Wednesday, December 2, 2009

the Pyramid (day two)

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the Pyramid (day two)

I awake after an uneventful night’s rest and start the fire again. My leg is feeling a bit better so I start stretching, but that only brings the pain back again. When the fire is going well I wake Ian and Duane, and once we have eaten, and they have had their coffee we break camp. We take our time, slightly sore from the previous day, and knowing that it should not take long to reach the Rio Grande Pyramid. After finishing the packing we decide to leave the packs here, just taking food for lunch and some water, as we will be returning to this spot after the mountain on our way back to the main trail.

We cross the Rincon la Vaca and begin to climb the ridge before us to the north. Our plan is to top the ridge, (which also happens to be the Continental Divide,) and follow the ridge west to the Pyramid, taking a high point or two along the way. Getting to the top of the ridge is like a wake up call to the body; we ascend about one thousand feet in less than half a mile. There is some confusion about the climb as we are not certain of where the Pyramid is in relation to us. The higher we go the more certain we are that the point we saw yesterday is not it. When we finally get on top of the ridge we have a view of the whole valley and the mountains surrounding it and there it is. It is a lot further off than we thought and we now realize that we should have left much earlier if we are to climb it and get picked up on time. It is quickly decided that we will not follow the ridgeline, we will instead take a trail that we crossed that skirts the south side of the ridge and drops us at the base of the Pyramid.

Off we go again following a path that frequently disappears from a large amount of deadfall on it. It seems extraordinarily dry here, some of the fallen trees have obviously toppled in just the last week or two and the soil around the root systems looks and feels bone dry. It takes us quite a while to get through this section, clambering over and around trees, but we eventually make it through and we now have open trail before us with stunning views that keep us moving slowly at first. There is a striking formation on the south arm of the Pyramid aptly named The Window that it is hard to take my eyes from. A huge square of stone is just missing from this massive rock wall, giving it the appearance of a large window without the top lintel.

The trail now takes us on the bottom edge of some large scree-covered slopes where the rocks are all small and gravel sized, another thing that I am not used to seeing on the side of a mountain. We top a slight rise and there below us is a small pond in a valley covered with Mountain Snowberry, a high country brush that rarely gets more than waist high at this altitude. As we drop down into this we see the trail cutting right through the brush and it looks to be overgrowing the path in most places. I walk through with my staff before me, using it to knock water from last nights rain off the overhanging branches, but within a matter of minutes my shorts are soaked. The others behind get to reap the benefits of my getting wet so I find myself consoled. Slightly. After pushing our way through about half of the valley, clouds begin to move in around us, shrouding most of the mountains and letting a thin drizzle fall on us.

Once we are out of the valley we find a clear spot and discuss our options. Should we continue on and hope the rain fades? Or should we turn back now and save ourselves a soaking? There are no sheltering trees on the trail before us now as we have been hovering just under timberline for a while now. We decide to press on. Ahead of us we can see a trail taking off of ours that cuts down into the La Vacca valley just a little before the climbing of the mountain, so we can always use that to escape the weather if need be.

The next part of the trail follows the upper edge of a large bowl shaped valley. So we start trekking around it making a considerable half circle. Now a short climb and we are at the split of the trail, with the northern route taking us to the summit, the southern being our way out of the storm. It still has not done more than sprinkle on us so we push on in the anticipation that it will not worsen. The path here leads us up steeply on a slope covered with large flat stones that takes about five minutes to traverse. We top out on this huge rocky saddle in between the pyramid and what we thought was the Pyramid before. With the clouds rolling over and around us looking like fog and the way the terrain here looks it feels as if we are in what I imagine the Scottish Highlands to be like. It has a very surreal feel to it opening me to a deep longing, for what I do not know.

Now I do not have an altimeter as my GPS fritzed this summer, but looking at the map I would say that standing here in this saddle we are at the same altitude as the top of Pagosa Peak. Which means we only have around twelve or thirteen hundred feet to climb. As I relay this information to Ian the clouds begin to break around the mountain and we are given our first up close view. We can see the trail going up and it looks rough. My leg has gotten quite painful and I am now not so sure about the wisdom of doing this and getting back down without major problems for everyone. I say as much to my comrades and give my camera to Ian so there will be photos from the top even if I don’t make it. And off we go again. This flat saddle stretches for about a quarter mile before the mountain abruptly rises out of it.

Before we begin scaling we take a short break to look up the near vertical rise. It is now that I realize that I have been carrying Duane’s water and staying behind me most of the way he had not had a single drink since leaving camp this morning. He gratefully takes the proffered bottle and we begin our ascent. The first part is a pretty easy scramble up a rocky slope with a small shelf at the top. Then it truly begins. We can see the trail going up through the gravelly rocks and we start up it. We quickly realize that we should get off on the side of the trail where the rocks are larger and you don’t slide back a step for every two taken. Now the only danger is just not shifting any of these large rocks to drop on whoever is below. It takes us quite awhile to climb this slope, but looking up it seems as if there is a short flatter spot with the final climb looking much easier, relatively speaking. I reach the top of this ahead of the others and I am hit with a bit of a shock. What we thought was the final bit of the mountain for us to tackle and that I am now standing near is nothing more that a rather large piling. Large enough that it had blocked out the real mountain that is still a quarter mile off across a flat boulder- strewn field that I am standing on the edge of. And getting up the Peak makes what we just did look like child’s play. Those words of encouragement that I was about to call out die on my lips. My knee is twinging at me as if trying to tell me to stop now while I can turn back easily.

Duane and Ian soon join me and I see the expressions of numbed disbelief that must mirror my own. We slowly move across the field that in any other circumstance would leave me awestruck with its stark beauty. This is not to say it was not enjoyed. The views from here are epic, places I have never seen before and might never again. But my thoughts are mostly on what I should do with my knee being as it is. It feels almost like it did before we stopped yesterday, if I am able to get up this there is not much to say that I will get down again, at least not without help.

While in the midst of these gloomy thoughts I realize that I should take this opportunity to call Christine, who is to pick us up this afternoon. I had guessed that we would be out by three or so, but now I am thinking more like five or six-o-clock. I give her a call and everything works out just fine, she herself cannot make it till five, letting all of us feel less pressured. Deeming things to be a bit better now I decide to press on to the top. Coming closer this last part, steep as it may be, does not look any harder than other climbs I have done, but with the present circumstances it seems more daunting . We start climbing up through the rocks , both large and small that give this mountain its shape, with only a few spots that actually feel dangerous, and nothing very technical, so the only thing that stops us is the breath we need to catch every so often. Slopes like this made up of just rock are actually easier to climb than their packed dirt or grassy brethren, it is not just a steady rise unchanging, but every step is carefully chosen so as not to shift rock.

Finally I make it to the top, 13,821 feet, only a few steps ahead of the others, giving me a moment to take in a totally unobstructed view by myself. Wow. The panorama is spectacular as the clouds have risen high enough to unshroud almost every peak around, near and far. There is a lot that I can make out from here. V-Rock, at the very end of the Chalks Range in the South San Juan Wilderness, is just barely visible. Slightly more discernable is Square Top and parts of Quartz Ridge. There are more but I am not yet ready to study the view in this direction now. I turn to look the other direction and am overwhelmed by the beauty. I am looking at mountains now that I have never before gazed upon. It sinks in as I stare out across this expanse that all the climbs and hikes I have done in the past sixteen years have barely scratched the San Juans. I have never really ventured out of my backyard and crossed the fence so to speak. Long minutes seem to pass mesmerized for me in the few seconds it takes Ian to summit who is quickly followed by Duane. In this brief time I have had one of those moments where everything shifts inside and I am grateful to be given this time here.

Turning back towards my friends we pass out congratulations to each other. It is now that I feel the cold. There is a stiff breeze blowing with occasional stronger gusts and the sun that could warm us is only showing itself to a far off valley. We huddle down near the rock cairn marking the highest point but it offers no shelter from the wind. After removing my pack I look over to the cairn in hopes of finding the ledger and I am pleasantly surprised. Some of the peaks I have been on have a glass jar with some loose papers in which to write your name and date when you climbed. Most have nothing at all, just a small pile of rocks letting you know this is the summit. Here though is a heavy duty three inch PVC pipe with caps screwed on both ends that is chained to rock somewhere under this cairn on which it lays. I have heard tell of these before but have never encountered any in the mountains around Pagosa. I open it to see it filled with papers. I take one out and try to write legibly with fingers that are quickly numbing. Passing it on to Duane I read a couple entries but soon return them. It is too cold for hanging out reading names and inspirational thoughts right now. We take a few more minutes to eat lunch and then we share out the little bit of mead left over from last night. Up here these few sips we are allowed seem to be magnified in flavor. I spend another minute pointing out mountains we know and then I see it. Pagosa Peak is there, where it all started for us, all those long years ago, from this distance looking almost like the other mountains near it, but I can make out a few telltale landmarks near it.

It does not take long before the chill reminds us to get a move on. I have no idea how my knee is going to be for getting down so I set off while the others take in their last minutes up here. After eating Ian gave me some more Ibuprophin, so it is feeling somewhat better, but all the same I am glad again for my staff, which becomes like a third leg for this descent. Descending through the rocks goes quickly, although we must be more careful as it is easier to step on a rock wrong making it shift dangerously underfoot. After crossing the boulder field below this we come to the steep gravely slope. We look over the edge and then plunge down. We slide on our shoes almost like skiing and while we are down in a matter of seconds we all have to stop at the bottom to empty our shoes of dirt and small rocks. Hurt knee or no, we are down in less than half the time it took to climb.

We are soon back to where the trail divided this morning and we choose to drop down into the valley, covering all new terrain, rather than backtrack the Skyline Trail. We follow the path through a rock field that opens up onto a long green meadow where the trail begins to fade. If we had the time to go the Window we could easily find it and head that direction, but from above I had seen the trail we wanted that comes off of this one near the end of the field so we are able to head straight for it. We find the trail on the south eastern end of the meadow dropping down into a forest. It twists and winds through fir trees and the brushy Mountain Snowberry, taking us lower with each step. After close to a half mile of this we come to a deeply cut rocky gully with a small stream flowing through it that we must now cross. Once beyond this our route becomes more exposed, the terrain is now a mineralized packed dirt streaked with varying colors and a scattering of rocks that follows on the eastern side of the creek through a series of small waterfalls. We are now on the part of the trail that we could see this morning, tempting us during the steady drizzle. I take a moment to stop in my thankfulness that we decided to push on and climb the Pyramid, looking back at all we have traversed. I realize now that I have found another area that I will always love and cherish, and I hope that someday I can return with my family and do some real exploring.

I begin moving again, shaking off the daze of daydreaming and soon, about a quarter mile from crossing the stream, we are plunged into a dense fir forest where the path feels as if it meanders, slowly bringing us to the valley floor below. Twenty minutes of this leaves us about thirty feet above that floor that opens up below us into a huge meadow. Pausing for a moment to take it in, we see a couple of backpackers slowly heading our way. We follow the trail down into the meadow and eagerly make our way towards the hikers, looking forward to talking to them and hoping they can give us a good estimate on getting to the trailhead. They turn out to be a man and a woman, both seeming at ease in the wilderness and sporting some expensive and high tech gear. We chat and once they hear the route we took to climb the Pyramid we are met with mild shock. We are then told how much easier it is to take the valley and head for the Window, from there heading up the southern arm to summit, which he has already done twice. There is even more surprise when it is learned we plan on being out by five. The trail out is longer than we think, and we are told we had better hustle to make it out before dark. After some hasty goodbyes we take the advice and hustle.

It takes us another half hour to reach our camp, refill water bottles and put on packs that don’t feel as comfortable as before. Since reaching the meadow my knee was numbing, making it easier to move faster, but after stopping here it begins to flare again. We cut off the trail to gain some time heading back into the Los Pinos River Valley and quickly we are back on the Pine Rim Trail. A mile later we are at Weminuche Pass, standing on the Continental Divide once more. Everything on one side dropping into the Los Pinos, while on the other it all drops into Weminuche Creek, (not the same that we crossed yesterday,) which in turn drops into the Rio Grande Reservoir, about three and a half miles ahead of us. Somewhere around here is the start of Skyline Trail, which we used to get near the Pyramid this morning, but with the sign having been removed years before we don’t see it. The trail we are on, while still the same, now switches its name to Weminuche Trail and taking it we step into the Rio Grande National Forest, leaving behind my much loved San Juan.

We now wind our way through meadows and forests, of both fir and aspen, as we slowly lose altitude. I am in the lead and setting the pace, having found a pretty good shuffle that keeps my knee from hurting much and moves us faster than our average hiking speed. We only meet two more people, an older couple, about halfway between the Divide and the Reservoir. I try to make some noise as I approach them, but I still make the woman jump when she sees me from just a few feet away. Not wanting to lose my shuffle, I slow only long enough to apologize for the fright and wish them well on their journey.

After we have gone about two and a half miles from the Divide the trail drops steeply on loose gravel. It drops us back down to Weminuche Creek where we come to a bridge that spans it. On the other side is a slick of water coming down a slope that is covered with green. Moss and small plants abound and I have to stop to photograph the bridge with this brilliant display behind it.

From here the trail continues to drop more quickly and it is not long before we can catch glimpses of the Reservoir through the trees, though it is still a way off. Seeing this is very heartening. I don’t know about the others, but I am feeling pretty worn. This pace and the way I am moving seem to be wearing me down quicker than usual. We soon find ourselves a couple hundred yards above the Reservoir and the trail turns sharply to the east to follow along it. We only have to go along the lake for the final third of its length, which looks to be about a mile. So we continue on, dropping ever lower. Soon we see a road on the other side of the lake with the occasional car or truck moving along it. It is almost surreal to see this sign of civilization and still be hiking. Short of hiking around Wolf Creek, I have never had an encounter like it.

As we approach the dam I can see the caretaker’s house on the other side and I begin to wonder just where exactly the trailhead is. We drop to within twenty yards of the lake and I decide to consult the map. A closer look than any previous one shows it to be a further half mile. I look behind me. I cannot see either of my companions and I don’t think I should stand for long or it will be hard to take off again with my knee. I quickly scrawl a large arrow in the dirt showing which way I am going and push on.

The trail climbs up a short but steep hill, then levels off, and shortly it is dropping slowly again. I pass two more hikers who are out for an afternoon jaunt and soon I can see a campground through the trees. My step begins to hurry more and before long some log cabins pop into view, and then there it is, the trailhead. And not too much further is Christine standing next to her car. I look to see that it is six-fifteen, when from behind the car Asia, my boss’s dog comes out, moving slowly closer and barking low. A moment later Asia recognizes me and is bounding all around, wanting me to notice her.

Christine, my boss Joe’s fiancée, pulls out some bottles of cold juice that she brought for us. I drop my pack unceremoniously and take the proffered bottle gratefully, dropping myself to the ground as well. About two minutes later Ian comes out of the trees and Asia goes crazy thinking it is Joe. Disappointed, but still happy for more attention, she runs around waiting for someone who is not going to come. She is all wound up again when Duane appears five minutes later. He joins us to sit on the grass as we reflect on an epic weekend.

Minutes later we stagger to our feet and stow our gear in the back of the car, then load ourselves in. It is about a half hour drive to Creede from here and Christine points out mountains, tells us about various areas, and gives us a recent history of the ranches we pass. Upon reaching Creede we are given a short drive through tour of the little town before we are back on the road, heading to South Fork, where a vehicle awaits us that we can take to Pagosa. We find the car we are to borrow and transfer our things, saying goodbye to Christine. We watch the sky darken into twilight as we drive over Wolf Creek Pass, and just a few hours after reaching the trailhead we make our weary way into Pagosa springs, our hometown. Stopping at Kip’s Grill we close our weekend with a much appreciated beer and a sense of comradeship stronger than when we began.


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