story & photos

by Larry Calloway

I was privileged in mid July to take a long walk with a team of five remarkable retirees. They are fierce in their love of mountains and their defiance of the inconveniences of aging. Median age: 69.

The five-day backpack was 37.6 miles long and 8,870 feet high. Our GPS tracking map came out in the form of a Zen circle beginning and ending at Liberty Gate.

Four of the group—Tom DeWitz, petroleum engineer, the youngest at 60; John Stevenson, purchasing agent; Gerald DeYoung, music professor; and Kent Keller, Presbyterian pastor—drove down from Estes Park, where they have hiked and climbed together in their beloved Rocky Mountain National Park for the better part of a decade. The fifth was their host, art professor Steve Andersen, who moved to Crestone-Baca but is still drawn to Estes Park.

Most of them have climbed all 54 Colorado fourteeners, plus most or all of the 130 named summits in Rocky Mountain NP. But they are not about statistics (or testosterone), and their big outing every year now for six years has been a week’s backpack trip through somewhere wild, new and, as often happens, adventurous. Steve and I enticed them here with a prospectus (mine) promising sand to snow, dune to cornice, rapids to tarns, prickly pear to elk thistle, grama grass to alpine tundra, pinyon pine to alpine fir …

We parked John’s van and sidestepped with 30-to-50-pound packs through the vehicle barrier at 7:00 on a Monday morning. “We’re free!” I suggested, although we all knew Liberty road is named for a town site, not a state of mind. The sand of the road was glued by an overnight rain, making the 9.4-mile first day easier. Deadman Creek was running clear through green grass. Swallows worked the swarms of mosquitoes in the grove of the cottonwoods. The Duncan cabin further on lay in numbered pieces awaiting another weekend of volunteer restorers. The plain of Liberty was baked and barren except for its abandoned ranch buildings.

We pitched our light tents in a thicket of lower Sand Creek canyon in mid afternoon, and some walked a mile to the foot of the dunes while others went looking for the new approach to the Sand Creek trail. We had left the road and therefore missed the trail markers.

Tuesday was the longest day, 12.1 miles (recorded on Tom’s GPS) up Sand Creek through several life zones. Steve found the ruins of a stamp mill from the hard-rock mining days. Hundreds of tons of dark satanic steel lay strangely in a strange land.

The lower reach of the river was lush with foliage and full of bird songs, but it was slow going because the well-worn trail from the private-property days made 13 difficult crossings. We were now in the Preserve, so there were no bridges, just shaky saplings slung across slippery rocks. Sand Creek was running full, and even these guys were surprised by the force of the current. Two pair of sunglasses now sleep with the fishes. Three trekking poles were snatched heroically from the deeps.

Towards the Music Pass junction the trail stays high on lovely rolling meadows at river left. We camped in the grass in the monumental presence of Pico Aislado. Here we met the first human in two days, a uniformed National Park Service ranger who lives in a big tent. He said he had been picking up dog food chunks that some fool scattered on the grass. “It’s like an invitation to bears—an appetizer.” But we had our act together, the ranger said. The five all carried bear-proof food canisters, which are mandatory in Rocky Mountain NP, and we were camped more than 300 feet from the water.

Now we were on the threshold of the high country, as if coming out of the sea on the shore of a pure island, where flowers profess their beauty as fast as they can between the June snow melt and the September frost—red skyrockets, blue harebells, purple larkspur, yellow cinquefoil, pale alpine daisies ….

And mountains. I once asked Kent, the minister, about mountains. He said they are—to religious leaders through the ages, to the biblical Psalmists, to him—symbols for God. (“I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills / From whence cometh my help.”) He wrote a paper for a gathering at Yale, in which he told of being reduced to “awed silence” in the Alps, the Himalaya, the Rockies. Mountains inspire awe, which he proposed is a composition of fear and wonder. Derald, the musician, sees music in the peaks. He once recalled that Gustav Mahler, living in the Dolomites, told a friend there was no need to come view the mountains: “They are in my compositions.” Steve, the artist, often called our attention to the play of colors and lines as we ascended. John has the eye of a photographer, Tom an eye for botanical and geological detail.

Wednesday was the most adventurous day, with more awe than fear thanks to a significantly improved trail. There’s a fork about a mile above where we broke camp. Left is Upper Sand Creek Lake, right is “Cottonwood Pass,” according to a new metal sign. But we were looking for “Milwaukee Pass.” No problem. The pass north of 13,522-foot Milwaukee Peak carries both names. Tom quoted Yogi Berra: “When you come to a fork in the road, take it!”

Following the new line of Park Service cairns, we skirted a lake and wetlands and passed into a high green basin, trudging toward 13,000 feet. “Follow the cairns,” a new sign instructed, even though these well-placed piles of rocks seemed to lead in the wrong direction. They took us to the basin rim, where we appreciated the awesome profile of Crestone Needle and the dizzying plunge to the South Colony Lakes.

We were in dangerous terrain, and so it was a relief to discover a new Park Service trail contouring and switchbacking southward toward the pass. Three hours from camp we crossed it on the remnants of an old rock livestock road, out of the park and into the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness. At lunch on the other side, with the San Juans and “El Valle” on the far horizon, we discussed the big unknown in my prospectus: getting to Cottonwood Lake from a high saddle that looked promising on the topo map but was otherwise unreckoned.

After a cliffed-out false start, we scrambled into another high basin, and within two hours of lunch we looked down on the mirror of Cottonwood Lake far below the south face of the Needle. The descent on a green carpet dotted with yellow and blue flowers took a half hour. We had arrived.

On Thursday the Fierce Five climbed the 14,197-foot Needle from Broken Hand Pass while I backtracked in search of a lost tent pole (finding wildflowers and sunlight and silence instead). They returned in the afternoon, having thoroughly enjoyed the summiting in perfect weather. They are experienced not only individually but as a group. They know their mountains and they know each other.

And their experience was lucky for two lost young men who had taken a wrong route off the Needle in late afternoon. “What’s the easiest way down?” came a voice from the unforgiving cliffs directly above our camp up from the lake. The two, with light packs and wearing walking shorts, were looking nervously down from a ledge more than 200 vertical feet above us.

There was no easy way down. A few dozen feet more and they would be on a concave face. In the summer of 2008 a lone climber got in the same trap and fell to his death. “Go back!” Tom yelled. They persisted, searching for the saving crack or gully that was not there. “Go back the way you came!” Steve thought he could call them and explain, but they had no cell phone. He yelled for the names of who should be notified, which may have sobered them. Eventually, without a word, they turned around and disappeared.

At evening the bighorn sheep, females and juveniles, came down to the lake, one by one, from their day jobs. Soon nine of them were gathered, drinking and grazing. Unlike the sheep at other more frequented lakes, these kept their distance. They were thinking, Kent supposed, that they did not want anything to do with a bunch of “old goats.”

On Friday we walked down Cottonwood Creek, 6.3 miles in six hours, and Tom and Steve went the extra 7-tenths of a mile to get the van. It was a hot walk on a wilderness track that gets no maintenance from the Forest Service. The deadfalls, slickrock ramps and multiple-choice cairns were frustrating. But we had been to the mountains.