Humbled Again by the Gore Range


The traverse to Vista looked more complicated than I wanted to deal with.

The Gore Range. At this point I think everyone within a hundred miles of anywhere I’ve been knows of my obsession with them and my plan to, someday, pioneer a traverse from one end of the range to the other. Damn the torpedos, 2018 is going to be the year! [Insert a few weeks of obsessive research and ignoring of things I should have been doing.]

I was really looking forward to two nights out in the ultralight style and seeing some new things, but I was also worried that perhaps I’d bitten off more than I should try to chew.  When I described my plan to Brad, a fellow Gore Range aficionado and all-around hardman, his reaction was simple. “Wow. You’re nuts!” Hmmm. What’s more, I’d been stressed out about little details for a long time. So I decided to scale back on the trip and take in a few more scouting trips before tackling the whole range.

Turns out, Brad was right. My plan was crazy. The Gore Range is harder than you think it is.

Instead, I teamed up with Matt, fresh off his own inaugural Gore jaunt to Eccles Pass and Willow Lakes, for a little voyage of discovery into the Pitkin Lake drainage on the south-west side of the range. Pitkin is one of the keys to my planned traverse and unlocking ways to get into and out of the steep-walled valley were much on my mind. I knew of various rumored passes and going routes so our goal was to check out how one might get into and out of Pitkin either from Booth Lake to the north, to Boulder Lakes to the east, or Bighorn Creek to the south.

The best part of an alpine bivy is the alpine stars. It was a truly spectacular night! (MP)

We spent a great half-night bivied under a meteor-rich, startlingly dark sky near Vail Pass before driving down to Vail for an early start. The trail to the spectacular Pitkin Lake was steep (3000′ of gain in five miles) and moderately rough, but this was to be the easiest part of the whole day. From the lake, we spied several promising lines over to the Booth Lake drainage, but decided to plumb the middle branch of the Pitkin drainage instead. The end of this valley holds an impressive pinnacle of rock adjacent to the rumored (and auspiciously-named) Usable Pass by which we could potentially either drop east into the Boulder Creek drainage (and eventually out to the Gore Range Trail) or run the ridgeline north or south to various wonders (Peaks W and X to the north, Vista and Solitude to the south).

The pass was an aerobic puff up 800′ of tundra and talus, but not technically difficult. The pass turned out to be a sharp notch in the ridge line with even more spectacular views. The east side is very steep scree for about 100′ but then looked like it branched out into usable options below that. The ridge to the north is blocked by an impressive (and unnamed) tower at the junction between the main spine and the eastward spur which holds Peaks X through Z-prime. Going that way would require rock gear or dropping eastward and traversing unappealing talus.

South from the Ridgeline. Keller Mountain, Vista and Solitude are prominent but there are a bunch more peaks.

North from the unnamed point south of Usable Pass. Peak X/Y/Z and East Partner are prominent.

We followed the path of least resistance south and up along the near-knife-edge ridge over a minor summit at 12,650′ and down toward another steep saddle. From here the ridge rears up into Vista Point. While this peak and the adjacent Solitude Pt. are readily climbed from the valley below (directly up the west face), the ridge line is blocked by some impressive gendarmes and gullies. It looks like it would probably go at 3rd class, but after 5000′ of climbing already, we didn’t have the energy to go there. Back to Usable Pass and back down we went, retracing our steps through the beautiful valley.

I’d hoped to check out a few other routes while we were in the area, but the Gores were, as usual, proving to be tougher than expected. So we poked around a bit and then pounded the increasingly hot trail back down to Vail and collapsed in the creek.

Typical Gores beauty amidst the challenges.

So, another season gone without my triumphantly-planned Gore traverse. Another season with a humbling reminder than the mountains are indifferent and aloof, but spectacular and worth the effort. In some ways, failing to do the Gore traverse this year is a blessing. Now I have another season in which I can explore something new. And another after that, etc! The Gores and I are in for a long-term relationship, not a quick, torrid affair. And that’s pretty cool too.

Key to the Pitkin Lake area

Route details:

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