Molas Lake is the main access point for the Grenadiers and their surrounding peaks in the northwest Weminuche. Crossing the Animas River a few miles south of Silverton, the trail drops 1500 feet from near Molas Pass, making for a brutal return and earning it “once a year” status for me. I had used it three times before to tag the central, eastern, and western Grenadiers, and will probably have to use it one more time for Peaks One through Three and White Dome. This time I used it to reach the peaks south of the main Grenadiers, between Tenmile and Noname Creeks. These peaks are normally climbed from Noname Basin to the south, after reaching Needleton via the train. However, the train does not work for dayhikers and, after having dayhiked Ruby Basin a few years ago, I knew that reaching Noname from Purgatory in a day would be too much.
While not part of the main Grenadier ridge, they are part of that range geologically, being made of the same quartzite and other old metamorphic rock. Noname Creek appears to be the dividing line between this formation and the kitty-litter granite making up the Needles 14ers and the high 13ers of Chicago and Ruby Basins. The approach is even more absurd for these peaks: after reaching Vestal Basin, one crosses the 12,800-foot saddle between Vestal and the Trinities, then drops to 12,000 feet above Balsam Lake before finally reaching the base of the peaks. My return via Tenmile Creek and the Animas, taken on a whim, was considerably shorter, but far more rugged and probably only slightly faster.
My alarm was set for 3:45 AM, but I woke up at 3:44 and shut it off. I ate my Cup of Sadness, then had enough time for some more coffee before setting off shortly after 4:30, incurring two hours of headlamp. I have never made this approach by day. Jogging down toward the Animas while listening to some upbeat drum-and-bass by FuX, I easily found the dead-eyed drive necessary for such outings; it was going to be a good day.
I negotiated the two large slide paths in the dark. The first had been mostly cut through, while I had to follow flags through a jumble of downed tree in the second. Headlamp time ended just before the Vestal Basin turnoff. Shortly before that, I passed one guy with a bright headlamp, two apparent hunters with none (bow season has started), and another group of apparent backpackers. Why they were all heading out so early on a weekday, only a few minutes apart, will remain a mystery. The climbers’ trail I had followed in 2012 is now much closer to an official trail, well-trod and easy to follow. I was disappointed to see that someone had even sawed through the deadfall in a couple of places; perhaps soon it will start appearing on official maps.
I was pleased to find only a single tent in the basin, for some reason pitched in the coldest, wettest, most miserable spot possible, out in a boggy meadow. Passing a nice tent spot in the woods 100 yards farther up, I continued along the now much fainter trail, then left it before the upper willow bog to cross the creek and aim north of Vestal. I found a few cairns this time, and passed right by Vestal Lake, a picturesque spot right at the base of Vestal’s smooth, curving north face. I paused frequently for photos of sunrise on Vestal and Arrow’s layered uplift, then headed toward the saddle.
The inexplicably-named “Kodiak High Route” passes through the lowpoint close to West Trinity, but I once again followed the mountain goats to a slightly higher gap farther west. The snow on this north face was annoying, with a breakable crust over several inches of sugar, but I made use of the goat tracks where I could, and soon reached both sunlight and my first view of the peaks I intended to climb, still a valley distant. Knowing that I had to drop to 12,000 feet, I did a better job following the grassy benches east, reaching the valley bottom at the top of the talus headwall above Balsam Lake. I (prematurely) filled up on water here, then continued to the saddle between Peaks Eight and Seven, where I found another convenient lake.
I debated skipping Eight, since it was a side-trip on my traverse, but was glad I did not, as it had the day’s most thought-provoking scrambling. From the lake, I headed up to the right side of the ridge, following a series of steep gullies and corners connected by ledges. The climbing reminded me of the Minarets, with positive holds, but chossy rock and lots of loose debris. It made for careful climbing, especially on the upper, redder rock, which was even more rotten than the stuff below. I did not find a register on the seldom-visited summit, but the views were worth staying around. Leviathan, Jagged, and the Needles looked particularly spectacular to the south, with the snow from an early season storm hanging around on their north faces. That, plus the weaker sun from the west coast wildfires’ smoke, made it feel more like October, my normal Weminuche season.
The descent took at least as long as the ascent. I skipped refilling my water at the lake, and headed straight up Seven’s east face. Seven is made of some sort of quartzite, which is slick when wet, and the rock is angled to be slabby on this side. This made the melting snow problematic, especially closer to the top, but fortunately the face was mostly class 2-3, with plenty of options, and soon I was on the summit. I found a register here, and was pleased to see a remark that the traverse from Six went.
Six is, however, far away, and the rock turns to garbage on the descent to the saddle. One side-effect of quartz’s hardness and slickness is that it makes particularly sharp and unstable talus. There were some class 3-4 notches along the way, but nothing to cause more than a few moments’ perplexity. Once past the low point, a broader ridge of black rock led to the next summit. Six is the ridge’s highpoint, and tall enough to make the list of Colorado’s 200 (or maybe 300?) highest peaks, so it sees a bit more traffic from list-baggers. It is also the first peak along the ridge to have a clear view of Noname Creek, particularly deep and broad for the region, and the impressive north faces of Animas, Monitor, and the northern Needles ridge.
Five is the highest of several minor bumps west of Six, reached via an annoyingly chossy but not difficult traverse around a lake to the south. I tagged the summit, signed in, and moved on. Four is even more annoying than Five, another traverse around a lake, but looser and with some seemingly-mandatory class 4 climbing along the ridge. It might be faster to drop down talus to the lake and reascend, but I was tired enough to prefer scrambly traversing to elevation loss and gain. Four is actually two minor bumps past the lake, and it might be more efficient to traverse the talus-slope north of these subpeaks. However, it was undoubtedly loose beneath the fresh snow, so I stayed on the ridge, finding a bit of fun class 4 terrain on the way up the first bump.
I was faced with a bout of indecision on Four’s summit, which I reached around 2:15. My planned return route was to drop to a slabby bench north of the ridge, follow that east, then drop again to Balsam Lake before making the thousand-foot climb to the Vestal-Trinity saddle. This would be straightforward from Four, but would require crossing a spur ridge if I continued to The Heisspitz, still almost a mile distant. I had a headlamp, and the weather was good, but I felt my will fading. Looking at the map, I somehow convinced myself that, from The Heisspitz, I could return via Tenmile Creek and the Animas. It would involve some 5-6 miles of unknown valley travel, but I figured that either there would be an old trail down Tenmile, or the lack of humans would result in more game trails. As for the Animas… I hoped for a similar situation, and one river ford and a bit of trespassing would get me to a well-maintained “trail.”
So off to The Heisspitz I went. I slightly screwed myself traversing too low to the left, but this section of ridge was much better than the garbage between Six and Four, so I made good time to the final climb. There is supposedly some class 2-3 route to the summit, but I ignored it and mostly stayed closer to the crest. I was hoping for some hint in the register about the route up from Tenmile, but found nothing useful. I debated some more, but the return to the Vestal-Trinity saddle looked extremely depressing, so I committed to my plan and started down the west ridge. The rock was shockingly good and slabby, making for easy going to the shallow saddle before Point 12,552′.
The valley bottom looked perilously brushy, but game seemed to be using this as a pass, so I dropped north down the nearly 4000 feet to the creek. The route started out as loose scree, dirt, and snow, manageable but not ideal for descent. After some loose scree, I found pleasant turf in the middle, and remained pleased with my choice. The steep drainage I was following narrowed toward the bottom, with vertical terrain on either side of a creekbed, but fortunately the creek itself did not cliff out, and it was late enough in the season that I could follow the semi-stable talus in its bed all the way to willow country.
The final stretch to Tenmile Creek was a miserable thrash. I eventually found the creek, crossed, and thrashed up the other side, hoping to find open terrain or game trails away from the steeper creek bottom. To my surprise and delight, I found the faint trace of an old built trail, which does not appear on any map that I know of. Though it is hard to follow, and I lost it several times, it made the descent to the Animas fairly efficient, while it would have been an utter nightmare otherwise. This bit of ingenuity, exploration, and luck put me in a good enough mood to listen to happy downhill music (Girl Talk — thanks, Renee!). The trail seemed to be improving as I descended, but I lost it again about a half-mile from the river, and never found where it came out. I stayed high on the right, side-hilling my way around the flat creek junction, then dropped toward the Animas.
I found bits of faint path on the east side, but they were intermittent and annoying, so I looked for a potential ford. This would not be possible earlier in the season, but late in a dry year the Animas was no more than knee-deep. I grabbed a stick and forded with my shoes and socks on, then wrung them out on the other bank before finding the “trail.” Its gentle and consistent ruling grade would have been pleasantly runnable if I were fresh, but I spent plenty of time walking when the gravel surface became less than ideal. I finally closed the loop, and had only the slog out to Molas left. Aided by Metallica, I somehow summoned the energy to jog the flatter switchbacks and run the long meadow traverse at the top, and made it to my car just before headlamp time. I cooked up some vegetable curry with eggs, then passed out around 8:30.
This was my first big outing of which I was slightly proud in a long time. I wasn’t sure I would have the mental stamina, but like riding a bike, that is something you never lose. These may be the hardest Weminuche peaks to reach in a day without the train, and some of the least-visited. At this point, I think I only have one or two more long outings to clean out the Needle and Grenadier region. After that, my most remote remaining Weminuche peaks are those east of the Vallecito, including Nebo and Peters. While it will feel good to complete this project, I will miss having an easy reason to visit Colorado’s best peaks.