The West Needle range is best described as “in the way”. Running between the Durango-Silverton highway and the Animas River, these low 13ers block most people’s view of the heart of the San Juans.
Twilight Peak, the range highpoint, is a moderate day in the summer, with a 5 mile trail approach and a relatively short 3rd class finish. Adding Snowdon and “South Snowdon” and/or South Twilight would make it a fuller day. In the winter, the approach becomes a 5-mile cross-country snowshoe, and the kind-of-loose 3rd class is considerably spicier when covered with variable snow. Twilight by itself (plus North Twilight, a freebie) thus becomes a legitimate day. I had originally planned to do Snowdon, but Twilight seemed more suitable as a full-day outing. Indeed, it took almost 10 hours car-to-car, somewhat longer than expected.
Loathing Daylight Savings Time — it starts way too soon nowadays — I woke from another cold night near Silverton and drove up to the Andrews Lake trailhead. I have taken to sleeping a short distance from trailheads in the winter, since it allows me to run the heater full-blast on the drive, then eat breakfast in a somewhat warmer car.
Andrews Lake, being closed to snowmobiles, is a popular snowshoeing and skiing area, so I had a well-packed track to follow for the first mile or two. After that, I found an old ski track that took me in more or less the right direction, then set out blindly through the woods in what I hoped was the right direction. There is supposedly a trail to Crater Lake, but I saw no blazes, signs, or tracks.
I eventually spied North Twilight’s broad north face, which was clearly too steep for me to climb in unconsolidated snow. Instead, I traversed well around to the east, stumbled upon Crater Lake by accident, and began the grind up a long, steep snowfield to the east ridge. The sheltered northeast-facing bowl would be prime avalanche territory, but warm temperatures had baked the snow down nicely. With no wind and reflected sun, it was t-shirt weather for the climb.
The SummitPost page didn’t mention any difficulties on the ridge, but it was narrow and serrated enough to be awkward in snowshoes. This part would likely go quickly in the summer, but it took me longer than I had hoped to reach the rounded back of North Twilight’s summit. After briefly admiring the precipitous north face and west ridge, I moved on to tackle the traverse to Twilight, supposedly the day’s crux.
For those of you who want the full adventure experience, stop reading now. The traverse is easy until shortly before a notch where, as I found, the ridge cliffs out. Retreating to where the difficulties began, I traversed around the west side of the ridge, then made my way up a steep snow gully to some 3rd-class rock. While crampons would be necessary later in the season, the snow was just about perfect for kicking steps (except next to the rocks, where it was perfect for thigh-deep postholes). I headed straight for the ridge, only to realize I was well left of the summit, and the intervening ridge was unpleasant with a cornice. I again retreated a bit, traversing right until I could top out on the broad summit plateau. South Twilight was only a short, moderate traverse away, but I had left my snowshoes before the gap, and was running out of time.
I made considerably better time back to the lake, shortcutting North Twilight’s east ridge on its south side, and enjoying an epic glissade down the warm bowl. Rather than retracing my steps through the woods, I thought it would be more interesting, and perhaps even faster, to stay high on the open ridge toward “South Snowdon.” While this route was probably slower, and required substantial elevation gain, I did have a nice view to the west, and got a close-up view of the routes on Snowdon’s west face.
Finally, a legit day.