Eagles Nest Wilderness
It was mid July, I was standing a little above 12,000 feet in the Gore Range, staring at the descent from a pass my brain had already unhelpfully started referring to as the “Death Chute”. After doing the last 500 feet of the climb on all fours due to the extreme angle of the slope, I wasn’t willing to admit defeat yet. Adding to my determination was that each previous day had ended with turning back after a pass climb where I had judged the descent on the opposite side to be unsafe. The lines I had drawn on the map were crumbling into a succession of reroutes and plan B’s, and I was growing ever more anxious for the moment the travel would start to come together in a cohesive way.
I’d come to the Gore Range with an understanding that it was rugged, more of a climber’s playground than a backpacker’s paradise for cross country travel, and absolutely determined to bend that reality to my plans. Nestled between Vail to the west and Silverthorne to the east, the Gore Range is a skinny range running for 60 miles along it’s main spine from it’s northern to southern reaches, dropping basins and the occasional line of peaks to the east and west. The vast majority of the range is protected by the Eagle’s Nest Wilderness Designation. The challenge to the off trail backpacker hoping to travel north / south is which side of the main crest to be on and where, as well as numerous basin and pass climbs to avoid the class four plus travel on the traverse of the main crest of the range.
I knew there would be hiccups, so I had loaded 9 days of food into my pack to compensate for the lack of known routes and acclimation from sea level. On day three I had fairly well acclimated to the elevation, and had two days of beautiful scenery punctuated by failed routes behind me. It was time for something to go, and the something right in front of me was the “Death Chute”. The Death Chute is a loose rock jumble on the lower shoulder of the ridge above Pitkin Lake, and my route to get over to the Booth Lake drainage. I walked out on the ridge that heads towards Outpost Peak to get a better view of the chute, which had a promising goat trail visible in it. The questions in my mind were if the chute would cliff out, or if the rock was too unstable. A retreat climb upon failure looked to be no fun at all. The ridge recon looked promising, and with a shrugging “what the hell, may as well” that I guess was meant for no one but my inner monologue, I started the descent.
With that preamble, this is where the story of an aesthetically pleasing line through the northern half of the range and a string of successes begins. The map below is helpful to orient this story, the blue lines are off trail travel, and the direction of travel is north.
The descent had moments of butt scooting on kitty litter, for the most part I was able to hug the skiers right for a little extra purchase, and in a relatively short amount of time had gained a wide contour with easy travel to skirt the tarn above Booth Lake and head for Piney Pass. This area has some astounding tundra benches and enormous views, lots of stable rock to hop around on, and a clear path to the pass leading to Piney Lake, my next destination. The feeling of resistance borne of frustration melted away as I spent some time surveying the landscape and making progress towards the next pass.
Piney Pass down to the lake is a slow but not particularly difficult descent, and I had to balance my desire to avoid the mosquitoes with a desire to make more progress and keep hiking that evening, as they would surely be thicker the lower I went along the path of the Piney River. I decided on a camp near the lake outlet as a compromise, which had moderate but not overwhelming quantities of blood suckers. I was immediately joined by a lone mountain goat and a few marmots who kept careful watch over my camp. The evening was a fair one, and technicolor sunset blossomed into view down the Piney River towards Mt. Powell.
I arose early the next morning knowing that my path from Piney to my next climb would not be an easy one, as I had miles ahead of me following the river to a long abandoned use path through alternatively marshy and brushy terrain. Signs of old mining camps are hidden away along use paths turned into game trails, with bits of splendor visible on travel through meadows. It was a clear morning and I hoped to beat the afternoon thunderstorms to Kneeknocker pass, but the ground to be covered and speed were not compatible. The skies began to darken as the morning sky faded into the afternoon, and I tromped my way through marsh and brush.
The climb to Kneeknocker pass is on a straightforward use path, and by that I mean straight up, covering 2300 feet of elevation gain in a mile and a half. Two thirds of the way up the climb the wind began to howl, the color of the skies continued to darken, and it became clear to me an afternoon halt would have to be called for a thunderstorm, during which a pass climb would be ill advised. I hastily set up shelter in a barely subalpine spot with some wind break, and hunkered down to wait out the deluge and nap. Near the end of the storm I was awoken by these two critters having a screaming match with each other, and when I poked my head out of my tent and looked at them I couldn't help but feel like a parent walking in on their kids in the midst of a fight, but are pretending nothing happened:
At 6pm mother nature ceased trying to smite me with 300 million volts from the sky, so I quickly packed back up to take advantage of the remaining light. The rest revitalized my climbing, and I made quick progress up to Kneeknocker’s saddle. The view here features Eagle Valley to the west, while Mt Powell looms above and the gateway to the east side of the range beckons. With not much light left in the day I descended the pass to spend the night at an exposed camp on a bench heading towards Duck Lake. With this less than ideal campsite I listened to the wind whipping around me for most of the night, and finally got some rest.
I woke in the morning to the familiar site of a trio of goats keeping watch, this time with a ridiculously cute baby. They watched me eat breakfast, while I took in Kneeknocker Pass in the daylight. After packing up camp I made my way around to Duck Lake, which has no ducks, but I believe gained it’s name from looking like a duck. The pass leading to Duck Lake is nameless, so I dubbed it Quacks Like a Pass.
Beyond Duck Lake I steadily climbed towards the Black Creek Basin, where a crux was looming. What I hoped for was a path from the Black Creek Basin to Dora Lake. All the reports I could find of hiking to Dora Lake reached it from the north via the Surprise Lake area, and a glance at the map shows why… the north side of the Black Creek Basin is mostly steep cliffs almost resembling a fault uplift as opposed to a basin, steepest around Eagles Nest and Cliff Lake, and only slightly tapering in slope angle to the east. The possible paths I had identified required significant travel to the east through the basin, which while pretty, promised to be tough going and more gain and loss in elevation. The ideal was a line that stayed true to my present heading, if possible.
Having gained the southern edge of the Black Creek basin, I saw a possible route that seemed to be everything I was looking for. A huge granite ramp covered two thirds of the climb, followed by a scree field, followed by… I couldn’t quite tell from a distance. An attempt on this route was risky from an effort standpoint, sharp chutes and gullies separated it from the more likely routes I had identified to the east, meaning an attempt would involve a full retreat of 1000 or more vertical feet which would have to be climbed again on the next try. I sat, I stared, and I pondered.
Eventually I resolved to make a go of it, but a contour around to Cliff Lake and over to my ramp gave me ample time to second guess and keep stealing furtive glances as made my way around the basin. Fortunately, the views of Eagles Nest, Cliff Lake, and a truly spectacular infinity tarn kept me occupied as I got closer to the moment of truth.
I left the tarn, maybe the highlight of the entire trip so far, to make my way up to Dora. It was easy going on the ramp, and as the screefield got looser and smaller on the ascent I got my first up close looks at the chute I'd take to the top. It was on edge of my comfort zone, a lot of continuous class three for the better part of 120 feet, but protected inside the chute the entire way. Still, my heart rate went up a bit with nerves, exertion, and anxiety when I ran into this guy making it all look supremely easy.
The climb mellows out at the top, and I made my way across the wide plateau to Dora Lake, an oval that seems to sit at the edge of the world. Anxiety was replaced by relief, and even though it was just late afternoon I decided to camp at Dora and take in all the high country sights. With a little more cross country travel I'd be on the Gore Range trail on my way to Silverthorne, and I didn't want to hasten my return to civilization.
Cliff Lake to Dora was a mystery that had been staring back at me from a map for the better part of two years due to Covid, and now that it was behind me I was already thinking about how I could connect the best parts of this trip to a southern off trail route through the Gore Range. I'll definitely return to take care of that bit of unfinished business.