I lost 10 pounds in four days while eating everything I could get my hands on! No, I’m not talking about Jenny Craig, Weight Watchers, or P90X. I wasn’t on a diet at all, and I didn’t start a new workout regimen. I shed the weight by going on the most incredible backpacking trip I’ve ever experienced. My brother-in-law and nephew from Arkansas joined me for a 4-day high-elevation hike that put us deep into the Uncompahgre National Forest.
My wife dropped the three of us off about 1 hour outside of Montrose at the Middle Fork trailhead in the Cimarron area. We began with a gentle climb in the fragrant fields of mountain flowers that cascaded down from the abrupt castle-like cliffs that surrounded the Porphyry Basin.
As we turned our backs on Courthouse Peak, we began the steep climb toward Matterhorn. The trail disappeared under a glacier that presented the only rational way over the pass. I have to admit that we all felt a sense of accomplishment as we reached the 13,000-foot top that presented a direct view of two 14ers. (Colorado has 53 14ers–mountains with elevation over 14,000 feet. The San Juans are home to 14 of them). In reality, this small climb was a leisurely stroll compared to what lay ahead.
As we began the decent from the rocky pass to the grass-covered slope, we started to pick up animal tracks and sign. Everywhere we looked; we found droppings and hoof prints. They were too small for elk; but we couldn’t imagine that 200-300 dear had herded together on the slope. The mystery and our inept tracking skills were clearly revealed when we soon heard the low baa of sheep that had been led to high elevation for the summer. And our pace quickened when their two Great Pyrenees protectors made it clear that we weren’t welcome.
After forging the east fork of the Cimarron River, we found the ideal spot for camp between Uncompahgre Peak and Matterhorn next to the headwaters of the Cimarron. After pumping water and shoveling in a couple dehydrated meals each, we hit our mats hard. The next morning, we skirted around Matterhorn Peak on the Ridge Stock Driveway trail and set our sights on conquering Wetterhorn Peak.
Once we went above tree line, we could feel the need for more oxygen. So we found some rocks near a curious marmot where we hid our packs until our return. At 13,000 feet, the thin air demoralized my nephew; and he decided to turn around. Knowing that he’d regret that choice for a long time to come, I talked him into walking with me to a rock that was about 25 yards up the hill. We arrived and he spun around to go back to the packs. I challenged him to come with me to a ledge about 15 yards ahead. It didn’t take long until he figured out my strategy; but it gave him enough to keep going. He had lost heart when he saw how far we had to go, but the little goals were enough to get him to the summit.
When we were about 100 yards beneath the summit, we could see storms quickly approaching. There is no cover on a 14er from lighting; and people are struck and killed on them every year. The storms come in so quickly at that elevation. My fear began to build with the clouds. By the time we reached the top, we could see lightning coming in. My Arkansan relatives wanted to soak in the moment which I interrupted in a near panic as hail moved in on the summit. The sound of rocks crackling with electricity is horrifying when you have no place to hide. Despite their excitement and accomplishment, we were in serious danger. With constant prodding to hurry, we scrambled down the mountain nearly running for our lives. It was a mistake for me to allow the group to keep climbing as the clouds were building, and we were fortunate to descend the mountain unscathed.
With the rain pouring down, we set up camp beneath tree line with half of the journey left to go. The next morning we headed for American Lake on the Saddle Trail. Most of the 8 or 10 miles to American Lake were well above 12,000 feet. The south edge of Blackwall Mountain and Wildhorse Peak were breathtaking.
That night I experienced my favorite moment camping—ever. I couldn’t sleep between my snoring relatives and my feet cried out for freedom from the confines of the mummy bag. After 2 hours of elbowing the others and fidgeting, I nearly ran out of the tent in frustration. I have never seen anything so beautiful. There was no moon, no lights, and very little atmosphere. The Milky Way was so thick it looked like it would drip down on us. The sky was crowded with colors that I had never seen overhead before.
The final day, we made our way out on the Bear Creek National Recreation Trail. After Wetterhorn, we didn’t see a single person until we were about five miles away from our exit point. The trails disappeared under the growth of the untrodden path. The Bear Creek Trail took us through the breathtaking waterfalls near Grizzly Bear Mine and over the old mining trail that is carved out of the cliffs above Bear Creek. As we approached Highway 550, we spotted the town of Ouray to the north. We were just close enough to call my wife for our shuttle home. Exhausted, I plunked down in the middle of the trailhead parking lot—10 pounds lighter than when we began.