Sunday, August 30, 2015

The Return to Wetterhorn (Reflecting on the Summer and Revising Thoughts of the "Wilderness Experience")

“We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in”

—Wallace Stegner, 
the “Wilderness Letter” for the Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission / The Sound of Mountain Water

View of Painted Wall from the North Rim

On the second day of orientation for new seasonal employees, having already learned about safety, personnel, management, and the overall NPS mission, we were briefed on park-specific resources and founding purposes: water, ecosystems, history. Wilderness.

“This is the closest many people will ever come to wilderness,” the ranger said of the scenic overlooks at Black Canyon, “Anyone can just drive up and see it, right there.”

I involuntarily gasped and must have grimaced.

She turned to me and, acknowledging my look of incredulity, proceeded to explain: those who are physically incapable of trekking through rugged terrain, unequipped to navigate great distances, and/or prefer not to experience the tiredness, soreness, and inherent danger that accompany long hikes into distant places have at Black Canyon a unique opportunity to drive right to the edge of the deep, narrow chasm and gaze down into the heart of a capital-W Wilderness. They can see it up close.  They can feel the heat rising from the rocks, the coolness emanating from shadows. They can smell the sage after rain, juniper baking in hot sun.  They can hear birdcalls echoing, wind rustling, and, of course, the river—the river roaring, rushing, tumbling on down between the rock walls, several thousand feet away but ever so close, ever so wild.

View of the canyon from the North Rim, colors sharp after a rainstorm

True. And yet…

Not knowing whether the ranger’s original statement had used a generic term or proper noun—“the closest they’ll ever come to [a federally-designated] Wilderness [Area]”?—I continued to wince, writhe, wring my hands as she continued to describe the park's attributes.  Even if her points were technically right—yes, most park landscapes still have some trace of man (trails, if not roads and buildings); yes, many Wilderness Areas are seen from too far away to be understood and appreciated; and yes, individuals all have different perceptions of wildness—something in me protested that standing at a pull-out ogling a place doesn’t count as truly experiencing it.  “What of the humility, the fear?” I wanted to ask, “What of awe? Do visitors feel vulnerable, exposed? Small, self-reliant, fully alive out alone in a big, wild place?” 

I barely managed to keep my mouth shut—it wasn't the appropriate time or place for a debate. Instead of arguing (Ed Abbey [The Monkey Wrench Gang]: “Challenge that statement.  I challenge that statement. With what? I don’t know”), I scribbled fiercely in a notebook.

Now, three months later, I’m looking at my notes and still wondering if and how to challenge that statement. Assuming that experience nurtures appreciation and informs preservation, can muted experience still inspire strong appreciation? Does flattened or dulled appreciation lead to weakened preservation?  Does the “wilderness idea” need more preachers or more defenders?  What experiences are visitors to Black Canyon absorbing, learning, taking away?

How to tell whether you're in a park service wilderness or on BLM rangeland

For that matter, what did I see, do, and learn this summer?  

U.S. Forest Service Wilderness Areas (Sneffels, Weminuche, Wetternhorn): Snow, rock, flowers; dogs, tents, people. Steep, challenging, breathtakingly beautiful—cool blue pools nestled in the alpine tundra, reflecting rocky ridges—but trails are not wilderness. I saw more wooden signs than signs of wildlife, met more people than wild deors, never quite felt free to wander. Plus, I felt guilty for having to drive so far to hike.

Pool near Upper Ice Lake (technically not a Wilderness, but pretty.)

 Wilderness Areas in Black Canyon (Red Rocks, Green Mountain, Grizzly Ridge) and backcountry Curecanti: steep sandstone ridges and incised mudstone ravines. Prickly pear, sagebrush, darn thick scrub oak and serviceberry. Fossils! Although the far-flung corners of the parks—remote, rugged places few people were ever likely to go—seemed wild (especially when great murders of ravens would start circling, as if to craw, “what are you? What are you doing on our cliff?”) and I was acutely aware of being alone—my muscles weak, skin thin, and bones breakable—I was also quite conscious of the facts that I was carrying a radio, GPS, maps, rock hammer, first aid kit, water, etc., and that I was there to work, not sit and absorb the landscape.
Folds of fossil-filled sandstones and mudstones

The park road: stars, solitude, surely mountain lions watching from the brush. Striding along through the early morning darkness with the Milky Way arcing overhead, solid pavement underfoot, and susurrations of the river rising up from the impossibly deep canyon, I came close to feeling untrammeled, but also felt safe and secure enough to be walking alone before dawn, wearing sandals and carrying no emergency supplies (aside from a thermos of coffee).

Sunrise, softly bringing the world into focus

Rock Point: sanity, serenity, wingbeats of wrens. I didn’t sit out there enough.

Rock Point. Yes, wildness, if not wilderness.


My final weekend in Colorado, I decided to return to the Uncompahgre Wilderness—the same route I’d attempted in early July, up the West Fork of the Cimarron aiming for Wetterhorn Basin, hopefully with less snow and far less snowmelt by mid-August.

This time, I knew to get an earlier start, carry a lighter pack, and follow the trail. My goal wasn’t to have a “wilderness experience,” but rather to make it over the pass into the basin, enjoying the fresh air and the picturesque views along the way.  I hiked at a fast but not grueling pace, pausing to marvel at the wildflower-filled meadows and stopping repeatedly to put on and take off rain gear. It took about an hour to get to the waterfalls (the spot that had taken nearly 4 hours to reach in July), then another hour-ish to weave up the mostly-snowfree center of the cirque. 

View down the West Fork valley, with less snow
So many flowers!
I kept telling myself to slow down and appreciate the day—bright sunshine breaking through as clouds began to clear; patches of blue sky appearing over rusty ridges; fat, golden marmots whistling from the rocks—but the pass drew me onward, upward. After a final push, I came over a crest of rock and moss and felt the landscape open out underneath me: a swoop of tundra and rock slid into a forested drainage; barren ridges rose back up on the far side. Beyond the basin: mountains, and mountains, and mountains.  I didn’t recognize any of their profiles or know any of their names, but I was awfully happy to see them.

Pass into Wetterhorn Basin

Intending to sit and soak in the scenery for a while, I left the trail and began rock-hopping in search for the perfect spot. I was concentrating so much on where to put my feet that I lost awareness of the larger landscape. It wasn’t until I’d dropped my pack and turned to sit that I realized, with a gasp, that I could see Wetterhorn Peak itself dominating the far horizon.

Some landmarks—Pilot Rock (Petrified Forest National Park), Fang Mountain (Denali National Park), Algonquin Peak, as seen rising up over Wright (the Adirondacks)—have a certain ineffable prominence or presence that draws attention and commands respect. Their size or height or aloneness makes them physical manifestations of awe.  Seeing them, it’s easy to understand why cultures worldwide have believed mountains to be the homes of gods.

Wetterhorn is one of those peaks.

Wetterhorn Peak -- the jagged tooth to the left


On the way back down (I didn’t stay long—feared the feeling of sacrosanctity would fade), I crossed paths with the first people I’d seen all day: two older women, friends who said they try to hike the trail (their favorite) together every year.  They were positively glowing, delighted to be out there and just as surprised and delighted to meet me—a lone girl from New York (New York!) who was also delighted to be out there, learning the trail’s twists and turns, celebrating its secrets, its marvels. We chatted briefly, then parted with wishes for lifetimes of “happy hiking!”

Grove of elephant flower (Pedicularis groenlandica)

Continuing down, I saw only one other group—a family of four, strung out.  The son, who was far in the lead, greeted me with a gasp of, “Did you do Wetterhorn?”

Rather than getting annoyed with the idea of peak-bagging or defensive of the fact that I’d “only” gone to the pass, I surprised myself by automatically and honestly replying: “Oh, no, thank you! I only wanted to see it.”  

It was enough to hike to the edge of the wilderness and look in, to know it's there.

Black Canyon Wilderness as seen from a bushwhack to the foot of Hound's Tooth.
Even if you never go there, you can, as Wallace Stegner wrote in the Wilderness Letter, "simply contemplate the idea, take pleasure in the fact that such a timeless and uncontrolled part of earth is still there." 

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Empty mind in misty, rain-pocked pools (Weminuche Wilderness)

Wherever I am, the world comes after me. 
It offers me its busyness. It does not believe 
that I do not want it. Now I understand 
why the old poets of China went so far and high 
into the mountains, then crept into the pale mist 
-- Mary Oliver, The Old Poets of China (in Why I Wake Early)

Highland Mary Lake, Weminuche Wilderness
It has become a weekly pattern: hike Friday, walk Saturday, sit Sunday. San Juans, park road, Rock Point; adventure, rhythm, pause.

During a late July “Adventure,” though, I made the mistake of simultaneously seeking “Pause,” or at least a day of restoration and touch of inspiration. After spending the work week clambering around hot, shrubby ridges and taking an informative but long trip to Florissant Fossil Beds, I wanted to escape to a place with cool air, open tundra, and, preferably, a calm, bright pool holding pockets of mirrored sky.  (Mountain lakes are both soothing and profound: according to David Hinton [Hunger Mountain], “ancient [Chinese poets and philosophers] recognized their most essential nature in such pools, for they saw empty mind in still water… an identity expansive as the mountain distances and bottomless skies it mirrors.”)
Island Lake, San Juan National Forest
Friends and guidebooks recommended Ice Lakes Trail, a popular route in the San Juan National Forest that leads hikers up to several of the area’s “most beautiful” blue lakes, nestled in the “most scenic” of tundra-carpeted and waterfall-ringed basins. ( )  Hoping to avoid crowds (and road construction), I left home at dawn and was at the trailhead by 8 a.m.  Although the parking area was, at that point, nearly full, as were the nearby South Mineral Campground and the “dispersed camping” sites alongside the access road, only three couples had signed the trail register ahead of me that morning.  (It turns out that the sign-in sheet is not an accurate count of actual use—I met 13 people in 6 groups on my way up.) Eager to be by the shores of a lake (and needing to warm up a little—the temperature in the shade was an unexpectedly chilly 39 degrees), I zipped right on up a series of forested switchbacks, across a few sunny meadows, and past those other hikers without stopping to chat, appreciate any of the scenic vistas, or contemplate the experience of the climb. Destination-bound: Lower Ice Lake!
Lower Ice Lake Basin

Nearing Upper Ice Lake
Um, I never saw Lower Ice Lake, though.  Sometime after I’d emerged into a wide, calendar-photo-style meadow bursting with wildflowers and ringed with waterfalls, I saw a spot of unnatural color out of the corner of my eye—a tent. A bunch of tents. They drew my attention to a small grove near a small stream that fed into a large, dark pond that I think was the lake, well behind and below.  Rather than backtrack and tromp through those people’s campsites to get to the water, I continued on, following the trail through the lush meadow, across a tumbling brook, and to the base of the falls-forming cliff, catching sight of several more tents along the way. Uncomfortably aware of how visible I was to all the campers in the basin, I hustled and huffed up the next set of switchbacks toward Upper Ice Lake.

I guess I’d presumed that this hike would be similar to Blue Lakes—busy at the lower lake but nearly deserted at the upper. As the trail led me away from the tent-filled meadow and steep, shrubby switchbacks toward a crest of Alpine tundra, I felt a warm mix of relief and anticipation—relief that I'd finally have some solitude and eagerness to see Upper Ice Lake, maybe nestle into a quiet seat for a few hours, watch the clouds and wait for marmots.
Upper Ice Lake
Anticipation and, worse yet, expectation can be ruinous. The lake was undeniably beautiful—turquoise-blue glacial water reflecting moss-carpeted hills, a bowl of rock-and-snow ridges, and, beyond them, a few happy cumulus in a deep summer-blue sky.  The weather was perfect, the day still young, I felt alive, beaming with mountain joy. But a sploosh broke the serenity. A kid had thrown a big rock into the lake, sending out ripples that broke the reflection. Then a dog jumped in after the rock. Then a dad yelled at the kid, another child’s voice chimed in...

I meant to skirt their campsite and find a quiet place to sit, but ran into a couple cooking breakfast outside their tent. Another tent was perched high above the opposite shore—was there nowhere left to go?

Without really knowing where I was heading, I followed a herd path to the south, crossing swells of open tundra and a few small snow patches to what turned out to be Fuller Lake. It was more rugged than serene--chunks of ice floated on its surface; snow and rock were sliding down from sharp peaks; what looked like a deserted miner's cabin sat rusting on its shore.  I should have just stayed there, watched the ravens and hoped for pikas. Instead, though, I got greedy. After spending just a few minutes rock-hopping around for better views, I decided to hit another lake before lunch. (Four in one day! Instead of peak-bagging, I was bent on pond-bagging!) 
Abandoned shack on Fuller Lake
Skim of ice on Fuller Lake
I returned to Upper Ice Lake (already busier) intending to hop the outlet stream and catch the trail to Island Lake.  When I saw a group of 5 begin the climb ahead of me, I was so disappointed that I almost left. 

I can't explain why I don't enjoy wild places when there are other people there. Selfishness? Jealousy? Pride?  Why does the Wilderness Act specifically mention "outstanding opportunities for solitude" as one of the critical components of the wilderness experience; why do wilderness managers focus on "solitude" as one of their key criteria? What is so fundamentally different about enjoying a lake or a mountain or a canyon alone vs. with hordes of other visitors, or even just a few?

Maybe it's that the presence of other people breaks an individual's connection with a place. Instead of getting to dissolve into a landscape, giving undivided attention to the rocks, the water, the brush, the birds, we can't help but be conscious of other humans, losing a little bit of our environmental awareness and getting distracted by a heightened sense of self-consciousness. It's not the same.

In the end, I did decide to go see Island Lake, and it was, hands-down, the most stunning place I’ve seen all summer: a single mound of solid grey rock breaching out of clear, almost-otherworldly blue water; symmetrical snowfields sweeping down to touch the edge of the pool; green moss; grey cliffs; blue blue sky.  I found a nice sunny rock to sit on out of view of the other hikers, took my shoes off and ate my lunch while watching light and shadow bring the scenery to life.
Island Lake
That said, sheer beauty wasn't enough for me.  I did my best to appreciate the place--to recognize if not absorb some of its magic--but those other hikers were hovering at the edge of my mind; I couldn't find a sense of a calm. Didn’t stay long.

On the way down to Upper Ice Lake, I saw dozens of people clustered at its shore. Onward.  I crossed paths with several dozen on the way to Lower Ice Lake. Onward. I must have seen more than a hundred people that day--all friendly, all happy to be there, all of us out looking for a little bit of fresh air, a little bit of adventure. “Beautiful day!” we’d nod to one another. (Strangely, whenever anyone stopped to ask, “how much farther? Is it worth it?,” I advised them to take the extra spur to Island Lake. Even though I’d wanted it all to myself when I was there, I was still eager to share it, maybe hope that someone else would find meaning in its calm waters, its mirrored mountains.)

Crowds on Upper Ice Lake
Now for an unexpected "Pause" that same weekend:

After the thoroughly disappointing day at Ice Lakes, I continued on with my plans to hike a shorter, less scenic and thus less popular trail—Highland Mary Lakes in the Weminuche Wilderness. Finding the access road busy and campsites all full, I nearly just went home. (In fact, I did turn around and drive away, then, sigh, turned back around again and stayed, figuring I'd better at least give Colorado a chance to redeem itself.)  After pitching my tent in a quiet corner of the wilderness and packing up at daybreak, I followed the trail through trees and brush alongside a steep, rocky stream up to mossy tundra, meeting no other people en route. I reached the first of the cool, quiet Highland Mary Lakes just in time to see the low blanket of clouds mirrored in the perfectly smooth water before raindrops began to pock and ripple the reflection. I sat for a while, soaking in the muted brilliance of the greens and greys, the quietude, the lonely calm, before continuing onward--more Highland Mary Lakes; Verde Lakes; the Continental Divide Trail--saturated, sated.

Highland Mary Lakes
Tundra before Verde Lakes