“Everybodys Got Something To Hide Except For Me And My Monkey”Now, there are people who have no fear. Those who have little fear and those who are basically scared sh*tless of standing on a narrow ledge next to a cliff with a sheer drop of several hundred feet or more. Unfortunately, I happen to be one in the latter category. If I lived hundreds of miles away from climbable peaks and wasn’t an avid outdoor adventurer, this wouldn’t be of much importance, but I happen to live almost within walking distance of some of the best climbing in Colorado and I love being in and exploring the mountains.
For some, this hike will be a walk in the park. For others, possibly one of the most exciting things they might do in their lifetime. For me, a way to try and tear the monkey off my back. The monkey; being, my fear of heights.
The Comanche SideI’ve been waiting for months to finally get out and do a hike that doesn’t involve “buried down to your waist in snow” snow shoeing. I’ve not been living in Westcliffe long enough to know what to expect of the annual weather patterns, but I’ve been here long enough to know it normally starts snowing around October and can continue through as far as September. This year, with about 3 ½ more foot dumped in the last week of April on top of the existing snow pack, has led to a long year of waiting for the trails to clear.
My friend Jeff and I have a weeklong hike planned very shortly and I needed to get out and do a little checking on conditions to see if we were going to have to change our hiking plans. I decided to take the Comanche-Venable Loop. Figured if the Phantom Terrace was open, then the rest of the area should be passable.
The day was gorgeous and sunny. Not a cloud in the sky. Seems to me, the last time I saw a day like this was in September, almost a year ago. Man… I can’t believe how long winters can be.
I drove up the forest road towards the parking area and got stuck behind a dump truck dropping dirt across the road, trying to cover up the rocky sections that have appeared because of last years harsh winter eroding it away. After almost getting stuck in the fresh mounds of dirt and banging the front end of my car into the newly dug channels that have been placed across the road at various places for drainage, I arrived at the trailhead and quickly headed out. I planned on a short day, because frankly, there just looked like there was too much snow in the upper elevations for me to get around the whole loop.
Got to the trailhead register and noticed there were two groups of two ahead of me. I thought to myself, “Dang! Where are all these people coming from?” Four or more people on a trail around here would be considered heavy traffic. Did I say I love living here?
The first few miles of the hike are somewhat mediocre (somewhat like this trip report) except for an occasional grouse flying out of the bushes to make you jump and some gorgeous view of aspens in the spring and fall, but stick with me, it gets better.
After following the trail westerly for a couple of miles, it makes an abrupt turn due south past an old avalanche field and begins to climb a series of several fairly short switchbacks. After the switchbacks, you reach a saddle where you get a clear view of the valley to the south that leads to Comanche Lakes as well as a glimpse of the upper tip of Horn Peak. At this point, the views start to look pretty good.
Once you pass the saddle, the trail heads westerly and narrows quite a bit. As always, there are rock fields that you cross. Seems like, any place you go hiking in Colorado you’re going to pass rock fields. I guess, that’s why they call em The Rocky Mountains, ya think? About a mile and a half past the saddle I reached a basin and see the first bright blue lake. Continue climbing a short distance and the second lake appears. Up ahead, directly in front of me is Comanche Peak. And finally, to the right of Comanche Peak is Comanche Pass. Once I get up there, I’ll get a good level walk for a mile or so.
A Special Memorial
Just before reaching Comanche Pass, there’s a good sized rock outcropping. Below it, sits a small wooden cross. I’d seen it once before when there was a lot of snow on the ground. It sits in a slightly precarious spot, so I hadn’t checked it out before. Now, the ground was free of snow and I could climb down and do a little exploring. Maybe, it might have words on it. At first, I see nothing and notice that it’s mounted to some sort of circular bottom. I’m able to turn it. A small picture of a young boy appears. All sorts of thoughts come to mind. I wonder what had happened here. Knowing that it had to be a place of great sadness for someone. Whose child is it? How long has the cross been here? Also, realizing that if I had started the loop hike on the Venable side, instead of the Comanche side, I probably would have walked past it without ever knowing it was there. I snapped a picture of the memorial and climbed a few more feet, reaching the top of the pass. Standing on what seems to be the top of the world, I see for miles and miles in all directions.
The snow on the western side has disappeared and the trail is perfectly clear. At least, as far as can see. I began walking along the western slope of Spring Mountain towards the Phantom Terrace. I can almost touch the summits of Comanche Peak and Spring Mountain. Snow covered Mt Adams and Kit Carson sit majestically to the south and Venable Peak looms directly in front of me to the north.
As I near the final switchback immediately below the PhantomTerrace, (the ledge that connects the Comanche and Venable trails), I stop and talk to a small group of hikers. I asked if they came across the Terrace. They told me that they had. Said it wasn't too bad and that there was some snow at the upper end with a small ledge providing access across it. The snow could be skirted by a narrow ledge. In "acrophobic" retrospect, I think it's truly amazing how one persons "easy" is anothers impossibility. Funny how the mind works.
The Phantom TerraceI see a narrow ledge with a long, sheer drop without any possibility of surviving if I slip and my pulse begins to race, I start to sweat and a battle of will begins to entail. At first, it’s a thought. Then several thoughts. Then, actual words begin to emanate from my lips and pretty soon, a full fledged argument ensues.
I reached the saddle and peered around the corner to look at the top section of the Phantom Terrace. Sat my pack down and the argument began. This time, I win the argument and fear loses. I’m going across. No ifs ands or butts. And probably, I could add, No brains!!!
I took another close look at the ledge and the wall of snow standing between me and safety. Next move was to put my hiking poles inside my small pack and slowly place my left foot on the ledge. Then my right foot. I figured, I had about 10ft to cross before the trail widened enough for me to feel somewhat comfortable. I dug my left hand as far as I could into the snow bank for a little more security and took another couple of steps.
I had one or two more steps to go before it widened and saw a large patch of mud that I was going to have to step into. To make matters worse, the ground was highly uneven and tilting towards the cliff edge. The step was going to be quite awkward, leaning towards the drop off, making the chance of my foot sliding out from underneath me a substantial possibility. I stood there for what seemed an eternity and decided that a hiking pole might give me more security.
I wanted to kick myself for putting both of my poles in my pack. Now, I was in a precarious position. I reached very, very slowly over my shoulder and grabbed my pack. Trying as hard as I could not to look down over the edge. I slowly pulled one of the poles out only to find that it was jammed closed. Said a cuss word or two and began to wish that I was just about anywhere else on the planet, instead of standing a couple of inches from possible death. I tugged again and again on the pole, but it was jammed in good and tight. There must have been some mud or something on the shaft when I had pushed it closed and jammed it into my pack.
I got a little panicked and kept tugging on the closed pole. Finally, it moved. But now, I had to balance myself on the ledge and try to line up the small spring loaded pin in the small hole in order to get the pole to lock in place. I worked on lining the pin and the hole. A short time later, I heard it snap into place. Relieved, I grasped the pole handle and pushed the pole tip deep into the mud, sliding my foot ever so slowly forward. It felt solid. So, I took another step and then another. Shortly, after a few more steps, I made it past the wall of snow. I then stopped, did a thorough underwear check. Gave myself a clean bill of health, then took a deep breathe and headed down towards the Venable Lakes. I had made it! What a feeling!
Continuing down the Terrace, I hit a few more narrow spots and sections where there had been some small rock slides recently, but nothing like the upper ledge. My heart was still pumping fast. There was no more snow to contend with. I began to relax and enjoy the scenery once again About ten minutes later, I was standing at one of the upper Venable Lakes. The largest and most picturesque of them all.
The Venable SideSitting down for a short rest, I started to think about what I had just done. I was utterly thrilled with myself. Each time I go out, I overcome the fear more and more.
After leaving the upper lake, I continued down the trail towards the lower lakes and an old cabin. It’s really sad, with all the harsh winters and vandals that appear to be using it for firewood the little shack and its history are disappearing quickly. Not much remains standing.
After a short break and a couple of photos, I pick up my things, took one last look at the Terrace and headed down the trail. A short distance later I hit a few switchbacks crossing at a very large avalanche field. Very few trees are left standing. The ones that are all seem to be only a few years old. A couple miles further down the trail, The Wet Mountain Valley appears in front of me. And a little further, a sign pointing to Venable Falls. A short detour down a steep embankment gives fabulous views of some nice waterfalls. Fortunately, I’m there at the perfect time. With all the snowmelt, the water is raging down the mountain.
I’m now about 2 miles from the car and come to a couple of nice campsites. The second has a lean to and is used by hunters during hunting season. In fact, last hunting season I stopped and had a short visit with a few hunters on my way up the trail. I just noticed, they’ve even built a custom made table. Probably where they place the multitudes of beer cases required for a proper safari. Today, I won’t be dodging bullets as there are many months before the armed goblins invade the local forests… Yee haw!!
Another mile or so of gorgeous scenery and we’re back to the parking area. I loosen my boot laces to relieve some of the pain the miles have etched into my toes, take a couple of ibuprofen and think to myself; Whadda ya say we do it in reverse? Hey! Déjà vu…..