Thursday, August 8, 2013

Colorado Trout Quest - A Close Call

Trip report:

Our middle son, Dan, is an avid fly fisherman.  He has been dreaming of the mountain lake packed full of trout that can only be found by hiking where others fear to tread.  Dan is 11.

Luke, our youngest, has been aching to go on a “real” backpacking trip for a few years.  He is 9.

Caleb, 16, is a hard core backpacker, wilderness survivalist, mountain biker, downhill ski racer, and experienced mountain man.  He was game.

The problem:

To get to the “easy” access to our wonder lake, we had to drive over a 12,000 foot high mountain pass.  This particular pass has a snow cornice on top that does not melt very often.  2013?  Not melted.  Will not melt.  Snow all year around.

So, we drove to the snow Friday evening.  We were at 12,400 feet above sea level in early August.  We did not get there until fairly late.  The weather was stable.  But light was fading fast.  We had only a couple of miles to hike to get down to our lake at 11,000 feet, but there is no trail to get there and the slopes are steep.  No, I mean really steep.  But hey, I am the wilderness survival guy, right?  What’s more, I had made the hike before, so I knew where we were headed.

We strapped on our packs and made a run for it.  An hour later, we were on the steeps.  The sun was gone, and there was no moon.  Our headlamps were not adequate to do any route finding.  We could see a few steps ahead of ourselves, but….

 Is this starting to sound like a Reader’s Digest Drama in Real Life?  You know, the story where that dad and the kids get stuck on high mountain ledge for three days eating lichen and drinking urine until the helicopter picks them off the precipice?  Yes, I read too many of those stories as a kid too.

I was determined not to make the local news.  Determined.

So, when the slope rolled steeper into the void and we could barely keep our footing and we had no idea what cliffs were below or how high those cliffs might be, I called it.  No sense in becoming a statistic, right?  We were nearly down, but I did not want to get there airborne.  So, we climbed.  Up.  More up.  Up on scree and rotten granite outcroppings.  Up into the night, in the pitch black.  Up with heavy packs while the wind blew and the temperature dropped.  Did I mention my boys were 9 & 11?  Caleb took it all in stride, but I knew this was a new challenge even for him. 

Luke asked how long until we could stop climbing and the obvious answer was, “Until we are safe.  Until we are off this slope.  All night if we have to.” 

But it was not all night.  Finally around midnight we made our goal.  There was a spire of rock I dubbed “the guardian” that acted as an earth dam.  It moderated the slope from “way lose too steep to sit on”  to “we won’t roll off the mountain as long as we stake our sleeping bags down”.  12,200 feet.   Windy.  Temperatures to drop WAY down.  Bivouac. 

Now before you call social services on me, please know that we were prepared.  We all had zero degree bags and all the other gear to enjoy a crazy night at 12,200 feet no matter the weather.  And I did stake the boys down, even though we were not on a precipice.  Soon they were happily snoring while I stared in awe at the stars.

 I have seen the Milky Way thousands of times before, but this was the first time that I could see the shape of the curved arm on which our solar system orbits the galactic center.  This was the first time that the 10s of thousands of stars were millions.  I was amazed.  It made it hard to sleep.  Never mind the 35 degree, 15 MPH winds.  Never mind that I was lying on lumpy ground high above tree line.  Never mind the mountain goat whose sleep we disturbed who was tramping around.  Never mind the pica that scampered around to see what we were all about.  It was the stars that kept me awake while my cozy boys slumbered. 

 Not my picture... From Steve Jurvetson via Wikimedia Commons

The morning dawned with a crisp crescent moon.  45 minutes later we were at the lake.  An hour later we had a breakfast of fresh trout.  Yes, Dan caught his fish.  After eating a few, we turned to catch and release and lost count of how many lovely cut throats went for Dan’s hand-tied dry flies. 

 The site of our bivouac

Nice catch!

The 180 Stove used for roasting

We stayed that night at the lake and enjoyed a lovely rainstorm--a magnificent living canvas of light and shadow, breezes and aromas.  The mountains speak a language all their own.  Until you have heard it and lived it, it cannot be described to you.  This is why we go.

Get out there!