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Wednesday, August 19, 2015

No Simple Task

“One day I will find the right words, and they will be simple.” 
(Jack Kerouac, The Dharma Bums)

It seemed like a simple, straight forward question, coming from a man who is considered the human incarnate of a "To Simplify" philosophy. "Can you recommend a two day hike of less than 20 miles?"

I could have been a smart ass and replied, "Just pick any trail, hike 10 miles, camp, then turn around." But this was going to be Glenn's first "overnighter," excluding a recent "test run" where he set up camp about a hundred feet from the security of his Vanagan home (yep, he traded traditional rent/mortgage "sticks and bricks" for "freedom," and has lived happily ever after in a personally customized van, one that doesn't even "pop up."). 

Well, there are only about a million choices for such a hike around Lovely Ouray. I was having a difficult time paring them down to the one "perfect" camping experience… a hike that would make his already simple lifestyle seem complicated, who knows, maybe even launch him on a Bear Grylls/Cheryl Strayed trajectory, something dangerous, something Wild. The only thing simpler than living in a Van, is living out of a backpack… forever. It would spawn a New York Times best selling book, followed by a Movie, Wilder, in which I would play myself in a small cameo roll as the man responsible for his first backpacking trip, the one that changed his life, made him rich and famous. Whew.

Seeing my dilemma, Bobbie quips, "Why not just send him on the Bear Creek to Bridge of Heaven to Horse Thief loop?" Of course! First of all, it's a loop, no tedious backtrack. Second, the Bear Creek trailhead is only a couple miles up the Million Dollar Highway, and Horse Thief Trail ends cross canyon, practically at our driveway. And Third, it's a tad less than 20 miles. 

We do a good sales pitch as this is a loop we've been wanting to do, preferably a long day-hike with no overnight. We've hiked both ends but never the middle section, and we are dying to know what's out there. Back in my Hot Springs Pool-Boy days, a few of my Lifeguards hiked that loop in one day, but finished after dark with flashlights. So if it can be done in one day, it should, theoretically, be a most pleasant two day hike.

Last time Glenn was here we drug him up to Ice Lake and he did fine. This time we drug him up to Bullion King lake and beyond, to Mill Creek Basin and up a gnarly ridge line that would test the metal of the most steeled man or woman. He literally danced the length of the ridge to the next mountain, while the rest of us were catching our breath. So I'm pretty sure he's in shape to do a big loop that starts around 8,500 feet, tops out near 12 and change, and ends up back in Lovely Ouray at a little over 8 G's. 

Problem was, there were some sawtooth gains and losses to overcome, way up in the back section where we had yet to lay eye or boot. And then there is the heavier pack factor. It looks too small to hold a tent, sleeping bag, clothes, food and water. But Glenn swears he has everything he needs, including a flask of "medicinal" whiskey. Bobbie lifted his pack and said it's lighter than the one she carries every day. How bad could it be? He'll do fine. After all, it's under his maximum of 20 miles.

Just as Glenn is chomping at the bit to get going, in comes a couple-three days forecasted to thunderstorm, some severe with flash floods. He still wants to go, "I've got a rain jacket." I remind him that he will be above timberline, that it could snow  and that there is no place to hide from lightening. He still wants to go, so I mention that his first backpack trip will be more memorable if he actually lives to tell about it. So he waits, no doubt drumming fingers. Patience Grasshopper. 

After a weekend of thunderstorms, Monday looks better. I hand Glenn an extra large trash bag… in case he gets caught in a gully washer. Cold and wet kills more people than lightening. In the high country, Stay dry or die. 

The Gang offered to escort Glenn about 4.2 miles up Bear Creek to Yellow Jacket Mine. He seemed happy to have the company. Most of us have hiked Bear Creek before and know he's in for a real treat. After an arduous zigzag of switchbacks through woods and on a scree of shale, the trail seemingly evaporates into a steep, rock-walled canyon. Fortunately, miners blasted a ledge of a trail out of sheer rock; it is a thrill to hike. There are a couple sketchy spots, but everyone does fine and lives to tell about it. We stopped at Grizzly Mine for a snack, about half way to Yellow Jacket, and everyone agreed to continue, depending on weather. 

It's a slow and relentless climb up to Yellow Jacket Mine from Grizzly, sometimes you'd swear your pedometer was broken. More switchbacks, ugh. Even I'm wondering "where the hell?" Finally we straggle in one by one. Glenn has a good sweat going. He appears resolved, but there's a glimmer of doubt, or maybe regret, in one eye. Jim wonders out loud who's going to carry him down. We snacked while picking through rusted remnants of yesteryear. So much equipment, big heavy shit that makes you wonder Who? and How? We know why. 

Glenn wants to get well over half way (10 miles) before setting camp, which means another six or seven miles, up hill, at "elevation." I was glad to be headed down… have a beer and sleep in my own bed. Glenn ambles off through tall grass and wildflowers, heading into the unknown under threatening skies. Someone hollers, "Break a leg!" Probably Jim.

Our descent was criminal, first degree foot abuse. An average between GPS devices concluded it was nearly a nine mile hike.

Glen signs the trail register, you know, in case he doesn't show up tomorrow.

Chris and Gayle

On "The Ledge" of an abyss.

If thoughts could kill… 

Chris and Jim

Glenn didn't think he needed hiking poles



A long ways down… 

Wild Flowers, taller than Jim!

An inviting trail

Yellow Jacket Mine and Bunkhouse

Glenn is solo from here on.

A couple of shots on the way down… 

Thunder rolls, but the storm skirts around us. 
I wondered if the storm that skirted us would catch Glenn somewhere above timberline. Nothing can make a grown man cower more than being caught by lightening "up there," where every flash-boom is a roll of the dice. Feeling lucky? I've been known to snuggle up to little ledges, trying to hide and get small. I've heaved aluminum hiking poles as far as possible, turned off devices… prayed. I've run off mountain tops and ridge lines in a fit of adrenalized horror. It's an excruciating and humbling thing, being pinned down in high country by a violent electrical storm. And there ain't a thing to do but wait. All it would take to ruin Glenn's first backpacking trip into the wild, to make it something he would never, ever want to do again, is to get caught above tree-line in a severe lighting storm. 

The next day the rest of The Gang hiked up Red Mountain number three. On the way down my iPhone beeped that I had a text. It was Glenn, checking in. "At Bridge of Heaven. All well. See you soon." He's alive! I returned his text, "On Red Mountain. Need to debrief. Be home by 1:00 pm."  

It's rather punishing, the five mile, 3,000 foot downward plod from Bridge of Heaven to Lovely Ouray, especially on the heels of 15 miles of ups and downs while carrying a heavy pack. It was hot, too, a scorcher by Ouray standards. To add insult to heatstroke, Horse Thief Trail is south facing, angled right into the sun. This trip will either make him or break him, plain and simple… emphasis on the simple.  

I was home, sitting in the Imax living room, sipping an adult beverage, staring at my watch. It read 3 pm. Glenn should have been down by then; I was getting antsy. Shortly, there came a knock on the door. It was evident, Glenn had made it. But a more whipped horse I have never seen, so whipped, that he had to stop and rest before tackling our driveway… the final dot of the "i" as in, "insane." Then a final flight of stairs to the living room. His first command was "cookies." I apologized for eating the last one, but got him an ice water and began to debrief. He begged a shower after only a couple minutes. "Of course."

In the end, instead of hearing that it was a glowingly positive experience, I got the impression that, well, there might just be a new backpack, tent, and sleeping bag going up on e-bay soon. It turned out that what we thought would be a relatively easy hike was the equivalent of hiking to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and back out… in less than two days! Painful. Work. What could I say?

Well, I'll tell you what I said. I said, "Glenn, it's like childbirth. Sure, it hurts like hell and you say 'Never again.' But then a little time goes by and you don't remember it being so bad." He accused me of never actually having had a baby, which is technically true. But I was in the delivery room, and can thereby attest by virtue of blood curdling screams, that it must be akin to having one's head pulled out through their asshole. And yet, most women go on to have more children. Case rested.

It will take some time, but I think there is a 50-50 chance we'll see Glenn "having another baby"… someplace a little more level, though, might be better the second time around. 


  1. As usual, your writing and pictures made me feel like I was there, right along with you guys.

  2. Bottom line...he made it. And I'm sure he will have memories he won't want to forget. Your willingness to mentor him as much as you could tells us all who you are. I'm hoping to knock on your door during Labor Day week. If you answer, don't worry, I'll bring my own cookies as well as a adult beverage to share.

  3. Just how in the world did the miners get that heavy stuff UP THERE??? Was it piece by piece or in one chunk pulled by many horses?? Amazing!!
    Don in Okla.

  4. Great story, beautifully wriitten and fun to read. Bro Dan

  5. Loved the story and the humor! When you figure out the "Who" and "Why", Chris wants to know. It boggles his mind when he tries to figure out how in the world they got all that heavy equipment up the mountains.

  6. never a dull moment in Ouray- interesting post as usual- I needed the workout sitting by this pool here in Florida- thanks Mark-

  7. I was really disappointed at having to leave Ouray on the cusp of Glenn's Maiden Voyage. However, after this great recount, I feel I didn't miss out at all...I hope the memories are aging well for him.

  8. I was cracking up at your last paragraph!


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