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Archive for April, 2011

If it’s just going to rain down low, we ought to just go high and enjoy the new snow.

A day of backcountry skiing at Rocky Mountain National Park’s defunct ski area, Hidden Valley, seemed the best use of the day. A trip which of course had to include a stop at the Donut Haus in Estes Park.

Jeremy and I made a climb up past the road and into the trees in warmer-than-expected conditions. Maybe the first day all “winter” that I haven’t been skiing in thick mittens.

As high as we wanted to go we watched the cloud roll up valley and obscure what views there were while we stripped off the skins and prepared for the down.

Fresh powder snow greeted us as we cut turns near the skin track through the woods.

Super fun skiing! Jeremy even stole my camera to get a few shots of me skiing just below the road.

Below the snow seemed to get wetter and thicker, a few sections were chopped up enough to form mini-moguls. One long lap was enough for us. Donuts before skiing, beer after.

Oh, we saw elk too.

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Plans to go ice and snow climbing (or just end up taking our tools for a long walk) fell through, so I drove through falling snow on US 285 to visit a few of Jefferson County’s Open Space parks I hadn’t yet hiked through.

Loosing elevation after Pine Junction the sky brightened a bit and the snow stopped. Only a light dusting disturbed signs of spring.

I didn’t know geese liked rocky perches, but after yelling at me they gave up their high ground.

A few other hikers were out enjoying the morning and I kept thinking of the softball mom in the coffee shop that morning: “I shouldn’t be out in this weather.”

Having nearly finished my loop and left the high ground I returned to the river and a plethora of fly fishermen. I think if I ever took up fishing I’d fish rivers and streams, no still water. Well, maybe some alpine lakes, but certainly nothing formed by a dam.

Driving to Reynolds Park I enjoyed one of the best roads in Colorado – stretches of county roads 96/97 along the North Fork of the South Platte River. Plus there’s the view of Cathedral Spires.

At Reynolds Park I made another multi-mile loop around the park, disliking the Eagle’s View trail for being on a service road but fully enjoying the rocky and wooded Oxen Draw Trail.

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Weather and schedules hadn’t really aligned yet this spring for Gary and I to return to after-work rock climbing. Friday seemed windy, but do-able, so we headed into Eldo and decided to start on Wind Tower’s Boulder Direct. I got the first, easier, but runout at the start, pitch and took it to the ledge near the Calypso anchors. While my back was turned, the sun took this opportunity to duck behind Redgarden Wall and Gary spent my pitch shivering at the base.

As he followed the pitch he brought the shade up with him and I pulled on a warmer jacket while he racked up for the next pitch.

I was wondering how this route got so much credit for being a classic, and the upper pitch answered that. Pure 5.5 fun including the little crawling through a slot to finish. We made two raps back to the base and had only warmed up a bit. Commitments on the home front for Gary further convinced us one climb was enough for the evening.

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Originally, I’d have been rock climbing w/ Pete today, but after spraining an ankle he was out. Gary, however, was interested in a trip to the flatirons, so we made the long approach from Chautauqua past the Third Flatiron and wandered around until we think we located the formation “Willy B”. Gary got us started with the first pitch.

He hadn’t trad climbed yet this year, so he turned over the sharp end to me for the rest of the pitches – never mind that my fingers had gone white in the wind and cool of the morning. At least it was pretty easy climbing. Due to rope-drag I stopped my pitch at a half rope-length just below the prominent left-facing dihedral.

By now the sun was out and I was warming up. Our third pitch went up the dihedral, then across the face to a ramp on the south side. Here, I was confused by the directions and climbed the slick ramp with downward-sloping holds way too high looking for a piton. I found the piton, but finding other solid gear was difficult and I didn’t trust the anchor I was trying to build behind hollow-sounding blocks.

After digging out the route description I decided I wanted to be lower, so had to downclimb and was getting seriously unnerved. Eventually, I reached the base of the ramp at the overhang and found a few solid cam placements and yelled “off-belay”.

Gary arrived at the belay and suddenly remembered he’d done this route before and hated it. Well, we’re committed now. Screwing my courage to the sticking place, I went up about halfway to my earlier highpoint and made a few committing crux moves to overcome the south-face and arrive on the lower angle east face. Typical flatirons slab climbing followed to the summit.

Gary managed the climb well, but said he couldn’t imagine leading that crux move. Pulling onto the summit we couldn’t help but notice the increased winds and clouds and a bit of moisture spitting down on us.

After completing the rappel down we hiked back to the base to gather our packs and realize that it was after 2pm already.

We hated to walk in this far for just one climb, and I suggested we have a look at Green Mountain Pinnacle, which Pete and I had done just a couple weeks before.

Thankfully, the sun seemed to be re-emerging, and it looked like we’d get a weather window to repeat the West Chimney route. This time I loaded up with a smaller rack of just the pieces I’d need and freed up the back of my harness for the rubbing that would soon begin.

Gary looked a little apprehensive about this one, but it certainly went smoother for me the second time around. I reached the anchors and put him on belay.

After getting over the initial, tight part of the chimney, he seemed to enjoy the climb.

While I belayed, I also admired the view back at Willy B and the route we’d done on that formation.

After joining me at the anchor, we rappelled and started the hike out.

Complete photo album

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After leaving Mesa Verde, I followed US 160 east with a brief stop in Pagosa Springs for an excellent fish & chips dinner at the Pagosa Brewing Company – the beer was pretty good as well. By the time I was nearing Great Sand Dunes darkness was approaching and I didn’t feel like paying for a camping spot. Instead, I pulled up short of the park and drove up the Como Lake Road onto free lands with very few amenities. In fact, the amenity list barely included level and flat ground, but the price was right. Unfortunately, the wind gusted most of the night, rattling the tent and producing little sleep. At least I’d gotten a good rest in the trees at Mancos State Park the previous night.

Waiting for sunrise to reach the tent, I brewed up a quick cup of coffee, threw everything into the car and basted the heater as I finished the drive into the Great Sand Dunes. I had high hopes of spending at least one night camping in the dunes, near this full moon. However, the wind made me rethink that plan as I set out for a day hike up the two most popular dunes.

I seemed to be the first to head out into the dunes on this cold and windy morning.

The sun was out, but it’s warm was little felt and I was hiking with an insulated jacket and gloves.

Surprisingly, the uphill dune walking did little to warm me up.

However, I was finding some similarities between the dunes and snow-clad mountains. It seemed the wind or moisture had packed some of the sand into firmer paths on some spots, and softer, lee-slopes in others.

I also discovered that walking backwards prevented my toe from “pushing off” and digging into the sand, and keeping a very flat foot relative to the slope angle was helpful for efficient progress.

After about a hour of hiking I reached High Dune and setup my camera on a mini-tripod for a hero shot.

Something else I discovered – the wind blown sand was much more prominent near the dune surface than a foot or move above. Bring a larger tripod would be my advice, as the camera’s moving parts attracted a lot of sand.

I decided to continue on to Star Dune, the next big dune to the west.

The hike there took about another hour, and a bit more route-finding with a few intermediate dunes.

The sand my camera had acquired continued to work deeper into the motorized parts and pretty soon the shutter would only open with a little assistance.

The last 100 feet of the climb of Star Dune was a sand slope at the most extreme angle of repose for the grains. Each step would send a 3-foot radius of snow to find a new stable point and as much as 80% of each upward step would collapse and sink before holding.

By the time I reached the top I was feeling done with the desert environments I’d been visiting for the last 5 days. My camera was also refusing to even open anymore. Deciding I’d done enough here, and learning that I wasn’t a desert rat (I’m definitely more of a forest/alpine monkey) I made a beeline back for the trailhead and braved Denver rush-hour traffic to get home a little early.

Complete photo album

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Returning to Color-Red-O I first paused in Cortez for a entirely forgettable meal and stout at J. Fargo’s Brewing. At least filled up, I continued to Mesa Verde National Park and signed up for the only guided tour available this early in the year. With a bit of time to kill I first drove around the Mesa Top Loop and visited a few of the sites, including the Square Tower House viewpoint.

Cliff Palace is the largest and best known of Mesa Verde’s cliff dwellings, and can only be visited on one of the guided tours.

Some 40 people were in my tour, not quite the small gathering I’d hoped for, but it was still an interesting introduction to the cliff dwellings, which only were used for a short time.

Our park interpreter reminded us that the Native American’s had been living on the mesa top for hundreds of years prior to the construction of the cliff dwellings. Still, the cliff dwellings have a definite hold on the imagination, especially viewed in light of what a civilization may build when under stress.

After the tour I made a short trip up to the view point on Park Point, then returned to Cortez for a better meal and beer at the Main Street Brewery.

A near-freezing evening was spent at the Mancos State Park before I drove back into the park in a small snow storm. As the sun struggled to break through the clouds, I wandered around the Far View sites.

A couple deer were also enjoying the area, and I later heard mountain lions were known to look for a snack here.

Continuing further into the park I stopped to make a quick hike of the Farming Terrace Trail and spotted a few bright blue birds (as you can see, I’m an excellent birder).

By now the self-guided cliff dwelling of Spruce Tree House was open, so I headed there to find the lone ranger on duty in the warm sunlight. Dragging him away into the morning chill of Spruce Tree House we had a nearly uninterrupted 90 minute conversation about Mesa Verde, the park service, kivas, Wadsworth, the Alps, wildlife reintroduction, and the “invention” of appreciation for wild and sublime landscapes.

Besides enjoying the longest conversation I’d had with another person in days, Spruce Tree House also offered a better understanding of what a public space the closed kiva’s provided, as well as the construction details of the interior.

Mesa Verde is a bit unique by National Park standards and leans heavily towards the preservation side of the dual duties of the park service (preservation and recreation). However, I was determined to stretch my legs on the Petroglyph and Spruce Canyon trails, each around 2 to 2.4 miles.

Besides the large panel of petroglyphs (which I must admit I appreciated more when I realized it was, at least in part, a map, even if possibly only a symbolic one) I also enjoyed a few early wild flowers.

Complete photo album

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By now I felt my loyal steed could have steered itself out of Moab and down to UT 211 into Indian Creek. If my hands recognized this place, they didn’t start screaming in protest – noise that I’d normally have to gag with layers of athletic tape. For this visit, they’d get a reprieve from crack climbing as I continued past the walls of Wingate sandstone splitter cracks to Canyonlands National Park.

A brief stop at the visitor’s center procured my permit and a review of the rules. At Squaw Flat I parked and loaded my backpack for 2 nights and 3 liters of water to start with.

A light cloud cover moderated the afternoon heat as I started off towards Lost Canyon.

From the Squaw Flat campground, the trail traversed brush and cryptobiotic soils in a very open landscape.

Still, the promise of stunning landscapes was only a little ways off.

Some slickrock scrambling lead to a ladder-assisted descent into a new canyon.

Unnamed, but definitely a step up on the grandeur scale.

Eventually I reached Lost Canyon and headed up that drainage to find my campsite for the night.

My assigned spot was LC3, which I occupied, and left what wild animals wouldn’t mess with (tent, sleeping bag).

Taking my food with me, I re-hiked the last 15 minutes of the trail to a decent water source.

When I got back to LC3 it looked like the ravens had poked around.

The next morning I was up a little after 5am, and hiking just after 6am. The first 15 minutes were assisted by headlamp as I made my way out of Lost Canyon and into Squaw Canyon.

Continuing west up Squaw, I kept looking back as the sun repeatedly broke through the morning’s clouds.

The upper end of Squaw Canyon was particularly beautiful in the morning’s yellow light.

The trail itself grew interesting, especially squeezing through one slot in the rock.

To pass out of Squaw Canyon, I encountered another ladder.

Descending a little sandstone gully, the game of chutes and ladders continued as I found a downclimb into Elephant Canyon.

The rock continued to puzzle me with its formations, Doric, Ionic or Corinthian?

The vegetation was no less weird.

Between the landscape, lack of other hikers and perfect morning light, I spent hours walking with a half smile on my face, just waiting to blossom fully.

The only crowds I noticed was a teeming cairn metropolis.

By now, I’d made 4 consecutive left turns, but I wasn’t back to where I started this morning.

Still blessed with peace and silence I found myself the only visitor to the arch this morning.

I took a good long break to relax and soak up this amazing amphitheater.

Pets aren’t allowed on the park’s trails, so don’t tell the rangers I brought my tired dogs.

I’d hiked around 6 miles to reach the arch, and planned for about another 10 yet today. So it was time to push on and head back up the Druid Arch trail.

Partway up the trail, I had to stop at another water source and tank up. My load increased to 6 liters of water, a necessary amount as I wouldn’t cross another water source until I finished the hike tomorrow. Moving a little slower I returned to Elephant Canyon and then took another left turn for Chesler Park.

I passed a few hikers finally as the spires of Chesler Park began to be visible.

The park was a wide open grass and shrub land surrounded by the signature needles of the park.

I reached the start of the Joint Trail a bit after noon and stopped for lunch in the cool shade of a tree.

The trail passed through a slot in the rock and I could hear some day hikers progressing my way. Carrying less than 12oz of water each, it was obvious they hadn’t hiked here from Squaw Flat. While they were admiring the park views, I slipped into the joint and appreciated it’s cool shade.

Reaching the end I followed a trail to a 4WD trailhead with a couple of rental jeeps. The trail was disappointing for the width, and resulting destruction of the crypto soil as hikers here had made no effort to stay single file. I wondered if the close proximity of the 4WD road brought less-educated hikers to this trail.

From the trailhead I had to walk about a mile on a dirt road to return to the park’s wilderness boundary. I noticed that while walking a road, even with no one else around, my thoughts often turned to past and imaginary future human encounters. That line of thinking seems rare on a true walking path.

Back in the park’s wilderness I decided to do another out-n-back along the northern section of Chesler Park.

The extra miles were partly to see more of the famous Chesler Park, and partly to kill time hiking instead of sitting around camp after a too-early arrival.

At the end of my out-n-back I stopped to enjoy an apple and look over the terrain I’d be hiking tomorrow morning.

The water weight was only getting slightly lighter by now and my shoulders were aching a bit.

Not that I could complain. Rather I congratulated myself for what would be a 16 mile day with a full-pack and tried to remember the last time I’d hiked that far with as large a load.

After crossing a notch in the line of Needles I could look down on the final mile of today’s travel, into the Devil’s Pocket.

The site DP1 was easily located but sat in a windy gap.

Craving some protein, I started munching on some bison jerky before noticing mold on a couple pieces. For my next culinary disaster, I heated up a bowl of soup in the worst of the wind’s gusts and everything was coated in a fine layer of sand. My main course went off without a hitch as the wind died down near sunset.

My last morning in the park repeated my earlier schedule, with me arising in the dark and hiking a little bit with a headlamp. The payoff was turning the corner on the line of Needles to catch sunrise lighting the sky.

And just like yesterday, the rock was glowing in the early light.

Again, I felt privileged to be able to hike in an amazing place like this and see this terrain at its most spectacular hour.

Other than some distant campers at two sites adjacent to the trail, I wouldn’t see another human until I returned to Squaw Flat after 7 miles of early morning hiking.

Leaving was made a little easier by thoughts of being able to come back some future day.

Complete photo album

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