Hell Canyon- Revisited

Up High in the Colorado Rockies

It wasn’t the easy way out of the predicament. But we chose 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 the situation unfolded:

The group 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 the remote Colorado mountains at a location called 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: “there is no overnight camping allowed anywhere in Paradise Park.” Initially, I thought that perhaps I was reading it wrong, so I re-read it. But the second time around, the words were the same. And I realized that if we stayed, besides violating federal regulations, 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 we thought we were at our destination- because we needed to move our campsite.

Thankfully, we were only about a half-mile away from the southwestern boundary of the Park. On the topo map, I could see a pass on the ridge to our south, which we could cross and follow out of the National 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 go that was relatively nearby and where we could camp without causing physical harm to the area.

My scream had 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 calmly, “We can’t stay here; there’s no camping allowed.” 

I recognized that I should’ve figured the camping situation out before traipsing 15 miles out into the backcountry with them. But I knew that worrying about it wouldn’t help rectify the situation. So, I went into problem-solving mode. It was 5:00 in the afternoon, and I figured we had about three more hours of daylight left and would need every bit of it to get to another suitable spot for setting up 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.

Looking around at the various group members, I could see that they were, in turn, looking out at our nearby surroundings. It was evident 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 the teenagers 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 long few 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. 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 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. That means 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 it was because everyone was busy developing a thoughtful and efficient personal move plan. 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 as well. But once we were packed up and moving, I felt only their positive energy instead of the lethargy and fatigue I expected to witness. 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 realized just what remarkable 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 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 get there because it’s so remote and hard to reach. I witnessed an intriguing power and wild spirit in the place and the people in that late afternoon. It suddenly became clear to me just how remarkable and capable humanity is. 

 And to think—it wasn’t even somewhere any of us had planned to go that day.



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.

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