Tue, Jul 21, 2020
Another rest day, sort of. We'd spent two days in the Elk Range south and east of Aspen, CO and planned to head east to US24 and Leadville. Before doing so, we wanted to spend a day driving and hiking around Pearl Pass, a classic 4WD road going over the crest of the Elk Range at 12,705ft. The road follows along the southeastern edge of the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness as it connects Ascroft to the north and Crest Butte to the south. I got the job of driving us today, but I didn't make a particularly good showing of it. We repeated much of the previous day's drive up Castle Creek for Castle & Conunudrum, this time taking the left fork near the head of the drainage that would take us to Pearl Pass. I got less than a mile up this fork before the road became suddenly serious, much worse than the other fork. I got the jeep up on some slick, wet slabs before finding all four wheels spinning with the lockers engaged. It seemed we were very close to getting ourselves into trouble with the backend nearly lurching off the roadway. When Tom suggested the next step was to air down the tires, I quickly threw in the towel - I have no interest in driving terrain that requires airing down. I managed to back it off the rocky perch and find a place just down the road to park the jeep. I was ok if the other jeepers driving by today wanted to make fun of me, I've got no male pride that needed protecting. Although we had hoped to be able to drive as far as the pass, our starting point was not a bad one, allowing us to visit a handful of peaks in a nice loop that would occupy us for much of the day.
Starting off just before 7a, we hiked the road only a short distance before leaving it to start cross-country for our first summit, Oyster Peak. Once off the road, we hiked lovely grass slopes for about half a mile to the base of Oyster on its NE side. Here the going becomes a bit tedious with talus scrambling that continues all the way to the crest and along the ridgeline to the summit. We spent about an hour and a half climbing almost 2,000ft from the car to the top of Oyster, the hardest part of the day now accomplished. From here it would be a series of smaller climbs to the various other peaks along our route. I didn't leave many registers in Colorado, but decided to leave one on this 13,312-foot summit with fine views overlooking the south end of the Elk Range.
Our second stop was Pearl Mtn, 50ft higher and less than a mile to the southeast, also the day's highest summit. It would take us about 40min to travel between the two summits along the connecting ridgeline, first passing through a saddle where I climbed a short, terribly loose pinnacle for the challenge. The rock quality was on the horrific side, with large chunks ready to crumble out from under me on much of it - not the safest thing I did on this outing. Pearl Mtn lies on the west side of Pearl Pass, though the pass can't be seen over intervening terrain. Atop Pearl's summit, Tom got to looking at his phone's Peakbagger App and suggested we might try to visit Carbonate Hill, a little over a mile to the south. The day prior, I had noted this one too, but thought it was a bit out of our way on the planned loop around Pearl Pass. I was more than happy to visit it and glad that someone else had suggested it. Eric seemed game as well, so we went about looking for a workable way to get between the two. The obvious route, which would follow the crest to Pearl Pass, worked well for a short time, but difficulties were soon encountered and we decided to bail off the south side of the crest, dropping about 500ft down a broad talus slope between rocky aretes. The talus became more boulders lower down, but soon the gradient eased and we found ourselves on gentler, grassy slopes heading south towards Carbonate Hill.
At a saddle north of Carbonate Hill we crossed over the Pearl Pass Rd. We could see a vehicle down the south side towards Crested Butte making its way up, but on a Tuesday the road traffic would be very light today. While Tom and Eric were happy to follow a spur 4WD road up towards Carbonate, I hiked along the ridgeline, an easy enough effort with views off two sides. Our routes converged near a claim marker with more talus and less grass characterizing the last part of the gentle ridge leading to the summit. Clouds were buildng some, but hardly threatening, and since it was only 10:45a, we still had plenty of time to do more. This one had turned out to be fairly easy and I was confident we could finish the circuit around the last three peaks. Eric was most interested in Greg Mace Peak and not so certain that he could do all three, so he chose to leave Tom and I when we returned to the saddle and the main road. Tom and I headed cross-country to the northeast, bypassing Pearl Pass and traversing well below the road and crest in order to climb Cooper Peak via what looked like a class 1-2 grassy slope on the south side. The traverse went well enough, but the slope turned out to be quite steep and tiring, making us think it might have been better to climb the peak from Pearl Pass and along the crest. The grass on the south slope was not as inviting up close as it had appeared from a distance, and we found the slope overall much looser than we would have liked. It was a bit after noon when we finally reached the rocky summit of Cooper Peak and Tom decided to save his energy and skip Iron Mtn. He followed the crest back to Pearl Pass and then down the main road to catch up with Eric. I headed north towards Iron Mtn, following the connecting ridgeline which had no serious obstacles, taking about 20min to cover the half mile distance.
Thinking I might actually beat Tom to the base of Greg Mace Peak if I hustled, I spent no time atop Iron Mtn, continuing over the highpoint and down a talus chute that would lead to the base of the mountain on the west side in the Cooper Creek drainage. It was about a mile of enjoyable cross-country rambling to get across the basin, bypassing the road altogether with a more or less direct route to the saddle immediately southwest of Greg Mace. I spied the others further west and closer to the road - I had not beaten Tom to the meeting spot, but he couldn't have been waiting very long. The three of us then headed up the SW Ridge of Greg Mace, about a 30min effort. We were a little dismayed to find a false summit with the true highpoint a few hundred yards further north. Worse, it looked to be composed of cliffs or loose, steep slopes on all sides and there was no obvious route up it. Eric decided to stay back and skip it, not liking the idea of difficult scrambling towards the end of the day when he was most tired. Tom and I continued along the ridge, then traversed around the northwest side of the summit pinnacle when we could follow the main ridge no longer. We had to go around to the north side before we found a modestly sketchy class 3 line up broken and crumbly rock to reach the summit. We took a picture of Eric over on the false summit and he did likewise. After a few other quick photos, we reversed our route, rejoined Eric, and headed back down towards our vehicle. We skipped most of the road to avoid the winding switchbacks, rejoining it lower down where a few Toyotas were making their way slowly up. They had already gotten past the obstacle that had stopped me, but there were others that made for continued slow going. We were back by 2:45p with plenty of daylight still, but not the energy to make full use of it. Besides, this was supposed to be a rest day, of sorts, remember?
Over the next few hours we made our way back to Aspen where we had dinner, then east on SR82 going over Independence Pass, and onto Leadville where we did some errands. One of my stops was the carwash to clean up my jeep, something Tom would give me a hard time about over the next week as I got several more. I cared not a whit - I happen to like a clean car. Later we would drive east up County Rd 2 where we'd find a place to spend the night on the side of the road. The others were worried that there would be too much traffic noise in the night, but only one or two went by after we had retired for the night...
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Oyster Peak - Pearl Mountain - Greg Mace Peak
This page last updated: Sun Aug 30 14:29:59 2020
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