Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Redcloud and Sunshine Peak

My friends Neil and Meghan who I met through Chad (he and Neil were roommates in college and Neil married Meghan who they also went to college with) have become my 14er hiking companions ever since our Dem-Lin-Cam-Bross expedition at Kite Lake. They were bitten by the 14er bug as I was and have started their quest on hiking as many as possible. I received an email from Meghan a few weeks ago after hiking Yale with them about hiking Redcloud and Sunshine Peak over Labor Day weekend. I didn't have any plans and Chad was on call so I decided to pack up and head to Gunnison this past Friday and meet them there before we went to Lake City where we would be camping two nights. N&M live in Crested Butte so many of the San Juan 14ers are close to them which equals many more hiking trips in the future hopefully!

Lake City is about an hour drive from Gunnison where you drive past beautiful Blue Mesa and clear into the wilderness. The town itself is small and sits at an elevation of 8,671 feet. We camped at the Mill Creek campground ( http://www.publiclands.org/explore/site.php?plicstate=CO&id=5267) right outside of Lake City off Cinnamon Pass which is at an elevation of 9,500 feet. The benefits to camping at a higher elevation are that you acclimate to the altitude and have an easier time climbing and gaining that 3,000feet without getting sick or a headache. The site was very nice with pump water, picnic tables, and restrooms and though there were 22 in all, the sites were spread out so you weren't on top of your neighbors. The fee was $7 a night and they are only open from Memorial Day to Labor Day so it was pretty crowded being it was the last weekend of the season open. Another benefit to the campsite was that Cinnamon Pass is the road you take to the Redcloud Trailhead. After setting up in the dark we hung out for about an hour before going to bed in preparation for our early morning hike.

I had seen earlier in the week on the news that the San Juans had received some snow earlier in the week so I was concerned about the weather. We woke up at about 5:45 am and temps were well in the 30's so I piled on the layers. The drive up Cinnamon Pass was rough with the dirt road being rutted out and it was narrow enough in some spots where only one car at a time could pass. We arrived at the trailhead about 7am to find plenty of other hikers, some who had camped there the night before. Of course this spot is also home to the Handies Peak trail (another 14er) so we weren't exactly sure how many people we would have hiking with us. It's never fun to have a too crowded trail but fortunately once we started hiking we realized there were only a few groups ahead and behind us.

The trailhead for Redcloud starts out at 10,400 feet which meant we would gain 3,700 feet in elevation. It's nine miles roundtrip if you only hike Redcloud but we were going to traverse over to Sunshine as well meaning that our total hike would be 12 miles with an elevation gain of 4,800 feet. Redcloud and Sunshine are traditionally hiked together unless you take the Northwest Face to hike Sunshine but it's a difficult class 2 so most people start at Redcloud.

We hiked through the Aspen's and Evergreen's along the Silver Creek for about an hour or so until we cleared the treeline and then it was easy hiking through the basin. The whole first part of the hike was actually a very nice and gradual climb and I quickly found out I didn't need all three jackets I was wearing. Right before you begin the uphill climb to the saddle there was a great little body of water that made the perfect resting site for us and the dogs to play in. I'm always a big fan of hiking along water because then my dog can drink whenever she needs to instead of me having to guess when to stop and pour some water for her.

After our nice little stop by the water we began the long climb up. We thought we were looking at Redcloud from the basin but upon gaining elevation we could see there was another summit past the one we thought was "it" and since it was red my guess was that we had longer to go than we thought. Before the first false summit you reach a saddle at 13,000 feet where we were give our first look at what was on the other side of the mountain. This is where the wind really started to pick up because we no longer had the side of Redcloud to protect us and there was a crosswind. We continued west through the scree and it was a slow hike for us as the wind was blowing hard and of course the footing was loose. It was a straightforward climb however, and we soon reached the summit at about 11:30pm.

(picture: view of the false summit and summit of Redcloud)

(getting closer)

(Meghan and Neil at the final push to the summit)

(success! we made it to the top! I'm reaching for the clouds on Redcloud)

(Neil, Meghan, Me, Bebe and Marley)

(wait we have to go over THERE now?)
From the top of Redcloud you can see Sunshine which is 1.5 miles to the south. The trail is obvious and stays to the right of the ridge and after passing an unnamed point at 13, 841 feet we reached the Redcloud-Sunshine Saddle. We stopped for a break here for awhile until we could summon the energy to hike the remaining route to the top. The traverse was easy for the most part as you are climbing down not up, it's just long and tiring. To reach the summit from the saddle we had to gain 500 feet in elevation along Sunshine's North Ridge. We passed some ugly terrain along the way but the actual ascent to the top wasn't bad at all. It took us about one hour and 45 minutes to reach the top of Sunshine.

(the hike over to sunshine with redcloud and various other 14ers behind me)

(the long way down haha)

(the traverse from Redcloud)

(we made it! two in one day is quite an accomplishment)

The worst part of the entire hike came next. Unfortunately, we had to descend by going back over Redcloud. Unlike Gray's and Torrey's there is no safe way to descend without taking the same route back. The entire slope is covered with scree and loose rock. Knowing this made the summit of Sunshine bittersweet because all we could do was look back over to Redcloud and think, "we have to do the whole thing in reverse now?" Fortunately we had fantastic weather and the top of Sunshine was even warm with a nice warm breeze. We stayed up there for about 20 minutes before beginning the long journey back to Redcloud. While I'm glad we were able to summit both in one day, I would not recommend hiking over to Sunshine unless you know the weather will hold out for you. Since there's no safe fast way down you must really plan ahead and cross your fingers no storm rolls in.

The hike down seemed longer than we all remembered as we were awake now (as opposed to being the zombies we were at 7am) and this was the first time in all my 12 summit's that my feet had really started to hurt. Usually hiking down is the best part but the loose rock coming off Redcloud made it slow going. Once we reached the pool of water at the basin after descending the saddle we took another long break to relax before beginning the rest of the hike to the car. Knowing we had 12 miles to tackle on this hike we really tried to conserve our energy and hike at a slower pace. Our total hike time ended up being 10 hours, 7 minutes and 41 seconds. We averaged about 16 feet a minute at that rate.

Needless to say we arrived back at camp way past lunch hour. Neil had brought a small charcoal grill so we had hot dogs right away after arriving back at camp. Since Neil had set up their camp shower he was eager to test it out so Meghan and I started on building a fire in the pit at our site in preparation for dinner. I have never started a fire before myself out in the wilderness (usually Chad takes on the task because he loves fire) so after one attempt at getting a Duraflame started failed, Meghan and I added another on top and soon had a fire I knew Chad would have been proud of. My friend Lyndee turned me on to using starter logs on our last camping trip and I swear I will never camp without them again. They work wonders for starting a fire (usually at least!) and are pretty idiot proof. We cooked steak on their charcoal grill and potatoes in the coals of the big fire with corn on the grate. After our long day of hiking it was a pretty fantastic meal.

The plan for Sunday was to wake up and hike Handies Peak but after Saturday we decided against it. N&M's dog Marley had bloody paws from being rubbed raw on the hike and my dog Bebe could barely walk. Of course we were pretty stiff ourselves and even if it is only 6 miles round trip we knew the mountain could wait for another day. Instead, I packed up camp and headed into the town of Lake City where we checked out Lake San Cristobal and ate breakfast at the Lake City Bakery. I really enjoyed the little town and it seemed like the perfect spot to bring our friends back next year for another camping and hiking trip. There were cabins to rent along the lake and the weather was very mild (probably about 65 degrees) for such a high elevation town.

(Lake San Cristobal)
I said goodbye to N&M after breakfast and began the long 5 hour drive home. I was glad to be heading home Sunday because I knew the roads would be packed with Labor Day traffic Monday leaving the mountains and I wanted to get back as soon as possible. I enjoy camping but two nights in the woods is plenty for me!

I feel so fortunate I was able to summit Redcloud and Sunshine with two amazing hiking companions. I wish Chad could have been there to join us but I know we will be able to hike many more peaks together in the future. In fact we are all meeting up again to hike Pike's Peak in two weeks. It's a pack-in trip so I'm excited for the 13 mile push. It could possibly be my last 14er for the season so I will remember to enjoy my time on the trail even as I'm hating life carrying a 40lb pack!

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