Saturday, December 8, 2012

Climbing Handies Peak in Colorado's San Juan Mountains

          “Because it’s there.”  British climber George Mallory reportedly uttered these famous words when asked why he wanted to climb Mt. Everest.  I have another reason for ascending lofty peaks:  “For the million dollar views.”

View of the Handies Peak area from the trailhead.
The trail passes below the snowfield; Handies Peak is to the left of
the picture.
          Handies Peak is our destination on a blue-sky September day in the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado.  We arrive at the trailhead in the early morning and begin the 2600 foot, two mile ascent.  An hour and 20 minutes later we reach our first break point, Sloan Lake—a blue-green gem nestled into snow-sprinkled peaks.

Tim captures our silhouettes as we pause to
appreciate Sloan Lake.
          A few minutes later we continue on from Sloan Lake, on a near vertical trail heading for the saddle (high pass between two peaks).  Something doesn’t look right; Tim reaches the saddle and is surrounded by knife-edge peaks.  This was not in the trail description.  We slide down the scree-covered slope back to Sloan Lake and find the turn-off for the trail, an unmarked “T” junction on the downslope side of the lake.

Moving on from Sloan Lake.  The Lake is nestled in the depression
on the lower right of the photo.  You can see the trail snaking its way
across the talus on the lower left.
          We make our way across a talus field, then up a series of switchbacks to another saddle.  From there we can see the summit, only a few hundred yards away.  The air is thin and it’s slow-going to the summit but when we reach the 14,048' peak it’s worth every step.  The view from the top encompasses 8000 square miles of San Juan splendor.

I'm ascending the switch-backing trail to the summit.

The view from 14,048 feet.
          For a few precious minutes we have this glorious perch all to ourselves, then we spy two men making their way up the slope to join us on the summit.  The men are from Durango and they’ve climbed Handies Peak today to celebrate the older of the two’s 60th birthday.  The younger man, in his 50’s, has climbed 30 of Colorado’s fifty-three 14ers—peaks higher than 14,000 feet.  
We congratulate the men on their accomplishments, and on their choice of this spot for a 60th birthday get-away, and then we descend.  A day spent on top of the world, reveling in million dollar views?  Priceless.

Read about our attempt to hike another 14er in the San Juan Mountains --  Red Cloud Peak

Read about Handies Peak on the "Colorado Fourteeners Initiative" website:
Discover Colorado's San Juan Mountains by visiting this site:


  1. Million dollar view is right! Thank you for sharing this climb, the photos are fantastic.

    1. Thanks for following the blog, Tunnely. And thanks so much for your kind comments!

  2. Wow! I wish I could say something more profound, but...WOW!

    Your photos of the area and trail around Handies Peak are beautiful. The first one - the overview of the whole area - is interesting for showing how the lush green valley gives way to scrub and scree, the higher you go.

    Aside from the slight detour, it sounds like you and Tim had a great hiking day. The talus fields remind me of hiking in the Greek islands - I don't think I've ever seen so many rocks! It's nice someone cleared a switchback trail for you to follow. (Much more pleasant than trying to balance atop small rocks...)

    1. We did have a great day of hiking, Vickie!

      You're right about the rocks. At the time of this hike I was still "recovering" from ACL repair surgery to my left knee and I was wearing a knee brace. Coming downhill was more treacherous than going up; stepping on those small rocks (the ones that slide onto the cleared trail) can really throw you off-balance when descending such a steep slope.

      Many thanks for the accolades!

      P.S. Hiking in the Greek Islands sounds like fun!

  3. It's just my opinion, but the term "million dollar views" seems to be an underestimate for the value of these stunning views. Perhaps the term "priceless" is a more accurate portrayal. But again, just my opinion! :)

    It just blows me away that views such as these are attainable with such a relatively modest hiking time and distance. Also, mentally I know that elevations in the 14K range are relatively routine in your part of the country. However, it's still difficult for me to wrap my head around this, considering that the tallest peak in my hiking repertoire here in New England is only 6,288'.

    Your photos are terrific, and I especially love the image Tim captured of your silhouettes as you pause to admire Sloan Lake.


    1. John, I think you're right about the term "million dollar views". Perhaps, for the Colorado Rockies, we have to replace it with "trillion dollar views"!

      It's true, these views ARE attainable with modest time and distance and that's great, but (at least for me) the effort is considerable! For some reason I have a lot of trouble breathing at elevations over 13,000 feet and so the final 1000 feet of elevation is a struggle. But, as I said in the post—worth every step.

      Thanks again for your kind comments!