July 9, 2009 in North
Here’s a trip that I had planned seven or eight years before: a recon excursion into the Black Creek drainage of the Gore Range, and climbing a few peaks along the way. The Black Creek drainage is divided into three valleys: north, central, and southern. It’s remote country, probably the most remote area of the Gore Range and basically without trail.
I was back in touch with Bill Betz, whose cabin is near Pebble Creek, some months before. I did a solo traverse from Pitkin to South Slate drainage back in 2003 an had stayed with him and his family before and after the trip. We had a crowd one night for a slide show of mine on the Gore Range. For this trip, unforunately, we had much less time to catch up. Ken and I ended up staying there alone the night before, playing Stratego and killing Miller Moths by attracting them to a wold of water with a drop or two of dishwashing soap. The soap reduces the surface tension of the water making it impossible for them to climb out. So, they drown, poor little vermin. It was a particularly bad season for them; we ended up ridding the cabin of fifty or so.
We set off early the next morning and took the severely rutted 4WD Brush Creek Road to the Brush Creek trailhead. The last time I was here was in 2001 to climb Peaks “N” and “O”. That’s a long time ago.
Our route was to be a long loop hike through the southern and northern valleys. the route: Take the Brush reek Trail to the Gore Range Trail, turn right (north) and follow the GRT to the Lost Lake Trail. All of these trails are labeled though parts of the Gore Range Trail, which is a small highway in the southern end, were very hard to follow, being not much more than folded grass for long stretches. Along the Lost Lake trail is a turnoff to the unmarked “Black Creek Trail”. However, there actually is a marker pounded into a tree along the way, which reads “Lost Lake Trail”. Someone has carved an “F” with an arrow pointing to the branch. However, there are lots of fallen branches, obviously placed by people, along the branch as if to indicate that this trail is not supported by the Forest Service, or just an attempt to keep people out (I suspect the latter). But, the “F” must have been carved by a party wanting to climb peak “F”; the trail certainly points you in the direction to Peak “F”.
The mosquitos were bad, so we slapped on repellant and moved quickly. Not long after we were commenting on how good of a trail this unmarked “Black Creek” trail was, we passed an older man, sporting only day gear, and returning. It was only 9 in the morning. Perhaps this was a resident of the large cabin sitting on the end of Black Lake. We reasoned that there must be a secret trail leading down to this private property.
Bill had given us some secondhand beta that the northernmost valley was cliffy, marshy, and trail-less. Also, this Black Creek Trail led into the southern valley and terminated in a meadow, the first notated meadow on the map. I had originally planned to go in on the north and come out on the south but decided at the last minute to reverse course and go from south to north. Navigation would be much easier that way. The northern valley could be a challenge to enter. Ken was already expressing his doubts about a loop. We followed the trail into the southern valley. As we ascended, the trail became more typical, but still quite good. Beyond some great campsites (except for the bugs) alongside the creek and a lovely waterfall, we emerged into the meadow.
Someone was already here – I would have never thought that we would encounter other parties. We actually saw no people, only their camp – and three grazing llamas. Maybe it was the photographer, John Fielder.
We crossed the meadow directly. At the far end, just beyond a thick patch of bluebells, another trail inclined into the forest. We followed this much rougher, obviously unmaintained trail as best we could, occasionally losing it. There are actually several trails criss-crossing here that one could follow. Unfortunately, I don’t think any of these trails can prevent you from skipping the marshes that lay ahead. The marshes last for possibly one mile and are slow going. It was here that Ken began to despair. He was able to pull it together though and continue on. The marsh doesn’t let up for a while though and we did our best to stay on the driest sections we could. The creek was on our right and our only other option would have been to move hard to the left and bushwhack through the forest. It looked like equally difficult though, with numerous rocks and cliffs and fallen trees. Eventually, the ground begins to ascend more steeply and dries out somewhat. When we finally had good views of the upper valley in a shabby field, we realized it was almost time to cross the creek and head upward along a ramp to a shelf that held two small lakes. We found the perfect place: There’s a pond that forms on the right hand side of a rocky dike. There’s another larger pond on the left side of the dike and there’s a great log crossing over the end of the pond where the creek flows down into the second pond. We crossed here, followed the crest of the dike to the end of the pond on the right, then entered the forest climbing steeply up rocky ribs and grassy valleys. The going was easy enough, just requiring persistence and occasional third class slab climbing. We passed an idyllic campsite along a creek. It was obvious that the lake was very close. We passed on the left side of another dike, turned right and hiked up about twenty feet and arrived at the lake, still partially frozen.
I wanted to see what the second lake was like for camping so continued up to the second lake solo. The camping sites weren’t good; the views weren’t as sweeping, there were fewer trees, and the lake was about 85% frozen still. I left this bleak place and returned. I suggested to Ken that we camp just below the first lake, on a grassy alpine knoll with the lake-fed creek running beside it. By now, it was around 3:45pm and we hesitantly began preparing the camp. We honored a ritual by roasting some hot dogs. Topping it off with a brownie, we went to bed satisfied.
The next morning was cold. I was surprised. Though it was already mid-July, the upper valleys and peaks still held a lot of snow. We decided to play the day by ear and see what we felt like doing, though we knew that we’d begin with a scramble up Peak “I”, the most remote of the lettered peaks. It just out into the upper valley on a shelf, just beyond the upper lake.
We congregated on a small grassy island, put on crampons, and assembled almost nothing for our summit packs. We started off climbing snow to the base of cliffy ledges. We soloed up exposed 4th class ledges. On the ridge, Ken announced that he had had enough exposure without a rope, which we had elected to leave back in Denver. So, he waited while I set off for a scramble to the top.
I had assumed that the route would only entail 3rd and 4th class scrambling, which is typical for most Gore Range routes. However, I couldn’t see all the way around the south side of the first tower, which cannot be safely soloed directly. My heart sank when I scrambled around the corner and saw that a steep snowfield reached all the way to the sheer wall of the tower. I thought about using an old Michael technique by adopting a sharp rock as a crude ice axe, but quickly abandoned the idea sine the snow was also loose. I thankfully don’t have the summit drive that I used to. However, a second look at the snow and tower revealed the key: climb and squeeze in the mini bergeshrund between the snow and rock. While this was slow-going, it worked beautifully. When the going was too tight, I popped out above the rim of the snow and put my left foot on the snow and the right on the rock. Traversing left above the snow and under more cliffs, I emerged onto the 2nd and 3rd class east face and worked my way up. I ended up climbing under the summit on the right, turned to the left nearly 180 degrees and climbed up to the summit, which unfortunately sported no summit canister. I didn’t linger long at all – only enough for some pictures. I retraced my steps down.
Back at the grassy island where we had set off from, we let our glissade-soaked pants dry out in the sun. Boomer Pass, which was just behind us was our next objective. From there, we would descend down to Bubble Lake for the third night out in the Gore Range (OK, the second legitimate camp, really).
Simple ascending traverses from grass to talus and finally snow led us to the top. From here, a second remote summit, “The Elephant”, looked enticingly close, along a long jagged ridge, gaining less than 1000 feet of altitude from the high pass. This route looked better than the ridge leaving the edge of Bubble Lake, certainly it was less elevation gain. I decided to go for it. Ken and I arranged to either meet at the ridge or the lake. If there were a glissade path (Ken’s glissade path), then we’d meet at the lake.
The west ridge up the Elephant is solid and fun, just touching some 5th class moves. I opted to not make some of the downclimbs since we were now separated. The ridge runs into the south face which was more easily passed by crossing it on large talus blocks on the left and traversing under steep cliffs. An eventual cut back to the left sent me along the final summit ridge which terminated in one of the smallest summits of Colorado. I took pictures and immediately retraced my steps back to the ridge. However, this time, I followed the ridge on it’s north side, which was the typical steep grassy ledges which is so common in the gore Range.
Ken wasn’t at the pass; I dropped down a bit, found the glissade spot and followed it down into the remote bowl. Bubble Lake still remained a couple hundred feet below, just at treeline. I followed streams and passed semi-frozen tarns before finding Ken on a small bluff overlooking the lake. I had eyed a really cool looking peninsula, more of a spit really, that looked perfect for a campsite, but upon closer inspection, it was too brushy. You can get a bivy into a few spots, but no tent.
The weather was now threatening. Dark clouds had quickly moved in. An hour after we set up the tent, while Ken was preparing the campfire, rain moved in, turning to groppel and hail. We retreated to the tent and the fire was quickly doused. Twenty minutes later, the rain abated and we emerged. I was set on at least setting foot on the spit; it just seemed to be a perfect idyllic, remote location in the range – a quintessential Gore Range experience. I dropped down to the lake with my rain jacket to check it out. Sure enough, while wandering through the stunted pines and hopping the rocks, the clouds opened up again, this time for more than an hour. I stood under the largest Douglas Fir until bright skies finally appearted again over the summit of Mount Powell. Clouds swirled through the numerous cols on Ripsaw Ridge. This sight, common in the Cascades, is uncommon in Colorado. I made my way back to camp once the rain let up. We spent the rest of the evening trying to coax a fire from the wet sticks. With a lot of attention, we eventually did.
The next morning was clear but windy. We both decided that the best route would be to retrace our steps, a long day to be sure. Ken was most worried about the rocky ramp that led to the lakes. I was particularly not looking forward to the swampy section. We reasoned, however, that the trails would be easier to follow on the way down. Wrong! It was much worse! I judge that two ways: My feet were much wetter, and we took too many wrong turns on the maze of rabbit runs. The trails all forked off as if the trails were built (or created by the animals) going downhill. So, two days before when we were hiking up, we couldn’t clearly see the various branches. Descending though, picking the right trail is almost impossible. But we finally made it out just beyond the meadow where the Black Creek Trail began. Here, we poured out our boots and wrung out our socks. Putting on new socks gave us renewed comfort. Preparing a last antidote to the misery, our iPods, we set off again in zombie mode for the long hike out.