Silverton, Colorado

Adventure Stories: An Epic Overnight in the Ice Lake Basin


, by Greg Heil

Photography by: Greg Heil

"We're going to have to get some helmets if we keep doing things like this," Christine quipped as we regrouped on an alpine ridgeline at well over 13,000 feet. The climb to the saddle had been loose, scrambly, and exposed, and we'd had to put a substantial safety gap between ourselves due to the loose rock and sliding scree that kept threatening to break loose and cascade down the mountainside at a moment's notice. I agreed with her, but that didn't help us much in the moment: miles and miles from civilization and a few hundred feet below the imposing summit of 13,780-foot Golden Horn.

Despite how intimidating the summit ridge appeared, by that point, we had already made it through the unexpected crux move. While I imagined we'd encounter extended scrambling on the summit ridge, the most technical and exposed moves turned out to lie far below the ridge on the approach to the saddle. After over a mile of difficult trail-less scree walking and climbing, we traversed under a vertical cliff band on the mountainside to reach the one logical slot in the face. We had been able to piece it together without too much difficulty, but there were definitely a few airy moves on rotten rock.

Looking up at the cliff band from below, and negotiating the crux move. Photos: Greg Heil

From the saddle, the ascent to the summit was technical and scrambly but rather straightforward: up, up, and away! The summit block turned out to be absolutely stupendous: barely large enough for four people to sit (if you were all very friendly), with otherworldy 360-degree views of the rugged San Juan mountains all around us. Below, we spotted the unbelievable hue of the ice-blue Ice Lake, which we had camped near the night before. The rocky ridgeline forming the horizon of the basin looked insanely rugged and imposing from above! And off in the distance, the endless ridges of the San Juan Mountains formed the skyline. While FATMAP said that Telluride was just over the next ridge, the vertical rock walls obscured it from view.

I love climbing peaks when you feel like you're actually on top of a peak at the top. On some 14ers, like Sherman, you could play a game of ultimate frisbee on the wide, flat "summits." But the tiny summit block of Golden Horn might be the best peak I've sat on... ever.

Thankfully, we didn't have to share it with anybody else. On the ascent, we spotted one other couple descending off the mountain via a different route, and aside from that sole duo, we were the only people on Golden Horn. After the madhouse that was the Ice Lake Basin, I was astonished at the solitude we enjoyed on the mountain.

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We arrived at the Ice Lake Basin trailhead just before 7am on a Saturday morning, fully expecting the trailhead to be busy. After all, "Ice Lakes," as it's often called, has become known as the best day hike in the San Juan Mountains. But I wasn't prepared for the utter mayhem we encountered. Before the sunlight had even hit the trailhead, the parking lot was full, with cars beginning to line the narrow road leading to the trailhead. We had already driven past over a hundred rigs camped along the windy gravel road heading into the mountains. As we contemplated what to do—we wanted to park the van in a safe spot for our overnight backpacking trip—the sides of the roads quickly filled up. We reluctantly opted to park along the road, although thankfully, I spotted one solitary person leaving their spot in the lot and quickly moved the van to a safer location.

While plenty of other people were backpacking in or out of Ice Lake Basin, it's not well-known as an overnight spot. The hike to the lake and back is easily achievable as a day hike, and even a direct ascent of Golden Horn would only total 10.6 miles and 4,000 feet of climbing round-trip—on par with many peak hikes in the state. However, we were preparing for a longer backpacking excursion in the coming weeks and decided that we needed an easy overnight to shake down some new gear and ensure our systems were dialed. The beautiful Ice Lake Basin and a #onepeakaweek summit seemed like the perfect combination.

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The trail to the lake was clogged with other people, ranging from some climbers who had spent multiple days in the basin tagging a number of the 13ers ringing the lakes to a tourist hiking in Crocs with a chihuahua on a leash (she made it up, but looked like she was already in pain at the beginning of the descent). It's tough when everyone has the same idea and wants to visit the same place for the same reason. You won't believe that my photos accurately reflect the mind-bending blue hue of Ice Lake and the unbelievable turquoise of Island Lake unless you do the hike yourself and see them with your own eyes.

The unbelievable blue of Ice Lake and the turquoise of Island Lake. (All photos by Greg Heil.)

But thankfully, we still managed to find a great campsite and have a very pleasant evening in the alpine. While we had to shelter from a few rainstorms that swept through, the storms were mellow and thankfully bereft of the high winds and lightning that normally accompany monsoon weather. The thunder and lightning would descend upon the basin by mid-day on Sunday, as we were already down out of the alpine and on our hike out to the van.

Due to the crowds at the lake, I thought for sure more people would be climbing the slew of easily accessible 13ers that form the impressive skyline of the basin, yet we were only one of two groups on Golden Horn that day. While I've climbed several 13ers over the years, the solitude on the peaks is still so shocking and delightful. While the 54 (or 58, depending on how you count them) 14ers in the state are swarmed with climbers every day of the week, all summer long, the nearby 13ers—which are just as beautiful, and very often even more challenging and rewarding—remain entirely abandoned.

Part of me worries that writing about 13ers will only help encourage more crowds to abandon the 14ers and head to the lower peaks, but honestly, that seems unlikely at this point. There's a reason that climbers flock to the tallest, most prominent, most technical, and most beautiful mountains: you can't climb them all. Even if you're one of a select few who've climbed all the 14ers and 13ers in Colorado, what about all the 12-ers? What about the other states? What about other countries, other continents?

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You can never climb them all, and so, when faced with this dilemma, most people will simply opt to climb one of the iconic 14,000-foot summits, leaving the lowly 13,780-foot summits like Golden Horn to those of us who are interested in having a real adventure.

However you choose to analyze it, reaching the top of a beautiful Colorado mountain peak is a euphoric accomplishment! As we sat on the top of Golden Horn, shit-eating grins on our faces, we couldn't help but wonder: what peak will be next?!

Summit views, and feeling the stoke.