Scaling Squaretop Mountain
Updated: Jul 23, 2020
When I see a conspicuous mountain on the skyline, I crave to view the world from its perspective and long for the awaiting adventure. In Colorado, a mountain’s draw is often related to an arbitrary elevation threshold. Most of the Southern San Juans’ skyline is punctuated by trail-less, nameless peaks under 14,000 feet. As a result, their slopes and summits are crowd-less and there are no parking lots to fill.
After living in the Southern San Juans for 21 years, I've answered the call of most of the anonymous peaks on our horizon, but for good reason, I had yet to see the world from the top of Squaretop Mountain. Like an impenetrable fortress, Squaretop’s summit block is surrounded by a crumbling foundation of pyroclastic conglomerate and capped by an ancient lava flow. I’d heard rumors that there was a short break in the cliff band, but it was still unclimbable without a rope or a high tolerance of risk, neither of which I possess.
In June, Ryder and Kezzie (two young, runner/climbers) and I set off to find the break in the wall and see for ourselves whether we could scale it without climbing gear. Not knowing the exact location of the passage, we started at a gated logging road from the Mill Creek side and followed its mostly obstacle-free path to the end. Next, it is was a steep bushwack through a maze of downed, beetle-killed timber to the north saddle, which terminates abruptly at an intimidating rock face.
From the northern saddle, we marched around the base of the east face searching for the fabled route. The passage was definitely not on the crumbling east face.
As we traversed around the south ridge to the base of the west face, the towering cliff band transitioned into the lava flow formation that is more conducive to climbing.
Not far from the south ridge, we discovered the “Orange Crack”, which was guarded by a thick, prickly patch of gooseberry bushes. Ryder began scrambling up to the base of the crack until his nearly-developed frontal lobe finally fired (he’s merely 24). In his assessment, there was too much exposure to make the next move safely. We bookmarked the location and saved the summit for another day.
Fast forward to last weekend when Ryder suggested that we return to Squaretop with climbing gear. This time, we approached the peak from Blanco Basin and accessed the south ridge via an infrequently-maintained outfitter trail, which ended up being a much better approach than the logging road. Since Ryder is an experienced rock climber (and I am not), he brought all the climbing gear (a lightweight 50m rope, an assortment of cams, and ATC rappel devices). Normally I'd offer to carry some gear, but since Ryder is a young buck, I decided he needed the extra weight to slow him down.
The trail climbs through dense aspen forests until it reaches an open hillside just below the south ridge at which point it descends back to the basin below.
We left the trail and gained the south ridge, where we were rewarded the full scope of Squaretop’s sheerness and a great view into the aspen-lined basin below.
Once we reached the base, we easily relocated the Orange Crack and Ryder led the climb as I belayed from below. He only needed two cams before he made the hardest move, which relied on friction in the absence of any rock holds. Then, he anchored to 3 points and belayed me from a ledge where some previous climbers had left some old slings and a carabiner. As a non-climber, the last move at the top of the Orange Crack was intimidating, but Ryder reassured me that he had me so I grunted it out (a win for my Speedgoat running shoes).
All we had left was a short scramble up some fairly solid conglomerate and then a quick ascent up a steep, grassy slope that led to the summit ridge. The broad summit offers great views of Blanco Basin far below, the Chalk Mountains, V-Rock, and Echo Lake. Blackhead Peak and the Continental Divide are visible toward the north and you can see glimpses of Pagosa Springs between the trees toward the west. Ironically, the hardest peak I've climbed in the Southern San Juans isn't above treeline as the summit of Squaretop sits at 11,775 feet. Fortunately, the weather held and we didn’t have to rush off the summit.
The next challenge was to find a route back down. The rock above the Orange Crack lacks trees and rock anchors for rappelling so we walked to the northern terminus of the summit where Ryder figured our rope had the best chances of reaching the ground. I convinced Ryder that we should anchor the rope around 3 dead trees that were clinging to the top of the cliff instead of just one, but when Ryder tossed the rope down it was about 10 feet too short! Ryder hauled the rope back up. To get an extra 10 feet we had to anchor the rope around the lowest of the 3 trees. After tossing the rope over the cliff, Ryder said he was pretty sure that the rope reached the ground about 75 feet below. I hooked into the rope first because I wanted Ryder to insure that I rigged the ATC device correctly.
I cautiously leaned back over the ledge and walked myself down the crumbling cliffside in non-record time and was relieved to find that the rope was almost touching the flat ground. Ryder quickly followed and fortunately, the dead tree did not!
Now, all we had left was to traverse the base of the lush northwest side back to the south ridge and then descend the mellow 4-mile trail that led to the truck. We enjoyed a leisurely descent through dense stands of aspen with a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction of seeing our backyard from a new perspective.
There are some peaks in the Southern San Juans that I've climbed many times, but Squaretop will probably not be one of them! From now on, when I see Squaretop on the skyline, I'll remember rappeling off the north side from a dead tree with just barely enough rope, but it's not something I crave to repeat! Should I catch the bug again, I'll happily carry a longer rope!