A President and a Pilot
(Two Awesome Peaks in Ice Lake Basin)

15-19 Aug 2005 - by T Colorado

Ice Lake Basin is located in the southwestern part of Colorado near Silverton in the San Juan Mountains. My husband and I had last visited Ice Lake Basin about 11 years ago, and had climbed Fuller, Vermillion and Golden Horn. At the time, we gazed in awe at Pilot Knob thinking to ourselves, "we'll never climb that thing; it looks terrible". It's funny how time and experience changes one's perspective with climbing. After a delightfully yummy breakfast at Cafe 110 in Montrose, Michael and I, and our friend Ron, drove to the trailhead for Ice Lake Basin located across from the South Mineral Campground. It was raining lightly as we shouldered our heavy packs for the backpack into Ice Lake Basin. We brought along ropes and hardware in anticipation of hairy climbs with wet rock. The weather did not disappoint as we made our way up the 23 switchbacks (and just over 2 mile backpack) to Lower Ice Lake. Due to the steady and increasingly heavy rain, we opted to camp at 11,600' in the trees above Lower Ice Lake in order to get some protection from the rain. After fording a couple of creeks, we found an ideal location that provided room for our two tents and also gave us some shelter from the weather. We were counting on the local weather forecasters being correct with their predictions that good weather would be coming along in the next few days. The basin was lush with flowers and you could tell there was no fire danger this summer in this region. We spent the remainder of the day setting up camp and oogling at the three waterfalls we could see from camp (one from Fuller Lake, one from Ice Lake, and one from Island Lake). We retired that evening hoping to have a break in the weather the next day to give us an opportunity to move our camp the .7 mile and 700 feet to Ice Lake and a tundra campsite.

Unfortunately, Tuesday brought rain showers for most of the day, and also convinced us to change our plans and stay camped at Lower Ice Lake. It would make our climbs a tad bit longer, but at least we would have the shelter. We relaxed, ate food, drank water and met a little ground squirrel that seemed to be entertained with us; we nicknamed him Van Gogh as he only had one ear (haha). Tuesday evening brought clearing skies and we were hopeful to have good weather on Wednesday.

Wednesday morning brought an early shower and fast moving dark clouds, but overall the weather was better so we shouldered our packs (and rain pants for the wet, tall grass and stream crossings) for our climb of US Grant. We followed a zig-zaggy game trail and then steep grassy slopes just to the left of the waterfall coming from Island Lake. We soon popped over a rolling ridge and had our first view of Island Lake, V4, US Grant, and V8. What a pristine high basin, and the lake was so blue, it looked like we were on a beach in Bermuda looking at the water. Ron said the only thing that was missing was a coral reef. We aimed for the saddle between V4 and US Grant Peak traveling on grass, then talus and boulders. Once at the saddle, we turned right and followed scree along the top of the ridge until we came to the infamous 12 foot step in the center of the ridge. All of us agreed that we could climb it without a rope (or helmets). I stashed my pack and followed the "ledge" around to the right to a short, broad, steep coulouir littered with pebbles. Once up that, it was a stroll to the summit. The panorama was beautiful and we stayed on the summit for quite awhile watching the clouds fly by, taking in the views of Fuller, Vermillion, Golden Horn, the Wilsons, Lizard Head, the Grenadiers, and Pilot Knob. There was a makeshift jar/paper register on top (that was a bit soggy). The return trip to my backpack was uneventful and the downclimb was easier that we thought. If the rock was wet, however, you may want the protection of a rope belay. Once down to Island Lake, we followed the trail to Ice Lake (people were catching fish) and descended the well-worn footpath back down to the turnoff for our camp. This was 4.5 miles roundtrip and 2,400' elevation gain from Lower Ice Lake.

Thursday morning brought even better weather and we got an early start for the hike up to Ice Lake and then on to Pilot Knob. The trail zig-zagged between waterfalls, through willows and up between cliffs to the breathtakingly beautiful Ice Lake with all its floral splendor. The grass on the surrounding mountainsides was so green, you would have thought you were in Ireland. Once at Ice Lake, the route to the saddle below (and to the right) of the summit block was apparent. Luckily for us, this was one instance where the daily rain had made our climb easier. The route to the saddle was on a mix of sandy dirt and scree with large rocks mixed in. Due to the prior days' rains, the texture of this surface was conducive to giving your boot a good foot hole (almost the way snow does some times under the right conditions). I remember scrambling up this type of surface on our first ascent of Pyramid and was thankful that the surface had not dried out to turn into a concrete-like hardness with slick, gravely topping. Though we had to be careful not to kick loose rocks down on each other, the trek to the saddle went fairly quickly. Once at the saddle, we put our helmets on, turned left and followed the ridge up until arriving just below the summit knob. We then hiked a very sexy trail that hugged the base of the summit block cliffs and contoured around to the west side until we came to the obvious steep couloir leading to the airy summit ridge. At the summit ridge, we turned left and continued on some trail and some ledges and some airy, exposed ridge tops. It was so incredibly delicate, but solid at the same time. You sure wouldn't want to sneeze and trip up there (haha). Quickly, we were at the spot where Michael said, "this must be where they say you need a rope for the exposed downclimb and traverse to the summit ridge's high point". We all dropped our packs. Michael, being the adventurer that he is, said he wanted to try to go as far as he could, before we pulled the roped out, to scope out the remainder of the route. As Ron and I watched, he descended, traversed, downclimbed out of sight, and the next thing we knew, he was strolling to the summit! I told Ron to go and off we went, following along. In a couple of minutes, we were on top too! How exciting! There was no register on top so, in defiance, Ron spelled his name out on the ground using rocks (haha). Very innovative indeed. In our zeal to reach the summit, Ron and I had both left our cameras at our packs. After returning to the packs (and cameras), Michael eagerly volunteered to re-descend, traverse and climb the last section of the peak so we could get photos. What a mountain goat! The weather was the best we had had the entire trip and we took our time descending and getting back down to the saddle. Once at the saddle, we took a long break (the views were stupendous) and were treated to a glider buzzing our heads and waving his plane wings at us after he passed by. The descent to camp went quickly and soon we were back in camp celebrating our success. If this route was wet, you'd probably want to bring a rope. The roundtrip was 4.4 miles and 2400' elevation gain from Lower Ice Lake.

Friday morning found us packing up and backpacking out. This really is a beautiful trail and we passed many, many people making their way up the trail to enjoy the beautiful waterfalls, wildflowers and rugged mountain views. We drove down to Silverton for a great lunch (and margaritas) at Romero's. Ron had not been in this part of the state before, so after lunch, we took a drive up to Molas Pass for the incredible views of the Grenadiers. This trip was so wonderful and ended on a high note by camping and soaking at Orvis Hot Springs that night. After checking into the resort and cleaning up, we met two of Ron's friends and had a delicious dinner at Drake's in Ridgway.

I must put in a plug for Sandy's (breakfast and lunch) in Ridgway. They make their own bread and salsa (and sell it), and they roast their own coffee beans. On the drive home, we stopped at a stand near Olathe and bought Palisade Peaches, cantaloupe, and Olathe sweet corn. What a treat! Happy trails!

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