| Grand Traverse Peak, North Face: A Climbing Convergence of the Past and Present
Grand Traverse Peak, North Face: A Climbing Convergence of the Past and Present
Grand Traverse Peak 13,041, North Face, Possibly Unclimbed?
by gore galore
Sometimes in the past I have been asked something on the order of what might be the best peaks in the Gore Range or some sort of another adjective that might describe those select peaks to climb. Like those late nineteenth-century prospectors who made their way along the creek valleys in the southeastern part of the range and reported on the remarkable similarities of the ridge lines they saw I had no ready answer for differentiating peaks as I am one to mostly refrain from compiling lists of peaks.
Lately though as the years have passed on by I have thought about what may make a classic peak in the range. I think it should be one that has something of a climbing history, a summit with a route that people want to climb and a general perception by the public of its presence even though its name might not be commonly known. I think the Grand Traverse Peak might be such a peak. I also think the north face of the peak may be unclimbed. This is the story of the peak and that climb.
My association with the peak known as the Grand Traverse Peak dates from my first climb in 1980. In those days I wasn’t entirely familiar with the name as one for the peak as well for the traverse and consequently labeled the names on my maps for “South Traverse Peak” and “North Traverse Peak” for the summits on the opposite ends of the ridge line. I had seen these names on a map from a Colorado Mountain Club report on a backpacking trip along the east side of the crest of the range in 1973. Later in that summer of 1980 I would climb “North Traverse Peak” never thinking about the traverse of the two peaks until a few years later.
I would eventually become familiar with the Grand Traverse name for the peak when I later came across Bob Ormes’ 1978 Gore-Tenmile Atlas and his Guide to the Colorado Mountains, seventh edition (1979). But the questions lingered as to who might have named the peak and who was the first to go across the ridge of the Grand Traverse. The answer to the first question led a trail to a remarkable mountaineer from LaCanada Flintridge, California.
Stan Midgley is a name that does not resonate in today’s mountaineering world nor even in the Gore Range where his accomplishments loom large. In 1983 I sent an inquiry to Mr. Midgley and received in return a detailed letter of nine pages written in small hand writing about his climbing experiences with the Colorado Mountain Club on the 1935 Gore Range Outing and his subsequent solo trips to the range in 1942, 1943 and 1944.
In his letter he described his 1943 trip to the peak that he would name the Grand Traverse Peak. Midgley took a bus to Dillon, walked the highway to the Willow Creek Road and camped near the end of the road. He made a side trip up Red Peak from the “Main Gore Pass” and then down Red Gore Creek to camp at Deluge Creek. He expected rough travel going directly up Deluge Creek without a trail but found no major difficulties getting to Deluge Lake which at that time wasn’t shown on the Dillon 15M quadrangle map.
Midgley writes, “first I wanted a close-up look at the sawtooth ridge NW of Deluge Lake. I had picked out those peaks at the head of North Rock Creek thru binoculars from the Williams River Mountains in 1942. I had heard other CMC climbers exclaim several times in the Gores, ‘What a traverse,’ and that ridge looked like one of the best.” On September 11, 1943 he “galloped” up the 13,041 peak at the south end of the ridge where he found a small cairn without a record on top.
He continues, “my ‘close look’ at the ridge to the next peak north (13,083 on the Dillon Quad) looked like one I shouldn’t attempt alone, so I left a little can and slip suggesting the name ‘Grand Traverse Peak’. I also suggested the name ‘Ripsaw’ for the peak at the north end of the ridge (which you call North Traverse Peak).”
Many years later in about 1976 Midgley saw a panoramic picture from the top of the Vail gondola and it showed “Grand Traverse Pk.” “Hey, my name stuck!” he exclaimed in his letter. “Funny thing though, that same panorama put the name ‘Ripsaw’ on the F, G, H group far to the north.”
From the summit of the Grand Traverse Peak Midgley had noticed a black top road down Gore Creek. He sent me a picture of the Grand Traverse Peak taken from the Gore Creek Valley. A number of years ago I took the picture with me and turned off the Interstate at the main Vail exit and then drove the Frontage Road back east where I lined up the picture near the ballfields next to the road. I believe modern engineering has leveled the contours of the land resulting in a straightened frontage road whereas the old black top road was further to the right somewhere in the course of the ballfields. The ridge line of the Grand Traverse as seen from this vicinity is one of the iconic scenes of the Vail Valley today.
Midgley returned to the junction of Red and Black Gore Creeks and the black top road after his climb of the Grand Traverse Peak. He writes, “but I don’t recall a single car - or seeing anyone else - in the 40 minutes it took to reach the Pitkin Creek Trail.” After a camp on Pitkin Creek the “next day I walked all the way to Minturn to catch the bus. I was packing more than 50 pounds - not one car picked me up on that new black top road (Both cars went right by.) I never realized the valley I spent 3 hours packing 55 pounds through would one day be Vail!” It is an interesting anecdote from a bygone era as part of the story of the naming of the peak we continue to know today as Grand Traverse Peak.
It probably wasn’t coincidental that Harold Walton became the first known to make the Grand Traverse across the ridge between the two peaks because he and Stan Midgley were members of the Chicago Mountaineering Club in the 1940's. I found a brief obscure note in the club’s Newsletter about Harold Walton’s solo ridge running west and southwest from the summit of Keller Mountain in 1945.
When I wrote Harold Walton in 1982 about that ridge run I asked him to draw his route on the map I sent him. I eagerly opened Mr. Walton’s letter when it arrived and there in a red pen marking was his route beginning at the Boss Mine and across the Keller Mountain ridge and turning southwest to what is now known as “North Traverse Peak” and across the ridge to Grand Traverse Peak and then returning to the mine by way of North Rock Creek. Harold wrote “my memories of the Gore Range are hazy at this point, but I do remember that solo circuit on Sept. 8, 1945. I have indicated my route in red on your map.” In 1957 Harold Walton led a CMC party on that same circuit of peaks adding Mount Valhalla to the trip.
In 1985 I returned again and climbed the Grand Traverse Peak intending to traverse the ridge between the two peaks. By this time I had known something about the peak and its traverse but nothing about the route other than it had been done before. The Ormes Guide had a terse note of “problem climbs” in the Bighorn Creek and Deluge Lake areas and because of this I thought I was taking a big chance by myself when I descended from the summit to the ridge. But I found what I think others have encountered in a delightful set of problems that are solved by mostly third and some fourth class climbing as one moves across the ridge points to its completion. Judging by the internet trip reports, the Grand Traverse is looked upon as a rewarding climbing experience for those who undertake it.
My Grand Traverse led to a hiatus from the peak for a number of years but was also the buried genesis of the thought of a north face climb on the Grand Traverse Peak that I kept in mind for some future day. I had long noticed from my many trips into the Deluge Lake basin and climbs from adjoining ridges and peaks a small depression just below the summit that would seem to indicate a weakness that would hold snow on the north face of the peak. I could make out the small ripple in the contour line on the topographic map that indicated this depression while closely noting the series of tightly compressed contour lines below the ripple that also indicated the gravity of what I was contemplating.
I decide to have a go at this potential route in June of 2011 because that was the previous winter of record-breaking snows. I make my way up the Deluge Lake Trail to where it begins gaining elevation at one of the side creek crossings and the transition from a dirt trail to snow covered trail begins. I meet another solo person coming down the trail at this point. He has snowshoes and an ice axe strapped to his pack. I have an ice axe on mine. He looks at me and tells me there are some good snow climbs from the lake “if I ever get there.” I acknowledge his observations and move on up the grade. The trail completely disappears under heavy snow cover as I follow a course to the small divide in the heavy timber and the gradual descent toward the Deluge Creek crossing below the lake.
“If I ever get there?” I think to myself as I make my way through the timber on top of the frozen sea of snow. “Why of course I’ll get there.” I’ve gotten there in the past by going directly up the old Deluge Creek Trail where it intersects with the Gore Creek Trail further up the Gore Creek Valley. It’s shown on some of the old maps of the Gore Range and the trail remnants are still visible along the steep ascent by the creek. I’ve gotten there from the passes between Snow Peak, Mount Valhalla and the Grand Traverse Peak. I’ve also gotten there by climbing the long northeastern ridge of Mount Valhalla from North Rock Creek Valley and then out the Deluge Lake Trail. I have even gotten there in previous springtimes when I have gone too high from the snow covered Deluge Lake Trail and kept going higher until I’ve climbed Point 12,305 and then dropping back down into the valley. But I have always gotten there.
And when I get there I’ll set up camp on a bare knoll protected by krumholtz growths slightly to the left and below the lake where a ready supply of water comes gushing out of a break in the snow-packed course of the stream. And before the sun goes down I’ll have the company of Snow Peak, Mount Valhalla and the Grand Traverse Peak.
When the sun begins to open its eyes, I’m making the descent on the snowfield to the north of the pass between Valhalla and the Grand Traverse Peak. I have often wondered why the map makers never showed this as a permanent snowfield on their maps as this is a perennial field that compares favorably in size with others in the Gore. During the springtime of the year this snowfield is connected to the one that blankets the floor of the Grand Traverse cirque. It is a ready avenue into one of the magnificent cirques in the Gore Range.
I say to myself that if nothing works out climbing wise I will simply be satisfied to walk around in this snow-covered cirque below its soaring walls. But when I reach the cirque and look around at the ridge line of the Grand Traverse and then over at the peak, the route up the face becomes readily apparent. There is an apron of the snowfield below the main bulk of the peak and then a rising left leaning traverse onto a slanted shelf above a set of cliffs and then a right turn into a seam of the snow blanketed face that leads to the depression below the summit. My concern is the feature of the exit in that depression of which I cannot readily make out yet.
As I stand alone in the cirque contemplating this face route I think of the words of Stan Midgley in 1943 as he contemplated the ridge route across the top of the cirque as “one I shouldn’t attempt alone.” After some hesitation before commitment I decide to fall back on the old adage of “I’ll go as far as I can and turn back when it becomes too difficult.”
I begin the steepening climb up the apron and then the traverse left onto the shelf above the cliffs. At its narrowest point I can feel the ice under the snow with the tip of my axe. When I cross the shelf, I turn right and look up at the full face into the exit depression high above which I still can’t fully make out.
I decide to continue on with a rhythmic cadence of kicking or front pointing steps with the pick of my axe anchoring me until I kick another set of steps. I place my free hand on the snow with the thought I should have another tool with me. I look for depressions in the snow where I can kneel in to rest. It’s uneasy to stand up comfortably as I am afraid I might slip. In this manner I climb up the face to about two thirds distance where the closer sight of the exit depression reveals itself in vertical walls of snow. I am not going to exit at that point.
My option that I had noticed from below when the exit depression was still in question is the great wave in the blanket of snow to the left. I climb into the trough of this mid ocean wave and then onto its crest and then down into its windward side. From this point I am able to see the cornices above me at the top of the face. They are more curled than overhanging suggesting that I might be able to chop my way through. I climb upwards from the windward side of the wave encountering delicate lace like snow where the sun has been at work loosening this snow from the face. It is not to my liking and I retreat back down to the bottom of the crest of the wave.
I am in something of a quandary now and close to that old adage of “I’ll turn back when it becomes too difficult” but in reality I’ve come too far to think of it. I look around and my eye follows the crest of the mid ocean wave until it washes ashore against a rock buttress which forms the left side of the depression. It appears like I can simply crampon up the crest of the wave and maybe even the rock buttress to the top. But I am fooled by the angle from too far below for when I climb to the buttress it has a vertical aspect that makes me stop.
I have to think carefully about my situation now. I chop out a step in the ice against the rock big enough for one foot to place on top of the other. I put my ice axe in my pack loop and then on my back. I stand with my left foot in the chopped step, my left hand on the rock, raise my right foot in the air and remove my crampon with my right hand. I put my right foot back down on top of my left foot and then with my left-hand still on the rock I remove my pack holding onto the straps until I can unzip it and put the crampon inside. I put the pack back on my back and then reverse my feet in the chopped step and repeat this balancing act until I have removed my left crampon and it too, is inside my pack.
I have done this because about eight or ten feet above me is one decent hand size hold in the buttress. I tell myself that I have to make this not so much out of desperation but there is a fall line below me and I am not going back down. I edge out with my right foot and a finger hold. I leave the security of the chopped step and find a toe hold for my left foot. I find another finger hold and raise myself on another foothold. I don’t think of popping off but the reality is there. My fingers move up feeling the rock. Another edge and my fingers curl into the handhold. I have it now. I raise myself and step into the handhold. The buttress eases back and I scramble to the top.
I sit down on the wind swept rock out of a sense of elation and relief. When I get up, I walk back to the top of the buttress and look down at the consequences of the route. I walk some more steps up the ridge line to the top of the depression and note the futility of the exit. I have about another 200 feet of snow-covered contour lines to reach the top. When I arrive at the summit and look out across the peak I think of Stan Midgley who climbed this summit in 1943 and Harold Walton who crossed the ridge to this summit in 1945 and now joined by myself in 2011, a climbing convergence if you will of the past and present.
As I write this ending, I look back at those two climbers who preceded me on the Grand Traverse Peak. Stan Midgley climbed more than 1,400 mountains but he is forgotten as a mountaineer today. He made the most of his four trips to the Gore Range climbing 18 peaks of which 10 were first ascents. His legacy in the Gore Range is the handful of names he applied that are still in use today. Those who climb in the range know them as Mount Solitude, Lake Solitude, Mount Valhalla, Outpost Peak and the wonderfully named Grand Traverse Peak.
Midgley was also an early bicycle mountaineer in Colorado, California and Glacier National Park. On one of his two bicycle trips in Colorado he made a 500-mile circuit in 1944 on his English model of a bike he called Humphrey climbing Mt. Quandary, “Peak S” in the Gore Range, and McHenrys and Pagoda Peaks in Rocky Mountain National Park. “Taking a bike to the mountains was almost unthinkable then,” he wrote in his letter. He tells of an amusing incident on that bicycle trip that happened on the west side of Trail Ridge Road when two soldiers with their girls passed by in an open car when one of them leaned out and yelled at the top of his voice, “Are you nuts?”
I made a search about eight or nine years ago for Stan Midgley fully expecting to find what I did, his obituary in the "Princeton Alumni Weekly" and the journal of the Chicago Mountaineers. A research chemist at Abbott Laboratories in Chicago, he regularly rode his bicycle 20 miles each way to work. He combined his hobbies of mountaineering, bicycle riding and photography and showed his slides to his colleagues and various community groups. He quickly learned that scenery put people to sleep so he began interjecting his impromptu humor often at the expense of himself.
In 1946 he entered a nationwide contest with his movie of a bicycle trip through Bryce-Zion and the Grand Canyon National Parks and won the 1st prize of $1,000. He left his job and turned his hobby into his full time vocation as a professional Travelogue lecturer. His early shows were noted in the pages of the bulletins of the Colorado Mountain Club, Chicago Mountaineers and the Iowa Mountaineers. Midgley went on to make more than 4,000 appearances and his films were featured more than 400 times on a local Detroit TV show in the 1950's and 1960's. His professional presentations and film making are regarded highly on internet travelogue forums. Near the end of his career an article in the April 22, 1990 "Deseret News" of Salt Lake City reported “his humorous method of telling the story, combined with unique sound effects and music, has earned him the well deserved reputation as ‘the Mark Twain of the camera’.” He retired in 1992 after 50 years with many awards in the travelogue profession. Stan Midgley passed away in 2000 at the age of 87.
Harold Walton was also briefly a research chemist and then professor of chemistry at Northwestern University until 1947. He and Stan Midgley were both members of the Chicago Mountaineering Club at that time. He left for a professorship of chemistry at the University of Colorado until his retirement. His avocation was mountaineering with a handful of expeditions to the Cordillera Blanca of Peru. He expressed his sentiments on climbing in an article written for the Autumn 1955 issue of "The Colorado Quarterly" titled “Science, Art and Mountaineering.”
As a rock climber in the Boulder area his name is remembered on the north face of the Maiden with the Walton Traverse and of the first ascent of the popular route Cussin’ Crack on Castle Rock. But that day in 1945 when Harold Walton went across the Grand Traverse for the first known climb is largely forgotten except perhaps to someone like me who searches for these things. Harold Walton passed away in 2002 at 90 years of age.
And as for myself I can say that I have probably come near a full circle on the Grand Traverse Peak, climbing it by the east and west ridges, southeast sides, the traverse and the north face. There is still probably another route of interest to climb but for a future date. Like those late nineteenth-century prospectors who went up the creek valleys in the Gore Range searching for riches, I find something of a prospector mountaineer in myself following the creek valleys searching for my own definition of riches in the mountains. And on that June day when I descended into the Grand Traverse cirque and looked at the north face of the peak and saw that route on the face I could immediately sense the richness of a great climbing adventure ahead of me.
Postscript. I climbed the route in my camera film age. A reference photo of the route can be found in the benners trip report “The Gore Range Grand Traverse.” Photo #7 “The Grand Traverse of the Gore Range” shows the bare north face of the peak in August of 2011 with the remaining snow line being the route I climbed.