14er Report #36: Handies Peak (Very Late Summer Conditions–Snow!, East Slopes Route)

Handies, #3. San Juan Mountains, CO, 2017
Handies, #3. San Juan Mountains, CO, 2017 (Both autumn and winter are approaching at the same time!)
Memories made in the mountains stay in our hearts forever.

With a pending move to Barcelona this year, I thought I might get motivated and finish the basic list of 58 14ers this year but, alas, ’twas not to be. Rock climbing seemed to be the outdoor priority for me this year. So, I guess I’ll be back from Spain for a month or two next year with the remaining 14ers in my sights! Who wants to join me?

This particular trip up Handies (and the one to follow, up Uncompahgre) was special in that I was able to team up with a very close friend from way, way, waaay back in junior high and high school days–Rik Fritz. In fact, he called me up and got me going back to the big mountains on this trip instead of the local rock climbing crag.

Rik is an amazing guy and really needs to write a book about his exploits with rattlesnakes, on Yosemite big walls, on long, high altitude, cross country flights in his hang glider, and on his seriously salty sailing adventures. He is definitely a man who has lived life to the fullest–and continues to do so. (See my near-death blog post from June 27, 2017, “The Fall” to catch a bit of what I mean.)

It was great to catch up with him and talk about all that “Back In The Day” stuff! Ahhh…the stories…the stories…and all included at least 10% truth!

Our initial goal for the 3-4 days we had available was to haul our fannies up Sneffels, Uncompahgre, and Wetterhorn, starting with the Class 3 scrambling route on this last one, “Weather Peak”. Handies wasn’t even on the list. But, ah, the best laid plans…In mid-to-late September in the Colorado Rockies, weather can be tricky and fickle pickle, as we quickly discovered.

A pounding, hours-long, cold rainstorm the night before–as we camped at the Wetterhorn/Matterhorn Trailhead–made us rethink things. There would surely be snow above and, sure enough, morning revealed a heavy coating on the high peaks tapering off finally at about treeline. Hmmm…best not to do exposed Class 3 scrambling on icy and snowy rock without the proper gear and attitude, we both said. So, instead of Wetterhorn, off to Handies we bounced in our 4×4 pickups–Handies would be a much easier peak, even with a wet, white blanket o’ schnee.

What follows, then, is what eventually transpired, to the best of my sometimes-faulty recollection, along with my usual merry montage of inspiring images…

Trip Report: Handies Peak (14,048′)


We chose the East Slopes Route, Class 2, at 8 miles round trip and about 3650′ of altitude gain. This trail starts at the Silver Creek/Grizzly Gulch Trailhead, which is right across the “street” from the trailhead for Sunshine and Redcloud Peaks. Camp here for a couple of days, and you can collect three 14ers without moving your car–there is even a pit toilet!

The East Slopes is not the shortest route up Handies–the Southwest Slopes Route from American Basin is (5.75 miles/2500′)–but this eastern approach has a reputation for spectacular-ness and it didn’t let us down, especially after the snowstorm the night before.


It took us awhile to decide on the day’s objective, depart the Matterhorn/Wetterhorn trailhead, then drive back down toward Lake City and back up a different road to the proper trailhead. We finally started hiking about 8:45a.m.–perhaps the latest I had ever started up a 14er (with the exception of hiking up Shavano-Tabeguache for sunset photography). We naturally had our hairy eyeballs on alert, inspecting the fluffy fleet of fast-moving cumulus clouds as we walked. I figured we had a pretty good chance of getting turned back by weather given the very anti-alpine start time.

The wind kept the clouds from ever developing much vertically, however, so we did make the summit at about 2p.m.–a bit on the slow side probably. But, hey, we were talking a lot and we are nearly-old men! 

By 4:40p.m. we were back at the trailhead.

We lucked out with the weather–I would never suggest this very-late-start kind o’ timeline if there is any chance of thunderstorms in the forecast. Best to do the standard pre-dawn alpine start drill.

Weather Conditions:

Throughout the day, fleets of cumulus sailed by but they never built up into anything threatening. Perhaps the wind helped chop them off at the neck–we saw perhaps 30mph on the ridge and on the summit. With the colder post-frontal temperatures, and the wind, we didn’t dally long on top. I imagine the temps were in the high 20s on the summit. Autumn has definitely arrived–with winter snapping right behind–even though it is officially still a week or so away.

Trail Conditions:

A most excellent and scenic Class 1 trail, only Class 2-ish on that final portion of the summit ridge. The snow cover of up to 6-8 inches in places actually made some sections of the scree easier to climb on this steep ridge while a few other snowy steps on rock were a bit slick and you had to take care. I suppose traction (microspikes) might have helped, but you would be taking them off and on a lot. We did fine with naked boots and our trekking poles.

For most of the way in on the hike, this trail gives you some impressive views of the imposing east face of Handies.

Photography Issues:

–With my heavy D800 kit enroute on a slow boat to Barcelona, I carried my tiny Sony RX100iv, along with an extra battery and memory card–a bit over a half pound total. What a difference in weight from the 12 pounds of photo gear I usually haul along!

–Of course, the Sony, although very capable, had a very hard time with the dynamic range between bright snow and dark forest. I found myself taking several shots of the same scene and playing with the exposure compensation to get the best histogram I could–trying not to blow out the highlights, especially.

–Rik had some issues with the battery in his camera–the cold made it not want to come out and play. Keeping it inside his jacket seemed to help.

–The images you will see below were all from JPEG files, briefly processed through Photoshop. I have an older version of Photoshop that does not support the RAW files the Sony is capable of. I was really wishing I had RAW files to work with–there is so much more latitude to pull out detail from shadows and pull in the highlights!

Unusual Events/Comments:

–The San Juans were gorgeous dressed as they were in fall colors and a dusting of snow! (Punctuated by the occasional unseen  elk bugling off in the distance.)

–Have a backup plan if you intend to go after a 14er in mid-September or later.

–We had a very late start, but the weather gods smiled upon us. Go early if you can to increase your odds of success.

–We saw a total of 6 folks on the trail–all coming down since we were so late. Not too crowded! From atop the peak, we could see there were cars parked at the American Basin Trailhead, so I assume a few came up that way on this day as well.

–This area is very popular with motorcycles, ATVs and 4WD folks. Expect to see a lot of traffic on all the dirt approach roads, both 2WD and 4WD. In dry conditions, keep your windows up to keep out the dust…and go slow around blind curves!

–I keep in pretty good shape since I am often hiking to crags for climbing and also riding my bike a few times a week, but my specific prep for Handies was a 2-3 hour shakedown walk in the Indian Peaks Wilderness three days earlier (with my new orthotics), then a couple of nights sleeping at 10,000′ and above. I was a bit worried about how I would fare without a 14er ascent during the past year, but I felt fine.

–Current Colorado 14er Senior Challenge summit count: 42 of the basic list of 58 (as per p. xxiii in Gerry Roach’s 14er “Bible”, Colorado Fourteeners, 3rd Ed.). The longer list of named 14er summits is now up to 51 of 73 peaks (pp. 347-348, with South Wilson added, also in Roach’s “Bible”). Or maybe that should be 74 named 14er summits with the recent re-measuring and addition of Sunlight Spire (5.10c)!

Now, some selected Images:

The fall colors were most definitely out in force:

San Juan Autumn. Handies Peak, Colorado, 2017
San Juan Autumn. Matterhorn/Wetterhorn Trailhead, Colorado, 2017


The next morning we woke up to a significant pile o’ snow up in the hills. We guessed probably 6-8″ up high and maybe a half inch at treeline. Thus our retreat from the Class 3 Wetterhorn idea. So, off to the Handies Peak trailhead we went:

Autumn Snow, #2. Matterhorn/Wetterhorn Trailhead, Colorado, 2017
Autumn Snow, #2. Matterhorn/Wetterhorn Trailhead, Colorado, 2017


Rik is ready and waiting for me to get my ass in gear. We chose the Silver Creek/Grizzly Gulch Trailhead as it was a closer drive from our camp in the Wetterhorn area. To get to the shorter (and more popular?) trail in American Basin, you have to bounce and jostle your vehicle almost another hour up the road:

Handies Trailhead. Handies Peak, Colorado, 2017
Handies Trailhead. Silver Creek/Grizzly Gulch Trailhead, Colorado, 2017


Reflections of the pounding rain the night before…puddles on the road and snow up high:

Autumn Snow, #4. Handies Peak, Colorado, 2017
Autumn Snow, #4. Silver Creek/Grizzly Gulch Trailhead, Colorado, 2017


Rik is striding out on the nice trail. Very early in the hike, the ultimate mountainous objective hoves into view. Note the cumulus clouds–and this is at about 9a.m. With this kind of weather picture, I figured our chances were less than 50-50 to summit. Surely we would be turned around by storms. Fortunately, the clouds never managed to get organized into anything larger than platoon-sized units:

Handies, #1. Handies Peak, Colorado, 2017
Handies, #1. Handies Peak, Colorado, 2017


A closer view of the east face of Handies with my little Sony struggling at 70mm. Note all the beetle-killed trees–fuel for some future forest fire:

Handies, #2. Handies Peak, Colorado, 2017
Handies, #2. Handies Peak, Colorado, 2017


Rik snaps a photo back down the trail to the east. The big valley in the distance is what you would hike going up to Redcloud and Sunshine Peaks (two other popular 14ers). Redcloud is the rounded knob about 1/4 to 1/3 of the way in from the right (I spent a gorgeous full moon night up there one time!). Sunshine is just out of view to the far right, at the end of that rocky and snowy ridge:

Handies, #4. Handies Peak, Colorado, 2017
Handies, #4. Handies Peak, Colorado, 2017


In this image, made just as we emerged into the open basin above treeline, Rik is contemplating whether or not the answer to The Ultimate Question of Life, The Universe, and Everything is really “42”:

Handies, #6. Handies Peak, Colorado, 2017
Handies, #6. Handies Peak, Colorado, 2017


Looking east from the basin. Again, the bump on the ridge that is Redcloud Peak is visible about 1/3 of the way in from the right, but Sunshine is out-of-view to the right (although much of the traverse between the two can be seen):

Handies, #8. Handies Peak, Colorado, 2017


This is sort of like that eye test to see if you can see the faint double star on the second star in on the handle of the Big Dipper. Can you spot the two climbers high on the north ridge of Handies? (Yes, the two climbers who started who started nice and early as one ought!) No worries, I circled them for you and created a little inset box. We would be up there within an hour or two:

Handies, #9. Handies Peak, Colorado, 2017
Handies, #9. Handies Peak, Colorado, 2017


Rik poses with his special anti-solar radiation hat (full disclosure: I wore one, too!) doing his best Sister Bertrille imitation. The ridge behind him is called Whitecross Mountain at 13,542′. And once again, I chopped off Sunshine Peak on the right but Redcloud and most of the long traverse is in view. The snow was melting throughout the day, especially on the south-facing slopes:

Handies, #10. Handies Peak, Colorado, 2017
Handies, #10. Handies Peak, Colorado, 2017


A closer view of the ridge leading to Whitecross Mountain to the north-northeast–it looks like a scenic, and not-too-difficult trek. That big lump in the distance on the left is Uncompahgre Peak (14,309′). We would be up tramping upon its ramparts in two day’s time:

Handies, #11. Handies Peak, Colorado, 2017
Handies, #11. Handies Peak, Colorado, 2017


Now we are getting somewhere! Higher and higher…we finally gain the north ridge of Handies:

Handies, #12. Handies Peak, Colorado, 2017
Handies, #12. Handies Peak, Colorado, 2017


Here, in this view to the north, I have labeled some of the more well-worn and well-known landmarks of the San Juan Mountains:

Handies, #13. Handies Peak, Colorado, 2017
Handies, #13. Handies Peak, Colorado, 2017


Here I offer up a closer view (again, my little Sony straining at its max 70mm focal length) of Coxcomb, Wetterhorn, Matterhorn, and the massive Uncompahgre layer cake. The clouds thickened horizontally, but they never climbed higher to develop into real Thor-worthy and hiker-zapping thunderstorms. We appreciated that very much. The trail here steepens and is covered with loose scree. I suppose that is why they say it is Class 2 at this point. On this day, the snow often helped keep our footsteps stable:

Handies, #15. Handies Peak, Colorado, 2017
Handies, #15. Handies Peak, Colorado, 2017


Onward and upward into the thinning air. At this altitude, oxygen comprises just 12.3% of the atmosphere–as opposed to 20.9% at sea level. Yep, you breathe a bit harder:

Handies, #16. Handies Peak, Colorado, 2017
Handies, #16. Handies Peak, Colorado, 2017


Looking waaay down to the west into American Basin, we could see vehicles at the other Handies trailhead. The 4WD road switchbacking up toward Cinnamon Pass (12,640′) can also be spied:

Handies, #18. Handies Peak, Colorado, 2017
Handies, #18. Handies Peak, Colorado, 2017


And there’s Rik, standing on the summit in 30mph winds and with temps probably in the high 20s. We didn’t spend much time there! Photographers, note the use of leading lines–the cornice and the snow-filled trail:

Handies, #17. Handies Peak, Colorado, 2017
Handies, #17. Handies Peak, Colorado, 2017


Mission accomplished! Later that afternoon, back at the Silver Creek/Grizzly Gulch Trailhead:

Handies, #19. Handies Peak, Colorado, 2017
Handies, #19. Handies Peak, Colorado, 2017

6 Responses

    1. Steve,
      It seems like a lot of snow has fallen in that area over the past ten days or so and, no, we didn’t climb Sneffels. Your best bet would be to check the Conditions Reports on 14ers.com or ask someone on the Forum at that same site. Thanks for visiting!

    1. Kellye, Thanks for visiting! I would say we were pretty slow that day. If you are in shape and acclimated, you should be able to climb the peak in 3 1/2 to 4 hours or so. Also, if you were to climb it from the American Basin trailhead, that would shorten your trip even more.

  1. Dan, you are awesome. Enjoyed the narrative and the amazing and beautiful photography. You and Rik are amazing young oldsters and I guess neither of you will never give on your adventures. I remember you both when you were younger venturing off ( I worried a lot, however, you were with Rik and I also felt he had great pal). I’m happy you two kept in touch with each other and are still able to get together. Thanks again for sharing this trip.
    Good luck with your move to Barcelona. Keep safe.
    Hugs, Rik’s Mom

    1. Thanks for the VIP visit, Shirley! Yeah, it was great to spend some time with Rik and catch up on each other’s lives and reminisce about all of our past adventures. Hope you are doing well these days! DanJ

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