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." 

1 comment:

Paul Schilke said...

Nice return to the beginning thoughts.