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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Four Passes. Two Gals. One Day

By Ann Driggers
Sunday, July 1, 2012

Inching slowly, the line between light and dark crept down the face of North Maroon as we climbed steadily towards it. The brightness of the rising sun washed the color out of the red rock and cast long shadows across the meadows, even from the smallest flowers. It was the golden hour of morning, the time when the earth was born anew and we were lucky enough to be hiking through it. As Karlie said later, “The hours before 9 a.m. are free hiking hours”. She was right for these were the early miles, we were fresh and it felt as though we were transported upwards, treading lightly on the trail, floating toward the first of the four passes we would cross that day.

Earlier, as we had approached the trailhead at dawn, the Maroon Bells were burnished a burnt umber, steadily and almost imperceptibly turning to a glowing vermillion as we shouldered our packs. In the dark forest below our giddy excitement was tempered with a slight apprehension at the magnitude of the day ahead - 26 miles and 8,000 feet of elevation gain over four passes of over 12,000 feet. Having completed the Four Passes Loop as a three day backpacking trip a couple of years ago I have long harbored a desire to nail it in a day, a whirlwind tour of one of the most scenic places on the planet, the Maroon Bells Snowmass Wilderness, and a decent physical test. So when I received a message from my winter ski partner Scott, asking if I wanted to hike it in a day with his wife Karlie, my response was to the point, “YES!!!”.

So here we were a week later - one day, two gals and four passes....join us on our Grand Day Out....

The quitessential mountain scene of Colorado is our starting point - the Maroon Bells and Maroon Lake. Gracing many a postcard, so overexposed, but as always, too beautiful to resist taking a photo:

We decided to hike anti-clockwise and thus tackling the two largest climbs early in the day. The first, just shy of 3,000 feet was stiff, but with the companionship of Tosha and Hobbs, and using two of the three golden hours available to us, we quickly reached Bucksin Pass (12,462 feet).

Our second pass of the day lies to the left of Snowmass Peak and Mountain on the horizon at the edge of the picture. If you think it looks a long way off, you wouldn't be wrong. The camera never lies.

Snowmass Lake, again a mind bogglingly spectacular place. Hobbs has the right idea and goes for a soak before we say goodbye to him and Tosha.

Karlie romps up the 1,500 foot climb towards Trailrider Pass with Snowmass Lake below.

Karlie is in fact a beast for underneath all that prettiness lies a hiker of steel. Several years ago she completed the Pacific Crest Trail, hiking from Mexico to Canada in one summer and earning the title of a PCT Thru-hiker. This is a big deal and my knowledge of it contributed somewhat to my apprehension about the day - Would I be able to keep up? Would my legs turn to noodles in the company of this hiking machine?

On Trailrider Pass (12,420 ft) the columbines were off the hook carpeting the north side of the pass.

 From the pass looking south into familiar territory for me - Lead King Basin with Treasure Mountain behind - the trail wending its way downwards again:

Making our way up the North Fork of the Crysal River, 7 miles to the next pass, behind the red rock on the right.

At the base of Kings Falls before switchbacking up around them and into Fravert Basin.

Fravert Basin, yet another place I am going to call one of the most beautiful I have every been. The trail switchbacks up to Frigidair Pass (12,420 feet) just to the left of the cloud, through a carpet of high alpine tundra and flowers. The recent rains have much improved the flowers in the high country. Just a few days seems to have made much of a difference providing a tour de fleurs for us. I wish I knew the names of them all but I don't. I can tell you they look real pretty though.

One of the local residents hanging on his front porch just below the pass. I'd say he has one of the best views in the land - that's the south west face of Maroon Peak.

On the final climb of the day:

The hiking machine is still going. And I am somehow keeping up! 20 miles down and 6 to go.

Although we were definitely starting to feel that we had not in fact been lounging around for the past 10 hours we were still quite spry and in excellent spirits.  At our final and highest pass of the day, West Maroon (12,500 feet) we look forward to the downhill back to the trail head. Karlie spreads some ashes from her old hiking partner, Jake, who had joined her on many adventures past, his four paws having padded over this very spot in years past.

Despite building clouds, the rain held off, barr a couple of drops. The last 6 miles flew by as we picked up the pace and soon enough we were trotting around Crater Lake, dusty, sticky and dreaming of beer and nachos.

Four passes in one day - yep we are stoked.

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Tilt

By Ann Driggers
Thursday, June 21, 2012

The Summer Solstice is upon us. Sun high and bright in the sky. What better way to celebrate the longest day of the year than an evening float on the Roaring Fork.

I ply the oars, trying to read the water with a fisherman's mind. Let's just say it's a work in progress with a lot of opportunity to improve. What I have learned - lining up for the funnest ride down the rapids is *not* the best way to position the boat for fly fishing. Still, just being on the water for a three whole hours, after work, is to be savored.

As we pull in to the take-out, the last of the Sun's rays warm the western sky and the Earth has tilted and begun the slow slide of shorter days towards Fall.

Happy Summer Solstice!

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Summer: Full Speed Ahead

By Ann Driggers
Monday, June 18, 2012

 

Eeegawds! From out of nowhere came summer! There was I thinking that June was really the end of spring, which technically I guess it is, but someone flicked the switch to full speed ahead already. Summer officially starts in two days time, but let me tell you it has been here for quite a while. No rain and searing heat are some of the obvious signs down in the lower valleys. But even up high summer has fairly barreled its way in, giving me the perfect excuse to bolt for the mountains.

Although the avalanche, or snow, lilies are blooming as the snow recedes the ground is super dry underneath.

Above 12,000 feet there are only small patches of snow left. And only on north facing slopes.

Flowers are blooming everywhere. Columbines, the Colorado state flower, are out in force this year for some reason. So pretty!

The last of the snowmelt is cascading down the mountain sides, streams fringed with more alpine blooms.

I've been getting out as much as I can, covering some good distances each day. Some might call it mountain running. I call it more of a mountain shuffle - speed hiking the up hills and running the flats and carefully scooting the downs. My favorite trails tend to the less frequently traveled and therefore not the easiest to run with lots of narrow sidehilling, pocked by herds of elk, steep and rough, covered in avalanche debris and bushwhacking through thorny thickets. The scenic rewards are endless but also contribute to my slow pace as I rubberneck my way around.

I can run/shuffle for miles and miles inside these postcards.

And after soaking my weary feet in the icy river, it's happy hour on the lake. Peaceful paddling in the honey light of evening:

Speaking of feet...here's the strange markings of a river rat turned mountain marmot (before being dunked in the river):

Back at the cabin, trying the new slackline:

And watching the stars brighten in the sky before a roaring fire to ward off the night time cool:

Oh yeah! Summer, full speed ahead? That's quite ok with me. I'm drunk on summer love right now.

P.S. Please, we need some rain. Badly. And while I'm asking, steady soaking rains would be better than apocalyptic thunderstorms and flash floods. Thank you.

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The Canyon of Desolation

By Ann Driggers
Sunday, June 3, 2012

"Early in the spring of 1869 a party was organized for the exploration of the canyons. Boats were built in Chicago and transported by rail to the point where the Union Pacific Railroad crosses the Green River. With these we were to descend the Green to the Colorado, and the Colorado down to the foot of the Grand Canyon.
May 24, 1869 – The good people of Green River City turn out to see us start. We raise our flag, push the boats from shore, and the swift current carries us down".
                --- John Wesley Powell in The Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons, originally published in 1875

With those words, as documented in his journal, John Wesley Powell begins the last great exploration of unmapped territory in the continental United States. Some 143 years later we seek to trace a short section of his epic journey, 80 miles of the Green River, through the canyons he names Desolation and Gray. Like many who have been fortunate to spend time on the rivers of the desert southwest, I carried Powell’s story with me, reading about his incredible and adventurous ride through this rough and beautiful land. Although the Green is now much tamer and quieter there were many aspects of his account to which we could relate, in particular the landscape. And some about which we could only imagine - the boldness of their expedition, of rounding a corner in the river, hearing the roar of a rapid, not knowing what lay ahead.

We pushed off from Sand Wash at the mouth of the canyon, now un-tethered both literally and figuratively for we would not be in communication with the outside world for 6 days. Having no flag, I briefly contemplated raising our umbrella in salute to Powell but it was rather blustery. Instead we focused on rowing hard against the headwinds and entering the canyon. Powell, "We enter another canyon, almost imperceptibly, as the walls rise very gently” and then “We find quiet water today, the river sweeping in great and beautiful curves, the canyon walls steadily increasing in altitude….in these quiet curves vast amphitheaters are formed, now in vertical rocks, now in steps….one of these we find very symmetrical and name it Sumner’s Amphitheater

Tired from rowing hard, fighting strong winds from a cold front as it exits the region, we pull over and camp in Gold Hole. We are short of our goal for the day and only 15 miles from put in. A cool, breezy night for us, thankful for our tents and down bags, unlike Powell who writes"The wind blows like a hurricane; the drifting sand almost blinds us; and no where can we find shelter."

The morning dawns clear but cold, the river level has dropped by nearly a foot, making us again concerned about progress as today we will be traveling mostly flat water. I ply the oars hard again, with little relief from a few minor rapids, as we go deeper into the canyon, passing Powell's Lighthouse Rock.

We stop briefly to see an old iron-prowed skiff left by early river runners beneath a cliff.

The cliffs are rarely broken by the entrance of side canyons, and we sweep around curve after curve with almost continuous walls.”

Late afternoon we have made only 16 miles and camp for our second night at the mouth of Cedar Ridge Canyon on a sandy beach under the shade of large stands of cottonwoods. 

A warmer night and no winds means we enjoy a fire and lay our sleeping pads out on the sandy beach beneath a waxing Strawberry Moon.

We awake excited for we are about to enter “a region of the wildest desolation. The canyon is very tortuous, the river very rapid, and many lateral canyons enter on either side….” The lateral canyons flush rocks and debris into the river, constricting it further and here is where the rapids begin. But first we stop to view petroglyphs - evidence that others trod these canyons long before Powell.

We run several large rapids, Steer Ridge, Rock Creek and Snap Canyon amongst many others, all immense fun.

"Piles of broken rock lie against these walls; crags and tower-shaped peaks are seen everywhere, and away above them, long lines of broken cliffs; and above and beyond the cliffs are pine forests, of which we obtain occasional glimpses as we look up through a vista of rocks. The walls are almost without vegetation... We are minded to call this the Canyon of Desolation."

After another balmy, windless night we push off headed for the 'big one'. Joe Hutch Canyon Rapid is considered the largest of all in Desolation Canyon, though only recently formed by a debris flow - an example of how the river may have changed to a greater extent since Powell's trip. Even though several of our group had run this rapid before, the water levels were sufficently different and we felt it worthy of scouting. Chad and Jeb discuss lines:

Before running it:

After Joe Hutch I lost all sense of time, the days defined by the rapids, glorious weather, and the progressively stunning landscape. The nights by good food and company, camps on sandy beaches, sleeping on the raft, lulled to sleep by the gentle flow of the river speckled silver with moon light. I succumbed to the rhythm of the river and it seemed as though time stood still. 

Except it didn't. 

The miles slid past and with every oar stroke the end of our journey neared. 

"We have an exhilarating ride. The river is swift and there are many smooth rapids. I stand on deck, keeping careful watch ahead, and we glide along mile after mile, plying strokes, now on the right and then on the left, just sufficient to guide our boats past the rocks into smooth water. At noon we emerge from Gray Canyon as we have named it..."

Powell continued on down the Green to its meeting with the Grand, whence it becomes the Colorado River and flows into the Grand Canyon. He and his men emerged some two months later.

Our journey, on the other hand, was finished. I didn't want it to end. If I could have rowed back upstream I would, for I have been bitten by the river bug.

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Shakedown Canyon

By Ann Driggers
Tuesday, May 15, 2012

I headed out for the first backpacking trip of the season this last weekend. It was a good opportunity to pull the pack together, make sure I had everything ready to go for the summer, test out some new gear and just generally blow out the cobwebs. I thought I was doing quite well when I managed to locate the vast majority of my gear despite the fact we are still living out of boxes to some extent. That was until I got to the trailhead.

The plan - leave after work on Friday, head into the Flat Tops Wilderness and rendez-vous with friends Pete and Holly who had (hopefully) set up camp earlier that day somewhere within a few miles in this communication-less location. On the drive up the dark clouds that had been billowing to the north morphed into a steady but light rain and by the time I reached the trail head it really started to set in hard. There is no bad weather, only bad clothing I thought, at the same time remembering the rain jacket, thermal underwear and down sweater I had packed. Or not. In fact I had mistakenly pulled two black thermal bottoms out of the black drawer and failed to bring any tops. Well doh! First mistake. Still I carried on, throwing on all the clothes I had, and figuring if it got really cold I would just have to swaddle myself in my (new) down quilt.

After an hour or so hike through the rain and into the dusky gloom of the unknown canyon I found Pete and Holly and their camp. My arrival was heralded by clearing clouds and a low angled blast of sunshine for which they were grateful having spent the afternoon hunkered down under a tarp in a stormy gale. Along with the sun, a cup of hot tea and a roaring fire lifted our spirits and dried us out.

After a solid nights sleep we were up and raring to go for a hike next morning.

We roamed along several trails in this beautiful canyon with its towering rock walls and floor of open parks of sage brush and stands of aspen their neon green leaves now unfurled.

Another shakedown of sorts on this trip was Miska, Pete and Holly's rescue sled dog. Having spent the first six months of her life on a chain and the second six in a shelter, the lucky dog was adopted into a caring and understanding family who have spent another six months teaching Miska how to be like a dog and not a caged wild animal. This was her first big trip out in the woods, overnight and off the leash. What would she do? Hang with her new pack, or run?

Miska decided that she likes the life of a camp dog and that she would hang with her new pack of peeps. It was a joy to see her sniffing, routing, running and generally learning what it was like to be a real dog in the outdoors. Yes, she did like to take off chasing squirrels or chipmunks but with a little shout or whistle she quickly returned.

Early spring flowers are starting to bloom. Violets, serviceberry, columbines...

After 11 miles or so of hiking we returned to camp and another night around the fire, cooking, stories about winter skiing, planning summer backpacking trips, a little whiskey sipping and, if you were Miska, stalking squirrels.

Sunday morning, as another sunny day dawned bright, we headed out, happy with our little season opener, a successful shakedown backpacking trip. 

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