Colorado Backcountry Turns All Year: Year 1, Months 7-9 (2021)

I am not the first person to try and ski every month of the year in Colorado. While the overall numbers aren’t many, there are people who have done this thing every month for decades or more. And while the elevation of the Centennial State guarantees turns through mid-July at hundreds of locations, by the time August and September roll around, you’re options become really limited. Additional limiting factors include the rate of recent snowmelt and the previous season’s snowpack. Luckily for me, I decided to ski in a year that only managed an average winter snowpack and experienced a warmer than average June/July…wheee.

Faced with dwindling options, I honed my focus on the areas of Colorado that seem to hold onto snow the most. In the northern Front Range, those areas are high, cold, sun-starved alpine cirques. Some of these feature permanent snowfields, and some feature the occasional glacier. For August and September, those became my focus while I clung to the hope that October might signal the return of accumulating alpine snow.

This is part of an ongoing series, for parts one and two, click on the links below.

Table of Contents

Backcountry Warning and Resources

If you’re tip-toeing into backcountry skiing, there are a ton of resources and education that I would consider mandatory before taking it to the hills. I’ve compiled a list below.

  • Avalanche training (look up Avvy 1 certifications near you).
  • Avalanche gear (shovel, probe, beacon, radio).
  • Regular ski gear plus skins, frame/tech bindings.
  • Orienteering skills (download offline maps, have a GPS watch, or bring a physical map and a compass).
  • Scout your line before committing.
  • Ski with partners when able (if not able, compensate by only attempting on the best day conditions wise). This is a touchy point, many refuse to attempt without a partner, and I accept that, but if you have a flexible risk tolerance and can accept more risk in one area (solo journeys), you have to compensate by nailing down all other aspects of the planning process to make the risk defensible.
  • Check the weather up until the moment you leave.
  • Leave your plan with a loved one and have that plan include emergency contact info should you miss a predetermined rendezvous time.
  • Here are some Colorado-focused resources I use: OpensnowFront Range Skimo, Mountain Weather Forecasts (click here), CAIC (they have an Instagram page, and there are other associated avalanche pages to follow as well), NWS.
  • For added info on planning and gear, please visit these two articles I wrote for an outdoor website called SkyblueOverland. The topics covered are crucial for any aspiring backcountry skier/rider. Essential Backcountry Gear, and Guide to Planning a Backcountry Adventure.
  • Additionally, I wrote an overview of Colorado Snow, which has a bunch of additional information pertinent to centennial state winters.
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Month 7: August 25, 2021 (Ptarmigan Glacier)

Ptarmigan Glacier, tucked into the Continental Divide between Flattop Mt. (left) and Notchtop (right).

After a successful July ski of Andrews Glacier, I began looking at the rest of Rocky Mountain National Park in search of other permanent pieces of snow. I’d passed by Ptarmigan Glacier (a name that doesn’t usually show up on official maps but has been recorded in many user trip reports and blogs) the year prior when I scrambled up Little Matterhorn. It’s not too terribly far from the Bear Lake Trailhead (roughly similar to Andrews, just the opposite direction), and from what I’d researched, stays snowy all year. Good enough for me

So, one late August day, after delaying what I knew would be a taxing journey with skis on my back, I finally committed.

Views toward Estes Park as the day slowly dawned.

Like Andrews, I used the Bear Lake Trailhead. This time, however, I went north, around the bulk of FLattop Mt. and the Banana Bowls (another lower angle backcountry area in the winter/spring), and continued as if heading towards Odessa Gorge. The whole Odessa area is magnificent, from the lakeshore to the views of Notchtop; it’s all National Park-level beauty.

Notchtop (and Notchtop Spire) from just above the Odessa Lake trail.

The established trail ascends gently to a saddle near Joe Mills Mountain and then drops into the gorge before finding the shores of Odessa Lake. My turnoff into the backcountry was at the saddle, where a noticeable but unsigned path leads south to Lake Helene, a shallow pond that acts as a great marker.

Lake Helene and the not-so-flat sides of Flattop Mt.

I followed the use trail around the right shore of the lake until a series of paths began veering uphill. Using a combination of a few, I found a route that ascends away from the lake and higher into the gorge. This part was a bit frustrating because Krumholtz kept catching my skis, but I soldiered through, following the occasional cairn, until I broke into the alpine.

As you can see in the picture above, stubborn vegetation gives way to two separate snowfields. Up until July, they are more or less connected. The upper field is what’s generally referred to as the glacier, although both fields are large enough to last all year. The navigation was never really hard on this trip, but it was a taxing approach nonetheless. As the terrain changed to talus and scree, my pace slowed to a crawl to make sure I wasn’t misstepping or taking a long rocky ride down a loose slope.

I broke out the crampons and climbed the first snowfield, thankful to be on more of a solid surface. All around the snowfield were large pieces of talus on unstable slopes. The whole area looked like it moved with some regularity, so I was keen to avoid any suspicious-looking areas. Using the crampons to bypass a particularly perilous-looking hogback saved me time and worry.

Looking back at a couple unnamed tarns as I get ready to climb the first snowfield.
Climbing up the first snowfield, notice the layers of windswept dirt on top of the snow. Not only is summer skiing limited to existing snowfields, but in a lot of cases, you have to deal with dirt, exposed rocks, ice, slush, and rockfall. Just because avalanche danger is low to non-existent doesn’t mean there is no danger.

Between the two snowfields, I chose an angling ascent over loose ground until I could traverse over to the second, larger snowfield, aka Ptarmigan Glacier, and put my crampons back on.

Ptarmigan Glacier.

As far as permanent snowfields go, Ptarmigan didn’t look as sad as some of the others I’d seen; the top half looked fairly cohesive and nice, but the bottom half bled into a talus field with plenty of scree poking up out of the snow. The skiing looked like it would be challenging, which felt appropriate since it was late August. I channeled some energy and spike-stepped my way up.

Up we go.

As I mentioned in a previous post, the ideal time to hit these slopes is before the afternoon sun creates slush out of the top layers of snow. This process slows when you have temperatures that dip below freezing the night before. Well, in the middle of summer, that doesn’t happen often, so, even though I made good time getting to the glacier, the climb was slushy and uncomfortable. I had to brace a few times to stop from sliding.

Interesting looking crevasse near the top.

I made it one piece and allowed myself a bit of time to prepare but wanted to turn around and start skiing soon because the slush issue was only going to become more pronounced as the day warmed up.

Top-down view.

To be honest, the skiing was a bit terrifying. I connected ~10 turns, but the top was a mixed bag of hard snow ridges and sun-cupped BS, the middle was slushy, and the bottom was a minefield of fist-size rocks that could really screw up my skis. I threaded together as many safe turns as I could but ultimately had to take my skis off and boot pack down the last hundred feet; there was just too much detritus to avoid.

It was too dangerous of a ski to film with my phone so this is the only “mid-action” photo I have. I think this day convinced me to start looking at Go-Pros, which I would eventually get by the year’s end.

So, yeah, I skied in August on a dwindling glacier in a National Park. It was harrowing, steep (~42-45 degrees at its steepest pitch), and riddled with debris that would’ve destroyed my skis had I not been paying attention. I don’t think It’ll be on the repeat list anytime soon, but it was a good reminder that while dirty snow can be skied, it’s really tricky.

I also finally got a good idea of what a “rock” glacier is, which I thought was pretty cool.

As yearly erosion dumps more rock and debris into valleys and cirques, they end up covering the top of the ice. The ice doesn’t really go anywhere; it just hangs out under accruing layers of rocks and dirt. Practically, this makes the terrain on top of the ice exceptionally loose and subject to sliding; as far as climate change goes, the layers of rocks actually help hide the glacial layers from direct sun exposure. So, even though you may not see a bunch of ice and snow above ground, in some areas, you can bet that the ice still exists; it’s just hiding below the rocks i.e., rock glacier.

What’s interesting about Ptarmigan (Taylor Glacier is also a good example) is that a substantial portion of the ice is still visible, so you get the above surface “glacier,” and you can see the transition zone into the sub-surface “rock glacier.” Cool stuff.

Here’s what you’re looking at. A roughly 20 foot wide, 8-foot tall chunk of ice covered by dirt and scree. In fact, everything in this picture is resting on top of ice. The only reason this piece is exposed is because the summer snowmelt creates a runoff stream from the glacier; as the water moves, it carries debris down the slope, opening up a channel to sun exposure. Between where I took this photo and the ice chunk, is a ravine about 10 feet deep that leads to a running stream on top of more ice layers. There was no way I was walking up to the edge, so this is as close I got.

Rock Glaciers are exceptionally unstable (because it’s all resting on ice) and demand careful footfalls and risk management. Naturally, I traversed it in ski boots.

Another instance of debris on top of visible ice.

The “rock glacier” continued pretty much right up to the lower snowslope. As I carefully made my way to it, I started to tire of the tedious footing and thought it may be worth it to grab a few extra turns on the lower snowfield and drop a couple of hundred feet relatively quickly.

To my surprise, the snow surface was much more agreeable on this field, and I actually made some half-decent turns without feeling like I was two steps away from dying.

Slide the bar to see roughly where I made my turns. You can see where the snow is disturbed from the turns but it’s not immediately obvious.

After managing a handful of extra turns on the lower snowfield, I felt accomplished enough to call the outing a success. I made my way to the tarn at the base of the lower snowfield and collapsed on a nice, sunny rock. Compelled to celebrate in some way, I stripped down to my birthday suit and got into the water.

Hand down one of the top five coldest water experiences of my entire life, and I’ve jumped into the Arctic Ocean before!

The tarn is only exposed enough to get into for maybe two months out of the year, so it’s all frigid snowmelt. Despite the shock, I didn’t freeze to death and let the sun dry me. A few confused and concerned rock climbers descending from Notchtop probably got more of a show from my naked lounging than they would’ve liked, but hey, after hauling my skis all the way up to Ptarmigan and faced with the daunting prospect of hauling them back to the car, I can’t say I was in much of a caring mood.

Cold, cold water.

After my quick water refresh, I summoned as much energy as I could, strapped down all my gear, and dragged myself back to the parking lot. Unlike the hundreds of questions I had to field coming back from Andrews, I only spoke to a handful of people. There were still hordes of visitors near the trailhead, but I think they were too shocked at my appearance to even let some questions out, fine by me, haha. August ski down!

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Month 8: September 16, 2021 (Knobtop Icefield)

The previous October, I hiked Little Matterhorn, a Class 3 scramble overlooking the Odessa Lake area of Rocky Mountain National Park, and just a stellar adventure all around. While on the ridgeline to the summit, I noticed a large snowfield hiding under the bulk of Knobtop, a relatively ill-defined area with a flat top, gentle western slopes, and a precipitous eastern and northern wall. The snowfield looked large and interesting, so I decided to revisit the area and see if my observation last year held up to skiing scrutiny.

Not bad; decent vertical to boot.

So, a little less than a month after my Ptarmigan Glacier descent, I saddled up for an attempt of the Knobtop Icefield.

I really wanted the snowfield to be exactly the way I’d seen it the year prior, but that turned out to be pretty optimistic on my part.

The approach was fairly benign until I broke from the trail around Lake Helene as I’d done for the previous hike. Instead of heading up into the Ptarmigan Glacier area, I traversed underneath a small headwall and descended below Hope falls. Technically, this is the same gorge that originates near Ptarmigan, but the headwall is a significant enough obstacle to legitimately call them two separate things (Odessa Gorge and Ptarmigan Cirque, for example).

Little Matterhorn and the Gables from near Lake Helene.

After descending below Hope Falls and crossing the stream, I found myself in a familiar talus field and slope (the same approach that I’d used to climb Little Matterhorn the year prior). This part I knew wasn’t terribly long but featured some serious elevation gain that I had to do with skis. It was a long, and grinding ascent, but I stuck to areas that I thought looked the most stable and slowly made my way higher.

Generalized ascent path, turns out, not the easiest way, but certainly the most direct.

My path was…ok, I mean, I arrived where I wanted to, but the loose rocks and steep slope angle made me a bit nervous, and if you’ve ever tried to hike anything with skis on your back, you’ll know how easily you can get off balance. So, I stumbled, cursed, and dragged myself up the rise, hoping to reach what I knew would be a relatively flat talus field leading up to the edge of the icefield.

The first views of the icefield were…not super inspiring.

Oof, dirty and a lot smaller than last year’s observations.

Feeling the looming specter of failure creep in, I resolved to at least scout the whole field from its base to see if there were any places I could rope together a measly five turns. The longest part of the icefield looked initially good but led right to a rockfall chute, and after watching countless fist-sized rocks scream down the icefield and crash into the talus below, I was keen to avoid that part.

I did find one section that looked relatively clean and was tucked up underneath a solid-looking rock wall with nothing overhung above it. To be honest, the whole area was a huge rockfall hazard, but I angled towards an area that looked white (so not a lot of surface debris) and got as close as I could to the start before getting my climbing gear on and preparing for a steep ascent.

Certainly not pretty, but clean enough to ski.

My crampons got their money’s worth as the terrain steepened quickly past 40 degrees. It wasn’t an altogether long ascent, but the sun-cupped surface, steep profile, and constant rockfall danger kept me plenty focused. I angled towards a large bergschrund (specifically, a randkluft in my case) between the top of the icefield and the solid rock walls behind it. In that pocket, I awkwardly got ready.

This is not beginner territory.

Also, in case you are unaware of what a bergschrund or randkluft are, this still shot from a video I took should provide some context. In no way was this a comfortable changeover from crampons to skis.

As the summer sun melts snow slopes, the snow can pull away from the walls behind them, creating a gap or a bergschrund. Technically, since this was the gap between stagnant ice and rocks as opposed to a moving glacier and stagnant ice, the appropriate term is a randkluft, but the key element is the same: a crevasse-like gap between ice and other stuff.
In the randkluft.

After a few trying minutes, I got all my gear ready and awkwardly sidestepped from the lower part of the randkluft up to the crest and gently, nervously, stepped my skis over. I was leaning so much on my inside edges I thought I’d fall right back into the randkluft, but it all held together, and I slid forward to a patch of clean snow.

Yeah, so, perhaps unsurprisingly, this was not a banner skiing day, but in the middle of the summer, beggars can’t be choosers. Would I ever repeat it though? ….Uhm.

I didn’t take any pictures on the way down but did manage to put together a set of turns that actually made me really proud. Despite my wonky start, I settled in quickly and hit the skiable bit with the same confidence I had at Andrews Glacier, which is saying something. I hated the rockfall danger and looming sense of potential catastrophe, but I skied better this day than I did on Ptarmigan in August.

I did get some perspective shots from further back and could trace my lines, which was neat.

Gotta love old iPhone pic quality. Below the red line, I unstrapped and just carefully heel kicked my way down, far too much debris.

Below is a different perspective from farther away. I drew in the lines using a computer mouse, so there may be small differences between representations, but you can clearly see my first few turns in the shade on the undrawn version.


The skiing was strangely better than August, but this was by far the most dangerous ski of the year.

Although I made it down the ski slope just fine, I had another couple of heart-stopping moments when chunks of rocks cascaded down from higher elevations. Hearing a rock pick up speed, hitting what looked like 60-80 mph, and then split into a thousand pieces when it hits a piece of talus bigger than an SUV certainly leaves an impression.

Luckily, I had scouted potential lower-risk escape routes, and because I had already identified the problem spots above me, I knew I wasn’t in immediate danger. With barely any wind that day, the biggest factors were sun-melt on the ice and rockfall from gullies and slots that broke through the walls above me. I could tell where those gullies emptied out because of how the snow looked (darker=more debris covered), and you can see that in the picture below. Purposely picking my line to ski the best conditions, as opposed to the longest vertical, saved my skis from getting too beat up and kept me in one physical piece.

Left pic, no markup. Right pic, Red arrows=most likely rockfall direction based on my observations. Blue=the area where I skied. PLEASE NOTE: all of this was completely dangerous, I just worked with the best option.

Still, having a bunch of rocks break a few dozen meters away from you is not a calming experience. I kept my helmet on for the majority of the return hike to lake Helene and only stowed it when I was safely back on established trails.

The hike back felt somehow more exhausting and challenging than last month’s outing; my ski straps kept loosening, so I had to do a bunch of re-adjusts, and talus hopping with skis on just beats you up. I did make it back successfully, and despite the rapidly forming blisters, felt pretty good about how I’d managed what is definitely one of the craziest backcountry adventures I’ve done.

Quick PSA: This is all completely nuts, and I think that should be noted somewhere in every piece I write about this kinda stuff. I am a competent skier and mountaineer with decades of experience; I’m also a 6-year ski instructor; additionally, I have years of trail-building and months of alpine camping/living under my belt. I make it my business to understand the mountains and the hazards they harbor, and I have turned around on many adventures when the conditions weren’t right.

I really like being alive, but I also intimately understand my personal thresholds because I have that conversation with myself often. Like most aspects of life, thresholds change over time. As silly as it sounds, the best advice when you’re pushing yourself in the outdoors is to get right with yourself, figure out what you can and won’t do, and identify the gray area where you can build skills into. After all the years I’ve spent in the outdoors (along with the hundreds of Colorado mountains I’ve climbed), I felt that I could handle the risks presented to me on this day, but I am always preparing for the day when that’s no longer the case.

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Month 9: October 28, 2021 (Shrine Pass Meadows)

When we talk about the alpine in Colorado, there’s usually a period of time in the autumn when a series of high elevation storms bring the first snow of the year. Most of this is unskiable from resorts, and there’s a fair amount of melting between storms because the sun angle is still high, but it signals the inevitable arrival of colder weather. Well, this year, that first bout of snow took its sweet time showing up. There were a few anemic spurts in early October, but finally, towards the back half of the month, a stronger storm targeting the western slope dropped up to a foot on the mountains around Vail Pass. My time had arrived.

By this time, I’d also managed to wrestle down the inevitable criteria I would use for the challenge. With an understanding that I’d elected to keep my skiing limited to the I-70 corridor and north, I figured exploring a small section west of Vail Pass would make for a nice excursion. I knew the road to Shrine Pass was skiable, so I planned for that.

The new snow, while copious for October, was also still drivable, so I ended up giving the ole snow tires a workout and chugged up the Shrine Pass Road, looking specifically for low-angle grassy slopes where the chances of skiing rocks was a lot lower.

I had no illusions that this was going to be a short outing. Already limited by early season snowfall, my hope was to just recycle a few slopes until I felt like I’d made my five requisite turns. All in all, I found three separate “runs” and pieced together about 20 turns between them.

Easy and it counts.

There were a few people out skiing the road, but after driving over some bare patches, it looked, to me, like it would still mess up a pair of skis, so I was relatively excited to find soft slopes without surprise gravel under them.

There were a couple of times I broke through the snow, but luckily the surface was soft underneath. If you strain, you can see at least five turns in this photo.

This day wasn’t anything to shout about, but after languishing through the first part of October, wondering if I’d get to ski fresh snow or be forced to have another experience like August and September, I was just happy to be able to ski something soft.

I think from start to finish, I was on my skis for maybe 90 minutes total, and a lot of that was just soaking up being outside.

Yeah, no real issues, just enjoyed some high-altitude October turns under cloudy skies and on top of fresh snow.

Naturally, thoughts turned towards the following month since another storm was set to hit, and I wanted to take advantage but I also took a moment to give myself a high five, month 9 of backcountry turns complete! Only three more before I’d skied a whole year!

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Part 10: Adventure Crescendo

Intro

After my parents left, it was time to load up and head back to El Diente for our last 9-day hitch there. Though we’d really only been on the project for something like two months, we’d experienced a lot of adversity in that time. Two crew members gone, bear and rat attacks, miserable weather, etc. I started to feel a bit sad that we’d be moving on. For me, we really came together as a group during our time on El Diente and the squad we’d re-engineered felt more durable than the first iteration, something I think we were all pretty proud of. Come what may, El Diente pushed us, and we pushed right back. I started figuring that for the off-hitch after our time on El-Diente, I would try to string together an epic series of adventures, a crescendo of the summer season filled with as many adventures as I could stuff into a set of six days. Boy, did I get that right.

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Hitch 6 (back half of August, 2015)

Having already established the new trail, our last hitch was going to be making the old trail disappear. It had never been stabilized and was an erosion trap in all senses of the word. We’d already rerouted the alpine portion and reinforced the lower bits of the main trail. So, with our CFI guys on the saw, we started cross-cutting trees to chop into manageable bits and regrade the old trail’s tread. From there, we’d dig up durable alpine plants (root ball and all) to replant the sections of old trail.

Trail Work Terminology Update (exclusive to this hitch)

  • On the saw: Whoever is operating the Chainsaw, which requires a special permit to do on federal land.
  • Cross-cut: A monster saw without an engine, the baddest regular saw we could carry in with us. Used since forestries ancient days, it’s a two-person push-pull saw that can make quick work of burly trees.
  • Soil compaction: A naturally occurring process on heavily used trails. The more boots there are on a trail, the more compact the soil gets. In order to replant and make old trails disappear, you have to make sure the plant roots can break into the soil and take root. Step one, using Pick Maddock’s and other tools to break up the compacted soil, helping our little plant buddies make their new homes.
  • Checkered Check Step: Like a regular check step but with a checkered and raised pattern on the tread side so people can step on it without sliding off an otherwise slick log.
  • PPE: Personal Protective Equipment like eye protection and helmets, mandatory in many cases and dependent on the organization your working with and what they’re doing.
Gator Gal and I working on a checkered check step, a crosscut is against the tree behind us.
The finished product. While it may seem excessive, logs get real slick if it’s raining so avoiding a nasty sprain while stabilizing tread seems like a win-win.

Between revegetation efforts, crosscutting, and checkering steps, the entire hitch was busy busy busy. We often swapped tasks to try and alleviate the monotony but ended up back at our old stations when we realized we’d all developed borderline OCD about how things should be done. Don’t try and fix what ain’t broken, eh?

SWCC crews are really guns for hire, so even though CFI had bought our services for five hitches, that didn’t necessarily mean we’d have the satisfaction of seeing the job through to completion. We helped as much as we could, kept their project pace on schedule and when it was all said and done, packed up our camp and left. From what they told us, it looked like they’d be working for another month or two, depending on when the first snows came in. Despite the less than satisfying realization we wouldn’t see the final project through, both CFI leaders expressed enormous gratitude for our work efforts and floated potential employment for next summer, which I thought would be a lot of fun. They were competent people and trail-building wizards; if I was to do trail work again, I’d want to work with the best. I told them I’d be interested if an opportunity opened up.

With that, we geared up on our last day, bid adieu to the CFI people, and left El Diente.

Bonus Story: On the way back from the worksite, we decided to stop in Dolores and eat at the local diner, a nice little send-off for our project. After sitting down, I got another reminder of the fact that Western Colorado is decidedly not Denver. A couple of plaid shirt and trousered fellas were discussing (loudly) the state of the new hire they had for their farm. Apparently, he had a man-bun, and this did not sit well with the older gentlemen. Ever the inquisitive soul, I tuned in and heard the following:

“A man bun?”

“Yeah a man bun, I felt bad but he seemed interested in fishin with us so I figured I’d better talk to him.”

“What’d you say?”

“I said boy you better cut that thang off if yew gonna come fishin with me!”

(Many nods of approval and manly grunting).

I honestly hadn’t heard that strong of a twang since leaving Georgia and it amused me to no end. And look, I’m not a huge fan of the man-bun either because I’d never be able to pull it off, but those oldies laid into him like the poor guy had committed a capital offense. Old stereotypes die hard, I guess. Somewhere out near Dolores, the dueling banjos from the movie Deliverance are playing.

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Because I Could:

Over the course of the summer, my backcountry competency had been rising dramatically. A string of adventures where I hadn’t almost died really helped cement that notion. Always on the hunt for the next things to do, after leaving El Diente, the impermanence of the summer finally hit me. Another couple of months later and I’d be out of a job and off the trail, less if the snow decided to come in earlier. I doubled my efforts to apply to ski resorts, though many weren’t opening applications until September, and set about trying to construct the craziest, most demanding off-hitch yet…because the summer was short and because I could.

Not only were my backcountry skills improving, but I was also, almost without a doubt, in the best shape of my life. Not jacked, which is functionally useless in a manual labor position, but cut and capable. I had six days to kill, no obligations, and a pool of hundreds of SWCC members spread across various crews, who were also looking to maximize the time they had left in this magical corner of Colorado.

Those factors led to a great conversation during the previous off-hitch (before my parents showed up) with another SWCC member named Hawk. Now, Hawk is a great rock climber and wanted to dip his toes into some multi-pitches; meanwhile, I wanted to climb into Chicago Basin and lop off the most remote fourteeners in the area. We decided to do both. First: a multi-day odyssey into Chicago Basin, followed by a two-day journey to climb Mt. Vestal. Then, to top it all off, I’d travel to the great Sanddunes National Park, meet Gator Gal, go sandboarding, set up camp for the night, and drive like a madman back to start the next hitch. Needless to say: I was STOKED.

Once our crew supplies were stowed and the hitch officially ended, I rushed through quick goodbyes, told Gator Gal where/when to meet me for the Sanddunes and jetted into town to meet up with Hawk. After a quick prep session where we packed up and got our supplies ready, we turned and burned for the Purgatory Creek Trailhead, hoping to make some serious distance before it got dark. The adventures were about to take off!

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Chicago Basin: Mt. Eolus (standard ascent, Class 3)

The most common way to access the three 14ers in Chicago Basin is to pay to ride the Durango-Silverton Railroad. The train cuts through the Weminuche Wilderness (splitting it between a smaller western portion and the massive rest of it). The train cuts off seven miles and multiple thousands of feet of elevation but also costs around 100$. For a couple of dirtbaggers, this seemed like a steep price, so we decided to just hike in for the whole thing and see what that did to our bodies.

If you don’t take the train, the hike starts near Purgatory Ski Resort, following the creek as it cascades north of US550. The first half of the trail consists of a descent to a series of picturesque flats, followed by another steeper descent to the banks of the Animas River. Unfortunately, the day was a little gray with weather threatening. In an ideal world, we would’ve been able to plan around the weather, but knowing we only had one shot to make it happen forced our hand. We threw our rain gear on, took compass bearings, and forged ahead with maps in tow.

It took a couple of hours, but we made the Animas in good time, crossing the river over a massive footbridge and eventually across the tracks themselves.

Not long after the railroad crossing, we had our first wilderness encounter. It was an adolescent black bear, my first black bear sighting in Colorado, and a cool sign that we were in it now. Weird fact: though I’ve seen more bears in Colorado since that day, I’m fairly sure I’ve seen more between N. Ga and Western NC. Black bears there be plenty.

Our guy was just to the side of the trail, rubbing his back against a tree like a back scratcher. We took some quick cell phone photos and began hollering at it to move. Startled, the bear ran into the woods and cleared our path. Brown bears are the more dominant variety and don’t always move when you scream at them. Luckily, Colorado doesn’t have brown bears, and black bears are far more skittish. If you see one, make yourself big, and make lots of noise, yell, scream or hell, even sing. They’ll give you space.

Hey pal.

After following the Animas River for a while, we reached a junction with the Needle Creek Trail, which provides the most direct access to Chicago Basin. Turning uphill, we continued hiking for as long as the light let us and then set up camp in a small, flat field ~100 yards from the trail. Having slammed close to eight miles in the fog and rain, we had no trouble firing up some quick dinner, stowing our smellies, and collapsing into our tents.

Smellies: Anything you carry with you that emits scent. Bears have a really good sense of smell. When you create a bear hang or use a bear canister, it’s best to put ALL of your smellies together, unless you want a rude awakening or a close encounter.

The next morning we woke up early, collapsed our tents, and hit the trail inside of 45 minutes, determined to get into the basin and set up for our summit escapades. The fog was still clinging stubbornly to the higher ridges, but we managed to make good time and drop our heavy supplies at a new campsite high in the basin.

Getting into the basin.

With our packs much lighter, tents set up, and position secured, we decided to make an attempt up Mt. Eolus. Eolus is the monarch of the west side of the basin and named after the Greek god of wind. It’s also mispronounced A LOT. It is not “YO-lus”, “Ee-lus” or any other version. Ever watch Lord of the Rings? Pay attention to how they say “Eomir’ or “Eowyn”. Phonetically it should sound like this, “Eh-oh-lus”.

Ehohnyawy, the trail up to the twin lakes at the head of the basin was easy to follow, courtesy of CFI, who had spent a previous season buffering it up. After the lakes, we found the obvious climbers trail to the left and up into the arms of Eolus. The fog still hadn’t quite departed, but we had committed to the adventure and took what the day gave us. Upwards and onwards.

Getting higher up the slopes of Eolus.

Once we ascended through a steep and very green basin, we reached the headwall and followed ascending ledges to the right (north) until we lost most of the vegetation and wound up in a high altitude land of rocks and stubborn snowfields, holding on to the memories of past winters.

Looking down at Glacier Point (~13,700 feet) and the high elevation tarn to it’s right.

From the top of the new area we found ourselves in, we finally hit the ridge separating Eolus from North Eolus, an unofficial 14er that doesn’t quite make the prominence rule. We, of course, decided to tag both since we were there (eat your heart out prominence purists), but not before grabbing this incredible view of the king of the winds atop Eolus.

Whoa.

Seeing the bowl of fog tucked into Eolus and outlined by our ascent route across the Catwalk and up the ridge gave me goosebumps. Seriously cool example of the tussle between weather and mountains. Eolus, the god of wind indeed.

Turning around we sighted the Class 2+ route up to the top of North Eolus and made tracks to it.

After the nearly two days of effort it took to get here, it was nice to be able to stand on top of a summit, and the view back to Eolus just got more and more ominous.

Top of North Eolus with Mt. Eolus in the back.

We spent a little time on the summit catching up on water and food. As we rehydrated and reenergized, the weather gave us a couple of foggy windows into the type of terrain we’d stumbled into.

Has a bit of an Italian Alps vibe doesnt it? Looking down into The Ruby Creek Basin with Monitor Peak and Peak Thirteen in the fog.

After a bit of ogling at the wild scenery, we set our sights on the ultimate target of the day.

Now, Gerry Roach, in his seminal 14’ers guide book, has illustrated a route that utilizes the catwalk and then skirts left until climbing ledges up to the top. In the photo below, where the red and blue arrows meet, it’d be the equivalent of taking a jog left into the fog and route finding from there. For multiple reasons, this did not seem like a prudent way to climb Eolus. Instead, we said fuck it and climbed the ridge directly up to the top.

To the left of the bottom-most Red arrow is a Class 5 headwall. You can easily bypass this section on the right (west) side and reattain the ridge.

Now, little did I know at the time that I’d be trail working in Chicago Basin next summer (2016) and would climb Eolus a grand total of six times. All six summits were made via the Ridge Way direct. Y’all, Eolus provides. Every place where it looked like it would cliff out, there was a secret step or support move that avoided the difficulties and keep the climbing at Class 3. If the ridge-line scares you, go the standard route, if a little exposure exhilarates, take the the direct approach. Move for move it’s not harder than the Ledges, just more exposed.

North Eolus poking through the fog from the summit. The rock at the bottom right is the highest summit rock and provides a nice perch.
Patagonia bout to call, demanding me for a male outdoor model. Stay tuned.

The set of North Eolus and Mt. Eolus and the look at either from the other is just a sublime Colorado experience. To date, it is my favorite 14er to climb and provides generally solid rock. As always, double-check holds before setting weight on anything.

On the way back down the ridge, a good sense of the “challenges”.

Naturally, the fog didn’t dissipate until we were waaaaay off the summit but all in all, the climb was fantastic. What a great introduction to the area with some excellent rock scrambling in supremely interesting conditions.

Getting a little lighter as we made our way back to the second camp we set up for this trip.
After descending by Twin Lakes, the fog finally began to lift. Here’s a view looking towards Aztec Mountain (left) and the upper part of Chicago Basin as it spills south.
Our campsite was tucked into the clump of pine trees in the center-right portion of the photo. The western slopes of Eolus (really quite a large mountain) are behind it.
Finally, back at our camp, we settled in and enjoyed relaxing for the rest of the afternoon. This is looking back up into the higher parts of the basin with Pk 18 (Dark fairy castle) left, Windom in the clouds to the right, and Jupiter as the large lump to the right of everything.

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Chicago Basin: Sunlight and Windom (Class 4 and Class 2)

After a relaxing afternoon in camp with the sun warming our cold bodies, we slept like logs. Waking up early to take advantage of the most stable part of the day (afternoon T-storms in the high country are a real safety issue), we stretched, downed some oatmeal, stashed our smellies, packed up, and headed back up to Twin Lakes. This time, instead of peeling left to tag Eolus, we broke right and headed up into a feeder basin between Sunlight and Windom

At this point, I’d read just about every piece of literature about the 14’ers in the basin as I could find. The verdict seemed to be that Eolus was a fun Class 3 scramble, Windom was a 2+ bolder fest, and Sunlight was a sandy, irritating climb with a serious Class 4 final move to the summit (reminiscent of Mt. Wilson). Generally speaking, that was accurate.

Twin Lakes and the Needles.

The upper basin was lovely in the early morning light and we had fun identifying landmarks as we passed them.

Basin left (north). Sunlight Spire is technically over 14,000 feet but requires ropes to ascend.

Our first target would be Sunlight Pk., followed by an excursion over to Windom. Sunlight, while tough, is really a pile of oddly shaped rocks leaning drunkenly against each other. Before you even get there, you have to climb a very sandy and slick slope that reminded me of the bottom part of St. Helens. Two steps forward, one step back territory.

Lumpy Windom.
Twin Thumbs (left), Peak Eleven (center, leaning right).

We proceeded up the slope with careful steps, marveling at the bulk of Eolus and North Eolus behind us, and finally clear from fog.

Higher up in the basin. Both Twin Lakes visible lower and the whole Eolus massif behind it.

After dispensing with the lower slopes, we reached the ridge between Sunlight and Sunlight Spire. Precipitous and beautiful, we were awarded views north into more of the majestic Weminuche. No roads in sight.

A window in the Sunlight summit ridge, looking north to Jagged Mountain, a famous mountaineering destination and the namesake of Jagged Mountain Brewery in Denver.

After a little scrambling around we were also given a peak to our next crazy destination, Vestal Peak in the Grenadier Range. Isolated and sporting quite the vertical relief, Vestal and its left neighbor Arrow looked like serious endeavors. Before I spent too much time thinking about it, I punted my reservations into a corner of my brain called “tomorrow problems” and went back at it like a bad habit.

Arrow Peak (L) and Vestal (Center). Our next area of adventures post Chicago Basin.
Looking across to Windom and Jupiter behind it as we rose up the Sunlight slopes.

Finally, we reached the summit plateau, which for many is the top. Technically, this isn’t correct because a crooked 30-foot rock with a sizable overhang is the true highpoint. That’s the Class 4 portion; up to that point, we’d dabbled with some 3+ moves, but the summit rock is really what puts it out there. Smoothed out of substantial holds, the summit rock is not easy. You climb up a parallel rock, flop onto the summit rock, and then kind of beached whale yourself up to the top. Maybe there’s a more graceful way to do it, but that’s how I climbed the thing lol.

Looking north again with Jagged Mountain and the pristine Sunlight Lake Basin below (the lake pictured is unnamed, Sunlight lake is below the flat rocky section to the left of the unnamed lake). The rock at the bottom left of the picture is the summit boulder, a 30 foot, overhung rock supported precariously by other rocks, hope you brought your courage!

We spent a half-hour gawking at the incredible views. The Weminuche is by far the largest and (in my opinion) the most interesting wilderness in Colorado. There are no roads; no mechanical noises save the occasional jet overhead: it’s pretty dang wild. Chicago Basin is fairly popular as far as that goes, but a lot of the areas we were staring into hadn’t seen human traffic in years.

After a quick refuel, we geared back up, descended into the upper basin, and began scrambling up the side of Windom. What started as a strong second wind quickly whittled down to huffing and puffing. Windom isn’t difficult in a technical sense, but it’s still a big lump of earth, and despite our enthusiasm, we could not just run up it.

Climbing Windom with Eolus behind.
Sunlight (left) and Sunlight Spire (right). Arrow and Vestal (behind) with the Trinities to the right of them.
Unnamed lake in the vicinity of Sunlight Lake. The pointy peak in the background is Rio Grande Pyramid. The Rio Grande River (the one between Tx and Mexico) starts behind and to the left of it.
More unnamed lakes to the east with Greylock mountain and the daunting-looking ridge to Thunder on the right. Mount Oso is the highest peak in the grouping behind Greylock (no trails exist near Oso, it’s all deep wilderness).

After lounging around on the summit and enjoying the sunny day, we turned around and descended quickly back to our camp. The reach goal was to make it back to our car (~15 miles away) by the evening, rush to Molas Pass, fall asleep at the new trailhead, then start out for Vestal the next morning. Could I do that now? No, but again, best shape of my life, anything was possible.

After packing up camp, ready to head back down.

Ultimately we did make it back to the cars after a long, long hike back. Despite our waning energy, we’d stashed some energy drinks at the Purgatory Creek Trailhead and inhaled them before heading north to the Molas Pass area. There was no way I was going to set up camp that evening after two summit tags and a ~15-mile exit hike, so I just conked out in the Subaru. Since I’d done it before, it wasn’t even that uncomfortable. Next stop, Vestal Peak.

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Vestal Peak

Hawks pose says it all, boy were we feeling our bodies this morning.

After a groggy rise and some choice words the following morning, we set about securing our essentials for another jaunt deep into the Weminuche. Luckily the sun decided to stick around, so we weren’t fighting rain anymore. Of course, the added light and warmth meant sunscreen and a lot more hydration. Trade-offs. Possibly the most painful sensation of a multi-day trip is setting a heavy pack on your hips. Our shoulders were strong from trail work but bruised hip bones just plain hurt, and a 30-40 pound pack really hammered that point home. Once we’d cursed ourselves appropriately for being so ambitious, it was time to get moving.

Looking down into the Animas River valley with the spires of the Needle Mountains standing watch above.

The first part of the trail was a long descent down to the river, followed by a long ascent back up to a bench, where we would then break trail and bushwhack our way up to the basin below Vestal and Arrow Peaks. The trailed portion was on a part of the Colorado Trail, a 485-mile trail from Denver to Durango, which overlaps with a large part of the Continental Divide Trail as well. One of the more famous/infamous sections of the trail in this part of Colorado is the descent from Molas down to the Animas River, consisting of something silly like 30+ switchbacks, dropping you over 1700 feet down to the river. Not so bad on the way down, but realizing we had to climb back up the switchbacks on our way out kept the optimism in check.

Hawk along the railroad, same one we’d crossed to get into Chicago Basin, just a couple dozen miles further up.

From the river, we had to follow the rail tracks for a bit until breaking left (east) and heading up the Elk Creek Drainage. The trail was easy to follow and enjoyable for the most part; I mean, up is up, and with a big pack on after three days of hiking already, it’s all just part of the grind. We got our first look at Vestal from near our cutoff, around a set of beaver ponds. Looking south at the imposing form of Arrow and Vestal was enough to boost my heart up into my throat.

The intimidating first look at Vestal (left) and Arrow (right). The ridge we would climb was called Wham Ridge, and it was in full sight.
Better view of the beaver ponds area, focused more on Arrow though the top of Vestal is still visible.

We took a break at the trail junction and forged ahead. Now, even though it is trail-less, in Colorado, especially sub-alpine and alpine areas, the bushwhacking is not reminiscent of any of the hellscapes out east. Usually, there is some semblance of tread to follow (especially if it’s a big mountaineering goal like Vestal) or relatively easy navigation on a day when you can sight landmarks. We found the climber trail up to the Vestal Basin to be fairly easy to locate. However, there were absolutely no switchbacks to speak of, so you were, at times, climbing straight up very steep slopes and desperately holding on to exposed roots.

After a lot of grumbling, grunting, and sweating, we broke out of treeline and began hunting for a campsite: while the imposing form of Vestal stood watch.

Evil looking.

…the problem with being excited is that you tend to do things without thinking about it.

After quickly setting up camp, we looked at each other and immediately reached the same conclusion. Instead of waiting around camp staring up at Vestal, we could just climb it right away. Hawk, who had brought the rock climbing gear, was immediately on board. So, despite conventional wisdom telling me to pump the breaks until tomorrow, we set out to climb Vestal at around 3 pm.

The approach from our camp wasn’t bad but we had to scale a low ridge and a marshy area before getting to the lower ramparts of Wham Ridge. Of all the routes in Colorado I’ve climbed, I still think Wham Ridge is one of the most appropriately named. I mean, wham, there it is, a ramp straight up to the stratosphere.

Wham. We rock hopped across the talus, took an ascending travers left onto the ramp and began scouting a way up.
Taken from right before we hit the main ramp. Ascent route is diagonal left until we were on it.

We successfully navigated to the main portion of the ridge and assessed what lay in front of us. Wham indeed. Hawk figured the first half or so we could scramble between the ramp and some horizontal vegetation benches without too much trouble. Since we’d brought the gear, we were actively looking for harder faces to climb; I do think there is a way to climb it as a Class 4 without ropes. Warmed by the alpine fire and the afternoon sun on our backs, we began heading skyward.

Looking back to the lower valley where the Colorado Trail deposited us.
This is a shot east, towards one of the Trinity Peaks. I found it striking that even though there are only a handful of peaks within the Grenadier Range, they’re all kind of on their own: not connected by high ridges, which is so common in other parts of the state. It really gave the whole range a regal, imposing quality.

After the grass benches lessened, we geared up and began scouting routes. The San Juans, in general, have lousy rock quality, but the Grenadiers and the Needle Range (Chicago Basin inclusive) have generally great rock, which absolutely helps the enjoyment along. In my opinion, the worst combination is a dicey scramble on loose, dangerous rock (i.e., Pyramid Peak in the Elk Range). With solid and stable rock underfoot, I knew I’d be able to trust my arm and finger strength to get me through any challenges that lay ahead.

Hawk, kitted up and scouting.
Looking back down to the valley floor where our camp was (somewhere in the pines). The lake to the right is also a good place to set up camp for a Vestal summit bid, FYI.

When the ropes finally came out, things started to get serious. From my previous experience rock climbing with Hawk and a couple of buddies from SWCC, I had a good idea of what was expected from me. I knew how to be on belay and pick up equipment once Hawk had set up the end of the pitch. Roger, copy, affirmative, and away we went.

One of the tougher pitches.

In total, I think we managed five pitches, with the third and fourth pitches being the toughest. The rock was solid but sloped against us, so purchases were a little harder to come by. If I had to guess, I’d say the hardest parts were in the 5.6-5.8 range and generally only a few moves long.

Pretty fly for a…Timo

Despite us zooming through the pitches, it took a while for Hawk to set them up and for me to pry loose some abandoned gear. By the time we finished our fourth of five pitches, the sun was noticeably lower in the sky. Instead of panicking, we doubled our efforts while enjoying this beautiful time of day. To be honest, I think the hour or so leading up to sunset is the most beautiful time of day in the mountains. The area is quieter, day-trippers have gone home, campers are setting up, and the mountains feel freer. It comes with plenty of risks, like dealing with darkness, but for those couple hours, it just feels like the world is taking a deep breath with you. Connected: is the word I would use to describe the feeling. You just feel like a part of the world around you.

Catching the sunset.

We finished the roped portion just before sunset. Hawk had wanted to do another pitch, but with sunlight waning, we thought it best to free climb the rest. After testing our scrambling skills in Chicago Basin, we knew we could find a way to get up the last bit. The top of Wham Ridge is pretty much vertical, but the rock is blockier and had excellent holds compared to the smoother ramp below. I found the change of free climbing enjoyable and sped up to the top of what I thought was the end of the climb. Wrong! The top of Wham Ridge ends at a subpeak (hard to tell from below). From there, a little more scrambling is necessary to attain the true summit, which is depicted below.

Just past the sub-summit and on to the main peak.
Finally on top! What a view. Left to Right (Windom, Sunlight (then a lower part of ridge) back up to Eolus & N. Eolus, back down and the last shapely peak on the right side is Pigeon).

As I’ve said in previous blog posts, the climb is only half the battle, so despite the IMMENSE satisfaction of topping out on this absolute unit of a mountain, we knew we still had a lot of work to do….in the dark.

The descent begins.

For various reasons, I did not take a lot of pics on the way down, but it was intense. Armed with headlamps, we made our way down, but Vestal is steep, no matter what side your climbing. The back of it, where we descended, is also much less stable than the front. We kicked some rocks down and had to slow the pace a lot to make sure this wasn’t the last mountain we’d ever climb. The brittle nature of the rock on the side we descended was interesting for another reason. Every time we’d kick loose a rock, it would fall and smack into the slope with a vibrant spark like I imagine flint would if starting a fire. Watching a rock fall down thousands of feet, sparking as it slams repetitively into the side of the mountain was kind of a cool phenomenon. It also reminded us of what would happen should we take a tumble, so keeping that in mind, we proceeded as cautiously as we could. It was a long and tedious descent.

Finally making it down to the rubble field around the base of Vestal, we still needed to traverse out of it. If you’ve ever been in a giant talus field you know it can be fun to rock hop, but if you misstep, you twist an ankle, or worse, get into a 127 hours situation. With it being almost completely dark, that might’ve been the most frustrating and time-consuming part of the whole climb. It really helped having Hawk there to bounce route ideas off of. If we had been making it up as we went, we could’ve easily walked off a cliff or fallen in-between large talus boulders. By the time we finally made it back to camp, we didn’t even make dinner, just passed right out.

Glorious peak.

Morning brought a period of reflection, made easier by our front row seats to Vestal’s blocky profile. What a beast. I think we must’ve sat in silence and stared at it for over an hour before finally willing ourselves to pack up and head out.

Look, I’m not a huge rock climber, I’ll never lead, and I’d only go with someone I trust. Vestal is not the hardest wall out there, but it demands physical sacrifice to get to it, let alone climb the thing. It was also a wonderful opportunity to push my comfort zone and try something new. I had a blast. Mad respect to everyone who gets out of the gym and climbs in the great outdoors; it ain’t easy.

Realistically though, It just isn’t my jam. I’ll probably never be a competent rock-climber; outdoor gear is expensive enough as it is, and I just can’t be bothered. I grew up hiking, backpacking, summiting mountains, and scrambling. That isn’t to say there aren’t some incredibly impressive people out there who climb, and again, mad respect, but eventually, you need to settle into the things you’re good at. I’m thrilled I was able to land a multi-pitch in a wilderness setting, but unless the factors all line up again, I’ll probably stick with hiking and scrambling.

If you want to check out an inspiring, cerebral climbing blog, head over to Olympus Mountaineering. You can tell these lads love what they do, and there’s no finer thing than seeing someone excel at the thing they love. The effort they put into their routes is the difference between a discipline and a passion.

After our quiet reflection in Vestal’s shadow, we packed up and headed back down to the Animas.

As predicted, the climb back up to Molas was a pain in the arse, but we did it. With a handshake and words of affirmation, Hawk and I parted ways. I drove back to Durango, grabbed a shower at the rec center and some internet at Durango Joes to plan the next stage of my off-hitch bonanza.

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San Luis Peak

While not as isolated distance-wise as the Chicago Basin trio, San Luis Peak is not close to anything. The only way to hit it is if you hike the Colorado Trail or drive waaaaay around to a place called Creede and take some old dirt roads up into a holler. Conveniently, it’s kind of on the way to the Sanddunes, or close enough to it that I could justify lopping it off the 14ers list. After doing some quick research in Durango, I saddled up, did some shopping, and drove around to Creede.

Creede is a small town that is so off the beaten path you’d be forgiven for thinking it didn’t exist. Wilderness around here is plentiful, but I got the feeling the locals weren’t too sweet on visitors, so I passed through town quickly, found my dirt road, and slept in the car.

Amazing the difference a day can make. Woke up early expecting sunshine, got clouds and fog again. Oh well, off I went.

The profile of the mountains here wasn’t as dramatic as the bulk of the San Juans, but the weather gave it an otherworldly look.
Catching the sunrise on my way up San Luis Peak.
Looking at the lumpy summit, just a Class 1 walk to the top.

Even though the weather wasn’t great, the popularity of the Colorado Trail meant I still ran into a handful of people through-hiking. We traded a couple of stories and set off on our respective missions. If you end up running into some through-hikers near any long-distance trail, give them a shout-out or conversation. Long, lonely days on the trail can drive people a little batty. I always found it helps to engage when the moment is there and give them some human contact.

Desolate looking.

Above is the best look I had at the mountain. It’s…a mountain. I don’t think I’d ever hike it again, but it was nice to check boxes and walk along another part of Colorado. I always enjoy filling in my mental picture of a state, and San Luis Peak was in an area I hadn’t ever been to; for that, I salute it.

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The Great Sand Dunes

After tagging San Luis, I drove down to the Sand Dunes, making such good time, I beat Gator Gal by multiple hours. Fueled by my easy summit, I decided to go adventure around while I waited for company. The Dunes are an amazing National Park and well worth the visit. The area had received an unusual amount of rain, so the whole area was really quite green, adding a lovely contrast to the dunes themselves.

The dunes from near the campground.

The campsites were almost luxurious compared to sleeping in the Subaru, firepit, smoothed area for tents, table, grate, and a big ole bear box. High livin, I tell yah! I set up my stuff, grabbed my day pack, and walked for the dunes. Along the way, I ran into my campsite neighbor and struck up a conversation with her. We combined forces and set out for a dune stroll while hoping to catch a sunset.

Mount Medano standing watch over the Dunes.
Medano Creek is a seasonal outflow from the Sangre de Cristo Range and provides a beautiful contrast through July. Later in the summer, the creek dries out.
The Dunes themselves were easier to walk on because they’d been soaked, leading to a tougher outer crust.
We walked up to the highest dune and looked westward to the setting sun. Amazing how quickly the temperature dropped when the day began to transition to night.
Cold and beautiful.

After viewing the sunset, we headed back to the campground as Gator Gal pulled up. In true outdoor fashion, we broke out the drinks, toasted to life, and traded outdoor stories until sleep called us home.

The following morning, Gator Gal and I headed to the little store just outside the National Park boundaries that sold sand boards. Why not, right? We got a little crash course in what we needed to do (basically wax the entire board so it slides) and then set off to find a dune to conquer.

The clouds made for fantastic photo ops.
Gator Gal shredding hard.

Once we fell a couple of times, we managed to secure our balance and had a fantastic time speeding down the tallest dunes in North America. 10/10 would repeat.

It’s hard to put into pictures how immense the dunes are.

Once we exhausted the duney possibilities, we broke camp, packed up, and headed out. Another hitch was around the corner, and truth be told, I was a little adventured out. Focusing on some trail building would be a nice change.

On the way out, I drove around to the Blanca Massif, a super obvious set of enormous peaks, visible from just about every angle of the San Luis Valley near it. Blanca is the third tallest mountain in the state, and the area houses two additional 14’ers. Naturally, I had to grab a shot of it, including a good perspective on Little Bear, one of the more dangerous 14’ers out there. Someday soon I would be standing on top of it!

After that, I made the long, lonely drive back to Durango, thinking of my accomplishments during what was rapidly becoming the most adventure-laden summer of my young life.

Final Thoughts

One of my favorite expressions is “get amongst it.” I first heard it when I was studying abroad in New Zealand and it just instantly made sense. Don’t be above, below, or to the side of it, get amongst it. Surrounded by achievements and salivating at the possibility of future adventures, I knew I was amongst it. Connected.

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