Stats20.5 miles and 8800’ including the pack in / out
Day 1: Backpacked from Molas Pass (10,620’) down to the Elk Park stop on the Silverton / Durango NGRR to the Elk Creek trail up to ~11,400’ in Vestal Basin – 8.5 miles (approx) and ~3000’
Day 2: Wham Ridge (5.4) to Vestal Peak (13,864’), Vestal’s A-hole descent and Arrow Peak (13,803’) from camp ~3.5 Miles, 4,100'
Day 3: Pack out down the Elk Creek trail and up Molas Pass – 8.5 miles and ~1700’
Crew: Sarah and Prakash
I was looking for a low key alpine route to start the rock climbing season. I also wanted to fully use a Friday off by getting down to the San Juan. A short search led to a classic target in the Grenadier. Sarah decided to join me on this one and I decided to bring up a rope for some trad practice. It’s always good to bring the trad gear out for a walk periodically. The fresh air is good for them. Many thanks to Ben Conners and Kevin Baker for the accurate route info... My appreciation doubles for Ben’s genius naming the 3rd class exit out the backside of Vestal – Vestal’s Asshole. This afforded us a few grins. I first spent a confused hour or so tooling around mountain project finding beta recommending anywhere between 2 – 6 full rope lengths to get up Wham. I then e-mailed Ben who gave me what I felt was the most accurate beta possible for our group’s comfort level and climbing preferences. We saw a 30% chance of thunderstorms forecast for the area for Saturday and Sunday but decided to go check it out directly.
The Pack In
We reached the Molas pass campground at about 2PM after driving through most of the morning.
Loaded for bear with packs in excess of 65lbs consisting rope, rack, kitchen sink, defibrillator and other comical, heavy backcountry essentials we headed down the 38 or so switchbacks from Molas to the silty Animas River. This Molas grunt while unintelligible to some saved us ~$85 each on the DSNGRR, or 17 standard foot-long subs… or what it takes to feed those that exit this grunt. We were soon down at the footbridge across the Animas and began heading up the Elk Creek trail. On this trail we met up with Matt Lemke and his friend on a 12-day Weiminuche tour and signed in at the register. The elk creek trail is steady up hill to the beaver ponds where there are some great camping spots. I think it’s a legitimate option to camp at the Beaver Ponds if you’d like to save up some leg juice for a Vestal / Arrow attempt with a lighter pack.
View from the Beaver Ponds
The Elk Creek crossing is pretty tame right now with the stifled spring runoff. A solid log bridge can be easily found and crossed with decent balance. The rest of the trail steepens with some deadfall (not too bad IMO).
Vestal Creek Trail
We got up to a meadow at the base of the headwall that leads to the peaks. We camped in the first clump of trees at the East end of the meadow. Matt and his friend set up camp in the meadow. We hit the hay at around 10PM with plans for an early start to beat the 30% thunderstorm forecast.
The Climb up Vestal
At a little after 5AM we set up the headwall. We were at the base of Vestal in a half hour and since Sarah hadn’t much experience with trad, we spent a half hour or so discussing some basics before heading up the face. I'd brought a pretty comprehensive rack overloaded with cams because I'd had some trouble removing passive pieces when I was a beginner. I brought a couple sets of finger sized cams up to a couple small fist-sized ones, full set of hexes, tricams, 3-4 slings, 2 32 foot length cord for anchors, 4 light quickdraws, 3, singles and 5 doubles.... waaaay more than you'll probably need.
The sun rose over Vestal Lake as we headed up the center of the face to the grassy ledge…
To the grassy ledge...
The ledge leads to the west edge of the face…
The grassy ledge leads to the West edge of the face
The route looked a lot easier once we were on it.
The Future is Bright
Arrow looks imposing from Wham…
The climbing started getting to class 3 with some exposure but not much yet.
Class 3 Begins
Some Mountain Project reports said that some teams tend to rope up by the two large boulders but we felt comfortable without since the climbing didn’t seem to exceed class 3 when we stayed on the route… plus, I felt like the angle of the rock didn’t warrant the use of a rope there.
Where some parties rope up for the first time on this route
Looking down from the twin boulders
The angle gradually steepens and the climbing starts getting to Class 4 at spots.
A couple moves may need to be made off the face…
Off the Face Momentarily
Off the Face Momentarily 2
We finally roped up at the base of what I believed to be the 5.4 section Ben had described.
Base of the 5.4 Pitch
I went a total of about 50 feet (max) and didn’t find that the terrain above was conducive to roped climbing. It was mostly 3rd class terrain past this pitch with large blocks along the way which I felt might snag and drag the rope. Therefore, I decided to place an anchor and bring Sarah up. She did well on her first trad follow
Sarah follows the 5.4 Pitch
I packed the rope up after the pitch and we continued unroped thereafter.
The climbing started getting fun after a couple hundred feet of Class 3-4.
Low 5th moves in the offing
A little exposure
There are ways to get more than one roped pitch on this route but it is also possible to avoid significant difficulty and free solo the entire route IMO.
More low 5th class study material
We approached a wall which seemed like exposed 5.4 to me. I went to the left a little bit and found a more prospective chimney with better holds, also 5.4-ish.
I started up the base of the chimney...
up the base of the chimney... photo (c) Sarah
and continued as it headed towards a small roof...
up towards the roof - photo (c) Sarah
I traversed under and around the roof with big juggy holds above. A reachy move gets you over the roof but the handholds are great. The move tends to push your midsection over the face, which appears to amplify the difficulty of the move. A stem gets you up the last bit...
Traversing around the roof - photo (c) Sarah
and then Sarah followed... I slung a horn above the roof with some cord for her to use as a handhold, just in case. She didn’t need it…
The climbing and rock quality continued to impress.
Solid Rock Quality
Back to solid 4th class
Nearing the top now...
Before we knew it we topped out on the false summit.
Topping out on the False Summit
The True Summit
The true summit is less than 5 minutes from here.
Vestal Summit and Descent
We reached the summit at around 10AM. The views from the top of Vestal are amazing…
the Chicago Basin group is seen in the distance…
Chicago Basin group
Sarah approaches the summit with Arrow in the background…
Approaching the Summit
We lounged on the summit for at least a half hour since the weather looked amazing. We began descending the well cairned SE couloir route… which didn’t really stink too bad but actually made for some decent talus hopping fun.
SE Couloir Descent
The SE Couloir
We soon got down to a grassy traverse around the back side of the peak (Vestal’s buttock?) to the saddle between Vestal and arrow
From the saddle, a scree skier’s (skreer?) paradise exists… skreer’s Dav shot…
And the turns that followed…
We were back in the upper basin by noon or so and with the good weather and vanishing headache, decided to head up Arrow as well.
A thick pall of smoke from wildfires had settled in the Vestal basin area…
We walked around the base of the peak to the ramp breathing in the smoke, thick enough that at times we would taste it. The ramp is cairned from time to time.
The Ramp 1
The ramp heads up pretty high before it breaks off right and heads higher.
The Ramp 2
The climbing starts getting up to Class 3 a few hundred feet below the top. The exposure is not bad at all.
Route turns to Class 3
Harder terrain is available if you want to stray off route for extra credit. If not, cairns are frequent although it might take some searching and good eyesight.
Easy to stray off on to harder, more fun stuff
We found 4th and occasionally low 5th class moves when we went off route in search of interesting climbing.
Easy to stray off on to harder, more fun stuff 2
4th class finish
We summitted arrow with the smoke remaining in the area. Somehow I felt like the smoke kept the thunderheads from building - several puffy white clouds showed up to fulfill the thunderstorm forecast but slowly melted away despite the warm day.
Arrow Summit and Beyond
Sarah approaches the summit.
Sarah approaches the summit
Cairns can appear in the weirdest of places on this mountain…
Weird Cairn Locations on Arrow
We descended the peak carefully at the top and more quickly once down on the ramp. The smoke slowly cleared out and afforded us a better view of Vestal by the time we were down in the upper basin.
The Pack Out
We broke camp and began hiking out by 8AM on Sunday. As we hiked down the Vestal trail we stopped to take a look at our destination, which looks depressingly far away…
Molas Pass from Vestal Creek Trail
The Elk Creek crossing is no adventure with the scanty spring runoff this year.
Elk Creek crossing
The Beaver ponds may be no maroon lake but look pretty serene all the same…
The Beaver ponds
We reached the footbridge at Elk Park station a little after noon and I filtered water at the Animas River not realizing what a bad idea that is. Instead walk up the trail to Molas a couple hundred yards and get water in a much clearer creek. We decided to count down the switchbacks resulting in what seemed like a pretty short hike back up Molas pass. Looking back at where we started ~5.5 hours earlier
Looking back towards Vestal Creek Drainage
We were back at the Jeep at around 2PM and onward to Silverton to eat giant smothered burritos which cost 1/9th of what we saved by approaching from Molas Pass.