Route Finder: Tempting Grays and Torreys 14ers from the Summit County side
Argentine Pass trailhead
Distance: 2.2 miles one way
Time: about 2-3 hours, depending on experience
Elevation Gain: 1,892 feet
Difficulty Rating: Moderate
Horseshoe Basin trailhead
Distance: Roughly 4 miles (not an established route)
Time: 4-6 hours, depending on experience
Elevation Gain: Roughly 3,170 feet (from Shoe Basin Mine to Grays Peak)
Difficulty Rating: Strenuous
Grays Peak and its twin, Torreys, are familiar sights by now, whether driving on Interstate 70 or winding down Swan Mountain Road toward Summit Cove.
The two 14ers — measuring in at 14,278 and 14,275 feet, respectively — are the background of our lives in Summit, just part of the everyday scenery.
And yet, they call me to their summits, which from a distance seem mild and inviting.
After months of looking longingly at these mountains, eager for the snow to melt, I wanted to climb them. I felt compelled to take them on from the very vantage point I had become so familiar with: the Summit County trailhead, instead of the more popular Clear Creek County one. I wanted to move with force towards this mountain, to see the details of its façade become increasingly clear with each mile I travelled.
First attempt — Horseshoe Basin trailhead
I decided to attempt Grays Peak from the Horseshoe Basin approach. It was early morning on the eastern slope of Grays Peak, and through breaks in the tree line overhead I could see the narrow point of her summit for a brief instant, only to watch it disappear and then be found again.
At the gated entrance of the abandoned Shoe Basin Mine, my friend Greg and I parked the truck. We began at 11,110 feet elevation. The trail was a small stream, surging with snowmelt. Another space forgotten to time, the Horseshoe Basin is littered with mining ruins and piles of light-colored waste rock above where the mines once were.
As we followed the four-wheel drive road to the back of Horseshoe Basin, I felt us gaining elevation gradually. Huge patches of snow deterred us from the trail and we had to make our own way on a few occasions. We seemed to reach the back of the valley and followed the steepening trail left.
We came across a junction in the road and decided to bear right. The road was flooded and we hiked through a small stream. Not long after we made a right turn at the divergence, the trail ended abruptly at the bottom of a scree field.
Not surprisingly, there were no trail markers or signs of any sort in the basin. Lying on the fringe of the scree field was a cairn to point us forward. The ridge ahead looked deceivingly close and so we began to climb.
The scree field was rockslide after rockslide. With the most care I could possibly exert in each step, I climbed up the rock chute. At times my boots were not visible underneath rocks slid down and collected around my ankles.
As we climbed higher, the scree became less of an issue. Rock climbing was necessary. I tested hand and foot holds to determine stability, but almost everything I attempted to grab was loose.
Grays Lake below had grown much smaller and a sensation of vertigo washed over me.
Above me, the entire ridge was snow covered. It only took a few steps in deep snow, sliding with loose scree underneath, to convince me to turn back.
Once more, I turned my gaze towards Grays. Up close, she is more rugged than she looked from afar. The spine leading to her is craggy, sharp — nothing like the razor-edged, straight mountains I would doodle in the margins of my school notebooks.
Disheartened, we gradually slid our way down the scree field and wound back through the valley.
Discouragement aside, I am glad to have drawn a line where I felt too unsafe. I had underestimated the entire nature of this alternate approach — I had come without a compass or a detailed map. There was a surge of excitement, though, in simultaneously trusting and testing my ability to read the land.
“It’s rewarding to gain that knowledge, to learn from challenging experiences and to take on nature on its own terms,” said Ralph Bradt, the wilderness and trails recreation planner for the Clear Creek Rangers District.
Second attempt — Argentine Pass trailhead
I tested that ability the following week by taking on Grays, again, on nature’s terms — succumbing to my inability to control weather, trail conditions and the other elements bound to the realm of nature.
Accompanied by two friends, I parked before the Shoe Basin Mine gate. This time, on June 22, we arrived even earlier in the morning. Taking the same four-wheel drive road as the previous week, we walked a short distance to the Argentine Pass trailhead.
A fragment of 19th century wagon road, Argentine Pass is an established trail, maintained by the Dillon Rangers District.
In two miles, through patches of thick snow, we climbed 100 feet short of 2,000 vertical feet. After this climb of 2,000 feet — we’ll round up — we came to the confluence of Argentine Pass and the Continental Divide.
I hesitate to call it the Continental Divide Trail. The reality: It is a faint dusting of trail heading up steep tundra. We headed west towards Grays on the spine of the Continental Divide. Up and down meadow top ridges, we followed cairns like it’s our job.
So far, the “trail” looked promising. That is, until we came to an extremely rocky section without a hint of growth. Scanning the horizon, it was like this as far as we could see: an exposed ridgeline with intense drop-offs on either side.
The Continental Divide is our only route, and, boy, had I underestimated its condition.
“The Continental Divide Trail isn’t 100-percent constructed,” said Cindy Ebbert, trails and wilderness manager at the Dillon Ranger District. “Sections are trail, and some are just cairns. It’s kind of a trail.”
These are what Ebbert calls “social trails,” or user-created trails. Nothing is maintained or signed — this we quickly came to realize. Into the unestablished, we scrambled with very measured steps down three ridges.
We came to rest on a snowy plateau as a storm hangs overhead. Grumbles of thunder became more audible. Lightning strikes disturbingly close, making the hair stand up on my arms. With our backs against a shelf of rocks, we huddled as piles of snow and hail began to collect on our shoulders, knees and packs.
Doing just about anything to distract ourselves from the ominous storm directly overhead, we waited for over an hour. At the first sign of a clearing, we stood to assess the horizon. In the distance, two more storm systems were approaching.
Ahead were slippery rock scrambles, an unknown route to a known destination. Without cover, a few ridges below Mount Edwards at about 13,850 feet, consequences are likely to be very serious.
Not willing to test our luck against another round of storms, we began to scramble back up the ridgeline. Shaken up, we had made it out alive. I pondered how quickly the sky had changed from sunny and 70 degrees to a bone-chilling 40 accompanied by hail.
As much as I had miscalculated these alternate routes, I had underestimated the power of Mother Nature more. In planning my attempts I had assumed my experience level matched the level of the individuals posting on sites like Summitpost.org and 14ers.com.
As an avid hiker, this was a wakeup call. I found an imbalance in my assumptions — assigning more confidence to my abilities than was accurate and less respect to the power of nature’s forces than needed.
Grays Peak is the highest peak in the Continental Divide, in Colorado’s Front Range, and in both Clear Creek County and Summit County. In these two attempts at summiting her, I experienced personal challenges, looked instinct right in the eyes and relied on my intuition for guidance.
From a “leave no trace” standpoint, I felt guilty moving from cairn to cairn with a nonexistent trail. Although I’m part of a much smaller population on the alternate route, each of my steps is still disruptive to the organisms in high-alpine meadows.
“The alternate routes are so challenging with a lack of trail, and most of the time people end up finding their own ways to the peak,” Ebbert said. “The Forest Service strongly encourages hikers to stay on the established and maintained trails that lead to the 14ers in order to reduce damage to the sensitive, fragile alpine tundra.” I am equally as humbled as I am allured by the difficult, remote nature of these alternate routes. After I purchase a map and compass — and after I have a few more high-altitude hikes under my belt — then I will think of reattempting Grays Peak.
This is unfinished business.
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