| Wham Ridge (summer 2008)
I apologize for the tardiness of this report, but thought it might be useful to anyone planning on doing one of Colorado's best climbs this summer.
Wham Ridge, Vestal Peak, Grenadier Range, San Juan Mountains. We were hooked from the moment we turned to page 251 of Gerry Roach's "Colorado Thirteeners". What an absolutely compelling climb! In Roach's own words, "Solid rock, a beautiful line and a wilderness setting combine to make Wham Ridge one of Colorado's best mountaineering routes."
The standard route starts at the lower left and traverses across the entire face on a grassy ledge that is visible in this photo. Our route (the Direct Variation) starts at the lower right, where the slab meets the talus, and follows the right edge of the ridge all the way to the top. I really don't understand why the standard route avoids the entire lower part of the climb. It seems much more aesthetic to get on the rock at the lowest point, and climb straight up. The rock is excellent, low angle, and very fun to climb. Roach lists it at 5.3, but there is no fifth class climbing on this lower section. Mostly, it is a simple walk up the slab.
Last year (2007) we stood on the slabs at the base of this ridge, with water flowing down the rock and the summit hidden in clouds. The weather didn't change for four days, and we made the long trek back to Molas Pass deeply disappointed.
The summer of 2008 we were determined to try again. We decided to save some effort and ride the train. We had used it for our trip to Chicago Basin in 2006, and were familiar with the advantage (shorter backpack) and disadvantages (cost, schedule constraints, soot, stink, etc.). Reservations were made early, but as the date approached the weather forecast did not look good. We bit the bullet and paid the additional fee to change our reservation to the first week of September. We knew we'd risk fresh snow, but also assumed better weather and fewer mosquitoes. I nervously watched the forecasts on weather.com and nws.gov, and couldn't believe there was no chance for precip during the time we'd be there! Finally, we would have some luck with the weather.
Wednesday (Sep 3) I called the train and confirmed our reservation and was told the conductor would have our tickets. Thursday we drove to Silverton and arrived about an hour early for the 2:00pm train departure. At about 1:40pm I asked the conductor where he wanted our packs and asked if he had our tickets. He said "No, you have to get them at the train station." He didn't care that I had been told the day prior that there was no need to go to the station, and told me I had been told the wrong thing. I had to rush over to the station, where the lady at first said she had no tickets for us, then finally found them. Ah, the joys of riding the train.
The highlight of the short trip from Silverton to Elk Park was the very large bear on the cliffs above the Animas River, looking down on us as we passed. It was certainly a thrill for the many tourists on the train. The next excitement for them was watching us heft our heavy packs in the "middle of nowhere". "Where do you think they're going?" "I think they're backpacking." And of course, "Hey, have fun with that bear out there!" The train was soon out of sight and sound, and we both sighed with relief for the peace and quiet, and relatively clean-smelling air.
The hike to the beaver ponds was uneventful, though there is one spot where the Colorado Trail is sandwiched between Elk Creek and the cliffs on the north side where it is splitting and collapsing into the water. This spot is already a bit hairy to get past, and will certainly need some rebuilding. Now, the lowlight of our trip. I had been taking occasional pictures, and as we neared the beaver ponds I snapped one of our objective (the beautiful Vestal Peak far above us). I heard a strange tone from the camera and saw on the display "camera disk is full". What the …?! Then I realized that the new camera I bought a couple days ago for this trip still had the original disk in it-- I had not replaced it with a decent capacity disk! I was sick and totally annoyed with myself for being so stupid (I later deleted the existing pictures to make room for the Wham Ridge, and that's all the pictures we got in four days). The Elk Creek crossing was much easier (the water was much lower) than one month earlier last year, and the "climber's trail" from there to Vestal Basin, though difficult hiking, was easy to follow. Our favorite spot in the basin (the same one described by Scott Hsu when he and Amy were there) was occupied, so we settled for a grassy clearing amidst the willows a short distance further up the trail, right below a blocky cliff (which we discovered was a literal marmot condominium complex, with the many small ledges serving as decks for the inhabitants to sun themselves on). The "normal" campsite in the trees at the east end of the basin seems too dark and without good views, in our opinion. The weather forecast was accurate so far, and in fact we would see almost no clouds at all in four days in Vestal Basin.
Since the weather forecast was so perfect, we slept in Friday morning, and didn't start up the trail until 8:30. At 9:30 we roped up at the bottom of the Wham Ridge and started up. As we came up on the standard route's grassy ledge which traverses across the ridge, we surprised a gentlemen standing there watching his partners climbing far above. We spoke briefly with "Nick" as we passed him, and he was waiting for his friends to get higher then he was going to descend and meet them. The rock was thoroughly enjoyable throughout the climb, and especially stable in the 5th class area. We actually simul-climbed much of the route with most of the rope coiled, and in most other places climbed about a "rope length" apart, simply belaying with the rope around rock "horns".
Thanks very much to Scott Hsu for his advice on gear—we cut 4 pounds from our climbing bag, and ended up with the following: 30mx8mm randonee rope (perfect), two OP Link-Cams (very useful), one set of stoppers (too much, didn't need any of the smaller sizes), one set of Trango BallNutz (too much, didn't need any of the smaller sizes), four medium-length slings with biners on each end, two long slings, two daisy chains, two BD Alpine Bod harnesses, two belay devices, and some locking biners. Even this gear was more than we needed, and I can understand some people climbing this route un-roped, but the crux moves really are about 5.4, and of course very exposed, so a short rope and some pro is advised for most people. A 30m rope is definitely long enough, as there are multiple belay ledge options in the 5th class part of the route. This is the view up the crux "pitches". I had seen pictures of people climbing the section in this photo further right (in the shade), but staying on the now steeper slab to the left provided excellent cracks and beautiful rock.
And this is the view down the route, with "Nick" on the grassy traverse ledge of the standard route down below.
The LinkCams were particularly useful due to their wide range of sizes, and small pieces of gear were definitely not required. Along the way (higher in the 4th class area) we encountered two well-jammed cams which are not coming out, a somewhat rusty but still trust-worthy piton, and higher still an excellent (and quite new) cam with biner that I very easily removed (???) (we later spoke to the party that was climbing above us, and it was not theirs). The summit was simply spectacular, and we stayed there for almost an hour, since the weather remained perfect.
Looking south at Windom, Sunlight and Eolus.
We found Roach's description of the descent to be perfect. It was obvious that many people have turned right (south) too soon after departing the summit toward the east, as there is a worn trail there. However, if you continue east as Roach describes, the route becomes evident, and really does not exceed Class 2+. Of course, descending from the Vestal-Arrow saddle really is as horrible as everyone says, and was by far the least enjoyable part of the day (but as I told my wife, it's the price we had to pay for having climbed one of the best routes in Colorado).
Sorry about the lack of pictures; believe me, I was more upset than you! Also, I intentionally did not include a lot of detail on the trail or climbing route, since that has been well documented elsewhere. I hope this will be helpful, and maybe get the juices flowing in anticipation of a great summer of mountaineering!
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):