Beyond The Campfire was created to encourage readers to explore the great outdoors and to observe it close up. Get out and take a hike, go fishing or canoeing, or simply stretch out on a blanket under a summer sky...and take your camera along. We'll talk about combining outdoor activities with photography. We'll look at everything from improving your understanding of the basics of photography to more advanced techniques including things like how to see photographically and capturing the light. We'll explore the night sky, location shoots, using off camera speedlights along with nature and landscape. Grab your camera...strap on your hiking boots...and join me. I think you will enjoy the adventure.

The Dark Horse Region

The Dark Horse Region
A View into the center of the Milky Way

Monday, February 13, 2017

Old Days and Places: LOST in the High Country

I, for many years dreamed about hiking in the Rocky Mountains when during 1995 - 1996 I spent the better part of a year working on a contract programming job in Denver Colorado. Even though I would be away from home for extended periods of time, the opportunity afforded me the ability to finally do some serious hiking. Most of my hikes were of the day hike variety, but I was able to make several overnight backpacking trips into several areas. The most notable were Homestead Meadows; a rustic location not far from Estes Park where old homestead cabins were still partially standing; and into Rawah Wilderness, a difficult and demanding hike into the high country of Northern Colorado. Rawah Wilderness provided the backdrop for a near disastrous hike where I was almost lost in the backcountry.

LOST in the High Country

During the spring of 1996 during my time in Denver, I caught wind of a seminar being presented at one of the local branch libraries by one of the local hiking clubs. The subject was Hiking the Rawah Wilderness. Up until then I had managed a few short day hikes to some lovely but relatively easy locations, but I was itching to try something a bit more challenging. The seminar presented the perfect opportunity and location, and after speaking with some of the presenters I decided Rawah was to become my next big hiking adventure.

Rawah Wilderness is located in the north central part of Colorado and is characterized by numerous mountain lakes stocked with willing and hungry trout. A series of these lakes marked the end of the trail that wound its way upwards to around 11,000 feet. The lower camp lake sat just over 10,000 feet while the others were scattered higher up. I could not wait to give it a try, and it was this enthusiasm along with my inexperience of hiking in the mountains that nearly got me into trouble.

There were several trails that lead up to the lakes. One of the longer but less steep portion wound its way for a good number of miles mostly along the northern side of the climb. A shorter, but much steeper climb arched its way along the southern flanks of the climb.

For my first attempt to reach the lakes I decided to give the northern route a try in late May. As luck would have it I barely made it half way up the trail when I ran into a deep snow pack that completely obliterated the trail. There was no way I would ever be able to follow it with that kind of snow pack so I simply turned around and hiked out again. A few weeks later I gave it another try, this time about the third week in June. I managed to make it in to what I figured was maybe 3/4 of the way in when I ran into more snow pack. I was frustrated and tried to see if I could follow the trail on up. I managed to go maybe a quarter mile or so and realized I had no idea where the trail was so to keep from getting completely lost I simply turned around and followed my footprints back to where I could see the trail.

At that point I made a big mistake. While I was sitting down taking a short break I started looking at an inadequate topo map trying to figure out where I actually was along the trail. A few dozen yards off the trail was a steep mountain stream now filled with snow runoff. Coming out of the lakes area was an outlet stream that angled down the slope...actually there were several, so I figured this particular stream must connect up with the lakes and from where I thought I was on the map, in a straight line up hill the lakes were only about a mile or so from where I was. I figured I would just follow the stream to its source and I'd have to run into the lakes.

So that is what I started to do and began the slow and difficult climb up slope through deep snow roughly following the streams path. After what seemed like way more time than it should have taken to get there, I began to realize that my plan was flawed. This stream did not appear to lead to the fact I had no idea really where it was leading me except deeper and deeper into a thickly wooded area. There were no lakes to be found. I stopped for a few minutes to get my bearings and decided to venture a little ways off from the stream hoping maybe I would be able to find some kind of landmark where I could tell where I was. At this point I was not really lost. All I had to do was to retrace my steps back down the slope which would lead me back to the original trail. However, events and circumstances were soon to turn for the worse.

I walked maybe 1/4 mile parallel to the slope and came to a steep snow packed escarpment that dropped off a good 20 maybe 25 feet almost straight down. I knew I would never be able to climb down it much less back up, so I stopped for a few moments and stood on the edge so I could survey what was below. Without warning, I suddenly found myself plummeting down the face of the escarpment. I must have been standing on loose rock or tree limb or something hidden by the snow that gave way under my weight. When it happened It happened so quickly I had no time to grab anything to keep from falling. Luckily several smaller saplings and several large rocks broke my fall as I bounced and slid down the face of the escarpment. Even so, I landed with a shocking thud at the base of the slope and my ankle buckled under me.

To say it hurt was an understatement. I really thought I had broken it, at the very least sprained and/or tore the ligaments. I sat there hurting for several minutes before trying to stand, but I was eventually able to get to my feet. The ankle was not broken, but it was strained and hurt something fierce and any walking required a noticable limp. My 35 - 40 pound backpack felt more like a hundred pounds.

By this time it was mid-afternoon. I was not in any kind of serious situation...yet. I still had my backpack with enough provisions to get me by for several days. The problem was as much as I tried I could not find a place where I could climb back up the escarpment to be able to retrace my steps down to the trail. I stopped, removed my pack, pulled out something to eat, and calmed down. While I was eating I looked at my topo map again and it seemed to me that if I were to follow the slope down hill, I would eventually have to run into the trail. It was a risky idea, because my ankle really hurt and if my logic proved faulty I could end up deep into the wilderness and have no idea where I was. Fact was, I had no other choice. I could not retrace my steps back because of the steepness of the escarpment prevented my being able to climb back up. The only thing I could do was to head down hill which is what I did.

I slipped and stumbled, zigged and zagged trying to maintain as straight a path as I could and after a while I was beginning to believe I had made another big mistake, but then all of sudden there it was...the trail. I was never so glad to see a piece of worn dirt trail as I was then.

I stopped again and rubbed my sore ankle which was starting to swell, so I tightened the laces of my boots and started back down the trail to where my vehicle was parked. Several hours later I removed the heavy pack and threw it inside my truck and crumpled into the seat. It had been a full and difficult day, but, my ordeal, except for the long drive back to Denver, was over.

Several weeks later, about mid July, my ankle had recovered enough to where I was willing to give it one more try. This time I took the steeper southerly route deducing correctly that it would be exposed to more of the sun and the snow pack would be gone. After an exhausting hike I managed to find the lower lake and spent a peaceful, except for the thunderstorm that rolled in around dusk, and rewarding afternoon and evening enjoying this marvelous part of the Rocky Mountains.

I learned a difficult lesson. I thought I knew more than I did about backpacking in this kind of mountain environment. Turned out I did not and I managed to make several really dumb mistakes which could have easily ended in disaster, but it did not, and in the end I became a much more experienced and certainly a more cautious hiker from that moment on.

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