Vestal Peak - 13864' - Wham Ridge Class 5.4
Another trip report from September of last year...and outside Washington. My apologies, but for anyone who is interested in the San Juan Mountains in Colorado feel free to read on.
Towards the end of September, 2015 I was working on getting a job lined up for the fall/winter and found myself in Colorado to see the peak of the aspen foliage. I had just driven down from Montana and enjoyed a very beautiful drive along the million dollar highway. I spent hours taking photos from early morning through early afternoon as I made my way to Silverton. The colors were at their peak and couldn't have been better.
When I eventually made it to Silverton, I stopped for a pulled pork sandwich and John met me there. We only had an hour or so until we needed to catch the train, so we quickly packed up our gear and parked the cars at the library. When everyone started heading back to re-board the train we walked over and met the conductor who had our tickets. We got aboard and found seats in the open air cabin. The train ride featured more beautiful fall color in the deep Animas River Gorge. I couldn't stop snapping photos! When we arrived at Elk Park, the train stopped and let us off and we started up the Elk Creek Trail (also the Colorado Trail). I had been up this trail before so knew exactly where to go. It was a quick 3.5 miles to the beaver ponds where Vestal Peak actually comes into view from the trail. Towering high above us we could see the sweeping north face where the Wham Ridge route is located.
We left the main Elk Creek Trail and hiked around the upper end of the beaver ponds and met up with the Vestal Basin trail, which is hard to find if you don't know exactly where to look but luckily I had been there before. We dropped about 80 feet and crossed over Elk Creek then began the steep climb into Vestal Basin. The views really opened up as we gained elevation. I recalled every section of this steep trail since last time Josh and I were carrying so much gear every step took a monumental effort! This time around we had much lighter packs and cruised up into Vestal Basin and chose the great camp spot at the end of the long meadow in the basin. This was the same spot I had camped back in 2012 with Josh. We gazed at Vestal Peak all evening as we made dinner and set up our sleeping bags. To save weight we didn't bring a tent, and had a beautiful night sky to keep us entertained until we fell asleep.
The next morning we got up almost at first light and noticed frost on our sleeping bags. It was a cold night and I was fighting to keep my hands warm as I packed everything up. We ate some pop tarts and loaded the overnight gear on a high rock to keep the marmots off, and started up the trail to Vestal Lake. We carried a 30 meter rope and a few cams in addition to the usual day hiking gear. We noticed a party of three already on the route and I recalled seeing their headlights heading up the trail just above where we were camped at about 4am. Even after stopping at Vestal Lake to refill bottles and to eat a snack, and leaving camp three hours after them, we caught up to them just a few hundred feet above the base of the sweeping face. I couldn't figure out why they were so slow.
John and I were moving fast I guess though since we made quick work of the scramble to the ledge that cut across the face. We walked to the right on the ledge and continued climbing up small ledges and cracks. We did talk to the the party for a bit as we passed them but since they were roped climbing the class 3 terrain as well, we didn't stay long. The angle of the rock face began to steepen but we still felt comfortable soloing since the rock was so solid and blocky. There was one spot when we hit the ridge proper that was quite exposed with the steep west face directly below us but careful climbing allowed us to continue with ease.
The final 200 feet of the ridge featured sustained 4th class with some low 5th class climbing but the rock was so solid we just continued climbing until we ended up on the summit. We really made great time going up as it was still somewhat early in the morning. Jagged Mountain, the Chicago Basin group and Pigeon Peak dominated the view to the south, while the Trinity Peaks were incredible looking to the east. Arrow Peak, which I had climbed three years earlier was just below us to the west, along with Greystone and Garfield Peaks.
We relaxed for nearly an hour on the summit which was my 84th Centennial Peak. The weather was perfect without any wind. John and I started heading down the backside (south) of Vestal along the standard route, which was a well marked boot path most of the way. I had read in Roach's book about horrid scree and dangerous rock fall potential but we had no issue scrambling down a couple class 2 drops and following the cairned path down the south face. For the most part the path stayed to the right of the deep gully dropping straight down the south face. Once we hit the 13,000 foot contour, the path cut right and followed a nice ledge westward and reached the saddle between Arrow and Vestal.
Here, we split up and John continued down since he was hoping to be able to dry out his sleeping bag. I continued heading west and made a descending traverse partway down to Arrow Lake. I cut across the lower south face of Arrow Peak, and re-ascended talus and scree to hit the long east ridge of Greystone Peak. This peak, being around 13,500 feet in elevation hardly ever sees visitors, but it provided some incredible views of the south side of the Grenadiers you don't ever see otherwise. Its east ridge even offered some third class scrambling that added some spice to the day. The summit register on Greystone was full of garbage so I packed it out.
Since John was waiting, I didn't stay long and dropped back towards Arrow Lake, and re-climbing 200 feet to get back to the Arrow-Vestal Saddle. From this point it was all downhill into the deep valley between the two peaks. There is a rock glacier in this valley that proved very tedious to walk on. I certainly was glad there was something resembling a boot path but the rock was so loose. It reminded me a lot of the rock coming down from the Sherpa-Argonaut Saddle in the Stuart Range. Just before I was about to start running down the more established trail below Vestal Lake, I came across a very old looking pack sitting on a rock. Since no one else was around, and the only other party up on the mountain were the three we passed (who clearly didn't leave a pack at the base), I investigated, and opened it up to see if I could find any info regarding its owner. Inside, there was some really old rock shoes, a couple jackets, glasses, some old food and a bunch of garbage. The only thing I could find was a CMU keychain but it had no name. This was probably someone who left the pack either in an emergency or by mistake.
I organized everything inside it and took it down with me. No sense in leaving it up there. I met back up with John and after exchanging stories about how the afternoon went for each of us, we were soon on our way back down. It was getting a bit late in the afternoon but the train didn't stop for us until late in the morning the next day, so once we got back to the beaver ponds, we threw the sleeping bags back out and crashed in the trees. I specifically remember that night there was a lunar eclipse, but I fell asleep before it happened, and missed it.
The next morning we finished the short hike down the Elk Creek Trail to Elk Park and waited over two hours for the train to arrive. We roamed around taking photos during that time as we were back in aspen land! Once the train arrived around 11:00 in the morning (over 30 minutes late!), we were on our way back to Silverton. We parted ways and I headed over to Denver to contemplate a job related decision I had to make.