Volume LXXIX NOVEMBER, 1921 Number 2

First to Climb Lizard Head


How an OUTING Contributor Climbed an Unclimbable Peak in the San Juan Country of Colorado

A MILLION years ago, in the region men were to call the Silvery San Juan, the granite foundations of the earth were riven and from the fissures bubbling lava, welled forth in a mighty flood. Engulfing all things living in its destructive progress, it spread far and wide over canyon, stream and mountain, and when it had spent its force its sluggish verge enclosed a desolate area so large the king of birds could hardly circle it from dawn to dusk.

It were vain to ask how great the multitude of monsters overwhelmed beneath the sticky mud. Only the greatest of them all, the ancient ancestor of the puny Titanosaurs of a much later age, left even a trace behind. Isolated on an outstanding ridge and slowly swallowed up in the inexorable ooze, he struggled despairingly, even when altogether submerged. At last convulsion brought to the already hardening surface only his enormous horn thickly coated with the viscid fluid. All became rock in time, and of the life before the cataclysm there was no witness but this huge monocerous monument.

Milleuniums file by and the waste places are redeemed. Seismic upheavals shatter the great plateau, erosion and disintegration play a potent part, forests and rivers appear and make a new world to welcome the fauna of a new age. Men come at last—men who fill the valleys with fields of grain, torture the bowels of the earth in search for precious metals, spread towns in mountain parks, and cast a tenuous path of steel across the mountain ranges. But ever the towering monolith defies them, keeping its lofty heights unsoiled by human touch.

"Lizard Head ... is a column with nearly vertical walls on all sides, rising nearly three hundred feet above its platform. Its summit is inaccessible, and the reason for its preservation is not evident. At the base it is a bedded mass of andesitic breccia ... and a horizontal banding is visible far up on its walls, although a vertical fissuring renders this obscure in many places. It is possible that there is here a rounded or oval neck of massive rock ... which has indurated the surrounding tuffs, so that the core is concealed by a shell of this character." ¹

This curious rocky "Head" is an outcropping at the highest possible point of a long semicircular ridge that forms the eastern portion of the Mt. Wilson group. Geologically this majestic group is but an offshoot or outlier of the San Juan Mountains, but like several other spurs in the Colorado Rockies, it surpasses the main range in ruggedness and alpine dignity and beauty.

We gazed admiringly upon the slender shaft of rock
and wondered if we were destined to stand upon its top
Besides the unique Lizard Head, with which we are here concerned, it contains (to mention only the highest peaks) Gladstone Peak (over 13,800 feet), Wilson Peak (14,026 feet) and Mt. Wilson itself (14,250 feet); the last is the fourteenth peak in a State that boasts forty-two peaks over 14,000 feet in height and (to quote from a Forest Service scribe) "offers a difficult and in part a dangerous climb, but affords one of the most beautiful views obtainable in the southern part of the State." ²

The group as a whole is isolated from the mass of the volcanic complex of the San Juan region by the deep erosion of the San Miguel river, which flows northward into the Gunnison, and the Rio Dolores, which flows in the opposite direction.

The government geologist had said the Lizard Head was inaccessible, and the Forest Service pamphlet corroborated him: "The sheer rock face of Lizard Head Peak (13,156 feet) has never yet been climbed by man."

The Forest Supervisor at Durango wrote in response to my inquiry: "It is my understanding that the Lizard Head has never been scaled." Finally, after taking three weeks to get "reliable information," Mr. Richard R. Thompson, the Forest Ranger at Rico (which is the nearest Ranger Station to the Lizard Head), replied: "It is said that Lizard Head has never been climbed, and I believe that it is unclimbable from either face." "Inaccessible" and "unclimbable" are strong words, and are like a red rag to the enthusiastic alpinist; so, when, with Barton Hoag of Colorado Springs, I planned three weeks of camping and climbing in the San Juan, it is hardly necessary to say the Lizard Head was an objective.

From our first peak, the Uncompahgre, loftiest of the San Juan region (14,306 feet), we sought It eagerly with our powerful glasses, and picking it out with difficulty in the early morning mist across thirty-five miles of the most tangled confusion of mountains in Colorado, let our eyes rest long upon it, in earnest anticipation of what it held in store for us. We had several glimpses of it as we gradually worked closer, from the highest summits of the Lake Fork section of the San Juan proper, and from the Needle Mountains south of Silverton. Finally, from the favored summit of Mt. Sneffles (the finest view in the San Juan), we gazed admiringly upon the slender shaft of rock only fifteen miles away, and wondered if we were destined to stand upon its top.

We left the Lizard Head station of the Rio Grande Southern on the morning of August 25th with eighty-pound packs. Our course lay southwest along the sheep driveway for a mile and a half, and then turned off on a trail to the right which brought us to Slate Creek for lunch, for we had not got started till 11:10. So far there was practically no climbing, but now the trail swung to the north and headed for the saddle (11,800 feet) between Gladstone and the Lizard Head, and in the next four and a half miles there is an ascent of 1,600 feet. Relaying the packs to the top of the pass, we dropped down rapidly to the tree-line in the east branch of Bilk Basin and pitched camp at about 11,300 feet.

This is undoubtedly the best base of operations. It is at the very foot of the Lizard Head ridge and only 1,500 feet below the platform upon which the great rock rests. It can be reached by trail, either from the Lizard Head station as we came (about eight and a half miles), or from the railway crossing opposite the Belt ranch in the San Miguel valley.

We left the Lizard Head station of the Rio Grande Southern
on the morning of August 25th with eighty-pound packs
The latter route climbs over the north shoulder of Sunshine Mountain and ascends Bilk Creek; it is shorter than the route we took by perhaps two miles, but involves a climb of 2,600 feet instead of 1,600, and the long stretch in the valley below the camp is very steep indeed for heavy packs. One would have to go a considerable distance from the trail to find both wood and water to the southwest of the Head, and there is no trail at all up Wilson Creek to the east.

The camp in Bilk Basin is also favorably situated for attacking Wilson peak, Gladstone, and Mt. Wilson. It would be difficult to find a more beautiful site. Pitched on the high east bank of a roaring creek, it looks out from the shelter of tall Engelmanns upon the thick green spruce carpet of the lower Basin, from which the long brown slope of Wilson Peak stretches impressively into the western sky. Farther to the left stands Gladstone's rocky cone, the jagged eastern ridge of which cuts off from view the snowy heights of Mt. Wilson.

For two days we kept close to our tarp lean-to, forced to remain inactive by the unkind weather. The morning of the third was cloudy, but it started to clear after breakfast, and, resolved to let no opportunity escape, we hurriedly packed a lunch and set out for the ridge. An Indian boy who was herding 1,500 sheep over in the West Basin had dropped in for a chat after breakfast, and we told him as we packed that we were going to climb the Lizard Head. He evidently thought we were "ragging" him and was highly amused. If he had believed we were seriously planning such an attempt, doubtless he would have set us down as lunatics.

Straight up the slope behind the camp we made our way, and as we topped the ridge the north end of the massive rock burst full upon us with startling suddenness. It sits astride the narrow ridge, in outline very like a rough, Cyclopean arrow-head with shallow notch and somewhat shattered tip. The picture taken from this point shows all of the west face and part of the east as well, for the rock narrows to the north, and the photograph is taken from west of north. Consequently the base appears thicker than it is.

Nor is the apparent height the true one; for, as can be seen from other pictures, the summit is distinctly farther from an observer on this ridge than is the base. According to the geologist quoted above, the top is practically 300 feet above the ridge. The U.S.G.S. map would make it nearer 450, and a calculation made by the writer from observations taken on the ridge gives 350 as the height. The last figure is a minimum if one may judge by the ascent, on which our 100 foot alpine rope made a very good tape-measure.

The rock is almost as long as it is high, but probably does not exceed 125 feet in thickness at any point. Only when seen from either side (necessarily from a distance) does it to any degree justify its name, and the writer must confess that even then he thinks its resemblance to a saurians head not over-strong. A striking feature easily seen in the ridge picture and those taken from the west; is the slender pinnacle that springs from a small ledge below and to the northwest of the summit; the "Finger" we called it, and it seemed raised in warning as we went along the ridge.

It was apparent when we reached the Head that there was nasty work before us. A rottener mass of rock is inconceivable. The core may still be solid but the "surrounding tuffs" are seeking a lower level in large quantities. This far-advanced disintegration was our greatest obstacle. Absolutely the whole surface of the rock is loose and pebbles rain down from the sides as readily as needles from an aging Christmas tree.

In many places one could with one hand pull down hundreds of pounds of fragments, and occasionally we could hear the crashing of small avalanches that fell without human prompting. In some parts of the San Juan we had run across the rumor that the Lizard Head or a large part thereof had fallen off a year or two ago; but though the ridge is covered with the detritus of the ages, there is no evidence of a recent catastrophe of any magnitude. However, it is more than probable that large masses plunge down to the long talus slopes from time to time.

We saw at a glance that the east face was out of the question; it is an almost sheer drop from near the summit of the Head to far below the level of the ridge on which we stood. And the north edge was nearly as impossible—its inclinaton measured 85 degrees. Working along the western side we reached the other end, which is so broad it might be called a face. A peek around the southeast corner confirmed us in our opinion that the east face will not be climbed till man has learned how to defy the law of gravity.

There were a couple of spots along the west face that seemed worth trying as a last resort, but from below they looked like rather a forlorn hope, and after our later experience on the rock it was clear that there would have been little chance of success by any such route. Seen from the pass to the west three days before the south end had appeared to be the most feasible line of attack, but a closer inspection showed that there were no holds for more than a few feet, except in a couple of cracks near the southwest corner. We roped up and I tried them both, getting perhaps seventy-five feet in the first and hardly twenty-five feet in the second when forced to retreat.

Then we went around the corner and tried the first promising crack on the west side. This proved the beginning of a feasible route, so I will try to describe it carefully, following my diary notes quite closely. It was about 12:00 when I began this third attack. Hoag sought shelter around the corner, for each movement that I made sent down a rattling shower of stones. Needless to say, every hand and foothold had to be tested with the utmost thoroughness. Most of the enticing small holds, crumbled at a touch and large masses of the loosely compacted pebbles would topple dangerously at a slight pull.

As we topped the ridge the north end of the massive
rock burst full upon us with startling suddenness
The first fifteen or twenty feet was a rather open stretch, practically vertical and with exiguous holds about the size of a thimble that at once forced me to put off my leather gloves. When rock is treacherous and small firm holds are scarce—and important—even finger nails may be of use. But soon the crack deepened and narrowed, and resorting to the back-and-knee method I felt much more secure. This cross-bracing became easier as I ascended, but I sought in vain a secure place to wait for my companion to come up to me.

Grateful indeed I was for the extra length of this rope that had been obtained originally for four-party climbing. With the eighty foot rope that is recommended by Abraham the great English alpinist, I should have been forced to await Hoag in a very wearying cross-braced position, and after he had reached me he would have had to take the same position and protect himself as best he could from the unavoidable hail of stone caused by my further ascent.

At ninety feet I climbed out on a small ledge to the right and found fair standing and two reassuring hand-holds, but, alas! no belaying-pin. Working upwards and into the crack again I went on, pulling Hoag from his shelter to give a few feet more, until, literally at the end of my rope, I found an anchor, safe and secure though rather awkward for the operator. With one foot on a ledge three inches wide and seven or eight inches long, the other swinging in mid-air, the right hand hooked over a small sharp rock at arm's length overhead and the left free to manipulate the rope over a small point about shoulder high, I called "Come on."

The first steep pitch gave a good deal of trouble, as it had to me, but once in the crack, Hoag soon reached the ninety foot ledge and prepared to make himself comfortable. This first one hundred foot section averaged about eighty degrees in inclination, and the lowest pitch and one just under the Hoag ledge were practically perpendicular.

Above me the main crack was quite impossible, and the nose upon the right no less so. A small crack, hardly large enough to thrust one's hand in, branched off to the left across a more open stretch of rock discouragingly steep and smooth. Hoag, who was carrying the rucksack, tied three spikes into the rope and I pulled them up—long, thick spikes, somewhat like those used for steps on telegraph poles. Driving one in the crack about waist high to step upon. I squirmed my way up an eight-foot wall where even the slight friction of my clothes on the almost vertical rock was welcome aid, for there were hand-holds only for the fingertips.

An easier slope succeeded this, but twenty feet farther on there was another pitch that went straight up and ended in a slightly overhanging brow. This delayed progress for some time, but with the aid of another spike and a long cross-brace that stretched me to the limit I finally pulled over and to my great relief found myself on an easier grade (probably about seventy-five degrees). The temptation was to hurry, but the loose rock was especially treacherous and I restrained myself.

At the head of this stretch and once again at the end of my rope, I reached a little platform roughly three feet wide and five feet long and fairly level. A fine anchor rock stood two feet high at its edge, and belaying the rope around this I called for Hoag to join me. It was a chilly wait, for my second bonne bouche gave him quite a bit of trouble with its scarcity of holds and the embarrassing brow that called for very delicate adjustment of one's balance in mid-air; and I had plenty of time to realize he must have well neigh congealed on his narrow ledge while I was struggling with these difficulties for the first time.

This was his introduction to prime rock climbing, and I was more than pleased with his patience, skill and caution. He reached the anchorage in fine fettle, and we pushed on at once.

A six-foot wall confronted us. Easily but gingerly we climbed around and up over its right nose, and found ourselves on a large shelf sloping to the south at perhaps thirty degrees, and cut into north and south by a couple of narrow rock gullies that evidently led to cracks on the south end of the Head. Carefully we worked to the left, gaining about fifty feet in altitude before coming up against the sheer, smooth cliff at the head of the shelf. It looked decidedly dubious at first. There were cracks higher up on the wall, but they all ran out eight or ten feet above the base.

Any route would be slow at best, and we could not see what impossibilities awaited us at the top. The summit of the Head was somewhere to the north—but how far and how much higher and behind what barricades? These were pertinent questions, for the afternoon was waning rapidly.

Finally I decided to try to reach a crack that lay near the south end of the wall and appeared to lead through to the arete above. The first eight or nine feet was an overhanging pocket or alcove, and above this the wall was vertical and unbroken save for the narrow end of the crack to which we aspired. It was a difficult problem—one of the four real pieces de resistance of the whole climb.

Standing on Hoag's shoulders, I proved all things within reach for what must have seemed an interminable time to him. At last I found holds at arm's length, but it was a strenuous pull to reach the crack. Equally strenuous it was, though not difficult technically, to wriggle up the narrow cleft with a very crowded back-and-knee cross-brace. This was the safest stretch of the day, and the hardest physical work.

Albert Ellingwood on the summit of Lizard Head Peak, 1920
[Note: This photo does not appear in the original article]
At the extreme limit of the rope I reached a large, safe anchor rock at the south end of the summit arete, and saw that we had won. Shouting down the glad tidings, I told Hoag to come on. He had no shoulders to support him but a rope above, and after he was over the alcove all went well.

From this last anchor rock there is an easy ascent northwards along a fairly sharp ridge of loose rock, across a small gap where one gets a sensational view down the sheer east cliffs, and finally a careful climb over a few large rocks to the top, which is perhaps fifty feet above the anchor rock. The situation was not without its thrills. The actual summit is quite small and the rocks are ready to slide off on every side. There was no sign that anyone had been before us.

We built a cairn as large as we could find support for, and placed at its foot a Prince Albert tobacco can containing a slip of paper with the usual data. Unfortunately the terrain did not permit a good picture of top, but each of us snapped the other precariously balanced near the cairn.

The sun was too low by this time to expect good results, but we tried to get some photographic record of the intricate jumble of mountains along the eastern sky line and of the magnificent Wilson group to the west. The lonesome Lizard Head is an ideal position for both views. Also we got a spectacular close-up of the fifteen-foot Finger, which looked as if it were so far gone that the slightest push would topple it from its resting place.

We agreed that a million dollars would not tempt us to its top—for riches are of this world, not the next. Incidentally, it would be a painstaking feat to reach its base.

We had arrived at 4:25, and a half-hour escaped before we could bring ourselves to leave. The return route was the same for we had no time to waste on very dubious experiments. Hoag made good speed down the first crack. I drove in a spike and looped the rope around it to secure me for the first few feet, then shook it off, wriggled down easily to the alcove, and jumped.

The second hundred was our bete noire. Hoag went down to his old ledge, leaning heavily on the rope and moving an inch at a time down the two spiked walls. There he untied the rope and prepared for as comfortable a sojourn as possible.

Looping the rope at its middle around the big anchor rock I went down to the first spike, grateful indeed for the rope when I dropped over the projecting brow. It was a ticklish task to get past this mauvais pas, and I wondered again and again how I had ever ascended it without a rope, being quite certain I would not come down it ropeless for a good deal. My plan was to pull the loose end of the rope around the rock, loop it again over the spike to which I now clung and then drop on down to the first anchor of the day.

But, alas, the rope would not come. I shook it violently to loosen it—and something else came. A stone as large as my fist suddenly shot off the brow and landed squarely on the top of my head. I have a thick head of hair and fortunately, contrary to my usual practice, I was wearing a heavy hat. Even so, the scalp was broken (as I found later) and I was nearly knocked from my very insecure position. I felt light-headed and tied closely to the spike for a few minutes, to make sure that I could find myself when wanted.

Hoag had suffered too; a small rock ricochetted and, traveling at good speed, smote him on the back of the head as he bowed to protect his face against the flying pebbles. Luckily he was well braced on the ledge, and his hands were clenched and cramped over good holds. But it was a close shave, for he saw many stars and carried a bump like a large walnut for several days to come.

Worst of all, the rope could not be budged. I climbed up, readjusted it and tried again, but to no purpose. It was not jammed, but there was enough friction on the rough surface of the big rock and on the slope and brow to resist all the pull I could exert. Up again I went and reconnoitred. There was no other possible anchor. I scouted the gullies leading to the south end cracks—to no avail.

Hoag and I held a long-distance consultation. I made one more round-trip and profited nothing. It was enough; the rope must go the way of so many ropes on Chamonix aiguilles. I tied the end to the stubborn anchor and went down to my old ledge near Hoag. He used the last few feet to steady him into the crack, let go, and worked slowly toward the ground.

The last pitch balked him for some time. The small holds that had assisted us up were undiscoverable. Suddenly he slipped and, leaving a section of his pants behind, drifted relentlessly downward till the wall became vertical and then jumped (perhaps fifteen feet) to the rocks below. I followed with more caution, regretfully saying goodbye to the rope that had served me for five good seasons.

All went well till the holds got scarce. It was too dark now to see what was below me on the cliff and I did not care to risk a jump and possibly a sprained ankle unless I had to. So I let down a long string for the folding lantern that we had left behind at noontide, and by its light slowly picked my way down to the ground.

It was a quarter to nine, and the sandwiches and raisins from the second rucksack were as good as a five course dinner at the Ritz. There was a bright moon now, just at the full, and, once out of the Head's huge shadow, we had easy going over the talus slopes and snow-filled ravines to camp. Getting a hot supper and exchanging gratified reminiscences of the climb brought midnight before we sought our blankets.

Our Indian friend dropped in next morning as we were setting out for Wilson Peak and Mt. Wilson, and we told him we had stood upon Lizard Head. He grinned as pleasantly and as incredulously as ever. It was still a good joke, anyway.


1. U.S.G.S. Folio No 57, pp. 11-12

2. Vacation Days in Colorado's National Forests, p. 39

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