Doug and I had a very successful trip to CO last week where we climbed the Wham Ridge on Vestal Peak (our goal) and the Northeast face of Arrow Peak (bonus!).
The short version is that we had awesome weather, climbed two amazing mountains, and got back very tired. Long winded trip report follows.
This is the third summer that Doug and I have gotten together to head west and climb a mountain (due to the distinct shortage here in IL). This year neither of us had really trained and we thought something easier would be a good idea. Doug found some awesome pictures of the Wham Ridge on Vestal Peak online and given its mellow grade (only 5.4) and apparently easy
approach (only 8 miles) we had a destination for this year and were feeling confident in spite of our less than copious amounts of training.
We arrived in Durango on Sunday afternoon (after getting pulled over twice on the drive out, watch out if you leave the interstate in KS or CO) and picked up a few last minute necessities. One of the store fronts had a t-shirt with a climber that read: "Confidence: the feeling you have before you fully understand the situation." Funny because its true.
We drove up to Little Molas Lake and spent the night at the trailhead at a little over 10,000 ft. It turns out that this is a lot higher than where we have spent our first nights in the past. We began the approach the next day hauling backpacking supplies for four days of camping and technical climbing gear which makes for heavy loads (fortunately no crampons or ice axes this
year). While the approach is only 8 miles and we would be camping at an elevation only slightly higher at just over 11,000ft, it turned out to be aburly hike. The hardest we have done. You have to hike steeply down from Molas Pass to cross the Animas River and the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad before climbing back up the Colorado Trail along Elk Creek.
The Colorado Trail is well maintained, but instead of just following along the creek it climbs up and down the side hill above the creek. After four miles along the creek you have to leave the trail to follow an unmaintained climbers "trail" and climb 1500ft or so into Vestal Basin. This is where the fun begins. Very steep, and lots of trees; not the nice wander through the woods trees (well there were lots of those too) but fallen on the trail trees. Stepping over and ducking under fallen trees with 65lbs gets old fast. And did I mention it was steep?
Anyway, after over 8 hours of hiking we made it into Vestal Basin Monday evening and found a great place to camp with great views of the mountains. We originally planned to do Vestal first to take advantage of the good weather, and beat any altitude issues. But, the combination of lack of training, the high first night, and strenuous terrain left us wiped out. So we declared Tuesday a "rest" day and decided to climb northeast face of Arrow Peak, a classic 3rd class scramble. Turns out the route is tons of fun and highly recommended. We intended to go "fast and light" but settled for "light" and carried only water and a few essentials. The route follows
a gigantic quartzite ramp that is solid rock, but low enough angle to be 3rd class for most of the way. It then becomes blocky easy climbing up to the summit with great views of the Wham Ridge and Vestal and back into the rest of the San Juan Mountains. No problems, just fun.
The next day we wanted to get an early start and tackle the Wham Ridge. Well, it rained that night and everything was wet. When the alarm went off we both grumbled and decided that an extra hour of sleep couldn't hurt, especially if we couldn't climb. We finally got up at first light, and things weren't too wet and the sky was clear. Late start, but we decided to go for it. We scrambled up the scree from our camp to the talus below the route in about an hour. We then headed up a series of grassy ledges to where the climbing starts. This is one of the most spectacular alpine settings I have ever experienced. Very remote and great rocky peaks with alpine lakes and grassy tundra with blooming wildflowers. Doug and I chose a line and started up the easy climbing. Doug got the first lead this year. The route is so low angle that he ran out the rope 100 feet or so before finding some pro and going another 75 feet to a tricky anchor. I took the next pitch and it was also fun and easy and long. Doug took the 3rd pitch,
but by now the clouds were building and we were starting to feel some urgency to get to the summit (and get off). We intended to shoot for a 5.7 variation well left of the ridge, but the anchoring options looked better towards the right side (easier) of the face. I took the next pitch and climbed a shallow dihedral and then a great hand crack on the face. As the terrain became blocky we each did a couple more pitches, and the route finding became tricky. Eventually we had to decide to go left or right around a large block that blocked our view of the upper mountain and we decided to go right. Wrong way. I led up some 4th class to a slightly overhanging bulge with a hand crack, the crack took a couple of good cams so I pulled over it and up into a little saddle where I set up a belay straddling a knife edge ridge. From there we could see that we still had a long way to go and the actual route was down and left from where we were. The weather was looking questionable. We were on the lee side of the mountain and couldn't see what was coming but clouds were building and many of the other peaks were getting rained on. After some debate we decided that rather than go up into uncertain terrain we should down climb to the left to get back on the 4th class route. Doug led the downclimb and then after a couple hundred feet of solid 4th class we made the summit at around 3pm. Much later than we wanted, fortunately from the summit we could see that the weather was going to be fine. We hung around for a while and then started the hike off the back side. This was a lot of loose 3rd class down climbing to the southeast followed by a westward traverse to the saddle between Arrow and Vestal. To get off the saddle we descended a scree slope called the "dues collector". I maintain that scree is named for the noise
you make as you fall down it. This one is a classic (I mean that in the worst way possible). About 1000ft, super loose, and so steep you can hardly stand up. Afterwards, there was plenty of boulder hopping on the talus back to camp to wrap up a tiring but successful day.
We originally talked about climbing a traverse of the Trinity peaks further east in the range, but after three hard days we decided that we didn't have it in us and made a late start on the hike out. Turns out that the hike out is harder to follow than the hike in and we ended up off route
on steep slopes over cliffs. We eventually climbed back up to find the route and scramble back down over and under the trees to Elk Creek and the Colorado Trail. We hiked down and up and down to the Animas River and decided that we couldn't go any further if we wanted to, so we spent the night there in the grass by the river. The next morning we trudged up the switchbacks back to Molas Pass and made it back to the car in a couple of hours on our fifth consecutive day of hard hiking. I'm not sure how many thousands of vertical feet we hiked and climbed this trip.
Since we were out early on Friday, we showered at the campground and headed for Durango for Mexican food. We then drove up to Montrose on the "million dollar highway" and over to the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. This deep gash in the high Colorado Desert has to be seen to be believed. It's amazing to think about people climbing there, hard core. We spent the night along a random National Forest road near Colorado Springs and then had a long, but uneventful drive home.
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