Balance atop the spire of Golden Horn, a peak as alluring as its name.
When first seen from Lower Ice Lake Basin, the earth pillar looks foreboding, impossible. It is not. Strong, moderately skilled scramblers can summit the airy horn. Standing on its minuscule crown, you see it for what it is. Ice Lake’s aerie.
It is a long approach with plenty of vertical, and yet we go year after year because it is an irresistible, other-worldly tower. Adding to the sojourn’s bounty, the route passes through renowned Ice Lake Basin, its principle lake an imponderable blue jewel.
Snow lingers deep and late in the upper basin, confined beneath the highest mountains. There is typically a two-month window for climbing Golden Horn, from early August until the snow flies.
From the trailhead at 9,840 feet, it is 3.6 miles and 2,420 feet of climbing on the standard trail to Ice Lake Basin. The trek to Golden Horn makes pleasant use of the deservedly popular trail, switchbacking lazily up through a subalpine forest of conifer and aspen. During autumnal glory, foliage is filtered gold.
After 2.2 miles, at 11,460 feet, trees part to reveal three peaks that frame the Ice Lake Basin. Indomitable Vermilion Peak, elevation 13,894 feet, is the centerpiece of the basin’s ring. Even still, unmistakable Golden Horn is the headline-grabbing summit. Pyramidal Fuller Peak is the easiest to achieve.
Don’t be snared by Lower Ice Lake Basin, one of the most luscious and moist environments in Southern Colorado. Rather, kick up the pace on flat terrain. In peak season, flowers are chest high, color and texture contrasting with the stone-black headwall soon to be pierced.
The outlet stream for Ice Lake must be forded and it can be a boot soaker. Exit the lower basin on a thin, rocky trail, climbing 737 feet in the final mile to Ice Lake, elevation 12,257 feet. Beneath twinkling diamonds, the profound color saturates your experience of this place.
From the shore, the bulky stanchion of Golden Horn’s northeast ridge obscures its delicate spire. Climbers must skirt this ridge on the left/south. The easiest way is on a bench located between the ridge and Fuller Lake.
Keeping Ice Lake on your right, follow the Fuller Lake trail southwest. Pass a shallow lake whose reflective mirror is pleasingly broken by boulders. Continue up the trail and Golden Horn comes into view.
Cross Fuller Lake’s outlet at 4.1 miles, and then look for any plausible, off-trail route onto the bench, about 200 feet up on the right. A social trail and cairns assist the trek across the platform moving southwest.
Visually locate the saddle between Vermilion and Golden Horn. Follow cairns off the low ridge at 4.7 miles to the right/west. Cross the high basin on broken rock void of plant life.
The scrabbly climb to the saddle is riddled with short cliffs, but you can wiggle your way up through the rock. In fact, there are fragments of social trail that zigzag on an ever-rising traverse. The best track is within the rock trending near the left side. From the saddle at 13,360 feet, the peak is 420 feet above and 0.3 mile away.
The route north is obvious. The climb begins on loose, gravely soil but quickly becomes a four-point scramble with some exposure on debris-compromised rock. Stay on the craggy ridge as long as possible. Eventually, you will be forced off to the right/east. Finally, move left/west into the pronounced gap between the two summit spires.
It is an unexpected delight to discover Golden Horn has twin-like pinnacles. First mount the zenith on climber’s left, facing the mountain. The stair-step scramble to the top is easier than the approach.
The tiny tipped, 4x4-foot horn has room for a small cluster of people. Be steady; it is exposed and airy up there at 13,780 feet.
From the spire, study the slightly lower subsidiary apex and plot your route, a Class 3 scramble. The first few steps are up a suck-in-your-breath slit. There is one breezy, exposed move at the crest. If you are climbing with others, it is great fun and will yield amazing photographs if you split the group between the spires.
When your appetite for this golden experience is satiated, retrace your steps to the trailhead.
Caution: Ice Lake Basin is a gathering place for drenching rain, hail, sleet, snow and electricity, so start early on a reasonable weather day.
http://debravanwinegarden.blogspot.com. Debra Van Winegarden is an explorer and freelance writer who lives in Durango.