| Righting and Riding the Rockinghorse of the Gore Range
Righting and Riding the Rockinghorse of the Gore Range
by gore galore
There are those hidden corners of the Gore Range from which this climbing trip comes from. The Rockinghorse is a largely unknown summit and one that I believe is seldom climbed. It is also one that I think has been misunderstood in the past.
I became aware and acquainted with the Rockinghorse from that venerable standby of a map, the Bob Ormes “Gore-Tenmile Atlas” of 1978. The Atlas shows the name in small print with an arrow pointing to the northernmost of four-distinct circular contour lines on the ridge north of West Partner Peak that make up the towers of the Rockinghorse and its ridge.
If you were to look at the Minturn Quad map edition of 1950, you would not know from the contour intervals of 50 feet that something of substance was there on that ridge. But when I compared the location from the Atlas to the Vail East Quad map of 1970 with its contour intervals of 40 feet I could readily see those four-distinct circular contour lines for the Rockinghorse, 12,680 and the associated towers of the ridge of 12,600, 12,600 and 12,680. And it was with this topographic map in hand that I set out to climb the Rockinghorse in 1980.
I had the feeling that I was heading to something of a land’s end as I descended from the summit of West Partner Peak toward the base of its north ridge where the towers of the Rockinghorse and its ridge begin. At that time I looked upon the Rockinghorse at the far north end of the ridge as a summit rather than a ridge of towers to traverse.
There was a certain feeling of remoteness when I scrambled to the top of the Rockinghorse for its vertical walls facing the valley of the south fork of Slate Creek was a valley I had not yet been up. Although I have since been in that trail less valley several times, I have only once hiked it directly from the highway to the east in the Blue River valley.
As I sat on the Rockinghorse that day, I could only look up in wonder at those bigger peaks to the north that in time I would climb them all and then down into the left branch of the unknown to me then of the upper Piney River valley one which eventually I would explore several times in the coming years. I had no words to describe at that time what I was seeing because it was too big and empty of description but all the possibilities that were there in front of me certainly captured my mind’s eye.
Like the kid who puts his Rockinghorse in the back of the closet to be replaced by newer and shinier toys I put the Rockinghorse of the Gore Range in the back of the closet of my mind to be replaced by an ever expanding mountain world of peaks, passes and places.
I probably would have never returned to that part of the closet if it were not for coming across a page titled the “Rocking Horse Ridge,” created in 2009 on summitpost.org. The page has a description that reads the “Rocking Horse Ridge connecting Peak P and Peak J offers a fun (and not too long) ridge scramble in absolute solitude, deep in the wilderness of the Gores.”
While the last part of the description is true for the serrated ridge of points that connect Peak P and Peak J forming the head wall of the Slate Creek valley this ridge is not the “Rocking Horse Ridge.” The author gives no source for the location and unfortunately several trip reports have repeated this error.
In determining the true location of the Rockinghorse one must return to that venerable standby of a map, the Bob Ormes “Gore-Tenmile Atlas” of 1978 for its rightful location as those four-distinct circular contour lines on the ridge north of West Partner Peak. The Rockinghorse of the Gore Range is an Ormes name that first appeared on his Atlas. It should also be noted the original spelling is of one word.
With this in mind I set out again with that same but now a highly worn Vail East topographic map in hand this time to climb the Rockinghorse and traverse its ridge of towers. Little did I realize as I hiked the Booth Creek Trail that my adventure would be one of the unexpected, the questionable and the delightful on the Rockinghorse ridge.
I take the faint path that turns right and ends shortly along the side drainage just below Booth Lake where there is a flat spot under the trees that border the valley. It is a familiar campsite that I have used before and is perfectly placed for the approach to East Booth Pass, 12,040.
There is a Colorado pass hiking book that writes of the search for the Booth Creek passes as “an absorbing and frustrating project.” But such can be the case for the peaks, points, pinnacles and passes of the Gore Range although both East and West Booth Pass are printed on that venerable Bob Ormes Atlas and I have crossed these passes several times before.
From my campsite I stay on the high ground above where the drainage is squeezed in the small valley below until I meet the creek where it tumbles out of hiding among the boulders that are now my route to the tarn in the small basin above. I leave the boulders and cross the gentle meanderings of the creek to the carpet of the green rectangular slope that leads to the south side of East Booth Pass.
East Booth Pass breaches the ridge that connects The Fly with West Partner Peak. Above the tarn that I now look down at from the pass is the shoulder of the point I call “Obese Point” not so much as an accusation that it is fat but that its chubby aspect is in marked contrast to the viciousness of the remainder of the ridge leading to The Fly.
In 1988 John Lacher and partner made roped climbs somewhere on this ridge of a gendarme or needle with a fair amount of loose, shabby rock with “a precariously balanced leaning refrigerator sized rock” which they called “Shabby Rock.” The next spire east was climbed with “a mantle move onto the table sized top from the southwest corner . . . with solid rock.” They left their names in a plastic bottle and rappelled north calling it “Lesser Shabby” because of the lower height.
In John’s letter to me in 1993 I find most interesting his mention of “the next spire east is unclimbed as far as we know, but we didn’t attempt it.” In 2011 I climbed on this same ridge a tooth or fang of rock which I called “Splendid Spire” by its little southeast face in rock shoes. As I carefully made the last hand and footholds to the top I found neither a plastic bottle nor “a precariously balanced leaning refrigerator sized rock” as the summit. I wrote of this climb briefly in a trip report “Five Moments That You Meet in The Mountains” and will always wonder if this is John Lacher’s “the next spire east is unclimbed” as the one that I climbed.
I can be momentarily distracted such as this from a high mountain pass with other ridges around with so much about them but find myself recovering quickly because from East Booth Pass I have my main focus back on the Rockinghorse ridge which appears off to my right.
I could take the rapidly descending loose rock of the north side of the pass for almost 1,000 feet down to Upper Piney Lake and then directly climb the “green gully” of 1,400 feet to the saddle below Peak P where the ridge is gained for the Rockinghorse but I have found it more expedient in the past to descend about 200 feet from the pass and traverse across the ledges and benches of that upper valley to intersect the “green gully” higher up. I am now in a position for the adventure of riding the Rockinghorse.
From the saddle I have to deal with the questionable before I encounter the unexpected because I am concerned with the sight in the distance as to whether I will be able to climb the small north facing aspect of 80-100 feet of the Rockinghorse itself.
But before I can absorb myself too much with this I have to cross two deep notches in the ridge. I down climb cracks of the slabs to the first notch and then climb the opposing face of cracks to regain the ridge marked by a streak of quartzite.
At the second notch I down climb rubble where I meet the unexpected in the form of the face of the opposite side of the notch which stops me cold. I try the edge of the notch near the wall facing the upper Slate Creek valley but this is too much for me. My only option appears to descend abruptly in a long loose rock gully to bypass and regain the ridge further on nearer the Rockinghorse. But this would seem to defeat the purpose of the ridge traverse.
I take one more look at the base of the face before descending when I spot the telltale small pile of rubble that has fallen from a largely hidden upward leading small ledge and crack system. I climb this ledge upwards to a stance and then a crack in the face to a much wider crack where my boots fit in and then finally I squeeze through an unexpected fin of rock detached from the face to the blocks and ridge above.
I have successfully climbed the unexpected and now the questionable is looming ahead of me in that small north face of the Rockinghorse. At its base I can readily answer my question as to whether I am able to climb it or not. The face is quite blocky and starting on its right I climb angling left and then upwards and in about 15-20 minutes I am on the summit of the Rockinghorse.
The same sense of wonder greets me from the top that I saw some 33 years ago except that I am more familiar as to what I am seeing now as I have climbed many of the possibilities that captured my mind’s eye back then.
Now I am ready to enjoy the pure delight of riding the carousel of the Rockinghorse ridge. A round of notes describes my ride. Down climb the west side of the Rockinghorse. Climb the north rock rib of Tower #2. I am unable to down climb the west arete. Retreat and cross the arete lower down. Climb broken rock of the north side of Tower #3. Descend the west arete. Climb broken rock of the north side of west Twin Tower #4. Climb the west side cracks of east Twin Tower #4. It takes me about two hours to enjoy the ride.
I finish by climbing the predictable talus of the north ridge of West Partner Peak. As I look down on the Rockinghorse ridge from the summit I can’t help saying to myself, “Just look at it!”
There are ways to describe ridges in the directional, geographical or geological senses but also one must listen to the language of the ridges. And from the serrated ridge of points between Peak J and Peak P and the predictable talus of the north ridge of West Partner Peak lies “the unexpected, the questionable and the delightful” of the Rockinghorse ridge.
I have a picture of myself on top of the Rockinghorse on that Christmas morning of so very long ago with plastic six shooters in hands held high, a cowboy had askew in cowboy uniform as I rode away on that stationary wooden Rockinghorse on the living room floor. I don’t remember what happened to that old wooden Rockinghorse as it probably was thrown out in the cleaning of that closet long ago.
As I look back on that time, I realize now in this season of this year that perhaps I recaptured the magic of that Christmas morning ride in the mountain world of the land’s end of a hidden corner where the Rockinghorse rides in the Gore Range. And on that ride I found the Rockinghorse to retain its luster undiminished or tarnished by the passage of time.
I have probably ridden the Rockinghorse for the last time but it is there for others who may want to take the ride but as it is said on the site, you may have to “get the map out!” when you ride the Rockinghorse of the Gore Range. And Merry Christmas to all.