I take a half day Thursday, which at IBM somehow adds up to 5.5 hours. I rent a high clearance 4WD vehicle and pick up George from DIA. George is La Plata’s ole UT college buddy. He lives in Austin with his French wife Nathalie and two sons. On our drive up to Summit County, I discover George, while soft-spoken, is an ex-Marine. He’ll be fine over the next few days. He’s prepped well with hikes in the Guadalupe Mountains. And George writes a great blog. Not sure how to describe the content. Mostly athletic oriented, but he’s a horizontal thinker who can mix up genres.
We meet up with La Plata at Empire Burgers in Breck. Afterward, we drive to the Georgia Pass trailhead to camp for the night. This trailhead is located on the Middle Fork of Tiger Road. We seem to forget this and drive up the South Fork of Tiger Road. We spend a good hour searching for the trailhead in the dark, on a wicked 4WD jeep road. We finally determine to try the other trailhead we are familiar with. It would add three miles to our hike. Fortunately, this turns out to be the TH we were looking for to begin with. Issue is there are three forks to Tiger Road. North, Middle and South. The two THs to Georgia Pass on the Colorado Trail are on the North and Middle Forks, not the South Fork. Great camping spots on the Middle Fork.
La Plata wakes us up before sunrise with trailhead coffee. We leave behind his truck and take mine into Frisco for breakfast. I forget the name of the place, but I have huevos rancheros and La Plata picks up the tab. Then George generously pays for my gas on the way out of town. We drive back toward Denver, through the tunnel, and take the Bakerville exit 221, just a few miles east of Loveland Pass. There’s a large parking area here. I imagine it’s for the Grays Trailhead for people without 4WD, but could be overflow parking for the Loveland Pass Ski Area. There is a paved bike path from this lot all the way to Loveland Pass. I plan to bring my friends up here sometime to run it.
We drive the dirt road up through Stevens Gulch to the trailhead. There are two popular 14ers accessible from this trailhead – Grays and Torreys. We snag the last available parking spot. Breakfast slowed us down and we don’t launch until nearly 9am. Unlike many trails, this one begins at treeline with a gentle grade. I imagine George appreciates the easy warmup as we intend to climb both 14ers – first Torreys, then Grays. And that’s what we do. The trail leads up a few miles to a Y junction where the left leads to Grays and the right to Torreys. We hike toward Torreys because Grays is on the path we expect to continue on for the Continental Divide Trail. Both peaks are named for botanist colleagues of the botanist who first climbed these mountains in the late 1800s. In the photo above with us three standing at the trailhead sign, Grays is on the left and Torreys on the right.
Our branch of the trail reaches a massive cairn on the ridge between the two peaks. There is another option to turn toward a different approach up Grays. We smartly drop our 35 pound backpacks at the cairn before the half mile climb up Torreys. We expect a long day and need to conserve energy. I find the views interesting atop the peak because I am so familiar with Summit County. The peak actually forms the border between Summit and Clear Creek counties. In the second photo above of the three of us, the Keystone ski slopes are to the left, behind my right shoulder. Lake Dillon and Frisco are further back. You can’t see it in this pic but we can also see the Breckenridge ski slopes back behind Keystone. Click to enlarge any of the photos. The photo here of George is on Grays Peak and looks back upon Torreys.
With the close proximity to Denver, there are countless other hikers. The slope spreads them out well enough so it doesn’t feel crowded, but we enjoy some lively conversation. One girl carries a Captain America shield over her backpack. Another girl wants us to know where to meet her later for pizza and beer in Idaho Springs. She doesn’t guess from our bulging backpacks that we plan to stay out on the trail for a few days.
La Plata scouts our descent down the eastern slope of Grays Peak while George and I rest. There are three routes and we aren’t exactly certain because we didn’t bring a map. I do have an app of the CDT on my iPhone but it’s difficult to make sense of it without the GPS showing our location. I have it in airplane mode to conserve power. I only use it as a camera. We elect to take the trail that appears to be the most direct route down to Peru Creek where we expect to camp for our first night. We can see the trail across Horseshoe Basin climb up to Argentine Pass, and we know that pass is on our route, so we feel confident.
To call our descent steep would be an understatement. We plunge down a wicked slope of rocks and scree. Some of the most treacherous scree I’ve ever encountered. We take care to ensure we don’t send an avalanche down on each other’s heads. And we debate the senselessness of the phrase, “head’s up”. We’re certain though we prefer this route over the trail option to the right. It would trek across some jagged crags to Ruby Mountain. That option is pictured here with the small lake at the bottom. We later meet a hiker who traversed it. He rates it a class 4 which means scrambling with your hands and massive exposure. Our route is only class 2, but as difficult as any hiking I’ve ever done. I follow Nathalie’s ski advice to George, “turn inside”. The comparison to downhill skiing is fair. We all agree we wouldn’t want to return up this trail.
This photo depicts the trail option to the left that we could have taken from the top of Gray’s Peak. It doesn’t look easy either. And we don’t exactly see a trail on it. We find out later, this is in fact the route we should have taken. Instead, we bushwhack our way to the bottom. We ultimately find the trailhead for a trail to Argentine Pass. We’re fairly certain we are back on track now and begin searching for a spot to camp.
There are no good flat spots but we find a site that is good enough. It’s close to a flowing creek. Having water is more critical than a flat site to sleep. We pitch our tents as the sun sets an alpenglow on the side of Mount Argentine. I scratch my forehead on a tree branch while pitching my tent. I don’t pay it much attention as I inhale my freeze-dried Mountain House dinner. La Plata sparks up an exceptional fire and we retire shortly after dark with plans to start early again tomorrow.