Slippery defile on the trail up to Uncompahgre Peak, looking west over the northern San Juan Mountains. I turned around at this point.
Although the air temperature had fallen low enough to allow the precipitation of snow overnight the ground retained enough warmth to not permit accumulation. I rose early and made my traditional hiker’s breakfast, namely a couple packs of instant oatmeal with some raisins mixed in and a cup of black coffee. I had dressed lightly afterwards because I knew that I would warm up with the hiking that I had planned, namely a trek to the summit of Uncompahgre Peak. Draco and Leah, my two ever-present German shepherds, shook out themselves vigorously in preparation for movement and I gathered my day gear and made for the trail, first crossing the unnamed tributary of the East Fork Cimarron River near which I had made camp the previous evening. The trail, East Fork No. 228, parallels this creek up towards its nearby headwaters and soon crosses into the alpine tundra above treeline.
Some color had shone on the clouds over the peaks of this northern most reach of the San Juan Mountains during dawn but mostly the day was gray. My camp sat under the western flank of Uncompahgre Peak and just north of Matterhorn Peak. Besides these two named peaks a plethora of high points, the only denomination assigned being an elevation, reared up over the valley below. The rocky rim of a collapsed caldera, of tremendous size, had spewed forth an immense volume of igneous rock over millions of years. Thus these mountains are geologically distinct from the main chain of the Rocky Mountains to the east, where the rock had been uplifted. The rocks there could be sedimentary, metamorphic or igneous of intrusive nature. Here, the land felt different due to its past although biologically there are many similarities. These mountains, the San Juans, are seemingly one vast volcano and what a spectacle that must have been when active volcanic activity.
I had noted earlier that the snow level had descended to about thirteen thousand feet and I then began to wonder about the reality of my making the planned ascent of Uncompahgre Peak. I wear light footwear and in general have a certain amount of fear of slipping and falling. I looked up towards my route and saw that the one steep section was snowy. Well, I had come this far, so I thought to myself, so I might as well hike up as far as I feel comfortable as the journey will be enjoyable and revealing regardless of whether or not I make my goal. So far, the hike was fairly wet and muddy due to the moisture from the previous day and night’s rain and snow. But the scenery was beyond spectacular. The yellows and greens of the vegetation at senescence mixed with cloudy sky and patches of occasional cerulean sky to create a color sensation. Some reds tones where hinted at in the grassy flora and the grey rock coated in a light layer of fresh snow added to the sublime setting. A mile of hiking and I reached the junction with the Ridge Stock Driveway Trail No. 233. Here I turned to the left, or east, and continued up a short distance to one of the many unnamed passes that separate the Cimarron forks from the Lake Fork of the Gunnison River. My view opened up expansively and I could see Broken Hill rising up above thirteen thousand feet in elevation. That epithet could apply to any number of peaks in the area and is fitting considering the number of cliff faces found strewn above these basins.
I had crossed into El Paso Creek, a tributary of Henson Creek that drains into the Lake Fork of the Gunnison River at Lake City, the county seat of Hinsdale County. I could look the mile and a half across basin to see the trail climbing up towards the high divide with Nellie Creek from whence the majority of climbers approached the peak that I now sat on the northern flank of. I was making along circuit to cross from the western slopes to the eastern rise where a more or less gentle route climbed up to the rocky eminence looming above. The color sensation continued as I walked down to the creek itself. This basin I found to be a locale of sublime alpine beauty. The cloudy sky had parted enough to remove the threat of rain for the moment. I did make contingency plans regarding electrical storms should one form in the area. I could reach the shelter of the sub-alpine forest that grows in sundry defiles, but the potential that I might not be able to recross the high, exposed alpine pass did exist. In itself it would be a major inconvenience but not fatal. Still, I thought that I had some hours before I needed to worry about thunderheads forming as the atmospheric trend indicated fewer clouds for the next couple hours at least.
Over four miles or so I would climb some twenty five hundred feet. I remained tired from the previous day’s exertion and I felt every foot, although I did not consider the total elevation gain nor the grade of the climb to be particularly difficult. I climbed up to the divide to look down into Nellie Creek but my view also opened up so that I had exchanged my isolated view of surrounding peaks for one that espied the great chain of the San Juan Mountains to the south. I had risen above the snow line where an inch or two clung to the rock and flora. This would not be enough to impede hiking but I would use caution on any rocky or steep area. The snow contained a fair amount of moisture and thus had become slippery. The first part of the climb was across a broad meadow that rose up to a southerly cliff face. The trail, No. 239, ascended steeply but still not terribly. A half a mile later the meadow ended in a field of talus and now caution would be exercised as I walked across the rocky trail. The slope steepened as well and I did not relish the thought of sliding off the trail. Still, it was not anything to be truly concerned about but rather aware. I enjoyed the climb up the handful of switchbacks as my view expanded with each reversal. I could see over to the Powderhorn Country where rose Cannibal and Calf Creek Plateaus. The clouds floated above, perhaps only another thousand or two feet above the highlands that I now trod upon. Some where intertwined with the highest summits and they continued to obscure the West Elk Mountains and Sawatch Range to my north and northeast, respectively.
I reached a high meadow that was bounded on the north by the slopes rising to the summit and on the other three sides by steep declivities. To the north and west the drop offs could be called cliffs such is their angle of descent. The trail beyond this point crosses talus and then climbs a steep gully to reach the relatively gentle table lands that then rise up the peak itself. This part is what concerned me as I don’t have confidence to dance around the rocks when slick conditions prevail. Nonetheless, I decided to have a go at the summit since I had come this far. The talus I passed without problem but when I reached the gully I then realized that my initial suspicions had been correct and that I would not reach the high point on this day. The dogs seemed to be doing well as their quadruped traction provided them with good grip. I had foolishly left my hiking staff back at camp as I generally use it only when carrying my fully loaded backpacking backpack. Having it in my possession might have made the difference but, alas, I would have to visit this eminence some other day. I had made the peak nearly a decade ago, prior to my regularly carrying a digital camera, and I thought it a good idea to come up and renew my acquaintance with this mountain so as to record that part of its essence that translates to digital collection. There are, of course, many aspects of the mountain that can only be experienced first hand and some that will remain hidden to most while being exposed to a few. Wily mountain, the stories you can tell.
I retreated to the high meadow where the trail enters, or exits, the switchbacks. Just then a large cloud rolled over the meadow and engulfed us in a field of grey. I walked south, away from the trail, and sought out a point near the southern cliff, where I could sit in solitude and contemplate the world. I sat far enough away so that I didn’t have to worry about the shepherds plunging over the edge but close enough so that I did not allow them freedom of movement. I commanded them to “down” and this they swiftly did. Perhaps recognizing my own repose they put a bit of effort in preparing their own bed and thus put themselves at ease as I unloaded a bit of kibble for them along with my own comestibles. Generally, I carry six items of midday food. One I’ll have as a snack before noon, four I’ll eat as lunch and then the sixth I’ll consume between the noon meal and supper. What works for me is to have an apple, a cheese stick, dried fruit, nuts and two snack bars. I may add or delete items as I see fit, sometimes adding, for example, a small meaty item to supplement my protein intake. I may also divvy the food up into four small meals instead of three, or combine the three into two. It just depends on the day.
The clouds set in but did not threaten thunderstorms. Generally, they had been fairly idle and the wind blew not. Any movement had been laconic and they gently bumped around the high country from one peak to another. I could see people in the distance as the inclement weather had not prevented other folks from making the same attempt that I did. There were a handful of tracks that indicated that some folks had decided to make the summit, and my hat is off to them. We all draw different lines in the sand, so to speak. Later on, I would meet a couple who were more concerned about lightening than I am, and I am extremely aware of lightening and generally am conservative about my exposure. They I met while descending the switchbacks and had decided that since the cloud had set in the electrical storm would be soon to follow. I dissented from that sentiment but would be happy to reach the pass and return to the valley of my camp nonetheless.
Descending from the flank of the peak, I reached the divide between Nellie and El Paso Creeks. Sadly, the bawling of sheep reached my ears and I could soon espy them some mile and half away on the pass where I needed to head. They were spread over a great swath of land and there would be no way to easily avoid their presence. I sat and thought out my options when it fortunately, after about ten minutes of watching, became apparent that the sheep were moving slowly away from me. I could follow and keep my distance without too much hassle. I walked down the trail above El Paso Creek and two hikers, the people I believe had set the tent too close to the trail the previous night, came cruising by almost in a jog. Two athletes from Western, the university located in Gunnison, had made it to the top and now where returning at a rapid pace. I generally consider myself to be a fast hiker but these two’s pace I envied for its sheer physical grace. I consoled myself with the thought that I would enjoy the scenery longer at my modest pace.
As I reached the creek I noted that the last of the sheep had crossed the pass and I felt comfortable hiking up to that point. I kept watch for stray sheep and shepherds, both canine and human. Draco and Leah I allowed to go out in front but I kept them closer than I would have usually. I enjoyed the scenery but felt bad for the flora and fauna of this fragile alpine environment at having been ravaged by the domestic animals. Oh, well, I try to graciously share this land with all users but sometimes I find it a challenge. I will say that I do appreciate that the sheep are kept moving fairly often and thus do not completely decimate any one given patch. The clouds above me, I noted, had suspended their dissipation and seemed fairly static. I knew that they would soon, in a hour or two or maybe more, begin to well up and form a solid mat above. Therefore, I reckoned to myself, I had better make haste to this pass and find shelter. I had plenty of time but would feel more comfortable once the task had been completed.
As we approached the pass I put Draco and Leah in “heel” so that I could ascertain the presence of sheep or not. I had not heard any bawling close by so my hope was that they had continued on and not stopped along the trail anywhere close by. Still, I felt that at this point, if needed, I could detour around them fairly effectively without too much concern should I need to. As it was, the sheep had continued onward and for this I was grateful. I continued on to camp where I decided to rest and relax a bit. New hunters had entered the area but where exploring the forest on the other side of the trail from camp. I remained observant for if I saw them I would like to alert them to my presence. Shortly afterwards the rain began to fall and that was followed by the first rumblings of thunder from the highest reaches of the mountains. The shepherds do not like the thunder at all and their discomfiture they soon made apparent.
Flashes of lightening I could soon see illuminating the clouds, followed ten to twenty seconds later by a great peal of thunder. They dogs became more nervous, and I don’t think the hunter’s horses, tied up to trees, felt especially at ease. Although I generally frown on the practice, I do permit the shepherds to enter the tent during especially inclement weather. I must admit to feeling at ease in my tent, although flimsy compared to a house. Certainly the tent would not truly protect me should the lightening directly hit it but it is sort of like putting blinders on a horse. The dogs are more at ease as am I in the close confines. The lightening approached, and the dogs, although lying down, expressed their concern with wide eyes. I studied my map and relaxed as best I could. The lightening passed, never striking too close nor with frequency enough to cause me great concern. The rain continued unabated and some time later I could hear the horses headed off down the trail.
Due to the drenching rain, the presence of the sheep and my own weary physique, I decided to not explore anything further that day. Instead of physical exertion, I made mental exertion by sitting in my tent or out under the trees when the rain stopped enough to do so. I contemplated the world, meditated or looked over the map studying topography and noting points of interest. The scent of the forest I drew into my nostrils and I would take a close look at the natural world in my proximity. Eventually, the sun set and I made dinner for myself and fed the dogs. It had been a somewhat wet and cold day, and also frustrating in some ways while graceful in others. Perhaps I should have stayed home this weekend, but in someways it is character building to backpack in inclement weather and certainly I appreciate the easy days more afterwards. Besides, the high alpine beauty during the morning hours was well worth the effort as was my climb. The rest I needed anyhow, after a full week of work followed by this two-night backpacking trip. Dinner I thoroughly enjoyed, as the warm food warmed my physical plant as well as my soul. The night came on, colder than the previous one, and the rain turned to snow. The shepherds I allowed in the tent overnight, despite my better judgement, but I was happy for the additional warmth and companionship and they were happy to not be in the wet and cold, I am sure. In retrospect, the only true regret that I have is that I did not take more snapshots of the day, especially the cloudy meadow and the vicinity of the camp, and perhaps of dogs in the tent. Let that be a lessen!
Near camp, looking up to Uncompahgre Peak
Alpine tundra in the northern San Juan Mountains, in the early morning
A bit of dawn over the Uncompahgre Wilderness
Sign in the alpine
Wetterhorn Peak to the left, Matterhorn Peak to the right
Uncompahgre Peak from the southeast, on the divide between the East Fork Cimarron River and the Lake Fork of the Gunnison River
At the junction between the East Fork Trail No. 228 and the Ridge Stock Driveway Trail No. 233
A patch of perpetual snow below Uncompahgre Peak in the upper reaches of El Paso Creek
Broken Hill, rearing above thirteen thousand feet, clad in snow
Old snow and new, in the northern San Juan Mountains
Sublime color about Broken Hill
Draco at the junction with El Paso Creek Trail No. 238; we continued to the left on the Ridge Stock Driveway Trail No. 233
Climbing up to the divide with Nellie Creek, Uncompahgre Peak rearing up
The sign on the divide between El Paso and Nellie Creeks, pointing the way to the summit
Unnamed peak rising up in the foreground; San Juan Mountains in the background
Looking into Nellie Creek
Uncompahgre Peak Trail No. 239, Leah up ahead
Leah resting on the Uncompahgre Peak Trail No. 239, the peak beyond is unnamed
The alpine tundra in El Paso Crek
Clouds sailing above the Uncompahgre Wilderness, near El Paso Creek
Looking out over El Paso Creek
Slippery defile on the trail up to Uncompahgre Peak, looking west over the northern San Juan Mountains. I turned around at this point.