One of the toughest 3rd class scrambles in the 13ers with a long, rubble-filled gully access. Can be climbed from either Rustler Gulch (our route) or Copper Creek/Copper Lake. (See Roach website) The Rustler Gulch route can be done as a day hike, but with five other nearby 13ers, a short backpack trip up the gulch can net up to six summits in three days. 4WD use reduces overall, one-way mileage by about one mile.
If coming from either the Front Range or the Western Slope, drive to Gunnison. From Gunnison, drive north on SH135 to Crested Butte. Stay on this main road as it enters the town, driving on through a major intersection with stop signs. Continue north on what becomes CR317 to the base of the ski area which is the Town of Mt. Crested Butte. Continue on the same road and a little after the main village and passing numerous condos, etc., the road will change over to a graded dirt road. During summer months, water trucks douse the road to help hold down the dust. Driving this road just after one of those trucks has gone through can change the road to a squishy, muddy mess, briefly. Begin measuring mileages from the end of the pavement. At 2.9 miles the road crosses the East River. Continue on CR317 to the site of Gothic which has a small but nice visitor center (3.4 miles) where you can inquire about parking regulations, hiking and biking trails and the research that is conducted in this area. During summer months daylight hours, this road is heavily travelled and parking is restricted to designated areas.
Continue driving NW past Gothic another 1.9 miles to the Gothic Campground, (5.3 from pavement end). There are only 4 designated sites here. From June 15 to August 15, camping in primitive, undesignated sites anywhere in this section of the East River Valley is not permitted so this campground is technically your only option between those dates. From the campground turnoff, drive another .9 mile for the Rustler Gulch turnoff (6.2 from pavement end). If in a passenger vehicle, you should park here and plan on getting your feet wet to cross the East River. It is possible to drive down the road a little and park in some limited spots, but there's little sense in trying to continue across the river unless you have 4WD. The road that heads up Rustler Gulch is FR317.2B on CalTopo. The Gunnison National Forest map does not really show this road very clearly because it follows along the wilderness boundary. If you do have 4WD and the East River is not in high stage runoff, drive on down the rocky stretch through some close, tall willows and ford the river. Once across, there is another area where about a half dozen vehicles can park and even a campsite. The road will head immediately and steeply uphill for .7 mile to an intersection where you'll see a gate across the road that heads off to the right. Park here if there's any room to do so. Two or three vehicles might be able to fit in off the road just enough to let other vehicles by. Coordinates for this spot are: N38° 59' 57.31" W107° 00' 11.05". There's a stand of tall willows here. About .2 mile back there is a road that turns off on the right that goes to a campsite, but cattle use the same area when allowed to graze here.
Right after where FR317.2B crosses the East River, there's an area that can accommodate a limited number of vehicles and some primitive camping right off the road. Then further up the road a short distance is another primitive spot that could accommodate a single vehicle on the right.
For camping further away, try the Gothic Campground about a half mile before FR317.2B or some other primitive spots either back toward Gothic or further up the main valley of the East River. Keep in mind tha primitive site camping is not allowed June 15 to August 15 in the East River Valley area.
For this "approach" there are two possible start points. If in a passenger car, the start will be where FR317.2B turns off of FR317 to cross the East River. You will then need to walk up FR317.2B to the trailhead coordinates. If you have 4WD, the start will be about a mile up after having forded the East River at the trailhead coordinates provided. There's a fence line and gate across the road/trail there.
From the gate, walk north on the old road bed. In July, you'll enjoy a plethora of wildflowers that will distract you from the hiking. Heading up the well-used trail, walk through an open meadow before entering a forested section with a considerable amount of bog, exacerbated by the horses that pass through regularly. Gingerly walk through, trying not to get too muddy this early into the backpack and continued on into open, flower-filled meadows that prompted us to frequently stop and take photos. This was just a taste of what awaits in upper Rustler. In short order, you'll come to a creek crossing that probably will require boot removal. However, a trail heading off to the right along the creek into the woods and willows goes to a place where you might be able to gingerly cross on some small logs and get across the creek. Once across, this side trail continues and eventually leads back to the main trail, but not before taking you through an incredible meadow of more wildflowers where you may want to spend even more time taking photos.
From this meadow, the open trail continues north and then begins to turn east into the upper basin. Continue up to where the trail has decidedly turned east and stop at a place where the creek, not too far below, cascades over some rock outcrops. Walk down and hop across the creek and hike up into a stand of trees and explore around. There was a faint game trail through here and a lot of fallen timber. Head upward and eastward through the timber. Near to where you exit the timber on the east side is a campsite, just the right size for two tents, with an old fallen log for cooking and eating and an old fire ring. See our field checked coordinates (2019). This makes an excellent base camp for the six 13er summits you can access from this valley and is out of the way of the day hiking foot traffic that frequents this valley. A game trail of sorts leads east from the campsite, then turns north through lower willows back down to the creek for an easy crossing and to regain the main trail.
The upper basin of Rustler Gulch is so verdant and filled with wildflowers, you'll not likely find any campsite unless you want to trod down a bunch of flowers. The camp location described above is the only really decent campsite we found that would do minimal damage to the abundant wildflowers.
In attempting this summit, in our research, we found three basic approaches used by others. Gerry & Jennifer Roach had come in from Copper Lake and done the climb along the east summit ridge. Some others, like 13ergirl and her gang had gone straight up to the summit from the south flank and then there was an approach suggested to us by Mark and Terry Schmalz of Grand Junction that utilized the great SW couloir which is most easily accessed from Rustler Gulch. This last is the route we chose to follow. A link to that report will be provided below. The account that follows is derived primarily from our written report following the climb:
We headed up the trail/old road from our campsite in Rustler Gulch into the upper reaches of Rustler Gulch, and left the trail about where it crosses the main creek around timberline. The first mile and a half up the valley, we found the slopes just laden with wildflowers of all sorts. It was distracting to our main purpose that day and we had to pull ourselves away from taking photographs of the magnificent display.
As we left the trail, we found an old mining site with a large machine – probably a pump of some kind, and the remains of an old stone building. From here, we decided to utilize as many tundra-covered slopes as we could to gain the base of the SW couloir instead of going directly to the base of it and having to climb even further in the boulder/rubble that filled it all the way to the head. After about 600 feet of moderately steep gain and contouring over some to the couloir, we arrived at a point where we would have to drop in or it would be too late because a developing cliff would hinder our dropping in. We took a break here and then launched into the couloir by downclimbing through a weakness in the cliff. We were now committed (or perhaps, should be “committed”). For the next 1,000 feet, we trudged upward through medium sized rubble and boulders, taking extreme care to not send a rock down on each other. This was a good place for a helmet and we used them this day. Further up the gully, a sidewall developed that was smooth and highly angled on the right side. It would have made some nice technical climbing. A ways down from the saddle at the head of the gully, we paused for another break and also took numerous photos of each other to try and convey the steepness and ruggedness of this couloir.
At the head of the couloir, we turned and followed the west end of the summit ridge to a hindering notch, which from Mark’s report, we knew would be coming. Without rope and gear, it did not appear we could safely descend the notch, then re-ascend on the other side, so we did as Mark S. had done and headed down the north slope of the peak, following the edge of another couloir until we could find a weakness in the bordering cliffband and drop into and cross over the couloir. This weakness happened to be just about where the snow ended that filled the couloir. So we crossed over without much difficulty and began to re-ascend back to the summit ridge. This next section would be the most difficult. It was steeper than the couloir and covered in loose rock waiting to rain down on your partners below or send you sliding down uncontrollably. It seemed to require more time than usual to regain the ridge and when we did, we found ourselves just a short walk from the summit of Precarious Peak. Having entered the SW couloir at 8:07AM, and turned out of the same at 8:50, it had taken another 1:10 almost, to arrive at the summit.
We did find a register and recorded our ascent, took the obligatory photos and admired and surveyed the view around us, taking particular note of the remaining two summits we might attempt this day. Then we headed back down, discarding any notion of going down the south face directly and opting for the supposed safety of the route we had ascended. So with care, we descended the north face until we could cross the couloir where we had done before, then re-ascend back to the head of the SW couloir. The descent of the SW couloir went quickly and safely with no serious injuries or slips or falls. At the base of the gully, we contoured along the base of the south facing cliffs of the peak and dropped over into the boulder filled basin at about 12,300 or 12,400 feet. At 12:15, we paused here for a lunch and water. The weather was holding nicely and we felt there was a good chance of climbing the other two summits, so after a 20 minute or longer break, we struck out to see if we could make the other summits. (Cassi and UN13,260)