Cold and blustery on the divide
September 29, 2006
By Paul AndersenThe weather in Silverton two weeks ago was cold and blustery as we scarfed down a quick lunch in a deserted town park and changed into clothes suitable for the 12,000-foot ridge of the Continental Divide.At the trailhead in Cunningham Gulch, a deep mountain canyon dotted with mine ruins and mounds of yellow tailings, we slung on backpacks and headed straight up. An hour later we hit snow at tree-line, where we were met by a blasting cross-wind hurriedly pushing out the last storm clouds.The air had an autumnal bite as we trudged on snow-covered tundra that rolled up and down like a wrinkled carpet. Peaks emerged to the south, rising like shark teeth against the clearest blue sky imaginable. Arrow Peak, Vestal Peak, and the Trinity Mountains probed the sky with serrated ridges.We passed Eldorado Lake at 12,500 feet, a stark mirror set in a snow-covered basin on the abrupt lip of a dark chasm named Elk Creek. Keeping to the ridge, we topped out just shy of 13,000 feet where the wind raged out of the west, sending skiffs of stinging snow into our faces. Finally we stood above Vallecito Lake, whose turquoise water shimmered in a deep glacial cirque.The descent was perilous over snow-covered boulders and down icy ramps of tundra. Our camp was made at dusk in a stand of trees below the lake where filling the cook pot entailed clutching a tree root and leaning out over a waterfall that plunged into a narrow gorge. We were in our sleeping bags by dark and didn’t stir until sun streaked through the trees the next morning.Conversation over tea and buttered toast was short and utilitarian as we jammed our feet into frozen boots, then bushwhacked a traverse around a timbered mountainside. We dropped into Stormy Gulch and followed the trail to Trinity Lake, passing “The Guardian,” a dramatic peak glittering with snow and rising imperially into the blue.Trinity Lake, whose icy water is hemmed in by a huge escarpment of vertical rock, surrendered us a pair of ruby-gilled cutthroat trout. Cleaned and packed in fresh snow, they would be dinner that night. Higher in the basin, a skin of ice partially covered small tarns where the sun warmed glacially-scored rock slabs in the midst of the Grenadier Range. Coyotes howled and yipped from the valley below, and the cool, crisp air signaled finality for the last day of summer. The coyotes seemed to lament with their cries the lengthening shadows of September. We returned to Vallecito Creek and made camp at a picturesque waterfall, one of dozens of drops coursing through a forest of enormous blue spruce. A campfire took the chill off the night air, and we fed sticks into the blaze and talked as the stars swirled overhead.Up early the next morning, our boots were again frozen stiff. There was a film of ice on the precarious log we used for crossing the rushing creek, then a steep trail switchbacking toward Hunchback Pass. Water percolated everywhere, pushing up ice blooms that glistened in the sun like crystalline blades of grass.We crossed into a drainage past Kite Lake where an old mining shack reminded us of hard-bitten miners from a century ago. Then we ascended breathless to the ridge and surveyed the high San Juans surrounding Ouray, Lake City, Creede, Telluride, and Durango.The predominance of high peaks was inspiring, despite the deep fatigue that staggered me on every sub peak along the ridge. I hungrily consumed deep draughts of thin, cold air and paused on every summit to note the string of cairns marking the Divide Trail.Our final descent from the high country fell away through a blaze of yellow and orange aspens, willows, and grasses. A multitude of rushing streams spoke of gravity in a precipitous realm of high peaks and plunging valleys. With that glory in our memories, we left the high country to the coming winter.Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays.