Ice Lake Basin

14-16 Aug 2004 - by Mary Gilbert

Sharon and I visited scenic Ice Lake Basin as part of an extensive mountaineering trip to the San Juans in Colorado. Ophir quad. My 4th time here, I needed only 13,767' US Grant Peak, but was willing to repeat other Ice Lake Basin peaks as it was Sharon's first visit. On August 14 at 4:30 pm we backpacked in from the S. Mineral CG trailhead NW of Silverton. At 6:30 pm after 2 miles with 1600' gain on a good trail, we camped at 11,400' in Lower Ice Lake Basin. Spectacular high thirteeners looked down upon one of the most stunning wildflower shows I've ever seen in the Colorado high country.

We planned to do US Grant first, our most difficult peak with an exposed step leading to a 4' wide ledge near the summit. Neither of us were rock leaders, although I've done some 4th class leading. I had long gathered information and opinions on US Grant's crux. This step ranged anywhere from 12 to 25 feet, and the difficulty 4th to 5th class, unroped to roped using protection. A rappel or down climb anchor is to the right. I didn't know exactly what to expect; so I took a 30 meter rope and enough hardware to do El Capitan.

August 15 at 7:15 am we looked for a trail heading NW to Island Lake from the east end of Lower Ice Lake Basin but couldn't find it. We climbed grassy slopes mixed with some steep talus/scree gullies on the west side of the outlet from Island Lake, suspecting we should have been east of it. We arrived at the aptly named 12,400' alpine lake SE of US Grant's intimidating hulk. A rocky dome loomed out of the calm water which gave great reflection shots. Some tents dotted the east shore.

After studying US Grant's rugged SW ridge, we went to a 13,220' saddle to start on it. Time for helmets. Steep climbing on loose shale brought us to the crux. Potential crack climbs led to the ledge above, but we took the ~12', 4th class one directly in front of a jutting rocky mound we had come over. Some longer routes to our right could explain the 25 feet. Sharon went first on this vertical crack, and I followed but minus my pack, since the summit was very close. We tested holds on the semi-loose rock. The rope and some technical gear were carried up in the event they were needed for coming down.

Above the crux the ledge route turned right (east) with one exposed spot. One guidebook said to traverse ~200', but after ~60' we grabbed the first convenient gully to the summit ridge. We scrambled into what opened up like a miniature amphitheatre because of the numerous shale ledges. A moment later we summited at 10:55 am. What a gorgeous day for views! Cumulus clouds scudded the sky on a west wind--a good sign but still maybe a chance of rain later.

Back at the crux Sharon went down first, then I started. She wanted to take a picture of me, so I stopped. After a moment I asked if she had taken it so I could continue. Sharon replied that she never intended to have me stop halfway down the crack! We never used the rope at all up and down, but came close.

Back at Island Lake we took a good trail angling around west towards Upper Ice Lake Basin, which connected into the main trail hugging a giant headwall back into Lower Ice Lake Basin. The climb was 4 miles, 2400' gain. We finished about midafternoon. Later it rained some in camp.

The next day at 6:30 am we started for 13,780' Golden Horn, 13,894' Vermilion Peak, 13,761' Fuller Peak and 13,342' Beattie Peak. Easier than US Grant, they involved trail, 2nd to 3rd class talus/scree, loose shale with a helmet recommended. 8 miles, cumulative gain of 4000'. Except for Beattie, I'd already done these peaks arranged in a zig-zag about a half mile between summits. Tack on 13,738' Pilot Knob NW of Golden Horn, and you got a staggered W. Sharon wanted to do Pilot Knob, but I said I wasn't capable of leading a 5th class semi-technical climb.

We turned south after reaching Upper Ice Lake, pausing to take flower pictures. Passing near 12,585' Fuller Lake, we saw an old mine shack--an observation which would prove significant. I felt sluggish as we hiked into the high talus basin guarded by Fuller, Vermilion and Golden Horn. We planned to do the descent route up to Golden Horn via the Golden Horn-Vermilion saddle, then traverse to the Vermilion-Fuller saddle for ascending Vermilion, and back to the saddle for continuing to Fuller and Beattie Peaks.

I now wasn't feeling my best and told Sharon to go after Golden Horn and Vermilion. I'd wait for her at the Vermilion-Fuller saddle. I reached it on a switchbacking scree trail that steepened towards the top. Shortly my strong companion was standing upon Golden Horn in the distance. I kept warm, ate and drank. A headache started, so I popped aspirin. 1-1/2 hours slipped by. Odd--she should be back across that traverse trail by now. Then I suspected that she might have gone directly to Vermilion Peak from Golden Horn. Very possible--Sharon was daring and adventuresome.

Meanwhile, sitting at 13,500' I hoped I wasn't coming down with West Nile Virus. I watched developing cumulus clouds racing along a stiff east wind. This could be big time trouble. Sharon then appeared coming down the Vermilion hiking trail. She said after Golden Horn she had started the traverse but decided to do Vermilion via the Dollar Couloir. Steep scree but doable. She was able to squeeze by a steep snow patch just beneath the summit.

Not feeling improved, I decided to skip Fuller and Beattie Peaks and agreed to meet Sharon down at the Fuller Lake shack. She'd be fast and currently had a weather window. Arriving at the shack about noon, I felt much better--probably was dehydrated from yesterday or a bit altitude sick. It darkened and started sprinkling, but the bottom really fell out when Sharon came at 1 pm. Just in time--it poured and hailed for the next 3 hours, whitening Upper Ice Lake Basin.

Two fishermen at the lake also ran for shelter. Camped near us, they had said they might fish at Fuller Lake today. So Sharon, I, John, his son Glenn and Bailey, a German Shorthair waited out the protracted thunderstorm in the old shack. The roof wasn't 100% leakproof, but ok. Bailey sometimes would look out the entrance and point at some birds at the lake's edge, but she refused to chase them in the hailstorm.

Sharon said she had gotten Fuller Peak very quickly, an easy walk from the Vermilion-Fuller Saddle, but the ridge to Beattie Peak was steep, rocky and slow. Once at the Fuller-Beattie saddle, her going was easier. After descending Beattie she then took a traverse trail back to the Vermilion-Fuller saddle to avoid reclimbing Fuller. Sharon said the SW side of Vermilion Peak was really vermilion in color.

The fishermen left around 3 pm; Sharon and I waited another hour when the rain finally began to taper. About 5:30 we broke camp and backpacked out. Now we spotted where the Island Lake trail took off, marked with two cairns. We got back to the trailhead about 7 pm.

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