| Rain Peak South Ridge: The Evolutuion of A Gore Range Climb
Rain Peak South Ridge: The Evolution of A Gore Range Climb
by gore galore
This mountain climb begins in 1981 and has its ending in 2012. It originally started at the Mesa Cortina trail head when most things in the Salmon Lake cirque of the Gore Range began from this starting point. Its ending shifted to the newer and shorter Willowbrook trail head for the unsigned North Willow Creek Trail where most things can become quite confusing quite readily for the unwary.
I have been on this trail a few times and have worked out its vagaries to its intersection with the Gore Range Trail. I am headed up the trail this time because I want to finish a ridge climb on Rain Peak that I didn’t complete some thirty years ago. In those years everything seemed new and adventuresome because you had a map and what you could see in front of you.
Rain Peak as a name had made its appearance on a self published map by Bob Ormes in 1978 and before that its only importance seemed to be to 19th century prospectors who had some diggings around Ruby Lake on its eastern slopes.
Rain Peak assumed an importance from my perspective because of that serrated south ridge that comes off the higher Mount Silverthorne and bumps into Rain Peak forming the head wall of the Salmon Lake cirque. Its ridge profile is something one lives with if you call Dillon your home.
It’s hard to say why someone would leave a climb unfinished for some three decades and then return but this one stuck in my craw until things came together in the “now or never” frame of mind. So now it’s a Sunday morning and I have navigated my way up the North Willow Creek Trail to its intersection with the Gore Range Trail.
As I make my way on the trail, I can look up the valley and the tops of the Zodiac Spires come into view. I came this same way in 1984 carrying a xerox of a hand-drawn map of the spires. I had a few scraps of information on what I might encounter as I tried to make sense of which spire was where and working out some routes based on the axiom of what I saw in front of me. My route finding on the spires led me to correspond back then with Mark Addison who made two trips with partners to make the first ascents of seven of the nine spires in 1956 and who drew the map in a small magazine article, a copy of which I carried. Gary Ziegler and partners made the first ascents of the remaining two spires and second ascents of most of the others in 1958 and 1960. As it is my custom on these things I located and corresponded also with Mr. Ziegler about his climbs on the spires.
When I get to the Willow Lakes Trail junction I turn left and follow the trail uphill where eventually I can see through the trees to the jagged tops of the points of the northeast ridge of Red Peak. It is known as the "Red Diamond Ridge" and we used the rope in a couple of places when we climbed the route in 1999. I believe this route has hardly been climbed since because not only is it largely unknown but it is so much easier to claim an ascent of Red Peak from Red Buffalo Pass.
Closer to the trail and immediately across the North Willow Creek valley is the north face of Point 12,885 of Red Peak. It is split in two by a deeply incised couloir. In the spring of the year it is a grand sight if you know where to look from Highway 9 near the Ute Pass Road. Up close it is simply grandiose. Geologic time reached deep into its tool box for the precision instruments needed to carve this couloir. In late May of 2007 some skiers came up the back side and one of them skied this line calling it “What Big Eyes You Have". I heard about it and about a week later I booted up the 1,600 foot route for possibly its first recorded climb and called the route “For Your Eyes Only” from the mountaineer’s perspective. I called the narrow crux bulge “The Squeeze".
When I get to the trail intersection for Salmon Lake there is a sign post for the direction. Back in the day there was no sign and I relied upon the large boulder beside the trail for the direction of the faint path leading off toward the lake. I imagine when the lifetime of the sign post expires the boulder will still be there indicating the way on the now well worn trail.
I make my way on this trail to the lake and then to the boulders of the inlet drainage. I know to stay to the right and below of the large moraines of the cirque with their unstable and loose frontal lobes. These moraines are among the largest in the southern Gore Range. In the spring of the year though these moraines are covered with enough snow and make a grand avenue to the base of the north couloir of the East Thorn. I had known about this couloir long before it appeared in Dave Cooper’s "Colorado Snow Climbs" book but hadn’t got around to climbing it until after the book was published. I somehow remember from years ago the name of “The Bottle Couloir” being attached to this particular couloir. It is a short and moderate climb but when coupled with the Class 3 and 4 upper east ridge of the peak it becomes a scintillating ascent to one of the Gore Range’s salient peaks.
I climbed this route in 2010 and whereupon returning to the lake two campers greeted me and offered me a shot of whiskey. After a forced hesitation on my part I politely declined thinking of the turns and intersections of the trail and the vagaries near the Willowbrook trail head. When I got out of eyesight further down the trail from the campers I stopped and sweetened my water bottle with some mix for a safer alternative for the hike out.
The East Thorn also caused me some angst in 1983. A therapy group named CanSurmount climbed the peak, raised their flag, fixed a plaque to the rocks, held a memorial service and christened the peak in honor of their program. Although their aims were laudable, it upset me that a group would have the notion to rename the East Thorn in their favor. I wrote Bob Ormes a letter about the matter and in “Ormesian” fashion Bob replied back, “The name is clever enough for what it represents, but not appropriate for a mountain.” In retrospect neither of us had cause for concern because the peak is located in a wilderness area and can never be officially named on government maps. I am not sure whatever became of CanSurmount but the great name that Bob Ormes gave to this peak as the East Thorn continues on.
When I pass the moraines, I start the climb up the cirque head wall ascending diagonally below the rock slabs where the drainage splashes across the rock surfaces. There is a route in this area on Rain Peak that I have looked at for some time and now I have a better idea of what it will take to complete this climb. I will put it in my Possible Bag of future climbs for consideration.
When I gain the top of the cirque and the terrain eases back I head toward the notch that signifies the beginning of the south ridge of Rain. At the first ridge tower from the notch I make a feint jab right and retreat and then a crosscut left to the small gully where at its top I gain a foothold on the ridge proper. I climb right of another ridge tower where the route opens up and I can see toward the summit. There are a few persons present on the summit looking outward. I think to myself that they are identifying peaks or perhaps of peaks climbed or maybe of a route and wondering if it will go.
“Wondering if it will go,” I say to myself again. It’s what brought me to the south ridge of Rain Peak and this Range of Peaks with No Names some thirty plus years ago. It seemed like most of the time those words were the only thing I had to go on. There might be a sentence in a journal, a short paragraph in an outing report, a small magazine article, an ancient government report, a hand drawn map, an old photograph without a caption culled from masses of printed material or most likely nothing at all.
I continue on with the ridge route and descend to a notch and then climb a face of class 4 slabs laced with cracks to the ridge again. The scrambles on these ridges make the Gore what it is where seeing what is in front of you can often be the best information one can have. When I down climb the ridge to the third notch to the base of a small tower, I immediately recognize it as my turn around point of thirty years ago. It is a tower with a corner facing the direction of the ridge with a small face to the left of the corner and with a ledge leading out across the face and some flakes leading upward to the top of the face.
I stop long enough to remember back to that time of so many years ago but when I make up my mind to climb on I hesitate just long enough to fill my mouth with some M&M’s and then lead out across the ledge. I can get my fingers behind the flakes where they press up against the face and use the irregularities of the edges of the flakes for the point of my boots to climb to the top of the face. I am up and over in what time it seems for the candy to melt in my mouth. I then only have another notch, another gully and the final irregularities of the ridge before I am on the summit.
Just like those unknown mountaineers I had seen on the summit I take the time to look outward. There is a whole lot of climbing history immediately below the summit of Rain Peak in the South Rock Creek valley. It probably began with the prospectors who had a tent city far down in the valley in one of the meadows. They had their own mountain called Ikey Mountain in 1881. But the tent dwellings were short lived, the prospectors were itinerant, the land was harsh and Ikey Mountain as a name was fleeting as its prospectors and lost in time until resurrected two years ago from a nineteenth century mining directory. It has been suggested that Ikey Mountain could be located on Point 12,465 or Point 12,226 on the ridge across the valley. But when I look across the valley to those points the gulf of a century and parts of two others is much too wide for me to be able to determine anything.
I have been on both of those points but that was before the Ikey Mountain affair when I didn’t have reason to look around. We were there a number of years ago because we had our sights set on climbing this ridge which is probably the longest single ridge in the Gore Range. We used the rope in a couple of places and then pieced together the crumbling chaos of the upper ridge to "Point Odin" on Mount Valhalla’s northwest ridge. This was probably the first climb of this ridge and we called it the great "Asgard Ridge" of Valhalla in keeping to the Norse names applied to the Valhalla massif.
The Ikey Mountain affair precipitated a number of climbs and explorations in the South Rock Creek valley that I was fortunate to be part and privy to. I can see the couloir I used to down climb off of Hail Peak after climbing a north face route. This deeply shaded couloir in the month of August is robust with snow even in a low snow winter as this past one. Below me from the summit of Rain Peak is "Rain Tower". It took two attempts to finally figure the approach before climbing it for its first recorded ascent. It is an anomaly of decent rock among the shattered and eroded pinnacles on the north face of Rain. I have also made a climb up the north side of Mount Silverthorne using a hand drawn sketch on a folded piece of paper kept in an envelope that I have from someone from decades ago. Further afield is "Freya Spire", "Loki Tower" and "Thor Tower" and something called "Lightning Tower". I am not sure of the exact location of the latter or whether it is part of another formation. But those climbs, attempts, reconnaissances and explorations are for a different time.
For now I have the satisfaction of completing the south ridge route on Rain Peak thirty years after my first attempt. Perhaps the evolution of this climb hasn’t changed much from the thought of “wondering whether it will go” and “seeing what is in front of you” but perhaps with a different mind set after so long ago.