RT Length: 9.5 miles
Parked at the Molas Pass Trailhead, I woke up very well rested but with a bloody nose. The stars were out and it was dark outside, but my nose runs a lot while I hike so I know what a runny nose feels like. This was blood, and I reached for a bandana. I slid my arms out of my sleeping bag and gasped at the cold and wondered to myself why my alarm hadn’t gone off? I knew I’d overslept, but wasn’t sure by how much? I fumbled for my phone, which was indeed flashing “Alarm! Alarm! Alarm!” but not making any noise. Apparently it was going off but because of the cold it wasn’t functioning properly. Note to self: get an alarm clock that doesn’t run on your phone. The display said it was 5:26am. Drat! I’d set the alarm for midnight, and now it was much too late to begin either of the hikes I’d had planned for the day (although the 10 hours of uninterrupted sleep had been pleasant).
As I was applying pressure to my nose I considered my options. Due to the time I couldn’t hike into the Vestal Basin, but I was close to the South Mineral Campground where I’d hiked yesterday, and the conditions there had looked favorable. The only downside? I didn’t have any beta with me on any of those peaks. I decided to drive to an area where I had cell service and pull up my email. I wasn’t sure, but maybe I’d emailed some beta to myself a few weeks ago from peaks in the area?
Did I mention it was cold? I turned on my truck and the temperature read 19 degrees. Oh, and that frost is INSIDE the window.
A few miles down the road I had 2 bars of service and found a pullout to park. I was there for about 20 minutes searching through my emails for information on a hike I could do today. Not one vehicle passed me while I was there.
I was in luck! I had started some notes on US Grant Peak. I hadn’t finished them completely (I’d wanted to do this peak with Pilot Knob and “V4” and possibly “V2”) but I had enough beta to go on. It was 50/50 on whether the path would be clear enough from snow to summit, but I figured just the hike to Ice Lake would be worth the effort. I took screenshots of my emails and drove back to the South Mineral Campground, parking in the same spot I did yesterday.
I took my time getting ready (it was colder here than it had been at Molas) and started on the trail at 6:30am. I signed the trail register and was on my way.
The trail begins at the west end of the parking area
And starts by switchbacking up the hillside. There were more switchbacks than I thought were necessary, and lots of signs asking people not to cut the switchbacks. What these trail designers may not realize is animals can’t read signs, and I’m sure the trails are being cut by deer, coyotes, etc. that would rather take the faster route. If you don’t want people to cut switchbacks you need to design a more efficient trail. Also, THANK YOU to all of our hardworking trail builders and maintainers out there! You rock!
There was also a lot of avy debris that had been nicely cleared
After the avy area there’s a waterfall. This is where (I believe) the switchback area you can alternately park at links up with the Ice Lakes trail. I went left here.
The trail exits the trees for a bit and then enters them, switchbacking again
Here I encountered ice on the trail. Nothing too difficult on the way up, but slippery on the way back down.
I excited the trees and rounded the corner
The trail is so nice I missed the turnoff and hiked about a quarter mile past it before realizing my mistake. I backtracked and took a picture of the correct route. Turn right here onto the unmarked Island Lake trail
The rest of the trail up to the basin is easy to follow
I had great views of Fuller, Vermillion, and Golden Horn for most of the trek
The trail all the way to Island Lake was well established
I made it to the lake and decided to take a bit of a break. Up until this point it had been slow going. I was curiously more tired than I should have been, considering I’d gotten quite a bit of rest last night. Then it hit me: I hadn’t eaten anything! Adding up my calories yesterday (I’m guessing around 1000 total with the two packets of tuna and spoonful of peanut butter) and apple I’d eaten this morning, I wasn’t fueling properly. I got out a tin of almonds and snacked as I took in the views. Someone had left firewood.
I put on my helmet, gathered my gear, and started out again. Here’s the path I took up to the saddle between V4 and US Grant
There is no clear trail around the lake, but the route was obvious. I was still a little worried snow on route may be a problem, but wouldn’t know for sure until I made it to the saddle, or perhaps even further. This part of the hike is easier than it looked. In my experience, gullies like this are steep and not much fun, but this one was filled with the good kind of scree (like on Red Mountain A) where it’s easy to gain traction. I went straight up the side of the mountain and followed the gully.
About halfway up the gully I spotted something moving out of the corner of my eye. I turned and it stopped moving. At first I thought it was a mountain goat because of its size, but then it started walking again and I noticed it had a canine loping gate, similar to a coyote. But it was huge! My next thought was wolf, but I don’t think we have them in the San Juans? Also, 13K seems pretty high for a wolf. Maybe someone had lost a dog? I whistled to it and it turned around, stood, and watched me until I was out of sight, which ended up being about 30 minutes. Any guesses as to what this is?
The final push up the gully to the ridge wasn’t difficult but I was going slow. This part of the hike was very mental for me, and even though I knew I was close I wanted to give up. Stopping and turning back seemed like a great idea, and it got me to thinking: What is it that keeps me going, even when I want to quit? Stubbornness? Probably. I know if I just keep putting one foot in front of the other and stop-stopping I’ll eventually make it. Yes, it’s stubbornness, but it’s also something more…
At the saddle I turned right and my spirits dropped a bit. No snow (yay!) but tons of scree and choss. I was going to have to be careful with my footing.
There was a very faint trail here, and a lot of gullies. I noticed in the important areas there were cairns (probably 5 total). If you see a cairn, use it because it’s helpful: heading up or down the wrong gully would prove nasty here.
I came to an easy class 2 gully (it looks worse than it is)
This is where the fun begins. There isn’t much left to the rest of the route, and it’s all class 3+.
This is the class 4 crux section. Here is the route I took up the class 4 section and over the class 3 airy ledge (it felt worse to me than the airy ledge on Jagged).
The class 4 section was easier to me than I’d heard. I stepped on a medium sized rock and easily pulled myself up. There were plenty of hand and footholds, and I found the climb was just over twice my body length, so no more than 10-15 feet. Here’s the path I took (both up and down)
Here’s another look up from the step
Once on the ledge I went right (the only way I could go) and carefully traversed the ledge. There was definitely some exposure here.
Once around the ledge I found myself at a class 3 gully. Woot! No snow! This was the last obstacle on this climb and I was thrilled it was (basically) snow free! This gully had both stable rock and choss, so each move had to be carefully calculated. It’s steeper than it looks, and would not be fun with snow. It looked like you could take the right side straight up, but that was steeper than I felt comfortable climbing, so I kind of zig-zagged up the gully wherever I could find stable rock. Bonus if there was dirt involved.
From the top of this gully it was an easy walk to the summit
I summited at 10:20am
It was a really nice day so I spent a lot of time on the summit, enjoying the views and congratulating myself for not stopping when I wanted to. This is why I keep going:
This one was tricky, so here’s how I made it back down. First back down the gully
Then across the airy traverse (don’t look down)
And back down the crux.
Once again, it’s important to be aware of the gullies from here. Look before you commit, as there are many game trails that look like trails. They don’t all “go”. Look for the cairns and second guess each route you take, especially on the way back down.
Looking over at “V4” I didn’t feel comfortable attempting it today, mostly because I hadn’t done any research on the route and an obvious one wasn’t visible to me from US Grant’s ridge. It looked like it had too much snow, so I didn’t even attempt it, and instead put on my microspikes, made my way back to the saddle and headed down.
It’s amazing how different the snow can be on two sides of the same mountain. Here’s my route back down to Island Lake. I followed the soft gully back down, paralleling the snow.
I took another break at the lake to reapply sunscreen and take off my microspikes and jacket (it was getting hot!). I heard some voices above me, looked up, and noticed some hikers at the top of the US Grant/”V2” saddle
The trek out was uneventful. I had to be careful because the snow was now icy and I didn’t want to slip (but I didn’t want to put on my spikes either). I came across a family with three young kids (between the ages of 4-9) who were about halfway to Ice Lakes Basin and didn’t look like they were going to make it. Their dog was off leash, barked and charged at me. I’ve never been afraid of a dog in my life, but this one caught me off guard. The oldest child told me not to worry, that the dog was nice and just pretending to be mean. Hmmmm. In any event, I warned the next couple behind them with the off leash pit bull of the off leash charging dog ahead. Seems to me there was potential there for a scuffle.
There were several cars in the parking lot now.
I made it back to my truck at 1pm, making this a 9.5 mile hike with 4084’ of elevation gain in 6.5 hours.