Peak(s):  Gray Wolf Mtn  -  13,602 feet
Date Posted:  08/22/2018
Modified:  03/26/2019
Date Climbed:   08/15/2018
Author:  Lucas Pattie
 Gray Wolf Mtn. via Hells Hole  

I have enjoyed hiking in the Mt. Evans area for a number of years now, largely because it is a short drive, but also because it has many routes and peaks to explore. For Mt. Evans itself, I have always used the Chicago Lakes route from the Echo Lake Trailhead, and have reached the summit once from there via the northeast slopes finish, and twice via summit ridge (including June 29 of this year). In addition, over the years I have climbed Bierstadt twice via the usual Guanella Pass route. I had been considering the West Chicago Creek route to Evans for a while, and after having made it to a few 14er summits via off-trail routes over the course of this summer and last, I figured it was time I could give it a go. But then I also started thinking how my hikes in the area have always ended at the 14er summits, how popular they are, and how I might like to get to one of the other summits for a change. I supposed Gray Wolf mountain would be a logical goal for this route (besides, I'll admit, being shorter). Plus, that is such a great name for a mountain.

The West Chicago Creek Trailhead is easily accessible. From Idaho Springs, go 6 to 7 miles south on highway 103. Turn right (S) onto a good dirt road signed for West Chicago Creek Campground. Follow this road for about 3 miles. Just after the campground you will reach the trailhead, which has its own parking area. I got started on foot at 6:15 am. For the day I would be looking at a net elevation gain of 4,000 feet, and (judging by the map) a round-trip distance of roughly 12 miles. Even though I knew there would be much trail-less hiking, these are fairly moderate stats.

I followed the Hells Hole Trail for 4 miles through the forest on a gentle, straight ascent southward. After a while the view opened up to the imposing NW face of Gray Wolf Mtn. to the southeast, and eventually also to the slopes of the near-13ers to the southwest. Near the end of the trail there are some bristlecone pines - a conspicuous tall wide-trunked one in particular, right next to the path. The path ends rather abruptly once out of the trees - immediately west of a small pond, at the foot of the basin formed by the near-13ers. It ends in a decidedly inconvenient location for climbing this mtn. (And value convenience however you like).

After this hike I looked around online and found that apparently back in 1945, a navy training aircraft crashed in the east part of the area known as Hells Hole. Though I found no definite confirmation, I could only suppose that is why the area was given this name. However, I still can't completely abandon the thought that it was perhaps named by someone who had tried to make their way through the area on foot, and had an experience similar to mine.

As I alluded to, the trail ends in the wrong drainage. The right drainage for climbing the mtn. is the basin immediately to the east, formed by the NW face of Gray Wolf and the east slopes of point 12,988. Standing there at the end of the trail, I took some time to examine the map and the terrain. Basically 3 different general options emerged. The first 2 were motivated by the desire to minimize travel through the forest. Number 1 was to try to ascend the slopes of the near-13ers on the west side of the drainage I was actually in, and then do a southward traverse of the ridge connecting them, followed by an eastward passage from point 12,988 to Gray Wolf Mtn. Willow bushes inhabit much of these slopes, but I did notice a strip of willow-free terrain I believe just south of point 12,836 that might be used to ascend. Number 2 was to ascend part of the way up the north slope of point 12,988 so as to get above the willows, and, most crucially, above the steep jutting rocky protrusion that constitutes the bottom of this slope. I could then hopefully contour around to the south and southeast into the correct basin, below Gray Wolf.

Option #3 was cutting east through the forest, below the rocky protrusions, and then around them and south into the basin. Thinking choice #1 was long, and #2 a bit uncertain, this is what I did. I entered the forest from a point on the trail that was maybe a couple hundred yards from its end, so as to avoid more of the willows. I went in a generally east to southeast direction, zig-zagging here and there around logs and bushes, and crossing a few streams. Eventually, once I got out of most of the forest I found myself on the east side of the basin (the side nearest Gray Wolf). Virtually the entire center of this basin is inhabited by willows, so there is no choice but to proceed through it along one side or the other. So I headed south along the basin's east side, trying my best to remain east of the willows, but below the boulders nearer the mtn. face. (I couldn't help having to go through some of the willows at a couple different points, but it wasn't too bad). As I went on, the boulders toward the south end became more numerous and larger. Once I made my way through and out of these, I was fortunately almost to the headwall of the basin. Climbing up this presents no major issue. The bottom is a mostly grassy slope, while the upper couple hundred feet or so is steeper and rockier, but a bit more solid than it appears. Some hand use comes into play here.

Once I reached the saddle between point 12,988 and Gray Wolf Mtn., the view dramatically opened up to so much of the rest of this expansive mtn. area. The high ridge of Evans and the summit of Bierstadt dominate, and I could also see the Sawtooth, Mt. Spalding in the foreground, and some of the other 13ers farther away. I could barely see some people far away on the summit of Bierstadt, and in fact these were the only people I saw anywhere on the entire ascent.

After this, I simply walked maybe just under a mile east/southeast up the gentle grassy (trail-less) slopes to Gray Wolf's 13,602-foot summit. The true summit is actually like a quarter mile or so NE of the initially visible high point. There was no one at the summit. I had some lunch at the top and enjoyed the views. Overall, this was a very nice day for this climb - clear and fairly warm. There was some moderate wind up high, but then I don't think I have ever hiked/climbed in the Mt. Evans area without at least some wind.

I descended from the summit, but before I headed back down into the basin I took advantage of the high vantage point from the ridge, and quickly realized that the west side of the basin appeared much easier (and shorter) than the east side. So once I reached the bottom of the headwall I went this way. It was pretty straightforward to stay above most of the the willows, while avoiding most of the boulders too (which aren't as serious as they are on the other side). There are even a couple faint paths through the initial, grassier parts of this stretch. When I approached the north end of the basin again, I decided that rather than descending back down into the forest to reconnect with the trail, I would attempt to stay higher and wrap my way NW around the aforementioned jutting rocky protrusion. This was a bad choice, the result of which being the main reason I hereby move to re-dub this area "Hells Hole."

At first this seemed to be going alright. But then I found myself entangled more and more in trees and thick brush, and a few times I had to stop and go back the way I came when confronted with drop-offs. Eventually I had to pretty much backtrack entirely away from this approach, and head down lower to make my way around the protrusion. Still not wanting to have to head into the forest, though, I tried to skirt my way around the protrusion's base just above the forest. The trouble with this was the collection of large boulders here. I therefore had to engage in some tedious boulder-hopping for a while before finally reaching the vicinity of the trail again. Here I crossed through about a 100-foot section of willows, and over West Chicago Creek. Once through this I happened to see that same bristlecone pine once again, and the trail. I reached the trail somewhat south of the point where I had left it earlier.

There were some campers and picnickers along the trail on my return, and I got back to the trailhead 8 hours and 45 minutes after I had set out. That just shows how much time off-trail hiking and route finding and screw-ups can add to one's trip. For a climb with the same basic stats as this one, but which had a trail to follow all the way, this probably would have taken 6 hours or less.

If I had this to do over again for the first time, I would definitely pursue the aforementioned option #2 as the way to go. But then, we don't get a chance to do something again for the first time. At any rate, for anyone wanting to do this route, I would say: 1) avoid the steep rocky protrusion at the base of point 12,988's N slope, and 2) use the west side of the basin. I look on this with more and more nostalgia now that it is over. Until next time.


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