Golden Horn - 13,780 feet
Pilot Knob A - 13,738 feet
Vermilion Pk - 13,894 feet
Fuller Pk - 13,761 feet
Golden Horn - 13,780 feet
Pilot Knob A - 13,738 feet
Vermilion Pk - 13,894 feet
Fuller Pk - 13,761 feet
|Ice Lakes Basin T-Bone|
This route is not the fastest way to climb these four peaks, but it has the advantage of ascending the aesthetic east ridge of Golden Horn and minimizing the time spent climbing up scree. The "T" is begun with the east ridge of Golden Horn, then north (right) to Pilot Knob, back south to Vermillion, and finishing with a little bone spur to curve SE to Fuller.
My wife and I came over Ophir Pass the night before and car camped at the "Clear Lake road switchback" noted in G&J Roachs' 13ers book. This is the road that veers to the right just as you are nearing the Ice Lake TH. Starting here shaves 1.5 miles and 500' of elevation gain. I camped alone here last August when I climbed US Grant and V4 (poor weather prevented V2 and a subsequent day up Ice Basin). It seems more people know of this now, as we parked next to another SUV, were joined by a couple in a pickup within the hour, awoke to headlights near midnight, and found four vehicles parked down the road upon our hike back down the next day.
Some general impressions:
Both Pilot Knob and Vermillion abound with loose rock.
Ice Lake Basin is one of the most enchanting places in the state. People know this, which is why the trail is crowded during more "regular" hours.
Pilot Knob is a serious climb. It was a lot of fun, but not one that should be done by people who are "new" to class four terrain.
I started off at around 5:10 or 5:15, moving steadily up the switchbacks in the dark. There are a couple spots where the trail crosses a talus slope that is cut with streambeds/erosion paths, and it took some searching with the headlamp to regain the trail - not much for me this time, as I had been here last year - but, it can be tricky in the dark the first time around.
I found myself beside the jeweled waters of upper Ice Lake at 6:15 am.
From here, Golden Horn and Fuller are the eye-catching peaks: Vermillion, set back between Fuller and the Horn, and Pilot Knob, to the Horn's right rear, appear squatty and less impressive.
I stayed on the trail, passing the smaller lake. I think the shorter approach would be to cut toward Golden Horn from this second lake. In the photo below, you can glimpse the entrance to a shallow ravine that parallels Golden Horn's east ridge to the right and rising ground on the left. My entry point on the ridge was the spot just to the left of where the ridge becomes thick and blocky.
Instead, however, I stayed on the trail until it turned southwest, heading directly toward Fuller's conical summit. Here I left the trail and approached Golden Horn's east ridge from the south, so I had to go up and over the broad knoll and down into the ravine, before climbing the southeast slopes to Golden Horn's east ridge. The early morning sun cast Golden Horn in a red hue. My route on the slope ascended the scree at the center of the screen to a gully in the shadow of the blocky part of the ridge, right of center.
The scree was not too bad and the gully not too loose. It only took me 45 minutes to cross the knoll, dip into the ravine and climb the slopes to the ridge. It was 7:30 am, and the way to the summit looked like this:
Despite the very rugged appearance, the moves never eclipsed class three and there was plenty of class 2 terrain to speed along. It was a lot of fun, as the ridge is pretty narrow, so you can see out to the valleys and peaks to three directions. On such a clear morning with boundless blue sky, my spirit soared. These moments went by fast: by 7:49, I had drawn near to the summit.
I topped out around 8:00, noting it had taken a bit shy of three hours to get here, and enjoyed the impressive views. Climbing down from the summit was not difficult. I was eagerly anticipating Pilot Knob, and I took this photo of it framed by a notch in the ridge.
As I neared the top of my "T," I stayed left of some towers along the ridge, and reveled in the view of the red-gold ridge arcing to Pilot Knob, and the Wilson group in the distance.
I made quick work of the descent from Golden Horn, but the ridge to Pilot Knob quickly revealed itself to be much more challenging. Here's a view of my first class 4 for the day:
Pilot Knob is just the highest in a series of pinnacles. In this next photo, I'm just on the eastern side of the ridge crest -- some tame class 3 here, as I near the cluster of knobs.
It's just shy of 9 am a this point, about 50 minutes from Golden Horn's summit. Although I've covered three quarters of the distance between the two peaks at this point, the remaining part would take me a full hour, and then some. Keeping on or very near the crest as I had thus far, I scrambled up the tower seen above and found myself in quickly in class 4 and class 5 terrain. I got to a point where I couldn't downclimb the ridge before me, and I backtracked a few feet to find a route safely down about forty feet on the west side of the ridge.
This next stint was a case of the up and down game - back up to the ridge, maybe across it for a bit, then back down to easier ground when the ridge became too technical. While ledges along the north made the traverse easy, climbing up to the ridge was treacherous in sections. I tested all holds and still had one foothold give way (luckily, I had three other points of contact). I only have one photo from this section, to show what the terrain typically looked like on the north side of these volcanic teeth.
It was 10:11 -- one hour and twenty minutes for just this short distance -- that I found myself back atop the ridge, wondering if I had finally found the summit pitch. I saw a climber in the basin below me and shouted down to ask him if this was the high point of Pilot Knob. He replied that it was Vermillion. I explained that I had come from Golden Horn and that Vermillion was south. He said I was very close, over this next spot, then a downclimb and a short ascent to the peak.
Though far off his mark, the unknown climber was right about the way ahead for me. The downclimb from this last photo was delicate but not exposed, and then it was a short, stiff climb to a flat, scant summit - maybe it should be called Pilot's Turret. The views east, west and north were expansive and exhilarating; this next shot shows the ridge north, with US Grant behind, and the Ice Lakes to the east.
As I had run afoul of weather on attempts of Vermillion both of the previous two years, I was eager to backtrack and be on my way to that elusive peak. I scouted around the summit to see any easier way down, but concluded that I must climb down the way I had come. Here's a view of it, the way both up and down to the pilot's seat.
To make time, I stayed well down from the ridge crest on the right (west side). After the downclimb, it took just a few minutes over an hour to reach the ridge to Vermillion.
I had read Roach's description of Vermillion many times throughout the years, so didn't bother refreshing my memory, but also didn't bother trying to stick to the route he describes. I progressed up the ridge, which began easily enough.
In this photo, look at the skyline in the center and you can just make out the rounded tops (like some of Pilot's knobs that wandered) and these are bypassed on the right.
Vermillion has seen plenty of hikers. There was a strong climber's path for much of the way. Not a trail, but this next photo shows the route on a ledge and over a rib that lies just left of the ridge-line.
Soon, I was above the towers - here's glance back.
After this point, I was on a fairly broad ledge - very simple class 2 here -- and I concluded I was on the part of the route where both Roach and Cooper advise to proceed to the top of the Dollar Couloir. This ledge is described as stretching about 100 yards; I think I went about 30 yards when I decided that a direct climb to the summit looked practical.
I would do it again, but I wouldn't recommend it to anyone. The top of this class 4 climb required me to stretch awkwardly to find handholds that weren't loose. I had solid footholds, so I pushed off and then hauled my body over the loose crap, very quickly so at to keep my weight forward. Standing up, I was only a few feet from the high point and this was my view over Ice Lake Basin to the east-northeast, with U.S. Grant in the background (much more awesome afoot than from afar):
It was 12:55, forty-five minutes after I had begun climbing the NE ridge. Clouds crowded the western sky, so I allowed myself moments instead of minutes to revel in the views, before descending the SE ridge. On the way down, at a spot where I didn't feel the ground to be all that loose, I suddenly triggered a rock slide. First one rock, then a sudden cascade and cloud of dust. I muttered words of thanksgiving that nobody was below me.
Fuller is very close to Vermillion. I didn't note the time between the summits, but the times on my photos show that it took only 32 minutes.
The view of Vermillion is majestic from Fuller. Shortly after taking this photo, I heard a rumbling of rockfall. I couldn't see another climber, but it sounded like it came from where I had kicked one loose.
The way down Fuller's NE ridge consists of low-angled talus, nondescript, but the views across into Ice Lake Basin are nothing but extraordinary.
On the shore of Fuller Lake, I found some interesting wreckage of some type of mine cart.
The clouds had moved overhead and light rain fell on the lake.
One last look back.
All in all, a wonderful place and one of my favorite days spent in the high country. With the rain to speed me by the clusters of "recreational" hikers below, I made it back from Ice Lake to the car in an hour. Not exact, but roughly 10 hours 20 minutes roundtrip. I'm sure others could shave two hours off that time, but I enjoyed each minute.
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