Trip Date: 19-06-2010 Handies Peak Whitecross Mountain Trip Difficulty: Moderate (Class 2) " />
Thursday, 24 June 2010 02:45

Handies Peak and Whitecross Mountain - a sweet San Juan saunter

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Wetterhorn and Uncompahgre Wetterhorn and Uncompahgre

Hiking in the San Juan Mountains was quite possibly the best gift a dad could get. Make that two dads.

My dad is who introduced me to climbing mountains at the young age of six, and it was fitting that we spend Father's day climbing a mountain that we had both had our eyes on for quite a few years. While my dad had originally planned in the 1980's to save Handies Peak as his last 14er, he decided to give up that idea. The last time my dad climbed a 14er was Uncompahgre Peak in 2001 - another father-son outing in the San Juan Mountains, nearly 10 years ago. Having prepared for the past two months through rigorous training and exercise, my dad, now 60 years old, believed he was ready again for climbing. Since all I talk about anymore is climbing mountains, it was no surprise that his interest in climbing is renewed and I was very pleased that he asked to join me on my attempt of Handies Peak. My dad (Old Climber on this site) and I debarked from Colorado Springs at roughly 5:00 PM on Friday, June 18th 2010, heading straight for the rugged San Juan Mountains in southwestern Colorado. We drove south down State Highway 115 and connected with Highway 50 heading west. We stopped for a bite to eat in Salida and drove to Gunnison and south towards Lake City. The drive up towards Cinnamon Pass from Lake City was a somewhat confusing one in the dark - there are a couple points where you can make a wrong turn - neither intersection having been mentioned on the route description at To top things off, the road was pretty rough, but my Jeep handled it like a champion. We managed to find our way to the American Basin near Handies Peak and began setting up camp with our headlamps on at around 11:30 PM.

Here are some interesting statistics from this amazing adventure:

Total elevation gain: 3,629 ft.

Total distance hiked: 8.22 miles

Total time hiking: 8 hours, 15 minutes

Total photos taken: 346

Total wildlife sightings: 3

Total distance driven: 480 miles

Trip duration: 28 hours

Drive to Handies

A map of our driving route to our campsite in the American Basin  from Colorado Springs

As we began setting up camp, I turned back towards my vehicle to see two glowing eyes about 20 feet away. These were no ordinary glowing eyes - these were quite large and clearly fit a very large animal. I whispered to my dad, "Ray - look - there is an animal over there!" Ray got out his flashlight and revealed a giant moose! We were both in shock, as neither of us had seen a moose in the wild in Colorado before. The moose walked around our campsite for much of the remainder of the night and at one point got within 5 feet of the tent before walking away. I decided to name the moose "Tim" since I thought it would be funnier and more convenient to refer to the moose by name instead of "it" or "moose."

The moon was about half-full and lit the basin up quite well. We could make out the ridge line of Handies Peak and the American Basin crags (American Peak, ranked 102nd highest in Colorado).

We enjoyed the views of the basin in the moonlight and set the alarm on my Suunto Core watch for 5 AM.  The tent was sitting on a lot of wierd bumps, so sleeping was not the easiest of tasks. I think I did get a few hours of pretty spotty sleep before the alarm went off. We woke up and broke down our camp pretty quickly while eating some oatmeal. "Tim" was still hanging around, eating some willow trees 50 or so yards away from our campsite. We prepared our packs and debarked up the road towards the trailhead, but not before taking a photo of the basin around our campsite.

American Basin early

Handies Peak seen at left of center with American Peak at dead center and UN 13,512 at far right. The American Basin is a very peaceful locale.

The plan for the day was to ascend Handies Peak (14,048 ft. and ranked 40th in Colorado) via the standard trail and then to traverse over to Whitecross Mountain (ranked 222) to the northeast of Handies. Starting the hike pretty early and at a respectable elevation, I believed that the itinerary would be quite manageable.

Handies and Whitecross Route Map

A topo map with my route shown in red. We began the hike near the word "Fork" on the map.

Ray and I quickly began the hike up the trail at 6:15 AM and within minutes, the sun began to light up the surrounding peaks, including American Peak.

American Basin Crags

American Peak gets a healthy dose of sunlight.

The basin itself was quite serene, with waterfalls everywhere and green slopes and orange mountain tops surrounding us in all directions.

Ray in Basin

Ray Payne with an awesome waterfall in the background

We probably could have made better time, but I was taking tons of photos the whole way up!

Matt Payne with American Peak

Matt Payne with American Peak in the background.

The trail was mostly snow-free, with a few sections of snow obscuring the trail. We were able to quickly follow the trail up the side of Handies Peak, weaving our way up towards Sloan Lake.

Ray Payne sillouhette

Ray Payne gazes up the side of the relatively steep trail leading up Handies.

Shortly before reaching the turn-off for Sloan Lake, I stumbled across a beautiful ptarmagin, still in the process of changing out of its winter coat and into its summer colors.


A ptarmigan rests on rocks near the trail leading up Handies Peak.


The ptarmigan peers back at me, wondering if it is on the menu for dinner.

The ptarmigan made a loud squak and flew down the trail and away from our threatening gaze. What a pleasure it was to see wildlife!

Shortly after heading away from Sloan Lake, the trail turns back towards Handies and down through a small snowfield. The snow was steep but easy to navigate.

Ray Payne down some snow

Ray navigates through a steep snow field.

The trail quickly zig-zags up Handies and before we knew it, we gained some incredible views back down into the American Basin.

Halfway up Handies Pano

Sloan Lake sits in front of American Peak, with the Handies standard route trail below. The first view of distant San Juan Mountains is revealed.

We rested in the shadows for a bit and resumed the hike up towards the saddle between Handies Peak and American Peak. Once gaining the saddle, views east into the next valley over were presented with the morning sun welcoming us.

Handies Saddle 360

A 360o view from the Handies - American Peak saddle. As a reminder - many images can be clicked on to view the full resolution versions!

We continued up towards the summit of Handies and were wildly surprised with a view of Rio Grande Pyramid, one of the top 100 summits in Colorado (ranked 97).

Rio Grande Pyramid

Rio Grande Pyramid sits prominently in the far distance to the south of Handies Peak.

This was a particularly exciting discovery for Ray and I since we are planning to climb Rio Grande Pyramid at the end of August of this year. Getting a first-hand view of this magnificent mountain was quite awesome.

We also could not help but notice the other quite prominent mountain sitting in front of Rio Grande Pyramid Peak on the near side of Pole Creek Mountain (ranked 138th in Colorado) - Half Peak (ranked 86th in Colorado).

Half Peak and Rio Grande

Half Peak (left of center) sits left (northeast) of Pole Creek Mountain, and Rio Grande Pyramid.

Additionally, views of Mount Sneffles (ranked 27th in Colorado) and the surrounding mountains came into view.

Ray gazes to Mount Sneffels

Ray Payne gazes towards Mount Sneffels to the northwest.

Ray snapped a shot of me before I continued up the trail.

Matt Payne with American Peak

Having gained the amazing views of the San Juans, I was re-energized to hike faster, so I quickly made my way up towards the summit of Handies. I peered back to catch the first glimpse of the Grenadiers and Needle Mountains near Silverton. I have always been completely awe-struck by these mountains, so seeing them from here was quite exciting for me. Views of Pigeon Peak (ranked 57), Vestal Peak (ranked 77), and Arrow Peak (ranked 104) were impressive. Due to the fact that I am climbing Vestal's Wham Ridge and Arrow Peak in three weeks, this view was especially awesome.

First view of the grenadiers

Ray Payne ascends Handies with the Grenadier range and Needle Mountains showing themselves above American Peak. Pigeon Peak seen just above American Peak, with Arrow and Vestal Peaks to its left.

I was able to complete the climb of Handies at 9 AM, a brisk 2 hours and 45 minutes after we started, and was greeted at the top by Ray within minutes. Handies was the 48th 14er for Ray and the 36th 14er for me.

Matt and Ray Summit Handies

Matt and Ray Payne celebrate on top of Handies with the Grendiers and Needle Mountains in the background.

The wind on top was fairly chilly, so Ray and I found shelter on the eastern side of the summit. Ray got out his topographical maps and I began to take my ritual photos for the 360 degree panoramic photo from the summit. The views from Handies were much more impressive than I could have ever imagined.

Handies 360 degree Pano

A 360o view from the top of Handies Peak. The views of the mighty San Juan Mountains were astounding. Click on the image for the full resolution version (very large).

Handies Summit Northeast to West

A 180o view looking northeast to west from Handies Peak.

I continued to marvel at the sheer impressiveness of the Grenadiers. The thought of climbing them in a few weeks seemed very surreal. Vestal's Wham Ridge looked impossible.

Grenadiers zoomed in

The Grenadiers and Needle Mountains zoomed in.

Views of other areas of the San Juans also did not disappoint. The Ice Lake Basin and Wilson group were quite impressive as well.

Handies looking West

Looking west from the summit of Handies Peak

In my office at work, I have a framed topographical map composed of many different 7.5 minute maps of the Grenadiers and Needle Mountains. I had always wanted to capture a comprehensive photo of that area, showing the various summits of the region. I had a great time using the Google Earth plugin tool to attempt to correctly identify all of the mountains in the following giant panoramic photo. I would greatly welcome and appreciate any feedback or corrections to the labels, as the viewpoint from Handies made for a distorting and confusing process for peak identification. Be sure to click on the images to see the full resolution versions and the labeled photo (2nd photo).

San Juan ultra pano

A large zoomed-in panoramic photo of the San Juan Mountains.

San Juan ultra pano with labels

Many mountains are labeled in this version. Send corrections to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

For a more natural way of viewing this photo, check out THIS PAGE.

Views of both Wetterhorn Peak and Uncompahgre to the north were also outstanding.

Wetterhorn Peak

Wetterhorn Peak

Wetterhorn and Uncompahgre

Wetterhorn Peak (left of center) and Uncompahgre Peak (right of center) rise up impressively to the north of Handies

Looking further west, were able to identify Mount Sneffels and Teakettle Mountain (ranked 98th).

Sneffles and Teakettle

Mount Sneffels (largest at center) and Teakettle Mountain (right of Sneffels)

Due west of our position on Handies, were caught view of the Ice Lake Basin. We originally thought this was the Sneffels group; however, upon further investigation, we believe we have correctly identified the mountains west of Handies as U.S. Grant Peak (ranked 119)

Ice Lake Basin Group

The Ice Lake Basin - send corrections to Matt at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

After the whirlwind of photo taking, I decided to sit-down and eat some food. Ray ate his hard-boiled egg (apparently a long-standing tradition for him), while I chowed down on a Clif Bar and some cashews.

Ray lunchtime

Ray chows down on a hard-boiled egg with Wetterhorn Peak behind him.

matt relaxing

Matt Payne relaxes on the summit of Handies.

Sitting on the east side of Handies to eat, we were able to get a great view of Grizzly Gulch, Sunshine Peak and Redcloud Peak (ranked 53 and 46 respectively).

Redcloud and Sunshine

Redcloud and Sunshine Peaks rest just east of Handies.

Additionally, I was able to get a good glimpse of my second objective for the day - Whitecross Mountain. Whitecross looked further away than I thought it would, but with the insanely great weather we had and with my legs feeling superb, I was not concerned.

Whitecross Mountain

Whitecross Mountain and the traverse to it (partially obscured by snow).

We were joined on the summit by Ben Smith of Ben was with his friend Don, and they were quite friendly. We chatted for a bit about our climbing adventures and plans and exchanged website information.

I took more photos of the surrounding peaks.

Half Peak

Half Peak

Rio Grande Pyramid 2

Rio Grande Pyramid

I had Don snap one more photo of my on top and Ben volunteered to take some photos with his camera as well. He was kind enough to email me the photo he took of Ray and I on top.

matt summit shot

Matt Payne on top of Handies Peak


Matt and Ray Payne atop Handies Peak - photo courtesy of Ben Smith.

Ray and I packed up and got ready for our traverse over to Whitecross Mountain. Ray informed me that he would probably not go to Whitecross but would wait for me at the saddle between Handies and Whitecross. This sounded like a good plan and we began to head north after bidding adieu to Ben and Don.

Shortly after making our way down towards the Handies - Whitecross saddle, we gained an excellent view down to the west into the valley we started in. Lo-and-behold we could see my Jeep way down below. 

Matt's Jeep below Handies

Matt Payne's Jeep far below in the American Basin.

After making it down the steepest section from Handies' summit, we gained excellent views of the Whitecross traverse and the terrain we ultimately needed to navigate across.

Whitecross traverse

Whitecross Mountain's traverse terrain

By this point, we could look back at Handies and get a really nice profile of it from the north side.

handies in rear view

Ray Payne traversing towards Whitecross Mountain away from Handies Peak

Being mid-June still, we encountered some difficult snow on the traverse and at one point I fell up to my hips into a snow bank. This was rather uncomfortable, being on a quite steep section with about 100 feet of run-out below me. I decided to pause to gather my wits and to get out my ice axe. I used the ice axe as a safety device as I faced into the mountain and slow kicked steps into the snow while heading down at an angle towards the saddle. Ray followed in my footsteps and we both decided that it would have been smart to just stay high above on the ridge proper instead of angling around the side of the saddle near PT 13,577.

After successfully making it past the snowy sections, I once again stumbled upon a ptarmigan. This time, it let me get very close to it before I even noticed.


A Ptarmigan feeds upon the tundra near the saddle between Handies and Whitecross


The views down into Grizzly Gulch were great during the traverse and I paused several times to get photos of the area.

ray traverse

Ray Payne, traversing towards Whitecross Mountain, with Redcloud Peak left of center.

Most of the way to the saddle between Whitecross and Handies, we encountered some nasty scree below the ridge that we were forced to cross. The rock was the kind that when you stepped on it, huge sections of rock would slide above and below your feet. While this terrain is rather fun when down-climbing, it was not so fun while going across it.

Whitecross traverse scree

Scree with a red hue made for an interesting traverse to Whitecross Mountain.

ray whitecross trav

Looking back towards Handies Peak - Ray Payne welcomes the break in crossing the awkward terrain.

Ray and I reached the saddle near some fun rock outcroppings and discussed my plans for heading to Whitecross. I told Ray to "send the cavalry if I'm not back by midnight." I took off most of my gear and left it with Ray so that I could increase my speed for the traverse.

whitecross obstacle

Whitecross Mountain sits above interesting terrain

the waiting place

Ray Payne nears our meeting place

I started my traverse over to Whitecross at 11 AM. There were no threatening clouds and I felt solid.

Matt Payne heading up Whitecross

Matt Payne poses on top of a rock formaton on the way up Whitecross Mountain

About halfway up Whitecross, I was able to get a better view of the cornice across the way and Golden Horn (ranked 116) behind it in the distance.

Cornice with Golden Horn in distance

Cornice with Golden Horn behind it.

I made my way up Whitecross quite steadily and quickly. I made great time to the tundra field below it and could see the route up the summit block.

Whitecross summit block

Whitecross Mountain's summit block

I also could see some amazing views of the western ridge of Handies and a couple lakes below it.

Halfway up Whitecross

A small lake rests in the basin below the western ridge of Handies Peak.

I made my way up towards the top of Whitecross rather quickly and was greeted with views of another neat cornice sitting in front of Uncompahgre Peak and Whitecross (to its left).

Whitecross with Uncompahgre

A cornice sits below the summit of Whitecross with Uncompahgre and Wetterhorn in the distance.

I finished up the climb up Whitecross and enjoyed views of Handies and the valley below Whitecross which was obscured before. The traverse from the saddle took 30 minutes on the mark.

Handies from Whitecross

Handies as seen from the summit of Whitecross

From Whitecross

The summit register lays out on the summit of Whitecross.

I signed the summit register (first to do so in 2010), and gathered a few more photos for a panoramic photo and a self-timer summit photo.

redcloud sunshine from whitecross

Redcloud and Sunshine are seen in better detail from Whitecross Mountain.

Whitecross summit north east south

A view north, east, and south from Whitecross Mountain.

Whitecross summit self-timer

A self-timer summit shot on top of Whitecross Mountain.

After spending a few minutes on top, I headed back down the ridge towards Ray, stopping once on the way to capture a shot of some wildflowers on the ridge.

Purple Flowers

A macro shot of some purple flowers on the ridge between Whitecross and Handies.

After 20 minutes of down-climbing, I reached Ray again, having spent a total of 50 minutes on the traverse from the saddle and traveling a distance of 1.11 miles with 558 ft. of elevation gain. Ray and I packed our belongings and headed down the steep scree to the north of the saddle. We had studied our maps and determined that this route would get us back to the road eventually and that it was the safest descent route. The only downside was that we would be required to hike back up the road to my car. A small price to pay for a great traverse.

Ray descends scree

Ray descends the steep and loose scree below the Handies-Whitecross saddle.

Ray with Cornice

Ray Payne with the Whitecross-Handies saddle above

On the way down, we captured one last view of Uncompahgre.

last views of uncompahgre

Uncompahgre Peak pokes above the surrounding ridges.

The route down towards the road was straight-forward and enjoyable. We made awesome time down towards tree-line.

Whitecross descent

A look back towards the Whitecross-Handies saddle and the steep terrain negotiated on the way down from Whitecross.

We made quick time to tree-line, and after less than an hour, we were entering the trees and much steeper terrain.

ray downclimbing

Ray Payne down-climbs from the Whitecross-Handies saddle.

The wildflowers on the fridge of the forest were amazing -yellow flowers were blooming everywhere on the mountainside.

Yellow Flower zoom

A yellow flower blooms in this macro shot near tree-line.

Soon after entering the trees, the terrain became much steeper and was littered with huge deadfall and other fun obstacles. We negotiated through the deadfall for about 20 minutes until reaching somewhat of a clearing.

Deadfall bushwhack

Deadfall on the descent of Whitecross and Handies.

From this clearing, we were able to find a small service road on the mountain side. We aimed for this road, hoping we were not trespassing on private property, and followed it down. We were grateful for finding the road, as it had a bridge across the Lake Fork Gunnison River where it connects with the main American Basin road.

We also saw a large mine shaft with railroad tracks leading into it - evidence of that at one time this region was heavily mined.

Mine shaft

Railroad tracks lead into the darkness of an abandoned mine shaft.

Once back on the main road, we were able to get a good view of the valley and mountainside we had come down.

Down Route

Ray and I hiked back up the road towards my Jeep. The road was pretty long and we needed to hike about a mile or so. American Basin was looking impressive in full sunlight.

American Basin lower

American Basin

We crossed the head of the river near a large snowbank we had noticed on the way up the night before.

American Basin snowfield

I took one more photo of the American Basin on the way back up to my Jeep. The waterfalls and surrounding terrain were very aesthetically pleasing after the long day of hiking.

American Basin pure

We finally made it back to the Jeep at 2:30 PM and I took one final set of photos to illustrate the daytime views from where we camped.

American Basin from camp

We packed up our gear after eating some snacks and headed back down the road in my Jeep. This is one of the best hikes up a relatively easy 14er with highly rated views. Given the ease of climb and the rewarding views, I would say that Handies Peak should be on all beginner and serious hikers' to-do lists.

I hope you enjoyed this trip report for Handies Peak and Whitecross Mountain. Next weekend: Missouri Mountain, Iowa Peak and Emerald Peak with my friend, Ethan Buete.

Additional Info

  • Trip Date: June 19, 2010
  • Yosemite Decimal Class: Class 2: Simple scrambling, with the possibility of occasional use of the hands. Little potential danger is encountered.
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