14 June 2012

Unnamed 12,696

Mill Creek Battlements stand guard for the West Elk Mountains, Colorado.

Yet another trip report from my old Geocities website...

29 July 2006
16.5 miles

In the last six days, I’ve shot 841 pictures, gained 12,498 feet in elevation and hiked 53.5 miles. If I were a Boy Scout, I’d have earned my 50-miler badge! I’ve never even figured elevation gain in any of my Ride the Rockies scorekeeping! What a neat statistic to keep!

Today was the final day of our weeklong wilderness excursion. We’ve been deep inside the Weminuche Wilderness twice, and we’ve traversed the Lizard Head Wilderness. Today we finished up in the West Elks Wilderness. A full week with no communication with the outside world, six days of wildflowers and pure mountain air, a vacation in paradise.

The alarm went off at 4 a.m. We didn’t eat before we left. I shot the sunrise before we hit the Mill Creek trail.

We shot a lot of ‘shrooms. I ate a couple of wild raspberries. We had partly cloudy most of the day, but the clouds were not building. Just moving. I set the pace most of the day. I also lost the trail several times. I took the wrong trail at the top. I missed our turn.

I was going to have The Lizard drive down the road a mile after the hike so I could get a full 15 miles I thought I needed to achieve 50 miles for the week. Storm Pass via the proper trail was only 14 miles.

My diversions and spontaneous decision to walk up Unnamed 12,696 got me my 15 miles, and possibly even 16. Good thing, too, because thunder, lightning and rain set in about half an hour before we got back to the car. I would not have been able to safely walk down the road. I would have been walking right into the most dangerous part of the storm.

We ran out of water but didn’t have time to pump more because of lightning. We ran out of food. Both of us are sore and tired.

But I did 15 miles or more in one day! This is the most I’ve done in a day since I did Druid Arch, the day after my first date with The Lizard! The most I've done post-surgery! I didn’t run out of gas this time. The food I ate helped. And I made it! I cried on the summit!


I realized I was on the wrong trail after a stream crossing leading to a cairn-strewn tundra bowl below the peak The Lizard wanted to climb and a different mountain pass than the one we were supposed to ascend. This mountain pass was not an easy one. It also would have required more total mileage than turning back to find the proper trail and going up Storm Pass.

I was quite a way ahead of The Lizard when I topped a small hill and could see the trail ahead of me and the monster cairns marking the way. My eyes followed the trail up that steep and choss-laden pass and knew I was done. Choss is mountainspeak for small rocks acting like marbles while you’re trying to go up or down an alpine trail, no soil with which to grab traction, nothing solid for your hands to grab onto should you slide. There was no way I could make it up that thing. I wasn’t wiped out, but I didn’t have the energy for that.

I looked over across a trio of rolling hills to my right, hoping the gentle saddle between the peak The Lizard wanted to go up and another very smooth, round peak was where we were supposed to be, but the hills between me and that pass looked foreboding, thanks to all the elevation loss and gain I’d have to endure to get to the next pass. I was at least a good mile and a half away from a trail zigzagging up that pass. When The Lizard came up behind me, I turned to him and sobbed, "I don’t think I can make it. I’m not going to get to see the Castles."

The Lizard scanned the bowl and told me we were on the wrong trail. He pointed over to the more gentle pass and told me that’s where we needed to be. I was so relieved, but I still didn’t know if I could do all the hills in between. The Lizard encouraged me to eat and drink to build my energy back up. He said we could bushwhack across to the proper pass.

I ate my final bar, this one called "Chocolate Surge" or something decadent like that. It was made specifically for diabetics and promised to deliver steady energy, not just a burst like sugar. I expected it to taste pretty nasty, since it didn’t have any real sugar in it. But it actually tasted pretty darned good. Not like brownies, but not like sugar-free chocolate, either. It wasn’t rich, but it didn’t have a chemical aftertaste, either. I will buy that brand again!

I drank some water and meant to ask The Lizard if we should pump some water from the stream before we went up, just to make sure we didn’t run out. There would be no more opportunities to restock our water supply once we began going up the side of the bowl. The Lizard began looking around for the easiest way to surmount the hills we would have to navigate, and next thing I knew, we were going up again.

The Lizard took us up to where the bowl began to be too steep for me to go up and then began traversing around the edge of the bowl toward the proper trail instead of going directly over the hills.

“I’m trying to keep you from having to go up and down,” he explained. “It’s further this way, but we won’t have to lose and gain elevation this way.”

That sounded fine to me. I felt slightly recharged and thought I could do extra mileage as long as I didn’t have to do steep and didn’t have to do extra uphills.

One section required a little more of a steep ascent than I was comfortable doing in my weakened condition, but it wasn’t very long, and The Lizard let me stop to breathe as often as I needed to. It seemed to be over in about five minutes. Then we were on the gentle slopes of Storm Pass, still a half mile north of the lowest portion of the saddle, but the slope was so easy, I didn’t think it would be too hard to go up an extra 50 or 100 feet, whatever the extra was.

We went up, The Lizard going non-stop and reaching the top long before me, me stopping as often as I needed because I knew I was almost done gaining elevation for the entire week. Take five steps and breathe. Take five steps and breathe, breathe. Take five steps and breathe, breathe, breathe.

When The Lizard reached the top, I called out to him, "Is it beautiful?" He had stopped in his tracks, and I could see from his stance he was amazed.

"Get up here!" he excitedly called back down to me. "You’re going to love this!"

paintbrush, The Castle, Mill Creek, West Elks

I scrambled the rest of the way to the top without stopping and caught my second glimpse of the Castles. I’d seen them distantly from Ohio Pass. I’d seen framed enlargements of the Ohio Pass view in different shops around Gunnison. We’d tried to go up this same trail earlier in the month but were chased down by a lightning storm before we could behold this magnificent view. I wondered at the time if that was why no one in Gunnison seemed to have pictures from this awesome perspective.

I took a bunch of pictures while The Lizard headed up Unnamed 12,968 to our left. He also wanted to go up West Elk Peak, the next mountain over to the north, a low 13er, but clouds to the south looked as if they might potentially build. He handed me a radio and took off. He said he would meet me at the lowest point on the saddle, where we could take the proper trail back down. It would be much easier for me than the way we had come up.

I had about half an hour to stroll gently to the low point on the saddle, about a quarter of a mile away. There weren’t many flowers, so it didn’t take me 15 minutes. The low point on the saddle, however, had sufficient flowers to capture my attention and a bit of space on my memory card while I waited for The Lizard. He radioed he had reached a false summit and was continuing up. Man, was he fast!

I kept looking over at the hump to the right, Unnamed 12,696. It looked so easy. I could almost see a trail going all the way up it. It looked to be about half a mile to the summit. It was barely a climb. It was less of a grade than going up stairs. I could go up and down 14 flights of stairs at the parking garage at work. I thought this might be the equivalent of three or four trips up the stairs, only not as hard. Plus, I could see flowers along the way. If I went up, it would put me higher than I was, with maybe a better view of the Castles, sort of like looking at them from an airplane. I thought I could do it. So I passed the low point on the saddle and the trail going down and began working my way up the mountain.

About a quarter of the way up, The Lizard radioed he had reached the true summit and would not be doing West Elk Peak. He said he could see dark clouds to the south, and he didn’t want to risk getting caught in another storm. I congratulated him and continued working my way up.

Every once in a while, I would look up and think I could do it in just two more pushes. Breathe breathe, then go as far as I could; breathe breathe, and then go as far as I could and reach the summit. But I did that three times before I actually reached the summit. It took six breathe breathes!

I reached the top and hoisted my arms above my head, tears streaming down my cheeks, joy bursting from my soul. It was hard because I had no energy, and it was hard because I knew I’d added extra miles. How would my knee and back feel after pushing so hard? I didn’t care. I was elated to be able to push myself up to the top. I went further than I thought I could go. I didn’t get discouraged, and I didn’t want to give up. I’d made it.

"Congratulations!" the radio crackled.

I thrust my fists into the air again. I was so happy!

"Wait there," The Lizard transmitted. "I’ll join you in a few minutes."

I didn’t even care that he would race up this thing in a tenth of the time it took me, even after he’d already gone up one a little longer, a little harder and a little steeper. I didn’t care that he would have a mile or more extra on top of my mileage. I didn’t care that I wouldn’t have the summit of the other peak. I was so satisfied to have what I’d achieved. The joy alone would be enough to carry me back down to the car, I thought. The route back down was shorter than what we’d just come up. I’d have only seven and a half miles to do, and I thought I could do that, even without any more food.

the castles

As it turned out, The Lizard had one more package of spicy tuna, which we decided to save for halfway back to the car. When he reached the summit, we kissed, and I put my camera on a rock and set the self-timer to get the two of us together in front of the Castles. The Lizard pointed out the Elk 14ers in the distance – Snowmass, Capitol, the Bells, Pyramid and Castle. We snapped a few more pictures, surveyed the clouds, then headed back down the mountain and down the proper trail, which indeed was far simpler than the route we’d come up.

Once we’d passed the point where we’d missed the turn, The Lizard decided to take pictures of my long hair, knowing I planned to have it whacked on Monday to donate to charity. It was kind of cool being in the middle of a larkspur-filled meadow on a modeling photo shoot with my husband, continually telling me I look good and how good these shots were going to be. He made me feel special, and he made me feel I might be attractive, at least to him. It was a marvelous feeling.

A couple of miles later, we ate the rest of the tuna. Once again, I wondered if I should ask him to pump and filter some water from the nearby stream, but the flies were so bad, we just gobbled and hurried back along our way.

At the steepest part of the descent, where we’d been forced to turn back the last time we’d tried this, I started gathering raspberries along the trail. There was too much downfall in this area for me to efficiently gather berries off the trail with a storm moving in. I used one of the used and now empty Ziploc bags to collect the bright red berries. I halfway filled the bag, just enough to make a loaf of raspberry bread, before sealing the bag and picking up the pace again. I ate a few of the berries, but the rest I wanted to save for cooking at home. If they could make it that long without going bad.

Daisies, Mill Creek, West Elks

A mile from the final stream crossing, The Lizard stopped to let me sip from his Camelbak, but I couldn’t get any water out. We were out.

That’s when we heard our first bolt of lightning.

The sky had been clear to the north just 15 minutes earlier. Now there was no blue left, only dark gray getting darker by the minute. Lightning picked up the pace, forcing us to do the same. The Lizard practically ran the rest of the way down the trail to the stream crossing. He splashed across, not even bothering to change his shoes or roll up his pants. He threw his pack down to the ground and raced back across to help me get safely across. He took my camera, as he always does when we cross because I’m afraid I might slip and get it wet, and took my hand and lead me across the slippery rocks and gentle current.

On the other side, he threw his pack back on but kept my camera and told me we’d have to hurry across the open clearing. We needed to get back into the trees. I was counting seconds between flashes and booms. Before the stream crossing, it was 30 seconds, or six miles. Now it was 20 seconds, four miles. By the time we reached the car, which involved yet another section of running across one last clearing, the flashes were almost in synch with the loud cracks. The rolling echoes were great to listen to, but not at this proximity.

The Lizard worried about even driving through the storm. We could see bolts dancing along the ridge on the east side of the canyon we would have to navigate to escape. The skies ahead were almost totally black. We had seen several patches of lightning-scarred trees from the steep section of the trail all the way to the car. Here at the trailhead there were more bare gold and black trees, standing as lightning rods from the past.

We crossed the stream twice in the 4Runner before reaching the less-rugged section of road leading back to the highway to Gunnison. Now we felt safer. We could go faster, but the urge to do so had diminished. We casually completed our trip with a stop at the grocery store for salad, chicken and plain yogurt, which I decided I would dump the raspberries in for breakfast the next morning. The running sections of the trail had turned my wannabe bread into juice. I didn’t think the berries would make it back to the metro in edible condition.

Wildberry yogurt, turns out, is far better than any pre-sweetened stuff you can buy!



  1. Wowie zowie! What a post!

    Has the Lizard ever considered a career as mountain guide or hiking trainer? I think he'd be really good at it. (We already know he's a great cycling coach.) :)

    All the photos are fantastic but I love the daisies, and the picture of you two, best.

    Hope you're having fun at RtR, and I can't wait to see those pictures next week.

  2. Oh you make such a cute couple! Happy weekend to you!

  3. You are so inspiring. You bring me to tears.

  4. All the photos are gorgeous but the one with the berries really made my mouth water :)
    I hope you have a great weekend!


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