September 3, 2000 in South
“East Thorn” was another Gore Range peak that I wanted to climb for a long time. Not only did it look really fun, but it’s also a long way in to Salmon lake which is the makings for a fun, solitary backpack.
“East Thorn” is a prominent but rarely climbed mountain in the Gore Range. It’s visible from I-70 for a few moments about 2/3rds the way down from the Eisenhower Tunnel to Silverthorne and is unmistakable. Behind “East Thorn”, to the west along a ridge, is Willow Peak. Willow is invisible from the most part and an easy climb from the east. Another peak that we were considering climbing was “Rain Peak” which is on the north side of the cirque above Salmon Lake – opposite of “East Thorn”.
Ken and I opted to climb these peaks over Labor Day weekend and let the other hordes of hikers climb the fourteeners. We left Saturday morning around 8am with plenty of time so as to arrive at our campsite early and enjoy the rest of the day by the lake. Typically, Salmon Lake is approached from Rock Creek trailhead or Mesa Cortina trailhead. Either way, it’s a long hike in from these two spots. We decided to attempt a little bit of routefinding and parked in the under-construction Eagles Nest development just outside of Silverthorne. Our plan was to find the north branch of Willow Creek and follow it to the intersection with the Gore Range trail. As we were getting our packs ready, a truck drove up with some representatives from the subdivision. At first, we expected them to ask us to leave, but the one we talked to was very friendly and told us about a forest service road that was just a couple hundred yards from where we parked. So, we started hiking from there and had a trail the entire way to the Gore Range trail!
The trail was excellent the entire way. It looked like new signs had recently been placed along the signs. The “Eagles Nest Wilderness” sign, for instance, still was rough around the routed edges. Following the Gore Trail, we had occassional glimpses of “East Thorn” through the trees. Eventually, we came upon the trail that led to “Willow Lakes” which would take us to Salmon Lake. Willow Lakes is the more popular destination, but Salmon Lake has better access to “East Thorn”. This trail seemed to go on for a long time and was obviously not the same trail that was denoted on the map. The actual trail seemed to swing much further north than displayed on the map. We didn’t know how visible the trail was to Salmon Lake, so we kept our eyes open. Finally we arrived at yet another brand new sign indicating the way to Salmon Lake. For an area that definitely isn’t as popular as the fourteeners, this part of the Gore Range was well-marked and the trails were awesome. We quickly came upon Salmon Lake which was bordered by huge talus blocks on the east side. At first I didn’t know if we could find a campsite, but the other side of the lake had some really good spots. We picked the best one which was right on the water.
In an ironic juxtaposition, from our campsite, looking out over the lake, we had a great view of Grays and Torreys (above photo), two of the most popular 14ers in the state. We wondered how many people were on those peaks this day. By this time it was only 12:30 or so in the afternoon so we spent some leisure time hanging out by the lake and looking at the part of the route that we were able to see. Then we gathered up some firewood and improved the fire ring near our campsite. I decided that I wanted to hike over to Willow Lakes and check them out as well as take some pictures. Ken decided to stay at camp and gather more wood.
The hiked over to Willow Lakes was really nice. No wonder that side is more popular because it is absolutely picturesque. The trail is outstanding and at times travels along steep slopes passing over small creeks and waterfalls. There are several lakes and tarns in the valley. At the head of the valley is the “Zodiac Ridge”, a super-steep and serrated ridge with several 4th and 5th class pinnacles named after signs of the zodiac. There were several people up here actually. There must have been 6 or 7 different tents and there was a huge multi-family campsite at the uppermost lake who were doing some fishing. The certainly picked a nice place to fish. Some of them were catching fish every few minutes it seemed. I stayed at the upper lake, sitting on a rock near the shore, taking pictures for about thirty minutes. As the sun dropped behind the ridge, I headed back. When I got to Upper Willow Creek, I decided to follow it the short distance to the edge of Salmon Lake and then made my way back to camp. Ken had the fire going by the time I was back and we cooked dinner then spent the rest of the evening watching the sunset or stars over the lake and hanging out by the fire. Before dark some others showed up and set up camp. We ended up going to bed around 9:30pm.
After a night of solid sleep, we awoke around 6:30 am and began hiking at 7:00. The other people, Julie and Scott of Silverthorne, left at the same time and were bound for “East Thorn” as well. Julie talked about how she wanted to climb it because she had a view of it from her window and Scott was the only person that she could find to accompany him. The first part of the hike climbed up talus to avoid the thick brush and then swung to the rightside along grass of a large talus pile that was obviously formed as part of a glacial moraine. Soon, however, we could no longer avoid the talus and began the climb up to the high tundra slopes. We were climbing into a large cirque. “East Thorn” bordered the south (left) side, Willow was at the head, and “Rain Peak” bordered the north. The climb up to the gentler slopes above 13,000 feet was actually kind of tough. There’s lots of 3rd class scrambling (left photo). At one point, you either need to cross over a cascading creek or continue up along some difficult 3rd class and easy 4th class. At this point we were ahead of the other two hikers and they opted to begin climbing up a rock-filled gully to the ridge to the west of “East Thorn”. We stuck with the original plan to climb very high in the cirque and then walk the easy part of the ridge back towards “East Thorn”
We dumped our packs at around 13,100 feet and began the ridge hike down to the low point saddle on “East Thorn”. When we arrived, Scott and Julie had just finished climbing the couloir. We realized that the majority of the climb was going to be on the north side of the peak and we left our jackets up near Willow Peak. So, being on the north side of the mountain and out of the sun, it was a little chilly so we kept moving to stay warm. We started our way up the peak by climbing some easy 3rd class slopes. The climb led to a large flat wall that was covered in green and yellow lichen (hereafter called the “Yellow Wall”) that was the base of a prominent initial tower on the climb. We hiked around the left side of the wall and along some solid slabs and began the second part of the on some slightly harder and steeper, but more solid, 3rd class terrain. We aimed for a notch on the lefthand side. Unfortunately, there was nothing but cliffs at the top of the notch. So, we traversed back a bit then climbed up a steep but solid 4th class section to a ramp system that led to the final pitch. The final pitch was a lot like the end of Mount Wilson (a thin arete), although it was much shorter. It was kinda tricky though, but once we were past this short section, it was an easy climb to the summit. Finally, we stood on top of “East Thorn”, a mountain that I had been planning on doing for at least 2 years now. The true summit is very small; there’s only room for two.
We stayed on top for about twenty to thirty minutes only taking pictures and taking in the views. The clouds seemed to be moving in quickly though so we headed down. We descended a slightly different way (the way that Scott and Julie ascended) so as to avoid the steep 4th class pitch. This descent was no walk in the park either. There were a couple of tricky sections. Below the arete, you descend about 50 feet into a couloir. The couloir has a hard move in it. It didn’t take us long to go down though. We said goodbye Julie and Scott who had decided not to go on to Willow Peak, which Ken and I were doing next. Ken and I also decided not to attempt “Rain Peak” because the ridge looked really difficult. I think it could be done without ropes but with some excellent routefinding, but it’s a trip that deserves an entire day.
The hike up to Willow Peak is a grassy stroll. The western face however is very very steep. On top of Willow Peak we found a register. Apparently, it was the second one to ever be placed there because there was a message written on the register saying something to the effect of “Shame on you for removing this register because it had signatures dating back to the 30′s.” How exciting that would have been to know that you were standing on a peak that had only had a handful of people on it ever. Still, it was kind of neat to only count two other hikers on Willow Peak in the year 2000! This is one of the reasons that I like the Gores so much.
The views from Willow are outstanding and we stayed on top for about forty minutes. Click here to see the view plus the labels attached to the various peaks. We then began the very tedious descent back to camp. Back at camp we rinsed off and refreshed ourselves in the lake then leisurely packed up. The hike out was a steady downhill and we were able to make it back to the car just under two hours with no problems at all. This was a great way to finish a really fun backpack and climb. Hopefully, we can get more quality trips like this in during the fall.