Following the pioneers’ footsteps through some of the West’s harshest landscapes
The only sound is the incessant Wyoming wind. Low gray clouds block the warmth of the sun, so I keep my hands in my pockets. I’m standing next to the final resting place of Frederick Fulkerson, who died in 1847 as his family traveled the Oregon Trail. When the 17 year old was buried here, his grave was just a few feet from the route of the greatest land migration in recorded human history. Today, it’s an abandoned highway with cracked pavement slowly eroding to dust, tucked between two hills and out of sight of the current highway. No one passes by, and no one stops in curiosity.
The inscription on the rough granite rock serving as Frederick’s headstone wore away over 150 years ago. The grave was a mystery until a trail historian matched the headstone with a sketch in a pioneer diary. That amazing coincidence saved Frederick from isolated anonymity.
We know a little about the Fulkersons’ story. Frederick, the oldest of James and Mary’s seven children, became ill after he swam the family’s livestock across the North Platte River near present day Casper. The river there is wide, swift, and bone chilling. His conditioned quickly worsened, but he managed to hang on for a week or two, during which time the family continued their journey west to this remote place. It must have been heart wrenching for his parents to lay him at rest here, knowing they would never pass this way again. Two weeks later, Frederick’s mother died near the Green River crossing.
Travelers would have seen many graves like Frederick’s along the way. The Oregon Trail has been called the longest cemetery in the world. Over fifty thousand people met their fate along the way, roughly ten percent of those who made the journey. Did the Fulkersons fully understand the danger and the risks? If they did, what gut wrenching conversations did James and Mary have before they left, knowing at least one member of their family was statistically guaranteed to not make it to Oregon?
I came to Wyoming to better understand the hardships Oregon Trail pioneers faced. Most of them left behind everything they had ever known for nothing more than the promise of an uncertain future. Some of the most unforgiving land they would cross is here in central Wyoming. The landscape is big and it is inspiring. It’s what people imagine when they think of the West: wide open, windswept, desolate. The mountains never seem to budge from the horizon, as if they’re moving with you but keeping their distance. The land feels unchanged since creation. Traveling through it is traveling back in time.
Quietly and to myself, I read a plaque at Frederick’s grave. The Oregon-California Trail Association placed it here when they identified it in 1995. I reflect on the Oregon Trail video game I played as a kid and lament my character’s frequent fate of dying from diphtheria. Now, in this moment, the Oregon Trail was no longer just a video game to me. To Frederick, it was certainly a very real, very dangerous place. I get behind the wheel of my SUV and drive back to the highway. There’s not a car in sight as I turn west onto Wyoming highway 220.
Just down the highway is Martin’s Cove and Devil’s Gate, where the Sweetwater River has carved a 370-foot deep gorge. In 1856, this was the scene of a harrowing fight for survival by a group of Mormon pioneers. They left Independence, Missouri, dangerously late in the traveling season, and were caught in a blizzard here in November. Of the five hundred that started the journey, 145 never made it to Salt Lake City. Many of them are buried at Martin’s Cove.
From here I could see the next major landmark on the trail, Split Rock. It takes me about 30 minutes to drive from Devil’s Gate to Split Rock, including the time it took me to get gas (Pro tip: never miss a chance to top off your tank in central Wyoming). The same distance took Oregon Trail pioneers an entire day.
I struggle to grasp that I can travel in 20 minutes what took them a hard day’s journey. They would see the same landmark over the course of several days. The anticipation of seeing each one was met by relief and sometimes celebration when they reached it. In a matter of an hour, those same landmarks are a vague memory to me. And if I’m traveling in an airplane, I never see the landmark at all. Modern transportation has all but removed the journey from travel. Only the destination matters to us now.
Split Rock is a low granite mountain with a pronounced notch in the peak. It’s east of me, across the Sweetwater River. Between Split Rock and the highway pull off where I’m standing, wagon trains would camp in the wide, green valley. The river is a gloried stream–like most in the mountain west near their sources. Still, crossing this river could be treacherous and time consuming. The Oregon Trail is more of a general path in this area; it varied over time as better routes with fewer river crossings became more popular. The trail seemed to have a love-hate relationship with rivers. Travelers dreaded river crossings because of their danger. Yet rivers provided the fresh drinking water that made the trip possible at all. Indeed, the trail followed rivers most of its length and they were a constant travel companion—much like this incessant Wyoming wind.
The wind and I had a particular difficult time getting along the night before. Just after sunset, I found a good camping spot on some BLM land not far from Independence Rock. It was at the crest of a sagebrush ridge overlooking the Sweetwater valley. The wind blew just hard enough to force me to stake down my new backpacking tent. Yet it wasn’t gusting enough to disperse a Mosquito plague of Biblical proportions. They swarmed around me, and each time I drew my hands down the opposing arm, I brushed off at least a dozen of the damn things. And for every one I successfully swatted to oblivion, two more replaced it.
I escaped into my tent after a couple minutes of Mosquito fighting. But the fun had just begun. As I settled in for a restful sleep under a full moon, I peered into the night through my mesh tent wall. I noticed what seemed to be a thin layer of fog moving in from the mountains to the west. I thought it strange that fog would be rolling in, but I didn’t think much of it. Suddenly, that steady Wyoming wind exploded into an inland hurricane. What I thought was fog was actually dust. For over an hour, I held my hands against the tent wall above my head to keep it from collapsing and snapping the poles. Sand blasted against my tent, roaring like pouring rain. Dust fine enough to seep through the tent mesh collected on my sleeping bag and everywhere inside my tent. At about 1 a.m., when I felt a few rain droplets, I had had enough. I jumped from my tent, detached it from my poles, unstaked it, and threw it with everything still inside into my SUV. I rode out the rest of the night in my Nissan. It never rained much, but the wind rocked my truck for hours. I learned later that this was a derecho, a powerful wind storm that is rare in this part of the country (https://www.washingtonpost.com/weather/2020/06/08/denver-derecho/). It was called “historic.” Fitting.
Back to the present at Split Rock. The clouds look like they’re promising to bring the rain that never really came last night. I have a lot I still want to see today, so I jump back into my SUV and drive further west on the highway. I stop at a place called Ice Slough, a marshy area where a thick layer of sod insulated frozen ground water. This was a popular place with travelers, who would dig through the sod and chip away at the ice for their drinks and for chewing. Many pioneers would bring a bottle of whiskey or bourbon to have with the ice here. Today, the underground springs have dried up, a victim of our changing climate.
Just a few miles from Ice Slough, I turn off the highway onto a country road in the middle of absolutely nowhere. Called the Atlantic City Road, it runs generally southwest and roughly parallels the trail for the next 30 miles. In my windshield, it twists through low treeless hills. Though it starts as a wide, well maintained gravel thoroughfare, it becomes sketchier the further west I drive. It narrows to one car width and the gravel disappears to rock and dirt.
I approach a side road that would lead me to Rocky Ridge—one of the planned highlights of my trip. Here, the Oregon Trail climbed a steep stony slope, gaining about 700 feet in two miles through rows and rows of rocky riffles like shingles on a roof. It was one of the most rugged and difficult obstacles on the entire trail. But I question whether I’m going to see it. The rain is falling and the road is becoming slippery. When trip planning a few weeks earlier, I read that roads in this area—especially unimproved like this particular side road—become boggy in a rainstorm and nearly impassable for most vehicles. While I would baja without a care down these sagebrush ruts in my Jeep Wrangler, this weekend I am driving the family Nissan SUV. While it is 4×4, its tires are anything but off-road worthy. And in my mind I hear my wife lecturing me about my decision making if I end up stranding the family SUV for a day or more in the Wyoming back country. I turn around after about a hundred yards. Rocky Ridge will have to wait for another trip.
[I am planning a similar trip in 2021 to this area of Wyoming to see some Oregon Trail sites I missed—and to do some fly fishing in the Sweetwater River of course. With some good luck and better weather, I will add to this narrative a section about Rocky Ridge.]
I continue moving west on the Atlantic City Road, heading straight into the heavy rain that the clouds have threatened to bring all morning. The Nissan has trouble gripping onto the slick mud and wants to fish tail down some hills. Pressing on the accelerator straightens the truck but gives me an uncomfortable rate of speed on what essentially feels like ice. I nearly slide into a pond around one curve, but the wheels catch some ruts that track me around the curve like I’m on rails.
The rain subsides and the road improves the closer I get to Atlantic City. Eventually, I end up at a place called Rock Hollow. Remember those Mormons who got a late start on the Trail in 1856 and were stranded at Martin’s Cove? Their misery wasn’t over there. A smaller band of the same group made it as far Rocky Ridge, where they too were caught in the storm. They sheltered a few miles west in a ravine along Rock Creek, where more than a dozen froze to death. They were buried here at what is now called Rock Hollow.
It is difficult to write about the Oregon Trail without sounding like a broken record of tragedy.
In thundering silence, I tour the Mormon markers and monuments around Rock Hollow, including the mass grave for the 1856 travelers. The Mormons recently built spotless public restrooms in addition to a campground with a chipper and inviting sign reading “visitors welcome.” It’s very Mormon-like. They have attempted–admirably–to change the narrative of Rock Hollow and Martin’s Cove to an inspiring and heroic tale of survival. Yet I feel anything but inspired. The rush of Rock Creek sounds not like playfully tumbling water but liquid gloom instead. No matter how many steps away from it I take, its volume doesn’t seem to change. It’s as if it’s trying to drown out the screams of the suffering pioneers. I take a few deep breaths, but the air is heavy. I don’t spend much time at Rock Hollow.
From Rock Hollow, the Oregon Trail climbs South Pass, one of the most benign and unassuming crossings of the Continental Divide. Historians have speculated that without South Pass, the settling of the West might have taken much more time and effort. Lewis and Clark nearly died crossing the Divide in the rugged Bitterroot Mountains to the north, and later trappers and explorers wouldn’t believe Native American legends of South Pass. White man discovered it quite by accident. A group of explorers from the Pacific Fur Company stumbled upon it while trying to avoid a band of unfriendly natives. The wide sagebrush plain crossed by the pass gives no indication to the fact it lies upon the spine of the continent. At just over 7,400 feet, it is the lowest crossing of the Divide between the central and southern Rockies. When western explorer and Army lieutenant John C. Fremont reported that travelers could use South Pass without a “toilsome ascent,” migration to Oregon Territory exploded.
Its setting awes me. To the north is Wyoming’s imposing Wind River Range, containing some of the state’s highest peaks at nearly 14,000 feet. To the south are the Oregon Buttes–twin flat topped mountains. In between, the continent seems to just drop off into a 35 mile wide desert rift. It is as isolated as I imagined it would be.
A good gravel road connects me to twin ruts through the sagebrush—the original Oregon Trail. I feel a rush as I guide my wheels onto the trail. I am quite literally driving on history. Through the floorboards, I can feel the sagebrush scrape the truck’s undercarriage. Rain begins to pelt my windshield as I approach the saddle of the pass. There are a few stone markers on the north side of the ruts, so I park the truck off the south side. I get out of the truck and survey the view to the west. The trail noticeably drops in elevation, leaving a view of western Wyoming and Utah that must be grandiose on a clear day. To the east, the landscape appears flat. This view must have been fitting for the travelers—the west inviting them, the east proving few regrets. At this exact spot I’m standing was the border for the Oregon Territory in the 1840s and 1850s. Travelers would have had another thousand miles to the Willamette Valley or to California, but they had reached Oregon. I wonder if this was the first moment they felt a sense of relief or a sense of accomplishment.
The taps on my raincoat become louder and harder. I’m thankful I haven’t heard any thunder—I don’t see a tree in any direction so I’m the tallest object sticking out of the ground for miles. There’s not much at South Pass to explore. The two stone markers on the north side of the trail are small and simple. One rough granite marker has a short inscription: “Old Oregon Trail 1843-57.” A few feet away another–made of curious and out of place black granite–commemorates the 1836 crossing of Narcissa Whitman and Eliza Spalding, the first American women to travel the Oregon Trail. The Whitmans and Spaldings founded a mission near present day Walla Walla, Washington. For those students of Westward Expansion, the Whitman Mission is an interesting and important story that (you guessed it) ends in tragedy. But it is well worth researching and learning more about.
I spend quite a bit of time at the top of South Pass standing in the rain, soaking in the moment and the place. The number of historically significant sites in the United States untouched by time is staggeringly low. This is a special moment and a special place. Everywhere I look, the landscape is virtually the same as it was when our ancestors stood in this exact spot 170 years ago. What they saw is what I see; the isolation I feel must be something like what they felt. I wonder if I have reached the apex in my weekend quest for understanding.
I soon learn that I have not.
Fifteen miles and an hour later, I’m sitting in my truck in the highway pull out at the “Parting of the Ways” monument. This is just a tourist marker recognizing the point where the Oregon and California Trails split, for which the actual site is almost 10 miles to the west in the desert.
The California gold rush of 1849 turned the Oregon Trail from a moderately used thoroughfare into the super highway of its time. Within just two years, so many Americans had traveled the trail’s California branch that the state qualified to join the Union.
It’s pouring now, and like Rocky Ridge, I have to abandon my plans to see the actual site of the Parting of the Ways. I watch the storm rage outside, sheets of rain obscuring the nearby hillsides. Dry inside my truck, I reflect on the rain, on the plague of mosquitos the night before, on the “historic” derecho, on the nervous moments driving the slick wet backroads, on the creepy emptiness I felt at Rock Hollow, and on the loneliness I experienced at Frederick Fulkerson’s quiet grave. I had come to the Oregon Trail to understand the hardships the pioneers faced. Perhaps it gave me exactly what I had been looking for. Sitting warm and dry in my fully enclosed, weather proof, climate controlled SUV, I realize I still have a lot to learn.
Kelso Ridge – Torreys Peak
I straddle the cold granite of the “knife edge”, a fitting name for the rock blade I’m crossing to reach the summit of Torreys Peak just a quarter mile in the distance. On my left is a thousand foot drop down a snowy couloir. I look down to my right and find a similar plunge down to sharp boulders. I scoot the twenty feet to the other side of the knife-edge and reach toward a rock pedestal. Suddenly, my right calf seizes into a raging cramp. Pain sears through my leg. I cling to the knife-edge with one arm and use the other to desperately massage and stretch my calf.
Moments like this demand calm concentration. They’re not the best time to ponder life’s deeper mysteries in casual introspection. Yet there I was being unconventional, thinking how my wife and this cramp both remind me why I love climbing mountains.
I was introducing my wife Liza to her first class three hike. Earlier in the day, under a blue clear sky, we hiked the first two miles of the standard Class 1 route up Grays and Torreys Peaks in Colorado’s Front Range. By 14er standards, it’s relatively easy hiking through a narrow alpine valley above tree line. These two fourteeners are some of most popular for residents and visitors of the Denver metro area, which is just an hour or so away. The small parking area at the trailhead fills up before sunrise, and by mid-morning cars stretch bumper-to-bumper down the road for a mile or more. So many climbers pack the summits that they feel like crowds at a rock concert. If you enjoy peaceful communing with nature, these mountains aren’t for you.
However, there is a less popular alternative than the standard route. At 12,300 feet along the main trail, a narrow unmarked path branches to the right (north) and seems to disappear up a slope. It gains the ridge connecting Torreys Peak and Kelso Mountain then follows Torreys’ rocky eastern spine to the summit. This is Kelso Ridge, and it is one of Colorado’s best introductions to class three hiking. It’s the route we are taking today.
The path slowly transitions from class one to class two as it heads west over rock outcroppings on the ridge crest. It is here where we met a British couple making their first ascent of Torreys. We also encountered a Meetup group of about a half dozen climbers. Liza and I, the Brits, and the Meetup group more or less shadowed each other up the mountain, an eclectic bunch of climbers if there ever was one. For the rest of the hike it was my goal to keep the Brits talking just so I could enjoy their accent. I was successful–though surely at the expense of being an obnoxious American.
The first Class 3 obstacle on the route is a chimney about 20 feet tall. Liza and I climbed a slightly easier line to the left of the chimney, while the meetup group opted for the route straight up it. They were a mix of experienced climbers and newbies, and it was fun watching the veterans encourage and advise the inexperienced in the group. Liza and I were also able offer some assistance, and for the rest of the climb we felt like honorary members of the Meetup. This kind of camaraderie is uncommon on the standard routes of the overcrowded Front Range 14ers.
The next obstacle is a wall of white rock, where Liza began to express concern. Though the wall offered numerous hand and foot holds up a navigable seventy-degree slope, the climb had become much tougher and more imposing than anything we had done together. I reassured her she was doing well and to keep climbing.
Above the wall is a scramble up loose rock and soft dirt. Our feet seemed to slide down almost as far as we stepped up. Once we finally found more solid footing, it was easy hiking along the ridge through some rock and mild exposure.
From this vantage point it’s easy to see the area’s geology and the faulting that was responsible for pushing many of these mountains through the sky. A lush blanket of lime-green alpine grass carpets Kelso Mountain’s gently sloping south face. It’s obvious this side of the mountain had once been horizontal, but forces unimaginable betrayed its tranquil past, thrusting it up and tilting it like a table missing a leg. The north slope is practically a sheer cliff, as if God’s axe whacked the mountain in half. The process took hundreds of thousands—if not millions—of years, and sets into sobering perspective the brevity of our own existence.
From here one can also see the entire standard route and its throng of hikers, like ants on a slow march to a picnic. In contrast, on the Kelso route below our group was another dude–maybe two.
We continued climbing, staying to the left of the ridge. The trail placed us onto a wide ledge and a snow patch blocked the best route to higher ground. We had caught up with the couple from across the Pond, and we watched as they scaled up around the snow. After listening to their advice (another opportunity to hear them talk), we determined they had indeed chosen the best route. The climb around the snow patch necessitated some rather creative moves–disconcerting considering the significant exposure below us.
Another short section of exposed class three climbing put us back on top of the ridge and at the east end of the knife-edge. While we waited for the Meetup group and the Brits to cross, a few of our new Meetup friends offered to take our phones across and snap some pics of us as we scrambled across. So we happily handed our expensive devices to some random guys we just met that day and whose names we didn’t know. After they crossed, they paused their climb to take pictures as we inched across the knife-edge one by one. I went first.
It was here, at the end of the knife-edge, when my leg seizes. I pull myself off the knife-edge and up onto a rock ledge, and the cramp subsides once I’m able to stretch out my calf and drink about a quart of water. In the exhilaration of climbing earlier, I forgot to drink water when I wasn’t thirsty.
A short scramble across a ledgey section leads us to class two hiking and the windy summit of Torreys. We’ve lost the Meetup group but are able to chat with the British couple as we eat lunch. They tell us they moved here within the last year from New York. Though they’ve climbed internationally, this is their first 14er. In fear of sounding weird, I resist the urge to tell them I feel like I’ve just met my new best friends.
We bid farewell to our British friends after a quick lunch and take the standard route down the mountain. The relative ease of the descent offers us a chance to reflect on our climb, and the wide path allows us to walk side by side and chat about the experience.
Liza describes the climb in just a few words: “Scary. Out of my comfort zone.” Then she elaborates:
“At least at first. But my favorite part was getting to the knife edge. We were so close to the top, and it didn’t scare me anymore. There’s no turning around, there’s no choice but to move forward. If I just did it and stopped thinking, my instincts were better than my thoughts. That’s what you should be doing with life. Stop thinking so much about everything.”
My experience on the knife-edge was similar. To that moment, hiking 14ers had become mundane. But when hanging on to that granite precipice, I remembered a quote attributed to George Mallory: “It’s not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves.” Complacency is one of our greatest enemies. When we test our limits or persevere through difficult circumstances, we just might discover parts of ourselves we never knew.
My alarm starts shouting at me at 5:30 am, and as I shut it off I think I hear snow falling on my tent. I’m not normally up this early on a Saturday, so it takes me a few moments to shake off my grogginess. Considering the weather forecast called for clear skies and highs in the 60s, I’m confused. I unzip the door and peek outside—snow indeed, and it is dumping. The wind roars through the pines above me. I roll my eyes and sigh in aggravation; I didn’t pack for a blizzard.
My wife had graciously agreed to look after the kids for an entire weekend so I could introvert my way to improved mental health. I was going camping and climbing alone for three days in the mighty Sawatch Mountains of central Colorado. One of my major goals in life is to conquer all 54-ish Colorado 14ers (the number depends on what list you use) before my kids reach their own apparent goal of wearing me down to a feeble and haggard middle-aged progenitor. With the kids making more progress on their goal than I’m making on mine, it was imperative I maximized the 14ers I could climb this weekend. I set my sights on three peaks I could climb in two days: Huron Peak, Mt. Harvard, and Mt. Columbia.
The forecast for the weekend was nearly perfect. After some rain showers and a little snow off and on through the week, Friday was expected to be partly cloudy and Saturday was supposed to be clear. Temperatures were forecasted to be mild, with highs in the 50s on Friday and rising to the 60s on Saturday.
The light rain on my way out of town on Thursday didn’t bother me. It made a gentle drumming on my Jeep’s canvas top that served to calm me from my hectic workday. It stopped in the foothills, though, and I made Buena Vista in great time, where I stopped for a burger at K’s (https://www.facebook.com/Ks-Dairy-Delite-264983416594/?rf=147153585315102) to fuel my weekend with greasy deliciousness.
A light rain started again as I drove north out of town. I was making good time until a few miles after I turned west from highway 24 onto county road 390. This bone jarring washboard of a lightly maintained debacle forced me to slow to speeds considered breathtaking by 1880s standards (which was obviously the last time it was graded) just to keep my Jeep from falling apart and/or sliding off the road on sharp turns. When darkness descended, my headlights cast eerie roaming shadows on golden aspens as I crept (and rattled) through the well-preserved ghost towns of Vicksburg and Winfield.
The rain picked up a little as I reached the end of the washboard “road” and the beginning of a 4×4 trail that led to Huron’s trailhead. Finally, I thought, I would be on a smoother road. I put the Wrangler into four wheel, removed the covers from the off-road lights, reattached various pieces and parts of the Jeep’s suspension, applied healing balm to my jarred, jolted, and sore butt, and started up the trail. It seemed like an easy drive, or perhaps ignorance is bliss and I just couldn’t see the obstacles in the road.
After twenty or so minutes, I arrived at what looked like a trailhead. I saw two other cars parked, so I backtracked a few hundred feet down the road and began to set up my tent in the gentle mist. The darkness absorbed my light and I couldn’t see more than 20 feet around me. The rain picked up again later as I lay in my tent—gently lulling me to sleep.
I awoke the next morning to find the rain had turned to snow at some time in the night. Just a dusting covered the ground, but the mountainsides around me had a fresh coat of brilliant white above tree line. I couldn’t see the night before, but I was snuggled into a meadow in a narrow valley that seemed forgotten to the rest of Colorado. It felt isolated and detached—or perhaps that was me, standing alone in the shadows of peaks rising thousands of feet around me, a single rough muddy road winding its way through the meadow and down the valley until it disappeared into the shadowy trees.
The breeze was noticeable but it was the clouds that grabbed my attention—rushing across the sky in a frenzy to be somewhere else. They were puffy and white, so not harbingers of an incoming storm. However, the speed of the upper level winds that were pushing them so quickly must have been staggering. The thought crossed my mind that I might get a taste of that wind at 14,000 feet, but at this moment I chose to ignore it.
I set out on the trail to Huron Peak shortly after breakfast. Whoever built this trail really enjoyed switchbacks. I counted at least 20. It climbed (quickly) out of the wooded valley and subsequently deposited me in a high alpine basin, with Huron’s pointy peak looming 2,000 feet above me. This is where the ice started. It was freakin’ cold, and suddenly the wind was racing. Whereas in the valley it had to fight through trees, up here—unimpeded—it was vicious. I considered turning back, as I had only packed light gloves, a stocking cap, two layers, and a windbreaker—because, you know, it was still technically summer. Besides, didn’t the weather forecast say clear and sixty degrees? I also knew I’d soon be in the sun, so on I climbed.
The ice turned to snow as I began my assault up the ridge to Huron’s shoulder. Then the snow turned to more snow, which soon turned to foot deep drifts on the trail. I had left my Yaktrax at home, so I knew the descent was going to suck. I gained the ridge of Huron’s shoulder, then pushed up the steep snow clogged talus to Huron’s 14,003 foot summit.
Compared to many other 14ers, Huron has a small summit. There’s room for a few people and a small stone windbreak. Though the platform is small the views are huge. To the west was Taylor Reservoir and my beloved Gunnison Country. In the distance, the rugged San Juans. To the south, fellow 14ers Harvard and Yale ordained control of the horizon. In every direction the Earth is crumpled by violent forces unimaginable; peaks scrape the sky. You are reminded of the insignificance of your own existence.
I snapped some pictures and joked with another climber about forgetting to bring skis. Noticing that I had cell service, I messaged my wife to reassure her that I was in fact not yet dead. After another climber joined us it was becoming crowded, so I geared up and wished the other climbers safe hiking—none of us had microspikes—and proceeded down. Besides, I still needed to break camp, drive to Buena Vista for a few supplies, drive to the Harvard trailhead, and backpack 3 miles to that night’s camp. The hike down was not as bad as I had feared, though I had to choose my steps with extra care.
After lunch, I packed up camp and drove down the pleasant 4×4 trail to the hellish county road. Having assumed I made my point earlier regarding how appalling this streak of dirt is, I’ll skip ahead on my adventure. I purchased microspikes and a few supplies in Buena Vista, exchanged messages with my wife, and started for the Harvard trailhead.
Unlike Huron, you can drive your cah to the Hahvahd (surely you knew that was coming) trailhead. After sorting my gear and packing my backpack for the next two nights, I set off down the trail. The first one and a half miles is easy, wide, and gentle. It follows the idyllic North Cottonwood Creek through a lush canyon. After the second bridge over the creek, the trail narrows, steepens, and becomes much rockier. I had planned to set up base camp after three miles in Horn Fork Basin, but I stopped after two and a half miles at the first decent campsite I could find—my legs were just about to fall off. I had an hour of daylight left, so I set up my tent, filled my water from the excellent stream a short distance away, had dinner, hung my bear bag, started to build a fire, and was chased inside my tent by a sky full of graupel (soft “mountain hail”). Really? This was not in the forecast. But I was tired and I needed to update my trip notes anyway, so I stayed in my tent and called it a night. I dreamed of the adventure awaiting me the next day.
Now it’s Saturday morning and I’m sitting in my tent staring at the dumping snow outside. I decide to wait, but by 7:30 it is still snowing. The sky is heavy overcast, but I begin getting ready. I ready my summit pack, eat breakfast, and carry every layer I have, starting up the trail at 8:45. It is a significantly later start than I planned, and it’s clear this delay may affect my plans to hike the traverse between Harvard and Columbia.
Between Harvard and Columbia is roughly 3 miles of high alpine wilderness. There is no trail, and avoiding a couple of potentially dangerous areas takes focused route finding. A climber descends about 2,000 feet from Harvard to a saddle between the two peaks, then begins to climb up almost 2,000 feet of nothing but talus to reach Columbia. It is not a casual hike.
The snow lets up as I approach timberline, but the westerly wind is still relentless. Halfway up Harvard I meet two climbers on their way down. With full face masks, glacier goggles, puffy pants, arctic jackets, and mountaineering boots with gators, they look like they’re descending from Everest Camp IV.
“Morning,” one greets me. “Careful up there.”
“We had sideways snow up at the top,” the other said. “Had a hard time standing up. Pretty gnarly for September!” he adds with a chuckle.
I must look like a guy from Iowa, with my light gloves, puffy jacket and windbreaker, and stocking cap. I thank them for the info, but with the clouds beginning to break I felt confident I’d be OK.
However, the higher I climb, the more I second-guess the traverse. I remember just yesterday my successful hike up Huron. I trudged through quite a bit of snow up there, and climbing down the steep talus was surprisingly easy, even without microspikes. Today, I have them in my summit pack, so I’m better equipped, right? Yet the clouds were largely broken up yesterday—right now, I can’t see very far west due to a high ridge, but it is still mostly cloudy and windy as hell. On the traverse, I’ll be below the Harvard-Columbia saddle and unable to see west again. This wind can blow in another snowstorm and I may never even see it coming until it’s too late. But I’ve done more than twenty 14ers, some of them multiple times, in literally all conditions. I may not have seen it all, but I know what I’m doing. I’m struggling to make a decision.
It’s when I reach 12,500 feet that my legs begin feeling noticeably sore. I stop to catch my breath and use it to curse the wind. I have to admit to myself tired climbers with a late start, inadequate clothing, in bad weather climbing alone keep the fine folks at SAR busy. I summit Harvard at 12:30, exhausted from 15 miles of difficult hiking in the last 30 hours. The rule of thumb is you want to expend less than half your energy getting up the mountain so you have plenty in reserve getting down. But I feel like I have less than a full tank and I’m only at the top of the first peak. I decide to not attempt the traverse.
The trail up Harvard, Colorado’s third highest peak, is scenic and remote. Few other 14ers I’ve done leave you above timberline as long, so during summer storm season you want an early start. The trail seems either somewhat level or gruelingly steep; Harvard doesn’t offer much middle ground. The last 30-40 feet at the top requires some route finding and is difficult class 2, perhaps even class 3 depending on how you choose to ascend. There is no standard route on that final pitch.
I’m not saddened by having to forego Columbia. Few 14ers have turned me away (Longs once, Bierstadt at least once), but “summit fever” can be a dangerous condition even for experienced and knowledgeable climbers. Five people died on Capital Peak this year alone. At least two got lost and made a wrong turn down a deceptive couloir that ends at a cliff. They fell 600 feet. Another two were climbing above their ability and met their fate on a feature appropriately called the Knife Edge. The mountains have no sympathy should you make a bad decision.
My fundamental mistake this weekend was giving too much credence to the weather forecast. I’m not normally one to believe much of anything that comes from a meteorologist. This time, inexplicably, I did. It was a good reminder to come prepared for the worst conditions possible, or at least virtually anything.
It was also a good reminder that you don’t successfully climb mountains just because you’re tough, or just because you have special skills. You can check that brand of bulletproof bravado at the trailhead if you ever climb with me. Skills, toughness, determination are all vital, but ultimately you successfully climb mountains because they let you climb them. Each has its own personality, its own tendencies. Each share some characteristics. You have to listen to what the mountain is telling you and look for the message it’s trying to send. Some days all your skills and all your toughness aren’t enough. Some days the avalanche danger is too high, some days lightning is in the area. Every day you need way more brains than you need brawn. Before your trip, you study the map and the route description and know it like it’s your way home—because it is. Humility keeps you alive to climb another day; hubris makes you another tragic statistic.
I arrive back at camp around 4pm and build my first fire of the weekend. The winds have died down and I’m not concerned about burning half of Colorado to the ground. I soak up the fire’s warmth and watch the evening tire until I can barely keep my eyes open. The next day I wake to clear skies and not a breath of wind. I hike the three miles back to the Harvard trailhead in an hour—motivated by a beer at Simple Eatery in Buena Vista (http://www.spoon-it-up.com/). As I sit and sip my beer, I gaze through beautiful weather at the peaks to the west. Over there just out of view is Columbia, patient, waiting for me. And here I am, safe, planning my return.
Clifford Griffin tried his best to turn tragedy into triumph. His beloved fiancé unexpectedly died the day before their wedding, sending his life into a tailspin. To escape the heartache and rebuild his life, he moved from New York to Colorado with his brother, Heneage. It was the late 1860s, a time when gold and silver seemed to pour from the mountains and riches awaited anyone who could swing a pick into the ground. The truth is few ever struck it rich from the gold and silver rushes, but the Griffins were lucky. Heneage founded the 7:30 Mine twelve hundred feet above the town of Silver Plume, and Clifford became its manager.
Because of his kindness and his policies at the 7:30, Clifford was popular with the miners in Silver Plume. The mine’s workday began at 7:30 (hence the name), a full hour after other mines. Clifford gave a Christmas goose to his workers’ families and he would buy rounds of drinks at bars in Silver Plume and nearby Bakerville. In an age generally characterized by brutal working conditions and labor strife, the Griffins operated what could be considered the Google of its time. What Clifford was best known for, though, was his violin. He lived near the entrance of the mine and would play his violin on a nearby cliff overlooking the town, the acoustics of the valley allowing his concerts to be heard by all the townspeople. They quickly grew accustomed to his playing and looked forward to the nightly concerts. After his last melody faded in the still mountain air on June 19th, 1887, a gun shot suddenly pierced the quiet and alarmed all of Silver Plume. The pop originated from high above the town in the direction of the 7:30, and the residents could only fear the worst. A group of men quickly organized and rushed up the road to the mine.
My wife Liza and I followed in their footsteps 127 years later, on a cool fall day in 2014. Like the men running up the road all those years before, I did not know what to expect once we reached our destination. In the anthology of Colorado legend, Clifford Griffin’s tale is an unfortunate obscurity. Information is scarce, and the few accounts sometimes contradict each other. So as explorers of both Colorado’s outdoors and its rich history, we set out on the 7:30 Mine road to learn whatever secrets an in-person visit would divulge. The road leaves town and immediately begins a steep climb up the side of Silver Plume Mountain. During the mining days it was a toll road serving about a half dozen of Silver Plume’s mines, with the 7:30 being its end. Today it is closed off to automobile traffic and is a foot and bike route through aspens and relics of Silver Plume’s mining past. Old boilers, pulleys, cables for bucket trams, and other mining machinery litter the sides of the road. Somehow, much of the equipment has escaped notice from treasure hunters and has instead been left for future generations to study and appreciate. The road switchbacks several times on its climb out of town, but as it gains altitude begins to level out and stay true to a more constant westerly course. Of particular interest to me was the road builders’ frequent use of stone and wood retaining walls. I am fascinated by nineteenth century engineering and these retaining walls, still resolute in holding back tons of rock and dirt, is a testament to the craftsmanship of their builders. The stone retaining walls of the period were built almost exclusively without mortar, and the wood retaining walls have defied over 140 years of rot and deterioration. The road itself in some places hasn’t fared as well as the walls built to protect it. In some places, erosion has worn much of it away to the point it is now just a narrow path through loose scree. This trail is a poor choice on which to take flatland friends and relatives, who might be unnerved to have nothing more than several hundred feet of a 65 degree slope and loose slippery rock separating them from their maker.
Almost 1500 feet above and two miles from where we had started, we approached the remains of the 7:30 Mine. Liza and I tried to imagine the scene 127 years earlier, when townspeople came rushing up from Silver Plume after the gunshot. Shouts of Clifford’s name surely could be heard several times before someone finally discovered what many had feared. After sending a bullet through his heart, Clifford fell into a silent grave he dug for himself in the rocky soil. A nearby suicide note told of Clifford’s continuing grief from the loss of his fiancé. Tormented by her memory for years, he could no longer bear life without her. He asked to be left where he lay in his self dug grave. Mournful residents of Silver Plume took up a collection for a 10 foot tall granite monument near the site of his grave and the 7:30 Mine. It was hauled by wagon up the road we had just hiked and erected on the cliff from where Clifford entertained the town with the soothing sounds of his violin. The inscription is simple: “Clifford Griffin Son of Alfred Griffin ESQ, of Brand Hall, Shropshire, England Born July 2, 1847. Died June 19, 1887. And in consideration of his own request buried near this spot.” Located just a hundred feet or so from the old road, the monument’s setting is inspiring–Silver Plume’s tiny buildings more than a thousand feet below, I-70 winding its way westward through the valley toward the Eisenhower Tunnel, and the surrounding towering peaks serving as silent sentinels of Clifford’s troubled soul. Some say you can hear his violin on breezy summer nights, reminding us that being rich is no substitute for being happy.