Weminuche Wilderness 1999
Squatting near the lip of the creek at the edge of Palisade Meadows, I turned up to the sky, and saw that my time to complete my post dinner dishwashing chores was to be quickly truncated by the impending torrent. I quickly threw things in a pile, made a dash for the blue and yellow dome in which we would ultimately spend much of the next five days, and dove to avoid the inevitable. As I peeled off my rain gear in the vestibule, I was thinking: would this be what the Colorado monsoon would bring us for the next week? The quick answer was yes.
I had been watching the weather in SW Colorado for the past several weeks. It seemed like every night at Wolf Creek Pass, the word was scattered showers. Apparently, the monsoonal flow into Arizona and this part of the country was going to continue much later that normal. I was hopeful for a break in the weather, but I also knew that we had some early escape routes that we could exercise if needed.
Our start today was very inauspicious: I must have woken up about 5 am, and looked outside the window of the First Inn, located on the east side of Pagosa Springs (the "first" motel you come to when arriving from the east) and it was raining. We had arrived there yesterday afternoon from Albuquerque, following a leisurely drive. In fact, the entire trip had been uncharacteristically leisurely. Normally, I get somewhat uptight as I try to move a "herd of cats" - namely my friends through the start of a trip, trying to get everyone to the trail head in the minimum of time. This trip was an example of contrasts. We had flown out to Albuquerque on Friday afternoon, deliberately scheduling a 3 hour layover in Atlanta, being tired of having to run to catch our connecting flights - or missing them all together. And it was just Susie and I. While we enjoy our friends tremendously, it was nice to be able to relax and just take care of the two of us. Susie and I had just relaxed in the Crown Room, sipping Gin and Tonics, and mixes of fresh squeezed OJ and diet Sprite (yeah, I know, really pulling out all the stops). We got into Albuquerque 30 minutes late, due to a late-arriving connecting flight in Atlanta. Our luggage came off the rack on time, and our motel was only about 1.5 miles from the airport. Beats having to drive for 2.5 hours out the hinterlands like we normally do. Susie and I got up when we felt like it, and after a minimal continental breakfast at La Quinta, we headed over to Old Town, waiting for REI to open. When it did, we focused on their pre-Labor Day sale. I was looking at some miscellaneous stuff, and Susie came over with a Marmot Gore-Tex rain jacket and said, this is on sale for about $100 off, and you said you were in the market. Well, with Susie nearly suggesting that I think about getting this jacket, I had to try it on, and it fit great. Shortening the story, I walked out of the REI with a new rain jacket, a prophetic move indeed.
We moved over for Little Anita's for lunch, and the usual decision: Red or Green? Susie opted for the former, and I, for the latter. We left town about 12:30 pm, heading for Pagosa Springs. It was a lovely drive, reminding us how much we love The West. The desert was unusually green with all the monsoon rains in New Mexico. Pretty amazing. We got to Pagosa Springs earlier than we had expected, so we took the opportunity to check out the property that Andy and Sue, as well as Tim and Diane have purchased for retirement homes. I am sure to anyone under the age of 45 reading this, such sounds like an old geaser talking. Perhaps, but the time passes more quickly than you think, and after 20 or 30 years of having about as much fun as I can tolerate, the concept of not being overwhelmed with fun seems kinda nice. Anyway, the properties were in a subdivision with potentially great views, although we learned later that the underground utilities have to be blasted in. Hmmmm........
We picked the Branding Iron Barbeque for dinner. We ended up calling it the Christian Barbeque spot: no alcohol served and Christian music playing in the background. But the smoked beef brisket was great, and there was a lot of it, and it was pretty cheap, and the humming birds on the front deck were as good as I have seen outside the San Juan Café in Mexican Hat, UT. OF course, the little critters seem to spend more time fighting over who gets sipping rights than actually sipping the nectar from the feeders: sorta like humans.
We got back to the motel, and I went out about 8:30 to the Malt Shop to get a big chocolate raspberry milk shake for Susie and I to share (no, I did not eat the whole thing on the way back to the motel room!). When I got back, Susie was on the phone with Andy. They were to have started hiking on Saturday morning, but the rain had been impressive on the east side of the divide near Rio Grande Reservoir where they were to start, so they bagged it, changed their route, and would head up Squaw Creek on Sunday, still keeping their plan to meet us on Tuesday at Trout Lake.
It rained Saturday nite, and was still dripping when we got up. The ceiling was low too, not a great way to start things off. We had a very quiet breakfast at the motel, and were out of there before 8 am. As we headed north on the Piedra Road toward the trail head (it is about 30 miles or so), we could see some structure developing in the clouds. I remember from my weather forecasting class nearly 20 years ago that structure in the clouds is a good sign. OK, so there is not too much else I do remember, but it was non-credit, and being taught at UT by a TV Weatherman. Anyway, we got to the trail head about 9 am, and were loaded up by 9:10 am. At least it wasn't raining.
Our first obstacle on the Williams Creek Trail came within a few hundred meters, just after we crossed the Wilderness boundary. It seemed that the trail was getting rocky, and then it just disappeared. I looked up, and could see that we were going thru a huge wash out. A tremendous flood must have washed out the stream bed, and turned it into rubble. The power of nature can never be overestimated. We got thru that, and started a gradual climb to a point were we could look down a couple of hundred feet to the stream bed, and it looked like parts of Bryce Canyon: huge rounded cliffs eroded all the way to the creek. Another mile brought us to a meadow (very marshy and muddy, thanks to the horses, or the people that bring them out here), and the trail junction. We split to the right, heading ultimately for Palisade Meadows. There was a ford of Williams creek, which was not too tricky, even though we were low in the watershed. Then we started climbing in earnest. It is certainly aggravating to me that in the Smokies, I can match Susie, or many of our friends, step for step. But get me above 8000 feet or so, and my lungs can not get enough air. I guess with all the problems I have had with my lungs over the last 20 years, I should be thankful that I can get meaningful work out of them. But I certainly appreciated Susie's patience with me.
We climbed a ways on the Indian Creek trail, and stopped at a nice log for lunch, marveling at the fact that it had not yet rained on us. There was sunshine, white, puffy clouds, and dark-underbelly clouds, take your pick. We both figured it was just a matter of time until we got dumped on. We resumed climbing, and it was not too long until we ran into a deer hunter. He had a backpack on, and was carrying out 65 pounds of boned deer meat. He was from Oklahoma City, and had driven out to the Weminuche, because he likes hunting in the wilderness with a bow and arrow. He had gotten his deer not too far from camp, and I guess he was hauling it to the nearest meat locker. He was going back to his camp that night (whew, he had lot of ambition.) Anyway, it was good to see a non-good-ole-boy type hunter, such as those that line the roads around hunting season in Tennessee. Their sole purpose seems to be to get out of the house, drink lots of beer with their buddies, and be thankful they are not with the "little woman." Ugh. We told the hunter where we were heading and he warned us that the trail on the far side of Palisade Meadow was very hard to find. In fact, on a previous trip, he had been unable to locate it. I assured him that we would be careful, and thought we could locate it. (See tomorrow's entry for follow up.)
The trail continued to be a mess. Lots and lots of horse damage. The problem is that there has been way too much rain, and the horse packers do not adjust their routes accordingly. Of course, the ideal adjustment would be that under these conditions, they stay home. After our second crossing of Indian Creek, we finally get to some undamaged trail where one could maintain a rhythm while hiking. It felt really good, even though Susie continued to keep my ego in check by easily gaining a 100 meters on me in a few minutes. We sensed that the forest was beginning to open up just a bit, at least we were in sunshine along the creek. Another pull, and we were at the bottom end of lovely Palisade Meadows. It is pretty big, with no views of peaks around it (save one) and it is enclosed in Spruce forest, but it was "here," and there were no bugs. It was 3:15 pm, 6 hours after we started hiking the 5.5 miles to this place. Amazing what bad trail and altitude can do to your schedule. We looked around a bit, and settled on the spot where we had first dropped our packs. After backpacking collectively for nearly 50 years, you think we would have this part of picking out a campsite down and pat. But I think it is a combination of wanting to find the perfect spot and a bit of shell shock at having finally arrived that forces us to wander a bit before we set up home. We were out in the open, but had some trees to our SW to buffer the wind. We bathed a bit, and got some water our of a side creek, as it flowed into the main one draining the meadow. Fortunately, after bathing, I had elected to "air dry" (that's code for running around with just my Teva's on) for a bit, 'cause I fell back in the creek trying to position myself to get water out of the side stream. So much for my coordination and experience.
I got the water, dried off again, and got some clothes on, before it was time to make a dash for the tent. In tentia for a half hour shower, but it felt good to be warm, clean, and dry. Even though it weighs 1.5 lbs more than our other mountaineering tent, I am glad we had the Stretch Dome with us, mainly due to it's rock solid construction and great vestibule. The rain broke, and it was time to have dinner. Looking up at the sky, we decided to cook dinner right in front of the tent, in case another shower hits. Tonight it was Pesto pasta and chicken and cheese, but altitude problems have already hit, and I had a hard time finishing the Cherry Chocolate Mousse for dessert. About 6 pm, another couple showed up and say "You must be the folks from Tennessee!" I confirmed such and they indicated it is not clairvoyance but their having read the trail register. They were from Ann Arbor, Michigan, so we talk about the relative merits of the Spartans vs the Wolverines. He is a finance guy, and she is a doctoral candidate, but obviously not a young one, as they seemed in their mid-40's. Later discussions with them indicated that they had done quite a bit of backpacking. They were headed essentially on the same route as we were for the next few days. We also explained about the difficulty at finding the trail on the other side of the meadow, and I offered to mark the start with cairns if we were ahead of them in the morning.
Another shower hit right after I got the dishes cleaned up, but after it was over, I got out and walked around a bit. Nevertheless, by 8 pm, we had decided that it was time to go to bed, so we crawled in our bags, and slept pretty hard until 6 am.
© Roger A. Jenkins, 1999