Tuesday, September 1, 2015

weminuche wilderness

This was a backpack trip with a pack of scouts, plus a few other boys who aren't into scouting as such but like to get out nonetheless. The original plan had a summit day for attempting the class 3 scramble up the Rio Grande Pyramid. In the event the summit day was discarded but not the summit bid, which turned out to be the wrong approach.

The Pyramid is a 13er rather than a 14er, which thins the crowds something wonderful. I've never climbed a 14er only because recreating in a crowd is not that appealing. 13er peaks tend to have more ptarmigan than ptourists, better for grumpy old misanthropes.

We drove nine hours from Denver and started hiking by 2pm. The climb up to this beautiful valley from the Rio Grande reservoir was steeper than expected, a good 2000 ft pull.

The view up valley wasn't bad either. The saddle visible at the horizon seemed oddly close to have such a large stream flowing down from it. The explanation is another drainage that jinks to the right invisibly just below the saddle. This stream looked quite trouty but I did not get time to investigate.

The first view of the Window (the gap in the rock wall at left on the skyline) and that inaccessible peak, snowfields blocking the trails as we would discover.

Headwaters of a different pretty little creek, on the evening of the second day. Fishless. I followed the trail of a bear from the campsite down to the river. Since these are black bears, and hunted, they have a becoming modesty in the face of humans.

There were the usual consolations, acres of useless beauty. I took a skinny dip in these icy waters, contemplated on the sand in the sun until the freeze eased.

Next day we attempted an early start but did not start walking until 8am what with all the sodden camp-packing. Packs were ditched trailside, with a flu-ridden boy and my wife left on guard. Here we are wandering around, looking for a path up to the peak.

Lacking a path, we did the scree scramble instead. The actual faint trail cuts along the bottom of this slope, then rears up across another boulder field covered in snow and ice. My rule of thumb is to retreat from any snow/ice crossing with significant exposure, unless everyone in the party has an ice axe and knows how to use it. The scree scramble is tedious but a whole lot less dangerous.

Supervising the climb, from the top.

Someone here needs a haircut..

Portrait of the mountaineer as a disappointed young man.

Eventually we toiled up to the saddle below the last scree to the summit. At this point I put both my feet down, the father foot and the Scoutmaster foot, and refused to permit a summit bid - we could see the weather moving in, it was already 12:30pm, and we had another hour or two of hiking at altitude with no cover, once we got off the peak. Lightning danger was deemed high by me at least, though the boys were convinced we could do it, easy Dad, let's go..
I am surely a coward, but at least still a lively coward. 

The abandoned hikers are over near the lake in the top right. Here we meander back to them through the marshes. Don't follow the lights, silly hobbitses.

Continental Divide, 12500 feet, 10th July.. there's that weather I was talking about.  There is basically no exposure here, as the snowfield ends in a shallow grassy bank.

The picture at the head of this entry shows our reward - one of the best views I've seen in my decades of rambling around the mountains. The flowers do not show well in the picture, but the slope beyond this was covered with blooms. On this rocky slope there were plants I've never seen before, purple with tendrils, looked like Triffids.

No pictures of the gallop downhill from here, as we were trying to get to treeline before it all broke loose, and the hairs on the back of my neck were stirring. Upon reaching the first wizened pines so the thunder boomed. The show was continuous for the next half-hour until showers of hail brought the curtain down, followed by a mild persistent rain that wetted through all our raingear.

Luckily the scouts are helpful, friendly and courteous, so we figured out a strategy to pitch the tents without soaking the inner - several scouts on the flysheet holding it over the site, then set up in the relative shelter. The easy dehydrated meals straight from the pouch were very helpful tonight to get everyone fed and bedded down before 9.

Next morning we had a fragrant backcountry experience, sodden boots roasting over an open fire.

Look at those innocently blue skies - you would never guess they rained six hours straight yesterday, and were preparing a similar treat for today.

Further down the drainage were some beaver ponds and plentiful trout. I guess this is a Rio Grande cutthroat, but it is hard to be sure, the spots look like a Colorado River cutthroat instead. Distinguishing the two is a question like angels dancing on a pinhead, or maybe atoms waltzing around a helix..
Colorado River Cutthroat Trout (Oncorhynchus clarkii pleuriticus)  - Behnke (1992) and Baxter and Stone (1995) observed that this subspecies had 170-205+ scales in the lateral series, and 38-48+ scales above the lateral line, which were greater than counts in all other subspecies except greenback cutthroat trout.
Rio Grande cutthroat trout possess similar coloration, but usually have fewer scales in and above the lateral line and more irregularly shaped spots on the caudal peduncle.
That peduncle thing would be a tail, to the rest of us. You could count the scales; or you could count its teeth, which are not there.
Rio Grande cutthroat trout have irregular shaped spots that are concentrated behind the dorsal fin (largest fin on the back), smaller less numerous spots located primarily above the lateral line anterior to the dorsal fin, and basibranchial (located on the floor of the gill chamber) teeth that are minute or absent.
So I will boldly proclaim that we caught some Rio Grande cutthroats in their native drainage. At the very worst that statement is nearly right, which is as close as I expect to get to the truth in the time left to me.

We caught a couple.

Then we ate them, fried up with a little salami for the grease. Delicious. Normally I would not kill native trout like this, preferring to slaughter the invasive Eastern brook trout, but the boys wanted to eat their catch. The ethics of catch-and-release fishing bother me every time though admittedly not enough to actually stop fishing. It seems unpleasantly close to torture as I pull in a struggling frightened creature, for nothing but my entertainment: in a way it's a relief to simply kill and eat, putting our needs above the trouts' needs as they put theirs above the damselflies'.

Trout for lunch also simplified waste disposal, as the skellingtons and body parts could simply be tossed in the river for damselfly nymph food. At dinnertime these morsels would have to be taken far from the campsite, in case a bear came to investigate, then stick his head in the tent to see if we had any more of that delicious-smelling salami.

Shortly after lunch and stream crossing storms rolled over the valley to begin that mild persistent rain once more. It escorted us personally all the way down, sun on the hills around but a damp cloud for us. A second stream crossing required a little pioneering with some handy driftwood logs. At that night's planned camp after three more hours of rain, we found a mutinous crew ring-led by my wife, who all wished to hike the remaining miles out. We did that, ending up with 11 miles and 2500ft of descending for the day. Unexpectedly fine dinner in Creede, home by 2am more than somewhat shattered. Never did get a second look at that trouty stream: I will have to go back.

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