Death’s Head (Mesa Butte)

Summit Elevation (m): 1738
Trip Date: Sunday, April 22, 2018
Elevation Gain (m): 370
Round Trip Time (hr): 2
Total Trip Distance (km): 7.2
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 1 – you fall, you’re stupid
Difficulty Notes: No difficulties other than finding good conditions that don’t involve endless post holing or severe bushwhacking.
Technical Rating: OT3; YDS (Hiking)
GPS Track: Download

There’s not much to say about Death’s Head, other than it’s name is very dramatic compared to it’s reality. I wanted to spend Earth Day (April 22, 2018) hiking in warm sunshine rather than flirting with the escalating spring avalanche cycle on skis, so that’s exactly what I did! After several recent hikes with Phil where we ended up floundering around in waist-deep snow, I decided to bring snowshoes, leave early and hopefully pick some drier objectives for the day. As I drove through Millarville towards the front ranges of the Rockies, I was reminded why I do these diminutive, easy front range hikes every once in a while. Sure! Compared to other objectives, they are super easy and even sort of boring, but they bring their own small pleasures too.

Death’s Head Route Map.

I parked near the Mesa Butte parking spot along Hwy 549, which had 3 vehicles already parked there at around 07:00 in the morning. It was an incredibly still morning and some cheerful birds serenaded me as I made my way across the bridge spanning Threepoint Creek and walked up a gravel road leading to a well site. I should point out right off the bat, that this isn’t the way most people do the Death’s Head hike and isn’t the suggested route in the guidebook either. I was only doing this route to make it a bit longer and get some more exercise. Silly, I know.

Just before arriving at the well site, I noticed a cutline and the route I wanted to follow heading uphill to my left. I strapped on the ‘shoes and started up on a nice hard-frozen snow slab. As I ascended the first ridge, I noticed that already the warm spring sun was causing certain areas of the frozen snow crust to collapse underfoot, which helped speed me up quite a bit! There was an alarming amount of snow piled up on this northeast facing route and the few times it collapsed on me made me realize just how much hell it would be if it started failing regularly underfoot! The route undulated a bit, but soon enough I was staring up at the final (steep) slopes to the summit. I barreled straight upwards – almost too steep for the ‘shoes but thank goodness for an overnight freeze.

Very decent summit views looking west (L) and north (C) over other front range summits like Mount Quirk.

Views from the summit were OK for a front range bump, but I couldn’t linger due to the threat of a collapsing snowpack. I rushed down the steep hillside from the summit and noted that the warm sun was indeed taking a toll on the supportive crust already. I got lucky for the most part on return, and within 2 hours of leaving the gravel approach road I was unbuckling the ‘shoes already. The fresh morning air and chirping birds were so pleasant, I decided I might as well hike over a few more hills and pad the summits list a bit more before heading home.

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