Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Vermilion Peak, 13,894', and Fuller Peak,13,761'

Essence: Hike a beloved, flowerful trail to fantastically blue Ice Lake. From there a social trail ascends to a high basin talus wall. After a long and tough approach, the route splits at a 13,500 foot saddle to offer a varied choice. Scale challenging and venerable Vermilion Peak or merely walk up Fuller Peak. Both options are described.
Travel: From Durango, drive north on US 550 about 47 miles to Silverton. Continue north toward Ouray for 2.0 miles. At the sign for the South Mineral Campground, bear left onto a good dirt road. In 4.2 miles, park in a large lot on the right at the trailhead. There is an outhouse but no water. Allow 1:15 from Durango.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 12.3 miles, 4,535 feet of climbing for both peaks; Fuller Peak alone is 11.5 miles with 4,135 feet of vertical
Time: 7:00 to 9:00
Difficulty: Trail, off-trail; navigation moderate; Fuller Peak is "just a walk" with no exposure; Vermilion Peak is Class 2+ with considerable exposure
Map: Ophir, Colorado 7.5 Quad
Latest Date Hiked: August 18, 2015
Reference: For a thorough description of Vermilion routes, see Gerry and Jennifer Roach, Colorado's Thirteeners 13,800 to 13,999 Feet: From Hikes to Climbs, 2001.
Quote: Vermilion means "flame-red," and the name fits this colorful peak. Vermilion's rosy rock is pretty to look at, but rotten to climb on. Vermilion's standard routes are a reasonable tour, but you should always treat Vermilion with respect. Gerry Roach

Indomitable Vermilion Peak is flanked by pyramidal Fuller Peak, Golden Horn's northeast ridge in the foreground, and Pilot Knob. Ice Lake doubles the power of mountain and sky.

Route: From the Ice Lake Trailhead, across from South Mineral Campground, hike on a popular, well-maintained trail to Ice Lake Basin. On a social trail, gain the bench northwest of Fuller Lake. Zigzag up a steep talus slope to Saddle 13,500'. The route splits. Northwest is Vermilion Peak; southeast is Fuller Peak. 

The Ice Lake Trail is well-documented and illustrated in Earthline. Please see Golden Horn or Ice Lake and Island Lake Loop for details.
 
From Trailhead 9,840', hike through a thick conifer and aspen forest with intermittent sunny glades to Lower Ice Lake Basin at 2.2 miles, 11,460 feet. Fuller, Vermilion, and Golden Horn appear at crestline.

The raw beauty, clarity, and mystery of Ice Lake astonishes at 3.6 miles, 12,257 feet. (THW, photo)

The generous trail necks down to a standard single track on its way to Fuller Lake. Walk along the southwest shore of Ice Lake. At 3.8 miles pass a polished mirror pond.

Thread between Parry's primrose and cross the Fuller Lake outlet at 4.1 miles, 12,560 feet. In a few steps, look for cairns off to the right. Leave the trail and ascend onto the southwest-running bench, image-right. Once you are up there, cairns and a barely decipherable use trail make walking easier as the tundra gives way to stone. (THW, photo)

Follow cairns off the bench to the right at 4.7 miles. The image below shows the saddle between Vermilion and Golden Horn. Save that for another wondrous day and wrap around the rocky slope at left.

The saddle between Fuller and Vermilion is infinitely easier to access if you locate the scrabbly, tightly wound switchbacks, seen below.

It is a bit of a slog to attain Saddle 13,500' at 5.4 miles, after 3,700 feet of climbing. One of the finest features of this hike is that you now have a choice. You may merely walk to Fuller Peak, or, you may climb Vermilion which is an indisputable challenge. This description begins with Vermilion and then continues over to Fuller.

Vermilion Peak, 13,894': Vermilion is a centennial peak, ranked number 74 in Colorado. It is 0.4 mile from the saddle and will take 30 to 40 minutes to scale. The standard route utilizes the southeast ridge. Locate the subtle wildcat trail that leaves the saddle and starts up the ridge. The ridge is armored with a series of blocky towers. The peak, shown, is the champion block.

The trail soon veers to the northwest/left to bypass obstacles on the spine. The mountain is comprised of exfoliating San Juan volcanics, crumbly and loose. At first the sufficient trail platform mutes the drop-away exposure.

The trackway grows increasingly narrow and is crowded by the buttresses on the high/right side. Make two airy moves around encroaching cliffs. The footpath is deteriorating and one day will disappear. As a friend said, this is a use trail--we have left the security of the maintained Ice Lake trail well behind. In the image below, the threadway ends at the couloir, image-center.

The couloir is a dirt chute that bisects a notch in the ridge southeast of the summit block. Enter and steeply scale 100 feet of vertical. The danger factor varies in this effectively bottomless couloir. In 2007, the gully was augmented with debris, the soil moist, and the exposure seemed inconsequential. In 2015, the floor was scoured clean, the soil dry and resistant. The exposure had increased significantly.  Good hand holds can be found on the south/right wall but they require careful selection; some of the rock is not well seated. Use the minimum pull required to maintain friction with your feet. It is not for the faint of heart or inexperienced.

Upon gaining the ridge, another 100 feet of relatively easy clambering to the west summit awaits. Traverse a two foot wide, 40 foot bridge. Clearly, I am having fun in the exhilarating moments before arriving at the zenith at 5.8 miles. (THW, photo)

The airy summit perch accommodates a handful of people.

Views from the peak are as beautiful and colorful as the name implies. Looking south are Golden Horn, Pilot Knob, and Ice Lake.  (THW, photo)

West is Rolling Mountain, Grizzly Peak, San Miguel Peak, and the Wilson Group. (THW, photo)

The image below gives an overview of the trail back to the saddle. Find the couloir and the thin footpath at the base of the cliffs. Note: one of my friends climbed the rock rib that forms the south wall of the couloir; another went up a minor gully just to the right of the standard couloir back in 2007. 

Fuller Peak, 13,761': The Picnic Summit is just 0.3 mile from Saddle 13,500' with 261 feet of vertical. The route is free of obstacles and takes 10 to 15 minutes. It truly is just a walk. Take the trail which strides along the top of ridge or just to the side. (THW, photo)

Climbers who ascend Vermilion first will reach Fuller Peak at 6.5 miles. It has a wonderfully long, flat summit. Fuller is a peak for everyone to enjoy. (THW, photo)

Here is just a tiny wedge of the engaging view. Pilot Knob and Golden Horn are on the left, Fuller Lake is center-right, and Ice Lake is the outrageous blue dot smack in the center. (THW, photo)

Returning to the saddle renders astonishing looks at rugged Vermilion. Listen for the distinctive sound of water running under rock in the upper basin.

The bench affords a classic view of Ice Lake. Soaring above the basin are V4, U S Grant Peak, and V2. The trail to Island Lake is easy to spot if that temps you.

A word about weather. Ice Lake Basin is a gathering place for drenching rain, hail, sleet, snow, and electricity so start early on a reasonable weather day. This is a time-consuming hike. Snow lingers deep and late in the upper basin. There is typically a two month window for climbing Vermilion and Fuller--from early August until the snow flies. It took five attempts for me to reach Vermilion the first time. I was thwarted by the saddle cornice and wild storms. Even then, the southwest traverse was covered in September snow.
 

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