Saturday, July 11, 2015

Uncompahgre Wilderness

But in the name of the mountain gods, let us also preserve some remote areas, difficult of access, demanding of their few visitors -- Laura and Guy Waterman, Wilderness Ethics

View toward the Uncompahgre Wilderness, up the West Fork basin
What better way to celebrate Independence Day than by venturing into one of the freest, wildest, most untrammeled areas in America?  Planning to make good use of an extra day off, I packed up my tent, sleeping bag, pad, filter, campstove, rain gear, first aid kit, notebook, camera, etc and headed off for the Uncompahgre Wilderness (chosen for its high elevation and, key for a holiday weekend, relative unpopularity.)

Before describing the adventure that ensued, an important stipulation: I am what’s called a “wilderness purist.” Although not as eloquent as John Muir, as acerbic as Ed Abbey, nor as accomplished as Laura and Guy Waterman, like them, I believe that wilderness areas are absolutely crucial to the well-being of all lifeforms (including humans) and will thus do my best to ensure that they’re kept truly and wholly wild. I don’t see it as just a matter of my own “wilderness experience,” though I do generally seek solitude and “primitive and unconfined recreation” (no phones, radios, or, god forbid, GPS devices. I feel guilty for carrying gear made of synthetic materials, not to mention my camera)—I would rather that no people be allowed into an area rather than see a proliferation of signs, trails, lean-tos, rangers, and/or other modifications that disturb wildlife and diminish naturalness. [Deleted: the beginning of a rant about / passionate plea for purer wilderness, including lengthy citations of researchers, land managers, and poets, and strongly-worded opinions on everything from wildlife management to guided recreation to the recent National Wilderness Conference, which I found rather disheartening. Suffice to say that if you want to get me thoroughly riled up, just ask about the slow, steady de-wilding of wilderness.]

Headwaters of the West Fork of the Cimarron River -- appropriate setting to begin my annual re-reading of Laura and Guy Waterman's books

Anyway. Back to Uncompahgre.

Slightly delayed by road construction, I made it to the National Forest a little later than I had hoped, but still with plenty of light left in the day.  Following directions I’d found online, in concert with an old road map I’d borrowed, I found my way down Cimarron Road, around Silver Jack Reservoir, toward Owl Creek Pass, and onto West Fork Road with no trouble. (The drive alone was beautiful, once I swallowed the irony that my wilderness weekend required 50-odd miles of driving each way.) The car did a noble job of getting me most of the way toward the trailhead, but I had to park it at a sign reading “RECOMMENDED: High clearance, 4WD” and continue on foot.  Less than a mile later (time to begin getting used to the weight of a full pack), I reached the West Fork of the Cimarron River, which was raging with snowmelt.   Hmm.  While prepared for snowpack and rainfall, I hadn’t considered this possibility.  I strapped on high gaiters, then paced back and forth along the bank, contemplating the crossing—hoppable for the first half, but requiring a plunge up to my knees across the thalweg. This shouldn’t have seemed too bad (especially after some of the stream crossings I’d seen in Denali), but oh I hate flowing water, especially at the very beginning of a trip.  Rather than risk it, I decided to head a bit upstream, hoping the channel would widen out to a safer depth.

West Fork of the Cimarron, still dauntingly rapid and deep.  (If you look really closely, you'll note the sign at the edge of the meadow -- just looks like a post from here.)

An hour later…
Having found and lost several game trails, clambered over and around fallen trees, fought through brush, splooshed (as softly as possible) across bogs, and traversed slippery stream-edge rocks, I was still on the wrong side of the river, which was roaring even more loudly than before.  I could see some sort of sign over on the trail side, and assumed it was the Wilderness boundary, meaning I’d barely bushwhacked a mile and a half. Still holding out hope that I might eventually be able to cross the river (and that I wouldn’t twist an ankle, having already fallen a couple of times), I continued my clamber/fight/squish/traverse up the valley.

Another hour later…
Having just gingerly crossed a wide colluvial fan, I paused to rest and contemplate the ring of mountains rising up ahead of me.  An unnatural vertical disrupted the view, though—a metal stake hammered into the river bank? Odd.  Looking around, I saw another off to the east, on the other side of the (still uncrossable) water, then another, with something posted on it. With a sinking feeling, I realized that I was just now reaching the Wilderness boundary—it must have been the trailhead I’d seen earlier. There was still a long way to go.

The sort of stuff I was trying to navigate. With a full pack.
On it went, then: terrain getting ever steeper and more rugged; bark-beetle-felled trees getting ever more numerous and treacherous; me getting ever more exhausted and uneasy. Thrashing and bumbling through the forest with my stupid heavy pack, I felt more and more like an interloper than just a genial “visitor.” Though trying to tread lightly, I wondered how deep an impact I was making—broken branches, squished plants, so much noise.  Since it seemed unlikely I’d make it to Wetterhorn Basin that day, I wondered where I could, if I had to, set up camp and, in turn, what greater impact that would make.  I wondered what I would do if I slipped and sustained a more serious injury.  In short, I was wandering alone in the wilderness. 

It wasn’t comfortable, but I was earning my way through it.

Four hours after beginning the bushwhack, I was able to (nervously) leap across the stream and join the proper trail. By this point, I was far toward the headwaters of the basin, where several rivulets tumbled off rocky ledges to join what would eventually become the West Fork.  The forest began to give way to Alpine tundra, landscape opening up to afford spectacular views of craggy, snow-laced mountains; shadows softening into the glow of late afternoon; wilderness, wilderness.

Nearing the headwaters -- and nearly able to cross the stream!

This is also where I encountered the only people I’d seen all day—first, a friendly couple who’d day-hiked up to see waterfalls; then two guys who came racing down a snow patch and continued onward, dogs lolling at their sides. After a brief chat with the couple, we went our separate ways—them to check out the snowpack a little higher up before heading back; me to drop my pack, thoroughly satisfied with where I was. 


I chose a flattish, somewhat protected spot to pitch a tent, hopefully out of view of the trail (not that I expected any more hikers), then settled in to eat dinner, contemplate the mountains, and watch dusk rise up from the valley. As the evening grew later and shadows more pronounced, I felt what Rick Bass describes in The Wild Marsh as "a strange and unreplicable mixture of happiness and despair and dreaminess and urgency." Peace, solitude broken only by the occasional whistle of a marmot. Trickle and crash of waterfalls all around.  Cool breeze, bright moon, I didn't ever want to go to sleep but once I did, slept well.

The next morning, I woke late (for me) and stayed bundled in my sleeping bag, watching sunlight spill down the far slope.  Finally, I scarfed down a cold breakfast, bundled up my tent, laced up my boots, and began hiking, as much to stay warm as to see how far I could get.  Within a half-hour, I was sliding and post-holing through knee-deep snow. To make matters worse, the sky had quickly turned from benignly blue to pale grey to darkly overcast. It began to sprinkle.  After floundering over to a big boulder, I stopped to don a raincoat and pull a cover over my pack.  Although I’d intended to continue upward to see if I could traverse the snow-filled cirque and still somehow fight my way up to the ridge toward Wetterhorn Basin, I was at that point (and for the next half-hour) perfectly content to nestle into the rock and watch clouds skim past (a la Summit Stewarding in the Adirondacks.)

View from my boulder

Eventually, I decided I’d better begin the trek back down the valley, saving the ridge and basin for some slightly-less-snowy future weekend. (Though tempted, I felt it unwise to continue into the melting snowpack alone and unbalanced with heavy gear. There's a place for humility in mountaineering.)
On the way back, I was able to take the trail—no reason to bushwhack. Oh, it was lovely!—I didn’t have to think where to go, just followed the well-trod path through the forest and across the rocks.  Fallen trees had been cut to ease passage, and there was even a stretch of tidy bog bridges!  Along the way, I crossed paths with several groups—mostly day-hikers, and one group of four overnighters who’d hoped to get over to Wetterhorn Basin.  (Curiously, nearly all of them commented on the fact that I was a solo female backpacker.  It’s sort of sad, as well as interesting, to note how rare a phenomenon that is.) I made it to the wilderness boundary in less than an hour, then to the trailhead soon thereafter, where I signed in and out simultaneously. When I came to the spot where I’d originally decided not to cross the river, I splashed bravely and blithely across, not minding wet boots at that point.  Another mile or so down the road, I was back at my car.

Beautifully-maintained trail

How I loathed this sign, part of me wanting to say that hikers who don't know and follow principles of Leave-No-Trace have no right to be in the wilderness; another part of me fuming that whoever wants to "Keep Wilderness Wild" ought to realize that cutting trees and erecting permanent signs despoils the illusion.
But then, this past weekend, just after I encountered another of these signs in the Mount Sneffels Wilderness, I saw no fewer than six (!!) groups who'd set up camp next to the trail and/or directly on a lakeshore or streambank.  One group had pitched their tents practically underneath the sign, clearly indicating that they don't care a bit about regulations, principles, ethics, or wildness.
Oh, Laura and Guy Waterman (and Aldo Leopold, John Muir, etc), "Is this possible? Can we do the right things by the mountains? Can we preserve the spirit of wildness?" (emphasis added)
As I later explained to a friend, the return trip was “Sooooooo much easier! And admittedly more pleasant… but less wildernessy.” Upon reflection, I should be glad there are opportunities for both kinds of experience—that places like Uncompaghre boast a whole lot of wilderness, with only a foot-trail or two winding alongside the rivers and up to the peaks.

(But then there's still that fierce little voice in me, and hopefully many others, howling that wilderness should be kept truly wild, natural and free.)

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