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Sunday, July 30, 2017

Terra Firma Versus Terror Firma

As with overbearing mother-in-laws who overstay their welcome, winter extended its stay in Lovely Ouray till almost summer, and I believe the extra snow may have put a dent in the usual wildflower extravaganza. That, along with a recent hail storm that shredded a good deal of alpine foliage, means I've yet to score the "LSD high" normally associated with wildflower seasons in the Rockies...I'm talking the glaze-eyed bejeweled kaleidoscope 3D Imax version of Fantasia kind. The search is on!

Bobbie and I rummage through the rusted file cabinets of our collective memory, trying to recall some supernatural place that might have escaped last week's 50-year hail storm...a place beyond the reach of woolly Mountain-Maggots that turn entire alpine floral basins into foul smelling sheep pens every summer. Oh, and it has to be nearby...cause we are caught up in the wash cycle of a monsoon season that turns a hike above timberline after 12:01 pm into "risky business."

Tawdry alliteration aside, we agree to summit 13er, Hayden Mountain from the Imogene side. Ain't no Mountain Maggots smart nor hardy enough to find that garden. Hell, even Petroleous Rex struggles to get up there. So we're out the door by 7 am under what looks to be clear skies...as if one can take comfort from that, post-ides of July.

Huddled Bluebells, waiting on sun to rise above the mountains

We short-cut through the old Camp Bird Mine site—long shuttered up and shut down, except for the living "legacy" of a tailings pile the size of Rhode Island. The 4X4 Jeep trail is as rough and rocky as we've ever seen it, some sections brutal enough to cause internal bleeding and put Pet Rex's tail between his legs. But I kept him on a "leash," gently coaxing him up, up, up in low range/low gear over a bombed-out minefield-for-a road. 

Shaken, but not detoured, as 007 Sean C. would say, we parked Rex and stepped into another world. Dressed for Ouray, our reception was chilled to say the least. Too Tall Hayden made for a tardy sunrise; Bluebells rang with frost and lupine shivered, waiting for the first rays of light. We plodded up-lane, teeth chattering as if it was an isle in the frozen food section at City Market.  

Lupine thawing out in the first rays of morning light

Bluebells were everywhere

Broken Ankle Trail

An intense grade soon melted away the morning's chill. By the time we found sunlight, I was sweating like a Phoenician on the 4th of July. 

A decision was made to stick to the much despised Broken Ankle Trail this time...to stumble up through a liberally screed base of rotten-rocked mountains and eschew the usual ladder-of-tundra shortcut, now sopping wet and slick as snot. We tiptoe with care through what I unceremoniously dubbed "the rock and rolled-ankle hall of fame," a piss-poor excuse for a "trail" beneath a mountain in full-molt.  A symphony of tinkling rockfall accompany our every step that teeters on the brink of some random misfortune that mountains are known to deal Geezer invaders. 

In time, we managed to hike out from under the mountain of "shed" unscathed and break into a meadow lush with wildflowers. Not yet 9 am, trails-of-smoke-signal clouds foretell what's in store, rising in soft cumulus puffs cross-canyon over Sneffles and Potosi. But we have flowers to put our minds at ease...lots and lots of flowers.

Per usual, the plan for a summit on Hayden was cast in "Jello." We've learned over the years that Plans tend to deal a deathblow to Serendipity, so, after topping Richmond Pass, what was a summit bid began to soften like butter in the morning sun. 

In her book, Wild, Cheryl Strayed wrote: I'll never know, and neither will you, of the life you don't choose.  I think the same can be said for mountains. Bobbie and I knew Hayden inside out and up-side down; been there—done that. In the spirit of "Wild," her eyes strayed west to unknown territory, revealing a preference for "new ground" over "old hat." Hence, a left became a right, and we're on the climb again...reaching higher, connecting new "dots." 

We reach another saddle above Richmond Pass, almost eye level with Hayden. I offer the opinion that we likely broke 13,000 feet. With that, the "lights" went out. A dark cloud mushroomed between us and friend Sol. 

We snack and debate the weather. Our dark cloud seems isolated; as long as it doesn't join forces with other clouds the threat-level is deemed "tolerable." Nothing like wildflowers and sun to give one a false sense of security.

Fifteen minutes pass and it seems we've caught a break; Bobbie's working on her tan in full sun. However, across Sneffles and Potosi way, "Smoke Signals" gain emphasis...as if to say, "We may be small and late, but we're coming." 

We stumble across a ridge-walk, one that might connect us to another 13er summit. It was such a compelling ridge; we had to see it through.

Smoke Signals blossom over Sneffles and Potosi

The Ridge awaits, but first we must skirt the "knob."

A seraphic shadow highlights our sunny ridge; it appears we can use it as a bridge to the next mountain.

But sometimes, things are not what they appear. Hidden in the shadows is a serrated knife-edge section that spells trouble for gear-less Geezers, a spot where our slow IV drip of adrenaline threatens to become a heart-stopping Over Dose.  

The ridge is broad and comfy... at first. We stroll along, taking in the views more than watching our step. About halfway across, however, the terra firma morphs into terror firma; ground on either side falling away into precipitous chasms. Our peekaboo sun disappears behind a dark cloud, which always increases the drama and sense of dread. Wildflowers appear to shiver as the breeze picks up. A chill runs a lap up and down my spine.

The ridge-top continues to narrow, accentuating the "airy" sensation one gets that's commonly associated with "butterflies." We slow to a crawl, crouch down, reminding each other to choose each step with care and judgement. Our "safety nets" have fallen into the abyss.  



Pretty soon we are using both hands; time to secure the camera out of harms way. I eye Sneffles' and Potosi's deteriorating weather. It's not looking good...

Suddenly, the knife-edge was upon us, a jagged, gap-toothed devil made of breadcrumb rock. No way could we cross it. So close to the other side, I'm not ready to give up, and attempt to down climb around the impasse; Bobbie follows; rock tumbles. The ridge is so rotten that we dare not use any handholds above us out of fear of dislodging some Keystone that triggers a landslide of angular rock. 

"Skittered," is a good word. I'll use it to describe the attempt to down-climb and skirt the knife-edge impasse. The slope fell away; we were at the point beyond which a "bail-out" is possible. And then there's those damn storm clouds, weighing heavier as we weigh options. The last place to be caught in a thunderstorm is on some fucking ridge above timberline, way in the middle of nowhere...out of cell phone range, and where no one knows about your fucking infatuation with "Jello" itineraries.

It's time to bail, and it almost feels like we're jumping out of a plane. Amidst the rotten, untrustworthy rock, Bobbie can't find one single solid "hold" for foot nor hand. Rocks dislodge at the slightest disturbance and bound down-mountain, adding to the massive pile of ankle-break scree that stands between us and terra firma.  

Bailing out...

I dug my better-than-nothing 50 foot "emergency strap" out of the bottom of my pack. It's there for occasions such as this, you know, when "Jello" turns into "diarrhea." We'd only used it once before... in Zion, when "slick rock" began to live up to its name on a slope so steep I nearly peed my pants. 

I use all 50 feet of the strap to lower Bobbie as far as possible, telling her she was on her own as it the end slipped through my fingers. Rocks peel and slide and bound as Bobbie inches her way down. Let me assure you: we added some serious tonnage to the base of that ridge, trying to get the hell off.

Bobbie makes her way down through the "shed zone" after bailing off the knife-edge. Every rock teeters on the edge of yielding to gravity's constant tug, spawning mini landslides which result in unintended "ballet" moves. Ironically, the sun returns, which helps dispel some of the inner gloom, if not, impending doom, in view of the approaching thunderstorms. 

Finally, a snowfield; something we can deal with. The bad weather holds off, and we arrive back at Pet Rex dry as the sun-bleached bones of previous geezer hikers dumb enough to push their luck...except for the seats of our pants from snow-sliding and maybe soiled underwear due to a little fear and loathing. 

"Bullet" officially dodged, we gleefully recount our adventure as I drive Pet Rex down mountain. We even make a plan to return and grab that 13er that "got away,"  avoiding "the ridge," of course. 

Our off-camber Jeep trail is full of jutting, sharp-edged rocks, some embedded, some loose as stacked marbles. I'm forced to squeeze up against the mountain every time we meet a vehicle coming up...places so tight we must pull in the side mirrors in order to pass without touching. Just when I think our "adventure" is over, it's not over. 

There, on the worst road in the worst of all possible places...clinging to a trail dynamited from solid vertical rock...I'm trying to make room for a full-size Jeep to pass on our left. I hear a sudden, "Whoosh" that sounds like a jet. But it's not a jet; it's the sickening sound of a sharp rock puncturing the side-wall of our front right tire. Houston, we have a problem.

It's far too steep and narrow to even think about changing a flat tire. There are no other choices but to ride the rim till I reach a spot wide enough and level enough to jack Pet Rex and change out his "shoe." I pause at every wide spot, trying to make sure other vehicles have room to pass, while allowing enough room for me to change out the flat. After a couple hundred feet of metal grating against rock, I find a place that might work, barely wide enough and far from level. We'd just have to deal with it. 

Squeezed against the mountain, pointed steeply downhill, I'm laying in mud and reaching under Pet Rex in an attempt to construct a level pad upon which I can place, however so precariously, the fucking useless-piece-of-shit-standard-issue-jack that comes with vehicles these days. And just when you think it can't get worse, lightning flashes...thunder rolls...and it begins to rain. 

It occurs to me—in the form of an expletive laced wail that resounds on the habitually-deaf ears of the universe—that I'd rather be back up on that fucking ridge facing a vicious fucking lightning storm than changing a fucking flat tire on the most god-awful tightrope backroad in America

“The universe, I'd learned, was never, ever kidding. It take(s) whatever it want(s) and never give(s) back.” Wild, Cheryl Strayed. 

Aw well, such is the price paid for leaving the "couch." If you can't deal with a little danger and adversity, you best stay the fuck home. 


  1. And that, my friend, is why I am reading this from my portable home. What's wrong with you people. Love ya.


    1. Jim,
      Mark and Bobbie getting out the 50 foot emergency strap is what they consider foreplay. Such an adventurous hike, great photo's.

  2. Where are the photos of you changing the flat? I really want to see those.


  3. Oh holy hell! I second Jim's comment!

  4. As usual you two are living life on the edge... literally. Today, I think you got a good dosage of your favorite drug .... adrenaline!

  5. Hey, you only told us the tire story the other night. Nothing was said about lowering Bobbie on a 50 foot strap! Agh! You two have really been pushing the adventurous hikes this summer!

  6. Harrowing! I'm going to be in Ouray this weekend, crewing for Beat during the Ouray 100. I might have time for a ~6-hour hike. What trail would you recommend (not this route ;-) ?

    1. Hi Jill,
      There are several convenient options right out of Ouray that wouldn't require driving. First, there is a neat 7 mile perimeter trail that circumnavigates Ouray and offers some good views of town. It only takes about 3 hours tho, but you could add the Chief Ouray Mine Trail and that would put you near 6 or 7 hours. Pick up a free map at the Visitor's center next to the pool...it will help!
      If you want more elevation gain and a killer view of town do head Twin Peaks hike via the steep Old Twin Peaks Trail or the less steep Oak Creek Trail (again, use the map). Twin Peaks takes about 3 to 4 hours round trip, but is also accessed from the Perimeter Trail and that gives you options to lengenqen as desired. Then there is Bridge of Heaven trail...It leaves town on a trail across from the Timberridge, and Hot Springs motels (see map) and is a 7 hour hike, give or take, that get you above timberline. If you want to drive a short 3 to 4 miles south on 550 south, the Bear Creek Trailhead parking area is immediately beyond the first" tunnel." It goes forever so you can turn around when you've had enough. It is a most impressive trail, notched into the mountainside by miners for access to gold mines along the way. It's not dangerous at all...and it is quite memorable!!! If you would like a local guide and company, I offer up my services :). Bobbie works weekends starting at 3 pm, so she would be iffy and have get back by 2 to get ready.
      I wish Beat good luck... it is a grueling course, part of which goes up to the Bridge of Heaven and loops back down Bear Creek this year... I'm not mistaking.

    2. Thanks for your recommendations. Sorry I didn't get back to you about a guided tour. That would have been nice, but always a challenge to squeeze everything in. Lovely home you have here.

    3. No worries, Jill. The offer stands if you make it back here sometime. :)

  7. Bring out the rope is when I got concerned!! Nothing scares me as much as loose rock. You two are crazy!! But it is that sense of adventure that takes us to new heights and spectacular areas. Great job getting down safely. Sorry about the tire!

  8. We are inside avoiding a mini heat wave and this post was made to order, some high excitement , some beautiful wildflower scenes which we will never experience and several near death experiences ,finally heading down hill on a mt road with a flat tire to boot.......it just don't get any better than this. 5 STARS on this post kids. (not going to worry about you two anymore...just going to enjoy the ride.:)

  9. Good photo of you two, nice to see a photo of your faces. Mark you DO have a bit of a crazy-eyed look about you to match your exploits :) Bobbie gets a gold medal!


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