Thursday, October 3, 2013

Feature: Lost in the San Juans

The Grenadiers:
A Week of Rain, Lightning and Getting Lost in Colorado’s Largest Wilderness
by Brian Wright

Arrow and Vestal Peak
Arrow and Vestal Peak coming out of the fog
I’d lost my fiancĂ©e. Sometime between when she yelled ahead to tell me she wanted to stop and take photos of some flowers and when I’d sat three minutes later on a log to wait for her to catch up, we’d gotten separated. “Ella!” I screamed at the top of my lungs, running in my heavy hiking boots back up the steep trail towards Vestal Basin. My legs were tired, my ankle injured. We had just spent the previous day battling up the 1,500-foot trail from Elk Creek to the base of Vestal Peak in Colorado’s Weminuche Wilderness on a trail that had proven not to be a trail at all. What we had hoped would be a short, albeit steep, hike had turned into a multi-hour obstacle course of downed lumber and loose rock.

An hour had gone by since we’d last seen each other. The worst of all possibilities were surfacing in my mind. Maybe she’d fallen on the uneven “trail”. Maybe she’d had to go back to camp for a forgotten item. The horrifying thought even occurred to me, since she’d seemingly disappeared without a trace, that a mountain lion had dragged her off the trail. At that point, anything seemed possible.

The clouds were building, again. Although we had had a morning of beautiful blue skies, already the storms that had dominated every afternoon of our week-long backpack trip were returning. I ran farther up the trail, almost all the way back to our camp from the previous evening. There was no sign of her. “Where did you go?” I yelled fruitlessly. I’d read about people in situations like this, but I’d never been in one myself. I needed to find someone to help. I needed to find her. As the storms built and my desperation deepened, I knew there was no way I could leave Vestal Basin until I found her.
*                              *                             *

The Weminuche Wilderness Area is the largest wilderness in Colorado. At nearly half a million acres, it encompasses a huge swath of the San Juan Mountains in-between the towns of Durango and Silverton. There are over 500 miles of trails through the Weminuche, including a portion of the popular Colorado Trail, and countless other rugged passes and unmaintained routes.

Wham Ridge and Vestal Peak
Wham Ridge of Vestal Peak in the Grenadier
Range of the San Juan Montains
But it wasn’t the trails that we had come for, but the mountains, and no other place in the state boasts so rugged and dramatic a collection of high peaks. In ten square miles at the heart of the Weminuche, there are 10 of Colorado’s 104 highest peaks, including four fourteeners (Sunlight, Eolus, North Eolus, and Windom) and many of Colorado’s most classic thirteeners. Our sights had been set on the Grenadier Range, a sub-range of the San Juan Mountains that runs east to west a few miles south of Silverton. The Grenadiers are a chain of dramatic quartzite peaks that form one of Colorado’s most unique and dramatic mountain skylines. Great ramps of solid, dark rock angle into the sky. In his book Colorado’s Thirteeners: 13,800 to 13,999 Feet, Gerry Roach says that the mountains of the Grenadier Range “take on a new dimension as peaks leap from a mold that could belong to another planet.” It was this unique architecture that drew us to these mountains, for some of the best and most popular technical alpine climbs in the state reside here.

Our plan had been to start at the Molas Trailhead (thereby foregoing the $85 train ride from Durango into the Animas River Canyon, which would have saved us over six miles and 1,800 feet of both elevation gain and loss) and hike down along a portion of the Colorado Trail until we could turn south into the Vestal Basin. We wanted to establish a high camp in the Vestal Basin at 11,500 feet at the very foot of the Grenadier Mountains. There we would be in perfect position to attempt the North Ridge of Arrow Peak (III 5.6) and, more importantly, Wham Ridge of Vestal Peak (II 5.4).

In every good story, however, the heroes (us) are thrown into a vibrant setting and obstacles are strewn in front of their path, the more the better. Such was the case for us as we started our journey in the rain on my 30th birthday. We encountered massive, drenching storms with wild lightning and pounding hail. We met hungry animals, steep hills, downed lumber, deceptive forks in the trail. We faced all of these with 70-pound packs laden with a week’s worth of gear and our entire supply of climbing gear hanging from our shoulders. But none of it was as frightening and mentally exhausting as losing each other.

The San Juan Mountains in the rain
Rainy and foreboding, views like this dominated our trip
An hour into my frantic search and there was still no sign of her. My voice was rough from shouting. It all seemed impossible, like a bad dream I couldn’t shake. I wanted to go home. After four days of rain and lightning and never having a weather window for us to attempt either peak, I was spent.

The only logical solution, I concluded at last, was that somehow she had gotten ahead of me. But how? I had sat and waited on the trail and she had never passed me. The only choice, it seemed, was to head down. It was a difficult decision; if she was in trouble and needed help I might be her only hope for a rescue. Shouldering my pack reluctantly, I start down the long hill.

Quickly, I found myself somewhere unrecognizable and the harsh truth settled in: it had been me who had taken the wrong trail. I had to back-track until I realized exactly where I had gotten off course. Finally back on the right path, I started downhill as fast as I could, knowing that somewhere below Ella was likely in a desperate panic just like me, thinking I too was lost. I found footprints fresh since the rain of the night before. They had to be hers.

At the bottom of the hill we were reunited at last, each as emotional as the other. We sat together resting, exhausted by our simultaneous searches for each other. After the emotions subsided we were able to laugh it off like a bad joke.

The trip wasn’t quite what we’d hoped it would be. We didn’t make either summit, we got rained on incessantly, and both of our bodies were breaking down with the enormous effort. But as we settled next to the Animas River for our last night before we hiked up the big hill back to our car, we were happy. We’d had a great adventure in one of Colorado’s most breathtaking places.

Note: This article first appeared in the September 2013 edition (Volumne Eight, Issue Five) of Our Backyard, which is a special edition inside The Nickel, the Moab Times Independent, the Fruita Times, and the Palisade Tribune

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