Handies Peak and Mount Democrat 14er Climbs

Handies Peak

Handies Peak is in the San Juan mountain range 15 miles southwest of Lake City. It is the 41st highest peak in Colorado at 14,034′. It is near the towns of Ouray, Silverton, and Telluride and located in some of the most gorgeous scenery possible.

There are two popular trailheads for climbing Handies: the American Basin trailhead, and the Grizzly Gulch trailhead. We arrived on Saturday late afternoon and set up camp near the stream in the area of the Grizzly Gulch/Silver Creek Trailhead. There are some lovely spots for camping in that area with pre-existing fire circles (you are allowed to have a fire in a ring that is already there!) so we pitched our tents and easy ups and cooked up a spaghetti dinner. We had a pretty dry evening just one quick storm after we were all set up, thankfully. We had a small celebration for Eva whose Birthday it was the next day and we sat around the fire telling stories as you do. It was a fun evening.

At 5.15 we got up and tried to get eveyone motivated and fed but it was still 7 a.m. when we finally hit the trail. It was a beautiful morning.

Grizzly Gulch is the longer climb and we chose to do that one. You can use the same trailhead to also climb Redcloud and Sunshine Peak but we didn’t have a long enough trip to accomplish all of them. We’ll have to go back for the other two. Grizzly gulch is, by all accounts, the most scenic route up Handies and is marked as a classic route — It certainly lived up to its rep’ it was stunning throughout the whole climb.

The Gang

The trail from Grizzly Gulch starts out crossing the Lake Fork of the Gunnison River and it follows a stream for about 2 miles. The initial trail is forested and there is a small waterfall in the stream that adds to the beauty. Once you leave the tree line you cross the stream in about 3 places but the crossings are easy there is no need to get your feet wet! It has been so wet in Colorado this year that everything is so verdant. It was a glorious morning and the sun was shining which made a for a lovely view but a hot climb. The climb to Handies is not technical in any way and there is no exposure on this route but it is a consistent climb with very few level stretches for relief. The last forty to forty five minutes of the climb is UP. If you carry a reasonably heavy pack, as I do, it is certainly a good work out (must upgrade to lighter gear ;).
The view from the peak is breathtaking — 360 degree mountains and you can’t see any signs of civilization from the peak at all. It is like going back in time.

We waited at the peak for about 30 minutes for all members of our group and then had to skip off very quickly. We always get off the mountain peak by about 11 – 11.30 because the summer weather conditions in Colorado will guarantee an afternoon thunderstorm. For Shavano and Democrat we got down before the really bad weather hit but from the Handies peak we could see a storm was already rolling in –earlier than we usually see!
The climb down was awful! We each went as quickly as possible and we ended up splitting up. I managed to get quite a way down the mountain before the storm hit over us but I was way out in the open with about 20 mins to tree line and nothing taller than me (except other hikers) for a long way. It was just a case of hoping at that point that the lightning did not strike me — NOT A HAPPY TIME — and to top it all it came with hailstones. So I did the recommended counting between flash and thunder and divided by 5 to calculate the miles away for the lightning but it was soon simultaneous. I think it looked like it was mostly cloud to cloud and at that point there wasn’t anything to take cover in; “When caught, seek a safe zone in the 45-degree cone around an object 5 to 10 times your height” says Gerry Roach in his book Colorado’s Fourteeners From Hikes to Climbs. Um..Ok..Crap!
Anyway, I kept on until there was some cover and luckily I made it. I was down in 1 hour 45 mins from the top when it took the group about 4 to get up there. Everyone was OK but we may have to get up there even earlier next time!
There are no photos of the way down for obvious reasons!
Mount Democrat:

Last month we climbed Democrat. This is supposed to be one of the easiest 14 ers, however, there was a considerable amount of snow left that made the last hour to the peak quite hairy. Coupled with near zero visibility and new weather coming in it was tough going without a view for a payoff! It began to snow heavily as soon as we got off the mountain! It was a trying time as we also spent a couple of hours worrying about a friend who had ski’d from the summit and unbeknown to us had taken a wrong turn –he ended up getting a ride from the Frisco side to Alma while we were searching, fretting and just about to call SAR! He got a signal on his phone and let us know he was OK just in time. Democrat ended up being a harder climb in the snow (though not too long thankfully) with a short stretch that included some exposure that was worrying more for the possibility of sliding such a long way in the snow if you slipped than anything else. It was tough day but still rewarding! The scenery from Handies this month made up for it!!

A short cut on the way down!

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