Peak(s):  Vestal Pk  -  13,864 feet
Date Posted:  09/08/2020
Date Climbed:   09/06/2020
Author:  Jon Frohlich
Additional Members:   Paula
 It doesn't always go according to plan   

Vestal Peak from Molas Pass
9/5/20 - 9/7/ 20
~25 miles and 8000 feet of gain

Any of us that have been hiking long enough have all run into some tough days. Paula and I both know that sometimes things don't go to plan. This time not only did they not go to plan but they got rather scary.

We set off around 2pm on Saturday from Molas Pass with the best of intentions to climb Vestal and a few of its neighbors. The weather was beautiful and we had a lovely hike down to the Animas River over the first few miles. We took a nice long break with Maya at the river and then continued up the trail towards Vestal Basin.

Break at the river

After a few miles we hit the first of the avalanche paths. Maya was having fun and treated it like an obstacle course while the humans struggled a bit up and over the logs. The paths through were relatively easy to spot and at least the 3 avalanche paths were close together.

Dog having fun

I think this was avalanche path number 3 on the way up

Dad, this isn't hard

After the avalanche debris fields we found the trail around the beaver ponds with no trouble and started up the steeper trail towards Vestal. At this point we were both a little tired but feeling good and we weren't worried that we had enough daylight to make it up into the basin. We crossed the creek and started heading up the steeper portion of the trail.

Vestal and Arrow from the beaver ponds

Around maybe 10,400 feet or so I started feeling like my legs were having issues. At first I didn't know what was going on. As I kept ascending it started getting worse and I realized I was cramping. I started stopping more frequently and Paula started getting concerned. I tried to sit down a few times and rest but the cramps weren't going away. And they were getting worse. The steep slope kept going and I knew that we still had at least 500-600 feet up into the basin for good camping. We started hoping that we could find something lower down though.

My progress was so slow and my pain so bad that I could barely move after a while. We became concerned that it was 7pm and we only had so much daylight left. I was in severe pain and the trail was narrow enough that I was worried about falling. There was no camping that was close below us and ascending was pure agony. Eventually I told Paula to race ahead and try and find some campsite for the night and come back for me if necessary. We didn't know what else to do. In 20 years of hiking this had never happened to me and panic started to set in. We both tried to remain calm but we knew we were in a bad situation. We were both out of water and there was nowhere practical to camp that we could see. We were 9 miles into the hike with no good options.

Paula set off ahead and as it started to get dark Maya and I saw three hikers coming up the slope. I told them the situation and they effectively said "well, we don't have anything to help you" and then continued on. I told them to find Paula and see if they could help her (or me) and as I later found out they told her they had seen me but that was it.

Now struggling up the slope by headlamp the trail started to be hard to follow. I was in the dark with Maya and it was getting cold. I was afraid I was lost. The trail was descending which seemed wrong but I didn't know what else to do but follow it. I saw headlamps below me at one point and I assumed it was the group of 3 in front. Now in close to panic mode I started yelling for Paula. A few minutes later she came up the slope and told me she'd found a fairly awful but workable site near the creek. I struggled a few more hundred feet to where she'd set up the tent and collapsed next to it.

Finally after a few minutes I helped get camp arranged a bit and sat down to start dinner. I was still shaking and so was Paula and we both had to process how awful things had gotten. We finally had dinner and collapsed into the tent. It took a while for both of us to calm down and the tent was on a slope so we both kept sliding downhill. We had shelter though for the night and made the best of it. I took a bunch of ibuprofen and my muscles started to calm down a little. I still didn't know if I'd be able to hike the next day or not. For that moment though we were safe and warm and that's what counted.

The next morning we woke up and I felt good enough that we packed up camp and moved up to the basin. After 30 minutes or so we found a great site (and flat this time). We set up camp again and decided to try for Vestal. After getting ready to go we headed up around 10:45am. Normally we wouldn't do this but we knew the forecast was great and weren't worried about the weather.

Vestal from camp

We found the trail up the slope near some other tents and started up. I felt ok and we just decided to see how it would go. We eventually worked our way up in between Vestal and Arrow and got a glimpse of the scree slope to the saddle.

Looking down into the basin

Thankfully there is a trail in here

Vestal and Wham coming into view

In between Vestal and Arrow

To the saddle

Maya says this will be easy (it wasn't)

As we got close to the scree we saw a group of 4 start heading down. We decided to try and stay out from under them for safety and worked our way up the slope near them as they came down. Finally we made it up to the saddle and got a great view of Jagged, Pigeon, and the other peaks nearby.

From the saddle

After another brief break we started heading up the back of Vestal towards the gully. The path was obvious and we worked our way around the mountain.

Dog enjoying herself

Maya and I

Around the backside

We rounded the corner and saw the gully to the summit. We tried to stay mostly on the left side on more solid rock rather than go directly into the middle. This worked out pretty well and Maya was able to climb up beside me without any major issues. Eventually we hit the top of the gully and took a left turn up towards the summit. About 3pm we popped out on the false summit and saw another group over on the true summit nearby.

Other group on top

Arrow next door

Trinities the other direction

This summit photo has gone to the dog

To be blunt: Maya is a badass. I can't imagine hardly any other dog doing this climb. She never ceases to amaze me.

Maya exploring the small summit a bit

We didn't stay all that long since it was a bit late in the day. We couldn't sign the register either since there was no writing device. We packed up our packs again and Paula and Maya set off while I took a few photos.

Starting to head down

The descent down the gully went fairly straightforward and we found ourselves back at the top of the scree. We took a slightly different path down but it still sucked pretty bad and we were happy to be done with it.

A bit of the gully on the back

Maya headed down

We headed back towards camp and got back down about 5:30pm. We had one very tired dog and two tired humans. The humans made dinner and had some cocktails while the dog passed out in the grass.

Very tired dog

Bit of a champagne toast to a successful day

The next morning we woke up to the smoke and decided it was best to head out and not climb anything else. It sucked to put in that much effort to get here but we knew it was the right thing to do. We didn't know what was going on and got a bit concerned that there was a fire nearby somewhere. We talked to a few hikers on the way out and it turned out it wasn't local but the air quality was still awful so we were glad to be headed home. After about 5 hours and many miles back up towards Molas Pass we made it back to the car at about 2pm. My asthma wasn't happy at all and I was glad to get in the car and breathe decent air again.

Amazing place and glad we did the peak we came for at least. I don't need to ever feel like I did again on the way up. It scared us both and made us both aware of just how vulnerable we are out there sometimes. Nothing like that had every happened to me before and I hope it never does again. Feeling helpless like that is no good at all. Thankfully we're all safe and sound now.

Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26

Comments or Questions

09/08/2020 16:55
This is so uncanny -- I went up to Vestal Basin on Saturday and also had horrible leg cramps. They started around the same point and were similarly severe too. I guess these mountains just make everyone work a little harder. Congrats on the summit!

09/08/2020 17:09

Congrats on your summit. I wonder if your cramping was an electrolyte imbalance? I've had it a few times, mostly long road rides in high temps. Sure fits the classic description. It's absolutely debilitating, for me it was one leg refusing to work, cycling the last few miles with one leg fwiw, painful. Your comment about being out of water was a tip off, and eating dinner probably solved it. Anyway, I'm speculating, trying to help. Glad it worked out, and congrats again.

09/08/2020 18:21
I agree that you had the need for fluid and some salt. Try GU chews or similar for the lytes and glucose, refill your water at Molas Creek before you cross the Animas. One day down Molas, up Vestal has and always will be brutal.
Your dog Maya is a real climber. Back in the seventies the dog Clyde, (owners Bill Koerner and Jane Parnell (Koerner)) got unleashed and raced up Arrow to summit alongside his owners. I guess maybe the only dog to do so. Maybe Maya is the next in line?


Glad you made it!
09/08/2020 23:27
My wife, Suzanne, and I were two of the four you saw heading down that awful scree slope. I think Maya effectively climbed that peak twice - great dog. I€„¢m glad you were able to recover and persevere. If you are looking for partners in crime to climb Jagged, Pigeon or other peaks (likely next year), drop me a PM.


Glad it worked out ok
09/08/2020 23:55
Sounds like a scary approach indeed - we certainly are vulnerable back a ways in the wilderness. I was across the valley from you on Peaks Three and Two that day. Crazy how nice it was on Sunday and how smoky it suddenly was on Monday. We had the same thought that there must be a new fire nearby. Congrats on Vestal Jon.


09/09/2020 08:13
Glad you were able to get #97. What an ordeal. Glad it worked out alright! I started hiking with salt tablets on the long ones about a year ago when I had serious cramping during ultras. It definitely helps a lot. Of course, carrying enough water is a challenge, trying to balance between the extra weight and having enough.


09/09/2020 10:57
Sure sounds like you had a tough day, Jon. The actions of the three hikers that didn't really give you any help at all is very concerning... And frankly pisses me off some. But you made it safe and sound and in the end, that's all that really matters.

And yeah - Maya is a badass... And a better climber than I am for sure!


Nice job!
09/09/2020 13:23
I remember that slope from the beaver ponds to the upper basin being relentless...felt like it never ended, big surprise from seeing Arrow and Vestal from the ponds and thinking I was almost there! If there was a place to cramp up, sure feels like that€„¢d be it. I€„¢ve had similar issues on steep uphills when I€„¢ve not brought enough water.

Nice job on summitting nonetheless, that area is my favorite in CO!


Lessons learned
09/09/2020 13:52
Those Weminuche basins kick my butt every single time. I can't tell you why I keep looking at them and thinking, "Oh, it's only a mile, we're almost there." They're always steep, meandering, brutal trails. We should have started earlier and taken a break to check water at the beaver ponds.

Jay, Maya is stronger on scree than I'll ever be! You can't hike a mountain with both an ego and any of our dogs; I usually choose the dogs.


09/09/2020 14:17
Happy endings are the best! Nice pics!

Beautiful report
09/11/2020 14:54
Congratulations on a wonderful adventure.
Those photographs are great.
, and that whole area looks beautiful.

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