Monday, June 25, 2012

Arrow Peak from Beartown

Before I moved to Colorado, I had never heard of In N Out Burger.  I believe I met my first California transplant within 10 seconds of arriving here, which means I was already well-informed of the virtues of In N Out by second 12 or so.  It wasn't until a few years later, when I traveled to the Golden State for a triathlon, that I actually got to measure the experience against the hype.  I distinctly remember not being very hungry and only getting one burger, but having just a taste made me want to go back.  I'm pretty sure that the buildup helped make my first In N Out experience a good one.  Similarly, my first trip to the Grenadiers has me wanting to get back there in a big way.

The Plan
I found myself with a great problem:  being in Lake City with no firm plans between the Wayzata trip on Monday-Wednesday and the San Juan Solstice 50 on Saturday.  Instead of putting a ton of miles on the car going back and forth between Lake City and the Springs, I decided to do a little climb instead.  My Lake City 50 plan was to take it easy, avoid going to the well, and make sure I still had some gas in my tank for the upcoming training weeks.  I figured putting in a big day 48 hours before the race would "encourage" me to do just that.  Put another way, I thought two days just under my physical/recovery threshold would be more beneficial than one huge day way beyond my threshold.

Thus, the plan began to take root.  I had mentioned my intentions to Jake a week previously.  After spending a few days off the grid, I returned to Lake City for some coffee and a shower.  It was there that I received a text from Jake telling me that he and his buddy Grant were in for a trip to the Grenadiers and would be rolling into Lake City momentarily.

Our tentative plans was as follows:
Wednesday noon - depart Lake City for the Beartown Trailhead.
Take the Upper Elk Creek approach to the Vestal Basin, or make it as far as possible before dark.
Climb Arrow, Vestal, and the Trinities at a "climbing" (not running) pace on Thursday.
Hike out Friday morning.

The Approach
Simply put, Beartown is out there.  Maybe 20 miles as the crow flies from Lake City, it still took us nearly three hours on some pretty rough jeep road to get to the trailhead.  Lots of very cool scenery along the way, though.

The Rio Grande River, about a mile upstream from the Rio Grande Reservoir.

After quite a few miles of rough 4 x 4 road, we came to the supposed crux of the drive:  fording the Rio Grande.  Sadly, we were correct in assuming that a late-June crossing wouldn't be problematic this year.

Crossing the Rio Grande.  It could definitely be scary in a normal year or with a vehicle lacking high clearance.

The "other" Kite Lake - this is about 2 miles past the Beartown Trailhead and where the Jeep road finally ends.  We felt about as far from civilization as we could possibly be at this spot.

"Selfie" from the trailhead
 We departed the trailhead at 6:00PM on a beautiful Wednesday evening.  The first two miles of hiking found us climbing from 11,500' to a high point of 12,600' on the Continental Divide.  The views in the first two miles were big.

Looking west from the beginning of the trail

We eventually would get to the top of the ridge in the center, veer left(south), then take a right where the Elk Creek trail split off of the CDT/CT.

One of a few abandoned cabins.

Atop the Continental Divide.  The view from here is staggering.
Roach states that from this point, it's a 4.4 mile descent to the Vestal Creek/Elk Creek junction.  This is incorrect - the distance is closer to 5.7 miles.  Luckily, it's hard to miss the beaver ponds that signify the turnoff into Vestal Basin.

Breathtaking.  Elk Creek drops down to the left of this shelf.

Looking down the upper Elk Creek's valley.  Notice the switchbacks in the left foreground; I've rarely seen a trail cut so cleanly through such a pristine place.  Very, very little evidence of people cutting the switchbacks.

I believe this is 13,627' White Dome

Trifecta of wildflower colors.

Looking east, back at the divide after descending the switchbacks into upper Elk Creek.

What makes this approach interesting is that it's a big net elevation loss.  You start at 11,500', climb to 12,600' in 2 miles, then descend for the next 5.7 miles to approximately 10,000'.  Of course, this means you end up re-ascending nearly 3k on your way back out with heavy packs. 

Heart of the Wenimuche

I believe this is 13,475' Peak Two.
As the sun dropped lower, we decided it best to set up camp near the beaver ponds where Vestal Creek joins Elk Creek at 10,000'.  We knew that the initial climb into Vestal Basin was fairly steep.  Anyone who has ever done a multi-day trip knows the dilemma - how far to hike with full packs?  Jake and Grant were both fit, and we figured to be able to get up to the base of Arrow quickly with an early enough start.

The "Snag"
I told Grant I didn't know how to share this important part of the trip without throwing him under the bus.  He replied that he should be thrown under the bus, but I think both Jake and I need to take a little bit of the blame.  The conversation went something like this:

"So...dudes.  I, uhm, didn't bring any food."
"Well, OK, I brought these four beers.  But, yeah.  I don't have any food."

Grant apologized to both of us for forgetting food.
Jake apologized to me for not checking with Grant beforehand.
I wouldn't apologize to myself for not checking with Grant and Jake.  I know that backcountry protocol involves everyone laying out all of their gear beforehand to eliminate redundancies and avoid problems like this.  That didn't happen.  Further compounding the problem - both Jake and I went as bare-bones as possible on food to keep the weight down.

Thus, the plan had to change.  With all of our remaining food laid out in front of us - including the 960 beer calories - we clearly didn't have the ammo needed to make a sweep of the Vestal group, let alone hit them AND hike the uphill 8 hours back out to Beartown.  Whether we could even get one peak in was up in the air.  We decided that the best course of action would be to call Grant a lot of four-letter words, eat most of his food, cover him in honey, stick him in the bear bag overnight and hope for nature to take care of the rest.  He resisted this plan.  Instead, we chose to play it by ear and maybe at least get up one peak in the morning.  A rationed dinner made, tents set up, and we were sawing logs by 11:30.

Arrow Peak
Alarms woke us a little before 5:00.  Skipping out on most of our planned breakfast, we ingested a bit of caffeine and began the climb into Vestal Basin by 5:45.

Crossing Elk Creek can be problematic; with the low rainfall this year, we found it to be trivial.

Vestal and the Trinities come into view.

Getting to the upper basin proved to be a little more challenging than we thought; we couldn't find the turnoff for Arrow in the thick underbrush and ended up bushwhacking quite a ways east.

Vestal's famous Wham Ridge

Traversing back to Arrow's base

Getting ready for "the ramp"

"The ramp"

Arrow's ramp is mellow at first, but gradually steepens as you approach the summit

The classic Vestal-from-Arrow picture.  I used to think anyone who free soloed Wham was a nutjob; after both seeing it for myself and talking to two guys who have done it, I'm thinking it's doable if you don't mind a lot of air under your butt.
We initially just took the left ramp up, keeping an eye on the traverse options to the right ramp.  A little past 13,000', though, Jake and I talked.  It appeared that the left ramp/ridge might go.  The rock was super solid - much moreso than the class 3 right ramp.  Grant was comfortable enough to give it a shot, and we found ourselves with nearly 1k of class 3+/4 bliss all the way to the summit.

Kudos, mountain goat.  13,750' and you must've been rockin' it when you snagged this on a rock.
 We re-joined the standard route maybe 50 feet from the summit.  I'll say it again - if you prefer solid rock with exposure over looser but less steep stuff, forget the ramp.  Stay far left, almost till you hug the NE ridgeline, and you will find one of the most enjoyable scrambles you've ever had.

Summit - 13,803'
 I wish we could've stayed on the summit all morning, but we had a LONG way to get back to civilization.  4 hours to camp, another 4 to the car, another 3 to Lake City, and another 5 for the other two to get back to COS.  Not only that, the longer we stayed, the higher the chances that our lack of food would come back to haunt us.  We chose to descend the standard route.

Descending.  The lower/left(when up-climbing) ramp is clearly visible here.

Looking down at the lower meadow before descending into it.  There was a tent; we also saw two guys over on Wham during our ascent.

We'll be back.  With food.
 We were back at camp by 1:00 and heading back up heavy by 2:00.

One last look from the beaver ponds
 The trip back up to the Divide was rough.  I bonked in a serious way.  Jake, being the Navy guy he is, dropped his bag off at the divide, ran back down the trail, met me at the bottom of the switchbacks, and took my bag from me.  His justification was that I needed to save my legs for Saturday's fun run.  Truth be told, the damage had already been done.  24 miles in 24 hours doesn't wreck me, but it surely doesn't leave me feeling fresh the next day!  Nonetheless, Jake, I again thank you.

All downhill from here.
 We got back to the jeep a few minutes before 6:00 - it took about 4 hours for us to hike out.  We were out of food, and the next challenge was to make it back to Lake City for dinner before the town's seemingly mandatory 9:00 closing time.

Mmmmmm, burger.

We did make it to Lake City in time, getting in our orders for Pork Taco's at Southern Vittles at 8:45PM.  Food is amazing when you're starving.

Our approach.  Beartown on the left.

Climb into Vestal Basin.
Closer view of the scramble.  Ascent is generally the left line, descent is the right.

Closing Thoughts
  • The Beartown/Upper Elk Creek approach is special.  Remote, spectacular, time-consuming, and rewarding are all apt descriptors.  
  • Arrow is one of my new favorite climbs; only on Capitol's "North Ridge Direct" have I found that much continuous class 3+/4 fun.  
  • I think if I could do it all over again, I would forgo the heavy pack and daytrip it from Beartown.  Making it from TH to Beaver Ponds with a light pack could be done in half the time, and the re-ascent of Elk Creek wouldn't be so bad if one was traveling lightweight.  
  • Vestal looks 100% pure fun; the Trinities do as well.
  • Grant owes me dinner.  Preferably In N Out Burger.


  1. Beautiful pictures. That looks like a special place that an extended trip of climbing and relaxation would mix well. If you are willing to sleep under a tarp and other lighter options I think you can still forgo heavy packs.

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