| The Road, The Mighty Red Sandstone Road of the Gore Range
The Road, The Mighty Red Sandstone Road of the Gore Range
Mount Powell’s “Kneeknocker Point,” 12,515
by gore galore
It has an inauspicious beginning like the water droplets that form a mountain stream.
Conceived as a paved intersection with an Interstate frontage road and marked with one of those decorative wooden posts you might see in an upscale neighborhood or in this case a mountain resort community its initial course is flattened by the confines of residential condo complexes until it frees itself and gains momentum on a switchback against a hillside whereupon it squeezes through a gated twist till the first hint of red soil that defines itself in the vernacular reserved for river terminology as the mighty Red Sandstone Road of the Gore Range.
Unlike the mostly short street stems that puncture the west side of the range, The Road as I like to call it is the grand ten mile thoroughfare into the back country of the Gore. On a good day The Road can be as busy as the frontage road of its conception. Mountain bikers, hikers and runners checker its beginnings. Clouds of red dust particles reveal dirt bikers in body armor suits or careening ATV’s while that tourist car in front of you slows your speed. Vehicles that you have a hard time identifying pull swaying trailers that jostle for position on curves and blind corners while you are busy with the rear view mirror monitoring that fast approaching behemoth of an SUV or monster pickup truck that is sure to pass you no matter how fast you dodge the ruts and potholes and rocks all the while leaving its imprint of red dust particles on your windshield. And up ahead is a diamond shaped orange sign partly visible in the red coating of your windshield that warns of logging trucks somewhere on The Road.
You probably will get a break as The Road rises to the Lost Lake turnoff and descends on a big curve to cross Red Sandstone Creek confined within a culvert and then straightens out along Indian Creek. Another curve at the head of the creek valley where hunters camp in the fall of the year and then a meandering section at the point of forgiveness and forgetfulness where you can look down into a meadow past a cabin and up to the tops of the forest beyond where the wind in the trees will lift your spirits if you so desire to the summits of the jagged ridge line of Ripsaw peaks another valley beyond. The anticipation in the air is real for when you cross the Piney River and take the right turn to the end of The Road to where the climbing adventures you are seeking have their beginnings.
It wasn’t always like this because in the course of human history in the Red Sandstone and Piney River valleys The Road has had an exceedingly short life span. The Ute Indians and their ancestors were the first to roam the valleys of The Road. The first recorded adventure was that of the Hayden Survey who climbed Mount Powell on August 28, 1873 “by way of one of the little streams that rise on the west side. There is no name for this little stream, but it reveals in the sides of its canon a thick group of the brick-red sandstones.” The name of this stream would be labeled Red Sandstone Cr. in the "Hayden Atlas" of 1877.
I learn something of the bare past in this country when I look at the Minturn 15M Quadrangle of 1934. The map shows nary a road north of the Gore Creek valley but with trails following creek valleys and lowlands suggests sheep country centered around the structure map symbol for the Dickson Ranch and an additional three more structure symbols at Piney Lake.
The first vestiges of a road in this country appeared on the Minturn 15M Quadrangle edition of 1950. The map shows parallel dotted lines indicating “unimproved dirt” beginning at Buffer Creek which is the next valley west of Red Sandstone Creek and point north to an intersection at the head of Indian Creek where the left branch led to the Dickson Ranch. The right fork turned toward the cabin in the meadow while the straight ahead course dropped directly without the benefit of switchbacks into the Piney River valley crossing the river at a point further below the present day Piney Crossing Campground. Once across the river the “unimproved dirt” way followed the north side to its end at Piney Lake.
It is interesting to note that the Ormes’ "Guide to the Colorado Mountains," second edition, 1955 suggests in addition to the normal Black Creek route to Mount Powell a west approach “on a jeep road that shows on Minturn Quad as trail from mouth of Buffer Creek drive 9 miles N and 2 miles NE to camp at Piney Lake.”
It may be difficult today to comprehend just how remote and isolated Piney Lake and Mount Powell were in that time and place. The mountain had been climbed in 1868 by John Wesley Powell by the Cataract Creek valley and then after the Hayden Survey party ascent in 1873 another 40 years would pass before Percy Hagerman’s party climbed it in 1913 by the tortuous Black Creek approach. There is no record of an ascent other than Hayden’s during this time from a western approach largely due to the absence of a useable road.
In 1948 the Colorado Mountain Club held its annual summer outing on the west side of the range. They approached Piney Lake from a sawmill in the Gore Creek valley by way of an eight-mile trail on the east side of Red Sandstone Creek to Lost Lake and then curving back west to the Piney River valley and lake and their campsite two miles further east in the river valley. Their two ascents of Mount Powell from the Piney River may have been only the third and fourth times the mountain had been climbed from a western approach since the Hayden Survey climb seventy five years before. (Carl Blaurock and two others climbed Powell from Piney Lake a month before the outing.)
In 1954 Jeff Greer of the Western Slope Group of the Colorado Mountain Club climbed Mount Powell from Piney Lake making only the fifth known ascent from this western approach. His driving route up Buffer Creek was the basis for the description in the aforementioned "Guide to the Colorado Mountains." He writes in an excerpt from his formal trip report of 10 Sept 54, “jeep required to reach Piney Lake. Distance 11 miles, Jeep time 11/2 hours.” A pencil notation has “the road is supposed to be a private road.”
Jeff wrote me in 1989 that “in the early part of the 1950's I spent months camping in the Gore Range area, especially at Piney Lake, while carrying out geological mapping of the area. It was a bit wilder then than now - we saw only one ‘stranger’ during one two month period and only a couple of others all summer.” One can only compare in amazement these solitary numbers as to the amount of people seen today at Piney Lake on any given summer day.
Two of the “others” were Dick Ryman of Frisco and John Bailer of Dillon for unbeknown to Greer when he climbed Mount Powell on August 7, 1954, Ryman and Bailer were also climbing the mountain by a different route from Mount Meridian. It was the first time Mount Powell was climbed by two different parties on the same day. As Greer would write in the Mount Powell register, “note coincidence. Ryman & Bailer (above).” In his trip report he remarked “neither party had knowledge of the others presence until the summit was reached.”
By the1950's a logging road had made progress along Red Sandstone Creek into the Lost Lake area for the timber harvests on the slopes above. In 1952 Bob and Dorothy Swartz and Ray Northcutt climbed the ridge of Ripsaw peaks from Peak C to H. When I inquired about this climbing trip in 1984 Bob replied that “we could follow a logging road to A which was easier than walking up Piney River at the time.” Point A on my map that Bob had marked was at the 11,000 foot elevation above Lost Lake.
Later in the decade the logging road finally made it to Piney Lake becoming The Road in essence. Its completion may have prompted the Junior Group of the Colorado Mountain Club to hold their summer outing on the west side of the Gore Range in 1958. When I wrote Dan Wolfe in 1984 about some particulars of that outing he replied, “in 58 I recall driving up a old rutted logging road as far as Piney Lake and a well kept lodge (cabin).”
Improvements to The Road in the 1960's led to more ready access to the Piney River valley and the peaks beyond. The details of such improvements are probably in the minutia of Forest Service appropriations compiled in bureaucratic budget records stored in some long forgotten file cabinet.
The improvements may not have been much at first. The Juniors of the CMC held another summer outing in the Gore Range in 1962 and their outing report notes “on the other side of Vail Pass we turned off the highway onto ten miles of dirt and dust.” When the 1970 Vail West 71/2M topographic map became available the name Red Sandstone Road appeared and The Road had graduated to parallel solid lines indicating a “light-duty road, hard or improved surface.” But the dirt and dust are still present today. The "Guide to the Colorado Mountains," sixth edition, 1970 would mention the Red Sandstone approach as the Piney Lake road.
I first drove The Road in 1979 when you could at its end continue through the fence line and gate of the Piney River Ranch to the parking area at the trail head near the lake. This unfettered access continued through the 1980's. A Colorado Mountain trip report of 1988 to Mt. Powell indicated “Piney River Ranch had no restrictive signs etc. Drive straight through gate 200 yards to parking.”
It wasn’t always this way though as the ebb and flow of the ranch’s fortunes came and went with a succession of owners and private property issues. The outing report for the 1966 CMC Gore Outing noted that the Forest Service built a new road to the edge of private property, about a mile and a half below Piney Lake “as access to the Piney River valley has now been cut off.” “At Piney Lake there is now a new fence and gate and sign telling us to keep out! Private property! We knew about it, but this area had never been posted before. We are welcome to hike or ride horseback through, but no vehicles.” This is something of the same situation for the last decade or so such that the Forest Service has relocated the Piney River trail outside the limits of the ranch gate to the north.
I pull into the parking area outside the ranch gate and take the trail on the hillside above the valley. As I hike along and look down at the river valley I believe the Forest Service has relocated the trail not only for private property issues but also to remove it from the riparian zones of the Piney River itself. In this respect the through hikers are made all the more unobtrusive.
But I have more important things to think about because I am headed toward a small point that is the middle sibling of a much higher mount (Powell) to its north and a revered peak (C) to its south. This is a summit point that yearns for recognition from being stuck on a ridge near a pass between its more famous brethren. It is a point that I believe is overlooked and ignored by the many hundreds who have climbed Mount Powell. This is enough reason to convince myself to satisfy my curiosity as to whether there are any signs that someone has climbed this unnamed point so close to the route to the highest mountain of the Gore Range.
It would be difficult to find much of anything of recognition for this minor point from the "Hayden Atlas" of 1877. The finely drawn contour line intervals of 200 feet are so close together that an individual summit anywhere in the range is nearly impossible to decipher. The only exceptions are the triangulation symbol and label for Mt. Powell and the names of Blue River Pk to the north and Red Peak in the south. The 1933 and 1940 editions of the Mt Powell 15M Quadrangle map show nothing more of the existence of this point with its 50 foot contour intervals. It is only with the publication of the 1980 Mount Powell 71/2M topographic map that Point 12,515 receives an identity with its own elevation figure. I can find no other information or mention for this summit.
The hillside trail takes me to the timbered flat area at the big bend in the river valley to the storied trail cutoff to the Mount Powell approach. When I came this way in 1979 there was a placement of rocks in the form of an arrow below a tree with the words “Mt. Powell” carved into its side. The arrow of rocks pointed left in the direction of a faint trail that soon lost itself in the underbrush.
There is the thought of history in this trail cutoff and tree carving. A 1972 CMC Mt. Powell trip report noted a climber’s trail whose “start is marked with cairn atop large boulder on it going up trail and ‘Mt. Powell’ carved in aspen tree long ago.” How long ago and by whom is any one’s guess. Perhaps it could be attributed to the 1966 CMC Outing that encountered “a false turn” somewhere on the mountain or the earlier CMC outings. Someday I should return to look for this tree carving as the trail cutoff has probably fluctuated over the years with the growth of social paths in the area.
There are any number of descriptions of what to look for at the trail cutoff. My favorite is from a 1985 CMC Mount Powell trip report for “an ‘un-constructed’ path takes off from the main trail to the left about 3 miles from the trailhead. It is marked by a triangular-shaped rock in the trail.” I’ll fall back on the old Ormes’ Guide from the 1950's of keeping “NE up the drainage of the very small Slide Creek . . . to a pleasant basin between Powell on the left and what they called Point C on the right.”
The Hayden Survey knew this pleasant basin as a “little grassy meadow.” I have gotten in the habit of calling it Powell Basin. I don’t know if anyone else refers to it as such but I feel comfortable using this name although knowing Major Powell never made it into this basin but then again Lord Gore never made it into the Gore Range and the Major has a decidedly better reputation.
When I get to the basin, I look up at what I call the scar on the mountain being the eroded path that leads through the loose rock slope to “Kneeknocker Pass” to the left of my intended point. In 1979 there was hardly a hint of this scar and I never knew the pass as “Kneeknocker.” I simply referred to it as the col because an ice axe comes in handy for the lingering snow fields on the east side of the col. I can trace the name “Kneeknocker” back to its appearance in the "Guide to the Colorado Mountains," 9th edition, 1992 so it is probably of CMC origin.
I recently came across a new guidebook that features Mount Powell and I learn that the terrain of the route to Powell above the snow fields is called Heartknocker Hill. Yikes! Will anyone want to climb the monarch of the Gore Range knowing they have to knee-knock and heart-knock their way to the top? I prefer the quieter description from the "Rocky Mountain News" of September 7, 1873 when the Hayden Survey “crept through a little low gateway in the crest nearest us, having on the right a tremendous obelisk, sugar-loaf shaped and near 2000 feet high, and then it was sheer open scrambling to the top.”
Fortunately for myself I am not going the “Kneeknocker Pass” way for my approach lies in the talus couloir to the right of Point 12,515 and next to that sugar-loaf shaped obelisk. Somewhere in the talus climb I briefly question my resolve but quickly remind myself of the strategic importance of Point 12,515 of the Gore Range.
It was privy to and probably watched in wonderment when the Hayden Survey crept through that little low gateway in 1873 on their climb of Mount Powell. Perhaps it was surprised and startled when Edmund Cooper and Carl Erickson came up Black Creek in 1932 and ascended the pass from the east and then swung around unannounced to the west side to make the first ascent of Peak C and from its summit initiated the system of lettered peaks surrounding the Black Creek valley. And surely the point gazed in fascination when the 1948 CMCers made the first technical climb in the Gore Range on the north ridge of Peak C.
The top of the couloir ends in the step of the ridge between my intended point and Peak C. I am now facing a micro arete coming down from the summit tower to the step in the ridge. I am unable to climb this micro arete directly so I take to some lower slabs to the left thinking I can outflank the direct route. I find I can go only so far on the slabs though and retreat back under the summit tower where I spot an intricate chimney that leads to a mid crossing of the arete. My route now becomes a micro intricate as I climb this chimney to the arete. I find I have to down climb to the right side of the arete along some ledges until I can curl back and climb the backside spine to the summit point.
There is an overpowering presence from the summit because I am right up against the north face of Peak C. There are no summit markings but surely someone has been here before. Perhaps they would have seen John Lacher and partner after several attempts finish their route in 1996 up the middle of the north face for most of the way, finishing on the west ridge. “It is a nice mtn,” John would write me in 1997, “and quite complex. The rock down low in the face is really fairly solid. That up high isn’t.” Another someone might have watched Cameron Burns and Benny Bach climb a direct route of the face in 1997. Cameron described their eight pitch 5.7 route in a letter to me dated 1997 with the words, “It was excellent!!!!” And if someone was on this summit much earlier they might have seen the first known foray onto this face in 1965 by two CMC climbers before they veered left to finish on the east face of Peak C. And if no one had been here before, “Kneeknocker Point” as I decide to recognize Point 12,515 in keeping with the tradition of “Kneeknocker Pass” would have seen it all.
I retrace the steps of my micro intricate route back to the step of the ridge below “Kneeknocker Point” and the beginning of the talus descent. Somewhere in the talus water droplets loosen from gray skies as I descend but they don’t amount to much and soon the talus spills me back out into the basin. I feel good about following my resolve to climb this small but an important summit point. I would like to think I climbed it in the tradition of the Hayden Survey by having crept up my micro intricate route, certainly nothing of a noisy knee-knocking and heart-knocking climb on my part.
Before I turn my back on the basin, I look up at “Kneeknocker Point.” It seems to have something of a stature now even though it is still the middle sibling of a much higher mount and a more revered peak. I think I even detect a jaunty bounce to its step making it a few feet higher than its map elevation figure of 12,515.
I return to the cutoff where I decide to end my trip for old times sake by taking the former trail I know so well from so many trips through this valley. Before I reach the floor of the valley there is a section where a number of aspens have fallen across the trail. As I make my way in and around them I realize these trees will probably not be removed by trail crews anymore as their efforts will now be focused on the relocated trail on the hillside.
When I get to the valley floor my pace slows for I take the time for stops as I always do to look back at these mountains. At mid valley I meet the first groups of tourists and sightseers. When they stop to take a picture of their party in front of these mountains I stop and look too for I never tire of looking back at the sight. They probably don’t know anything of Mount Powell and Peak C and “Kneeknocker Point” basking in its newly found stature and surely nothing of the “little low gateway” clearly visible where the Hayden Survey crept through on their climb of Mount Powell in 1873. But I am sure they like what they see.
I move on down the valley past more groups and pairs of people and single hikers as I get closer to Piney Lake and the ranch buildings. I think back to Jeff Greer in that summer of 1954 seeing one “stranger” in a two-month period in this valley. I reflect on my own time in these mountains in the 1980's when I would see people on the trails for sure but never in the bushwhack valleys and hardly ever on the summits, the exception being Mount Powell on a summer weekend.
I end my climb at the old trail head in front of the ranch at the edge of the lake. Now I have only 200 yards more through the ranch property to the parking area. I don’t think anyone will care when I walk through because after all it is for old times sake. When I reach my car I only have a few more things to do before I leave.
It is a ritual of the road born of a hundred mountain trips or a thousand trips. Gear check and stow. Done. Tire check walk around. OK. Slide into seat, belt and buckle. Check. Select tunes. Outstanding. Taste of water, M & M’s in mouth. MMM. Sunglasses on. Good. Adjust mirrors. Awesome. Clear now to back out and drive on down the forward bounces to the left turn and across the Piney River all the while gaining momentum on two long switchbacks to the crest on the valley edge and then motoring down to the point of forgiveness and forgetfulness where out in the meadow the spirits of your mountain adventure ride the wind above the trees and you are feeling good because you are on The Road, homeward bound on the mighty Red Sandstone Road of the Gore Range.