‘Home from a different angle’: Summit and Vail native reflects on her 6-day ski traverse in the Gore Range
Surrounded by the mountains that raised her, Colorado College student Jordan McMurtry reflected on whether the range's name can be changed to better reflect the communities it sustains
Born in Vail and a graduate of Summit High School, Jordan McMurtry has spent countless hours exploring Colorado’s expansive Eagles Nest Wilderness, which divides the two counties where she grew up.
Still, it wasn’t until her sophomore year at Colorado College that McMurtry had the opportunity to experience the solitude of these secluded Rocky Mountain peaks in winter. Taking advantage expedition funding through the college’s Ritt Kellogg Memorial Fund and mentorship opportunities available to students, she could have chosen to do an expedition anywhere in the U.S. or Canada.
But McMurtry chose instead to complete a six-day ski touring traverse through the mountains she has long called home. After nearly two years of preparation, McMurtry and two fellow students set out April 27 to venture into the wilderness.
On the journey, McMurtry and her adventure partners navigated their way to the tops of snowy peaks to ski rarely tracked lines, finding time along the way to contemplate the name of the mountain range and the life it supplies to the surrounding communities.
“The mountains get you thinking, that’s for sure,” McMurtry said. “This was really special for me because I grew up on both sides of the range.”
The adventure started from McMurtry’s home in Silverthorne. In the months prior, McMurtry and her fellow travelers, Anna Grace Keller and Pierce Sullivan, completed avalanche, Alpine and expedition planning courses.
They studied snow science and spent as much time as possible on their skis, both at resorts and in the backcountry, as the best preparation is to spend a lot of time out on the snow, McMurtry said. The adventurers consulted mentors at the college and in Summit and Vail counties as they planned their route.
“The process through our school is pretty rigorous,” McMurtry said. “They want to know that we have the background that the mountains require of us.”
From Silverthorne, the three did not take the most direct route through the wilderness, instead choosing to ski a couple lines in the mountains above while setting up camp in the valleys below.
For six days and five nights, the adventurers trekked through mountain valleys, sometimes bushwhacking through stream beds, climbing the 12,000- and 13,000-foot peaks of Colorado’s Gore Range to make turns through rocky couloirs.
All the while, the three discussed avalanche risk and made note of snow conditions as they traveled. They dug pits to judge the cohesiveness of the snow and debriefed at the end of every day. Nearly every moment that wasn’t spent hiking or skiing was spent looking for water, shoveling out tent spots and setting up camp.
“Even though we did take on some big lines and we had some amazing turns, for me it wasn’t about summit fever necessarily. We obviously wanted to push our limits as skiers because we’re all 20 or 21, and we’re eager to get after it,” McMurtry said. “But really it was about experiencing the mountains that have raised us in a new, intimate way on our preferred medium of travel: skis.”
From atop Deming Peak on the third day of the traverse, McMurtry recalled seeing the Colorado Rocky Mountains stretching out before her. From that high vantage point along the southern reaches of the Gore Range, she had a view of mountains across the state, including Pikes Peak, which she described as “our backyard playground at Colorado College.”
Then, McMurtry and her adventure partners made some of the best turns of the trip. Throughout the trip, moments of grandeur among the mountain tops inspired moments of deep personal contemplation, she said.
“The mountains ask you to be a little bit reflective and introspective on what it means to be out there,” McMurtry said. “What it means to be a woman in ski mountaineering and what it means to be below the mountains, the source of our water, the source of our communities. When you’re up there for six days, you have a lot of time to think.”
The Gore Range, at the heart of the 133,000-acre Eagles Nest Wilderness, is more remote and requires a longer traverse to access than most backcountry ranges near Summit and Vail counties.
While there are some dedicated backcountry users who will make the trek, the number of people — especially women — who have skied those more remote peaks is limited, McMurtry said. On the six-day journey, McMurtry and her partners only encountered one other group of travelers.
McMurtry recalled that while preparing for the journey she struggled to find crampons that fit securely to her women’s size 8 boot and for a moment thought, “maybe this sport doesn’t want women back there.” But she wanted to highlight that women can explore the backcountry just as legitimately as men.
“Girls are badass and totally capable of taking on big trips like this and really getting to experience the mountains in a special way that we were able to,” McMurtry said.
After basking in the immensity of the mountains, McMurtry said she and her fellow Colorado College students found themselves discussing the namesake of the Gore Range at camp one night.
The mountains that make up the Gore Range were formed millions of years ago when a major geologic episode lifted the entire Colorado Plateau but received their name much more recently as Americans explored and settled into the area during the 19th century.
“It’s a really special place. It’s sacred up there, but it’s a bit unfortunate that it’s named after a guy that never even set foot in the range,” McMurtry said. “There has been a lot of community conversation about renaming the range to better reflect how special it is out there.”
The Gore Range is reportedly named after a bloodthirsty Irish aristocrat named Lord St. George Gore, who ruthlessly slaughtered wild game for sport, leaving the carcasses to rot, during a three-year traverse through the Dakotas, Montana, Wyoming and Colorado in the 1850s.
Disdained by contemporaries as well as modern-day historians, Gore was recorded crossing Gore Pass west of Kremmling, but he is not believed to have ever set foot in the range’s peaks. Instead, American explorers and cartographers affixed his name to the range on early maps, and the colloquial eventually became convention.
For thousands of years prior to Gore’s bloody assault on nature, the Ute tribe, who called themselves the Nuntzi, resided in the shadow of the great mountain range. As discussions to change the name have taken place in recent years, tribal leaders have proposed the range be renamed “Nuchu Range,” a name which means “Ute’s Range.”
In the quiet of the snow-covered mountains, McMurtry and her colleagues discussed how the “Nuchu Range,” more aptly encapsulates the serenity and history of the mountains.
“Once you’re up there, it is just so beautiful and so big that you kind of wish that it was better reflected in the name and a little bit more connected to the communities around it,” she said.
With the spring runoff beginning to flow through the valleys, McMurtry said the six days spent in the wilderness also helped give her a deeper appreciation of the role the mountains play in sustaining the communities around them.
The water that starts as snow in those mountains will flow into the valleys, filling streams and rivers, providing a source of life for the Summit and Vail communities below and for plants and animals throughout the Rocky Mountains, she said.
“It really is about the mountains. The range quite literally sustains both communities. It’s where we get our water, our snowmelt,” McMurtry said. “So just to get up there and experience them in a special way, whether that’s noticing the start of the runoff or standing atop Grand Traverse Peak, the highlight was being able to experience home from a different angle.”
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