grassy. We marched along the ridge at a quick pace until just below where it kicks back. There was a small bowl there with a large manmade windbreak in it, and from there the grass gave way to more talus. There was a bit of a trail and that was far better than the alternative of picking our way up another loose pile of rocks.

19970_10
Where the ridge goes from nice and gentle to nasty, steep, and loose.
19970_11
The trail up through literal ankle deep scree.
19970_12
Looking down the West Mancos River valley. The tadpole shaped dirt slope right of center is where we had come down.

The rotten cliffs towering up the north face were our companions for the initial part of the ascent as we stuck near the ridge crest. We passed through a couple smaller cliff bands as we ascended, but nothing like the north face; ours were short and separated by the omnipresent scree and talus. Hesperus certainly showcased the rock of the La Plata.

19970_13
Nearing the north face's impressive cliffs.
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Typical scene on Hesperus; pulverized rock with a little snow and rock bands that look like they'd collapse if you sneezed at them too hard.
19970_15
What a mess!
19970_16
Almost to the summit.

Scrambling through and around the cliffs provided a little bit of Class 2+ to Class 3, all on the trademark loose junk. None of it was difficult or had high consequences but every single hold, whether hand or foot, needed to be tested thoroughly to prove that it wouldn't sneakily just rip away when weighted. All in all the scrambling was a minor part of the ascent and Hesperus could probably be kept at Class 2+ with some route finding involved to find the easiest path. It wasn't long before we'd dispatched the ascent and stood on top of Hesperus Mountain, Sacred Navajo Mountain of the North.

19970_17
Lavender Peak looking angry on the left with the traverse in the foreground and Babcock Peak in the background. It's difficult to tell just how rugged the traverse is but there are multiple large notches and steep areas along the way.
19970_18
12er Dunn Peak and 13ers Middle Peak and Dolores Peak on the left with the Wilson 14er group on the right.
19970_19
Weminuche Wilderness looking enormous.
19970_20
Sneffels Range.

With the amount of snow visible on the northern aspect of the traverse to Lavender Whiley and I agreed that it probably wasn't in the cards for today. There was simply a lot more than we'd expected. Southern aspects were better but neither of us was fond of the idea of climbing up something we couldn't reverse easily due to the dusting of snow on everything. We decided to go as far along the traverse as we could to gather beta, and maybe, just maybe, if it was more clear than it looked we'd go for it. We dropped down to the southeast and stayed near the ridge crest, since everything north was sheer drops and everything south was steep talus.

19970_21
Sheer drops and steep talus. Imagine that. The Babcock/Spiller traverse is in the background looking so rad. Photo: Whiley H.
19970_22
Varying types of rock on the ridge. Photo: Whiley H.

Whiley and I scrambled down a couple of the usual rotten cliffs and down what had to have been the only solid rock we encountered on Hesperus, a short, slabby ledge system. It was dry, fortunately, or that probably would have been our stopping point; down climbing snow covered slab in trail runners isn't what either of us would call fun. As we descended towards a huge notch the terrain became more wild. Simple vertical walls gave way to shattered ribs and improbable towers.

19970_23
Final approach to the notch. The easiest (and probably only safe) way across is quite a ways down the gully, not near the top.
19970_24
Looks safe. Photo: Whiley H.
19970_25
Lavender's loaded with jagged towers. Centennial is just off frame to the left. As far as I know nobody's ever climbed the traverse between the two.

The outcrops that made up the notch were near vertical and stuck out at bizarre angles; the notch itself was vertical to the north and completely choked with steep rubble to the south. Our side of the notch was near vertical where we were, with a sketchy looking down climb into the gully a bit farther down; the opposite side of the notch held snow and wet snirt (that is, snow-dirt) on the only reasonable path up. We immediately agreed that was our turn around point. While we were sure we could get up this notch in its current shape we weren't sure we could get back down it if things proved worse later on and had to return this way.

19970_26
The path across. If it was dry, sure, but not wet and/or snowy. Lavender and Moss will have to wait. Photo: Whiley H.

We could still at least get Centennial, so we began climbing back up towards Hesperus' summit before cutting west across its vast, chossy south face. We ended up slightly below our ascent route on awful terrain and made an ascending traverse across the face back to the trail.

19970_27
I can envision this stuff practically flowing down the mountain.

Our progress down the west ridge, once we reached it, was quick. We took slightly different climbs down through the largest rock band towards the bottom, with my option going at a very loose Class 3; Whiley's was about the same. Our descent down the toe of the ridge was less than pleasant with how steep and loose it was, plus coated in a thin layer of snow. Eventually we made it into the basin and had to cross the rock glacier which at least was mostly flat. We'd lost a lot of elevation that we'd have to regain to get Centennial, and weren't sure of the easiest way to get to it.

19970_28
Sharkstooth on the left and Centennial on the right.

Our thinking was that the best course of action would be to return to the road then take the Sharkstooth Trail to Sharkstooth Pass in between its namesake peak and Centennial. We began hiking back towards the landslide area we'd descended since we knew that route already. Instead we ended up running into a trail, the West Mancos Trail, that we hadn't seen before. It actually appeared to be at least part of an old road on the GPS, as well as being discontinuous, so we either didn't notice it en route to Hesperus or had crossed where there wasn't much of a trail.

19970_30
The trail where we joined it. Enchanting. Photo: Whiley H.
19970_31
Says it all. Photo: Whiley H.

From here things sped up. The trail was covered in an inch or two of snow but it was easy to follow and was at a very easy grade. Hesperus loomed above us through gaps in the trees, light streamed down onto us, and we had the forest to ourselves.

19970_32
The Navajo know what they're talking about.

The West Mancos Trail eventually took us directly to the 4WD Sharkstooth Trailhead, where it ended and the Sharkstooth Trail began. This trail, unlike the West Mancos, was well traveled. We passed numerous groups of people and dogs, and the trail was well packed by foot and paw. A series of switchbacks began a mile or two from the trailhead and led up the massive rock glacier below the Sharkstooth. The views of the La Plata never ceased to amaze.

19970_34
Centennial is the rounded, flatish peak on the left and Lavender is just right of center. The ridges in between look pretty wild, and as far as I know only the ridge from Lavender to Hesperus on the right has been climbed. The ridge in center has not...

The trail above treeline was mercifully dry but the wind had kicked up while we were lollygagging in the trees. We also got our first closeup views of the Sharkstooth, and if we thought Hesperus was gross and junky, well, the Sharkstooth put it to shame in that department. I often joke about how I don't know how some of these mountains don't just fall over, and I think the Sharkstooth is the most extreme example of that I've found yet.

19970_35
What even is that? This thing single-handedly disproves gravity. Take that Einstein!

Whiley and I had been thinking about climbing the Sharkstooth while we were there and once again declined. This one might have been dry but it just looked like a death trap. No thanks. Reading about it afterwards every report we came across said the same thing - do not climb it with a partner because you'll be kicking half the mountain down onto their head. Maybe when we come back for Lavender and Moss or something...

19970_36
From Sharkstooth Pass looking into Bear Creek drainage. 12,761 foot Diorite Peak is the big, isolated one on the right.

Centennial Peak from Sharkstooth Pass is an easy affair, all Class 2 trail hiking. There's some Class 2+ if one wants it, and of course we wanted it. It's by far the easiest of the 13ers in the La Plata, though its north ridge is a little long and has the usual La Plata tedium.

19970_37
Centennial Peak's north ridge. Lavender is the set of jagged towers in the background.
19970_38
Just some of the quality rock on the ridge.

The higher we ascended the higher the winds sped across the ridge. The West Mancos River drainage acted as a funnel and just tossed everything up and over Centennial. Whiley and I were both getting cold despite our moderate pace. There was plenty of snow on northern aspects and some on the ridge itself that didn't help us keep our feet dry.

19970_39
Centennial's snowy northeast face. Photo: Whiley H.
19970_40
Snow on the ridge. It might have been cold but it was easier than the broken chiprock everywhere else. Photo: Whiley H

It wasn't long before we were on the summit, fifty or so minutes from the pass. The Diorite-Moss-Lavender-Hesperus wall spread out in front of us with the connecting ridge to Lavendar dropping off precipitously and looking rugged and scary.

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Pointing down the nearly vertical chasm that marks the end of Centennial and the beginning of impossibility. Photo: Whiley H.
19970_42
Hesperus from Centennial. Photo: Whiley H.

With how cold it was on the summit we didn't waste any more time than it took to gawp at the ridge to Lavender and remark slackjawed about the obviousness of it. We turned around and made quick progress down the north ridge and back to the pass.

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Calling it a day. Photo: Whiley H.
19970_44
Descending to the pass, with Sharkstooth looking heinous. On the far left in the rear is Lone Cone, in left center is Dunn Peak, Middle Peak, and Dolores Peak (the latter two we climbed the next day), and the Wilson group of 13ers and 14ers in the middle.

It was an uneventful descent back down the Sharkstooth Trail and into the forest. From the 4WD trailhead we also had another mile and a half of easy road hiking to get back to our vehicles. We made quick work of it but we were tired after a long day. We got back to our cars around 6pm and drove to Mancos where we ate at Chavolo's Mexican Restaurant. Whiley and I both recommend this restaurant if you're down in that corner of Colorado. I ate a burrito as big as my upper arm and every bite was pure glory. From there we drove north to Dunton to prepare for a climb of Middle Peak and Dolores Peak the next day. We're excited to return in the spring and pick up Lavender, Moss, Babcock, and Spiller, and with any luck, Sharkstooth will have collapsed completely and we won't have to climb it. Sacred, hallowed ground is here in the La Plata; go take your vision quest.

19970_45
Hesperus Mountain looking beautiful in early evening light. Thanks, Whiley. Photo: Whiley H.


Statistics

Climbers: Ben Feinstein (myself), Whiley H. (whileyh)
Trailhead: Sharkstooth Trailhead (2WD) (junction of FS 350 and Spruce Hill Road/1.5 miles up from 4WD Sharkstooth Trailhead/37.475690, -108.106126)
Total distance: 15.91 miles
Total elevation gain: 6,401 feet
Total time: 10:06:28
Peaks: Two thirteeners (one ranked, one unranked)

  • Hesperus Mountain, 13,232'
  • Centennial Peak, 13,062' (unranked)

Splits:

Starting Location Ending Location Via Time (h:mm:ss) Cumulative Time (h:mm:ss) Rest Time (m:ss)
Sharkstooth Trailhead (2WD) Hesperus Mountain 3:05:07 3:05:07 0:00
Hesperus Mountain Centennial Peak 5:16:10¹ 8:21:17 0:00
Centennial Peak Sharkstooth Trailhead (2WD) 1:45:11 10:06:28 Trip End

¹Includes time spent scouting the traverse to Lavender and turning back.


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 23 24 25 26 27 28 30 31 32 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45


 Comments or Questions
Tornadoman


Craptastic...
12/23/2019 17:15
That ascent up Hesperus doesn't look fun at all. It's a pretty mountain for sure though. Thanks for putting up another 13er report.


supranihilest

Choss
12/24/2019 14:08
@Tornadoman: Aye, the La Plata as a whole is falling apart and not much fun to climb on. I'm very curious about the geology of the area as it seems quite unique, even among the San Juan. It doesn't quite seem like the volcanic rock found in other areas but it has to be some kind of sedimentary rock as evidenced by the amazing layering on Hesperus. I just wish I had more time to both climb and learn about the geology!


whileyh

Loose scree slogs
01/03/2020 20:10
Are the best way to really get to know someone.



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