San Juan County Highpoint Trip Report

Vermilion Peak (13,894 feet)

Date: August 12, 2007
Author: Adam Helman

Colorado state completion - a fanciful account without much useful information

This effort was part of a larger journey collecting county highpoints in late July and early August 2007.

I arise at 4:40 a.m., drive to the trailhead, eat some breakfast, and depart at 5:30 uptrail. Sunrise is predicted to be 6:25 a.m. and it is completely dark as August 12 is the new moon.

Whereas I use the new, lighter daypack for Mount Lincoln, I carry my standard, large, red daypack for this effort. Here, I travel alone without, in principle, anybody else around. Thus I take my parka - and its bulk precludes use of the new, smaller pack.

The hike turns sour by failing to locate the trail's continuation on the opposite bank of a stream perhaps two or three hundred feet higher. Still dark, my headlamp the only illumination, I could not for the life of me figure out what "went wrong". I waste maybe 20 minutes in this mode, following faint paths leading nowhere, and eventually scream "SHIT!!" multiple times at the top of my lungs: this is my completion climb and time wasted now means dealing with lightning on the summit ridge by late morning.


At first light I locate the trail's continuation, cross, and let out an indecipherable and extremely loud "AEHHHHHHH!!", twice in fact, to vent my emotions. It felt good to do that - and I bet folks in the campground could easily hear me. Big deal - people with RVs who think they're "roughing it" with satellite dishes, barbecue grills, and other outdoor luxuries. Guess that's all they can (or desire) to do insofar as their summer fun - how absolutely PITIFUL.

I reach the lower Ice Lake basin just after 7 a.m., and Ice Lake itself about 7:50 a.m. That, of course, is too late for meeting Kevin Baker who had camped at Ice Lake and likely started at dawn for the summit.

I reach the base of the talus slope leading to the Fuller Peak / Vermilion Peak ridge, and carefully follow a rough-hewn path, skirting melting snow patches, to the ridge at 13,500 feet. It is now about 9 a.m. and the sky remains clear save the tiniest hints of daytime heating as small cumulus clouds: the race is now "on" to summit and get off the ridge before weather is a serious, life-threatening issue.

A few minutes after starting up the ridge I meet Kevin Baker heading down from the summit. We recognize each other, and, after I congratulate him as the 24th Colorado completer, Kevin "pre-congratulates" me in advance of my own success.

Then, almost immediately, I meet the CMC (Colorado Mountain Club) group also descending. During the conversation, a lone climber appears from behind me - and, yes, he too wishes to climb Vermilion Peak - and knows the route from having done it three years ago.

We two decide on the "low" route, which entails turning left at a conspicuous pair of boulders along the left edge of the trail, onto a smaller yet obvious path that heads slightly downhill to the infamous Vermilion Dollar Couloir. At the couloir, very loose indeed, climb perhaps thirty vertical feet to a saddle. Turning left, climb maybe fifty final feet to an airy ridge. Turn right on the ridge for all of ten horizontal feet to the true summit.

I summit at 9:34 a.m. MDST as Colorado state completer.

We talk about, well, what else: mountains. He shares a savory snack; I give him a chocolate chip granola bar for later; and at 10 a.m. we descend to the Fuller / Vermilion saddle under rapidly clouding skies while I ground him in the basics of prominence theory. He appears to be very receptive, and I recommend that he investigate both for prominence lists, and, of course, for county highpointing.

I am at Ice Lake 11 a.m., and, upon arrival, a teenage boy and girl inquire about what I've done, and the possibility of their own climb that day. I recommend they hold-off until a time when they can start at dawn - for it was quite obviously about to rain and thunder. Both are, again, interested in prominence. Both are exceedingly thin (as skinny as myself); but I suppose, given their intentions that's a lot better than being overweight.

I enjoy my summit food - sourdough bread turned blue/green in parts (!); and enjoyed with some fascinating green, sage-infused English Derby cheese. Then, some dried fruit and nuts. I depart no sooner than 11:40 a.m. - a full forty minutes at Ice Lake - and worthy of every second seeing as I did not know when I would return to the Colorado high country.

I reach the truck in 1 hour 10 minutes - and, in a stroke of luck, it only then rains earnestly with lightning and thunder.

I can start the drive home - it is only midday. Emotionally overwhelmed by the realization that my Colorado dreams are finally realized, I am too lazy for that. Rather, I change clothes and footwear, then drive into nearby Silverton for a filling meal.

At the Pickle Barrel I find the salmon steak, on last summer's menu, is no longer. I settle for the red chili wrap with chicken, rice, black beans, and cream cheese - served with cole slaw. However I start with a lime margarita - which, peculiarly and fortunately lacked any "punch" whatsoever (so that my driving remains unimpaired). I finish with hot blueberry pie and two scoops of vanilla ice cream as garnish. Fact is that both Bob Packard and I craved this very dessert whilst traveling in southeast Asia the previous month - and now I consummate that desire at a most appropriate event and location.

I drive back to FR585 and take the soonest pullout available, just 0.3 mile from US Highway 550, and thus within cell phone range for the sake of my mother and anybody else I wish to call. Tim Worth rings and congratulates me.

Not hungry, as the hours pass I munch on jelly beans and listen to my shortwave radio. I did not want to do anything - not even read a magazine. Sleep came early and easily.


Here is my completion map resulting from this three week journey. The Colorado state completion is evident; the "doughnut hole" of north Wyoming and Big Horn County, Montana is "plugged"; and Wyoming has but one remaining county - albeit a significent one - Teton County with the eponymous mountain.

I initiated the Colorado project years ago, with the first trip collecting its counties in earnest being April 2004. So, when I phone mother after Vermilion Peak the dialogue ran,

(Mother) "Hello.".

(Adam) "Paint Colorado GREEN.".

(Mother pretends to sob) "Oh, I'm so HAPPY for you. It's been ten years that you wanted to do this.".

(Adam) "I think the first trip was in 2000.".


Mother followed me by telephone throughout these journies. Thereby ony SHE, and other Colorado completers, understand what's involved in completing the Centennial State - that beautiful, high country that beckons our return time and again.