Hell Canyon

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Up High in the Colorado Rockies

        

It wasn’t the easy way out of the predicament. But we ended up choosing the more physically painful of the two options and climbed up the steep ridge and then over the saddle that led us out of Paradise Park and down into Hell Canyon.

This is how it unfolded:

The teenagers went busily to work setting up tents and preparing our backcountry campsite. It was the theoretical end to a long day of backpacking. We were in Colorado’s remote Paradise Park. And before organizing my gear, I did one of the more essential things that outdoor adventure guides should do before leading a group into the wilds. I took the guidebook to Rocky Mountain National Park out of my backpack and read about the area where we were setting up camp. There was no ambiguity in what I read, which was that “there is no overnight camping allowed anywhere in Paradise Park.” Initially, I thought that perhaps I was reading it wrong and so re-read it. But the second time around the words were the same. And I realized that besides for violating federal regulations if we stayed, more importantly, we’d also likely be doing something environmentally detrimental. And so, I concluded that we needed to move.

The teenagers were methodically getting things ready for supper and the night ahead. I couldn’t help but note how physically wasted they all looked, as I yelled, “Oh, shit!” At that point, it no longer mattered that we’d backpacked and bushwhacked for 6 hours, our legs were tired, or that we thought we were at our destination- because we needed to move.

Thankfully, we were only about a half-mile away from the southwestern boundary of the Park. From looking on the topo map, I could see that there appeared to be a pass on the ridge to our south, which we could cross, and that would lead us out of the Park and into the Indian Peaks Wilderness. More specifically, it would take us to the high mountain backcountry basin known as Hell Canyon. The name of the place didn’t sound particularly inviting. But I was pleased that there was at least somewhere we could get to that was relatively nearby and where we could camp in good conscience and without causing some sort of physical harm to the area.

My scream caused the brakes to be applied to the campsite set-up operation. So, for the moment, there was an activity pause as everyone waited to find out what the commotion was about.

After my initial attention-getting blurt out, I said in a somewhat calmer tone, “We can’t stay here, there’s no camping allowed.” Looking around at the tired group members, I recognized that beyond all doubts, I should’ve figured that out before traipsing 15 miles out into the backcountry with them. But I knew that worrying about it was not going to help rectify the situation. So, I went into problem-solving mode. It was 5:00 in the afternoon, and I figured that we had about three more hours of daylight left. I calculated that we might need every bit of it to get to another suitable spot for setting up our tents and having a pleasant supper. And so, I accepted the reality that we needed to get going and that it ought to be sooner than later.

I looked around at the various group members and could see that they were, in turn, looking out at our nearby surroundings. It was evident to me that they were attempting to figure out where the actual Paradise Park boundary might be and, thus, where we needed to go. I began explaining the situation and realized that most of them were mentally preparing themselves for something much easier than what actually needed to happen. Just the irritation of having to pack their stuff back up and move a few hundred yards before eating supper would be plenty painful. But little did they know…

After a few extended moments of looking around, one of the group members said: “Where to?”

I didn’t say anything initially, because I didn’t have the heart to. But I did look up at the not so distant pass. Everyone turned and looked up to where my eyes were pointing, and there was a profound moment of silence as it all began to soak in.

And so, I verbalized the new plan. While pointing up toward the pass, I said, “The boundary between the National Park and the Indian Peaks Wilderness is along that ridge. There’s a pass up there between those two peaks. If we climb up and cross it, according to the topo, we can just walk on down from there into a place called Hell Canyon. It looks to me like there’s all kinds of climbing down there, some lakes, and a trail that’ll take us back pretty close to where we need to go. We ought to be able to get up and over the pass and then get a camp set up before dark if we get moving now.”

The silence continued even after I’d finished speaking. I wanted to think that it was because everyone was busy developing a thoughtful and efficient personal plan for moving. But more than likely, it was because they were attempting to process their disbelief. I don’t think anyone was all that interested in what the fishing, climbing, or backcountry options in Hell Canyon were. But I do believe that some of them thought it was all a bad joke.

After a few minutes, they all came to grips with the reality of the moment and just began re-packing. I felt terrible about the situation and was tired, myself. But once we were packed up and started moving, instead of the lethargy and fatigue I expected to witness, I felt only their positive energy. I watched as 12 ordinary people headed out toward an unknown place with an energy that came from somewhere I couldn’t see. In an instant, each had become an unassuming superhuman. At that point, I came to realize just what astounding things the human mind and body are truly capable of doing.

With the sun creeping down in the western sky, we crossed over the pass and began the descent down into a place that we’d known nothing about a few hours before. Mount Hiamovi dominated the eastern sky, and Upper Stone Lake shone like a mirror to our south and a thousand feet below. A pleasant tundra-covered slope cut through massive rock outcroppings to either side. It provided straightforward access to our new world. We walked out on a boulder and saw only clear sailing ahead as we transitioned from going up to going down.

It turns out that where we went is known to be one of the wildest and most spectacular places in North America. Few people ever get there because it’s so remote and hard to reach. There’s an intriguing sort of power and wild spirit that I witnessed that late afternoon, both in the place and the people. And to think—it wasn’t even somewhere that any of us had planned to go.

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Backcountry

 

Author: David Appleton

I was born and raised in Texas and currently live in the Texas Hill Country, spent some 30 years living in the smack dab middle of Colorado, and have spent a lifetime adventuring and leading others on adventures in many parts of the wild world.