Uncompahgre Peak - 14,309 feet
Wetterhorn Peak - 14,015 feet
Matterhorn Pk - 13,590 feet
Broken Hill - 13,256 feet
Uncompahgre Peak - 14,309 feet
Wetterhorn Peak - 14,015 feet
Matterhorn Pk - 13,590 feet
Broken Hill - 13,256 feet
|San Juan Solitude|
I am often asked about my penchant for solo hiking and mountaineering. Most commonly, people note the inherent danger of the activity, and ask if I am right in the head. Most times, those who ask such questions are unfamiliar with what is really involved in an undertaking of the type I choose. When one looks at a picture of Wetterhorn from the north aspect, for instance, one might gasp and wonder who in the world would ever be interested in climbing such a peak, particularly by himself. Those who are familiar with the mountain have a completely different understanding. While a photo of the north aspect is helpful in impressing certain colleagues in the office, it is not the route you attempt, nor is it the photo you show your wife. You sell her on the virtues of a well-trod, time-honored low Class 3 route with only a modicum of exposure. In your own mind, you land somewhere in the middle.
Less common is the question of solitude. “Don’t you get lonely or bored?” some ask. Again, only those who are unfamiliar with the endeavor are left to ask such a question, having never afforded themselves the opportunity to get bored in such a fulfilling way. And again, those that know, know.
When the calendar shows an open window in an otherwise dense confluence of work, wife, children, school, and other obligations, I start planning. Undertaking a mini-expedition of this sort is infinitely easier when planning a solo trip. Who else can sneak out early on a Friday? Who else wants to try and nab 5 peaks in a weekend? Who else wants to do 20+ miles and 9000’+ of vertical? Who wants to put in 630 miles on the road, 500+ of which are on two-lane highways? Who else wants to hike in after dark and potentially set up camp in the rain? The list gets shorter with each question, so why bother asking at all? Who wants to find himself completely alone on the side of a mountain, miles into the woods, at sunset? Me.
I set my sights on a Lake City circuit, with the hopes of bagging Uncompahgre, Wetterhorn, Broken Hill, Matterhorn, and UN 13300 C. After 6 hours and 285 miles, I parked Henry the Camry at the 2WD TH at exactly 8pm. There is a special quiet that comes at that moment, when the car door opens, and the coolness of the mountain air hits your face. The breeze in the trees, the rotting of the mud and leaves in your nose, and the clicking of the engine as it cools all tell you that you’re finally about to begin. Ten minutes later I was on the trail, my lower back and legs more than happy to swap the discomfort of a car seat for the promise of an overnight pack and an incline.
Having studied the area extensively, I had a firm idea of where I was heading, even in the dark. The weather was fantastic, and at precisely 9pm I reached the clearing at tree line and dropped my pack. The soft breeze hissed quietly in the grass, and once my breathing died down I could hear the murmur of the creek. The excitement of the moment grew as a chill came over the sweat on my back.
The only notable part of setting up camp came when I went to fetch water from Matterhorn creek, just to the west, in the trees. After navigating down a steeper-than-expected little gulch, I reached the stream and did a double take. In the light of my headlamp, the streambed was a psychedelic tease. The water looked like some variety of Gatorade Frost, white and airy, clumsy and piled on top of itself. The variegated streambed of bright red and a glowing white seemed almost phosphorescent. I turned off my headlamp, fully expecting the stream to remain softly glowing, some ghostly secret hidden deeply in this far off corner of the mountain. It did not glow at all, and I was swallowed up by the dark. After a brief head scratching, I turned the lamp back on, filled my bladder and headed back to camp.
Before bed I did have time to notice one of the more impressive skyscapes I’ve ever seen. It would seem light pollution in these parts is at a minimum, and the deep crimson color and mere size of Mars was impressive, to say the least. I bid the Milky Way goodnight and climbed into my tent.
The morning arrived, and after choking down some horrid coffee (even the filter could not make the Timothy Leary water palpable), I headed due east and up the hill on my way to the ridge leading to Broken Hill. I was greeted by deer at every turn, some lucky bucks with their harems, others running about alone or in small groups. I pursued the silhouette of their antlers to the top of the ridge in the early light and ended up making my journey more difficult than it needed to be. After cresting the small rooster comb on top of the hill, I labored up a steep gravel slope that had me cursing aloud. I again tried drinking a little of the putrid water, all the while noticing the red rocks and patches of white powder all around me. On the map, the words “Iron Beds” ran across the general area where I stood. I was beginning for formulate a theory, but it didn’t make the water taste any better.
Once atop the 13,000 ft point, it was a pleasant ridge run to the foot of Broken Hill. I soon reached the back side of the upper portion and joined a short game trail that led me to the final push. An hour and a half after leaving camp I was on top, by myself, in the morning light. Conditions could not be better, and the view of the rest of my day was sublime. I looked over the route I would take to Uncompahgre, and it was all there for me, brown and green and expansive. With barely a breath of wind and an easy September morning sun, even the water tasted better. These are the moments a solo hiker savors most: no sign of any other human, no sound, and a vast expanse at his feet.
A few too short minutes later I was on my way again, following the ridge east for a bit, then cutting north down into the basin at the foot of Uncompahgre. Downhill I went, a few game trails here and there, sunshine everywhere, easy pickings underfoot. I was quite enjoying myself while trying not to lament the elevation I was losing. Eventually I was rewarded at the bottom with the sight of a narrow, deep, clear stream. I wasted no time dumping the acrid swill from Matterhorn Creek and refilling my bladder with what proved to be vastly superior water. I crossed another item off my short list of worries.
Once I had done another tundra climb, I eventually reached the Uncompahgre trail. I looked far to the west and for the first time all day, spied other people: a pair just coming into view. Well, it was nice while it lasted. I turned uphill and dimmed the mental lights a little, settling into a mindless cadence on a well-worn path. Eventually I encountered more people, passing them by ones and twos. There were the usual comments about my Patriots hat (“Bad news for you! I drafted Brady on my fantasy team!”) and the usual trail banter (“What a beautiful morning!”). I cruised along, intent on putting away miles quickly for the sake of more summit time.
The blessing and the curse of hiking solo is that there is no one to wait for, no one that needs a break, no one to slow you down. I reached the summit two hours after having left Broken Hill, but I was feeling pretty gassed. I took a moment to look down the sheer drop-off of the north face, contemplated my own mortality, and added a layer when the chill hit. I found a quiet spot, away from the cavorting of the small crowd on the summit proper. I gazed at Matterhorn while eating my lunch, willing my legs to come back to life a little. I munched some trail mix for desert, listening to the far-off sounds from the valley below, trying to reconcile the small white dots I could see with the bleats, the low din, and the trail names (“Ridge Stock Trail”, “Pack Trail”) I had noticed on the map.
Then a funny thing happened. I took my bag of custom-made trail mix (no such thing as stock trail mix with Brazil nuts, just sayin’) and meandered over to the summit. I set it down on a rock and proceeded to make small talk with a first-time 14er climber for a few moments. Another couple was nearby, taking pictures prior to taking leave. “How does this one compare to others? Do people do them in winter? Are there usually people on top? You do these by yourself?” After fielding these questions and asking a few of my own, I went looking for my gorp, so I could head down myself. After searching in vain, I learned that the first-time 14er climber bore witness to the couple saying, “wow, look at this awesome bag of trail mix!” before promptly leaving with it. I had been fifteen feet away.
My faith in humanity dashed, I was off to my next objective, Matterhorn Peak. The slog back down was predictably sunny and relaxing, and to my delight devoid of human contact, for the most part. I was on autopilot, listening to my thoughts and steps, the whisper of an occasional breeze, the buzz of an occasional grasshopper. The trail wound down, down, and eventually westward. I came around corner after corner, and up and over one knoll after another, at times just stopping and looking. One must be mindful to not miss the opportune moments to halt abruptly in the trail and do a 360-degree survey of one’s surroundings. Crags and peaks, check. Endless tundra, check. Late summer blossoms of one kind or another, check. A bluebird day, with rays 9 minutes old crashing into my skin after their cosmically brief journey. I repeated this exercise every so often, affording myself a quick rest while really just taking the time to pay thanks for everything around me, and for everyone not near me.
At 12:45 I reached the turnoff for Matterhorn peak. I wasn’t aware that there was any defined route at all, but I was keenly aware that it had taken considerable time to reach this point after leaving Uncompahgre’s summit. With no regard for trail, and with full appreciation for alpine tundra (even as I trod upon it), I began the climb. It was not quite straight up, as I angled continually to the left, but the grade continued to steepen. Two hundred steps, then rest, repeat. As the minutes passed, the goal shrunk to 150, then finally to 100 steps at a go. One hundred steps, stop, breath, gaze in disbelief, look up and fix sight on next stopping point, resume steps, repeat. About halfway up, the Snickers bar I had consumed at the bottom kicked in and the sugar rush carried me to the last shoulder. From there, it was a brief but steep and fun Class 3 scramble up the final pyramid to the summit. After 49 minutes of climbing, I rested on top, stupid, exhilarated, giddy, and alone.
It turns out there are good views from the tops of mountains. I would have shared this view, I swear I would have. But today, at least, it was mine alone. This panorama, including Uncompahgre, Wetterhorn and the ridgeline to reach it, Coxcomb et al, Broken Hill (almost forgotten from this morning), a handful of 14ers and innumerable other peaks to the south and southwest… this view was superlative. This view was sublime. This view was perhaps my favorite of any mountaintop view in memory. As I sat, silently, I heard the swallows zipping around the summit like P-51 Mustangs, their wings sounding like tiny kazoos. They swooped and circled and chased… what? They weren’t sharing their secrets, so I took the hint and eventually took my leave. I could see my yellow speck of a tent well down the valley, so I began my decent and let myself be drawn ever closer to my thermarest and the promise of an afternoon nap.
Along the way, I was able to work out my nagging water issues, while at the same time answering at least some of the questions about the quality of Matterhorn Creek’s supply. I made my way to the stream near where the Wetterhorn trail splits off. Here, another stream from the northeast joined Matterhorn Creek, and each seemed to provide decent water. I filled my bladder and off I went. It was only when I was about halfway back from that point to my camp did I cross the rusty stream that fed into Matterhorn Creek a bit further downstream, and upstream from where I had filled my bladder the first night. Stepping over the crimson mud, the smell of the iron hit my nose just as I was surveying the wide swath of stones, all covered in a fine, rusty red silt. Where the water still ran, it looked like dried blood, a color somewhere between red and brown and black. Ah, the Iron Beds. Ah, the taste of god-knows-what in the water, filter be damned. On the map there was an icon for a spring, which only made me think of Edward Abbey’s travails trying to find a potable water source among the few wet spots he encountered in the high desert. Not all springs are created equal, it would seem.
I arrived back at camp at 3:01, happy and not all that tired. I was looking forward a quiet afternoon with my chair, my book, my rye, and my view. A pair of curious deer watched from the adjoining wood as I changed into my camp shoes and a dry shirt. After an all-too-short 20-minute nap, I settled into a nice spot, took the occasional nip, and read. By no coincidence, I had chosen The Consolations of the Forest, the journal of a fellow who spent 5 months alone in a cabin on the shores of Lake Baikal. The would-be hermit’s log seemed appropriate reading given the milieu, and did not disappoint. The only exception I took was to his dismissal of beer as being somehow common; this coming from a Frenchman decidedly swilling copious amounts of vodka while waxing philosophic in Siberia. He redeemed himself on page 54 when I read the line, “In life, three ingredients are necessary: sunshine, a commanding view, and legs aching with remembered effort.”
I spent the afternoon reading, sipping, and watching the last of the day’s hikers trudge past on their way home. I watched and listened and contemplated something I had mulled over many times before. Here, through all the seasons, through all the hours of a day, everything just… happens. The geological forces, the creatures, the weather, the flora, each does its own thing with no regard for audience or appreciation, with no consideration for time or volition or impetus. Places like this just are. They are here for no witness, and the forces of nature carry on with no regard for any grand scheme, all the while playing a role in one. I took a moment to appreciate all of that, while sitting alone in a comfortable chair, numbed by fatigue and a mild buzz, bearing witness to as much as my dimmed senses could capture in the moment.
I read on, and in later chapters, the deer emerged from the woods in twos and threes, taking turns looking and listening and munching. The entire evening was punctuated by grasshoppers and the occasional bee, scurrying like the White Rabbit with the realization that the days are now much too short and getting shorter. Though I was ready to sleep long before dark, I persevered through a few more pages in hopes of catching at least the opening act of the night sky show. I was ultimately rewarded with a perfect view of a perfect arc in the southern sky, comprised of exactly four points of light – Venus, Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars. I retired, content.
Overnight, my luck with the weather seemed to run out. After climbing into the tent under a perfectly cloudless sky the night before, I was surprised to be awakened in the night by rain. The trip was already a resounding success, but I worried that it wasn’t likely I’d ever be back here to bag Wetterhorn. When the alarm sounded at 6:30, the drops were still falling, so I snoozed, dreaming of over-medium eggs and rye toast in some yet-to-be-discovered favorite breakfast haunt in Lake City. By 7:15 I was up, the rain had mostly stopped, and I had a perfect view of my perfect valley, perfectly socked in by clouds. I also had optimism and much better coffee that the day prior, so I sipped and stared and dawdled and kept an eye on the proceedings. In short order, things seemed to be improving, and I made haste to get to the summit.
My solitude over the next couple miles was subject to the full treatment of the whims of the weather and my correlating emotions. My moods swirled from optimism to contempt as the clouds teased and swirled, from serenity to alarm as the snow started to fall. My thoughts turned to images of rock made slick by rain. After catching a glimpse of snow frosting the top of Uncompahgre, I had visions of rock made treacherous by ice. But in the end, I was spoiled again. As the views improved, so did the weather, and ultimately the best hour of sun and solitude and idle winds was the hour I spent on the summit. I sat and listened to the far-off sounds of sheep, again bleating in numbers down in the valley of the upper East Cimarron. I watched the nearby clouds dance a two-step, swirling in eddies at 12k feet around peaks playing the part of stones in a streambed. I breathed in air recently arrived from some far-off corner of the globe, and watched the whole sky move steadily eastward.
With the late start and the volatile weather, nabbing one last 13er was no longer an option, but it didn’t matter. After an hour, I headed home, the only person left in a valley that yesterday seemed almost crowded. After packing up my camp, I looked around one last time at the ridges and peaks, the grasses and trees, the now-familiar, empty valley spread out before me. Then I said, “thank you,” and left the valley to do what the valley does, when there is no one there to witness it.
|Comments or Questions|
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