The most challenging segments of a recent high-basin camping trip turned out to be the ones anticipated to be the easiest. Go figure.
What could be more casual than a leisurely drive to the trailhead? With a favorable weather forecast, gear was bundled into the trusty Xterra on a fair summer Friday afternoon and in high spirits we proceeded up the pass behind the house. All the various twists and turns, headwalls and stream crossings of the route were familiar to the point that their negotiation was second-nature, and at the base of Cardiac Hill we paused by habit to click by into 4WD-low. This is the hill that tells you what’s going on when cycling, where you find out whether or not you’re feeling your Wheaties, whether you have a tiger in your tank, or a little mouse. When driving, it sometimes provides a preview of the conditions to follow. Sometimes.
Smooth-sailing this day, two tracks winding smoothly through fringes of loose rock, the adjacent small stream, which when engorged causes trouble, now a playful little gurgle, no great shakes, a splash on the wheels, and it was la-di-da to treeline. Here the plot thickened.
A dry early-summer, coupled with heavy Jeep traffic, conspired to create upon the roadbed a minefield of loose rocks pocked with monumental craters chewed out by heavily lugged tires. A ledge-y section known as The Hillary Step was an unavoidably bouncy affair. Traverses across sections of moving scree, the slope of the hillside very much a river of rock, left one keenly aware of the ephemeral nature of survival on a dynamic and liquid planet.
No big deal, should one stay alert, a state easy to achieve when spinning out and fishtailing above big exposure are very much possible. What made things interesting was the unpredictable actions of certain drivers who apparently had taken it upon themselves to reenact every hard-charging backcountry truck TV commercial they’d ever seen, repressed manhood, or at least aggressive behavior, on full display, in the form of roaring engines, spraying gravel, shouting, fist waving, side-hilling, music blaring, spontaneous games of chicken — uphill traffic having the right-of-way a mystery to many — and hell, honey, let’s have us a Superwinch Jamboree right here! PBR me ASAP! Yee haw!
Ignorance, in this case, was not bliss.
Safely through the gauntlet, a quiet spot on the far side of the pass was found to park and without fanfare, packs with food, clothes and camping gear were donned and a course set for a favorite basin. An old mining track brought us through tall stands of spruce, across hillsides and up to our destination, a series of eroded switchbacks delivering us to an alpine bowl immense and private, ringed with towers. Cradled in its bosom lay a pristine lake, a hidden gem, beside which our tent was pitched and dinner — what else? Mac and cheese! — readied.
Our last visit here had been colored by a fire-and-brimstone thunderstorm, lightning crackling along the cliffs, too close for comfort, the walls of the tent lit on fire in brilliant staccato bursts. No such hubbub this time around, just a silent sunset, save the barest of wind whispers, a short stroll to a knoll in time to see the peaks of the Grenadiers pulsate orange and red, then fade to gray, then disappear. Silhouettes of jagged ridges marched into oblivion. A hush, and the chill of night thickened, sending us to our cozy bags.
A crystalline morning, the mountains all ours, and a warming sun found us hiking east, contouring in and out of vast drainages, profuse now in mid-summer with wildflowers, scoured by wind and snow in winter, colossal avalanche zones. Far below, on the facing slopes of the valley lay uprooted forests of trees deposited in piles, the discarded toothpicks of sloppy giants.
A traverse to the north at the end of the range, then another to the west meant that we had circumnavigated three sides of the range. A stiff climb to another great basin, with compliments to two passing, extremely determined, mad cyclists — from Durango, of course — brought us to another lake and that night’s resting spot, little tent nestled between large boulders on a small, almost-flat patch of grass.
The next day two large basins were travelled, the world below out of sight, out of mind. Our final ridgeline was attained uncharacteristically early in the day. This was just as well, as the final descent was an excruciating affair, progress herky jerky, the little one, after three days of hiking, finally hitting the wall. In our town below, the tiny toy houses, for the longest time, just stayed tiny.
Parenting books by the score preach that negotiation and bribery should never be employed when dealing with a recalcitrant charge. It is not known what planet all those experts come from, but it’s not this one, because sometimes those are the only things that work. It was through cajoling, mild threats and promises of ice cream that an hour’s worth of relaxed descent was crammed into five hours.
The psychological toll of starting and stopping and starting and stopping was profound and exhausting to the elders. Once she started smelling the stable, though, the tyke perked up. Complaints — “My knee is broken!” “My feet are falling off!” “None of my friends’ parents make them do this kind of stuff!” “I think I’m getting a corn bunion blister and it’s all your fault!” — eventually turned to light-hearted banter, then singing, and as we neared the homestead at long last, feet dragging, having traipsed over hill and dale, came the inevitable request: “Hey, can we go up to the trampoline?”
Sean can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.