Five peaks in five days in Colorado’s most remote range
Still out of breath from the frantic climb, I drew a deep gulp of frozen air. I stood still over mountains stretching vast in every direction, every cell vibrating within me. It’s hard to digest the mental change that comes with that last step onto the summit and off of exposure. Life can go from crazed to calm, panicked to peaceful in seconds. The dangerous, demanding descent still awaited, but for this brief moment, all I felt was gratitude.
Moments ago, I was awash in spindrifts and adrenaline. I was shouting over intense winds, squinting against swirling, blinding crystals encrusting the inside of my glasses, and trying desperately to find secure placements in the steep ice and snow for my crampons and axe. Now I stood, exalted and safe, in the sun on the summit of our final objective of the trip, Vestal Peak, a steep, massive shark’s tooth of granite that stands 13,864 feet tall within the Weminuche Wilderness in Southwest Colorado. At 488,210 acres, the Weminuche, located in the San Juan and Rio Grande national forests, is the largest wilderness area in Colorado.
Five days prior, a steam engine train dropped Chris Davenport, Ted and Christy Mahon, Sean Shean, and me off by near the ghost town of Needleton, a three-hour ride north of Durango. The Durango to Silverton narrow gauge railroad was built in the 1880s to transport gold and silver ore. Now it makes the 45-mile run once a day to transport tourists up the scenic valley. We pre-arranged with the conductor to be let off in the middle of the forest. Our packs weighed close to 60 pounds—loaded with the necessary supplies to walk and climb 30 miles in order to ski five of the tallest, most remote mountains in the state in five days. We stepped off the train, threw on our packs, and began walking into the woods, not knowing just how overly ambitious our plan was.
That first night we set up camp in Chicago Basin, a six-and-a-half-mile walk through the thick pine forest along Needle Creek. The ink-black space and vibrant points of light above us felt at once distant and intangible, and comfortingly close and intimate, almost as if nothing separated us from the cosmos.
We awoke before first light, excited to tackle the first objective of the trip—Jupiter Peak, which is by far the most straightforward ascent and descent. We skinned across a frozen ocean tinged brownish red from the southern sand blown in by winds. As we moved in relative silence, the sun peeked above the rocky ridges in front of us. Once we crested the ridge, the Northern Weminuche revealed itself, stretching rugged and wild into the distance. We scrambled around the ridgeline and navigated several small down-climb maneuvers to make the true summit. For the first time, we could see the scale of it all.
Jagged Peak’s spiny dorsal ridge, our mission for day three, looked tiny but ominous to the north, and day two’s goal—the rounded rocky summit of Pigeon—barely peeked over Mount Eolus to the west. The perfect blue sky and light clouds filled us with optimism despite the immensity of the journey ahead.
We clicked into our skis a few feet below the summit and pushed off for our first turns of the trip. The upper part of the ski was crusty and loud, but the snow softened and turned to corn before the terrain flattened, and we got to let loose with a few super-G turns, effortlessly moving over the undulating slope as the views drifted past. The feeling of ease and happiness wouldn’t last long.
Heading toward 13,500-foot Twin Thumbs Pass, the burdens quickly took their toll. The heavy packs proved to be more oppressive than we had anticipated, their unnatural mass pulling steadily toward the center of the earth. Within an hour or two, I was already reduced to step counting, a meditative tactic that helps me push through when my sole mission in life is to continue putting one foot in front of the other. Often it is accompanied by little games I play in my head: I think it’s going to take 527 steps to get to that pointy rock up there… 1, 2, 3… During these slogs, everyone retreats into their own mental world. Not much idle chatter happens during times of suffering.
That night we made camp at dusk. We were exhausted, but we had a new temporary home to build. The five of us dug a hole to get clean ice for melting, established a bathroom, and built snow walls to surround our Mini Mid and Mega Mid tents. The Mids form from a design that uses skis, poles, and axes as stakes and support, requiring a snow wall to shelter from wind and drifting snow because the tent top is unattached to the bottom. Notwithstanding, they’re super light and compact, making them ideal for multi-day backcountry trips like this.
I ate my remaining personal rations for the day—some smoked salmon and hard-boiled eggs—looked at maps, and laughed about the difficulty of the situation before sleeping hard under the stars. The next day would bring a new set of challenges.
As we climbed the steep approach to the Pigeon/Turret saddle in the sun the next morning, we could hear the roar. We rolled over the crest of the saddle and the winds created a chaotic intensity. Air ripped between the peaks at a steady 50 mph. We laid down, backs pressed against rocks, to shelter ourselves and shouted back and forth. It didn’t take much discussion to know climbing big, exposed peaks with 180-cm long-sail skis on our backs was not a safe option. We laid there pressed flat to the ground and discussed options. Suddenly Davenport’s face went white. Something was seriously wrong.
He looked directly at me and said, “Your skis are gone!” He said it with cold, heavy seriousness that, combined with the look of urgency in his eyes, made my heart immediately drop into my stomach.
I felt it before I understood it, “What?” I asked, confused.
“Your skis are GONE,” he shouted. “I just watched them fly 50 feet into the air!”
Holy shit! Holy shit! We’re a two-day walk from the train tracks in good conditions. A storm is coming in. Shit. This is bad. This is really bad.
I leapt to my feet to investigate and found only one of my skis wedged in what I had assumed was a safe place. SHIT! I grabbed my poles and panicked down-wind to the saddle. Scrambling as fast as I safely could, I scanned the valley for signs of the ski. Nothing. Shit! Nothing.
Then… A geometric line! Neon colors! A relief washed through me as I continued to scramble down to the bench. The ski had javelined into the snow on a bench a few hundred vertical feet down from the saddle. I had never been so happy to post-hole down a face I knew I would immediately have to climb back up.
I retrieved my ski, climbed back up to the group and the rest of my equipment, and we retreated with our tails between our legs. We skied back down into the basin and over the pass: 1,000 feet down and back up before dropping into camp on the other side, then we skied another 2,000 feet down under the heavy weight of our packs.
The group felt defeated and quiet. To lose two of the five peaks because of weather was difficult to swallow. But we still had a big day ahead. We had no choice but to move on. Our realities were clear: We only had food for five days; the train only came once a day; bad weather was already upon us; and we had more skiing to do. We moved toward our third camp through difficult, rotten snow.
Wet and cold, we decided on a spot for camp and went to work. We ignored frozen fingers and wet clothes as we built snow platforms and walls for our tents, chopped firewood, did our best to dry our nearly useless skins, and tried to prepare for the night. Quiet and contemplative, we cooked and ate our freeze-dried meals by the fire in the swirling snow. Every calorie was fully felt in worn bodies, every warm spork-full savored in the mini gales and hanging moisture. We slept soundly in the inclement weather in one of the most remote places you can find in the lower 48. But we awoke to immediate doubts.
“If there was a moment when we really weren’t all on the same page it was there,” reflected Ted on the mood in camp that morning. “We woke up in the Mid, and Christy, Sean, and I knew that we wouldn’t be able to summit Jagged that day. I was really bummed. It would have been a stretch on a sunny day, and it made me think, ‘What’s the point of even going up there?’ I feel bad saying it but we were dragging our feet all morning. There was a lot of, ‘What are we doing?’”
We broke camp knowing we’d soon come to another difficult decision point. Do we go all the way up to the col where we could see the peak, a good jaunt out of our way, knowing that we probably wouldn’t climb the peak and that we had a huge day ahead of us to get to camp four?
“We went up there and Chris was in front and he made the decision to continue to the col,” Ted recalled. “He always wants to keep going a little farther. Sean doesn’t love the heights factor, and though he’s tough as nails, didn’t really want to do the climb. It got a little weird. But I think those things often define the trip, too. That was the low point of the whole five days. With Chris, it’s always optimism. He always pulls it off with great optimism. There’s your group decision making where it wasn’t functioning the way you hope it would.”
So we followed Davenport to the col. There was some grumbling on the bootpack but with amazing synchronicity, the sun broke through the clouds at the moment we crested. Jagged Peak glowed through low clouds, fierce and threatening but covered in new snow and full of raw beauty. It was obvious that it wasn’t safe to make the semi technical and exposed climb with the new snow. We felt a little relieved that weather and new snow had made our final decision obvious. We savored the moment and let the realization that Mother Nature had kept us off of three of the five peaks sink in…and then pass. It’s hard to dwell in frustration or regret in a place so sublime.
Reluctantly, we tore ourselves from the magnetizing view of Jagged and pushed on. Within minutes, we were engulfed in a white world of vertigo. We pushed through the fog and driving snow, over West Trinity/Vestal Pass—the largest pass of the trip—and into Vestal Creek. It was a long and brutal day, but our camp sat directly below the iconic towering monolith of Vestal Peak, and our hearts were again filled with excitement and anticipation.
The campfire that night was enlivened with laughter and music. We feasted on the last of our dinners, feeling confident we would make it up and back down the peak and then the six miles of uncertain bushwhacking back to the one and only train of the day at 3 p.m. Mother Nature seemed to be giving us a break and conditions would be perfect to end the trip with success.
The next morning matched our optimism and high spirits. The new snow sparkled radiantly on the ground and spun in the air like a million brilliant prisms. We felt the full power of Vestal’s presence. Vestal is as visually and emotionally impactful as nearly any mountain on earth, certainly in Colorado. Its steep aesthetic striations jut forcefully skyward. The heavy lines of igneous stone, born deep in the earth’s crust, intrude into the thin air of the alpine skyline and create a keen gut-dropping awareness of vacuous space surrounding it.
During the gleaming approach and the gripping climb, we focused only on the present moment with the only goal of making it safely to the summit. We tried to put our date with the passing train out of our minds. However, once there, the rapturous moments on the summit were cut short with the realization that our time was limited, our food was gone, and the train wouldn’t be waiting.
Though the clock was ticking, this descent was not one to be rushed. The small, flat summit turned sharply into an unrelenting 45-degree pitch for thousands of feet to a jagged mess of rocks and cliffs—not a place for a mistake.
The first turn is always the hardest. A motion performed millions of times throughout a lifetime seems foreign and uncertain. If you dwell too long contemplating the exposure and calculating the muscle movements, you’ll freeze. The way if you think about a word too long, too hard, it begins to sound like nonsense. You have to just go. Go! The moment you commit, the moment the first motor neuron fires, it all makes sense again. Muscle memory returns and the entire universe is contained in those beautiful thoughtless motions: motions given weight by place and context. Meaning is given to a meaningless action.
Once safely out of the exposure, we took a breath or two and pushed off onto 1,000 feet of mellow, hot pow. It was a moment of profound release as we glided safely under the angular monster whose steep face we just danced gracefully upon. We laughed and hooted, took photos and pumped our arms in the air.
Then we remembered the train.
We packed up camp in a whirlwind and started the sketchy six-mile bushwhack. We knew generally what valleys we needed to stay in, but a proper route did not exist. It was true adventure skiing, walking, and sliding over logs, through creeks, lowering ourselves down rooty messes of bark and wood and slush. Eventually, the skis needed to come off and we found ourselves cliffed-out and balancing on logs over raging runoff water. We butt-slid down steep slopes covered in pine needles and balanced across treacherous scree fields, always with a ticking clock in the backs of our minds. Eventually we came to a trail, roughly located ourselves on the map, and did some quick math. The train would leave us in just over an hour, and we had three to four miles to go. Run!
After five days of the biggest self-supported traverse any of us had ever endeavored, we found ourselves trail running with massive packs and skis and boots through the San Juan Mountains. At first it was painful, almost too painful to go on, but at some point it became fun. I laughed at myself and the situations I put myself in as I bounced and stumbled down the trail, amazed that my legs were still carrying me. We passed epic viewpoints and waterfalls and kept running. And then, before we knew it, we were in a field split by rail tracks. We lay down and laughed. We ate the rest of our food, some smoked salmon and dark chocolate, and talked about what beer they might have on the train. We knew we just experienced something important. We had talked about this trip for years. It didn’t go as planned, but we were there, and all that mattered was the sound of the steam engine approaching in the distance. And that felt good.
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Ian Fohrman is a writer and photographer based out of Denver, Colorado. He and the crew will be heading back into the Weminuche this spring to finish the Centennial Peaks. Follow Fohrman’s adventures at IanFohrman.com and on Instagram @IanDavidF