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Six Peaks, 22 Goats and a Zillion Wildflowers:
A Backpacking and Climbing Trip in the Needles and Grenadiers

Author: Gina Pasquale

Participants: Steve Doorn and Gina Pasquale

Anyone who has spent any time in Colorado naturally knows that the San Juans are the best place in the state, and of course the best part of the San Juans are the Needle and Grenadier ranges. Gina and I spent the first week of August climbing and backpacking through this area of spectacular pointy peaks. Our backpack took us from Ruby Creek through Noname and Ten Mile Creek drainages over to Vestal Creek, setting us up to climb Turret, the 3 Trinities, Wham Ridge on Vestal, and Arrow Peaks.

We started out in Durango on the D&SNG and got off the train at Needleton along with the hoards bound for Chicago Basin. We soon left the mob behind as we went off in search of the Ruby Creek trail. This is a somewhat difficult trail to find so I'll give a fairly detailed description here of how to get on it: Once across the bridge over the Animas take an immediate left and hike north along the river on a fairly well worn trail. Keep an eye out for an old rusty mining cart and Pigeon Creek (I don't remember which comes first). A little past these (about a quarter mile) you will come to a meadow with aspens. On the right edge of the meadow (east) you will see the slopes rising up out of the flood plain. As you walk through the meadow keep a close eye out for a trail heading up these slopes--better yet walk directly along the slopes to find the trail (if you get to the end of the meadow, you've gone too far). Following this trail will lead you to another small clearing. Keep to the right edge of this clearing and look closely for a trail that leads out of the clearing to the right--once on this it will eventually lead you on a steep north east traverse over a high ridge and into the Ruby Creek drainage. Believe me, it is worth taking the time to find the trail. Well, we started up the trail in a light rain (which stopped about 2 hours later) and made it to the drainage and headed upstream to Ruby Lake--a beautiful emerald (of course) colored lake which spills into a smaller lake to the west. At this point the trail pretty much disappeared so we headed further upstream on the south side of the lake until we found a convenient place to cross the stream, followed by picking our way up steep slopes to pass the pretty cascades and falls tumbling down the creek. Once on the bench above the cascades we were treated to fantastic views of the NE face of Pigeon, the Turret Needles, and the east side cliffs of Monitor, Animas Mt. , and The Index. After an exhausting ordeal of crashing through chest and head-high willows (the willows almost won this round) we made it to our first camp in the meadows at 11,600' at the base of Pigeon, Turret, and the Turret Needles on the edge of a carpet of wildflowers.

The next day we got up at sunrise (we don't always get an alpine start) and headed up Turret Pk (13,835', #98 on the way to Gina's top 100) by way of the saddle between it and Pigeon. The route up is dominated by views of the towering NE face of Pigeon and went through countless patches of amazing flowers. Just name a color of Indian Paintbrush and you can find it in the Needles. After scrambling up grass and talus (with an occasional 3rd class move near the top) we summited early with plenty of time and blue sky to hang out under on the summit. Pointy peaks to view everywhere we looked. After a leisurely return to camp we discovered a marmot had chewed through one side of our tent and out the other--they're soooo cute. Later we were graced by the presence of a herd of 22 rocky mountain goats (with around 7 babies) that entertained us with their antics until sundown. The following morning they returned and we found it hard to leave them as we broke camp to head over the pass to Noname Creek.

One note to people coming to this area and to Chicago Basin: An effort should be made to urinate in the rocks in these areas to discourage the goats from tearing up the fragile meadows to get at your urine for salt.

We headed into the Noname Creek drainage over the 12,700' pass that leads directly under the striking east face of Monitor Peak. On heading down towards Noname, we passed through another fantastic wildflower meadow--the best I've ever seen in Colorado. Again, we were traveling completely off trail in places few ever go--a wonderful feeling. Once down to Noname we had great views of the Knifepoint and Jagged Peak. After following the climber's trail to Jagged up to 12,000' we cut north to go over one final 12,900' pass for the day that would lead us to Balsam lake at the head of Ten Mile Creek. Before the pass we walked by a beautiful deep blue lake at 12,500' that we would love to return to. Once over the pass we traversed towards Peak Six and then steeply down grass and talus to a difficult to find trail that curled west to Balsam lake. This was easily the longest and hardest day of our trip, but we ended up on the shores of a beautiful and isolated lake beneath the rugged, toothy peaks of the Grenadier Range. After the trip we learned of a fun 5.6 traverse along cliffs that plunge into the NE side of the lake--we'll try it out when we return. The following morning we had a very relaxed start (10 AM) on our way to Vestal Creek. We picked our way north from the lake up grassy avalanche slopes to another 12,900' pass between Vestal and the west Trinity. After hanging out at the pass for a while we descended into the promised land of fun climbing on the quartzite peaks of the Grenadiers.

Vestal creek, unfortunately, is becoming popular and we saw three groups camped here after seeing no one the rest of the trip, but it's a big drainage with plenty of elbow room. We walked downstream to a point right between Vestal and Arrow Peaks and set up camp on a rocky bench with incredible views of Wham Ridge and the ramps leading up Arrow (and a den of about 10 annoyingly cute marmots below us). We finally got into our alpine start mode the following morning and headed back to the saddle between Vestal and W. Trinity to do the Trinity traverse. This is a complete traverse of West, Middle and East Trinity Peaks, and was for me the best climb of the trip. We started up the west ridge of the W. Trinity (13,765') and summited at 7:30 AM (while low misty clouds were blowing through the valleys and periodically hiding nearby peaks). The route we took had plenty of fun 3rd class scrambling on solid quartzite with a fair amount of 4th and even low 5th class climbing thrown in. By careful routefinding, it's probably possible to keep this section to 3rd to easy 4th class. The downclimb to the saddle for the middle Trinity (13,805') was straightforward and leads to a cairn trail that is important to find for the traverse to the middle peak. Keeping an eye out for cairns will lead you across and up on the connecting ridge just below its crest (more adventurous parties will try to stay on the easily 5th class knife edge ridgecrest). For us, the cairn trail kept floating in and out of the fog. At one point the cairns will stop at a 1-2 foot wide ledge that leads into dubious looking territory. At this point look carefully for a cairn with an elongated rock pointing up. This is your sign to scramble up (about 30') a 4th-low 5th class chimney. The chimney was a blast, and above it route finding to the summit is relatively straightforward. We summited at 9AM. The down climb from the middle Trinity is down a loose, shallow gully that leads to the west couloir on the East Trinity. We had to kick steps across steep snow to access this couloir. The ascent of the east Trinity (13,745') was the funnest part of the traverse and can follow solid quartzite up either side of the couloir (the central part is filled with loose rubble). I chose the right side which was composed of continuous 3rd and 4th class moves over perfect quartzite blocks. At the top of the couloir, as near as we could tell, you definitely want to finish on the right side. At this point an airy traverse on a narrow ledge needs to be made to access the summit ridge to the left. By the time we reached the summit (11:00 AM) the low clouds had moved on to give us great views of the San Juans and the thunderheads that were just building. The final descent brought us to the saddle between the Vestal and Trinity creek basins. While sitting there eating lunch, 2 guys caught up to us after also doing the traverse--they were psycho mountain runners who had started from Molas pass at 6 that morning. (More proof that I'm just a lite-weight climber.) They also happened to be the same two people we had met on Jagged Mt. two years earlier! We found the traverse to be a very challenging route finding exercise with loads of fun scrambling. We highly recommend it to experienced climbers.

The next morning we again rose bright and early to climb Wham Ridge--the north buttress/face of Vestal Peak (13,864'). Wham Ridge is an amazing feature that swoops out of the valley floor, continually narrowing and steepening until it reaches the summit. The lower half of the face is smooth unbroken quartzite, while the upper, steeper half, is much more broken up--even containing one pitch of 3rd class scrambling. Many people will solo the whole feature, but after scrambling up the lower third, we decided to rope up, starting near the right side and following about 2 and a half pitches of crack systems. After 3 more pitches of broken up climbing, we cut left into the third class area high on the mountain near the center. This was followed by about 3 more pitches of climbing up lower 5th class cracks and dihedrals to the false summit. We unroped there and scrambled over to the true summit for a leisurely lunch before the nasty downclimb off the south side gullies. If you're going to climb Vestal, Wham Ridge is the route to take. Pretty much any route you pick will go. The start of ours was fun, but the remainder might have been better if we had angled left earlier (sometimes you have to work pretty hard to find the fun 5th class stuff). A better route might be to start directly in the middle of the face and just head straight up. Still, it was a fun climb on a very impressive feature.

Our final climbing objective was Arrow Peak (13,803'). We had originally planned on climbing its north ridge (a six pitch 5.6 route followed by endless 3rd and 4th class scrambling) but decided we wanted an easier day for our last climb. So we instead went for the northeast rib route, which follows a beautiful continuous ramp to within a couple hundred feet of the summit. This morning we waited to start until the sky just started to brighten and reached the base of the climb at sunrise--just in time to see a huge golden eagle go soaring overhead, striking fear into the hearts of our marmot colony. We headed up, frictioning on fantastic continuous slabs of quartzite to the base of a large snowpatch. At this point we switched into a smaller and more broken up ramp to the right. We followed this to within 400 feet of the summit and traversed left into a low 5th class chimney (pretty exciting!) that brought us onto the northeast face. We picked our way through more low 5th and 4th class rock (all solid and fun) until we reached the summit (me by way of the face and Gina via the NE ridge directly). This was another fun scramble on solid rock with a fair amount of interesting route finding thrown in. For Gina, this was the funnest climb of the trip. After a couple of hours of taking in the summit views we headed down via an easier 3rd class variation that brought us to a narrow ridge running between the upper and lower ramps. We followed this to the point where we caught the chimney earlier and then reversed our route up. We spent the rest of the afternoon being generally lazy on the shores of Vestal Lake at the base of Wham Ridge.

The following day (our 8th in the backcountry) we hiked out Vestal Creek to the beaver ponds above Elk Creek. We took an extended break here, taking in one last view of Vestal, Arrow and Electric Peaks and then headed down to Elk Park to catch the train back to Durango. 5 minutes after getting on the train it began to pour outside again--the first time in a week. Once again we got lucky with the weather and thoroughly enjoyed our extended wanderings in the best of Colorado's wilderness.


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