Part 10: Adventure Crescendo

Intro

After my parents left, it was time to load up and head back to El Diente for our last 9-day hitch there. Though we’d really only been on the project for something like two months, we’d experienced a lot of adversity in that time. Two crew members gone, bear and rat attacks, miserable weather, etc. I started to feel a bit sad that we’d be moving on. For me, we really came together as a group during our time on El Diente and the squad we’d re-engineered felt more durable than the first iteration, something I think we were all pretty proud of. Come what may, El Diente pushed us, and we pushed right back. I started figuring that for the off-hitch after our time on El-Diente, I would try to string together an epic series of adventures, a crescendo of the summer season filled with as many adventures as I could stuff into a set of six days. Boy, did I get that right.

Table of Contents

Hitch 6 (back half of August, 2015)

Having already established the new trail, our last hitch was going to be making the old trail disappear. It had never been stabilized and was an erosion trap in all senses of the word. We’d already rerouted the alpine portion and reinforced the lower bits of the main trail. So, with our CFI guys on the saw, we started cross-cutting trees to chop into manageable bits and regrade the old trail’s tread. From there, we’d dig up durable alpine plants (root ball and all) to replant the sections of old trail.

Trail Work Terminology Update (exclusive to this hitch)

  • On the saw: Whoever is operating the Chainsaw, which requires a special permit to do on federal land.
  • Cross-cut: A monster saw without an engine, the baddest regular saw we could carry in with us. Used since forestries ancient days, it’s a two-person push-pull saw that can make quick work of burly trees.
  • Soil compaction: A naturally occurring process on heavily used trails. The more boots there are on a trail, the more compact the soil gets. In order to replant and make old trails disappear, you have to make sure the plant roots can break into the soil and take root. Step one, using Pick Maddock’s and other tools to break up the compacted soil, helping our little plant buddies make their new homes.
  • Checkered Check Step: Like a regular check step but with a checkered and raised pattern on the tread side so people can step on it without sliding off an otherwise slick log.
  • PPE: Personal Protective Equipment like eye protection and helmets, mandatory in many cases and dependent on the organization your working with and what they’re doing.
Gator Gal and I working on a checkered check step, a crosscut is against the tree behind us.
The finished product. While it may seem excessive, logs get real slick if it’s raining so avoiding a nasty sprain while stabilizing tread seems like a win-win.

Between revegetation efforts, crosscutting, and checkering steps, the entire hitch was busy busy busy. We often swapped tasks to try and alleviate the monotony but ended up back at our old stations when we realized we’d all developed borderline OCD about how things should be done. Don’t try and fix what ain’t broken, eh?

SWCC crews are really guns for hire, so even though CFI had bought our services for five hitches, that didn’t necessarily mean we’d have the satisfaction of seeing the job through to completion. We helped as much as we could, kept their project pace on schedule and when it was all said and done, packed up our camp and left. From what they told us, it looked like they’d be working for another month or two, depending on when the first snows came in. Despite the less than satisfying realization we wouldn’t see the final project through, both CFI leaders expressed enormous gratitude for our work efforts and floated potential employment for next summer, which I thought would be a lot of fun. They were competent people and trail-building wizards; if I was to do trail work again, I’d want to work with the best. I told them I’d be interested if an opportunity opened up.

With that, we geared up on our last day, bid adieu to the CFI people, and left El Diente.

Bonus Story: On the way back from the worksite, we decided to stop in Dolores and eat at the local diner, a nice little send-off for our project. After sitting down, I got another reminder of the fact that Western Colorado is decidedly not Denver. A couple of plaid shirt and trousered fellas were discussing (loudly) the state of the new hire they had for their farm. Apparently, he had a man-bun, and this did not sit well with the older gentlemen. Ever the inquisitive soul, I tuned in and heard the following:

“A man bun?”

“Yeah a man bun, I felt bad but he seemed interested in fishin with us so I figured I’d better talk to him.”

“What’d you say?”

“I said boy you better cut that thang off if yew gonna come fishin with me!”

(Many nods of approval and manly grunting).

I honestly hadn’t heard that strong of a twang since leaving Georgia and it amused me to no end. And look, I’m not a huge fan of the man-bun either because I’d never be able to pull it off, but those oldies laid into him like the poor guy had committed a capital offense. Old stereotypes die hard, I guess. Somewhere out near Dolores, the dueling banjos from the movie Deliverance are playing.

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Because I Could:

Over the course of the summer, my backcountry competency had been rising dramatically. A string of adventures where I hadn’t almost died really helped cement that notion. Always on the hunt for the next things to do, after leaving El Diente, the impermanence of the summer finally hit me. Another couple of months later and I’d be out of a job and off the trail, less if the snow decided to come in earlier. I doubled my efforts to apply to ski resorts, though many weren’t opening applications until September, and set about trying to construct the craziest, most demanding off-hitch yet…because the summer was short and because I could.

Not only were my backcountry skills improving, but I was also, almost without a doubt, in the best shape of my life. Not jacked, which is functionally useless in a manual labor position, but cut and capable. I had six days to kill, no obligations, and a pool of hundreds of SWCC members spread across various crews, who were also looking to maximize the time they had left in this magical corner of Colorado.

Those factors led to a great conversation during the previous off-hitch (before my parents showed up) with another SWCC member named Hawk. Now, Hawk is a great rock climber and wanted to dip his toes into some multi-pitches; meanwhile, I wanted to climb into Chicago Basin and lop off the most remote fourteeners in the area. We decided to do both. First: a multi-day odyssey into Chicago Basin, followed by a two-day journey to climb Mt. Vestal. Then, to top it all off, I’d travel to the great Sanddunes National Park, meet Gator Gal, go sandboarding, set up camp for the night, and drive like a madman back to start the next hitch. Needless to say: I was STOKED.

Once our crew supplies were stowed and the hitch officially ended, I rushed through quick goodbyes, told Gator Gal where/when to meet me for the Sanddunes and jetted into town to meet up with Hawk. After a quick prep session where we packed up and got our supplies ready, we turned and burned for the Purgatory Creek Trailhead, hoping to make some serious distance before it got dark. The adventures were about to take off!

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Chicago Basin: Mt. Eolus (standard ascent, Class 3)

The most common way to access the three 14ers in Chicago Basin is to pay to ride the Durango-Silverton Railroad. The train cuts through the Weminuche Wilderness (splitting it between a smaller western portion and the massive rest of it). The train cuts off seven miles and multiple thousands of feet of elevation but also costs around 100$. For a couple of dirtbaggers, this seemed like a steep price, so we decided to just hike in for the whole thing and see what that did to our bodies.

If you don’t take the train, the hike starts near Purgatory Ski Resort, following the creek as it cascades north of US550. The first half of the trail consists of a descent to a series of picturesque flats, followed by another steeper descent to the banks of the Animas River. Unfortunately, the day was a little gray with weather threatening. In an ideal world, we would’ve been able to plan around the weather, but knowing we only had one shot to make it happen forced our hand. We threw our rain gear on, took compass bearings, and forged ahead with maps in tow.

It took a couple of hours, but we made the Animas in good time, crossing the river over a massive footbridge and eventually across the tracks themselves.

Not long after the railroad crossing, we had our first wilderness encounter. It was an adolescent black bear, my first black bear sighting in Colorado, and a cool sign that we were in it now. Weird fact: though I’ve seen more bears in Colorado since that day, I’m fairly sure I’ve seen more between N. Ga and Western NC. Black bears there be plenty.

Our guy was just to the side of the trail, rubbing his back against a tree like a back scratcher. We took some quick cell phone photos and began hollering at it to move. Startled, the bear ran into the woods and cleared our path. Brown bears are the more dominant variety and don’t always move when you scream at them. Luckily, Colorado doesn’t have brown bears, and black bears are far more skittish. If you see one, make yourself big, and make lots of noise, yell, scream or hell, even sing. They’ll give you space.

Hey pal.

After following the Animas River for a while, we reached a junction with the Needle Creek Trail, which provides the most direct access to Chicago Basin. Turning uphill, we continued hiking for as long as the light let us and then set up camp in a small, flat field ~100 yards from the trail. Having slammed close to eight miles in the fog and rain, we had no trouble firing up some quick dinner, stowing our smellies, and collapsing into our tents.

Smellies: Anything you carry with you that emits scent. Bears have a really good sense of smell. When you create a bear hang or use a bear canister, it’s best to put ALL of your smellies together, unless you want a rude awakening or a close encounter.

The next morning we woke up early, collapsed our tents, and hit the trail inside of 45 minutes, determined to get into the basin and set up for our summit escapades. The fog was still clinging stubbornly to the higher ridges, but we managed to make good time and drop our heavy supplies at a new campsite high in the basin.

Getting into the basin.

With our packs much lighter, tents set up, and position secured, we decided to make an attempt up Mt. Eolus. Eolus is the monarch of the west side of the basin and named after the Greek god of wind. It’s also mispronounced A LOT. It is not “YO-lus”, “Ee-lus” or any other version. Ever watch Lord of the Rings? Pay attention to how they say “Eomir’ or “Eowyn”. Phonetically it should sound like this, “Eh-oh-lus”.

Ehohnyawy, the trail up to the twin lakes at the head of the basin was easy to follow, courtesy of CFI, who had spent a previous season buffering it up. After the lakes, we found the obvious climbers trail to the left and up into the arms of Eolus. The fog still hadn’t quite departed, but we had committed to the adventure and took what the day gave us. Upwards and onwards.

Getting higher up the slopes of Eolus.

Once we ascended through a steep and very green basin, we reached the headwall and followed ascending ledges to the right (north) until we lost most of the vegetation and wound up in a high altitude land of rocks and stubborn snowfields, holding on to the memories of past winters.

Looking down at Glacier Point (~13,700 feet) and the high elevation tarn to it’s right.

From the top of the new area we found ourselves in, we finally hit the ridge separating Eolus from North Eolus, an unofficial 14er that doesn’t quite make the prominence rule. We, of course, decided to tag both since we were there (eat your heart out prominence purists), but not before grabbing this incredible view of the king of the winds atop Eolus.

Whoa.

Seeing the bowl of fog tucked into Eolus and outlined by our ascent route across the Catwalk and up the ridge gave me goosebumps. Seriously cool example of the tussle between weather and mountains. Eolus, the god of wind indeed.

Turning around we sighted the Class 2+ route up to the top of North Eolus and made tracks to it.

After the nearly two days of effort it took to get here, it was nice to be able to stand on top of a summit, and the view back to Eolus just got more and more ominous.

Top of North Eolus with Mt. Eolus in the back.

We spent a little time on the summit catching up on water and food. As we rehydrated and reenergized, the weather gave us a couple of foggy windows into the type of terrain we’d stumbled into.

Has a bit of an Italian Alps vibe doesnt it? Looking down into The Ruby Creek Basin with Monitor Peak and Peak Thirteen in the fog.

After a bit of ogling at the wild scenery, we set our sights on the ultimate target of the day.

Now, Gerry Roach, in his seminal 14’ers guide book, has illustrated a route that utilizes the catwalk and then skirts left until climbing ledges up to the top. In the photo below, where the red and blue arrows meet, it’d be the equivalent of taking a jog left into the fog and route finding from there. For multiple reasons, this did not seem like a prudent way to climb Eolus. Instead, we said fuck it and climbed the ridge directly up to the top.

To the left of the bottom-most Red arrow is a Class 5 headwall. You can easily bypass this section on the right (west) side and reattain the ridge.

Now, little did I know at the time that I’d be trail working in Chicago Basin next summer (2016) and would climb Eolus a grand total of six times. All six summits were made via the Ridge Way direct. Y’all, Eolus provides. Every place where it looked like it would cliff out, there was a secret step or support move that avoided the difficulties and keep the climbing at Class 3. If the ridge-line scares you, go the standard route, if a little exposure exhilarates, take the the direct approach. Move for move it’s not harder than the Ledges, just more exposed.

North Eolus poking through the fog from the summit. The rock at the bottom right is the highest summit rock and provides a nice perch.
Patagonia bout to call, demanding me for a male outdoor model. Stay tuned.

The set of North Eolus and Mt. Eolus and the look at either from the other is just a sublime Colorado experience. To date, it is my favorite 14er to climb and provides generally solid rock. As always, double-check holds before setting weight on anything.

On the way back down the ridge, a good sense of the “challenges”.

Naturally, the fog didn’t dissipate until we were waaaaay off the summit but all in all, the climb was fantastic. What a great introduction to the area with some excellent rock scrambling in supremely interesting conditions.

Getting a little lighter as we made our way back to the second camp we set up for this trip.
After descending by Twin Lakes, the fog finally began to lift. Here’s a view looking towards Aztec Mountain (left) and the upper part of Chicago Basin as it spills south.
Our campsite was tucked into the clump of pine trees in the center-right portion of the photo. The western slopes of Eolus (really quite a large mountain) are behind it.
Finally, back at our camp, we settled in and enjoyed relaxing for the rest of the afternoon. This is looking back up into the higher parts of the basin with Pk 18 (Dark fairy castle) left, Windom in the clouds to the right, and Jupiter as the large lump to the right of everything.

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Chicago Basin: Sunlight and Windom (Class 4 and Class 2)

After a relaxing afternoon in camp with the sun warming our cold bodies, we slept like logs. Waking up early to take advantage of the most stable part of the day (afternoon T-storms in the high country are a real safety issue), we stretched, downed some oatmeal, stashed our smellies, packed up, and headed back up to Twin Lakes. This time, instead of peeling left to tag Eolus, we broke right and headed up into a feeder basin between Sunlight and Windom

At this point, I’d read just about every piece of literature about the 14’ers in the basin as I could find. The verdict seemed to be that Eolus was a fun Class 3 scramble, Windom was a 2+ bolder fest, and Sunlight was a sandy, irritating climb with a serious Class 4 final move to the summit (reminiscent of Mt. Wilson). Generally speaking, that was accurate.

Twin Lakes and the Needles.

The upper basin was lovely in the early morning light and we had fun identifying landmarks as we passed them.

Basin left (north). Sunlight Spire is technically over 14,000 feet but requires ropes to ascend.

Our first target would be Sunlight Pk., followed by an excursion over to Windom. Sunlight, while tough, is really a pile of oddly shaped rocks leaning drunkenly against each other. Before you even get there, you have to climb a very sandy and slick slope that reminded me of the bottom part of St. Helens. Two steps forward, one step back territory.

Lumpy Windom.
Twin Thumbs (left), Peak Eleven (center, leaning right).

We proceeded up the slope with careful steps, marveling at the bulk of Eolus and North Eolus behind us, and finally clear from fog.

Higher up in the basin. Both Twin Lakes visible lower and the whole Eolus massif behind it.

After dispensing with the lower slopes, we reached the ridge between Sunlight and Sunlight Spire. Precipitous and beautiful, we were awarded views north into more of the majestic Weminuche. No roads in sight.

A window in the Sunlight summit ridge, looking north to Jagged Mountain, a famous mountaineering destination and the namesake of Jagged Mountain Brewery in Denver.

After a little scrambling around we were also given a peak to our next crazy destination, Vestal Peak in the Grenadier Range. Isolated and sporting quite the vertical relief, Vestal and its left neighbor Arrow looked like serious endeavors. Before I spent too much time thinking about it, I punted my reservations into a corner of my brain called “tomorrow problems” and went back at it like a bad habit.

Arrow Peak (L) and Vestal (Center). Our next area of adventures post Chicago Basin.
Looking across to Windom and Jupiter behind it as we rose up the Sunlight slopes.

Finally, we reached the summit plateau, which for many is the top. Technically, this isn’t correct because a crooked 30-foot rock with a sizable overhang is the true highpoint. That’s the Class 4 portion; up to that point, we’d dabbled with some 3+ moves, but the summit rock is really what puts it out there. Smoothed out of substantial holds, the summit rock is not easy. You climb up a parallel rock, flop onto the summit rock, and then kind of beached whale yourself up to the top. Maybe there’s a more graceful way to do it, but that’s how I climbed the thing lol.

Looking north again with Jagged Mountain and the pristine Sunlight Lake Basin below (the lake pictured is unnamed, Sunlight lake is below the flat rocky section to the left of the unnamed lake). The rock at the bottom left of the picture is the summit boulder, a 30 foot, overhung rock supported precariously by other rocks, hope you brought your courage!

We spent a half-hour gawking at the incredible views. The Weminuche is by far the largest and (in my opinion) the most interesting wilderness in Colorado. There are no roads; no mechanical noises save the occasional jet overhead: it’s pretty dang wild. Chicago Basin is fairly popular as far as that goes, but a lot of the areas we were staring into hadn’t seen human traffic in years.

After a quick refuel, we geared back up, descended into the upper basin, and began scrambling up the side of Windom. What started as a strong second wind quickly whittled down to huffing and puffing. Windom isn’t difficult in a technical sense, but it’s still a big lump of earth, and despite our enthusiasm, we could not just run up it.

Climbing Windom with Eolus behind.
Sunlight (left) and Sunlight Spire (right). Arrow and Vestal (behind) with the Trinities to the right of them.
Unnamed lake in the vicinity of Sunlight Lake. The pointy peak in the background is Rio Grande Pyramid. The Rio Grande River (the one between Tx and Mexico) starts behind and to the left of it.
More unnamed lakes to the east with Greylock mountain and the daunting-looking ridge to Thunder on the right. Mount Oso is the highest peak in the grouping behind Greylock (no trails exist near Oso, it’s all deep wilderness).

After lounging around on the summit and enjoying the sunny day, we turned around and descended quickly back to our camp. The reach goal was to make it back to our car (~15 miles away) by the evening, rush to Molas Pass, fall asleep at the new trailhead, then start out for Vestal the next morning. Could I do that now? No, but again, best shape of my life, anything was possible.

After packing up camp, ready to head back down.

Ultimately we did make it back to the cars after a long, long hike back. Despite our waning energy, we’d stashed some energy drinks at the Purgatory Creek Trailhead and inhaled them before heading north to the Molas Pass area. There was no way I was going to set up camp that evening after two summit tags and a ~15-mile exit hike, so I just conked out in the Subaru. Since I’d done it before, it wasn’t even that uncomfortable. Next stop, Vestal Peak.

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Vestal Peak

Hawks pose says it all, boy were we feeling our bodies this morning.

After a groggy rise and some choice words the following morning, we set about securing our essentials for another jaunt deep into the Weminuche. Luckily the sun decided to stick around, so we weren’t fighting rain anymore. Of course, the added light and warmth meant sunscreen and a lot more hydration. Trade-offs. Possibly the most painful sensation of a multi-day trip is setting a heavy pack on your hips. Our shoulders were strong from trail work but bruised hip bones just plain hurt, and a 30-40 pound pack really hammered that point home. Once we’d cursed ourselves appropriately for being so ambitious, it was time to get moving.

Looking down into the Animas River valley with the spires of the Needle Mountains standing watch above.

The first part of the trail was a long descent down to the river, followed by a long ascent back up to a bench, where we would then break trail and bushwhack our way up to the basin below Vestal and Arrow Peaks. The trailed portion was on a part of the Colorado Trail, a 485-mile trail from Denver to Durango, which overlaps with a large part of the Continental Divide Trail as well. One of the more famous/infamous sections of the trail in this part of Colorado is the descent from Molas down to the Animas River, consisting of something silly like 30+ switchbacks, dropping you over 1700 feet down to the river. Not so bad on the way down, but realizing we had to climb back up the switchbacks on our way out kept the optimism in check.

Hawk along the railroad, same one we’d crossed to get into Chicago Basin, just a couple dozen miles further up.

From the river, we had to follow the rail tracks for a bit until breaking left (east) and heading up the Elk Creek Drainage. The trail was easy to follow and enjoyable for the most part; I mean, up is up, and with a big pack on after three days of hiking already, it’s all just part of the grind. We got our first look at Vestal from near our cutoff, around a set of beaver ponds. Looking south at the imposing form of Arrow and Vestal was enough to boost my heart up into my throat.

The intimidating first look at Vestal (left) and Arrow (right). The ridge we would climb was called Wham Ridge, and it was in full sight.
Better view of the beaver ponds area, focused more on Arrow though the top of Vestal is still visible.

We took a break at the trail junction and forged ahead. Now, even though it is trail-less, in Colorado, especially sub-alpine and alpine areas, the bushwhacking is not reminiscent of any of the hellscapes out east. Usually, there is some semblance of tread to follow (especially if it’s a big mountaineering goal like Vestal) or relatively easy navigation on a day when you can sight landmarks. We found the climber trail up to the Vestal Basin to be fairly easy to locate. However, there were absolutely no switchbacks to speak of, so you were, at times, climbing straight up very steep slopes and desperately holding on to exposed roots.

After a lot of grumbling, grunting, and sweating, we broke out of treeline and began hunting for a campsite: while the imposing form of Vestal stood watch.

Evil looking.

…the problem with being excited is that you tend to do things without thinking about it.

After quickly setting up camp, we looked at each other and immediately reached the same conclusion. Instead of waiting around camp staring up at Vestal, we could just climb it right away. Hawk, who had brought the rock climbing gear, was immediately on board. So, despite conventional wisdom telling me to pump the breaks until tomorrow, we set out to climb Vestal at around 3 pm.

The approach from our camp wasn’t bad but we had to scale a low ridge and a marshy area before getting to the lower ramparts of Wham Ridge. Of all the routes in Colorado I’ve climbed, I still think Wham Ridge is one of the most appropriately named. I mean, wham, there it is, a ramp straight up to the stratosphere.

Wham. We rock hopped across the talus, took an ascending travers left onto the ramp and began scouting a way up.
Taken from right before we hit the main ramp. Ascent route is diagonal left until we were on it.

We successfully navigated to the main portion of the ridge and assessed what lay in front of us. Wham indeed. Hawk figured the first half or so we could scramble between the ramp and some horizontal vegetation benches without too much trouble. Since we’d brought the gear, we were actively looking for harder faces to climb; I do think there is a way to climb it as a Class 4 without ropes. Warmed by the alpine fire and the afternoon sun on our backs, we began heading skyward.

Looking back to the lower valley where the Colorado Trail deposited us.
This is a shot east, towards one of the Trinity Peaks. I found it striking that even though there are only a handful of peaks within the Grenadier Range, they’re all kind of on their own: not connected by high ridges, which is so common in other parts of the state. It really gave the whole range a regal, imposing quality.

After the grass benches lessened, we geared up and began scouting routes. The San Juans, in general, have lousy rock quality, but the Grenadiers and the Needle Range (Chicago Basin inclusive) have generally great rock, which absolutely helps the enjoyment along. In my opinion, the worst combination is a dicey scramble on loose, dangerous rock (i.e., Pyramid Peak in the Elk Range). With solid and stable rock underfoot, I knew I’d be able to trust my arm and finger strength to get me through any challenges that lay ahead.

Hawk, kitted up and scouting.
Looking back down to the valley floor where our camp was (somewhere in the pines). The lake to the right is also a good place to set up camp for a Vestal summit bid, FYI.

When the ropes finally came out, things started to get serious. From my previous experience rock climbing with Hawk and a couple of buddies from SWCC, I had a good idea of what was expected from me. I knew how to be on belay and pick up equipment once Hawk had set up the end of the pitch. Roger, copy, affirmative, and away we went.

One of the tougher pitches.

In total, I think we managed five pitches, with the third and fourth pitches being the toughest. The rock was solid but sloped against us, so purchases were a little harder to come by. If I had to guess, I’d say the hardest parts were in the 5.6-5.8 range and generally only a few moves long.

Pretty fly for a…Timo

Despite us zooming through the pitches, it took a while for Hawk to set them up and for me to pry loose some abandoned gear. By the time we finished our fourth of five pitches, the sun was noticeably lower in the sky. Instead of panicking, we doubled our efforts while enjoying this beautiful time of day. To be honest, I think the hour or so leading up to sunset is the most beautiful time of day in the mountains. The area is quieter, day-trippers have gone home, campers are setting up, and the mountains feel freer. It comes with plenty of risks, like dealing with darkness, but for those couple hours, it just feels like the world is taking a deep breath with you. Connected: is the word I would use to describe the feeling. You just feel like a part of the world around you.

Catching the sunset.

We finished the roped portion just before sunset. Hawk had wanted to do another pitch, but with sunlight waning, we thought it best to free climb the rest. After testing our scrambling skills in Chicago Basin, we knew we could find a way to get up the last bit. The top of Wham Ridge is pretty much vertical, but the rock is blockier and had excellent holds compared to the smoother ramp below. I found the change of free climbing enjoyable and sped up to the top of what I thought was the end of the climb. Wrong! The top of Wham Ridge ends at a subpeak (hard to tell from below). From there, a little more scrambling is necessary to attain the true summit, which is depicted below.

Just past the sub-summit and on to the main peak.
Finally on top! What a view. Left to Right (Windom, Sunlight (then a lower part of ridge) back up to Eolus & N. Eolus, back down and the last shapely peak on the right side is Pigeon).

As I’ve said in previous blog posts, the climb is only half the battle, so despite the IMMENSE satisfaction of topping out on this absolute unit of a mountain, we knew we still had a lot of work to do….in the dark.

The descent begins.

For various reasons, I did not take a lot of pics on the way down, but it was intense. Armed with headlamps, we made our way down, but Vestal is steep, no matter what side your climbing. The back of it, where we descended, is also much less stable than the front. We kicked some rocks down and had to slow the pace a lot to make sure this wasn’t the last mountain we’d ever climb. The brittle nature of the rock on the side we descended was interesting for another reason. Every time we’d kick loose a rock, it would fall and smack into the slope with a vibrant spark like I imagine flint would if starting a fire. Watching a rock fall down thousands of feet, sparking as it slams repetitively into the side of the mountain was kind of a cool phenomenon. It also reminded us of what would happen should we take a tumble, so keeping that in mind, we proceeded as cautiously as we could. It was a long and tedious descent.

Finally making it down to the rubble field around the base of Vestal, we still needed to traverse out of it. If you’ve ever been in a giant talus field you know it can be fun to rock hop, but if you misstep, you twist an ankle, or worse, get into a 127 hours situation. With it being almost completely dark, that might’ve been the most frustrating and time-consuming part of the whole climb. It really helped having Hawk there to bounce route ideas off of. If we had been making it up as we went, we could’ve easily walked off a cliff or fallen in-between large talus boulders. By the time we finally made it back to camp, we didn’t even make dinner, just passed right out.

Glorious peak.

Morning brought a period of reflection, made easier by our front row seats to Vestal’s blocky profile. What a beast. I think we must’ve sat in silence and stared at it for over an hour before finally willing ourselves to pack up and head out.

Look, I’m not a huge rock climber, I’ll never lead, and I’d only go with someone I trust. Vestal is not the hardest wall out there, but it demands physical sacrifice to get to it, let alone climb the thing. It was also a wonderful opportunity to push my comfort zone and try something new. I had a blast. Mad respect to everyone who gets out of the gym and climbs in the great outdoors; it ain’t easy.

Realistically though, It just isn’t my jam. I’ll probably never be a competent rock-climber; outdoor gear is expensive enough as it is, and I just can’t be bothered. I grew up hiking, backpacking, summiting mountains, and scrambling. That isn’t to say there aren’t some incredibly impressive people out there who climb, and again, mad respect, but eventually, you need to settle into the things you’re good at. I’m thrilled I was able to land a multi-pitch in a wilderness setting, but unless the factors all line up again, I’ll probably stick with hiking and scrambling.

If you want to check out an inspiring, cerebral climbing blog, head over to Olympus Mountaineering. You can tell these lads love what they do, and there’s no finer thing than seeing someone excel at the thing they love. The effort they put into their routes is the difference between a discipline and a passion.

After our quiet reflection in Vestal’s shadow, we packed up and headed back down to the Animas.

As predicted, the climb back up to Molas was a pain in the arse, but we did it. With a handshake and words of affirmation, Hawk and I parted ways. I drove back to Durango, grabbed a shower at the rec center and some internet at Durango Joes to plan the next stage of my off-hitch bonanza.

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San Luis Peak

While not as isolated distance-wise as the Chicago Basin trio, San Luis Peak is not close to anything. The only way to hit it is if you hike the Colorado Trail or drive waaaaay around to a place called Creede and take some old dirt roads up into a holler. Conveniently, it’s kind of on the way to the Sanddunes, or close enough to it that I could justify lopping it off the 14ers list. After doing some quick research in Durango, I saddled up, did some shopping, and drove around to Creede.

Creede is a small town that is so off the beaten path you’d be forgiven for thinking it didn’t exist. Wilderness around here is plentiful, but I got the feeling the locals weren’t too sweet on visitors, so I passed through town quickly, found my dirt road, and slept in the car.

Amazing the difference a day can make. Woke up early expecting sunshine, got clouds and fog again. Oh well, off I went.

The profile of the mountains here wasn’t as dramatic as the bulk of the San Juans, but the weather gave it an otherworldly look.
Catching the sunrise on my way up San Luis Peak.
Looking at the lumpy summit, just a Class 1 walk to the top.

Even though the weather wasn’t great, the popularity of the Colorado Trail meant I still ran into a handful of people through-hiking. We traded a couple of stories and set off on our respective missions. If you end up running into some through-hikers near any long-distance trail, give them a shout-out or conversation. Long, lonely days on the trail can drive people a little batty. I always found it helps to engage when the moment is there and give them some human contact.

Desolate looking.

Above is the best look I had at the mountain. It’s…a mountain. I don’t think I’d ever hike it again, but it was nice to check boxes and walk along another part of Colorado. I always enjoy filling in my mental picture of a state, and San Luis Peak was in an area I hadn’t ever been to; for that, I salute it.

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The Great Sand Dunes

After tagging San Luis, I drove down to the Sand Dunes, making such good time, I beat Gator Gal by multiple hours. Fueled by my easy summit, I decided to go adventure around while I waited for company. The Dunes are an amazing National Park and well worth the visit. The area had received an unusual amount of rain, so the whole area was really quite green, adding a lovely contrast to the dunes themselves.

The dunes from near the campground.

The campsites were almost luxurious compared to sleeping in the Subaru, firepit, smoothed area for tents, table, grate, and a big ole bear box. High livin, I tell yah! I set up my stuff, grabbed my day pack, and walked for the dunes. Along the way, I ran into my campsite neighbor and struck up a conversation with her. We combined forces and set out for a dune stroll while hoping to catch a sunset.

Mount Medano standing watch over the Dunes.
Medano Creek is a seasonal outflow from the Sangre de Cristo Range and provides a beautiful contrast through July. Later in the summer, the creek dries out.
The Dunes themselves were easier to walk on because they’d been soaked, leading to a tougher outer crust.
We walked up to the highest dune and looked westward to the setting sun. Amazing how quickly the temperature dropped when the day began to transition to night.
Cold and beautiful.

After viewing the sunset, we headed back to the campground as Gator Gal pulled up. In true outdoor fashion, we broke out the drinks, toasted to life, and traded outdoor stories until sleep called us home.

The following morning, Gator Gal and I headed to the little store just outside the National Park boundaries that sold sand boards. Why not, right? We got a little crash course in what we needed to do (basically wax the entire board so it slides) and then set off to find a dune to conquer.

The clouds made for fantastic photo ops.
Gator Gal shredding hard.

Once we fell a couple of times, we managed to secure our balance and had a fantastic time speeding down the tallest dunes in North America. 10/10 would repeat.

It’s hard to put into pictures how immense the dunes are.

Once we exhausted the duney possibilities, we broke camp, packed up, and headed out. Another hitch was around the corner, and truth be told, I was a little adventured out. Focusing on some trail building would be a nice change.

On the way out, I drove around to the Blanca Massif, a super obvious set of enormous peaks, visible from just about every angle of the San Luis Valley near it. Blanca is the third tallest mountain in the state, and the area houses two additional 14’ers. Naturally, I had to grab a shot of it, including a good perspective on Little Bear, one of the more dangerous 14’ers out there. Someday soon I would be standing on top of it!

After that, I made the long, lonely drive back to Durango, thinking of my accomplishments during what was rapidly becoming the most adventure-laden summer of my young life.

Final Thoughts

One of my favorite expressions is “get amongst it.” I first heard it when I was studying abroad in New Zealand and it just instantly made sense. Don’t be above, below, or to the side of it, get amongst it. Surrounded by achievements and salivating at the possibility of future adventures, I knew I was amongst it. Connected.

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