San Juan County Highpoint: Mt. Peale

Mt. Peale has been on my list of mountains to climb since I first went to Moab in 2009. The La Sal Mountains tower above the red rocks, often graced with snow during “desert season” in the spring and fall. Being based in Norwood this year brought fresh incentive to climb Mt. Peale since the La Sals grace the western skyline on most of my after school runs.

The highest peak in Utah outside the Unitahs, Mt. Peale comes in at 12,721′ above sea level. Moab, to the northwest, sits at only 4,000′ while Paradox Valley to the southeast is at about 5,300′ of elevation. Peale is on a whole slew of peakbagging lists, including clocking in at #57 on the USA prominence list (it’s the 3rd most prominent peak I’ve climbed to date).

Early this winter, my rooomate Katherine mentioned that she wanted to climb Mt. Peale in the winter and wanted to know if I would join her. I was somewhat hesitant considering that I wasn’t sure when I could commit to climbing the peak since I was working 7 days a week and as a result of all that work, I wasn’t running very consistently. She basically ignored me and just kept talking about the hike like it was something that was Going To Happen.

Excellent move.

As it happened, I suggested March 12 for our ascent. I had paid no attention to daylight savings time beginning at exactly the time we planned to depart from the house (2am MST/3am MDT). Somehow I figured I had plenty of time to finish my shift at Mouses at 9pm, drive 50 miles to the house, sleep a bit and still climb a giant mountain? I was, however, committed, so I was in. Three hours of sleep and all.

Also throwing a wrench in our plans was that the weekend prior, Katherine had twisted her ankle in an ice climbing fall. I was willing to let her off the hook on the hike (in some ways, I saw an escape that would prevent me from facing my fears about my own fitness) but she continued to insist that she would be fine despite not wearing real shoes at school all week. (#realchampion)

My alarm didn’t go off because I very wisely set it for 2:45am, a time that actually didn’t exist that day. Katherine gently woke me up at 3am and then attempted to lay out to me that she was 75% sure her ankle could handle the hike. It was 3am, I was out of bed, and we were leaving. That was that. We jammed to T-Swift in the car on the way to the trailhead (which meant that I had “Bad Blood” and “All You Had To Do Was Stay” in my head for 16 miles…) and I kept my eyes peeled for deer lurking on the roadside.

Honestly, when we strapped our snowshoes on at the start of the snow-covered road, with Peale looming in the full moonlight, I gave us a 50/50 shot of making the summit. We had a long slog of road before we could even think of moving up the slopes. The magic of hiking in the dark took over though and we made great progress. I didn’t even turn on my headlamp because the moon was totally sufficient for light.

The day dawned just as we reached the start of our ridge ascent. Once we left the road, the snow got steep fast. My 2nd hand snowshoes purchased when I lived in Montana (in 2010!) don’t have ascenders. They’re small, definitely not designed for mountaineering on 30% slopes, and some of the quick tighten bindings don’t stay very tight anymore. It wasn’t long before my calves were screaming and I was tugging on my bindings every few minutes to keep them tight. I was tired and just wasn’t feeling it. The sky was greyer than I’d expected and I felt terrible.

I’d seen the exposed rock on the ridge from the road and all I wanted was to make it there. As soon as I could, I removed my snowshoes and strapped them to my pack, opting instead to go up the scree with microspikes and ice axe. On the rock, I started to find my groove and the sun started to come out. I moved efficiently upward grabbing short breaks while waiting for Katherine to catch up; during one of these little breaks I actually fell asleep in the wind at 10,000′. It was sort of nuts.

At the top of the exposed rock on the ridge, we crossed some steep snow on our way to the summit. We were both tired but the summit was only 150′ above us. Most of the way, we managed to stay below the ridge and were somewhat protected from the worst of the strong winds out of the northwest. On the final walk to the summit, however, the winds were definitely something to contend with. I braved the wind to take a couple of selfies and then it was time to head down.

Our short summit stay was sort of disappointing since the views were incredible. We could look north to the bulk of the La Sals, including Grand County highpoint, Mt. Wass:

Looking south over South mountain the Abajos and the Henrys were visible along with most of canyon country:

Looking back to the west, there was the Uncompaghre, Pardox Valley, and my beloved San Juans:

We debated a little how to descend and eventually settled on a glissade down the gully. It was steep in some places but it worked out okay. The day was getting warm and the snow turning to mashed potatoes so our pants were soaked. By the end, when the grade had lessened, we were both laughing and mentally preparing for the long slog back out to the Jeep.

12 hours after we’d gotten out of Ruth, we arrived back in the parking lot and headed out hoping to make it to Naturita in time for burgers and milkshakes at Blondie’s. I don’t think I’ve ever seen two milkshakes consumed that fast.

At home in Norwood, we attempted to have celebratory beers but I was sleepy by the time I’d had two sips. We’d covered somewhere in the ballpark of 15-16 miles and climbed 5000′ in elevation. That’s definitely not too shabby for an afternoon on the snow.

Thank you so much to Katherine for an awesome day in the mountains. I learned a lot and I reached the summit of a mountain that had been taunting me for years.

 

1 thought on “San Juan County Highpoint: Mt. Peale”

  1. Nice photos. My wife and I hiked it in July 2003, outrunning a thunderstorm! Nice to see what the top ridges look like when it’s not hot, humid and stormy…

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