| Archeological Mountaineering: Campsites, Lost Lumber, Past Climbs, Arrowheads & Exploring the Gore
Archeological Mountaineering: Of Old Campsites, Lost Lumber, Past Climbs, Indian Arrowheads and Exploring in the Gore Range
"North Piney Bristle" 11,825, North Ridge
by gore galore
This adventure was the result of three trips to climb the signature north ridge of “North Piney Bristle” as seen from Piney Lake. This ridge line on the south side of the valley is a view that has been seen by the multitudes who have visited Piney Lake Ranch over the years and by the many hundreds who have taken the trail to climb Mount Powell, Peak C and peaks farther on. It is a ridge that appears on the right side of nearly every picture snapped from the lake where the focus is on the much higher Powell and Peak C and D above the valley. But has anyone other than one person ever stopped, contemplated and climbed this ridge route? It is only two miles from the lake yet has exploration written all over it and is one that I do not let slip by me.
There is another reason for me to climb this route and peak because its approach is near where I believe is the site of the Colorado Mountain Club’s historic campsite for their annual summer outing in the Gore Range in 1948. I have a picture of the club’s “Piney River Camp” which I carry with me as I set out from the Piney Creek trail head in early summer.
I decide to look for an approach route to the ridge and peak before I search for the campsite. I take the trail through the river meadows and then into the timber to the big bend of the valley. The north ridge of “North Piney Bristle” sets on a basement foundation of a curvature of buttresses. The buttresses are on the opposite side of the river. The river at this time of early summer runs fast and deep and loud. The buttresses are masked by a camouflage of trees. I decide that even if I could get across the river it would take a huge amount of time and effort to find a route through this fortress maze of trees and rock to the ridge proper above. I am not going to climb the peak this day.
I retreat back down the trail through the forest to the upper reaches of the meadows of the river valley. I leave the trail and descend toward the river where these meadows of the valley meet the forest. I have an idea of where the campsite was located in this area. I take the picture of the CMC camp that I have with me and align it with the ridges of Peak C, Powell and one of the Cataract Crags in the background. I adjust these parameters in the picture with what I am seeing in front of me as I move to different positions in the meadow. A telltale sign in the picture is a strip of meadow leading into the timber that points to a prominent cliff in the background. This is the deciding feature along with the ridge lines that tells me I am in the vicinity of the campsite.
The 1948 outing announcement suggests the campsite will be on Piney River at an elevation of 10,650 feet but this is too far up the valley in fact being almost at the valley head. The campsite settled upon is at the 9,500 foot elevation. It is near the river and sets up against a small rise of land with trees and the strip of meadow. There are no signs of this historic campsite as I walk around. The meadow has shallow marshes and when I look at the photo the dozen or so tents are cropped against the rise of land probably for this very reason. The outing report remarks times were “spent hauling aspen logs through a wet, muddy, deep, marshy bog, across the river, and into camp.”
I write Dolores LaChapelle (Greenwell) in 1983 about the outing campsite and she replies “the main problem with the Outing was that the camp was too far from the unclimbed and interesting peaks.” Louise Roloff writes in the outing report that “for the climbers sake, had the camp site been a few miles further up the Piney River, and that would be very possible, the climbing would have been closer and there would have been more time to pick out routes requiring technical climbing.”
In 1948 there wasn’t any Red Sandstone Road to access Piney Lake. The peaks above the lake were rarely climbed. The outing announcement notes little climbing had been done from this western approach and that Mt. Powell not only being the highest but is also the most inaccessible peak in the range.
Transportation for those outing members arriving by train was provided from the railhead at Minturn. The advance party took the bus to “Middurn, Mindurn, Minnern, or anything but Min-turn.” A trucker was engaged to take those at Minturn to the logging camp in the Gore Creek Valley. Others drove cars over Loveland and Vail passes or presumably the main highway through Leadville and Minturn to the lumber camp where the trail began.
The Minturn 15M topographic map edition of 1950 shows the sawmill located just above the confluence of Red Sandstone Creek and Gore Creek at elevation 8,250 feet. When I write Alex Carson of the CMC in 1986 about the outing he replies, “that year a lot of timber was being harvested for the sawmill which was just off the highway. The lumber people maintained the logging road in fair shape so the outing members had no trouble getting their cars in to the parking area.”
The map shows the trail leading north from the sawmill along the hillside to the east and parallel to Red Sandstone Creek to its intersection with the Lost Lake Trail. The trail swings west at Lost Lake and then down into the Piney River Valley to Piney Lake and then about two miles further to the campsite for a total of about ten miles. Eliot Moses writes in a letter to Bob Ormes in 1951 that “the trail from there to camp was good and about seven miles long. Going in we made a short cut direct down steep wooded slopes to Piney Creek cutting off 2 miles of trail but coming back this would be hard climbing and not worth trying.”
A packer was hired to haul supplies to the campsite but not without several misfortunes. On one trip the meat and one horse were lost and presumably found. On the second trip darkness fell on the pack train above Piney Lake and in the confusion were lost 36 pieces of lumber, one pick axe, 20 feet of manila rope, two duffel bags, one pack saddle, two cans and five boxes. There is no mention of total recovery. For a fleeting moment I think about walking along the river looking and perhaps finding some remnant of these long lost supplies but the forest of willows along this stretch of river discourages any such attempt.
Anne Clymer arrives from New York for the outing “to become a mountaineer overnight.” As she readies her pack someone “thrust two boards into my hands. They were five inches by four feet and I was informed that they were to be taken to camp for a mess table.” The outing report notes, “the first stragglers arrived in camp, most of them with their allotted pieces of lumber, so the mess table could be built.” Anne’s group decides to leave the trail near Lost Lake and descend the ridge for a “short cut” to Piney Creek Camp. She writes, “I stumbled over ridges of Jackstraws and strained every muscle trying to keep up. I’m sorry to say that my boards were unable to make their way into camp that night.”
I think for only a moment that I might hike the trail around Lost Lake looking for these castoff historic boards until I read the part about the ridges of Jackstraws and I right myself. I will admit to hunting for a lost mountain (Ikey Mountain) and searching for an old campsite (CMC) but I am willing to draw the line at looking and jackstrawing for lost lumber from an old campsite. I only hope that Anne was not chastised for her lost boards and that the mess table was built to satisfaction.
I return to the Piney Creek trail head for the second time in late summer to look for another approach to climb the route. I decide to take “ten” at the parking lot but awaken an hour and a half later. Instead of leaving I decide to salvage the day by hiking to the campsite and finding a place to cross the river. The hike in the valley affords me time to view the large boulder field tipped at an angle below the west facing cliffs of the north ridge of “North Piney Bristle.” I think that this “boulder mat” as I call it might be an approach that gets me above the buttresses and outflanks those lower cliffs.
The river crossing turns out to be quite easy at this time of year and I head in the direction of the boulder field. The timber is heavy and the bothersome brush is such that I am suckered into following a side drainage upwards to a point where I determine this is the main outlet from the “Piney Bristles” cirque. I am decidedly off route to the intended boulder field. I could continue on but this is not the route I want to climb.
Although I am not going to climb the peak this day, the 1948 outing climbers were set to make a number of historic climbs from the campsite that I pass through on my way back. The outing announcement claimed that “many new routes and excellent rock climbs are in prospect.”
The outing record shows Mount Powell climbed twice by almost all the outing climbers. Carl Blaurock leads a large party up the west face. The outing report remarks that there were only three pages of names in the register. I write Carl in 1982 about this climb and he replies that although he has been on the 1935 and 1948 CMC outings to the Gore Range, “both are so far back in time that I don’t recall much of the details. I never kept a diary of my climbs, (regretably), but if I had I probably would have answers to some of your inquiries.”
Peak C was climbed twice by 7 people. Alene Conover and Louise Roloff climb the peak in their “misguided enthusiasm” by turning off the “trail?” and climbing the west ridge over the prominent pinnacle (Point 12,225) to the west face joining the north ridge below the summit. Theirs is the second ascent as they find the small glass jar placed by the first party in 1932. In 1983 I write Louise about this climb. She replies, “we carried a rope on C but didn’t need it. Did put it on once.” I believe the west ridge and face they climbed is one that is rarely done since.
A few days later Forest Fulton and John Spradely led Dolores Greenwell, Nancy Perkins and Ted Parsons on the climb of the north ridge of Peak C, taking four hours on the ridge and using two pitons. When I locate and write John Spradley in 1983 about this climb he replies from the “murky depths of memory” that “what I can offer is not advanced with much assurance of precision.” I do believe that this north ridge climb of Peak C is the first instance of technical climbing in the Gore Range.
Peak D was climbed by 3 people. A cairn is found. Alene Conover of the climbing party writes the prophetic words of Gore Range climbing in the outing report, “like all the climbs from a distance proved on close inspection to be just what we wanted to make them - difficult pitches could be, and were found, but one could always walk around them if necessary.” You might not always be able to “walk” around them but those who spend time climbing in the Gore get the idea.
Peak E is climbed by 5 people. Louise Roloff leaves the CMC register and tube on the summit. It is still there today and may be the last of the historic registers in the Gore Range still present on a peak.
Peak F is climbed twice by 7 people. A small cairn is found by Louise, Alene and Henry and Bobbie Buchtel. Louise writes in her 1983 letter that “on F - no rope. Bobbie Buchtel used some small avalanche cord on F, moral support, on the ridge.” I write Henry Buchtel in 1984 about the use of the rope. He replies that “we carried ropes but the only time I think we used one in the Gore was to persuade my wife to cross a knife edge.”
Later John Spradley, Dolores Greenwell and Ted Parsons traverse the ridge of peaks E, F, G and H. I write Dolores in 1983 and her envelope reveals a packet of pictures along with her reply on the traverse, “John Spradley and I decided to just make a run for it - leave very early, go all day & see what we could climb and come back after dark. John writes in his 1983 letter that “climbing them is pretty much a ‘ridge-running’ exercise. A rope was carried but not, as I recall, used except for a posed photo of a rappell, which was in no way required by the terrain.” This ridge traverse is the formative step of what will later be called the Ripsaw Ridge of peaks from C to J.
Eliot Moses climbs Point 12,585 (12,626) in the then unnamed Cataract Crags. The climb isn’t mentioned in the outing report but I find the record of it in a letter Moses wrote to Bob Ormes in 1951. Although he doesn’t claim a first ascent, I believe this is the earliest known climb in the Crags.
I return for the third time in the last week of September of 2012 to make my climbing attempt of the north ridge of “North Piney Bristle” from the 1948 CMC campsite. This time I take a compass bearing on the boulder field from the camp. I retrace my crossing of the river into the timber and the bothersome brush where my compass needle prevents me from being suckered again. This time I cross the drainage and side hill through the timber and brush where I part the last of it and step onto the boulder field.
I suspect someone has written a treatise on the science of crossing a boulder field. I used to think boulders were neat objects because I equated largeness with stability. I recognized long ago the folly of this thinking and developed my own precautions for these places. These boulders are not to be mistaken for a talus field or a moraine deposit as the latter two have their own treatises written about them. The boulders have peeled off from the cliff side high above me and have fallen down in a haphazard manner somewhat like someone would drop a box of puzzle pieces on the living room floor. I look at the different shapes and sizes of the boulders and then to the indentations of the cliff side and think that if geologic time gave me the power I could start with the boulder in front of me with its angular shaped end and flat side and fit it into the crack directly above me in the cliff side. In this manner I could continue on fitting the different shaped boulders until I made the cliff whole just like I could fit the puzzle pieces into a whole on that living room floor.
My whimsical thinking gets me across the boulder field to its upper end where it meets a treed ramp. This is just what I am looking for as the ramp allows me to turn the corner of these cliffs into a gully that happens to be above the fortress maze of the buttresses I had previously seen from the big bend in the river. The gully is designed to allow me passage upwards in two stages interrupted by climbing over a small bulge where the water trickles down from above where the gully fans out to the scree slope above.
This scree slope with its dotted krumholtz field meets the north ridge of the peak. I have finally made it and what lies above I don’t know but is part of the whole that has exploration written all over it. I have to share this lower bristle ridge with the highest extent of the krumholtz. I scramble along this stickler of ridge bristles leaving the krumholtz behind. I come to the first major bristle point with its sudden drop off which forces me to descend and climb left to a notch where I am confronted by the major face of the ridge.
I have to stop and think about my position as I scan the face with its angled and tilted ledge system one on top of the other. I decide to at least attempt the right side of the face for its weakness where I find I can gain the initial ledge going left. I then have to find the crack, slab, blocks or combination that gets me to the next ledge and repeat the process about four or five different times. I am confident that I can down climb what I have climbed but I am not so sure that I will be able to orchestrate the exact sequence in reverse from above in case of retreat.
When the face lays back and meets the ridge I mentally mark my exit point. I think all I have to do now is to follow the ridge to the summit which I can see above me. I take several steps forward until a feeling of total defeat comes over me as I stand on the edge of the abrupt drop off and look down to the small notch separating the bristle point I am on and the summit. I look for any sign that will get me down to that notch but there is nothing. I don’t have any choice but to turn around to my exit point for down climbing the face.
I am reminded of Alene Conover’s prophetic words about “walking” around difficult pitches for in my haste to top out on the ridge from the face I had neglected to look around at my exit point. But there in the side of the ridge is a camouflaged ledge of rubble leading downward to the notch. I climb down holding sometimes onto the ridge side as I follow this promising lead. It becomes evident that this ledge is continuous and will lead me to that notch. Once at the notch I find that I can climb the broken and fractured rock to the right as I traverse higher to meet the summit from the south end. My exploration of the north ridge is over. It goes.
An overwhelming silence envelopes me as I look across the valley to the lettered peaks from “North Piney Bristle.” There is nothing to tell me that it is the year 2012. Perhaps the year could be 1948 and in my imagination I might hear the ringing sound of John Spradley pounding in the first of two home made pitons, clipping a steel carabineer and threading the manila rope as he leads Forrest, Dolores, Nancy and Ted on that historic technical climb of the north ridge of Peak C. Farther to the right that glint of sunlight on metal might be Louise placing the tube and register on Peak E that remains to this day. The movement that I detect farther down the ridge might be John, Dolores and Ted on their way from peaks E to H for the first steps in the exploration of what would come to be called the Ripsaw Ridge of peaks C to J.
The lowering sun tells me that it really is year 2012. So I must leave the summit following the way I came up from the notch. I down climb into the gully below the notch but only partially descend it thinking I might find myself cliffed out. I traverse back left connecting a couple more gullies until I reach the floor of the “Piney Bristles” cirque. The drainage of the cirque floor leads me to its edge where it drops down in its rocky and brush like course. I know this is my way out because I have once before been suckered into this drainage.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the only other climber I have encountered in the “Piney Bristles” but from a different campsite. In 1980 while hiking the Red Sandstone Ridge north of “Piney Bristle,” 12,080 I saw by chance at my footstep what I thought was a peculiar shaped rock. Bending to my knee I found I was looking at a perfectly shaped Indian arrowhead.
In 1975 archeological teams in advance of the Interstate 70 construction over Vail Pass had unearthed tools and flakes and evidence of campfire remains as early as 4800 B.C. and as late as 1760. Perhaps the Native American who dropped this arrowhead came from one of those campsites. I reflect upon my chance finding of the arrowhead to what that Native American might have thought as he looked across the river valley to those ridge line of peaks. Surely they must have seemed like an insurmountable and impenetrable barrier to him. It would be a few thousand or a couple hundred years before those 1948 CMC climbers went across the tops of those peaks. And from my climb of the north ridge of “North Piney Bristle” I could see all of this.