Friday, 04 August 2017 06:00

Climbing French Mountain and Frasco Benchmark - two hidden Collegiate 13ers

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Casco Peak as seen from near the summit of French Mountain Casco Peak as seen from near the summit of French Mountain

With only a small handful (10) of the highest 100 mountains in Colorado (Centennials) left to climb, I have become quite picky about my approach to choosing the trips I embark on. For my first climb of 2017, I chose to ascend 13,940 ft. French Mountain and its soft-ranked neighbor, 13,876 ft. Frasco Benchmark. These are two fantastic 13ers hidden in the Collegiate Range between Colorado's highest mountain, Mt. Elbert, and Colorado's 2nd highest mountain, Mt. Massive.

A KML file and overview of my hike are available over on GaiaGPS - which is my absolute favorite iPhone app!

This was my 5th time in this basin for a climb, and hopefully the last (prior trips included climbs of Casco, Massive - twice, and Oklahoma). The crowds have become overwhelming due to the proximity of Colorado's two highest peaks. I drove in from Durango on a Friday afternoon, arriving around 10 PM to find only one flat spot to park my car at the trailhead for French and Oklahoma near South Halfmoon Creek. I slept in my car. I fear that one day these areas will be placed on a permit system due to the over crowding and popularity of 14ers (probably with no help from yours truly in writing these reports). The lack of respect for other people and the environment has become tragic. Within 50 feet of my parking spot at the trailhead, I found several areas where people used the bathroom and left toilet paper just laying right there on the surface - all within 10 feet of the creek, no less. C'mon people. Anyways...

This particular area will always have a special place in my heart and mind. I climbed French / Frasco Benchmark's neighbor, Casco Peak, on July 5th, 1986 when I was just 7-years-old. When my dad and I reached the summit, we noticed weather moving in but it did not seem too threatening. About 15-minutes later, our friend Dave arrived and asked if we heard the sound coming from the lightning rod. We found the long metal rod protruding straight up into the sky near the summit and it was humming with electricity. I remember wearing a ball-cap with one of those small metal bulbs on the top and it was humming too. We all raced to get off of the summit, and the lightning and thunder began to crash around us, with rain pouring down on the rocks. We all made it safely down the wet granite rocks, but it was my first exposure and experience with lightning and it always left an impression on me, later informing my trepidation and habits around start times and weather awareness in the mountains.

I set my alarm on this trip for 4:30 AM, hoping to avoid afternoon thunderstorms. The alarm sounded and I quickly got ready to go. I decided to wear my Chacos for the first 200 feet of the hike since I would have to cross South Halfmoon Creek, which was raging with about 3 feet of depth. My feet became ice cold, but welcomed the comfort of dry socks and shoes right after the crossing. The beta for this climb was pretty straight-forward - hike up the road until it terminates at the Iron Mike Mine and then ascend straight up the south face of French. Pretty simple! The ascent up into the basin where the Iron Mike Mine at was pretty steep at first, and required a second stream crossing after about a mile. The first light behind me to the east was pretty fantastic though.

Sunrise above Mount Massive

Once up near tree-line, the whole basin opened up to reveal Casco Peak, French Mountain, and a whole lot of willows. 

French Mountain and Casco Peak appear

The clouds to the east were still magnificent above Mount Massive, seen here paired with Alpine Fireweed wildflowers in the foreground. 

Mount Massive Wildflowers

South Halfmoon Creek's headwaters were much tamer at the higher elevations and provided an excellent lead-in for the upper basin.

South Halfmoon Creek

As I continued hiking up the road, my gaze kept returning to the east, where the clouds danced with the mountains.

Mount Massive at sunrise

The southern shoulder of Mount Massive was a prominent feature that constantly kept me looking back at it. I have fond memories of climbing Massive in early winter conditions in October of 2009.

Amazing Clouds above Mount Massive

As I climbed higher into the basin, the sun cast some interesting light on the southeast face of French Mountain, offering a preview for what was coming soon.

French Mountain

Above treeline, the route up French became quite obvious. In the photo below, you can see the route quite nicely - I basically went straight up, left of the snowfields and then crossed to the middle between the two snowfields and then up to the saddle. 

Hiking the road to Iron Mike Mine

My legs were feeling great, and I pushed hard to make good time up French's south slopes to find this nice grouping of Sky Pilot flowers with Casco Mountain (right) and La Plata Peak (left).

Casco Peak and sky pilot flowers

Upon reaching the saddle, I saw there were two other climbers ahead of me. Just two climbers. I love 13ers. 

French Mountain

I chatted with the two climbers, who were doing French, Frasco, and Casco. They asked if I was doing the same. I explained I had already done Casco and that I was just hoping to get French today. They were really nice guys. Reaching the summit of French was about as straight forward as you can get on a mountain climb, as a simple and easy trail went from the saddle to the summit. The views were spectacular.

Matt Payne on French Mountain

Once on the summit, I plowed through some lunch and took a panorama looking north/west/south, including La Plata Peak, Grizzly Peak, Casco Peak, Frasco Benchmark (middle), and the Elk Mountains in the distance (Snowmass, Maroon Bells, Capitol).

French Mountain summit panorama

La Plata Peak commanded my attention - I just love the gnarly view of it from this side. The Three Apostles including Ice Mountain are seen left of La Plata (and comprise 2/10 of the Centennials I have remaining).

La Plata Peak from French Mountain

The view of the Elk Mountains from this part of the Collegiates has always been something I greatly appreciate as well. Snowmass Mountain (right) is an all-time favorite.

Frasco Benchmark and the Elk Mountains beyond

I decided to make the trip over to Frasco Benchmark, which was surprisingly quite enjoyable with some minor scrambling along the ridge. The benchmark was pretty obvious, but I was left wondering why they just say Frasco and don't include the elevation... oh well.

Frasco Benchmark

A look back at French from Frasco...

Looking back on French Mountain from Frasco Benchmark

From Frasco, I really enjoyed the view of Casco Peak and began to see that clouds were forming for the daily afternoon thunderstorm. I was glad I was not continuing on to Casco. I really like this photo for some reason - the balance between La Plata (left) and Casco (right) is compelling.

Casco Peak from Frasco Benchmark

I decided to go straight down what Roach describes in his 13ers guidebook as the "Fiascol" couloir between Frasco Benchmark and Casco Peak. It was pretty much what you'd expect - fun scree and dirt boot skiing. I kind of like this terrain - I can go really fast down it! As I descended, I took a photo of Casco Peak - it looked like the storms were going to hit soon.

Casco Peak and incoming storms

Once down the scree field, I took a photo looking back up the gully - nothing special, but it shows the route!

The way down from Frasco

Back near the Iron Mike Mine, I found a huge field of wildflowers which made a nice foreground for Colorado's highest mountain, Mount Elbert. 

Mount Elbert and Wildflowers

After reaching the car, I drove out and decided to drive to Colorado Springs to enjoy my 20-year High School Reunion. I'm old. 

If you are wondering what kind of camera gear I take with my on my climbs, check out this page - it has links to all of my gear, which is now a mirrorless system to minimize weight and maximize my ability to reach those summits. Reach out if you have questions!

Hope you enjoyed this trip report! Next up: No idea! 

Again, links to my GPS track are at the top of the trip report. Until next time...

Additional Info

  • Trip Date: 7/8/17
  • Yosemite Decimal Class: 2.0
Read 1101 times Last modified on Friday, 06 October 2017 03:00

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