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Saturday, September 3, 2016

The Fly on a Rhinoceros's Ass... Connecting "Dots" on Saint Sophia's Gnarly, Bloodletting Ridge

...The inner voice that drives and disturbs me, that will tomorrow push me again along the paths of life; that voice is not the wisest one in my soul, it is the spirit of agitation for which the earth is too narrow and which has not known how to find its own universe. Isabelle Eberhardt, "Writer, Explorer, Radical individualist," 1877—1904.

Picking up where I left off in "Rage Against the Night." In The Anthropology of Turquoise, Ellen Meloy questions whether or not the spirited Isabelle  Eberhardt had lived longer, would she have outlived her "spirit of agitation?" I don't think so. Whether by heredity or environment, I have found that people are who they are who they are. Age neither tempers nor harnesses the true "wild horses" among us. I know this to be true because it is true for me.

That Meloy, she continues to ask the questions, questions I grow more afraid to ask with each passing year: What if the spirit quickens just as the body can no longer carry it. What if the legs give out on the best part of the journey? If you have spent the preponderance of your life out-of-doors, in motion, with what rage do you greet the reduced mobility that age brings? When you can no longer power your way through it all, when an active life slows down to prayerful attentiveness, is there still room for...the fever?  

To some degree, a person becomes what they do, be they cubers or climbers. Exploration is what I do; the more challenging the more interesting. It's what I've always done. It's all I ever wanted to do, really, as if it was somehow genetically intended. I'm not made for "cubes" or couches. Movement is everything, and I'm not talking about Sunday drives in a car... unless it is to get you to a trail or mountain. It's one thing to see mountains and deserts through a windshield, another thing entirely to feel it underfoot, rising and falling like the heaves in your chest it demands. The former engages only a sense of sight, while the latter engages all five senses, not to mention a sixth sense, which has something to do with abstract, metaphysical/philosophical Mojo enhancement, Viagra for the soul. 

Thus, there is this gnarly ridge line up in Governor Basin that goes by the name of Saint Sophia, after Saint Sophia, the Martyr with daughters named after virtues, Faith, Hope, and Charity. Sophia has called to us ever since we laid eyes on her a few years back. We gazed upon her with hungry eyes; there must be a route that a curious couple of geezers can fight and claw their way up to a saddle, maybe have a look-see at what's on the other side of her "fence." But man-oh-man, what a fence; incarceration better than razor-wire, and so much more beautiful to look at.

It's not that "grass" is greener on one side or the other of "fences." It's more about filling in the "dots," connecting each new place in relationship to all the others we've been to. It takes years and innumerable hikes to plot enough points on one's mental grid to make sense of it all. I'd say we're nearing halfway to completing our internal relief maps of the San Juan Mountains. One of the convenient things about mental maps is that they are so portable.

Though I'm always tempted to take the Subaru, this escapade would be better handled by Petroleous Rex, our behemoth, old-but-trusty 4X4 F-250 gas hog. We prefer hiking over driving, so Pet Rex would only need to get us to within 5 give-or-take miles of Saint Sophia. We ended up taking the longer "scenic route" through Sidney Basin, warming up legs and studying the ridge for possible approaches to a "doable" saddle.

Maybe on the far left... No.
We parked out of the way on a sweeping switchback and set foot to Jeep road. Temps hovered in the mid 30's such that gloves were needed, but, as usual, I'm wearing my trademark shorts, praying it doesn't rain or snow.

What a gorgeous morning. The feeling of fall in the air, frost on the ground, and Old Man Winter just around the corner. Cotton-ball clouds punctuated a cerulean sky, prompting light and shadow to cavort like young lovers on a weekend. A dozen or so photos into the hike the DSLR's battery died. Batteries are warm-blooded beasts. The Canon Elphie would have to do.

I will for a moment spare you the usual verbal anesthesia and get to a few dozen of the over 200 photos taken en route to Saint Sophia. You might want to grab a cup a Joe, then I will conclude with more Meloy and philosophical reflections of my own.    

A little warmup detour through Sidney Basin

An old mine shack... like us, succumbing to a few too many winters

But what has yet to succumb is wildflowers! And here it is late August... 

Getting closer... 

One final push up to a saddle on Sophia's gnarly ridge through a minefield scree of loose rock and teetering boulders

We shot this "gap," the most accessible one we could find, with rock so rotten it stunk and hardly a trustworthy foot or hand hold.

I want to push on from the saddle, gain another vantage point higher up, worship in the Temple at the alter of Monolithic Spires

I give it a go... a dark smudge among darker rock centered above...

I snapped photos along the way... a human tripod, two legs and a hiking pole kept me upright... then paused to gaze up into the Steeple Garden, a throne of sorts, for God or Satan. I always imagined Heaven as a meadow, and this was no meadow so it must be Hell.  Either way, neither God nor Satan gives a rat's ass if an aging agnostic lives or dies. Recall the Agnostic Climber's Axiom: As rocks fall down, hypocritical prayers go up. It applies to me, just in case.

A pack of coyotes yipped and howled from the basin below. Suddenly, it's an eerie, forlorn place... unfriendly and forbidding. I feel threatened, what with fractured-to-smithereens rotten rock and the abundance of gravity tugging on them.

I tell Bobbie I'm "in-spired" to reach "the-spires." She shakes her head, but follows along. It's a "hot stove," the alter in the Court of Thrones. Yet I want to lay hands on it. Words of caution and confidence get swallowed in a trifecta of vastness, emptiness, and ego. I recall Meloy's thoughts when she pushed limits, those moments when the need to pursue absurdity overwhelmed her need to stay out of trouble. Then my own admonitions, that the higher one goes the smaller they become. Lord. Way up here I'm at the bottom of importance. The Mountain doesn't care. I'm the nerdy geek kid in a P E class full of buff Jocks, the fly on a charging rhino's ass. Meloy again: that voice is not the wisest one in my soul, it is the spirit of agitation. 

A la the proverbial "straw that breaks a camel's back, mountains sometimes move under the weight of a fly. Each step sent rocks sliding and tumbling to new, albeit, temporary, points of equilibrium. I mismanage a few more steps, tri-poding my way across a precipitous "shooting gallery" couloir that was locked and loaded full of "bullets."  In spite of best efforts, my position relative to Bobbie remained static. Progress was ridiculous, theoretical... like walking up a down escalator or trying to climb stairs made of unset Jello. 

Gassed from nerves and 13,000 feet of elevation (mostly nerves) I take a seat on the only rock that looks as if it might hang around a few minutes. I'm reminded of a reoccurring nightmare I had as a child, where I couldn't run away from the Boogieman, only laterally or toward him. Seeing my struggle with progress, Bobbie halted her advance and leaned into the mountain. We are about eye level with each other. With all the slipping and sliding I'd made exactly zero progress upward. She sets her pole down and shoots a couple of photos. I do the same from my new vantage point, smitten by the raw chaos of teetering boulders and sky piercing needles.

These rocks aren't going anywhere... 

A fly could trigger these boulders

Saint Sophia's ridge is a colossal collection of decaying spires, an over-caffeinated quantum leap of static inertia kind of place where time seemingly speeds up to the point where immeasurably infinitesimal specks of human matter can actually fathom a glimpse of one of earth's major erosional processes taking place... in real time, and right before their eyes. Rocks Falling. Disintegration. Decomposition. Dissolution. Fluid gravity...makes its own decisions and follows the path of its own weight, taking with it worn-down pieces of the continent grain by grain. Ellen Meloy.  More Rocks Fall. Sheesh, erosion at this rate is analogous to watching the formation of the Grand Canyon on time-lapse. 

I imagine that, in a billion or so years, the rocks falling around me will comprise all of an inch or two of rusty sedimentary strata buried deep beneath the Pacific Ocean floor. The concept makes me shrink; I'm almost invisible by now. My significance suddenly and solidly in its proper place. I'm just the fly on a charging rhino's ass, and he doesn't even know I'm there.

At some point, we'll likely fuck up our planet beyond it being fit for human habitation. But rest assured, my friends, once the earth has rid itself of the human plague, it will reset and recover and continue on Ad infinitum or until the next Big Bang. There will be no one left to connect our dots enough to know we even existed, that we were "somebody," that we flew men to the moon and back and that we were such hard workers we didn't have time for nature's suffering, let alone suffering people. And as "shrinking" goes, you really can't get much smaller than that.

Disintegration. Decomposition. Dissolution... Disappear! 

Pay attention to the weather, to what breaks your heart, to what lifts your heart. Write it down. Ellen Meloy

I just did, Ellen... and you were of great help. The world lost a true patron of wilderness and preservation whey you passed on. 

Click Here if you would like to hear the call of a pack of wild coyotes from a saddle on Saint Sophia's rugged rim...

Time to head down...

From Sophia's Saddle... Panning left to right, Governor Basin, to Saint Sophia's ridge line (edge on), to Telluride's ski slopes with a Wilson Range backdrop.


  1. I don't have the words to describe my complete awe at what you two accomplish in the name of exploration. Beautiful writing and stunning vistas...thank you!

    1. Gracious Amigo :)
      Must rage against the night once in a while... thanks for listening.

  2. Voted, "Best Post of Summer 2016."

    (But sadly the coyote youtube returns a "This video is private" error for me.)

  3. To Heaven & Hell and Back.......loved every minute of it....the video with the images & the sound of the coyotes, man that was very inspiring.
    Thank you Mark & Bobbie for risking it all.

  4. You guys never cease to amaze us! Very cool video. Made my butt pucker just thinking about trying to get up that scree. How far do you think I would have gotten? ;-)

    1. All the way if I had anything to say about it :)).

  5. That ridge line of spires is awesome, I can see why you wanted to go up there. I know what you mean about those chutes of loose rock and that one looked really steep. Not a place one feels very secure! I think it's great that you guys can still pull a new hike out of your hat after all your time in that part of the San Juans.

  6. Loved this post, glad I wasn't on the hike.


  7. Wow. Just wow. What a hike! Thank you for taking us along...I feel guilty looking at these views from my chair. They are simply stunning. Glad you made it there and back.

  8. Magnificent landscapes and awesome photos of your (scary) hike. I've slid and fallen on scree - I would be waiting for you and Bobbie in that green area, sitting on a boulder that doesn't move. I can't believe the assortment of wildflowers you still had blooming. Ours (in Breckenridge) are mostly gone to seed, and the ground cover is shading to yellow and orange. I've been enjoying your posts, but haven't commented before now. The scree and spires demanded a comment!

    1. Thanks for commenting Barb... We were surprised to find flowers still blooming. We've had snow up there several times already! :)
      Love the Breck area, my nephew has a condo there :)

  9. Glorious views from up high. I love this quote and thought you and Bobbie might, too: "You cannot stay on the summit forever; you have to come down again. So why bother in the first place? Just this: What is above knows what is below, but what is below does not know what is above. One climbs, one sees. One descends, one sees no longer, but one has seen. There is an art of conducting oneself in the lower regions by the memory of what one saw higher up. When one can no longer see, one can at least still know." Rene Daumal

  10. Incredible- thanks for taking us along- Mary Lou

  11. Beautifully captioned .. your words due these photos justice. One of your best posts! Thank you for sharing your heart and soul.

  12. What a great post to end the summer of 2016. Really enjoyed the background sound of coyotes from Sophia's Saddle. You and Bobbie are amazing! I remember seeing St. Sophia's ridge from Sneffels Highline Trail and wondering if there were trails in that area. Thanks for the up close beautiful pictures of that area.

    1. Ah, but summer is not yet over... there are more hikes left to be done :)

  13. Been a silent reader of your exploits for some time now but it is time to speak up and marvel at the inner story you weave for us. Heading out from Southern California up to Aspen, Crested Butte and a southward drift through your neck of the woods. Will PM you when the crystal ball clears up a bit and maybe we can have the honor of sharing a few beers with you & Bobby.


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