Spring in the Sangre de Cristo Range
(Unnamed 13,123 and Cottonwood Peak)

19 May 2007 - by T Colorado

We were looking for a good early season climbing trip and defaulted (don't we always) to the Sangre de Cristo range accessing the trailhead from the San Luis Valley side of the range. After a sedative evening rain, and a nice sleep at the Hot Springs Canyon/Garner Creek Trailhead, we were on the trail early heading up the Garner Creek trail. I had read three different trip reports (doing this loop from north to south), but we opted to do the loop south to north (ascend Garner Creek, climb Thirsty, Unnamed 13,123 and Cottonwood, descend Hot Springs Canyon). We were familiar with the Hot Springs Canyon trail as we have climbed Cottonwood Peak two times before (actually camping along the ridge to the summit one spring).

The Garner Creek Trail is good, for the most part, and totally dried out to treeline. The trail crosses the creek several times, avoids downed timber (except for the solitary downed tree here and there), and can be faint in spots. But, we followed it all the way to treeline until it piddled out. At that point, we could see Thirsty Peak and opted out of climbing it ... there was much snow, some sloughing, and since we'd already climbed it before (from the east side many years ago), this was no loss to us. So, we made the direct ascent scrambling up talus slopes to Unnamed 13,123. (These two peaks were for you, Talus Monkey -- RIP. In fact, every Sangre de Cristo climb we do this year will be in memory of you, David Worthington. Seems very appropriate to honor you in the range that claimed your life.) We hit the ridge about 80 feet north of the summit, dropped our packs and hiked up to the top. Unnamed 13,123 was free of snow except for the summit cairn which had been built up with rocks and metal rods ... we dug for a few moments for a register ... but to no avail.

The views to the south of Thirsty Peak from Unnamed 13,123 confirmed that our decision to nix climbing that peak from the west was a sound one. Remaining views to the south were limited as we appeared to be in the only good weather pattern for the range. Further south and north was cloudy with precipitation (snow up high, rain down below). To the west, the San Luis Valley was building up its normal collection of high topped, dark-bottomed clouds. To the east were rain showers. But, it was mid-day and all of this was to be expected on a spring day in the mountains of Colorado.

We eye-balled the ridge to Cottonwood and descended to our packs to get started along the ridge. There was a lot of snow on the ridge. And, unfortunately, none of it held up very well leaving us sinking to our knees at times, walking on top at times, and always trying to choose a talus route instead of the crappy snow. Before we could get to the low point of the ridge, electricity filled the air making my hair stand on end and my ice axe buzz. We dropped our axes, and our packs (on which we both were packing snowshoes that we didn't know if we would use or not), and found a place just off the ridge to crouch and wait it out.

Eventually, my hair returned to normal, and we continued on down the ridge, then headed up towards the summit. There were storms all around us and the air was filled with the sounds of lightning crackling and the subsequent thunder booming. We scurried (as fast as two old married people can scurry) to the summit of Cottonwood. The views from the top were very intimdating as far as incoming weather was concerned. We were able to chop out the summit canister from its ice coffin, but unfortunately water had permeated the container and all the pages were soaking wet. We could see the black-bottomed clouds (and lightning) were heading south towards us, so we high-tailed it down the ridge trying to beat what was obviously heading our way. Unfortunately for us, using the ridge proper was the most expedient way for us to get to where we needed to be. We were able to descend a couple of hundred feet down the ridge (towards Hot Springs Canyon) before the heavens opened up with heavy snow blowing sideways and more lightning. Our position was not one to be envied and we did our best to drop a bit off the ridge, but really were in a precarious place in the middle of a corniced ridge. As soon as electricity stopped, we were on our way again, still accompanied by our two new friends "the gusty wind", and "the side-ways blowing snow). The consistency of the snow on this ridge did not improve all day ... I can only assume there have been some warm daytime temps (I know we hiked most of the day in shorts and long-sleeved t-shirts).

We finally made our way down the snow-filled Hot Springs Canyon valley ... and narrow it is. The trail (and this one can be faint at times) was snow-covered for the most part -- about the upper 3 miles, but we knew to follow the valley bottom and from time to time, parts of the trail would actually pop out from under the cloak of snow. For awhile, we were able to walk right on top of the snow on top of the creek. But, that didn't last forever. The farther down we descended, the softer (and deeper) the snow became. So, we actually had to put on the SNOWSHOES! Yes! It was nice to know we weren't going to just pack those puppies for 13 miles ... we got to use them! And, use them we did. We did need them for about 1/2 hour, still busting way through the sloggy snow. Lower down, there was much water on the trail and we did have to pick our way back and forth across the creek many times. You know, I have this odd thing ... I've dreamed of writing a book called "The River The Trail". Many, many times, it seems the natural path of flowing water is the same path the hiker takes. Today would have been a good addition to one of the still unwritten chapters of my "bestseller". hahahahah. We arrived back at the truck at dusk and were welcomed by a gully-washer of a downpour. Great timing. We would have been back sooner had it not been for the time spent hunkered down on the ridge waiting for my hair to calm down. :)

Beware hikers/climbers ... it's tick season in the mountains of Colorado. We flicked a couple off of us ... bushwacking at its best. Happy Trails!

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