Storm King, Peak Nine, Silex, the Guardian (15h)

Traverse from Nine to Guardian

Traverse from Nine to Guardian


These peaks on the eastern end of the Grenadiers are some of the hardest to reach in the Weminuche Wilderness of southwestern Colorado. With a high-clearance vehicle, the Beartown trailhead is the closest starting point; without one, Molas Pass is the least-bad option, despite the 1,600′ climb back out of the Animas on the return. Being both remote and overshadowed by their neighbors, they see relatively little traffic, and are wilder than most high Colorado peaks. I was pleased to dayhike them on what may, due to approaching winter, be my last San Juan outing this season. Here is a rough map.

Unsure how long my outing would take, I set off from the Molas Pass trailhead at 5:15, committing to a bit less than 1h30 of morning headlamp time. I had been using my tiny running pack for my longer recent outings, but I chose to bring my larger dayhiking pack to accommodate a more whimsical diet: a box of pop-tarts, a box of granola bars, and a bag of Chex mix (on sale for 960 cal/$!). While the route would involve some running, much of the time would be spent on slower cross-country travel, so the pack would not be too annoying.

Swamp donkey!

Swamp donkey!

I ran the rough trail down Molas Creek as best I could by headlamp, crossed the foot bridge, then followed the trail through the swamp along the railroad tracks. I saw some glowing eyes off in the bog, turned to get a better look, and was surprised to see not elk but… three swamp donkeys! While the Weminuche is home to some northern beasts like the over-friendly mountain goats of Chicago Basin, I had either forgotten or not known that there are also a few moose. I am used to seeing them in the Tetons and parts north, and knew there were some north of I-70, but this is the farthest south I have yet seen them.

Sunrise on Vestal and Arrow

Sunrise on Vestal and Arrow

After that bit of excitement, I put in a bit more headlamp up the Elk Creek trail, then finally got to stow it as I regained the morning’s elevation loss. Leaving the trail at the beaver ponds near 10,000′, I passed one party apparently camped on their way out of Vestal Basin, then crossed the creek on a handful of small logs and started up the steep but well-used climbers’ trail. Where the valley flattens and turns east, the trail obnoxiously dives into the bog. My shoes had almost dried after the previous day’s Vallecito soaking, so I picked my way along fainter trails on the north side of the valley.

Vestal, Arrow

Vestal, Arrow

Following a sort of game trail through the woods, I was embarrassed to stumble right through another party’s camp. I wasn’t quite sure how to behave, but the man outside his tent said “hi” and seemed friendly, so I stopped to talk for a minute. He and his partner had been in the valley for a few days, tagging the peaks at a leisurely pace, and were waiting for things to warm up a bit before heading for Arrow. I told him I was headed for the more obscure Storm King, and he offered some beta on the best route through the Vestal-Trinity pass. They had remarkably bad timing: Arrow’s standard route and Vestal’s excellent Wham Ridge are both more-or-less north-facing, and the previous week’s snow was hardly melting on high north faces. They also turned out to be in for a healthy dose of cold rain on their hike out the next day.

Vestal-Trinity pass at center

Vestal-Trinity pass at center

I found a dry stream crossing near the constriction between two boggy sections, then made my way around snow-patches as I headed up to the plain between Vestal and West Trinity. There are a number of possible crossings of this broad, flat saddle; I chose one near the middle that had some obvious boot- and hoof-prints in the snow, and which also happened to be out of Trinity’s shadow. The still-firm snow made what would have been a loose scree-slog significantly easier, and I soon found myself looking across Tenmile Creek at Peaks Four and Five and, farther away, Pigeon and the Needles 14ers.

West down Tenmile Creek

West down Tenmile Creek

My recent beta suggested staying high on the traverse from the col at 12,600′ toward the small lakes around 12,200′, avoiding the drop to Balsam Lake at 11,450′. At first I found easy travel on a series of descending grassy benches, with bits of use trail and the occasional cairn. As the grass dropped toward the valley bottom, I lost the cairns and found myself on ugly, loose talus. I went back high, finding bits of easier travel near the cliffs at the Trinities’ base, but it was not a route I would want to take with an overnight pack. Looking back from near Peak Nine, it seems that the best route continues on grass, descending to around 12,000′ west of the small lakes.

Storm King from col

Storm King from col

As I made my way up the gentle slope to the Storm King-Nine saddle, I eyed Storm King’s southwest face apprehensively. I didn’t know anything about the route other than that it was on the face, and that it was supposedly easy to lose on the way down. As I neared the saddle, the correct path along the south ridge became more obvious, even before I saw the faint use trail and cairns. This may be an obscure peak, but it is also Colorado.

Silex from saddle

Silex from saddle

Two things became clear from the saddle: First, Peak Nine would be either a quick jaunt or a scary climb on snow-covered rock. Second, there was no way I would be getting to Silex via Silex Lake. Even without the coating of fresh snow, Silex Lake is one of the least hospitable-looking places in the Weminuche, a cold pool in Silex’s shadow surrounded by loose, lifeless talus and scree. If I were going to do more than tag Storm King, I would have to find another way.

Lake Silex

Lake Silex

I made easy work of Storm King’s standard route, which is mostly pleasant class 2-3 with a bit of loose scree in the final chute leading to the summit ridge. I suppose some people may take the chute too far on the descent, but it is not hard to remember where to traverse out toward the south ridge. Along the ridge, I passed a chute that would provide a quick descent to Lake Silex, if I had any desire to go there.

Notch on Storm King and Peak Nine

Notch on Storm King and Peak Nine

It was time to decide what to do next. It had taken me around six hours to reach the summit, so returning the way I had come would make for a short day. The ridge from Peak Nine to Silex looked like it had a decent chance of going, and if not, I could always drop south to Leviathan Creek and make my way back between Peaks Seven and Eight. I decided to try Peak Nine and, if I reached its summit, use the ridge as the least-bad way to Silex and the Guardian. I would figure out how to get home from there if I made it that far.

Traverse from Nine to Guardian

Traverse from Nine to Guardian

Returning to the saddle, I made my way up talus and snow to the notch west of Nine’s summit, then descended a few yard down the south side before taking a class 4-5 chimney/corner out of the chute. Once on the south face, I made an ascending traverse east on solid class 3-4 rock covered in miscellaneous loose stuff. The easiest route apparently stays below the west ridge until east of the hard-to-see summit. I strayed onto the ridge too early, traversed back down, then found a reasonable climb up past some rap junk just west of the top. Luckily, the route never strayed onto the sketchy, snowy north face.

Nine and Storm King from ridge

Nine and Storm King from ridge

There was a bit more class 4 east of the summit, hinting at a grim, slow traverse to Silex, but fortunately the difficulty soon eased off to quick class 2-3. The traverse to Point 13,176′ was mostly fun, with the best route staying on or near the crest. I was feeling energetic, so I tagged the intermediate summit, had a bit of tricky route-finding down to the saddle with Silex, then headed straight up the spine of its southwest ridge rather than traversing the easier but looser south slope. Though it looked potentially loose the rock on the ridge was fairly solid, and offered some fun class 3-4 scrambling on incut holds, then easier class 2 to the summit.

Eyeing the Guardian from Silex, the route along the south face was clear, my route home less so. Like Storm King, both Silex and the Guardian have sheer north faces with no obvious path. The Guardian’s south face looked easy, but it would drop me to Leviathan Creek near Vallecito, way down near 10,000′ and a long ways from home. Hopefully a better way would present itself.

Silex and descent route from Guardian

Silex and descent route from Guardian

I started off on the ridge crest southeast, then dropped onto the south side to get around some sheer steps. From the first saddle, I saw what might be a route east into upper Vallecito near Stormy Gulch. I also saw a nice ledge to the south, where I soon picked up a line of cairns traversing around just below the second saddle, then up to the Guardian’s indistinct south ridge. While the ledges and ramps were easy, they did slope outward slightly, and were covered in debris eager to crash down to the valley below. I passed a couple of small high-altitude evergreens, then turned up some easy class 3 terrain to the summit.

Needles from Guardian

Needles from Guardian

I had just spent almost 9 hours heading away from home; now I had to figure out how to get back. Looking west, even Vestal looked far away, and Molas Pass was farther still. While it looked like I could descend to the south or east, the possible route from the saddle still looked promising, and might be a bit shorter than heading east to the Vallecito Trail and around. I retraced my steps, then headed northeast down talus and turf.

Descent to Stormy Gulch

Descent to Stormy Gulch

The route quickly became cliffy to the east, but I found a reasonable path by heading north to the head of the valley, then looping back southeast near the stream at its bottom. I had been out of water since before Silex, sucking on small mouthfuls of slush and reluctant to eat dry and salty food, so I took the first opportunity to drink and eat Chex mix. I scared off a few elk, then followed their trail downstream.

Looking down Stormy Gulch

Looking down Stormy Gulch

I knew that the Vallecito trail eventually connected to the Elk Creek trail, but suspected that I could save distance and time by going up Stormy Gulch, then either west into Vestal Basin or north to upper Elk Creek. I tried to stay high around Silex’s northeast ridge, finding either an uncairned use trail or a well-maintained game trail leading into the valley a bit downstream of Lake Silex’s outlet stream. I filled my water at Trinity Creek, debated crossing, then decided to continue along the apparent game trail on the south side.

Storm King to East Trinity

Storm King to East Trinity

I had a bit of luck here: though it does not appear on any map, and I did not find any blazes, there is a faint old trail south of the stream leading all the way to Trinity Lake. I even found a couple cairns and a fire ring. This discovery spared me what would have been quite a bit of obnoxious willow-bashing. The east side of the Vestal Basin col looked obnoxious, so I took a detour north to see if I could see my way to the Colorado Trail from the broad saddle. Seeing nothing but ugly talus in the valley to the north, I opted for the safe-but-obnoxious Vestal Basin return.

Looking down Vestal Basin

Looking down Vestal Basin

I took some sort of wrong line down Vestal Basin — it is best to stay high on the north side until past the first steep drop — but had no serious trouble returning to familiar ground. Passing the camp I had bumbled through in the morning, I saw no one at the tents, and decided to pass a polite distance below. However, I heard a shout, and saw the two I had met in the morning sitting on a nearby outcrop. I talked to them a bit, learning that they had successfully summited Arrow, and trying to provide some useful information from my unusual wanderings.

Then they settled in for a leisurely evening, and I took off for the evening slog. I made it about 10 minutes past the train tracks before turning my headlamp on, then jogged the flatter switchbacks out of boredom on the climb. I almost reached the car in under 15 hours, but lost a few minutes to a wrong turn in the maddening trail maze that is Molas Pass. I found my car, put my reeking, destroyed shoes on the hood, then promptly went to sleep.

6 responses to “Storm King, Peak Nine, Silex, the Guardian (15h)

  1. Beautiful pictures on this hike. I noticed Silverton town is nearby this hike. What are your impressions of Silverton? Does it remind you of any eastern Sierra towns or is it a different animal?

    • Silverton is a different animal. It’s an old mining town, and still absolutely tiny, with one paved street. If I lived there, I would probably drive the 50 miles to Durango to do major shopping. It used to mostly shut down winters, but now it has Jeepers and mountain runners in the summer, and enough backcountry skiers in the winter to keep it alive. It’s a great place to visit, but I wouldn’t live there.

  2. Nice work Sean! Probably one of the greatest spots in all of Colorado. I was over in leviathan a few weeks back during that early snowfall. You’re an animal. Great write up and well done man.

    • Thanks! I’ve been fortunate to enjoy the Weminuche in its best season (September) this year, and especially appreciated the wildness and good rock on this outing (vs. the scary gravel on my recent Tour de Ruby Basin). It looks like you get out in the area a lot — I’ll have to look through your wanderings for ideas.

  3. After I sent an email, I found this report. Great day in the heart of the San Juans! Glad we saw you in Vestal! There are many trails like the one you found in Stormy Gulch. Feel free to contact a local before your next Weminuche adventure!

    • Thanks, I’ll have to take you up on the beta offer next time I’m in the range. Hopefully you find this site’s map useful for adventures outside your backyard.

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