Peak(s):  West Elk Pk - 13,035 feet
Point 12,809
Date Posted:  04/12/2021
Date Climbed:   09/18/2020
Author:  supranihilest
Additional Members:   whileyh, Vadim34
 Livin' the Va-Dream with Vadim: His 584th and Final Thirteener   

Vadim and I met on a climb this spring thanks to our friend Whiley, who coordinated the whole shebang. Vadim and I had kept in touch and I'd kept track of his progress as he raced to the thirteener finish line, and naturally the question of which peak he wanted to climb as his finisher came up. Did he want to do an easier peak so that friends could join? An epic scramble to really finish with a big hurrah? Something closer to home or farther away? As his list narrowed the choice became more clear: West Elk Peak, a very isolated thirteener near Gunnison and between the main bulk of the Elk Mountains and the San Juan Range. It's a very long peak, at 20 miles round trip, but is also nice and easy and has some truly breathtaking scenery to top it off. It would make for a casual yet gratifying finisher. Vadim coordinated with Whiley and I and we met the morning of our climb at the Mill Castle Trailhead north of Gunnison, ready for Vadim's big day. Whiley and I had also purchased some treats that we would carry up and share with Vadim on the summit. It was a gorgeous day when we departed, and would be many hours before we saw another person out on the trail.

The trail begins as an old road and almost immediately the views are incredible. We were lucky enough to be out in very early leaf peeping season, but the trees changing was only part of the beauty. We knew there were some massive castle-like rock formations on West Elk's east ridge, but little did we know there were also castles in the valley that rose to great heights above the surrounding terrain. Unimaginable serpentine twists, knife-thin wedges, soaring pinnacles, and all manner of impossible shapes festooned both of the ridges that made up Mill Creek drainage.

Sneaky peeky. Photo: Whiley H.
Only a few minutes from trailhead to glory. Photo: Whiley H.
A wall of towers.
The other side of the valley.

It had only taken us a few minutes to reach such grandeur, and we'd be passing under it for several miles up the drainage.

Set in stone. Photo: Whiley H.
West Elk at its finest. Photo: Whiley H.
More real than reality. Photo: Whiley H.

The first couple of miles on the trail are mostly flat and cross the creek a time or two. The trail is well maintained which made for quick progress. A set of switchbacks led up past a short rock wall and to a small, rocky plateau. Despite looking brittle and crumbly the rock was surprisingly solid, especially for volcanic rock, which it clearly was. Pulling on stones that looked loose proved fruitless, not even a jiggle. The larger, more cohesive conglomerate was much harder than it looked and would likely have made for good climbing, though protection would be sparse to totally unavailable.

Greens and reds.
Communing with nature. Photo: Whiley H.
The Hunchback. Photo: Whiley H.
Towers with towering towers.

Eventually the trail ran into a small gorge with water flowing out of it. Here it turned sharply and rose above Mill Creek in a series of switchbacks. In spots the trail was steep and loose, but only very briefly.

Where the trail jumps back on itself.
Looking up Mill Creek.

Several hundred feet of switchbacking later and the trail again made a straight shot to the west, now far above the creek.

Reaching the upper bowl. Photo: Whiley H.
Gentler terrain just east of the peak.

As we hiked Vadim regaled us with tales of his journey. Peaks and people we were both familiar with and had little or no knowledge of. We laughed and carried on and shared our own stories, glad to be in a beautiful place among friends.

Reaching the upper part of the hike. Photo: Whiley H.
"So there I was, hanging from this paper-thin flake of rock with just a single fingernail above the abyss..." Photo: Whiley H.
The vast upper reaches of Mill Creek drainage.

After a break at treeline we continued up the trail until it began to switchback up and over Storm Pass, gaining only gradually.

Storm Pass is broad and easy. Lower switchbacks are visible on the left. Photo: Whiley H.

On top of the pass the Castles on the east ridge spiked up.

"West Castle" and "East Castle".
To the heavens.

From Storm Pass it was just a short ridge walk to the rounded summit of West Elk Peak. We encountered one short snowfield crossing but otherwise the last bit to the summit was easy.

West Elk Peak.
No Castles on this gentle summit.
The snow field just before the summit.

Vadim was given the honor of summiting first. This was his day, after all.

583.999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999. Photo: Whiley H.

We lounged on the summit, which was cool and slightly breezy, and celebrated by eating cheesecake and drinking beer.

584 peaks / 4 flavors = 146 peaks per flavor.
Any day with a summit beer is a good day. Photo: Whiley H.
Happy crew on West Elk.

After about half an hour on West Elk's summit we got up and began moving towards our next objective, Point 12,809, which is mid-way across West Elk's long north ridge. Vadim is also working on the highest 1,000 peaks in both Colorado and the Continental United States, and though 12,809 falls just short of the cutoff for CONUS 1,000 it is Colorado's 776th highest summit, and the easiest and shortest way to it is from West Elk's summit. It's approximately two miles of gorgeous hiking to 12,809's lump of a summit.

Point 12,809 way over on the right.

Along the way to the ridge's elbow it narrowed and became rocky. As we began hiking north more astounding rock formations appeared. We were tired by this point and mostly hiked in a slow quiet.





Photo: Whiley H.



Photo: Whiley H.
Photo: Whiley H.
Photo: Whiley H.
Photo: Whiley H.


Photo: Whiley H.


Eventually we reached 12,809's summit, and the halfway point in our journey for the day.

Endless weird rocks.
Almost all the way to the summit.
Heck of a viewpoint. Photo: Whiley H.
The Castles from 12,809.

The summit register went back nearly twelve years and had some of Colorado's most well known peakbaggers listed. We added our own names to the list, happy to be in good company.

From August, 2008. There were a surprising number of entries on this remote summit.

Since it was past 3pm now and we still had 12ish miles back to the trailhead, we began our long return haul.

Our long way back to West Elk. Photo: Whiley H.
All Hail Ye Mighty Lump, West Elk Peak. Photo: Whiley H
Photo: Whiley H.
Storm Pass.
Mill Creek's upper basin.

While descending the switchbacks from Storm Pass we passed a hunter. Vadim asked him if he was out hunting West Elk or East Elk. He legitimately didn't know. Spoiler alert: there is no such thing as East Elk and that guy didn't even know the mountain he was on. The look on his face of blank confusion was hilarious. Thanks for the laughs, Vadim.

The remaining hike out was long but uneventful. Mill Creek Basin was no less spectacular on the way down than it was in the morning.

Photo: Whiley H.
Photo: Whiley H.
Photo: Whiley H.

Big day though this was it was truly an honor to be able to hike with Vadim on such a special occasion. Thank you, Vadim, for inviting Whiley and I, and congratulations on an incredible achievement. West Elk was a perfectly chosen finisher, and one that will remain in my memory forever.


Climbers: Vadim B., Ben Feinstein (myself), Whiley H.
Trailhead: Mill Castle
Total distance: 23.15 miles
Total elevation gain: 7,064 feet
Total time: 11:02:32
Peaks: One ranked thirteener, one ranked twelver

  • West Elk Peak, 13,035'
  • Point 12,809


Starting Location Ending Location Via Time (h:mm:ss) Cumulative Time (h:mm:ss) Rest Time (m:ss)
Mill Castle Trailhead West Elk Peak 4:47:05 4:47:05 49:31
West Elk Peak Point 12,809 1:04:02 6:40:38 4:15
Point 12,809 West Elk Peak 1:21:53 8:06:46 0:00
West Elk Peak Mill Castle Trailhead 2:55:46 11:02:32 Trip End

My GPS Tracks on Google Maps (made from a .GPX file upload):

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 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53 54 55 56 57 58

Comments or Questions
The man
04/12/2021 16:13
Glad to have met Vadim at least once, what a fine guy to spend a morning hiking with.

I need to meet up with you sometime, Ben. I wanna see the rest of those tats.

04/12/2021 16:29
What an accomplishment! Great Job! Beautiful pics!

04/12/2021 17:00
Whenever I see one of these posted I feel 2 things-

1. Shame that I still haven‘t finished the 14ners
2. Immense awe that someone powered through so many 13ners.

Congrats and incredible job! Hope to meet all of you legends on a peak somewhere

Beep boob
04/12/2021 17:45
@Patrick: Vadim's a swell guy for sure, and I feel very fortunate to have met him and climbed with him! As for my tats, I'm so inked I'd have to strip down to my underwear to show them all off. I sure pick easy, pain-free hobbies!

@Ritzn1: Thanks, and Vadim says thanks too!

@MM4: There's no shame in not having finished an arbitrary list, every peak is great in its own right! We'll be out there, hope to see you too.

04/12/2021 19:47
Very pretty area and awesome finisher and feat. The pics here remind me of the Cimarrons.

pretty area
04/13/2021 07:38
I'm gonna need to find a less then 7000 foot gain way to get it though hah

04/13/2021 08:29
Awesome write up with some great pictures! Thanks for posting and it was so cool to do it with the good friends!

Congrats Vadim!
04/13/2021 10:41
Wow, that's great. Good effort. You join a small club in completing all of those

Those Towers
04/14/2021 11:07
Sure do look epic!

04/14/2021 16:06
Awesome job, Vadim! And nice job documenting the day Ben! West Elk has been on my list for a while, hoping to try it when the aspens are at peak.

04/14/2021 20:17
Really cool terrain back in there!! Thanks for posting!!

These rocks rock
04/15/2021 07:58
@Yusuf: I don't know much about the various ages of the volcanic events in each respective area of Colorado, but both the West Elk and Cimarron are volcanic hence the similarities.

@Trotter: Get a mini-horse like Allie (13erRetriever) did! They're cute and they'll carry your gear around for you!

@Vadim: Glad to be there bud. Such a spectacular peak to finish on!

@nyker: He does indeed. Even with a time of six years, that's still just shy of 100 peaks per year, which is an absurd pace.

@Steve: I think the two "Castles" are listed on Lists of John, but I don't know if either has an ascent. You should go climb them!

@Andrew: Fiery aspen + West Elk Peak = One Good Time

@Paul: You're welcome, this one's amazing and worth the trip out there!

Nice report & photos
04/16/2021 16:31
"So there I was, hanging from this paper-thin flake of rock with just a single fingernail above the abyss..." Ah, fond memories!

I'm glad I had a chance to meet Vadim a few years ago at Cielo Vista Ranch for some obscure 13ers. In my best year, I didn't hit 100 summits. For Vadim, that's a down year! Thanks for documenting his finisher so well.

04/21/2021 21:22
Eddie, wish you could have joined us. We'll be ready to go for your finisher.

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