After a typical winter and by mid-June, the La Plata Mountains are free of snow, lupine are going crazy, snow buttercups are glossy yellow and columbine are just about ready to dominate. Not yet this year. Ridges are loaded with cornices, high alpine basins are solid white, and north-facing slopes are post-holing traps.
Now is the optimal time to appreciate Helmet Peak – elevation 11,969 feet – the westernmost mountain in the La Plata range. Small in stature with a sun-drenched south ridge approach, it is ready to climb. Just one mile and 1,000 feet of ascent lands you on the summit. Helmet is the launch point onto a 2½-mile ridgeline traverse to Rush Basin, a hidden cirque.
Helmet Peak ClimbThere are multiple routes up the mountain; this one is direct and safe. It begins just south of the pass between The Hogback and Helmet Peak. From the parking platform at elevation 10,960 feet, unbounded views disappear into the blue distance. The town of Mancos is 4,000 feet below on the valley floor. Helmet Peak is due east, but a talus field and spectacular west-face cliffs prohibit a direct approach. Just beyond the platform, the road does a triple split. Take the upper left branch through a talus field.
In 0.1 mile, leave the road and launch east-southeast up a slope with a consistent pitch. Follow the glades in the spruce-fir forest keeping the prominent rock glacier rolling off Helmet Peak just to the left/north. There is a maze of roadways on the west-facing slope, and you will cross abandoned tracks several times. Reach the treed saddle – elevation 11,580 feet – in 0.7 mile. There is a small opening revealing the western massif of the La Plata range.
The summit is just 0.3 mile afar with 400 feet of climbing remaining. Ascend the Class 2 south ridge, a mix of dirt and well-seated talus. A social trail comes and goes; just stay near the ridgetop to the crest.
The American West is home and, in this moment, the sense of cavernous space overwhelms. The Colorado Plateau extends south and west until it falls off the curve of the world. Helmet Peak provides a unique perspective on the westerly faces of our local mountains. The feeling is intimate as fingers skim the crestline of striated Hesperus Mountain, the towers of Lavender Peak, and stately Spiller Peak looming over Rush Basin.
Spinning, Lone Cone is a solitary thrust to the northwest; the San Miguel Mountains are a triple threat; El Diente Peak, Mt. Wilson, and Wilson Peak form a bulky cluster of fourteeners; and Lizard Head juts radically.
Mark Ott and his family, the Mancos HillBillies, placed a new peak register three days prior to our visit. I spoke with Ott by phone. He was raised on Mancos Hill and has made annual pilgrimages to Helmet Peak since 1970 when, at age 11, he climbed with his dad. That’s 47 trips.
Ott started keeping climbing records when he was 10 and, by age 14, he’d climbed every peak in the La Plata Mountains. This year, his family climbed Helmet via the standard route while Ott scaled a couloir on the vertical west face.
Colorado’s fourteeners vanquished long ago, Ott has climbed all 309 thirteeners in the San Juan Mountains. He readily admits he’s addicted – he has to climb a mountain every single day.
Rush Basin TraverseThe ridgetop cross over to Rush Basin adds 4.8 miles and 1,750 feet of climbing. As of mid-June, the ridge and basin were covered in deep, soft snow. You might want to give it another week.
To reach the basin, simply follow the ridge from Helmet to the northeast. Drop off the summit on a grassy slope, crossing an old wagon road. From the minor saddle at 11,420 feet, climb gently and tag Point 11,490’. Continue past Point 11,522’ and go over the highest prominence of the day, Point 12,201’ at 3.1 miles.
The stark and colorful ridge is mostly unobstructed. There are a couple of easy scrambles on the spine and the 260 foot descent to the Spiller Peak saddle. From there, drop another 100 feet into the basin at 3.4 miles, elevation 11,840 feet. In the center of the cirque sits a beautiful tundra-bound lake, headwaters of the East Mancos River.
To return, walk southwest on the irresistible and alluring bench, a tableland that rests between the out-going ridge and the river canyon well below. Resist bench suck and climb back to the ridge in about 0.9 mile when the bench is just starting to drop off the contour. Further on, the gravel-covered hard pan slope is ultra steep. Avoid it. Back on the ridge, retrace your steps over the top of Helmet Peak.
Debra Van Winegarden is an explorer and freelance writer who lives in Durango. http://debravanwinegarden.blogspot.com.