Wham! Bam! Lessons in Colorado's High Country

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I heard Jackie yell “ROCK!” but it wasn’t the “Rock!” that you would normally hear while climbing. This was a voice of panic and fear,and yelled at the top of her lungs…repeatedly. I looked up and watched a 500 pound boulder heading straight for my head at extremely high speed. This wouldn’t be the worst part of my day.

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Two days prior, we rode the Durango-Silverton train out of Silverton, Colorado, heading for a backcountry train stop called Elk Park (37.7269/-107.6519). At Elk Park, we got off the train and backpacked east for six miles to a high camp in Vestal Basin. The high camp would be our jumping off point for a climb of one of Colorado’s classic alpine mountaineering routes…the Wham Ridge on Vestal Peak. (Rated 5.4 on the Yosemite Decimal System). Vestal is a 13,864’ gem located in the Grenadier Range of Colorado’s mighty San Juan Mountains.

After a six-mile backpack into Vestal Basin, we were whipped. The final three-mile section of the trail is not maintained, very steep, and has a great deal of downfall which blocks the trail. Full packs with climbing gear are not much fun under those conditions, but we arrived at Vestal Basin (37.70055/-107.6002) with renewed enthusiasm upon seeing Vestal Peak for the first time.

A 4am start by headlamp is fairly normal and we chugged up the steep 800-foot approach to the base of the mountain. Vestal Peak is a spectacular sight: Its classic pyramidal shape is second only to the steep sloping north face for which the Wham Ridge is famous. Our route would follow the far western edge of the face which, in rock climbing slang, “goes” at class three/four. The 4-5 pitch finish is a nice moderate 5.4 rock climb.

Once on the face proper, the fun began. Scrambling became climbing as the face gradually steepened and the exposure increased. Once on the Wham Ridge itself, we broke out the rope and got busy with the technical stuff. We got into a great rhythm, and did about four to five roped pitches in record time. At about 400 feet from the summit, a route-finding mistake created an interesting traverse and a belayed down-climb. The final 400 feet was an airy class four rope-less solo which really got our attention.

As we were descending a mess of loose rock and difficult route finding, I noticed storm clouds building. I was hoping to beat the storms and I could tell it was going to be close. Speeding up a descent in those conditions is flirting with disaster, especially with loose and steep rock. In my impatience, I managed to get about 20 yards below Jackie. This would prove to be a big mistake as I heard her yell a desperate “ROCK!” as she accidentally dislodged a huge boulder in her attempt to keep up with my hasty descent.

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