San Juan Mountains, USA

How Not to Prepare for a Peak Climb: Illustrated by Spencer Peak and Sultan Mountain


, by Greg Heil

View from the top of Spencer Peak. Photo: Greg Heil

"Hey man, do you know anything about this section of the Colorado Trail?" asked a guy stepping out from behind a Subaru parked at the Molas Pass trailhead near Silverton, Colorado. With a slightly scruffy beard that hadn't been trimmed in a few weeks and a pulled-back ponytail, he looked to be a few years older than me—probably in his late 30s or early 40s. I took in his appearance with a quick glance: t-shirt, jeans cut off below the knees rock climber style, flat-bottomed Converse shoes, a casual backpack slung over his shoulder, and a massive buck knife hanging from his belt. While the pack looked to be full, this wasn't a "technical" hydration pack in any sense of the word—it would be more at home on the street in downtown Durango than on the Colorado Trail.

"Um, a little bit," I replied. I had recently moved to the area and had only logged a couple of adventures in this zone. "What are you wondering about?"

"Oh, I heard that you could hike up the Colorado Trail and then take a dogleg to Sultan Peak by walking across the ridge and picking up a trail," he said. "Do you know anything about that?"

"I just climbed Spencer Peak," I said, a bit wearily. After a 4:30am wake up and a 6am alpine start, I was already back to the trailhead at 9:30am. "You have to cross Spencer Peak to access Sultan. But going up the Colorado Trail isn't a very direct route to get there. It might be possible, but it's going to be longer."

"Oh, well, which trail did you take up?"

"Well, there isn't much of a trail up there," I responded. "There's a bit of a trail to start, and then there's quite a bit of off-trail hiking before you pick up a more defined trail in the alpine. You really need a GPS file to navigate it."

"Oh, right on! Where did you pick up the trail?"

"Like I said, there isn't much of a trail, but I began at the point where the road splits before the campground. Look, let me show you the map I was using," I said as I pulled out FATMAP to show him the GPS route that I had loaded up for navigation. "See, you can see that the Colorado Trail goes this way, but Sultan Peak is way over here. I followed this route up to Spencer Peak."

"Ok, I'll give that a shot!" he said. "How long did it take you?"

"I was out for about three and a half hours," I said. My total time included about half an hour on the summit of Spencer Peak. As I sat on top of Spencer and looked at Sultan, I had estimated that dropping down to the saddle, traversing a steep scree field below a subpeak, and then tagging Sultan and returning to Spencer would add an additional 1.5-2 hours of alpine hiking (plus stopped time on Sultan). Unfortunately, a nagging neck issue meant that I'd been in quite a bit of pain for the entire climb to Spencer, so I bailed on the longer route to Sultan.

"Right on!" he responded. "I have to be in downtown Durango in about 3 hours. I'm not committed to summiting anything today, though," he said. For context, Durango was about an hour's drive away, meaning there would be barely enough time for him to gain the first ridgeline and return, much less tag a mountain peak.

Worried about this guy's prospects, I encouraged him to get more information before heading off trail and into the alpine. "Like I said, there isn't much of a trail up there—you really need a GPS file. You should really get the app—it's called FATMAP," I quickly added.

"Alright, cool man," he quipped as he tried to look it up in the App Store with almost nonexistent cell service.

I turned back to my van to continue stretching out after a somewhat painful climb to the top of 13,087-foot Spencer Peak. While my legs and fitness had actually exceeded my expectation, unfortunately, my neck had really held me back. Sometimes it feels like I just bounce from one injury to another, with only brief periods of pain-free health in between that keep me motivated to work through the next setback. But despite the difficulties brought on by the day, I had still accomplished my goal of summiting my #onepeakaweek and getting up onto a true alpine summit for the first time (and the fourth peak) of the challenge.

"Sultan is that one up there, right?" our buck knife-toting friend turned around to me and asked, pointing towards the ridge above us.

Without even looking at the direction he was pointing, I replied with a wearied grimace, "Nah man, it's way back in there," I waved vaguely. "You can't see it from here." The fact that neither Spencer nor Sultan is visible from the parking lot is obvious when looking at the terrain in FATMAP—even if you don't have a route plotted to the summit. Adept climbers who are familiar with paper topo maps can also ascertain that the mountains in front are all false summits. But did our Converse-clad adventurer have a paper map? Of course not.

"Ok, thanks, I'll go check it out!" he quipped as he walked out of the parking lot in the wrong direction.

View of Sultan Mountain from Spencer Peak. Photo: Greg Heil

I could only hope that his time constraints would relegate him to a 2-hour jaunt on the Colorado Trail instead of getting lost in the high alpine of the San Juan mountain range. I had done my best to encourage him to get better information and make a more detailed plan before heading out, but would he listen? Of course not.

I generally hate being asked for trail beta—mostly because I've been traveling full-time for the past four years, and almost every mountain bike ride or hike is a totally new experience to me. I guess I must look like I know what I'm doing (even when I don't) because people are constantly coming up to me and asking for directions... most often when I'm looking at my planned route to figure out which turn to take for myself. But in this instance, I had just returned from a hike in the same zone that this guy wanted to explore, so I felt obliged to attempt to steer him in the right direction.

I did my best to help because climbing mountain peaks—even non-technical ones—is an objectively dangerous endeavor. People die every year while climbing peaks in the Colorado Rockies. Sometimes they're experienced climbers, but many times they're tourists who are unprepared for the challenges that they face. Some of the most popular and highly-trafficked peaks in the state, such as Longs Peak, are also some of the most deadly.

Obscure 13ers like Sultan (13,368 ft) and Spencer (13,087 ft) don't see nearly as much traffic, which is why there isn't even a dedicated or signed trail up most peaks below 14,000 feet in the state. On these (slightly) lower peaks, you need to be more prepared for adversity because there may not be any other hikers on the mountain with you if something goes wrong. (Granted, the easy access via Molas Pass allows more people to hike Sultan than many other Colorado 13ers, but the traffic is still a fraction of what you'll find on any 14er.)

Some of the challenges that I faced, even on a relatively short jaunt to the top of Spencer, included extensive off-trail hiking and navigation using just a GPS track and logical route-finding. My Garmin Fenix 7 proved invaluable—I could simply glance at my wrist to see how close to or far off from the track I was without pulling my phone out every time. FATMAP also proved critical for confirming the correct path through some of the crux moves on the route.

After gaining the first ridge and beginning the alpine traverse, the trail was a bit more well-defined, but I was then faced with extensive snowfields on steep slopes. While I had expected to encounter some snow, I had specifically chosen this route due to the sunny slopes and southeast aspect. Even so, I encountered hundreds of yards of snowfield traversing in mid-July. I crossed the snowfields easily early in the morning with trekking poles for stability. But if someone was to attempt the crossing later in the day when the snow is softer and slipperier? In flat-bottomed Converses? And with no poles and no ice axe to self-arrest? A slip and fall on one of these snowfields could mean game over. While avalanche risks are low this time of year, late in the day after the snow has warmed up, wet slides are still a very real danger to be aware of, too.

The moral of the story is this: If you're going to attempt a solo climb up an obscure 13,000-foot summit with no defined route to the top, substantial snowfields remaining, and other alpine challenges along the way, you need to be prepared for the variety of unknown challenges and conditions that you might face. This isn't to say that these peak climbing objectives can't be completed, as I popped up to the top of Spencer and back down in relatively short order.

But showing up at the trailhead with no map, poor gear, and no idea of what awaits you? That is not a good idea. 

That's how people die in the mountains.

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