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Adventures in the Weminuche

By Ann Driggers

I just returned from the Weminuche Wilderness where myself and two friends, Holly and Christy, embarked on a long (for us) backpacking trip. Seven nights were spent sleeping under the starry skies, 80 miles were covered under foot, and 4 14ers and 1 13er were scaled for a total of 22,000 feet of climbing. It was quite the most amazing and special time for so many reasons and I am going to share some of the highlights of the trip over several blog posts. 

Usually I go on backpacking trips that are for shorter periods of time, a long weekend of two or three nights but over the summer we hatched plans to do an extended trip, one that would push the outer edges of what would be feasible self-supported and without resupply. Originally our thoughts were to attempt the Continental Divide Trail from Wolf Creek Pass to Stoney Pass through the Weminuche Wilderness but the West Fork fire changed our plans. Instead we decided to focus on arguably the most scenic portion of the Weminuche - just south of Silverton - and explore the Grenadier Range and Needle mountains. Unbelievably, despite having lived in Colorado for over 12 years, I have yet to visit this area. It was long overdue.

Having set up a shuttle, leaving a vehicle at Purgatory Flats, we started our trek at Molas Pass. Here we began the trip by descending two thousand feet  down to the Animas River and the Durango Silverton Railroad. We declined to take the train, as many do, to access the area on account of our four legged cohort Keira. But that was just fine - this was a backpacking trip after all. As we set off the afternoon storms typical of summer monsoon season in Colorado began. We were a little concerned especially as the long range weather forecast wasn't looking too great but we were prepared for wet conditions. The shower was shortlived however and in the end this was only one of two times during the trip we hiked in rain. In fact overall we were extremely fortunate and experienced good weather with above average temperatures throughout our whole time on the trail.

Our packs weighed between 30 and 40 lbs each, Christy's being the heaviest as she was carrying some things for Keira. Although we had some quite lightweight gear including packs, tents, pads, cookware and so on, there was no escaping we were carrying 9 days worth of food at 1lb and 3 oz per day. We also carried helmets for our climbing adventures and other 'non-essential' items' - for me a book, a pair of Crocs as camp slippers and of course a big camera.

Our camp for the first night was on the edge of some beaver ponds in Elk Creek with spectacular views of our goal for the following day - Arrow Peak - on the right in the photo above. Arrow, and its neighbor Vestal Peak in the Grenadier Range are two of Colorados most dramatic mountains - their north faces sweep upwards and as they rise to their towering summits become ever narrower and steeper. Although we harbored a desire to climb Vestal's Wham Ridge, a technical climb, carrying the required and heavy gear on our long backpacking trip wasn't in the cards. So Arrow Peak's northeast face, a classic scramble, was our route and a worthy alternative. Topping out at 13,803 feet meant we had a 4,000 foot climb from camp so we departed early in the morning to avoid any monsoon activity. On the climb the views of Wham Ridge were amazing.

And only got better on the summit as the entire Vestal Group and Basin unfolded below us.

Yes, I was pretty stoked! Not only were the views superlative but the climb was a fun challenge. What a great way to start off our Weminuche adventures!

Looking up at our route which followed the ramp curving across the peak:

We returned to camp and packed up to move a few miles up valley to be further along our route for the next day. Along the way I found lots of porcini growing in the forest so after a refreshing dip in a swimming hole in Elk Creek I sauted up a delicious gourmet appetizer. We set camp at the edge of a meadow where we watched a pretty sunset before turning in for the night, looking forward to the adventures ahead. 

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