UN13,239; aka: Peak Q or "Prisoner Peak" takes no prisoners when it comes to assailing its heights. One of the most remote of all the Gore summits, the two most reasonable approaches are to backpack into the Slate Creek area from the east side of the Gore, a lengthy pack trip of three days minimum, or access the peak from Pitkin Lake, which for most will still require a backpack trip, but of lesser mileage. Climbing the peak itself is a rugged Class 4 ascent with some exposure. We elected to use the Pitkin Lake Trail and trailhead as our approach, so from there, any passenger vehicle can reach the trailhead. Do your homework before attempting this summit by consulting other reports besides ours. We do provide some links to follow. This is one area where if you are injured, someone else finding you may take days. Lidar added 9 feet in elevation to this summit.
The nearest campground is the Gore Creek Campground, a National Forest Service fee area with vault toilets and water. To get there from the Exit #180, you'll need to drive SE on Big Horn Road past the trailhead parking for the Deluge Lake and Gore Creek TH. Reservations may be made for campsites at reserveamerica.com. Other than that, there is virtually no other place close by with at-large/primitive camping. Your best bet may be to go up to the summit of Vail Pass and drive down the Black Lakes Road where there is a pullout parking area right where the road is barred from vehicular traffic and becomes the Vail Pass bike trail, east end. This is not a primitive camp location but you may be able to sleep in your vehicle.
The small parking area for the Pitkin Lake Trail has a sign warning about a 2-day parking limit. If planning on being there longer, call the Vail Police Department - Enforcement Division and ask for permission to park there longer. Be prepared to provide license plate and vehicle description.
The trail begins by ascending gently along the east side of the stream, then crossing on a sturdy bridge. A short distance farther on, it abruptly begins an incredibly steep ascent with well-positioned logs to reduce runoff and provide steps for the arduous climb with full packs. For the next half mile, you might as well be climbing a mountain, but after that, the trail begins to level off, still maintaining some distance from and above the creek. Overall, this trail is in fairly good condition and after the initial section was not too arduous.
After about two miles up, the trail comes right beside the creek. After the section near the creek, the trail remains very moderate until it crosses an open meadow and then begins climbing up to another bench level. At about 3.75 miles in the trail crosses the west fork of Pitkin Creek and there is a large campsite past that crossing. In 2010, the campsite was not well-used. It's a short distance before the trail makes a left turn to begin a steep ascent out of the valley to Pitkin Lake. We are calling this the "lower campsite." It can be used as a base camp for Mt. Solitude, Peaks X and Z. The waterfall shown on the map is somewhat obscured from here.
After passing the campsite, the trail begins climbing steeply for about 1/3 mile before leveling off in the upper valley that leads to Pitkin Lake. We arrived in the vicinity of the lake in about three hours from the trailhead. We found a very nice site 100 yards east of the trail and down from the lake by about 150 - 200 yards. It had some nice trees for some shelter, a fire ring and several level spots for tents and was located right at the foot of the prominent south ridge of East Partner. Close by and down a little from the campsite are some scenic ponds with a view down the valley. This is the "upper campsite" and can be used as a base camp for both Partner summits and Peak Q.
Note: The summit coordinates for Peak Q are obtained from Google Earth, as are almost all the other coordinates provided on this site. We have found that GE struggles with summits that are more vertical and rocky, especially in the Gore. The result is that the elevations measured are often substantially off. The USGS quad gives an elevation of 13,230 ft. for Peak Q. On GE, we could only obtain a measurement of 13,138 ft. - a substantial variant. In addition, GE gives no hint of the "split" summit. Therefore, use our coordinates only for general purposes of locating the area of the summit. You may want to compare to other sites. A field measured- coordinate would be helpful if anyone wants to provide. Also, in retrospect, we would suggest climbing Peak Q from the Slate Creek side. The peak combines easily with Peak L which is also a 13er. Both are "classic" scrambles. However, on this trip to Pitkin Lake, we decided to take advantage of the close proximity to Q and thus, the route described below.
Peak Q has a "split" summit. The eastern one is the higher of the two. Coming from Pitkin Lake, it will make some sense to head for the west summit and then traverse to the east, however the "notch" provides a substantial obstacle that is at least a 4th class problem. Frankly we would call it 5th class, requiring some rope and equipment. On our trip, we made it to the west summit but failed to navigate the notch to the higher, east summit. This required altering our route to the NE face, which meant circling around the south side of the peak. For our route description, we will focus on the NE Face route, but will also provide some details about the west ridge route for those who want to try that approach.
From Pitkin Lake, the first problem of the day in reaching Peak Q is finding a non-lethal way across the West Partner-East Partner Ridge. Information we had indicated to us not to attempt to cross the ridge at the lowest point saddle, but to seek an egress into South Slate Creek by a break in the ridge higher up toward West Partner.
The connecting ridge between the two Partner peaks is a rugged piece of work. It is formed of great blocks of rock and below the ridge itself are large boulder fields comprised of vehicle sized rocks that require a great deal of tiring scrambling. On the eastern section of the ridge, there is a fairly easy, somewhat grassy approach, but to descend from there on the north side is not advisable because the descent will be incredibly steep, possibly filled with snow/ice and extremely loose rock. In addition, the large boulder field below the central ridge should be avoided. So the best advise we can offer is to aim for the western side of the connecting ridge, just above the obvious difficulties. This will involve a route similar to ascending West Partner Peak up to a point that can utilize tundra slopes and more stable rock.
From our vantage point on a bench section directly below the central section of the ridge and above Pitkin Lake, there were two obvious breaks in the ridge a little left of center. One would appear to be the low point and the other, higher along the ridge to the west. Some advice gained from a SummitPost source indicated that the best passage across the ridge and down the other side would be a break in the ridge marked by a thumb-shaped gendarme. We aimed for what we supposed to be that gendarme. We did not aim high enough so the small col we came to did allow passage down into South Slate Creek, but the first 200 feet of descending were precarious on gravel & scree with nothing to hold on to. We should have aimed even higher and farther west on the ridge to yet another notch. The Roach's indicate they found passage through at 12,460 feet which would mean the low point of the ridge, just west of the 12,620 foot marker, but that route would require going through the great boulder field.
Once you find your way across the ridge, by whatever route you choose, you will eventually be deposited onto another boulder field of much smaller rocks than the south side of the ridge. You'll have to descend at least 600 feet into the wide open, upper South Slate Creek drainage. From there, it's easy to chart a course over to the west ridge of Peak Q. More about that later. For now, we'll keep discussing the NE face route. Hike now on much more pleasant tundra terrain across the basin to the NNE and then begin working your way across more tundra and rock benches and small streams to an unnamed lake at the SE foot of Peak Q in a sinkhole just below 12,200 ft. Along the way, there will be some inevitable willow-bashing. From near the lake and in the general direction of the Peak Q-R saddle, climb briefly up a steep tundra/rock cleft for 25 feet. Once above the cleft, a sloping bench leads over to the saddle with about 200 more feet of gain. The view of the south face of Peak Q along here is intimidating with its cliffs and spires high above. The aforementioned cleft can be avoided by hiking well east of the unnamed lake on mixed tundra & rock and then cutting back some to the ramp that leads to the saddle.
At the saddle, turn northwest and begin an ascending traverse heading for a ridgeline with a lighter colored rock. It took a good 15 minutes or more to work our way across minor gullies and considerable loose rock and rubble. Once you reach the ridgeline, we located the first of a series of rock cairns that led us all the way (to our relief) to the east summit. The nearly 800 feet of gain was mostly class 2+ and brief 3rd class scrambles at times. We had to exercise care so as not to put a rock down on each other. Helmets strongly advised. After about 30 minutes, you will arrive at the more level stretch of the summit block that presents the final scramble to the summit. Head west toward the main summit block, contouring over onto the south side and climbing up a short step that poses a small 4th class problem. Make the one critical and exposed step that will take you onto the very narrow, blocky ridge (see photo) that leads over to the actual summit. Just before the true summit, there is another problem with a short, vertical wall to ascend that offers some exposure. A rope belay up the final 15 foot section may be desired by some. In a few more minutes, you will finally be on the true and highest summit of Peak Q. Whew! What a relief to finally make it. Return off the summit as you came.
Now - regarding the west ridge and west summit: Once in the upper drainage of South Slate Creek, head generally north toward the west ridge of Peak Q, aiming for the point on the ridge where the easy tundra gives way to rockier terrain at about 12,800 ft. At least this stretch goes easily. Continue up the ridge on Class 2+ rock with some minor Class 3 scrambles. We gained the final summit ridge by circling around some on the north face and then following the ridge as it curves back to the prominent gash that separates the two summits. There will be a few Class 3 moves on this last section.
We knew about this gash ahead of time, but had precious little information about how to negotiate it or what it might require. One source had indicated descending it from the east summit with the use of only some webbing and referred to it as 4th class. When we arrived at the gash, it did not appear so easy to us. In fact, with the small amount of protection I had brought (mainly some webbing and a few biners and our backup rope) it did not appear we could safely get across. One big problem - there was nothing to anchor to that would allow us to descend into the gash and then climb out and up on the other side, which appeared equally vertical. We decided to descend back to the northwest end of the summit ridge and go down on the north side a little to see if there was any traverse across the north face over to the other summit. We dropped down about 100 feet and began trying to traverse walking gingerly across wet ledges covered with sand & gravel and no secure footing. After a little traversing, we stopped to analyze what we could see and reached the conclusion that this traverse did not appear safe at all and we did not see any inviting way to continue it. About a month later, I received a List of John response from Ken Nolan who indicated that another 100 feet down, there was a non-technical ledge that would lead all the way across. We never spotted that ledge. If you check out the SummitPost link provided, there's some additional information that may prove helpful in making a traverse across the north face to the east summit.
If you can successfully navigate the gash from the west, that will shorten the climb considerably compared to the NE Face route. If not, plan on a longer and difficult day. We would advise some rope and a little equipment to be safe regardless of the route taken, especially if you have less experienced persons in your party.
For another way to approach Peak Q, go to Peak L and read about the Brush Creek Trailhead and approach along the Gore Range Trail and up Slate Creek to Upper Slate Lake. Climbing Peak Q from the Slate Creek side will also present an opportunity to climb Peak R, which is just 5 feet short of being a 13er.