We drove from Denver and arrived at the Rito Alto Creek Trailhead at around 5:30 p.m., we geared up and headed up the trail. Typical western Sangre trailhead conditions ... sand, heat, cactus ... and good weather! We were hoping to make it to a high meadow camp (at about 10,900) that evening (we had stayed there last year during a reconnaissance trip to the area). We had a dry trail for the first couple of miles and then began to run into snow. After a couple of breaks (come on now, we had HEAVY packs), darkness overcame us and my husband did a great job of finding the trail in the snow. After some period of time, it became evident that we were not going to make it to the meadow and campsites that night, so when a flat area off the trail presented itself, we decided to make camp there.
Friday morning presented overcast dark skies, so the guys decided to hike up the trail to scope out the desired campsite and snow conditions on the peaks. We had originally planned on doing Unnamed 13,490 and 13,122 from Cotton Pass, three low 13'ers to the west of Rito Alto Lake, and Rito Alto Peak/Hermit Peak descending via Hermit Pass. My husband and I had already climbed Rito Alto and Hermit Peak many, many years ago from the east side. The guys returned with disappointing information. We would be camping where we were and not moving up ... the desired campsite was not desirable ... it was buried in snow ... more than we already had in the camp we were in. Conditions on Rito Alto Peak looked good ... the west face/west rib route we wanted to take would be ready for us; however, Hermit Pass was caked. We knew we could get a good view of the other peaks from the Rito Alto summit, so we decided to climb that Saturday. Michael and Ron had stomped out the trail as best as was possible to our starting point near treeline and had returned to camp. We used the rest of the day to organize our camp, re-arrange our tent (which was on a snow bed), imbibe in some alcoholic beverages, carb up, and eventually be confined to our tents for awhile as the heavens opened up with several new inches of snow (along with the obligatory thunder and lightning).
Saturday morning brought clear blue skies! We got a great early start out of camp and soon made our way to the base of the rock rib we wanted to use for our ascent. There was still a lot of snow from the day before and we alternated ascending rocks and snow. The higher we got, the worse the snow conditions became ... we'd wallow in calf-deep pellet snow ... sometimes on top of rock, sometimes on top of tundra, sometimes on top of ice. The route, however, was great and we soon came to the well-known conglomerate rock that one associates with the Crestones. The weather was holding well and we made the summit under sunny, but sometimes windy, conditions. In fact, our west rib route dumped us about 10 feet north of the summit. There was no option of finding a register as the summit was actually a corniced slab (as my husband demonstrated that he could poke his ice axe through snow to nothingness). The views were stupendous ... the snow-covered Crestones to the south, the expanse of the green San Luis Valley to the west, the numerous snow-caked 13'ers to the north, and the green Wet Mountain Valley to the east. Continuing on to Hermit Peak and then to Hermit Pass was out of the question. The snow conditions were scary and the upper basin (above Rito Alto Lake) was covered with the deep white stuff. The low 13'ers would also have to wait until summer as we now had the ideal view of that traverse (better bring a rope just in case). Unnamed 13,490 and 13,122 were caked and ascending them from Cotton Pass was definitely out of the question at this point in time ... it actually looked dangerous.
We all donned our glissading gear and made our way down the rib we had come up until we could get to a convenient entrance onto the west-facing snow slope. The conditions were not that good ... it had warmed up quite a bit and the snow was sloppy. But, we did get one good (and one great) glissade in on the way down ... probably about 1,500 total feet of sliding. We picked our way back down to where we had stashed the snowshoes and hiking poles. No damage done there ... guess those plastic chewing marmots aren't in circulation yet this year (hahaha). We made our way back to camp, had celebratory beverages, ate a wonderful dinner, and decided to pack out the next day (Sunday).
The backpack out on Sunday was uneventful. It was a sunny, warm day. The hit and miss postholing we had done on the way up had melted and set-up on the way down, and made for a fairly straightforward hike out. There was lots of water on the trail (you know ... the river, the trail). After cleaning up at the trailhead, we drove to the Coyote Cantina for a late lunch, and then back to Denver. This was certainly not one of the most successful trips ... one summit ... but, with the conditions the way they were, we were happy. The camaraderie was wonderful and the food delectable as always. This was another one for you, Talus Monkey (as are all Sangre de Cristo peaks we climb this year). Until next time, armchair mountaineers ... Happy Trails!