Laboring in the Grenadiers: Vestal and Arrow

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The Wham Ridge on Vestal Peak, Weminuche Wilderness, Colorado.

Routes: Approach from Elk Park at 8,860′ (via the Durango/Silverton NGRR) to camp in Vestal Basin at 11,500′ (September 2nd). Ascent of Vestal’s Wham Ridge (5.4), descent of South Face, ascent of Arrow’s Northeast Ramp Route (September 3rd).
Stats: 5.1 Miles, 2,900′ (approach), ~3.5 Miles, 4,100′ (Vestal and Arrow from camp)
Partners: Kevin Pustulka, Sarah Behnke

This trip had been in the back of my mind since the first time I saw Vestal and Arrow from the summit of Sunlight in 07′. These peaks are just spectacular from afar, and they reside in the heart of an equally spectacular wilderness area in the Weminuche. I always knew I would head in to climb them at some point, I just didn’t know when the opportunity would arise. Well with early September generally lending to good weather windows in Colorado, and the potential for four consecutive days off work, Labor Day weekend seemed like a good time to make this trip happen.

I was able to round up two solid partners in Kevin and Sarah, with whom I had shared beers and stories several times but had never gotten out with. It just so happened that they had also been looking forward to climbing the Grenadiers, particularly the Wham Ridge on Vestal, for some time and just needed a little motivation to commit to heading in there. We boarded the train out of Silverton as a group of three, intent on hitting Vestal, Arrow, and the Trinities in a three night push from Elk Park. I’d like to say thank you again to Kevin and Sarah for picking up my train ticket, if it weren’t for their generosity I would have been grunting it out from Molas Pass.

The Durango/Silverton Narrow Gauge pulling out of Elk Park.

After becoming accustomed to two and a half hour plus train rides from Durango, the thirty minute ride from Silverton went quickly. I wasn’t complaining though as inhaling smog isn’t high on my list of preferred pastimes and we were hoping to have camp established in Vestal Basin by dark. After a 2:45pm drop off we were on the trail by 3pm.

On the trail from Elk Park.

The trail gradually gains elevation above Elk Creek for a few miles before it comes time to split off south near a prominent beaver pond. The views of Vestal and Arrow from this pond made for a good introduction.

A steep, deadfall riddled trail winds up through the mouth of the basin, leading to a clearing at 11,400′ below Vestal and Arrow. From the beaver pond to the clearing is something like 1,500′ vertical. We arrived around 6pm and began looking for a campsite, eventually finding one a tad above the 11,400′ meadow in a grove of trees.

Late afternoon light on Vestal’s west side.

After camp was established, we turned to pumping water and making dinner. Some Gordons and Modus rounded out the evening nicely, we hit the sack around 8pm.

A few words on approach strategy: We by no means had tons of time to waste in getting camp set up before dark, but that being said a 2:45pm drop off at Elk Park granted us more than enough time to get it done. We later discussed how boarding the train in Silverton at 2:15pm and being dropped off in Silverton around noon at the end of the trip has its advantages. One, you have the rest of the day to drive to and from Silverton (as opposed to boarding/being dropped off in Durango in the morning/evening), and two, you are on the train for a much shorter period of time. The only disadvantage is the pack in/out to Vestal Basin is a tad more rushed than it would be coming in from Durango, and if you’re really moving slow, in theory you could potentially have to route find your way into the basin in the dark. That said if you move somewhat quickly you should have no problems with running out of daylight. In conclusion, we think taking the train from Silverton is the better of the two train options. Anyway enough on that…

Home sweet home for the next few nights.

Camping in such close proximity to the peaks makes for a short approach in the morning. We left camp a little after sunrise and found a nice climber’s trail that heads up from the east side of the 11,400′ meadow, the objective being to gain the large bench below Vestal’s North Face. Once on this bench, we got our first up close view of the Wham. In person it is nothing short of spectacular. We headed climber’s left to the base of the face and began scrambling up dry slabs until we reached a prominent grass ledge. This ledge cuts all the way across the face, providing easy access to the far right side of the Wham.

Kevin taking it all in.

Once on the far right of the face, the low angle and easy grade allows for a few hundred feet of fun, unroped scrambling up the ridge crest.

…but before long the difficulty and exposure ramps up.

We found a nice belay ledge and started gearing up. The plan was to tie Kevin and Sarah into the end of the rope with about ten feet of slack in between them. This technique allows for longer pitches to be led as well as the climbers on the end to climb at the same time, making it more efficient than the standard method of tying a climber into the middle of the rope. The only catch is the climber on the low end of the rope has to take care to keep as much tension as possible on the short segment of rope without tugging too much on the middle climber to reduce shocking/pulling the middle climber off in the event of a fall. Doing it this way gave Kevin and Sarah a reason to hone their communication skills.

The first pitch went quickly.

On to the second. Photo by Sarah.

Such an awesome position.

The only comment I really have from a leading perspective is that this face protects very well. It is rife with deep, solid cracks that take all kinds of pro. If you already burned a piece that you realize you could use, it’s not hard to just find another crack that suits what you have. Overall for the Wham I’d recommend taking a set of stoppers, a set of hexes, and a couple of mid sized cams and not a whole lot else. There are also plenty of rock horns that are easy to sling, so taking some webbing along is a good idea as well.

At the top of our second pitch we were directly below what we considered to be the crux of the route; a notch that forces you out onto the face proper. The holds on this section are a little thinner than elsewhere on the route, which is why it gets a 5.4 rating.

Kevin and Sarah on the crux.

Above the crux pitch, a few hundred feet of exposed class 4 scrambling leads to the sub summit.

From the sub summit, a short class 3 section through a notch gets you to the true summit. Photo by Sarah.

Kevin and Sarah happy to have the Wham under their belts.

The standard descent route heads off the south side of the summit through a loose gully which Roach rates as class 2+. We found it to be more like class 3. From the bottom of the gully the route traverses west to the Vestal/Arrow connecting saddle. From this saddle another 500′ of choss and scree fields spits you back out at Vestal’s base. This South Face/Gully route on Vestal (which we later nicknamed “Vestal’s asshole”) really is a pain, and shouldn’t be used as anything but a descent route IMO.

We had been evaluating the weather all day and, though it didn’t look great for a better portion of the morning, the skies seemed to be clearing for us at the opportune time. We were in the giant basin between Vestal and Arrow when the sun came out and the remaining rain clouds burned off. We took this as a sign and decided to head for Arrow.

Between Vestal and Arrow trying to decide what to do.

The route up Arrow takes the broad, southward trending ramp to within a few hundred feet of the summit, then joins up with the North Ridge and tops out from there. The nice thing about this route is that it is almost 100% solid slab friction hiking (no choss or talus to deal with). Take shoes with sticky rubber if this route is in your itinerary.

Arrow route.

A nice one of Vestal and West Trinity.

A little higher up the route gets steeper and slightly more convoluted. Keeping the route at class 3 requires some route finding, but there are a lot of cairns marking the way.

We were all a little tired at this point but Arrow was more or less in the bag. We gained the North Ridge and scrambled for a hundred feet to the summit.

Arrow summit.

This summit was particularly special for us; an awesome day capped off by a dramatic summit with outstanding views of the Weminuche and beyond. It doesn’t get much better than this.

Looking south towards the Pigeon and Eolus groups.

Jagged Mountain. Photo by Sarah.

After devouring a can of Salt n’ Vinegar Pringles we starting back down. Back on the ramp, the descent goes quickly as you can just walk down the solid slabs. I would echo though that this route would certainly be dangerous if wet. Kevin and I were joking that, if Arrow were a 14er, this ramp would be dubbed “The White Slabs of Death” and it would have several conditions threads per season dedicated to it.

We descended back to camp and enjoyed Cuban Cigars and IPAs with our neighbors before trading in for the night. The next day we hit the Trinity Peaks, TR coming soon…

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