Vestal Region Co, September 2005

Vestal, Arrow, and Trinity Peaks are an impressive rise of rock in the northwest corner of the Weminuche Wilderness in Southwestern Colorado. One either takes the train a few miles south of Silverton, or parks near Molas pass and hikes in, taking an extra 1700 ft descent to start the day. We were carrying rock gear for an ascent of Wham Ridge on Vestal, a 5.4 to 5.6 route, and 5 days of food, actually more like 6 days since I had over-packed on food and forgotten that Allan doesn't eat when he's got altitude sickness, so the packs were pretty heavy. Allan had the distinct disadvantage of having arrived from Sea Level the day before, whereas Gretchen and I are pretty well acclimatized to a run up to 14,000ft on the weekends.

In a bit of a change to the weather, it was snowing, with a thunderstorm when we arrived at the trail head. The snow didn't last long, and the clouds drifted in and out, and the hike was pleasantly cool, although a bit wet. Three miles in, and 1700 ft down, we crossed the railroad tracks, not long after the daily train went through. As we arrived, a little scooter went zipping by, perhaps making sure the coal burning locamotive hadn't started any forrest fires.

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After the railroad, it's another 3 miles with a gradual 1200 ft rise to the beaver pond, which had some amazingly green algae. It was late afternoon, but we really wanted to be up higher for the night, since the usual sites near Vestal were still 2 miles, and 1500 ft above us on what Roach describes as a "climber's trail". Usually this is bad news from Roach, but this trail was very well established, and, except for being steep with lots of downed trees, pretty easy travelling. But darkness comes too early in the fall, and packs were heavy, so first camp was a bit short of the basin. First night was also pretty cold, about 25F, which was damn cold for our thin summer blood.

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What with the late arrival, and still a bit of snow on the upper ridges, we put off Vestal for a day. After moving camp up to a more typical location in the valley below Vestal we headed for Trinity, the 3 peaks to the east of Vestal, which starts with an ascent of the steep Trinity-Vestal Saddle, shown here east to west.

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Vestal itself is a very prominent chunk of rock with a remarkable ski-ramp sort of shape on the north face. The ridge up West Trinity is mostly blocky, shale type rock, some talus.

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Looking south is what Roach refers to as the Pigeon group, a very jagged looking, and even more remote ridge including Mt. Eolus, Sunlight Peak, and the Turret Needles. They also looked like a big scree pile.

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Looking north, the mountains were quite a bit more rolling, and very, very brown. And to the Southeast was a gorgeous basin around Balsam Lake.

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We made the classic mistake of not reading all the way through the guide book the first time, and from West Trinity, proceeded over to Trinity proper. The book had warned of a class 4 chimney, so we were packing a light rope and harnesses. I scrambled a steeper bit, and then, looking back down, and considering the route description, we decided that this was the chimney. Guess we didn't really need the rope. This also instilled a great amount of false confidence on what would count as Class 4. Anyway, we had planned to keep going East, to drop down between Trinity and East Trinity, and drop back into our valley for an easy walk back to camp. Ha. Once on top of Trinity and looking at the very steep terrain, we read the full description which included the bit about climbing East Trinity, and then taking the east trinity ridge down. The alternative was to drop way down a steep scree gully, and all the way back around to the saddle we had come over. It was getting late (recurring theme here), and we chose the route where we knew at least the last 1/3 of the way. And Roach had mentioned a "climbers trail" which ran along here. Much more typical of Roach, this trail was more or less non-existant, and we were in for a very long scree descent, and even longer contour on talus around the base of Trinity and West Trinity. The up side was that there was a fantastic moon rise over Balsam & related peaks

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The full moon was basically the saving grace of the evening, and we stumbled back into camp around 10:30 or something along those lines. But nevermind that, up early for our crack at Vestal the next day. It's only supposed to be a few technical pitches up the face, followed by some class 4 to the summit and a "Class 2+ descent" off the back side to the same saddle we were now quite familiar with, so we figured it might not even be that long a day. suckers. Arrow is the peak to the right of Vestal.

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But these things aren't always so easy. It was chilly, we had 3 people, which is slow for roped travel, and one of them from Sea Level and wondering where the air went (Vestal Tops out at 13,864 ft). It was pretty chilly, and G and I weren't dressed for the slower rock climbing. Allan wisely kept fleece pants on under his climbing pants.

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Most of the pitches were quite easy, with only short stretches of mid class-5. On the other hand, it was very difficult to find placements for pro, so anchors were time consuming. On my last lead I forgot to drag the second rope, so we were down to 3 sequential, just to really annoy Gretchen who was now in the shadow on the face, while I was belaying in the sun (and the wind, quite a bit of wind) on the ridge.

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Gretchen put on boots as we hit the ridge, since the rest of the climbing was supposed to be "Class 4" and her feet were frozen, and then lead the following pitch, in boots, which was NOT Class 4 in my book. 5.4 maybe. I then lead a couple quick pitches which were more like class 4, and the description had us cross back to the center of the face from the ridge on an obvious ledge, which we found, and the "One long class 4 pitch to the false summit, class 2+ to the real summit". Well, the face never gets sun, and still had the thin snow cover from a couple days back. I tried to stay to the right, where there was less snow, and we agreed to simu-climb the "class 4", but the pucker factor was high enough that I tied off on yet another badly protected anchor to give people a real belay up the lightly snowed on low class 5. Then, finally, from there it was really just class 4 to the false summit, but usually class "2+" as rated to the real summit, doesn't involve a short chimney, vertical climb and mantle move in the middle. But maybe I'm just a wuss.

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It was a good climb, but we did it too slowly, and you'll notice how late the day looks in the summit shot. On to the "class 2+" descent off the back. We scouted routes as quickly as we could since sun was starting to set, and we found a few small cairns, but there's no f*ing way that was Class 2+. It was loose, nasty, scary down climbing, much more dangerous than coming up the face. At the worst point (just past a cairn I might add), we pulled out both ropes and did a full pitch rap to very slightly less steep terrain. Gretchen then found a hint of a trail which lead us to the south, to Arrow pass, which was not what we wanted to come down, but at this point it was completely dark, and moon was behind the peak, and it was windy, and cold, and we were out of water, so we decided to go down Arrow pass. This was absolutely the most suicidal part of the entire climb, an extremely steep, 1000 ft descent down scree at just-sub-critical angles. Any slide took a while to stop and resulted in a cascade of rock. Worse, the parts where a trail had worn were frozen, so trying to edge on frozen sand got no traction whatsoever. Gretchen and I were ahead a bit, I stopped one of my slides on a rock, and then went underneath with Gretchen still on top. At this point Allan took a fall, and unleashed a small slide. I yanked Gretchen in under the shelter of the rock with me, but not before she took a hard blow to the head from a wayward rock, demonstrating once and for all why one wears climbing helmets for this sort of thing. Her head was fine, but the helmet was trashed. The eternal descent was followed by an equally eternal talus slog over a glacier (so the book said, never saw any ice), down below Vestal lake, and then all the way back up around Vestal Lake, and finally back down the usual route. Poor Allan was in pretty dire straits from altitude sickness at this time, and told us to go back to camp to fix dinner. We arrived around 11:30, pumped water, made hot food, and Allan stumbled in around 1am. ouch.

Saturday was a relaxing day, for obvious reasons. We took a nice hike up to Trinity pass, which we had not come down a couple days earlier. While the pass was pretty easy, there was some complicated, steep, shale scrambling to get to the ridge, so who knows which route was better that time.

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After the hike we packed up again and headed down to spend the last night in the thick, heady air at Beaver pond, a mere 10,000 ft elevation.

There's a few more pictures still in the camera... stay tuned


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