North of Vail, Colorado, lies one of the state’s most magnificent and overlooked strings of jagged peaks, the Gore Range. I headed there today with four other people (Scott, Peter, Fabio and Jared), none of whom I had ever met before in person. Scott was the only one of the group to have ever been to the Gores, and this would be his first winter hike there.
At the turnoff to the “Surprise Trailhead” at Cataract Lake, the four of us who had driven together waited for Scott to arrive. We stepped outside for some fresh air, but found it to be surprisingly cold. Scott arrived shortly, and announced it to be six below zero Fahrenheit! This was evident by the icy layer of frost on everything in sight. The good thing, which we would be jubilant about the rest of the day, was a lack of wind. It was totally calm and would remain so for most of our hike.
It was another two miles back a dirt (snow) road to the trailhead. I followed Scott and his Subaru, but we only made it exactly one mile before stopping. The road ahead was covered in deeper powder, but we all figured my jeep shouldn’t have a problem with it. So, all five of us packed into my jeep, along with our mountain of gear, and I started into the snow.
About 40 yards later, I was stuck. Bad. It took four people pushing and directing backwards, then forward, then backwards again, turn this way, that way, a little less, a little more, now back up. . . All I know is I’m glad I had four people along to help me out of that mess. Of course, they were glad to have a ride home, as well, not to mention that exercise warmed them up considerably.
Then, parked comfortably next to the Subaru, we all unloaded our gear and strapped our snowshoes on right away. We would not take them off until we arrived back at our vehicles, and for good reason. When I put my pack on, I was disturbed to find that my sturdy waste buckle had been shattered from getting caught in the door latch, thus I had to tie the straps and leave the bulk of the weight uncomfortably on my shoulders.
So, we had a rough start, but we all had high hopes and expectations of seeing the much-acclaimed Gore Range. Parking where we did left us one mile short of the trailhead, but this was an easy, mostly-level walk the whole way. We signed in at the register and then continued across the footbridge. There was a trail there leading to Surprise Lake, but because of the deep snow and lack of use, we lost it almost immediately.
We were tackling this hike with an air of overconfidence. We all knew Dora Mountain would be a wimp, and from the maps it appeared we would gain our elevation gently our entire (short) four miles of hiking before arriving at the peaceful summit plateau. We had previewed Dora’s summit from the section of road we had had to walk, and indeed, it didn’t look so bad. Now we were blindly heading into the thick timber, and it only took a short time to realize none of us had brought a GPS.
We weren’t concerned about getting lost: we were leaving an obvious trail in the deep snow with our huge snowshoes, and there was not a cloud in the sky. We were more concerned about losing our way to the summit, but even that didn’t seem too likely with such an obvious mountain: just keep going up!
So, we kept going up. But progress was slow.
The “gentle entirety” we had anticipated quickly faded into unfulfilled memory as we climbed our first, and then second steep slope, each abbreviated by a short plateau of sorts. None of what we did or were about to do would be too hard in summer conditions, but with multiple feet of powdery snow, the going was much, much more difficult–especially on heavily-timbered steep slopes. We hadn’t counted on that powdery stuff either: we were expecting solid snow to walk on top of, as we had heard about in recent reports of nearby hikes. Bummer!
We took turns leading, as breaking the trail was no small task. On the steepest sections with the worst snow conditions, it seemed we slid backwards considerably every two or three steps, and this was extremely tiring. Still, we persevered, switch-backing our way up over logs and stumps and whatever else was buried underneath all that snow.
At one point we came to a relieving flat section, including a small snow-covered lake. There was beaver evidence in this area, which was neat to see. We stood there several minutes speculating which lake this was. Finally we determined it was Surprise Lake, as it had indeed surprised us, and this meant we were right on course for our summit. We had caught a glimpse of the mountain when we first got to this plateau. This was one of the few times we would see the actual mountain, because the trees around us were huge! Most of the time, all we could see were trees and snow, followed by more trees and snow, with nothing else in view but the sky. When we did catch that glimpse, Dora still looked far away. As it would turn out, the mountain was farther way than we thought; indeed, we weren’t even at Surprise Lake, and we were already off-course!
After hiking beyond the lake and up a ravine for a short distance, we started switch-backing up the steepest and longest slope of the day. The obstacles were numerous and the snow was everywhere: it definitely lost no depth on the slopes. Today’s “crux” was a move over a partially-submerged and gargantuan log, complete with a snow shelf on top of it. Peter was leading at that point, and he had to pull me up over the log, then we helped Fabio, and so on.
Finally coming to the top of the steep section, we were relieved to find another very flat area, but a little disappointed to see nothing but more trees and snow. Most of us were ascending Dora Mountain for the views of the Gores, not the mountain itself, and so far we had seen nothing of the Gores beyond the trees in which we were immersed. When would they end?
This section was somewhat bizarre, in that we were on flat terrain for quite a while, with no noticeable rise anywhere around us. We just kept going forward, at an upward angle, waiting expectantly to come to the base of the mountain, and hoping we had only one more slope ahead.
After a long time of trudging through the more-level snow, I caught my first glimpse of the talus fields beyond and above us. Timberline! The mountain still didn’t look very close, but it was a lot closer than when we had last laid eyes on it! We picked up our pace a little, but not for long. It seemed even that sighting had been fleeting, and we were still quite a distance from the end of the trees.
Eventually we came to a clearing, where we were at last able to preview the mountain and how we would go about climbing it. Then we pushed through the woods for several hundred more yards and stopped again at a clearing to get some food and figure things out more thoroughly. We could scarcely believe how far west we had headed off-track. The slopes above us seemed to keep getting higher, and they were as steep or steeper than anything we had done today. This just was not supposed to be this hard: eight miles round-trip (ten with the extra mile of road-walking each way) and 3,500 feet elevation gain should have been a cinch for any of us. We had not counted on the conditions we ended up with, and getting off-track so badly only worsened things.
With the disheartening view of the mountain still looming above us, we all realized we had to make a decision right then and there. Pretty much simultaneously we agreed it would be best to turn back. It was only early afternoon, and we did have lights, but a nighttime descent of the slopes we had just traversed was not safe. We would not get lost, for sure, but we could very well break an ankle or get poked in the eye by an unseen stick or get frostbite. . . On top of that, none of us wanted to go back down those slopes in the dark. It wouldn’t be sane.
The thing that topped it off for me was food. As I stood there eating my strawberry pop tarts, Scott began describing a great burrito place down the road with exquisite detail. That settled it, and food was on my brain the whole way out our new “trail.”
At one of the steepest sections, Peter’s snowshoe got stuck and sent him tumbling head-first in the snow. I asked to make sure he was alright, but couldn’t help admiring the spectacle with a grin. I ate that grin quickly when a few steps later, one of my snowshoes caught on a branch behind me. My forward progress continued, and I nearly wiped out myself. I didn’t, but instead found myself caught and unable to move without sliding forward into a split. Fortunately, Scott helped me out of this little accident-waiting to happen. Peter continued shaking his clothes free from all the powder he had caught, and Jared and Fabio meandered down behind us.
I was the only one to take many pictures today, though the others took a few. I couldn’t help admiring the outlandish snow formations: logs had thick bands of snow hanging off of them in the shapes of smiles, stumps were capped and overflowing with snow, making them look like giant mushrooms, all the thick evergreens had heavy snow hanging on their branches. . . it was a regular winter wonderland. It was easy to see how the snow doesn’t melt very fast up there, because of the frigid climate: even on the sun-exposed slopes, the snow had maintained its very loose, crystallized structure throughout the day, and we could easily see individual flakes across huge spans.
In the end, going down had definitely been easier than going up! The best part was not having to break a trail on the way down. We crossed the footbridge and stopped to eat a snack at the trailhead. Then, the four of us together walked the remaining mile to our vehicles. On the way, we were passed by a couple snowmobilers, who we met up with at the cars. They seemed to be having a good time, and why not? They had a much better means of traveling over the snow than we did!
It was while we stood there, taking off our packs, that we looked back up at the mountains, reflecting on where we had gone wrong. We were aghast to find that we had not been near Dora Mountain at all, but instead at an unnamed summit in front of it! While headed in slightly the right direction, we had actually been getting farther and farther away from the big red line Jared had drawn on his topo map as reference for our route. In all actuality, we never even touched that line.
Now, near dark, we were ready to get out of there! The mountain had taught us that we need to earn its respect, not the other way around. Until I get back, my memory of the Gore Range will be stuck with towering trees and mounds of snow, unlike the jagged, rugged, rocky peaks I had envisioned and seen in pictures. But enough about the mountain, it was time for some food! The burrito place was in the wrong direction, so the four of us said goodbye to Scott and settled instead for fast food at Wendy’s. At least that was better than pop tarts!
© 2005, Brad Snider