Peak 15 (13,700') & Animas Mountain (13,786')  by Brian Schultz   Thursday August 20- Saturday August 22, 2009

Roundtrip mileage: 14.9 miles from Needleton  

Total elevation gain: 8,700'

Participants: Tim Briese, Brian Schultz

Thursday August 20, 2009: Backpack to Ruby Basin

Tim and I rode the train with the pleasant assurance of a rain-free backpack today and excellent weather for tomorrow. This would be our third trip up North Pigeon Creek, the most recent being last year when Jason, Angie, Tim, and I backpacked in miserable weather to Ruby Lake and came out of Ruby Basin with only Monitor Peak. This year we intended to pack all the way up to the 11,600' meadow in Ruby Basin and set up camp there for Peak 15 and Animas Mountain.

A large group of backpackers disembarked when the train pulled in at Needleton, one of the largest we've ever seen, and at 11:55 AM we crossed the bridge over the Animas River and turned left while everybody else, seemingly, turned right to Needle Creek. That is, except for another backpacker whom we happened upon when we reached Pigeon Creek. Diane was from Durango and just doing a backpack up to Ruby Basin and making the loop to Noname Creek and back. She stopped at Pigeon Creek to filter water because she was told there was no water source until getting up to Ruby Basin, but we knew North Pigeon Creek had water and invited her to tag along with us as we were going that way too.

We followed the trail to the lower meadows and promptly headed into the woods on a trail that soon faded out, not paying close attention because we were talking too much. We ended up doing an ascending bushwhack with all three of us splitting up to find the trail that we knew was there somewhere. It was very embarrassing, considering we've been on it twice before without a problem, but Tim found it after about ten minutes.

After stopping at North Pigeon Creek to filter water and eat lunch, Tim and I pushed ahead of Diane. Her destination for the night was Ruby Lake and we suggested she stay at the very excellent site we camped at last year. After grunting up the brutally steep section above North Pigeon Creek, we turned left on the Ruby Creek trail, passing by the aspen tree with the columbine carving, which, contrary to some reports is still there on the left side of the trail as you head into the woods.

The trail was good all the way to Ruby Lake with just one faint area prior to the smaller lake west of Ruby Lake. I was doing fine when we stopped at the small lake to filter water but heading up to the high basin turned out to be a major effort for me. With little acclimitazation having just arrived from Minnesota, and packs loaded with the extra weight of climbing gear, I was totally whipped when we reached the high basin's west end. We dropped into the grassy basin below at 6:50 and set up camp, not far from another tent in the area whose two inhabitants were young rangers overnighting after doing trail cleanup. They'd also climbed Turret Peak and would be heading in the morning to Noname Creek and Tenmile Creek for additional cleanup work. It was good to be in in the high basin and well positioned for our upcoming climbs.

Needleton to Ruby Basin: 4.9 miles (3.3 miles to Ruby Lake, 1.6 miles from Ruby Lake to Ruby Basin), 3,500' elevation gain, 6 hours and 55 minutes

Friday August 21, 2009: Peak 15

Tim and I've had misgivings about Peak 15 ever since we started climbing the bicentennials. Our anxiety level lessened as we garnered information on it and we're thankful to those who wrote reports on it, in particular Derek Wolfe, Roger Linfield, and Dan Mottinger. Their helpful details were much appreciated.

Interestingly, when Derek Wolfe and buddy D'Arcy Straub climbed it two months ago, they crossed paths with two fellows who'd been injured on it. Tim and I had a strong suspicion the two fellows were Jim Patrick and Mike Bromberg because we knew they were climbing at the same time as Derek and D'Arcy. When I contacted Jim Patrick later, he confirmed that it was indeed them and that both had slipped uncontrollably on the snow in the Peak 15/Peak 16 couloir. Mike suffered the worst of it with a bloody nose, busted lip, and badly cut hand before stopping. Tim and I had been invited to join them but had already scheduled our climb in August, the main reason for waiting until late summer was to avoid the snow issues they encountered.

Last year when we gazed at the gully leading to the Little Finger saddle from Monitor Peak, we wondered about its steepness and difficulty, especially with snow in it, and considered approaching it on the other side from New York Basin. As the year progressed though, we decided it would just be easier to backpack to Ruby Basin and save the trouble of backpacking over the saddle with heavy packs since we had to get into Ruby Basin anyway to climb Animas Mountain.

We were up early in the morning and as Tim stepped out of the tent, he told me to come out and look at a large moving rock about twenty feet away. That large rock was a mountain goat with no fear of us as it rose and patiently circled our campsite until we departed.

We started at 6:00 AM by headlamp up the basin toward the Little Finger saddle, an intentionally late start so we could reach the base of the gully at first light and not have to deal with possible intricacies of the gully in the dark. We found the lower part of the gully to be mostly manageable but the midsection was steep and loose with some class 3 moves. The snow that remained in the gully was icy but avoidable and the sandy part of the upper gully traveled well. We topped out of the gully at 7:25 and took a break to put on harnesses and helmets.

We dropped 300 feet in elevation from the saddle and traversed to the Peak15/16 couloir, making certain it was the correct one before starting up. The two described class 5 sections in the lower part had no snow or wet rock, exactly the dry conditions we were hoping for and again why we chose to climb this peak in August. We scrambled up the first class 5 section without rope but Tim belayed me on the second one.

The couloir's difficulty eased (photo 1, photo 2) after that but not the steepness. We climbed up and around the left side of the couloir to avoid a much harder class 5 section just below the saddle. It wasn't necessary to go all the way up to the 15/16 saddle but we did anyway just to peek over the sheer vertical walls on the Ruby Basin side. We retreated slightly to an exposed ledge system and traversed about 300 feet below the cliffs, and stopped so I could swap my boots for rock shoes. A short scramble up put us on a ledge where the only way to continue was straight up near-vertical slab type rock. I had to calm my nerves while looking up the exposed slabby rock because the holds appeared to be mostly in small cracks and a slip or fall would wouldn't be arrested without the protection of a rope.

I drew the proverbial straw to lead because I was wearing rock shoes. But these were the same shoes I used on Pilot Knob, the ones Tim referred to as my "spiderman shoes", and I derived great comfort knowing how well they handled on that peak. I was glad to have them with, extra weight and all in the pack, because I'm not sure I could've free-climbed this area without them.

The climbing was a bit awkward initially and slow but the shoes performed well and the holds were solid. I made it to a spot about 75 feet up and slightly left, where a large solid rock allowed me to set up a belay for Tim. We weren't far below the summit at that point and followed a wide ledge on the right to a class 4 crack marked by a cairn. This steep crack angled left and at the top we headed left again up easy class 3 grassy ledges to the summit. We were two ecstatic climbers when we topped out at 11:20!

The weather was gorgeous and we enjoyed every minute of our summit stay until 12:15, keenly observing Animas Mtn, the peak we'd be climbing tomorrow morning, and marveling at the proximity of Pigeon and Turret Peaks. We could also see our tent in Ruby Basin below and wondered if the goat had wreaked any havoc on it, or if any marmots had chewed their way in as they did to Mike Bromberg and Jim Patrick's tent in June. Jim told me their food cache was eaten and the hungry critters even chewed on a book.

We ended up doing several belays on the descent. The first was in the class 4 crack below the summit, which we could've downclimbed, then the slabs and steep section to the ledge where my boots were stashed, and finally the two class 5 lower sections in the couloir. We tied our two 30m length ropes together when needed. The flexibility of having two ropes appealed to us because they were lighter and we could each pack one, but one 60m length rope would've sufficed.

We breathed a sigh of relief at the bottom of the couloir and took a fifteen minute break before starting back up to the Little Finger saddle. Twenty five minutes later we reached the saddle and had great fun boot-skiing the sand to the mid-section. After reaching the bottom we headed for the stream below to filter some much needed water and arrived back at camp at 5:35. The tent was intact- no invasion took place by the goat or any marmots.

Peak 15 from camp: 3.5 miles roundtrip, 3,500' elevation gain, 11 hours 35 minutes

Saturday August 22, 2009: Animas Mountain

We had to find an ascent route on Animas Mountain that didn't include climbing Monitor Peak & Peak 13 because Garratt & Martin's book and various trip reports all describe climbing it from those two peaks. Having already climbed Monitor Peak, we figured we could just reverse Garratt & Martin's route on Animas if we could locate the descent gully they describe. While on the Little Finger saddle yesterday we looked over to Animas and mulled the possible gullies, settled on one and planned to arrive there at first light.

We departed camp at 5:20 AM up the grassy slopes by headlamp and although steep it wasn't a problem in the dark. Our timing turned out great and we started up our selected gully as morning dawned. It was steep with difficult class 4 scrambling but the rock was solid. At the top we descended into another gully with loose scree and unstable rock, and also very exposed. As we continued the traverse and crossed into a subsequent gully, we recognized it as the described "descent gully" and noted its location for the return.

Several more gully crossings should've put us into the sandy gully below the Animas/Peak 13 saddle but we kept contouring, evidently too low, and ended up crossing over it. At that point we were on fairly solid rock and grass and decided to just climb straight up to Peak 13's connecting ridge and follow it left to the Animas/Peak 13 saddle. This worked out well with just a 20 foot drop off the ridge to get into the saddle. From the saddle we stayed well left of the right side's steep dropoffs before angling up to the right, and then climbed a class 5.0 chimney. The summit was literally just a few short steps from the top of the chimney and we triumphantly claimed Animas at 8:30.

Another beautiful morning was enjoyed for forty five minutes. We perused the summit register, which was placed in 1978 and still in good shape, and discussed getting back to camp early enough to pack up and catch the train in the afternoon. We left at 9:15 and belayed the chimney (photo 1, photo 2)  more for fun than necessity. Upon reaching the saddle at 9:45, we decided if we could get back to camp by 10:30, we'd make an earnest effort to haul out and catch the 3:45 train. We made it back to camp at 10:27.

Animas Mountain from camp: 1.6 miles roundtrip, 2,900' elevation gain, 5 hours 7 minutes

We packed up in 30 minutes and were on the trail at 10:57. No sooner did we step onto the trail out of the basin than we ran into two women who seemed genuinely surprised and glad to see somebody else in the remote backcountry. They were camped at Ruby Lake and hiked up to Ruby Basin to check it out, but we kept our visit to a minimum knowing we might need extra time in case we lost the trail lower down. We did lose the trail twice, first after crossing Ruby Creek from the smaller lake west of Ruby Lake and again in a downfall area not far from the creek. Fortunately, neither cost us too much time but the weather had clouded up and by 1:45, brewing thunderstorms finally kicked in. Lightning flashed and thunder rumbled but we were safely in the trees and continued in intermittent showers all the way back to Needleton. We chanced a stop at North Pigeon Creek at 2:15 for fifteen minutes to filter water because we were both severely dehydrated and still made it to Needleton at 3:20 with plenty of time to spare. Diane, the solo backpacker who tagged along with us two days ago, also showed up. The train arrived ten minutes late.

Ruby Basin camp to Needleton: 4.9 miles, 4 hours 20 minutes

Having an extra day to utilize before Tim went home allowed us to make plans to climb another peak in the morning, but our priority after arriving in Durango was showering up and heading to our favorite restaurant, the Ore House. This was a rewarding three day adventure and we were thrilled with our success, especially on the dreaded Peak 15.

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