Category Archives: Colorado

Crystal, Pacific, Atlantic

Sunrise behind Pacific

Sunrise behind Pacific

As I learned on a short trip up north, winter’s snow and wind test one’s patience and fitness; lacking in both, I have less than I had hoped to show for my suffering. After giving up in frustration in 3-foot-deep, crusty slush below treeline near Latir, then tiring of fighting the wind on a long ridge toward Casco, I finally managed to knock off a few of Colorado’s 100 highest peaks in the Tenmile Range. The good thing about these peaks is that they have winter trailheads above 10,000′ on both sides, removing most of the need to deal with unconsolidated snow below treeline.

After some time at the coffee place in Leadville, I drove past the strip mine and tailings ponds near Fremont Pass to sleep at the 10,800-foot Mayflower Gulch trailhead. The Colorado DoT generously plows a large parking lot here, and it is a popular starting point for backcountry skiers. Expecting a cold but quiet night, I was surprised by two silently creepy encounters. First, a man and his dog in a beater car (even compared to mine!) pulled into the middle of the lot, turned off the motor, and sat around for 20-30 minutes. Then, just as I was trying to go to sleep, a large black SUV pulled in, turned around so the lights shone directly at my car, and sat with the motor running for a similar amount of time. Drug deals? I did my best “empty car” impression, and finally had peace and quiet.

Dawn brought more normal visitors: a party of four snowshoers in two cars. I willed myself out of my bag, clumsily put on socks, boots, and gaiters under the steering wheel, and followed them a half-hour later up a well-packed trail. Not entirely sure about the route, I crossed the stream at a concrete penstock, following various ski tracks up the ridge to the left. The snow in the tracks was perfect for snowshoeing, and the grind up to the ridge went easily. Reaching the top, I peered east toward Pacific, and north over the other side, then reluctantly wound my way a couple hundred feet down a gentler section to the valley below, where I found another ski track.

The snow in the valley leading to the Pacific-Crystal saddle was more variable, and I meandered back and forth looking for the best line. Partway up, I saw the party of four making their way around the west end of my ridge to the head of the valley. I later realized that this is the “official” route but, following it on the descent, found that the snow was better my way.

I took off my snowshoes in a sunny part of the snow-rock boundary below the ridge, then picked my way up a mixture of loose talus and patchy snow. As the wind hit me near the ridge, my hands quickly froze in their sweat-soaked gloves; I ducked into a protected notch on the sunny side of the ridge to shove my hands under my jacket until they stopped aching, then donned my mitts. Though I saw bits of a use trail leading toward Crystal, it was mostly hidden by patchy snow, so I was forced to deal with the virginal talus while climbing the shaded, windy side of a subpeak. Crossing its summit, I was pleased to escape the wind and find a mostly-direct line on snow to the summit. Except in a few places, the wind-board was hard enough to hold under my snowshoes.

Returning to the subpeak, I once again removed my snowshoes, and was nearly caught relieving myself by the group of four. I returned to the saddle and made my way up Pacific’s north ridge over yet more wind-scoured talus. I admired the steep northwest couloir as I passed, though it is probably not yet consolidated enough to even be a snow climb. From the surprisingly calm summit, I could see 14ers from Pikes in the southeast to the Maroon Bells to the west, as well as Atlantic, my next destination.

The traverse was completely uneventful, and I reached Atlantic’s summit around 12:40. This gave me plenty of time to finish off this part of the range by traversing to nearby Fletcher and Drift. Being (Colorado) class 3-4, it would add some flavor to all the snowshoeing; however, one look at the ridge killed my motivation. While it did not look particularly difficult or dangerous, the traverse to Drift looked like slow, wretched work over loose fins, towers, and gullies, all covered in patchy snow. I took the coward’s way, retreating down Atlantic’s west ridge until I could glissade down a moderate snowfield into the valley to the north. From there, I picked up the party of four’s tracks and followed them down to the now-crowded parking lot.


Jagged above a lake

Jagged Peak is another remote, high 13er in the San Juans. To give you an idea of its remoteness, it has 3 recommended approaches: from the Animas river to its west, from Vallecito Reservoir to its southeast, and from Beartown to its northeast. Since it has the least elevation gain, does not require extensive 4WD road travel, and was along my way, I chose to come in from the reservoir, requiring 31 miles and about 6,000 feet of elevation gain.

I started at 3:30 AM and, at a fast walk, reached the former location of the third bridge around when it was light enough to assess the situation. The bridge was destroyed by an avalanche 8-9 years ago, and since this is Forest Service land, it will not be replaced. Most people choose to ford the river, which can be dangerous early in the season, but I found a nice log crossing about 100 yards downstream.

Continuing along the trail, I identified Sunlight Creek and left the main trail, following one of several faint game trails toward the river. I managed once again to find a dry crossing, this time where the river splits around an island, by reaching the island on rocks, then balancing across to the other shore on a smaller log. While I was pleased to have avoided a ford, my feet and legs were soaked most of the rest of the day from dew and rain collected on plants.

The formerly-maintained Sunlight Creek trail crosses the creek near the riverbank, then heads upstream on its north side. While deadfall and avalanche debris have obliterated the trail in several places, use and sporadic cairns make it usable well up the canyon. I left the trail near the upper edge of some cliffs on the north side, leaving the main creek for the valley north of Jagged. On the way down, I found that the trail simply takes a wider line around these cliffs.

I slogged my way up the slope west of the stream, ignoring game-trails on the other side, and emerged at the base of the long valley leading to Jagged Pass. I met the decent-sized herd of elk that call it home, and saw plenty of their droppings as well. Jagged is at the far end of this valley, so I had plenty of time, while walking to its base, to contemplate the clouds forming behind me. I also enjoyed the white granite scenery, which reminded me of the eastern Sierra Nevada.

Jagged’s north face is broken and not especially steep, and there appear to be several ways to reach the summit ridge. Once close to the pass, I spotted the often snow-filled gully mentioned in the route description, and started up the ledges to its right. Unfortunately, much of the not-so-hard climbing on this face is on outward sloping slabs, or things one does not normally climb, like turf and wet gravel. Constantly wet and gritty soles led to lots of counter-pressure, and an occasional unorthodox move, like kick-stepping in wet turf.

After backtracking a few times, I reached the notch and, passing to the south side, quickly made my way along a comfortably-wide ledge system to the summit at 10:50. The weather was starting to look serious, so by 11:00 I was already on my way down, more or less retracing my steps. There are an absurd number of rappel stations on this 4th-class route on an obscure peak. I took a piece of cord with me, and encourage anyone who climbs Jagged to do his or her part to clean up the unnecessary tat.

I quickly made my way down the valley in a small hole of blue sky between rain along the Vallecito and clouds forming behind. Fortunately, the rain along the valley had mostly subsided by the time I reached it, and I endured no worse than light drizzle and re-soaked plants on the return.

Teakettle, “Coffeepot”, Potosi

Pot(osi) calling the (Tea)kettle chossy

For an easy day, I headed back to Yankee Boy Basin to tag Teakettle and Potosi, two cool-looking piles of horrendous rock near Mount Sneffels. “Coffeepot” is a bump on the ridge between them. Teakettle and “Coffeepot” are noted for having 5th-class summit blocks, a relative rarity among Colorado peaks.

From just past the trailhead with the outhouse, the approach to Teakettle is easy grass and stable scree into the basin to its south. The right-hand side of this basin, a pile of scree with a rock window in the cliffs on top, is unfortunately where one must go. This scree is mostly large, loose, and sharp, and I had sadly failed to bring shin-guards. I took my time picking my way up the slope, then headed past the window to the black gully that passes the cliff-band. From here, I followed footprints in the loose sand to the base of the summit block. A quick bit of easy 5th-class stemming got me to the top, which is adorned with several large rap slings. I’m not sure how safe I would feel rapping off the rock up there.

I stemmed back down, retraced my route down the black gully, then headed up to the northwest side of “Coffeepot” and around to its southeast, which is split by two chimneys. The right-hand one was too narrow to climb with a pack, but perfect for chimneying. I writhed up, checked out the view, and writhed back down.

A faint trail makes the scree-slog to Potosi more bearable. At some point before rounding the peak’s south corner, one should claw up the scree and head northeast and up, finding cairns and a sort-of route. Instead, I continued following a faint trail around to the southeast ridge, and made my way up some loose stuff there to the broad, flat summit. I took the standard route back to the “trail” along the ridge, then dropped down some unpleasant scree toward the road. By heading right when reaching the grass, I mostly avoided downclimbing the gray, crumbly cliffs near the base of the peak, and came out just below the trailhead.

CO 14ers finish in style: Eolus, Windom, Sunlight (11h20)

On Sunlight’s summit

Thanks to thebeave7 for his trip report, which I noticed a couple of years ago, and which directed me through the two unmarked forks near the beginning.

Thanks, too, I guess, for mentioning the purported fastest known time (FKT) for the route, 13h30. Reading it, my competitive fire was kindled, and though I was planning a fun outing, I knew that was… fkt. Each encouraging split caused me to up the pace, until I was jamming down Chicago Basin and the Animas River Trail at a decent run, and crushing myself up the climb back to Purgatory in baking mid-day heat. So maybe I have the FKT until one of the top Colorado ultra runners bothers to give it a shot.

For those who don’t want to spend $100 on the train, the best way to get to Chicago Basin is a 12-mile hike or run down Purgatory Creek to the Animas, then up the Animas River Trail to Needle Creek, near the train stop. For those who want to climb these remote 14ers without camping out, this makes for a long day — claims 42 miles and 12,000 feet of elevation gain — with a painful finish, climbing 1500 feet back out of the Animas to Purgatory. Fortunately, most of the trail to Chicago Basin is very runnable, so a decent trail-runner can make it a reasonable day.

I set my alarm for 2:30, then tried to sleep at the trailhead, but was awakened by a midnight thunder and rain storm, and couldn’t get back to sleep. When my watch beeped for 2:00, I gave up, slammed some coffee and a couple of bananas, tried to use a convenient port-a-potty, and hit the trail at 2:26. 20 minutes later, I had to use a hole in the ground — these early starts are hell on my body’s timing.

The trail down Purgatory Creek dips and switchbacks, and is rough enough in places that it is not an easy run by headlamp. Remembering the trip report, I turned right at the two unmarked splits, trusting in the moonless night that I would end up in the right place. Reaching the bridge at 3:21, I was caught completely by surprise, reassured that I was on the right path, and driven to push for speed.

The Animas River Trail crosses the narrow-gage tracks shortly before they cross to the west side of the river, then follows near the east bank for (supposedly) 7 miles. Though there are rough spots, much of this is runnable, and I found myself jogging long stretches despite going up-river. Multi-hour headlamp time can be a form of meditation, or just an extended absurdity. I drifted into the latter mode and, as I jogged an obscure trail alone in the middle of the night, DJ Dan’s repeated encouragement in my headphones to “get next to the opposite sex” and “shake that ass” somehow fit.

Somewhere in this stretch, I stopped to grab one of the 6 peanut butter, honey, and banana sandwiches I was carrying (in addition to 4 packs of pop-tarts), and was disgusted to find that the “value brand” bread I buy was just not up to task. Rather than sandwiches, I had an old bread-bag containing about 1500 calories of 6-layer bread pudding. I carefully peeled off the top layer of this monstrosity and gagged it down as I walked.

I reached the Needles Creek turnoff at 4:37 and, still feeling good, jogged the flatter, smoother parts of the trail up into Chicago Basin. This trail is not as runnable as the Animas trail, with some partially washed-out sections and one messy tangle of trees. The sky lightened as the basin opened up, and by around 5:30 I was headlamp-free and able to see the multitude of tents in the basin, some of their inhabitants just starting their days.

The purported use trail to Twin Lakes seems to have become official, with a sign and significant trail work. I power-hiked the steeper climb up to the lakes, then took the left branch toward Eolus. I noticed a few footprints in the wet sand, and met the two men making them as they descended just below the ridge-line. They were watching a family of the basin’s way-too-friendly mountain goats, which I shooed off the trail with some annoyance.

Most of Eolus is just a hike up sand and a few slabs, but the climbing from the saddle to the summit can be fun. I took a class 3-4 route near the spine on the way up, and followed the more meandering, cairned, standard route on the way down. The summit has a great view of Pigeon and Turret to the west, two high 13ers, which I admired as I switched to daytime mode and tried to dry out my dew-soaked shoes and socks.

After bombing back down to the trail junction, I took the path northeast toward Sunlight and Windom, passing the men I met earlier just before the standard routes split. Sunlight sounded more interesting, so I chose to tag Windom first. This proved fortunate, since you can easily drop down Windom’s north face on loose sand and talus on the traverse in this direction. The standard route gains a saddle on Windom’s west ridge, which it follows to the summit, mostly on stable class 2-3 talus.

After dropping down Windom’s north side, I picked up the standard route on Sunlight, a mostly painless sand- and talus-fest until the last 100 feet. Seeing my two occasional companions on the summit rocks, I pushed myself to catch them before they descended, 4th classing my way up the last bit to the summit a bit before 10:00 AM, 7h30 out. After trading picture-taking duties, they returned the way they had come. I had a snack, enjoyed the view, then found the fun standard route, which passes through a short tunnel to the west side of the ridge.

Now it was on. Dropping down the sand, I refilled my water at a snowmelt stream, then started making good time down to the Columbine Pass junction. From there on, I ran the trail through the basin — a trail that begs to be run — and what I could of the descent to the Animas. I crammed down pop-tarts and ibuprofen, put on Rammstein, and took off at a brisk but efficient jog along the river, feeling surprisingly good.

Things started turning grim at the bridge, 10h20 in, where I ate the last of my “pudding” and started heading uphill. It was over 90 degrees in Durango the day before, so it was probably in the 80s on the climb, with no wind and only intermittent shade. I knew I would be well under the 13h30 FKT, but really wanted to go sub-12. Giving Rammstein another spin, I jogged flatter parts and power-hiked steeper ones, suffering all the while. It was hard to identify landmarks passed by headlamp, but the few I recognized allowed me to stay motivated, and I was immensely pleased to reach the trailhead sign at 11h20.

Arrow, Vestal, Trinity

Looking down Vestal Basin

Thanks to Brian Kalet for his trip report, which inspired this outing.

The San Juan range between Durango and Silverton contains some of Colorado’s best peaks. They are also some of the most difficult to reach, for several reasons: First, unlike most areas of western Colorado, they were not extensively mined, so there are few dirt roads leading into the area. Second, the Animas River lies between them and highway 550, so any approach starts with a 1000- or 2000-foot descent. Finally, the train along the Animas runs infrequently and costs $100 to ride. This is why, although I have driven by these peaks many times, it has taken me until now to tag some.

Vestal Basin is reached by descending the trail from near Molas Lake to the Animas, then taking the Elk Creek trail to an unmarked turnoff near a large, green lake, and following the fairly obvious use trail. The peaks south of the basin are all made from the same solid, multi-layered rock, which was uplifted and bent, then cut. Oddly, Arrow, Vestal, and the Trinities have almost no connecting ridge-line, but instead are nearly separate peaks on a high bench. Vestal and Arrow in particular are striking and distinctive, and Vestal’s Wham Ridge is a classic moderate route (5.4, supposedly).

I got a proper alpine start at 4:05 AM, jogging what I could of the trail down to the Animas. The trail starts to drop, then heads slightly uphill and north while crossing what turned out to be a large meadow; this seeming detour was disconcerting on a moonless night. It was still full dark when I reached the bridge, startling a deer near someone’s tent. After hiking along the tracks a short ways, I found the Elk Creek trail and began regaining my lost elevation.

Elk Creek is freakishly popular: I came across one person camped right along the trail, and a virtual tent city at the Vestal Basin turnoff. Oddly, I only met a single backpacker in the basin itself; I’m not sure what all those other people were doing. The turnoff is obvious if you know what to look for: there is a large, nasty-looking lake south of the trail, and you can see the tops of Arrow and Vestal up the side valley.

After seeing my first bear of the day, I must have turned my brain off on the steep climb into Vestal Basin, because I went right past Arrow and Vestal, then had to backtrack for a few minutes, cross the stream, and follow a faint trail through grass and slabs to the bench at the base of the peaks. The previous evening’s rain (vicious hail on Molas Pass) had collected on the bushes, thoroughly soaking my pants and shoes.

The only route description necessary for Arrow is “use the huge ramp that God provided.” The bent layers have broken off in several clean ramps, one of which leads nearly to the summit. Though there’s some 3rd class scrambling at the top, most of the climb is a walk up perfect slabs. The descent is equally pleasant and straightforward.

After tagging Arrow, I cut across to the base of Vestal’s west side, then found a place to pop over to its signature north face. The Wham Ridge route simply stays near the right-hand side of this face, leading nearly to the summit. Most of the climbing was class 2-3, with a few harder spots where the face steepens near the top. I thought it could go at class 4 with some deviations from the ridge; there is very little 5th class climbing, none of which felt quite 5.4. It is still a fun route, but you should not expect a sustained technical climb.

After descending off Vestal via a nasty talus slope on the southeast side, I followed a faint path on the ridge to the base of West Trinity. Some uneventful 3rd class climbing on the southwest ridge got me to the summit, where it briefly looked like it might start raining.

The traverse to Middle Trinity requires avoiding a couple of sub-summits, and mostly follows ledges on the south side of the ridge. Like Kalet, I marveled at the lone tree somehow growing above 13,500′ on this traverse. Having stayed too low too long, I had to do a bit of unpleasant wet slab climbing to reach the summit bowl.

The east side of Middle Trinity consists of a number of ribs and scree gullies; the one closest to the ridge reaches the saddle with minimal loss of elevation. East Trinity’s west ridge was a surprising treat, a fun 3rd class scramble on solid quartz-like rock. I continued east to where the ridge splits, then headed down and left to the head of Vestal Basin.

After sliding down some well-behaved scree, it was just a matter of putting in the miles back to Molas. I stayed north in the basin until I was even with Vestal, then dropped to the trail, avoiding most of the bushwhacking. After jogging most of the trail down to the Animas (meeting my second bear) and just missing the train, I ground out the long, switchbacking climb to the trailhead for a car-to-car time just under 12 hours.

Fuller, Vermilion, Golden Horn, Pilot Knob

L to R: Fuller, Vermilion, Golden Horn, Pilot Knob

Fuller, Vermilion, Golden Horn, and Pilot Knob are high-points on the colorful, rotten rim of Ice Lakes Basin near Silverton. Though all are high 13ers, they rise from a high basin and are connected by high saddles, making them more snack-sized peaks, with Pilot Knob being the best of the lot, and my favorite of the two Pilot Knobs I have climbed. Being both scenic and accessible, the basin can be hideously crowded, but it’s worth a visit, and only a handful of visitors seem to tag the peaks.

With the weather finally improving — I woke to stars rather than rain — I started up the trail around 5:30, giving myself plenty of time to take care of business. I passed scads of tents in both the lower and upper basins, but only saw a couple people out and about. I followed a well-established trail to Fuller Lake, then headed cross-country for a switchbacking use trail I spotted leading to the Fuller-Vermilion saddle. I picked up bits of a faint trail below the saddle, leading past a stone hut and various mine debris.

The trail to the saddle was surprisingly well-worn, given that it connects to nowhere, basically, but I was surprised to see a number of use trails in the talus to the southwest, highlighted by the low-angle light. The talus on the west side of the ridge was still covered in frost and very slick, but I had no trouble following an intermittent trail to Fuller’s summit.

I retraced my steps, then continued on the corresponding use trail around Vermilion’s west side and up to its summit, finally ascending some steep mud and green rock. Although vermilion is “a brilliant red pigment made from mercury sulfide,” the peak wasn’t noticeably red to the climber’s eye.

Returning to the top of the steep mud, I carefully climbed and slid down a gully on the northeast side, raining chossy death on anyone below, to reach a bench near the saddle with Golden Horn. Though it is both golden and horn-shaped from the east, the peak is gray and nondescript from the south. I climbed some tame gray mud and talus, finding a cairn on the western summit pinnacle.

Retreating south, I found a good spot to pop over the ridge and contour around Golden Horn’s west side, popping out on the intermittently-vermilion ridge south of Pilot Knob. Making my way over, around, and in between some wacky pillars, I tried to pick out a route up Pilot Knob.

I knew it was third class, but hadn’t paid much attention to the route description, so I ended up making it more like 4th class. I started around to the left, then up through a gap south of a cairned non-summit and up to the ridge via the left side. From there, I stayed near the top, walking over and across the crazy-looking pillars. It didn’t look like it would go, but most of the scramble from the non-summit to the summit on the north end was no harder than exposed class 2.

From the summit, I found cairns for the much-easier standard route, then circled around the north end and boot-skied down scree and sand to the basin. I hiked back to the trail, crushing wildflowers along the way, then ran the rest of the way, trying not to scare the masses of hikers.


Summit knobs from where I reached the ridge

The high-point of a ridge southwest of Mt. Sneffels, Dallas Peak is known for having the hardest standard route of Colorado’s 100 highest peaks, a 5.3 summit pinnacle. It also happens to be an absolute miracle of balanced scree and talus, thousands of feet of mobile rock with just enough solid stuff to host a bit of mossy 5th-class climbing near the top.

It was yet another cloudy dawn start, this time from the Mill Creek trailhead just outside Telluride. The route follows the Deep Creek trail to the Sneffels Highline trail, then branches off cross-country for a pick-your-poison climb to Dallas’ east ridge. Both trails are moderately-graded and well-maintained, making for a pleasant cruise on the approach and a fun run on the return. There was some rain on the peaks south of Telluride and around Wilson, but the weather was holding in my part of the range.

From the south, Dallas itself is a mess of rounded, rotten, unclimbable cliffs and buttes mixed with steep scree chutes. The obvious weakness is a yellow talus fan leading to the east ridge. However, this talus is unusually unstable: stepping on one rock will often cause several feet of rock above it to slide, bashing your shin or ankle if you’re not careful. I made my way up the left side of the fan, staying near the edge of the gray cliffs where the rocks didn’t move quite so much. The weather continued to look iffy but stable.

I finally reached the ridge, and was amazed to see that parts of it were almost an overhanging wave of talus. From the saddle to the base of the summit knob, the route crosses a variety of talus and occasional steps of crumbly, 3rd class gray rock. One of the 3rd class pitches near the summit had a rappel station at the top; I almost removed it for being unnecessary junk, but kept if for the sake of people descending in the rain.

The summit knob is easiest on the north side, where the rock becomes more solid, though it is still covered in scree, lichen, and moss. I made my way up a 5.easy chimney to the left of what I later found was the standard route. Climbers’ passage has cleaned it off relative to the surrounding rock, but it is still chossy. The summit was, appropriately, a talus plateau.

I downclimbed the standard route, failing to booty a #2 friend (someone had an expensive climb…), but successfully recovering a #3 stopper. Rather than returning along the ridge, I followed some boot-tracks down into the maze of gullies. I eventually lost them, but a combination of game trails and likely-looking chutes got me down through the cliffs and back to the trail. I decided to run the trail back, and was rewarded for my choice by arriving at the car about 5 minutes before the “afternoon” rains started at 11:25. Ah, Colorado in July…

Dirtbag note

Telluride is somewhat more friendly than Vail: though it seems to consist mostly of overpriced boutiques, it has a decent coffee place and a public park with adequate parking. Ouray is, of course, much better. In particular, showers at the hot springs are $2 and reasonably clean.

Wilson Peak

Wilson from approach

Wilson Peak is “the other Wilson,” a barely-14er near Telluride. It is the last Colorado 14er I have to climb other than Sunlight, Windom, and Eolus (and Culebra, owned by greed-heads). Since I hope to finish with those next week, I headed over to Telluride to tag Wilson from Silver Pick Basin. While there have been issues with a local landowner, the trail has been relocated to skirt the relevant inholding, and things seem peaceful except for the usual angry “POSTED no trespassing” signs.

Driving down from Grand Junction, things looked grim in the San Juans, with thunderstorms apparently blanketing the area as early as 1:00 PM. I pulled into a wet campsite near the trailhead and planned for a short day. I started off with another couple around 6:00 AM, leaving them behind on the old road that is the basis for the new trail. This road switchbacks up a valley west of Wilson, passing through forest and a massive talus field. It then traverses into Silver Pick Basin, an even larger mass of talus, following old mining roads toward the saddle west of the peak.

From here, the route traverses to the Gladstone-Wilson ridge, which it follows to the summit. I passed two brothers on this final stretch, who were making good time but were slow on the short stretches of exposed or 3rd class climbing. I reached the summit 2h10 from the car, taking in the cloudy view while waiting for my compatriots to reach the summit.

I had originally planned to traverse over to Gladstone, but I was uninspired by a long, chossy ridge traverse on a cloudy day. Instead, I had a relaxed chat/hike back to the car, and headed into Telluride to see how it compares to other expensive resort towns.

Ripsaw Ridge (“Black ET”, G, F, E, D, C’, C)

Ripsaw Ridge (C-G) from across the way

Ripsaw Ridge is another popular Gore traverse, tagging many of the “alphabet” peaks for which the range is known. I did it by accident today, having mis-aimed on an attempt to climb nearby Powell and Eagle’s Nest. While there was a lot of easy going, this is a long ridge with a few 4th class sections and a lot of scrambling. The path of least resistance usually stays near the crest, and the scenery is excellent. There are also several opportunities for escape if the weather turns bad.

The turnoff to Knee-knocker Pass is always easy to miss, and even easier to miss this year, since a large tree has fallen across it near where it diverges from the Upper Piney Lake trail. Since I was mostly tuned out, listening to a podcast while putting in forested trail miles, I completely missed it. Around this point, I met another peak-bagger named Layne, out to climb peaks G and F, who informed me that we had probably passed the junction. I didn’t remember anything about the traverse other than that it was no harder than easy 5th, but figured I might as well do that.

We hiked along together for awhile next to Piney Creek, squelching miserably through the dew-soaked grass and bogs, completely soaking my shoes and pants to the knee. We eventually emerged from the trees on a granite hump near Upper Piney Lake, where we went our separate ways. I chose a likely-looking avalanche chute up to the ridge, and managed to mostly avoid bushwhacking, reaching the ridge on a combination of grass and talus.

I immediately I was too far south: Peak G is the high point of the ridge, and I could see several higher points to my north. There was another point a short way to the south, but I didn’t feel like making a detour. Making my way north, I reached a cairn built around a USGS benchmark labeled “Black ET” and the remains of a broken jar. This might have been Peak H.

From “Black ET,” I passed over and around several bumps and ridges, making my way to Peak G’s obvious summit, gaining my first clear view of the (possibly dead) glacier in the cirque to its northeast. I soon found the first crux of the traverse, a bit of 4th class downclimbing getting off G’s summit.

The traverse across F, E, and D was a fun mixture of class 3 scrambling, boulder-hopping, and tundra-walking. I found the only register canister of the day on E, containing an amazing CMC log from 1948, with only a few pages filled. I was pleased to see an entry by Ray Northcutt, who did the first ascent of the Diagonal on Longs with Layton Kor. Making my way up D, I saw Layne (presumably) on the summit of G, and shouted, though I doubt he heard me.

Somewhere between E and D, a part of PDQ Bach’s joke song got stuck in my head. As a service to my readers, here are the jokes:

  • What is the question to which the answer is “Chicken Teriyaki”? What is the name of the only living Kamikaze pilot?

  • What is the question to which the answer is “9 W”? Do you spell your name with a “V”, Mr. Wagner?
  • What is the question to which the answer is “Dr. Livingston, I presume”? What is your full name, Dr. Presume?

There was a bit of trickiness getting into the notch between D and C’, then some fun scrambling up the broad face to the subpeak’s summit. Getting off C’ was the next crux: I descended the west side of C’ to the gully between it and C, where I was stymied by cliffs. I retraced my route a bit, took an ascending ramp around the north side, and found my way down one of several steep, outward-sloping ramps on the east side. From the notch, it was smooth going to C’s summit, which I reached a bit over 3 hours after first gaining the ridge, 6h30 from the trailhead.

I suppose I could have continued on to Powell and even Eagle’s Nest (B and A?), but I was out of food, Powell’s south ridge looked unpleasant, and the descent to Knee-knocker Pass looked non-trivial. This turned out to be the case, as the route sometimes descended the ridge itself, and sometimes gullies to the left, crossing between them when they cliffed out. Through a mix of experience and dumb luck, I found a way that worked with only one short back-track. I saw a small cairn at an especially non-obvious crossing, but otherwise found no human signs.

Rather than going all the way to the pass, I slid and picked my way down the loose, steep gully to its south, raining rocks on anyone foolish enough to be climbing it. The use trail to the pass is mostly in remarkably good shape, though it disappears crossing some clearings, and is well-hidden by the aforementioned tree. Feeling energetic and impatient, I jogged a lot of the trail back to Piney Lake, reaching the car in 8h30.

Keller, North Traverse, Grand Traverse (Gore range)

Grand Traverse and North Traverse from Keller

If Purgatory is a ski area near Durango, and Aspen is Purgatory for dirtbags, then Vail is Hell. I arrived tired from the east, wanting only to find a gas station and a place with WiFi, and left defeated. The eastern exit (180) leaves you next to a golf course, a deli and wine store, and some fake-named condominium “communities”; there is also a realtor. The center one (176) dumps you into a maze of roundabouts and non-standard road signs pointing to valet parking and “visitor information” about various boutique-and-condo tracts with names like “Quail Roost” and “The Hamptonmoors.” The western exit is the place to be, with gas stations ($0.40 overpriced), McDonald’s (no value menu), and a grocery store.

However, Vail is also base camp for the Gore Range (named for some Lord Gore who Jim Bridger took there on a hunting trip), where I have decided to do some quick sight-seeing. Since the Gores are composed of long ridges rather than distinct peaks, I decided to choose a few traverses. Unsurprisingly, Grand Traverse and North Traverse peaks caught my eye. After flailing around Vail for a bit, I slept at the eastern trailhead, then cruised over to the Bighorn Creek one to start the day.

Looking at my road atlas and the trailhead sign, I decided to head over and tag Keller Peak first, to make it a bit more of a day. There is an excellent and popular trail up Bighorn Creek to an abandoned cabin. Beyond that, the trail quickly fades out in the tundra, scrub, and bogs, but cross-country travel is easy. I eventually reached a point west of the saddle north of North Traverse, and headed northeast to where I thought the ridges to Climber’s Point and Keller joined. After a bit of lousy talus and some steep grass, I reached the ridge slightly on the Climber’s Point side, and started traversing around to Keller.

The ridge looked short, but only because I was looking at a false summit. The terrain was a mixture of tundra, talus, and mid-angle slabs, with a fair amount of slow going but no real difficulties. Near the true Keller, I pestered a ptarmigan and her chicks. They scattered, and she ran around and fluttered, making plenty of noise.

After checking out another high-point north of Keller, I found the register canister on my way back, holding a SummitPost print-out with a few familiar names. One long traverse later, I finally reached North Traverse Peak.

The ridge is mostly a good traverse, with the path of least resistance on or near the crest for the first part. However, north of the low-point, it is mostly just a walk. From the low-point, the easiest path skirts the pinnacles to the right (west), apparently continuing the class 2 walk. However, I uncharacteristically made my life harder by crossing over most of the pinnacles, and was rewarded with some legitimate 4th class climbing. The rock is mostly good where it counts, but I did encounter a few loose blocks in unfortunate places. I reached Grand Traverse’s summit by a short, mandatory 3rd class scramble.

While contemplating the nasty talus slope south to a lake — the standard descent route — I darted glances at an unnervingly tame mountain goat who apparently wanted a handout. Without an ice axe, I’m not sure how I would have fared against his horns, but he fortunately kept a polite distance.

Rather than descend to the lake, then jog a mile of road in town to get back to my trailhead, I followed the southwest ridge to a saddle, then dropped back into the Bighorn Creek basin, staying right to avoid cliffs. This worked well, and with one short section of tricky bushwhacking, I reached the clearing near the cabin and regained the trail, then ran past some tourists to the trailhead.