The Real Colorado
In August 2000, my adventures in the San Juan Mountains became the sealant, so to speak, of my transformation from a hiker to a mountaineer.
The many ranges of the Rockies can delight and amaze for a lifetime and still leave one feeling as though he has seen but a little, but for me, a few ranges in particular, for their own reasons, stand apart from the rest--- the Rocky Mountain Front in Montana, the Absaroka and Gros Ventre Ranges of Wyoming, and the San Juans of Colorado.
The San Juans are the grandest of Colorado’s mountains, and they are a vision of all that is best in that state--- among the highest (only the Sawatch Range is higher on average), easily the most colorful, the most riotous wildflower displays, a visual and aural feast of aspens, and ruggedly dramatic. This lofty realm is a dream for hikers and climbers. What the San Juans lack is true wildness, except perhaps in the heart of the vast Weminuche Wilderness, but they are at least among the wildest of Colorado’s alpine realms. With a little effort, one can find places out here that let him pretend he is the only one ever to have set foot there.
I first saw the San Juans in July 1997 on a loop drive of the pretty but very overrated San Juan Skyway. The following July, my wife and I spent a couple of days seeing the range by car, but I acquired a hunger for a closer look. In April 1999 I came back to photograph the peaks and scout out some trailheads for a future summer visit. Finally, in August 2000, taking advantage of a renegotiated summer vacation (some proof of my love for these places is that I asked for a smaller raise in exchange for more time off in August), I came out and did some fantastic hikes. Those I did from Yankee Boy Basin were the most rewarding.
Lavender Col-- August 7, 2000Lavender Col is the saddle one reaches when following the trail to Mount Sneffels from the end of the road into Yankee Boy Basin, one of the prettiest places in the country. The route to the col is extremely steep and loose, but it requires no climbing skills. The view from the col is astounding; the spectacular ridges and peaks of Yankee Boy Basin and the Sneffels Wilderness surround you, and, being above 13,000’, you actually look down on many of those peaks. Mountains fill the horizon in all directions, and even the famous Lizard Head is clearly visible. The scene is dizzying.
Gambling against the clouds, I hiked up Lavender Col, the saddle separating Mount Sneffels from "Kismet Peak," in the late afternoon, seeing astonishing things. I scrambled around on Kismet a bit but did not try Sneffels for three reasons-- thunderstorms seemed likely (they never came), I was tired (I had put in a 10-mile RT hike in the Lizard Head Wilderness that morning), and my then-inexperienced eyes didn't see a good way up. I went back in 2004 to take care of that bit of unfinished business, though. Anyway, the 2000 hike/scramble to Kismet proved to be an eye-opener-- although I had actually been higher in Colorado before, this was my introduction to the true heights of the San Juans, and for all the roads, mining scars, and crowds in some areas, it is still a magnificent range.
All I could do was gape. I scrambled off-trail a little for some extra views and adventure, enjoying the changing light and shadows on the peaks. It was impossible to look away. I wish I’d climbed Sneffels, but I had been introduced in grand fashion to the stunning high country, the summit country, of Colorado. This time, gaping was enough.
Blue Lakes Pass-- August 8, 2000
Starting shortly before dawn, I hiked up Yankee Boy Basin past Gilpin Lake to Blue Lakes Pass, a distance of about two miles. I reached the pass just as sunlight was first coloring the surrounding peaks. And did those mountains ever come alive! Standing there, I felt a spontaneous love of creation and a wave of thankfulness for my life, my health, my parents, my good fortune (in life, not wealth), and my wife, Katie, whose generous patience with and acceptance of my alpine journeys is exceeded only by her worries for my neck. I gave thanks aloud, one of my few "prayers" in about twelve years. Later that day, in Ouray, I bought a card, wrote to my parents of my thoughts and feelings, and sent it to them. I told them things I should have realized and told them long before.