Part 9: Highlight and Lowlights

After what seemed destined to become a summer of increasingly escalating situations, my trail crew and I finally developed a routine. That isn’t to say things didn’t happen (and oh boy, did they), but we kind of just grew accustomed to the seemingly random nature of our situation. Adapt or die, I guess. Time seemed to pick up in the bigger sense, we still worked hard, and days certainly didn’t seem to pass any faster in the moment, but in hindsight, things just started to run together.

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Hitch #3

Hitch 3 was a rainy one. We were still down one member after picking up a replacement for Dusty. Her codename was String Chef, and she was from Crested Butte (or Crusty Butt as she called it). String Chef had a passion for cooking, and for going to String Cheese Incident shows (a jam band variety group), the codename felt appropriate. The hunt for the other replacement member was ongoing, so we relied on poor comedic timing, laughs, dogged work, and companionship to bulldoze ahead. Not a bad strategy altogether and our constantly improving work quality was a testament to that. There were two big developments during that third hitch: the hungry hungry bear, and Rico.

Despite our electric fence, during one of the first evenings of the hitch, a wind storm blew through and tossed some debris onto the wires, grounding them out. A medium-sized black bear took full advantage and left some messy paw-prints on our wall tent. Luckily, we’d roped and rocked down our food supplies but having the prints smeared on the tent we used every day sent a sharp reminder that this here be bear country. Beware the bear.

We set about improving the electric fence system and installed some old cans and metal drums around the supplies to help warn us if he ever came back. While nothing was taken, the bear did come back almost every night, prompting one of our crew leaders (Pennsylvania) to spend a night in the wall tent waiting for him. Apparently, the confrontation was quick and terrifying for both parties involved but allowed us a necessary reprieve from the bear. In the end, the black bear decided the effort wasn’t worth it and lumbered off to do bear things.

After the hitch, our group leaders realized we might need a pick me up; more than a week of rain every afternoon was taking a mental toll. So, before we headed back to off-load our gear, they took us to Rico. Now, Rico is a very small, very forgettable town with a local hot spring. My information is coming from 2015; lord knows what’s happened to it now, but at the time, there were two concrete baths created to hold the spring water, and it was free to the public. It became a kind of staple for us: complete a successful hitch, go hang out at Rico for a couple of hours. I think it was a great move on the part of our squad, realizing we needed a rallying point to keep morale up. Rico ended up being one of our most consistent highlights.

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Rico Hot Springs

Off-Hitch

After our work hitches, I went ahead and kept climbing things. With six days off, I decided to explore the area around Durango a little more, tackle some 14ers, and get into some beery shenanigans with the SWCC group at large, including my first and so far only successful dumpster dive adventure behind a bakery. Could not believe all the delicious bread they threw out lol.

Looking down to Durango and the Animas River.

The above photo peers down to Durango from a mesa edge trail near Fort-Lewis College. Fort-Lewis, aka Fort Fun, is, for the most part, a sleepy college in Southwest Colorado. It is also known as a stoner-friendly area and gave birth to this fantastic video of students very clearly hot-boxing a parachute and then scattering when the cops show up. Click here to watch. Wonderful.

The next day I clambered into my trusty Subaru and drove over Cinnamon Pass, venturing past the Handies Peak Trailhead and down to the trailhead for Redcloud and Sunshine. I got my butt up at 4 am, made a quick breakfast with my portable stove, and hit the ground walking. Not even remotely crowded compared to the Front Range, Redcloud and Sunshine do see their fair share of summer hikers because they really aren’t that hard to climb. The toughest part is probably just getting to the trailhead. Either way, I wasn’t super interested in waiting behind a string of hikers, so I committed to the alpine start. Between hiking and getting up early for work hitches, my body clock was beginning to naturally readjust anyway.

Climbing up the flank of Redcloud as the sun rises. The 14er Wetterhorn is clearly visible as the triangular peak on the right. The first couple hours of the hike were in the dark.
Redcloud and Sunshine are usually climbed together and are not difficult. It’s essentially a long walk uphill at elevation. Above is the final stretch up to Redcloud.
The rock on the summit and its coloration, which I’m assuming led to the name. The second high-point along the ridge is Sunshine, with an unnamed nubbin in-between.
The view from Redcloud summit with Wetterhorn (left) and Uncompahgre (right). Uncompahgre is the tallest mountain in the San Juans and 4th tallest in the state.

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That Time I Went Rafting

I can’t quite remember if it was during this off-hitch or not, but during one of them, I was invited to go rafting with our National Park friends from Mesa Verde. One of them had a boat, so why not, right? Well, turns out there were plenty of reasons why not. Being early June, and with a winter snowpack that put the whole region around 120% of average, the snowmelt had turned normally tame rivers into ragers, including the Animas, which flows through Durango. The first part of the adventure was very chill; we chatted, drank a couple of beers, and enjoyed the warm day. The finish was through a series of rapids known as Smelter. I started regretting my decision to raft when I began to hear the roar of the rapids. In my defense, not even commercial guides were running the river at the time because of the intense flow (measured in CFS or cubic feet per second), but there I was, in a situation I couldn’t really tap out of.

We made it over the first series of rapids ok, but after a sharp bump (I’m guessing a boulder in the river) my foot was wrenched out of its hold. Usually, you have your feet shoved underneath a part of the raft lining to better brace yourself, which had worked fine up until that point. But with my foot temporarily out of its hold, I became a projectile. Within two seconds, I was lifted off my seat and thrown forward across the raft, crashing into a couple of people along the way. The next thing I knew, I was way, way underwater.

Luckily, no one got hurt, and everyone managed to swim to shore. But there’s no two ways about it; that incident was pretty much entirely my fault. I did not hang out with the National Park boys after that haha, probably because they stopped talking to me. Sorry guys, don’t mind me, just over here burnin bridges.

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Hitch #4

Our fourth hitch started off good for about as long as it took us to hike back into our base camp, so roughly 2 hours.


In our absence, the bear came back, this time ripping a hole in the wall tent. While he didn’t manage to get into all the food, he knocked the tarp and some rocks off our supplies. From there, the damn rats got into the food. Found no less than four rat corpses in our cliff bar stash. After spending a few hours of day one organizing what could be salvaged, we kind of settled into an “oh, that’s how this hitch is going to go” mindset. Rolling with the punches.

The rain seemed to taper off this hitch, though each morning still had that damp, sick feeling to it. Plus, it got cold; waking up to the 30s in July just seems wrong. However, we were given some absolutely stunning mornings like the one below. Fantastic nature at its fantastic finest.

Towards the end of our hitch, our CFI partners left early to address some issues back at their headquarters. We absolutely crushed the worklist they left for us and decided to take off early as well. We made our way down to Rico, soaked in the springs, and set up a small roadside camp before driving back to Durango the following morning. Ended up finding a nifty contraption that I’m assuming was used to carry supplies across the river we were camping alongside. Naturally, we played on it.

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Off-Hitch and Diente-Wilson Traverse

After my usual off-hitch routine of working out and showering at the rec center, I began planning some more adventures. Chief among them? Climbing El Diente. Working for nine days at a time in its shadow had really worked up my appetite. It felt a bit strange, driving right back to our usual work trailhead and hiking in for fun, but having traveled the trail multiple times now, I knew I could crush the distance in no time. The sun didn’t poke its head above the horizon until I was well past our worksite and up above the spot where Indiana had his second altitude/asthma/seizure attack.

El Diente in the early morning sun.

The basin above our worksite, Kilpacker, was enormous. Our job was to secure the trail up to a certain point, but everything above that point was subject to seasonal changes, rockslides, and generally unpredictable alpine behavior, so it didn’t make sense to continue higher. I followed a smattering of Cairns into the basin, making sure to keep my eyes and ears open. For all their beauty, the rock quality in a large part of the San Juans is utter garbage. It’s mostly loose and oddly shaped, so it demanded a lot of my attention. I certainly didn’t want to twist anything out here. Eventually, the climbers trail began scaling up the slopes to the left.

Looking back down the way I came in.
I like the photo above because it really gives you a good sense of not only the steepness but the rock quality. Imagine an unstable Jenga tower of rocks between pebble and sedan-sized. The organ pipe-looking towers above it were interesting though.
After finally making it up to the ridge, I encountered my first solid rock of the day, hurray! I doubled back to the West, climbing a couple of hundred feet up until I touched the top of the farthest western 14er in the state!
This is the view westward. The clump of mountains across the valley consisted of two thirteeners and a twelver (Dolores, Middle, and Dunn). Beyond that was Lone Cone, all on its lonesome. The set of mountains to the right and farther back still are the La Sals (I think), a compact range in Eastern Utah.
After lounging around on the summit, I started looking at the traverse between El-Diente and Wilson. I waffled on traversing it until I saw a fellow climber scrambling up to the summit from that direction. Sensing an opportunity for a first-hand account, I asked him how the traverse was, and he proceeded to tell me. It sounded doable, so we combined forces and headed back over to Wilson.
The traverse is considered one of four classic 14er traverses. It was awesome. The guy I ended up following had come in from the Telluride side. He was an odd duck. He had a giant bandage wrapped around his head, which he told me he got from a fight at a String Cheese Incident show where someone accused him of stealing cigarettes. Then, after blacking out, he bandaged himself up, got into his car, and drove six hours down to the trailhead so he could climb the San Miguels. Right on my weird dude, right on.
Looking at one of the best profiles of Mt. Wilsons summit. The traverse to it from El Diente is majority Class 3 with one section of brief Class 4 and then the Class 4 block climb up to Wilson’s summit. We were trucking, and it took us a little more than an hour to cover the distance.
Looking back at El Diente and upper Kilpacker Basin (to the left) from the summit of Mt. Wilson.
Great view east with Gladstone (closest peak), Wilson Peak (off-center left, connected to Gladstone via a long ridge), and even Mt. Sneffels (the tallest lum in the back line of mountains, above Gladstone) visible. The town of Telluride is tucked into the mountains in front of the Sneffels area. Boom, just like that, I’d climbed El Diente and topped out on Mt. Wilson a second time. We parted ways East of Navajo Lake, and I made the longer journey back to the car. I didn’t really mind the extra distance; it had been an epic day already, and wandering around on new trails was a peaceful endeavor.
The other big thing I did was make my down to Telluride with a friend to watch a jazz fest. It was a fun time, but the weather turned on us, so we had to call the adventure short.

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Visiting Parents

Hitch 5 (our fourth on El-Diente) proceeded well. I kept a journal and an active picture log of most of my adventures and when I looked up the pics from this hitch I found none. Either my camera died or there wasn’t much to report. We came, we saw, we worked. The following off-hitch offered some fun memories though because my parents came out to visit!

Since this was their first time in the area, we had to grab a ride on the Durango-Silverton Narrow Gauge Railway. If you’ve been on it, you know what it’s like; if you haven’t, it’s worth an adventure. The train goes up to Silverton in the morning, lets you stroll around the old mining town for a few hours, and then takes you back. The scenery alone is worth the ride. The train is also used by various backpackers because it provides access to really remote areas of the Weminuche Wilderness.
Some of the cliff faces and gorges the train passed by were both beautiful and scary. Watching everyone else try to shove iPhones and iPads out windows to get the best picture was less memorable but fairly inevitable.
After spending an evening in Durango, we drove (parents in a rental, me in the Subaru) eastward, towards Pagosa Springs to spend a day soaking in the hot springs, which was fantastic. Even though they came to visit me, my parents also wanted to explore the state. My dad was particularly interested in hiking Elbert (the tallest peak in the state), and my mom wanted to stay in one of the mountain resort towns. After weeks of dirty trail work, all of it sounded good to me.
We stopped by one of our friend’s properties in the San Luis Valley, where I tried my hardest to be a cowboy: much to the amusement of my mom. Fun fact, I still have that cowboy hat, and it is entirely too small for my head.
On our way north towards the Elbert area, we passed through the mining town of Leadville. Leadville is the highest elevation incorporated town in the US (incorporated meaning it has a post office) at around 10,200 feet. The highest unincorporated town in the US is Alma (~10,500 feet), just south of Breckenridge. While that town doesn’t have a post office, it certainly has a pot shop, so you could get real high while being real high

Normally the Leadville area is pretty low-key, so we were surprised at the number of people we encountered. The town was popping! Of course, we realized quickly that it was because of the Leadville 100. Generally speaking, the higher you go, the harder it is to breathe. Colorado has long been used as a training area for athletes to increase their oxygen intake. So, there are people who come to places like Leadville to train for bike races, marathons, hikes, and what have you. Then, there are the real crazy ones, who somehow decided they wanted to bike or run 100 miles WITH A LOW-POINT ELEVATION OF 10,200 feet. These people are not normal and would probably delight in that description. Anyway, being curious tourists, we hung around and watched some of the bicyclists roll through the finish line of the highest bike race in the states.

Our destination for the evening was a little lower and a little fancier than ye olde Leadville. Leadville, while a cool place to visit, is also home to some hardcore Colorado mining history and a healthy amount of meth. My mom decided we would stay in Beaver Creek instead, which is much less meth-y.

In fact, after visiting the resort, I started thinking about trying to work there as a ski instructor for a few reasons. A) I needed to be employed after the trail season if I wanted to stay in Colorado. B) I wanted to stay in Colorado. C) I knew how to ski. D) Beaver Creek is a fancy resort, on the level with Vail and often less crowded, creating a sort of exclusive club feeling. After walking around the resort (even though it was off-season) and having a lovely dinner at the Met, I started thinking I could do really well there.

Beaver Creek, where the fur coats meet the slopes…when there are…slopes.

Beaver Creek ended up being a perfect place to stay because the following morning, my dad and I headed out to climb Elbert while my mom hung around the resort. Win/win. It was a bit of a drive to get back to the trailhead, but we started hiking at around seven am and made our way up the tallest pile-o-rocks in Colorado.


Look, I love mountains, they’re great. Some mountains are dramatic: some are not. Elbert is not. Yes, it’s the tallest, yes it’s a state highpoint, but it also starts from a high elevation plateau and isn’t scrambly or technical in any way. It is uber-popular because it’s a state highpoint, and because of its relatively gentle profile. We made little work of the climb. Having acclimated all summer and spending the last few days getting my parents acclimated, we tore up the trail and arrived on the windy summit before 11 am. Just like that, I was standing on top of Colorado.

My dad looking for the tallest rock on a mountain full of rocks. Looking Northeast.

Elbert has two summits. South Elbert does not have enough prominence to be considered a separate mountain, but since we were there and feeling good, we decided to include it anyway and made our hike a loop.

Me on a subsummit of South Elbert, Twin lakes in the background. Pikes Peak is the lump just above my head and waaaay in the back.

We drove back to Beaver Creek and settled in for a quiet evening. The following morning, my parent continued the drive to DIA and their flight home, while I drove the sixish hours back down to Durango to prep for another nine days of trail working action.

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Ups and Downs

Having my parents there was both amazing and bitter-sweet. I loved that they got to see where I was working, and squeezing in another hike is always a plus, but seeing them reminded me of how far I’d decided to go to chase my outdoor dreams. I was sadder to see them go than I realized but felt strangely at ease with my future because they’d seen my world and had a great time. I think that’s so crucial: having friends or family give you that nod of approval. It doesn’t have to be showy or dramatic, but having that acceptance can be the difference between rising to the top or spiraling to the bottom. Despite the uncertainty (and honestly, that stuff never goes away), I felt good because I was having a blast getting to know the wilds of my new personal frontier. My parents saw that and gave me two enthusiast thumbs up. After a year of putzing around after college, I’d managed to carve something out of adulthood for myself, and it filled me with something like purpose. I was proud to show it off.

Highlights, lowlights, regrets and successes, they’re all a part of who we are. When we’re young, we tend to want to hide the parts of us that we don’t like (especially in High School and College where impressions mean a lot) but spreading your wings and getting right with yourself helps you realize that ascribing to norms is EXHAUSTING. Embrace the strange, go hike that mountain, go read that book, play that sport, travel to that place, whatever, different strokes for different folks. Do your thing, stoke your internal fire, and try to surround yourself with people that get that. Not everyone needs to understand the 40000 reasons why you love something; all they need to know is that you do. If their reaction is positive, keep em; if they don’t understand or worse, refuse to understand that you may love something they don’t, cut em out. Life is hard enough as it is; the worst thing you can do is make it harder for someone else. I know my mom and dad didn’t understand exactly why I was doing what I was doing, but they saw I was happy doing it, and that was more than enough.

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Part 8: Tragedy and Recovery

Table of Contents:

Intro

By the time my second hitch began with SWCC (Southwest Conservation Corp), I was ready to crush some trail work. Our destination this time would be the slopes of El Diente in the Kilpacker basin. El Diente is the farthest west 14er in Colorado, and the area around it is very wild. There was an old trail through Kilpacker Basin that suffered from erosion and human pollution, so our job was to close up the old trail and finish building a new one above it. For this project, which would take the next five hitches, we were going to partner with Colorado Fourteeners Initiative. Like SWCC, the Fourteeners Initiative built trail. Unlike SWCC, they did it exclusively on the state’s highest peaks, often involving complex rock projects in the alpine. They were a professional trail crew, as opposed to our Americorp distinction, which fell under service learning. In laymen’s terms: when it came to alpine construction, they were varsity, and we were JV. That isn’t to say SWCC was unprofessional, but we were essentially manual labor for hire. Other companies could rent our services if they needed help, meaning we were often used to complete projects already underway instead of creating and completing our own projects.

The Group:

Codenames: Indiana, Dusty, Gator Gal, Bull, Wisco, Poetry, and Pennsylvania. Why codenames? Because codenames rock, and to protect the identity of my crewmates.

Tragedy 1:

They always say tragedy strikes in threes, unfortunately for us, that wisdom held. Our first tragedy occurred during our off hitch, and I didn’t even know about it until an hour before we left for our new project. As we gathered in the morning to load up the van and the trailer, I noticed Dusty wasn’t around. I soon found out he wouldn’t be joining us anymore.

As it turned out, Dusty had some personal issues that weren’t apparent during our first hitch. He was a kind and considerate person, but a lot was going on behind the scenes that none of us knew about. Long in a short, he ended up flipping his car while driving down a long dirt road to some campsites he had been staying at. Between the fractures, breaks, and murky circumstances surrounding his state of mind during the incident, he and SWCC leadership came to an agreement to part ways. While I’m happy to say he recovered fully, we still felt the loss. Before we’d even begun our big project for the summer, we’d already lost a team member. So, despite my best efforts, a cloud of uncertainty hung over our heads as we loaded up the van and headed out.

Once we finally got to the trailhead, we’d done a little group management and felt better about salvaging the day. Despite the loss of Dusty, we knew SWCC would be sending us a new member at some point. We just had to rely on each other in the meantime. Okie Dokie.

The CFI leaders had already set up their camp a few miles into the Lizard Head Wilderness, so we grabbed our gear and tore after them. We hoped to set up the remainder of our camp, stow our personal stuff, and get some work in before nightfall. Back to Table of Contents.

Tragedy 2

Roughly halfway into our hike, we encountered another scary situation. Throughout the first part of the hike, I’d been keeping an eye on my friend Indiana. He had packed an extremely full backpack and appeared to be getting winded far faster than any other member of the group. We slowed down the pace to compensate, but it didn’t seem to be correcting the problem. Finally, after some discussion, we took a break to assess what was wrong.

Not more than fifteen seconds after we stopped hiking, Indiana collapsed. His breath was barely coming in, and we could hear gurgling in the back of his throat. Within a minute, his eyes rolled up and he’d lost consciousness. Gator gal and I jumped into action immediately, remembering our WFR training.

Hearing the liquid in the back of his throat, I rotated him from belly up to his right side. Then, I bent his left leg as a kind of kickstand and used his left elbow the same way. Once they were in place, I continued rotating him from 90 degrees to roughly 135, angled down, until yellow liquid dribbled out of his mouth. With his leg and elbow bent and acting like braces, I was able to turn him over until gravity could assist with liquid removal. Being unconscious, there was a very real chance he could’ve choked on his own fluids had he remained belly up. You can’t breathe if your airway is blocked.

With that crisis averted, Gator gal scrambled towards his pack, remembering that Indiana had an asthma inhaler. While she looked, I made sure all the liquid that needed to get out, got out, and then slowly rolled Indiana back into as comfortable a position as I could because he had begun seizing.

…I think one of the worst things to experience is watching someone else have a seizure, especially if you’ve never seen one before. There isn’t a whole lot you can do. You create a contained space where the thrashing has less of a chance of hurting them…and wait.

Even though I remembered the WFR training, it went against every emotional impulse I had. I wanted to be helpful, I wanted to fix the problem, I wanted to do MORE…but had to settle for loosely cradling Indianas head so he didn’t hurt himself. In hindsight, I helped prevent further injury, but in the moment, all I could think about was that I wasn’t doing enough. It’s a terrible feeling, out in the wilderness and out of control…but it’s not like you can talk someone out of having a seizure: when it happens, it happens.

The best thing to do when someone is having a seizure is to make them as comfortable as possible and make sure their head, neck, and spine are protected. Without muscle control, the movements in a seizure are incredibly strong and erratic; people can do real damage to themselves. Had we been in cell reception, calling 911 would’ve been a priority, but in the woods, we had to make do. In any situation, DO NOT stick something in their mouth. This was common knowledge a few decades ago, the thought being it would help victims avoid snapping their own jaw or biting their tongues off, but the risk for choking is too great. Protect the head, neck, spine, and the individual’s integrity. When a victim experiences a seizure they are unconscious, so it’s not some muscle control that’s lost, its ALL muscle control, including, on occasion, bladder control. If you hear any gurgling or anything that sounds like liquid in the throat, make sure to turn the body over so gravity can help drain fluids from them; airways have to stay open, they cannot do this for themselves.

It took a few, exceedingly long minutes, but eventually, the worst of the seizure seemed to pass. Gator gal returned with the asthma inhaler, and we swapped positions. Wisco moved in to cradle Indianas head while Gator gal tried timing the inhaler squeeze with the few short breaths Indiana was still taking. It took a couple of tries, but she managed to synch two breaths with two inhaler puffs, and Indiana’s heart rate started slowing. It took another excruciatingly long minute for him to regain consciousness, but he did.

The next moments were very quiet, and very awkward.

During the tumult, I didn’t notice that one of our crew leaders had sprinted ahead to get help from the two CFI workers. They arrived within half an hour and continued assessing Indiana while the rest of our team tried collecting what remained of our sanity. Once they cleared Indiana to keep going, we all took turns moving weight from his pack to ours and completed the rest of the hike up to the base camp.

CFI allowed us to use the wall tent they had already set up and asked us to install an electric fence around it. Turns out there was an active bear in the area looking for human food. We spent the next hour installing the fence, setting up our tents, and rearming with our tools for an afternoon of scheduled work. Indiana remained in his tent to try and let his body adjust to the altitude.

Outside the grove of trees where our camp was, there were excellent views up to El Diente, and we enjoyed cutting tread underneath the shadow of the monstrous peak.

El Diente, “The tooth”

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Basic Trail-work Terminology

As the blog continues, I’ll be using a lot of terminologies to describe what trail-workers do. Not all projects require the same skillsets. There are many rock work terms that differ from what we did on El Diente; they will be discussed in future blog posts when applicable to the project parameters. Contrary to popular belief, trail work is not PRIMARILY for ease of travel, although that is an ancillary effect. The biggest threat to trails over time is actually erosion, created from rain, wind, and humans. Many of the structures we built were used to mitigate those effects. Erosion is especially pronounced at higher elevations. Did you know it takes 50 years to create one inch of topsoil in the alpine? That recovery rate is far too slow to handle the constant pressures of wind, water and humans, which is where we come in.

  • Bench Cut: The main cut in a new trail. This cut creates tread and does so in an agreeable angle to an otherwise steeper slope, hence “bench”.
  • Tread: Tread is the walking portion of a trail.
  • Backslope: Obvious when a trail cuts across a slope. The backslope is an angled cut above the tread, used to set the slope back from the trail, thereby preventing the bank from collapsing onto the tread over time.
  • Hinge: The point at which the backslope and tread meet. Synonymous to a hinge between a door and its frame.
  • Pick Mattock: This essential tool is similar to what the ye-olde prospectors used but is not the same tool. One side of the Pick Mattock is tapered to a point (the pick), which allows the user to break up compacted soil easily. The other end of the Mattock is a bit wider (Mattock, or adze end) and can be used to break up larger chunks of soil or to scrape uneven tread down to a better angle. The wider end is also great for smoothing out backslope.
  • Dirtbags: A large, sturdy, canvas bag that is used to haul dirt to a section of eroded trail in need of regrading.
  • Rake: Not the flimsy yard work kind; this bad boy is all metal. Trail building rakes are extremely useful for revegetation efforts and for pulling scree away from trails.
  • Drainage Sheet: The tread, while at less of an angle than existing slopes, is not entirely flat. From the hinge, a good bench cut will angle the tread roughly 5 degrees outward. This is to allow rainwater a chance to drain off the tread in sheets instead of channels, leading into the next point…
  • Inslope/Outslope: The outslope refers to the 5 degree angle on the tread, not enough to twist ankles or feel uncomfortable, but enough to wash the rain off the trail. An Inslope is the opposite, where the edge of the trail is higher than the hinge. In this unfortunate scenario, over time, water pools along the tread, creating channels of erosion that affect the long term usability of the trail.
  • Fall Line: The direction of least gravitational resistance ie. if you dropped a ball on a slope, where would it roll? Determining the fall line is very useful when figuring out how to orient trails. Going directly up the fall line is inviting massive erosion over time as it would be the easiest way for material to move downhill. Sustainable tread almost never goes up or down the fall line if it can be helped.
  • Cross slope: This refers to the existing slope before we planted a trail on it. It’s important to understand the effects of cross slopes on erosion when constructing trail or the quality of the trail will degrade over time.
In the above photo, from left to right you have backslope, hinge and tread. Also visible are Pick Mattocks (yellow handle), Steel Rake (wooden handle), and Dirtbags. Even though Gator Gal is standing on the tread, you can tell it has a slight out-slope to allow water runoff (Drainage sheet). The fall line would run diagonal upper right to lower left ie the path that water would flow during a downpour. Because we’re cutting tread across the slope, the “cross slope” is the angle of the existing slope, which is, again, upper left to lower right. A lot going on isn’t there?
  • Check-step (or Check Dam): When a trail attacks a slope at an unfavorable angle, rain can deposit soil all along its expanse, washing away tread and accelerating erosion. A check-step is a thick section of log, or, in some cases rock, set into the slope, perpendicular to the trail, that breaks up the slope rise. This creates a stair-like design, where the tread between check steps isn’t angled enough to accelerate existing erosion.
An example of check steps, and the “stair-like” design.
  • Reveg: Short for revegetation. In many cases, in order to build sustainable trail, old unsustainable trails need to be closed. Revegetation is the process by which we move existing vegetation (roots and all) into the old trail and set them in ways to promote further growth. With a successful reveg, old trails disappear within a few years.
  • Borrow Pit: A pit dug way off-trail, where soil is taken to regrade existing trail. The borrow pit is dug in an area that does not suffer from excessive erosion, is far from traveled areas, and is always filled in with rocks, sticks, and other natural items to mitigate any animals falling into it.
  • Spade: A shovel with a spade shape, great for starting borrow pits as the slightly tapered end allows for easier ground penetration.
  • Rockbar: An 18 pound rock stick, used primarily in scree and talus for leverage when moving rocks that are hundreds of pounds.
  • Drain: An extra water mitigation feature where a side of the trail in even terrain is blown out and angled down to allow for water to evacuate the tread. Not very useful in steep cross slopes or in rock-fields.
  • Waterbar: Usually positioned below a drain, the water bar is an elevated bump (usually a log larger than the average check step), set at an angle, which forces existing water on the tread to follow the drain off the trail.
  • Apron: The shape of the drain is important. It starts narrow and balloons out into an apron shape to help sheet the water. Without an apron, concentrated water flow will create channels that increase erosion.
  • Braid: This occurs when a massive amount of people hike on a given trail. A braid is a thread of compacted soil, not tied to the original trail, but exists because hikers pass around other hikers or prefer to walk on grass instead of dirt. The problem with braids is that they ruin a wilderness quality and increase erosion. Erosion from trail braiding is much more severe in the alpine as the ecosystem isn’t built to handle large amounts of people. Shutting down braids is a popular trail building task.
  • Turnpike: Sometimes trails travel through flat, wet areas where water has trouble leaving. In this case, building a turnpike may be appropriate. A turnpike is outlined by two long wooden runners, set into the slope with wooden wedges and rebar. Between the logs, various sizes of rocks are set from larger to smaller. The top of the turnpike is filled in with soil. You’ve now created an elevated section of trail, where water can drain through the soil and rocks beneath to keep the tread above dry.
  • Flagging: Usually done by the trail designer or project leads, flagging is literally planting small flags along the eventual trail route. They can be moved as the situation on the ground changes but are there to outline where the trail needs to be and where it will ultimately go.

There are many additional terms but that should getcha brain cookin. I’ll revisit specific concepts in future posts as trail issues arise.

We worked for the rest of the afternoon under the shadow of El Diente, while Indiana recovered in his tent. Still unsure of precisely what caused his medical moment, we were in no rush to put him to work. However, when we returned to the camp to set up for dinner, we were all pleasantly surprised to see him back to his normals self, cracking jokes and sporting a devious grin. His attitude flip did a lot to quell some of our nerves; I mean, one day into our most consequential work project, and we’d already lost one member and nearly another. The sighs of relief were audible.

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Tragedy 3

The next day we woke early, stumbled to the wall tent, did our morning routine (including some group team-building exercises), and tried to get ready for the day. With mountain weather as variable as it was, and the threat of afternoon storms always looming, we woke early to take advantage of the most settled part of the day. It involved resetting our body clocks, but after a few days of adjusting, I found that waking up before the sun rose and falling asleep as it set was a nice routine.

Since SWCC was an introduction to the outdoors for a lot of people, the organization had mule packed in a lot of our supplies, including group food stores like an unholy amount of cliff bars, breakfast foods, powdered milk, coffee, and a host of other items. The dinner meals, lunches, and personal snacks we all had to haul in. Carrying less weight was nice, but the bland oatmeal and weak coffee could’ve been better. I think our CFI coworkers saw my expression and knew immediately what I was thinking. As we all tried to will ourselves awake, I chatted with them briefly.

Red-tail was an outdoorsy girl from the start. Originally from Vermont, she had spent some time living in Thailand. Phish was, unsurprisingly, a Phish fan and went to the multi-day show in Colorado every year. They were trail wizards and had been building for a variety of years. The knowledge they dropped was consequential in cementing my desire to live this kind of life for more than just one summer. More immediately, I got the sense that as project leaders, they knew what needed to be done and could give us all some solid direction: which, in light of our recent challenges, seemed like a really good idea.

Once we were loaded up and ready, we journeyed up beyond tree-line to a section of trail they had started building the year prior. While most of our work would consist of closing down an old trail down lower, it was a nice change to be able to journey above the trees. We worked diligently to clear a path through loose scree, using metal rakes and various tools as best we could.

The section of trail we would work on, in the picture above, marked by orange flagging.

I found myself much more energetic than the previous day. How could anyone not be excited about the alpine? Ridiculous. Anyway, then everything went to hell.

We’d set up along different parts of the slope when the cry came, “Indiana’s down!” I turned back down the trail to see our teammate in the same position he was in yesterday, gasping for breath as his eyes rolled back into his head. Cursing, I scrambled down the slope towards him and did as I did the previous day, putting him in as comfortable a position as possible and making sure to tip him over to dump yellow bile like fluid out of his threat. Gator gal jumped towards Indiana’s pack and freed the inhaler again. This time it took a lot longer to control the seizing. I set a jacket over his midsection while the rest of the squad took turns stabilizing his neck, head, and spine. This episode lasted longer and was scarier than the first one because we were farther from help and Indiana kept making harrowing whimpering noises, even though we couldn’t get him to consciously acknowledge us. We were forced to wait out the worst of the seizing before Gator gal could time some inhaler blasts. Eventually, his eyes rolled back to open, and consciousness returned.

I collapsed back against the slope and looked despondently towards Gator Gal, the rest of my squad, and our CFI mates. Everyone’s faces spoke volumes during those silent moments, and we knew that the situation was now untenable. We had to get Indiana out of here. Pennsylvania and Harvard walked Indiana back down to camp and stayed with him as we tried to salvage the day’s project.

To be honest, even though we did the work, it was hard to stay in the moment because all of my thoughts were bent towards Indiana. Conversations were few and far between until it was time to tool up and call it a day.

Looking back up at the area we were working when Indiana had a second attack.

The following morning, a plan was hatched, and our CFI buds, Red-tail and Phish, walked Indiana back to the trailhead with Harvard. Armed with satellite phones, an SWCC leader would be waiting at the trailhead to take Indiana back to Durango, where they’d run some tests in a local doctor’s office to assess the situation. Boom, another member lost.

While we worked the following seven days as we were supposed to, it was hard to remember much from that hitch, aside from a pervasive somber attitude. The work continued, but we were hamstrung, two members gone within a few days. I felt like one of the rats caught in our sump (a pit we dug, where we dumped excess cooking liquids, soap, and toothpaste). By digging the sump down deep enough, we guaranteed the liquids would be reabsorbed into the soil instead of running down into potential water sources. But it wasn’t fancy, just a sometimes liquid-filled hole. Because of the variety of liquids in the sump, it had a…scent, I guess, not enough for us to smell, but the rats sure did.

Towards the end of our hitch, I remember standing near the sump, brushing my teeth in sheets of rain after another day of work and looking down into the sump, seeing not one but three rat bodies, just…floating there. I think over the course of our five hitches on El Diente the sump murdered dozens of them. A weird reality for a weird set of days. After Indiana’s departure, our SWCC leads (Harvard and Pennsylvania) talked to each of us individually, daily, to ask how we were holding up. I didn’t lie, but I wasn’t happy. I just felt useless, floating belly up in the wilderness like a rat in a sump.

By the time the hitch ended, we’d accomplished good work, but morale had taken a serious hit. I resolved to spend the off hitch forcing myself into a better attitude. We all had to step up, and after going through an abbreviated form of the grieving process, I figured it would do more lasting damage to sink. Naturally, my plan involved getting amongst it.

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Ultimate, Rock Climbing, and Mountaineering

The first thing I did after our hitch ended was head straight for the rec center in Durango to push weights. I’m not a body-builder but the repetitive motions, and the resistance encountered, helped me expel some of my bad attitude. The shower afterward washed all of the remaining crap away, and I left feeling 1000% better. I later found out each member of our squad was doing something similar; whether it was calling family, heading to the bar, or trolling around Durango, we all kind of needed a reset. Mental health, you know?

I met up with the rest of the squad (minus Harvard and Pennsylvania) at Durango Brewing (RIP), and we resolved to tackle each new challenge together. Strength through tragedy. We’d been tested, and the ones remaining would finish the damn season together. It was a good moment, punctuated by mediocre beer and rolled cigarettes, but a turning point for our little group. We handled two medical emergencies and had to say goodbye to two members. What was left was a no BS squad of dirtbags, ready to take it to the mountain.

We all met up with some of the Park Rangers we’d worked with the previous hitch in Mesa Verde the following day and ended up playing ultimate frisbee with them. I’m not usually a huge frisbee fan but being a part of something was enough to distract us from the crappy hitch we’d just had. I even cemented some hiking plans with one of the rangers. After seeing El Diente and the peaks around it, I was very interested in climbing it. With another 4.5 days of break before the next hitch, there was plenty of time to get a good trip in.

The last item on my checklist before embarking on another mountain-escapade was to see Indiana. He had spent the rest of our hitch loafing around Durango and had agreed to go rock climbing with Hawk (from a different SWCC crew) and a few others near the town. I figured it would be nice to see him, get his story and ask the inevitable question of “whatcha gonna do now?”

Me, in the circle.

After climbing a few routes, I got the full story. Indiana had a heart condition where one of his valves didn’t close all the way. He had also never been at elevations as high as we were operating before. Indiana is, as a state, quite low, and he hadn’t spent much time outside it. Compounding those two factors was persistent asthma. When combined, they produced the seizing and loss of consciousness we’d seen. There was no way to check for that in the backcountry, and he was honestly surprised no previous doctor had told him about it. He had made the tough choice to call it quits. There was simply no way to tell if he would ever acclimatize and the risk for another attack was far too great. We chatted and reminisced about the good times over the past three weeks, but the following day, I was off to climb some 14ers, and Indiana was on his way home.

The San Miguels

El Diente, Mt. Wilson, and Wilson Peak are part of a subrange of mountains known as the San Miguels. They are part of the larger San Juan Range but disconnected from them by the area around Telluride. Wilson Peak is especially prominent from the town and is the summit that appears on Coors beer cans. During the middle and end of the previous hitch, in order to fend off boredom and the somberness of our reduced team, I asked if our CFI mates had any books with them. Turns out, they’d brought a small library, knowing they’d be fixing El Diente all summer long. One of the books was a copy of Colorado’s 14ers: From Hikes to Climbs, by Gerry Roach. It had long been the de-facto resource for climbing all the peaks over 14,000 feet in the state. Eventually, his books would have to compete with excellent route sites like 14ers.com, but out in the wild, internet was suspiciously lacking, so the book was what I had to entertain myself with. Naturally, this led to a slow epiphany. I’d already done two 14ers, might as well do all of them in the San Juans. The epiphany hadn’t quite made it to, “might as well do all of them in the state”, but the wheels were turning inevitably in that direction.

I settled on the trio near our worksite because, after nine days of staring up at El Diente, and knowing there were two other mountains behind it, I was properly motivated. I met my National Park ranger friend, let’s call him Big Bend (he was straight outta west TX), at the trailhead for our hike. I figured the best way to attack the San Miguels from the south was via a campsite at Navajo Lake, situated in a high cirque between the three. So that’s what we did.

The Forest Service often has cooperative grazing contracts with local farmers and apparently Sheepherders.
Found these guys mean mugging us on the way to Navajo Lake.
Navajo Lake and Gladstone Peak behind.

We set up camp in between brief rainstorms and settled in. Do I find it strange that Mount Wilson and Wilson Peak are two separate mountains with similar names that are very close to one another? Yes. But that wasn’t enough of a concern to stop me from scrambling up them. We drifted off into restful sleep and woke up at the butt-crack of dawn to tackle our first target. Wilson Peak is a solid Class 3 scramble over loose rocks. It is a fun and challenging scramble, briefly becoming the toughest 14er I’d climbed yet. That title would fall to Mount Wilson the following day, as it would become my first Class 4 mountain climb.

Climbing up to Rock of Ages Saddle. Gladstone Peak center left, the massive Mt. Wilson to the right.
Looking east to the namesake of the wilderness areas, The Lizard Head (ridge right).
Let it be known that June 2015 was an especially rainy month for the San Juan high country. Had to pause numerous times during our ascent to let the weather clear.
Looking back to Mt. Wilson (left) and El Diente (right). Prominence purists would say El Diente is not an official 14er but, it’s .75 miles from Wilson via a gnarly Class 4 traverse, so it certainly counts for me.
Getting to the top of Wilson Pk. is no joke
Nice view of one of the final pushes to the summit ridge. The rock was wet and loose.
The summit of Wilson Peak!
Making our way back to Rock of Ages Saddle
Heading back to Navajo Lake.
Camp!

The next day we had high hopes of tagging Mt. Wilson and completing the Wilson-Diente traverse, one of 4 “Classic” 14er traverses as Gerry Roach put it. The weather conspired against us in the end, but we did manage to summit Mt. Wilson, and I would come back to hit the traverse twice during the following weeks.

Starts off fairly straightforward…
then, it quickly steepens as you perform an ascending traverse over multiple gullies.
Looking east toward the distinctive summit of Gladstone.
Strange cloud fingers over Wilson Pk. where we stood the day before.
The summit of Mt. Wilson after a series of exposed Class 4 moves to get onto the summit block. Looking towards El Diente and the traverse between them.

Once we got back down to camp, we packed up and moseyed back to the car. The whole Lizard Head Wilderness is wonderful and wild, especially on it’s less traveled western side. Repeat visits were already in the works before I’d even left the trailhead.

Looking back to El Diente as we descend to the car. I would obviously be coming back to summit it soon!

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Final Thoughts

Before saddling up for our next hitch, I found a quiet spot at Durango Joe’s coffee and thought about all the things that had happened since leaving home. Despite the world’s best efforts to knock me down, I kept getting back up again. Standing despondently in the rain, looking at a couple bloated rat corpses was the closest I got to questioning whether or not that was a sane thing to do, but objectively, it was. Sometimes, life just sucks, but it doesn’t mean you should stop trying.

Since leaving the East Coast, I’d burned through a wad of cash on a road trip to “find myself,” taken a job I barely understood, fallen off of multiple mountains, experienced two medical crises, and watched two team members disappear from the ranks. Somewhere along that timeline, I hardened up, not like I really had a choice.

A true test of character is how we understand and respond to adverse situations in our lives. Do we project, throwing blame in every direction, hoping one will stick? Or do we do everything in our power to push ourselves forward, knowing we’ve only got one life to live, and, well dammit, it should be for living? Failure and tragedy make us stronger, but only if we learn from those situations. That doesn’t mean you can’t fail forward. Hell, I think up until this point all I’d been doing was failing forward, but in those moments of profound uncertainty, there is also a strange beauty. Tested, and tested, and tested, yet, still standing. Did I think more tests were coming my way? Yup. Was I ready for them? Nope. Was I going to keep trying? Until I had nothing left. For someone like me, whose biggest fear is shutting myself off from the world and letting apathy poke holes in my brain, even failure meant I had done something worth trying.

I keep thinking of a phrase that feels applicable to the rollercoaster of life:

This too shall pass.

The good times are good because they won’t last forever, so enjoy them while you can, but the bad times don’t go on for an eternity either. If it’s bad now, it won’t be forever. Keep your chin up; nothing really stays the same.

The great human experiment would be awfully boring if none of us did anything. So, onward!

Part 7: Mesa Verde

After my close-call on Engineer Mt., I was ready to bury myself in Conservation work. Our crew’s first nine-day hitch was going to be in Mesa Verde National Park. Taking a break from the snowy winter-land still stubbornly holding on to the high country, we headed west from Durango to warmer climes.

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Intro: History and Legacy

Mesa Verde National Park is another often overlooked treasure of the park’s system (eat your heart out, Yosemite). The park came into existence in 1906 and protects some of the best examples of indigenous Pueblo architecture and culture. Native American culture is still widely felt across the four corners region because of a combination of Native American ancestral lands and the proliferation of reservations. Reservations were set up by the U.S. government because President Andrew Jackson was a piece of shit who didn’t view Native Americans as worthy examples of people. The ramifications of our damming policies against Native Americans, including the Indian removal act (aka Trail of Tears), continued use of derogatory team names and phrases (though some of that is changing), and cultural appropriation of Native Americans, illustrates how little modern American society views the original settlers of our continent. As of my writing this, president Joe Biden has nominated Rep. Deb Haaland to lead the Department of the Interior, the first native American to be nominated for the position. Check this article out for how impactful that nomination is to many Native Americans.

The point is, during the colonial drive to conquer North America, Native Americans and nature were often and widely abused. A truly damaging legacy for a young country made more tragic because of Native American’s deep love and care for the land we were actively destroying. There really is no dollar value that can ever compensate for the genocidal restructuring of entire Native American tribes. The best hope now is to be inclusive instead of exclusive. We’ve got a long way to go.

One way us regular shmoes can educate ourselves is to visit some of these historic places and glimpse the fabric of this great nation: before the French, English, Dutch and Spanish explorers came over. Mesa Verde checks a lot of boxes. It has stunning protected land, tons of Native American heritage, massive cliff dwellings, and easily accessible material to round out our understanding of not only history but the cultural ramifications of what we did in the 1800s.

Redirecting my rant to the who/what/when: Mesa Verde was the home of the Ancestral Puebloans. They lived in the present-day states of southern Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, and southern Utah. Archaeologists generally break down the Pueblo era into three distinct phases, marked by changes in household dynamics, food storage, and settlement construction. These eras lasted from approximately 750-1300. Post-1300, many settled areas in Mesa Verde were abandoned, possibly due to complications resulting from weather changes and overpopulation, stressing what the natural environment could provide. An architectural hallmark of the Ancient Puebloans is the cliff dwelling, where towns and settlements were built within overhung cliffs, as shown below. 

Our job during the nine-day hitch was to assist the national park rangers with a variety of projects. These included repairing fences, cutting new trail, and invasive species removal (non-native thistle). While the history of the Ancient Puebloans is fascinating: during our hitch, we also found out about unique contemporary issues that impacted our understanding of property rights, eminent domain, and heritage.

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Our Job

We were given a campground site just inside the park, which sits atop a southward sloping mesa. The northern front of the park is the most dramatic and highest in elevation, but the canyons on the south side contained most of the Cliff Dwellings. The first day was all about establishing routines and getting comfortable with each other’s work ethic. The trailer was loaded with trail building tools, but our first task only required canvas bags and thick gloves: invasive removal.

Thistle is a naturally occurring plant in the US, but variants have come over from other parts of the world and are threaten the environment because they grow in profusion. Our job was to get rid of a ton of the invasive thistle. It was repetitive and tiring work, all alongside the main park thoroughfare, which probably made us look like a chain gang without the chains. Regardless, I found myself immersed in the simple task at hand, mind unencumbered by the myriad factors around the task. Would I want to do that every day? Absolutely not, but we covered a large amount of area for half a day of work, and that was satisfying.

Day 2 was a little more interesting. Apparently, some horse whisperer (who donated a lot to the park) wanted to take some of her clients on a trail ride through the more isolated parts of the Mesa Verde. We were called in to help uncover an older network of trails that had fallen into disrepair, which meant hiking deep into some of the park’s canyons. Adventure time!

We entered from the top, so the heads of the canyon weren’t initially impressive, just long gashes into an otherwise uniform mesa. However, as we descended, the hike became trickier.

We had chosen the most expedient way down into the canyons; the horse riders would approach from a much more agreeable angle. Though, our route had the sensation of stumbling into a lost world. Following our park ranger friend, we felt as if we were stepping back in time the further into the canyons we proceeded.

After taking a water break: our ranger pointed out a Cliff Dwelling high above us in the canyon walls. Unlike the larger ones, where tours are offered to visitors, this one had only been visited by skilled archaeologists and park rangers, giving it an authentic and imposing quality.

A regular and close up shot of the Cliff Dwelling, how did they even get in there?!?!

Collectively we spent two or three days working to clear trail at the bottom of our canyon. As a group, it was our first test of the skills we’d learned in training, and although we didn’t build as much as we thought, the progress was encouraging, and our ranger seemed happy with what we managed to clear for them.

Aside from trail work and exotic invasive removal, the rest of our hitch in Mesa focused on fence-lines. The current boundaries of Mesa Verde border the Ute Mountain Reservation. After the Ancient Puebloans abandoned their cliff dwellings, the major tribe left in the four corners region was the Utes (Fun fact: Utah is named after them). In a reluctant move to preserve their sacred Sleeping Ute Mountain, the tribes traded lands with the Federal Government that ended up becoming part of Mesa Verde. Like most land swaps with the federal government, the Utes were not given a fair trade. Issues with property rights occasionally flare-up between the reservation and the park. One of the bigger ones is the encroachment of wild horses onto park lands. These wild horses may have originated after breaking corrals and escaping Ute control, though that assessment is disputed. In either case, wary of ecological damage, Mesa maintains a long fence-line along its border with Ute territory, and we helped fix fence lines and close wire gaps big enough for animals to slip through.

Limited by the amount of gear we could carry into the backcountry, we used whatever we could find to decrease fence gaps, including sticks and bones.

Despite the beautiful and arid climate around our worksite, the appearance of the fence: so out of place and stark, made me sad.

Divisions.

One of the unexpected highlights, however, was a bonafide wild horse sighting. Despite the Ranger grumbling about how they were altering the ecological balance in the park, it was hard not to be encapsulated.

Majestic eh?

After seven days of hard work, from sunup to sundown, our ranger friend got us on a tour of the largest Cliff Dwelling in the park, aptly titled Cliff Palace. The dwelling was only reachable by a series of ladders bolted to cement blocks and scaling near-vertical cliff bands, making for quite the immersive experience.

Before we headed out, our crew climbed a bluff near our campsite to get a high elevation perspective of the area.

S-simba?

During the tour of Cliff Palace it felt strange to be around so many well dressed tourists, while we stank of a weeks worth of outdoor work. Luckily, no one took it upon themselves to smell us too closely, and the tour ended up being a great cap to a tough hitch.

After we finished the tour, we embraced our inner tourist and took the van to the highest point in the park. From it, you could really see the precipitous edge of the Mesa Verde….mesa and gaze eastwards towards the ramparts of the La Plata Range, a subset of the San Juans.

Even though we spent 9ninedays in the park, it wasn’t nearly enough time to fully understand the ecology, Ancient Puebloan history, and modern property struggles between the Feds and the Ute Mountain Tribe. Mesa Verde has a lot going for it as a national park, while also offering an interesting examination into the uneven history of the American West.

Our time in Mesa Verde taught us a lot about the work required and our own group dynamics. A lot of it was tough. Anytime you get 8 adults together trying to accomplish a project, you’re bound to run into some interdisciplinary issues, but after days of ironing out the kinks, we felt better about the rest of the season, and what we could accomplish as a group. I headed into the off hitch feeling good and amped about the adventures I’d be able to get under my belt before our next nine days of work.

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Off-Hitch

The initial bit of training for SWCC had taken place on a horse ranch. The owner had promised free rides to anyone who wanted them. Seizing the opportunity, Indiana and I made our way to the ranch to claim our reward. While the ranch had offered rides to everyone from SWCC, we were apparently the first in years to take them up on it, which we found surprising, I mean, who doesn’t want to ride horses on a big ranch in the Southern Rockies? Madness I tell yah.

Owing to the ranch’s location, I was allowed an uninterrupted look up to Engineer Mountain, where I had almost died. Amazing what the difference a couple of weeks of warm temperatures can make. The snowy-slopes responsible for my slide were almost entirely melted out, and the mountain seemed so much more pedestrian than what I’d experienced.

Engineer Mountain with MUCH LESS snow than when I climbed it.

After shaking my head and mumbling under my breath for a few minutes, I managed to refocus on the task at hand and spent the next two hours walking, trotting, and even galloping along the mountain trails around the ranch. Before this adventure, it had been years since I’d ridden. It only took two minutes for me to remember why I loved it. Horses are great.

Ready to ride.

The following day, Indiana and I combined forces with some other SWCC members to rock-climb some crags near Durango. I didn’t really know what I was doing, but one of our coworkers, Hawk, had extensive gear and experience. I surprised myself by how well I did, of course, forgetting to take any pictures along the journey. After a down day: spent in my favorite coffee shop in town (Durango Joes on College Drive) researching possible mountains to climb, I settled on Handies Peak. It would be my second 14er and leagues easier than Engineer or Sneffels.

I still managed to find impressively large snowfields on the mountain and watched a cornice break off near me, leading to a small avalanche. But, I felt much more capable in my assessment of the environmental factors. The ascent wasn’t particularly memorable, but the views on top were.

The impressive Weminuche wilderness.
The monarch of the San Juans: Uncompahgre Peak, 6th highest in Colorado (14,308 ft.). Fun fact, Uncompahgre was named after another Native American tribe that called the region home.
The pointy one is Wetterhorn Peak, named for the more famous peak in the Swiss Alps, though this one is actually taller. (14,021 ft.) The other prominent peaks, (L.) are Coxcomb and Redcliff.
Perhaps the most iconic view from Handies. Do you see any roads? No, because that’s all wilderness baby. Looking towards the high peaks of the Weminuche. Wild Colorado and its finest. The two geometric looking peaks off center-right are Vestal and Arrow. Also visible are Pigeon Peak (far right), Sunlight and Windom (center back), and the wild Osso group to the left.
Me!
I drove over Cinnamon Pass to get to Handies from Silverton, a significant achievement for my trusty Subaru. Lots of 4 wheelers and truck drivers were giving me the stink eye like I wasn’t supposed to be up there in a stock Outback. Lol, sorry guys. Over the next few years, my 2011 Outback would attack and dispense with roads it was definitely not built for, but damn did it feel good to conquer them. Subarus are built to last, my friends.

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Happy with my off hitch shenanigans, I spent the rest of my time off hanging around Durango and getting to know my crew-mates a little better. Anticipation was building between us because our next five hitches were going to be on the slopes of El Diente, the most western 14er in the state. High elevation work was coming for our crew, and after another successful summit, I felt ready for just about anything.

Silly Timo…

Part 6: Intro to SWCC and The Subtle Art of Falling Down A Mountain

This post is divided between an explanation/introduction to Conservation Corps and my close call on Engineer Mt. If you just want the mountain story, skip to the section header that reads Engineer Mt. If you’re curious about what kind of a job I’d signed on to for my 2015 Colorado summer, proceed below.

Southwest Conservation Corps is a branch of Americorps and tangential to Peace Corps. While Peace Corps. goes abroad, Americorp stays domestic. If you’ve never heard of Americorps, you can check out more information on their website and watch a very hokey video about it here. For a more succinct definition, we turn to Wikipedia, where it states: “Americorps is a voluntary civil society program supported by the U.S. Federal Government, foundations, corporations, and other donors that engage adults in public service work with a goal of helping others and meeting critical needs in the community.” In the southwestern corner of Colorado, a lot of that community service comes in the form of various conservation initiatives, the largest contingent being trails, hence the local Americorps chapter: Southwest Conservation Corps. In many cases, trails are the only way to access truly fantastic areas of natural heritage and beauty, especially in the remote areas of the West, where towns are few and far between. Our job was to help keep that network open.

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A Brief History of Conservation Corps and the Importance of NAAAAAATUUUUURE

The current iteration of Americorps was founded by Bill Clinton in 1993, but he is not the father of conservation. Teddy Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot usually come up high in the US conservation history ranking, but Aldo Leopold and John Muir are essential contributors as well. Point being, the idea of conservation arrived in the late 1800s and early 1900’s when we were busy clear-cutting our way westward and displacing thousands of Native Americans. Many early explorers uncovered areas of obscene natural beauty, such as Yosemite Valley, and started thinking, “well, gee whiz, we should probably protect this or whatever” (not an actual quote). While the conservation movement was relatively low key initially, it really came into focus during the Great Depression. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) enacted a wide range of policies aimed to help ease the burden of the unemployed called the New Deal. A large component of the New Deal was the establishment of the Civilian Conservation Corps. Like Americorps and later iterations, the goal was to put people to work and create a societal conscience regarding nature conservation. Once WWII ramped up, the national focus shifted to the army, and the program was closed by Congress. 

Naysayers would probably say the Corps didn’t add much to the fabric of America, but that is entirely untrue. In fact, just by focusing on conservation, the program helped shape our opinions about the natural world. As many know, the National Parks have long been declared America’s greatest idea, but it was not always so. To defend a parcel of land simply for the enjoyment of the masses was not a very intuitive idea back in the day. As indicated by recent record admittance, people love the Parks, and for good reason. If you’ve ever been to a National Park, or a wilderness area, then you know why. The Parks are a beautiful part of American legacy. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) helped increase public access to parks and helped build some of the most popular features in a lot of the parks. Perhaps you’ve already been in a part of the country that benefited from the CCC and didn’t even know it. Here is an incomplete list of some of their notable accomplishments:

  • Helped build and improve the Blue Ridge Parkway
  • Opened up access to Zion National Park, which was very remote and seldom utilized beforehand.
  • Ever seen the Shining? Or been up to Mt. Hood? Timberline Lodge was built by the CCC.
  • Rebuilt the stairways up the East face of Half Dome in Yosemite, including replacing existing cables.
  • Planted 3.5 billion trees to counter western clear-cutting
  • Created over 700 state parks
  • Built 3,000 fire-towers
  • Helped launch the American downhill ski industry. Don’t believe me? Check this article out. Here’s another one if you’re still unconvinced. Of course, Western Skiing developed in different stages, and this isn’t to take away from the legacy of the 10th Mountain Division or anything, but the original American skiers were in New England before the 10th Mt. and the CCC helped get the industry going for the benefit of the whole country. Talk about a lasting legacy!

Sources: History Channel Article, New Deal Projects

Great, so they did some stuff way back when, you say, why is it important now? Excellent question my inquisitive friend! Well, because conditions change. As time churns on, erosion beats up on the outdoors, and things need a fixin’. Plus, when the population of people exploring the outdoors increases, repairs and improvements to access become necessary. On top of that, as more areas open up for nature lovers and use increases in popular ones, new challenges emerge. Take the alpine, for instance. It covers less than 1% of the world and is a harsh and unforgiving environment for humans. Naturally, humans approached the alpine as a challenge to be conquered, and now hundreds of thousands throw themselves to the elements to touch a highpoint (myself included). With increased visitation comes increased problems. Imagine being a plant that has spent thousands of years adapting to a harsh environment only to die because some yahoo stepped on you. Trail improvements are necessary so we don’t screw up fragile ecosystems. Conservation requires us to work in tandem with nature so we can all enjoy what it has to offer. The early American mindset of “CONQUER AND KILL EVERYTHING” pitted man against nature. Not surprisingly, that was a terrible idea. Between clear-cutting (which leads to devastating mudslides) and soil abuse (which contributed to the dustbowl), you kind of start to realize that if we disregard nature, we’ll all suffer because of it.

You could be forgiven for not realizing how much effort goes into trail building, but trails don’t just appear out of nowhere. Every time you take a nature walk or hike a mountain, chances are, for at least some of the adventure, you’ll be on a trail. Trail work is not meant to conquer nature or make mountain climbing easier. It’s designed to, above all else, conserve the unique environments we have on Earth while simultaneously encouraging people to see and understand the natural world they exist alongside. Cool, everyone a tree hugger now? Great, moving on.

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My Intro to SWCC

Southwest Conservation Corps (SWCC) trail crews operated out of a property west-southwest of Durango, near a place called Hesperus. It consisted of a couple of farm buildings and a dirt parking lot where rabbits routinely climbed under your truck hood and chewed on your car wires. It’s unassuming presentation felt appropriate as the goal of the Corps was never to showboat, but to get things done. From this property, we would load up, restock and debrief after our hitches. We didn’t train there, however.

The actual training occurred near Haveland Lake, north of Durango. For five days, hundreds of crew-members were given presentations and taken on practice construction projects throughout the Rapp Corral property, a horse ranch nearby. We set up with our respective teams for the week and attempted to get to know each other. Here’s my goofy ass building a drainage runoff.

Added style points for the World War One era helmet design.

Brief Side-note: I met a lot of people through Conservation Corps, some will be featured heavily in future blogs, and others I’ll only mention in passing. This isn’t to slight anyone, but I’m trying to unload a lot of information concisely, so some things are bound to get cut. I’ve also decided to give everyone codenames because codenames rock.

Our team consisted of two leaders: Poetry and Pennsylvania; and six crew members, Gatorgal, Dusty, Bull, Wisco, Indiana, and myself. It was a pretty even split, four guys, four gals. Like any forced introduction, there wasn’t a whole lot we learned about each other that first week, but everyone seemed pleasant enough, and our general excitement at being in such an outdoor focused area squashed any reservations we may have had.

The general gist was that our crew would go out for nine days on a project secured ahead of time by our corporate office. We’d pack the van and the trailer full of our personal items, tools, tarps, and general food supplies, haul out of the area and post up wherever they wanted us. We’d come back and have five days off before being summoned back for another round. There were some options for reduced rent and a suggestion of places to stay during our off-time, but after doing the quick math, I realized it was much cheaper to stay at different campgrounds and use my off-time to go hike. Thus, my full transformation to dirt-bag life commenced.

Quick aside: There are A TON of definitions of dirtbag out there, most of which I found online, but it mostly revolves around a transient, outdoor-focused lifestyle. Some of the definitions are decidedly NOT flattering. In my little world, the title was embraced by trail builders because, well, we played around in the dirt a lot in order to build….uh, you know…trails. When you’re cutting into the ground to create tread, you dig up excess dirt, and then quite literally put it in a dirtbag to haul off for other areas of the project or release the dirt back into the wild. As far as all the subsets of dirtbags are concerned, I’m fairly certain only trail builders can legitimately make the claim that they consistently use a bag…filled with dirt.

The Van and the trailer.

I quickly developed a routine during my off-hitch time. I’d shower at the local Rec-Center (7$ for a day pass in 2015), do laundry at the ‘mat on the north side of town, hop across the street for a cheap beer at Durango Brewing (which has since closed), and then fart around until the call of the wild pushed me towards summiting mountains once more. It took me a little bit to nail the routine down, but after the training, I was still feeling that Road-trip restlessness, so I went searching for mountain challenges. After training, we were given a shorter break, maybe 3 or 4 days, before our first real project would begin. Taking the opportunity, I headed into Durango and bought some maps.

Stocked on local suggestions, I locked in a target: Engineer Mountain. I’d seen it on my drive over from Mt. Sneffels and immediately wanted to scale it. It’s a high 12,000 footer and a bit offset from the other major peaks in the area, giving it an open and regal feel. At this point in my Colorado adventures, even though I’d hit one 14er, the thought of doing all of them was still far from my mind; I just wanted to hike pretty things.

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Engineer Mountain

So, as the title of the blog post suggests, there was some drama involved with this climb, and I feel it necessary to kind of break down what happened. It’s important, especially in the age of Instagram bragging, to detail when things don’t go according to plan because usually, there are some stellar lessons involved with failure. However, ignoring these kinds of lessons all but guarantees you’ll repeat them.

June 6th, 2015: the snowdrifts were already a problem less than fifteen feet from the parking lot. Luckily US 550, the main road through the San Juans, is plowed during the winter, so access wasn’t too complicated. However, with a trailhead at more than 10,000 feet, I should’ve anticipated the amount of snow I’d need to deal with. Instead, I was lulled into complacency after my previous summit of Mt. Sneffels because in the week since the climb, there’d been nothing but blue skies and warm temps. So, of course, my naive ass thought, “Ah, sun melt snow, good good, no snow, no problem”. Mistake #1.

The other problem that occurs with drifting snow is that one side of the hill may be covered, but once you walk to the other, it may be bare. This poses a bit of a logistical nightmare, especially if you’re trying to find a trail you’ve never hiked on before. With no scouting hike under my belt, I was flying blind. Mistake #2.

Gorgeous colors though.

Nevertheless, I strapped on my snow-shoes, clipped my mountaineering axe and crampons to my pack, and set off…without telling anyone where I was going. Mistake #3.

harry potter idiot GIF
Drifts and banks of snow complicating my attempts to follow the trail.

After the first three mistakes, I actually settled into a routine and made it up to tree-line following some snowshoe tracks. Then, after finally sighting my target, I began regretting everything.

Intimdating, eh?

At this point, I did actually feel a part inside me saying, “Hey pal, maybe pack it in.” But then, of course, ego came roaring back. I politely reminded myself of previously successful climbs up St. Helens, Wheeler, and Sneffels and thought, to hell with turning around; I can do it. Mistake #4.

Forging ahead, excitement took hold, and I didn’t bother looking at the map because, duh, I could see the thing in front of me. Had I bothered to look, I may have found the easy way to attack the ridge. Instead, I opted to climb an area that had already melted out. This led to my first exposure with the loose volcanic crud emblematic of the San Juans. The added effort needed to get to the ridge-line left me tired and out of breath, contributing to questionable decisions later. Mistake #5.

After a fifteen-minute break where I just practiced breathing, the climbing resumed. Now properly on the nose of the ridge, I figured I’d scamper up to the top in no time. The weather, unfortunately, had other plans and I ascended straight into a cloud. Not wanting to walk straight off a cliff in the low visibility, I stop to let the cloud pass, wasting valuable time, which again, would come back to bite me later. Mistake #6, not checking the weather.

Dark and dreary. Just above the hardest technical part. To the left is a thousand foot drop.

Once I passed what I’d read was the toughest part of the climb, a short Class 3 scramble, I felt better…mentally. But if you’ve ever been in situations of intense concentration, the toll on your body only becomes apparent once the adrenaline fades. I didn’t feel gassed immediately, and the sun coming back out helped me along, but by the time I got to the higher part of the ridge, I was totally sucking wind. Mistake #7, not listening to my body.

With the Class 3 section behind me, I thought the rest would be smooth sailing, which ended up becoming Mistake #8: only preparing for the most difficult section of the hike instead of the entire hike.

Above the scrambling section, the snow became an ever-present factor and I had to cross three large, sloping snowfields. The crampons came out, and I stepped, toes first, into each hold and worked my way along the ridgeline until I’d crossed. Breaking fresh trail through the snow is extremely exhausting, which added considerably to my overall fatigue. However, after moving through the last section, I was within spitting distance of the top, so all other considerations and concerns just sort of vanished.

Looking down the spine of the ridge. You can see my tracks just to the right of the ridge line.

Le top.

Fun fact, this is one of the only pictures of my Axe with a lanyard. Keep reading and you’ll find out why I don’t use them anymore.

I waited on the summit for a few minutes and the clouds finally parted. The sun came back and I flopped down to accept its warmth for wayyyyyyy longer than I should’ve. Little did I realize, the sun was also beating down on the snow I had climbed earlier, melting the top layer and rendering all future steps slushy, which had a big role in contributing to my accident. Mistake #9, waiting too long at the top. Mistake #10 underestimating the power of the sun.

After my summit sojourn, I finally turned to go back down. Immediately, I could feel the snow surface change underneath my crampons. My brain said, “pay attention,” my body said, “no, you already did that, just get off the mountain.” At that moment, my body hurt more than my brain, so I heeded the physical desire to get off the peak. Mistake #11, not treating the descent as seriously as the ascent. The top is really only halfway.

I crossed the first snowfield no problem and made it about halfway across the second one until stopping to take the picture below.

Only a few steps from danger.

At this point, I’d been doing it right, toe-in, slow steps, facing the ridge-line. Then, I had this brilliant idea to….not do that? To this day, I’m still struggling to figure out what caused me to abruptly change strategies, but I did and decided to face away from the ridge. Now, instead of having the ridge-line to lean against, I was parallel to it. This unfortunate position forced me to take sideways steps along the top of a 35-degree snow slope. It’d be the dry land equivalent of rolling your ankle after every single step you take. Mistake #12, letting mental fatigue alter a strategy that was working.

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The Accident

I slipped out of my crampon after, at best, two steps. It happened cartoonishly fast.

With nothing to catch my fall, my upper body crashed downhill over my legs, and I landed on my back, head down. For a split second, right as I landed, I felt my body stop moving as if cradled by the snow. Then, the cradle broke, all my organs seized up, and I started sliding backward down the side of this mountain, picking up a crazy amount of speed. The time between slip, fall, and slide, was less than a couple of seconds.

Faced with a full spectrum of possibilities, ranging from no injury to death, my mind automatically locked in on what I needed to do to survive. Grip the slope. Ok, how? First step, spin my body so my head was above my feet. Second step, flip onto my stomach instead of flailing like a turtle, shell-down. Third step, plunge my mountaineering axe into the slope.

In theory, this should’ve stopped me, but there is a fundamental misunderstanding about the usability of axes in mountaineering, compounded by Hollywood. In all those dramatic movie moments, the climber slams their axe into the slope, and whatever crisis they’re in is instantly averted, Badda-bing Badda-boom, right? Hell, no.

The second I put even just a bit of the pick end into the snow, the force of my slide ripped the whole thing out of my hand. The lanyard, attached to the axe shaft and my arm, ripped my damn glove off and cut my wrist, but stayed attached to me. So now, I had a mountaineering axe projectile chasing my body down the slope, because the stupid lanyard was still stuck to my wrist. Fearing the axe would take an unfortunate bounce and stab me in the face the second I slowed down, I slipped my arm out of the loop and watched the axe fade from view while I continued accelerating.

Looking below me, I saw my future. If I couldn’t slow down, I’d barrel past the snow chute into an exposed talus field and then tumble right off a cliff. F*%k!

…You know all those motivational speakers? The ones that are always up on stage screaming, NeVEr GiVe uP! YoU CAn dO IT! That crap didn’t really click in for me until Engineer Mountain.

Right after I ripped the axe lanyard from my hand, panic had its best chance to step in and end me. There I was, sliding down the side of a 12,968-foot chunk of Earth. If I panicked and gave up, it would’ve cost me my life. The realization was so crisp and terrifying, my brain immediately interpreted it as truth. My entire life, whittled down to one simple question: fight or die? So, I fought back.

Suddenly, an overwhelming feeling erupted from inside and with it, an INTENSE desire for life. I don’t know how else to describe it, but it completely replaced the panic and hopelessness. 4th Quarter comeback drive. With four available appendages, I snapped into survival mode and did EVERYTHING I could to slow down.

Already belly down, I began kicking my feet into the slope as often as possible, just clubbing them into the snow. I lost one of my crampons in the process but the repeated motion started to have an effect. At the same time, I balled up my exposed hands and forced them into the snow above me like a backward wedge. Snow piled into the pocket created between my arms and my face, adding the final bit of resistance needed to begin slowing down…

I didn’t stop right away but I could feel the danger lessening as I gained more control. When I finally did come to a stop, I just sat there, unable to truly comprehend the danger I had put myself in. My mind was blank, my body numb, and my heart was racing so fast I thought it was going to beat through my ribcage. The first thought that managed to weasel into my brain seemed appropriate: “Holy shit, that was close.” I spent many subsequent minutes yelling obscenities at the clouds. It sort of helped.

Was it a textbook self-arrest? God no. But I used my body weight, booted feet, and blistered hands to maximum effect, and most importantly, I never gave up. Not that I felt overly proud, mind you. Was I thankful that I didn’t cascade over a set of cliffs? Yes, but I could’ve easily avoided the entire situation. I knew I messed up and couldn’t help but feel profoundly ashamed. I went out alone, there was literally no one else for me to blame.

After stuffing my frozen hands under my armpits to get the feeling back, I began the arduous task of collecting all of my stranded gear, now hundreds of feet above me. Surprisingly, the straps of one of my crampons stayed on my foot. Resetting the spikes, I used that little bit of traction to begin gear hunting. In the end, I collected every piece of equipment I’d dropped and made it back to my original line of descent.

The axe was the last thing I collected. As I angrily picked it up, I wanted nothing more than to believe it was all the axe’s fault. Understandable, I couldn’t blame anyone else but I could absolutely blame the gear…right? Tempting, though deep down I knew it was my fault for not using the axe appropriately. Mistake #13.

All you aspiring mountaineers out there, pay attention. A lot of people know this, a lot of people don’t, but an ice climbing axe is not a mountaineering axe. In ice climbing, the user needs two sharp axes to grip the ice. The two axes become your 3rd and 4th points of contact because human hands are rubbish at gripping ice. The shaft of an ice axe is curved, and the handle is rubbled to create grip. These bad boys are excellent on ice, but less ideal for standard mountaineering because they are often too short to use effectively as support.

In standard mountaineering (no ice climbing pitches and slope angles up to 45ish degrees), you don’t need the curved body, and you hardly ever use the pick portion by itself. Check this video out for proper mountaineering axe techniques. With the mountaineering axe, you tend to grip the head of the axe around the shaft, pick, and adze ends, in order to help guarantee the whole apparatus does not slip from your hand. You also use two hands to offset the pressure on one. During the accident, I did none of those things.

Feeling bad for spreading the blame, I apologized to the axe, untied the lanyard, and strapped the tool back to my pack. Before continuing my descent, I took a couple pictures showing the approximate line and duration of my slide.

Not great. The whole situation instantly seared itself into my memory. Even now, I can recall exactly what happened as it happened and the emotional whirlwind that came with it.

Finally fully aware of the dangerous position I’d put myself in, I took my sweet time getting back to level ground. The clouds began building, and a lot of the descent was again, mired in low visibility, which only slowed my progress further. Finally, after dropping off the main mountain block, I captured the following shot of the cliffs I had been sliding towards, from below them.

I stumbled to treeline and cast a few looks back at what I’d fallen down, all the while cursing myself for being so boneheaded. The next photo gives the best estimate of my slide and really hammers home how dangerous it could’ve been. Only a few more yards and I would’ve been bouncing through talus on my way to a cliff. An impressively bad situation all around.

Use the slide bar to see where I fell (red X) and where the normal descent route goes (gray arrows). Once you have a visual, slide to the unmarked photo to see if you can spot my tracks, almost all of the slide is visible.

Engineer Mt. is an easy Class 3 summit in the summer, and a worthy winter destination, but not even close to the hardest mountain in the state. What this story hopefully proves, is that ANY mountain can shake your constitution if you don’t give it the respect it deserves. I was exceptionally lucky to be able to slow my rate of descent before careening into the talus below the snowfield. Many outdoor folks aren’t so lucky.

Completely humbled, I limped back towards Durango and hung out with some crew-members who had set up shop in a campground north of town. Trading stories and laughs helped settle my mood, but I was thinking about the experience long afterward, eventually getting a tattoo to remember it. Every time I see the tattoo I’m reminded of how close I came to ending my whole journey. Think what you will about body ink, but with the memory preserved on my right shoulder, I know I won’t ever forget the colossal set of mistakes that led to that slide.

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Final Thoughts

Engineer Mt. absolutely reshaped my approach to hiking and scrambling. Because of my numerous missteps, I developed a checklist of factors that help me determine whether a hike is worth it. I’m over 500 summits into my mountain career and still kickin because of that list.

Mistakes and failures should NEVER be ignored. There’s a lesson in every single one of them. Sometimes it doesn’t reveal itself right away but over time, it will. Although we tend to shove mistakes and failures under the rug for the sake of self-preservation, they often offer the best chances for personal growth. I firmly believe that. It’s ok to fail, everyone fails; it’s what you do with failure that sets you apart from others.

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Part 5: From SF to Durango (May 15-June 1, 2015)

Table of Contents

  • San Francisco by the Bay
  • Tahoe

San Francisco by the Bay

Ah, San Francisco, the iconic and prohibitively expensive city by the bay. As someone who has only visited, the common gripes of the locals haven’t really affected me. However, that isn’t to say there aren’t any, in fact, SF is often the poster child when it comes to modern urban problems.

Despite the fame brought to the city by its seismic history, Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz prison, cable cars, and famously liberal mindset, San Francisco has developed some big issues as well. Some of the more notable ones include the almost unanimous notion that the tech industry has ruined SF, a rampant homeless population that has occasionally taken to defecating on streets, and the aforementioned prohibitively expensive real estate/rental market. These problems are not necessarily restricted to San Francisco, many large urban areas are dealing with similar situations, but because San Francisco is so synonymous with West Coast America, all of the city’s problems are put under a microscope. Whether or not that’s fair remains up to debate and I personally found the city to exude the same allure I imagined it would after watching George of the Jungle, Full House, Mrs. Doubtfire, and of course, the always charming, The Rock, as a kid.

In The Rock (1996), Nicholas Cage's character Dr. Stanley Goodspeed, says  "Vaporized. Blown out to sea." in regards to Sean Connery's character. This  is technically an incorrect statement as its physically impossible
Sean Connery in ‘The Rock’
Ahh, expensive.

It was strange being in such a densely populated area after framing a lot of my road trip around national parks, mountains, and sparsely populated coastlines. I knew I didn’t want to stay long, but there were a few people I wanted to see, namely my aunt, who I spent a few days with, in Noe Valley, and my brother’s friend Clint, who was working near the downtown core. I think I ended up blocking off four days to stay in the city and just so happened to be there during the famous Bay to Breakers race. Hm, how to describe it…uhm, a giant party masquerading as a running race? After finding out about it, I knew I had to get in on the festivities.

Many people do actually try to run the whole thing, but a whole lot more come to get weird alongside it. The city puts out yearly estimates on participation, and the last estimate put the numbers at 50,000 racers and 100,000 spectators. A lot of participants and spectators dress up in various costumes, with many also pre-gaming heavily for the event. Clint had Harold and Lloyd costumes from the 1994 Dumb and Dumber movie, so we basically looked like this for the whole thing. 

Relive "Dumb and Dumber" IRL with this insane, $10,000 Colorado hotel and  ski package — The Know

We didn’t register to run but partied alongside the event and walked a couple of miles of the course, traveling from house party to house party. Unfortunately, I didn’t take many pictures, and towards the end of it, was probably incapable of actually taking a photo at all.

Hold My Beer | Know Your Meme

The event was a fun experience but completely draining. After a few days decompressing and enjoying the company of my aunt, I felt the call of the road once more and drove East to Lake Tahoe in the Sierra.

Tahoe

As I mentioned in a previous post, the West Coast has a ton of mountain ranges, of which two reign supreme: the Cascades and the Sierra Nevada. The Sierra Nevada is almost entirely in California (a small part spills into Nevada) and contains the highest mountain in the lower 48 states, Mt. Whitney. It is also home to many excellent ski resorts and the massive Lake Tahoe. A buddy of mine had settled out near Tahoe, so I gave her a call and asked if I could stay for a couple of days. I ended up staying for nearly a week.

Like my SF days, the focus on taking pictures took a back seat to good company. The town I stayed in, South Lake Tahoe, had a lot of snowbums and outdoor jocks who were always ready to celebrate. We went hard, and after five days of nonstop partying, I was ready to accept sobriety as my lord and savior. The answer to the question, what happens when you get 8 young adults in the same house together for an extended period of time is…too much.

Terribly Hungover Animals

I did manage to grab the few pictures below, which do an ok job of showing the area.

Rainbows over Lake Tahoe.
Tahoe was a beautiful area and I hope one day to explore it more completely.

After another round of goodbyes, I was off. Driving East into Nevada, I realized I hadn’t done anything outdoorsy in the past week and a half. Thoroughly disappointed in myself, I made it a goal to seek out some more mountain solitude before finishing my trip. The first objective, after a long lonesome drive on Highway 50, was Great Basin National Park.

Oh, what’s that? You didn’t know there’s a national park named Great Basin in Nevada? Before my road trip, neither did I. The Park covers the spine of the Snake Range in a geologically significant region known as the Great Basin. Why a Great Basin? Because the rivers and streams originating in the linear ranges of the region don’t have an outflow. To the East, the Colorado River takes its time churning towards the Gulf of California, and to the west, everything flows into the Pacific. In the Great Basin, the few areas of water flow towards the lower points of the basin and then dry up or spill into lakes with nowhere to go. It’s essentially an enormous bathroom sink with no drain, pot-marked by thin mountains. Some of these ranges are far enough from the rain shadow cast by the Sierra that they support more of a mountain ecology, the Snake Range is one of them. 

The highest peak in the range, and in the national park, is called Wheeler Peak (same name as the state highpoint in New Mexico). It is one of only two peaks to break 13,000 feet in Nevada. In fact, the highest point in Nevada (Boundary Peak) is not actually a peak in the traditional sense, it’s a highpoint on a ridge that continues into California and eventually caps at a higher peak. Therefore, Wheeler Peak is the tallest mountain in Nevada that is entirely within the state…so there…fun fact for yah, tell everyone you know.

Anyway, I wanted to climb it.

Saw that coming - Tony Stark Eye Roll | Make a Meme

Now, usually, there’s a road up a lot of the mountain, which significantly cuts down the effort. However, since the high country was still snowy, the road was closed, and my hike ended up becoming more of a committed adventure. As was the case with St. Helens, I did some research beforehand and booked a campsite at Baker Creek Campground inside the park for two nights.

What struck me most about the hike up Wheeler was the contrast between the snowy upper slopes and the desert basins around the range. As I said, Nevada has a bunch of long, thin mountain ranges separated by desert floor. When I finally got to the top of Wheeler, it was in the low 20’s Fahrenheit, and I was looking down on a valley floor nearly 6,000 feet below me in the mid 70’s. Unreal.

The pic above is what the typical terrain at the foot of these ranges looks like, flat and dry.

Can you believe this is also Nevada? Just a few thousand feet higher. Wheeler is the summit in the cloud.

While the cirque framing Wheeler is beyond intimidating, the summit route takes a sleepy ridge to the west, keeping the trail itself at a Class 1 in the summer months and maybe a Class 2 when there’s snow. As the blog moves forward, I’ll get more into the Class rating system, but here is a hyperlink you can use to look at the criteria for the Yosemite Decimal System

In the above photo, you really get a sense of how prominent the peaks are when compared to the basin below. It’s quite the contrast.

Up the spine I go.

Well, I made it, and although the technical difficulties of the peak were nonexistent, the length of the climb and ultimate elevation (over 13,000 feet) had me feeling nauseous and short of breath, which meant I had a very mild form of altitude sickness. It is generally accepted that the likelihood of developing altitude sickness greatly increases above 8,000 feet in elevation. While this can manifest differently in people, for those without pre-existing conditions, altitude sickness usually involves shortness of breath, lack of hunger and thirst, nausea, and splitting headaches. If you’re curious about the mechanics of high altitude breathing, altitude sickness, and prevention, click on this link to get to a really nice report from APEX, which lays out exactly what happens to your body at high elevation. See? Learning is fun!

Learning Memes

To put it bluntly, tall mountains exist in a part of the world where humans were not meant to thrive. Every aspiring mountaineer needs to understand this and plan accordingly.

Ways to mitigate the effects of altitude sickness include slowing down your rate of ascent, drinking a TON of water, and taking NSAIDs (if you don’t react poorly to them) to reduce swelling and inflammation. However, if symptoms don’t go away, the best thing to do is descend. Many experienced mountaineers get in trouble when they think they can push through signs of trouble. This mental roadblock to descending can lead to rapidly deteriorating physical conditions and is often referred to as summit fever. Simply put, summit fever refers to a state of mind where a mountaineer will attempt a summit at any cost, even if that cost is injury or death. Listen to your body! Yeah, it’s disappointing if you can’t top out on a summit, but the mountain will be there tomorrow, make sure you are too! You can’t brag about your beautiful summit photos if you’re dead.

While nothing tragic happened to me on Wheeler Peak, I recognized the signs of altitude sickness when they began to affect me and only spent a few minutes on the summit before descending. Mountain climbing is already inherently dangerous, there’s really no need to add questionable oxygen-deprived decisions to that mix.

Beauteous! Looking south from the summit of Wheeler Pk.

All seriousness aside, I was very impressed by the mountain and the vistas from the top. Happy with my slice of the Great Basin, I retreated to camp, settled in for the evening, and enjoyed a well-deserved sleep under a blanket of stars, revealed once the clouds broke. Even if you don’t care for mountain climbing, Great Basin National Park has incredible stargazing, which is worth a trip all on its own.

The following morning, I saddled up my stuff and drove through the middle of Utah, stopping in Salt Lake to spend the night at a friend’s before continuing into western Colorado.

Western Colorado is very different from the Front Range and Eastern Colorado. Like parts of Nevada, Western Colorado is a system of basins and valleys buffered by broad swaths of uplifted earth, forming the core of the Southern Rocky Mountains. Parts of it are dry and desolate, and parts of it contain some of the most beautiful examples of mountain terrain I’ve ever seen.

Dry near Grant Junction. You can tell it rained recently because the usually yellow vegetation is actually green.

Broadly speaking, the Rockies are divided into three sections, Northern (Canada), Central (Montana, Idaho, and most of Wyoming), and Southern (Colorado, a small slice of southern Wyoming and the northern part of New Mexico). The broad overview of Colorado is that it’s the roof of the lower 48. While California has Mt. Whitney, which is higher than any peak in Colorado, Colorado has 53 official peaks over 14,000 feet to Californias 12. Only four states have mountains over 14,000 feet, Colorado (53), Alaska (29), California (12), and Washington (1). While the ranges of Colorado are numerous, and I’ll get into them as I keep writing, for 2015, I was focused on the largest range in the state, The San Juans.

The San Juans are not only the largest but arguably the wildest range in Colorado, with 13 14’ers, three national forests, and five wilderness areas, the largest of which (Weminuche) covers half a million acres of unspoiled land. Long in a short, it’s Colorado’s most extensive and beautiful range.

My new job as a trail crew member for Southwest Conservation Corp would have me operating from just outside of Durango, the largest town in the region. Durango sits to the south of the San Juans, and from the dingy hostel where I stayed in Grand Junction, I’d have to cross the majority of it to get into town. This presented another unique opportunity for me to get some mountain climbing in. What better way to kick off my new career than to climb my first 14er? As geographic happenstance would have it, Mt. Sneffels was right in my path. Coincidence? …No

Right, so from Junction, I headed south, marveling at the sights along the way and getting excited as the northern ramparts of the San Juans began to poke their heads above the hills.

Mt. Sneffels (center left, tallest peak visible) and the Dallas Divide (mountain wall going to the right) from near Ridgeway.

I secured a spot at the Ouray KOA (pronounced Yur-ray, not Ooooo-ray), scouted out the road to the trailhead for Mt. Sneffels, and got to bed early.

Anticipating the same level of snow I’d seen in Nevada, I immediately had to restructure my expectations when I began hiking. For the first mile, I was following a dirt road with the occasional snowdrift overtop that had blocked further driving. Once I finally got past the official trail sign and above the tree-line, it felt like I’d suddenly stepped onto a glacier in Greenland. It was May 30th, and EVERYTHING was blanketed by deep snow. I geared up with some snowshoes and climbed through a spring winter wonderland. The upper part of Yankee Boy Basin (which I can’t help but say in redneck twang) appeared stuck in the last ice age and offered me some stunning first impressions of the San Juan Mountains.

Arctic vibes.

The views only increased as I began to climb a wide couloir up the shoulder of Sneffels. Out came the crampons to better grip the slope.

Looking across the very top of Yankee Boy Basin to Gilpin Mountain. The cluster of peaks further back and to the right contains three fourteeners.
The tippy top. After two couloirs and a snowy kick step section to the summit, I finally summited my first fourteener. Shown looking North, the San Juans abruptly end.
Turning around and looking South, nothing but endless mountains! You can even see a part of the Telluride ski resort.
It’s hard to put into words how massive the San Juans are as a range. From this vantage point it truly did feel endless.

I was feeling good, had the summit all to myself, and spent a good 45 minutes trying to identify as many of the snow-covered peaks as I could. After all, this would become my backyard for the summer, and I was itching to get acquainted with it.

Unlike Wheeler and St. Helens, where I had cloudy skies on top, it was all sun on Sneffels. After lathering sunscreen on for the fourth time, I began to realize how easily you could get snow blindness in this type of environment. Snow reflects light, usually right into your face, and in the alpine, there’s less atmosphere to block UV light, so your skin can burn really quickly, and in some extreme cases, you may temporarily lose the ability to see. 

spongebob: Spongebob My Eyes Gif
Have no fear, the effects of snow blindness are usually temporary.

Pro-tip in sunny and snowy conditions: Lather on sunscreen at regular intervals and wear thick sunglasses with beefy handles to help shield from snow glare. Your eyes will thank you.

Cirque Mountain (left) and Teakettle

Descending took a little longer than expected because the sun was starting to melt the hard-packed snow from the morning. The lower I got, the more I began to sink through, despite having my snowshoes back on. It was a frustrating final hour but at least I wasn’t the guy at the trailhead, who had somehow convinced his girlfriend it’d be fun to go play in eight-foot snowbanks with no gear. She had fallen into a pile of snow up to her waist and was hysterically screaming, “I LOST MY SANDAAAAL!” while he shouted from the parking lot, “JUST MOVE!” to which she would respond “ITS COOOOLD!” and then the whole conversation would loop on itself. A+ communication skills, from context alone I’d learned that snow was cold, shocker, she’d worn sandals, not so swift, and her boyfriend was doing everything in his power to avoid actually helping her, opting for vague directives shouted from the safety net around his truck. It took everything in my power not to make this face as I passed by them.

Yikes GIFs | Tenor

The Sneffels area is usually a mecca for hikers, but because of a series of late-season snowstorms, I’d had the majority of the hike to myself, only passing two other summiters who were on their 20somethingth 14er. It was hard not to feel accomplished as I unloaded all my dirty and snowy gear into the trunk of the Subaru and drank a victory beer I’d picked up in town. With only an hour and a half drive left before I reached my destination and a lot of day left to kill, I took my time and breathed in the mountain air, envisioning all the wonderful adventures this summer was going to bring me.

The drive from Ouray to Durango is one of the more scenic drives in the whole state and takes you over three alpine passes (Red Mountain, Molas, and Coalbank), past numerous historical structures from Colorado’s mining days, and runs you by the ski and tourist town of Silverton. It was a beautiful and fitting way to end my road-trip, and I was caught between feeling sad about its end and excited about the future.

View from Molas Pass

June 1st would be my first day of training. I still had little to no idea what I was getting into, they didn’t exactly cover trail-building in my college humanities courses, but after the highs and lows of two solo months on the road, I was confident I could handle anything Southwest Conservation Corps (SWCC) threw at me. I spent the night of the 30th and 31st at a campground north of Durango, one suggested for corps members, and I even met a few of them. May 31st was fairly pedestrian, I went into town, gassed up, did my laundry, and counted the hours until my new job took off. Was I aware that I was about to embark on the most important multi-year odyssey of my young life? No, but I knew I was in the middle of an ambitious adventure summer, and after my post-college rut, that was more than enough for me.

Source: Google maps

Part 4: The Great West Coast (May 3-May 15, 2015)

I looked back at my friend and frowned, suddenly very aware of what I had been asking. Jumping into the frigid North Pacific SEEMED like a good idea when I’d first proposed it, but now, on a rock fifteen feet above the deep, I was encountering some internal resistance. What would motivate such a heinous assault on common sense, you may ask? Why the uncommon nature of the situation, of course! Where I was standing, in Smuggler Cove Marine Provincial Park on the Gold Coast of remote British Columbia, was the northernmost part of my entire road trip! Such a geographic achievement had to be celebrated, and what better way than to hurl myself into the ocean?

Looking at the maps below, you can see how far I’d gone, a sizable achievement on its own. Every subsequent destination on my trip after Smuggler Cove would be to the south and, eventually, back east to Colorado. There was still a lot of road left to drive, but I was feeling high on myself for getting this far and wanted to be dramatic about it.

Big overview.
Zoomed in. Way out there, eh?

Ok, Timo, you can do this, I tried telling myselfYou can’t let your fans down. And when I say “fans,” I mean my one bored friend and a few lumpy starfish ie. the adoring masses.

Janice, Harold and Lawrence, friends for life.

Finally, after some extensive confidence building, I managed to jump into the water, remembering to tuck my feet in, which seemed super important at the time.

Look at that form! IMMACULATE

The water was absolutely FREEZING, but I was glad I did something to mark the occasion, and after drying off, my friend and I headed back to her home. I had known she’d moved to this remote slice of Canada years before and had been interested in visiting, but living between Georgia and North Carolina never really gave me the excuse to go this far northwest. Once I began constructing my elaborate road trip, I knew I wanted the Gold Coast to be a part of it.

The Gold Coast is a gem of an area, secluded and wild. In true Canadian fashion, while I didn’t meet too many of the locals, the ones I did were overwhelmingly friendly. There was no polarizing political banter and no generational dumping, only a mild curiosity stemming mostly from sighting a Subaru with Georgia license plates, casually driving through remote Canada.

Typical scene in Smuggler Cove

I spent the evening after my ocean plunge at a party hosted by my friend at her house/hippy commune. The collection of people I met there was amazing. There were wailing, dreaded, half-naked people on the roof, while a butch squad sat by the fire, telling stories of their lumberjack lives. In the driveway were truck-people with decadent beards, standing next to their rigs all night with such discipline you’d think they were guarding the Pope himself. And back in the house, preppy, popped-collar university students were inhaling beer as if their existence depended on it. Thoroughly amused and intrigued by the spectacle of it all, I spent the better part of the evening engaged in colorful conversations and casually avoiding repeated calls for “free love.” It was like my own little Canadian Woodstock and obviously not representative of all the folks on the Gold Coast, just what I happened to observe. Not wanting to overstay my welcome, I grabbed lunch with the main group the following day, said my goodbyes, and pointed the Subaru south.

Western British Columbia, if you’re unaware, is like North American Norway. Once you travel north from Vancouver, the Coast Range comes down to the kiss the shoreline and splits into hundreds of fjords. Many secluded sections of land, hemmed in by steep, glaciated mountains on one side and the deep Pacific Ocean on the other, only have access to civilization via ferries. In order to get to/from the Gold Coast, you need to take one and not just any ferry, but one of the behemoths pictured below.

Standing on the top deck of the ferry as it took me across Howe Sound, it felt more like Scandinavia than Canada.

Coast Range
Looking northwest towards Squamish and eventually, Whistler

By midday, I was back off the ferry and driving towards Vancouver, stopping briefly by Cypress ski resort to grab some views of Western Canada’s largest city.

Looking south

I was a bit sad that I couldn’t spend more time in Vancouver, but I had an agenda and a budget to stick to, so I bid adieu to B.C. and reentered the States. As luck or fate would have it, over the next three years, I would end up spending more than three months in Vancouver and its surrounding environs. Many Canadian adventures were still to be had, I just didn’t know it at the time.

Impressed by my little slice of British Columbia, I began my southern drive down the West Coast, looking for exciting things to do and places to see along the way.

As you’ve hopefully picked up through my various blog posts, I LOVE hiking, so, naturally, my first goal was to get some hiking in. Knowing I was going to be climbing and trail building throughout the Colorado Rockies starting in June, I figured I should get a taste of one of the big West Coast ranges beforehand. While there are actually quite a few ranges and subranges between Washington, Oregon, and California (Trinity Alps, Wallowas, Olympic Mts. etc.), the two monster ones are the Cascades and the Sierra, both impressive and wildly different.

The Sierra is a young range with giant slabs of inspiring granite and rock-faces that defy gravity, such as El Cap or Half-dome in Yellowstone National Park. The Cascades, by contrast, consist of a series of lower parallel ridges augmented by a set of monstrous Volcanos, perhaps the most famous one being Mt. St. Helens, which blew its top in a widely analyzed eruption in 1980 (click here for a quick video on it). Perhaps predictably, St. Helens was the one I ended up climbing. Now, it wasn’t because I had a date with death, but St. Helens is quite close to the I-5 highway corridor I was blasting down, very visible from the Portland suburbs, and doesn’t require advanced mountaineering gear to climb. Okie Dokie then. The one requirement, however, was to obtain a permit ahead of time, which I had done during my initial road trip planning phase.

Before I climbed, I figured I would need to get some better gear, so I stopped in Portland at an outdoor gear shop, asked for the cheapest, crappiest pair of crampons, and 50$ later, walked away with an old pair of Stubai’s the shop wasn’t initially aware they even had in stock. 

These old clunkers are not at all like the ones gear shops usually push on potential clients, but I must’ve smelled like cheap college kid because the guy in the shop took one look at me and figured I couldn’t possibly afford anything nicer. I mean…he wasn’t wrong, but I sure got my money’s worth because as I’m typing this years later, I still have and still use the same pair of crampons. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Thanks for coming to my TED talk, follow me for more financial advice.

Think About It Reaction GIF by Identity

Armed with a vague knowledge of what to do and an eagerness to prove myself, I armored up and headed for the trailhead. My first impression of St. Helens was that it looked like a cute frosted covered gumdrop.

Aw

My second impression when I left the trailhead and began climbing was a wee bit different. St. Helens and the Cascade volcanos are BIG!

Mhm, big.

And while the climb was really quite tame compared to future endeavors, it demanded my full attention and respect throughout.

During the climb, I discovered a few things.

1) I was very out of shape

Noob.

2) Cascade Volcanos are not just tall, but very girthy as well.

Looking towards Mt. Adams.

3) A more accurate measure of effort is not total elevation, but prominence, as in, how high is the thing from its base as opposed to sea level. St. Helens is over 8000 feet tall from sea level, but you climb 4500 feet of it, which is substantial as far as single day efforts go.

Getting up to the rim.

4) I could very clearly see evidence of where Lahars ran down the slope due to the 1980 eruption, which was quite cool.

Just imagine water and mud absolutely sprinting down the side of this thing!

5) The mountain caldera is still smoking and gave me the distinct impression of being “alive.”

The “not cloud” is, in fact, smoke. So…there’s that.
Expert Artist Rendition of where the full Caldera rim used to be. As you can see, a TON of mountain was destroyed in the blast, the entire north side is gone.

6) NEVER step to the edge of a Cornice, many people die every year from doing that. A cornice is an overhung piece of snow that forms during winter. In the spring, the warming temperature destabilizes the Cornice. Any excess pressure on the top and the whole thing breaks off, taking everything down with it. Big no no.

The top of the Volcano rim with a dangerous Cornice.
Me and my Stubais, a safe 10 feet from the edge because death was not on my agenda for the day.

Thoroughly licked by the effort, I limped back down to safety, catching glimpses of a crazy mountain dude who damn near ran up the whole thing with a pair of skis on his back and skied down ahead of me. At the time, I chuckled to myself, thinking he was out of his mind. Little did I know that only two years later, I’d be doing the same thing down some mountains in Colorado.

…Hindsight is very strange. In my opinion, the more of declarative statements you make (I will NEVER, or I will ALWAY etc.) the harder circumstance seems to laugh at you in the end. Don’t tempt the gods with a good time, they are always down for a laugh.

While not even close to the top of the Cascade range, St. Helens was a great test piece and gave me the confidence to try other mountains that I may have otherwise been unwilling to try. Box checked, stoke level high.

YES Hockey GIF - YES Hockey Baby GIFs

That evening, I stopped back in Portland to stay at my dad’s best friend’s house.

Portland, Oregon…has a reputation. Not all of the city embraces the reputation, just like not ALL of the people at the hippy commune on the Gold Coast were eating drugs off of a plate a la carte, but many were, and in Portland, many embrace the reputation. A substantial part of the Portland appeal is counterculture. Another northwest city, Seattle, was the center of counterculture in the early ’90s with the Grunge movement, so it isn’t like counterculture is a one-off idea for the region. However, to compare Seattle to Portland would be a serious, serious mistake. To illustrate the Portland stereotype, please watch the following video (click here).

Again, this is NOT a universal truth, but hilarious and applicable in a lot of ways. That stereotype was evident on my wanderings through the city. However, the family I stayed with had been in Portland for decades, predating the current hipster craze, so I didn’t really catch the vibe until the day after I arrived. 

Something else I noticed about Portland was that the homeless population is substantial, and a lot of them are MEAN. I gave a homeless guy 5$, and he looked at me angrily and yelled, “THAT IT?!” I was…surprised, and also out of pocket change, so I told him I didn’t have anymore and…well, he didn’t like that and started coming at me. Luckily, as soon as he stood up, he tripped over an untied shoelace, allowing me to fade behind a large group of people, but I was very unprepared for that kind of encounter. Now, don’t read too much into it, I always give when I am able and have a lot of qualms with how capitalism treats the downtrodden, but I guess I just wasn’t expecting to be the target of ire AFTER I’d given what I had, just a weird situation all around.

Despite the hipsters and angry homeless guys, I had a blast in Portland and was hosted by wonderful people, so all in all, I still say the city came out on top in the impression category (I particularly enjoyed Deschutes Brewery and Mt. Tabor Park). I’ve been back a few times, and it is entirely charming in its own way, just do a little research before you show up and figure out which areas you need to avoid.

During one of my days in Portland, I took a quick detour to the Columbia River Gorge, another impressive geographic area. The Columbia River originates in Canada, runs through the state of Washington, and eventually forms the border between Washington and Oregon on its way to the Pacific. What’s fascinating about it is that the river runs right through the formidable Cascades, creating miles upon miles of outdoor beauty. I ended up climbing Beacon Rock, a pinnacle on the edge of the river with a path built into the side of it. The whole gorge area is quite pretty and worth multiple exploration days.

Excellent day, excellent views.

I stayed in Portland one more night before packing it in and heading out to the famed Oregon Coast. I had previously driven along the Southern California coastline with my family a few years prior, but Oregon’s shoreline remained a mystery, so off I went.

Along the way to Cannon Beach, the closest stretch of sand to Portland, I hiked up Saddle Mountain in the fog and rain. While I wasn’t afforded many views once I hiked into the cloud, it still offered a glimpse into the type of ecosystem common along the northwestern part of the US, between the Cascades and the coast.

After finally attaining the coast, I decided to once again wander into the water. It was just as cold as it felt in Canada. I…I don’t know what I was expecting.

From Cannon Beach, I once again turned the Subaru south and drove a long, uninterrupted stretch of the dramatic Oregon Coast Highway. Like the Gold Coast, many of the coastal areas here felt as if they existed entirely in their own world. While Oregon isn’t necessarily known as a populous state, even the relatively bustling cities of Portland, Salem, and Eugene felt as far away as the dark side of the moon. One of the highlights was taking a stroll through Oswald State Park, where a series of showy bluffs rose dramatically from the reaches of the Pacific, offering fantastic views.

Gorgeous!
Magnificent

It was hard not to fall in love with the coast. It felt unrestrained and ancient, with people still living in harmony with the land. While a lot of the American West still abides by that rule, it is steadily disappearing as cities increase in size and once untouched slices of paradise become the next “must-own” destination.

After driving along as much coast as I could handle, I reluctantly headed back east to Eugene to stay in a cheap hostel. The rain returned with a vengeance, but the hostel was warm, friendly, and close to a few breweries. Craving a beer after the visual overload of the coast, I slogged through the rain and into an empty Ninkasi Brewing, had an hour-long chat with one of the head brewers, and left with free beer and an arm full of merchandise. It was the second time this trip a brewery had taken it upon themselves to reach out to me, which I thought was very cool. Ninkasi and Lagunitas, good places, good people; check them out!

Instead of heading back to the coast right away, I decided to go check out Crater Lake National Park. Continuing the Cascade Volcano theme, the centerpiece of the park is a picturesque high-elevation lake formed by the collapse of an old volcano. What remains is a beautiful and pristine sub-alpine environment. Crater Lake is also disturbingly deep, “cascading” down to a depth of 1949 feet, making it the deepest lake in the US. 

The rain that had started on my drive from Eugene, quickly turned to snow when I reached the edge of the lake. Although I managed to hike around for a few hours, the iconic views were mostly hidden by a thick wall of clouds. I did manage to snag a few shots, and despite the clouds, could see the shape of the lake. While it wasn’t the best day to be out, any chance to experience iconic locations is a chance worth taking. Sometimes, you just have to work with what the weather gives you.

Crater Lake and it’s mesmerizing blue water.

After Crater Lake, I floored it south into California, having booked a tent site from a camper-van-living-couple near the second tallest Cascade Volcano (behind Ranier) Mt. Shasta. The environment became steadily drier as I drove to within sight of the volcano and set up shop.

Shasta, and a much drier climate than Oregon, Washington and British Columbia.

As eager as ever to keep climbing, I gave Lassen Pk. a go (the southernmost Cascade Volcano) but had to turn around as the entrance to the area was closed due to avalanche danger. Resolving to return to the coast, I made my way to the Northern California shore while listening to the always excellent podcast Hardcore History by Dan Carlin

Like the Oregon Coast, the Northern California Coast (as in between Oregon and SF) has a lost world type feeling, cemented by crisp natural beauty and sleepy seaside towns like Arcata, where I spent an evening. I was also reintroduced to the Marine Layer, a drunken piece of fog that stumbles into the California shoreline almost every morning to say howdy doody before retreating back to its oceanic staging area.

Go home Marine Layer

Oh, here’s a bird.

The further south I drove, the less the Marine Layer seemed to be impacting the land until I finally burst out of the fog in Sonoma County and enjoyed the last bit of the windy road before settling into my campsite at Wrights Beach Campground. The last leg of the drive was wonderful, the temperature soared back up into the 70’s, the smell of salty seawater wafted through the Subaru, the sun was out, and I drove at my own pace, free of traffic and inclement weather. Utter bliss.

Of all the airbnb’s, campsites, and friends I stayed with, that evening on the sand in Sonoma County was the only beachside overnight I’d managed to snag, and it was a special one. Once my tent was set up, I walked all of twenty feet to the start of the beach and claimed a spot for myself, watching the surf smash against the sand and the sun dip towards the horizon. Having already jumped into the ocean in Canada and Oregon, I knew I’d have to wade in here as well. As they say, third times the charm, right? Nope, not even close; it was still freezing. However, unlike the previous two jumps, I had a warm evening, a six-pack of beer, and time to relax.

Ah, the ocean.

I spent the sunset hours staring over the ocean’s expanse and thinking back on the past two weeks of my trip. From Canada down to my campsite (and with all my mountain side-trips counted) I’d logged another 1880 miles. To date, my total distance driven for the trip was just shy of 6,000 miles. That is a ton of driving! Feeling quite accomplished, I lay against some driftwood and watched the sun go down while sipping my beer. With three Pacific coast plunges under my belt, I felt like I’d given this section of the trip some poetic continuity. Next up was a stay in San Francisco with my aunt, a swing by Lake Tahoe, a lonesome drive through Nevada to Great Basin National Park, a dry haul through Utah, and eventually a hike up my first 14,000 foot mountain outside of Ouray, Colorado. But at the moment, all I could do was stare at the ocean, and let the sound of the waves clear the remaining cobwebs from my brain.

Since the start of the road trip, despite all of the wonderful things I’d seen and done, a nagging voice in my head kept questioning whether or not this was a good idea. I had completely abandoned my former life in order to go on a two month road trip to “find myself” and pursue a career in trail building. Saying it out loud didn’t really help, what if I had made a mistake? What if I couldn’t sustain a new career in Colorado? While these had always been risks, every day I spent driving closer to my ultimate destination brought those risks more into focus. Would I finally be able to make something out of myself at the end of the trip? What I really needed was a moment of clarity. A moment where the angel on my shoulder finally took down the devil on the other one, and I could fully embrace the situation I’d put myself in. On the beach in Sonoma, sipping my Lagunitas, I finally got it.

It isn’t like the movies. Clarity isn’t Clark Kent walking into a phone booth and emerging as Superman, knowing without a doubt who he is and what he needs to do. For me, it was subtle. There was a comfortable fuzzy feeling in my stomach, a happy bubbling, which may have been the beer or the sun warming my body; the difference was, I stopped analyzing it. I felt good and sitting there watching the waves, I kind of forgot to question it. I just knew that of all the places in the world I could’ve been, this one was pretty nice and I was lucky to be there. To be calm inside your own skin is rare, especially for those of us riddled with anxiety, which is probably why I remember that evening so well. I was calm. When this trip finished, I would be starting a brand new life, and it was finally starting to feel like a really good decision. Inhale possibility, exhale anxiety. Cheers.

Part 3: Welcome to the West 4/20-5/2 2015

“So, let me see if I understand this,” the barkeep said, eyeballing me skeptically. “You’re 24 years old, you ain’t married and you ain’t just got outta jail, and you’re just…driving ’round the country?”

            I’d been in Omaha less than an hour and I already felt like a pariah.

           I tried to calmly explain my tentative plans about the future and how I was making an effort to stop in places I traveled through to add to the experience of my road trip. The reaction from the bartender was mixed at best.

           “Yeah, but why are you here? Nobody comes to Omaha that ain’t born here or stuck here,” she said as she tried to pour me another beer. But like the first attempt, this one was a total disaster from start to finish, and I was handed a glass of about 85% foam. The frustration must’ve been evident on my face because, at long last, she relinquished her line of CIA-style questioning and accepted the fact that I was probably just a weirdo.

Rock Bottom, Omaha’s self deprecating brewery (yes, I realize it is a chain)

           I guess I really hadn’t anticipated what other people might think of my modern manifest destiny. My friends and family had been supportive of the idea, but in Nebraska, I might as well have been speaking Yiddish. Wasting gas on a thinly veiled mission to “find myself,” was not finding much of an audience here, so I drank the 15% of my glass that had beer in it and got back on the highway. What a strange place.

           Since leaving Chicago, I had rolled across the Mississippi River, stopped briefly in Des Moines, and continued churning across the low plains until my awkward encounter in Omaha. For the most part, the Great Plains had, not surprisingly, been rather plain, though I did think Des Moines was quite pretty. Geographically, the occasional fold of land or river was as exciting as the region could muster, so it did feel good, five hours after Omaha, to finally cross into the centennial state.

Nebraskan road side wisdom

           It wasn’t really the state crossing or the mileage markers that convinced me I must be getting close; it was the air. One of the things I had found in my research of Colorado was how high and dry the state is. Despite its hundreds of inches of snow a year, most of the state is in a semi-arid climate at best. So, once I felt the moisture flee my lips until they were just dry husks of skin, and blood began pouring out of both nostrils simultaneously, did I finally feel like I was getting close.

           My goal was to get to Denver, the capital and largest city in Colorado. The city has a great atmosphere, as I was to discover, but its location is also very telling. The city is nestled up against the front range of the Rockies but still technically in the plains below it. It’s as if those first frontier miners, traveling in their rickety old wagons and riddled with dysentery, took one look up at the formidable mountains and instead of declaring “There’s gold in them there hills!” settled for, “Nope, there’s probably gold down here somewhere.” As history can verify, it turned out there was, and that’s how the city started.

Central Denver (2015)

My destination was my friend Allison Johnston’s place in Lakewood, a western suburb of the city. I didn’t have an agenda or list of things to do when I got to Denver but I figured the area could hold my interest for a day or two. I ended up spending nearly a week in the mile-high city and it definitely left an impression.

Looking down at Denver from the first big line of ridges to the West.

           The first night I arrived, I wound up at a local bar with a ridiculous variety of craft beer. In fact (at the time), Colorado had the second most craft breweries in the US behind California and considering there is a population gap of 34 million people, that’s an impressive feat. 5.6 million Coloradans can choose from a dizzying 180+ breweries; Colorado does beer well. Allison met me at the bar, and we caught up before heading back to her family’s place. Allison, like a proper adult, had a job, and since I was in the midst of my road trip of discovery, I used her family’s place as a launchpad for day adventures while she worked.

andy samberg im an adult GIF

           Getting hikes in was a priority, so over the next few days, I made my way to the front range foothills to get some elevation at Green Mountain, White Ranch Open Space, and Mt. Sanitas, which was just outside of Boulder. On the nights when Allison was off work, we’d venture into Denver. The first night, we visited Voodoo Comedy Playhouse and watched an immersive improv comedy group, and when I say immersive, what I mean is that at one point one of the comedians took his shirt off and started gyrating through the crowd. I had gone in expecting nothing and came out smiling from ear to ear. If you’re in the area, I would recommend a visit.

           One of the more memorable evenings was being able to take the light rail into downtown to see a Rockies game in the highest professional baseball stadium in the US. Watching the sunset behind the formidable line of mountains to our West was brilliant. I’m not a huge fan of baseball, but the position of the stadium, looking towards the mountainous skyline, helped elevate the experience. 

sarcastic well done GIF by CBC

ANYWAY, while Allison and her friends were staring at the game, I was staring at the horizon. It was hard not to marvel at how big the sky felt out here, vast and unending. While the Great Plains had given me that expansive feeling as well, with the mountains visible for scale, I was able to really appreciate how immense the land was out West. Nothing like a road trip to make you appreciate how dang big the U.S. is.

…great way to close a day

While I would’ve liked to stay and explore the area more, I reckoned that with my eventual move to Durango, I’d have plenty of time to explore this state in the not too distant future. Five days into my stay, I began to yearn for the open road and committed to pack up and continue my adventure. The next stop was Estes Park at the entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park.

It was warming up across most of the continental US as April continued churning forward, but Estes Park had evidently forgotten about this, so as I drove up the clouded canyons towards town, I found fresh snow!

After playing in it for a while, I ventured into Estes Park proper and was surprised to see elk casually hanging about. Unbeknownst to me, Estes Park sports a huge elk population, and they are, for all intents and purposes, locals. Seeing those Elk up close was a reminder of how large the wildlife can be out west. Some of these guys were just about as tall as my Subaru!

           The weather began to close in before long, and I decided to get lower in elevation before the snow overnight forced me to stay. The drive down through Big Thompson canyon was windy and steep, a gnarly ride with craggy rock faces looming over both sides of the road after every turn. While it was hard to peel my eyes from the road, during one straight section, I glanced up at the cliffs above and spotted bighorn sheep! I couldn’t stop for fear of creating a car pileup behind me, but there was a whole herd, maybe 30 in total. They were hanging out on steep and rocky terrain above the curves of the road, silently judging all the cars below. I managed to snag a couple of pictures before continuing on.

…Big horn sheep!

           The weather only began clearing once I had driven into Wyoming and started heading west on highway 80. I could still see the snow clouds lingering to the south, but it was dry as I rolled past Vedauwoo, a prominent rock climbing area, and over a lower point of the Continental Divide.

           Wyoming is a geographically interesting state. It’s high up in elevation, but a lot of the state is desolate, with a few pockets of mountain glory. Some of the better-known areas include the Wind River Range, Yellowstone National Park, and the Grand Tetons. Unfortunately, the part I was driving through was just high and dry, not a whole lot else out there. By the time I finally pulled off I-80 and headed towards Jackson Hole, the sun had gone down, and I made the rest of the drive in the dark, wondering what the rest of Wyoming looked like.

Wyoming Sunsets

           My insistence on driving the rest of the distance that night was because I’d rented an Airbnb for two nights on the Idaho side of the Tetons in a HuuUGe remodeled ranch house. The house was owned by a retired horse rancher who had come back to her native corner of Idaho. The following morning, after a lovely breakfast and conversation, I heaved myself back into the car and headed towards the Grand Tetons National Park. Between the Tetons and Yellowstone, northwest Wyoming has some of the most stunning mountain terrain I’ve ever had the pleasure of visiting. The Teton range, in particular, is one of the most picturesque mountain ranges in the Western United States, drawing millions of visitors a year to its rocky reaches.

Grand Teton Peak

           Because it was early season, the road connecting the Tetons to Yellowstone was still buried under snow, but I spent the day staring in awe at Mt. Moran and Grand Teton Peak, shooting up from the Snake River like silent sentinels. Early season visitation has both pros and cons, the biggest con being the road and trail closures due to snow. The biggest pro, however, is the solitude. Not many people come out early to the Western Parks, so I had a lot of the park to myself. Though that isn’t an entirely true statement, I had to share the views and open trails with a serious abundance of elk. They were everywhere and not afraid of me.

Elk!

           Strapping snowshoes on, I ventured out to climb Signal Mountain from the shores of Jackson Lake. In the summer, there is a road to the summit, but with everything closed down, I ventured out into the snowy scape, accompanied only by my thoughts. By the time I returned to my car after a satisfying and successful summit, the sun was beginning to set. I drove out further around the Lake and found a pull-off along the road where I could watch the sun descend behind the mountains. It was a very surreal moment and one that I can still feel as I type this almost years later.

the Tetons: Grant Teton (L), Mt. Moran (R)

           The next day I was off to Yellowstone, through southeast Idaho, which gave me this cool view of the backside of the Tetons.

After a couple of hours of driving, I arrived at the Western entrance to the park and was no more than twenty minutes into the park itself when the Subaru became surrounded by wild Bison. What magnificent creatures!

Bison!

Though, seeing them reminded me of how close we came to losing them entirely. In fact, the Bison of Yellowstone are one of the only herds of wild American Bison that weren’t hunted to extinction in the late 19th-Century.

           Ultimately, I think the story of the wild Bison is emblematic of America’s historically convoluted relationship with nature. First, we go in guns blazing, killing, and eventually running out of the resource entirely. Then, we feel regret for killing all the wild (insert animal type whose habitat we have constricted or decimated). Then, through science and conservation, we bring back the (insert animal type), and finally, we forget that we killed them all in the first place. Lather, rinse, repeat? A pessimist could make a fairly compelling argument that we haven’t really learned anything at all, and instead, just keep covering up our mistakes. At least for the time being, animals such as the American Bison and the Bald Eagle have entered our societal subconscious as crucial to “American Heritage,” so they are offered more protections than other animals, but that doesn’t bode especially well for animals such as the passenger pigeon, which we killed off entirely by the early 20th century.

         I think in a lot of ways, the National Parks allow us to hold a mirror up to our own understanding (or lack thereof) of nature and how we as a species fit into the natural design of the world. For some, a visit can become an almost spiritual experience, where the symbiotic relationship between species is on full display. Some National Parks, however, have to contend with millions of visitors a year, and sadly, many of those people do not care about the delicate natural balance that the Parks represent. Yellowstone is in many ways the epicenter of the US national park complex and, as such, appears to attract a stunning amount of stupid people.

While I didn’t personally experience gross levels of idiocy during my exploration of the park, one needs only to turn to the internet to find examples. For some reason, Yellowstone just appears to be a magnet for imbeciles. From tourists putting animals into their cars to chasing bison to pissing off bears, to stepping into off-limits areas like geysers, people continue to impress with their complete lack of awareness. Seeing that type of behavior makes you wonder how on earth we ended up at the top of the food chain…but I digress.

           For those who come out to genuinely enjoy the parks, Yellowstone offers a dizzying amount of terrain to help people find their spiritual moments. It has everything: wild animals (including the bison and reintroduced wolf), thundering waterfalls, mountains, hundreds of miles of uninterrupted wilderness, lakes, and the world-famous geysers.

Even more interesting, or terrifying depending on how you look at it, is the geology of the area. More than half of the national park lies atop the Yellowstone caldera or supervolcano. A little more than six hundred and forty thousand years ago, the last of three eruptions occurred, spewing ash as far as Mississippi and covering the intermountain west. Scientists suspect it’ll be another few hundred thousand years before a subsequent eruption, but the land is definitely alive, epitomized by the geysers themselves, which are essentially pressure release valves blowing out scalding hot water. 

Yellowstone falls

           When the day finally closed, I had seen bison, geysers, Yellowstone falls, climbed Bunsen Peak, and managed to set up my tent at a developed campsite by Mammoth Springs. Yellowstone is a national treasure, and I hope collectively, people continue to appreciate how crucial these areas are to biodiversity and our understanding of the environment.

Looking towards Static Peak from Bunsen Peak trail

The next morning, satisfied with my visit to Yellowstone, I soldiered on, driving into Montana to continue my transformative pilgrimage.

           Montana, like Wyoming and Colorado before it, was awesome. From the views of the Beartooth and Absaroka Ranges to the headwaters of the Missouri river to the funky college town of Missoula, Montana exceeded expectations. I confess I didn’t spend much time there, busting through the state with a small stop to climb the M outside Missoula, but I logged away the memory of the drive and vowed to return to explore the state properly. There are so many things to do in the rocky mountain states that if you’re a tree hugger like me, it’s worth splitting it up into multiple adventures, to really give an area the appropriate amount of attention it deserves.

Marvelous Montana

           The surprise of the day was Northern Idaho, that skinny panhandle section on the map. After a long crossing through the Bitterroot Mountains, I ended up in Coeur D’Alene, a fun town on the banks of a giant lake of the same name and ringed by steep hills. I took a detour to explore the area around the lake, and it was absolutely breathtaking. The foliage was thick and a deep shade of green, pockets of snow still hiding beneath the canopy of the denser areas. I hadn’t expected much from this small part of Idaho, which is more easily accessible from Canada than from Boise (the state capital), but it was surprisingly beautiful.   

I spent the night in another AirBnB in Spokane Washington, driving the following day across one of the most barren parts of the states I’d seen so far, comparable to the Mojave in Southern California. I did NOT expect Washington to be that dry! It’s really only that sliver of land between the Cascades and the Pacific Ocean that gets 90% of the rainy Northwestern stereotype. As expected, once I crossed the Cascades it started raining and continued to do so as I blasted through Seattle and up the 5 past Bellingham. By the time it stopped raining, I had reached the Canadian border, bound for my most northerly destination: The Gold Coast, British Columbia.

As I sat in my car at the border crossing, waiting for my turn in line, I thought about what the barkeep had asked me way back in Omaha, “why are you here?”

…I guess it had seemed like a legitimate question at the time, but this road trip had morphed into something beyond a simple explanation to me. The roar of the car engine, the ability to be my own captain, and the freedom to set my own course were things I was finding to be incredibly inspirational. I was drunk with choices, and I wanted to see as much as I could. Logically, I’m sure it didn’t make any sense to her; Omaha might’ve been the only place she’d ever known. But, after seeing Colorado, the Tetons, Yellowstone, and Montana, sitting still just wasn’t an option for me. As silly as the answer might’ve seemed to her, were she to ask me the same question again, I might only have responded with, “Why not?” Life is for the living soul, and after this adventure (and all the ones to follow), not even that bartender in Omaha could say that I hadn’t lived.

Part 2: Modern Manifest Destiny

Don’t let the title fool you. The old Manifest destiny, if you are unfamiliar, was a widely held belief in the 19th century that westward expansion of American interests throughout the North American continent was not only justified but inevitable. What ended up happening was nothing short of terrifying and involved lawlessness, greed, murder, and the forced removal of thousands upon thousands of Native Americans from their ancestral homelands.

            In contrast, my modern version of manifest destiny was highly personal, completely peaceful, and had almost nothing in common with the old one, save one word: inevitable. Like the original doctrine, I knew my journey west was inevitable. Justified? maybe not, it was pretty self-indulgent but definitely inevitable. It wasn’t just a dream that was nice to think about, this was going to happen…it had to happen. I couldn’t tell you when I knew it for sure, but for years I had flirted with the idea of going the way of the setting sun, and with each passing year, the feeling had grown. Eventually, I couldn’t stifle it anymore and the result was spectacular.

            2014 was, for the most part, a very challenging year. I had graduated from UNC-Asheville the previous fall, and while I was thrilled to have earned an undergraduate degree in four years, I had spent far too little time figuring out what my next steps were going to be. So, with panic setting in and a flimsy piece of paper that said “Bachelor of Liberal Arts,” I looked at the adult world looming in front of me and thought, “oh shiiiiiiit.”

            Consequently, I grabbed the first stable gig I could find and moved to Northern Virginia, where I worked through the end of 2013 as a counselor at an adventure camp.

            Once 2014 kicked in, I moved right back to my college town. Two wrongs don’t make a right, in case anyone was counting, but at the time, I thought I had solid reasons for moving back. I was in a pretty serious relationship with a woman in her senior year at UNC-Asheville, my job in Virginia wasn’t pushing me in a direction I felt was worth pursuing, and most of my friends were still in Asheville. Perhaps the most powerful reason was that I was still subservient to the siren song of the Blue Ridge. If you’ve been there, you know, it grabs you hard. I guess I thought I’d be able to tread water for the duration until opportunity fell into my lap.

            Well, you can imagine how that went.

            As 2014 dragged on, I began dragging myself down. The two highlights I had were hiking and working for a zip line company north of town. If you’ve never zipped through the canopy at upwards of 60 mph. I would highly recommend it. Through that experience, I began to open up the possibility in my head that somehow, I could combine my intense desire for outdoor recreation with something that resembled a decent paying job. The big question I needed to answer was, could I do it in Asheville?

            Asheville had, and always will have, a special place in my heart, but moving back to your college town is risky. I didn’t realize it immediately, but I was stuck. For me, Asheville, like TV shows that run too long, needed to end. The good seasons were gone, the most relatable characters had left and everything else was filler. I had to give Asheville a dignified death and move on or risk sinking along with it.

            So, I divorced my college town, broke up with my girlfriend, and planned to move out west, buoyed by a fairly comprehensive set of outdoor skills. Having spent the better part of four years hiking everything I could in North Carolina, I was comfortable with the outdoors and figured the easiest way to transition was through an outdoor-oriented job. It didn’t take me long to stumble upon Conservation Corp.

            As I poured through the history of the organization, from its humble beginnings as the Civilian Conservation Corp during the great depression to the present, I found myself attracted to this concept of trails. I guess I’d never considered how much effort went into maintaining our access to the outdoors, not only for our enjoyment, but to limit human damage to sensitive areas. I knew I was in shape, and of *relatively sound mind, so I gave it a go. Then, before I could hit apply on the website, I found the prerequisite section and stumbled onto this word, WFR…what the hell was that?

            WFR (Wilderness First Responder): An individual who has been trained to deal with emergency situations in remote areas, thanks Wikipedia.

            It was a seven days course that covered everything you could possibly encounter in a wilderness setting, and as I was researching it, a few things hit me. This was real. If I took this course and got the job, then I could be in situations that might require serious medical mediation in isolated and remote places. I think to some, that might’ve been a deal-breaker, but to me? I got excited. I thought fondly of the life-changing Outward Bound experience I’d been in for 14 days in the Gore Range of Colorado back in high school. Really being out there, and having your finger on the pulse of the land was freeing in a way that I hadn’t been able to replicate since. My mind was made up. I signed up for the nearest WFR course and applied to be a crew leader for Conservation Corp in Colorado. The branch I ended up choosing was Southwest Conservation Corp, out of Durango. Why? Location, location, location.

            Within an hour of Durango was the San Juan Mountains, Colorado’s most extensive mountain range with wilderness areas up to half a million acres. Half a million?? Y’all, the biggest wilderness area in the Southern Blue Ridge was the Cohutta at a little over 37-grand (up to 40-grand if you add the Big Frog just across the border in TN). The Weminuche Wilderness in the San Juans? Almost 500,000. The difference in scale was enormous. Plus, the San Juans had 13 of Colorado’s famed 14,000-foot peaks, which I’d wanted to climb ever since I’d found out about them. To sweeten the pot, Durango was only 40 minutes from Mesa Verde National Park, 5 hours from the Grand Canyon, 2.75 from Canyonlands and Moab, 2 from Telluride, 3 from the Great Sand Dunes, and only an hour from the hot springs in Pagosa. Appropriately, I began frothing at the mouth.

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            In the meantime, I moved back to my parent’s place in North Georgia to gear up for what I was certain would be an exquisite next chapter of adulthood. If I got the leadership position, I could begin as early as March, which would limit my time pretending I wasn’t a college graduate living at home again.

            Silly Timo.

            I didn’t get the leadership position.

            Admittedly I was a bit hurt, I mean, why wouldn’t they take a gamble on someone with no leadership or trailwork experience? RUDE.

            I guess zipline guide, camp counselor and Outward-Bound participant weren’t exactly confidence inspiring resume highlights. But, they did offer me a position to join as a crew member for a 26-week program starting June first. I felt a little crushed by the leadership rub, but there was no way I was staying at home. Seeing no realistic alternative, I made the best of it and accepted. That was late February 2015.

            I have a confession to make, I’m not a very patient man.

            I knew that if I sat on my butt for four months, my motivation would be shot, and I wouldn’t have the strength to marshal it back. So, I adjusted. I’m not super with money, but I knew enough to save, and because of graduation, I had received a bit of a bonus from family members that I hadn’t used. Armed with my wilderness certification, a little cash, and facing down the possibility of a demanding summer working for Conservation Corp, I made a plan to stay in shape.

            I was highly motivated in this department. While in Asheville, I’d completed hiking all the peaks in North Carolina and Tennessee that broke 6,000 feet. I was also 11 wilderness hikes into a 12-wilderness hike challenge called the Dirty Dozen, created to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act. More ambitiously, I had done a 50 mile, 4-day loop of the AT and Bartram Long trails with my friend David Greene, and that previous winter had done a demanding three-day trek in the snow, through the northern section of the Great Smokey’s. I was seasoned, but how could I keep the physical activity up? Well, Georgia had 78.6 miles of the Appalachian Trail…ok then.

            In order to keep it interesting, I had my dad drop me off on the North Carolina side, I’d then hike south into Georgia, ending at the southern terminus in about a week. With all side trails and approach trails counted, the total mileage was more like 97 and change. So, one morning, my dad drove me out to the North Carolina side and dropped me off at the Chunky Gal approach trail, a voluptuous stretch of path that let me know right away how demanding this adventure would be. A week later, as I lay half-collapsed on a sunny rock at Amicalola Falls, with every single muscle screaming for mercy, I thought about the things that my week in the woods had taught me.

            1. You can never have enough moleskin for blisters

            2. Make sure your tent is WATERPROOF

            3. Stretch every day, make it a habit

           4. Trail people are weird, but ‘weird’ is more of a spectrum than a blanket statement: good weird, weird-weird, bad weird etc.

            5. BUY A SLEEPING PAD

            6. Clear sticks from underneath where you set up your tent

            7. Softshell tortillas are cheap and take up no space in a backpack

            8. Trail-runners and ultra-light hikers make everyone else feel bad about themselves

            9. Trekking poles=knee savers

            10. North Georgia has a surprising amount of what I would consider to be wild places

            11. Your nostrils give up around day 3, after that, you don’t smell so bad anymore

            12. Dry wet clothing on the outside of your backpack, especially socks

            13. ALL SMELLY ITEMS NEED TO BE IN A BEAR HANG OR BEAR BOX

            14. Every meal is DELICIOUS

            15. Even though my body hurt, I woke up every day with a smile. The outdoors were my slice of Nirvana.

            That adventure and subsequent hikes took me to the tail end of March, but I still had time. One night, I took out the maps, got the computer, and began to plan a road trip. I’d been across the country a couple of times, but they were usually pretty fast trips with a set destination and time frame in mind. With two months to kill and my money calculator telling me I’d have just enough to limp back into Durango at the end of it, I decided to go big. As I suspected, the planning stage took some time because the undertaking was immense, but things came together, and on April 13, I knew it was time to go.

            So, after a tearful goodbye with my mama, and on a rainy North Georgia morning, I packed up the Subaru and headed out into the world. Timo had been released.

            I decided to divide the cross-country drive into three sections. There was so much to see and do that I had to break it up, or it would all blur together. Seeing as I was on a tight budget, a lot of the drive would involve hopscotching between locations that had people with whom I could stay. It also meant that certain parts of the trip looked completely schizophrenic on the map. Regardless, I was ready.

            The start of the trip could’ve had some better weather, but since the rain and fog had socked in everything east of the Mississippi, I had to make do. Three hours and a little extra after I started, I found myself in the cold gray woods of Southwestern Tennessee. SW TN is moonshine country, lots of little hollers tucked up in the folds of the hills where you don’t venture unless it’s very clearly marked public land. It’s one of those regions where you might hear the dueling banjos start to play, and if you get that reference, you may understand how I felt in the moment. (Dueling Banjos).

            I had to come this way because I had one wilderness left to hike before I completed the Dirty Dozen Hiking Challenge and Big Frog Wilderness was one I’d never been to. All in all, it was a cold, wet hike, but it reminded me about some of the things I’d be leaving behind in the Southeast: the humidity, the sound of leaves underfoot, the roaring creeks and moss, and the insane biological diversity of the region. In fact, according to the USNP website, the Smokies and the surrounding mountains may have somewhere between 80,000-100,000 individual species within them, which is bananas! It’s a part of the world that is brimming with biological life, a naturalist’s paradise.

           I finished the hike in good time, no views to speak of on account of the weather, but no run-ins with moonshiners either, so we’ll call it a win. The last part of the day I spent driving towards Asheville NC, to put a final lid on my history there.

            In many ways, the city and the surrounding environs belong out west. The outdoor recreation opportunities, fairly progressive mindset, and craft beer craze would put it right at home along the Colorado Front Range, or the Pacific Northwest. People were very proud of the weird things that made the town hum. At one point, it was called a ‘cesspool of sin’ by conservative North Carolina senator James Forrester, and those Blue Ridge hippies just turned it around and made it an unofficial slogan. I loved its connection to the outdoors and the mentality it fostered but, for me, after a total of five years there, the town had become small.

            When you first move to an area as beautiful as Asheville, you fall under its spell. When the spell wears off, you notice small things that bug you, and eventually, those small things become too large to ignore. But I owed it one last visit, this time as a tourist, to rekindle the magic that it had given me when I first arrived.

            After a night sipping beer at Wicked Weed and reconnecting with friends, I ended up spending the night at my friend Steven Whites’ house. He was a direct connection to my college years and we had an absolute blast recalling all the ridiculous episodes in that four-year series. It was a night that did exactly what it was supposed to: remind me of the good times.

            The following day, I got a quick reminder of what I was escaping…

            Another friend I’d known had recently overdosed. They’d woken up 8 hours later, after having collapsed on top of their arm. The blood hadn’t been able to flow to the arm so it was essentially a dead appendage, and their kidneys had failed, trying to keep the rest of the body working. In order to save the arm, doctors had to cut out dead tissue, and graft a chunk of skin and tissue from the leg back onto the arm. I went to go see them in the recovery center, and while their attitude was as bright and cheery as I’d ever seen, to be with them really hit home because I had partied HARD with them in college. Were it not for a handful of different choices, friends, and circumstances, I could’ve been in their situation, or worse.

            I’m sure people have all sorts of theories on happiness and success, but mine have always centered on geography and location. After moving so much as a child, I STRONGLY feel there is a time limit on the places you live. Once you exceed your time limit, bad things tend to happen, and if you go past it too far, there is no reset button. At the end of the day, you need to have that honest conversation with yourself, is this still working for me? I knew in my heart that going west was the best move for me, and in a strange way, seeing my friend in their condition helped validate it. After some heartfelt goodbyes and a few “see you arounds”, I set out for my next stop, Boone, NC.

            My time in Boone was brief, but just long enough to reconnect with Chloe, an old study abroad friend I’d met in New Zealand. She is/was/will always be a wonderful person, and although she wasn’t at her place when I arrived, there was a key for me, a fully made bed and a note that said “So excited to see you! Help yourself to anything, mi casa es su casa! You can use the IPad (wifi on the fridge) or take a snooze on the bed. See you tonight!”

            It was only a small, simple note, but the effect on me was profound.

            The drive from Asheville to Boone was only three hours, but from here on out, it was all unfamiliar. I had left the last vestiges of my world behind and was into uncharted lands. To have that beautiful note, open and ready to be smiled upon, constituted a precious moment for me. I knew I was welcome, and there is no finer feeling.

With a big smile, I fell right asleep. That evening, Chloe, her friends, and I went out, played some pool at Appalachian Mountain Brewery, listened to some live southern rock, had a great conversation, and turned in. When the morning came I was off again, to more uncharted territory, content with how the adventure was shaping up.

            The drive down into Tennessee was interesting because it was new! My years in Asheville had me chasing mountains all over the place, and every time I hit a new summit or traveled on a new road, a new piece of my mental puzzle fill in. For RPG gamers, this should sound familiar, your map is a fog until you explore it. Once explored, the knowledge stays with your character, and they can easily navigate that part of the game world. I was just filling in my map. I felt I knew the Southern Blue Ridge better than many of my college friends because I’d stood on top of most of it, and it gave me a strong sense of place. New roads added to that understanding.

            The Appalachian Trail crossed the road I was descending, and when I pulled over to take a photo of the sign, I found a thru-hiker taking a break on the shore of Watauga Lake. Recalling my week on the trail in North Georgia and how hungry I had been, I made sure to throw as much food as I could at him…which was probably very startling at first. I don’t think I even introduced myself before hurling instant ramen at the poor guy. But, once the initial fright subsided, he gratefully accepted and I offered to haul some of his trash out for him. Leave no trace! After a couple of quick words of encouragement, I was off and he was packing up to head out again.

             My destination for the evening was Bloomington, Indiana, via a stop at Cumberland Gap National Historic Park. One of my best friends growing up, Chris Schreiber, lived in Bloomington, and I hadn’t seen him in a while. I just had to get there first. From Boone to Bloomington (sounds like the name of a country album) and was also a total of 8 hours, my longest driving segment yet. After blasting through Kentucky coal country and down towards Lexington, the clouds that had lingered for the last three days finally parted, and I saw a brilliant sunset over the horse pastures of Northern Kentucky. By the time I got to Bloomington, it was late, and I was tired, but Chris helped me grab my stuff, set me up on a bed, and I was out almost immediately.

             Bloomington is like a mini Asheville, a college town in its own right and far more personable and friendly than I had anticipated. We spent the following day walking around and exploring the kooky ins and outs that really only exist in the forgotten corners of college towns. In the evening, we had dinner with some of his friends from the University of Indiana, one of whom worked in the anatomy department. They were working on dissecting cadavers and had been for the majority of their semester. When we expressed interest in what they were doing, they offered to let us see some dead people, so, naturally, we agreed.

            The next morning, I was standing with Chris in a whitewashed room with a couple of corpses on some metal tables. At first, it didn’t seem real because the heads had been removed, and most of the guts scooped out. What was left were the circulatory and musculoskeletal systems. Fighting the urge to pretend I was on some procedural crime drama, I watched with fascination as the students explained what they were doing. Their explanations and the way the students presented the information was so clinical that I forgot for a moment that these used to be people. That naiveté came crashing down when one of the students offered to show me something cool and pushed down on some of the veins and arteries near the wrist. Almost immediately the fingers of the cadaver began to curl in slowly like they were trying to grab something. Seeing the fingers move, seemingly independently, was enough to remind me that this was all very, very real. There was only one thought bouncing around in my head, but it wasn’t shock or horror as I had expected. All I could think was, “Oh my god, how cool is this???”  

            Admittedly, it was nice to breathe the fresh air again after being in a room that smelled like formaldehyde for a good half an hour. After that unique experience, we grabbed a last lunch together on the patio of a downtown establishment. Then, I parted ways with Chris and got into the Subaru, bound for the next destination, Chicago.

            The southern part of Indiana around Bloomington had been hilly, and at least mildly interesting. Northern Indiana was flat. That’s it, just flat. While it was only a four-hour drive to Chi-town from Bloomington it felt at least twice as long, and I was thrilled to get towards the metro area and finally have some things to stare at.

            The lady I was to stay with in Chicago, was named Kate. I had met her in the Wilderness First Responder class I’d taken and we’d learned how to create traction splints together. Unfortunately, the last time I’d seen her was a little embarrassing for me.

            I’d invited her and about six friends over to my place in Asheville to celebrate the completion of our WFR certification and to have a couple of drinks. Well, it had snowed that evening and we all got this brilliant idea to go sledding. Mind you this was fresh snow on top of nothing, there was no base layer, nothing had settled, just a few inches of white on cold hard ground, or in my case asphalt.

            To make things interesting, I had decided to launch my little plastic sled in front of me and was then going to dive on top of it and slide down this side road in flawless fashion. I launched the sled according to my brilliant plan but was a little overenthusiastic about the dive and ended up overshooting my landing zone. I crashed into the snow, chin first, and sunk right through to the asphalt underneath. What I had created for myself in medical speak was called an avulsion, or a ‘flapper’ in laymen’s terms. A part of my chin skin was just kind of flapping about, a deep cut separating its previous bond with the rest of my face.

Schitts Creek No GIF by CBC

            Initially, I was mortified, but since everyone else was pretty tipsy I managed to retreat back to the house and look at the damage without arousing too much suspicion. Being a newly certified wilderness first responder and all-around excellent decision-maker, I decided to skip the hospital visit and fix it myself. So, I put a bandage clumsily over the wound, and then, realizing I didn’t have any medical adhesive, used an excessive amount of Blue Painter’s tape to cinch everything down. With the mission seemingly accomplished, I went to sleep. Needless to say, when I did finally go to the doctor the next day, everyone in the hospital was thoroughly disappointed in me.

nailed it the office GIF

            The point is that Kate had seen the whole thing unfold. I had conveniently forgotten about this episode until I was driving towards her apartment in Chicago and then promptly realized that I might need to craft a better impression of myself. Maybe by some miracle, she had forgotten too…either way, the bar was set pretty low.

            After what seemed like years of trying to find street parking, I finally stopped the Subaru and made it to the apartment. She and her boyfriend were just west of downtown in a “hip” neighborhood with a great atmosphere. Turns out, she did remember my night of idiocy because unlike my friends and me, she hadn’t been drinking. Ten points to Timo.

            After a solid round of laughing at my expense, we took off walking into the city. Her boyfriend was working at the time, so we picked up one of her friends and strolled through the city towards the downtown area. At this point, the light of the day was fading, but we soldiered on and made it all the way to the shore of Lake Michigan. There, I got to stare at the famous Chicago skyline. The Hancock tower was glowing ominously, and the lights of the city were bouncing off the fairly violent surf, it had a real Dark Knight kinda vibe going on. Having made it this far in my journey, I figured it was time for a celebration, so I ran into Lake Michigan…and then ran right the f_8C* back out. It was only April, and that lake is COLD.

            The city was such a contrast from my mountain living for the past few years that I really enjoyed being out amongst people. There’s obviously a huge difference between visiting a city and living there, but I liked the way Chicago presented itself to me. Once we had retreated back to the apartment and met up with Kate’s boyfriend, we all set off to go see What We Do in the Shadows, a vampire mockumentary courtesy of soon to be super famous director Taika Waititi, that had me in stitches from the opening scene right up to the end. The movie was showing at the Logan Theater, a great older venue built in 1915 and chock full of hipsters. The building and atmosphere were impressive, and perhaps the most exciting part for me was the commute to it via the local elevated train line. After living in the South, where public transportation is more of a joke than an alternate mode of travel, it was nice to be able to get to somewhere via train.

           The following day Kate took me to the ‘bean’. It’s art, it’s weird, and it’s in Chicago, tell your friends? Actually, check this story out, apparently, the history of the statue and its wackadoodle creator is an adventure in its own right, enjoy.

After waltzing through downtown, Kate and I were picked up by her boyfriend and taken out to Lagunitas Brewing near the shore of Lake Michigan and just south of the main parts of downtown. Originally, the Brewing company was based out of Petaluma, California but the state had been in a crippling drought since 2011, and by 2015 it hadn’t gotten better. Fearing that the conditions would continue to impact production, and since beer production is so water-heavy, the company opened a second location in Chicago. With Lake Michigan so close by and with a huge beer drinking population available in the immediate area, it seemed like a good move.

            We took a brewery tour, and the facilities were enormous, set up in a gigantic old warehouse. Our tour guide’s official title was Raconteur, and he had what can only be described as a…unique accent. He had a microphone, which he held so close to his face that every time he opened his mouth I thought he was going to eat and/or make out with it. When he said Chicago, he would swallow the back half of the word until all that was left were some strange gurgling sounds. Phonetically, what we heard sounded like “Shi-Kawwwhrghhhlo…” I guess he kind of liked us though, because, after the tour, he took us back to an employee part of the brewery and loaded us up with a 24 case of beer from his personal fridge, and sent us out into the world. Thanks guy.

            After a final night in the windy city, spent enjoying our beer and trading stories, I said another round of farewells and headed out towards the great plains. The next phase would take me across the mighty Mississip, following the way of the ancient covered wagons during that first Manifest Destiny. Yeehaw!

Part 1: Various Methods of Escape

(Sept. 2017)

            Without context, memories are just words and images floating in space. Context wrestles them down and tethers them to meaning. But, in my opinion, there is a crucial third ingredient: time. In order to publish complete memories, you need to let them mature, let them wander, and then let them come back to you in time. We often don’t see the context surrounding a situation until time has passed, and reflection takes hold. You can capture the moment as it occurs, or shortly after, but then let it age. Maybe not for too long, lest we forget entirely, but enough to see why those memories were worth remembering. When enough time has passed and the memories ferment, you allow yourself to really see how it all fits. Once the process concludes, the words and images are free to take on a life of their own and what you’re left with is something much more powerful than just memories… 

            The rain was still coming down, had been for the past hour, but it might change over soon, I could feel it getting colder. Tonight could bring snow, the first of the season. September was always an odd month for me, really an odd month for Colorado as well. Conditions were highly dependent on what part of the state you were in. For most people, living in the Front Range or the lower areas of the western slope, September was synonymous with Colorado’s brief version of autumn. These were the precious few weeks of fall when the aspens all turned bright yellow and the sky revealed a radiant blue, deep enough to fall into. But for me, September meant the beginning of the end. You couldn’t build trail when the ground was buried under snow. So, while some parts of the state were reveling in the crisp air and brilliant sunshine, I was standing in a cloud, on the forgotten side of Mt. Quandary, dreading the possibility of snow.

            Don’t misread, I do love winter, but the transition to it is rough. This was the third year I had been living off the seasons. In the winter, I was a ski instructor at a fancy resort. In the summer, I was a dirtbag, building trail in the alpine. I loved both my lives, but the contrast between the two was heavy. I wasn’t sure if I could keep them both anymore, in fact, I knew I couldn’t, but I wasn’t ready to admit it just yet.

            The company I worked for was called Colorado Fourteeners Initiative or CFI for short. They built sustainable trails up the 14ers; the 54 peaks in Colorado that broke 14,000 feet in elevation. To this day, working for them has been the best job I’ve ever had. But manual labor at high elevation is taxing, if you don’t end up getting hurt, it slowly starts to wear your body down. So inside, I knew that this was the last September I’d be out amongst it, so to speak.

            The reality of the transition away from dirtbag life had been hovering around my head for a while, but it was this night that it really sunk in. Soon, I would have to give up my escape and rejoin society in some capacity. Ugh. The weather wasn’t helping either, but it did solidify the dreary mood with which I approached this particular evening.

            “Heading into town tonight?” Margaret asked, emerging from the wall tent behind me. I nodded silently.

            Margaret had been on Quandary for two seasons and had worked in the trail world for nearly thrice as long. She had spent countless hours shaping trails into formidable ribbons of foot traffic that would last for decades. For all intents and purposes, Quandary was her project, and when she spoke about it, you could feel the attachment to it. I understood that feeling well because I felt it too, we all did. It was more than a project, it was happiness. The emotional attachment was strong, and the resistance to change formidable in its own right. Yet, I knew change was inevitable, and I needed to find some way to accept that.

            Part of accepting change is understanding why it’s necessary. For me, I knew that I needed to break away from my seasonal job because I was getting married in less than a year, and my future wife was not a dirtbag like yours truly. Trailwork is a hard life to empathize with unless you are living it, and the challenges to maintaining a healthy relationship when I worked out of cell range for days at a time were numerous. Not surprisingly, having ski instructor and trail builder as my resume backstops didn’t really add all that much to my portfolio. I needed a bit more. So, I applied to graduate school; which, naturally, created more problems.

            Trail work requires you to be all in for the duration of the season, usually June through the first week of October. My graduate program started in August. Determined to make it work, I convinced the program to let me take the first couple of months online. Somehow, I would be able to manage the coursework around a 10-hour workday that started at 4 AM. In hindsight, that may have been a little enthusiastic, but so far, I had stubbornly found a way to force it to work. It just meant my days were a lot longer than my coworkers.

            “Well, we’ll wake at five tomorrow, it’s the last day of the hitch anyway,” Margaret said with a smile, understanding my day wasn’t over yet. That extra hour of sleep would honestly do a lot for me. “The propane is off, so you just have to close the wall tent.”

            “Will do,” I said back.

            She nodded and turned to walk to her personal tent to escape the cold. Jack, our intern with Rocky Mountain Youth Corp. was already in his tent, probably cocooned in sleeping bags and a full set of clothes, a Nalgene filled with hot water at his feet…this was high living. It was only 4:15 PM, but when you wake up early to work, the day ends early.

          I waited a few more minutes in the cold and silence, appreciating the simplicity of it all. I loved it up here, away from the noise. It was nice to be able to breathe. But, I had homework tonight, an essay response to an article I hadn’t read yet, so, I knew I had to go. With a deep sigh of acceptance, I closed the wall tent, zipped up my layers of clothing, and walked away from camp, towards the dirt road.

            We had a work truck with us, an F-250, parked on an old logging road behind a forest service fence. Its name was Headache, and I hated it. Some people can handle trucks well; I am NOT one of them. It was clunky, loud, and enormous. Aside from an abysmal turning radius and Manhattan-sized blind spot, it’s rusted frame and beat up demeanor served as another visual reminder that I was not bringing class back to Breckenridge.

            That was my destination, another Colorado resort town, and the closest one with reliable wifi: a prerequisite for online classes. After struggling to climb into the elevated cab like it was the top of a 5.12 rock wall, I turned the key and started it up. The drive from camp wasn’t long once I got off the dirt road and back on route 9. There weren’t many cars around at first, but by the time I approached the town limits and was passed by a couple of Teslas and BMW’s, I began to feel out of place. Breckenridge was pop, and I was all grunge.

            The whole situation I was in was pretty absurd, dirtbag by day, student by night. I definitely felt absurd, walking towards the coffee shop after parking the truck out of sight and off the main street. I’d pass the occasional couple with brand new designer clothes and fancy smelling fragrances. They took wide paths around me, I guess I couldn’t blame them. I looked like a vagabond, crusty, and gross after a week of alpine work; but, instead of letting it work on my mood, I embraced the absurdity of the moment and escaped along with it. Allowing myself to smile, I thought about a runway fashion announcer, trying his best to introduce me and my get up…

    “Ladies and gentlemen! Welcome back to dirtbag fashion night, and boy do we have a special treat for you! Our model tonight is donning a ratty 7-year-old backpack, Carhartt knock-offs with dirt and sweat soaked completely into the fabric, and covering up that greasy head of hair is an Avalanche beanie with what appears to be either ketchup or a bloodstain over one side. Delicious.”

    “Covering his beleaguered frame is a disgusting green t-shirt, expertly hidden by a red fleece with a zipper that won’t zip. On top of that is a hideous gray rain shell held together by little more than duct tape. To complete this bizarre ensemble, our model is showing off a pair of what used to be hikers, with blown-out seems in no less than four places and rubber traction on the soles as featureless as a bald set of tires…wow.”

            It was called the Crown, the coffee shop I ended up at, and still one of the best coffee shops I’ve been to. No, it didn’t have one drink that blew my mind, and no, it wasn’t the only coffee shop in town, but it had exactly what I was looking for: warmth. The lighting was soft, the people respectful, and there was this Kiwi behind the bar tonight, hearing his accent was always satisfying. There were your usual choices of coffees and teas, and a handful of local beers to really tap into that Colorado feeling. I knew that because the seasons were transitioning, I would find an emptier shop, with more room to grab a table and get to work.

            So, once I found an empty table, I opened my laptop, grabbed my notebook, and prepared to get some schoolwork done. Then, when I had finally psyched myself up enough to try to read my assignment, I pulled up the essay prompt, noticing immediately that the due date for the assignment was next Thursday, not today. There was no homework for me to do.

            Well done Timo, 10/10.

            Dumfounded, I sat for a moment, thinking on how idiotic I was to waste time, gas, and energy to come all the way down here for nothing. What a classic fool.

             Logically, I should’ve returned to camp, my primary purpose in being here was no longer relevant, but something kept me seated. Could’ve been the fact that it was freezing outside, and I was finally warm, or that the smell of hot cider and tea was making me deliriously happy. But I think I wanted to salvage something from the moment I created by coming here. Yeah, I mucked up the due date of my assignment, but I was here now, so what could I make of it? If it had been a schoolwork night, I’d have a little more than four hours to do work before the shop closed. So, I had created a couple of hours that I didn’t have before, I had a fat computer full of memories at my disposal, and was mentally wrestling with the idea that my life was going to change dramatically after this trail season. I think deep down I knew that the Crown coffee shop was calm enough, and quiet enough, to reflect. So, I began to reflect on the end…not of life or anything too dramatic, but the end of a phase.

            I’d been working in trails for three years, and that time was winding down, graduate school was proof of that. In my constant state of planning for the future, I’d forgotten to realize that I was charging towards a new uncertainty with gleeful abandon. Had I really given the last few years an adequate ending in my mind? The second I asked that question of myself I knew the answer was no, and suddenly felt cheated. I’d forgotten to package up those dirtbag years, and for some reason, this coffee shop was going to be the place that I would do it.

            Of course, that thought led to an obvious question, why here? Usually, I was repulsed by the idea of people, why did I want to start my mental farewell to trail work here, as opposed to my tent? Did these coffee-shop dwellers deserve to occupy the space within which I would barrel down memory highway? Well, yes, because as I looked at the people around me, I realized that they were all doing the same thing I was. They just had different ways of expressing it.

            The young lady by the window, watching her show on her computer with headphones on and shooting glances out at the rain coming down; the old man and his grandkid, sitting on the couches playing cards; the middle-aged man with his pencil flying to paper, sketching out his thoughts as he hummed along to whatever song was playing inside his head; the table of three ladies, each consumed by the open books in front of them; and the staff behind the bar, chatting quietly amongst themselves: we were all doing the same thing, diving head first into our various methods of escape.

           Coffee shops are like culturally approved mental escape areas. You can have a conversation, or you can ignore the world, and it’s all totally fine. The Crown was one of those places where you could have the comfort of knowing others were around, without having to actually speak to anyone. And while I can’t heap that kind of praise on every coffee shop or bookstore, those are the kind of places where you can find that strange balance between those that have no interest in society and those that can’t live without it.

            After I looked around at all the people, I ordered a warm cider from the bar, sat back down at my computer, and began looking at the notes, scribbles, and thousands upon thousands of pictures I’d taken since coming to Colorado. While I hadn’t ever given proper thought to the ridiculous set of circumstances that brought me out here, I had taken pictures, and I began to use them like mental bread crumbs, following the memories as they flooded in.

            Three years is a long time, especially when you pack it full of adventures. Road trips, summers of trail work, winters of ski instructing, hikes and summits, hot springs, sand dunes, canyons, concerts, a proposal, and plenty of ups and downs. It felt odd, to be sitting there in my state at the ripe old age of almost 27, and thinking back on three years as if they contained a whole lifetime of activities within them. But they did, and while I had no plans to stop immersing myself in whatever bits of nature I could find after this evening, I knew it would be different going forward because it would be without trailwork.

            Trailwork had been the key that made my move out west possible, the gateway to my love for, and appreciation of, the high country. It was like saying goodbye to an old friend. So, while I had come to escape the weather and do schoolwork, I began instead to drift and found myself escaping back to the stories that had taken me away from my previous life, and brought me all the way to this moment.

            It was a beautiful meditation and a fitting tribute, a poignant farewell to trails.

            Now, years later, the thoughts from that night have fermented, aged and matured, and I think I’ve finally found the words to match the meditation I had, that cold night at the Crown. 

Little Matterhorn 11,586ft. (YDS 3)

Classification System

I like to highlight and markup some of my pictures for route clarification. Black lines= general directions, landmarks and/or Class 1 sections. Blue Lines=Class 2 sections. Red= Class 3 sections. Purple = Class 4 sections. Orange = Class 5. The class system is based on the YDS rating scale.

The iconic view of Little Matterhorn from Odessa Lake

RMNP

All vehicles entering Rocky Mountain National Park need a pass to enter, there is no free entry into the park without a pass (excluding free parks day which occurs once a year). You can find more information here.

Quick Background and Approach

The above picture from Odessa Lake is one of the multitude vistas that pushed the creation of Rocky Mountain National Park. Simply put, it’s breathtaking. Front and center to this view is the Little Matterhorn. Many people have stared at the peak from the lake shores but far fewer have scrambled up to its exciting summit. While imposing and daunting from the lake, you can approach Little Matterhorn from the backside and keep the scrambling at a manageable Class 3 with significant exposure.

There are two ways to attack little Matterhorn, from Bear Lake or from Fern Lake trailheads. My first visit to the area was from Fern Lake Trailhead up to Odessa Lake, the vistas unveiled at Odessa from this approach are wonderful. If you’re set on climbing Little Matterhorn from this direction you need to make your way up to Tourmaline Lake and hike Southwest to the low spot on the ridge between Little Matterhorn and Knobtop on the Continental Divide. The shorter and easier approach is from Bear Lake and only costs you about 7.6 miles with 2800 feet of vertical. The only “disappointing” thing about this approach is that you realize Little Matterhorn is really an extending ridge from Knobtop and not the solitary behemoth that it appears to be from Odessa. This is why I put the picture form the lake shore up top, so you can see why people named it Little Matterhorn. All perspectives from Bear Lake will show the mountain in a much different light.

From Bear Lake (get there reallllllly early on weekends or you will not be able to enter, no joke, like 5 am. Weekdays are a bit better but not by much) begin by hiking counter clockwise (right) around Bear Lake. At the first very obvious trail sign, take a right up hill towards Flattop. Begin climbing for .4 until you reach another junction, head left. From here, you’ll hike around the bulk of Flattop mountain (at the Flattop summit trail junction just keep heading straight) until reaching the height of land between Flattop and Joe Mills Mountain to your right. At various points, you will see a massive wall of mountains in front of you. Start paying attention when the trail begins to lose elevation, if you don’t deviate, eventually, you’ll descend down to Odessa Lake. Right before the trail takes a sharp right hand turn, look for the unmarked junction in the picture below. At this point you’re a little more than three miles into your journey.

Take a Left here at this unsigned junction, you can see the top of Ptarmigan Glacier in the cirque above you.

After moving a couple of minutes down this path, with the shallow Lake Helene to your left, you’ll see another unsigned junction with a smaller trail heading right through some grass, take this trail.

This new path will lead you towards your target. As is the case with “off trail” in high elevation areas, even in the trees it’s fairly obvious to see where you’re heading. Occasionally the unofficial path you’re on will fade, don’t panic, keep your eyes on the prize and note that you will lose about 200 feet of elevation at first which is necessary to avoid some cliffs. Keep Grace Falls to your left. The general trajectory is to circle the head of the basin you’re in and head to the saddle between Little Matterhorn and Notchtop. See the pics below.

Route overview, Little Matterhorn is labelled at the top left.
One of the first look at the whole enchilada.

To the Ridge Line

One you cross Fern Creek begin your climb by performing an ascending traverse to your right. The slope will change to an all talus affair with no trail. On occasion, you’ll pass areas that are susceptible to rock slides (evidenced on my trip by flattened alpine grasses and fresh streaks of dirt across large areas of boulders). Make sure to parallel the steeper areas instead of ascending into them.

Once you are in the proper gully (fairly obvious as all routes further to your right put you on slabby/steep rock), ascend until you find a logical break in the slabs to your right. It is NOT necessary to follow the gully all the way up to the low point of the ridge, you can cut off a significant corner by angling an ascent diagonal right towards a prominent rock on the ridge-line.

Head up to the rock circled in red. From there, the ridge scrambling begins.

There are plenty of options further right to tackle some scrambling early on but make sure to head up to the prominent rock circled in red in the picture above. Various trip reports have called this rock a variety of names over the years, the two I see most often are “Lizard” or “Dune Worm”. To be honest, it looks like both, point is, it’s really hard to miss and when you get closer, looks like this.

It is easier to bypass the rock on its right hand side and attain the ridge, though veering left provides a fun, brief Class 3 section. In either scenario it is possible to scramble up the backside to the cleft in the rock, from below it’ll look like you’re being eaten.

Once on the ridge, the scrambling begins and the seriousness of the summit ridge presents itself. While only Class 3 and not very long, the exposure is fairly relentless. Take your time and watch where you plant your feet.

The intimidating view of the rest of your scramble.

Summit Scramble

The short and dirty version: From the Lizard/Dune Worm rock, you’ll flip over to the Northern side of the ridge and traverse underneath two ridge knobs, which look very prominent from below but are easily bypassed. Continuing on, you’ll flip to the South side and traverse under a Third knob until you reach the Crux. It is possible to ride the crest on the second and third ridge high-points but it will require at least a few exposed Class 4 and Class 5 moves on the backside. Once again, the exposure here is severe. After the Crux, hop up to the summit.

Keep in mind there are three knobs, and the Crux area before the actual summit. The formula is left around the First and Second Knob, right around the Third Knob, stay on top of (or very close to) the ridge crest until the Crux, and then up to the summit cairn.

First part (go left).

Longer version: Take off from the Dune Worm/Lizard rock and veer left around the First Knob. Keep your trajectory and perform an ascending traverse around the bulk of Knob #2 which is longer than it looks. Some Class 3 moves are required on the traverse. Once you round the corner depicted in the photo below, the terrain eases for a brief moment and you are presented with a couple options.

The easiest method is to stay at your elevation and traverse until arriving at the gap before the next knob. At the gap, you want to flip to the right side of the ridge (the South side) in order to bypass Knob #3.

Sensing an opportunity for adventure, I reascended the ridge crest early (still on Knob 2) and found a passable (albeit very exposed) descent to the low-point between 2 and 3. While not super efficient, it does provide a great idea of the typical level of exposure out here.

STEEP.

Once you flip over to the right (South) side, traverse along some sloping rock to bypass the bulk of Knob 3, paralleling below the crest.

South side slabs.

Once you’ve polished off the South side slabs, the Crux section becomes apparent. It is the most exciting set of moves on the mountain and quite exposed, although the moves themselves are only Class 3.

At this point, the ridge whittles down to a set of stacked boulders with huge drops on either side. In order to reach the Crux, you need to scramble up to the crest by climbing the rocks shown below. There is a work around but it is not easier, I’d even rate some of the individual moves as low 4th, the only benefit being less exposure. It’s a gully running left and around to the north side of the Crux, but I did not scout all of it so I can’t tell you how beneficial it is in the end.

Moves right before the Crux.
The hardest moves on the mountain.

Yeah, so it’s a bit of a doozy, ESPECIALLY if it’s windy. Unfortunately, without a climbing partner it’s difficult to show human scale, but the Crux involves you stepping out onto a Pride Rock looking ledge. There are handholds, which you will be white knuckling. As you face into the rock, there’s enough room on the ledge for a full boot length but not much more. The most critical moves are when you shimmy around an exposed corner to find more suitable rock on the other side. The ledge your standing on is overhung and drops at least a hundred feet before catching the slope at a 25-30 degree angle and continuing to fall down to the Fern Creek drainage some thousand feet below that. BE CAREFUL. I’ve attached two pictures below (one angled down, the other angled towards the summit rock) to hopefully give a better understanding of the terrain. The silver lining is that it’s not long and much easier on the way back.

Angled down.
Angled towards the summit.

Once you round the corner, the terrain lessens and all that separates you from the summit are a couple climbable boulders. The top is a large flat rock with a surprising amount of space considering how narrow the ridge was at the Crux. Enjoy! There is a summit register there as well.

Looking back at the Crux from just below the summit.

Extra Credit

There is an Eastern Summit, marked by a gigantic cairn. This requires some Class 4 moves to get to. Proceed down from the summit until reaching a crevice that you have to wiggle into and drop down to a lower plateau before re-climbing a rock ledge to the Eastern Summit. The crevice is a complicated down-climb and up-climb with little space to work with, I’d call it Class 4, the rest is simple Class 3. I did not do it on this adventure due to typical (and annoying) front range winds gusting into the 30’s. Oh well, gives me a reason to go back!

Descent

Owing to the nature of the summit ridge, the only acceptable course of action without ropes, is to retrace your steps to the Lizard/Dune Worm rock. From there you can head back down towards Bear Lake or veer right and descend into Tourmaline Gorge. The formula for the way back is ridge crest past the Crux, left around Knob #3, right around Knobs 2 and 1, then left off the ridge and descend the way you came up OR right into Tourmaline Gorge.

Little Matterhorn may not be much to look at from various points (see below) but is an excellent and heart pumping scramble that at 7.6 miles roundtrip should only take the committed climber half a day to complete. In addition, because it is under 12,000 feet, the season for scaling it usually extends much longer than area 14ers or high 13ers.