Saturday, August 8, 2009

Weminuche Wilderness Backpacking Trip

I recently returned from my major trip of the summer...a six day backpacking trip into the heart of some of the best scenery that the Weminuche Wilderness Area has to offer. The Weminuche is Colorado's largest wilderness area at nearly a half million acres and lies within the San Juan Mountains of southwest Colorado. This particular trip circumnavigated the two most spectacular subranges in the wilderness...the Needles and Grenadier ranges. All told the trip involved 40 miles of rugged mountain hiking totaling nearly 8000 ft of vertical gain. The highest elevation during the trip topped out at 12,800ft. I was joined by an old friend, Greg Rynders, who flew out from Minnesota to experience what Colorado has to offer. For both of us, it would be the first time on a backpacking trip of such magnitude.

I thought I was in decent enough shape for this adventure but soon found out that wasn't really the case. None of the training I put in quite prepared me for the ordeal of lugging a 50lb pack over long, steep trails at high altitude. In other words...the trip was exhausting!! I had all I could do to perform my photographic duties before/after each long, arduous day on the trail. It also didn't help that this area's nickname "The Storm Factory" lived up to its billing. Day after day, we were stalked by waves of afternoon and evening thunderstorms bringing with them rain, hail, sleet, lightning and cold winds. Only our last day was completely dry. While stormy weather can often be a boon to photographic endeavors, I found that in our case it was more of a hindrance than a help. Thus, I felt that my photographic production over the course of the trip was a bit disappointing.

What follows is a brief day by day account of my experiences over the course of the trip.

Day 1 : An easy day to be sure. It started with an 8:15am departure on the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge train. After a scenic, but slow ride of over three hours we were dropped off at the Elk Park stop, right at the doorstep of the wilderness. We planned a short first day of hiking - only three miles, mostly to allow Greg a chance to acclimate before beginning the trip in earnest. As it turned out, it was beneficial to myself as well as I huffed and puffed up the 1000 ft vertical gain. It was a real eye opener to find out that I hadn't adequately trained! This didn't bode well for the remainder of the trip!

We stopped and camped at a set of beaver ponds in the Elk Creek drainage that I had wanted to photograph. It was a spectacular setting with 13,000+ ft. Vestal and Arrow Peaks towering over the ponds. As it turned out, both the evening and morning light were spectacular so I was glad we spent the night there!

First Light On Vestal Peak

Day 2: After my first day experiences on the trail, I reckoned this day was going be a tough one. It involved an 8 mile trek with 2600 ft. of vertical gain which would take us up to the Continental Divide and over to Kite Lake where we would make camp. My reckoning was definitely correct! The storms really ramped up today as they started before noon and lasted until the early evening hours. We were caught in one above treeline as we were making our way up to the divide, but fortunately the lightning was all cloud to cloud. After the first couple of miles, the climbing was pretty much non stop on this day and I was absolutely exhausted when we finally reached Kite Lake. But my thinking was that what didn't kill me today would only make me stronger over the rest of the I just sucked it up and trudged on.

I was definitely spurred on by the views that started opening up once we got above treeline. The profusion of wildflowers were quite a treat as well. I tried to take advantage of these views with some backpacking shots of Greg (which, of course gave me excuses to rest along the way!). A nice lunch while atop the divide (in between storms) also served to reinvigorate my weary bones.

Greg Hiking Up To The Continental Divide

From my research, I figured that Kite Lake wasn't going to be the most photographic of lakes in the area and I was right. The lake is actually out of the wilderness boundary and has some old mining remnants around it. Also the cliffs surrounding it serve to block out the more spectacular peaks in the distance. It wasn't a big deal as the weather didn't cooperate too much anyway.

Day 3: This was our longest day of the trip as we logged a little under 11 miles. Fortunately, unlike the previous day, most of this was downhill. However, we did have to trudge up Hunchback pass before we could take advantage of all that downhill. While getting up there was far from easy, I was at least beginning to notice the aerobic benefits from the previous day. With an 8am start on the trail, we got to take advantage of beautiful morning weather while crossing the pass. Unfortunately, it didn't last. By the time we got down to treeline the intermittent rains began to appear. By the time we had lunch and forded Rock Creek, it began to storm in earnest. It was too bad as the orange, mineral-stained Rock Creek would've been a great place to putz around photographically, but the heavy rains made us decide to move on.

Greg Fording Rock Creek

While the weather served to dampen our spirits greatly the rest of the day, what was even more frustrating was the lack of campsites we encountered while making our way down the Vallecito drainage. We had intended to stop well before the 11 mile mark, but had to keep going until we finally found a place to pitch a tent. That didn't happen until we finally found a site (albiet a nice site) before the Roell Creek crossing. It stormed on and off pretty much until sunset. This was the worst photographic day of the trip and had me wondering when my luck was gonna change!

Day 4: This day we made our way down the last couple of miles of the Vallecito drainage and started up towards the infamous Columbine Pass. With the weather pattern being what it was, we had no intention of trying to get above treeline in the afternoon hours. We just wanted to be in a position to cross the pass early the next day. As usual, the morning was beautiful and we enjoyed our stroll down to the Vallecito Creek bridge crossing and even making our way up the Johnson Creek canyon. Johnson Creek is truly spectacular as it carves out many gorges and spills over many waterfalls on its short journey from Columbine Lake to Vallecito Creek. After taking some time to investigate and photograph some of the lower sections of the creek, Mother Nature intervened once again as darker clouds quickly moved in.

Waterfall Along Johnson Creek

The rest of this day's hike would be completed under cold, stormy skies. My backpack (which did not have a rain shield) seemed to grow heavier with each step as it soaked in the rain while we ascended the switchbacking trail. I quickly grew weary and began cursing the weather gods. It was still raining when we found a campsite and we plopped down beneath a tree and ate a late lunch in the rain. We took turns cursing the weather until finally it broke and gave us a window of opportunity to set up camp, dry out, and warm up. Unfortunately, it didn't last long until the next wave settled in.

Photography that night was limited to shooting wildflower macros in between rain showers. That was until the sun unexpectedly made an appearance just a few minutes before sunset and began casting an amazing glow upon Organ and Amherst Peaks to our east. I scrambled to gather up my camera gear and made haste to a location along Johnson Creek that I had scouted out earlier in the evening. Thankfully I was able to get off a few shots before the glow subsided. While I wished more of the peaks could've been glowing, the scene was still my favorite of the trip.

Last Rays Hitting Organ and Amherst Peaks

Day 5: Today the plan was to take our time making our way up to Columbine Lake and over the pass and utilize the nice morning weather to shoot the spectacular scenics along the way. Hah!!!! Mother Nature would have nothing to do with that! We woke up to a cloudy sky for the first time this morning and by 8:30 it already started to rain. Man this was getting old! We got a brief respite just before arriving at Columbine Lake and enjoyed a few minutes of sunshine before heading up the final switchbacks to the pass.

Wildflowers Near Columbine Pass
Man, were those switchbacks steep! As the end was in sight, we started to notice the black sky on the other side of the pass. By the time we reached it, we were being pelted by driving hail and serenaded with the sound of thunder. No time to enjoy the view here. Wouldn't want to do that! So we hustled down towards Chicago Basin (our goal for the evening) and made our camp.

Once I saw Chicago Basin, I could understand why its so wildly popular. The basin is surrounded by three 14,000 ft. peaks with waterfalls cascading down their lower reaches. Mountain goats are plentiful and easy photographic subjects as they are unfortunately habituated to the presence of humans. This can actually make them a nuisance if you're not careful around them. Because of the basin's beauty and the presence of the three very climbable 14ers, it is very crowded as peak baggers flock to the area. We knew this going in and just dealt with it. It was our last night in the wilderness anyway so it was time to get used to the presence of people again!

Photographically speaking, Chicago Basin was a mixed bag. Unfortunately, the afternoon and early evening thunderstorms (with some wicked lightning) hindered our exploring greatly. I wanted to trek up to the Twin Lakes area, but that just wasn't going to happen. The shots one can get from the basin itself are rather limited as the peaks don't receive great light (at least at this time of year) in either the evening or morning due to its southwestern alignment. There's some nice waterfall photography to be had, but I just ran out of time to do much. I just decided that I was going to have to write the evening off as a scouting venture for a future trip and just enjoy the scenery in a non-photography sense.

Day 6: Exit day! Both of us were ready to get back to civilization this morning. We had spent the previous evening talking about beer, buffalo wings, ice cream, mountain dew, etc. so now it was time to partake! It would be a quick six mile walk all downhill today to the Needelton train stop where we'd flag down the train for our return trip to Durango. The day started clear and, amazingly, actually stayed that way. It would've been easy to complain that we didn't get a nice day until it was time to leave, but I was really happy we didn't have to deal with thunderstorms while waiting for the train. It was also cool to watch a group of rafters making their way down the Upper Animas while we waited. I photographed them from the bridge at Needleton and have already sold one of the shots to a local publication. So the trip's already paid for!!

Rafters on the Upper Animas River

To see more shots from this trip, click on the following link...

Weminuche Backpacking Trip Images

All the physical hardships and bad weather aside, this was still one of the best and most memorable trips I've ever undertaken. It had been a while since I last immersed myself so completely in a wilderness setting over such a period of time. Hopefully, I won't wait so long to do it again!

1 comment:

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