Wham Ridge is super-classic – the best alpine route in the San Juans. While high and wild, the San Juan Mountains of SW Colorado are mainly giant gravel piles, consisting of massive talus slopes below crumbling ridges. Wham Ridge is the opposite, being composed of beautiful, hard quartzite. It is the north face of Vestal Peak, in the heart of the Grenadier Range, which is the heart of the San Juans. It’s rated 5.4, and usually done in 6–10 roped pitches.
What really makes it classic, is it’s location in the middle of the Weminuche Wilderness, the largest in Colorado. There are three approaches:
• Follow the train tracks along the Animas River down from Silverton to Elk Park, then up Elk Creek.
• Take the train from Silverton, which is very cool as it’s an authentic 19th century steam locomotive – get off at Elk Park, then continue the approach up Elk Creek.
• Start from the Highway on Molas Pass (10,900′), descend 1,800′ to cross the Animas at Elk Park, then continue the 3,000′ crank up to the base of the climb itself.
Option #1 is interesting but I’ve never heard of anyone doing it. #2 is very cool, but would require camping due to the train schedule. #3 is the longest, but since Peter Bakwin and I are too old and lazy to camp, that’s the easiest. We would run in from the car, solo it w/o ropes, and be back for lunch.
Starting shortly before dawn, we made the drop down to the Animas without delay, catching a glimpse of the peak along the trail – wow, it’s impressive. Then we crossed the tracks and started up Elk Creek, which is part of the Colorado Trail. At the beaver ponds, the first monster view opens up – this is what makes Wham Ridge such a coveted prize – it’s not a difficult climb, but like all the classic mountains in the world, it conveys a striking appearance.
From there the running ends and slogging begins – one gains 3,000′ on a climbers path in only a few miles. (I ran into Neal Biedelman that afternoon, and he told me he used to guide that area, and his company was partly responsible for building that path – thank you!) Then one pops out into Vestal Creek, which is suddenly flat, green, moist, and serene. Except for a really big rock face rising above you.
Without pause, we start up. There is no reason to pause, because our running gear is our climbing gear. Peter is wearing La Sportiva Raptors, a sturdy running shoe with some sticky rubber, while I was wearing La Sportiva X-Country’s. The 6 oz AK Race Vest worked great for me, while Peter was using his Adventure Vest, because he brought climbing shoes to surmount the technical difficulties, and needed the extra storage capacity. Both of us were very happy to be carrying water bottles on the front on these vests instead of the normal but really inefficient hydration reservoir in the rear, because whenever we got thirsty, we could just whip the bottle out, and while barely stopping, dip it in the clean high-altitude streams.
The ridge started as a low angle scramble, but it gradually cranked up, finally requiring us to maneuver around looking for the easiest line. However Peter was solid and never bothered to change into his climbing shoes. We went straight up a crack at the first crux, crossed over to the right of the ridge just once at the second difficult section, and traversed hard left to start up to the final summit. This amounted to no serious problems – the route is mostly a cardio workout – and soon we were admiring the view on top.
Then just as quickly we were trying to figure out how to get down. The descent is definitely the route-finding crux – this was the 3rd or 4th time I’d done it, and I’ve never managed to take the same route twice. The backside of Vestal and Arrow are like the rest of the San Juans – total choss piles – it’s a slow and somewhat annoying descent – and I reflected that no one would have any desire to climb these summits if viewed from the south instead of north.
After emptying the gravel out of our shoes, soon we were plunging down the climbers path, and as the inevitable mid-day rain started, we were safely running out Elk Creek to the tracks. And then hiking back up to Molas Pass – I look forward to Anton’s report when he does this route and runs instead of hikes back up to the car! 8 hours for us – a fine day.
One of my favorit routes. Thank you for bringing back so many wonderful memories. Happy trails!