RT Length: 13.5 miles
I have a feeling I’m going to have a lot of second attempts while working through the bicentennials and the rest of the 13ers. There just isn’t that much quality beta out there on these peaks when compared to the centennials. My goal with this trip report is to provide beta on a lesser climbed peak. Please feel free to add to this beta to continue improving its collective knowledge. Yes, I know there’s another approach I didn’t use (which I will next time).
My plans shifted and changed right up until I was driving to the trailhead. There are a lot of peaks I want to climb in the San Juan’s, and they had the best weather forecast for the weekend. They also didn’t get as much snow as the rest of the state this week, so I was hoping to hike a few of the more difficult peaks during the nice weather window. My plan was to hike Rolling Mountain Friday and give the Grenadiers some more time so melt out (if they needed it at all). I’d be able to see them from Rolling Mountain and gauge if they were climbable at that point. Plan A was to do the Trinities, Plan B was to hike Arrow Peak, both 25+ mile hikes with 8000’ of elevation gain. I didn’t have a plan C…
I made it to the South Mineral Trailhead at 7am and took my time getting ready. It was really, really cold outside. Luckily the drive in was nice, on a well maintained 2WD dirt road. There wasn’t any ice on the dirt drive in (but there had been on 550, making it a slow approach).
I followed the Rico/Silverton trail for about 2.5 miles, first starting out actually following the trail, which wasn’t more than a game trail through dense trees.
I quickly realized the trail follows the dirt road and instead of spending time route finding I just hiked along the road. I could easily have driven my Tundra the 2.5 miles I hiked.
The worst part of the road looked like this
Just after the Bandora Mine I entered a small basin
Here the trail might as well have ended, as the road became covered in ice.
I found my away across the ice and through the willows back to the road. Here I had two options, one going to the left, the other the right. I chose to take the trail to the right in, and the trail to the left out. Long story short: The trail to the right is more of a game trail so some route finding is involved. The trail to the left is a solid trail but crosses streams at least 3 times.
The road to the right ended at a few campsites
And then a game trail took over.
This trail was faint and the only way I was able to follow it in the snow was due to moose tracks using the trail. They looked fresh, and appeared to be a mama and calf.
Since this is a faint trail the best advice I can give you is to keep the stream to your left and closely follow it.
Eventually I came across where the true trail picked up and route finding (for the time being) was over.
I continued to follow the trail south, past one of the possible routes up Rolling Mountain. I chose not to take this route first because on a topo map it looked like it had a tougher slope angle
I kept hiking until I came to the next basin. At the top of a rock slab hill I turned right (west) and left the trail.
I cut across the willows and headed up the slope, first on tundra, and then on terrible talus
All was going well until I made it to the top of this hill. My intended route to access the summit is outlined
But when I made it to the top of the hill I was surprised to find a steep downward slope, covered in snow.
My first thought was to just walk down it. I put on my microspikes and took a step and plunged up to my waist in snow. Wow! That was deeper than I’d thought! So deep and sugary I don’t think snowshoes or an ice axe would have helped. Next I tried to traverse around the snow on the scree, my intent to find the smallest piece of ice and cross there. However, the scree here is light and covering smooth rock slabs, making traversing the area like walking on marbles, even with spikes on. I tried heading higher but encountered similar wide, snow filled gullies. I retraced my steps and tried again. I couldn’t cross this area to my right because there was as 40 foot dropoff. Glissading wasn’t an option because I sank to my waist, and I didn’t have the tools necessary to climb back up (or self arrest).
This was so incredibly frustrating! I spent almost an hour trying to find a good way through this seemingly easy section, and hit a dead end every time. I glanced up and looked at the rest of the route. It looked like even if I made it past this part the area I needed to gain the ridge was covered in a large snow drift.
At this point I made the decision to turn around and instead try the route I’d passed on my way in. Yes, it would mean a lot of added elevation gain, but I felt I’d be safer. I had all day, so I wasn’t worried about time. Here’s the route back to the trail. I followed the deep drainage a little more closely this time.
A bonus of turning back: I saw a mama moose and her calf feeding on the willows! Although I tried I didn’t get a great picture of them, but I was able to watch them on my entire descent. I’m sure they’d been there all morning (I’d followed their tracks, remember?) I just hadn’t been able to see them. They never even glanced up at me: they were too busy eating.
Oh, and that drainage with the dropoff was full of ice…
I backtracked on the trail for about a mile and just before making it back to the South Park area I turned left (west) and left the trail. Here’s the route I took
This drainage was full of a lot of large, loose boulders. Not the kind that would cause a rockslide, but the kind that would roll out from under you can cause you to twist your ankle.
After the rocks came tundra
And as I made my way up this area I crossed my fingers I wasn’t going to encounter a similar snow-filled bowl like I had on the other side. Luckily, this is what I saw as I ascended. Woohoo! More rocks!
And just a little bit of avoidable ice. My goal here was to gain the ridge. I knew I needed to head straight to the rock wall and then turn right (northeast) and ascend the ridge
All was going well until I made it to the rock wall.
Here the snow became steep, and I had to get creative to stay safe. I made a small snow trench and shuffled my way to the gully. Here are my tracks looking back.
What I saw ahead of me made my heart sink: My (loose) beta told me to just ascend the gully to the ridge, and that this was a class 2 hike. Let me tell you, this is NOT a class 2 gully, or even a class 3 gully (maybe class 3 in snow: this would probably be an ok couloir climb). I decided to take it one step at a time, dropped my trekking pole and headed up.
It started out class 3, but quickly the little bits of dirt and gravel that were there gave way to smooth rock. I was unable to find secure hand/footholds, and after about 70 feet of climbing I felt I was entering class 5 territory. The rock here was smooth, and would have made a continuous slide in the rain. If I slipped, there’d be nothing to stop me for over 100 feet. Yes, I knew I could continue climbing up, but in no way did I feel confident climbing back down. I should have had a helmet for what I was doing, and rope for rappelling back down. Solo adventuring is dangerous, and I’ve promised a lot of people in my life if I felt in over my head I’d turn back. This was one of those times. I took a picture of the down climb
And one of the Grenadiers (fresh beta for tomorrow)
I slowly headed back down. I’d climbed much further up than I’d realized, and the down climb was much more difficult than I’d anticipated. The entire time I was descending I kept telling myself what a good decision it had been to turn around: this was scary insane! Yes, it was a bit disappointing to turn back twice in one day, but I’d learned quite a lot about this mountain, and there’s still one more approach I know of I’m going to try next time. Surprisingly, I wasn’t in a bad mood: failed attempts are all a part of the game. In fact, I was elated when I made it back down the gully safely! As a bonus, I now have a better idea of how I want to summit next time. Here’s a look at the route I took back to the trail:
Once on the trail I decided to take the proper trail back down.
As stated earlier, there were no less than 3 icy creek crossings
Back on the Rico/Silverton trail I had one more creek crossing and then a nice walk on a 4WD road back to my truck.
As I was walking along the road I was passed by trail runner, running with his dog. Trail runners always impress me, but this time I was doubly impressed: this guy runs with his CHIHUAHUA, and the dog LOVES it! They run every week, this time from Molas Pass to South Mineral Creek Campground. Has anyone heard of this guy? He had me take a picture of him and his dog with his cell phone (the dog posed happily) because he never sees anyone on the trails to take photos of them
The entire way back I was surprised at how dry the Ice Lakes Basin seemed. It was too bad I hadn’t done much research on the other peaks I’d needed to hike in this area: the conditions looked perfect! I made it back to my truck at 4:30pm, making this a 13.5 mile hike with 5079’ of elevation gain in 9 hours (more than anticipated: it felt like 8 miles). Strava said my highest elevation reached was 13,172’. Rolling Mountain is 13,693’
Back at the trailhead I re-braided my hair, changed my clothes and took a quick wet-wipe bath. Before long I was on my way to the next trailhead: Molas Pass. I drove up and got a good look at my options for tomorrow’s hike:
It looked to me like I didn’t need snowshoes or even traction (I’d bring traction anyway). As I sat there eating my dinner of tuna and crackers a vehicle pulled up next to me and a man and his dog got out. They looked like they were going to be there for a while so I got out to say hi. We got to talking, and I learned the man had recently completed the Colorado Trail after recovering from health related issues. It had taken him 5 months (5 months!!!) and he had a new tattoo to commemorate the journey he proudly showed me, which incorporated Arrow, Vestal, and the Trinities. We exchanged trail names (his was “Mosey” for obvious reasons). The Colorado Trail has been calling my name lately, but I’ll most likely have to do it in weekend segments because I’ll never get the time off work to do it all at once. He seemed appalled by this. I told him I was sleeping in my truck and heading out early in the morning, to which he took as meaning I was homeless. I assured him I wasn’t, just a dedicated outdoor enthusiast. He called that hardcore. After completing the CT he moved here from Bailey and just wanted to see the mountains again. It was my goal to get to bed before 7pm so I politely excused myself, brushed my teeth, put Vaseline on my feet, and waited for him to leave so I could find an appropriate place to use the restroom. I made a few notes in my hiking journal about the day’s events, had 2 (ok, 3) shots of whiskey, and took a look around me. Yes, it did seem as if I lived in my truck (I swear I clean it up when I get home on Sundays)
I set my alarm for midnight and set up my bed (3 sleeping bags and a body pillow: it was supposed to be 23* here tonight). I was still going back and forth on which peak(s) I’d hike in the morning, but figured I’d make the decision when I could see them up close. As I’d learned today, even a little bit of snow on the trail can completely change your hiking plans.