A Week of Rain, Lightning and Getting Lost in Colorado’s Largest Wilderness
by Brian Wright
|Arrow and Vestal Peak coming out of the fog|
An hour had gone by since we’d last seen each other. The worst of all possibilities were surfacing in my mind. Maybe she’d fallen on the uneven “trail”. Maybe she’d had to go back to camp for a forgotten item. The horrifying thought even occurred to me, since she’d seemingly disappeared without a trace, that a mountain lion had dragged her off the trail. At that point, anything seemed possible.
The clouds were building, again. Although we had had a morning of beautiful blue skies, already the storms that had dominated every afternoon of our week-long backpack trip were returning. I ran farther up the trail, almost all the way back to our camp from the previous evening. There was no sign of her. “Where did you go?” I yelled fruitlessly. I’d read about people in situations like this, but I’d never been in one myself. I needed to find someone to help. I needed to find her. As the storms built and my desperation deepened, I knew there was no way I could leave Vestal Basin until I found her.
The Weminuche Wilderness Area is the largest wilderness in Colorado. At nearly half a million acres, it encompasses a huge swath of the San Juan Mountains in-between the towns of Durango and Silverton. There are over 500 miles of trails through the Weminuche, including a portion of the popular Colorado Trail, and countless other rugged passes and unmaintained routes.
|Wham Ridge of Vestal Peak in the Grenadier|
Range of the San Juan Montains
Our plan had been to start at the Molas Trailhead (thereby foregoing the $85 train ride from Durango into the Animas River Canyon, which would have saved us over six miles and 1,800 feet of both elevation gain and loss) and hike down along a portion of the Colorado Trail until we could turn south into the Vestal Basin. We wanted to establish a high camp in the Vestal Basin at 11,500 feet at the very foot of the Grenadier Mountains. There we would be in perfect position to attempt the North Ridge of Arrow Peak (III 5.6) and, more importantly, Wham Ridge of Vestal Peak (II 5.4).
In every good story, however, the heroes (us) are thrown into a vibrant setting and obstacles are strewn in front of their path, the more the better. Such was the case for us as we started our journey in the rain on my 30th birthday. We encountered massive, drenching storms with wild lightning and pounding hail. We met hungry animals, steep hills, downed lumber, deceptive forks in the trail. We faced all of these with 70-pound packs laden with a week’s worth of gear and our entire supply of climbing gear hanging from our shoulders. But none of it was as frightening and mentally exhausting as losing each other.
|Rainy and foreboding, views like this dominated our trip|
The only logical solution, I concluded at last, was that somehow she had gotten ahead of me. But how? I had sat and waited on the trail and she had never passed me. The only choice, it seemed, was to head down. It was a difficult decision; if she was in trouble and needed help I might be her only hope for a rescue. Shouldering my pack reluctantly, I start down the long hill.
Quickly, I found myself somewhere unrecognizable and the harsh truth settled in: it had been me who had taken the wrong trail. I had to back-track until I realized exactly where I had gotten off course. Finally back on the right path, I started downhill as fast as I could, knowing that somewhere below Ella was likely in a desperate panic just like me, thinking I too was lost. I found footprints fresh since the rain of the night before. They had to be hers.
At the bottom of the hill we were reunited at last, each as emotional as the other. We sat together resting, exhausted by our simultaneous searches for each other. After the emotions subsided we were able to laugh it off like a bad joke.
The trip wasn’t quite what we’d hoped it would be. We didn’t make either summit, we got rained on incessantly, and both of our bodies were breaking down with the enormous effort. But as we settled next to the Animas River for our last night before we hiked up the big hill back to our car, we were happy. We’d had a great adventure in one of Colorado’s most breathtaking places.
Note: This article first appeared in the September 2013 edition (Volumne Eight, Issue Five) of Our Backyard, which is a special edition inside The Nickel, the Moab Times Independent, the Fruita Times, and the Palisade Tribune