San Luis Peak – Yawner Gullies

Last season on our high peaks was so good that I’ve been champing at the bit to get back to it this season. I’ve had a few decent days to get ready, a quick Grays and Torreys outing with John at the end of January being the biggest. When condition reports for San Luis started coming in a couple weeks ago with good-for-March-looking coverage, we started planning to get out – and this past Tuesday/Wednesday was our shot. The plan was to drive down Tuesday after work, sleep for a few hours, and get to it. Family obligations ultimately changed that to daytripping the peak in one long push – and so I packed all my gear, and set the alarm for 11:30pm.

I got to bed at 8:30, and was wide awake at 11. Great. I unsuccessfully tried to go back to sleep, then got up and had a cup of coffee and got dressed while the breakfast burritos I made the night before reheated. At midnight sharp I was on the road for John’s, and we left from his place about 12:40. We drove in reasonable conformance with posted speed limits, and at 4:30am were on our way up the 503 road leaving Creede and…it was covered in a few inches of snow/ice 5+ miles from where we expected.

I hopped out of the car with my headlamp and ran up a couple hundred yards to see if it was just this spot, but it continued on farther than I was willing to go. It looked like our day was done before we even started, as we’d expected a 16-18 mile day already. Another 10 was absolutely out of the question. John started coming up with backup plans, none of which I was too excited about, when I decided to look at a map. There was another road – 504 – that, while less direct, met up in the same spot. We figured it’d likely be snowed in, but we’d come this far so might as well check it out.

Our moods went from the gutter to elated as we continued along the road, as it had been plowed after the last storm. We were a little later than planned, but got to the expected parking spot and were skinning up the road at 5:15.

We followed a skintrack up the road from someone with Utah plates, thinking we might have a new friend for the day. He turned out to be going somewhere else, and we left his track when heading up towards the saddle you drop in from to head over to San Luis.

Mike skinning towards the first highpoint of the day, just right of the rocky point

It was a cold morning – single digits with a moderate breeze – but we moved at a quick enough pace to stay comfortably warm without piling on layers.

John skinning up through some willows

We had a few route-choice inefficiencies that cost us some time, but we figured nothing too huge.

We sussed out what was ahead of us and came up with a fairly conservative timeline. 7:30am at the 12,300′ saddle, came up with a few intermediate checkpoints and figured that if we were skiing off the summit at 11:30, we could be to the car by 2:30pm and home in time for bedtimes.

John at the saddle, at 7:30am

We were on schedule at the saddle. John found a weakness in the cornice and dropped in for the first 1,000′ of skiing for the day, which was pretty enjoyable.

Mike skiing down from the 12,300′ saddle

We debated between taking an obvious gully a little more right-ish and straight down through the trees, a little more to the left. Wanting to save distance and time, we went more direct. This was a mistake and cost us a few minutes. We hit the gully anyway, and poled along as far as we could before putting skins back on. Wanting to minimize trailbreaking, elevation, and overall distance, we cut the corner on a small peak in the middle of the basin. This led to some wallowing and adventure skinning, but I think did save some time.

It took over an hour from the saddle to the base of San Luis, though we were still on track and had what appeared to be a very direct climb from there.

Mike skinning straight up the west face of San Luis Peak

We gained 700′ in less than half an hour, efficiently moving up a face that was exactly at the limit of what was possible. Just after 9am, at about 12,400′, the sun started affecting the snow surface. It gave up just a hint of traction, and that was enough to put a stop to the efficient ascent. I first tried a rock outcropping to my right, and found maybe the worst chossy mess I’d ever tried to climb. Then I wallowed across the face, eventually getting to the SW ridge – which wasn’t great, but was at least stable and predictable.

Mike (center left) traversing up some loose garbage

We ground our way up the peak, and were on top just a bit before 11:30 – just barely meeting our schedule.

It was cold and breezy without any wind breaks, so we were extra motivated to get heading back down and keep with our schedule.

John on the summit

Between the altitude, 2.5 hours of sleep, 5+ hours in the car, 6+ hours gaining the summit, nearly 5,000′ of elevation gain, and wallowing in snow and scree, I wasn’t feeling so great.

Mike, having a hard time

We skied off the top, and got a few decent turns to get things going. Then came the trademark of winter 14er ski descents, walking across rocks with skis on.

John skiing a bit below the summit

We got back on snow, ripped a few great turns, and… realized that in our haste we dropped a gully too early, and would have to take our skis off and sketchily traverse over loose rock and snow to get back over where we wanted to be. This really killed our schedule, soaking up at least half an hour and a lot of energy.

The good news was, once we were on the right line, we had a couple thousand feet of perfect, fun, moderately-steep corn skiing. It was so fun we didn’t take many photos, though did stop lower down to take a few shots.

Mike, uncharacteristically having fun while skiing
John shredding the gnar
John, shredding more gnar
John, still skiing

We were behind schedule, and had some serious work ahead of us. We had to regain ~1,200′ to get back up to the saddle, and then go nearly five miles over low-angle (at best) terrain. We decided to take our route back through the trees, wallowing and all, as at least it had a broken track and would be direct.

Mike, thrilled to be doing more adventure skinning

The way back seemed to go a lot faster than the way in, probably because we could at least half-mindlessly follow our existing trail.

Mike heading back towards the final climb out of the basin

When we got to where we skied in to the gully, we briefly discussed following the gully or just going straight up along our route. We decided to take our descent route back up, which, while steep, would be direct. I was starting to hate life at this point, and was glad that John went first. Sometimes the mental break of just following someone else makes all the difference.

John leading the way

I took back over for the flatter section after we broke treeline, and had to let John take back over for the final push to the cornice.

John, setting a track to regain the saddle

Of course, about 50′ from our intended weakness in the cornice, the snow went bulletproof. We took our skis off, and John did some sort of move holding the skis shimmying up. I threw my skis on my pack and went 4WD mode with dual whippets.

Mike at the saddle, feeling fantastic

And that was almost it. The hard work was all behind us, now just lay nearly five miles of low angle, flat, and even some uphill to get out.

John, glad to have all the significant work behind us. Just 5 miles, and 5 hours in the car to go

The last five miles were an uneventful grind, and we did a quick change and hit the road as quickly as we could. With just a stop for a soda and an ice cream sandwich, we made it back to Denver in about five hours. I was home around 9, for 21 hours door to door.

I didn’t sleep great, which wasn’t all that surprising. After huge days like this I’m often too wired and achy to sleep well. The joy of the whole thing hit me the next morning, sitting in traffic on the way to work of all places. It has been a long time since I’ve had an adventure like that – go daytrip a big mountain on almost no sleep, completely bury myself, and get back in time to get to work the next day. There won’t be too many more days like that, so I have to cherish them when they do happen.

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