October 6, 2001 in North
Mike and I finally conceded that it was too late in the year for an attempt of a Ripsaw Ridge traverse. For one reason or another, we had to delay the trip until the middle of September. Then the first snowstorm came and we had to postpone the trip and on this weekend we were expecting snow again. At the last moment, it looked like the weather would hold, but it was going to get down into the teens in Vail, which meant even lower for our planned campsite around 11,400 feet. Since we were going to attempt a traverse, we wanted to go as light as possible – no tent, no sleeping pads, light sleeping bags. Well, it was too cold for that. To make this long story chock full of contingencies short, we decided the night before to just take a day hike to Upper Piney Valley and try to climb Peaks “C Prime” and “D”. These are the two neighbors due south of the more popular Mount Powell and Peak “C”.
We met at the familiar spot at 5:30, took Mike’s jeep out to Vail and Piney Ranch and began hiking around 7:30 or 7:45. There wasn’t a soul up at the ranch and the morning air was quite cold and crisp. Most of the aspen leaves had fallen off but there were still pockets of golden leaves clinging to the branches. Not long after we started hiking, the old trail detoured into a new trail. The old trail follows the broad, flat river valley for nearly two miles and inevitably crosses lots of mud bogs. There are also two trails in most places where there should be one, so I guess it was closed for re-vegetation. I wonder if the detour trail will ultimately be the main trail because it’s not a good one at all. It climbs unnecessarily high above the valley, then descends back down to the level of the waterfall. You probably gain about 500 unnecessary feet on that trail.
I led us back down to the falls which were as dry as I’d ever seen them. What was normally a ground-shaking rumble in Spring was probably only running at 10 to 20 percent of it’s full power! Such is the nature of Fall. We passed the Peak “C”/Mount Powell turnoff and headed into Upper Piney Valley.
The next objective was to find a spot that would afford us a reasonably easy ascent into the basin beneath Peak “D”. From “Piney Bristles” a couple of weeks earlier, I’d seen a nice grass ramp running up to the basin, so I was hoping we could find a way to intersect with this ramp and follow it up. Not far after we turned southward into the valley and we had a pretty good view of “The Spider”, we saw a chute heading up the slopes toward the basin. So, we decided to go ahead and head up. The ground was pretty rough with lots of fallen trees and rocks, all semi-covered by the wilted summer vegetation. After a couple of hundred vertical feet we turned right and passed above some cliffs and emerged on to the grassy ramp. We could see our route the rest of the way up. It involved crossing the creek, climbing up to the waterfall and then to the basin.
The waterfall here is quite an anomaly for Colorado falls in that it’s a true vertical drop of about fifty to sixty feet. Normally, if you look closely, you can see these falls all the way from Piney Ranch. This time of year though, it’s invisible from far away and up close. It’s not much more than a fine mist. It’s probably awesome in Spring though. I’ll have to return to check it out next Spring, no doubt.
Normally you’d climb well to the right of the falls to get into the basin, but, after getting a close-up view of the falls, we decided to climb directly up the buttress on the left-hand side of the falls. Mike started really close to the falls but backed off a bit since the cold water had formed a film of slick verglas on the rocks. So, we climbed up the 4th class, exposed arete for about sixty feet and emerged onto the rocks level with the waterfall. Right above us were two mountain goats: a billy and a kid. Suddenly the billy started walking towards us. We weren’t sure if he was being curious or protective. I started walking towards him to see if he’d stop. He didn’t. So, we turned and started going up into the basin on the left side. They both started following us. As we went higher, we saw even more goats. Eventually, we ended up in the basin which had all sorts of nice tarns in it with thick amber grass all around. The basin was completely surrounded by higher ground except for the spot where the waterfall was.
Right in front of us was the towering ridge that we needed to get on to climb both peaks. We decided on a long grassy ramp that led up to the middle of the ridge between the two peaks. This part of the climb was quite a slog. Fortunately, it was a grassy slope which is common in this area as opposed to a loose scree-filled couloir. I’m not sure exactly how long it took us to climb to the ridge but it took about an hour probably. On the way, we both got really hungry but we were set on taking a lunch break on top of the ridge where all the views were. Near the top, the wind really started picking up, which is something uncommon to the Gores. We climbed over to the eastern side of the ridge out of the wind, but in the sun, and enjoyed the awesome views and some lunch. We decided to climb Peak “C Prime” first which looked like a high thin rocky fin thrust into the air. It definitely didn’t look easy. After a twenty or thirty minute break, we set out along the ridge. The ridge quickly turned into a 3rd class scramble and as we started up the peak, which started at a small notch, became 4th class.
The easiest way to climb the peak is to drop on to the southeast side of the ridge and climb up the slabby and exposed face. Though it’s exposed, the rock is really solid. We didn’t get onto the face right away. Instead, we stayed on the left-hand part of the ridge and entered a forty foot steep dihedral. After this, we got onto the slabby face and climbed it to the top.
The true summit of the peak is very much like Sunlight Peak in the San Juans. It’s an exposed upright column. We both took turns standing on top and posing for a summit shot. Unfortunately, the lower part of the ridge fades into the column so it doesn’t look quite as exposed. Still, it’s not as bad as Sunlight; there’s not a direct drop off the peak from the summit column. I took some more pictures from the top and we headed down. We took the easy way down which was to stay completely on the face until you see the notch that joins the main part of the ridge.
Back at the spot where we had lunch (and had subsequently dumped our packs), I switched out my film. Unfortunately, I wasn’t thinking and opened up my film without rewinding it! D’oh no! Thankfully, only a three or four pictures were ruined but I was able to duplicate them.
We put on our packs and headed towards Peak “D”. The ridge along the way looked quite convoluted but not really that hard. We were wrong about that assessment!
The majority of the ridge to Peak “D” was 3rd class but there were plenty sections of slow 4th class to climb through. At one point we climbed up a very steep section of the ridge. As we were climbing up, we could see sky through the back of the face! Obviously, we were climbing up a tower. We got to a wide ledge and Mike continued to the top through a narrow 5th class chimney. Sure enough, this tower was impassable. There’s a very prominent rock outcropping to the left (north) of Peak “D” that looks like an eagle’s beak. We were on top of that. So, we climbed back down thirty feet or so and traversed around. We were close to the summit at this point fortunately. The last 100 feet to the summit were mostly 4th class mixed with a little easier 3rd class stuff.
On the top, like Peak “C Prime”, there was no sign of any other climbers. There certainly was no register but there wasn’t even a cairn. We built cairns on both. Unfortunately, I’d forgotten my peak register. I put my last one on Peak “O” (“Little Powell”). We spent a long time on top of Peak “D” studying the rest of the ridge and admiring the remote Black Creek drainage. Peaks “E” and “G” (“F” was obscured by “E”) looked immense and difficult from this angle. A one day traverse of this ridge would definitely be an accomplishment. Maybe we’ll try it next year.
We wanted to get off of Peak “D” by an easier route so we continued towards Peak “E” with plans to drop down the saddle near the basin on the south side. Along the way, we crossed some of the loosest couloirs that I’d ever been in. Mike decided to continue down one of the couloirs because we had to pass over another rocky rib to get to the slopes that led to the low saddle. And we couldn’t see what this terrain even looked like. I decided to risk it, hoping for grassy slopes. Before I left, we turned on Mike’s transceivers and headed our separate ways. I had to climb back up a grassy ledge to get to the other side of the rib. As I suspected, there were nice grassy slopes that led down to the saddle. I radioed Mike a few times on the way down and upon arriving at the saddle, took a short break and took some pictures. I was able to spot Mike, who was a speck coming out of the melted-out couloir. I started bounding down the saddle which was fine dirt. We met back up in the high part of the basin.
The fall sun was starting to arc towards the horizon. We didn’t have much sunlight left and had a long hike out in front of us. We still took the time to go check out the beautifully sculpted tarns that lay in the lower part of the basin. We took a few pictures here and rested a bit. Then we headed down. We actually took a different way down, thinking it might be better. Actually, it was a lot better, though I bet it would be fairly hard to follow up. We were able to stay in moderate grassy slopes most of the time. Sometimes we even were able to follow a game trail. To the left was a large talus field that will serve as a landmark when I come back again. We joined back up with the main trail right at a spot in the trail that crossed a small creek – the creek that was flowing out of the Peak “D” basin. At this point, the sun was glowing golden on the upper parts of the valley. By the time we made it to the falls, the sun had set. And by the time we were with a mile of the Jeep, the stars were out. It was super quiet up here…pretty neat.