ilanarama: a mountain (mountain)
[personal profile] ilanarama
Some people choose the peaks they want to climb by their position on a list: the Colorado 14ers, say, or the highest 100 in Colorado, or the highest point of every state. We choose our destinations because they look cool. In the past years, we've climbed a lot of mountains just because we've seen them from the other places we've been. So it is with Lone Cone, which at 12,618 feet is not a very high mountain at all by Colorado standards. But standing alone at the western edge of the San Juan Mountains, it's a distinct landmark, and after seeing it in the distance countless times on drives to and from Utah, we figured it was time to get out and climb it.


We left town early Friday afternoon. Easy highway miles to a turn-off past Dolores led to a narrow road through remote mountain valleys to the ghost town of Dunton, now a breathtakingly expensive hot springs resort. Here we turned off onto a Forest Service road which we followed on a combination of GPS waypoints derived from Google Earth, and old maps with old roads, until we reached a point pretty much directly under the Lone Cone, where we pulled off the road, popped the top of the Sportsmobile, and started making dinner. There was just one tiny little problem...

Normally we keep a long-handled lighter in a drawer, for lighting the propane stove, but it wasn't there; it had been taken to the house to light the wood stove over the winter, and we'd forgotten to return it to the van. No problem, Britt always kept a lighter in his ditty bag. Except he'd used it a few weeks ago and must have forgotten to put it back, because it wasn't there. No problem, there was a spare lighter in the first-aid kit. Or there should have been, anyway, for that, too, was gone.

Okay, time to think like MacGyver. The van had a cigarette lighter, but it didn't get hot enough to light the stove. We rolled up a paper towel and lit the end of that, but it only smoked, and the glowing end wasn't enough to ignite the propane. Other materials fared just as poorly.

"So we need a flame," said Britt.

"Or a spark," I said. "The lighter didn't actually have any gas in it, but the spark was enough to light the stove."

Britt's eyes brightened. "I know how to make a spark!"

how to light a stove without a match

Yep, jumper cables. It was kind of terrifying, with sparks flying EVERYWHERE as soon as he touched the contacts together, and I was not completely convinced we wouldn't blow the whole thing up, but it worked. Hot dinner!

It rained that evening, but when I woke in the wee hours (to go wee :-) the stars were out. Unfortunately, by sunrise it had clouded up again, and we set out in uncertain weather. The tall grasses and wildflowers (false hellebore, larkspur, cow parsnip, fireweed) were all still wet, so we wore our rain pants over our shorts as we bushwhacked our way straight up the hillside.

Our route was not exactly standard. In fact, it wasn't in the guidebook, or on any website we could find. But the guidebook route wasn't exactly a marked trail from a designated trailhead, and it started in the northwest, which would mean driving all the way around Lone Cone from our starting point here in Durango. Britt had studied the topos and the old Forest Service maps, and come up with a route up the southeast ridge that he thought would probably work; and anyway, he has always believed that "trails are for wimps", a philosophy which makes me feel like a wimp - but I go along with him, anyway.

Up the rocks On the bench

So up we went, through damp wildflowers and up scree and across an interesting slope of fine black gravel, and eventually we attained the shoulder just under the southeast ridge...which began with a cliff that obviously was not going to go. Britt poked his head around the south face and decided we could probably bypass the cliffs that way. Probably. We just had to make it up an ever-steepening scree gully without bringing a rockslide down on our heads.

Britt led out and I followed carefully; we both made sure that when he was moving above me, I was either out of the way or tucked under sheltering rocks. The important thing on this kind of terrain is to test every handhold before trusting your weight to it, and to push down on the rocks, rather than pulling outward. After a long and extremely slow diagonal ascent, we reached a good corner that easily led up and out to the ridge using climbing-style moves. From there we continued on a solid rock ridge for a couple hundred feet before it devolved into basically a big pile of rocks (this mountain is basically a big pile of rocks!), which took us to the summit.

up the nasty gully on the southeast ridge

to the knife edge! Lone Cone summit

The views were, as you might expect from an isolated peak, awesome: we could see the mesas of the Uncompaghre Plateau to the north, the mountains of Utah to the west, the high peaks of the Sneffels and San Miguel ranges above Telluride to our east, and Arizona and New Mexico to our south. Unfortunately the sky was still overcast and clouds hid many of the peaks. After a snack break and a proud signing of the register ("southeast ridge! Woohoo! Don't try this at home!") we headed back down, just as a solitary hiker - the first person we'd seen that day arrived via the standard northwest ridge route.

Naturally, we did not head back down the way we came up, because HOLY SHIT THAT WAS SCARY ENOUGH GOING UP. Instead we started down the standard route (on the completely opposite side of the mountain), then traversed the Lone Cone Stone Zone to the south, slowly making our way toward solid ground - which took a very long time to find! Eventually we intersected an overgrown logging road, though, which took us to the Forest Service road we'd driven in on, and we followed that to our Sportsmobile, home sweet home away from home.

in the lone cone stone zone view back to the peak

Just as we got to our van, Britt noticed that next to it, someone had written a message with a stick, carved into the dirt of the road. WE ARE STUCK / PLEASE HELP / SOS, it read, with an arrow pointing farther down the road. "You think someone really needs help, or are they just messing around?" he said dubiously.

"Could we do anything if they were stuck?"

He looked at the tire tracks visible past the sign. They seemed to be from a relatively small vehicle, he thought, and our Ford E350 diesel could easily pull something like that out of a bad spot, if someone truly needed our help. So after we'd taken off our boots and put our gear back in the van, we drove in the direction of the arrow.

Maybe half a mile down the road, we found a Jeep stuck in a creek crossing, high-centered on a ridge and half-sunk in the mud. The four kids who had been in it were covered in mud themselves from trying to dig it out; one of them said they had been there for three hours, and they were incredibly thankful that we had seen their sign and come to help.

Sportsmobile to the rescue!

Britt brought out his toolbox and helped them disassemble the bumper cables on the front of the Jeep, then we strung them between the rear of the jeep and our trailer hitch and pulled them out of the mud, hooray!

We retraced our steps (well, our tire tracks) to Dunton, and then rejoined the small road as it wound through the forest towards a reunion with the highway to Telluride. The road got smaller and squigglier, though, and as the Jeep rescue had delayed us, we ended up stopping to camp well short of the highway. We had to go through the jumper-cable drill again to cook dinner, since although the Jeep People had offered us whatever they might have (which wasn't much!) in gratitude for their rescue, they did not have a lighter - okay, I guess there's a downside to the decline of cigarette smoking, but jeez, this is Colorado, you'd think they would at least have something to light up a hooch pipe!

In the morning we rejoined the main highway and took it to the turn-off for the road to Lake Hope. This wasn't quite a 4WD road, but it was rocky and bumpy and high clearance was pretty much a must. Even so, the trailhead made it clear that this would be the exact opposite of our experience the previous day: there were ten cars when we got there, and several more arrived as we were getting our gear ready to go. Despite the crowds it was a pleasant hike (on a trail! not on rocks with uncertain footing!) and we had our lunch overlooking the lake, which had a bit of a mineral tinge to its blue water but still had quite a few fish swimming around in the shallows.

Lake Hope wildflowers

We returned to the van and continued on our way. We had decided to take the Ophir Pass road across to US 550 and our more usual stomping grounds - it hits the highway a bit north of Silverton, which is an hour or so from Durango - and it turned out to be an adventure. For some reason we had thought it was an easy nontechnical dirt road pass; in fact it is steep, rough and rocky, narrow with few opportunities to pass oncoming vehicles, and we were happy for our high clearance and four-wheel drive. (I had been thinking about taking [personal profile] blnchflr through here when she visits next month; NO NO NO.)

Spoiler alert: we survived, and so did the van. Good thing, because next week I'm going to be in Boulder for work; I'm flying up, but Britt is driving the van up at the end of the week, and we're taking a few days to meander across the mountains and do some more hiking/camping/exploring.

23 photos at Flickr
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ilanarama: me, The Other Half, Moab UT 2009 (Default)

August 2017

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My running PRs:

5K: 21:03 (downhill) 21:43 (loop)
10K: 43:06 (downhill)
10M: 1:12:59
13.1M: 1:35:55
26.2M: 3:23:31

You can reach me by email at heyheyilana @


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