Bob's World Travels

On this page:

Ute Creek July 16, 2018
Crater Lake July 9, 2018
Fish and Owl Canyons April 21, 2018
Bryce Canyon March 21, 2018
Oaxaca November 22, 2017
Bison Peak August 18, 2017
No Payne June 6, 2017

Ute Creek

On July 11, Cheryl Ames, Heeja Yoo-Warren, and I started a backpack up the Ute Creek Trail in the Weminuche Wilderness.  It was sunny with clear skies but we had heard that the yearly monsoon would be coming in with strength over the next several days. At the start, we had to ford the Rio Grande River which was perhaps fifty feet wide and only up to the middle of my shins at the deepest.  The water was very cold.

We climbed up from the river through open terrain and in to the forest.  We hiked through healthy stands of Aspen but most of the evergreens were dead or dying from the pine beetle. According to an article by Daniel Strain in Science magazine, the populations of the beetle have exploded killing trees from New Mexico north into Canada. Jeffry Mitton, an evolutionary geneticist at the University of Boulder and his graduate student, Scott Ferenberg, discovered in the mountains above Boulder that the beetles are now out and laying eggs almost two months earlier than normal. Because of the longer reproductive season, the beetles produce an extra generation and many more individuals than in the past.  Because of this, most of the adult trees in the Weminuche are dead: yet another result of the changing climate. It is still a beautiful place, especially near the very long stretch of the Continental Divide running the length of the wilderness area.

After a mile through the forest, we found ourselves high on the side of the deep and wide, Ute Creek Canyon. For some time, trail was relatively level, climbing gently.  We passed a group of six people with a young dog.  I asked how old the dog was and they told me it was four months, which, of course, is too young for extended hikes but I didn’t say anything. They looked like they were having difficulty keeping the puppy on the trail. We never saw them higher on the trail.  There was a young couple from Snowmass, Colorado who we talked to repeatedly up the trail. They seemed to be enjoying the wild country immensely.

After some time, the trail descended to a large alluvial meadow at the bottom of the canyon.  The creek meandered and after we saw a beaver lodge the creek formed small ponds. After about a mile at the bottom of the canyon, we began to climb more steeply up switch backs.  We came upon the Snowmass couple watching a female moose grazing in the deep forest. Not long after, we arrived at Black Lake, a small lake in the forest, and a short distance later, we stepped out of the forest into a vast, open valley surrounded by peaks. We immediately came upon the intersection where the West Ute Trail separated and climbed into the mountains, and our trail became the Middle Ute Trail. After a short distance, we arrived at the junction with the East Ute Trail and began looking for a campsite. We camped on a rocky bench among some dead and doomed trees just above the confluence of Ute Creek and East Ute Creek. There had been clouds and periods of light rain during our hike, but at our camp in the evening, we enjoyed warm sun and clearing skies.

The next morning, we left at 7:30, hiking up the Middle Ute Creek Trail towards the Continental Divide under overcast skies. We had originally planned to pack up our camp and undertake a loop backpack up the trail to the Continental Divide Trail and then down the East Ute Creek Trail, but given the forecast for heavy storms, we decided to just leave our camp where it was and day hike to the Divide.  I had wondered if we were to see the well-known Rio Grande Pyramid with the Window formation next to it.  Not far from camp the Pyramid Peak loomed above us.  There was a tall rock wall on the ridge next to it with a large square gap shaped like a window.  We continued and soon saw a herd of thirty to forty elk below us on the other side of valley.  The herd included young elk and a large elk with antlers.

After a few more miles, we came to a stream crossing deep in the willows with an intersecting trail going off in two directions.  In each direction there was a pole with a vertical carving telling us that the trail was the Continental Divide Trail.  Both Heeja and Cheryl were surprised to come upon the CDT in this manner, and I asked them whether we should go to Mexico or Canada.  We decided to head towards Mexico. We climbed up through an area of dying forest and then through tall willow bushes tightly lining the trail. We soon came upon Twin Lakes, two large lakes set in a flat, wet area. As we continued to climb, the scenery became increasingly open and rugged with expansive scenery containing mountains and the ridge top of the Continental Divide. After climbing to a low area on the Divide, we saw mirror-like Ute Lake below us. The lake was almost two hundred feet below us in a steep sided basin.

We had decided to return to the Middle Ute Creek Trail via the Ute Lake Trail, and above the lake it took us some time to determine how to find the Ute Lake Trail.  Cheryl walked towards the lake and found a camp with lamas but no trail. We decided that we needed to continue on the CDT until we found the intersection with the Lake Trail.  I could hear the little pikas squeaking and spotted one among the rocks. We began to climb on the trail, higher and higher, and when I checked the GPS, I saw we had passed the intersection.  As we climbed, we hadn’t noticed patches of blue sky appear among the magnificently broken clouds. Heeja led us back down a short distance and found the unmarked intersection with Ute Lake Trail.  As we climbed on the Lake Trail, we were far above tree line and could see a large portion of the Weminuche Wilderness area. We could see many high peaks in the distance with Ute Lake and Flint Lake below. From there we were viewing the high peaks above Chicago Basin, and we were seeing the Needle Range. We became positively giddy with the breathtaking scenery around us.

As we reached the point where we were to begin descending back into the Ute Creek Valley, it began to rain and hail heavily. We put on our rain shells and descended steeply down the increasingly soggy alpine meadows. The rain did not end until we were almost down in the valley.  It rained off and on as we followed the Ute Creek Trail to our camp. Back in camp, the sun came out and it became quite warm for a couple of hours. While we prepared dinner, we saw a female moose and her young one in the willows along the creek below our camp. We retired to our tents early and in a little while it began to rain steadily.

 

On our third morning, we packed up camp and began to hike back to the trailhead. In camp and on the trail, we talked about many subjects including hiking and other pursuits and the political situation.  We talked a great deal about music.  When we got back to the meadow in the canyon bottom, there was a female moose in one of the beaver ponds, sticking her head in the water to eat the aquatic vegetation. As we hiked lower, it became quite warm with swarming flies.  If you stopped for too long, they would bite you.  At the bottom, we forded the river and were back at the car. We were all thrilled with our experience in this very wild, very beautiful place.

Crater Lake

Crater Lake is certainly one of the most beautifully situated lakes in Colorado.  Over the 4th of July, Rick Andrews and his dog Griffin and I backpacked up from Monarch Lake on the western side of the Indian Peaks Wilderness and camped above the lake. The trail to the lake provides a great hiking experience, passing a series of powerful waterfalls along its middle section. Just before Crater Lake, we arrived at smaller Mirror Lake with the sharply pointed Lone Eagle Peak behind it.  I had hiked there many years before. I am not sure what year, but it was when I was still taking pictures using film at that time.

We camped in a designated site on a stony knoll above Crater Lake. The lake is surround by high vertical walls composed of jagged granite. Directly on one side is the massive bulk of Lone Eagle Peak with its pointed top.

The second day I hiked by myself up into the Pawnee Basin, visiting Pawnee Lake and climbing to the top of the basin.  I could not pick out Pawnee Pass on the high wall above me, although on the map the trail appeared to zigzag up a vertical couloir.  Since I had climbed the pass from the other side in the past, I did not make myself climb the rest of the way to the top of the pass. On the way down, I stopped and rested on some large boulders and admired the view of Pawnee Lake below. Back in camp, Rick told me he had been visited by a mountain goat twice while I was gone. In a little while, Griffin began to growl, and we looked up to see the goat again on a rock above us, inspecting our camp.

 

Fish and Owl Canyons

On the Colorado Plateau, in southern Utah and northern Arizona, there are so many unique canyon and desert environments. In April, under overcast skies, we climbed steeply down into the striped sandstone Owl and Fish canyons, carved by the ages into the high Cedar Mesa. We were making this loop hike, down Owl Canyon and back up Fish Canyon, a loop hike of approximately 17 miles.  We started down the slick rock with an experienced group. Cheryl Ames, Carol Munch, Phil Kummer and I are trip leaders for the Colorado Mountain Club.  Also, along were Heeja Yoo-Warren, a longtime hiking friend, and Carol’s husband Ed. We were very fortunate to have Dave Manley and Leigh along from the Utah Rock Art Association. Dave has published a book of his rock art photos and Leigh has a Master’s Degree in Archeology. Dave and Leigh are friends with Cheryl who is on the board of the Utah Rock Art Association and who came up with the idea for this trip.

To descend, we had to walk on the sandstone slick rock following cairns consisting of piles of rocks, walking along ledges and eventually making a very steep descent to the canyon floor. The canyons are carved by Owl and Fish creeks into the enormous Cedar Mesa.  Logically, the predominant rock of the Mesa and the canyons is Cedar Mesa Sandstone, a light colored, red to brown layer up to 1,200 feet deep, formed from beaches and sand bars deposited by an ancient sea that covered the area during the Permian era, over 300 million years ago.

As we descended into Owl Canyon, we passed our first ruins  consisting of a small, round building with smaller granary in an alcove. The Cedar Mesa area has been occupied by people for thousands of years.  Between the beginning of the Common Era and the 1200s the area was fully occupied by ancient Puebloan people who left stone structures throughout the area.  As we walked through the canyons, we could see small structures hundreds of feet above us in alcoves and on ledges high on the canyon walls. Dave told us that parts of the Colorado Plateau had more people living there in the 1200s than today.

The trail was primitive and very rugged in the upper portions of the canyons.  As we descended down the canyon there were vertical drops or pour offs where the streams formed waterfalls during floods.  The first one we reached was several hundred feet deep and we had to climb steeply down over boulders and rugged terrain.  We climbed down to a lovely small pond at the bottom below a smaller, sculptured pour off.  There were several more small ponds in the upper canyons. Several of these pour-offs had vegetation hanging from the rock, dripping water into the small ponds below.

We had been worried about water but were assured that there was plenty in the upper canyons, but we were told that below, where the two canyons came together in a wide-open confluence area, there would be no water.  We were told that there was water less than a mile downstream from the confluence area. So most of us limited the water we carried to around 2 liters.

Hiking down Owl canyon we saw many beautiful towers and giant shapes eroded from the vertical canyon walls. Fish and Owl canyons are deeper, steeper and narrower than many of the other canyons in the Cedar Mesa area with an average depth of 500 feet. Because of this, these are particularly spectacular canyons. After we left behind the last water in the stream, we came upon a particularly beautiful collection of tall rock towers and next to them, we spotted the dramatic Nevills arch high on the canyon wall above.  Nevills arch is named after Norman Nevill, the first man to take customers on boat trips through the Grand Canyon. Nevills arch has a span of 145 feet and the height of its opening is 80 feet.

As we continued on, the canyon widened until we stopped for a rest at the dry bed of Fish Creek.  Here, we decided to turn up Fish Canyon and look for our first camp site there. We were hiking farther than I expected on our first day and I was running out of water.  Despite the clouds, it was a warm day in the canyons, and I began to focus on finding water. Others were tired and started talking about finding a campsite before we found water.  So I hiked by a large established campsite where the others stopped, and I continued to where I found water, about a half a mile beyond the camp site. The camp site had a large square boulder in the middle which served as an excellent table on which to cook dinner.

The next day was sunny and we continued hiking up Fish Canyon.  We continued to see a great variety of shapes, towers and natural sculptures carved into the canyon.  I saw a couple of small, ancient structures collapsed on ledges high above us. We hiked on for a few miles following Fish Creek as it twisted and turned and formed small pools. We started to see small trees chewed into points on the end, a clear sign that there were beavers in the canyon, and we arrived at a substantial beaver dam with beaver ponds where a large side canyon branched off of Fish Canyon.  Tomorrow, we would hike up the side canyon and climb back out to the Mesa above.

There at this confluence, Carol found a lovely established campsite on a bench above the creek. The campsite had a large, striped butte above it. Utah rock walls tend to be patterned with stripes and even polka dots.  The stripes above us were desert varnish, which is as deposit of an iron-manganese solution which runs down the rock when it rains forming dark patterns in the hot, dry climate.

After we set up our camp, Carol and Dave led Heeja, Leigh and myself on a hike a mile or more up the main Fish Creek Canyon.  The canyon was narrow with beautiful, high glowing walls.  On the ledges of one wall, we saw several stone structures on ledges at three different levels.  Back at camp, it rained quite a bit during the night.

The next morning was clear with bright blue skies and we started hiking up the side canyon where we found more pour-offs and pools.  We had to grab onto a small tree above us to climb up one short but steep drop off. After a couple of miles, we came to the turn where the trail began to climb steeply up the side of the canyon. The trail twisted and turned up nearly vertical sections in places, around enormous boulders and across stretches of slick rock.

Leading the group, just below the top, I followed the trail to a final rock wall.  There the trail became a crack running up through a vertical, twenty foot wall.  Dave climbed up the crack first and lowered a rope down to bring the packs up.  I climbed up first to help Dave with the packs.  The first move of the climb was the most difficult with limited means for a handhold and foothold.  With Dave anchoring the rope we were able to bring up the packs and everyone did a great job climbing to the canyon rim. On top we rested and admired the wide view of the canyon and the terrain beyond.  From the rim we hiked two miles through the rolling juniper-pinon-cedar forest on the mesa and arrived back to the cars late in the morning.

Leigh, Dave, Cheryl, Heeja and Phil immediately left for home, while Carol, Ed and I spend the rest of the day exploring the area by car. We drove to Muley Point Overlook where we could see a vast territory out to the buttes of Monument Valley over the amazing canyon of the San Juan River with its dark, layered geology. Next we drove down through the Valley of the Gods, a wide-open, rolling desert with huge, scattered buttes, fins and other indescribable rock monuments.

I had previously hiked through the Grand Gulch which is close to Fish and Owl Canyon.  The Grand Gulch is not as dramatic as Fish and Owl but is much more intensely filled with ancient ruins and incredible rock art. Together, Fish and Owl Canyons, the Grand Gulch, Muley Point Overlook, and the Valley of the Gods are areas that the administration recently removed from the Bears Ears National Monument.  This despite the fact that polls showed that over 60 percent of Utahans supported maintaining the monument.  Recent reports suggest that the removal was done to support oil exploration in the area.  In fact, I agree that the area should not be a national monument.  Instead, the greater Bears Ears Area, including Cedar Mesa, should be designated as a National Park for the enjoyment and appreciation of future generations.

 

Bryce Canyon

At the end of February, 2018, I went on a trip with a Colorado Mountain Club group led by Joanne Young and Renee Howbert. When I was in Nepal six years ago, I wondered momentarily whether there was anywhere else that was as beautiful, spectacular and magnificent as the Himalayas. I almost immediately had the answer; it would be the desert southwest especially the area from the middle of Utah south to the Grand Canyon.  Bryce Canyon is certainly one of the most special places in that southwestern area.

It took us a whole day to ride the bus from Denver to Bryce Canyon.  We stopped in Green River, Utah to spend an hour in the John Wesley Powell museum. Powell is famous for his exploration of the Colorado River and particularly his first recorded boat trip through the Grand Canyon.  However, he was in fact part of and a leader of the larger effort to create detailed maps of the southwest. Members of the exploration led by George Wheeler provided the first detailed documentation of Bryce Canyon in 1870.  Bryce Canyon is named after Ebenezer and Mary Bryce, settlers who grazed cattle and sheep in the canyon and who built a lumber road into the Canyon.  Ebenezer's famous comment on the canyon was: “awful hard to find a cow that was lost.”

Our first morning, we left Ruby Lodge at 6:30 am and went to Bryce Point on the rim looking across the canyon to the sunrise.  It was overcast but with a narrow gap between the horizon and the clouds so that the sun popped briefly through, brightly illuminating the canyon basin below. Bryce is not actually a two sided canyon but is instead a serious of basins eroded deeply into the eastern side of the high Paunsaugent Plateau which sits atop the Grand Staircase in southern Utah.  The sun shone on the vast collection of red hoodoos in the basin below. It was a panorama of light, colors and otherworldly shapes.

After breakfast, we hiked a short distance to Mossy Cave to see the ice formations, including large icicles in the cave and a frozen waterfall. In the afternoon, Renee Howbart led us on a hike on the rim from Fairy Land Point back to Ruby’s Inn. We walked along the rim, looking down into the eroded landscape.  We were told by a ranger that the snowfall this year had been fifteen percent of normal but there was still enough snow to contrast with the red and pink hoodoos below us.  After walking for a mile and a half, we came to a barbed wire fence and turned west, into the ponderosa forest on top of the plateau, through snow, looking for a gate. We had seen blue diamond ski trail markers on both side of the fence and so hoped there was a connection through the fence. We followed the fence until it turned in front of us at a right angle and decided the whole group had to go through the fence between the top two strands.  The Ponderosa forest was beautiful and open. We saw no sign of the mule deer which populate the plateau, nor of the mountain lions who prey on them. It was sunny by the time we arrived at Ruby’s Inn.

After a quick dinner at the lodge, we were out to Sunrise Point for a moonlight hike.  We met our ranger guide in the parking lot and went up to a high view point on the rim to watch the sunset. The sunset was behind us so it illuminated the landscape in front of us.  Bryce Canyon is known for its “100 mile views” due to its clean air, remote locations, and high altitude. Shortly after sunset, the full moon rose over the distant Table Cliff Plateau and hills beyond the Paria River.  The large bright moon lit the snow fields around us so that they glowed as it became dark.  In the dark, we could see our prominent moon shadows as we descended down into the dark hoodoos.  Our guide talked about the moon, how it was created and how it is essential for life on earth.  He told us that Bryce is one of the darkest places on the continent and pointed out the stars and the nebula that comprised the Orion constellation. He talked about the changing geology of the canyon and how the average age of a hoodoo was only 2,000 years. He told us he preferred not to use white lights but instead to allow our eyes to adjust to dark, and we could see almost as well as during the day except in the darker shadows.  The moon, almost as bright as a sun, gave the landscape, now colorless, a stark contrast of light and dark.  We hiked down into the Queene’s garden and saw the Queen Victoria hoodoo in dark silhouette. He told us to come back when there is no moon shining in order to see the stars and the Milky Way.

The second morning, we went out to Sunrise Point to watch the sunrise.  There were no clouds so the red and pink hoodoos glowed above the snow.

After breakfast, we began hiking down into the Canyon around the eight mile Fairyland Trail loop. On the upper part of the descent, we were surrounded by thin walls and fins; below that, we were among the hoodoos of all shapes and sizes.  In the bright, morning light, with a scattering of snow, the landscape down in the basin felt so open, so bright and so clean. The formations created varying small microclimates allowing trees of differing types to grow, scattered throughout the canyon.  Heavy rains during the summer storms erode the surface especially on the steeper slopes, creating what are technically badlands, flowing down in lines of gullies.  The gullies contained snow, creating white stripes on the landscape. The steeper slopes erode too rapidly to allow trees to grow except for a few smaller trees, like the limber pine, struggling to hold on with their prominent roots. As we continued to hike below the rim, it grew warmer in the sun. The trail ran up and down climbing over several ridges.  In every, case when we climbed around a bend and summited a ridge, a new inexpressible panorama stopped us in our tracks. We climbed through tunnels and by distinctive hoodoos back to the rim and back to Ruby’s just beyond the northern end of the park.

Late in the afternoon, we rode on the bus to the southern end of the park. The altitude of the park above the canyon rim runs from under 8,000 feet at the northern end to over 9,000 feet at the southern end.  So we stopped at the southern end of the road above 9,000 feet to hike the Bristle Cone Loop Trail. We hiked the one mile loop over the snow, under clear blue skies, through a Spruce-Fir forest, with gale force winds. We hiked to high viewpoints were we could see almost 100 miles.  Our ranger told us you could see the North Rim of the Grand Canyon from one of these locations.  We didn’t know enough about what we were seeing to pick out particular places and could only stay a short time on the exposed viewpoints because of the rough, cold wind. We certainly could see for many miles.

Our last day in the National Park, we started again with sunrise at Bryce Point. Since it was a relatively cloudless morning, the light and the hoodoo colors were brighter than on the first morning when it was overcast.  However, the colors had been deeper and subtler when it was overcast.

After breakfast, we hiked back into the canyon on the Peek-a-Boo trail loop. There were white, red and pink walls, some enormous in scale, some with windows or tunnels, and then the loop descended into the hoodoos.  The hoodoos are formed by the freeze-thaw cycles when ice enters into cracks and freezes and later thaws, often during the course of a day.  The hoodoos are composed of various layers of rock of varying composition and hardness.  So the layers erode at different rates, creating the unique hoodoo shapes.  Often there is a harder capstone on top which keeps the hoodoo standing. Our ranger tells us that they lose a few hoodoos each year to erosion. Currently, there are 200 days a year at Bryce when the temperature goes below freezing. With warming, the number of freezing days may decrease, changing the pattern of erosion.

After lunch, we descended on the Navajo Loop Trail which has the most interesting descent, including a section of short switchbacks through a tight canyon.  We descended down into the Queens Garden where we again viewed Queen Victoria in her white stone dress, this time in the sunlight.  That evening, we celebrated our adventure with a happy hour and pizza.  A few of us snuck into the Ruby’s Inn cafeteria for ice cream.

Bryce Canyon is not permanent.  It is eroding rapidly and in a few thousand years might be just another canyon with steep sides.  It reminds me of a Tibetan sand painting where monks create elaborate patterns from colored sand. After the art is finished, the monks quickly and easily destroy it demonstrating that existence is ephemeral and temporary.  So you need to go see Bryce Canyon, a temporary work of nature’s art, before it is erased by water and weather.

Oaxaca

Oaxaca Historic Center

I arrived at my Hotel Trebol in central Oaxaca, during the night. The door faced the street corner and the door was locked and the lobby dark when I arrived. I knocked on the door and someone appeared from within the lobby to let me in.  I managed to get the check in done with my broken Spanish. A young man took me to my room.  It turned out to be a very nice, authentic Mexican hotel built around a large courtyard.  I stayed there for two nights before joining the group.  The people at the desk were very nice but spoke no English, which was fine with me so I could try some Spanish. I had a good breakfast of mango and melon slices with yogurt and various grains, which I didn’t recognize, to put on it. I had some scrambled eggs with a black mole sauce.

The downtown historic area of Oaxaca is not large and very easy to walk through. The streets are lined with colonial era buildings which are horizontally monumental although no more than two or three stories tall.  Many buildings are painted in bright colors. Scattered throughout are old churches built of stone with varied rooflines composed of domes, towers, and steeples. After my first breakfast in the city, I walked from my hotel to the nearby grand Zocalo plaza, which was surrounded by old buildings with ground floor restaurants and shaded by many old trees. As I walked into the plaza, I was drawn into a restaurant by a woman who offered me a cappuccino, which turned out to be a lovely tall, layered concoction flavored with cinnamon.  After coffee, I took pictures of the Catedral de Oaxaca located on the north side of the Zocalo. I went into the Cathedral and admired its spacious colonial sanctuary with the morning light streaming through the stained glass windows.

From the Cathedral, I walked up the Andador Macedonio Alcala, a beautiful pedestrian-only street with brick pavement, lined by large old buildings. I walked to the Templo de Santo Domingo and entered the large church.  Inside it seemed to be covered with gold, with golden shapes, figures and bible stories.

Coming back to my hotel from the trip to Mitla, the streets were lined with merchant stalls and good booths. I went into the large indoor Mercado, across the street from my hotel.  The Mercado was crowded with booths displaying all types of merchandise including fragrant flowers. I next went into the adjacent food Mercado.  I entered through an intensely hot entryway where men were grilling meat. In the rear of the hall, there were butchers and seafood stalls, and the smell was overwhelming.

In the evening, I walked with the group back up to the Andador Macedonio Alcala for dinner.  On the way, we crossed a parade which likely was associated with the celebrations leading up to coming Day of the Dead. We went to dinner in a very interesting postmodern space with a rectangular pool of water, stucco brick walls, and a fabric roof.  Oaxaca is known for its mole, so I had grilled Mahi-Mahi with a delicious dark mole sauce. At around 9:00 PM, we walked back through the Zocalo which was full of thousands of people, including families and children, watching dancers, musicians  and films and eating and drinking outside at the surrounding restaurants. The great plaza was full of lights, noise and music.

The next morning, we ate breakfast in the Mercado. I had queso with salsa and beans. People kept trying to sell us trinkets while we ate and musicians played for donations. After our visit to Monte Alban, we went to the village of San Antonio Arrazola and visited the home and workshop of the late Manuel Jiménez Ramírez , the originator of the Oaxacan alebrijes, wooden carved figurines painted with bright colors and intricate patterns.  His son demonstrated the technique they used to carve figurines varying in size from life sized jaguars to fanciful figures that fit on the palm of your hand.  After the demonstration, the family served us homemade quesadillas and fajitas, and we shopped for figurines to take with us.

Back in the city, I walked up through the Zocalo to San Domingo Plaza where I explored the museum located in the old convent of the church, the Museo de las Culturas de Oaxaca. There, I explored the ancient sculptures, jewelry and ceramics from Monte Alban and the ancient valley. From the rear of the museum I looked down on the beautiful botanic garden. On the way back, I found a bookstore with many books in English. The owners were a couple, an American man and Mexican women both of whom spoke English.  I discussed Monte Alban with them, and the American owner expressed his wonder that the ancient city was occupied for so long.  They helped me find books on the ancient valley.

We had another free day in Oaxaca later in the trip.  It was a warm, sunny day and I spent it walking around the city.  I first walked to La Basilica De Nuestra Senora De La Soledad, another beautiful, large cathedral. After visiting the sanctuary, I went into an adjoining old building which turned out to be a municipal office building. It was full of art and meeting rooms named after local historic dignitaries.  I found what appeared to be the combined community development, public works, historic downtown, and zoning office. There were nothing but file cabinets within, which looked rather boring, so I didn’t go in.

From La Soledad, I climbed steep, narrow, residential streets to the Auditorio Guelaguetza, a large outdoor concert venue on a hill high above the city. After appreciating the views of the city below, I walked down the Escalaras de Fortin, a shaded walkway with tall trees overhanging the street, back down into the city. This walking route took me to the San Domingo Plaza.

The highlight of the day was an afternoon visit to the Rufino Tamayo Pre-Columbian art museum which houses the pre-Columbian art collection of the great Mexican artist. This is a museum that treats the ancient pieces as the great works of art that they are. It had a room of pre-classical art from the Olmec period including small, chubby, doll-like, ceramic human figurines, along with modest-size figures of gods. Most were from the Veracruz area.

There was beautiful room of classical era pieces from all over Mexico including tall carvings of Mayan priests with elaborate garments and high headdresses.  The seated figure of the goddess of death looked like the modern female figure of La Calavera Catrina commonly seen associated with El Dia Del Muertos.

For dinner, I went with a small group to the Casa Oaxaca restaurant near San Domingo plaza. We ate outdoors on the second floor patio.  I ate turkey breast with a wonderful black mole along with an unusual tomato salad and fried plantains. As we walked back, we stopped at the plaza to listen to an orchestra and four opera singers performing for a very appreciative audience.  Behind them, the old cathedral was lit with colored lights.

El Tule

Mitla and Monte Alban

On October 21, my first day in Oaxaca, I was picked up at the hotel by the tour company.  The group in the van turned out to be mostly Spanish speakers.  Driving out of the city, the driver maintained a narrative on what we were seeing alternating between Spanish and English. Our first stop was at Tule, a village with El Tule, said to be the widest tree in the world. It is a truly impressive Montezuma Cypress.

Next, we stopped in the village of Teotitlan del Valle at the house of the weaver Nelson Perez where he showed us how they wove rugs using wool, natural dyes, and traditional wooden looms. He used herbs, insects, fruit, flowers, minerals and lemon juice to create vibrantly colored rugs, many with traditional Zapotec patterns. Each line of a rug took one half hour to make on the loom.

Finally, we arrived at Mitla, my primary interest on this tour. Mitla was likely a sacred Zapotec site for millennia, but around 900 AD was probably taken over by the Mixtecs who lived there with the Zapotecs. We walked around the main buildings to a large plaza and walked up tall, steep steps through low doors in the walls into a rectangular room with three large columns. From there, we went through another door into a courtyard.  Everywhere in the site the walls were decorated with intricate abstract patterns. We went into smaller rooms off the courtyard.  One room had a re-creation of the original wooden roof. The Spanish had arrived at Mitla in 1521 and built a church on top of the main temple in order to seal the devil into the site. The buildings were rectangular single-story structures constructed mostly of stone with a plaster covering. Back in the plaza, one of the ancient tombs was open, which because of the low ceilings and doors, I had to crawl into.  The walls were covered with the geometric designs.

I left the others, who were doing a longer tour, and with another driver, Christian, who had lived in Las Vegas for nine years and spoke perfect English. We talked about things to see in the Oaxaca Valley and about the traditions surrounding El Dia Del Muertos. He told me how important it was to him to celebrate his deceased family members and how hard it was to celebrate the day in the United States. I told him that the holiday made sense to me, because I missed my parents and would love to celebrate them officially.

The following day, I went with our Colorado group to Monte Alban. We drove up from the city’s west side onto the mountain on which the Monte Alban site is located.  We parked below the visitor’s center and climbed up a path.  Our guide pointed out various vegetation including the cactus where the cochineal insects grow, which are collected by the rug makers for the bright red and purple colors. We reached the top of the mountain and immediately climbed up steep steps to the top of the large pyramid mound on the north side of the great plaza.

Monte Alban is the site of what is likely the oldest city in Mesoamerica.  Construction started on the city around 500 BC, and the city was inhabited for over 1,000 years.  The builders constructed large flat terraces on the rugged mountain top including the large, flat central plaza.  By mapping all the terraces, by studying their size, shape and orientation, and by inventorying pottery shards on the surface, archaeologists have suggested that there were over 2,000 dwellings on the site with a number of additional civic buildings. It is estimated that the population was between 15,000 and 30,000 people at its peak period. Archeologist Richard Blanton has theorized that city represented the capital of an allegiance of Oaxaca Valley groups, built above the smaller agricultural villages in the valley.  There was no water on the mountain and no place to grow food, so food and water were carried up by foot from the valley. There are famous stone carvings of what were called dancers, which actually probably represent the nude corpses of leaders of groups which the people of the city had conquered. Blanton suggests that the city may have been a military center.  He also suggests that it may have been a sacred site for the cult of Cocijo, the god of rain and fertility.

From the top of the mound we looked down upon the central Grand Plaza and the many pyramids and structures in and around the plaza.  Beyond the site, there were views in all directions of the surrounding mountains and the valley floor far below. On top of the northern pyramid, a Mexican group engaged in a chant that I did not understand. On the northeast side, there was a well-preserved ball court. Our guide suggested that there were three players on each side of the ball game who worked to keep a large rubber ball in the air bouncing it from the east to the west walls of the court, reenacting the movement of the sun. Our guide told us that there may have been human sacrifice at the end of the game, possibly involving the winner. A number of tombs have been found on the site containing valuable possessions which were buried with the dead.  We visited the small museum in the visitor’s center which housed some of the stone carvings, figurines, ceramics and jewelry found on the mountain.

The Northern Sierra

On October 23, I was sick, so instead of hiking, I rode in the van from where the others started hiking, up a dirt road through steep canyons to La Neveria where we spent the night.  The next day, we hiked through the high forest which were completely in the mountain top clouds. I felt well enough to keep up with the leader, a small Zapotec man who spoke only Spanish.  We walked the damp trail which was closely lined with wet grass and other vegetation.  We walked through mixed forest of tall deciduous and pine trees.  The trail led us to a dirt road where we saw our first large agave plants, some of the leaves of which had been cut.  Celestino, our English speaking Zapotec guide, told us that they made barbecue by putting wood coals in a hole and putting meat on the top of the coals and covering it all with Agave leaves.  The drippings from the leaves gave the meat a special flavor.

Celestino talked to me about their community organization.  The mountains are divided into areas called communes, and under the Mexican constitution, each indigenous commune has complete governmental and political control in their areas.  The communes own the land. Instead of taxes, each person is required to spend time, at different points in their lives, giving service to the community. Celestino said that he was currently serving as a policeman.  The policeman role was less about enforcement and more about being a first responder to emergencies and helping to solve problems.

Each commune has a commissioner, who is the chief administrator, along with an authority composed of various chief functionaries, such as the Chief of Police.  The authority is selected by the people each year in a large community gathering.

The subject of ghosts and spirits was discussed.  Our Colorado leader, Chris asked people, Americans and Mexicans, if they believed in ghosts. Our Spanish speaking leader was a devout Catholic and told her that if you believe in God, you don’t believe in ghosts.  Celestino told me a story of the enano (dwarf) nature spirit he saw as a child. It appeared to him as a small child who he saw move instantaneously from one place to another.  The spirit wanted him to follow it on a trail into the forest, but Celisteno didn’t follow. Celestino’s grandmother told him that the spirit had taken part of his soul.  Later in life, Celestina went to see a woman shaman who restored him through ritual.  Celestino experienced an awakening and realized he wanted to be someone.  He began to read and study about biology and history.  He knew all the plants in the mountains, including their Latin names, and could tell us a great deal about his people. He understood the ecology of his place and wanted to write books about that ecology and about the true history of his people. The ecology of the place is unique with tall trees in open, pristine forests. The Zapotec people are working to protect and improve their environment.

We walked into the large village of Benito Juarez named after Mexico’s most notable President from the nineteenth century who was a native Zapotec. The village is comparatively large with one thousand residents. By this time, the rain and wind had increased, and as we walked from the forest into the open village, we grew quite cold. We went in a dining room and had a great lunch of mushroom quesadillas.

From this place, because of the cold, most of our group decided to proceed from Juarez in the van. However, Chris, Wendy and I decided to continue hiking with Celestino and another guide Rafael. We hiked through the wet forest on a trail, a road, and another trail. We passed an interesting open area of pine forest with unusual mounds of grass below. Celestino said that the lichens growing from the trees were not negative but were instead an indication of a healthy forest without air pollution. We descended to a small cabin were there was a farmer who was carving wood. He had boxes of potatoes which are the cash crop at this high altitude.

We descended through a meadow where we passed a bull who was attached to a rope. We climbed steeply down past a stream where we saw a line of agaves with their tall blooms. We then climbed steeply up past a spring with a concrete basin where women washed clothes. We arrived at our destination, the Village of Cuajimolayas and walked through it for almost a mile. As seemed to be the case, it was particularly windy and cold as we walked through the village. We arrived at our cabana and soon found there was no heat nor hot water. I was wet from sweat and from the rain and found I was cold in the cabin. Chris got in her bed to get warm but was becoming hypothermic, so I put as many blankets as I could on her. Eventually, we got the fire in the fire place roaring and managed to warm ourselves and dry our clothes.

 

A Walk in the Valley

In the morning, the Cuajimolayas was still in the clouds and very wet and very cold, so the decision was made to go down to the valley.  Riding in the van, we were soon below the clouds, so we stopped to admire the views of the mountains and the valley far below. Down in the valley, Pedro stopped and  parked the van at the turn off to a dirt road.  We walked for several hours on the road in the warm sunshine. The views of the valley, with its pointed hills and surrounding mountains, were very expansive. We walked past beautiful flowers and a number of different types of tall cactus and through clouds off butterflies. We walked through two villages past people working and walking the streets.  We saw older people guiding donkeys piled with wood, and we frequently saw stray dogs.

The second village was again Teotitlan del Valle, the weaving village.  We went into a private home to the small second floor area where the mother and grandmother were cooking tortillas on large round pan over the coals of a fire.  The small room had a metal roof and was completely open above a waist-high wall.  There were views of the village and the wooded mountains beyond.  We went downstairs into the large, shaded courtyard, which was open to the sky.  There was a large table set for us, and we were served quesadillas and similar tortilla dishes. There were bowls of various types of salsas on the table along with beer, sodas, and the typical pitchers of non-alcoholic drinks mixed from teas and juices.  It was all delicious.

After the food, we went back up to the second floor to see a demonstration of how they made tortillas by hand. The process involved a multi-step process with organic corn and limestone and a final mashing using the mano and metate to create the tortilla dough.  Then the tortilla was flattened from a ball of dough by patting it rapidly, back forth, between the hands. They let us try it, but my effort was a failure. They cooked the tortilla on the pan for a very short time.

The daughter, Gloria, showed us how she made tortillas using a press.  She reminded me of my grandchildren. I took her picture and showed it to her.  I told her “Eres muy bonita.” She smiled and said, “Gracias.”   This was another weaving family, so we also had a weaving demonstration.

In the Hills

On Friday morning, we visited the market town Tlacolula and went into their large Mercado.  It was early and they were still setting up most booths.  However, there were large tables full of fresh pastries, and I bought a roll and a cookie for later. After breakfast, we drove to Mitla and started a hike up into the hills through gentle pastureland and into scrub oaks and other small trees. Our guide was Reynaldo, who spoke no English, but smiled and laughed constantly. He was patient with my simple Spanish, and we talked about where I came from and what the weather was like in Colorado.

Mario, our twenty-two year English speaking guide, pointed out the Mujer Mala, a small tree with wicked looking leaves which would cause a severe rash if touched. As we climbed, we saw plants used by the Zapotecs for many purposes, including the tiny beautiful smelling anise plants.  The meadows were fragrant with the lovely scent of lemon balm with its beautiful, small blue flowers.

We continued climbing steeply for the next hour and a half first through the small trees and then into the pine forest.  Celestino said that the higher we climbed, the taller the pines.  They would be tallest where the air was the cleanest.  There were many yellow, white and lavender flowers, including the yellow marigolds, a favorite flower used to celebrate El Dia Del Muertos. Up in a tree, in the shadows, we found a beautiful orchid.

Finally, we reached a spot where we found Nancy and Debbie resting with Pedro.  Pedro was a former farmer and bicycle racer who ran the travel agency we were with. We then began our final ascent into dense forest.  Just before the top, we walked through a dense forest of pine trees covered with Spanish moss. We next broke out into an open meadow with a 180 degree view of the mountains. There we rested, ate fruit, and took pictures. Below us, we could see the Hierve de Agua, the petrified waterfalls which were a limestone formation created by water. Our plan was to walk to the small village, San Isidro Roaguia, which we could see above the falls, where we were going to have dinner at Reynaldo’s house.

We started to descend through broken meadows and passed a small structure with open sides and a broken metal roof where farmers stayed to work their mountain corn fields. From this ridge, we could see a small corn field just below us.  We continued to descend on the rocky, primitive trail.

I was descending in front with Reynaldo when I heard some commotion behind and above me and turned to see Debbie lying across the trail with her legs drawn up, moaning.  I heard her say that her leg was broken. Chris went to her immediately and worked to stabilize the leg and make her comfortable.

The group discussed how we would evacuate her from this remote location.  The closest road was back over the mountain, the way we came. We talked about carrying her but knew how difficult that would be.  Celestino called Pedro on his cell phone many times.  They discussed the possibility of a military helicopter which did not sound likely.  The suggestion came up of carrying her out by burro.  Reynaldo whistled and descended a bit to find his brother nearby with a burro.  His brother quickly brought the burro to us. However, we knew that riding on a burro would be very painful for Debbie so we discarded that idea. Chris chose a small team to stay with Debbie including Janet, Georgie, and myself and sent everyone else on down to the village with Mario and Reynaldo.  Celestino and Reynaldo’s brother Efran stayed with us.

Soon Celestino told us that Pedro had found some Red Cross first responders to come down to Debbie. After a long wait, two first responders arrived with some men from the village.  The Red Cross men put a brace on her leg and attached her to a litter to carry her out.  The rest of us went ahead and hiked with a local guide to the Village of San Isdro and to Reynaldo’s house.  We arrived at 6:45 PM.  Mario was there with the van and immediately took Chris to meet Debbie at the waiting ambulance. The rest of the group was waiting on the courtyard patio of Reynaldo’s house.  Reynaldo’s wife had already fed the others and brought us some quesadillas. We sat and ate and drank Corona’s until Pedro came at 8:45 to pick us up.  I entertained the group with adventure stories.

Debbie went with Chris by ambulance to a private hospital in Oaxaca where she later had surgery and managed to get on an airplane to home.

Back to the Mountains

On Saturday, we went back to the mountains.  It was still overcast, but we walked on roads and trails through the open forests with very large trees and many flowers.  At the end of the hike we drove to a campground where there were a lot of local people camped and played games, but by late afternoon they were all gone.  I stayed in a nice cabin with Nancy.  There were two separate bedrooms, a small living room with a fireplace and a small kitchen.  I tried to take a shower but there was no hot water, so I tried to clean up as well as I could with cold water.  Outside it became quite cold and foggy.  I warmed up by the fire.

On Sunday, we stayed in the mountains but descended in the van below the clouds where there was sunshine. We took a very warm hike past various flowers and cactus with views of the surrounding mountains and down into the steep river valley.  We descended on the trail to a raging stream which we intended to cross, but the water was too deep and too fast.  Pedro tried to cross it from the other side but he turned back. So, we headed back and descended on a narrow, steep trail, past a burro, to a bridge where Pedro was waiting with the van.

We drove to Santa Catarina Lachatao where we were to spend the night and ate lunch by the old village church on an outdoor portico. Our cabanas were the loveliest we had stayed him.  They were constructed of brick with tile roofs and great views of the village and the mountains beyond. In the forest, in the clouds, there is an essential nobility to these mountain villages and the people, whose ancestors have lived in these places beyond memory.

Hierve de Agua

On Monday, we drove from Latuvi, three hours back to San Isidro, the village that had helped with Debbie’s injury.  While in Oaxaca, Chris had sent people to the local Wal Mart to buy childrens’ school supplies. We drove back to Reynaldo’s house where they gave us a breakfast for special occasions which was chicken and chicken livers with tortillas.  We shared the meal with the family and other villagers.  There were village and school officials there who looked just like the other villagers. Chris presented our gifts to them and thanked them for their help. The gifts were given to the family and officials so they could redistribute them. Chris’s speech in Spanish thanked them and told them how much Americans love Mexico. Pedro had certainly arranged all this behind the scenes and helped us thank them in the correct manner.

From the village we walked down to Hierve de Aqua, a waterfall frozen in limestone. It was a hot descent and climb back. We met the van above at booths were we bought fruit sherbert. On the way back to the city, we visited a mescal distillery where the liquor was made the old fashion way from a variety of cultivated and wild agaves.  A bottle of mescal made from the wild agave could cost as much as two hundred dollars. We sampled the product.

Dia del Muertos

On our final day back in the city, I walked around and saw the decorations and the preparations that were underway for the day of the dead celebration. People were constructing the ofrendas , the altars honoring the deceased, constructed with marigolds and other local materials.  Walking across the Zocalo, I was entranced by a solitary musician playing the ukulele and pan pipes.  I am not a poet but he forced me to sit down on the spot and write a poem:

On the Zocalo

A man playing

the ukulele and

the pipes

with

animation,

with

soul,

most

walked by him

but he is descended

from feathered kings

who worshiped the sun

worshiped the rain

worshiped

death

most just walked by

 

That night, we went to the outskirts of the city where people were celebrating.  We walk through crowds, by booths and restaurants and art exhibits.  We visited two large cemeteries which were decorated with marigolds and candles and where families gathered to celebrate the deceased. It felt like a large joyous fiesta and a solemn commemoration, all at the same time.

 

Big Blue in the Uncompahgre Wilderness

It is evening and I am half way up the canyon trail in a quiet and still camping spot in the forest, across the Big Blue Creek from the remnants of an old landslide, 1,000 feet tall. The creek is backed up by the landslide, creating wide, flat braids in the Creek that are silent and reflective of the evening light. The burbling sound is of a small stream, running by my camp into the Creek.

I started up the Big Blue Trail at 2:00 pm. I had had a slight tightness in my right calf for a couple of weeks and going around a muddy spot, churned by the horse outfitters, I stepped on a tiny evergreen sapling, which acted like a spring, sending sharp pain up my calf.  After that, I limped for a half an hour until I found the campsite. It was 5:00 pm and too late to turn back, and so, I decided to rest and decide what to do in the morning.

The next morning I felt better and my calf improved during my long, second day of hiking. At 7:30 am, I continued hiking up the valley, and a couple miles on, I discovered a wonderful, up-valley view of Uncompahgre Peak, its square, wedding-cake shape dominating the meadows and forests. After that, the ascent became steeper, hotter, and more difficult.  After another hour, I left the trees behind and climbed up the final section of canyon into alpine terrain. Ascending, I followed a stream towards the saddle above me, and where I saw that the stream was dry, I went down to where there was still water and filled all my containers.  There would be no water above me.

On the saddle, there were more grand views of Uncompahgre Peak to the west and of the surrounding ridges and mountains. On the saddle, I made a hairpin turn, back to the south, on the Ridge Stock Driveway traversing up the side of the eastern ridge above the valley at a straight, vertical angle.  The views from this ascent back to the peak and across to the western ridge were varied in shape and color and truly astounding. The top of the ridge was a very wide, treeless place of rolling terrain with a floor of rocks and short grass. At the top, there was a large cairn, carefully built from small stones, and there were never-ending views in all directions. I would find similar cairns on knolls all along this path, characteristic of these areas where men on horseback with dogs, drive their sheep. The trail was very faint and difficult in this open place, and I often resorted to my GPS to stay on what passed for a path.

\

The views back to Uncompahgre Peak continued from this high place but changed dramatically as I continued away from the mountain, but now I also had views of the vast distances to the north and east. Later in the afternoon, I hiked over one hill after another, until around 4:00 pm, I started thinking about finding a campsite. I thought about camping on a high open saddle, but the clouds were gathering and turning dark to the south. So I climbed over the last three knolls and down to the first trees I had found in this high place. I camped on the edge of a large meadow with trees around me. There was thunder in the distance in a couple of directions, but the storm stayed above the peaks and never got to my camp. Sitting at camp, watching lightning over the distant peaks to the east, I heard a coyote yelping and then saw him cross the meadow in front of me. The evening was wonderful at this high camp with towering clouds, mountains and ridges, and a colorful sunset.

The next morning I continued hiking the ridgeline alternating between forest hiking and open meadows, where I could still look back to Uncompahgre Peak. Finally, there was a descent down densely forested switchbacks to the dirt road.  I had to walk several miles on the road back to my car.  No cars passed as I walked the road.  In fact, I had only seen two groups of horse outfitters on the Big Blue Trail and some people day hiking from the Uncompahgre Trailhead at the saddle.  On the wonderfully high Ridge Stock Driveway, I enjoyed complete solitude in the endless open distances.

Bison Peak

I climbed Bison peak yesterday in the Lost Creek Wilderness. It was a CMC trip led by Michael Zyzda and Ander Peterson. I climbed it many years ago when I was still shooting photographs using film, and I have been wanting to get back up there to shoot digital pictures. With twelve miles round trip and 3,900 feet elevation gain, it was a long strenuous climb.  It is so amazing because of the incredible rock formations on the top and the great views of Pikes Peak and South Park.

Continental Divide Trail in the Weminuche Wilderness

In July of 2017, we walked fifty-five miles on a remote section of Continental Divide Trail in the Weminuche Wilderness of Colorado, a profound experience, hiking ridge top trails at the level of the clouds.  Our group consisted of six people lead by Alicia Viskoe, a tall, quiet engineer who lives in Cody Wyoming. Alicia didn’t have a lot to say but displayed significant wilderness skills, especially in the use of Geographic Positioning Systems to navigate.

After hiring a shuttle from Wolfe Creek Pass to 30 Mile Campground on the Rio Grande River near Creede, we started our hike on a sunny morning climbing very gradually up the broad Squaw Creek valley. Half way up the valley, we spotted a dark shape moving in the vegetation by the creek below us.  Suddenly, the shape moved rapidly up the other side of the valley.  We thought it might be a moose, but I looked at it through my camera zoom lens, and it was definitely a horse – a most unusual sight. The lone horse raced away from us and into the wilderness.

We walked through large stands of Chiming Bells, Geraniums and Jacobs Ladder, and spotted the deep purple flowers of both Monkshood and Larkspur. Many scattered clouds passed overhead, but the day remained dry and very warm. At times, we found it difficult to follow the Squaw Creek trail because of fallen dead trees and dense vegetation. We hiked all the way to the place where the trail intersected with the CDT. There we had a choice.  Alicia and Don had hiked the CDT segment to the north and knew we could camp close by if we went that way. However, we were headed south, and on the map, it looked like there might be a place to camp ahead of us near a large stream. So Joon and I volunteered to scout ahead less than a mile to the stream.  There we found no level ground for a camp.  After we returned to the group with the bad news, we hiked north and camped on the low, level top of Squaw Pass in a marshy area.

On July 10, we climbed south from Squaw Pass on the CDT, first through the forest and then through dense willows.  Near the beginning of the climb, I spotted a mountain sheep ram running across a scree field and steeply up the slope above us to join with two female sheep and then disappear into the forest. Soon we climbed up rocky alpine tundra to the top of the ridge where there were vast views of the San Juan Mountains and of an enormous, green basin far below us. We spotted elk in the basin. We saw a young elk frolicking among the others, and an adult splashing in a pond.  We saw several lying on a snow field. Eventually, more and more elk came together, until we realized we were looking at a herd with over seventy individuals. We could hear the bugling of the elk far below us.

We stayed high on the ridge top for the rest of the day. We dropped onto a saddle where there were two ponds, mirror-like, reflecting the surrounding mountains, and there we refilled our water containers. Later, we looked down into another basin where we spotted a lone elk and then a bald eagle flying loops.  Alicia said, “It is rare that you get to watch a bald eagle flying from above.”

We next climbed to a highpoint above 12,000 feet where we ate our lunch. By the time we reached the next high point, the sky was dark and we could hear thunder in the distance. We hurried down into the next basin above beautiful Trout Lake. The trail was near another smaller lake where we could have camped, but Alicia told us we still had two more miles before we could camp. We traversed the side of a ridge and started climbed towards a point on a ridge.  The far end of the ridge with the point was called the Knife Edge because of its narrow width.  As we climbed, there was booming thunder above us.  The trail hung off the side of the ridge and was covered at places by small snow fields. We managed to skirt the first couple, but arrived at one that was too big to skirt and too steep to cross. A couple of members of the group attempted to go above the snow field but found that too difficult. Alicia said that we needed to go below, so I led the way below the field.  By then it was pouring rain and it was a difficult traverse and climb, requiring the use of hands and knees because it was steep and because the rocks and dirt were loose, wet and slippery. But we all eventually made it, with some of the group creatively finding new climbing routes. We had to climb over a second snow field on a route consisting of loose boulders.  By then, we were working well as a team, helping each other find the best way.

The Knife Edge was interesting. The trail followed the top of the ridge which fell away steeply on both sides. There was a jagged fence-like formation on one side.  The trail turned sharply and descended into the next basin, which we immediately climbed out of to a ridge where we found a pond.  We camped next to the pond.  My tent site was at the top of a cliff where I could see Cherokee Lake below. At camp, the sun shone long enough to dry us, but after dinner the wind picked up and it got very cold.  I went into my tent and was quickly warm under my down quilt.

From Cherokee Lake, we climbed high up onto the Continental Divide and walked the narrow ridge for miles. The views were endless, mountains and more mountains. Then, we descended into forests where many of the trees had been killed by the Pine Beetle. Studies have suggested that there is a strong link between climate change and the killing of forests by pine beetles in Colorado. In the journal Science, a study was reported which suggests that the devastation is simply due to a longer warm season in the high Rockies.  With this longer season, the beetles are able to breed an additional generation during the season, creating severe destruction. The Forest Service concurs that there is likely a link between climate change and the pine beetle plague.

As we hiked, we often followed stone cairns, and just before we went around a pyramid shaped mountain, I found a tall cairn built on a large rock extending free into the air. All day long, we walked up and down on the Divide, and it was hiking on the top of world. We camped in a large meadow with a small pond fed by a melting snow field. When the next storm struck, after a beautiful evening, we were in our tents. It rained all night.

The rain stopped around 5:00 am the next morning, and outside of our tents, we found that it was foggy. Our campsite was in the low clouds. By the time we started hiking, the weather had cleared and we had a beautiful morning walk through the wonderful high country of the Divide. I was hiking far ahead of the others when I caught a momentary glimpse of a female elk with her young little one. We descended into the dead trees and into the wide open valley of the Piedra River Valley. In the valley, using her GPS, Alicia realized we had missed a turn, followed an informal trail, and were now off our route. With the help of a camper, we found a trail which took us back to an intersection with the CDT just below Piedra Pass. From the pass, we began climbing through the forest and found a nice stream where we filled all our water containers so we could, if we decided to, camp far above water sources, in the alpine country above us. We climbed to the tree line and into a large alpine basin where we could see our trail traversing the slope, up a high grassy wall to a pass between two peaks. At the top, we camped in a low spot on the pass at an elevation above 12,600 feet. We spent time in the heavily flowered meadow looking at the astounding views of the mountains to the south. The skies darkened in the evening and through gaps in clouds, beams of light illuminated parts of the hard stone mountains.

When I got up on July 13, we were in a cloud, surrounded by dense fog. The wind was cold, and I started hiking with all my layers on. We spent the day on top, resulting in one of the most marvelous hiking days in my life. The sun and wind were gradually dispersing the clouds but fragments of low hanging clouds scattered across the landscape, and clouds remained over much of the scene.  We followed mountain-top trails across the high terrain.  Ahead was a climb to a high ridge, and I went slowly hoping more clouds would disperse before I got there. When I got to the thin ridge, I could see one range after another. Here I could see much of the Weminuche Wilderness. The others went on but I stayed for some time. I walked out to a rounded point on the ridge and took pictures. In his CDT guide book, Tom Lorang Jones has written that this spot “may be the most breathtaking experience on the entire CDT.”  For me, it was a transformed consciousness. This place at this time was meant for me. It was hard to leave it.

I descended from the pass on a trail with several switchbacks, and then hiked for some time on the rolling, open CDT. I hurried to catch up with the others on a highpoint above me.  When I got there, they told me that a black bear had run across the trail behind me.  I did not see it. We stopped on a high pass for lunch.  Next, we climbed steeply to a high point above Archuleta Lake.  From this highpoint, we could see the South San Juan range and, in places, on to New Mexico. We hiked down past Archuleta Lake and up to smaller Spotted Lake where we made camp and spent time in the warm sunshine doing chores, talking, and soaking our feet in the stream. The whole day had been a highpoint.

 

The last night at Spotted Lake, I did not sleep so well because of the anticipation of hiking back to civilization the next day.  On our last day, we had approximately 10 miles to hike back to Wolfe Creek Pass and our cars. I was up early and packed and ready to go by 6:30 am.  I asked Alicia if she minded if I took off.  She said, “Sure, I would do it too if I could.” I enjoyed the morning immensely because I was free to challenge myself and pick up my hiking speed.  I hiked through quiet forests, grassy meadows, muddy basins with small lakes and wildflower gardens. There was a final long climb to the high point above the pass.  Then down to the car.  I arrived at the car at 11:00 am.  After some cleanup, I headed for home and, on the way, had a nicely authentic Carne Asada for lunch at Cavilla’s Mexican restaurant in Del Norte.  This largest wilderness area in Colorado was wilder than expected.  We saw a number of other people, though all we saw on the CDT were serious hikers – they had to be to be there, but the numbers were diluted by the unexpected immensity of the place.  The adventure exceeded my expectations.

Wetterhorn Basin and Cimarron River Backpack

On June 30, I led a three day backpack into the Uncompahgre Wilderness Area, with a group of seven people. Because of the large snowfields and the difficulty of following new trails, this was certainly the most difficult 21 mile hike I had done. We started from the Matterhorn Trailhead outside of Lake City, Colorado.  There were many people in the area climbing the Wetterhorn Peak, a 14er. Not long after our start, we left the people behind when we turned onto the Matterhorn cutoff. Almost immediately, we had to wade across Matterhorn Creek in our sandals or water shoes, and my feet were numb from the cold water after the short crossing.  As we climbed up through the forest, we had a more challenging stream crossing requiring some agility on our part.  Soon, we climbed above the trees into alpine tundra. There were still many snow fields in this high area due to the heavy spring snows. We climbed through rolling terrain up to a point where we climbed a snow wall and descended on the Middle Canyon trail down into an open, beautiful canyon.  The Forest Service had marked routes with poles, so we followed poles as we did with most of our backpack. We followed a trail into the forest and then steeply up the north side of the canyon.  Climbing up the slope we saw trails and informal trails, and it was hard to know the difference.  At one point, we missed a turn and had to traverse under the very top of the ridge across sharply tilted tundra and slippery scree fields.  Finally, we got to the unnamed saddle and looked down into Wetterhorn Basin.

The Wetterhorn Basin is scenically dominated by the large, square Coxcomb Peak massif and by the enormous pyramid of Wetterhorn Peak at the top of the basin. It is a large open basin with scattered stands of evergreens, and because of the recently melted snow, it was covered by water-loving Marsh Marigolds and scattered Paintbrush flowers.  We had a beautifully sunny evening in this gorgeous basin. Vaune made s’mores over her camp stove, a reviving medicinal for everyone.

From camp the next morning, we could see the steep climb we had to do over the high pass under Coxcombe Peak.  Early in the climb, we traversed an interesting, light-colored geologic formation which drop steeply on both sides below us.  The climb was steep and steady, and from the top, there was a grand view, endless in terms of both width and distance. We could see, to the south and west, much of the rugged San Juan range, speckled by innumerable snowfields.

As we climbed down from the pass, into the Middle Fork Basin of the Cimarron River, the clouds intensified and darkened behind us, and behind us, Coxcomb Peak had transformed from a large square mesa into a single, narrow spire. We descended to a plateau with a beautiful small pond and then reached our final steep descent into the basin. On this final descent, the snow fields were plentiful, and Vaune, our glissade expert, lead us all on a fun and easy glissade down the first snowfield.  We slid down seated on our behinds using our poles as both rudders and brakes. Further down, we came to the most difficult spot on our backpack. The trail was buried by a very steep and hard snowfield which was too dangerous to cross.  Vaune and Gennie, both trained climbers, climbed down some rocks on the side of the snow.  Vaune glissaded down the field, accelerating at a startling rate, hit and crossed a rocky bare spot and at the bottom immediately jumping up to shout and indicate with gestures not to come down that way.  Jennie continued to climb down the rocks around the snowfield. The rest of us decided to find a different route and climbed steeply, off-trail above the snowfield and  steeply down the other side of the snowfield through willows and down streams, back to the trail. On the way down, we heard thunder above us, and it started to sleet and rain. When we got to the bottom, we realized Vaune had lost one of her hiking poles, high above in the snowfield.

We continued into the valley, less one hiking pole, waded across the creek, and climbed into the woods where there was a previously used campsite. The rain intensified and the temperature dropped, and we spent several hours under the trees at the campsite, waiting for the weather to improve before we climbed up to the next pass. The group decided to make a campfire which warmed us significantly, and we toasted marshmallows in the rain.

Eventually, the storm stopped and we even saw some sunshine.  So, we started the climb to the next pass.  We were hiking above tree line, through a large meadow when we heard thunder.  Another storm was coming from the west; so we retreated back to the trees and set up our camp for the night.  It was an uncomfortable evening with rain and cold winds.  I was nearly hypothermic eating my dinner, and everyone went to bed early.  During the night, I rose to find the sky clear with a bright Milky Way crossing it.

The third and final day started with a nice early morning hike across the rolling meadow below the pass. On the final ascent to the third pass, we had to climb steeply off the trail around a steep snow field.  We reached the top at 8:00 am to experience a magnificent, sunny, early-morning scene of green slopes gently descending down to the basin of the East Fork of the Cimarron River, with enormous Uncompahgre Peak dominant above it all. We had a very pleasant hike down from the pass through lush tundra on an easy-to-follow trail. There were many flowers including paintbrush, larkspur, purple fringe and old man in the mountain. At the bottom of the valley, we had to wade across the creek and started the climb over the last pass. At the last alpine trail junction, I was not sure which way to go.  Jennie, Stephania, and others convinced me of the correct way to go.  Jennie was a great help with navigation throughout the trip using her GPS skills.

We climbed through gentle alpine terrain, crossing a few level snow fields and reached the rounded top.  From that spot, Matterhorn Peak was directly above us and Wetterhorn Peak was just beyond it.  We hiked back down below Wetterhorn Peak.  At the trailhead, I retrieved the beer and soft drinks I had sunk in the creek, and we celebrated the successful completion of a challenging but exquisite hike through some of most outstandingly scenic terrain we had ever experienced. We finished our celebration with fried okra and catfish at Southern Vittles in Lake City.

No Payne

For many Front Range Hikers, the Lost Creek Wilderness is the home wilderness. So close to the city, but so far from anyone. Yesterday, I hiked to the summit of No Payne, a mountain high point in the Wilderness, to which I’d never been.  The book made it sound easy, but it turned out to be a double black diamond backpack. Almost nine miles to the camp and 3,600 feet of elevation gain, with no water resources near my camp.  I camped in a beautiful meadow with a broad view of the far west ridge, across Craig Park.  There was probably no one around within eight miles. After supper. I bushwhacked less than a mile further through the boulders and small evergreens and climbed No Payne.  At the top, in all directions I saw views of crags in the Wilderness and of the snow-covered peaks beyond. We return again and again.

 

Older posts