Peak Z 13,245' (4037 m) Peak Z Prime 12,980' (3956 m)
As I have been exploring north into the Gore Range the past three years, Peak Z has intrigued me. While climbing Red Mtn, the Silverthorne massif, Keller and the Grand Traverse, I studied its unique form, and had been anticipating the climb to this remote summit, my first of the 'alphabet peaks' in the Gores. Given a day off work and our prolonged Indian summer this year, I decided to give it a shot.
Peak Z' and Z from Keller Mtn, Feb. 2008
The "popular" route on Z seems to be from the west (Vail side), over Usable Pass. I have an affinity for the Boulder Creek basin however, and figured that with an early start, it could be done from the Rock Creek TH in two days. Originally, I had planned to hike in to lower Boulder Lake with my friend Hallie Saturday afternoon, camp there, then summit and pack out the next day. Sadly. Hallie was dealing with a painful IT band from a summer of trail running and decided not to push it on such a long day. So we just camped along the Rock Creek road Saturday night, and I decided to attempt the route solo, in one day. I set the alarm for 5 a.m. Sunday morning.
In the middle of the night I awoke to what sounded like a cross between an elk bugling and a coyote howling. Totally lost for a moment, I wondered where I was. I opened my eyes to a canopy of bright stars overhead. As soon as I did this I watched a meteor streak across the sky. Ah yes, Rock Creek, sleeping out tonight. Then the coyotes started in again, this time an unmistakable, long, lonely howl. I shivered and went back to sleep.
Soon afterward, my cell phone woke me up from deep sleep. It took maybe two minutes to break camp: stuff my sleeping bag, roll up the pad, and drive away. It was a cold morning and I was thankful for the heat in my truck during the short drive to the trailhead. No other cars in the parking lot. I sat with the heater on for a while and ate breakfast, silently contemplating the day ahead. A few minutes before 6, I started up the trail.
The familiar Rock Creek trail passed quickly. Peak Z sits near the headwaters of Boulder Creek, direct access to which is closed by private property. So the easiest access to Boulder Creek is from Rock Creek, one drainage to the south. This added mileage and vert. ensures that upper Boulder Creek sees few human visitors. After a quarter mile or so I interesected the Gore Range Trail, which runs parallel to the range, leading up over a ridge and down into the Boulder Creek valley.
The sky began to lighten as I started up the first climb of the day in the predawn stillness. At the top of the ridge I shed a layer and ate some more food, then dropped 500 feet down switchbacks to Boulder Creek, clouds turning orange overhead. Wait a minute. Clouds? The forecast had called for mostly sunny skies all day, no mention of thunderstorms. But sunrise revealed a sky full of puffy mid-level clouds. Hmm, oh well. Before long I reached lower Boulder Lake. Peak Z and Z Prime towered above the lake to the northwest. I reflected on how far away they looked. Once again the ridiculousness of trying to climb them from the east in a day occured to me. Neverless, after some photos, I carried on.
Sunrise reflection from lower Boulder Lake, showing Z' and Z on the right
The first part of the trail above Boulder Lake passed uneventfully. Lots of birds and squirrels happily chattered away in the morning sun. Then I heard a deep grunting sound ahead. Standing at the edge of a marshy meadow I saw him, a massive bull moose. He lifted his huge head and looked directly at me, then began walking toward me. I stopped in my tracks. Bull moose are in their rut this time of year and I understand that this makes them more agressive. This particular moose fit that description well, alternately walking toward me and stopping to grunt and angrily rip willows out of the ground. Then I spotted another moose, also a bull, about 20 yards away from the first one, and even closer to the trail. They seemed to be having a standoff, which I didn't want any part of. As the first moose approached me, I tried talking my way out of the situation. "Hey, big guy," I said. He snorted and took another step closer. "Listen,' I said, "We don't want no trouble.." Having grown up in Colorado and having been around wildlife my whole life, I am rarely spooked by animals. But moose scare the crap out of me. They are f*king huge. I broke away from the trail and headed uphill, away from the meadow, until I could no longer see the moose. For a few hundred yards I continued up-valley, voluntarily bushwhacking and listening every few steps for the sound of a charging moose. Giving them a wide berth seemed to work. After some gnarly log-hopping I dropped back down to the trail.
In another mile or two I reached the spot where the topo map shows that the Boulder Creek trail ends. The first time I hiked up to upper Boulder Lake in 2007, I assumed that no trail existed and fought my way up the valley for hours, bushwhacking over endless fallen trees and some very rough terrain. Since then, I've made the trek to upper Boulder three or four more times and have discovered that there is, in fact, a trail. Faint at times, steep, overgrown, and hard to follow, it leads all the way to the upper lake. I hiked all the way up this valley to Lake Solitude ('Upper Upper Upper Boulder Lake') earlier this summer, so the route was fresh in my mind and I managed to only lose the trail once on the way to the lake. By 9:30 I was standing on the spectacular shore of upper Boulder Lake, 3.5 hrs after leaving the truck. Much faster than the 6 hours it took me to get here the first time.
Upper Boulder Lake
Having reached this point, my plan was to bushwhack up to Ormes' "Secret Lake" and then contour around the upper basin to the Peak Y- Peak Z saddle (in keeping with Gore Range tradition I will keep my route description fairly vague). This was new terrain for me. I had looked at it from above, studied the topo maps, read Kramarsic's book a dozen times, and read the few existing trip reports online, but I have learned that things in the Gores rarely go the way you expect them to. I ended up overshooting Secret Lake and clearing out of the trees about 250 feet above it. By now the sun was beating down in full force and I had already gone through 2 of my 2.5 liters of water. I came across a beautiful little stream and took the opportunuty to filter more water. A few bites of sandwich, a few cookies, and I was off again with full water bottles.
Peak Z and Z' reflected in a tarn
The upper Boulder Creek basin is an amazing place. The whole valley is dotted with tarns, bonsai-looking trees and interesting cliffs. It is an incredibly lush area in mid-summer, but by early October the grasses and wildflowers have dried out and only memories of the buggy, humid summer remain. I crunched my way across the tundra of N Boulder Creek and up to the bench which parallels beneath the X-Y-Z ridge.
upper Boulder Creek
I walked around some more tarns and, finally, positioned myself below the Y-Z saddle. After some more sandwich, I donned the helmet and headed up to the saddle on steep, loose ground. At this point the clouds were beginning to thicken, and I was seriously doubting that I would make it all the way to the top. Even though thunderstorms weren't in the forecast, I didn't like the look of the blue-black clouds overhead, racing down from the north. But once I reached the ridge, I could see the rest of the sky and decided that it didn't look bad enough to turn around just yet. It was 12 p.m. when I reached the saddle. I gave myself a deadline of 2 hours to climb peak Z, scramble out to Z Prime and back, and return to the saddle.
Peak L "Necklace Peak" and the "Gore Thumb" ridge
Z' from the Z-Z' saddle
I continued quickly up to peak Z, staying as close to the ridge crest as I could, encountering everything from loose 2nd class to solid 4th class rock. Half an hour had passed since I reached the saddle when I arrived at the airy summit of Peak Z.
Peak X from Peak Z
The view was amazing, but I didn't stop for long. I wanted to stay there all day, but as I reflected on how remote my position was, high on this steep, obscure peak, I knew I needed to keep moving. I signed the register (congrats Sarah and Cooneys!), took some photos, and downclimbed back to the Z-Z Prime saddle. On this section of the route my right leg began to cramp up pretty intensely. The adductor muscle threatened to seize up with every step uphill, so I tried to slow down and stretch it some. The ridge out to Z Prime looked tricky, exposed, steep on both sides. Excited, I engaged the difficulties straight away. The rock was more solid here than it was below, and I savored each moment on the exposed ridge. Slowly, checking every foot and handhold, I made my way out to the Z Prime summit, perched high above the Boulder Creek valley. I could see all the way back down the valley to Boulder Lake, which looked impossibly far away. I think this image really stuck in my mind as a reminder of how far I still had to go, so my stay on the summit was super short. I immediately turned around and backtracked along the ridge.
Peak Z's east face from Z'
The view to the east from the summit of Z'
On the return trip across the Z' ridge, I stayed on the ridge crest nearly the whole time, enjoying a really fun bit of knife-edge action on perfect rock.
Fun bit of knife-edge on Z'
Upon returning to the Peak Z saddle, I headed down to the south slopes, dropping down before the Y-Z saddle this time. I was hoping to find more solid ground but this route was just as loose. At one point I accidentally kicked a rock down and started a small rockslide which echoed around the valley for a long time. I reached the talus blocks below Peak Z's south slopes at exactly 2 p.m. I had been moving pretty much non-stop for 8 hours now. Finding a flat grassy area, I took off my pack and collapsed in the warm grass. For a few contended minutes I just lay there, motionless, listening to the profound silence all around me. As I felt myself beginning to fall asleep, I got up, ate some more sandwich, and continued down. I stopped again to filter some more water at N. Boulder Creek.
Another tarn below Peak Z, looking east
I followed roughly the same route down that I had taken up, only contouring a bit lower this time in order to come out at 'Secret Lake'. It worked, and I had the pleasure of exploring the shoreline of this pristine lake, one of the nicest places I have found in Colorado.
Then it was back down to upper Boulder Lake. In the midst of some steep downhill bushwhacking I jumped some grouse which surprised the shit out of me. After that I took another short rest at the lake.
Upper Boulder Lake
It was 4 p.m. when I started back down the Boulder Creek trail, stomach full of Red Bull, cookies, and ibuprofen. I lost the trail once, but quickly found it again and made very good time down the valley. I had been concerned that I would meet the moose again in the meadow, but luckily they had moved on. I reached Boulder Lake as the sun was going down over Peak Z. It was 5:30. I wondered if I would need to the headlamp again before the day was done.
sunset, lower Boulder Lake
I prepared myself for the hike back up and over the ridge by eating some more, then, one step at a time, hiked up the switchbacks. It was easier than I expected, just one foot after the other, and I soon found myself heading downhill again, stepping carefully, making sure I didn't roll an ankle or trip over a rock in my exhausted state. Finally, I reached the Rock Creek trail and jogged back down to my truck, finally arriving just before dark at 6:30, 12.5 hours after leaving, (roughly 20 miles and 6500+' vert later). There, I saw the first 2 people I had seen all day, freshly returned from climbing Keller Mountain. They hadn't seen anyone all day either. We chatted for a few minutes, then I headed home, tired but content with another incredible day in the Gore Range.