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Thread: Colorado's Lizard Head Peak

  1. #1

    Colorado's Lizard Head Peak

    I'm way overdue posting this trip report, but here it is, nevertheless.

    Some background first:

    My wife (Carrie) and I have been peakbagging Colorado summits for 35 years together now. We never set out from the beginning to do what all we have done. First, it was just the fourteeners (14ers). Then it was the Top 100 summits, then the Top 200, then the Top 300, enticed by our climbing friends and just the sheer beauty and majesty of these peaks. By the time we had climbed the highest 300 summits in the state (2002), we began to think it might be possible to actually do every summit in the state over 13,000 ft. But there was always one nagging concern - Lizard Head Peak near Telluride. This 13,100 foot pile of decaying volcanic rock, though not the hardest summit in the state to climb was at least reputed to be the most difficult 13er summit to reach by its easiest route. As I write this report, we are only 13 summits away from finishing that goal. Last July, we had scheduled ourselves to attempt Lizard Head at the end of a week of peakbagging & backpacking. If we made this summit, at the time, it would have left us with 18 summits to go.

    Note: Climbing like this doesn't allow for a dangling camera around ones neck while ascending - so the pictures are few, but should give some sense of what this trip was like.

    For this one climb, we hired a guide out of the San Juan Outdoor School based in Telluride. (See
    www.tellurideadventures.com) Our guide was Keaton Williams. Cost was $250/ea. This was and probably will always be the only time we have paid or have ever been "guided" on a Colorado peak. All others we have done ourselves. But neither of us possessed the technical skills or the equipment to do this on our own. In fact, had we gone and purchased the needed gear, we would have spent far more, so the $500 seemed like a bargain.

    Saturday evening, as we tried to recoup from nearly a week of climbing & backpacking at my sister-in-laws home near Telluride, and while enjoying an elk steak dinner, we watched the monsoonal rains falling heavily in the Lizard Head area and wondered if those rains would relent long enough to allow us to reach this dramatic summit. We went to bed at 9:00 PM and awoke at 2:30 AM. Driving to the summit of Lizard Head Pass and then down the other side a few miles, we met our guide at the trailhead at 4:00 AM.

    Keaton was well-prepared and brought us an assortment of climbing shoes to try on. We packed up our gear and headed off in the morning darkness, talking all along the way, getting to know each other and our mountain experiences.

    Up near timberline, we could hear elk bugling to each other in warning as we approached. We spotted a group of them descending a ridge silhouetted against the early morning light on the horizon. We left the main trail on the west side of the peak which we could now see clearly, looming above us. As we began a much steeper ascent on first tundra and then crumbling rock, the morning sun broke through the rain clouds left from the evening before and shone gloriously on the peaks of the Wilson massif to our west, giving us hope for a successful day.

    At 7:00AM, we stood at the base of our potential nemesis. At 7:30, Keaton began the first pitch while I belayed. This pitch follows a nearly vertical crack for over 100 feet. At first, Keaton stayed to the right of the crack, going directly up the wall of unsecure rock, then entering the crack further up. About 20 minutes later, he called down from out of site that the next climber could come. That was Carrie.

    Carrie began her ascent following Keaton's route as best she could. At first, she hesitated, but then began moving upward with more confidence. In the crack, she experienced some difficulty. There was little I could do to help. At times, I worried she would not have the fortitude to keep going and that our goal would never be realized, but utilizing some of the new canyoneering skills we had picked up last spring, she kept at it and about a half hour later, the call came for me to come on up.

    At one point, I climbed too fast and found myself with 3 holds, all sloping outward and feeling like I was going to peel off. I called for tension, repositioned myself more securely and climbed on. The upper crack relented to using tight-wall stemming techniques. Ascending at this altitude was exhausting. I had to rest for several minutes one time and catch my breath. And then, I arrived at the top of the 1st pitch, and squeezed into the crow's-nest like spot with Keaton & Carrie. This was definitely the hardest climbing either of us had ever done.

    The next lead was a scramble across & up to the base of the final lead that took us across highly angled slopes littered with broken rocks ready to slide off this unsteady pinnacle. Keaton set up a fixed rope that allowed us to clip in and simply walk & scramble up to him. Ahh! - 2/3rds done now. Our optimism was growing.

    The final lead would take us up about 8 feet, then over a bulge and into another body-width crack that would lead another 100 feet to a flat area below the actual summit. Keaton led and placed some extra cams with webbing that we could use to "aid" it if we needed. As he ascended this section, even with care, rocks rained down regularly. We had to position oursleves under a small outcrop to avoid being hit. It's not that Keaton was careless - it's just what a crumbled mess this peak is.

    Carrie went next again and at the bulge, she used one of the webbing pieces to gain a footing before continuing on. Again, it took her a while, but she never gave up and never gave in. I came next, and at the same bulge, grabbed one piece of webbing for a better handhold. Other than this one assist, we both managed to "free-climb" the route, which is rated at 5.8.

    Once I made it up to Keaton & Carrie, we made the final 100 feet of scrambling to the summit. At 11:15, we stood atop what we hoped would be the most difficult obstacle we would face in climbing every summit in Colorado over 13,000 ft. We both let out a wild WHOOP & YeeHaw!! We found the old cast-iron pipe register and checked the names of other climbers we knew like Sarah & Dominic and the Roaches and Dave Hahn & others. But Keaton was not willing to let us savor our victory for long. He was right & we knew it from all of our years of peakbagging - that we needed to head on down and get safely off this potential lightening rod before the afternoon monsoon rains broke out.

    Keaton let me go first on the first rappel. It was truly exhilarating, hanging out over the edge and looking around at all the distant peaks. You felt like you were on the edge of the world. The rap rope got hung up on the final rap, caught in a pocket, so I went down and cleared it out for Carrie and Keaton who would come last, cleaning up all the gear. We quickly packed up and headed back down the scree and back to the main trail, which we hit about 1:00 PM. No sooner did we begin hiking along, than the light rainshowers began accompanied by some lightening. Nice timing! About half way back to our vehicles, it stopped raining long enough to consume the nice prepared lunch that Keaton had brought. The best part was the huge, soft cookie we each had. We still joke - that's the best $500 cookie we ever had!

    By 2:30, we arrived back at the trailhead. Keaton hurried on off, as if this was just another day of guiding for him. We thanked him for his simple leadership and for allowing us to do a few things, "our way." As for us, we had to linger a while longer, watching the now distant pinnacle through the light rain and mostly feeling relief, that this obstacle was now DONE. To qoute our main climbing buddy, "You can't unclimb a mountain!"


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    "Beaten paths are for beaten men."

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  3. #2
    Really awesome Trip Report! Good job on reaching the summit!
    Utah is a very special and unique place. There is no where else like it on earth. Please take care of it and keep the remaining wild areas in pristine condition. The world will be a better place if you do.

  4. #3

  5. #4

  6. #5
    Tim you amaze me! Way to go. I love the TR! The pictures are beautiful. What a fun adventure :)
    CanyoneeringUtah.blogspot.com
    My YouTube Channel

    "As you journey through life, choose your destination well, but do not hurry there. You will arrive soon enough. Wander the back roads and forgotten path[s] ... Such things are riches for the soul. And if upon arrival, you find that your destination is not exactly as you had dreamed, ... know that the true worth of your travels lies not in where you come to be at journey

  7. #6
    Congrats on a tough summit you two! Great to finally see a report from you guys!

  8. #7
    So cool you made it! When I made my first attempt a few years back a nasty electrical storm rolled in right when I got to the top of the first pitch. Needless to say we made a hasty retreat favoring our lives over the glory! I need to get back there and summit!

  9. #8
    We were somewhat concerned that day because monsoonal activity was fairly strong. Fortunately, we made if off the peak just in time. Being a human lightening rod is certanly no fun!!
    "Beaten paths are for beaten men."

  10. #9

  11. #10
    Wow, amazing report Tim, great writing!
    THE MOST TALKED ABOUT CANYONEERING TRIP OF 2017 - WEST CANYON VIA HELICOPTER.
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