Hunchback through Peak Two

West Trinity, Vestal, Arrow

[This writeup skips several quality outings over the past two weeks, which I hope to return to, but the blog is getting badly behind. — ed.]

Cunningham Gulch

Climbing all the Weminuche 13ers has been a late-season, low-urgency project of mine for some years. Most of them are fairly remote, which makes them appealing but also hard to day-hike, especially late in the season when I normally visit. One of my last mother-lodes of peaks was the group north of Vestal Basin and south of Elk Creek, from Hunchback to Peak Three. I had expected this to be a truly grim outing from Molas Pass but, while doing some last-minute research, I realized that it would be significantly easier to reach the peaks from Cunningham Gulch. I had somehow never visited this trailhead, which is a viable 2WD alternative to the slow and punishing drive to Beartown for accessing the northwest Weminuche.

Dawn on Guardian, Silex, and Storm King

I was not sure how long the outing would take, but I had to be back by dinner, so I set my alarm for a painful hour and started by headlamp around 4:30, planning to do the trail approach by headlamp. It is no longer summer, so I began hiking in mitts and a down jacket. While I eventually stowed the jacket, I remained borderline cold on the long, rolling commute south along the Continental Divide above 12,000 feet, and had to put it back on above Kite Lake when my hands got too cold. I finally turned off my headlamp near the top of Elk Creek, continuing south on an old but clear trail to the saddle between Hunchback and White Dome.

White Dome

Hunchback Peak is made of some kind of crumbly shale, so it is not particularly steep, and its west ridge is mostly easy. The snow on the north side was sometimes supportive, but more often the expected breakable crust over ankle-deep sugar. I dodged a couple of small pinnacles near the top, and reached the summit in time for sunrise. I watched the light hit familiar peaks to the south and west in the Needles and Grenadiers, then retraced my steps as Hunchback’s shadow descended the east face of White Dome, my next goal.

Vestal Basin peaks from White Dome

Near the saddle between the two peaks, I transitioned from dark choss to the Grenadiers’ lighter quartzite, which is particularly light-colored in this part, giving White Dome its name. This rock can be solid and pleasant to climb, but because it is hard and breaks along smooth planes, it forms terribly unstable talus. I therefore stayed along the right-hand ridge where possible, opting for solid rock with a few class 3-4 steps instead of shifting boulders. By the time I reached the summit, it was warm enough to ditch the mitts and jacket for the rest of the day, though I would keep my hoodie and thin work gloves for several hours. The Vestal Basin peaks began to come into view here, with their strikingly bent uplift layers.

Descent from Peak One

From White Dome I followed an easy ridge to its junction with a minor spur, then turned south toward Peak One. This was the first north-facing terrain I had to deal with, and it was as unpleasant as I had feared, with unpredictable ankle- to calf-deep powder between protruding rocks. I tried to hop from rock to rock where I could, which was slow but far less aggravating than postholing. A combination of fatigue and altitude also had me plodding and gasping more than I should have been. Peak One was not particularly interesting in itself, but it offered a clearer view of the main Grenadiers. Notably, the east side of neighboring Peak Three shows the same layers as Arrow and Vestal, though the eroded valleys are in the wrong direction to make for good climbing. I also had an excellent view across Stormy Gulch to Trinity Lake, the long Trinity-Storm King ridge, Silex, and the Guardian. Looking north, I could see most of my descent route to Elk Creek and the Colorado Trail, which looked easy if a bit tedious from this angle.

The Trinities

I dropped down the ridge to the head of Stormy Gulch, then followed a rib on Peak Three’s east side to its summit. I had suspected for years that this peak would be an ideal spot to view the main Grenadiers, and it did not disappoint. I sat for awhile admiring Arrow and Vestal, whose Wham Ridge looked tricky with a dusting of snow on the steeper upper half. Through the gaps in the quartzite ridge I could see Jagged, Eolus, and Pigeon poking through. Peak Two looked like a slog, so it took me a minute to steel myself to get going. It was every bit as tedious as expected, unstable quartzite talus mixed with a bit of choss, with the usual sugary snow on north slopes. I slogged it out, admiring the high plateau to the left and my scree descent to the right. From its summit, I had a clear view up and down the deep trench of Elk Creek. I had only been as far up this drainage as the Vestal Basin cutoff, and was both looking forward to traveling its upper reaches, and dreading the long climb out.

OMG this sucked

After a couple minutes on the summit, I retraced my tedious steps a bit, then happily plunge-stepped east, crossing some sheep-trails in the pliant scree. The bottom of this drainage was blessedly willow-free, so I was expecting an easy hike down to the Colorado Trail. Unfortunately it also contains a couple of bands of slabby cliffs which are hidden from above. I did not have to do anything sketchy to get through them, but they did cause some frustration and delay. Below, I followed game trails to the right, aiming to hit the trail high. These eventually disappeared, and I found myself hopping and thrashing through a mess of deadfall above the creek junction. Looking back, I did not see a better path.

Bench lakes above Elk Creek

Once back on the trail, I was surprised and impressed by how steeply it climbed toward the Divide. I slowly ground out the 1800-foot climb, mostly appreciating the trail, but cutting straight up through some turf where it turned to maddeningly-flat switchbacks. I was ahead of schedule, but still tried to jog the flats and downhills on my way back north. Though it was late in the year, it was also a weekend, and I saw a group of three hunters who had probably driven to Beartown, a couple of day-hikers, and a pair making camp near one of the high lakes. Given the forecast for snow the next day, these last seemed either masochistic or oblivious, but they were too far from the trail for me to say anything. I jogged down to Cunningham Gulch, quickly rinsed off at the car, then drove into Silverton to grab water at the fire station and cook some real food.

2 responses to “Hunchback through Peak Two

  1. Dan says:

    Wish I could have slogged this out with you. Although, I’d probably just be cursing the obnoxious snow a lot of the time.

    1. drdirtbag says:

      I could have used your help with the cursing, as there was an awful lot for just one man to handle.

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