Mt Powell is the highest peak in the Gore Range at 4139 metres above sea level. We chose Powell for a reason. It’s central. The Gore Range is tucked quietly into the middle of Colorado’s adventure playground. On the east is Summit County, and to the southwest is Vail. Busy places. Yet the Gore are hidden. They lack the magical 14er, and thus their difficult access keeps them quiet.
We started hiking from the Piney River Ranch. A true ranch nestled against the western edge of Piney Lake. We arrived pre-dawn, the alpenglow just lighting the peaks to the east. The stars began to fade as we found our way on to the trail.
We navigated by headlamp, and then by the feeling of the morning glow. A square shape by the lake drew our eyes, and standing in the reeds was a huge bull moose. I’ve never seen a bigger wild animal in all my life. We moved on quickly.
Orange Aspens fluoresced in the early light; more an idea of what we couldn’t see. Finally the sun broke in a gentle pink hue. A fleeting colour to the sky that would have been missed on every other morning. Today was relished. We dove back into the Aspens, briefly looking up to see the jagged ridge of peaks that make the high Gore. We had a long way to climb.
Trail reports varied: 10-12 miles, anywhere from 5300 – 6000 feet of elevation gain. Either way, we knew what we were getting into. A happenstance meeting at the trailhead gave us some invaluable advice – ignore the trip reports and follow a grassy slope to the summit. We treasured the advice and used it wisely later in the day.
The challenge of the unknown peaks is finding the trail.
“Climb past the waterfall and stay left, the trail gets narrow then forks. Look for the cairn on the left. It’s steep”
Our paranoia meant we’d been eagle eyed for every clue to our direction, and we found the trail easily. It was steep. It skirted a slick rock face, with Aspens clinging to every patch of soil. There were no switchbacks. We went straight up. The narrow trail passed through tight brush: perfect moose and elk territory. We whistled as we walked. After our initial stroll along the river, we were now gaining height quickly. We could see “kneeknocker pass” ahead of us, the big landmark to find Mt Powell. With 2000 feet gained, we still had a good day’s walk to the summit. We retied boots and ate some 8am chocolate on a smooth rock, then picked up the trail as it wound smoothly through the trees, the gradient momentarily relenting.
The trees opened into a huge bowl. The mountains were close. Alpine close. Couloirs descended from three sides, forming huge scree piles up against the short brush in the meadow. We could see a feint trail sneaking carefully up to the edge of the slope, then quickly petering out as the rocks above dominated it. That’s where we were going. Here’s where our early morning advice came back to help us. Rather than gaining the top of the pass, then descending onto the eastern flank of Mt Powell, we faced up to a branch of the couloir that would take us straight to the shoulder of the mountain.
The going was rough: loose dirt with barely attached vegetation moved under every step. The vegetation quickly gave way to scree, and then we were left with rocks in every direction. The shortcut took us to a notch in the ridge. The notch formed a respite on either side of 45-degree slopes. It was worn from the previous hikers who had taken this moment to open their packs and see what treats were inside.
From this viewpoint we could finally see down into Summit County on the eastern side. A glacial valley flowed from the flanks of “Peak C”, Mt Powell’s neighbour, all the way down to the Blue River below. Peak C is a striking summit, rising dramatically out of the ridge, and it formed our view for most of the day. Mt Powell remained elusive, hiding behind the shoulder we were climbing.
We caught our breaths, then found our way onto the traverse. Feet were placed carefully, and moves were considered as we worked around the mountain and into a huge couloir running up the southern face of the mountain. The scree was loose, and we coordinated our group of five to avoid dangerous rock falls. The top of the slope turned to large rocks and intermittent snow. Finally, as the gradient mellowed we could see the peak, and the final push was easy compared to the scree below. We summited in 4.5 hours, almost five miles from the trailhead, and 4700 feet higher than when we started.
From the top, the teeth of the Gore rose up to the south; they gave way to the ten-mile range just a smidgen to the east. The Sawatch Range, which lies west of Leadville, formed the next stop on our panorama: we could see the flat head of Mt Elbert sticking up in the distance. Moving closer, The Holy Cross Wilderness displayed all its treasures, with Mount of the Holy Cross our closest neighbour. The New York mountains which are above Christa’s house in Edwards looked so much smaller than I know they are, but behind them you could see the distant pink peaks of the Maroon Bells. The Western boundary of our view was the Flattops – a mystical set of peaks to me. I need to go explore them. Circling north now, we strained our eyes onto the Zirkels by Steamboat, seeming too small and distant, away from the other ranges in Colorado. Now East, and the Medicine Bow Mountains melded smoothly into the Never Summer range, then rising to the distinctive flat peak of Longs in Rocky Mountain National Park. Finally, I glanced my eyes onto the Indian Peaks where we’d hiked a couple of weeks earlier. The circle was complete. A huge view, fitting all the parts of Colorado into a new view that took time to process.
The immediate foreground was taken up with Bubble Lake. Sitting against the east of the Gore, runs of glistening snow were slipping gently into its icy blue water. It was large for an alpine lake, flowing down into successive pools before the stream of water disappeared under the alluvial flow and eventually into the main river in the valley.
The top of Mount Powell gave me a new perspective on how the jigsaw of Colorado fits together; more clearly seeing the jagged edge of summit and eagle counties, and tracing the routes of roads taking the path of least resistance through the hills.
After 8.5 hours, our feet carried us back to the car. It’s one of the toughest hikes I’ve done, both from the terrain, but also the elevation we gained to get on the top. It’s remoteness, the vague trail, and the effort taken to get to the top makes it one that will stick in mind for a long time to come.