San Juan County Highpoint Trip Report

Vermilion Peak (13,894 feet (CO rank 74))

Dates: August 20-21, 2004
Author: Layne Bracy

Additional summits: Fuller Peak (13,761 feet (unranked)), Golden Horn (13,780 feet (CO rank 117))

Trailhead: South Mineral Creek "4WD" (10,360 ft)

Vermilion is one of two 13ers in Colorado that is both among the highest hundred and a county highpoint. So, with different motivation but the same goal, Rick, Amy and I joined forces.

We used Roach's directions to the "4WD" trailhead, turning onto Clear Lake Road at mile 3.7 on San Juan County 7. After 0.9 mile we reached a switchback where there is space for 2 vehicles to park. The road to this point was in excellent condition and even 2WD normal clearance vehicles would not have had a problem. This chops 1.8 miles round-trip, 540 feet of gain, and 25 Roach Points off the approach!

We started hiking at 3:20 pm, and I fell in love with this beautiful area very quickly. Amy pointed out various wildflowers, trying to get us to learn the "sub-alpine larkspur", a pretty purple flower. Before arriving at Lower Ice Lake Basin, the high peaks come into view. From here, Fuller is a towering pyramid, and Golden Horn appears unclimbable! Vermilion appears lower and Pilot Knob can also be seen. We continued to Ice Lake, at 12,257 feet, and set up camp. The approach took 2 hours.

We woke up to overcast skies. This was depressing but we decided to at least start out. Started hiking at 6:25 am, heading towards Fuller Lake. There is a good-sized cabin near the lake. We noted that while old and decrepit, it would protect from rain and hadn't been destroyed by lightning in its many years. We ascended talus to gain the ridge above the lake. At this point we stashed our ice axes. We could see that they would not be needed getting to the Vermilion/Fuller saddle. If they would be needed on a possible descent of the Vermillion Dollar Couloir to get to Golden Horn, we would not use that route.

We started ascending up to the Vermilion/Fuller saddle (13,500 feet) and skies were still cloudy. There was some snow on the slope but it could be easily avoided all the way to the saddle. Then a very light snowfall started. We questioned the wisdom of continuing. However, it was still cold and we decided that lightning was not likely in these conditions.

The original plan was to do Fuller, Vermilion, Golden Horn, in that order. Given the poor conditions, with light snow blowing around, we decided to eat dessert first and go right for Vermilion. The route is amazing, as an easy-to-follow class 1-2 path winds intricately around the difficulties of the ridge. One section was a little narrower and required extra care right before the ascent of a loose class 2+ gully. The gully leads up the opposite side of the Vermillion Dollar Couloir, then a short steep section goes to the summit!

We arrived at 8:25 am, 2 hours after starting. The summit is indeed airy and we grabbed onto each other when changing places for photos. We didn't stay long. Snow had stopped but it was still cold and cloudy. Both a note in the register and what we saw indicated that the couloir didn't require axes but the flurries had made the rocks slightly wet.

We decided to forego the direct route to Golden Horn and returned to the Fuller/Vermilion saddle. Conditions were stable, so we made the easy hike up Fuller. Going from Vermilion to Fuller took 40 minutes, and we summitted at 9:20 am. Here we took a nice break and refueled.

Back at the saddle, Amy and I decided to try Golden Horn, while Rick decided to descend and watch us from the high basin. We headed down the use trail a couple switchbacks, then traversed around to the large bench which runs across Vermilion's east face. From Ice Lake, this bench seems nonexistent but a 2-lane highway could be built on a lot of it. The traverse to the Vermilion/Golden Horn saddle (13,380 feet) was quick and we could finally see that this peak was climbable!

The route was straightforward and we summitted around 10:40 am, 55 minutes after leaving Fuller. Golden Horn has two summits. The west one is supposedly higher and has the register, though the difference could not be more than 2-3 feet. We scrambled up the east summit, too, and found it to be the more enjoyable of the two.

We descended from the Vermilion/Golden Horn saddle, first heading towards Vermillion along various ledges, then just picking our way down. We checked out a stone building south of the basin on the ridge, where presumably miners had left lots of trash, including old boots and hundreds of cans. Hail then implored us to move faster.

Amy and I returned to camp at 12:15 pm, finding Rick chatting with a couple of German tourists. We broke camp and made it down to the trailhead in 1 hour and 15 minutes at 2:45 pm, through intermittent rain and hail.

The beauty of the basin, the elegance of the routes, and the company made this my most memorable trip of the year!