| A Visit to Narnia-The Grenadiers
To celebrate our last child going off to college, Margaret and I decided to take our first "emptynester" trip to the San Juans; specifically the mighty Grenadier Range in the Weminuche Wilderness. Having viewed these impressive peaks from atop other mountains and in countless photographs, there was a clear sense of excitement knowing we would finally be standing before them.
We arrived in Durango Wednesday (9/10) at 11:00 pm and stayed in a classy motel that came equipped with a drunk, nutcase yelling expletives and banging on the locked door of his girlfriend's room.
Thursday morning, we ate breakfast like it was our last meal then hopped aboard the D&SNG choo-choo train for the 3-hour ride to Elk Park. We'd been on the train before so the ride was a bit tedious, but the views of the Animas River and Pigeon Peak helped pass the time. In defense of the train, its a unique and unexplainable feeling to be dropped off in the middle of nowhere - detached from the "mother ship" - with only the provisions on your back to sustain you for the next 4 days.
From the end of the track spur, we hiked the Elk Creek trail NE to its confluence with the CT, signed the register, and made quick work of the 2.7-mile stroll to the large beaver pond that identifies the turn-off to the Vestal Creek trail . If the CT is Interstate 25, the VCT is a dirt road. Much of the time the trail is obvious, but you must pay close attention to stay on course and avoid side trails that lead to nowhere. The few people we encountered (including ourselves) strayed off trail at least once.
From the NW corner of the beaver pond, we hiked south across boulders on the pond's western edge to a fork in the trail. We beared left past some campsites and followed the trail to the top of Elk Creek's north side . We inched our way down the steep but short slope to Elk Creek, crossed over to its south side on rocks, and found the trail heading south into Vestal Creek's basin. We hiked through trees and willows to a meadow (this is where we got slightly off course - the main trail was above us to hiker's left), made the relatively steep hike to 11,200', descended slightly near Vestal Creek, and hiked the final .5 mile into the meadow at the base of Arrow Peak . We followed the VC trail to the trees at the meadow's east end and set up camp . There are several campsites in and around the meadow as well as others 100 to 300 vertical feet up and further east on the VC trail. Campsites can also be found at 12,000' at the base of Arrow and Vestal Peaks although we saw no one camping that high. Thursday evening we hiked up the trail to 11,700' to watch the waxing 3/4 moon rise over the Trinities .
Thursday night into early Friday morning it rained then snowed constantly. However, by 7:00 am the skies cleared and we were treated to excellent September weather the rest of the weekend. The inch or two of wet snow that blanketed the meadow melted by noon.
On Friday, we climbed into the upper basin below the W. Trinity-Vestal ridge and spent the entire day hiking around the base of Arrow, Vestal and W. Trinity between 11,500' and 12,500', getting our bearings and taking in the unbelievable scenery . It truly was an existential experience admiring these natural pyramids. They commanded our admiration and respect like no other mountains we'd observed before them.
Although my plan was to climb Arrow and Vestal on Saturday, I decided at about 1:00 pm Friday to take a shot at Arrow. I gained Arrow's sweeping ramp in short order and ascended to 13,300'. Unfortunately, the rain and snow from the night before made for prohibitively slick conditions on the naturally smooth, steep ramp. Since I hadn't planned on climbing Arrow that day, I didn't bring a helmet. Given the slick conditions, the lack of a brain bucket, the fact that I was climbing solo, and it was 2:30 pm with some clouds rolling in over the summit, I reluctantly turned back. If rain was coming, exiting the slicker-than-cat@#%* ramp would have been extremely dangerous; not to mention the possibility of lightning. As it turned out, the clouds amounted to nothing but my view west was blocked by the upper 500' of the mountain so I had no way of knowing what the weather gods had in store. I was able to snap this pic of Vestal's sweeping Wham Ridge before descending .
Saturday morning we climbed into the upper basin via Roach's route description to attempt Vestal via its south slopes. Margaret was not confortable climbing in the hard snow to reach the saddle between Arrow and Vestal, so we parted ways and I continued on. With some kick-stepping and trekking poles, I was able to safely gain the saddle at 12,800' . Following Roach's route description and some well-placed cairns, I climbed the ascending traverse across Vestal's south side and found the prominant gulley at 13,200' (view looking down the gulley). The gulley is long and narrow and terminates at a notch at 13,600'. Climbing in the gulley is not recommended as it is just as much a bowling alley as Little Bear's hour glass. Again, following Roach's description and cairns, I climbed north 400 vertical feet on the gully's west side (climber's left) not straying more than 50' or so from the gulley center . At no point should you cross the gulley or climb on its east side. After reaching the notch, I turned left and did an ascending traverse northwest for another 100 vertical feet to a short chute . From the top of the chute, I climbed the final 100' to gain Vestal's SE ridge and the summit, staying on the somewhat airy but level ridge crest .
The panoramic view from the summit was breathtaking. Nearly all of the San Juan 14ers and prominant 13ers were visible . I knew the view would be spectacular but it exceeded my highest expectations. There wasn't a cloud anywhere! I could have stayed on the summit for hours but after 45 minutes, I decided to descend and meet up with Margaret.
As a side note, Roach rates this route as Class 2+. In my opinion, the south slopes route easily rates as class 3. If you get too far west of the gulley, or on its east side, you'll likely encounter class 4 terrain or higher.
The return was quick and uneventful. I encountered two climbers at 13,200' as I began the descent back to the Arrow-Vestal saddle. We saw 6 other people in Vestal Basin while we were there.
For a moment, I considered heading back up to Arrow, but after meeting up with Margaret, we decided to pack up and head down to the beaver ponds. Saturday night we camped above the CT with terrific views of Arrow and Vestal. After a lazy morning stroll along the CT, we broke camp, hiked down to Elk Park, took a "bath" in the warm waters of the Animas River , and drank a few beers on the seemingly endless train ride back to Durango. Seven hours later, we pulled into our Highlands Ranch driveway and were asleep by 1:30 Monday morning.
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