The Western Grenadiers

19-25 Aug 2001 - by Mary Gilbert

8/19-25/01 Sharon and I went to do these remote rugged thirteeners south of Silverton. She had never been there, and I wanted to do Trinity and Trinity East Peaks--having gotten Vestal, Arrow, and Trinity West Peaks some time ago. If we had time, maybe also backpack to White Dome and Peak One--we'd let the conditions dictate our exact schedule in these 7 days. No technical climbing, but I had a half-length rope and some simple technical gear for emergencies. I told Sharon to get a hard hat, but she showed up without one.

Sunday, 8/19 Starting ~ 9:15 am we backpacked from the Molas Lake TH (off Hwy 550 south of Silverton) down to scenic Elk Park on the Animas River (where the Durango-Silverton NG train has a backcountry stop) then east up the Elk Creek Trail. About 3 miles in at some beaver ponds we crossed Elk Creek into the Vestal Creek drainage. However, we couldn't find the steep Vestal Creek trail for the first third of the way up to our camping destination at ~11,600'. There isn't a well-defined connection from the ponds to where you're supposed to cross Elk Creek. We were in the wrong place--to the right of the Vestal Creek trail.

Shouldering 53 lbs, I negotiated innumerable fallen logs on this precipitous trail. Sharon, 8 years my senior, was in much better shape than I and was seemingly carrying feathers in her pack. But I got to have FOOD for 7 days. The day was fair with a brief little afternoon rain. We reached our campsite by Vestal Creek (opposite Vestal Pk) at 7:45 pm. We had passed a tent moments before--beyond that, we'd have Vestal Creek to ourselves for most of the coming week. I was exhausted.

Monday, 8/20 We climbed Vestal Pk, something short since I was still tired from the arduous pack in yesterday. We strayed off the trail too far to the east but traversed west below the base of Wham Ridge (Vestal's spectacular triangular north buttress) to get back on the hikers' route in the basin between Vestal and Arrow. A steep scree ascent took us to the saddle between the two peaks, then we wrapped around to the SE couloir with third class climbing to the summit.

With storms now brewing, we decided to skip Arrow Pk and return to camp--monsoon moisture was returning. A fierce storm later passed through, dumping hail that whitened the ground. The night experienced more thunderstorms.

Tuesday, 8/21 The morning dawned partly cloudy. We decided to go for Trinity East and Trinity Peaks--by first doing the East Pk, traverse to Trinity, and return back over Trinity East. The Trinities are traditionally done from west to east, but I didn't want to mess with the diffucult traverse involving exposure and route finding problems between Trinity West and Trinity. The west side of Trinity East was said to be 'steep.'

We made the mistake of going to Trinity Pass instead of the 13,060' pass close to Trinity East's NE ridge. We screwed around trying to get through nasty gendarmes to that 13,060' pass but retreated to Trinity Pass after wasting an hour--back to square one. We descended into the NW scree basin below Trinity East, gained the right pass and climbed the enjoyable third class NE ridge to the summit.

At the top we peered down the west side. What we saw turned our stomachs! Yes, it was steep, but a series of long steps full of treacherous loose rock slop. Can anyone get down this safely? But since the Trinities are usually climbed from the other way, difficult terrain is often easier to go up than down. We inspected three different gullies descending the west face, but all looked equally nasty.

I had the rope, but we were now assessing time consumption on what lay ahead of us, and falling weather (though not imminent) was factoring into the equation. I stared down at the notch between us and Trinity Peak, its steep east couloir, and its summit cairn that I could almost reach out and touch. Drat! We sadly decided to go back. Storms indeed came, so we were grateful we were down by then.

We hatched another idea on how to do Trinity Peak--contour around to the south side of it and gain the south gully leading up to the notch between Trinity East and Trinity--then get the latter via its east gully. We'd be dealing with unknowns here.

Violent storms lashed our night with lightning zinging from horizon to horizon. A mouse slipped into my tent through a 3" zippered gap in my mosquito netting, but I was awake and chased it out.

Wednesday, 8/22 A prolonged storm after dawn forced us to remain in our tents. ~10:30 am when things calmed down we decided to try Arrow Pk, a short outing since we already lost most the morning. Sharon saw her first blue grouse. We were just only above a little brown pond near treeline below Vestal Pk when another storm popped up, turning us back.

This day was really unsettled--morning thunderstorms don't bode well. 2 pm it was partly cloudy, and Sharon asked me if I wanted to try Peak 3, behind us to the north. I declined because my boots were soaked, and that it could rain again. She'd be prudent and would turn back in bad weather.

After Sharon went off, another storm raced into Vestal Creek. Far from ordinary, this was the Storm of the Century! It was the most INCREDIBLE I've ever experienced in the backcountry. It blasted ear-piercing, pea-sized hail for AT LEAST a full hour! I feared puntures in my rainfly. My concern for Sharon was: did she find adequate shelter? Standing out in this could be lethal. The hail transformed into a light snow, later followed by a light rain--which turned everything to slush. 3" of it was on and around my tent. I knocked hail off of Sharon's tent.

The August landscape was abruptly transformed into a winter wonderland. The prospects of trying to get tough peaks the next day indeed looked pretty grim. Donnerwetter! Sharon came back, making prints in the hail/snow. I quipped that she forgot her skis. She said she was just above the trees when the storm hit and took shelter beneath a 10' ledge. She had watched with fascination the storm tearing through the entire Vestal Creek valley below her. In a way, I almost envied her for that.

Thursday, 8/23 The superstorm had ushered in a cold front, the night clear and cold. A flawless morning dawned, but all that slush was now ice, the vegetation was glazed over, and the high peaks looked as if they had been heavily sifted with powdered sugar. 8 am we started after Trinity Peak, hopefully banking on the idea that the snow would have melted by the time we got high.

Our footing going up in the trees was a bit slick, but the talus field we crossed below the 12,860' pass west of Trinity West Peak was surprisingly dry. We saw a ptarmingan and her chicks. After gaining the pass, Sharon turned to grab Trinity West while I contoured around to the south flank of the Trinities, staying on the 12,800-13,000' contour levels. She later rejoined me, and we continued to traverse to the east.

The snow was melting, and the weather was perfect. We crossed some rocky ribs--walking on grassy steps and benches--and with no major obstacles entered the south gully leading up to the Trinity East-Trinity notch. We found it a moderate talus/scree couloir with loose rock hazard. We hung a left at the notch to gain the steep east third class gully to Trinity Peak. We summited at 4 pm.

WE DID IT!! Savoring the views, we studied Trinity East's awesome west side that we were too chicken to try two days ago. Three deep narrow grooves slashed down it, as if a gigantic cat's claws had raked it. We returned the same way. We kept moving, knowing that daylight was now limited. We arrived at camp at dark, 8:30 pm. Considering what the weather was 24 hours ago, we pulled off a mountaineering miracle.

Friday, 8/24 Another great morning. Sharon borrowed my hard hat and did Arrow Pk. I wanted to join her on the stiff rocky climb, but I was too bushed from the day before. I had confidence that she could do it alone. When Sharon came back to the little brown pond, she yodeled at me--sounded wonderful! At camp she told me she saw three other people on the peak, which gave her more security.

We packed out to Elk Park that afternoon, again briefly losing the trail halfway down Vestal Creek. It was muddy and slow going. I was not as surefooted as my mountain goat companion--I had fallen 5 times into willows this past week, which Sharon found amusing.

A geology student passed us on the way down--he had camped in upper Vestal Creek, but we never saw him. He didn't climb peaks but collected rocks. I figured he could have found similar rocks in much easier places than this!

That evening we set up camp near the train stop in Elk Park.

Saturday, 8/25 Today I did perhaps my shortest backpack in my life ~ 400 yards to the train stop. Sharon hiked up to the Molas Lake TH while I, with both of our packs, rode the train into Silverton, where later Sharon picked me up to transport me back to my car. We parted ways--she to Colorado Springs for an orienteering competition, and I, home to Fort Collins--but first an overnight stop at my sister's in Paonia.

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