| Island Lake Basin - 2 outta 3 ain't bad
I took a week off work to hit the San Juans this past August. The critical part was completing the Wilson Group, so as to complete my 14er list this year, and I also wanted to set foot on some other interesting peaks. Alas, I found myself in a storm-torn set of days, but after Lone Cone and the Wilsons, I found myself setting out for the gorgeous area around the Vermillion group, northwest of Silverton.
I’m not a big fan of hauling gear in a long ways, so I parked my car at the switchback on the road to Clear Lake (mentioned in Cooper's Colo Scrambles book) and pitched my tent behind the car. This area only has room for two cars to park. My plan was to hike an out and back to the Island Lake 13ers (V4-US Grant-V2), come back to camp, and then hike the Ice Lake peaks (Pilot Knob, Golden Horn, Vermillion, Fuller).
I was up and on my way by 5:30, using my headlamp in the predawn gloom. I crossed a pool under a waterfall and moved quickly, trying to keep a sharp look out for the cairn marking the spur trail that would leave the Ice Basin trail to head up to the Island Lake basin. I found the junction but it was very faint -- the trail petered to nothing after no more than 20 feet -- and I couldn’t see a cairn, so after several wasted minutes of consulting Cooper’s “Colo Scrambles) and walking back and forth indecisively, I continued on the Ice Basin trail. When I came back down the trail in full light, I wondered how I’d missed the cairn.
After some time, I realized I had to have missed the turn and I looked for a way to get over to the Island Lake basin instead of following the trail up the headwall to lower Ice Lake. I found this stream and falls issuing between rock sentinels, and I instantly ceased regretting getting off route. The pictures don’t begin to capture the beauty.
This is a view of Fuller, Vermilion and Golden Horn - peaks that are still calling my name and I will get back to them.
I trekked to the right (east) of this stream and climbed up a shallow dry run-off hidden in the verdant slope leading to a mellow saddle splitting the southern ramparts of the ridge that leads south from V4 to then make a “T” -- spanning to the south to hem in the Ice Lakes and to the north to contain Island Lake.
This seemingly mellow slope ate up time; the terrain steepened and, not wanting to trample the grasses and flowers unnecessarily, I tried to stick to the rocky dry watercourse most of the way, and it was loose. After cresting the ridge, I found a trail that contoured around the hillside to reach the shores of Island Lake.
I followed the trail westward from the lake. To the north, i saw this curious formation on top of the ridge, which reminded me of a meditating buddha.
The trail soon tapered to nothing, and I found myself contemplating the cirque formed (from SW to N) by V4, US Grant, and V2. I knew I wanted to summit the peaks in this order, so that I’d be moving away from any adverse weather as the day progressed.
The shot below shows my vantage as I angled SW to climb to the top of the ridge separating Ice Lakes basin from Island Lake basin and leading to V4.
Next is after I angled westward to a rock outcrop atop the ridge.
Below is the easy, fun scrambling on this rock outcrop.
From here, the ridge was a pretty quick go - I left Island Lake at 7:43 and crested V4 between 8:45 and 8:50. I enjoyed the summit pitch to V4. The rock varied between pinkish red and white. The dirt between buttresses was all loose pebbles, and many of the larger rocks were unstable, but I found myself seeking out some class 3 spidering.
Here is a view upwards, close to the apex of V4:
The views to the south into the Ice Lakes basin were mesmerizing - I loved looking down on the lush greenery, still lakes, and jagged profiles of the peaks from V4.
I reached the top of V4 at 8:55. It was horrid timing from my starting point, as I’d left between 5:30 and 5:45, but still respectably early to be on top of a summit. Unfortunately, I saw nothing but brooding dark gray clouds to the west.
I headed northwards on my way to US Grant, wondering when the first of the clouds would reach me -- before or after that summit? i stuck the top for as long as I could and I found myself cliffed out on an area of white rock, so I backtracked to a gap in the ridge before the buttress of white rock and began the downclimb of an annoying west-facing scree gully. The stormclouds raced in as I rounded V4’s northern buttress to reach the saddle leading to US Grant. I heard the thunder, so I found distance from the highpoints and spent 15 minutes or so huddled in a shallow hollow to the west, downslope of the saddle.
The clouds passed, the sun shone, and I made for US Grant. The distance separating it from V4 is not great and it took me about 20 minutes to make the switchbacks up steep scree to reach the crux of the route. The crux is only 10-12 feet high. Standing on the large rock at the base helps. I took the left crack and enjoyed the easy class 5.0 moves. Fun but perhaps anticlimactic to climb up, yet I still acknowledged that it was much easier knowing that I would not need to come back down this way.
The final climb to the summit was short and quick -- about six minutes from the crux. I took this picture of Island Lake from the summit.
A glance to the west solidified for me that I should have enough time for the traverse to V2. In this I would be almost correct. Following is a view of the traverse, which obscures some interesting scramble terrain.
I launched from the summit a minute or two after 10:00, and made it past the most challenging part of the traverse by 10:20. For experienced scramblers, it was nothing difficult - spires were obvious that needed to be bypassed, and other spots where it seemed questionable to stay on the ridge crest always ended up providing direct passage or egress to the right (south). Most of the rock was solid. As for difficulty, I rated it mostly class 3, with only a few class 4 spots. The next two shots show two sections of solid class 3 (or perhaps 3+) downclimbing. The scale is hard to tell: in the first, the roundish boulder is about 6-7 feet tall; in the second, the small ledges provided narrow but secure steps down from the cliff to the ridge.
After this, I made faster time, as the steepness of the terrain decreased. In the section below, I bypassed the ridge tower by again traversing easy but relatively unstable ground to the right.
This picture below is the last section of scrambling as you downclimb broken steps that are accessed on the right and traverse inwards on the ridge below a final tower:
After this, it's less steep (though involving some patches of ball-bearing like pebbles) and a section of black igneous rock where less steep but slopes of loose scree existed to the right, and I opted for the harder black rock on the (left) ridge crest, because of the better traction.
I was running the ridge with the stormclouds at my back, and they caught up with me at the low saddle between Grant and V2, where all I had before me was the gentle grassy slope to V2's summit. There was a monument there to a runner - a stately bronze image to celebrate the life and untimely death of an accomplished runner whose name I wish I could remember. I paused, intending to fish out the camera, but heard the rumble of thunder. That sound and the darkness of the sky cured any summit fever that would have me dashing up to bag the trifecta. I bailed off the ridge, down V2's easy south slopes lying east of Island Lake. It was only 10:50.
Rain, thunder, and the clouds were socked in. I waited for a time and ultimately decided that the day was lost and headed down the Island Lake trail, to the main trail and then back to my shortcut trail to the Clear Lake road by way of the waterfall. Upon reaching my tent, the sun came out for a brief respite and I spent a half hour exploring the slopes bordering the falls.
Then rainclouds once more blanketed the sky, rendering the afternoon summitless; not wanting to lay in my tent, I drove the few miles to Silverton for food and drink. The rain came heavier and the day darkened. Worse, the forecast for the next two days held the same or gloomier weather (this day had been forecast with only a 20% chance of showers). I called short my stay in the San Juans, leaving the Silverton brewery to pack up my tent and head down to Durango to visit friends, where it was sunny and warm.
But this region holds a sacred beauty, and I'll be back to visit Ice Basin, and the Vermillion Group. Vermillon in particular has eluded me: besides this year's monsoon, I found myself in an electrical storm last June after summiting Beattie Peak via V8 from the Hope Lake approach to the west...third time will be a charm.
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):