"Why again are we doing this?"
“You know, this whole trip reeks of our Holy Cross debacle last January with Ben and Ryan.” I put a handful of snow in my mouth. “I think Holy Cross and San Luis are scheming and planning against us. They’re in Cahoots!” I exclaimed raising my finger in the air. I wanted to yell out ‘Science’, but I didn’t think Steph would get it, so I refrained. “We should have been back to camp like three hours ago.”
We finished off a few more handfuls of snow and chased it with pumpkin seeds and sour patch kids.
Our water ran out hours ago and the only stream we had come across in the back drainages was a thickly frozen rivulet splitting a forlorn and sad field of willows. Chopping the ice proved to be too arduous of a task without upsetting the underlying mud making the water undrinkable. We were both dehydrated.
“Oh, well. Let’s get going.”
“Sure.” I hung my head and closed my eyes. “This is the last uphill section than we’re home-free. I think we can find Pete’s tracks at least I hope, we can find Pete’s tracks. It’ll make things a whole lot easier.”
“Damn, that would be so sweet. Although, that snow cave we made was pretty neat”.
And so we retrenched across a very suspect slope in the dark which was a bit unsettling under the illumination of a single headlamp and falling snow as light as ash until we breached San Luis Pass.
We had crested San Luis Peak at 4:30pm, left the summit 10 minutes later and like a pair of ghosts no longer interested in haunting the backcountry, we disappeared into our sleeping bags around midnight only to be woken back up 30 minutes later by the sounds of snowmobiles from Search & Rescue.
“Fact is a poor story teller. It starts a story as haphazard, generally long before the beginning, rambles on inconsequentially and tails off, leaving loose ends hanging about, without a conclusion…a story needs a supporting skeleton. The skeleton of a story is of course, its plot. Now, a plot has certain characteristics that you cannot get away from. It has a beginning, a middle and an end.…This means that story should begin at a certain point and end at a certain point.
Early on while planning a trip to San Luis, I decided that I didn’t want to blaze trip that far south. Driving from the Northern Front Range, the town of Creede is simply too far of a drive and too long of a hike. The point of this entire mountainous potpourri is to enjoy the journey as much as the destination, even if that means negotiating with Denver traffic (lesson in futility). Stephanie and I settled on two days for the trip with a third just in case the unforeseen should happen or if we just wanted to take the ‘Long Way Home.’ I put out some feelers and invites for the trip but the only name to fall out of the roll-a-desk was Pete’s; an old and good friend I met on a group climb up Dead Dog via Summitpost.org a couple years back. So we were set with three of us. Considering we would be so far in the backcountry, the rule of ‘safety in numbers’ felt good to be following (for once!).
Stephanie and I left Ft. Collins (late) and crawled through Denver like a platelet in a plaque-filled artery arriving at Pete’s almost 90 minutes late. We swapped vehicles with Pete and traded up to a roomier erythrocyte (X-Terra) and were finally on the road. I called up Steve Gladbach and said we’d probably keep on driving through Pueblo (vs. staying at his house) since it was so late to begin with.
We thought we’d brave the excitement-laden streets of Walsenburg for a cheap roach motel sans the roaches. We pulled into the Budget Host Motel and found we were only one of two cars in the entire parking lot (queue creepy music). The desk clerk, an older woman who looked like a shar pei with a tanning addiction and a mouth full of teeth like broken pieces of Elmer’s glue gave us a single key. I’d be lying if I didn’t say it was a bit reminiscent of the 70’s. It was hard to shake that ‘B-grade’ horror movie feeling. It seriously felt like we had wandered into, “Wrong Turn”, “Cabin Fever”, “The Hills have Eyes” or anything with Nicholas Cage. Pete was already asleep in his bed so I had to roll over to Stephanie to share some randomness. “You know, Steph, Nicholas Cage could do a lot for this town.” I said flatly.
“What?!” Stephanie said absolutely confused and laughing almost immediately.
“Never mind, short story. Good night”. All things considering, I slept pretty good. It’s amazing how soothing the pitter-patter of roach feet can be.
I have an English degree from Colorado State in Ft. Collins. It’s something I pride myself on from time to time. But there are those moments that I honestly believe Stephanie’s dog, Zion has a better grasp on the English language than I do. Hell, since I’m a guy, I could simply be inept at following directions from the get-go. You see, we made a critical proof-reading error in regards to trailhead location. The slow drip of comprehension from Roach’s Fourteener guidebook simply wasn’t making it past our fleece hats or my blond locks.
In lieu of confusing ourselves even further by dwelling on whether or not we had brought the braille version, we parked at the road closure and started FROM the town of Creede. The Equity Mine trailhead was only a paltry seven miles up the road. This was not one of our brighter moments. Come to think of it, I have a suspiciously high number of those.
We all agreed however, that the walk in was rather nice. The weather was astoundingly beautiful, blue-bird skies, warm temperatures and a breeze as light as a dying man’s whisper.
When we reached the property boundary for the Emerald Ranch, confusion once again struck. After five miles of snowshoeing, the road was now plowed! How can this be? No one understood this but no one complained. The prospect of packing our snowshoes for two miles was delightful. And since Pete’s backpack was almost heavier than Zion, he was ecstatic.
We stopped briefly at the Equity Mine to admire views and read a couple of placards that were placed there explaining the history of the area. After hearing Ken Nolan and Steve talk about this approach, I was excited just to be standing there. Pete kept on trucking up the road since he was on a good pace/rhythm. Trail (road) #503 continued up and away to our left through the trees but the plowed, flat stuff stopped at an earthen embankment that doubly served as dam and holding pond.
After talking with the Mineral County Sheriff a couple days hence, Pete was able to find out the answer as to why the road is plowed clear to the mine and where we initially went wrong in our navigational efforts. Gold is still sifted and mined from the creek and higher placers and up in the hillsides, silver is still being extracted. So it’s actually profitable to keep the road open and plowed…interesting.
At any rate, we ambled like tortoises through the unbroken snow, mostly sugar and dry powder for an additional mile and a half. We set camp on the leeward side of a small copse of Evergreens and somewhat impatiently, waited out the night. I personally didn’t think it was all that cold out (Stephanie and Pete would disagree) but it was every bit as dark as I’ve ever remembered a night in the backcountry to be. The brilliance from the unfettered stars only added to the feelings of isolation and cryptic silence. In other words, it was a perfect night.
A Marathon Day
Stephanie went second to garner a little harder work breaking behind Pete in hopes the blood flow would head south. We caught up to Pete fairly quickly as his feet were also having second thoughts about the temperature and boots of choice. I lead on an ascending traverse hoping to catch a break by reaching tree line, scree line or anything with rocks. Even with snowshoes, we kept sinking knee to thigh deep. Stephanie and I switched out leads. We kept a high traverse and hit the ridgeline above San Luis Pass a little below Point 13,300.
San Luis Peak looked absolutely majestic and from what we could see of the lower drainages, they looked absolutely miserable. From reading Steve’s report, he dropped down both drainages before attaining the saddle on Luis’ South Ridge. I wanted to try and mitigate this by staying high on the ridgeline, along the Continental Divide. After a few days of research, with the exception of one area, it looked like it could work. Pete had caught up with us.
“This is the end of the line for me guys. I can’t make it any further. Yesterday really did me in.” Pete stated while dropping to the tundra. Zion greeted him with a few barks and a wet nose.
“I was afraid you might say something like that. Your knee still acting up?” I asked.
“Not as bad as it did last summer after Mummy Mania or Ripsaw Ridge but I can feel it. I just don’t want to reinjure it. That’s all.”
“Understandable. It’s certainly not going to get any easier from here on out.”
“How long do you guys think you’ll be? Few hours?”
“We probably won’t be back till after dark.” Stephanie said.
“If you hang out for a little while, you could walk up to the summit of Point 13,300, It’s a ranked 13er. Should only be a class-1 walk-up from here.” I said. Stephanie and I strapped up and made ready. We decided the first part of the ridge wouldn’t be possible with a dog. So, we had some hard trenching to do through questionable terrain. Since the ridge immediately in front of us dropped off steeply enough, it corniced. We had to walk down slope to a gully that breached the ridge. We floated down like a pair of beach balls and stopped at a wooden CDT sign. I glanced back at Pete and saw him also descending (the 13er was apparently out). In all likelihood, he was taking a lower traverse back to camp…note to self. It would be almost 24 hours before we would see Pete again the following morning around 9:00am.
To begin, unless one is willing to just hump the 20+ miles from the standard Stewart Creek approach, coming in from the south, from Equity Mine is the only practical access point.
Knowing that both drainages are terrain traps, Stephanie and I wanted to minimize our time in these bowls and if possible, stay as high as we could. I initially wanted to take the ridge and climb the Continental Divide over Points 13,300, 13,180 and 12,935. This ridge ends at a 4th class 13er UN 13,155.
The topo maps showed a prominent notch early on along this ridge and now that we had the chance to see it first-hand, there’s no way Zion could manage it under winter conditions. So we had to drop back to tree line.
Once we left the wooden CDT sign, we took care and trenched down the slope with care. We switch-backed frequently and followed the contours as best we could. This far isolated in what Stevie (from Xtreme Mountain Sleds based out of Creede) calls a, “No man’s land” in winter, it wouldn’t be prudent to cut slopes just in order to save time. Plus thus far on this trip, the snow quality had been awful. We’d thus far encountered primarily sugar, Sahara-dry powder with a solid 2”-3” thick frozen top-layer. We didn’t encounter or hear that many ‘whoompfs’ (only three I can recall) but we did witness a lot of fracturing. When we reached the clandestine safety of the trees, we took a quick break, de-layered and breathed a sigh of relief.
Keeping a nod to our walk out for later in the day, we continued our weavings and meanderings through the trees to lessen the effort. I found an old, orange piece of plastic (trail marker) and took it. I tore it in four pieces and marked a few select trees. The trench of course would suffice for the way out but those occasional flickers of orange in the dark under the bravado of a headlamp do help with one’s motivation.
We finished the trees by hiking up a ravine to the far edge and popped out at the start of a willow field.
“This is gonna suck.” I mumbled to myself. Stephanie led the way through Swiss-cheese and willow-rooted snow while I lagged behind to fumble with my clothes. I kept trying to off-step her tracks to make the trench easier to follow on the way out. It was miserable work (it usually is) but we eventually reached the next slope we had to attain.
We disagreed on route but after ample and a copious amount of switch-backing, we managed to reach the saddle in between Point 12,562 and Point 12,935. Looking back, our trench coming off the high ridge looked like a massively long old snake