Sunday, July 8, 2012

Finding Colorado's True Backcountry in the Gore Range

The sun rises over the Gore Range
A single bear print, perfectly defined in the mud. The shape of each pad and the circular pokes of claws rendered like a signature. Considering the frequency of the monsoon rains this season, not the least of which the one we had just hiked though, this print was fresh...very fresh. Like probably within the last hour or less. It was the Gore Range at last, the final frontier of Colorado's backcountry. A place so remote that the grand peaks and spires that define its great shape don't even have names despite the fact they are some of Colorado's most impressive and rugged mountains. These peaks are known instead to the few rugged mountaineers and travelers that venture among them by the letters of the alphabet. Some of the more foreboding of Gore Range summits have been dubbed with informal and sometimes menacing monikers like "Prisoner Peak" and "Hail Peak".

The three of us, me, my girlfriend Ella and our friend Miriam continued along a grassed-over trail, hoping but not entirely convinced we were still on our pre-chosen route. The jagged Gores stood in the distance like cold, merciless sentinels. Despite hours of hiking through a cool July thunderstorm they had grown no closer. Dark clouds, pregnant with the next round of monsoonal torrent, swirled above them, cracking and growling like some angry predator. Though we had not progressed as far as we had hoped, it was clear that campsite selection was an immediate and pressing need or we would risk being caught without shelter in what, ostensibly, would be a fierce and unforgiving storm. We found the first semi-level site we could find: a marshy, jumbled clearing beneath a canopy aspen and pine trees. It was semi-sheltered from rain and lightning but wet enough to prove a fruitful breeding ground for perhaps my least favorite of earth's creatures: the mosquito. We donated a quart of blood a piece to the dispassionate proboscises of these miserable creatures while erecting our tents.

We barely had time to boil water for a quick mac and cheese and refill our water bottles before the first alarmingly close streaks of lightning illuminated the sky. We retreated to our tents in defeat. Past experience (as well as apocalyptic predictions by the National Weather Service) had prepared us for this, so we gathered together and initiated a game of Travel Scrabble. We sorted the letters out and configured ourselves cross-legged as the splattering of rain intensified on our tent. With few options, I started the game with a particularly apt word: B-O-L-T. As if summoned by this particular lexical choice, a terrifying zap of lightning erected the hair on my neck. The game had begun.
* * *
There are several reasons for the elusive character of the Gores. Despite their proximity to I-70 and relative accessibility from the outdoors hubs of Summit County, the Gores are deceptively difficult to penetrate. The range is entirely encompassed within the Eagle's Nest Wilderness Area and shrouded by a buffer of private property with few legal easements for access. Any approach to the Gores, the northern and western segments in particular, is long, tortuous and frustrating. Add to this the absence of fourteeners (the highest peak in the range, Mount Powell, tops out at a paltry 13,580') or any other trademark features, and this quiet range has escaped most of the attention that plagues other Colorado backcountry hotspots. The range's unique geology also contributes to its impenetrability. Jagged, foreboding ridges lacking negotiable saddles make traveling from one basin to the other nigh impossible. The peaks themselves are steep and dangerous. Even experienced mountaineers often find themselves turned back by the particular challenges offered by the most dramatic of Gore Range peaks.

The Gores are a hardman's (or hardwoman's) range. The addicts of comfort camping and casual backpacking need not apply. The reward, however, is quiet trails unlike the crowded paths of the Elks or the Sawatches and a sense of wild that evokes the quieter corners of, say, Wyoming's Wind River Range or Montana's Absarokas, though far less expansive. But perhaps, like all great American frontiers, Manifest Destiny has at least reared its destructive head and the slow conquering of this elusive wilderness has begun. Forum posts and trip reports on popular mountaineering websites have become more and more tuned to the Gores. Peak L (a.k.a "Necklace Peak) with its dramatic knife edge as well as several challenge cirque traverses have gathered momentum as coveted mountaineering goals. As aging climbers move on from the 14ers, "Centennial" and "Bi-centennial" peaks and younger climbers search for quieter and more difficult mountains, the pass-less-traveled has becomes less mysterious. Private property is disappearing and parking lots are filling: The Gore's secret has been exposed.
* * *
S-I-Z-Z-L-E. A high scoring word. The Scrabble game ensued after over an hour of driving rain and lightning. Hardly ten seconds had passed between bolts for the entire duration of the storm. "Haha!" exclaimed Miriam, adding up her latest score. Her voice was cut off by a fresh zap of cloud-to-cloud lightning. "Good word," Ella replied. A shockingly close ground strike brought silence to the tent, all of us afraid to articulate the fear we all clearly felt. A few more rounds and all of the tiles were spent. Selective memory has conveniently blocked who emerged the victor that night, but I clearly recall lying down afterwards to an uneasy sleep as the storm continued around us.

Sometime very late the storm tapered off and the booms of thunder migrated slowly east. All night I dreamed of malicious bears and mountain lions stalking our tent. We awoke the following morning to soggy trails and saturated hiking garments. To further complicate matters, Miriam had succumbed overnight to the beginnings of the flu. The future of our trip looked grim: the Gores as elusive as ever. Rapidly building storm clouds forced to a difficult but obvious decision to turn back. In a state of tremendous and world-renowned yet over-exploited beauty like Colorado, the Gore Range stands as a silent partner. An anomaly among famous siblings. For those who seek, as Robert Frost wrote, "the one less traveled," the Gores wait, quiet and largely empty...for now.

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