Basalt’s big bad backyard
Basalt Mountain is not a designated wilderness, but it’s anything but tame. Some of the wildest country in the midvalley is found in its thick timber and hidden glades. The hulking summit rises to only 10,866 feet, but when you measure with footsteps, it’s a long way above Basalt – more than 4,000 vertical feet.
There are no deep chasms, glacial cirques, or vertical spires, but the contours are baffling and rugged. Some of the wildest places in the West are non-wilderness, and Basalt Mountain qualifies for size, scale and the opportunities for utter remoteness.If you link Basalt Mountain to the mini-Canyonlands of the Seven Castles in the Fryingpan Valley, then you’ve got a serious challenge for any hiker. Mountaineering and canyoneering skills apply equally, and route-finding depends on accurate compass bearings and map reading.
Earlier this summer, Michael hatched the idea that we walk from his house in Basalt to my house at Seven Castles. The distance by road is only five miles, but this point-to-point traverse took 11 hours of serious trudging through a trackless expanse of downed timber and plunging canyons. It was the perfect farewell to summer in the Roaring Fork Valley.****From Michael’s back door in Old Town Basalt, it takes less than a minute for us to walk to the High Park trailhead. Switchbacks cut above Old Town Basalt as the trail climbs west into the brush-covered hills above Lake Christine. Randy and I never would have found our way to High Park if not for Michael’s trail-finding skills, feeling his way intuitively through oaks, willows, serviceberries and swaths of thick pines dotted with wildflowers and occasional piles of bear scat. From our 7 a.m. start to our 6 p.m. finish, we encounter not another human being.
After three hours of steady climbing, the brush and timber suddenly open into High Park, a huge montane meadow leading to the volcanic rock ramparts of Basalt Mountain. We rest in a hunting camp near a burbling spring, sipping hot coffee and tea, munching pastries, and fueling up for the big push over the top. The intermittent trail ends at the edge of an enormous boulder field; from here it’s all bushwhacking.Basalt Mountain is a shield volcano that erupted 10 million years ago through numerous fissures that produced a widespread lava flow, in some areas 500 feet thick. That’s why large sections of rock, porous from their igneous origins, remain exposed on most aspects of the mountain. The swath of chair-sized boulders we climb from High Park is precipitous and dynamic, resulting in occasional settling. Whenever a rock moves it sounds like the grinding tumblers of an enormous vault.At the ridge, where it seems logical that our pace will increase, just the opposite occurs. We encounter a hiker’s nightmare in a pick-up-sticks morass of fallen timber that forces us to cut back and forth through an unreadable maze. For every mile we travel, there are hundreds of hurdles, many with protruding branches. A more daunting natural obstacle course is hard to imagine, and our walking distance is easily doubled.
The timber also initiates a bounteous mushroom hunt. Michael, a total fungophile, discourses on species and varieties in a veritable Ewell Gibbons monologue, occasionally loading choice specimens into paper sacks. I am more focused on my compass, trying to maintain an easterly trend in the direction of Toner Reservoir, the most obvious land form on our route.Becoming separated is easy because the lay of the land and the chaos of fallen timber dictate random zigzags. In a matter of minutes, we find ourselves 100 yards apart, calling and hooting for orientation like submarines sending out sonar. After an hour in the deep timber, Michael’s call rapidly diminishes to a distant echo. Randy and I abandon our compass heading and move toward it, but there is no telling the direction of his call. Soon we lose contact with him altogether and resume our blundering through ever-thickening timber. Five hours will pass before we see Michael again.Randy and I take turns with the compass, holding it before us on an erratic course as the other struggles to follow. When Randy and I become separated by the maze of timber, I find myself alone with no sound other than the wind sighing through the swaying timber. This, I realize, is not a good place to become marooned without direction or incapacitated by an injury. It would take a rescue party of hundreds to locate anyone in this morass, and even then it could take a week of searching.
I hear a distant call from Randy, who has finally reached the south ridge of Basalt Mountain. I soon join him on this near-vertical escarpment with expansive views of Capitol Peak, Mount Daly, Mount Sopris and most of the Elk Range. We follow the ridge down to Toner Reservoir, a grassy meadow bereft of any visible water. Michael is nowhere to be seen. I have a police whistle, which I blow until my ears ring, but Michael doesn’t show.Randy and I are faced with a difficult decision. Do we assume that Michael has passed this way and gone on, or do we wait? Meanwhile, storm clouds have built billowing cumulus caps overhead, and rumbles of thunder resonate in the hot summer air. It is 4 p.m., and we still have two hours of serious trekking through the Castles.Randy leaves a Baby Ruth candy bar on the trail where Michael will have to cross the reservoir. After a dozen more blasts on the whistle, we make the final climb to the ridge above Seven Castles. The terrain gradually changes from dark timber to high desert, from lodgepole pines to piñon/juniper.
As we cross the top of the amphitheater where Seven Castles Creek funnels into a narrow gorge, the Elk Range again stands out on the horizon. Bear scat is more common now, and mountain lion tracks perk our senses to predators. Randy finds an elk antler in an aspen grove as we traverse a crosshatch of intermittent game trails.Route-finding through this thicket takes focus, but my thoughts are on Michael. If he is stuck in the timber on Basalt Mountain, it will mean an overnight for him and a search party for us the next morning. Unbeknownst to Randy and me, Michael is not far off. While Randy and I stick to a ridge leading to one of the Castles, Michael is working his way down a narrow gully, where he is delayed trying to navigate around a 60-foot pour over.When Randy and I arrive at my house, emerging from the fragrant piñon/juniper forest, there is no sign of Michael. Regretfully, I call his home and leave an apologetic message for his wife. Then Randy and I discuss our search options for the next day. We wonder how the headlines will read in the local papers about our lost friend. Just as we’re wording a suitably mordant tribute, Michael saunters into the backyard.
“Wow!” he exclaims. “Now that was a hike!”His legs are scratched, his heels are blistered, and he’s covered from head to toe with dust and dirt, but Michael grins like a kid after a serious play day in the sandbox. His eyes shine with the brightness of the intrepid explorer who returns to camp having seen something majestic.But then we have all seen something majestic in a place of pristine wildness that only Thoreau-backs like us could appreciate. We recount our bungled route-finding and realize where and when we crossed one another’s paths. We agree that hand radios, cell phones and GPS systems would have made things easier.
But this isn’t about making things easier, and we confess to a welcome sense of humility invoked by our daylong struggle through Basalt’s big bad backyard. Basalt Mountain has won our total respect for the small price of exhaustion, disorientation, and a Baby Ruth candy bar left on the trail for the next lucky hiker.Paul Andersen is a columnist and regular contributing writer for The Aspen Times. He lives at Seven Castles on the edge of wild and rugged country.
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A driver looking to squeeze one last four-wheel drive up Aspen Mountain discovered that it’s not the ascent but the decent that poses a challenge.