Trip dates: July 10-12, 2020
Caltopo map here: https://caltopo.com/m/GMEJ
The northern end of the Gore Range had been on my mind for an adventurous backpacking trip similar to the LIGANN Traverse for a while now. The ideal trip would follow a simple pattern of off-trail ascents of high passes, some scrambling and then a descent on the other side to new territory. (If you've paid close attention, you've noticed that all of my favorite trips are like this).
In the Front Range, this is fairly easy to do since most peaks and ridges will present at least one weakness that can be tackled without technical climbing. The weaknesses are easy to spot in the map stage of route planning if you turn on "slope angle shading" in Caltopo. This mapping tool was developed for helping skiers locate avalanche prone slopes by adding a color corresponding to the slope angle to the map. The most dangerous slopes (30-45 degrees) are colored red, steeper slopes are purple and black and gentler slopes are yellow and green.
Through my other off-trail hikes, I've learned that slope angle shading is also one of the most useful tools for off-trail route planning because the the same slope angles that are dangerous for skiing are also much more difficult for off-trail travel. This gives the basic rule for year-round, route-planning from your couch: "avoid red". This doesn't mean that red or purple regions are impossible, but it takes more thought. If it's bare rock, you typically want more information than is available from just a map and satellite imagery. If it's a forest, you need big legs and a lot of M&Ms. My personal rule is that if the terrain is unshaded or green, "it goes" no matter what kind of terrain it is. However, this doesn't necessarily mean you will enjoy it, as I learned in the Cache la Poudre Wilderness.
The Gore Range presents another kind of challenge. There are very, very few of the gentle passes that are abundant in the Front Range. The same jagged mountain peaks that make the Gore Range beautiful, also makes route planning much more challenging. Nevertheless, I thought I'd found a "pass" worth checking out; I named it "Travis Pass". My plan was to use it to cross from the Slate Lake basin into the next one to the north to make it a loop.
The distances to get to the central region of the Gore Range from the east are a bit too far to be done easily in two days and still avoid afternoon storms. For this trip I drove down on Friday night and arrived at the trailhead just as the sun was setting and hiked 6 miles in the dark to shave some distance off the next day. This is fairly common on my trips but this was the first time I'd started the trip this way.
Fairly early on, my headlight caught a single sunflower right near the trail. It was facing away from me so I turned it around. To my pleasant surprise there was a honeybee drinking nectar from it. It wasn't moving much but I assumed he was trying to focus on eating.
When I reached Slate Creek, I was unsurprised the bridge was destroyed and I was surprised at how much water there was. A few years ago I decided it was pointless to keep my shoes dry so I always just walk straight across creeks and streams. This time however, it was about 10 pm and the water was quite cold. It seemed unwise to wade up to my waist in fast moving water when the air temperature is ~55 degrees. This would have to wait until morning.
The Gore Range grandeur I was looking for started quickly after waking up. The views from Slate Lake and beyond are almost all speectacular.
After Upper Slate Lake, the trail vanishes quickly.
At last I could see "Travis Pass". It was pretty disappointing. Not only would I have to cross a pretty steep snow field without an ice axe to reach it, it was a slab. If I knew the other side would "go", I might have gotten closer to just check it out but I decided against it. I'd already had a pretty good day.
Shade from the steep valley walls had kept more snow around than I was expecting. The mosquitos were pretty bad. You'd think I would have learned my lesson after my experience in the Sangre de Cristos and brought a bug shelter for my tarp, but no. Luckily I had brought rain pants to go with my rain jacket to keep them from biting my legs. This was the only mosquito protection I had but it worked ok. I was pretty excited when the sun went down and they died down though.
Also, the marmots were pretty aggressive. I didn't expect that either...
On my way out, I realized what I'd missed hiking in the dark on the first night: truly devastating beetle kill.
The fraction of affected trees in this area is similar to the area where the East Troublesome Fire would burn later that fall. In view of climate change and Colorado's 2020 wildfire season, I've come to view my time in these forests the same way you view time with a relative who has been diagnosed with terminal cancer: enjoy the time you have with them now. Now that the climate is is warmer and drier, 30% of forests in the West are not predicted to ever recover from large wildfires. We already have evidence for this in Colorado. Nearly 20 years after the Hayman Fire, there is virtually no new tree growth.
Left: The burn perimeters of four intense wildfires in lower montane ecosystems near the South Platte River in Colorado (SW of Denver) Right: After approximately 20 years, the forests have yet to regenerate due to a warmer and drier climate. For more info, see my article "Climate Change and Colorado Wildfires" linked in text above and in the main banner/header.