A tour of the Gore Range
Art Burrows takes us through a springtime ski tour of Summit County’s majestic and menacing Gore Range
After working his way up to 13,000 feet above tree line deep in the Gore Range, Art Burrows and his backcountry skiing group were greeted by an interesting tribe of locals on a spring evening in 2006.
“We skied right up to a large herd of mountain goats,” Burrows recalled more than a decade later, “who were very curious and interested in getting minerals that we might be leaving there. That was our first night.”
“They probably hadn’t seen anybody for a good eight months at that point,” Burrows said. “But they were very curious.”
It’s experiences like these that litter the truly wild backcountry of the Gore Range and Eagle’s Nest Wilderness when avid skiers like Burrows take spring trips out there each year. Considering the stark dangers and extreme conditions that exist in this remote stretch of northern Summit County, only the most experienced and prepared backcountry skiers seek out adventure in the Gore each year.
It’s an expansive land of jagged peaks that appear to be endless. And though there is not a single 14er in this stretch, the dozens upon dozens of 13ers atop 12ers atop 11,000-foot mountains make the Gore what it is.
“It’s unique in its geography. It’s not skied very much because it’s difficult,” said Burrows, a two-time World Telemark Master’s Champion. “It’s a lot of work to get up to the ski zones.”
“I think there is probably an equal amount of danger in the Gore than in the Tenmile (Range),” Burrows said. “The Gore is more complex. And the terrain can be steeper.”
Despite the challenge, Burrows has skied in the Gore numerous times in his life, including that memorable trip in 2006 when he met the herd of mountain goats local at the Dora Plateau. Burrows and his group set out around the time of Memorial Day, which is typically the best time of year to ski the Gore. Mid-winter can prove too cold and too sketchy in terms of the quality of the snowpack when you’re miles away from civilization.
Burrow’s group began their trip from Lower Cataract Lake near the tiny northern Summit County town of Heeney. From there, at just over 8,000 feet, the group headed up toward Surprise Lake before reaching Dora Plateau. While camping at the plateau right before a storm Burrows experienced one of the most spectacular views he’s ever witnessed.
“It’s an incredibly rugged valley in there,” he said. “And the topography is just spectacular, especially in the evening during sunset.”
For Burrows, an avid photographer, he let the experience of photographing nature come to him. Each spring is when nature’s inherent powerful beauty can be seen in full force, during a time of year when winter’s frost slowly gives way to summer’s grace in the backcountry.
“Waking up at Double Bubble Lake and shooting the new snow,” Burrows said, “small powder avalanches coming off the rock faces, was quite beautiful. And, just the deep blue sky after the storm was particularly beautiful.”
“When I go for a specific purpose shooting photos I usually fail,” he said, “because nature and reality always present something different. So I tend to go with the flow, get up early, stay out late into the twilight periods and just always be looking around, always have my cameras ready and take it as it comes.”
The rest of the trip included skiing down the 13,420-foot Eagle’s Nest, one of the Gore Range’s most impressive mountains. Burrows and his crew also skied down the south flank of an even more impressive peak, the highest in all of the Gore Range, 13,580-foot Mount Powell. From there, Burrows and the group traversed over to Upper Slate Lake, where they camped for the third night. Then for the fourth and final night, the group skied over Atlas Pass and one last pass before descending down into East Vail.
Compared to when Burrows first stepped foot in the Gore Range 40 years ago, the Gore may still be one of the least traveled backcountry areas in Summit County. Still, there is more traffic and more negative effects on the environment out there now than there was back then. Namely, the Gore is littered with deadfall trees that hamper summertime recreationists, such as hikers, once the snow melts. It’s a reality of clogged-up recreating arteries those who love traversing in the Gore will have to address moving forward.
Winter, and even relative-winter in the springtime, is different, though. With a strong snowpack, skiers like Art are able to traverse through the Gore much more easily. And when they do, they get to enjoy what he regards as one of the best ski mountaineering routes he’s ever taken.
“That would be an ultimate ski mountaineering route,” Burrows said of his 2006 track. “That would be one of the best ski mountaineering routes in Colorado, if they did Cataract Lake to East Vail, or even further.”
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