| Frozen Music, The Mount Valhalla Massif: Its Naming, Nordic Towers, Ridges and Northeast Face Route
Frozen Music, The Mount Valhalla Massif: Its Naming, Nordic Towers, Ridges and Northeast Face Route
Mount Valhalla 13,180
by gore galore
I have had a long association with the Mount Valhalla massif. I remember distinctly hiking the Deluge Lake Trail for the first time in 1979 to climb Mount Valhalla. It was with eager anticipation that I went up the switchbacks of that trail into the cover of the forest until finally descending to the crossing of Deluge Creek where the beginnings of the upper valley through the thinning trees began to reveal the ridges ahead.
I had no picture of Mount Valhalla and without the slightest idea of what I would find in that valley other than the name of the peak appeared on Bob Ormes “Gore - Tenmile Atlas” of 1978. I would trace the ridges as they showed themselves with the topographic map I carried in my pack until I found the peak at the far eastern side of Deluge Lake. I climbed Valhalla from the right side of the lake to its south ridge to the summit.
Mount Valhalla was a defining moment for me in the Gore Range. The peak is high enough in the southern part of the range that it gave perspective to the great interior of the Gore and coupled with an earlier climb of Peak C which gave an idea of the then seemingly incoherent geography of the range. I could see that it would take some time to explore this range one that I could immerse myself in for how long I had no realization back then. I had found what I was looking for.
I had originally thought I would climb a few mountains in this range but the allure was so strong and reinforced from what I saw from Mount Valhalla that I knew I would not be satisfied with just summit climbing but with the exploration of the range itself as I sought out the possibilities of multiple routes to the peaks, points and pinnacles as I would find them.
And from the summit of Mount Valhalla I could get an idea of this and later come to an understanding of it all. This is a mountain range that would last a lifetime.
I found a bottle with some pieces of paper on Valhalla’s summit one of the few such registers that I would find on these peaks. I didn’t have the presence of mind to copy what was in the register at that time for I wasn’t familiar enough to realize what I might be looking at as far as names. But this bottle register would set in motion, the importance to me to search out the records and reports of those who climbed before me in this seemingly little known range bereft of hardly any names for peaks.
This method of thinking would lead me to travel and search for records in libraries from the east coast to the central prairies of Illinois to the Denver metro area and the resources in Summit County. From this climbing information I would initiate correspondence with those whose names I found and could locate and from this I would discover the rich climbing history that played upon these peaks. And from such correspondence I would learn of the early climbing and naming of the mountain we know today as Mount Valhalla.
Climbing and Naming
I have written about Stan Midgley the intrepid explorer of the Gore Range in a previous trip report on Grand Traverse Peak, “A Climbing Convergence of the Past and Present” and it is to him I turn to provide the specifics of the first known ascent and naming of Mount Valhalla which he wrote to me in his letter from 1983.
In 1943 Midgley bused to Dillon, walked the highway to the Willow Creek Road on South Willow Creek where he camped. He crossed “Main Gore Pass” after climbing Red Peak and then down “Red Gore Creek” where he met two sheep herders with about 3,000 sheep. He tells of an amusing incident with the herders who insisted he try some of their goat cheese - “or maybe it was sheep cheese. Anyway - ‘don’t ever do that again!’”
Midgley hiked directly up Deluge Creek finding no trail to the basin where he “discovered” Deluge Lake. The Dillon 15M Quadrangle map of 1929 didn’t show this lake. Then he writes, “I was most interested in the 13,200' peak NE of the lake. I had noticed it from many different angles as quite a dominant peak. I always thought of it as ‘The Dark One.’”
But first he climbed the peak NW of the lake finding a small cairn in which he left a little can and slip suggesting the name Grand Traverse Peak. “Then from Grand Traverse Peak I went across to my ‘dark one,’ which turned out to be a first ascent.”
He continues writing about the naming of the peak. “It was one of those days one never forgets. No wind and a few white clouds. I have read somewhere ‘mountains are frozen music.’ I don’t remember who originally said it. The mountains must have been singing to me that day when I decided on the name Valhalla. I was probably humming snatches from Richard Wagner. It’s great stuff for mountain scenery. I think one has to be alone to know how the mountains can sing to you.”
Midgley’s two great names of Grand Traverse Peak and Mount Valhalla from this climbing trip would stand the test of time. They became “formalized” in Bob Ormes, “Guide to the Colorado Mountains,” seventh edition revised, 1979 and subsequent editions and are in common use today.
But the “frozen music” of the singing of this mountain was not to be heard from for another 14 years after Stan Midgley’s 1943 ascent. In 1957 Harold Walton on his second of two great trips in the Gore Range led a CMC party which made a circuit at the head of the North Rock Creek valley climbing five summits in all.
The brief outing report of the trip noted “two of the climbed summits had been named by Stan Midgley when he made first ascents on them in 1943 - ‘Grand Traverse Peak’ and ‘Mount Valhalla.’ CMC summit registers were left on each of these peaks. Ours was the first party on ‘Mount Valhalla’ since Stan Midgley’s ascent.”
I sometimes wonder whether the bottle register I found on Mount Valhalla in 1979 replaced that CMC register of 1957. It is difficult today to think of how little Deluge Lake and adjoining valleys with their surrounding peaks were visited or climbed in the 1950's and 1960's and into the 1970's.
An idea of this remoteness is gained from the trip report of the CMC Boulder Group’s Mountaineering School to the Gore Range in 1973. Six of the party scrambled to the summit of North Traverse Peak, “and signed in as numbers 14-19 on the register left by Harold Walton in 1957 - another reminder of how little frequented this area is.”
Nordic Towers and Ridges
I have always marveled at the apparent remoteness and little frequented of the South Rock Creek valley as seen from a couple of ascents of Mount Valhalla from the Deluge Lake side. I would eventually make several trips into this trail less valley exploring the eastern side of the Mount Valhalla massif along with other peaks. From these explorations I would be able to contribute along with others to some of the history of climbing on this side of the Valhalla massif and of the recent Nordic names of Freya Spire, Thor Tower, Loki Tower, Point Odin and the Asgard Ridge.
In 1983 I climbed the southeast face from the south cirque of the massif and then descended the east face to the small lake in the north cirque. I found a pair of rain pants on the lower part of the route. I kept them replacing the elastic in the waist and use them to this day. The rain pants told me of course there were others climbing Mount Valhalla from the east side.
The descent of the east face pointed me directly at the cirque walls of the long northeast ridge of Mount Valhalla probably the single longest ridge of a Gore Range peak. This ridge would come later in time. Little did I pay attention to the east ridge of the peak with its three great towers. Those towers would come much later in time.
In 1995 I attempted the northeast ridge from the north Rock Creek valley ascending the grassy points of 12,207 and 12,226 and rocky ridge points of 12,465 and 12,480 to the knife edge of 12,520, down climbing south facing ledges below a striking 12,600 foot pinnacle to a 12,760 foot tower which blocked further progress for me on this ridge.
I made my retreat on the unknown terrain of the north face benches of this sharp mid ridge down climbing some snow to the moraines of the upper North Rock Creek valley. Little did I know that I would return in short time to complete the climb of the northeast ridge of Valhalla and much later in time return to climb a snow route on this north face ridge.
During this time in the mid 1990's I had made the acquaintance of Stan Wagon whose persistence and determination in this range would become longstanding just as mine from an earlier time. We have done a number of notable climbs together and have shared information over the years.
In 1997 I returned to Valhalla’s northeast ridge with Stan and we completed this ridge route in four or five roped pitches. I think it may have been the earliest known climb. My notes are sparse but I believe we turned that 12,760 foot tower on its right side and up while down climbing its other side.
We eventually faced a most distressing upper ridge of loose crumbling rock almost evil in character that led to Point 13,040 on Valhalla’s northwest ridge. The upper northeast ridge is the second most crumbling ridge in the Gore Range and I would also use the word disheartening except that I reserve that description for the foremost crumbling ridge in another location. I have no doubt that the part of the Valhalla massif to fail first will be that upper northeast ridge as geologic time chews its way through separating the ridge from Point 13,040.
We called the ridge the “Bowling Pin Ridge” because of that striking 12,600 foot pinnacle which we dubbed the “Bowling Pin.” It was a name that was used between us. Later in time another name as part of a set of Norse names would come into usage for this ridge.
I called Point 13,040 “The Dark Tower” following in Stan Midgley’s vein of “The Dark One” for Mount Valhalla. Later when the internet sites became available I would find that this point is called “Palomino Point” by Outward Bound. This point too would eventually gain a Norse name.
From this climb I would take a hiatus from the Mount Valhalla massif and would return years later in an unexpected way. In 2010 I came across the name of “Ikey Mountain” located at the head of South Rock Creek in a 1883 edition of “The Colorado Mining Directory.”
I went up the creek valley in mid July under the pretense that I could “find” this mountain from the description of a ten-foot shaft somewhere on this peak. The enormity of the valley and peaks in relation to something ten foot in measure quickly dissuaded me from my pretense and I made use of the trip climbing a route on another mountain.
The resulting trip report, “The Hunt for Ikey Mountain” elicited a response from Monster5 of this site speculating that “Ikey Mountain” was either the grassy summit of Point 12,226 or the rocky summit of 12,465 on Mount Valhalla’s long northeastern ridge. I can go with that as it suggests another trip for a look at these points again. I had passed over these points twice in 1995 and 1997 in attempting and climbing the northeast ridge.
Although I didn’t find “Ikey Mountain” from Colorado’s nineteenth century mining past, I made a climbing attempt on this trip with the thought of those hallowed halls of Valhalla from Norse mythology. My campsite was in a fortuitous position below the easternmost spire, 12,121 of Mount Valhalla. I had the thought that this elegant spire might be little climbed and attempted it on its western arete to a small rock face which stymied my attempt.
I thought of the spire in a different vein than the “frozen music” of Stan Midgley’s connotation of Valhalla. I called it Freya Spire after the beautiful goddess Freya in Norse mythology. A month later in mid August 2010 Stan Wagon and Jonathan Kriegel climbed this spire in two pitches from the west rating the crux at 5.6. They found no markings on the summit.
Stan would write “the view of the entire - very long - BP (Bowling Pin Ridge) is remarkable.” He suggested the name Asgard Ridge in keeping with the theme. I called Point 13,040 of the intersection of the northeastern (Asgard Ridge) and Valhalla’s northwest ridge Point Odin a.k.a. “The Dark Tower”/“Palomino Point.”
I had earlier climbed a route on the north face of Point Odin on the first day of July 2010 descending into the North Rock Creek valley from Deluge Lake. I had long noticed the amount of snow that lies on this face well into July. From Keller Mountain there is the distinct appearance of three couloirs, the triple couloirs of which I climbed the left one.
I guessed correctly as to its entrance while its exit onto the shattered upper northeast ridge was one of frightening proportions as the rocks were so loose and delicately balanced that I was fearful of pulling one loose and the rest toppling onto me. The sight would have been one of total defeat if I hadn’t been here before in 1997. I only hoped that we didn’t use the rope ahead of me as I threaded my way on the crumbling upper northeast ridge to Point Odin.
Going forward in that same mid July day of 2010 that I am hiking the South Rock Creek valley toward “Ikey Mountain” Stan Wagon and Elke Dratch have coincidently climbed Mount Valhalla from Deluge Lake and are descending the east ridge. They climb the third and uppermost tower, 12,800 of the ridge on its easy west side and then down climb the blind fourth class east face to the flat area of the mid east ridge. They descend right of the second major tower, 12,400 impressive looking and loaded with power which upon later becoming aware of Freya, Stan suggests the name Thor.
I follow in September of the year climbing across the upper south ridge of Valhalla to the east ridge and the 12,800 foot tower which I call Loki. I descend the east face to the flat area of the mid ridge where I look across a deep notch to the west face of Thor Tower for a possible route. I reluctantly turn back and retrace my route up Loki Tower and across the south ridge to Deluge Lake.
In late June of 2013 I am back to Thor Tower approaching it from the north cirque to the notch looking for a possible route on the west face. I try the corner at the intersection of the north and west faces but it becomes too risky the higher I climb. A day later Stan Wagon, Elke Dratch and Katie Larson climb a route with a 5.7 pitch on the north face. They don’t find a cairn on the summit.
Inquiries by Stan Wagon elicited the following information from Scott Massey of Outward Bound about Freya Spire and Thor Tower. Outward Bound has been climbing Freya since the 1970's as a student route. It has about a 5.3 variation at the crux. Massey climbed it maybe 30x. “Freya also known as Eyrie Ridge.” A 3-pitch splitter crack goes up the north face at 5.10. He climbed Thor once back in 06? “I never heard a name for that feature before, and Thor sounds good.”
Northeast Face Route
My attempt on Thor Tower came at the end of the day from climbing the northeast face of Mount Valhalla. I had camped in that same fortuitous position below Freya Spire where the grass slopes along the drainage gave access to the polished glacial slabs strewn with talus and snow patches as I entered the north cirque of the Valhalla massif.
The fury of this cirque is quite evident as I look around. The moraines are extensive and I believe it is a rock glacier. The rocks are sharp and clean and tipped on edges. There is no oasis of vegetation or deposits of soil where vegetation can gain hold to grow.
The moraines look to have an active lobe into the west end of the small alpine lake on my left. Rocks have peeled off the north side of Thor Tower and have fallen in patterns into that side of the lake. Winter’s wind has piled up snow on the far side of the lake. Chunks of snow have calved off these drifts and are floating in the lake along with melting ice floes. If there is any sound to this fury, it is that small lake screaming in pain as winter’s vise like grip slowly loosens its hold.
I map out a route on the moraines using the most level approach to the cirque head wall of the northeast face. I avoid any of the large depressions in the moraines where the rocks on these angles are likely to be more loose. Fortunately there is no great frontal moraine to surmount as the unstable rocks in these areas are one of the most dangerous places to be on a rock glacier.
I meet small wind blown snow deposits in the rocks. I am always wary of these places as a footstep can often break through the crust to the uneven surfaces of the rocks below. Eventually I meet the consolidated snow on the surface of the moraines which provides a thoroughfare to the base of the cirque head wall.
The northeast face has three great tiers of rock walls. I will bypass these by climbing the cirque head wall to the right of a protruding rock buttress and then a constriction of snow between two smaller buttresses higher on the head wall.
The brown detritus on the surface of the snow in the constriction shows small particles of rock have broken off from the buttresses but there are no tell tale signs in the snow of larger rock fall. I hurry through this constriction and from its top angle left to the finger of snow above the tiers of rock walls. I am climbing parallel to and below the northwest ridge where I intersect the ridge at 13,000 feet.
The solitude of the summit is a welcome relief from the sound and the fury of the north cirque and northeast face route. I have time to reflect about this climb and in this solitude I imagine hearing the sound of humming faint at first and then in small increments perhaps Richard Wagner in tone as I look across at Grand Traverse Peak and picture Stan Midgley making his way to the summit of his Valhalla on that September 11 day of 1943 to the mountain we know today as Mount Valhalla.