My Wilderness Wanderings
Enjoying Colorado's backcountry off trail and away from the crowd
All my life I've enjoyed getting out and seeing the backcountry, climbing peaks, talking to pikas and marmots as I cross scree fields, lying flat at the edge of sharp, rocky outcrops and watching red-tailed hawks play on the rising air down below me and following high, windswept ridges just to see where they go. The best wanderings have always been those that take me far from established trails and other people.
With the popularity these days of hiking, backpacking and mountain biking, certain areas have become more crowded, but if a person knows where to look, there are still millions of acres of nearly untouched wilderness where one can find solitude.
Over the following paragraphs you can come along on a piece of one of one of these journeys, which took me on a 27 mile loop with elevations ranging from 9,800'-12,400,' through some of the most beautiful and unspoiled country that I know!
I took a few days this past summer to wander in the high country here in my Western Colorado back yard--still an awful lot of snow up there between 10-12k' elevation, which explained why our rivers were at high water stage for nearly two months last summer!
After starting the climb down in the valley in bright sunshine and making my way up through snow drifts as I got higher, clouds moved in towards late morning, coming quickly up the valley and turning the sky dark and angry. I could see the rain long before it hit me, which gave me time to get beneath some spruce trees and shelter there during the worse of it.
Ridgetop destination in sight, storm beginning to come in...
Rain coming up the valley behind me...
Fifteen minutes later the storm was clearing, the sun had returned and I was nearing the top of the ridge!
Up on top!
Great reward after all that climbing!
It was sunny again when I reached the ridgetop, traversing to get around the large cornice of snow that still ran along the ridge just below its crest, for a good distance. This break in the weather gave me an opportunity to relax for a while and enjoy the incredible views.
Another storm coming...
Hail on the way!
Shortly after reaching the ridge's crest, I began seeing signs that I was in for more wet weather...
What began as a few scattered clouds developed quickly into a major hail and lightning storm that made things very interesting up on the ridge for a while! It came on very quickly, and had me scrambling down into the top of a draw where there was some shelter. I crouched beside a cluster of small sub-alpine fir trees there in the draw as a wall of white swept up at me, and hail pounded the area for nearly half an hour.
Rain gear - Because it's important to be able to stay dry when the hail starts falling!
Shelter after the storm
Fire, night of hailstorm. A welcome sight and a chance to warm up, dry soaked socks, clothing, etc, and have some soup.
Frost at camp in the morning. First of July, 11,400'
No such thing as the heat of summer, in the high country!
Mist rising in the morning as sun hit the frost...
Back up onto the ridge...
After breaking camp in the morning, I climbed back up onto the ridge I'd been driven off of by lightning, the evening before.
On the way up I passed an incredible cornice that remained from the previous winter's snow...
Views from top of the ridge...
Dancing on the rocks at the edge of the world...it's good to be alive!
Watch your step!
Long, undulating ridge (it is well over 20 miles long, in all!) with 14,000' peaks in the distance...
Looking down into the valley...
View of peak, from near the end of the ridge!
Aerial views of the ridge
These photos were taken in April of a previous year--still a good bit of snow!
Here's the ridge, from the air. My camp the second night was over in the rocks on the right of the image, near but not on the ridge's crest:
Another view of the ridge, from the air:
An abundance of wildlife
Elk, bighorn sheep, pikas, red-tailed hawks, coyotes, elk...
A fairly wide variety of wildlife can be spotted up on this ridge and in the high basins nearby. I saw pikas and marmots sunning themselves on the rocks, bighorn sheep feeding on the grass surrounding a small alpine tarn (tiny lake) in a basin below me, elk in the distance and heard coyotes howling at dusk.
Elk grazing above a lingering snowbank...
Colorado wildflowers--brilliance amongst the rocks!
July and early August are the best times to view wildflowers up above treeline
During the short summer season up at high altitude, the hardy, low-growing plants that call the area home take advantage of the sunshine and warmer temperatures to do their growing and blooming, gracing the ridges and meadows with a rainbow of wildflowers. My favorite--and a rare sight in most places, but abundant up on this ridge--has got to be the tiny but brilliant alpine forget-me-not.
Sky pilot (leaves smell like a skunk, but both plant and flowers are a beautiful sight to see!)
Wildflower identification books
Seclusion in the rocks, on top of the world!
The second night I camped just below the ridge's crest, in a quiet, secluded little area protected on both sides by low walls of red sandstone. This prevented the winds, which can be quite high out on the open expanse of the ridge, from reaching me, and gave my fire something to reflect off of for extra warmth.
View from second camp, just before sunset. You can see that the camp is nearly as high as that 14,000' peak off in the distance!
Incredible cloud display over the mountains, just before sunset...
On its way down, time to settle in for a quiet night...
Morning in the high country
It's an incredible experience to greet the new day up there in the high, thin air, and one I never get tired of!
First light on the peaks, a soft and brilliant glow heralding the coming of day...
Lighting up the still-snowy cliffs...
Colorful lichen on the rocks, just after sunrise
My camp, shortly after the sun came up...rocks provided shelter from the wind, there was a convenient snowbank for water, and wood had to be hauled up from a little tree island far down below
When building fires above treeline, one needs to be careful not to damage or disturb the often-fragile alpine tundra and its delicate vegetation. The spot where I built my little fire didn't have any ground cover on it to begin with, as the ground had been worn down to the red sand there by years' worth of water dripping from the rock overhang above and pooling there. Was no pool when I made my fire, but the ground was somewhat damp, so I put down a flat little sandstone slab as a base for the fire. You can see the sandpit where I built the fire a bit more clearly in this photo...
Gear Carried - Sometimes I venture up into the high country with very little in my pack, in order to provide myself an opportunity to practice and improve upon
These are the items I took along on this particular wilderness wander. The list varies from time to time, depending on the intended length of my journey, purpose of the trip and the time of year, but most of the things on this particular list are basics which I always make sure to include.
My load was right around 23 pounds, all things included. I didn't carry a stove or tent, sometimes do, sometimes don't. It does get cold up there at night, don't know what the temperature got down to, exactly, but there was frost the first morning. I had my little super-lightweight sleeping bag (rated for 30 degrees) and was fine, with a reflective tarp wrapped around it, and me.
Â¾ length Ridgerest pad
Sleeping bag (1.5lbs, rated to 30deg.)
Reflective tarp/ground cloth (Space Sportsman Hooded Blanket with grommets)
Contractor's grade 50 gal. trash bag
Stocking cap, wool
Fleece top and bottoms
Rain gear (Red Ledge)
Klean Kanteen & Sierra cup
Multitool (Leatherman Wave, ferro rod, lighter and jute twine also in pouch)
Katadyn Pocket Filter (has been in constant use for 12 years, and has never failed me)
Food (not much in picture, ate most of it on the trip...)
Flashlight, CMG Infinity
Klean Kanteen Wide-mouth Bottle
I find a stainless steel bottle like this one good to carry for so many reasons--it provides a lightweight and sturdy water carrier which can't easily be split or damaged and doesn't leach chemicals into your drinking water, allows for boiling water for purification, cooking and melting snow over the fire.
Mine has been a valued part of many expeditions, and the addition of a simple wire handle makes it easy to place on and off the fire for cooking.
When choosing gear to take with you into the backcountry, don't forget the "Rule of Threes"
A human being can, depending on environmental conditions and personal conditioning, survive for...
-- 3 hours without shelter
-- 3 days without water
-- 3 weeks without food
These rules can really help when it comes to keeping our priorities straight and choosing what we might need to take with us.
Shelter/warmth (tarp, rain gear, warm clothes, hat and socks) must be a top priority when venturing into the high country where temperatures can easily drop below freezing even in the summer and the weather changes on a dime, with the ability to collect and purify water being a close second.
There for the finding...
Seek your own solitude
The purpose of this trip wasn't so much to reach any particular destination, scale a peak or cover a certain number of miles as it was to enjoy some time on a high, quiet ridge where I've never once met another human in all my years of wandering there, and only once seen sign of one.
There really are still quite a few places around here--and in most areas of the country--where one can go and be entirely alone, if one chooses--especially if willing to avoid established trails, and make your own way through the wilderness!
Colorado wilderness guidebooks and maps
All photos taken by and property of the author, unless otherwise noted.