A spectacular summit day on Colorado’s Mount Shavano

Mount Shavano. (Johnny Hunter photo)

Much has been made of the now cliché’d term “perfect storm,” those times when a series of bad elements come together to create one really bad day.

But what do you call the opposite of that? What do you call a day when the weather, your conditioning and just about everything else comes together so well that you can’t imagine it being any better?

The Perfect Day? I don’t know. That sounds a little corny. But that’s what I experienced a few years back when my brother Mike and I set out to tackle Mount Shavano, the southernmost 14,000-foot peak in Colorado’s Sawatch Range. For me, it was my second 14er attempt, just two weeks after my first.

That experience on Mount Belford was a humbling one. It’s steep, and it seemed as if the weather and altitude conspired to bring me to my knees, despite the conditioning I had under my belt.

Shavano treated me to something entirely different.

Mike was already in spectacular condition, and his experience on the 14ers was at that point pretty extensive. This would be a piece of cake for him.

As it turned out, it would be a strong day for me as well.

Beautiful scenery greets hikers low on Shavano’s trail, near where it intersects with the Colorado Trail. (Johnny Hunter photo)

The hike starts out pleasantly, an easy trail that begins near a cow pasture bordered by a thick aspen grove. As we ascended higher, the aspens give way to pines and the trail gets more rocky, but still easy to follow. At two different points that I can remember, a stream intersects with the trail. Numerous flat spots emerged as well, making me think this would be a great place to camp: level ground and a water source are precious finds for those seeking to camp somewhere away from the crowds.

Breaking through treeline, we were greeted by the chill of winds streaming over a broad saddle under Shavano’s summit. That made for a good place to stop, have a snack and rest a bit before tackling the final stretch to the summit.

What amazed me was the wildlife. We were out on a weekday, so there were very few people on the trail. The typical rodents of the high country – pikas and marmots – were joined by some sizable flocks of bighorn sheep grazing on the alpine tundra. At times, we spotted flora that resembled some sort of alien super-weed that is hard to describe – tall, spiky, and altogether strange. I’m not sure what those plants are called, but I’ve only ever seen them at alpine altitudes.

Nearing treeline, looking south from Mount Shavano.

The last piece of hiking involved a bit of boulder-hopping up the summit pitch. The views from the top were amazing, and favorable weather provided a clear sightline to the Collegiate Peaks to the north. Far to the south, you could get a glimpse of the northern Sangre de Cristo Range. Below us to the east, we could peer into the nearby towns of Poncha Springs and Salida.

Winds were light, the sun was out and the skies were bright blue. It couldn’t have been less than 65 degrees at the summit, inviting us to soak in some rays and linger awhile. We did exactly that for about an hour.

This is what it means to enjoy one of those so-called “blue bird” days in the Rockies. You savor them because they are rare: Too often you get confronted by bitter cold, rain, lightning, hail or snow. Or any combination of the above. Those times are great, too, as I’ve always believed the elements add spice to hikes and climbs. But it’s also nice to get one of those days where everything goes right, everything cooperates and you just feel good.

My brother Mike on Shavano’s summit. To this day, he is still the strongest hiker I’ve been around. He was amazingly stout at altitude.

GETTING THERE: Take U.S. 285 a mile north of the U.S. 50 junction near Poncha Springs and turn west on County Road 140. On CR 140, drive 1.7 miles and turn right on CR 250. Drive four miles to a Y junction. CR 250 goes right and Forest Road 252 starts on the left. Stay left on FR 252 and three miles to another small junction near a cattle guard. Drive 0.2 miles to the trailhead.

ROUTE INFORMATION: From the trailhead, you will hike west through the forest before the trail goes north, then cuts back west. You will hike this direction past a stream that intersects with the trail a couple of times and makes for a good place to filter water (something to remember if you run out of water on the way down). As you break through treeline (about two miles), the trail hugs the side of the mountain as it heads toward a broad saddle between Shavano and its shorter, southern neighbor. If you hike early enough in the spring, the Angel of Shavano couloir will be to your left and below you, leading to the saddle.

Up to this point, the hiking is Class 1, but that will soon change upon reaching the saddle. Hike north from the saddle to the summit slopes. The trail eventually disappears as you go up the rocks and boulders of the Class 2 summit pitch. Exposure levels here are fairly light, but the summit views are excellent. Route length is 9.25 miles.

A word of warning:  A wind storm that struck the mountain earlier this year left behind a wreckage of downed trees that will make route founding more difficult on this trail, according to numerous trip reports I’ve read on 14ers.com.

Me on Shavano’s summit. You can see Poncha Springs and Salida below.

EXTRA CREDIT: Descend the summit by hiking northwest, then cross the connecting ridge to Tabeguache Peak. This will add another two miles and 1,000 feet of elevation gain to your hike.

Or, in the spring (provided the snow levels are good), ascend to the saddle via the Angel of Shavano couloir. Route length is similar to the standard route, rated Class 2 easy snow. If snow is still present on the south slopes of the summit cone, the pitch will increase slightly from the couloir but still remains in the upper reaches of easy snow to maybe the lowest levels of moderate steepness.

Bob Doucette

On Twitter @RMHigh7088


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