The Wham on Vestal Peak
With alternate crack that was 5.6/7
Team: Rob Schichtel, Jeff Bryan
This really began almost two years ago, in the infancy of my climbing career. I was on my fifth or sixth ice climb of my life. We were up in the Eureka area for the day. The climbing day was a bust because of avalanche potential, however we scouted some routes and snowshoed a bit. In the way you develop as a climber, when you start looking at mountains differently than before, I noticed the Grenediers on the way back to Cortez. My partner Doug said something like “man that is some of the best climbing around.” I’m paraphrasing here because I’m sure there were other adjectives involved. I pulled over and he laid out the view which included part of Vestal Peak. So in the long run, on my many trips to Silverton, the Grenediers pulled at me from the distance.
To the recent past, I asked Jeff Bryan to partner up on the climb and he accepted. Jeff and I have been regular partners on the ice and rock. I favor ice, he loves Trad rock climbing. He likes to drive to base of a climb, I believe a long approach usually adds spice and takes away the crowds. Not to label Jeff negatively in any way, as he has had a shattered Tib/Fib ankle injury and was supposed to never be able to hike, climb or ski again. Jeff climbs like he’s possessed, but scrambling on descents causes pain and foul language.
Jeff is a paramedic and I’m an O.R. nurse. This only factors into climbing because of our schedules. About two months ago, we ironed out a three day stretch when we could both be off. I took two days of vacation, so we could climb on a weekday. He got our train tickets, as he said that was part of the deal. He didn’t want to commit to the additional approach and climb out. The train was fine with me, I’ve never been on it.
On the morning of 8/16, I picked up Jeff at his house and we headed for Durango. We stopped at Dough Works for some burritos and coffee. We arrived at the station about forty minutes early. They were glad to rid us of an additional $21.00 for parking. We boarded the train and were off before long. It took thirty minutes to realize that train travel was not my forte. The trip was beautiful in spots. The weather was good as we rocked back and forth up the rails. Finally at 11:30 we were deposited at Elk Park. We made some last minute adjustments to our packs and took off.
The first 2.7 miles follow the Colorado Trail and Elk Creek. There is a jade green beaver pond with a cairned trail at the far end. After contouring the edge of the lake, the trail diverges into the dark timber. This is where the dead fall olympics begin (up, down and around, again and again). The first obstacle is a pretty radical drop down to Vestal Creek. The main idea is to stay on the left (upper or easternmost) trail after the creek crossing. We got off route after a water stop and followed the incorrect trail up a boulder field. Route finding is really not that difficult and our mistakes were just minor. Eventually a large meadow opens up at 11,400 and the views are dramatic. Arrow, Vestal and the Trinities dominate the skyline. The debate over camp sites ended right there. A very nice, level and soft campsite was available. We had carried pretty beefy packs up and I was glad to get it off my back.
Jeff and I set up camp. We found a tree to hang supplies and dipped water from Vestal Creek a short distance away. While water was boiling we racked up for the next day. We brought a single ice floss that was about 150’ in length. We ate like kings and had ibuprofen for dessert. As soon as the sun began to set we turned in.
At dawn Jeff started complaining of being wet and cold. We had left the vent in the roof of my single wall NF tent closed. I estimate it was in the 20’s because our water bottles were frozen almost solid. I put on my fleece and boots and was ready to go. We ate dry cereal as we hiked. We followed the trail up to the base of the climb. A party of four we met the day before was also headed up. We arrived at the top of the grassy ramp almost at the same time. Jeff and I roped up and decided to simul-climb until the tougher spots came along. After about 250 feet of low angle climbing, my camera somehow came loose and rolled away as I stared in disbelief. We were too high to go after it, and I couldn’t see where it stopped rolling. I got my head back on the task at hand. The party of four was actually moving pretty fast and after several hundred feet of side by side climbing, we decided to let them get far enough ahead to be safe. We were able to stay out of the rockfall line as the route angles to climbers left. Then Jeff pulled a fast one and headed up this crack which I considered on the edge of my ability. He was in his element and said I could come up one line over as he basically freed the crack and left no protection. I did choose an off-width about ten feet to the left. I had to remind Jeff several times I was not quite the rock climber he was. The rest of the climb was basically fourth class but we ran belays all the way to the false summit. We stashed the rope and continued the third class scramble to the summit.
On the summit, Jeff discovered his camera had a broken LCD screen. The rest of our pics were taken in “guess and shoot format”. We took a descent route off south and around to the east and came down the saddle between Vestal and West Trinity. At this point I decided to stay on the boulders and try to traverse high around Vestal’s East side and try to find my camera. The camera mission was a failure and pushed my quads over the edge. I didn’t find it and started cramping. I couldn’t break one of the cramps for a while and it was so painful it made me nauseated. I retreated and met Jeff back at the tent.
This night was uneventful and warmer. We left the outer door open preventing condensation. I slept/snored so hard my uvula was sore the next morning. We packed up at daybreak and hit the trail. We were down to food which was highly mobile so there was no need to cook. The trip down to Elk park was uneventful and took about 4 hours.
We sat by the tracks for over two hours. We pressed several small pots of Rwandan coffee from Starbuck’s and got pleasantly jacked up on caffiene. I made a production of the “train flagging dance” and we were all aboard. The trip down was LONG after the views of the mountains passed. Upon coming into Durango, there was however a couple standing facing the other direction with their pants down. I had to laugh...