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Gore Range Grand Traverse (Part One) or, "Where are the Marmots?"

 Gore Range Grand Traverse (Part One) or,

by Kelly Bates

July 01, 2002

Sean H. has had a Big Idea for awhile; being an ultra runner/biker, and living in Edwards by Vail for a couple of seasons, he had plenty of time to work it up. Playing in the south half of the Gores (meaning, trail running over 12,000' passes with shoes, a water bottle, and little else), he's had plenty of time to look at it, too. I was introduced to the idea while the snow was still coming down, on a telemark day at Vail this winter. The goal was clear, visible, and necessarily hard. Traverse the entire Gore Range ridgeline, a super-prominent and super-difficult sawtooth, 35 or more miles above treeline, in a day.

Not really a day. He allowed that 24 hours were a day. That meant we could start at midnight and climb until the following midnight. Actually, all that did was add to the allure and difficulty in planning and execution. The question of possibility intrigued me; when I got home I pulled up my maps and looked at the problem. The ends aren't clearly defined; with the map scales we're using the difficulties aren't clear either. The only clear point is that it is a minimum of a Grade IV problem, possibly Grade V if conditions aren't right or if the maps belie the difficulty. Preconditions must be set to even discuss attempting this problem.

That wasn't daunting enough to slow me down. Hmm, what should we look at? Ignoring common sense and most other traits that typically keep humans alive, we instead picked a starting point, an ending point, a packing list, and a date. Such is how alpine light expeditions make their plans, ignoring realities like distance, vertical, and endurance. Mountaineering is a hugely masochistic sport, in most regards. The rewards aren't tangible, mostly. Failure, especially when it's a big failure, is the only tangible in most of the stories laypeople read and consider when thinking about mountaineering. Knowing that it can be done, by god, and that we did it when everyone thought we were crazy to even think it, is a draw. Summitting is a draw, and a danger if you can only get halfway due to conditions (yours or the world's). Pushing oneself, your boundaries and limits, is the real reward, though, IMHO.

Why does this TR have a subtitle? No good reason. I felt like it needed one for some reason. I'll talk more about the yellow bellied critters a bit later on.

We modified our trip plan at the last minute, at 10pm Friday in Silverthorne, with a couple of hours to go before start. I'd reconned the maps extensively, and decided it wouldn't be fair to the problem to 'leave out' anything below treeline on either end. The most obvious route with this restriction was from Sheep Mountain on the north to Vail Pass on the south. Lower-scale maps show the north end as a flatter, easier section with wide contour intervals. The more detailed maps show more truth - the peaks aren't necessarily as vertically separated, but are steeper and more rugged than the main ridgeline - lots of steep in between jagged points. Our new plan for an end-vehicle at Vail Pass and a start-car at Sheep Mountain were set, and we set out.

The approach to Sheep was easier this year, with the drought, and the road was fully open, decently groomed, and rose quickly from Green Mountain Reservoir to 11,000 feet, just below treeline. We arrived at the supposed road junction at 0100 and found a clear spot to park. The weather was hazy and overcast, despite the full moon and a decent weather forecast. The sleeping bags and alarm went out, and we went down for a couple of hours of rest before our journey (we'd decided that 24-hours could start anytime, and we had no obligations until Monday). During the wee hours we awoke several times, half-hourly, and looked at the sky and ridge on the horizon; or for the ridge, anyway. The cloud cover was obscuring everything to within a mile or so. Not a good condition to start a committing mountaineering trip, so we continued to doze and check. At 0430 things had cleared nicely, with a moderate SSW breeze. We decided that it wasn't going to get any better, and so with a couple hours of sleep gathered our alpine bags and headed down the rough road a hundred or two meters for the trail.

One hundred, two, three. The road seemed to be downward trending. After ten minutes, I pulled out the map in the twilight. Apparently our minds were befuddled by an hour of 4x4ing in the sport coupe last night, and we were too close to Sheep Mountain to really be at the trailhead. We walked back uphill, deciding it had been a nice 20-minute warmup walk. Twenty more minutes of 4x4ing on increasingly bad roads led us to the real trailhead. Lesson: keep someone not tired to read the approach maps!

We left the real trailhead about 0645, much later than we'd planned, but with a wonderful barely seen sunrise through the smoke-haze from the state's fires. The Elliot Ridge trail ascends to Meridian peak in a couple of hours, along a wide grassy plateau above treeline with commanding views. We missed most of those due to the smoke. An hour in we could see the initial stages of the technical ridge. Vertical drops, very technical in appearance, in between peaks dominated; I was glad we were carrying a section of rope and a light rack. Elk played below us in meadows at treeline, where the season's light snows had left small streams and tarns.

Hiking along Elliot Ridge to the technical sectionMeridian Peak was a wonderful start to the day. The approach, about 2 hours, was mellow and pleasant, with wonderful scenery and plenty of time to catch up on life with my trials partner. No summit register, but that wasn't really expected at only 12,390'. It appeared that the oncoming ridge was talus but with a nice wide tundra path across most of it, for at least two summits. Halfway to Powell looked easy, much easier than we'd expected from even the topos or other descriptions of climbing the peaks along the ridge!

All of the major peaks along a traverse ridge must be summited for the tick to count. Running a ridgeline a few hundred feet down to one side, and staying off the true ridgeline, would not let us consider ourselves successful in the endeavour. The first two peaks were easy but heart-pounding walk-ups, never above 2nd class or low third (depending on exact route), and unnamed at 12,371' and 12,675' (elevations interpolated when necessary throughout). A major subpeak of Corner Peak, 12,709' (with three summits, the main cairned) looked to start the difficulties. With only two and two-thirds hours elapsed, we were still confident. Point 12,663' starts the blocky, oft-loose talus buttresses and ridges that compose at least the eastern end of the ridgeline.

(Notes of interest to topographic map users to follow this climb: Meridian Peak at 12,390' is the furthest NE peak on the ridgeline proper. Following a SE ridge from Meridian, one comes first to unnamed 12,371', shown on the USGS maps, and then larger 12,675', not annotated on the maps. Corner Peak, 12,709', sits at the point where the ridgeline and Summit-Eagle county lines briefly turn sharply north. Points 12,620' and 12626' are immediate neighbors and subpeaks of Corner Peak, west of the main summit. The two minor gendarmes where the ridgeline turns back to the east are technical and were excluded. Point 12,585' is a difficult traverse north and east of Corner Peak, and requires either 4th and low 5th class downclimbing to descend below dangerous slabs and snowfields, or backtracking along the ridge to at least as serious downclimbing along the ridge proper. Point 12,420' (topo map elevation around 12,575'), "Cataract Point," is immediately west of Powell, the first pinnacle from Cataract Pass, and the most visibly vertical and treacherous-looking - particularly the north aspect - of the subpeaks on Powell's west side. One final gendarme sits a hundred meters NE of Cataract Point just west of the saddle.)

Coming off of 12,675' the slight footpath that connected the Elliot trail to one ascending from Piney Lake disappeared. Neither trail actually gets to this ridgeline, but there is an unofficial connecting trail that apparently turns south and down the front of the ridge at this point. At the same time, the pleasant hiking aspect disappeared as well, almost as suddenly. Instead of first and second class hiking, the ridgeline was now a jumble of third class boulders, mostly rectangular cubics, interspersed with short sections of second class and the occasional fourth class. We scrambled over and around the blocks, trying still to stay on or near the true ridge; several sections forced us to climb down the south face a few feet to avoid the vertical drops of the north edge, and of many of the teeth.

Harder 4th class stuff abounds on the TraverseEven with the rope (75 feet, capable of a 35' rappel only) and gear we didn't want to use it unless necessary. Technical climbing is much, much slower than any of the scrambling about we were looking at, and much more relatively dangerous. Just setting up the system, changing shoes, and then debasing at the end of the tech section takes at least 10 minutes - usually more. The alpine rock in the Gores (this section) is very broken and loose. Frost splits tend to form very long, straight cracks in the otherwise solid matrix, and a fair number of blocks thus separated from the mountain are unstable. It's difficult to think that something that weighs more than a small truck could move under your body weight alone, but they do, usually unexpectedly with your weight, often dangerously. Belaying off of some refrigerator that might tumble and crush your follower just didn't sound safe. Trundling off smaller (1 foot) rocks to avoid starting slides and such became an every-5-minute activity now. In order to save ourselves time and trouble, we opted to work below some of the most difficult sections, staying instead as close as possible to the ridge (difficult 4th class, easy 5th class unroped), and aiming for each of the high points.

We worked along and around the ridgeline, pushing up towards each visible top that we hoped was the summit - but alas, each time we went up there was another higher peak a few hundred yards east, requiring more downclimbing, crossing, and upclimbing to reach it! From the third false summit, we finally saw a cairn on the next, and decided that it had to be the top. The view from the top of Corner Peak was interesting; the next two peaks, further away, looked difficult. It was hard to see a clear line to their summits following the approximate ridge. Nevertheless, after some gorp and gummi bears, I headed off; Sean waited for a minute for me to descend to the next saddle, with a steep (80 degree) dropoff to the north, to get some perspective for pictures. I headed up the next step, east, and reached the top to find myself well off of the ridgeline on a rocky spur dropping towards the upper Powell basin. I reversed my course and yelled to Sean to descend the saddle and traverse towards the ridge.

The winds were actually worse when we'd gotten off of the ridge and into the steep slab, talus, and snow chutes in between the subpeaks. They had been annoying and consistent on top, 20 to 40 knots with some gusts higher, necessitating three points of contact on more difficult terrain and a stiff tightening of my ballcap, but here they were completely unpredictable and always seemed to be running against our path, or pushing us off the rocks. The traverse was very interesting; downclimb a small cliff, wander across a talus runout, edge along this slab, around the corner, and repeat; one point looked impassable from above, a steep 4th class cliff covered in thick evergreens. Nothing was as difficult as advertised, once on it, though. We excluded hitting two 30m gendarmes with no 4th class possibilities along this section; they weren't relevant to the problem and would have slowed us and required leaving anchor gear for rappels.

Point 12,585' was a stretch, and we were quickly seeing how time-consuming the route was to become. The first several had taken less than three hours from the car, but to cross Corner Peak to this ridgeline summit took another 3. We were faced with three decent-looking 20-30m dihedrals that we considered soloing or roping for, but found an easier route (actually, two, a chimney and adjoining slab) a dozen yards below. It was becoming quite clear that 'ridge in a day' was not going to happen. Our individual routes, Sean in the chimney and me on my slab, were 5.easy, perhaps in climbing shoes, but rather challenging edging in hiking boots. Above this section it turned out to have plenty of small, winding grassy ledges hidden between the minor buttresses to keep the climbing 4th class on the upper reaches. At the top we took a long break and surveyed Cataract Point, looked at the tall clouds continuing to roll in from the SW, and cursed the wind.

Perhaps here is a good place to use a quote about how I was enjoying the day during the break: "…you leave yourself free to get on with the important things -- …[like] sitting on a peak and thinking of nothing at all except perhaps that it's a wonderful thing to sit on a peak and think of nothing at all." (C. Fletcher, The Complete Walker.) Even if it was hard, it was worthwhile, it was good, it was great. Being outside, enjoying and taunting the elements and the earth, enjoying the company of a good partner, were all good things. We were tired, but not exhausted, and loving the climb. We discussed seriously, for the first time, abandoning the ridge after or before Powell, in the name of safety and having underestimated the climb as badly as we had. The winds had taken their toll on our happy mindsets.

The last point before Powell's saddle and an easy bail-out to Piney Lake (easy is relative in the Gores) was directly in front of us now: Cataract Point. The ridgeline to the upper climbing on the point looked continuous, but not easy. We started out, and it got more difficult. Sharp dropoffs, the ones we'd spied from the Elliot Ridge hours before, were at our feet, and the wind threatened to blow us off if we misstepped. Rubbly gendarmes presented traverse-climbing along the north and east aspects, hidden until we rounded corners expecting easy walkdowns. Slabs to the east rolled hundreds of feet into small chimneys littered with fallen talus rubble. Just approaching the saddle was a good 4th class challenge.

Peak C and the middle section of the ridge- next time!Once at the 'base' of the Point, it appeared that we would have to sacrifice the ridgeline, 5th class with a precipitous drop to the left, for an easier winding approach up the general ridge face, across a green lichen gully. Rocks were stacked on others, ready to tumble entire cart-loads when weighted, and after one such near-incident I decided to stay a few feet behind and to the side of Sean as we continued. So much barely-standing rock! Several paths were untenable, but one eventually led us up, another hour in. The north and NE faces, dropping off to Cataract Basin and Cataract Pass, looked quite stout. Several hundred feet of loose vertical, severely 5th class terrain. We opted to downclimb the east flank to near the saddle, where the climbing looked easier - or, at least, attainable. A long but generally easy climb down led to two choices, a difficult-appearing slab/cliff, or an easy-looking chimney in a main gully descending from the green gully above. Sean descended the gully; he found it wet, smooth, and slimy where the meltout was running down, but stemmed out like a hero and downclimbed safely. I was perplexed getting onto the stem problem. I'm several inches shorter than Sean, and couldn't possibly reach the edge he'd stemmed to. I gave up, hand-over-handed down, mostly laying in the slimy melt slab runoff, and decided I'd have rather taken the cliff. One final difficulty was a small bergshrund onto a lower snowfield; Sean just jumped and glissed down to the rocks below. I hate jumping, falling, all of that. After exploring possibilities for a few minutes, there was no other option. I picked up a pointy rock for an axe, and followed the leap onto the field without incident.

Looking back on Day One progress, minus the first 3 milesAt the base, just below the saddle, we changed clothes, dried our feet, and ate some chow. This was to be the end of the ridge climb for the day; we were in no shape to go for Powell and still have a chance of descending in the light. Peak C's west ridgeline looked quite daunting, and we certainly had not brought the gear to attempt a technical approach on it this day.

Instead, we descended the climber's trail, though not without incidents, alongside the waterfall-creek to Upper Piney trail. The walk out to the ranch and lake, where we hoped to get a ride into town, was much longer than it had looked from high above, and the old trail in the basin had been replaced by a switchback horror up 400' on the side of the hill presumably for revegetation of the basin trail area. Needless extra work after a long day, although the trail was quite decent, being new. Descent took a couple of hours, much longer than we'd anticipated.

You may be wondering about the subtitle of this TR: "Where are the Marmots?" We'd both been surprised the entire trip at not seeing a single one of the burrowing, scavenging critters. For hours and miles in what in any other range would be prime marmot territory, we'd seen and heard nothing from them. There were some pikas, many pika-squeeks, and even a black squirrel. But no marmots. We postulated early that they were either very stealthy here, or had congregated around where dumb humans might feed them. Finally, at about 11,000' on the descent, we glimpsed one running away from us at a tarn. On the low trail nearer Piney Lake, they were everywhere. One couldn't step off the trail without risking a broken ankle falling into a burrow-hole. Apparently the second postulation was more correct, based on our limited evidence. I was surprised high, and not gratified low.

There were canoers on the lake as we approached, a good sign that some people would have to drive out the 11.6 miles of FS road to Vail, and we were hopeful for a lift after a tough day. Sean assured me that a bus from the transportation center in Vail could get us to Summit County, and maybe would even slow enough for us to jump out at Vail Pass and the end-vehicle. We walked down the road, hitching, as a half-dozen both full and empty vehicles passed without slowing, dusting us nicely. Finally a couple in a rented convertible slowed and let us sit on the back for the last 10 miles down. We showed them the pictures from the digital, pointed out ice climbs in the canyon, and chatted. We thanked them when we got into town and headed off on foot again towards main Vail.

The bus center was closed. Worse, it appeared that the busses only ran west, towards Eagle and Edwards. We were reduced once again to hitching, this time at the I-70 onramp. Who was going to pick us up, at 2000 hours, looking like we did? If only we had a sign! We ran back over to a dumpster I'd spied with cardboard trash in it, and headed to the nearest bar, a place Sean had frequented when he'd lived here. Sean chatted with the proprietor about Vail's anti-youth policies while I drafted a quick "VAIL PASS" on the sign. We thanked the owner and ran ¼ mile back to the onramp. The third vehicle, a pickup, finally picked us up. Ah, the sign was key.

From there it was a simple problem to head to Dillonthorne for some chow at Denny's (it was late, give me a break) and back up the 4x4 road to the start-car. Only 4 more hours and home now! The ride was long and dark and slow, but lots of caffeine and occasional rest breaks made it almost bearable. Home at 0330, 23 hours after it started. Pretty good trip!

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