The Gores are one of many ranges that have captured my imagination over the years. On my first foray back in February 2007 out west they loomed forbiddingly in the distance from CO-9, a high wall of icy, jagged ciphers. Being a sucker for range highpoints Powell has been on my list for awhile, but I’ve never seriously made plans for climbing it until mid-week on this current trip, when I needed a summit to fill in my last day in Colorado before flying out back east. The stats on the hike didn’t look too bad: 10 miles RT, 4200 feet elevation gain. I couldn’t find a lot of pictorial beta though, and upon reading about all the trail finding difficulties other people have had below Kneeknocker Basin I felt some anxiousness, especially as I counted upon seeing very few people on the trail, even on a Saturday.
I parked and walked past the ranches at Piney Lake. The sun was rising over the Gores to the east, blinding my view of the upper reaches of the route ahead. Near the end of Piney Lake I saw some hikers ahead and felt some twinges of relief; did this mean I would have company on the climb?
It was a couple. This was their second attempt on Mt. Powell. Their first had been curtailed by weather. This time the trip was about to be curtailed a lot sooner for them. They told me they had been waiting at this spot for about an hour now. There were two moose ahead. They were unfriendly, growling and threatening to charge the couple whenever they approached and tried passing through them on the trail. I took a look. One was below the trail to the right, by some bushes towards the lake. The other was out of sight but off on the hills and woods to the left of the trail. After talking to the couple for a few minutes I decided to test my luck. I left the trail and contoured left up the slopes so as to put some distance between myself and the moose below. As I walked forward that moose ambled its way further from the trail towards the lake. I heard a growl and some rustling from above; this must be the second moose. I couldn’t see it from where I was, but as I’ve already walked past the first moose I felt it safe to contour back down towards the trail, away from that second moose just as it was feeling threatened and wanting to reciprocate. This worked, and I didn’t hear from it again.
Afterwards I looked back at the couple. They were too far away for any audible communication between us, but seeing as I had a good view now of where both moose now stood, I tried to guide them through via hand signals. They were hesitant, but at one point they did proceed further, just a little, before being scared back by a growl. After this it became apparent they weren’t going to try the same moose traverse I did, so after about 10 minutes of fruitless hand signals I gave them a wave and continued my way down the trail, into the Eagle’s Nest Wilderness.
The rest of the trail was flat and uneventful, though the sun in my eyes proved a continued annoyance. I bumped into some other hikers/campers near some falls on the Piney River, right where the trail for Kneeknocker Basin splits off on the left. It was apparent that they were sticking around the river, so I continued by myself up the side trail.
It was steep at first, then eased a little bit. I began to see rocks and alpine territory. I was just beginning to congratulate myself on successfully navigating my way through the supposedly horrible trail when I realized I lost it. I had wandered too far to the left; knowing that the trail sticks very close to the Piney River I tried to make my way back towards the sound of the water, traversing through some thick brush and willows. I re-discovered the trail and, sparse and muddy as it was, had no problems keeping course all the way up to Kneeknocker Basin.
Though it lost and regained a few hundred feet, the first 3 miles of the trail from Piney Lake to the spur was cake. Trail-finding difficulties aside the spur from the main trail to Kneeknocker Basin had some steep sections with rougher footing – nothing technical, but physically taxing. The trail is flat as you pass through the Basin, then ascends up to the Saddle. Many charming small streams and streambeds traverse the trail in the Basin.
There is a good climber’s trail on the left side of the wide gully leading up to Kneeknocker Pass for the first half of the ascent. It gets steeper near the top, and I found that hopping on the relatively stable talus was preferable to the steep and tricky footing of the climber’s trail.
Midway through the gully I spied a mountain goat peering down at me, a thousand feet or so up, on top of the rocky South West Ridge of Powell. A few minutes later it disappeared. Some more sweaty elevation gain later I saw it had descend to the top of the Pass, where it still peered down at the slow fellow below. I made achingly slow progress towards it, slogging up rock after rock. It ran off for parts unknown as I got near, however, and not long after that I reached Kneeknocker Saddle.
I had thought about taking a nice break at the saddle, but it turned out to be very cramped and narrow, with barely a place to sit. The grandeur of Peak C and the views to the east inspired awe, but looking at Powell only provoked discouragement. The south face is huge and looked to be a worse slog than what I just climbed. I was already pretty tired at this point, and thought it later than ideal in the day. The clouds were holding off though, and the area was supposed to be T-Storm free all through the evening. The descent from the saddle involved more elevation loss than I expected, on steep, rough dirt as well.
As I headed towards the large boulders below the south face I thought seriously about turning back, just out of sheer exhaustion. But then, I’m stubborn too, I had come this far, and it'd be a shame to waste such perfect weather. So I pushed on. The terrain varied on this last, long section, starting with talus, then grassy, thistly slopes, then more talus, then a rocky scree gully.
There were climber’s trails everywhere, parallel to and criss-crossing with each other. A deeply rutted climber’s trail tracked alongside some steeper rocks to the right, on the edge of the wide gully. I soon hopped onto the rocks and ascended large, black and yellow boulders reminiscent of upper reaches of Mt. Washington (NH), from my own neck of the woods. It was fun scrambling, but soon that became a drag as well, and though I was disappointed by the false summit atop the boulders, the real summit was now visible and only a few more rock hops away.
I clambered up to the small summit completely drained. I checked the time. I had left the car exactly four hours ago; I thought it felt longer than that.
But the summit was absolutely pristine , and I marveled from this privileged perch a view that stretched right into the rugged heart of the Gores. Noted Colorado Guidebook author Gerry Roach talks about “Transcendent Summits” in his tomes. Though I had hoped for company on this climb, I was glad I had this summit to myself.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m a very social guy, but only when I’m alone on top of a mountain do I experience that transcendental feeling, where every sound, sight, and smell vividly engrain themselves into my memory. Where I feel alone, just me, and the land, and we’re on the same side. I had had a series of transcendent summits this past week (all solitary), each one eclipsing the last, with a pretty near transcendent climb (Kelso) thrown in there for good measure. This topped it all though. As Aaron Johnson says on the SP site here, only a privileged few get to experience the Gores, and I felt perfectly privileged, whereby in this one, rare, moment, the Gores felt it proper to reveal just a few of their secrets to me.
The climb down was not as much of a struggle as I thought, but it still wore me down gradually.
Trying a technique of staying low and waddling down at a quick pace, I surprised myself and didn’t even fall once.
Kneeknocker Basin was perfectly tranquil on my return visit. The early afternoon sun gleamed off the grass and the surrounding rocks and I felt like I was walking through the fabled Eldorado cities of gold. Had they ever existed though, I doubt they could rival this place.
I thought I was home free once I returned to the main trail. A few minutes later I was hopelessly lost, having gone off on a side trail that disappeared in the high willows. I backtracked back up to the trail, then followed it as it reascended a hundred feet or two on the way back to Piney Lake.
I grunted at the throngs of tourists as I approached my rental, looking back at the magnificent views of the Gores, denied me that morning by the same sun that had illuminated my experience in Kneeknocker Basin and now, was slowing cooking me in my final moments of thirst and exhaustion. I walked past casual hikers in tshirts and shorts, grinning inside as if I knew a secret they didn’t.
Cars continued to throng in towards the ranch as I drove the long road out back to Vail. I grimaced as I saw the oncoming invasion of the worst plague that can ever befall the pristine land I had just left: ATV’ers.
A note: While the net elevation gain from trailhead to summit is 4,200’, including the ups and downs the gross probably approaches 4,900’-5,000’. Most of the elevation gain is on taxing, steep, dirt trails, talus, and scree, so come prepared and give yourself more time that you normally would for a 10 mile hike.
Also, I’m glad I wore long pants. There’s plenty of these past Kneeknocker Basin: