The last time I canoed the Rio Grande through Boquillas Canyon was in 1979. After 40 years, it became time for me to remind myself of some of the lessons that 33 mile stretch of river taught me way back then. And so, I floated it.
There are three well-known peaks in the Alaska Range—McKinley, Foraker, and Hunter. At 14,195 feet, Hunter is the smallest of the three but is considered to be one of the most technically difficult 14er’s (14,000-foot mountains) to climb in the world. And reaching its summit was our goal for the particular trip this story is about, at least until lousy weather got in our way. We were a group of 10, which included me and several other Outpost Wilderness Adventure leaders along with two other non-OWA guides.
A group of OWA vets return to the Wind River Range for a backpacking trip.
The seven of us met up in Lander, Wyoming on Sunday, Sept 22, 2019, for a backpacking trip into the Wind River Range. For many years, the town had served as the base of operations for a multitude of Outpost Wilderness Adventure trips in the area, so we all felt like we knew it well. It was the logical choice for our meet-up spot, and so that’s how we used it. At some point in the past, each of us had been involved with Outpost (or OWA). Now, some years later and as OWA veterans, this was our third return into the wild outdoors. The group consisted of David and Brian Barrow, Chris Brown, David Guillory, Barry Hunt, Patrick Cone, and David Appleton. The ages ranged from Brian’s early ’30s to Barrow and Appleton’s mid-’60s. Most everyone had ventured into the “Winds” previously, but none in the past 15 years. While some change had crept into the town, once we got on the trail the following day, it was nice to see that the backcountry was as wild and spectacular as ever.
It was a long downhill and flowed well. The section of the Colorado Trail we were riding drops slowly and steadily for miles as it winds its way down the Craig Creek drainage. It’s a fast, fun, and mostly effortless ride. Sure, there are plenty of obstacles along the way, such as unfortunately positioned rocks, encroaching Potentilla bushes, and washed-out ruts. But the only really tricky spots occur where small creeks, thick with willows, come in from the sides. While most of the trail can successfully be ridden by using a combination of vigilance and proper riding technique, the creek crossings generally require something a little more. And with all of their mud, roots, and big rocks, those parts often end up being walked. Despite the downsides, it’s mountain biking in the wilds of Colorado at its best.
It was music to our eyes. A horizontal mine shaft that a mountain bike could be ridden into. The official-looking opening into the Porfirio Diaz Tunnel was stuck onto a hillside in the middle of Batopilas, Mexico. Sure, it’d been abandoned for 70 or 80 years, but that wasn’t really of any consequence to us at the time. The entrance was circular and at about 12 feet in diameter, a little bigger than we’d each envisioned as we’d contemplated the place previously. A flat dirt roadway- perfect for mountain bikes– led into the darkness. Even though it had the ominous appearance of almost being eaten by the solid rock, its beckoning call was persistent and ultimately won us over.
It was Christmas break of my sophomore year in high school when Jake and I took off from Denton, Texas. We were in his parent’s VW Camper-van bound for Mexico with a stop in Douglas, Arizona en route. The plan was to meet up with a more mature person, whom I sort of knew from the summer camp where I worked, who lived in Douglas, and then the three of us would travel on down to Guaymas, Mexico. Once down near the Mexican town, we’d have some quality beach time and experience all of the “neat adventure stuff” that could be had in the area. (Note- Years later and as a parent, I’m not sure how we got our parents to agree to the plan. Although I do remember it being a good thing that we were going to be under the supervision of someone older). In the van, there was scuba gear packed away under one of the seats in cardboard boxes, places to sleep, and we must have had some food. We simply planned to beach-camp, swim, and scuba dive in the surf and enjoy some tropical weather while it was cold and windy in North Texas.
It was a Fall Sunday during what should’ve been the slow part of the year. My lodge in Colorado’s Tarryall Mountains had burned to the ground, and I was there dealing with it. I was sharing an old log cabin, which had not burned, with an 18-year-old intern—so, was not alone. On the day in question, I was piddling around the job site doing various rebuilding chores. Since it was our off day, Lee (the intern) asked if he could go on a leisurely and straightforward hike toward Bison Peak. I considered the fact that he’d been on several backcountry trips with my outdoor program in the past. And since there was no work planned for him that afternoon, it seemed reasonable. And so, I gave him my blessing.
Ryan had never bonked before, at least in the metabolic shock overexertion sense of the word. When he started to bumble around and kept losing more and more of his edge, I knew that something was up and figured that’s what had happened. Not really realizing what was going on, he kept on trying to mountain bike further up the Colorado Trail, although with diminishing returns. The big patches of snow that still littered the trail, even though it was June, were probably a good thing since they ultimately turned us all around. His disrupted mental and physical state likely made the retreat more palatable to the 13-year-old, since he wasn’t one to be prone to turn around before his goal was reached, regardless of whatever difficulty he faced.
“You’re not lost if you don’t care where you are,” or something to that effect is a famous quote. I repeated it several times to myself as we kept walking into the thick fog, headed toward the summit of Chiefs Head, in Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park. I was bringing up the rear of a group of ten, mostly teenage backpackers. Typically, I was confident about wherever Mike was leading us. But in this instance, one of his Colorado Mountain School guides, Dennis, was at the back of the line with me and kept muttering about how we were going up the wrong mountain.
Rico hadn’t felt strong ever since lunch. His backpack felt increasingly heavy, and the big uphill into Pinto Park was yet to come. He was not a complainer and was intent on not becoming one at that point. He wondered if perhaps it had something to do with the water he’d gotten out of the creek before lunch.
The guy they sometimes called Tarzan had never felt this way before, except for when he had Strep the year before. But since there was no sore throat this time, he was pretty sure that he didn’t have that this time. No, this was something different, he decided.
As he wobbled along, he mostly thought of when the next break would be, although the whole idea that perhaps he’d just somehow become a wuss did periodically enter into his mind. Even though he’d called a lot of people wuss’s in the past, he realized that he didn’t actually know what it meant, and started thinking that maybe now he did and that he’d become one.
He kept trying to readjust the shoulder straps and hip belt of his backpack as he moved forward, but that only helped for a few minutes each time. The others kept getting further and further ahead, and he could see that he was blocking the people behind him from staying up with the group. So, he faked a strap issue on his pack and stepped off to the side so that they could walk on past.
At this point, he was now at the back and bringing up the rear. It would’ve been embarrassing for him to be in that position, except that he was gratified to be moving forward at any pace and going in the right direction.
And then, the words of encouragement started.
“Way to go, you can do it, and just keep moving,” began coming from the 25-year-old leader who was there at the back with him.
The rear, the 17 year-old mused. He’d never been at the back before, and things looked different from the new perspective. He would’ve looked up ahead more, but it was demoralizing for him to see the rest of the group just getting further out in front as they climbed up toward Pinto Park Pass. Besides, the sweat coming from his forehead was getting out of control, and every time he raised his head to look up, it went into his eyes and burned, and he didn’t like that.
Then, he needed a quick break and just stopped. As he stood there, he pulled out his bandana, wiped his face dry with it, and looked up ahead and saw that the group was also stopped. They must be at the high point of the Pass, he reasoned, as he gritted his teeth, put his head back down, and began inching his way up the trail toward them.
Finally, he got to their break spot. As he walked up, he could see smirks saying “wuss” on some faces, looks of silent compassion on others, and a few strange nondescript expressions that he couldn’t quite pinpoint on the remainder. Since the good resting spots were taken, he just got close to the group and let his pack drop to the ground right in the middle of the trail. He left it right there and walked over to a shady spot under a big pine tree and just sat down. After a couple of minutes, one of the compassionate looking people got up and walked over to his pack with the apparent intention of moving it out of the way.
The burly helper kid grabbed it by the haul loop, but when he tried to move it, it hardly budged. “Man, what do you got in there,” he queried? “This thing is heavy.”
With that, one of the other group members walked over and opened up the top flap. The newly anointed wuss backpacker wanted to protest the invasion into his privacy but was too tired to respond. And then the rocks began to come out.
He was bewildered and confused at first as the guy pulled out rock after rock. Why, how, wait. He had questions. When all was said and done, 8 fist-sized rocks came out of his pack, totaling close to 50 pounds. He had thought that the pack had been heavier each time that he’d picked it up and put it on, but had figured that it was actually just him getting weaker and not the fact that the pack simply weighed more than it should’ve. But, how did the rocks get there in the first place, he wondered? Somebody obviously did it, but his pack had never been out of his sight. Or had it? And then he remembered when he’d set it by the trail and went down to that little creek to get water before lunch.
He got up and walked over to his now lighter pack and picked it up. It felt significantly better, now that it was 50 pounds lighter. He looked around at faces, figuring that he’d be able to figure out who had done it. Only a few hours before, he would’ve been planning his retaliation against someone who may or may not have even been involved and would’ve been doing so just because of the way they looked. But at this point, he was just too tired to even think about doing that. The answer would have to wait. For the first time in his life, he was content to think it through and see it from various angles first, and at that point, decide what to do or not do.
Eventually, the break ended, and it was time to get up and get to the campsite. It was all downhill from the Pass, and within an hour, they were at their destination. Each tent group cleaned off the loose rocks and pine cones from where they’d be setting up their tent. Once that was accomplished, they actually set them up and organized their sleeping bags and pads inside, so that once supper was finished, they’d be ready to go straight to sleep.
The supper of pasta and chicken was filling and once the pots were cleaned everyone headed to their tents, crawled into their sleeping bags, and stretched out on their recently cleaned up sleeping spots. Headlamps were shining everywhere, and there was all manner of hustle and bustle as the backpackers got themselves organized for a peaceful night’s rest. Slowly, the lights went out, and it became quiet until Blabber Jack Parsons yelled, “Crap, that hurt. What in the world. That’s a big rock, and I thought I cleared them all out of the way. How did I miss that one?”
The freckle-faced kid from Virginia clamored out of his tent, followed by his two tent-mates and the three of them were obviously careful to make sure that everyone could share in their displeasure. Just as they got outside, thunder began rumbling, and it started to rain. They were suddenly in a quandary. They could remove the rocks and get wet or leave the rocks and stay dry. It was a dilemma. As they assessed their options in hyper-time, the wuss pulled his dry sleeping bag up, closed his eyes, and speculated about what he would do in such a case.