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Colorado has a Wyoming: Hiking the San Juans 19 September 2011

Posted by magicdufflepud in Colorado, Travel.
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Everyone in Denver wishes he’d spent some time in the San Juans. Just talk to anyone in the hiking community around here and the story’s the same, “Oh yeah, I’ve been meaning to get down there for ages. Just never had the chance.” At six hours in drive time alone from the Front Range, even the nearest peaks aren’t very doable in a weekend. And the 14ers that draw the most folks require at least a day-long hike beyond the trailhead. The rest of the range is similarly remote.

Still, this being Colorado, when I made the trip on a Labor Day weekend, I expected to run into a bunch of other hikers who’d finally received the opportunity to spend some extra time in southwestern Colorado. Except they never materialized. The town of Creede, last stop before the Rio Grande Reservoir and points deeper into the range, bustled with Texans getting into and out of their trucks. I also ran into a costumed bachelorette party which, curiously, included the bachelor too. Stranger things have happened.
Creede’s a curious town, though. Its rise and fall follow the standard Colorado mining arc, but no ski area has resuscitated its fortunes, leaving me to wonder what exactly happens to a mountain town of 400 during the winter. So I asked the girl making a burrito at the cafe.

“Well, there’s pond hockey.”

“No, I mean what do you folks do when the tourists aren’t around?”

“Oh, well, this is a good place to be if you like spending time with your friends and drinking beer.”

“Those are good things.”

“Then maybe you’d like Creede during the winter.”

But this was a post about the San Juans.

I wandered in on my own on a Saturday morning with plans to visit a formation called “The Window” and the less descriptively named Ute Basin. You’d do well to make the same trip. The whole area lies within the Weminuche Wilderness, a protected tract of nearly 500,000 acres that covers Colorado’s most remote and jagged peaks: the Needles range, the Grenadiers, Chicago Basin.

The hike in follows the Los Pinos River, which got me to thinking that Pinos Altos would be a good name for a mountain cabin. Hiking alone, that sort of thing gets stuck in your head. Pinos Altos. A one-room cabin with a wood burning stove, maybe some pelts of varmints hanging from the rafters. The smell of wood smoke.  Pinos Altos would exist in a state of perpetual winter, where the snow was always falling, the fire was always burning, and we were always just returning from a long day of something difficult and rewarding. You spend a few miles thinking about that when you hike alone.

Eventually the trail turned toward the Window itself, leaving the Pinos River behind and below, its meadows receding around the bend. I’d met one man earlier, returning from a solo hike to the summit of the Rio Grande Pyramid. “Trail goes up that way for a couple miles,” he said, “Then you’ll hit a blow down, and if you start thinking, ‘This is steep,’ it is steep, and you should go back around. There’s a cairn.” And we continued.

The Window comes out of nowhere. You see the Pyramid, rising above most everything else, then its arm extending south. But there’s this chunk out of it, plain as day, and that’s the window. Evidently, the whole thing’s volcanic, a bunch of breccia that doesn’t get anyone except geologists excited, and as volcanic rock tends to do, it fell apart. I learned from a retiree the next morning–he ran into me as I was striking camp–that the Spanish used to use the Window as a guide post of

sorts as they smuggled gold out of the San Juans. Moved tons and tons of it, evidently, though some partnership with the Utes. He’d read about it in a book titled “The Window” in Spanish, which he suggested I read if I could remember the word for window. Luckily, Google Translate can.

As you might imagine, the Window is suitably spectacular. The view is a postcard from Wyoming. With the addition of a glacier or two the Needles could pass for the Winds, and it all unfolds before you without any indication of a human presence. The whole of the San Juans surrounds the Window and from every angle the mountains stack up on one another until they disappear beyond the horizon.

This leads me to believe that the San Juans could in fact pass for Wyoming. Nowhere else in Colorado feels so high and so lonesome. Every valley ought to have a town, but look, and a braided river winds its way through a meadow, perhaps on its way to Los Pinos. If I were the Spanish, I’m not sure why I’d ever smuggle anything out of this place—better to sit there and admire it, alone preferably, but good company could work too.

Invariably, a twinge of sadness accompanies a departure from a high point like The Window. The trail descends, the views disappearing along the way. But this trail holds more in store, and as two hikers told me on Ute Pass, it would only get better.

It did.

Another saddle and more views down a web of drainages. Where could they lead? Then along another ridge staring into the Needles. A thousand lakes, it seemed, or at least a few. These were the winds all over again. A trail, trees, lakes, the rolling expanse. Here was Colorado before the mining booms and busts, before Creede, before even the Spanish and the Utes and all that gold.

Past Ute Lake, then Twin Lakes, it had to end. The Continental Divide Trail—the unbroken ribbon from Mexico to Canada—continued north, but my route carried me back to the reservoir, and my waiting car. The hunters camped at Twin Lakes never called out a greeting, and no one else appeared along the trail to greet.

An evening in a meadow, then a frosty sunrise. The hike out through Aspens. A family of stoats and more thoughts about Pinos Altos.

I’m not sure where all the thoughts go when you hike alone, spending that time with yourself. To be in your head that long, it should drive a person crazy, but it never does. It can’t. Too many mountains wait out there.

Hiking a 14er 7 September 2010

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Moving to a new state is typically an easy affair, a matter of finding a place to live, signing the appropriate tax documents and figuring out where to buy full-strength beer. Not so for would-be Coloradans. Not only must they uncover the sinister deception that is 3.2% grocery-store beer, but a forming a covenant with the state also entails certain obligations beyond the immediately evident.   The list runs long, so I’ll provide some essential samples: you must make plans to buy a Subaru, you must make conversation the moment you notice a meteorological event involving water (e.g. “Say, it’s awfully humid!” or “Is that… rain?”), and you must climb a fourteener.

The first two don’t take much effort, but the third, well, that already assumes an understanding of the task. Not a sure thing. I mean, what’s a fourteener? Some kind of gun? One of 14 peaks discovered by a roving band of vigilantes? I wish. In reality, though, a fourteener is any of the 53 peaks in Colorado rising higher than 14,000 feet. Some of them only nose into the designation by a couple feet; some slip through as a technicality, another bump connected to a taller lump; but the tallest of them scrape the sky, reaching heights above all but a handful of mountains in the lower 48. No other state but Alaska–and it never counts in these sorts of contests–can lay claim to so much acreage north of the 14,000-foot mark.

So, as you might imagine, 14ers hold a special place in Coloradans’ hearts. Too special a place. Any Monday at a Colorado workplace, I gather, involves a discussion of the climbs attempted and completed. Commiseration follows the failures. We have all been turned back at one point or another. But rarely does the conversation turn to hike without at summit at its beginning, middle or end. What’s the point? No sense of achievement, evidently. Climbing above the vaunted 14,000-foot barrier takes sterner stuff than a pair of legs and a backpack. It takes… willpower?

I don’t know.

My own experience with Missouri Mountain the other day was a pleasant one: several miles of hiking, most of them above treeline, and a view from the summit that peered across a vast portion of the state. And even our failed attempt climb Huron Peak earlier that morning came to a halt in a basin fit for postcard photography. Call it a failure if you will, but that assumes reaching the summit would count as a success.  With all the information out there on how to climb such mountains, success by that definition seems mostly a matter of time and desire. To summit a 14er is to keep walking, scrambling and climbing where some other folks might have stopped. To be sure, a few hikers die each year attempting one mountain or the other, and some peaks involve significant dangers, but you can read your way around most if not all of them.

It can’t be about the challenge, then. So many other climbs exist to test Coloradans’ skills that the man vs. nature dynamic fails to explains the allure of these mountains. Instead, it must come down to a man vs. man test of dedication, a competition of commitment to stand on top of Very Tall Things. The 14er craze has bred a community, a culture even, that insists on calculating and comparing. It has insisted on and garnered a relevance unrelated to hiking in general. Call it “achievement hiking.” I’ll climb my mountains, you climb yours, and we’ll compare notes; our shared interest in 14ers gives us something to talk about.

But if it’s okay with you, I’ll concede this contest. Climb your mountains and stand within arm’s reach of the heavens, and I’ll explore the backcountry, the barely touched wilds the summiting crowds have ignored. I will take the chance moose or beaver over another beaten ridge-line trail, the chance to see no one at all over the certainty of a summit logbook. When every meter of these wilderness trails has been photographed, and when every possible misstep has been cataloged, then maybe I’ll turn my back on what was once wild. For now, though, you’ll find me there in the lonesome, somewhere below 14,000 feet.