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On Walkabout On: Redcloud Peak, Colorado – Part 1

Basic Information

  • Name: Redcloud Peak
  • Range: San Juan Mountains
  • Where: Lake City, Colorado
  • Elevation: 14,034 feet (4,280 meters)
  • Distance: 9 miles
  • Time: 6-8 hours round-trip in snow conditions
  • Elevation Gain: 3,644 feet
  • Difficulty: Hard in deep snow
  • More Information: 14ers.com

Route Up Redcloud Peak

Redcloud Peak Route

Topographic Map of Redcloud Peak

Red Cloud Peak MapNote: You can print bigger images of this map by going to this link and then right clicking with your mouse and then saving the map to your computer for printing.

Elevation Graph of Redcloud Peak

Red Cloud Peak Elevation

Narrative

I had meant to make a return climbing trip back in early September to Lake City in order to climb Redcloud and Sunshine Peaks.  Back in August my friend and I climbed Handies and Uncompahgre Peaks and from both summits we had great views of Redcloud and Sunshine Peaks.  You can more about these peaks at below links:

However, when I left in early September to make the drive to Lake City to try and climb these two peaks the overheating light on my truck came on in Canon City which forced me to postpone the trip in order to get a cooling fan for my truck’s hybrid batteries repaired.  It wasn’t until the last weekend of September that I was able to find the time and make a return trip to Lake City.  However, by this time winter storms had already begun to drop snow on the San Juan Mountains.  I hoped the snow would not be too bad on Redcloud and Sunshine Peaks and when I drove into Lake City the mountains appeared to just have a dusting of snow on them.  However, the next morning when I woke up early in the cabin I rented I saw about 1-2 inches of snow on my truck.  This was not good; if this much snow dropped in Lake City how much more would have dropped on the mountains?  At this point I was even concerned if I could even reach the trailhead much less climb the mountain.  As I left the cabin Highway 149 that runs through town was actually was in good shape with only a few icy spots.  Even County Road 30 that passes Lake San Cristobal and leads to the trailhead was in mostly good shape until I reached the Shelf Road portion of the drive.


View Larger Map

The Shelf Road portion of County Road 30 is cut into the side of Sunshine Peak with a steep drop off on one side.  It was dark out and the road was quite rough and icy.  I took it very slow through this portion of the drive to the trailhead.  It took me about an hour of driving from Lake City, but I reached the trailhead safely.  It was still dark out so I parked in the snow filled parking lot that had two other cars in it and began to eat my breakfast and slowly watch the beautiful sunrise:

Picture from Redcloud Peak, Colorado

Picture from Redcloud Peak, Colorado

After eating my breakfast of granola bars and elk jerky I then proceeded to begin my hike up Redcloud Peak. At the trailhead there was just an inch or two of snow on the ground:

Picture from Redcloud Peak, Colorado

Here is the view looking behind me just before the trail enters the forest:

Picture from Redcloud Peak, Colorado

The view of the snow covered peaks and valley were tremendous to say the least.  The trail then enters a thick forest where I kept bumping into tree branches weighed down with snow that kept falling on top of me and giving me a cold jilt down the back of my neck.  The trail eventually begins to run parallel with Silver Creek that was filled with fast moving water from all the recent precipitation:

Picture from Redcloud Peak, Colorado

As I hiked up the valley I was amazed by the beautiful sunrise behind me over Handies Peak:

Picture from Redcloud Peak, Colorado

Ahead of me the sun’s rays had not yet begun to shine so everything was still covered in black shadows:

Picture from Redcloud Peak, Colorado

I could not help, but keep turning around and taking pictures of the beautiful sunrise on the mountains behind me:

Picture from Redcloud Peak, Colorado

Eventually the sun’s rays behind me turned from orange to its normal light which intensified the color of the solid white snow covering the mountains behind me:

Picture from Redcloud Peak, Colorado

As the trees began to thin out I could see above me to the east the the false summit and the actual summit of Redcloud Peak:

Picture from Redcloud Peak, Colorado

It did not look that far away, but to get to it I was going to have to take a circuitous route to the summit by following Silver Creek.  As I continued up the trail I had a number of stream crossings I had to make from all the little side creeks that flowed into Silver Creek:

Picture from Redcloud Peak, Colorado

I was very careful not to step into any the creeks which was actually difficult due to all the icy rocks used to cross the creeks with.  I only stepped into the water one time when I slipped on an icy rock and fortunately my Danner Crater Rim hiking boots kept my feet dry.

I continued to make sure I kept turning around to take in the incredible view behind me of the 14,048 foot Handies Peak and its neighboring mountains:

Picture from Redcloud Peak, Colorado

Eventually the suns rays began to shine on the rocks high above me in the Silver Creek basin.  Many of the rocks that were not covered in snow were of a reddish orange color:

Picture from Redcloud Peak, Colorado

Eventually I was high enough in elevation that there was no longer any trees.  What that meant though was that the snow was now much deeper.  I could see the hikers ahead me slowly making their way through the 10-12 inch deep snow:

Picture from Redcloud Peak, Colorado

The higher the trail ascended the deeper the snow became.  In some areas it was knee deep.  I eventually passed the group ahead of me which left only two more hikers that were still on the trail in front of me.  With only two people now ahead of me it became harder work to break through the trail compared to when I had a group of six people ahead of me to help pack down the snow:

Picture from Redcloud Peak, Colorado

Eventually I caught up to the other two hikers and began to break the trail myself.  It was extremely hard work busting through the snow that at times drifted up to my thighs in this winter wonderland:

Picture from Redcloud Peak, Colorado

After breaking the trail through this deepest section of snow I then had to ascend up a hillside of loose scree that made footing difficult.  This should give everyone an indication of how tired I was of breaking the trail, I actually liked the break ascending the scree gave me instead of continuing to bust through the snow.  At the top of the scree I reached the ridgeline that leads to the summit of Redcloud Peak.  From the ridgeline I had my first views looking east.  I could see the valley down below that County Road 30 travels across to reach the trailhead for this hike.  The yellow color of the aspen leaves down below was just spectacular:

Picture from Redcloud Peak, Colorado

Looking behind me to the west I could see the trail I busted through the snow to reach the ridgeline:

Picture from Redcloud Peak, Colorado

Looking to the south I could see Redcloud Peak’s false summit on the right and its actual summit on the left:

Picture from Redcloud Peak, Colorado

As I rested and took in the views from the ridgeline, the other two hikers passed me and continued up the ridgeline.  Further up the ridgeline they decided to go off trail and take a steeper route up the mountain.  I decided not to follow them and to stay on the trail.  This ended up being a bad move because once again there was sections of the trail drifted over with snow that I had to bust through once again.  It was once again exhausting work breaking the trail through all the snow on the side of the mountain:

Picture from Redcloud Peak, Colorado

As I worked my way higher up the mountain though I did begin to see for the first time the rocky summits of Uncompahgre and Wetterhorn Peaks:

Picture from Redcloud Peak, Colorado

Both these peaks are 14ers with Uncompahgre Peak being the 6th highest in Colorado at 14,308 feet in altitude.  You can read more about my prior hike up this mountain at the below link:

It was tough work, but I finally reached the false summit of Redcloud Peak and was staring at the final approach to the actual summit:

Picture from Redcloud Peak, Colorado

I was really tired by this point from breaking the trail, but I slowly but surely reached the summit.  I could see the red dirt and rock that gives this mountain its name sticking out from under the snow once once I was on the summit:

Picture from Redcloud Peak, Colorado

The entire summit of the mountain is supposed to be a reddish color, but I could only see a hint of the peak’s famous red color because of all the snow.  According to the book “A Climbing Guide to Colorado’s Fourteeners: Twentieth Anniversary Edition topographer JC Spiller gave the mountain its name in 1874 when he climbed Redcloud Peak as part of the Wheeler Survey team that charted the various valleys in the San Juans.  These maps and surveys would help open up the mineral prospecting rush that changed the San Juans forever.

When I got to the summit of Redcloud Peak I noticed that the two climbers ahead of me had already left for Sunshine Peak and I was all alone on the summit.  I stopped, drank some water, ate some food, and took some pictures.  The first picture I took was of the view looking to the west down into the valley that leads to American Basin that I explored back in August:

Picture from Redcloud Peak, Colorado

Off in the distance to the west I could also see the 14er, Mt. Sneffels:

Picture from Redcloud Peak, Colorado

To the southwest the summit of another 14er, Handies Peak can be seen:

Picture from Redcloud Peak, Colorado

You can read more about my prior hike up Handies Peak at the below link:

Here is a closer look at the snow covered summit of Handies Peak:

Picture from Redcloud Peak, Colorado

Here is a picture of me on the summit with more rugged peaks in the Weminuche Wilderness to the southwest visible:

Picture from Redcloud Peak, Colorado

The Weminuche Wilderness has to be the most rugged peaks I have seen in Colorado.  I really want to do a backpacking trip sometime into this remote area. The only way to explore this area is by backpacking in since mechanical vehicles are not allowed.  The only exception is the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad which is a popular way to access the heart of this remote wilderness.

To the south I could see the 1.5 mile ridgeline I would need to take to get over to Sunshine Peak:

Picture from Redcloud Peak, Colorado

Scanning further to the southeast I could see the beautiful valley that the Lake Fork of the Gunnison River flows through and it beautiful fall colors:

Picture from Redcloud Peak, Colorado

This river actually starts up at American Basin and then flows around Sunshine Peak into the valley below before emptying into Lake San Cristobal. To the east I could see the peaks of the La Garita Wilderness in the distance where somewhere in there the 14er San Luis Peak can be found:

Picture from Redcloud Peak, Colorado

Looking to the northeast I could see the high plateau of the Powderhorn Wilderness Area and even further up in the distance the backbone of the Rocky Mountains, the Sawatch Range was visible:

Picture from Redcloud Peak, Colorado

Looking to the north the view was dominated by the awesome views of the 14ers, Uncompahgre and Wetterhorn Peaks:

Picture from Redcloud Peak, Colorado

Here is a close up look at the awesome Uncompahgre Peak:

Picture from Redcloud Peak, Colorado

Here is also I close up of Wetterhorn Peak:

Picture from Redcloud Peak, Colorado

Finally here is the view to the northeast where views of many unnamed 13ers can be seen:

Picture from Redcloud Peak, Colorado

After I finished taking my pictures other hikers eventually came up and I spoke with them for a little bit.  They were all good company to spend time on the summit with.  This is also when I made my big mistake.  I took my shoes off to change my socks that were soaked from all the trail breaking I did.  My big toe on my left foot was beginning to go numb so I figured a sock change would help.  However, I had to take my gloves off to change my socks.  My right hand began going numb pretty quick from the cold.  It was actually very difficult for me to re-tie my boots.  I had a prior cold weather injury on the same hand over a decade ago in Korea; so it is not unusual for my right hand to quickly get cold.  I had a hand warmer in my gloves and it wasn’t doing anything to help either.

So I decided to try head down the trail to Sunshine Peak and see if my hand would warm up.  I was walking fast trying to get the blood pumping but my hand just would not warm up and in fact felt worse.  I estimated it would take me an hour to get over to Sunshine and then an hour back.  This meant two hours with a hand that was numb.  I am a very cautious hiker and do not take any unnecessary risks so I wasn’t going to risk causing serious damage to my hand just to ascend a mountain.  I have turned around on mountains before and always found the mountains waiting for me again some other day.  That is the thing about mountains, they do not go anywhere and can be climbed again.  So I turned around on the traverse and headed back up to the summit of Redcloud Peak.  Ascending the summit of Sunshine was going to have to wait until next summer.

Next Posting:  Redcloud Peak, Colorado – Part 2

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