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Trip Report: Gristle Grinder Traverse
Last weekend, June 30-July 1, my brother, Charlie, and I completed a long-standing project of ours in the Weminuche Wilderness of southwestern Colorado. The project, which my brother termed the ‘Gristle Grinder’, is an extension of the often completed climb of five popular peaks in the Grenadier Range: Vestal, Arrow, and the three Trinity peaks. Our goal was to climb these, and add Storm King, Silex, and the Guardian, for a total of eight fairly technically difficult (4th class) and remote high thirteeners. Furthermore, our aim was to complete the traverse round trip from Molas Pass, which adds considerable distance to the route. The traverse was incredibly aesthetic, and wasn’t really a traverse, but rather several loops.
After a long 8-hour drive from Boulder, we began at 8 pm from Molas Pass on highway 550 between Silverton and Durango. Much of the success of the project depended on strategy, and an evening start was important. The first four miles descends to the Animas River. Then up Elk Creek, turning up to Vestal basin at the Beaver Ponds and up to the base of Arrow Peak. We climbed Arrow Peak and Vestal Peak in the dark with a sliver of moon and headlamps. This was very cruxy, as we were on the summits at 1:00 am and 3:00 am, respectively. We worked our way over to the pass between Vestal and West Trinity peaks. It was tricky getting back to this pass in the dark, as it is very important to find a cairned trail (which we didn’t find).
The descent into the upper Balsam drainage is constant boulder hopping, and it requires much persistence in the dark. We filled our CamelBaks at a stream, and continued to Storm King Pass, at the bottom of the south ridge of Storm King Peak. This peak was straightforward, and we reveled in the brilliant sunrise on the summit as warm light bathed our cold and weakened bodies.
As we moved on to tackle the snowfield that gains a prominent notch on the southwest side of Silex above Silex Lake, we put one Kahtoola crampon on one of our feet. We shared a pair to save weight, and left ice axes behind. The snow was mostly solid and we were happy to have some sort of grip on one of our feet. At the top of the notch, we continued to contour along the south side of Silex and up the south slope of the Guardian. At this point we had climbed half of our goal (4 peaks) and had been going for almost 13 hours. We were the farthest away from the car that we would be for the entire adventure. Needless to say, we were exhausted. The summit of Silex was next, relatively easy, but the scree was very demoralizing. The climb of The Guardian and Silex overall was the toughest part, physically, of the entire day. Plunge-stepping brought us back down to Silex Lake, and we took a break on the northeast side of Storm King Peak, just above treeline as we skirted around into the basin to the north of Storm King Peak. We then made our way to the top of the basin, and waited out rain and lightning at a small pond just below East Trinity Pass. This pass is super steep and loose, and brings you to the northeast of East Trinity Peak.
We waited about 90 minutes for the rain and lightning to pass, briefly dozing off between strategy discussions. Should we bail? Should we go for it and risk it? We decided to go for the pass, where we could have a better view of the weather and bail to the west into Vestal basin if the weather turned sour. After stemming up to East Trinity Pass, we decided that the weather would cooperate for at least several hours. So, we continued up to East, Middle, and West Trinity over about two hours with great weather. Just as we were signing the summit register of the eighth and final peak, a huge lightning bolt reminded us who was boss as we dropped the register and ran down the summit ridge. A close call! We reached the grass in upper Vestal Basin at about 4 pm.
Relieved that all the scrambling difficulties were complete, we paced ourselves back down Elk Creek to the Animas River. The most difficult mental part of the adventure was climbing the 2000 feet from the river back to Molas Pass. I had numerous hallucinations. At one point, I thought that a large rock was the head of a giant squid! We finally reached the car at 10:30 pm, 26 ½ hours after we left.
Charlie, along with Brandon Sybrowsky, attempted the traverse during the summer of 2002 and was able to climb Storm King, The Guardian, and Silex before storms came in. Then we attempted the traverse in early July of 2004 and were able to climb 7 of the 8 peaks. Finally, we were able to complete the entire goal this year. What an adventure!
- Max Nuttelman