Backcountry mountaineering takes guts, gumption and strength.
Not for the meek. Not for the lazy. Not for the mild. It taxes and tantalizes at the same time. The wilderness summons the deep, primordial spirit of mountain men and women. It spills into their hearts like the flow of the Colorado River. It cascades into their minds with the power of Niagara Falls. The wilderness seeps into their pores with the subtlety of the rising sun.
Somewhere out there in the wilderness, a man and woman unzips the tent flaps to see an extraordinary sunrise over a pond with a moose browsing for breakfast. Somewhere in the woods at nightfall around a campfire cooking the evening meal—adventurers share the day’s events.
While others wish it, wilderness seekers live it: full bore, and flat out in order to discover an enormous mountain of emotional bliss.
The Colorado Trail, winds 462 miles from Denver to Durango, Colorado. It crosses the Continental Divide. It passes through incredible mountain beauty. My friend Al and I jumped on the steam locomotive at Silverton for a ride to Elk Creek Canyon on the Colorado Trail. We tossed our packs into the baggage car before stepping into rail cars from the 1800s.
Moments later, with a shrill whistle, the train lurched forward with the “chug, chug, chug” of the ancient locomotive.
The tourists laughed and talked while some wondered why we wore strange bush-whacking garb with Aussie digger hats. Plus, walking poles!
“What are those poles for?” asked one lady.
“Helps ease the burden of a 55 pound pack with 3,000 feet of mountain grade,” said Al.
“Oh, my word,” she shrank in horror of the thought of that much weight.
A high school girl named Megan asked questions with an eye toward her own adventures one day. The train pulled along the Animas River with huge mountain rock faces looking down at us. Everywhere along the route, lodge pole pines and fluttering aspen trees brought the wilderness to life. Hawks soared on their eternal dinner patrols.
Within the hour, the big train blew some steam off the main engine before coming to a halt at the Elk Creek Flagstop. As we jumped down from the car, several other backpackers threw their packs onto the train and boarded the passenger car. We hoisted our packs upon our backs. To the east, a wall of white-trunked aspen trees awaited us on the Colorado Trail.
“That trail gets down to business in short order,” said Al.
“Adventure awaits,” I said.
We cinched up the packs and headed along the trail. Tall grass gave way to large rocks. Tall aspen and taller pine trees needled their way toward the sky.
The trail winds, curls, jumps up and drops out with endless variations for 462 miles from Durango to Denver. Once you step foot on this backpacker’s “Holy Grail”, you enter into the “Kingdom of the Rocky Mountains” with all their myth and magic. John Denver sang about the “Colorado Rocky Mountain High…I’ve seen it raining fire from the sky.” Indeed, the enormous if not spellbinding vacancies of the deep canyons causes a person to stand in wonder at the immense amount of space that sucks his or her eyeballs out of their sockets in wonder.
In the 1800s miners drilled, hunters trapped and trains pulled the booty out of these mountains from the 1850s onward. In their wake, they left hundreds of miles of tunnels, lots of dead beavers, elk, deer and buffalo. They left poisoned soil, lakes and rivers from extraction processes they employed in their search for silver and gold. When backpackers trudge into those mountains, they see the remnants of the past in old mining shacks, donkey trails, steal pipes, rail tracks, compressors, iron stoves and shovels.
At first, we listened to only deep woods silence, which gave way to “white music” of a raging stream named Elk Creek cascading down the canyon we climbed. At times, the trail leveled close to white water. Quickly, it climbed 300 feet above it. The trail turned from a smooth path gliding through aspen trees to rocky outcroppings fenced by lodge pole pines. In between, wildflowers flourished between the flora and fauna along the canyon trail.
It’s times like that, I stop to sit on a dead log to contemplate my good fortune.
Just sitting on a stump with my friend Al gives me peace throughout my being. Aspen trees fluttering, white water raging, hummingbirds touching wildflowers and a the sun shinning out of a blue sky—it doesn’t get any better than that for a backpacker. You can almost hear the heartbeat of the universe in your cells.
“How’s it going man?” I asked Al.
“Best day yet,” he said.
We found our way along the trail until we arrived at a clearing where some folks camped near a pool of crystal clear blue water. We took off our boots and dunked our feet into icy liquid fresh off snowfields at 14,000 feet. Above us, towering rock peaks strutted their stuff into an azure sky. After an energy bar and drink of water, we headed back up the trail.
Always, the trail climbed at 3 percent to 10 percent grade. I won’t fool you; backpacking into the Rocky Mountains takes guts, gumption and true grit. That 55-pound pack grows heavier on the body. We took frequent breaks to take the weight off our hips. The constant push upward wears on the hip sockets. We felt the stress on our quad-flexor muscles.
At one point, we ran out of water. In minutes, we pumped fresh water through our water filters from Elk Creek. Man, you can’t beat the taste of water fresh out of snowfields high above you. In the late afternoon, shadows crossed over the high peaks as a signal to the end of the day. Around 6 p.m., we arrived at a campsite near a beaver pond.
“Wow,” said Al. “This is gorgeous beyond description.”
“Let’s pitch the tents and cook dinner,” I said.
Before us, the woods gave way to the beaver pond under 13,500-foot Arrow Peak and Vestal Peak.
Sheer rock cliffs swept upward to their incredible finish in the blue sky. The glass-still pond, only two feet deep, reflected the peaks above us as if a mirror. We devoured our freeze-dried rice and beans cooked over our one-burner stoves.
“I’m going to sleep like a baby tonight,” Al said.
Next morning, we cooked up hot oatmeal with sliced banana. Nice way to start the day. After drying the dew off the tents in the morning sunshine, we stuffed our packs and headed up the trail. When you follow a trail up a canyon, it makes unexpected turns, curls and jerks. It constantly climbs at various pitches. We passed several other packers winding their way along the Colorado Trial with only 80 miles to go to finish their trip in Durango.
By noon, the trail turned seriously steep. We took multiple rest stops from the stress on our legs and shoulders. We chewed energy bars and peanuts. Lots of water from our canteens. One of the great things about adventure in 2015, we enjoyed digital cameras. Al took endless pictures of purple/white Columbine flowers, orange Paint Brush, white and yellow sunflowers, Bluebells and other colorful foliage. We crossed through 50 species of flowers.
It’s pretty cool hiking through your own movie. If you saw the movie “Wild” with writer Cheryl Strayed, you saw her try to pack up the 2,000-mile long Pacific Coast Trail, to find herself, with no experience and a pack too heavy to carry. Her shoes didn’t fit. Totally unprepared, she hiked to discover herself after ingesting destructive drugs and alcohol. She soon learned the rules of the trail. While she didn’t pack the whole route, she wrote a book and enjoyed a movie starring Reese Weatherspoon. If a man wrote the same book, he would have sold two copies: one for himself and one for his mother.
Personally, I don’t backpack to try to find myself.
I enter the woods with a clear understanding of the wilderness.
“To many Americans, the wilderness is little more than a retreat from the tensions of civilization. To others, it is a testing place—a vanishing frontier where man and woman can rediscover basic values. And to a few, the wilderness is nothing less than an almost holy source of self-renewal. But for every man, woman and child, the ultimate lesson that nature teaches is simply this: man’s fate is inextricably linked to that of the world at large, and to all the other creatures that live upon it.”
Nature infuses me with body, mind and spiritual balance. I sit by a stream to see it come and go. I walk among the “aspen tremulous” or “trembling leaves” for a sense of solitude. I walk through the rain and hail for the energy shared by nature. I love the sunshine warming my face.
My friend John Muir said, “Camp out among the grass and gentians of glacier meadows, in craggy garden nooks full of Nature’s darlings. Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.”
If you can feel those words, you know how I feel.
We plowed up the trail until at one point, we crossed an open field that quickly led up a grindingly steep rock trail. Just plain busted our rear-ends. At the top, we ran into “Tadpole” or Talie, a 69-year-old woman who packed the entire length of the Colorado Trail with only 80 miles left before she arrived in Durango.
“What does Tadpole mean” asked Al.
“It’s my call name,” she said. “It means I don’t know what I want to do when I grow up.”
She already hiked the Appalachia Trail with the Pacific Coast Trail in her sights. She hiked the Milford Track in New Zealand. She proved feisty, energetic and alive. In fact, she planned to write a book: Don’t Wait To Live—Get To It Every Day.
As we talked, rain struck from gray clouds overhead.
We pulled on our Goretex and continued talking as if nothing changed. In a way, we accepted the rain just like the animals of the forest. After about 30 minutes, Talie decided she needed to get down the trail. I gave her a kiss on the cheek.
I said, “Boy, some man would love to have you for a packing partner.”
“No more men for me,” she said. “I’ve been through two marriages. I’d rather be free for the rest of my life.”
“Good for you,” Al said.
She danced down the trail while we continued our arduous climb. The path continued a steep incline past a seven-section waterfall that cascaded down a 13,000-foot rock face. It really caught our attention.
“That’s one cool waterfall in so many sections,” said Al.
Too bad we’re hiking along a cliff face with no chance to back up and get a shot with us in it. True, we walked along a 12-inch wide trail with a 500-foot vertical drop below us.
“Keep an eye on the trail Al,” I said. “Not any room for sightseeing while you’re moving.”
“Roger that,” said Al.
After an exhausting afternoon, we reached an open spot in the canyon that settled along Elk Creek. Wildflowers exploded all over the place.
“Camp!” I said. “I’m bushed.”
“I’m with you,” said Al. “However, I want to explore that tunnel above us.”
“I’m so darned tired,” I said, “I’m eating an apple and then, passing out.”
In the morning, we cooked up oatmeal and the last banana. We folded the tents, stuffed our packs and hung them in the pine trees so the marmots wouldn’t shred them looking for food and salt. We filled our daypacks for the hike into the high country at Columbine Pass. In front of us, a narrow canyon led along raging white water. We faced really steep climbing. At the top we discovered an old mining shack leaning over to near collapse. From there, we climbed onto a flat area with 50 acres of wildflowers in endless colors. At the end of it, twin lakes sparkled in the morning sunshine.
“This is incredible,” said Al, snapping pictures all over the place.
“Hey, there’s two backpackers coming through the flowers from the lakes,” I said. “I’ve got to take some pictures of them.”
As they hiked closer to us, I called out with an offer to take their pictures in the wildflowers. They complied. They took their black and white dog on a leash, and made a big circle around me. I snapped pictures from all angles. Later, we met with Elizabeth and Rebecca, both from Fort Lewis College in Durango. Elizabeth pursued a music major and Rebecca worked in local stores.
They continued down the trail. We took 50 or more pictures of the wildflowers, while at the same time, hooting and hollering at our grand fortune for romping through such a color extravaganza. Soon, we hiked up 25 switchbacks along the trail up to Columbine Pass on the Continental Divide. Just busted our butts up the trail and thankful for daypacks instead of 50-pound backpacks.
Al topped the nearest divide at 13,300 feet. I dipped into a snowfield to make a couple of snowballs. Of course, I threw both of them at him. We took some dramatic shots with the tripod of ourselves and the backdrop of the canyon below us. We saw mountain peaks for 100 miles in all directions. Stupendous! Grandeur! Magnificent!
As we looked west during the afternoon, a huge gray cloud descended upon us. We made our way to the mining tunnel below us. Within minutes, a hailstorm crashed on us with pea-sized ice hammering us. We stood inside the tunnel. After a half hour, it ceased. We turned on our miner’s lamps and explored 100 yards to the back of the tunnel. At the end, it elbowed off for another 20 yards to the right and dead-ended.
“Can you imagine the endless hours of hard labor those miners suffered?” I said.
“Tough buzzards,” said Al.
We took more shots before descending down to our packs. Along the way, we ate lunch on some rocks near the leaning miner’s shack. Three young kids came up the trail. Ben, Hannah and Mallory introduced themselves. We talked and they wanted to share their “s’mores” with us. Sure enough, they cooked up some marshmallows, chocolate and graham crackers turned into a sweet sandwich.
“Gees,” I said. “I haven’t eaten a s’mores in 20 years.”
“This is great,” said Al.
After bidding them adieu, we descended down the valley to fetch our backpacks. After repacking them, we hiked back down the canyon to the beaver pond. Magically, we spotted fresh moose tracks heading down the trail in front of us. At the campsite, we met a young lady who had packed the Pacific Coast Trial and now, neared the finish of the Colorado Trail. One guy, a college grad, bussed tables at Vail Ski Resort, but wanted to use his twenties for adventure. He planned to pack the PCT next summer.
We sat down to the campfire to cook our dinners.
Wouldn’t you know it; as we sat there, a moose waded into the beaver pond to eat her own dinner. Once again, the ink-black sky featured shooting stars and quiet solitude. After turning in, we slept like babies. In the morning, the other packers left early by 5:30. We packed our gear and headed down the trail. Easier going down, but a sadness that our journey neared its finish. How do you describe what we saw, experienced and lived?
I think John Muir, who lived in the majesty of Yosemite for 30 years, said it well, “How hard to realize that every camp of men or beast has this glorious starry firmament for a roof. In such places, standing alone on the mountaintop, it is easy to realize that whatever special nests we make — leaves and moss like the marmots and the birds, or tents or piled stone — we all dwell in a house of one room — the world with the firmament for its roof — and are sailing the celestial spaces without leaving tracks.”
Thank you John Muir and thank you Al Wilson for yet another grand journey into the natural world. For certain, to share it with a best friend must be one of the grand miracles of the universe.
Read more posts by Frosty Wooldridge here. Frosty is a blogger for JenningsWire Online Magazine.
The online feature magazine, JenningsWire.com, is created by National PR Firm, Annie Jennings PR that specializes in providing book promotion services to self-published and traditionally published authors. Annie Jennings PR books authors, speakers and experts on major high impact radio talk interview shows, on local, regionally syndicated and national TV shows and on influential online media outlets and in prestigious print magazines and newspapers across the country.