The Path Less Taken
I first became interested in Vermillion as a serious winter objective during a climb of UN 11,302 in the San Miguels during January 2009. Lording above a frozen Trout Lake, it stood majestic with its white slopes glimmering under blue skies and a unseasonably powerful sun. The choice wasn’t hard; I had to get up there, and quickly.
The following day I put a meandering trench through some serious cliffbands to small clearing surrounded by steeper slopes leading to treeline. Without a partner to ascend an open section leading to safer areas above treeline, I called it a day with plans to make a summit attempt tomorrow. Overnight a foot of snow fell. ’Tis the life.
The next opportunity presented itself in January 2010 after two weeks of clear weather in the San Juans. Aaron, Jim, Rob and I joined forces for an assault on Vermillion. We proved to be a strong team, but the mountain gods, and their never ending mounds of snow to break through, were the superior force. Around 13,200’ we began our descent, disappointed but undeterred. Next time things would be different.
Winter 2010 came and went without another attempt. The weather warmed, ropes came out and Vermillion faded from importance. After trips to the desert for its tantalizingly interesting towers began becoming unreasonable due to freezing weather and snowstorms, thoughts of winter climbing returned to the forefront of my mind. Instantaneously, I put Vermillion at the top of my list and became making plans. The solstice was looking real good.
Once again the mountain gods had other plans. A major storm moved through the Colorado Rockies and once the days and continuous days of snowing subsided, statewide avalanche roses went black and I retreated to the Mosquitoes for a trying slog up a typically mundane Pennsylvania. Its summit offered no comfort. On the way home, I tried to put a positive spin of things by telling myself that being trapped at home the next two weeks would be good for my training. My BS meter wasn’t buying it, I want to be in the high mountains.
Thursday January 6th finds me ecstatic driving south for Telluride with a plan in place. Once there, Aaron and I decide that altering the agenda for a day climb Saturday is the best plan for us. Friday’s a work day for Aaron. Seizing the opportunity to make life easier for us on Saturday, I spend 4 hours stomping a track towards treeline.
Vermillion Under Bluebird Skies During Trailbreaking
The afternoon sun is overbearing, making the snow soft and sticky. Ascending the switchbacks is hideous in this weather and I slide from side to side despite banging off clumps of snow every few steps. Once the switchbacks are behind me, I cruise flatter sections of terrain for an hour in an attempt to make our trench as long as possible. Before entering the small, slot canyon at 10,800’, I call it a day and descend the darkening valley racing the sun to my Subaru.
Storming the Castle
Saturday morning 5:40am, Aaron and I venture off into the darkness hoping to reach the end of our trench at first light. Ten minutes in my headlamp dies. My spare headlamp doesn’t offer a solution despite its new batteries, but they work in the original headlamp. Good. With that behind us, we plod up the trench on autopilot for the initial couple of hours until first light. Well, first light everywhere but in our valley. The end of our beaten track is reached and we traverse south into the slot where we’re welcomed by a slight, nippy and extremely obnoxious wind.
Entering the Slot
On the sharp end, I keep my head down while breaking through pillows of snow to stay as warm as possible and in spite of best efforts the wind always seems to find a route through my defenses. By the time we’ve reached the small clearing below treeline I’ve had enough and throw a third, warmer layer to help my core temperature.
During my breather, Aaron cruises past wanting to keep as warm as possible while the wind becomes more of an annoyance while we gain elevation and plunge deeper into the shade. Moving once again, I round a corner and see him waist deep at the base of tree struggling to get out of the hole. Scurrying up to him, he asks for a stomped shelf directly in front of him to mantle onto. Only when he’s removed himself do I notice the large hunk of ice covering his boot. When we’re done hacking it off his boot, Aaron informs me that he isn’t wet and is ready to continue upwards.
Leaving the hole in our rearview mirror we enter into an open area with loads of recent ski tracks and begin ascending the slope. Despite not being that steep, I find the slope mentally creepy and push the trench up the ski tracks in order to leave this slope as quickly as my body will allow.
Aaron Breaking Along a Ski Track
When we reach a lower angled slope I glance over my shoulder and notice the sun/shade line far behind, seemingly never to catch up. From this point the upper valley looks cold, really cold and Beattie’s Northwest Face is going to keep things that way for a long time. But man, Vermillion basking in the sunlight looks appealing, let’s get over there!
Crossing the upper valley we take notes on past avalanches and the scars from skiers testing various slopes, especially the recent releases on Beattie as we draw nearer to its slopes. Veering back towards Vermillion, we cruise along until easy passage is blocked by short steep slope. We hike parallel to the slope until reaching a reasonable place with some rocks protruding from the snow.
Across the Flats
At the top of the slope we enter into sunshine, glorious sunshine! Warming quickly, our thoughts change from constant movement to our need of a break. Some lovely rocks provide the trick and we use this perch to scan our next task, picking a line up Vermillion’s steep, Southwest Face.
From our position, Fuller’s main couloir is the obvious weakness in the slope. It’s lined by two continuous scree slopes which should make for a safer ascent. Open slopes linger below the scree but occasional, visible rocks provide hope.
Refueled and armed with a plan of attack, we begin meandering towards Vermillion.
When the rolling flats relent to Vermillion’s slopes, we caches our snowshoes and poles in exchanges for crampons and ice axes, and begin kicking steps towards the scree littered slope above us.
Aaron Working the Southwest Face
Progress is straightforward and smooth despite loose, unfrozen, San Juan scree catching our crampons every couple of steps. The scree gets worse when we enter its main section and our upward progress is hindered by frequent slipping on loose scree. During this disaster zone, Aaron begins pulling away up front.
Higher up the slope, the angle relents and we’re able to the cross the gully in a rocky section. Across the couloir, the snow temporarily relinquishes its hold on our ascent as we cross heavily screed slopes on our way to the Vermillion-Fuller saddle.
Snowy Southeast Ridge
As I near this point, I see Aaron ~100’ above working on some slope maintenance. Golden Horn and Pilot Knob pop into view at the saddle, man do they appear loaded!
Now on the ridge proper, the spookiness factor increases as Vermillion’s Southwest Face drops off to our left and the visible, East Facing cornice is visible on our right. Sections of the cornice look fairly large, I’ll give that a wide berth. As I reach Aaron, he informs me that the section of trail around the rock is precarious. While waiting he’s pounded out some flat track around the large rocks over the nasty-looking gash. Not wanting to waste time here, I drop to my knees and crawl under this obstacle quickly reaching a more luxurious ledge.
As we continue up the ridge, we’re careful to keep as many rock outcroppings as we can below us while weaving around the three major towers before the sub-summit.
Traversing a False Point
None of these towers cause problems outside of a necessary downclimb or two on their left to avoid a spicy section here and there. Soon thereafter we reach the sub-summit, unsure of which way to progress. Aaron takes the lower path around the corner and I climb high towards the ridge. Up there, the summit looks within reach, but I’m surrounded by cliffbands, disheartened by my predicament. Not wanting to trigger something that would drag me over a cliff, I elect to downclimb and avoid getting closer to the voids in front of me.
Getting back to Aaron takes some time as I see a route curving around to my left only to be cliffed out when I get close. His assessment of the lower route isn’t the most positive statement I’ve heard. Frustrated, I re-climb my slope and veer wide right to reach my original ascent route and make my way back to Aaron’s perch.
Rounding the corner, I’m welcomed by a comforting mini-moat where I can assess the terrain leading to the notch immediately beneath Vermillion’s summit block. A short, steep slope needs to be traversed to a smaller ledge leading to the main couloir heading for the notch. Once one enters the couloir, a short climb through some rocks will provide adequate for one to reach the notch. The traverse looks creepy but snow quality is better than hoped for with little snow accumulation in this area this week and I decide to test this slope before making a decision. I ease out onto the traverse, the climbing is easy but there’s ample opportunity to screw up here so I focus on every hand and foothold. When I reach the ledge adjacent to the couloir, I exhale loudly. At the point, Aaron decides the traverse isn’t for him and will pass on a return to Vermillion’s summit. We discuss our now changing plan and return to our tasks at hand. I traverse three more steps, grab the rockband and pull myself up to the comfort of a lower-angled slope before scampering to the notch.
And what a place! Not only is the air rushing up the South Couloir behind me, but the void of Vermillion Dollar Couloir, with its currently broken cornice, falls away directly in front of me. Wow! Turning to the summit block, I walk along a comforting shelf until the cliffs relent. Some funky third-class scrambling brings me to Vermillion’s summit at 3:17pm. Afternoon shadows stretch over upper Ice Lakes Basin where Pilot Knob and Golden Horn star from my perch.
Golden Horn from Vermillion
To the west, the Wilsons hold my attention.
Me and the Wilsons
I spend 10 minutes on top surveying the scene before packing my water bottle and heading down….but not before noticing my mistake! There, roughly 15 feet below the sub-summit is a luxurious ledge leading past the final difficulties. Man, if I had poked closer to the foreboding cliffs around the sub-summit Aaron would be here also! That sucks.
Well, I’d better get moving so I can catch Aaron somewhere along the trench. After carefully downclimbing the third-class directly off the summit, I cruise across the ledge and begin picking my way down Vermillion’s Southeast Ridge. Soon Aaron comes into view descending the scree alongside Fuller’s main couloir. We communicate via yells to let each other know things are going well. I follow his tracks down alongside of the couloir as the sun begins to dip towards the upper slopes of San Miguel Peak.
San Miguel Sunset
At the cache, I change back into my snowshoes and cruise across the basin while soaking a lovely yellow and orange sunset on the San Miguel sentinels.
Last Light On the San Miguel Sentinels
I catch Aaron below treeline and we regain the truck at 6:40pm, a challenging 13-hour day behind us and happy to have Vermillion in the rearview. Yet the question lingers, will next week hold the weather window we long for?