Ascent of West Spanish Peak on 2018-08-09

Climber: Dan Lewis

Others in Party:Madeline Lewis
Date:Thursday, August 9, 2018
Ascent Type:Unsuccessful - Turned Back
    Motorized Transport to Trailhead:Car
Peak:West Spanish Peak
    Elevation:12850 ft / 3916 m

Ascent Trip Report

My daughter Madeline and I drove up to Cordova Pass from our motel in Taos, New Mexico to hike West Spanish Peak. We were looking for an early start, so we were on the road at 3:45 AM, and at the trailhead by 6:55 AM. The threat of thunderstorms was foremost on my mind, along with the altitude. We'd never been anywhere near this high. In fact, our starting elevation was higher than any of our previous summits.

The altitude appeared to slow me down at first, but it seemed to straighten out as the morning progressed. We arrived at treeline around 9:30 am, and by 10:30 we were high up in the scree at around 12,700 feet. Unfortunately, my worst fears about the weather were becoming reality as ominous-looking clouds were forming on and around the mountain. Around this time, we observed two hikers descending from above -a man and woman - moving at a good pace. Our paths crossed a few minutes later. We stopped to chat, and they gave us an altitude reading via a topo app on their cell phone (just below 12,800 feet). I asked the man what he thought about the clouds, and he said he didn't like the look of them, but added he would probably continue up if he were in the same position as us. The woman estimated we were an hour away from summiting, as we still had 800 vertical feet to go. The man suggested we might continue up for 15 minutes then re-evaluate, and that's what we decided to do. However, I wasn't comfortable with what I saw, and after only 5 minutes my decision was made. My eyes were fixed on an ever-expanding cloud that was churning up along the summit ridge, and whose interior was charcoal grey. My imagination got the best of me as I envisioned us caught in a furious storm up high, with no place to hide and no quick way down. I told Madeline we had to turn back, to which she replied, "Couldn't we just go to the summit and come down?" We were both carrying cans of Red Bull for the summit, and decided to chug them and hustle down. Unfortunately, my growing anxiety over the weather combined with the propulsive effect of the energy concoction inspired a too-hasty descent. My carelessness resulted in a fall onto the tilted sea of slag where I scraped up my hand and forearms. Further down we encountered a 'twenty-something' dude who was ascending. When I asked if he was worried about the impending storm, he replied that he -more than most -liked to take chances with the weather.

As we moved lower, clouds enveloped the trail and the summit. It took over an hour to reach treeline, and it was a huge relief to be off the exposed ridge.

We were just below treeline, eating our re-purposed summit pitas at a viewpoint when the first boom of thunder arrived. My daughter shot me a look that could best be described as an epiphany. We repacked our food and hustled toward the trailhead. However, the oncoming storm had formed just beyond Cordova Pass instead of high on the mountain. Thus, in our attempt to avoid the tempest, we were now hiking toward it. Did I mention the final 3/4 mile of trail crosses 300 yards of open meadow? Not a great time to be carrying a pair of metal poles! Fortunately, the storm had moved on by the time we arrived at our car.

After driving down the six miles of dirt road from Cordova Pass to Route 12, we turned right and started our descent toward Cuchara. We intersected with the thunderstorm almost immediately, and watched as lightning zapped the side of Boyd Mountain. However, by the time we pulled into a gas station just outside La Veta, the summit of West Spanish Peak was in the clear. Looks like 'Twenty-Something' Dude had it right after all. Oh well! So goes mountain weather. You just never know, and can only go by your best (or worst) judgement.

We were bitterly disappointed that the summit had eluded us, especially because we live in New England, and our opportunities to hike out west are few and far between. We vowed to return sometime in the not too distant future.

Click on photo for original larger-size version.
Storm clouds closing in. (2018-08-09). Photo by Dan Lewis.
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Summary Total Data
    Total Elevation Gain:1602 ft / 488 m
    Round-Trip Distance:6.6 mi / 10.6 km
    Route:West Peak Trail
    Trailhead:Cordova Pass  11248 ft / 3428 m
    Route Conditions:
Maintained Trail, Scramble
    Gear Used:
Ski Poles
    Weather:Cool, Breezy, Partly Cloudy
Began as clear, storm clouds built up, ended with low clouds and thunder.
Ascent Statistics
    Time:3 Hours 40 Minutes
Descent Statistics
    Time:2 Hours 30 Minutes

Other Photos

Click on photo for original larger-size version.
Approaching 12,500 feet on West Spanish Peak (2018-08-09). Photo by Dan Lewis.
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Click on photo for original larger-size version.
At treeline on West Spanish Peak (2018-08-09). Photo by Dan Lewis.
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