The Outdoor Junkie

The Outdoor Junkie is a blog by Ann Driggers, a backcountry bon vivant who lives to hike, run, ride, ski and climb in the great outdoors, and is most often found roaming through the red-rock canyons and mountains of Western Colorado.

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Transcendent Fall

By Ann Driggers
Sunday, October 6, 2013

It was a little tardy in its arrival but the gold rush has finally gone full bore in the mountains over the last couple of weeks. In the frenzy of immersing myself in as much of this glorious season as possible, I have vascilated between two wheels or two feet as my prefered mode of travel. On the bike I can travel further faster and see more quicker, perfect in the eveings after work. It doesn't get much better than shredding singletrack winding through an aspen forest as the fall colors streak by.

Most evenings I ride til sunset - the golden hour is on steroids during autumn and this year is proving to be a special one. 

And then last Friday the snow came. I stabled the bike, laced up my running shoes and headed out into a wintery world. I found the snow had made the fall even better than I could imagine. White on red, white on gold, white on green, and a backdrop of sky so blue it took my breath away. Fall became transcendent.

Yesterday I ran up Hunter Creek trail out of Aspen. The colors were insane. It was a good job there weren't too many people out since I alternated between breaking out into song and blubbing at the beauty of it all.

The trails were in good shape for running since I went fairly early so they were frozen, and the snow was but an inch or so deep. I *ran* for a couple of hours up to the head of the valley. (*Running is highly sporadic given it is regularly interspersed with rubbernecking, taking pics and yodeling.)

After such a glorious day I decided I needed a second helping of finter (fall-winter) trail running and headed out to Hay Park at the base of Mount Sopris.

 

It too was spectacular though there was significantly more snow.

Still it was so awesome running with yellow, orange and red aspens quaking above and their fallen leaves like gold coins scattered on the snow around my feet.

With the current forecast some of the trails will be drying out (though Hay Park I doubt will be one) and I plan on getting out on the bike again. The colors lower down are really coming on - cottonwoods are starting to blaze and the oakbrush is on fire. I'll be sure to report back on the next stage of our transcendent fall.

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The Finest Hour

By Ann Driggers
Sunday, September 22, 2013

"The finest hour that I have seen
Is the one that comes between
The edge of night and the break of day
It’s when the darkness rolls away."
- Kate Wolf, Across the Great Divide

Through the dark forest we hike, headlamps bobbing, as we wind our way up the mountain side. With my vision focused solely in the narrow space illuminating the trail before me, my other senses are heightened and define the world in which I move. I hear the crunch of granite beneath foot, the clink of pole tips on a rock and the gurgling of a mountain stream. I smell the musty undergrowth of a waning summer after a night’s rain, and the pungent odor of mountain goats bedded down nearby. I feel the downdrafts of cool air descending from the high peaks, and the warmth arising from my body as we climb the steep switchbacks. But every now and then, between the giant pines looming above, I catch a glimpse of the night sky and stars glittering in the inky blackness.

After a thousand feet of climbing we reach a bench atop the headwall and stop to catch our breath. We turn off our headlamps and stand, let our eyes adjust to the darkness and then cast them upward. The moonless sky is dense with its radiant celestial bodies - sparkling stars, gleaming planets and crystal-clear constellations. And through them all the Milky Way streaks like frothy waves in a sea of ebony. We gaze at the heavens in wonder until we are reminded that time is of the essence.

Headlamps back on, we continue hiking in the quiet darkness, across the tundra into a high alpine basin. For a short while the ascent is gradual and then becomes steeper as it zigzags through boulders and around scree fields. Our breathing becomes heavier. Another half an hour and we are feeling our way through the twilight, up a rock ramp, which delivers us to a saddle at the base of the final climb before the summit. As we stop to put away our poles, the eastern horizon starts to glow orange, crimson and purple behind the sawteeth of distant mountains. The brightest stars and planets still vaguely wink above but most are lost to the diffused light of the impending break of day. We turn off our headlamps for the night is ending.

On the summit ridge, the mountain above opens to us, bathed with the soft glow of dawn. We scramble quickly out of the shadows, enjoying hand over foot climbing on solid granite until we are there. From the summit we can see miles and miles in every direction, the expanse and grandeur of the views infinite. To the west a rosy glow surrounds the Earth’s purple umbra arched over distant and hazy mountain ranges. We turn and sit to watch the brightening sky to the east.

Slowly gold fades to flaxen blonde, then little by little to an insipid yellow and then, all of a sudden, the horizon is on fire and the sun presents itself, a dazzling orb, blinding bright, spinning us in its glorious gilded rays. Standing strong on a mountain summit, in the gleam of the sun, cast in its golden patina, I think, if there is a moment, just one, where one is touched by the glory of life, this is it.

All around the mountains are a kaleidoscope of every shade of pink and purple and blue and gold imaginable. We wheel around first to the west, then back to the east and west again, taking in, no - devouring, the splendour of the mountains at sunrise.

I do not want to leave, but the sun is rising fast now, stealing down the mountain sides, flooding valleys with light and banishing shadows from the earth.

I do not want to leave, but we have more summits to climb. So we begin our descent, tingling from the warmth of the sun, invigorated and so vitally alive. The finest hour may be over, but the mountains are awake and so am I.

Note: This is the third installment from the backpacking trip in the Weminuche Wilderness. Over a period of two days we camped in Chicago Basin, rising early in the morning and summiting the four 14ers which surrounded our camp. These are: Windom Peak (14,082 feet), Sunlight Peak (14,059'), South Mount Eolus (14,083') and North Mount Eolus (14,039'). The pictures above were all taken from the summit of North Mount Eolus with the exception of the last which was on Sunlight Peak. My partner in climb was Holly. Christy stayed with Keira, our four-legged friend, back at camp where they fought a running battle with invading mountain goats.

Despite being warned about how crowded this area was we experienced total solitude on every one of our summits and saw only two other groups on the more technical aspects of the peaks. Perhaps this was because of our desire to experience the Finest Hour.

My first report from the multi-day backpacking trip is Adventures in the Weminuche. The second is Where Rivers Change Direction. Thank you for joining me on my travels through the mountains. I hope you find them as inspiring as I do.

 


 

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Proper Clag

By Ann Driggers
Sunday, September 15, 2013

 

Above: Claggy weather in Colorado. Clag obscures Mount Sopris.

I've lost count of how many days it has rained in a row. Like really rained, reminding me of the Motherland across the Pond. It was 16 years ago that my webbed feet finally had the chance to dry out and I do not want them back, thank you very much. This level of moisture is a rarity in Colorado. Known for our indigo blue skies, of course we have rain but it's usually of the afternoon thunderstorm variety, not an endless deluge. Here in the western part of the state I can hardly complain though, as is covered on national and international news, Boulder and other parts of the Front Range are bearing the dreadful and heartbreaking brunt of this non-stop claggy weather.

Clag is a word I grew up with and was used to describe the typical northern English grey weather of rain and/or drizzle with lots of low-lying cloud. Apparently it is derived from an aviation acronym used by the Royal Air Force meaning "Cloud Low Aircraft Grounded". I've also read that its origin is perhaps from Scandanavia where the word 'klag' means sticky mud and indeed claggy can also be used to describe something sticky.

Either way clag and ensuing clagginess happens during rain or just after and since this was about 95% of the time, one could say the weather in Northern England is more often than not claggy as was the ground. Not so in Colorado. Until this week. We've had some proper clag I can tell you!

Mount Sopris looking a little claggy on top:

Between rain storms, clag hanging around in the Roaring Fork Valley:

Despite the claggy weather I still got out. Here I'm running past one of the few stands of aspens which have started to change. I'm likely leaping over a puddle or section of trail which is claggy in order to avoid getting myself covered in clag.

Of which there was lots. Of clag that is.

The weather forecast is much improved so hopefully this is the last encounter we have with proper clag for a long time. Fall is on its way and I'm really looking forward to getting out among the colors.

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Where Rivers Change Direction

By Ann Driggers
Saturday, September 14, 2013

Note: This is the second installment from my 8 day backpacking trip through the Weminuche Wilderness. Read the first one, Adventures in the Weminuche, here.

 

On the third day of our trip, having dispensed with our mountaineering activites for the time being, we awoke ready to fully immerse ourselves in our multiday wilderness journey. At three quarters the size of the state of Rhode Island the Weminuche is, by far, the largest wilderness area in Colorado and covers a sprawling 499,771 acres. Although our proposed route took in parts of the classic Needles Mountains circuit we would deviate for a couple of days to take us further and deeper into the wilderness on trails less traveled.

As we hiked the 3,000 feet up Elk Creek drainage, on the Colorado Trail, the scenery was spell binding. Huge granitic domes towered above with ragged arretes etched against the sky. From hanging valleys, waterfalls cascaded thousands of feet and in grassy meadows elk bugled and moose grazed in the willows.

After a relentless climb, we finally emerged from the glaciated canyon and onto a bench scattered with sapphire blue alpine tarns.

The vistas were beyond superlative - widely considered to be the scenic climax of the Colorado Trail upon which we were traveling. With all my rubbernecking it was all I could do to keep one foot in front of the other and not fall flat on my face. Thankfully the trail was smooth and ascended evenly through switchbacks, like a zipper, to the crest of the rolling ridge at 12,700 feet. Here we arrived at the Great Divide, the Continental Divide of the Americas! To the west, watersheds flow into the Pacific Ocean and to the east, the Atlantic. We had reached the place where rivers changed direction.

For the next two days we followed the Continental Divide Trail, mostly above treeline, zigzagging up and down mountainsides and crossing the Great Divide four times.

Although less dramatic than the soaring peaks of the days previous, this landscape had its own unique stark beauty. We wandered across rolling alpine tundra, touched with the golden tinge of fall. Great expanses of uninterrupted space spread before us, with horizons so distant that the blue ridges melded with the sky. Miles and miles from the nearest road, days away from habitation, completely self-sufficent, these times on the trail were about solitude and following the rhythm of the earth. We saw very few souls of the human kind. Each day we arose with the sun, we walked along the Great Divide, and turned to bed as darkness fell.

The outside world was far far away. In the words of Kate Wolf:

"And it's gone away in yesterday

Now I find myself on the mountainside

Where rivers change direction

Across the Great Divide"

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Adventures in the Weminuche

By Ann Driggers
Monday, September 9, 2013

I just returned from the Weminuche Wilderness where myself and two friends, Holly and Christy, embarked on a long (for us) backpacking trip. Seven nights were spent sleeping under the starry skies, 80 miles were covered under foot, and 4 14ers and 1 13er were scaled for a total of 22,000 feet of climbing. It was quite the most amazing and special time for so many reasons and I am going to share some of the highlights of the trip over several blog posts. 

Usually I go on backpacking trips that are for shorter periods of time, a long weekend of two or three nights but over the summer we hatched plans to do an extended trip, one that would push the outer edges of what would be feasible self-supported and without resupply. Originally our thoughts were to attempt the Continental Divide Trail from Wolf Creek Pass to Stoney Pass through the Weminuche Wilderness but the West Fork fire changed our plans. Instead we decided to focus on arguably the most scenic portion of the Weminuche - just south of Silverton - and explore the Grenadier Range and Needle mountains. Unbelievably, despite having lived in Colorado for over 12 years, I have yet to visit this area. It was long overdue.

Having set up a shuttle, leaving a vehicle at Purgatory Flats, we started our trek at Molas Pass. Here we began the trip by descending two thousand feet  down to the Animas River and the Durango Silverton Railroad. We declined to take the train, as many do, to access the area on account of our four legged cohort Keira. But that was just fine - this was a backpacking trip after all. As we set off the afternoon storms typical of summer monsoon season in Colorado began. We were a little concerned especially as the long range weather forecast wasn't looking too great but we were prepared for wet conditions. The shower was shortlived however and in the end this was only one of two times during the trip we hiked in rain. In fact overall we were extremely fortunate and experienced good weather with above average temperatures throughout our whole time on the trail.

Our packs weighed between 30 and 40 lbs each, Christy's being the heaviest as she was carrying some things for Keira. Although we had some quite lightweight gear including packs, tents, pads, cookware and so on, there was no escaping we were carrying 9 days worth of food at 1lb and 3 oz per day. We also carried helmets for our climbing adventures and other 'non-essential' items' - for me a book, a pair of Crocs as camp slippers and of course a big camera.

Our camp for the first night was on the edge of some beaver ponds in Elk Creek with spectacular views of our goal for the following day - Arrow Peak - on the right in the photo above. Arrow, and its neighbor Vestal Peak in the Grenadier Range are two of Colorados most dramatic mountains - their north faces sweep upwards and as they rise to their towering summits become ever narrower and steeper. Although we harbored a desire to climb Vestal's Wham Ridge, a technical climb, carrying the required and heavy gear on our long backpacking trip wasn't in the cards. So Arrow Peak's northeast face, a classic scramble, was our route and a worthy alternative. Topping out at 13,803 feet meant we had a 4,000 foot climb from camp so we departed early in the morning to avoid any monsoon activity. On the climb the views of Wham Ridge were amazing.

And only got better on the summit as the entire Vestal Group and Basin unfolded below us.

Yes, I was pretty stoked! Not only were the views superlative but the climb was a fun challenge. What a great way to start off our Weminuche adventures!

Looking up at our route which followed the ramp curving across the peak:

We returned to camp and packed up to move a few miles up valley to be further along our route for the next day. Along the way I found lots of porcini growing in the forest so after a refreshing dip in a swimming hole in Elk Creek I sauted up a delicious gourmet appetizer. We set camp at the edge of a meadow where we watched a pretty sunset before turning in for the night, looking forward to the adventures ahead. 

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