|Miles High and Climbing - Part 1
|The eagle looked down and saw the men climbing and said,
"Welcome to my world -- walk softly and enjoy."
For Michael -- my son, my best friend, and my hiking buddy
Memories are what make us whole -- they give meaning and purpose to our lives. Almost
seven years ago, my son and I shared an adventure of a lifetime. Not a single day goes by
without me recalling at least one memory from that trip.
I keep a picture on my desk at home that shows the two us standing proudly on one on
the many ridge tops we crossed on when we hiked above the tree line. In the blink of an
eye, I am back with him -- soaring with the eagles and eagerly awaiting the next scenic
vista to unfold before our eyes.
Recalling our adventure on the following pages allows me to relive the adventure over
and over. I often wonder what followed in the lives of those who hiked with us that
wonderful week in the summer of 1994. I hope that they, too, have good memories of all
the time we shared together.
It was almost like a scene out of "another" story. Nine strangers came together from all
walks of life to live, struggle, and laugh together for a week. Then, in the blink of an eye,
all of us returned to our own stories, our own adventures of life itself.
February 18, 2001
Sunday -- July 24th, 1994 _________________________
Sangre de Cristo Mountains -- the thoughts of that exotic sounding place in Colorado
floated in my mind as I drifted off to sleep late last night.
It is 6 a.m. now and I am lying here not believing that our day, Michael's and mine, has
finally arrived. I have dreamed of this day -- Trip Day -- ever since Deanna surprised
Michael and me at Christmas with a gift that would take us on a guided, week-long
wilderness hike with packstock through the mountains.
Michael and I both stayed up late last night packing our bags, going over and over the
detailed packing list we had received from American Wilderness Experience, Inc.
(A.W.E.). This is the company Deanna had used surreptitiously to book our wilderness
hike. She had done all of the booking, paying, etc., on the sly. She even had everything
mailed to a friend's house so that Michael and I would never suspect a thing. From the
looks on our faces in the photos from Christmas morning, I would say she succeeded. Did
I ever tell you she used to work for the CIA? True, but that is another story.
Anyway, back to the list. We did not want get all the way out to Colorado and then find
out we were missing something. Let's see now -- two pair of long pants, one pair short
pants, one warm parka, one rain suit, one wool hat for warmth, three pairs of long
underwear bottoms, one--, wait a minute, wait a MINUTE! Long johns, wool hats, long
pants? These must be typos, this is the middle of July! Yeah, that's it, typos. Everybody
knows it is hot in July. Still, the list does say to bring all this stuff.
"Michael, are you sure, are you absolutely certain we have the correct list?"
"Yes, I'm sure, you even called them yourself," he calmly assures me as he gives me one
of those looks that children develop when they are certain their parents have finally
gone over the edge and are now only moments away from senility and wheelchairs.
Over the past several months, Michael or I had called A.W.E. for one reason or another,
you know, asking questions about things that were clearly outlined and answered in all of
the literature they sent us about the hike we were soon to embark on. You see, that's
what 1-800 numbers are for -- people like me to use and call nice people and ask them
stupid questions like "Is the Preparation List that you sent us accurate?"
"No, we just made it up out of thin air to drive greenhorns like you crazy," is what they
probably wanted to say.
Instead, it was a positive yes. In fact, the gentleman I talked too had been on this very
trip, and he assured me that it was accurate.
The company that I work for is really focused on customers, service, and the elimination
of what we call phone-call-induced frenzy (the caller gets numb with frustration because
whoever answers the call has no earthly idea how to help him). I readily appreciated the
prompt, courteous, and accurate information we received every single time we called
A.W.E.. Thanks Rick, wherever you are.
Three complete changes of long underwear bottoms! I still cannot get this piece of
logistical requirement off my mind. I will pack two pairs -- somebody has to be pulling
Anyway, we are up, packed, and begging Deanna to hurry and get us out to the airport.
We finally get the Blazer loaded and stand proudly by the tailgate while Deanna takes
the first of many photographs that will eventually capture, on film, precious moments of
time scattered throughout our long journey.
We make it to the airport in plenty of time. Anyone who knows me knows that I am
always early. The thought of missing a plane or a boat (big-time trouble when I was in
the Navy) has always scared the wits out of me.
We pull up at the curb near the outside ticketing stands. While we are unloading our
gear, I notice that Deanna is kind of quiet. Even though she is smiling a lot and whipping
out the usual instructions that all mothers just seem to be born with, such as "Now you
two be careful, call when you get there, brush your teeth, do NOT forget to change
your underwear, --," she is still kind of quiet.
After 32 years of marriage, you really do pick up on a few things. I would learn later
that she was a ball of knots inside. She wanted this trip to be so perfect for us and was
worrying about everything. She even watched the Weather Channel on the cable all week
long making sure it did or did not rain on us. I'm not quite sure how her watching the T.V.
could affect our weather out in Colorado, but what do I know? It must be another one of
those "mother" things.
With final hugs and kisses, she is back in the Blazer and soon fading into the morning
traffic rush leaving the airport parking lot. As we watch her leave, Michael and I start
to realize that her dream for us is finally in motion -- we are only moments away from
embarking on what all three of us hope will be the experience of a lifetime. I wish so
desperately right now that she could come with us.
Right after Christmas, Michael and I joined a local health club. I hiked a lot and was in
fairly good shape and so was Michael. Besides, he is young, he is supposed to be in shape.
Anyway, knowing that the hike in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains would be physically
taxing and would also require endurance, we wanted to be in good shape. I think common
sense alone would alert most people to the fact that to hike above 7,000 feet, going up
to 13,000, you have to be in shape.
We trained for seven months. Four times a week, we hit the health club, stair-mastering,
treadmilling, lifecyling, weight-lifting our tired, aching bodies to death. On weekends, we
took a break. We hiked the local trails.
To really test our mettle, we pounded out two very long and challenging hikes. The
Cohutta Wilderness area in the north Georgia mountains provided the stage for our
efforts. Both hikes were over 16 miles in length and had good elevation changes as the
trails ranged from points as low as 1,500 feet and as high as 4,100 feet. They were not
the Rockies, but we made progress and we got stronger. Each hike was easier than the
The blast of a taxi's horn returns me to reality. Daydreaming while standing in the
passenger drop-off zone at any airport can be hazardous to one's health and doing it in
Atlanta is no exception. We quickly dart around a few moving cars and reach the safety
of the sidewalk in front of the curb-side ticketing booth. Then I get run over -- some
woman pulls one of those 500-pound suitcases with wheels on the bottom right over my
right foot. I was safer in the street!
With our bags checked and our tickets in hand, we are ready. Yes, we are ready! We slip
one arm through the straps of our day packs and enter the coolness of the airport
Heading through the security check stations inside, we both get nervous. We are
convinced that there is probably something in our day packs that is going to set off that
stupid alarm. We are praying now that we put our pocket knives (Michael's looks like a
sword) in our duffel bags, which we had already checked.
Not only are the pocket knives a possible "show stopper," all the other stuff we have in
our day packs might set the alarm off -- radios, earphones, wires, compasses, batteries,
mirrors, whistles, pins, and a myriad of other doo-dads. As we walk through the metal
detectors, we try to peek at our bags as they are X-rayed. I cannot imagine what all this
stuff looks like all jumbled up inside our packs. I pray that it does NOT look like the
makings of a bomb or something equally sinister.
Whew! No alarms go off, thank goodness.
"Good seats, huh?" I ask Michael as we board the plane. Our plane tickets were free.
Well, almost. I earned them. I cashed in on the frequent flyer miles I had earned over
the past several years. They may be "freebies," but the hours away from home to earn
them are lost forever.
Our flight starts to pull away from the gate right on time (10 a.m.). I am impressed. We
both start settling in. Michael has already commandeered a pair of those "air" headsets
that plug into your armrest, and he's laughing at a comedy routine. You ever watch
something like this? Funny and weird. You can't see anything, you can't hear anything,
but there they are, smiling and usually laughing aloud. I have got one of Clive Cussler's
latest paperbacks with me, and I am already helping Dirk Pitt search for sunken boats
in the Nile River.
Uh oh, we have quit moving. Planes are backed up all over the place, waiting to take off. I
will never understand why they schedule 20 airplanes to all take off at the same time.
The last time I figured this out, only ONE plane can take off at a time! Anyway, we sit
for 30 minutes.
We have a connecting flight in Dallas to make for our final journey to Colorado Springs,
Colorado, and I am beginning to worry about our "connect time."
"Wagons Ho," I think, as the plane finally races down the runway and rises into the air
like a gigantic bird of prey, its flaps fully extended, its engines screaming with power as
it reaches skyward.
Racing now westward, I think of the time it took, and the hardships endured, when our
pioneers went west. In the same amount of time that it took for them to pack a wagon
for the long trip across the prairie, we will travel halfway across our nation to the same
mountain range that slowed their westward movement.
So far, our flight is fairly smooth, except for some slight turbulence we encounter
around Monroe, Louisiana. The flight attendants are now pushing carts up and down the
aisles, passing out food and drinks. We eat the cold snacks they call lunch and then sit
back and relax. We stare out the window as we whip along, as one of my wife's old
friends from Wyoming would say.
The crackle of the flight attendants' voice over the speakers announces that we are
"cleared for landing" in Dallas. I wonder what happens if you are not cleared to land?
Anyway, the pilot must have poured it on because we have made up for the time we lost
Banking hard to the left, we can see the Dallas-Fort Worth airport below us. Big. Real
big. On the horizon, we can see the downtown skylines of both cities as our wheels touch
the runway and the pilot throws the lever that makes the engines act like huge,
screaming brakes. Rolling to a stop after we taxi over a bridge that crosses a road full
of speeding cars, I get the feeling that things are congested here too.
Yes, the ground traffic at Dallas is bad today and here we go again. We are just sitting
here waiting to move about the taxi-ways so we can eventually dock the plane. We now
have only about 40 minutes to switch planes.
Finally, the plane starts moving again and quickly makes it to our gate. As soon as Michael
and I can get moving, we make a dash for our connecting flight. Fortunately for us, our
flight to Colorado Springs leaves from a gate only five gates away, and we make the
switch with no problems.
Within minutes, we are checked in and boarding our new plane. We had arrived in Dallas
on an L1011 (very big) and are now leaving Dallas on a MD-80 (not so big). What the heck
-- we are almost there.
We pull away from the gate on time and head back out onto the vast network of
taxi-ways surrounding the terminal buildings. Within minutes, we are poised on our
take-off runway and are awaiting clearance from the tower. Soon, we are again racing
down a ribbon of concrete with engines screaming at full throttle. With a final burst of
power, our small metal bird lifts her wings toward the skies and climbs higher and
higher until finally, we bank toward the northwest and head for Colorado Springs.
It still blows my mind that these things can fly. I can understand the old biplanes. Wood
and canvas, and light as a feather -- well, almost. Jets? Big, steel, aluminum, stubby little
wings, heavy. Logic tells me they can not fly. Must be done with mirrors or something.
Yeah, that sounds right, mirrors!
The farther northwest we fly, the more the visibility opens up. I am always amazed at
how beautiful the ground looks from so high up. All the colors, shapes, and geometric
patterns that become visible are ever changing and provide an endless stream of
excitement to the eyes. We are now seeing the drier parts of the panhandle section of
Texas (up past Amarillo) and after a while, the southeastern plains section of Colorado.
Many dry river beds scar the surface far below, broken at times by huge green circles
of irrigated crop lands. So desolate, yet so beautiful.
Michael and I are again reading our paperbacks. I am still running around Africa trying
to help poor old Dirk Pitt out, and Michael is deeply involved with getting back to earth
from the moon. Well, it is not really the moon, anyway, he is having a heck of a time
trying to get somewhere.
It's funny how it seems like every time you get to the good parts in a book, you have to
leave, quit, or something! The weather is getting worse and the plane is bouncing around
quite a bit, making book reading a difficult task. The closer we get to the Rockies, the
stormier the weather and the bouncer the ride.
Almost as if on cue, the flight attendant announces we are cleared to land at Colorado
Springs. Looking out the window as we gently turn and begin our descent, we can see the
airport off in the distance.
Oh, God -- an ex-Navy carrier pilot is at the stick -- we are now banking hard to the left
and diving like crazy. As the plane sinks rapidly at a steep angle, the flight attendant
struggles by, desperately holding on to seats to keep moving and mumbles under her
breath "crazy Navy dive bomber --" I was right!
One short bounce and we are here. Colorado Springs, Pikes Peak, the gateway to our
adventure -- it looks wonderful. As I leave the plane, I nod to the Captain and say
"ex-Navy, huh?" He just looks at me and smiles.
We scramble off the plane and go in search of our luggage. I have visions of "lost
baggage" dancing in my head. I say a little luggage prayer under my breath -- "please
All is well. All of our luggage, two huge green duffel bags and our old army duffel bag
filled with our sleeping bags and sleeping pads are circling the baggage track, waiting on
us to reclaim them.
Michael calls the Le Baron hotel where we are going to stay (our tour leaves from their
lobby in the morning) and requests one of their shuttles to come pick us up. As we wait
on our shuttle, I reflect on the two airports we have seen today.
Kids. Lots of Kids. Thousands and THOUSANDS of kids are at the airport here in
Colorado Springs. There were millions of them back in Dallas. Lord, I hope they are not
all going where we are going! The only thing I can figure is that the airlines have a
special going, say 100 kids for a buck, and every city west of the Mississippi is unloading
their kids for the summer!
Our shuttle arrives just as the rains taper off. Rain. I have this funny feeling inside that
the word rain is going to pop up more than once before this week is over.
After a quick trip into town, we check into our hotel and make for the room. We call
several tour companies trying to get hooked up with anybody going anywhere but alas, it
is the same old story. "I am sorry, sir, the last tour just left two minutes ago." The next
time, Michael and I will arrive a day or two earlier. Did I say "next time?" You bet -- we
have barely started and we are having a ball!
Not to be left out of exciting, fun-filled things to do in Colorado Springs without a car,
we leave the hotel and head for downtown Colorado Springs. Heading east on Bijou
Street, we cross a bridge a block away from the hotel. This bridge spans Interstate 25,
a river bed, and, finally, a part of the railroad switch yard that services
What can I say? Downtown is downtown now almost everywhere when you go there on a
Sunday. Nobody is home. The area is clean, very pretty in an "old town" fashion, but
deserted except for a handful of people here and there, including several homeless
people. They appear to be wandering aimlessly. When we get close to them, they eye us
The homeless. What is happening, America? There were none when I was a child. I really
wish I knew the answer. Seeing nothing else to keep us here in town, we make our way
back across the bridge and head back to the hotel.
Back at the hotel, we have a few beers in the lounge and then decide to eat (probably
our last decent meal). After a entire rack each of wonderful spare ribs, we hit the room
and make our final preparations for the adventure ahead. Again, we wonder why we have
brought so many pairs of long johns. It must be some kind of Colorado joke to play on
unsuspecting greenhorns, we finally surmise. Yeah, that's it. Got to be. We are here and
it is 85 degrees outside!
"What is all the commotion out in the parking lot?" I ask myself as I open our balcony
door and step outside to see what is going on. Oh Lord, we've been invaded. Motorcycles,
lots of motorcycles. Wait a minute, they are "Gold Wing" motorcycles, about 500 of
them. These are BIG motorcycles and every one of them is driven by someone over
50-years old. The drivers are all crazy. Nice, but crazy.
They are having some sort of rally with booths set up all over the parking lot. Everyone
looks like he's having a great time, talking, buying, selling bike stuff, and playing games.
Seeing all these motorcycles, I think of a very special "motorcycle" person back home
whom I care an awful lot about. The motorcycles are pretty, Pat, especially the red one
with the trailer parked right below my balcony.
We examine our packs one final time and are satisfied we are set for tomorrow. We
both read for a while and then it is lights out.
"Michael. You snore -- you do know that, don't you?"
Monday -- July 25th, 1994 _________________________
We are all ready to go, it's 7:30 a.m., and there is no one here from the Bear Basin
Ranch to pick us up. As the minutes tick by, we begin to worry that maybe something
happened to our driver.
Earlier at breakfast, Michael and I had met one of our hiking companions. When I saw
her walking toward me, I knew it. Hiking boots on, smartly attired for the outdoors, air
of confidence about her -- yeah, she's a hiker. As she went by, I told Michael, "She is
going with us."
"How do you know that?" he said. Then, thinking about it, he quietly said, "hope you are
right!" I got up, went to her booth, introduced myself, and asked straight away if she
was going on an A.W.E.-sponsored trip.
Seeing her return to our booth to join us for breakfast was answer enough for Michael.
"Still don't see how you knew," is his only comment to me. Our new breakfast companion
and future hiking partner is April, a doctor from Kansas City. She is upbeat, excited, and
raring to go. We like her immediately. Lots of spunk and ready to kick butt and take
names, but a lady all the way. Great combination -- reminds me of someone else I know.
Milling about the hotel lobby, we wait on our shuttle van and meet the folks who will
share our trail over the next five days. There are several other folks here waiting on
the same shuttle for different "adventures." We will separate after we get to the
ranch out near Westcliffe, Colorado, about an hour and a half ride from the hotel.
Our group. Michael and me, April, Malcolm and Sue from Somerset, Kentucky, and Bill
and Karen from Washington, D.C. and Colorado Springs, respectively. Instinct tells me
that this is a good group of people -- we are going to have fun together.
By 8:40, we are standing outside and getting more anxious as each minute ticks by. All of
a sudden, here come two vans into the hotel lobby entrance. A man and a woman jump out
and start running around throwing our gear up on top of the vans. No friendly greetings
from our newly arrived hosts, nothing. We are on time, they are late and the male driver
is still running around barking orders for us to "git here", "git there", and "git in."
Michael, Malcolm, and I all exchange looks that probably could hurt someone if they
tripped over them. We say nothing. We are not going to let this incident ruin our day. I
promised Deanna before I left that I would relax and not try to run the whole world
while I was on vacation in Colorado.
For the next five minutes, the driver tries to make a dog get off a couple of the seats.
"Git down." "Git off." I guess the dog did not like to "git" any better than we did
because he just laid there and ignored him. Finally, the driver pulled the dog off the
seat so the rest of us could "git" in the van. Finally, we are off and running after
"gitting" in and claiming our seats.
Zooming out of the parking lot, we hit the street on the run. As the van swerves around
the corner to head south, our driver pushes in a tape cassette of Hank Williams songs,
cranks the volume up all the way, and starts driving hell-bent-for-leather for the ranch
near Westcliffe. Ole Hank has got some good songs, don't get me wrong. It is our driver
trying to out-sing Hank that's starting to wear a little thin.
Special note I must include here. This incident (late arrival, rude greeting, etc.) was not
tolerated by the Bear Basin Ranch and the person involved was let go by the owner
before the week was over.
Bouncing around on the back seat of the van, Michael starts to get his first real view of
Colorado. Soon, we pass around the Front Range Mountains right in front of Colorado
Springs and start heading southwest toward the Wet Mountains. The countryside is a
mixture of vast brown harvested hay fields, mixed with light green and smaller, lush
deep-green pasture lands. So different from Georgia, especially when we go up and over
the Wet Mountains past Florence, Colorado. High, beautiful, but essentially all shapes,
sizes, and shades of brown stratified rock with long evidence of water and wind erosion.
We pass Florence, Colorado, and can see the new federal prison that has been dropped
on the landscape. I say dropped because you can see for 50 miles in almost any direction
and there is nothing else nearby except a motel (for prison visitors, I guess) down the
road. The prison building complex is modern in design and colors with two identical
groupings of buildings.
Well, almost identical. One looks like a regular high school. No fences, people outside in
groups just talking, some are playing basketball, and some are running around a track.
The other one -- twin 15-foot-high steel fences, electrified and 20 feet apart from each
other, no guard towers, and no one moving about outside. Looks like my old high school.
Well, it felt like a prison at the time.
The country side is still changing the farther southwest we go. More rural, more cowboy,
more wide open. We see several ranch houses that sit way back from the road. We pass
one, though, that sits only about 50 feet off the road. Out front, there is a huge wooden
sign that reads "Little Ranch House Beside The Road." I swear, I am not making this up.
"You saw that didn't you, Michael?" "Michael! Wake up, Michael." Since the day he was
born, Michael sleeps in a car. I don't care if we just backed out of the driveway -- he
would be asleep before our tires hit the street
As we crest a hill, we can see a huge valley spread out before us. It looks to be about 20
or 25 miles wide. Beyond that, the Sangre de Cristo mountains loom beautifully as a
backdrop that only God could create. We are getting so close. The valley we are in now is
the lower of three huge, high-plateau valleys that separate the two main mountain chains
that make up the Rockies as they divide the State of Colorado right down the middle.
After barely slowing down, our driver takes a sharp right turn off the highway and we
start bouncing along on a long, bumpy dirt road. Bear Basin Ranch. Six-point-nine feet
from the center of nowhere! This is a big ranch -- 5,000 acres worth of big! Back home,
"bragging rights" start with anything larger than one-quarter acre!
We are here at the headquarters of our outfitter, Adventure Specialists. Even the name
sounds exciting. Specialists -- I like that word. The last thing we need right now is for
someone to take us on a hike that just learned how to spell "dude ranch." One look
around quickly convinces me that this is no "tourist trap." I do not know that much about
ranching, but this place has that unmistakable appearance of hard work and longevity.
Yeah, we'll be OK.
We offload our other adventure passengers (and our curt driver) and pick up our new
(very friendly, I might add) driver -- Jayme.
Not only will she drive us to the trailhead today where we will pick up our horses (about
another 20 miles from here), she will also come with us on our trip. This really gets
Michael's attention. I did mention that Jayme had a slim figure with long hair, floating
about a beautiful face, didn't I? Michael looked at me and said with a grin "Can I take
her home with me?"
Anyway, among her various duties (other than van driver for right now), she will be
putting her skills as an experienced horseback rider and pack-horse guide to good use
as she helps lead us on our five-day odyssey through the wilderness.
Jayme also cooks. We would soon discover her unbelievable magic with a camp stove, old
coffee pot, a pan or pot here or there, and some choice food items like steak, corn on
the cob, shrimp, steamed broccoli, fried eggs and cheese over Canadian bacon on top of
an English muffin -- the list was endless and all out of this world! Restaurant chefs could
take lessons from this lady.
Lady -- interesting word. We would also see as the week went by that even when the
going was tough and demanding, or when it was cold and rainy and we were all kidding
around the campsite, Jayme was always a lady -- first and last -- a character trait we
all recognized and respected.
After receiving instructions on how to start our van, we are off for the trailhead in the
foothills just west of Westcliffe. Notice I said "instructions" on how to start the van. I
started to tell you earlier about all of this but at the time, we were to busy "gitting."
Let's see now. First, you have to have the ignition on. Then, you get out and raise the
hood. Now here comes the tricky part. You take a pair of pliers and "short out" the right
two wires and boom, the van cranks. Then you slam the hood down, run back and jump in
and give it gas before it quits on you. Seems like a good anti-theft device to me!
All loaded up and "cranked," we hit the dirt road leaving the ranch, and head for the
highway again. Quickly reaching it, we turn right and head for the hills far away. The
atmosphere in the van is amazingly different than it was earlier today. Jayme is smiling,
talking with us and answering our questions. With ole "Hank" finally silent, we banter
with each other about our new adventure that looms directly before us as we keep
getting closer and closer to our destination. Yeah, there is peace in the valley now,
peace in the valley.
Up ahead we can see a small town in the middle of the valley. Actually, there are two
towns, Silver Cliff and Westcliffe. Together, they provide a combined oasis of warmth
and service to the vast valley surroundings. We stop in Westcliffe and go into a local
supermarket. Jayme is buying last-minute food items and the rest of us line up in the
back of the store to use the one available restroom. The looks we get from the store
clerks! We must have all looked crazy making a beeline for the toilet. I don't think
anyone had ever asked them if the bathroom in the back could be used by a customer.
Back outside, I look to the west. Framed between the buildings that line the street, are
our mountains. The sun is out, the mountains are splendidly showing off their colors, and
the brown grasslands are stretched out from the foothills all the way back to the edge
of town just two blocks away. Simple, beautiful, breathtaking. I hope the good folks
around town stop and look at this as I am doing right now. It is like getting a recharge,
know what I mean?
Leaving town, we notice that one wall of a large building has a drawing of the Sangre de
Cristo Mountain Range on it with names next to all the interesting peaks, valleys, etc.. I
wish we could have looked at it longer. Next to it is a list of all the ranchers in the
valley. Next to each name is a drawing of their cattle brand. The implication here, I was
told, is that cattle rustling is still considered a "hanging" offense!
Soon, we leave the paved road and head up another long, bouncy dirt road. After a couple
of miles we arrive at a parking area filled with trucks and a few horse trailers. Our
horse trailers are not here yet, nor is there room left for any more trailers. Turning
around, we backtrack about a quarter of a mile to a side road. As we approach the side
road, we spot our horse trailers coming in to the area.
Like kids deserting a school bus on a Friday afternoon, we pile out of our van and start
looking around at the folks unloading all the pack horses, and the scenery itself --
everything is great, beautiful, exciting. The views back across the valley toward
Westcliffe (about 10 miles away, I guess) are breathtaking. We can actually see cars
moving in town -- talk about clear!
Standing next to one of the trailers is a man we will soon get to know. Gary -- our trip
leader and owner of Bear Basin Ranch -- is standing there looking at another group of
wide-eyed greenhorns raring to go stomping through the wilderness. I would give
anything to know what is running through his mind as he watches us with that sly, gentle
smile on his tanned face.
We learn in quick order as the days magically unfold before us, that beneath his warm
and caring smile is a man of great gentleness, wisdom, and strength. Strength of body
and character to shoulder his love and caring for the wilderness that surrounds us. We
would thank our good fortune each day to have such a man lead us, guide us, teach us,
and yes, protect us.
Michael and I wore long pants when we left the hotel early this morning. It is now very
warm and in quick order, we duck into the van and switch into our short hiking pants. We
both had received them as gifts at Christmas and now, standing here on this dusty road
raring to go hike something, we look like "twins."
We place all of our gear, except for our day packs, near the horses. Gary, Jayme, and
Bill (the ranch foreman) are now going about the task of sorting out all the gear into
similar weight piles. The puzzle of all the packed pieces has to be solved so that the
packs are balanced and secure on the horses. As Gary told me later in the week, the
name of the game is to pack the horses only once. If you ever have to touch a pack after
setting out, you probably did something wrong. Of course, events can take place that
require repacking, as I would learn later.
"Move 'em out!" or "Yoaa," as John Wayne would say. After two hours of packing we are
off! I could not believe it. So much time in both of Michael's and my life was spent in
preparing to be right here, right now, stepping off on the actual trail we dreamed about
for over seven months.
A quarter of a mile up the trail, we connect with the Rainbow Trail. Running along the
eastern slope of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, this trail travels for about 70 miles in
a basic north/south route among the foothills just above the valley floor. Taking a right
turn after a few quick photographs with the obligatory trail sign in the background, we
head north on the trail. After only about five minutes, Gary makes a sharp turn off the
trail and leads the horses uphill into a beautiful, wide meadow.
Lunch. We had been so busy and excited about everything, we had not realized what
time it was. After tying off the horses, Jayme reappears with a well-worn red saddle
bag full of all the fixings for one great picnic! Cold-cuts for sandwiches, apples, cookies
-- we ate like we had been working hard since daybreak.
The views from the meadow toward the east and the valley where Westcliffe quietly
rests are fantastic. I guess that the mileage to town is 10 miles and Gary says I am right
on. He points to a pyramid shaped mountain that stands out all by itself farther east of
town and says the ranch is just beyond that. Here we are looking at something almost 20
miles away that is so clear, and yet looked so close. Back home, we would be lucky to see
a half-mile away, let alone 20 miles.
Michael and I agree that the stop is good. It gives all of us the opportunity to start
getting to know each other better. Laughter, giggles, dozens of questions amongst
ourselves soon gives evidence that we are bonding closer and closer together -- a bond
that will serve us well as we spend the next five days living very close to each other.
After lunch, we are off again. Gary says that he has to get another pack horse, so he
sends us off on our own. We are to hike for one and a half hours and then wait on him
and Jayme. Since the trail is well marked and not that difficult to hike on, we readily
agree and take off like school children just let out on "unsupervised" recess. We are
out of sight in two minutes.
The trail is mostly level with easy ups and downs. We cross over a few creeks and
marvel at the bubbling waters, not realizing that in a day or two, we will be at the very
source of some of these creeks. Now and then, the trail goes out toward the valley, and
we are presented with magnificent views of the valley below. The cameras click. What
we do not realize at first is that there are more views like this ahead -- dozens and
dozens more than the rolls of film we are carrying could ever capture.
We find a quiet place to stop after about an hour and a half and settle in to wait on Gary
and Jayme. Malcolm and I both like to hike with hiking sticks and we go about securing
some old dead limbs that could be used as such. Sue says she wants one also so we get
her one. Using rocks to knock off the knots and side limbs, we have three hiking sticks
ready to go in short order. Jumping at the chance to use our pocket knives, we whip
them out and set about finishing the smoothing process that will allow our hands to
grasp the sticks comfortably.
There is something about pocket knives and men. I do not know what it is, but put one in
their hands and immediately, they want to "carve" something, cut something, or stick
something. I guess there is a little bit of Huckleberry Finn or Tom Sawyer in all of us.
No sooner have we finished than Gary and Jayme appear. After they rest just a few
minutes, we are off again. We pass a trail on our left that leads up into the mountains. If
the sign at the beginning of our trip is correct, we have already come 4.5 miles. Piece
Rain. Our first brush with it and not the last, as we will learn as the days roll by. Out
come the rain suits and we just keep on trucking. I don't think we lose three minutes of
hiking time. As the week wears on, we will reach the point where we lose no time.
Everyone will get very adept at hiking, taking their day packs off, putting rain gear on or
removing it, putting day packs back on, and never missing a beat. We are good, and
getting better with every step.
The rain lasts for about an hour. I am not sure how they would describe the type of rain.
Back home, we would most likely call it "piddling" -- just enough to be a nuisance. Soon,
we are back to normal and the rain gear is packed away.
We are cruising right along again when Michael grabs my arm and exclaims "Look over
there!" What he does not realize is that at the moment, I am deep in thought and his
touch and voice just about scared the fool out of me. We are dead! I think maybe a bear
is charging straight for us, and we are his lunch! My mind races with possibilities. I
return to earth when I hear him say something about how big the DEER is and for me to
take his picture.
This guy is over five feet tall. He stands there quietly, letting us take his picture. When
we finished with the snapshots, he lowers his head and wanders off. Looks like a setup
to me. First day on the trail, beautiful scenery, and a deer close by, posing perfectly
still. Seriously, what we just saw is the first of many encounters with the abundant
wildlife that surrounds us. We are lucky.
A little while later, we pass by some posted land that borders the San Isabel National
Forest where we are hiking. We can see just past the border, a fallen barbed-wire
fence, a sign tacked to a tree that proclaims all sorts of warnings about the land being
"posted." Well, Michael and I, in keeping with our history of "calm, serious decorum,"
jump the fallen barbed-wire fence and play around with the cameras taking pictures of
each other "just over the line." What can I say?
As we pass by another trail that leads off to the left and up to the high country, we
know we are getting close to our campsite for the night. Gary is ahead of us. He told us
about the trail and that our camp would be about a mile away once we pass the side trail.
Rounding a curve, our trail leads into a downward sloping meadow that opens up to about
a half-mile deep and a quarter of a mile wide. Beautiful. We can see off in the distance
the valley floor again. We are now about 800 to a 1,000 feet above it. Behind us, the
upper reaches of the mountains appear above the tree tops. So high, so beautiful.
Tomorrow we go there!
Bill and Karen are already at the campsite helping Gary with his horses. We leave the
trail and head over to them. After hiking for about eight miles on a well-worn trail, it
felt funny to walk across this beautiful meadow -- like we are trespassing through
somebody else's front yard.
With everyone now at the campsite, we help Gary and Jayme as best we can. In an area
just past a small stream and under a small stand of lush, green Aspens, we help set up
the kitchen area. I say help, because we really do not know what to do. Gary tells us that
he and Jayme will teach us what to do as the week goes on and after they show us what
to do, we can help as much or as little what we desire -- it is our vacation and we can do
whatever we feel like doing. I knew right then that we would get along well!
"Bar is opened!" With that simple phrase, Gary announces that camp is officially open.
From out of nowhere, he and Jayme have produced a small covered table, replete with
nine cups, water, two bottles of wine, and a bottle of Jim Beam. Now I really knew that
we would get along just fine.
After setting the horses out to graze, Gary wanders over to the meadow area to show a
couple of us how to set our tents up. This is the one thing on the trip that we are
responsible for. Considering all that he and Jayme will do for us, this was a
Lets see now. Pole A inserts into sprocket S1 and S2 holds Pole B. Crossing point G, but
under point M, insert Poles C and D into sprocket S3 and S4, making sure to keep tension
on Pole F as you insert it through points Q and R ... God, I hope it does not get dark
before we finish!
Actually, it is going rather smoothly. Michael and I have our tent up in no time at all. I
then start to help April put her tent up. Unknown to me right now is that Michael is
taking pictures of me doing this and just snapped off several pictures saying smirky
things like "Yep, couple more like these and the car will be mine."
Nature call. Seeking out the best cover, I head for the trees that run along the far side
of our meadow. Looking at the number of "good" trees to hide behind and comparing that
to the number of people who just might have to find one, I quickly come to the
conclusion that this could become a comedy. I have all sorts of visions in my head right
now, of people scurrying around the meadow, pawing the ground while they anxiously wait
for a tree to free up.
From across the meadow, I look back at our campsite. It looks familiar somehow -- all
the green tents lined up in a row. Then it hits me.
Boot camp! The more I think about it, the more it makes sense. Today's hike on almost
level ground was like a shakedown cruise or forced hike with "full packs and ammo."
What would fall out, who would fall out? Do these greenhorns have what it takes to go
into the high country? Can they carry their own weight? I doubt very seriously if
today's gentle but long hike was designed with those crazy thoughts in mind. Wait a
minute, didn't I hear Gary humming cadence one time as he whizzed pass us ...?
After supper, Gary warns us about food in our tents. From here on out we will be in or
very near bear territory and it is absolutely essential that we have zero quantities of
food near us. You can't believe how fast we clean out our hidden supplies of candies,
trail snacks, and the like. Funny how the value of some things can change so quickly. One
minute we are hoarding our "sweets" and the next, we are chucking them like they are
covered in ants!
After a meal of steaks, corn on the cob, steamed broccoli, apple pie, and coffee, we talk
for a while and just relax around the coffee pot. There is a state-wide ban on outdoor
fires, and, therefore, we can't have a campfire. As the week wears on, we will sadly miss
this one simple pleasure the most. April and I are sitting on the same horse blanket,
talking, laughing, and having a good time. Just when she leans back against me laughing
hard at something that Bill and Karen are describing, there is a blinding flash of
"A couple more like this and the house will be mine too," exclaims my son, camera in hand
and grinning from ear to ear. We are only talking Deanna, I swear. It is the angle of the
photograph, yeah, that is it, that is why it looks like I have my arms around her.
Finally calling it quits, we all head for our tents. Michael and I are laughing, well almost
laughing. We are so tired, we are really not sure what you would call it. The ground tilts
downward under out tent at about a 15-degree angle. This coupled with our sleeping
bags, nylon covered of course, slipping on top of our nylon covered sleeping mat is
driving us crazy. We are afraid that if we do not hold on to something, we are going to
slip right out the front of the tent and go skipping across the meadow! The Three
Stooges would have loved this tent site.
We both toss and turn for what seems like hours. Around 12:30, I sneak out of the tent
and go over to the edge of the woods for a pit stop. On the way back to the tent, I look
up at the clear sky above and marvel at all the stars trying to be seen against the light
of a waxing moon. I find the Big Dipper and sight out to the North Star -- all is well now
-- I feel at home. Sometimes I feel like I came from the stars. When I look out into the
vastness of our solar system, I sometimes get deep, longing feelings, like I am looking
for home. Maybe one day.
Back in the tent, I sleep on and off until 5 a.m. Around 6 a.m., I hear stirrings in the
camp and wake up Michael. I hate to wake him because he probably did not get much
sleep with me tossing and turning so much during the night.
Our first day has passed and a new day is dawning all around us. I peek outside the tent
and see clear cobalt-blue skies above us. I feel good inside. I can see the excitement in
Michael's eyes also -- he feels good too!
|Snow on the mountain
Tuesday -- July 26th, 1994 __________________________
The entire camp is buzzing with activity. Gary has already been tending to the horses
and Jayme is well into making our first breakfast -- one we will not forget. French toast.
I am talking real stuff here -- a huge whole loaf of French bread cut into slices almost
2-inches thick. What can I say? Not a single crumb of toast made it into our trash bag.
We have already learned that whatever we bring into the mountains, we will take back
with us. Gary takes pride in making a low or almost invisible impact on our surroundings.
Simple things like moving the horses around to reduce grazing effects on the lush grass
around us, or throwing peanut shells into the garbage bags. As the days wear on, we see
the results of Gary's dedication to the wilderness we are enjoying so enthusiastically --
every site we come to looks like we are the first to ever be there. Thanks, Gary, for this
simple but beautiful gift.
It is 10:30 a.m. and Michael and I both are starting to get kind of antsy, you know,
raring to go. We both assumed that we would be hiking all day long. As we are to find
out later, 10:30 or so is about the normal starting time each morning. Even before this
day ends, we would learn and be glad, REALLY glad, that we hiked only when we did!
It takes almost until 11 a.m. to get the camp broken completely and the horses almost
packed up. Gary turns us loose again and tells us to double back to the South Brush
Creek trail (about a mile back), and take it up into the mountains. Just like yesterday --
boom! -- we are gone.
Michael and I take our obligatory "pictures by the trail sign" when we reach the
mountain approach trail. Then we head up, up toward the high peaks. Finally, we thought,
we are going to see some action -- high places, far-off vistas, the "sound of music" --
the whole nine yards!
The trail winds through beautiful forests of Aspens and various evergreens such as pine
and fir. The air is so clear that the vistas before us play tricks on our eyes. Everything
is in focus. The tree three feet in front us, the one 50 feet away, and the one a half-
mile away -- they are all in focus! Back home, they would have all been progressively out
of focus because of air quality (or lack thereof).
Here, it looks like we are inside one of those 3D pictures you can buy or like looking
through something called a View Master when I was a kid. It had a circle of pictures on
a round piece of cardboard and when you plopped it into the viewer, you saw things in
stereo mode (3D). These scenes before us now look just like the ones I remember
seeing 45 years ago when I saw pictures of the "National Parks in America."
We cross over several beautiful creeks and we are beginning to really climb now. Up to
now, we have gone up and down a few times (something that really bugs me). When I gain
ground, I hate to give it right back up, especially when around the next bend, you start
climbing right back up again. However, these small and minor nuisances along the trail do
provide for a few breathtaking views -- views back toward the valley we started from
Monday and views toward the mountains peaks high above us.
One view really catches our attention. Far ahead and high above through the trees is a
view of a huge snow pack on the side of a mountain. Being above the tree line, it looks
cold, even from here. We are probably at 9,000 feet elevation now and the snow pack
is up around 11,000 feet. Little did we know that the snow pack was right beside the
campsite we are headed for.
Rain -- so what else is new? Must be about mid-day. The trail is getting steadily tough
and/or we are getting very tired. We learn later that we are hiking wrong -- too fast
and constantly breaking our rhythm.
Anyway, out of the mist ahead, we spot two men on horseback heading our way. Since
the trail is narrow and they look huge, we step on the hillside beside the trail to give
hem room to pass. As they approach us, the leader pulls on his reins and stops his horse
and the pack horse he is leading. He looks like he rode straight out of some western
movie I am sure I have seen before. Big, very tall, rugged looking, and has one of those
deep authoritative sounding voices that when you hear it, you just shut up and listen.
First thing out of his mouth is "do either of you men have a side-arm with you?" Not
"hey," "howdy," or anything that resembled calm, casual conversation! No, this guy wants
to know if we have a gun on us. Right then, Michael and I believe we are in trouble!
"Bears came into our camp last night -- took a bunch of food stuff!" Hearing the word
"bear" instantly relaxed Michael and me.
Realizing that the query about the gun is not leading to some form of western duel or
something we are going to have to participate in, we answered, "No, we do not have one
with us at the moment," still hedging our bets. He then goes on to explain that the gun
would only be used to create a loud noise to scare the bears away. He also tells us that
since bear hunting has been stopped in the mountains, the bears have become
increasingly brave and annoying and think nothing about barging right into a campsite.
We tell him who we are and that Gary has his rifle with him. Satisfied that we are really
not two tourists lost in the woods, he gives us a final warning about not having any food
whatsoever in our tents. Assuring him we will not, he tips his hat, bids us a good day and
within minutes, he and his companion are out of sight.
Michael and I look at each other and both say something smirky like "See, I told you we
should have brought our 45s, AK47s, and grenade launchers!" Laughing, we hit the
The rain is trying to stop, and, as Michael and I stop to take off our rain pants (they get
real hot), several of our fellow hiking companions catch up with us. We agree that we will
push on a little further to see if we can find a more suitable lunch site.
No sooner have we set out than we come upon a beautiful clearing -- about two acres in
size -- full of wildflowers. Still trying to avoid the rain, Sue, April, Michael, Malcolm, and
I sit uphill (the meadow slopes at about a 20-degree angle) under the limbs of a huge fir
tree. We quietly talk about today's climb so far and try to guess the degree of
difficulty that lies ahead of us.
It is so peaceful, so quite, so beautiful sitting here all snuggled up together under the
spreading limbs of this large and beautiful tree. The image of it reminds me of a old
mother hen with her brood of chicks all tucked in nice and safe under her warm and
The rain ends and the sun breaks out just as Gary comes into the clearing with his two
pack horses trailing obediently behind him. Things were looking up. We move out from
under the tree and immediately begin removing the rest of our rain gear and start
soaking up the sun.
Soon, Jayme, Bill, and Karen join us in the meadow. We had wondered why they had
lagged so far behind us because Karen usually likes to hike vary fast. As it turns out,
seems like Karen had "slipped" on a rock earlier on the trail when we had crossed a
decent size creek and had taken a plunge into one of Colorado's crystal clear, freezing
cold mountain creeks! What the heck, we are having fun.
Sandwiches never tasted better. Jayme laid out a picnic fit for a king. Sliced meat,
home-grown tomatoes, cheese, cookies, peanuts, onions, and fruit. Jayme cuts the onion
up with her knife. I have seen all sorts of Swiss Army knives in my life, but the one in
Jayme's hand right now defies description. Lets just say that she could probably
produce any tool, device, or contraption known to mankind if it were requested. This
thing is an engineering marvel.
Sitting here on a rock warmed by the mid-day sun, I relax, and look all around, and smile
inside. This little meadow really is so beautiful and peaceful. I can hear sounds of birds
and my fellow companions laughing and talking excitedly about things they have seen. I
can see Michael, standing tall and proud and having a good day.
On the trail again. Gary gives us instructions on about how far up we should go -- just
inside the tree line. We can see our snow pack on the side of the mountain and Gary
again confirms that we will be camped right beside it. Lord, it looks miles away and
thousands of feet higher than we are!
The trail is getting steeper, and steeper, and steeper. My breathing is really getting
hard. I am so thankful that Michael and I spent all those months training for this trip. I
could tell right now that without those months, I could not have made it this far, or
worse yet, could not make it the rest of the week. Gary has already briefly talked
about climbing at this height and says we need to walk much slower. He also says to
step, breathe, step, breathe, and keep the rhythm going.
This new way of hiking is different for Michael and me. We usually cruise along at about
4 miles per hour on the flats and do around 2.5 to 3.5 miles per hour when we climb. We
have come up the mountain this morning, about four miles, the old way -- hell bent
Slowing down as Gary suggests starts to pay off. After about 10 minutes, the breathing
slows down, the heart rate falls, the rhythm sets in and Michael and I begin to cruise
almost effortlessly up the mountain.
Gary, where were you three months ago when we hiked up Hickory Ridge Trail in the
Cohuttas back home? Torture -- 2,600 foot climb in eight miles -- we died on the vine.
Huffing, puffing, crawling, yes crawling at times when we hurt so bad on the really
steep grades -- we "man-handled" that trail. Today, thanks to you, we are doing almost
the exact same thing except we are having fun, taking pictures, smiling, and just
"Beep beep." Here comes Gary with three pack horses trailing behind him. Not even
slowing down, he tells us he will meet us at the camp and to watch for his mark on the
trail that will point to where our campsite will be for the night. In two minutes, he is out
of sight and gone. I am still in awe of how effortlessly he hikes and how fast he moves.
Magnificent views are again starting to fill our vision as we climb higher and higher. The
trail is threading its way through forests that are virgin in stand, and thinner than the
forests below. We see more and more wildflowers now, some of them three and four
feet tall, especially near creek beds. We also see a few more deer -- so beautiful, so
graceful as they bound through the woods. We even run up on a mother grouse and her
"little ones" trailing obediently behind her.
Even with Gary's hiking instructions, I am getting tired, very, very tired. It must be the
altitude I keep telling myself. Yea, that is it. I think somebody said something about
chest pains, or was it head pains? You picked a fine time to get confused, I exclaim to
myself. Dear Lord, if I am going to have a heart attack, please let it wait until next week
-- I have just got to stand on top of this mountain with my son, even if it is only for
I suspect that Michael is getting very tired also but I cannot muster up enough strength
to ask him. I just keep going -- breathe, step, breathe, step!
Through the trees now and then, we get glimpses of our elusive snow bank. Soon
however, we see more of them. The air is nippy and I already have my wool hat on to
protect my ears. The last thing I need on this trip is an earache! The clouds are swirling
about the peak of the mountain up to our left as we climb. It looks so weird -- one
minute they are going this way, and the next minute, they are headed in the
Up ahead, we see a pile of neatly stacked tree limbs blocking our path and we know we
are getting close to our campsite. Looking over to our left and across a ravine, we see
Gary and the horses over on a ridge that will become our home for about the next 18
hours. We leave our trail and angle off down into a ravine that contains a small creek.
The creek bed is filled with flowers, some four and five feet high -- thousands and
thousands of them -- gardeners back home would kill for this display of natural beauty.
Hopping across the stream, Michael and I scramble up the trail that leads to the
campsite. Within minutes, we see the rest of our buddies coming out of the woods,
crossing down and over the stream and climbing that last little 50-foot hill. Fifty feet.
Does not sound like much, does it? But, let me tell you right now that after eight miles
and 2,600 feet of steady climbing, 50 feet looks like the side of the Empire
With everyone here now, the camp really starts to take on an atmosphere of activity.
People are all over the place, doing something, including seeking out new "trees." Michael
and I immediately start looking for the flattest piece of ground we can find. We are
determined not to repeat last night's "Three Stooges in a Tent" episode -- slipping and
sliding right out the door of the tent because the ground was not level!
Within minutes, we find our site and the tent is up. I again help April put her tent up.
Wait a minute! It just dawned on me. I put her tent up last night, I just did it again
tonight, and I will probably end up putting it up tomorrow night. April! You owe me a
The fog is here. Michael and I are out playing below our campsite over by the snow pack
we had seen all day long. There is something about standing in the middle of a snow pack,
with snowballs firmly in hand, that tends to bend the mind a bit. Especially if you are
from the Carolina's or Georgia and the date is the middle of JULY! When you tell the
folks back home about this, they tend to think that "ye a bit daft." Daft or not, Michael
and I spend a few wonderful moments pounding each other with snowballs!
We have just passed THE tree and are now standing on a pile of rocks as we look all
about us, trying to fathom all of this, trying to comprehend so much beauty. Oh, THE
tree? Five feet tall, straggly and bent by the wind and the LAST tree in Colorado -- we
are standing on the virtual border of trees/no trees -- the tree line as it is called.
One minute, we can see blue sky above and the entire bare mountain sitting quietly
beside us. Within seconds, the clouds return and the scene looks all gray again and we
can see the fog bank rushing back up the valley. Sometimes, it stops a couple hundred
yards from us, then rushes back down the mountain valley. Other times, it completely
overtakes us. The rhythm of the fog reminded me of the tides at the beach -- neat!
The photos we take around camp now will probably be very confusing later (they were).
With the fog rolling in and out, blue sky one moment, gray sky the next, snow packs here,
green pastures there, it will look like we were in four or five different places.
It is getting late and really nippy now, so Michael and I dress out in long pants, coats,
and hats. Walking over to the kitchen area, we notice that everyone else had the same
idea. Gary said it might get down to the mid 30s or low 40s tonight. At my age, anything
below 70 is cold!
Chicken. Jayme out did herself again -- wonderful evening meal. It still amazes me how
Jayme managed so much with the limited stove and fuel supplies we have. Since wood
fires are banned for our entire trip, she has to judge the "fires" she keeps going using
the propane fuel tanks we brought. She has to know when to turn then up or off. Once
the fuel tanks are empty, there will be no more "cooking."
Talk is bubbling all around the campsite. Gary relates more about his background in a
sneaky sort of way. He loves to tell stories and through them, clues and facts about him
and his life just seem to "pop" out. His experiences are fascinating. He interweaves
them into and around all of our conversations. When you sit back and think about
everything that has been said, a clear picture forms of him. He does not paint the
picture directly -- we do, by "connecting" all the dots.
April tells us about all the trails she is trying to hike in Colorado. Her favorite trail so
far has been Long's Peak, up north in the Rocky Mountain National Park. Her goal is to
hike all of the trails in park. As I sit here now listening to this, my head hurting from
the altitude and my feet hurting, I quietly say to myself, good luck girl, I hope you hit
all of them.
Jayme's coffee pot is almost empty and I can see lots of tired faces all around me.
Everyone is getting kind of sleepy and it is only about 9 p.m. We all agree it has been a
long day for all of us. Sue and I agree that if we have to go another foot uphill
anywhere today, it will only happen if someone gets behind us and "pushes."
After a visit to a local tree, I head for the tent. Actually, the tree is uphill from our
tent and I almost die walking up there. This altitude stuff is really getting to me, I tell
myself. Maybe by tomorrow I will be better acclimated.
Still feeling cold, I jump into my sleeping bag wearing my long johns, socks, and
sweatshirt. I got more laughs at supper time with that sweatshirt. My sister gave it to
me especially for this trip. On the front, it shows three cowboys sitting around a
campfire, all looking dejected and staring at their supper plates. The captions simply
says "Beans Again?" Right now, it feels wonderful.
It is around 3 a.m. and I just woke up (Michael also). We are not sure what just woke us
up. Probably a bear wanting some of Deanna's trail mix, we joke. Whoa! "We did take
that out of our day packs and put it down with the other stuff in the kitchen area,
didn't we?," we anxiously ask each other. "Yea." "Whew!"
Oh. I forgot to mention the "trail snacks" Michael and I brought. We estimate about 20
to 40 pounds worth, all bundled up into neat day bags. We have enough snacks for
everyone in our group, plus all the people down in the valley, and everybody back at the
ranch. We eat trail snacks, we have fed the chipmunks, we have given them to squirrels,
we have even tried to get the blue jays to take some -- we have even thought about
leaving all of them out in front of a bear den in hopes he would eat the whole lot
Deanna, they are great, but I think you overestimated our eating requirements. Gary
even suggests we set up a trail-side business down in the valley. He estimates we have
enough to last through the end of September.
Getting back to 3 a.m.. It is cold, very cold. I put my wool hat on and both of us look
outside. It is beautiful. The moon is out and it is clear as a bell. We can see the horses
still grazing (could be sleeping, I do not know) down in the meadow below our tent.
I look at Michael and say, "good day, huh?" "The best," is his short but wonderful
answer. Within seconds, we are both fast asleep.
|The longest day
Wednesday -- July 27th, 1994 ____________________________
I must say that sleep last night was much easier than the night before. I am not sure
which has the most impact on us right now, the level ground we are on or the fact that
we were two bone-weary hikers when we hit the sleeping bags last night! In either case,
the sleep was wonderful.
After waking up, we lay there a few minutes talking about things like we are so thankful
we only hiked as far as we did yesterday. We are both starting to feel the effects of
the high altitude -- headache, easily exhausted, and now and then, a panicky feeling that
you cannot get quite enough air to breathe. The good thing, though, is we are seeing how
fast we are recovering when we feel tired, and how drinking lots of water really cuts
the headaches down to size. All in all, we are surviving and starting to acclimate to our
Around 7:30 a.m., we zip open our tent fly and look out. Neither of us is prepared for
the beauty that lays before us. The fog and cloudy skies that surrounded us yesterday
have been replaced with crystal clear skies and bright sunshine. The change is almost
overwhelming. Stepping outside, we can see the smallest detail, no matter how far away
We can see large elk grazing a thousand feet above us on the rich grasslands high above
the tree line. The horses down in the meadow below are lazily grazing as birds fly all
about us, chirping their own good mornings to each other and maybe even one or two
thrown in for us. We learn later that morning that deer stood just a few feet in front of
our tent and grazed (the tent fly being unzipped startled them).
After we both find our "tree," I head back to the tent to finish dressing and Michael
goes on down to the kitchen area and pours hot water into his water bottle. I guess
Jayme thinks this a bit strange, pouring out perfectly good drinking water and replacing
it with hot water, but what the heck, they were tourists she probably thought, they are
supposed to do things like that!. Returning to the tent, he asks me to help him wash his
hair. A hazard of being young -- having hair to wash! I should be so lucky. Anyway,
standing there in the bright morning sunshine in the middle of a beautiful meadow, I
pour hot water on Michael's hair while he uses some of the biodegradable soap we
brought, furiously trying to rub it in and work up a lather.
No soap (excuse the pun). Either this stuff does not lather up, or the water is too hard
or something, because all the rubbing he is doing is only producing a token bubble or two.
Thinking maybe the trouble might be not enough soap, he adds more. Nothing. Then
trouble. When I start pouring the water again to rinse -- you guessed it -- bubbles out
the wazoo!. The more water I pour, the more bubbles. After a while, Michael looks like a
mad dog with all the foam dripping off his head and face.
I will remember those few precious moments the rest of my life -- standing there out
in the middle of that meadow, washing my son's hair.
After another wonderful breakfast prepared by Jayme, the breakdown of this great
campsite starts in earnest. April loves the horses and is already out helping Gary move
them from the meadow to a place closer to the kitchen area so the daily ordeal of
repacking can begin.
Michael and I go our separate ways as we usually do each morning for about an hour. He
goes off somewhere quiet to think or read his book. I find a comfortable spot to write in
my journal. I like a place close enough to hear and see the campsite, but far enough away
so as not to be in anyone's way.
It is almost 10:30 and Gary is giving us our "marching" orders for the day. Today will be
the first time we go above the tree line. He talks briefly about the dangers of lightning
if we get caught out in a rain storm accompanied by lightning. We all can see the
handwriting on the wall and realize instinctively that the thing to do is to lie down right
where we are and be no higher than the rocks or grass around us. The name of the game
is to do this as quickly as possible and to stay this way until the threat of lightning
passes. Getting wet by the rain is not part of the equation or solution -- one can always
dry off if the only thing that happens is getting wet from a few drops of rain.
Gary again talks about the rhythm of our hiking and again, stresses the importance of
just one step at a time -- step, breath, step. To help with dehydration and the effects
of high altitudes, he and Jayme both encourage us to fill up -- drink as much water as we
can hold before we set out.
Turning and looking toward the upper reaches of our valley, he points to a point high in
the back of the valley and says to head for that point. After reaching that point, a trail
division, we are to take the right trail. If we stand at a pile of rocks marking the trail
division and look back over our right shoulder, we will see a stick high up on the far
ridge. Head for that stick -- it marks the point where one of his secret trails goes over
the pass and down into the next valley.
As before, we hit the trail before he or Jayme do and in a flash, we are out of camp,
back across the stream bed running beside our campsite and climbing toward the tree
line. The stream bed looks so different this morning. Today, with the sun out in full
brilliance, the three-foot tall wildflowers that grow in the middle of the stream bed
are absolutely gorgeous.
Back on the trail we were on yesterday, we hit the tree line in about 10 minutes. Tired.
Very tired. Michael and I both are going too fast. We are also breathing too hard. I am
thinking that there is no way I will be able to make it this day. As the trail passes out of
the tree line, it levels off for a while. We use this reprieve from climbing to slow down
and to start hiking like Gary told us. Within minutes, we are back to normal.
Do not get me wrong, it is still tough, but we feel comfortable now with the effort it
takes to climb, especially since the trail has now resumed its steady climb toward the
rim of the valley we are trying to leave. Step, breath, step, we slowly make our way up
into the vastness of the valley above the tree line.
The higher and farther we go, the more magnificent the views become. A comment
Michael had made a year ago about wanting to hike in a place with views like he had seen
in movies, you know, far off vistas of beautiful mountain peaks, etc., had planted the
seed in Deanna's mind about a gift to both Michael and me.
I had brought home a catalog from work that one of my coworkers had let me borrow
for a few days. Later that night after hearing Michael and me talk about "one day, we
would go somewhere like that and hike," she found the write-up in the catalog for the
very trip we were on at this very moment. Our Christmas present.
Michael and I both break Gary's guideline about stopping too long on an up-hill climb.
We just have to -- a lifetime of waiting is over -- the views before us and behind us
completely overwhelm us. We stand there looking back toward the valley floor,
thousands of feet below us, and cry.
The tears feel wonderful -- they seem to be carrying away some unknown burden or
longing -- we are free, we are happy, we are at ease with ourselves. Thank you Deanna,
thank you for the gift that gives Michael and me this one small moment of time when we
are soaring with the eagles.
The trail now is just a thin line amongst the grass and rocks. We see many wildflowers all
around us. Each step takes us higher and higher and the views just keep getting larger
and larger. Out in the open like this, the trail is lightly marked by piles of rocks every
one or two hundred yards. With even just a half an inch of snow on the ground, the trail
would disappear in seconds. The piles of rocks are like little lighthouses -- continuously
pointing the way.
We reach the fork in the trail that Gary has told us about. The right fork we are
suppose to take goes about three feet and then just disappeared amongst the grass
and rocks. I look up and back to the right and can see a white-looking stick over a mile
away, high up on a ridge. Seeing a few "lighthouses" near us and leading out toward the
stick, we set off in that direction.
Remember that we are in the middle of a vast sea of grass and a few piles of rocks
here and there. We can easily track toward the wrong pile of rocks because sometimes,
even all of them look like markers. We can actually see for miles in any direction. The air
is so clear. Back home, I probably could not see a car a mile way, let alone a white stick
that Gary has stuck up in some rocks years ago. But here now, the thin pointer on the
ridge line keeps us headed in the right direction.
We see Gary and Jayme far below us now on the trail up toward the fork in the trail.
They look so far away but at the same time, they look so close to us. It is only when you
measure the time it takes you to walk from were you are to something you see far up
the trail, that you really begin to appreciate the vastness of the distances around you.
Summit! Michael and I reach the stick marking the pass we will take later on our trip
down the far side of the mountain we have just climbed. Dropping our packs and
breaking out our cameras, we immediately begin to explore the top of this ridge. Bill
and Karen have joined us, and Bill immediately bounds off to go climb a nearby peak.
Scrambling to the top, he waves to us and to Karen.
Everyone has reached the pass now and we are all milling about taking pictures and
marvelling at the views that words cannot really describe. We can see the entire valley
we hiked up today and the day before. Looking over toward the next valley, we can see
Banjo Lake, thousands of feet below us. Rising up thousands of feet behind it is a
monolith of bare rock -- Electric Peak -- absolutely beautiful.
We can see the main valley (where Westcliffe is) far below on both sides of the ridge
we are standing on. With the Sangre de Cristo Mountains running in a basic north/south
direction, there are side mountains running at almost 90-degree angles to the Sangre
de Cristo mountains. Each of these side mountains start high at the ridge line of the
main chain and then start their own downward descent to the main valley below. Spaced
about two miles apart, these side mountains create one high alpine valley (like the one
we just hiked out of) after another, each separated by mountain peaks and ridges that
hover around 13,000 feet.
The two valley types we can see, the main one far below and the high alpine near us, are
so different. The main valley runs north and south, basically following along the base of
the Sangre de Cristo mountains. The valley floor averages around 7,000 feet in altitude,
and is primarily used for cattle ranges and hay production. Right now, its grasslands are
golden to our eyes, dotted at times with a speck of green here or there.
The high alpine valleys run in a general east/west direction, starting at the edges of the
main valley and climbing upward to us at almost 13,000 feet above the main valley.
This 6,000 foot change in elevation lays out in front of us now as valleys approaching us
first covered by light green forest, then followed by a much darker green forest (runs
from around 8,000 feet up to around 10,000 feet), and finally, wide open vastness. The
vastness represents the true high alpine meadows and are generally lush green, filled
with wildflowers, low growing bear shrubs, and finally, bare rock.
Michael and I climb a peak on the ridge we are now on and stand at the top with our
hands and arms raised high in triumph -- we conquered the mountain, we made it -- one
step at a time
Gary is now showing us where we are headed next. The trail down through the rock field
below us looks so steep, so dangerous. We cannot even see a trail except for the little
one-foot wide trace directly before us. All we can see is almost two thousand feet of
steep, rock-covered mountain dropping below our feet. I am telling you right now, my
mind has all sorts of warning bells going off.
"It is dangerous, I will not kid you. But we can make it."
Gary with absolute calmness and authority, tells us the facts about our pending descent.
The trail, he describes, is a continuous set of very sharp, steep switch-backs, treading
themselves through the rocks that cover the mountain side as far as the eye can see.
With final instructions to us, he lets Sue, April, Karen, and Malcolm head on down.
Because of the dangers of rocks being kicked loose and tumbling down, we are going to
let them get a long way ahead of us before we even start out.
Normally, Gary leads two pack horses and Jayme brings up the rear with three horses
tied together. Since the switch-backs were so sharp, Gary decides it would be best to
break up Jayme's train of horses and give one to Bill to bring down. After giving Bill
some instructions about how to best control and lead the horse, we start down.
Michael goes first to help clear rocks and boulders from the trail. Following him is Gary
with two horses, then Bill with his horse, then me, and finally, Jayme with her two
horses. The trail is literally only one foot wide and varies in depth from a few inches to a
foot, depending on how high the rocks are piled beside the trail. We have to watch every
step we take -- not much time for "sightseeing."
Trouble. Dangerous trouble. The pack on Gary's lead horse breaks loose and the saddle
and pack are now sliding dangerously forward on the horse. Everyone freezes -- the
consequences are obvious. The horse is dangerously close to going over. If this happens,
there will be no reprieve from his downward fall.
I rush straight down the mountain side, cutting across the trails to get to Gary as
quickly as possible. Since I am taller than Gary, I think I can be more helpful if I go
around to the downhill side of the horse. Standing there now, balanced on a bunch of
loose rocks, I try to help him keep the pack from slipping even farther forward on the
horse. He tries to develop a plan that can get the situation quickly under control.
"Mike, we have got a problem, a very dangerous problem on our hands," Gary
Without even saying a word, I nod agreement. All three of us, the horse, Gary, and I are
dangerously close to going down and tumbling downwards through the rocks, particularly
if the horse goes over while we are handling the packs and get caught in any of the
tackle or ropes.
Moving gently to the lead horse, Gary gently holds him by the bridle with his left hand
and whispers something to the horse. As he talks, he gently pats the horse with his right
hand. The horse instantly responds -- he stands very, very still and seems to relax. Gary
then slowly moves back and repeats the procedure with the horse tied to the lead horse.
Again, the same response -- relaxed stillness.
Slowly and with some difficulty, we get the pack free off the saddle and start working
our way toward the rear of the horse. I am straining with all my might to hold the pack
high enough so it can clear the saddle horn and move backward. Being on the downhill
side of the horse, I am standing about three feet lower than Gary is and have to hold
he pack high over my head. I am approaching the end of my strength by the time we
reach the back of the horse where I can then pass my side of the pack between the two
horses over to Gary's side.
We have been told not to stand directly behind the horses. They will not intentionally
kick us, but things can happen. So here I am now, standing on the side of a mountain
sloping at about a 55-degree angle, holding a bulky pack weighing over 80 pounds over
my head, and I am leaning against the rump of a very nervous horse. Talk about
As I pass my end of the pack between the rump of the lead horse and the nose of the
horse behind him, Gary looks at me and says very quietly, "it's times like this when it
pays to have good pack horses."
The calmness of his voice instantly relieves me. It does not take a rocket scientist to
figure out that Gary and I are in a tight spot right now. He goes on to describe in detail
what will happen if the horse goes over and falls. The words have the ring of a memory
of that having happened before somewhere up here high in the mountains. I have no
desire to see that event for myself, ever.
Gary also tells me what to do if the horses start to go down because I am standing in
the most vulnerable spot -- directly in their downhill path.
"Let go, drop anything you're holding onto and drop as fast as you can, flat on the rocks,
face down, your hands over your head," he said sternly.
Far below us, Malcolm and the girls are looking up at us. I am not sure they can really
comprehended the drama unfolding before their eyes. From that distance, we must just
look like small figures hung on the side of a very steep mountain, fiddling around with
Once the pack is off, I help Gary pull the saddle back into its proper position on the
horse's back. He then goes about redoing all the straps that hold the saddle on, paying
particular attention to the one strap around the horse's belly. He pulls on the strap,
waits a moment or two and then pulls again. After a few extra pulls, he says he has
gotten almost three extra inches out. Once the saddle is again securely in place, we go
about putting the pack saddles back on
As I again stand behind the lead horse, waiting on Gary to pass my end of the pack to
me, I cannot help but think about what Gary said earlier about having good pack horses.
We have been at this whole ordeal now for about 20 minutes and the two horses have
not moved an inch, shifted their weight, moved one foot, not a twitch. Gary finally hands
me my end of the pack. Carrying my side of the pack over my head, we inch forward and
slide the pack back over the saddle and saddle horn.
Gary sets about building from scratch, a new harness that goes around the rump of the
lead horse. He does this by using pieces of rope and other pieces of tackle reconfigured
to be used in different ways. This new harness will help prevent the pack and saddle
from again shifting forward on the horse's back.
After about 30 minutes, the situation is over. I cannot say enough about Gary in these
past few moments. His calm, his professional experience, and his quiet courage made a
potentially life threatening situation manageable. We all, the horses included, move
onward unhurt. Thanks, Gary.
We have only gone about 100 feet when we have to stop again. Michael and Gary have to
shove a huge boulder out of the way. Getting their feet behind it, they send it tumbling
downwards. Only problem is, it goes about 30 feet and plops right back down in the
middle of the trail on the switch-back below us. Michael goes on down to keep clearing
smaller obstacles out of the way, while Gary starts working on the trail where the huge
rock originally rested. With the removal of the boulder, he has to literally build a new
trail on the downward side with layers of rocks, kind of like building a wall.
I head on down to where the boulder has come to rest again to see what I can do with it.
I must look kind of funny by now, like an old mountain man. Here I am coming down the
side of a mountain with a pack on, a gnarly old walking stick in one hand and a 30-30 rifle
in my other hand. After Gary and I repacked the lead pack horse, he asked me to take
the rifle down the mountain for him. His thinking was that if the horse went over, he
didn't want to loose the rifle.
Michael goes back up to help Gary rebuild the trail and after another 30 minutes, we are
able to move again. Dropping on down the trail to help me with the boulder, Michael and I
sit down on the ground uphill from the boulder and place our feet against it.
"One, two, three," we grunt together and with our feet pushing, we send the boulder
hurtling downhill. This time success -- the boulder falls free of the trail below. I did
worry for just a second or two though. I had these visions of us pushing this stupid
boulder from one switch-back to another, all the way to the bottom!
Looking far below, we can see Malcolm and the girls down on the grassy meadows
surrounding Banjo Lake. Slowly and surely, we make our way down the mountain side
toward them. The wind is up a little bit now, and it is starting to get a bit nippy as we
approach the lake.
This is Jayme's first trip down this particular mountain-side trail and I must say,
considering what we are going through, she is doing well. You, too, Bill. Jayme leading two
horses down is tricky enough but so is just leading one. Way to go, gang!
The switch-backs are so sharp, the horses are actually going in two different directions
at the point of the switch-back. It takes skill and guidance to make the rear horse
follow the trail, and not try to cut the corners, so to speak. To do so, will most likely
bring on disaster. The footings will be so shaky that both horses will probably get
tangled up in each other and take each other down and over the side of the trail.
When we reach the bottom, I look back up the thousand or so feet of millions and
millions of rocks we just passed through and I just shake my head. Even standing here
right now, I cannot believe we just came down through all of that. No trace of a trail can
be seen anywhere. Only one small pile of rocks at the very end marks its presence. If
you do not know the trail is here, you will not even pay any attention to these rocks --
they are just four or five more in the middle of millions.
Banjo Lake is so beautiful all nestled in here high in the valley. It does seem strange
though, to see such a beautiful lake with no fish. The water freezes solid all the way to
the bottom during winter. We originally planned to eat lunch here on the lush grassland
surrounding the lake but the cold wind is too much -- cold winds and picnics do not seem
to go together. Gary suggests that we keep on going down this valley to one of his
campsites, in fact, one that most likely we will use for tonight's camp.
Walking up on a ridge below the lake, we can see far below into the valley spread out
before us. Gary indicates to a point about two miles away just inside the tree line and
tells us to head for it. Once we get there, we are to leave the trail and angle off down
toward a creek and look for an old campsite.
Without hesitation, we veteran wilderness hikers hit the trail. Veterans, yeah, you bet!
After completing one of the most beautiful and daring hikes any of us has probably ever
been on, we are ready, we have "slain the dragon" and now are marching off to conquer
the rest of the world!
The hike down to the tree line is beautiful, even though it starts out windy and cold. We
go only about a quarter of a mile before the rains pay us one of their daily visits. By now,
we have grown accustomed to it about this time each day. Without missing a beat,
Michael and I continue walking, removing our packs, pulling out our rain suits (tops only
this time), putting them on, and strapping our packs back on.
Thank goodness there are a few ups and downs with tiny gullies out here in the vastness
of the open grasslands above the tree lines. Remember earlier when I mentioned that
we had "loaded up" on water before we left? Well that and the drinking along the way
has finally caught up with Michael and me. What I do not realize until later is that every
time I stop for a nature call, he records it on film. Blackmailer!
Anyway, back to the hiking. All of a sudden as I am walking along and minding my own
business, I can feel things hitting my rain hood. I have it up and over my head and pulled
in kind of close because it is cold and nasty outside. Michael is also feeling the same
thing, that is, things bouncing off his head. At first, we both think the other is throwing
pebbles. As it turns out, we are both wrong.
The pebbles are white and getting larger -- much larger. In fact, they are starting to
sting just a wee bit.
Hail! We are being pounded by hail. Gary mentioned that we could experience almost
anything up here at this altitude. One minute the ground is covered with the little white
balls of ice and the next, they are all gone. We hike out of them within minutes.
Standing there before us is the strangest looking rock. Almost six feet tall, it stands
here alone in a sea of grass. Close inspection shows that it is some kind of conglomerate
rock -- looks like a huge piece of reddish cookie batter with all sorts of different rocks
just stuck in it and on it. You can actually knock some of them off. Seems hard to
imagine that this type of rock, usually indicative of sedimentary layering under water,
can be up so high in the mountains.
I freeze in my tracks. We are now very close to the tree line and are winding our way
through some bear bushes (very low-growing shrubs), and some medium height shrubs,
and a few dwarf sized, wind blown trees. Lying there in the middle of the trail, like some
kind of ominous warning or dare, is an 18-inch-long leg bone from some animal. Not only is
it big, but it is fresh -- it still shows evidence of blood.
Remember the old story about the hapless cowboy who picked up a red-hot horseshoe
and to save face, immediately flung it to the ground as he proudly stated "don't take
me long to inspect horseshoes"?
Well, it does not take Michael and me long to inspect this bone. Putting two and two
together fast, you know, like bone plus rocks, bushes, and hiding places probably equals
bears -- we are through those bushes and gone before the bone even hits the ground!
All of us are gathered now near the point where Gary said we can leave the trail and
head downward to an old camp. Heading downhill, we pass an area that looks very "bear
like," that is, lots of rocks, including one area with a huge cave entrance.
With the few tracks we see in the area, plus the bone on the trail a few moments ago,
we give this area wide berth.
The wind is picking up and it is getting nippy again. We had shed our rain gear moments
after the brief hail storm and had been hiking in our usual shorts and tee shirts for
about the last half hour. It now looks like we might get rain again.
Not really knowing where we are going, Michael and I start out on our own to see if we
can find the campsite. Since no one really wants to hike downhill, especially if it goes to
the wrong place and you have to hike back up, the rest of the group just kind of hangs
back. Working our way downhill another 200 feet in elevation, we finally see Jayme with
the horses down by a creek. She and Gary have turned off the trail before we did and
have headed straight for the old campsite. Michael and I join her and call back up hill to
the rest of the group to come on down.
One of my favorite movies is called "Little Shop Of Horrors." In the movie is a weird
plant that, well, let's just say, goes nuts and causes all sorts of pain and anguish (even
though he was funny as the devil).
We have just met his cousin. Standing about three feet tall, it has long pretty green
serrated-edge leaves branching off a tall stem, covering the stem from the ground up
to a beautiful, fuzzy, white-flowered top. This fuzzy top is also covered with bright
Michael and I dub this piece of nature the "flower from hell!" The serrated-edge leaves
are a clue to its demeanor. Brushing by this plant, while walking in short pants, is
courting bloody legs as the leaves cut the dickens out of you. I still have scabs on the
sides of my legs from walking past this innocent-looking but diabolical plant!
We all gather around the abandoned hunting camp. There are some ruins of a walled
building here, made from timbers felled by hunters many years ago. It looks almost out
of place, considering we are in a wilderness area. There are even some old benches
scattered around the site. These are not natural ones, you know, made from a stump or
piece of a old log. No, these benches are made with boards, cut by saws and
Gary is still out looking for water. He soon returns and states that there is no water
close by -- we will have to pack it over by one of the horses from about a quarter mile
away. As the rain clouds get heavier and it actually starts sprinkling, we all agree that
we do not want to make this our campsite for the night. It just does not seem right --
no view, no water -- we want to leave.
As we eat lunch, we discuss our options. Gary tells us we can hike back out of the valley
we are in, up and around the large mountain looming behind us and hike down into the
next valley near a lake. This is the same campsite we would normally hike to tomorrow.
However, as a warning, he tells us we have to turn back if we break the tree line and it
is still raining and there is a threat of lightning. He also estimates that the distance to
the new campsite is about nine miles away -- about three miles farther than we have
already hiked today.
Michael and I look at each other and our eyes immediately say yes to each other -- we
want to push on even though the thoughts of another climb is already beginning to haunt
us. Sue and Malcolm look at each other and say yes, as well as Bill and Karen. We feel
like we can make it and we are eager to get going.
We quickly finish lunch and get set for the next leg of our journey. We have only
marched about 30 feet and I am already wishing I had kept my mouth shut -- my legs
are already tired. About a quarter of a mile later, the trail takes an immediate up turn
as it heads up the side of the mountain at about a 55-degree angle through the fir
trees and spruce trees.
For over a mile, we climb almost a thousand feet straight up. Step, breath, step, breath,
the effort to keep moving is getting so hard now. God, I hurt. Not so much in my legs,
but in my breathing. I totally focus on the trail in front on me. I shut out almost
everything around me as I try to concentrate on step, breathe, step. Each step is
torture. I cannot believe I agreed to tackle this mountain after just climbing up almost
3,000 feet from our last base camp to the ridge at the end of the last valley, and then
descending almost that far back down into this valley where we stopped for lunch.
Altitude. Yeah, that is it. The altitude is affecting my senses. No sane person would
agree to this torture.
Finally, we break free of the trees and come out on the back of the ridge that we will
climb for about another 2,000 feet. There, we will look for another of Gary's secret
trails that will allow us to hike along the side of the mountain looming in front of us until
we reach a special point (marked by Gary with one of his rock piles) where we can safely
hike back down again into the next valley.
Even before we look back at the magnificent views of the valley behind us, we have
already decided, lightning or no lightning, there is no way in the world we will go back
down the grade we just struggled to climb and then come back up it again later. I will
camp right here if I have too, I thought -- just lay down right over there by that soft
looking rock and sleep a while.
Fortunately for us, the rains are gone and the weather to the west looks good. Gary
gives us the go-ahead to keep on going.
The views are overwhelming. Being three miles farther back down toward the main
valley and on the bald part of the ridge just before it dropped back down into the tree
line, we have a panoramic view that just cannot be explained. Words are so powerful
sometimes -- wars have been launched because of them. Then there are times like these
when they fail -- they just never seem to bring into focus all that the eye and mind can
see all at once. Thank God our brains understand. At least the beholder is forever awed
and satisfied with the results.
Gary points uphill saying "up there" and for us to head for a point about two miles from
here. Within minutes, he passes us like we are chained to the ground. In no time at all,
he is just a speck on the hillside, steadily pulling away from us. Bionics, yeah, that must
be it. How can he just keep going? I think he could climb all the way to moon
No trail, just beautiful scenery and a long steady climb through wildflowers and grass.
Step, breathe, step. Seems like I have heard this drill before. The plateau we are
heading for on the side of the mountain seems like it never changes position as we walk.
What I mean is, every time I looked up, it looks like I have not moved one inch closer to
my objective. I look down at my aching legs and whisper "do not fail me now guys, it is
still a long way camp!"
Michael and I both snap off a few more pictures of the views afforded us. I get to
thinking as we steadily climb, that I hope we have brought enough film along -- we are
really snapping off the shots.
Finally we catch up with Gary and the lead horses. He has his binoculars out and is
standing at the beginning of a very faint trail that threads its way down a very long
slope -- about two miles worth -- to the back of a new valley almost 3,000 feet below.
This trail is one of Gary's secret trails -- you have to be right where we are to even see
it. As I approach him, I ask "What's up?" seeing that he is obviously upset.
"Look there," he says, handing me the glasses and pointing to an area next to a lake in
the valley beyond the one we're directly above.
"Look just below the lake and you will see them," he quietly says. Focusing the view, I
can see several tents along the edge of the lake. No one is supposed to be there,
explains Gary. He is the only outfitter authorized to come into these particular valleys.
Maybe they will be gone before we get there, I thought.
With all the group at hand, Gary points out where we will be going. We will first go all
the way to the back of the new valley we were high above, angling downward all the way
to the back. Then, we will go down through the rock pile we can clearly see even from
this distance. Gary assures us it is tame compared to the one we did earlier today. Once
down, we will then come back down the far side of valley to a point about half-way back
to where we were now. The ridge line on that side ends there and folds back sharply to
start the wall of the next valley, the one that will be our home for the next day and
We estimate we have about six more miles to go. After walking on the plateau for about
15 minutes, we finally start downhill. The views around us are still staggering -- we can
see for miles in any direction, including almost straight down the mountain side we are
quietly tip-toeing across, so as not to awaken a sleeping giant.
Michael spots our thin line of a trail clearly visible at the head of the valley, almost two
miles ahead. It still blows my mind how you can spot recognizable objects at such great
distances -- it's almost like looking at a giant map of the entire area and everything is all
filled in and labeled.
The trail is steadily dropping toward the back of the valley. As I walk along and think, I
think about our day and how full it has been so far and how much more there is still left
to do -- so many more miles to go. For some strange reason, our endeavors today make
me think about another one of my favorite movies, "The Longest Day," which chronicled
the day-long invasion of Normandy during World War II. Without a doubt, before our
hike ends today, this will be our longest day.
When I turn around and look back, it looks like we are walking along the sides of a huge
blimp. The mountain is perfectly rounded from the plateau area over to where its steep
descent into the valley below begins. Even as I walk along, I keep wondering how we are
doing this -- it looks like we ought to be falling off this crazy mountain.
As we descend even farther down the bare trail through the grass, the grass itself
starts to wear us out. The clumps are so rich, they form an uneven walking surface. We
are also starting to see more holes in the ground -- some large enough to step into and
cause one to stumble and/or get hurt.
After about another mile, we come to the other "rocky slope" we have to go down
through. Even though Gary has already said this one will easy, my mind is saying, oh no,
not again! But all is well. This one is a smooth, downward trail that all of us easily
navigate. It has all the characteristics of the previous one, such as a foot-wide trail
through millions and millions of rocks using switch-backs to make the descent possible,
but this one is gradually sloping and the switch-backs are far fewer and not as sharp.
Piece of cake compared to the last one.
One thousand feet down through all of this and we are finally walking on the grasslands
at the back of our new valley. With the snow packs up against the high rear ridges of
the valley, it looks almost like the last one we were in.
I ask Sue if she wants to hike back where we have just come from and go back to our
last camp. Before she can even respond, Malcolm smiles and quietly says, "She does not
want to go," knowing that if she says yes, he has to go back also. They could do it, I am
sure. Both he and Sue are in great shape. Especially Malcolm. 61 going on 62 years old
and cruising right along this trip like it was a walk in the park. Oh, he huffs and puffs on
the climbs -- we all do -- you would have to be a machine if you did not.
Malcolm has an Appalachian Trail (AT) patch on his hiking hat. That patch means 300
miles of trail to him at this point, from the starting point at Springer Mountain in
Georgia up to a point near Damascus Virginia (just over the border from Tennessee and
only about 12 miles west of where North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia all touch at
one common point). 300 hundred miles on the AT is no small accomplishment, I can
assure you. Very few can claim those miles.
Malcolm told me earlier that he is going to hit the trail again sometime in September,
getting back on the trail near Damascus and going as far as he can in two weeks. I wish
him well. I would love to hike with him, especially since I found out he was hiking alone.
Standing here now watching Jayme make her way toward us, the horses gently following
her every footstep, I look back up at the huge, bare mountain we have just traversed.
No way I keep telling myself, no way did we just walk across that mountain. You will fall
off, any idiot can tell you that. No wonder no one has ever found Gary's secret trail --
no one in their right mind would even look where we just came from and expect to find a
trail in the first place!
With Gary again leading the way, we head back down the left side of this new valley.
With the snow packs behind us feeding streams that bubble pass us as we walk, we
cross the two miles of open meadow and grasslands and head for the tree line far
below. Just as with the last valley we entered, this one is also magnificent -- the views
of the valley walls and forest below and even farther in the distance, the main valley
floor at the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, all teased our eyes and senses
with an endless array of beauty.
We finally end our downward trek and angle off to the left and head into the tree line.
Travelling only a short distance, we find another one of Gary's secret trails and we turn
left again and head back uphill into another new valley.
The forest looks so primeval here -- the soil is jet black and nutrient rich, while the
trees are huge and vibrant with rich colors of healthy green painted on all the needles
and leaves. We pass several bog-looking areas and the profusion of wildflowers here --
so many and so tall -- is staggering. Pure natural beauty.
The hike is beginning to climb more and none of us are too keen on that subject. Just as
we think we might poop out, the trail levels way off and we start cruising through a maze
of pine and fir trees. Twist, turn, duck, turn, twist, we forged on. It also gets real tight
in places. Not so much for us, but for the pack horses. We can hear tree limbs snap on
trees as the packs on the horses rub tightly against them.
Who designed this trail anyway? Wait a minute. I cannot believe I even asked myself
that. Who else but Gary. I already know that Gary uses what is known as "false starts"
to throw "other" users off the track, so to speak. What you do, is to make a big amount
of effort to create a trail, say as much as a 100-yards worth, and have it go off in a
direction that really leads nowhere and then you just kind of let the trail gradually
People will tear out on one of these trails, and, before they realize it, they are knee
deep in lost, know what I mean? What they do not realize is that back almost 100 yards,
is a very small trail branching off the "super highway" they are on. This little, faint trail
is quietly heading out in a totally different direction. Smooth, huh? Works every
Somewhere along here in this man-made maze, we lose Bill and Karen. One minute they
are behind us and the next, poof, they are gone. They must have missed a turn or
something, and most likely will just head for the lake.
The sky is starting to darken as we finally arrive at our alternate campsite. This one is
about a mile upstream from the large lake where we were originally going to camp. As it
turns out, I am glad we are here. The mosquitoes are out in force this week, and I figure
if they are bad here, they must be murder along the edge of the lake.
Almost on cue, the rain starts to fall lightly. So what else is new? Somebody is really
testing us today. But, we will not buckle. We are veterans, I keep telling myself as I
put my rain gear back up for the third or fourth time today. Actually, it kind of feels
good, the rain suit, I mean. Warm. Michael follows suit as does everyone else.
Well look who is here. Bill and Karen arrive. They had missed our trail and had just
followed the sounds coming from the lake.
Unfortunately, the sounds were not coming from us but from the "other" campers,
the ones we had seen earlier this afternoon with the binoculars from high above
and miles away.
After Michael and I stake out our choice for a level tent site, we set about helping Gary
and Jayme unpack the horses. The first order of business is to get the tents up and to
get the huge orange kitchen fly up. Michael and I get our tent set up rather quickly, as
do Sue and Malcolm. I cannot see where Bill and Karen have chosen to put up their tent
but I am sure they are just as quick as the rest of us in getting it set up
Somehow or another (I think I mentioned this earlier), I end up helping April put her
tent up again. I think she had this planned all along and I just did not know it. Knowing
my son, he probably said something to her like "play your cards right and act helpless
and Dad will put your tent up for you every night!"
Anyway, the rain is really starting to come down now and April and I finish putting up her
tent in about two and a half minutes -- got to be some sort of record!
Over at the kitchen area, Gary is wrestling with the kitchen tarp. The rain is very heavy
now and freezing rain at that. I cannot believe how cold the water is. At one point, I
hold the edge of the tarp up while Michael ties a line to it so he can stretch it out to a
nearby tree. My fingers are freezing by the time he finishes securing the line.
Hail. Lots of hail. A whole lot of hail. In a matter of seconds, the ground is covered in
white balls of ice. The kitchen tarp begins to sag under the weight of all the ice
accumulating on top of it. We keep pushing up on the tarp in the low areas, constantly
dumping the ice off. After a while, the hail ends as quickly as it started. Within 15
minutes, we can see blue skies to the west above the next mountain range that forms
the wall for the other side of our new valley.
Ten minutes later, the sun is out. What a finish to a day that is almost indescribable. We
have seen brilliant morning sunshine with clear, cobalt-blue skies, followed by periods of
rain, clouds, clear skies, hail, clear skies, rain, and hail once more and finally, a sky
painted with pastel pink, red, lavender, and rose-colored clouds as the sun sinks slowly
behind our western valley wall.
Can the big guy put on a show or what! I am standing here now with tears in my eyes as I
watch the sun dip behind the far ridge line. I feel so humbled and so privileged to be
able to witness the majesty of all of this.
It is getting on toward suppertime and we have all drifted into the kitchen area. Even
though the sun has come back out, it is still very damp around camp and everybody shows
up wearing long pants and sporting coats or sweaters. Here in the middle of July we look
like we are getting ready to go out and cut Christmas trees or something.
Ever notice how the kitchen always seems to pull everyone in the house to it, especially
if there is a large group of people in the house. Big house, little house; rich house, poor
house; it does not matter.
The pull of the hearth always works. It must be in our blood or something. Kitchens on
camping trips are no different -- everyone always ends up there.
When I say everyone, I include our other two hiking companions, Sherman and Gretchen.
Dogs. Good dogs. Sherman -- Gary's dog -- is a big, solid black Great Dane. He is the
veteran of the two dogs with this being his eight trip. He stays close to Gary, even
sleeps in his tent. Sherman minds his manners, hardly ever barks, but does keep a keen
eye and ear focused on all that is going on around him. Gretchen, on the other hand, is a
first-timer. She belongs to Jayme and is a mixed-breed dog, of medium size with black
and white hair.
While Sherman just plods along right beside Gary when we are on the trail, Gretchen
constantly stays on the move. First, she starts off the hike by marching right alongside
Jayme. Then, being young and noisy, I guess, she trots all the way from the back of the
line, up to the head of the line to visit a spell with whoever is leading at the moment.
Back and forth, stopping slightly to visit with everybody in between, she constantly
makes her rounds. We get tired just watching her hike at least ten times farther than
we do. We used to have a poodle who did the exact same thing -- hike two miles for
every one we hiked.
It is fun watching Gretchen trying to find a dry spot to lay on when we encounter rain or
just wetness around the campsite. She will try to put her 20 pound body on a spot no
bigger than a postcard, kind of like a cat that will curl up in an open box ten sizes too
small for its body. Gretchen turns, twists, curls, and curls until finally, she thinks she
has done it. All she has actually accomplished is to wind herself up tight as a ball and
balance on top of a little, small flat rock. She is happy; that is all that counts.
Everybody is swapping stories about today's adventure. The bar is open and Bill,
Malcolm, and Michael are already experimenting with some kind of new drink
combination. They try something different every night, even if it just turns out to be
cold water mixed up something. I try my usual cold water, lemonade powder, and Jim
Beam mixture that Michael got me to try the other day. Still not quite right though,
needs something. Maybe Michael will keep working on it and find out what it needs.
Tonight, Jayme is whipping up another meal fit for a king. Shrimp tortellini, yes, you
heard me right, shrimp tortellini in the middle of the wilderness! I tell you right now,
you could not be eating better than we are, even if you were down the mountain
somewhere in a fancy hotel restaurant. Clean pots again tonight -- not a crumb of food
left. Our "throw away" bag, the garbage bag, is still very thin for a group our size that
has been on the trail for as long as we have. I think we might all be putting on some
weight here and there.
After supper, Gary climbs up on what we affectionately dubbed the rock pile -- a mile
long, quarter of a mile wide, one hundred foot high pile of rocks next to our campsite.
Millions of rocks pulled into place by glacier action building what I think is called, a
moraine. After 35 years, I finally find a use for something I learned in my high school
geology class! Just kidding Miss Purdy, where ever you are -- I remember lots of things
you taught us so long ago.
Anyway, Gary uses his cellular phone (used only in emergencies and in situations like this)
to call the ranch to tell them about the campers down below us. He went down to check
them out, and it is worse than he expected. They all have fires going and there are also
too many campers -- too many "heartbeats" they call it here. Every single heartbeat
counts toward the allowed maximum, including those of the horses and even dogs,
The extra number of heartbeats is bad enough, but the fires -- all outdoor fires are
banned in Colorado now because of the high threat of forest fires. Even though we have
been getting rained on each day, they are actually piddly rains in the great scheme of
things. The forest is still very dry. We can easily kick up dust on the trails after
After Gary comes back down off of the moraine, he tells us that the ranch relayed the
message to the U.S. Forest Rangers, who will immediately put a plan into place to deal
with the situation. We will see the results of that plan either late tomorrow or
Well, it is getting to be about that time -- nighty-night time. It has been a long, long day
and, quite frankly, we are all pooped. Without to much fanfare, we drift toward our
tents. After excursions out to the bushes to take care of business, Michael and I hit
the sleeping bags around 9 p.m.
Ingenuity, I call it. Stupid looking is Michael's expert assessment of the light I have
rigged up so I can read a few more pages in my paperback. Propped on my pillow, I have
my wool hat on and have stuck my small flashlight up under the band. It only has a very
narrow beam so I adjust it so that it points a beam of light directly out in front of me.
Next, I hold my book in the path of the beam and by moving my head from side to side, I
am able to read. Neat, huh? Only problem is, that after about 10 minutes of all this head
weaving and bobbing, I am getting dizzy. Maybe Michael is right after all!
Remembering the night before when we both went to bed without filling up our water
bottles, we made sure they are filled tonight. Every night, we have awakened feeling
dry as a bone. Tonight I take three of my pain pills, the kind that has a sleep-aid added.
We have hiked almost 16 miles today and my body is tired, really tired. I want to
Sixteen miles. I have been on many hikes in all my years, many of them 16 miles or
longer but none of them -- I repeat, none of them -- could compare to these long but
magnificent miles today.
I hiked way, way above the tree line today for the first time in my life. I also shared a
brief but special moment with my son, when we first looked back and gazed at the view
below us from our vantage point high above the tree line.
High above the valley floor and soaring like an eagle, I drifted off to sleep.
|Miles High and Climbing - Part 1
By Mike Bailey
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