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Skyscraper Peak

Started: 2014-08-26 08:29:34

Submitted: 2014-08-26 22:03:06

Visibility: World-readable

In which the intrepid narrator climbs a minor twelver and pays his respects at a crash site

As August drags on, I'm beginning to worry about optimizing the rest of my summer. The snow has melted, and the weather is no longer quite as oppressively hot down in the flat-lands. However pleasant the coming of fall may be to the suburbs, its inexorable approach portends the end of the summer climbing season, as snow begins to fall again. So I'm eager to get out every weekend and do something interesting, which usually involves finding some obscure and aesthetic mountain to climb. But I'm running out of new and novel climbs close to home, especially those that don't require six- or ten-mile approach hikes. I appreciate a long approach now and then -- it gets me out in the middle of nowhere -- but I don't always have the energy to get up early for a long hike.

Which is why I was pleased when I noticed Skyscraper Peak, an unnamed, ranked, 12,383-foot peak, in my Indian Peaks guidebook. I've circumnavigated Skyscraper Peak on foot in a single day, but I've never climbed it, mostly because I was paying more attention to the the higher peaks around it. Gerry Roach's guidebook talked about a class 3 route up the east ridge, and the longer I looked at the map the more I became convinced that I could climb the entire two-mile-long ridge.

I drove to Hessie Trailhead on the morning of Saturday, 9 August, taking advantage of my all-wheel-drive Rav4 to get to the trailhead itself at the end of the high-clearance road. I headed up the trail along one of the branches of the Middle Boulder Creek, then turned onto the Woodland Lake Trail. At my first good opportunity, once the trail crossed the creek and the ground leveled out, I left the trail to the north and quickly found myself on a steep wooded slope that required more scrambling than I was expecting quite so soon. The steep slope gave way to a gentle slope sparsely covered with pine trees. As I climbed toward treeline the trees gave way to meadows clinging to the slope, and eventually scraggly pine-shrub.

Looking south from the East Ridge of Skyscraper Peak
Looking south from the East Ridge of Skyscraper Peak

I picked my way through a pine thicket, scrambled up a boulder-strewn slope, and found myself face-to-face with a stiff wind coming from the west and a commanding view of the southern arm of the Indian Peaks Wilderness. To the south I could see the wooden trestles on the eastern approach to Rollins Pass -- below me as I stood on the ridge -- and the rolling tundra going all the way to James Peak. To the north I could see Jasper Lake and the south face of South Arapaho Peak. To the west the grassy ridgeline climbed gently towards Skyscraper Peak and the Continental Divide. To the east the wooded hills sloped gradually down to Boulder, obscured by the mid-morning haze.

East Ridge of Skyscraper Peak
East Ridge of Skyscraper Peak

I followed the ridge to the west on a broad grassy slope, broken only occasionally by fields of boulders, as it climbed toward the summit. At one point I decided to take a class 3 climb straight up and over a gendarme (rock tower) for extra amusement rather than trivially bypass it on either side. As I approached the summit the ridgeline grew steeper and narrower, with a couple of class 3 moves required to advance, but never any sustained pitches of class 3 scrambling.

Looking back at the East Ridge of Skyscraper Peak
Looking back at the East Ridge of Skyscraper Peak

I reached the summit just before 11:00. I remembered I always prefer climbing ridges to gullies or valleys, since there's always more to see. Far below the summit I could see people hiking to Skyscraper Reservoir, and further south I looked down on the sunlight glinting off cars parked at Rollins Pass.

Rollins Pass from Skyscraper Peak
Rollins Pass from Skyscraper Peak

I continued west on my descent, looping around the valley crowned by Skyscraper Peak, intending to eventually descend on a grassy slope I spotted that would lead me directly from the ridgeline north-east to the edge of Woodland Lake. I looked down at the snow field above Bob Lake, then followed the ridgeline as it circled back around to the east. I scrambled down and back up a notch, then found myself on the top of a tower looking down a broad chimney that gave me a single-pitch class 3 downclimb to the grass below.

I found myself on a saddle between Betty Lake to the south and Skyscraper Reservoir to the north. My plan had been to continue east along the ridge, but I was within striking distance of my friend Heather's crash site, and felt compelled to pay my respects. I descended the rocky slope to the south toward Betty Lake, then joined the official trail on the south side of the lake until a small cairn marked the best place to leave the trail to visit the crash site.

I found the crash site much as I had remembered from my last visit several years prior. There was a small shrine under the trees as I approached the site. The prayer flags fluttering in the breeze had been refreshed recently, and the presence of multiple strands of flags faded to various levels reminded me of the great masses of flags I'd seen over Tibetan Buddhist monasteries in Darjeeling. The wreckage of the plane itself had been removed a month after the crash, but there were still tiny scraps of paint and glass on the ground where it had laid. The trees were still scarred and broken from the force of the impact. The only addition was a polished tombstone set carefully on the ground. The crash was eight years ago but I had tears in my eyes as I left the site.

I had no real interest in climbing 500 feet back to the top of the ridge above me and resuming my circumnavigation, so I returned to the trail and and followed it back down the valley, joining the King Lake Trail on its long journey east back to the trailhead. I knew this trail well from having hiked it many times, and I was pleased when I crossed the bridge to the Hessie Trailhead and my waiting car. The twelve-mile round-trip was just about perfect.

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