July 14, 2001 in Central
This was the third trip I’d taken up Pitkin Creek so it now feels like I know this drainage really well. Last October, I climbed Mt. Solitude and others with Mike, Outpost Peak this June alone, and then these three peaks with George Bell, a very accomplished climber who’s done Alpamayo and climbed the Diamond three times – and who’s another “Goreaholic”. We met up at the very early hour of 4:30 am and began the hike up the Pitkin Creek trail at 6am. George set a very fast pace and we were at the base of East Partner, four miles away, in under two hours. However, we were quite wet. This had been a week of rain every day in Denver and apparently for Vail and it’s environs as well. All the plants were wet along the trail and as we brushed by them, they deposited their gallons of water onto us. The weather was also very overcast and dismal today. At least that would hold off thunderstorms until later in the afternoon hopefully.
We decided to hike the long south ridge of East Partner which initially consisted of climbing up steep grassy slopes (left). At about 12,250, the grassy slopes topped out and we could see the rocky ridge that led to the very steep pyramidal summit.
The first part of the ridge was fairly easy, not getting any more difficult than 3rd class. At one point we climbed one of many small knife edges that led above an excellent-looking and deeply inset west-facing couloir. That will have to be a route to try in the future. We followed the ridge along often avoiding the tip of the ridge by wending to the east and west side at other notches. After a steep 4th class gully, we were almost immediately under the summit pyramid. George, also an excellent routefinder, led the route the entire way and we worked our way along the right side of the summit and climbed a steep but solid gully to some very steep 4th class slabs that were loaded with excellent cracks that made good hand and foot holds (below). We climbed these steep slabs and topped out on the small summit. As usual, there was no summit register up here or a summit cairn. So, I took a few moments and built about a two foot high shaky cairn. We spent the rest of the time taking a short break for some food, identifying peaks, and studying the various ridges.
The clouds up here were billowing around lazily. These were the low flying rain clouds that you frequently see on Colorado Peaks. They’re generally harmless (except for rain) and are really neat looking in their own right. To the north, some of the high peaks along Ripsaw Ridge were completely engulfed in these clouds. To the south, clouds were continually enveloping and clearing around Mount Solitude and Vista Peak.
We originally had planned to do East Partner then the half mile ridge traverse to Peak “W” but West Partner also looked very enticing. Ultimately, we decided on the original course of action. The ridge to West Partner was about a mile long and looked difficult from the onset. Going to Peak “W” would allow us to also entertain the idea of going on to “Useable Pass” just south of Point 12,710 and maybe even on to Peak “X”. So, we began the ridge that led to Peak “W”. This ridge is very similar to the south ridge of East Partner albeit a good bit more difficult in spots. The second notch along the ridge is a mandatory rappel and we amazingly spotted some slings at the top of this remote notch. We had to retrace our steps and drop down a good big on the north side of the ridge, traversing just above the top of a snowfield.
The rest of the ridge had all sorts of little difficulties to overcome. The rock was very solid for the most part so these moves weren’t too risky in and above their inherent difficulties. We had a brief reprieve from the rock scrambling near the middle and enjoyed a grassy stroll as well as a rocky sidewalk to follow. Thinking that the difficulties were behind us, we ran into another knife edge then finally were on the grassy flanks of Peak “W”. It was a short stroll up to the peak which was really nothing more than a high bump along the ridge. Again, there was no summit register or cairn here, but I would have been surprised had their been one. From here we had a pretty close view of the first Slate Lake valley and across the way we saw the major peaks around Upper Slate Lake: Peaks “Q”, “R”, and “L”. The ridge from “Q” to “R” looked very thin and I made a mental note to avoid that ridge for whenever I would get around to climb these peaks. Before we left “W”, we looked at the ridge that led to Peak “X” and determined that it would be easier to just head down the grassy slopes and traverse on the large boulders to Useable Pass and then see if we wanted to attempt “X”. After a summit photo, we headed down the grass.
The traverse and climb over to Useable Pass was surprisingly very solid. Virtually no rocks shifted beneath our feet and we were able to make good time. George is a faster rock-hopper than me and got in front of me frequently and had to wait sometimes, and I’m by no means a slow rock-hopper. After arriving at Useable Pass, we decided to go on and try Peak “X”. It was sprinkling a bit but we were both feeling energetic. I figured it would be good for me to climb Peak “X” now, that way I could avoid the difficult ridge if I were to ever come out to climb Peak “X”, “Y”, and “Z” one day. Climbing Peak “X” from this side would greatly simplify that future trip. And George’s goal is to climb all of the 13ers in this range so a climb of “X” would allow him to complete the thirteeners in this group, since he had done Peak “Z” on a backpack a few years earlier. We headed up the ridge a bit but knew we couldn’t get to Point 12,710, where we would turn right to get to Peak “X”. That point was blocked by a miniature version of Wham Ridge in the Grenadiers – a sloping rock face that continually got steeper near the top. So, we probably climbed up the ridge maybe 150 feet then traversed to the face on Peak “X”.
Although all of the routes we’d done today were very solid and most of the routes in the Gores are solid, this part of Peak “X” was probably one of the loosest mountains I’d ever been on. Any gentle touch on the scree would send a mini rock avalanche down on your feet. It was quite miserable and tedious but we managed to traverse past it and get on to solid grassy slopes again which we followed up to the ridge crest, just to the right of the lowest point along the ridge as it appears on the map. The ridge to Peak “X” is not hard at all, basically 2nd and sometimes 3rd class rock scrambling. It’s a bit precipitous and thin in places but very secure. As I was hiking up behind George he turned around and took a picture of me coming up stating that he wanted to get a picture with the wall of clouds behind us (left). I turned around and indeed there was a wall of clouds not far at all behind us. Within a minute, we were engulfed in clouds and the ridge climb suddenly turned quite surreal. We made quick time climbing up the ridge although I stopped and took a few pictures along the way. I took one shot of the faint image of George taking the last steps to the top. Ironically, as soon as we arrived on the top, it started raining pretty hard. We turned around immediately without even sitting down and headed back down. The rocks got drenched very fast and suddenly the route became slick.
This was no gentle drizzle either; this was a genuine downpour in the mountains. The rain began to mix with small hail too. We had to move very carefully down the ridge. We did a good job of memorizing the landmarks and picked our exact route back down to the loose slopes. We had to find the grassy gully left exit off of the ridge then the right hand turn at the small rock tower, etc. The only real difficulty that remained was getting back to Useable Pass. We didn’t want to hit the ridge where we did the last time as there was a tough 4th class move to make which would be very risky on slippery rocks. We couldn’t hike to the pass because it was covered in steep snow. Our best bet looked like a traverse over moderately steep snow and up a small gully that connected with the ridge just above the pass. The gully was filthy by this time…the rain hadn’t let up at all, if anything, it was coming down harder. It was raining so hard that there were small waterfalls coming off the brim of my shell jacket’s hood. The gully was steep but craggy rock mixed with mud and snow. It reminded me of the typical mud chute as seen in movies like Indiana Jones or Jurassic Park – a steep, rocky, mud gully with water running down it. We sloshed our way to the top and arrived at the pass safely.
There were no technical difficulties in front of us but we still had a steep pass to descend. We hiked down the pass and did a standing glissade on a couple of snow patches. I slipped and fell about 10 feet at one point on some slick grass but fortunately was uninjured. We continued down and finally hit the valley floor. I remember traveling a faint trail last October, but did not see it this time. Our vision was obstructed to about 100 feet by the driving rain and the low clouds. At times, the wind would pick up and drive the rain straight into our faces. Our boots were completely soaked by this point and I could feel water swishing between my toes. The rain still hadn’t let up. This was no thunderstorm – this was a monsoon! We eventually arrived in the trees and wended around until we finally hit Pitkin Trail, then began the final stretch of the march back to the car. Near the second waterfall the rain finally stopped. We took a short break for water and food though we didn’t bother trying to dry out our feet.
The last part of the hike out involved passing through a few sections of willows that were beginning to take over the trail. As we plowed through, more water dumped on us. Near the bottom, it began clearing and the sun came out. Finally, 12.4 miles and 6200 feet of vertical elevation later, we made it back to the car and drove non-stop back to Denver. This was an awesome trip!