I picked up Justin at 7 am and we headed west in windy, clear weather for Georgetown and the road up to Guanella Pass. I'd been to Guanella Pass (11,600') before on two different attempts on Mount Bierstadt, immediately east of the spacious pass. But the area to the west was an unknown. Square Top is a high 13er and a highly recommended hike by those in the know. However, at 13,794', it just misses the cut for inclusion into Gerry Roach's book on the subject and thus doesn't get nearly the traffic it deserves.
A long ridge stretches from Guanella Pass up to a broad shoulder below the summit. Immediately south of the ridge is a compact cirque with a pair of lakes at about 12,000' and a broad south-east slope climbing steeply up to the summit. From the east, Square Top appears anything but square. A long, summit ridge is visible from the north and south giving this appearance, but from our approach it was a comely, peaked mountain.
Justin and I hit the trail at 9 am under cloudless skies, a setting moon, sub-freezing temperatures, and brisk winds. The first order of business was hiking half a mile or so across the flat, rolling, willow-encrusted terrain of the Pass to the base of the ridge. Snow from a storm on Thursday night had been drifted into pockets which were a foot or more deep in places. We followed a well-worn trail around the south side of the northeast ridge and, upon reaching a likely looking gap in the willows, started to climb north onto the ridge.
The going was easy enough although we huffed and puffed not having gotten our altitude lungs just yet. The wind whipped over the ridge and my exposed face was beginning to hurt quite a bit. Near the top of the ridge, we spied a nice low-angle gully filled with bullet-proof snow and figured it would give us some shelter to climb the last hundred feet of ridgeline and perhaps pause for a break. Not so! The gully acted as a funnel and the winds attacked with a renewed vigor. We sheltered behind a large outcrop and ate pumpkin muffins and a candy bar.
As soon as we got to the top of the ridge, the situation became more apparent. Ahead of us was a broad, level ridge skirting the north side of the cirque and leading to the steep headwall and the upper half of the peak. The winds now howled out of the west unhindered by the ridge we'd been climbing up to that point. I cinched my hood down as far as it would go and wished for my face mask and maybe a pair of ski goggles. Clouds filled the valley to the north and west and the Divide was cloaked in deep, gray clouds. In the saddle between us and the headwall, tendrils of mist came shooting through at high speed and with them ice crystals that had been picked up along the way. The winds were probably sustained at 30 mph and the wind chill was easily below zero.
We looked at the headwall and summit looming above and quailed at the prospect. Being young and stubborn, however, we opted to continue as far as we felt able, at least to the top of the headwall when we could turn left into the lee of the mountain and descend into the cirque. The headwall featured a wide, steep snow slope which would have been a lovely climb. However, without our axes (which we'd left in the car), I didn't fancy the exposure and we opted for the rocky climb on the right. This put us directly in the wind again as we gained four hundred feet of elevation at perhaps 30 degrees slope.
|Justin climbs the steepest part of the headwall. Silver Dollar Lake and some fast-moving clouds are visible below.||Topping out onto the final few hundred feet of the summit cone.|
|Incredible rhime ice coated all the summit stones.||A momentary glimpse of Grays and Torres Peaks to the north.|
By the time we gained the easier ground above the headwall, the winds hadn't abated particularly, but we were feeling good and the summit wasn't more than 400' above us. The weather showed no signs of getting worse... or better.... Might as well continue! With another half hour of scrambling up hard snow and tundra, we topped out on the summit ridge and were greated with not one but three false summits before the true summit. Here the clouds were thick and visibility alternated on a second by second basis between white-out conditions and 100 mile visibility. I got a glimpse of the tall 14ers Grays and Torrys just to our north and west poking above the clouds as we hiked and occasional views into the large cirques to the north and south. Incredible! The view without the clouds must be staggering! We finally gained the summit a little after noon, took a few photos and movies, marveled at the amount of rhime ice coating every exposed surface, climbed the summit cairn, and started back down.
Dropping south off the summit ridge on a nice snowfield, we found some shelter from the wind and had a quick bite to eat. My hydration bladder had frozen long since and it was a tricky bit of work getting water out of it. After five minutes of stationary cold, we moved on and quickly dropped back down to the 13,400' mark at the top of the headwall. I dislike backtracking and didn't relish the idea of downclimbing the steep rocks and snow we'd come up, so we headed south around the right side of the cirque wall. The two Square Top Lakes below looked quite interesting and were mostly frozen. I spied a shallow gully leading down into them and it looked like a good descent route. The south slopes were, however, pretty steep in and of themselves and we picked our way carefully down steep tundra occasionally detouring over to look down some impressively steep couloirs on the cirque wall. Finally we got to my gully and descended the soft snow (I measured the slope to be about 25 degrees, well within the abilities of even novice mountaineers).
|After leaving the summit, we encountered these cool sastrugi formations where powder has been deposited over hard snow and then shaped by the wind.||A view down one of the many intriguing couloirs we passed on the descent (also my first 3x2 mosaic panorama that actually pretty much works).|
|Our descent gully from part way down. Slope and temperature at this point were both 25 degree.||A view back at the cirque. Our descent gully is the one farthest on the left.|
We glissaded down a good bit of the gully and arrived finally at the lakes. The wind here was less intense and the temperatures higher (Justin's thermometer said 25 degrees which makes me wonder what it had been up top). It was a simple matter to hike out to the trail and return to the car at the pass. We got there at a little before 3 pm after 6.5 miles and 2300' vertical feet of climbing.
Square Top is a great mountain with a good summit, great scenery, and a varied approach featuring a little bit of everything. You can make it as challenging as you like from a class-2 walk-up to a steep snow climb. The trailhead is easily accessable through most of the winter and the whole package is available for a modest hiking distance. All told, my list of Classic Colorado Peaks has just gained another member. I look forward to climbing Square Top again in less hostile weather and continuing along the ridge to Argentine Peak and Mount Edwards to the north. The approach from Silver Dollar Lake to the north also looks quite interesting, but that may be best left for the summer. Interestingly, Square Top is the 111th highest mountain in Colorado and almost exactly the same height as Mauna Kea in Hawaii.
The Wilderness Journal