Monday, October 10, 2011

South San Juan Wilderness Kept A Piece of My Heart

Too much of life is spent dreaming about instead of getting about doing. Be open to serendipity and you might find yourself in a position of getting about that doing. I found myself on the receiving end of an offer I couldn't refuse, and so I found myself in Pagosa Springs, Colorado, with Stacy Boone, owner/operator of Step Outdoors, LLC, going through an afternoon of checking gear before we set off on a 4 day/3 night backpacking trip in the nearby South San Juan Wilderness! My friend, Linda, and I, along with Ann from Pennsylvania (minus her daughter who missed the trip due to an ankle injury) checked and re-checked, and weighed our packs, before going back to Be Our Guest Bed & Breakfast. I slept as snug as an ear of corn in cornsilk, but anxious to get the trip started, and so I was up with my backpack, ready when Stacy picked our group up early the next morning.

The soft morning air became clearer and sharper as Stacy's truck lurched along the forest service road to our trailhead, and by the time she parked, the big sky seemed to offer a welcome as it turned to a deep hue of blue. Out of the truck we all bounded, listening to last minute instructions from Stacy, and then loading packs on our back and pausing for pictures by the trail sign.
We followed the Little Blanco trail as the switchbacks lead us through spurts of aspens, spruce and growths of thick golden bushes, winding ever higher and higher. We stopped to gaze in awe at the distant mountain ranges on both sides of the trail as we climbed toward the pass by Nipple Mountain. Stacy kept reminding us to drink water, pay attention to our breathing as we adjusted to the altitude. Linda and I started out with headaches, but the scenery won over our worries.

We paused for a rest at a rocky outcropping 20 minutes from the pass. At the gap, (11,600 feet) I passed through and turned to look back where we had was a gorgeous sight. Clouds dotted the perfect blue sky with spruces reaching up to the heavens, and peaks in the distance teasingly out of reach. Then, I turned back to see where I was now headed and stopped cold where I stood. Emotions welled as I saw endless peaks, more blue sky with even more perfect white clouds, a beautiful valley dipping into never land, and me, standing like a speck witnessing the grandeur. What else could I do? Yes, I cried.

Soon after, we began to gradually descend and bear to the left, encountering more and more huge boulders strewn like marbles on the terrain. Stacy gathered us to discuss the options for the hike, and it was decided to hike the mile down to Quartz Lake, camp, then hike the mile back up the next morning to continue on the Little Blanco Trail over toward the Continental Divide Trail where we had the option of hiking the Summit at 13,300 feet. The camp at Quartz Lake was perfect...a pristine high meadow lake surrounded by beautiful trees with a small clearing.
Stacy proved to be the ultimate guide; making sure we were on task, but allowing us the freedom to make our own mistakes, knowing she was there to point out what we could do better. We learned the importance of working as a team; tents set up, water pumped, and gear in order all while she showed a servants heart by cooking our meals!
That night was cold as a well-diggers behind. I shivered in my tent, zipped inside my 25 deg. down sleeping bag, bundled in my so-called thermal wear, wool socks, wool gloves, wool hat, and Nano Puff jacket! Plus, some insect/critter extraordinaire managed to keep me awake by scratching at the hood of my bag covering my face...oh, how I wished for super critter/insect killing powers that night. The altitude change worked on my body and I was up several times to use the restroom. There are always blessings if you look! If I hadn't had to get up, I might have missed the profusion of the brightest stars I have ever seen flung across the blackest night I have ever seen...with the gauze of the milkyway strewn down like  a bow on a prize. The morning was hard to greet, but I awoke to the noise of Stacy puttering with the dishes. She then urged me to get my camera. I'm so glad I did. My gift this morning was the sun coming down. 

Joy In The Morning at Quartz Lake
Ann led the way back up the the Little Blanco trail junction with a stop along the way to pump more water at a spring nearby. Then, we followed a ridge where we came to a rim overlooking a deep gorge where we could see across to a narrow path along an escarpment. Stacy pointed out this part of the trail had been built with heavy chains and posts to reinforce the footpath.

It was best not to think about where your foot was about to step, so I took off with the goal in mind to get down and up out of the gorge and into the treeline above on the other side. Linda and I found ourselves on the other side, resting just inside the trees, waiting on Stacy and Ann to join us. Soon, they joined us and we rested, snacked and readied for the next phase: climbing to over 12,000 feet, out of the trees to the junction within near spitting distance of the Continental Divide Trail. If we arrived early enough, Linda and I, along with Stacy would attempt the Summit that afternoon. As the afternoon continued, my strength waned. Whether it was the altitude or no sleep the night before, or both, I found myself struggling, but pushed myself to keep going. All I wanted to do was get to the campsite, set up my tent, blow up my pad, and crawl inside my bag. But, we had at least 2.5 miles of mostly climbing to go. We stopped for lunch at a boulder on which we sat. I tried to hide my tiredness, eating my lunch and watching the horizon with the still gorgeous views at every turn. Then, I spotted it: a dark cloud loomed up behind us. Stacy spotted it too and we all surmised, we might be in for a bit of bad weather. When the sleet spattered on the rock, I dug out my poncho, and asked Stacy if it was alright if I started out. Again, I just wanted to get to the destination. Getting the okay, my boots hit the barely discernible trail that began shortly ahead, while the others put on their coats and followed behind. The trail was suddenly gone so I searched until Stacy caught up and we inched behind her while the weather spit and sputtered. The ground was now grassy sod. Not firm like I knew from a Tennessee field, but wobbly blobs of grass seemingly shot through with holes meant to break my ankles. It was like walking 2 miles on a balancing disc (with a 34 lbs. backpack!). When Stacy finally pointed out the trail marker for the junction with the C.D. trail, I struggled towards it.
 Sadly, it was not the actual camp spot- that would be somewhere near- we had to find a place out of the wind in case the weather got worse. Another .5 miles and we found it on the other side of a sloping ridge with water fairly close. In no time, my tent was up, and I was in it..sound asleep, but not before I went to the bathroom twice had to be the altitude wrecking havoc on my kidneys.

I did get up for supper (of course!). The weather held off, but we decided it was too late to make a try for the Summit which we would hold off til in the morning. I slept better, but still not great as a little weasel tried to join me that night. I kept hitting the side of my tent where he was trying to make an opening until he went away. Early the next morning, as agreed, Stacy was up and waking Linda and I up for our Summit. Ann had decided to rest it out. We were treated to a gorgeous sunrise and a herd of elk that came over the top of the ridge and stared at us with indignation that we had dared to camp in their grazing spot. My picture of the elk herd just doesn't do justice...too far away. Needless to say, it was awesome!

Stacy got Linda and I headed toward our Summit. Our goal was to get there and back as close to noon as possible, then we would finish getting packed up and head down below the trees again for our third, and last, night. We passed the junction sign and took off across the slope through a wide gap, heading around behind the ridge from where we  had camped. Then, we were on a wide open grassy range, gazing up at a ridge that hid a secret we wanted to see. As we climbed, the grass gave way in large swaths to drab gray rocks that held defiant bouquets.
Climbing above 12,000 feet now, my breath became shallower, my lungs sought more air as my steps slowed to a crawl. I kept my eyes more on my feet, willing them onward, only occasionally raising them to find Stacy..she was my goal. Get to her..step, get, step, to, step, Stacy. On and on.

Then, Stacy sat near the edge of the grassy rim and my steps seemed to quicken. On, and on, I trudged until my lungs seemed to ready to burst, but I realized I was there- I could see over that sought after Summit!

The Greatest Guide Ever!
Stacy allowed us time to revel in our happiness (and in my case, tears again) before she pushed us downward, back to camp  to meet our time deadline. A piece of me remained behind on 'Our Summit' (nearly 13,000 feet). We didn't have time to go for the actual Summit, so we called this Our Summit. We got back to camp with our faces glowing (and Linda minus her really cute fingerless gloves she left on the Summit) and after lunch were on our way down the mountain.

The terrain noticeably different as we reentered a forest after a 1.5 miles.
Momma bear with cubs across the gorge
Proving that Stacy is the greatest guide ever...she spotted this momma bear and her cubs..thankfully..across the gorge from where we stood. After manuerving a 'gnarly' descent (Stacy's words), we crossed Quartz Creek and made fast tracks for the camp that Stacy had planned all along. (At first, she thought we'd have to find a closer spot since our Summit and descent back to lower elevations took longer than expected.) We exited the San Juan Wilderness area and entered the San Juan National Forest and found ourselves in a delightful meadow by Quartz Creek with beautiful aspens glowing in the afternoon sun.
Stacy treated us to a sweet little fire, wine with our dinner, and s'mores! What more could you want, but your tent? Absolutely nothing, so I retired there to a wonderful nights sleep.

Morning was cold, and I awoke to a bout of pollen infection around my eyes which were puffed out like a blowfish, but I was happy and satisfied. We all enjoyed our breakfast and then packed up for a short 2 mile hike out to Stacy's pre-arranged truck.
Did I mention that Stacy is the greatest guide ever! She never missed an opportunity to teach, encourage, and exhort. Particularly enlightening were the methods she taught me for Leave No Trace which I will take with me to every woods I go. And teach my grandchildren.

This was the trip of a lifetime..a bucket list item black-lined, but one that will never be forgotten. After all, a piece of my heart is back there on 'Our Summit'.
For more pictures, and further adventures Linda and I had in Colorado, including the Million-Dollar Highway trip to Ouray and on to Black Canyon at Gunnison National Park, and then to Mesa Verde National Park, check out my link to http://www.photobucket/.