| For you, Carl. RIP 8/18/09
Just as any other adventure in the past, we had (or thought we had) a pretty solid idea of what our next six days had in store for us when we departed the eastern half of Nebraska en route for the Wild West and a much needed break from the relentlessness of summertime work. Funny sometimes how life has a way of intervening with one's plans.
Carl was a man that had a true passion for the outdoors. From the stories that had been passed around by the one's who had loved him the most, you could gather that he viewed time spent in the highcountry as valuable and sacred. Even before I met him I learned of his priorities upon mentiong words like "desert" or "mountain" amongst his nephews. Each year for decades, between work as an Air Traffic Controller, he'd spend numerous calendar time in Moab biking and exploring southern Utah, or backpacking in the mountain ranges of Colorado. He will be missed.
Class IV Northeast Ridge Ascent
North Slope Descent
Upper Navajo Basin Base Camp
Woods Lake Approach
Last Spring I thought I had my entire summer planned out. Then it finally rolled around and reality set in. After a season of perpetual work, a break eventually showed itself in the form of a fly fishing trip on the San Juan River in New Mexico. On the 17th of August, a Monday, we set out from Hamilton County, Nebraska way later than I had originally anticipated on. The two other guys who were to accompany me to the trout streams both resided in Omaha, two hours east of my farm. And they were running predictably late that night. It wasn't until midnight that a Jeep pulled into the drive and out stepped Lee and Richie. After repacking three times, we found ourselves westbound on Interstate 80 headed for the lights of Denver. The plan was to spend the night and then visit family the next day before we continued on and into New Mexico. It wasn't until the sun had begun to rise in the east that we eventually arrived at our destination and quickly found ourselves ready for sleep. Six hours later, our late arrival had cost us our early start. We hurried through breakfast and the mid afternoon's obligations, and then drove across town to a Littleton hospice center to visit Lee & Richie's uncle Carl. A man only seventy, he was still very much full of life in his later years. But he was losing his battle with bone cancer. I remember thinking when I walked out of the care center how much better he had looked in March the last time I had seen him. The doctors said it had taken a turn for the worst in the last two weeks, and time was growing thin.
An hour later we were rolling down 285 headed for night one at The Dunes. I had only two things on my mind: Beer and Pinyon trees. I was anxious to get down there again and relax. A new moon promised a show once the stars came out. We had more than one cooler loaded to the gills and figured on changing that.
We continued on past Buena Vista, then shortly before Poncha Springs Lee's phone rang. About seven seconds into the conversation I knew the gravity of what had happened. Carl had passed away twenty minutes after we had left his side. Lee hung up, told us what had happened, and the vehicle fell silent for several minutes.
Knowing that a Memorial Service would be only days away, once the initial shock wore off everyone's minds began drifting toward the same thing. I'm not sure between the three of us who brought the situation to the table first, but it didn't take long to happen. What are we doing driving clear down to BFE New Mexico when we gotta turn around and come right back....?? So what now was the question. Then Richie spoke up with an idea. He mentioned that his Aunt had told him about Carl's last attempt at a mountain almost three years ago, but wasn't able to go ahead with the trip because of his illness. After a phone call, we discovered that she was referring to somewhere in the San Juans near Telluride, west of Telluride to be exact she had said. But that's all she could remember.
Bingo. Must have been Navajo Basin. I conveyed my guess to the others, explaining that all three peaks inside that basin weren't gimmes nor were they easily accessible. But Richie was right; it would be one hell of a way to honor his uncle. Both of Carl's nephews had either no or very limited mountaineering experience. Lee had made the summit of Longs Peak last July, cussing and pissed off the whole way down, but summited none the less. (He now looks back on it with fond memories). Richie, on the other hand, believed me when I said that Colorado had elevations of eighteen thousand feet. He didn't know any better, and didn't know anything about climbing an actual mountain. But they both had heart, and a fierce determination to persevere under the light of recent events.
I explained to them all three peaks inside the basin, and also Gladstone. As naive as we sometimes are, both quickly ruled out Gladstone because of its thirteen thousand foot tag, as quickly as they decided on Mount Wilson because of it being the tallest and technically hardest. I promised them we would go for it, but there are no guarantees up there. Mount Wilson was a serious mountain by Colorado Fourteener standards, especially to three flatlanders from the Corn State.
To shift from a fishing trip to a summit bid literally on the fly, as we drove down 285, took just a wee bit of modifications. Thankfully we had nearly everything we would need. The essentials like tents, bags and pads were all accounted for. An idea of some minor hiking had led me to throw in all three backpacks. I had recommended good footwear to the guys before we left. Miniworks and XGK EX. Check. First Aid bag. Check. An argument on who had the better tent led us to bring three of them. Extra base layers and shells that remained inside my camping duffel bag made the trip as well. A roadside stop confirmed it. So the new plan was set. A westbound turn onto Highway 50 headed for Ridgway State Park was the fresh objective on the board. Fighting a bad internet connection over Monarch Pass I learned that Elk Ridge Campground might be the place to sleep inside Ridgway that night. We continued on, taking in the views of the sunset over Morrow Point Reservoir. After an Arby's stop in Gunnison it wasn't long before we saw the turnoff for the Dutch Charlie area of Ridgway State Park. By this time it was nearing 1 a.m. and I was a little concerned about pulling in so late and waking other campers. Thankfully it's a fairly large campground and people were spread out, so hopefully our arrival hadn't bothered the crowd.
I swear the way we had that damn Jeep packed it would take us thirty minutes anytime we wanted to take anything out or put anything in. To the roof to put it figuratively. Eventually we had all our belongings spread out on the cement pad in our site. While Richie handled the tent setup, I took an item by item inventory of what we had and what we now needed to climb, and separated the business end from the gear that would remain. Our impressive 100 quart rolling cooler packed with cold brews wasn't coming with us into Navajo Basin (although that would throw a new definition on the word Rockstar if someone actually pulled that off). If I remember right Lee stood there making sure neither I nor Richie made any mistakes or that none of the gear grew legs and took off. Neither happened either. It wasn't long and soon all three of us were sitting around a decent size fire taking in the beautiful Colorado night. I remember laying back in my lawn chair laughing silently thinking to myself How in the hell did I wind up in the San Juans? What a crazy turn of events. There was to be no trout fishing in my future, but I was very excited at the opportunity to climb for the first time in this section of the state. After the chicken on our fire grate had been blackened to resemble charcoal we dined and drank well, then called it an evening and retired to the tent for the night. Tomorrow would bring a long day.
The next thing I remember was opening my eyes and staring at an elderly couple walking straight towards me. Startled, I blinked a couple times and realized that my side of the tent had mesh nearly halfway down the wall. Last night Richie had decided to pitch our larger six man that he had brought, but had forgotten (or left in Nebraska I'm pretty sure) to attach the rain fly. He also managed to set the tent up DIRECTLY on the walking trail that led to the bathrooms and showers, missing our actual tent site by about fifteen feet. Nice job Richie.
In the essence of time we decided we would grab a subway in the town of Ridgway and not bother cooking breakfast. I had concluded the day before that we would attempt to gain Navajo Basin by using the Woods Lake Approach. Information I had gathered from Trip Reports by Kzar and uwe sold me on the idea. Looking back, mobile wireless in these situations proved invaluable. To get to the trailhead from Ridgway you take Highway 62 west over Dallas Dived into Placerville then head southeast on Hwy 145 towards Telluride. The turnoff for Woods Lake is on your right about 3 miles past Sawpit.
As we were waiting in line for sandwiches, I decided to try some Google magic in search of a 4WD scenic alternative as opposed to the blacktop. I knew this area had a reputation for an abundance of jeep trails, but we had a stock Cherokee and limited time. Sure enough ten minutes later I learned of Last Dollar Road, an early supply route between Ouray and Telluride. It seemed to fit the bill perfect. A mild (very mild) 4WD road cutting directly south from Highway 62 thru the mountains spitting you out just west of the Telluride Regional Airport on Highway 145. It turned out to be a good decision and we were able to take a couple pictures and enjoy the scenery before embarking on our trip into the high country.
San Juan Landscape
Last Dollar Road
Before we knew it we were pulling into the Woods Lake Trailhead. Again the Jeep was completely gutted and gear strewn about as we packed and loaded up for the task at hand. Part of me was a little apprehensive, knowing that this was probably the first "real" wilderness camping experience for both of my fellow adventurers, but was also confident that with a solid plan and an absolutely flawless forecast (3 days/3 bluebirds) we could gain the summit. After a two hour packing session and a firm scolding on what and what not to pack (all fun and games kids, till the pack is on your back) we finished up, locked the jeep and began our trek into the mountains.
Into The Wild
Everything I had read about this approach proved true (including the Redwood sized Aspens). It never really becomes a grunt, and coasting into the basin from above was a welcome feeling. The way it wraps around to the east and suddenly you can view El Diente was pretty awesome.
Dolores Peak to the West
Making the Bend
Because we didn't actually step foot on the trail till damn near early evening, we witnessed a gorgeous San Juan sunset to the west as we descended closer to Navajo Lake. Those feelings in life of being right there at that moment in time is the reason I think many people do these things.
Be Here Now
I was humbled by the views as we worked our way into the basin with the sun sinking slowly behind us. Gladstone and El Diente towered above, and Dolores stood guard from the west. I was curious as to how many other climbers would be up in the area on a Wednesday night.
San Juan Sunset
The closer I got to the lake I began to notice a faint smell of smoke. It wasn't long before I had my question answered, as I could see the glow of a campfire along the west end of the lake. We made our way around the water, passing another tent farther up the trail. Eventually we picked a spot near the stream a little higher up into the basin and began to set up base camp. It wasn't long before I learned of another party a couple hundred feet up the trail. We definitely weren't alone up here tonight.
Once the tents came up we made our way back down to Navajo Lake and filtered water for cooking and the next day's climb. A quick meal of Mountain House goodness and we broke out the Yukon Jack to help take in the surroundings. Soon I was warm enough. The wind was whipping around now at that point with a little more intensity but the stars shined bright in that cold clear Colorado darkness. Knowing sleep would be best we all bunked down and drifted off.
Go Big Red
Five hours later I awoke to the beep of a cell phone and the gusting side wall of my tent. I'd be lying if I said I was excited to get out of my sleeping bag. Eventually I managed and had the water boiling for Eggs & Ham (which were awful...don't need as much water as called for) and coffee. I woke the others and we dined as the sun rose over the basin to the east and began casting a dominant shadow over the land. One last gear check and we were off winding thru the rocks on the northern slopes of the basin headed for Mount Wilson.
Into The High Basin
Soon we encountered two different parties, both of whom passed us on the way up. One couple had the intentions of completing one of the Four Greats. They had picked an absolutely beautiful day to attempt it. We stopped often and I could slowly begin to see by the look on my partner's faces that they realized exactly what they had gotten themselves into. I kept trying to do my best to boost encouragement and would often remind them to take a minute and look around and realize what they were actually doing. More likely than not, they would remember this day for the rest of their lives. One should take pride in that.
We moved slowly on up and across small streams aiming for the shoulder at the far right end of the basin. It would mark the point in which it came important to begin following a series of cairns. They led in a path upward towards a small notch on the ridge which stayed on our radar as the next objective. I'm not sure how many hours it took us from the time that we started actually creeping vertically out of the basin till when we finally arrived at the notch, but we weren't breaking any records. It was here that the altitude really started to show its effect on my partners. Myself as well. Mostly we did our best to follow the cairns, but at times strayed trying to keep a line with what lay above. Many options of class 2 and 3 rock en route to the top. Priceless views over your shoulder.
Red = Ascent ~ Blue = Descent
As we moved closer to the ridge we were passed by a party of two coming down. I was anxious to see the crux move for myself. After a couple words of advice on the remaining couple hundred feet, we crept on and finally I stood beneath the summit ridge. Digging thru my pack I found a stick of beef jerky and climbed up onto the ridge, wedging myself in and taking a moment to really soak in the view below. Gladstone and Wilson Peak painted an enormous panorama to my right and the ridgeline from El Diente shown to my left. There wasn't a single cloud in the entire Colorado sky and at the moment no breeze as well. All the San Juans laid out before me.
Lee & I
I could see Richie and Lee closing in beneath me and wondered if my position at the beginning of the summit ridge would be their stopping point. The two of them had already surpassed my expectations. They had worked hard. They hadn't complained at all. I was proud of them.
Richie & Lee
A few more snaps of the camera and I climbed down, the three of us sharing some energy bars and continuing to gawk at the scenery. Each took his turn climbing up onto the ridge, and it was after that point that both Lee and Richie declined to go any farther. Being low on gas and the extreme exposure on the ridgeline did Lee in, as it wasn't a place to become dizzy. He gave me a half smile and turned to begin his decent back down. After I crossed, Richie sat at the beginning, the wheels in his head turning as he looked across at me. I could see he wanted to go farther but I think the exposure was just a little too big.
After skirting by the crux move on the left side (left=easier < right=don't fall) I walked onto the summit and sat down to enjoy the feeling of being in that moment. I thumbed thru the summit register and noticed susanjoypaul and DHatfield's signatures. I remembered reading that trip report a few weeks prior. What a view. All of the San Juan Mountain Range spread as far as the eye could see. And not a single damn cloud in the sky. The traverse from El Diente to the west looked challenging. Someday, I thought.
Summit of Mount Wilson
Looking towards Wilson Peak & Gladstone
Looking south towards Lizard Head
I spent a few more minutes staring out into the distance then decided to descend and get the hell off the mountain. I met Richie whom had waited for me at the ridge and we crossed back over the notch to begin getting down. It was then I noticed Lee, who was maybe 15 minutes ahead of us, descending literally straight down into the basin. The correct route stays right and eventually leads you down the shoulder. Lee was taking the gully directly down. We stood and watched, trying to decide if it would be best to follow and stay close or remain on the cairned route and descend correctly. Not wanting to separate we opted to follow.
After talking with Lee once we reunited back at camp, he said he realized just shortly after beginning to take the path that he chose that he knew it was a bad move. Bad move wasn't even close. And I was a complete f***ing idiot for talking myself into following. Good ol' fashioned off-route steep as hell loose and icy fun. It would take us four hours to be able to lie on a patch of grass in the basin below. Initially I thought the snow filled gully would be the easiest bet. Except it was bulletproof and impossible to kick any steps into. No axe meant no messing around. We had to stick to the rock. Progress was incredibly slow because of the caution we had to take with each step. About halfway down I watched in horror as Richie lost his footing crossing a steep slab with running water and nearly wasn't able to recover. The layout of the slope caused us to keep moving left (west) due to large drop-offs that just kind of cliffed out. What a dumb idea. Worst decision I've ever made in my limited climbing experiences. Thank god the weather was storybook that day.
Red = Correct Descent ~ Blue = Our Descent
Red = Correct Descent ~ Black = Our Descent
The rest of the hike down into our base camp and out of the basin back towards Woods Lake went without incident. Another beautiful sunset. Leaving camp at sundown put us at our vehicle near midnight. We crushed a few brews in the parking lot of the trailhead and proceeded into Gunnison to grab a motel and try and salvage whatever was to be left of our night. We were tired, but mission accomplished.
Time to get outta here...
The next day we slept in and killed most of the afternoon exploring Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. Wanting to at least step foot into Ouray while we were in the neighborhood we headed south with hopes of catching a sunset from Amphitheater Campground overlooking the town. We figured a soak in the Hot Springs would be a good way to cap the adventure. Ten o'clock rolled around much too early and it was time to get moving. All of that meant once again we would be cruising the pavement all through the night to get back to Denver. (On a side note, I did actually get to see a black bear in the wild for the first time in Colorado on the trip back to Denver from Ouray. Near Vail on I-70 @ 3 am in the morning I buzzed by one, maybe four feet from my driver's side window, at 75 mph. Came outta nowhere, and it was running with the flow of traffic in the fast lane. I imagine had I collided with it, it would have left one hell of a dent in Richie's Jeep.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison NP
RIP LeRoi Moore
The rest of the weekend we hung out in Denver visiting friends and family, recapping our adventure at the memorial service. It was an honor to climb with Carl's nephews under the inspiration of a departed loved one. I thank you both for the opportunity.
After catching a Rockies game and giving away what was left of our money at Shotgun Willies, the weekend drew to a close and Sunday found it time to head home to Nebraska. No trout, but a great vacation with even better memories. Colorado never disappoints.
Rocky Mountain Scenery
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