Happy Wanderer | Frank Weir
Hills and Horizons
By Larry J. Gordon
12,680-foot Columbine Pass in the 401,600-acre Weminuche Wilderness Area of the San Juan National Forest in Southwestern Colorado was to be our literal 'high point' for one of our July 1980 backpacking experiences. Even though I had perused topographic maps of our route, my perception was that the pass was a somewhat broad and rolling arctic-alpine gateway among several 14,000 feet above timberline majestic and inspiring peaks with year-around snow packs, snow bridges, and mini-glaciers.
Our group consisted of seasoned, experienced backpackers including my sons Kent (age 27), and Gary (age19) ' the former the president of a marketing research firm, and the latter a pre-law student at the University of New Mexico. I am a 53-year-old public health professional ' Deputy Secretary for Health and Environment for the State of New Mexico, and President of the American Public Health Association. I have long been an environmentalist and avid backpacker, and one who jogs partly to stay in the condition necessary for several precious backpack trips each summer. Again this year, it was ego-satisfying to be accompanied by my two sons who take time from their busy social, business, and academic schedules to participate in much outings with the 'old man.'
The Weminuche Wilderness is so large ' almost awesome ' that one could enjoy numerous lengthy wilderness treks and still not traverse all its trails. Last year we had packed over the thirty-eight mile trail to Flint Lake and out. Another trail, which we have in mind for the future, follows eighty miles of the tundra-like Continental Divide dominating the Weminuche.
I had long dreamed of riding the Denver, Rio Grande and western narrow gauge railroad running from Durango to Silverton, and our 1980 plans provided this for access to the Columbine Trail. We boarded in Durango ' once a bustling mining town and now a colorful tourist Mecca. The narrow gauge, built in 1882, follows the scenic Animas River Gorge and provides breath-taking scenes of grandeur for those not able to relish the thrills of backpacking. We disembarked thirty-three miles north of Durango near the confluence of roaring Needle Creek and the Animas. After final pack adjustments, preventive application of moleskin and smoothing of olefin 'wick' socks under two pair of wool socks to prevent blisters, we moved out east and up Needle Creek Trail. It was encouraging to see Kent moving steady and strong as proof of complete recovery from compound fractures of the femurs almost six years earlier in a serious hang gliding accident.
The weather was unseasonably warm causing us to perspire freely. Nearby Needle Creek was largely white water with intermittent sparkling clear pools. We might have assumed that such a clear, pristine creek would have been overpopulated with ravenous trout had we not been previously advised by a Game and Fish Department Biologist that many such creeks flow so swiftly during the spring run-off that any trout are flushed downstream. Such creeks are known as 'blow-outs.'
The grade was steep, but we maintained a steady pace except for stopping to partake of ice-cold refreshing water from side canyon snow packs and secluded springs. A summer shower failed to dampen our enthusiasm or cause us to wear our handy ponchos, as we were already wet from the warm weather exertion. We had left the railroad at 7,500 feet and had planned 7' miles that day with an afternoon camp in upper Chicago Basin at 11,000 feet. Our lunch consisted of German sausage, flour tortillas (they do not become squashed like bread or broken like crackers), raisins, and nutritious Granola bars. Potential campsites were few along the trail due to the steep and rough terrain.
As we neared timberline, we frequently heard the shrill whistle of marmots and observed them as they scurried over surrounding rockslides. The encircling peaks included 14,059 foot Sunlight Peak, 14,083-foot Mt. Eolus, 14,082 foot Windom Peak, 13,380 foot Jupiter Mountain, and 13,704 foot Glacier Peak. Waterfalls cascaded from high elevation snow packs down almost vertical rocky slopes. The naming of Columbine Pass was obvious, as colorful flowering columbines were in abundance. We were all feeling the effects of exertion and high altitude when we released our pack straps on a level area a short distance from Needle Creek about 3:30 p.m. After pitching our two wedge-style tents, I briefly tried a dry fly in a few nearby pools to check the accuracy of the biologist's information about 'blow-outs' ' he was right!
In late afternoon, we were amazed to observe three fellows jogging up the nearby trail. A short time later three other members of the same party walking by told us their companions were 'running off their nervous energy' on their return to camp after a mid-day topping of nearly 14,083 foot Mr. Eolus. We certainly didn't have any excess energy and wondered about such 'nervous energy' ' a new and untapped national energy resource?
We carried water a short distance from the stream and used biodegradable soap for our afternoon baths.
A snow bridge some 100 feet downstream provided cooling for our evening vodka with Tang and a facility to cool our liquid margarine, remaining German sausage, and 'real' eggs. We feasted on spaghetti (18 minutes at that elevation) and sauce while absorbing the sunset over one of the many surrounding arctic-alpine peaks.
The night was clear and crisp ' a rare opportunity to view the heavens without the benefit of urban smog. I suffer from claustrophobia in some small tents, but our wedge-style tents allowed full view and a feeling of openness.
As dawn crept across the peaks, we enjoyed our eggs and hash browns ' as well as anticipating the further weight reduction of our 35-pound packs.
We broke camp leisurely in preparation for our trek across Columbine Pass and downgrade hike to some spot along Johnson Creek on the far side. The summer tundra offered a profusion of color from paintbrush, blue columbine, scarlet giha, white phlox, yellow cinquefoil, and myriad others as this was July when every flower seemed to be in its glory.
A guidebook on the Weminuche trails noted that 'the Columbine Trail rises sharply out of Chicago Basin' ' perhaps an understatement.
The scars from late 19th Century mines on the steep and almost inaccessible slopes surrounding Chicago Basin intrigued us. This observation lead to a renewed admiration for the pioneering miners who challenged the elements, seasons, and mountains in their quest for silver and gold, and who brought in iron track for ore cars by dragging one rail from each side of a pack animal.
As we neared the crest of Columbine Pass, the profusion of arctic-alpine flowering plants continued between snowfields and rivulets. The air became increasingly thinner, and breathing and pulse rates progressively more rapid. Although we continued our pace, I would slow somewhat as my pulse neared 160. By now our party members were strung out with each moving at their own pace and I was bringing up the rear.
At the sharp apex of Columbine Pass, we encountered several senior girl scouts and their leaders from St. Louis on a day hike from their base camp below. I immediately thought of the results of a public opinion survey conducted in St. Louis several years ago questioning the importance of seeing the St. Louis horizon. Some eighty percent of the respondents had attached little value to such air quality saying they attached no value to the St. Louis horizon. But here were a dozen girls enthralled by the immensity and beauty of the surrounding panorama. This scene reminded me that our dwindling natural environment is a non-renewable natural resource that must be viewed as a treasure for this and future generations, rather than as a resource to arrogantly plunder and rape with no real regard for the ecosystem or future generations. Wilderness Areas are one of the few remaining barriers against the fast-buck artists who call the signals for many of our political leaders and policy makers. We should have something for everyone, not everything for everybody. We must insure that our descendents inherit a land which may be truly called 'America the Beautiful.'
Long after leaving Columbine Pass down the even steeper Johnson Creek Trail, we looked back and saw the young girls still silhouetted against the skyline while continuing to absorb the unending view of the multi-faceted and often snow-capped 'horizons' ' perhaps for a lifetime memory back where there is so much pollution that the horizon doesn't exist.
We again released the tension on our packs for an early camp along Johnson Creek, and enjoyed a repeat of hot soup, beef stroganoff, tortillas and chocolate pudding. Another clear, crisp night ensued, but with a distracting difference. We were rudely awakened by the happy grunts of a prowling porcupine. Porcupines have a reputation for chewing pack straps or leather for the salty residue from perspiration. After driving the porcupine away, we hoisted our packs higher in close-by trees.
More eggs and pack weight reduction the next morning. By now, we imagined our loads to be lighter due to the use of insect repellent and vitamin B to ward off the omnipresent mosquitoes in search of blood meal.
Johnson Creek, like Needle Creek was a white-water 'blowout.' The trail down to Vallecitos River was steep and rocky with numerous switchbacks. The frequent view of Johnson Creek churning through rock-walled gorges was exhilarating.
Upon reaching the Vallecitos River, we began observing the environmental degradation created by numerous commercial horse packers. We had already learned to pronounce 'horse packers' with a disdainful inflection akin to obscenity. The scores of horses used by commercial horse packers gouge out trails and subsequently others, each a few inches from and parallel to the last. Erosion does the rest, degrading and scarring the fragile and delicate meadows and parks.
The Vallecitos was anything but a 'blow-out.' In a short time and using one dry fly each, we had a nice string of rainbow trout. I quickly learned they were much easier to catch while wading the cold, wide stream in a pair of sneakers than by continuing to ensnarl in the brush along the streams. We had a delicious evening banquet of fried trout in an open meadow along the Vallecitos. Horse packers stirred up clouds of dust as they trailed by 100 feet from our camp, a shiny booted passenger astride each steel-shod saddle horse. We again cooked with a butane camp stove to prevent further deprecation of this beautiful Wilderness Area.
The following morning we made record time with our lighter packs down the remaining seven miles to the Vallecitos trail head. We saw no one fishing any of the hundreds of fish-laden pools and rapids that morning ' a veritable fisherman's paradise. By noon, we were in our car that my wife, Nedra, had left parked for our arrival, and headed back to the pressures of 'civilized' life. But we were already rehashing our wilderness experience and planning another.