There are mountains….and then there is the Grenadier Range. A measly 8 inaccessible miles long, they will touch something deep inside your soul forcing you to respect the history of this planet and how it was formed. The Grenadiers were uplifted 70 million years ago as part of the San Juan Dome, the Laramide Orogeny or the mountain building episode that is responsible for the creation of most of Colorado’s peaks. During the San Juan’s period of volcanic activity, nearly the entire surface was buried in layer after layer of lava and ash flows but the ash flows would just lap at the heels of the Grenadiers. Hopkins said, “The Grenadiers remained intact during the San Juan’s explosive formation to become a magnificent range of glacially carved metamorphic basement rock.” The rock itself is two billion year-old quartzite straight out of ancient middle earth. I am still trying to wrap my head around scrambling on such a fine piece of history.
It has been a long time since I have written about climbing mountains. It’s a time consuming endeavor and I wonder how I wrote so much in the past. I enjoy putting climbs with photos and words but the more mountains I climb the less enthused I am to write about it.
I decided a few months ago that I want to climb all of the 13 + thousand foot mountains ranked and unranked in the state of Colorado. This includes the 14 thousand foot peaks and their sub summits. There are 764 ranked + unranked Colorado 13ers, 58 Colorado 14ers, and 16 sub-summits. That is 838 mountains and I have currently summited 187. Well on my way, *huge sweeping sarcastic chuckle*. I have no time limit on this goal. I do not want to be the first (someone has probably already done it) or the fastest. I just love the state of Colorado, its mountains, and plan on staying here forever, so why not make this a life goal. Life goals are good.
I decided to move to Ophir located just outside of Telluride for the summer. The San Juan mountain range is my favorite (next to the Gores). I wanted to put all of my efforts into climbing obscure 13 thousand foot peaks in this wild and tough region of Colorado. I knew it would make me stronger and develop my skills as a mountain climber. It did. This range is unforgiving. The approaches are long, brutal, and often without trail. There is little to no information on the lesser known peaks and the rock is AWFUL. That is unless you go into the Grenadiers. Everything else holds true but the rock is solid. Factor in the monsoonal weather and you have a recipe for some epic sufferfests and that is my thang.
I summited 58 of the 314 San Juan 13ers this summer, including a solo fast pack of Pigeon and Turret (which I should really write about but kind of want to keep as just mine). Sunday, I ran the Pikes Peak marathon where I finished the 58 Colorado 14ers (incredibly powerful experience), and Monday returned to Golden to finish my engineering degree with a fresh 8 a.m. mechanical behavior of materials class (for which I overslept and was three minutes late). I have seven classes left and I am a Colorado School of Mines graduate and then, well then it’s time to move to Durango because yes, southwest Colorado, yes.
So with a little backstory, onwards we go with the feature trip report, “A Grenadier Grand Slam (on 70 million but really 2 billion year old ancient middle earth basement rock)”…..
Vestal Peak 13,864’
Arrow Peak 13,803’
West Trinity 13,765’
Middle Trinity 13,805’
East Trinity 13,745’
14,005 feet of vertical gain
Geoff and I sat in the laundromat just outside of Telluride late Thursday evening laughing at the abysmal forecast over the next couple of days. But is there really such a thing as good weather in the Weminuche during monsoon season? And can you really even say you’ve been Weminuched (yes I made it a verb) if you don’t weather dodge to make summits.
We should not have been doing laundry at 6 pm the night before the early morning we would head over Ophir pass to Molas Pass and start our backpack in. No, we should have been celebrating Allison’s birthday with good wine and good food, but we needed to start the adventure with clean socks and underwear (which I ended up forgetting, the underwear, not the socks). Allison isn’t the type of girl who wants that kind of birthday though. Allison is the type of girl who wants to spend her birthday slogging eleven miles through mud and rain on a faint trail that follows the bearing of hellaciously steep. This is why she is my friend. Speaking of friend, her birthday conveniently falls on the date of our one year friendversary. For her birthday last year we were set up by our friends Ryan and Julie on an instagram blind date. We met at the Zapata Falls trailhead under the cover of darkness and climbed Ellingwood and Blanca. Afterwards, we sat in the shade of Allison’s car tire while she opened up presents from her family and then we went to some shitty restaurant in Fort Garland and tried to force them to make a vegan entrée as we clinked wine glasses. For the record, this is how all great friendships begin.
Day 1 – The Pack In
As promised, it was wet. The trail from Molas Pass plummets down about 2,200 feet to the Animas River and the Durango-Silverton train tracks. Something to look forward to on the pack out. It is a good trail and I savored it.
The bottom is over grown and stinging nettle hangs unavoidably over the path of most resistance. This wasn’t my first rodeo, I walked through a field of it on my approach to North Pigeon basin just a week prior. I am rather sensitive to its little death claws. Take it like a woman who stupidly chose to wear shorts, again. After the train tracks the trail winds through Elk Park until it reaches a beaver pond where a faint trail heads south and then east into Vestal Basin. We got somewhat turned around as the faint trail petered into a bunch of boulders. Across the boulder field and through more stinging nettle we went only to be dumped out on a decent trail. A piece of sage advice, hug the beaver pond, avoid the boulder field.
The trail then plummets down to vestal creek which must be crossed high above on some super janky (urban dictionary word) wet logs. From this point on we crawled through the mud under downed trees, climbed over downed trees, slipped on wet rock we couldn’t see as we worked our way through fields of sopping wet overgrown bluebells and willows all while the sky above unleashed monsoonal rain. Ironically, I am into this sort of thing.
And just as things started to flatten out we hit the meadow, ohhhhh the meadow. The trail turned to straight calf deep mud entombed by wet willows. By the time we found a camp spot at the far east end of the meadow under a cluster of tall pine trees we looked like drowned rats. Geoff and Allison had there tent set up and were inside warming in a matter of 15 minutes. I have been playing around with ultra light weight fast packing gear this summer. My tent is a Gossamer Gear pole tent. It uses my trekking poles and tension, there is no frame. It is a great light weight tent that I can set up in 3 minutes but I was having a hard time working with the small space backed up against the very soft and non supportive soil that surrounded the pine trees. Really, I just wanted to hang out in the rain for another hour or so and cement the fact that I and everything on me was sopping wet.
Around 8 p.m. the clouds began to break and hints of sunshine came through. I prayed to the mountain gods to give us the weather window we needed to attempt the Trinity Traverse.
Day 2 – The Trinity Traverse (west to east)
I had completely submitted to the idea that we may very well pack into the Grenadiers and sit in our respective tents for four days. Maybe I would hang out by a marmot den and talk to them in the rain. Maybe I would walk around Vestal Basin taking moody mountain pictures. Maybe I would read the history of these beautiful peaks and not be able to hold them in my hands, because while quartzite is so much fun dry it is a climbers worst nightmare when wet. The Trinity Traverse is no easy task and these mountains must be approached with the utmost respect. I am completely willing to pack into a basin in bad weather and go from there but climbing these mountains in a storm, no. From my personal experience a forecast is just that – to calculate or predict some future event or condition. Predictions are not full fact. If this trip did end up being an epic four day rain fest then I would come out of it tougher and with more miles and more vertical gain on the old legs than I did going in. Mountain climbing requires patience and sometimes you don’t get the peak, but you always learn something. Added bonus that I just really love being in the mountains, period. That’s my attitude.
Anyway, we woke up under clear skies, and it’s go time! The approach from camp to the saddle of Vestal Peak and West Trinity was rancid. We worked our way up a steep headwall to the upper meadow but in the grey morning light managed to loose the climbers trail and had to do some minor bushwhacking and rock scrambling around a cliff band. Oh and the upper meadow? All the same special features as the lower meadow including a large stream jump which Geoff and I both fell in. Allison of course cleared it because she is the mountain whisperer. After clawing our way up another head wall we were close to Vestal Lake and the alpenglow grazed Vestal and Arrow’s upper ramparts. I definitely could not feel my feet.
As we approached the saddle my excitement to touch this very special rock was oozing out of control. I kept repeating out loud, “70 million but really 2 billion year old ancient middle earth basement rock.” We managed to get in the wrong gully. The gully we chose was two left of what would have been the easiest way to the saddle. For me, this was the scariest part of the day as it was littered with loose death blocks. We split up and tried to use more solid rock where possible. The not so fun gully was short lived and boom we were on west ridge proper heading up West Trinity.
We stayed on ridge proper. The climbing never felt above 3 spicy tacos (wait for it) but the ridge did get airy in places. The rock was everything I hoped it would be and more. Beautiful sustained scrambling. Take me back, now.
The traverse from West Trinity to Middle Trinity is the alleged crux of the route. It starts out with by descending West Trinity’s east ridge and then uses a ledge system to the south of Middle’s west ridge. I am not sure if you would need climbing gear to stay ridge proper, it looked like there is a big rappel out of sight in the above photo. Looking back it is really too convoluted to tell.
To get to the summit of Middle Trinity several 4 spicy taco (wait for it) chimneys are climbed.
Then there’s some more stuff to climb. We got a little tangled up in a spine on the ridge meaning we probably topped out a little early.
It was a lot of sustained scrambling with some exposure. Even though we got off route a few times it wasn’t difficult to figure it out or get through the moves. That is what mountain climbing is all about. And then the summit.
From Middle Trinity, East Trinity looks like some impossible to climb medieval monster. You basically go straight up the inset gully seen in the photo above. But first, you must descend Middle’s east ridge or more like a steep gully just to the south of the east ridge. Cooper and Roach both warn of the dangers in this gully. There is definitely loose rock present but I have been in much much much worse. We were down and to the saddle between Middle and East quickly and no rocks were knocked loose.
The bottom of the gully deposited us in a steep deep couloir that was full of bullet proof snow. The remaining route looked formidable. It was a little tricky to get out of the couloir and onto East Trinity. Allison and Geoff used a crack system and I went lower and used some slabs. East’s gully started out as 3 spicy tacos (wait for it).
As we reached the upper echelon it split and we had the choice of right or left, we chose left. This topped out directly on the summit. Both Cooper and Roach describe the route as topping out on the south ridge. My guess is their route goes to the right and remains 3 spicy tacos (it’s coming). Our route got a little intense with 4 to 5 spicy tacos (really it’s coming). It wasn’t the climbing, it was the loose blocks precariously teetering on top of every hold.
However, it was not sustained, 100-150 feet and then the final summit!
All that was left to do was descend East Trinity’s north ridge, go down a steep shale field, cross a basin with a beautiful unnamed lake, navigate a tricky headwall, bushwhack through some now dry willows, forge a swampy high meadow, another headwall, and return to camp. And that is just what we did.
Okay, mentally prepare yourself for an onslaught of photos of 70 million but really 2 billion year old ancient middle earth basement rock. If this does not get you as juiced up as me, we could never ever be friends.
And here are some photos of humans walking on the 2 billion year old star dust from which they are made.
And here is more because who wants to read words.
The clouds were building as we returned to camp around noon and began consuming all the snacks. Shortly thereafter it began to hail. From camp to camp the Trinity traverse took about 6 hours. We did a normal amount of snacking, dancing, stopping and talking about rock/plants and picture taking. There was no rush because despite the forecasted 70% chance of storms by nine a.m., we had a beautiful morning. This is why you pack in and try instead of waiting for the perfect weather report.
After thoughts on this traverse: I read several trip reports, Roach and Coopers route descriptions and went into it with a respectable amount of fear. I feel everything I read was slightly over dramatized. If you have experience scrambling and route finding this traverse should be no problem. While we were scrambling all day long, it never went to my head and besides the climb up the initial gully and the upper part of East Trinity, I thought the rock was a solid 70 million but really 2 billion year old ancient middle earth basement rock. Perhaps I am desensitized from all the loose nightmare peaks I’ve been climbing all summer. This traverse is really fun (3.75 Spicy Tacos) – see below.
Earlier this summer I started rating ridges and climbs by the Scoville scale which is a measurement of the pungency (spicy heat) of chili peppers—or other spicy foods (tacos), as reported in Scoville heat units (SHU), a function of capsaicin concentration. I really feel we need to get rid of the class 1/2/3/4/5 system and just go with, how spicy is the taco? When I write my guidebook, “An Honest Guide to Scrambling in the San Juans,” this is the scale that will be used. Here is how it works:
The Spicy Taco Scrambling Scale …… according to Halfpint
Pepperoncini 100-500 SHU – a little bit sweet a little bit spicy but the spice only comes in the form of minor quad burn from walking uphill at altitude. 1 Spicy Taco
Anaheim 1,000-1,400 SHU – these mild chilies are long and skinny and have just a little more heat than the pepperoncini. They are often stuffed or added to salsa. The grade steepens, the hands go on the quads, breathing deepens. 2 Spicy Tacos
Jalapeno 3,500-4,500 SHU – The most common chili in the US. Jalapenos are used often because when used sparingly they add a nice amount of heat yet don’t have an overwhelming taste. This is your classic ladder scramble. It is beautiful, it is simple, your movement flows free, your mind wanders, there may be some exposure but you’re having too much fun to notice. Everyone loves jalapenos. 3 Spicy Tacos
Habanero 200,000-300,000 SHU – This is the hottest chili you can find in your grocery store, almost 100 times hotter than a jalapeno. Don’t forget to wash your hands after handling or you may burn an eye right out of your skull. The ladder is gone, this scrambling requires skill, thought, and the headspace to deal with exposure. There may difficult moves covered in kitty litter rock. Your throat starts to burn but you’re hungry and the only way to full, is up. 4 Spicy Tacos
Ghost 1,000,000 SHU – The hottest pepper in the world. Believe it or not, there’s a demand for this small fiery chili. Of course there is. There is a small population of individuals who enjoy dangling off cliffs and route finding their way through nearly impenetrable cliff bands on mountains that are falling apart. This scrambling will get your attention. Have an ice cold glass of milk ready or….maybe a rope. 5 Spicy Tacos
Day 3 – Vestal Peak (south face)
Wham Ridge is Vestal’s premier route but this was not our route. I’m not sure any of us were ready to free solo 5.4 (5 Spicy Tacos) but it didn’t matter, we woke up to the pitter patter of light rain. After sleeping another half hour the rain tapered off but the clouds were unsettling. Without service it was hard to tell what the weather would do so we decided on Vestal’s easy (3 Spicy Tacos) standard route. The only reason this route gets three spicy tacos is because there is a good chunk of mindless ladder climbing on mostly solid rock with minor route finding. The route is straight forward. Scamper up “the due collector,” a steep junky slope to the saddle of Arrow and Vestal, turn east or left, follow a cairned ledge system under a major cliff band, run into a deep gully, turn north or left (before the gully), and get your 3 spicy tacos on. It’s a choose your own adventure to the summit. Photos, because enough with the words.
On the decent back to camp it hailed a little, rained a little, sunned a little, hailed a little, thundered a little, rained a little – typical Nuche. When we returned to camp we hit the snacks hard and the nap hard. The prior night a marmot viciously attacked my tent around 11:18 p.m. I know the exact time because I document these sort of things. When I crawled into my quilt for nap time I noticed 3 tear holes in the corner where my head rested. Oh you little F$&%*$#&$%. Luckily, Allison and Geoff brought repair tape and all was well, except it isn’t my tent, my friend Thomas lent it to me. OH you little F&$&#*$ S%%*$ marmot. After nap time, we had dinner. This summer, I chose to ditch the camp stove and cold soak my food in a rinsed out peanut butter container. Cold soaked salt, dried rice, dried beans, and dried vegetables for three nights in a row does not hit the spot at all but I enjoy a light pack and simplicity so boom. It probably started to rain, we went to sleep with dreams of Arrow swimming through our heads.
Day 4 – Arrow Peak (northeast face) and pack out
I was the most excited about Arrow and it delivered. Both Roach and Cooper detail the northeast face route quite nicely. The only thing I would interject is there is no reason what so ever to skip the first 200 feet of slab. It is fun. In addition, staying on the lower more eastern ramp for as long as possible eliminates having to negotiate a subpar loose gully and keeps the scrambling exciting. Once on the upper ramp, spicy tacos lurk around every corner. We stayed proper and pulled some moves. Why not when the scrambling is this good? I recommend reading up on the route but not getting too wrapped up in it. If you are climbing this mountain, you probably have experience scrambling, you probably enjoy a spicy taco or two, stuff your face, it does not get much better than this! I rate our route 4 fun party spiced tacos.
Luckily Allison snapped the four stages of summitting a mountain:
And then down…..
We packed up camp and quickly moved out. The storms were a brewing by 9 a.m. It rained on and off the entire way out but the temperature was nice and the views were stunning.
There was a moose.
There were train tracks.
There was a bridge.
And of course there was stinging nettle. The climb back up to Molas Pass flew by to end a wonderful trip with great friends.
What is really left to say except, 70 million but really 2 billion year old ancient middle earth basement rock, 70 million but really 2 billion year old ancient middle earth basement rock.
“When you’re a mountain person, you understand the brilliance and beauty of contradiction…
The way land can be your greatest teacher. How something can be both grounding yet elevating, intoxicating yet soothing, wild yet serene, intensely primal yet patient, and cycling yet predictable within the shifts, and rhythms. Mountains keep us on edge yet wrap us in the sensation of safety all at once. I don’t know of anything sweeter, or more magic inducing than that.”
– Victoria Erickson