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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San Juan River

By Ann Driggers
Sunday, June 16, 2013

High in the San Juan mountains of southern Colorado a river, bearing the same name, begins. Cold, clear and fast, it heads south to New Mexico, passes through the Navajo dam (if released) and then joins with its major tributary, the Animas. As it enters Utah, the river becomes heavy and brown, laden with sediment, and winds its way through the stark and arid landscape of the desert southwest before ending lethargically and nebulously in Lake Powell.

At the end of May we launched our group of seven on three rafts to float 83 miles of the San Jaun River from Bluff to Clay Hills Crossing in Utah, over eight days. Traditionally the last week in May , or the first in June, are peak flow for the river, the source being snowmelt from the mountains. This year, the second of drought, allowed only 250 cfs to be released from the Navajo Dam, so we were very much dependant upon the water coming from the Animas River. Luckily for us, a few days preceeding our trip brought the big spring meltdown, so we launched at high water for the year, 2,000 cfs. This made for relatively good flows and few hang ups in the form of sand bars in Lake Powell. The river is not known for its rapids, with but a handful that are noted on the map, but its geology, scenery, hikes, ruins, petroglyphs and other historical sites make it a classic desert river trip. Here are some of the highlights:

Every night we found fantastic camps. We slept out in the open - with zero bugs or rain, tents were not needed. My favorite spot is in the boat, the river flowing quitely beneath and rocking me to sleep. But sometimes the camps were so great I laid down on land. Here we have a fire, more for atmosphere than warmth, at River House camp:

During the first three days especially there were many sights to see off river, the River House ruin perhaps being the most famous. It was occupied by the Ancestral Puebloans between AD900 and the 1200's:

We also hiked up San Juan Hill where Mormon pioneers built a wagon road across Comb Ridge, the last and most challenging obstacle in their travel from Escalante to Bluff. Comb Ridge is a spectacular 80 mile long monocline, ending at the San Juan river. From its southern end looking south across into northern Arizona:

We floated through the Goosenecks where the river travels through 6 miles of meanders to cover 1 mile as the crow flies. Having viewed the spectacular Goosenecks from above several times I was excited to be 1,000 feet below:

The highlight hike of the trip is the Honaker trail. With plenty of exposure it winds its way 1,200 feet up through the cliffs to the rim.

From there the views are spectacular across the Colorado Plateau. To the south Monument Valley can be seen and to the west the river flows on:

It's a long way down! A flotilla of boats departs Honaker Camp:

Government Rapid is the largest of the trip. With low water flows it's more of a technical rock garden with only a couple of key strokes needed. My 73 year old Dad, on his first multi-day river trip, took to the oars like a duck to water and steered one of the rafts safely through:

The weather couldn't have been better! Bar a few windy afternoons which meant plying the oars, we enjoyed bluebird, cloudless days with highs in the upper 80's and lows in the 50's. Another glorious day dawns as I watch the sun creep down the canyon walls:

More great hikes ensued. Slickhorn Canyon:

Olejto Wash:

And finally we floated into Lake Powell:

8 comments

Stop and Smell the Sagebrush

By Ann Driggers
Saturday, May 18, 2013

Thin puffs of cloud float through a cerulean sky above the high mesa, a rolling sea of pinons and juniper stretching as far as the eye can see.  We lean into our hike, shouldering packs with equipment and food to sustain us for several days, as we begin our descent into the labyrinth of canyons carved into this vast landscape.  At first, the earth’s fissure is no more than an arroyo winding through the sagebrush but, as we travel downwards, the sandstone cliffs rise higher, becoming more bold, until they are vertical, soaring hundreds of feet above.  In places they bulge and billow into fantastical shapes, hoodoos shooting into the sky, and the red, brown, orange and pink rock is streaked with the black patina of desert varnish.

We travel along the floor of the winding canyon, the lightly trodden path taking us through knee high grass, a lush neon green carpet flecked with the purple of milk vetch, and along sandy washes, pooled with water and flanked with sandstone walls. 

After a long winter and delayed spring we rejoice to see the desert flowers blooming.  From the pink flowers of prickly pear and whipple’s fishhook cacti to the vibrant red of the claret cup, from orange globe mallows, white primrose to blue flax, and from the yellow Hopi blanketflowers to the vermillion penstemon, a veritable kaleidoscope of color unfolds and decorates our journey through the canyon. 

The midday heat shimmers and the air is thick.  Ballooning clouds turn the color of steel, wind rattles through the trees and thunder rumbles along the canyon walls.  As the rain starts we duck beneath an overhang for shelter and watch the storm roll in.  Rivulets spill down the rock walls, collecting and rushing through furrows in the rock and sweeping into the arroyos.  The canyon roars as the earth is cleansed.

Shards of light filter through cracks in the gray sky.  Blades of grass and leaves, stooped with the weight of droplets, glisten and the rock, mantled with water, gleams.  The sweet fragrance of sagebrush rises - embodied in its aroma is the very essence of the glorious landscape of the West.

We make camp at the mouth of a side canyon beneath giant cottonwood trees and leaden skies.  Although rain spatters on the tent fly as we crawl beneath our quilts, we sleep soundly.  At daybreak the sky is washed clear and thin strips of watery sun stream over the canyon walls and filter through the trees.  Clasping our mugs of steaming coffee we are drawn to pools of sallow light and warm our chilled bodies.

As the sun rises higher in the sky we continue our journey down canyon, weaving through brushy thickets of tamarisk and traversing arid grassland benches above the wash.  Ravens soar along the edges of the sandstone cliffs silhouetted against a brilliant blue and cloudless sky, as the song of the canyon wren cascades down.  In the heat of the day we seek the cool shade of the rock walls or the dappled sunlight under the great cottonwoods.

At dusk, like the Anasazi centuries before us, we make an alcove our dwelling for the night. As we eat our supper, the amber planet Venus slowly sinks through the darkening sky, at first indigo then purple and finally an inky blue.  From our amphitheatre, a yawning crevice tucked up high above the canyon floor, we watch and listen to nature’s nighttime show - glittering stars wheel across the stage, heralded by the chorus of the canyon tree frogs rising from below.

 

The next day dawns bright and clear again.  After a few more miles that pass by all too quickly, we are clambering hand over foot up a slickrock gully to reach the canon rim.  As I take my final and reluctant steps towards the trailhead I grab a handful of sagebrush leaves and crush them in my fist, releasing their aroma, and stuff them in my pocket for the journey home.


 

4 comments

Rite of Spring

By Ann Driggers
Sunday, May 5, 2013

Even before I moved to the Roaring Fork Valley I considered climbing and skiing Mount Sopris a rite of spring. This aesthetic and majestic peak stands just shy of 13,000 feet and dominates the skyline of the lower valley. Rising over 6,000 feet in 3 miles makes it one of the largest mountains in Colorado in terms of vertical relief and even the lower 48. Consequently it harbors numerous ski possibilities with direct lines from the summit being most popular in the spring when the snowpack has stabilized. The classic route at this time of year is Thomas Lakes Bowl which is where myself and ski partner Scott McCurdy found ourselves once again. This year late snows and cool temperatures have kept the snow pack deeper than usual and we were able to ski to and from the car which is a rarity in early May. In fact it was the most filled in I have seen in a while and vastly improved over last year.

A mellow sunrise on the approach:

Crossing one of the Thomas Lakes:

We arrived at the 12,953 foot summit in record time (for us), about 3.5 hours, which meant we had to hang out and wait for the snow to soften. The views were spectacular from the Flattops, Sawatch Range and closer up the Elk and Ragged Mountains. Capitol Peak is the most prominent in this photo:

 

Ready to drop off the summit ridge and into the bowl:

 

And down we go. Scott first:

Being weekend warriors we had missed, by a day, what had evidently been primo conditions of a more wintery nature. Consequently we had a somewhat crusty and punchy surface in the upper bowl criss crossed with numerous tracks. Still it was all good. Photo of me by Scott:

As we neared the bottom of the bowl and swung left to a more easterly aspect, the snow had ripened, in the sun, to be more spring-like. Silky smooth corn turns always put a big ol' grin on my face:

I wonder if Scott is pleased about skiing 5,000 feet down a beautiful mountain in early May?

I'd say so! In fact we might just do it again. There's plenty enough snow up there to get after it for a few more weeks yet. There could be riteS of spring this year.

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The Commando Run

By Ann Driggers
Tuesday, April 2, 2013

The Commando Run is a ski tour from Vail Pass to Vail which, according to the Falcon Winter Trails guidebook, is named for the U.S. Army's 10th Mountain Division soldiers who used the route for training in high altitude skiing combat and for the commando raids during world war II. An excellent history of the 10th Mountain Division can be found over on Lou Dawson's Wildsnow website.

For us it was an opportunity to spend a big day out on skis on what is considered to be one of the most challenging and best ski tours in Colorado. Pegged at 18 miles with 2,800 feet  of ascent and 5,000 feet of descent it's fairly stiff. We decided to switch it up and swapped out the prescribed descent down the Vail ski area with the more adventurous Minturn Mile. The additional distance was more than compensated by ending up at the Minturn Saloon which functioned as a big fat carrot throughout the day.

Just before 8:30 a.m. the Flying Five Troop departed Vail Pass as a storm cleared leaving behind a few inches of cold fresh snow.

Headed west towards Shrine Pass:

The new snow was just enough to freshen up the surface but not enough to slow us down. In fact we were surprised at the cold temperatures on what was forecast to be a warmish spring day. We had every kind of weather during the trip - sun, snow, rain, and wind - but ultimately the conditions were excellent for fast travel, unlike my previous time on this route when we were bogged down in gloppy snow and searing heat.

After five miles or so we reached the ridge which gave us panaromic views of the Gore Range to our right and lofty fourteener Mount of the Holy Cross to our right. Trooper Malone catches a glimpse of the legendary mountain through the swirling clouds:

As we descended the north west flank of Battle Mountain we enjoyed some nice powdery turns. Here Trooper Tibboel is dwarfed by the old growth trees:

After our peaceful time wandering in the woods we entered the Vail ski area. It was like another planet and it was harsh. We plowed through the mass of seething humanity and beat a hasty exit into the Minturn Mile. Although a popular 'backcountry' run we found some nice untracked chalky snow and a dearth of spring breakers. Back in heaven Trooper Gingrich lays sweet telemark turns into the Game Creek drainage:

We traveled all the way down this valley with the evergreens on the left and aspens on the right until it ends high left of picture center in Minturn. As we progressed the snow conditions became more spring-like requiring surfing of snow bridges through beaver ponds, some rock hopping and removal of skis at one point. Yours truly, Trooper Driggers, practices her best snowplow on the narrow trail at the end of the renamed Mudturn Mile:

After 6 hours and 45 minutes and approximately 19 miles, we reach the end of the Commando Run. Trooper Gingrich is stoked:

As are the rest of the Flying Five with celebratory beers at the Minturn Saloon.

Job well done, my fine soldiers!

5 comments

Between the Moon and the Sun

By Ann Driggers
Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Many mornings I rise early to ‘dawn patrol’, skinning up and skiing down a nearby mountain before work. Some days, in the depths of the winter, it’s too early to see but a glimmer of sun rise and headlamps are needed as we ski through the inky darkness. Other mornings it’s snowing hard in huge fat flakes and I revel in making deep powder turns as I ski back down. Every time is different and enjoyable in its unique way. But this morning was exceptional for I experienced a beautiful moon set and the most exquisite sunrise I have ever seen.

It was below -5F as I started out with the light of the waning gibbous Snow Moon illuminating the mountain. I climbed fast, trying to warm my chilled body. Upon reaching the summit I looked to the west, as the moon sank through the earth’s shadow, its umbra cast into the deep indigo sky.

To the east, Mount Sopris and the peaks of the Elk Range pierced through a bank of cloud as the golden orb of the sun slowly rose.

The cold night air had formed hoar frost on every surface - snow, trees, shrubs and rocks - which glittered and sparkled in the blue and orange light.

It was, quite simply, magical. I thought it wouldn't get any better until I looked to the north and into the aspens.

The bank of cloud was now rising and billowed through the enchanted forest...

It was so spectacular and such a spiritual experience I almost cried!

 Now the sun was marching upwards, the world full of bright white light  and the moon had slid behind the Mesa on the western horizon. So I skied down.

The wonderous moment where I stood between the moon and the sun was over. But as I carried it with me, I felt as though I was floating on one of those beautiful clouds all day long.

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