Lizard Head (13,113') via Southwest Chimney, 5.8
For many years now I have been extremely attracted to the idea of climbing Lizard Head. On numerous trips to the San Juans I had driven past it dreaming of standing atop that amazing geologic feature. It just begs to be climbed despite the reputation for rotten rock and a dicey summit perch. When Cynthia and I began discussing, via email, plans for a San Juans trip to climb Teakettle Mountain and Dallas Peak I jokingly suggested climbing Lizardhead on that same trip. Only, I wasn't joking. I wanted to get her reaction to the idea as I was tired of driving past Lizard Head only to again say, "someday." I couldn't tell, initially, how she felt about it but as we got closer to the trip and really starting firming up the itinerary, Bill committed to the trip and now I had two people to convince to climb it. I figured Bill would be easily persuaded and I was right-he was interested. In a final email to Bill and Cynthia I put out one last plea that was obviously a lie but it worked: "…when I was 13 I swore I'd climb Lizardhead by the time I turned 32 and that milestone comes up a week from tomorrow so it's either this weekend or my childhood dream is lost. Please don't do that to me." With that sappy lie, I think I may have sealed the deal and Lizard Head was now on the itinerary.
On Saturday evening we drove to the Cross Mountain TH off of highway 145 just south of Lizard Head Pass. The directions we had suggested you could drive up this road a bit to the TH but the road is now closed right off the highway and there's a large parking area with a trailhead register and kiosk. We found a dirt road on the east side of 145 just a short distance up the road from the Cross Mt. TH and located a suitable campsite about .5 mile up the dirt road. We set the alarms for 5:30am and hit the sack in a light drizzle.
Sunday, July 30th
View of Mount Wilson and Gladstone with the shadow of Lizard Head in the foreground.
We expected loose rock and scree up to the base of the tower but once on the ridge of the cone, we found a good climber's trail and reached the base of the formation around 8:20am. The whole southwest side was still in the shade and quite cool so we walked over to east end of the south face to sit in the sun while we snacked, put on an extra layer or two and pulled on our harnesses and helmets. We walked back over to the south side and located the furthest-right crack system on the south face and matched it up with the route description from the Falcon Guide-"Rock Climbing Colorado" which calls the route 5.7+. Bill decided he'd take the first pitch and racked up while I flaked the ropes. We decided on double ropes for this climb so that the leader could belay the two seconds each on a separate rope. Plus, you need two ropes for the long rappels down. I've always liked climbing with double ropes like this when climbing with 3 people and this system again worked out great for us. At 8:40am Bill started up the first pitch staying out of the obvious big, awkward-looking crack by climbing to the right of the crack. The climbing looked more appealing over there and Bill was able to get in three good pieces before encountering some crumbly rock just below the small ledge that is considered an optional belay ledge. He gingerly moved through the crumbly section and gained the good ledge to find two solid pitons hammered in the rock at the ledge. He clipped these two pitons with a double-runner and dynamically equalized the runner to clip to the rope before stepping up and off the ledge into the obvious left-facing corner/chimney above. About 8 feet off this ledge he encountered another piton with a ring hammered into the wall on the left and clipped it before getting a good cam placement in up a bit higher.
Bill leading in the chimney up above the intermediate ledge on the first pitch.
As he climbed Cynthia and I discussed the climbing from below as I belayed Bill. It was cold in the shade of this big face and our teeth were chattering occasionally. I was glad to have on an extra layer of clothing and gloves. I couldn't imagine how cold Bill's hands must have been! But despite cold hands on cold rock, he was making the climbing look good. He sent down little to no rocks as he climbed and placed a few more pieces of pro. He was rock-solid even if the formation wasn't. At the top of the chimney he exclaimed he was in the sun and he pulled a fun, solid layback move to exit the chimney into the belay notch at the rappel slings. Cynthia and I were envious he was in the sun but we knew we'd soon be joining him. Bill yelled, "Off belay", and Cynthia and I changed into our rock shoes. As we were getting ready to climb I asked her if this was her first multi-pitch alpine route and, in fact, it was. Cynthia sure knows how to pick her climbs! She admitted she might struggle a bit and made me promise not to laugh. Somehow, though, I had a good feeling she'd make the summit without much trouble. She's strong and tenacious! Because of the potential rockfall, I decided Cynthia would go first to the mid-way ledge while I waited below a small roof at the base. Cynthia started on up and made great progress climbing up to the ledge. She unclipped the rope from the protection as she went and I would clean it up as I ascended. Once she reached the mid-way ledge, she took a break while I climbed up. I was finally climbing Lizard Head! That dream I had ever since I was 13 was now coming true. :) OK, I've only been dreaming of climbing this peak since 2003 or so, but it sounds so much better to call it a childhood dream! I found the rock to be decent and nice where I wanted it. Of course, I was easy on it and didn't ever pull too hard on anything and tried to climb deliberate. I joined Cynthia on the mid-way ledge and watched as she figured out the moves to get into and up the chimney. It was a bit awkward for her in the chimney but she kept a great attitude and persevered through it all the way to the notch to join Bill in the sun.
Cynthia making the moves off the intermediate ledge on pitch 1. Note the runner clipped to the fixed piton on left.
I really enjoyed this chimney/corner system by stemming on the outside of it and basically avoiding any need to get in the chimney. It's nice to be 6'5" on pitches like this. Once I reached the notch at the top of the pitch, Bill kept Cynthia and I on belay as we scrambled the second pitch to the base of the summit block. This second pitch is 3rd class scrambling on a sloping ledge with loose rocks on it. It was actually not too bad and there was enough solid rock around and under the loose stuff to make it fairly secure. Once we reached the area below the 3rd and final pitch, we pulled up slack as Bill scrambled up to meet us. Here we untied from the ropes and re-stacked them since I would be taking the lead on this last pitch. We located the overhang/roof up about 15 feet in a corner/chimney. I spotted a piton at the bottom of the overhand that would server as good mental protection at least and then spotted the area where a #4 camalot would be sweet to protect the crux roof move. But that cam was back in Bill's garage in Los Alamos so I'd have to do without. I started up and clipped the piton. Excellent. I jammed my hand back in the crack which was wide hands or a bit bigger. A sideways fist jam held decent for me as I stemmed out for my right foot and moved my left foot up to the bottom of the roof. Reaching with my left hand up above the top of the roof I found a "thank god" hold and was able to pull myself up and over the overhang onto better, easier ground.
Me leading through the crux overhang of the third pitch.
About 12 feet up from the piton I found a good .75 camalot placement in a crack. The rock through this pitch was quite good and I didn't feel that any of it would pull off. From here I could have continued straight up through more chimney action or take the more appealing, but less protectable, face climbing to the left. I don't like chimney so I went left after placing one more cam, a .4 camalot. The face climbing was super fun and more direct towards the summit but didn't offer any protection. But it was easy fifth-class that lead to 4th class scrambling to a nice block just below the summit. I placed a #2 camalot and a .3 camalot as my anchor at the top of the pitch. I pulled up slack and put Cynthia on belay. I couldn't see her or Bill but she was making good progress to what must have been the roof before I felt the rope go tight. I later learned she had almost made the roof move but came off and actually flipped upside down in the air below the overhang! But, without missing a beat, righted herself and got right back on the climb! I felt her take a couple more times before she eventually pulled through the moves. Such tenacity! I was feeling a tad guilty for dragging her up Lizard Head as her first multi-pitch climb but I had a feeling she was having a great time despite the struggles! Cynthia finished the pitch and joined me just below the summit as I belayed Bill up. Bill arrived and he and Cynthia then unroped and scrambled to the true summit of Lizard Head at 11:10am.
Bill and Cynthia on the summit of Lizard Head with Mount Wilson and Gladstone in the background.
I untied and promptly joined them on the summit! What a perch and what a view!! I had thought the views form Teakettle and Dallas had been great but viewing the Wilson group of 14ers from Lizard Head is an amazing sight! We signed in the register noting some familiar names from 14erWorld in this hard-to-reach register.
Me celebrating a successful ascent (we still had to descend of course!) on the summit.
The summit of Lizard Head is littered with loose rock but can be navigated unroped via good ledges across the top. The rappel anchors were down at the other end of the summit so coiled the ropes and scrambled over to the bolt and chain anchor backed up by a small nut to setup the rappel.
Cynthia rappels down from the summit.
Looking down at Bill and Cynthia on the second pitch of the climb as they have just finished rappelling down from the summit.
We all rapped down to the middle of the second, scrambling pitch via a double rope rappel and then walked over to the notch to rappel from a multitude of slings via another double rope rappel to the base of the tower and our awaiting lunch and shoes!
It took us 1.5 hours to hike back to the car and we got back down at 1:45pm. This trip had been hugely successful in many ways-meeting up with Cynthia to find out she's an awesome climbing partner, summitting some of the San Juan's most difficult peaks and drinking plenty of good beer after said climbs.