Trip Report: July 2006 Vestal Peak Climb, Wham Ridge Route

Vestal Peak.
Vestal Peak.

My son made the great suggestion that we climb the Wham Ridge route on Vestal Peak in the Weminuche Wilderness in Colorado. I have been looking at this route for years. It is a classic alpine climb in Colorado. The best description of the route is given in Gerry and Jennifer Roach's book, Colorado's Thirteeners, 13,800 To 13,999 Feet, From Hikes to Climbs .

He drove in from Golden and I drove from Amarillo. We met at Silverpick near Durango Mountain Resort which has since changed its name back to the original name, Purgatory. Silverpick Lodge has also changed owners and names and is now The Black Diamond Lodge . We took the 30-minute train ride on the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad from Silverton to Elk Park. Catching the train in Silverton instead of Durango saves three hours of train riding.

We leisurely hiked the 2.9 miles from the Elk Park trailhead at 8,875 feet to the beaver ponds on Elk Creek at 10,000 feet in about two hours on the first day. I wanted to do the approach very slowly to allow plenty of time for me to acclimate to the altitude. The next day we made the steep ascent to the lower meadow 1.8 miles up the Vestal Creek drainage at 11,420 feet in two and one-half hours.

The following day, Tuesday, July 18, we climbed the Wham Ridge route. We started just before dawn, hoping to be off the peak before the early afternoon monsoon season thunderstorms. We followed the route well described by Roach. Above the grassy ledge, we used a rope until just below the summit. He setup belay anchors for only two pitches including the crux 5.4 pitch along a big crack in the smoother portion of the face. We saved a lot of time by simul climbing the rest. I found the class 4+ climbing in the upper blockier sections of the face somewhat gnarly and was glad to have the protection of a rope. Using this method, we reached the top in five hours. Many people free-solo the same route in a fraction of that time, but I would not recommend it. We later learned that a young man fell to his death doing just that only a few days prior to our ascent.

The view down the almost 2000 foot face from the north subsummit is impressive. From the true summit, we were awed by the incredible sight of the rugged peaks of the San Juans. This spectacular climb on beautiful solid quartzite from a camp in the Weminuche Wilderness is an experience of a lifetime.

Once on top, we did not do a good job of route finding on the descent. We tried to follow the south face route in reverse as suggested by Roach. At one point, we followed a large cairn on the west side of the south couloir to a dead end and were met by a rappel anchor. We used this anchor to do a partially free hanging rappel of about 60 feet to another ledge. To our disappointment, we found no easy way to down climb from this point and no evidence of another rappel anchor. I do not know how the previous party whose anchor we used got out of this spot. Perhaps they climbed back up and found an easier route. We put slings around a big boulder and continued downward with another 80 feet of rappelling. We then found relatively easy class 3+ down climbing and regained the faint climbers trail that traverses the southwest side of Vestal to the Vestal-Arrow ridge. We then followed a seemingly endless slope of scree and talus to the base between Arrow and Vestal and hiked back down to our camp in the lower meadow.

The next day we started early and hiked back down to Elk Park in about three and one-half hours in plenty of time to catch the 11:18 train back to Silverton.