7.17.2005

A True "Climb"

My friend Ben and I have been talking about climbing in the Gore Range for some time. Of course during the winter staring at the peaks from the local ski areas played a big factor in our fascination with this range. Now that it is summer and all of the snow is gone, well most of it anyway, we finally planned an outing. We headed up the Pitkin Creek Trail, one of several approaches to the range from Vail. The trail itself makes for quite an outing; it is 4 1/2 miles to the lake and 3000 feet of elevation gain. The hike starts out steep, like all East Vail hikes, as it rises above the main valley floor and enters the Eagles Nest Wilderness area. After this initial climb, the trail flattens out a bit as it rises more practically through a wildflower filled meadow and alternating forests of aspens and pine. There are two large waterfalls along the trail as well, and by the time we reached the lake we were already surrounded by the beauty of the wilderness only 4 1/2 miles from the highway. The lake sits at the bottom of a magnificent cirque, anchored on each end by rugged 13,000 foot peaks that are connected by a ridge resembling a saw blade. We decided to head up the peak on the left, a 13,041’ peak nicknamed “west partner peak”, but officially unnamed. In fact the majority of the peaks in the Gore Range do not have names, and are unofficially named by local climbers. The peaks are rugged, and while easily accessed from Vail to the west and Silverthorne to the east, the approach hikes are long wilderness trails, and occasionally require bushwhacking off trail to reach them. They are seldom climbed, and the range has none of Colorado’s famed fourteeners. This wilderness climbing experience was precisely the reason why we have wanted to climb here. Of course the trail itself is reasonably popular with residents in the area, but most people make a day of just visiting the lake, and seldom venture beyond its banks. We reached the end of the trail and quickly began ascending a rock slope towards the lower section of “west partner’s” southwest ridge. Above this boulder field is a steep grassy slope, and when we reached the ridge at 12,200 feet the views to the west of the neighboring Booth Creek drainage opened up and caused both of us to say “wow” out loud. The stunning view down both the Booth and Pitkin side of the ridge prompted us to sit down and enjoy lunch before pressing on. Afterward we continued on the ridge, which starts out as a class 2 ridge, but quickly becomes more difficult as several short sections of class 3 climbing are required to continue on. At the first of several false summits, the terrain gets even more interesting as a large west facing gully slices through the ridge and bars easy passage. The only way to continue on is to descend a steep class 3 ledge, cross the gully, and ascend an exposed class 3 face of rock to regain the ridge. This is the route’s crux move and requires careful climbing, but luckily on this peak good solid hand and foot holds are plentiful. When back on the now much rougher ridge crest we alternated between climbing on the airy ridge, and traversing around the more difficult rock towers on convenient ledges. There was one class 4 section just before the true summit, that on ascent we took directly, but on descent we opted for a class 3 ledge that skirted it instead. Either choice is exposed, but once again bountiful holds made both options manageable. The final summit pitch requires a brief section of class 3 climbing, and the actual summit block is only large enough for one person to occupy at a time. The summit pictures are quite dramatic. While this peak is difficult, the class 3 sections were brief, and always on good rock with a wide variety of holds. There is a limited amount of resources regarding routes on these peaks, and it was fun to have to search for and find the easiest route without having read about it in a guidebook before hand. While I someday hope to climb all of the fourteeners, I think that climbing in the Gores will ultimately prove to be more rewarding, and look forward to future adventures here.