| 8 days in the Grenadiers - 17 peaks
Vestal Peak 13,864
Trinity Peak 13,805
Arrow Peak 13,803
West Trinity Peak 13,765
Storm King Peak 13,752
East Trinity Peak 13,745
Peak Seven 13,682
Mt. Silex 13,628
The Guardian 13,617
Peak Three 13,478
Peak Two 13,475
Peak Nine 13,402
Electric Peak B 13,292
Peak Eight 13,228
Point Pun 13,180
Mt. Garfield 13,074
June 30th July 7th 2007
From: Molas TH
Approx: 58 mi, 30000 ft (25 mi, 8100 ft backpacking & 33 mi; 21900 ft climbing)
An extended 4th of July trip to the San Juans had been on the slate for quite a while, but I never had much time for planning. There were so many areas to choose from. At first we figured we would break the trip up into two chunks: a long backpack, a break to rejuvenate, and then another short backpack or a couple of day hikes. As the time grew near and we scrambled to throw together some sort of rough plan our attention was drawn to Vestal Basin. Dominic has been getting more and more into technical climbing and I knew a climb of Wham Ridge would make him happy. And there were PLENTY of other peaks around to keep us busy. I realized we could probably spend the entire 9 days there and not get bored. But
we had never stayed out that long (our previous record was 4 days) and we weren't sure whether it was a reasonable plan. Could we handle it? Could we carry enough food for that long along with a heavy rope and a bunch of climbing gear? Could I survive that long without a shower? Could we hike for that many consecutive days? Only one way to find out!
We drove to Silverton Friday after work, arriving around 1:30am. After discovering that the South Mineral Campgrounds were ridiculously overflowing, we pitched our tent in a dried up creek bed next to the road and got a few hours of sleep.
Day 1: Backpack to Vestal Basin
8.6 mi, 2800 ft
After a big breakfast at the Brown Bear in Silverton we made the short drive to the Molas TH and prepared for the long haul to Vestal Basin. Our packs were heavier than we'd ever carried and I was a little worried, but we just agreed to take it slow and take as many breaks as we needed. We set off at 8:45 and began the long descent down to the Animas River. It was painful to think that we'd be finishing off the trip by climbing back up this section. As we descended, the views of the Animas River and the Grenadier Range were pretty impressive. In no time our descent was over. We crossed the river on a solid bridge and walked a short distance along the railroad tracks until we reached the Elk Creek Trail. This initial part of the journey only took 1.5 hours. At first I was amused by a strange sign pointing the way to the Grenadier Range, but then I realized it was meant for the tourists on the train, not hikers!
The Elk Creek Trail was pleasant but long. Early on I slipped off the trail on a steep hillside and ended up falling in the mud. Nice work dirty clothes only a few hours into the trip and I'd only brought one change of clothes. Surprisingly, flocks of people en route to catch the train passed by us along the way. We took our first break a mile or two up the trail. After more easy hiking we finally found ourselves at the beaver ponds, our signal to exit the nice trail and begin the steep climb up into Vestal Basin. Crossing Elk Creek posed no problems there was a huge log in place.
We were still feeling pretty good at this point and began to follow the broken trail up the east side of the drainage. We lost and found it several times, but it was generally easy to follow. The steep grunt was taking its toll and we were starting to feel some pain from our heavy packs so we took another long break. Around 11,000 ft the Electric Arrow saddle came into view and I began to realize that our planned camping spot at the meadow near 11,400 ft would probably not be ideal for our planned climb of Electric, Garfield & Graystone. It would be convenient for the rest of the peaks though. Tough call. We decided to continue up into the basin as far as we could while still making sure we had easy access to the Arrow Electric saddle. At 11,300 ft we left the trail, crossed Vestal Creek, and found a cozy, secluded spot for our tent in the trees at around 11,250 ft.
At 3pm we set up camp and crawled into the tent for a nap. As we were drifting off to sleep we heard a gnawing sound outside. A marmot was having Dominic's trekking pole grip for lunch. We dragged our poles into the tent and dozed off while the marmot busied himself with further investigation of our camp. He became the camp marmot for the remainder of our stay. As we were making dinner he tried to eat Dominic's helmet. He didn't care at all about my yelling at him and didn't drop it until I was about a foot away from him. Bold little guy. I was wishing I'd brought a block of salt for him. From then on we just kept everything put away and there were no more problems.
Day 2: Electric Pk B, Mt Garfield, Point Pun & Graystone Pk
6.2 mi, 4300 ft
We left camp at 4:23am. Early starts to maximize our chances of success followed by afternoon naps would be the name of the game for the entire trip. From the Vestal Creek drainage, an obvious, large gully provides access to the Arrow Electric saddle. The gully however was filled with scree and hard snow and didn't look inviting so we decided to try to find a path on its east side up slabby, cliffy terrain. It went pretty well even in the dark. Some 3rd class scrambling was required.
We were planning on saving Electric Peak for last since it was closest to camp, but once we got up into the basin and evaluated the terrain it looked like it would make the most sense to climb it first (we'd be very pleased with our decision later). We talus hopped to the Electric Graystone saddle and stared up at Electric's south face. It was rather intimidating, but we had a nice, helpful TR from Kirk Mallory along. We began by ascending a loose gully on the immediate right (east side) of the south ridge (class 2+). At the top of the narrow gully there seemed to be two options: proceed up another loose, broader gully or stick closer to the ridge on more solid rock. We chose the latter and enjoyed some fun 3rd class scrambling and some exposure. This deposited us on a false summit south of the true summit. From there it was a short, easy walk and we arrived at 6:30. There was a baseball cap from some pizzeria on the summit cairn and a nice register left there by Jim Mallory (the first of several we would find). After a 15 minute summit break we returned to the Graystone Electric saddle, this time descending the wide gully back to the small gully instead of taking the ridge (just to speed things up). Short, sweet little peak.
The next order of business was traversing the slabs under Graystone Peak to get to Garfield Lake. The slabs were wet in places from the last patches of melting snow, but we negotiated them without too many problems, contouring at the 12,600 ft level. We descended a bit to the lake and walked around to its west side before climbing steep grassy and rocky slopes to near the Point Pun Garfield saddle. Garfield's south ridge was a fun, fairly easy scramble and we stayed on the ridge crest except in one or two little spots. We summitted at 9:20 and settled in for a half hour break.
We retraced our steps back to Garfield Lake and stopped to replenish our water supply. We hadn't planned on climbing unranked Point Pun but it looked like fun so we made it our next stop. The south face was still holding a significant amount of snow but didn't complicate things too much. Steep, loose 3rd class climbing deposited us just east of the summit and we followed the ridge from there. We arrived at 11:45 and took another half hour break. The views of Mt. Garfield and Garfield Lake from here were spectacular. We also got our first look at the Storm King area which we planned to visit during the second half of our trip.
We traversed the ridge from Point Pun to Graystone. The section near Point Pun was rugged, but mostly 3rd class. There was one move though that was either 4th class or low 5th class and it was a little sketchy because most of the holds were loose. Getting around it wasn't an option as there were steep cliffs on either side of the ridge. The closer we got to Graystone, the easier the terrain became. We arrived at 1:20. It was an incredibly hot day but very few clouds were forming. We just wanted to get out of the sun so we didn't stay long.
I was thinking it was going to be a short, easy descent back to camp. Wrong! We started down Graystone's east ridge and the scrambling quickly became more difficult. After a short time we came to an obstacle we couldn't get around and dropped down on the south side of the ridge to get around it. The downclimbing wasn't easy as the steep ledges were full of loose junk. We climbed down carefully and regained the ridge at a tame saddle. The going along the ridge from here wasn't very difficult, but seemed to take forever and there several ups and downs along the way. When we reached the obvious kink in the ridge we turned northeast and picked our way down loose talus to the Graystone Arrow saddle. From there, we descended on more loose talus and scree down into the basin. I was getting more and more frustrated with each step. My feet and ankles were hurting from all of the abuse slipping and sliding down scree, steeping on rocks only to have them give way. I'd had enough. Once in basin it got a little better but not much: endless talus hopping. We made our way back down through the slabby cliffs, but it took a little bit of trial and error as we couldn't see what was below us very well (it was easier on the way up). We finally got back to camp at 4:00 and we were both totally spent. Nap time. This day had the distinction of being the hardest physically. I think the combination of endless scrambling, talus hopping, and battling scree along with the scorching heat did us in.
Day 3: Peak Two & Peak Three, Backpack to Vestal Lake
5.3 mi, 2800 ft climbing; 1.9 mi, 1200 ft backpacking
We left camp at 4:35 and hiked up the Vestal Basin Trail to about 11,500 ft. From there we climbed northeast up a heinous scree slope to gain Peak Three's northwest ridge. It was fairly unpleasant, but the views of Arrow and Vestal along the way were worth it. We took some pictures of the mighty peaks with the moon nestled between them, and then some more at sunrise a short time later. Once we topped out on the gentle ridge, it was quite a relief from here on out it looked like easy terrain. We strolled across rolling, grassy knolls, enjoying the early morning. We bypassed Peak Three and followed the talus ridge north to Peak Two. There were some really cool rocks along the way that looked like wood chips. We arrived on the summit at 7:24 and stayed for about 25 minutes. From there it took an hour to reach Peak Three which provided an awesome perch for viewing the Trinities, Arrow, and Vestal across the basin. Since we had decided to move camp today after our climb, we started down after half an hour even though it was still very early. We descended from the ridge much earlier than we'd gained it and dropped down into the upper portion of Vestal Basin. The descent was horrible and loose. We set off some huge boulders down the slope which surely caught the attention of anybody in the area. We cautiously made our way down junky gullies and across junk covered ribs. Horrible. Once back in the basin we enjoyed the views of the Trinities, Arrow, and Vestal as we descended back camp. We followed poor trails here and there and eventually found our way back to the main trail near the meadow at 11,400 ft. We got back to camp at 11:06. Nap time again.
By 1pm we were rested, packed up, and ready to go. It was hotter than heck and I wasn't looking forward to the move. Our objective was Vestal Lake and we planned on following Roach's route which leaves the meadow at 11,400 ft and ascends the steep grungy looking slope between Arrow and Vestal. On our way we encountered a group hiking out from Vestal Lake and they assured us that the better option with heavy packs was to continue on the trail much further to an open area, cross Vestal Creek, and then climb up grassy slopes to Vestal Lake. Seemed reasonable that slope we planned on climbing wasn't looking very inviting (but I did have second thoughts as it would have been very direct). Anyway, we decided to continue on the nice trail. Near 11,500 ft we came to the open area they spoke of and searched unsuccessfully for a way to cross Vestal Creek. There were a few places that we probably would have tried to jump across if we didn't have huge packs on. Instead we found a shallow section, took off our shoes and socks, and waded across. Burrrr! On the other side we found a trail that led up toward the drainage between Vestal and West Trinity. The grassy slopes were solid at least, but they were STEEP. It was hard work hauling our packs up them and we were slightly miserable. For some reason, my hip belt was hurting me very badly on one side and I couldn't figure out why it was so painful. It became unbearable and I had to unbuckle it completely, leaving all the weight on my shoulders. I wasn't a happy camper. I later realized that the cause of the pain was a strange sunburn! I had been having trouble keeping my shorts up the last few days and managed to get a sunburn in the gap between them and my shirt! From then on I was sure to put sunscreen there. At last we were up that darn slope, but my heart dropped when I saw that we had to descend some nasty talus for a couple hundred feet to get to Vestal Lake. Argghhh.
We finally arrived at the lake at 3pm and spent quite a while looking for a suitable camping spot. The lake is surrounded by nothing but rocks, but we located 2 or 3 places that were just big enough to fit our tent in. We ended up having an awesome spot very close to the lake. I think this was one of the coolest places I've ever camped. Well
cool in terms of beautiful, surreal, etc. Not temperature cool it was like an oven up there with absolutely no shade. We tried to take a nap in the tent, but I mostly just lied there sweating, hoping for a storm to cool things down. No such luck.
If I were just climbing the peaks in Vestal Basin, I'm not sure I'd go through the agony of backpacking all the way to Vestal Lake, despite its beauty. However, it was well worth it for us since we'd have to backpack over the West Trinity Vestal saddle in a couple of days anyway. If I did it again, I'd probably take the Roach route and just get it over with.
Day 4: Vestal Peak & Arrow Peak
3 mi, 3100 ft
With such a short, almost nonexistent approach, we got to sleep in! We left camp at 5:08 and headed for the convenient grassy ramp that leads all the way across Vestal's north face to the start of the conventional Wham Ridge route. Here we put our harnesses and helmets and began to climb the gentle, slabby slope. It quickly became steeper and provided some nice 3rd class scrambling. After a short time we were basking in alpenglow. Cool! We got into some fun 4th class terrain and kept our eyes peeled for the crux with all of the abandoned pro it was impossible to miss! Since we're relative newbies to technical climbing, trad climbing in particular, we really took our time and triple checked everything we did. We set up a nice belay anchor and Dominic prepared for the lead. For future reference if you have a GPS or altimeter, I belayed from 13,220 ft which was just below the crux. Dominic belayed me up from 13,340 ft, well past the crux.
The pitch was super short and Dominic did a great job, placing a few pieces of pro along the way. This pitch is easily protected. There were a total of three cams stuck in cracks and Dominic was able to pull a big one out. We took it with us. You don't get something for nothing though. As Dominic was above me setting up a belay I heard something bouncing down Wham Ridge. I assumed Dominic had just kicked a little rock loose
. but it was making a strange sound, and it kind of looked red. Uh oh
it was his ATC! It went ALL the way down and was kind of amusing to watch. Luckily it wasn't critical!
I began to climb and clean the pro. I came to an old piton which I stopped to investigate. Everything was going well until I tried to get a medium sized stopper out that Dominic had placed. It just wouldn't come out and I couldn't figure out how he even got it in there. I spent at least 20 minutes swearing up a storm before I conceded that there was no way it was coming out. I was relieved when the rest of the pro came out without incident and I reached Dominic at his belay station. It was nice to have a belay for the crux, but I was thinking "we just dragged more than 10 pounds of crap up here for THIS?" I know, I know, safety first, we did the right thing. But would I have turned back if I encountered something like this elsewhere, not knowing its class rating
..probably not. I can see why people solo Wham, but I'm definitely NOT recommending it. Watching that ATC bounce down the face made it very easy to visualize what would have happened to me if I slipped
.not a pleasant image.
Above the crux was some wondrous 4th class scrambling, perhaps the best I've ever experienced. It was highly enjoyable, but the steepness required my full concentration. I always hate taking time to mess with ropes, so this was my favorite part of the climb. Dominic on the other hand loves those technical aspects of climbing and enjoyed leading the crux very much. IMO a slip from the 4th class section above the crux would have been just as disastrous but I guess the likelihood of a mistake is lower.
We topped out at 8:18 and were both very happy. It had been a classic climb indeed. We basked in the glory for almost 40 minutes on the summit. OK, maybe we stayed that long partly because I was dreading the descent so much. Although Roach rates the standard route down the backside as 2+, it felt far from that more like 3rd and 4th class with crap covered ledges. I know I'm not the first one to have that impression. I have no idea where the magic 2+ route was we followed Roach's description as best we could and it sucked! Finally near the bottom of some gullies we found a trail and followed it toward the Vestal Arrow saddle. From the saddle we skied/surfed down the horrible scree slope (sans trekking poles as we had left them at camp since we'd be doing so much scrambling). Eventually we came to some hard snow that we slid down on our feet. It was a wild ride and I regretted not getting my ice axe out.
Next on the agenda was Arrow Peak. I had been admiring its intriguing, sweeping ramp ever since I'd first set eyes on it. Now the time had finally come to climb it! We stashed our climbing gear near the base of the ramp, and were off. I led the way up. We followed Roach's general route description, but did some route finding and exploring of our own, keeping the scramble 4th class or less. For the most part the rock was fairly solid and it was an awesome climb. The ramp became pretty steep and exciting near the top. We topped out at 12:03 and watched some climbers on the upper section of Wham Ridge. After a 25 minute stay we were overheating and retreated. Several very useful cairns guided us safely down off the summit and the downclimb was uneventful. We retrieved our gear from the base of the ramp and headed back to camp. Soon we stumbled on a doggie tied to some rocks with some cordage. It was horribly hot out and he only had a tiny two-lick puddle of water in front of him dripping from a pile of melting snow. I gave him some water from my bladder and he drank more than half a liter! Poor guy. His owners (the climbers we'd seen on Wham Ridge) soon returned and couldn't care less that their dog had been that thirsty. Strange young guys one was wearing jeans and neither had anything with them except climbing gear. They weren't very friendly.
We returned to camp at 2:13 and, you guessed it, took a nap.
Day 5: Trinity Traverse, Backpack to Upper Tenmile Creek Basin
3.8 mi, 2550 ft climbing; 2.2 mi, 860 ft backpacking
We left camp at 4:18, expecting a long day ahead of us. We followed Roach's Trinity Traverse route in the west to east direction. In the dark, our aim for the West Trinity Vestal saddle was a little skewed and we ended up climbing to the first little notch to the left of the saddle on a heinous scree slope. We had to take a lot of breathers and found ourselves clawing for anything that was remotely solid it was less than pleasant and caused many foul words to escape from my mouth. The entire time I was thinking about what it would be like with a huge pack on. I was barely making any progress as it was and our afternoon plans involved moving camp up and over this crap! Not a comforting thought! Finally we topped out and realized that we were slightly west of the saddle. I wishfully hoped that the route to the saddle would be much better (yeah right). We descended a bit to the saddle to stash the rope and climbing gear we'd brought along. We figured it would be easier to carry it up this morning to lighten our backpacking loads this afternoon. We'd retrieve it before descending to the Storm King area on the opposite side of the saddle.
I won't elaborate on the traverse because Roach does a fine job describing it. Route finding wasn't trivial but it wasn't that difficult either. The 4th class chimney en route to Trinity Peak was a heck of a lot of fun. The 4th class section above it was easy enough, but at first I got a little off route, got nervous, and had to do a sketchy downclimb. Both the ascent gulley on East Trinity and the descent gully on Trinity looked horrible from afar almost unclimbable! They weren't too bad though. The descent gully on Trinity was fairly loose, but the ascent gully on East Trinity was considerably more solid and fun. The descent off of East Trinity was a piece of cake, but we did use our ice axe to get down to Trinity Lake as the snow was still pretty hard. We got back to camp at 11:10 and began to pack up shortly afterwards.
When we set off from camp at 12:15 nasty clouds were already forming. Even though we hadn't experienced a single electrical storm the entire trip, it was looking like today might be the day. I was feeling especially strong and was happy to find that my strange nasty sunburn was no longer a problem. The climb to the 12,900 ft Vestal West Trinity saddle was quite interesting. I've never done this sort of backpacking. The task at hand was to climb up a steep, ridiculously loose scree slope. All I can say is that it took a combination of strength and determination to make it up that thing (on all fours I should add). The clouds were building and I just let loose and gave it everything I had. When we reached the saddle I looked at my watch and realized we had made it in a few minutes less than it had taken to get to the same point earlier in the morning when we did the Trinity traverse 55 minutes!
We added the previously stashed climbing gear to our packs and started the descent to the Upper Balsam Lake Basin. Garratt & Marten say that a perfect descending traverse across talus will deposit you into this basin. Theoretically this could be tricky because the traverse is relatively long compared to the small elevation loss and the route ahead isn't visible. Luckily we found a nicely cairned path that was very close to this "perfect descending traverse". The cairns were a tremendous help, but the side hilling on talus got pretty annoying. We began to hear thunder in the distance and picked up our pace. We arrived at the two small lakes near 11,200 ft at 2:15 and found a very comfortable camping spot (there were a ton of options). The basin was beautifully green and lush but the price was major mosquito infestation. The tent doors had to be kept zipped at all times and hanging around outside, even with bug spray on, wasn't pleasant
Day 6: Peak Seven, Peak Nine & Storm King Pk
6.5 mi, 4000 ft
We left camp at 4:27 and made our way to the Peak Eight Peak Seven saddle in the dark. It was just starting to get light as we stashed our climbing gear by the unnamed lake west of Peak Eight. We'd brought it along in case we found ourselves off route on Peak Nine and got into a sticky situation. From the lake we climbed west to gain Peak Seven's south ridge and then ascended the ridge to the summit. It had its share of scree and loose talus, but it was pretty easy. It never exceeded 3rd class and we found the "tricky, exposed downclimb" Garrett & Marten mention to be neither tricky nor exposed. We arrived at the summit shortly around sunrise (6:03) and basked in the alpenglow.
Our logic in climbing Peak Seven first today was that we needed to get a look at Peak Nine's south face from afar before attempting to climb it. Peak Nine has the reputation of being one of the hardest climbs in the area. Teresa had given me a description for a tricky route and advised me to try to pick out the correct ramp and ledge system from Peak Seven beforehand. Unfortunately it was early and the lighting was not good for studying the intricacies of Peak Nine's south face. We were at least able to pick out what we thought must be the appropriate ramp though.
After a 20 minute summit break we descended Peak Seven, picked up our climbing gear, and traversed under the south face of Peak Eight at the 12,600 ft level on semi-loose talus. The terrain under the Peak Eight Peak Nine saddle became annoyingly loose and we opted to scramble on some rock ribs rather than fight the scree the entire way. In hindsight I don't think this was a better option because the scrambling was 3rd and 4th class and the rock was horrible. I was a little uncomfortable at times. I was happy when we got past this section.
The magic ramp begins at 12,800 feet. There was a small but seriously hard snowfield blocking easy access to the ramp and we ended up having to climb around it on crappy rock as we'd left our crampons at camp. We stashed our trekking poles and ice axes at the entrance to the ramp and prepared for an exciting climb. We pulled off a few unexposed 5th class stemming/layback moves to gain access to the ramp which we later found out were not necessary (I figured this was the case when I started up the 5th class bit, but it was fun so I didn't care). The ramp led us southeast and gained 150 ft. From there we continued to traverse southeast on some grassy and rocky ledges. Although there were many little ups and downs along the way, there was no net elevation gain or less during this section. The occasional cairn reassured us we were on route. Even though the ramp begins west of the summit, this traverse takes you past the summit and deposits you way east of it.
The ledges deposited us into a very wide gully (3rd class) which we climbed up to gain the east ridge. We made sure to carefully note where we entered the gully so we could find the ledge system on the way back. We mostly stayed slightly below the ridge crest on the south side, but kept climbing too high and getting into sketchy terrain. The going was slow and mentally tiring because we had to traverse down sloping, junk filled ledges and a lot of the scrambling we did was on loose rock. Once in a while I climbed to the ridge crest to take a look and the summit looked disturbingly far away. Route finding took some time and we often split up to investigate several options at once.
At last we came to the summit block the crux. Teresa had told me that there was a 3rd class option, but it was hard to find from below. She had climbed up some 5th class stuff. I think we took a similar route. It was definitely low 5th class, loose, and downsloping. I motored up it before I could get freaked out and was shocked to find myself only feet from the summit woo hoo! We summitted at 9:35 and breathed a sigh of relief. It had been a somewhat taxing ascent the climbing wasn't all that difficult, but the looseness of the rock was mentally draining.
The summit register was very cool it had been placed there by Jennifer Roach before she was a Roach. The paper was a doctors pad advertising birth control pills I think odd! There were very few signatures even though it had been there for quite a while the last signatures were from Teresa and Kirk (Teresa's 2nd trip). One guy had made a funny comment he described Peak Nine as a PNP (poop in pants) peak. Hilarious!
Clouds were already forming so after 25 minutes we started down, expecting it to take a long time. Downclimbing our ascent route to the summit block was out of the question, but we decided to search for Teresa's 3rd-4th class route before breaking out the rope and setting up a rappel. We were about to give up when we finally found it. It was quite far away from the summit on the east ridge and was marked by a cairn. To me it felt like only 3rd class because I downclimbed it easily facing out (I usually face in when downclimbing 4th class stuff). Indeed, this route is very hard to pick out from below. Its at least comforting to know that that whatever you climb up, you should be able to find this easy route to get back down.
For some reason the return trip went much more smoothly and we made good time getting back. We found ourselves at the end of the ramp at 11:15. Or next goal was Storm King Peak. The skies were looking worse by the minute but we hoped we could make a quick ascent before things got ugly. We bee-lined it toward the Peak Eight Peak Nine saddle and soon heard some distant thunder. Crap hopefully it will go away. Up and over the saddle we went, getting out our ice axes to descend the moderate snow on the other side. Thankfully it had softened up enough that crampons weren't necessary. Unfortunately the skies weren't looking good and I knew it wasn't a good idea to climb Storm King. Dominic returned to camp and I followed shortly afterward after I did some pouting. How appropriate stormed out of climbing Storm King Peak! I got back at 12:15, annoyed that it was so early and there was nothing I could do but take another nap.
The storm was a good one and large chunks of hail bombarded our tent as I slipped in and out of consciousness. We woke up shortly after 4 and monitored the skies grey but stable. I think Dominic felt bad that I was so upset about turning back from Storm King earlier because he suggested we give it another go. We scrambled to get ready again and set off at 4:25. We climbed the southwest ridge route which involved some fun but easy scrambling. The rock was a little wet, but not too bad. At 5:33 we were standing on the summit. Quick trip! It was dinnertime and the summit was cold so we only stayed for ten minutes or so before descending. We got back to camp at 6:37.
Day 7: The Guardian & Mt Silex
5.5 mi, 3800 ft
We left camp at 4:27 and once again climbed to the Storm King Peak Nine saddle. From there we descended to Lake Silex, a captivating, mostly frozen lake nestled in between Storm King Peak and Mount Silex. It now ranks high on my list of favorite lakes. We watched the sunrise from there. Crampons and an ice axe were absolutely necessary to climb to the Silex Peak Nine saddle and I was glad that we had been lugging them around all week. It may have been a show stopper if we didn't have them. The slope was probably 35-40 degrees and hard and icy.
From the Peak Nine Silex saddle, we dropped about 200 ft and traversed below Mount Silex toward The Guardian. We first aimed for the Silex Guardian saddle and from there traversed under The Guardian's northwest ride on some gravelly ledges. We gained the ridge at about 13,400 ft and finished the straightforward climb to the summit. We arrived at 7:50 and took a 35 minute break before setting off for Silex.
We retraced our steps to the Silex Guardian saddle and traversed northwest at the 13,050 foot level on an exposed, junky ledge system. We then climbed up the loose south face of Silex to the summit. It was mostly 2nd class but annoyingly loose. We topped out at 9:34 and hung out for almost an hour. It was sad to think this would be our last ranked summit of the trip. I just wanted to stay forever!
We started down the south slopes but soon got fed up with the loose scree and talus and decided to give the southwest ridge a try. It was 4th class and a bit loose, but slightly more appealing. Routefinding was slightly tricky. We used our crampons once again to descend to Lake Silex. We got back to camp at 12:40, just in time to beat the afternoon thunderstorms.
Day 8: Peak Eight & Backpack out
2 mi, 1020 ft climbing; 12.5 mi, 3300 ft backpacking
It was a sad morning our last few hours in the remote Storm King area. We hadn't seen a soul the entire time we'd been here. The plan was to begin the long backpack back to the TH today and to find a camping spot once back on the Elk Creek Trail. We'd backpack out the rest of the way the following morning. Since everything had gone so smoothly on our trip so far, we had time for one last little unexpected treat an attempt at unranked Peak Eight before we headed out. I didn't know much about it but when I'd asked Teresa for some beta on Peak Nine before the trip she wrote: "Peak Eight (haven't done it -- it's the really hard one, unranked)". That sounded intimidating. Rosebrough gives a short route description: get to the notch between the two summits (either by some traverse across the face or a couloir) and traverse the loose, exposed east ridge to the summit.
We'd been thinking about a climb of Peak Eight for the past several days, wondering whether we should attempt it or not. I'd already been scoping out possible routes. The day we had to postpone our Storm King climb due to the impending electricity I discovered our ticket an inviting snow climb up a couloir on the north face. This obvious couloir angled southwest and terminated directly at the notch between the two summits perfect! I was psyched when I saw this, as it meant we'd only have a very short section of rock to deal with. We'd have plenty of time for rope work, even if it was difficult.
We left camp around first light with our harnesses already on and were at the base of the north couloir after about 35 minutes of easy hiking. We strapped on our crampons and climbed to the notch. The slope was about 45 degrees, a bit steeper than it had appeared from afar. After putting away our crampons and axes we began the ridge climb, expecting to have to break out the rope at any minute. We never did. Never even thought about it. Even though the rock was loose, it was fine. I've been on much worse. There was some exposure, but nothing crazy. It was very lichen covered and wouldn't be fun when wet though. After a short time we arrived on the summit I dare say without exceeding 3rd class scrambling! It was kind of a relief, but disappointing at the same time. Maybe we avoided most of the difficulties by taking the "snow highway" to the notch? The bottom line is that if climbed by this route, Peak Eight isn't very difficult.
From the summit we peered down the north face and saw a goat sleeping on a ledge below and accidentally woke him up from his slumber. It had been such a short climb that neither of us were really interested in a summit break, so we climbed back to the notch, put our crampons back on, and started back down. I must say that crampons and an axe were crucial for this climb it was steep enough that we had to downclimb the upper portion facing in. While we were taking our crampons off at the bottom, we noticed the goat was out for a snowclimb too descending in our tracks straight towards us. Another smaller goat appeared on the rocks above, watching. To our amazement, the bolder goat approached us directly, stopping only about 5 feet away from me! He just stood there and stared. At first I was a little freaked that he was going to attack, but he was very calm. He just stood there forever. We took pictures, talked to him, tried to figure out what he wanted. After a while we gave up and headed back to camp. When we were nearly there, Dominic looked back and asked me if I knew those goats were right behind me! They were walking single file right behind us as if they had joined our hiking party and we didn't even know it. I made a cool video of them passing within a few feet of me and following Dominic like they were his pets or something. They hung out with us at camp until we packed up and left. It was really cool.
We started the long journey back to civilization around 9:15. I really didn't want to leave. I'd love to be able to hang out in the area all summer! Climbing back to the West Trinity Vestal saddle was quicker and easier than expected. The gently ascending cairned route through the talus fields is really helpful. After a little breather, we started dropping down into Vestal basin around 10:45. The scree slope wasn't nearly as bad going down as it had been coming up, although we had to be very cautious. Skiing this steep scree slope with a huge pack isn't really an option because if you build up any momentum, there's a good chance you're not going to be able to stop when and how you want.
After the dreaded scree slope, we hopped over talus and then descended grassy slopes back to Vestal Creek, intersecting the trail we'd found on the way up a few hundred feet above Vestal Creek. It was sad to be finally dropping below treeline for the first time in five days. At Vestal Creek we took off our shoes and socks, waded to the other side, and took a break. It was only 11:15 and we weren't in any hurry.
From here on out we had a nice trail to follow. We made the steep descent out of Vestal Basin, crossed Elk Creek via the nice log, and popped out on the Elk Creek Trail next to the beaver ponds still feeling surprisingly good. At the start of the trip we'd had every intention of camping around this location and finishing off the long backpack the next morning. But long before reaching the Elk Creek Trail I was having thoughts otherwise we could make it out today! I kept quiet because I kept thinking I was going to start feeling the pain soon and change my ridiculous mind. And I didn't want to present my crazy itinerary change to Dominic. Besides, if we got out tonight we'd be exhausted and would have to find somewhere else to camp.
Once on the Elk Creek Trail, Dominic asked if I wanted to continue on for a while or start looking for a camping spot as planned. Since it was so early and neither of us wanted to just sit around all afternoon, we agreed to push on. After a while, the discussion about where to stop for the day resurfaced. I was happy to hear that Dominic kind of wanted to try to get out this evening as well. As we continued on down the trail, the pain did indeed start to kick in. Our backs and shoulders hurt, my hips hurt. It took some determination and constant fidgeting to hold out for a long break until we finally reached the railroad tracks. We found some shade, happily removed our packs, and settled in for a lengthy break. We both agreed we were starting to suffer, but neither of us wanted to quit now. Strangely enough, our main motivation was thoughts of our "first meal". We both were hankering for a beer and burger from Handlebars. The thought of having our first meal be breakfast in the morning sucked!
In preparation for the climb back to Molas TH we popped a few Vitamin I and each ate two candy bars, hoping the sugar burst would last until we got there. It was time to start the last leg of our journey. We occupied ourselves by counting the switchbacks as we climbed. I counted 37. Those candy bars must have been really working because it felt like we were cranking up that hill (note: cranking is a relative term after 8 days out and almost a full day of backpacking). I started feeling a little sick from the combination of chocolate and exertion, but nothing serious. From the Animas River back to the Molas TH it took us 1:45 and we were very pleased. I felt pretty darn good still. There was a greeting for us written on the side of Dominic's dusty car "Dwight & Bob were here". A guy approached us and asked what we'd climbed. I made a vague reference to the area we'd been in thinking that it would be useless to start naming all of the obscure peaks we'd climbed. He was quite inquisitive though and probed further. After a spouted off a bunch of peaks, he asked if my name was Sarah. It was none other than Brian Kalet. It was nice to finally meet him after chatting online once or twice and reading his TRs. He had plans to climb Vestal, Arrow, and the Trinities in a day. I wished him luck before we took off for Silverton.
We were at Handlebars by 6 and enjoyed a great meal. Small world Piper, Bill Geist & Jason Halladay sat down at the table right next to us! Even though we'd been up since 4:30am, climbed a peak and backpacked over 12 miles we felt good enough to make the long drive home. It was during this time period that I realized how dirty I really was! Strange how it never bothered me out in the wild. On this trip I doubled my record for longest time without a shower. We shared the driving duties and got back to Boulder at the very reasonable hour of 1am. I was pretty hyped up so I stayed up until 4am looking at pictures and such. Sunday was a recovery day.
Vestal group pics and map
Storm King group pics and map