Our Excellent Mountain Adventures - or as Gene insists on referring to it, "Our special time at the cabin in the woods". (heavy sigh)
3 days in New Mexico hiking the tallest points in the Taos/Red River area followed by 4 days in the Colorado Rockies conquering three 14,000+ peaks. Yes we stayed in a cabin in New Mexico, courtesy of wonderful Life Group friends/family from Legacy. A 1958 cabin tucked way back in the woods alongside a small mountain lake, surrounded by pine forests and mountain ridges.
Jason was nice enough to go out and buy a brand new FJ Cruiser for our trip and Gene was nice enough to show Jason some 4-wheel drive roads that put it to the test. Within an hour of arriving in Red River, we were climbing boulder strewn roads, exploring old silver mines and speeding across water-crossings and mud bogs. Gene was having a blast, goading Jason in to trying to destroy his new ride (well not EXACTLY new. It has 700 miles on it, so why not beat the heck out of it). Jason's alternated between elation at what this machine could do and agony in seeing what nature could dish out in return.
Saturday, Gene suggested we spend the day further examining the structure, integrity and durability of Toyota vehicles. Jason suggested we go for a hike. So a short and easy warm-up hike to get acclimated to the elevation was chosen. Fellow Legacy Church attender Jon Brannin had joined us by now, so off hiking we went. Have I told you the story about when Gene took Amy and I trail running and couldn't locate Lake Grapevine? Well this would be the sequel. Gene fancies himself a bit of a Red River, New Mexico expert, having purportedly vacationed there every other year since 1923. So he suggests a nice 6 mile round trip hike to Goose Lake. 14.75 miles, 3,000 feet of vertical gain and 7 hours later, we staggered in to the ice cold creek at the trailhead to sooth our exhausted feet and legs. Gene did the full body plunge, assuming that climbing in to Jason's showroom fresh car, soaking wet would be a non-issue. Hmmmmmmm . . . . . . what to do, what to do. For the record, there are a few people in your life you should never have to see naked. Grandparents, parents and of course YOUR PASTOR! My night terrors have yet to subside.
Sunday morning Gene was asked to do the Sunday sermon at the Red River Community Center. Pretty cool seeing so many people on vacation taking time to come and worship in the large, log constructed building. The crowd tended to skew a little on the "senior" side, in fact I think a few of them actually attended high schoolk with Jesus, but Gene's messag was perfectly aligned with the mountain setting and he received rave reviews. Not to mention he significantly outdrew the previous week's guest preacher.
After the service was concluded, we put on our full backpacks for the hike to Lost Lake, which would be our overnight camp site before our summit climb of Wheeler Peak (13,161 - the highest point in NM). A long hike with plenty of climbing and toting 40 pound packs, provided another healthy workout. We arrived at the lake at 11,500 feet enjoyed beautiful scenary and absolute peace and quiet, far from cell signals and e-mail. We had a roaring campfire (thanks to Gene's guidance and patience teaching Jason and I the ancient secret of starting a fire in the wilderness. (Paper . . . . . wood . . . . . . lighter . . . . . . Oooooooooh) Enjoyed a dehydrated dinner (Teriyake Chicken - Mmmmmmm, actually pretty good). Some locals camping near by came by and offered us some freshly cooked elk steaks. It was amazing. Gene was noticably less enthused. He took the greasy chunk of meat as if someone had handed him a dog turd. Pretended to chew on it for a few minutes and then inexplicably just tossed it on to a log in the fire, right in front of the proud hunter who provided it while we all sat there pretending we didn't see it sitting there sizzling on top of the log. You can't take him anywhere nice. After settling in to our tents (individual tents located a significant distance from one another - no Brokeback Mountain references even for a laugh) we settled in and got to enjoy the soothing sound of rain falling. Bliss!!!!
Wheeler Peak provides a solid climbing challenge but the overnight at Lost Lake cuts down significantly on the hiking distance, so we were on the summit by mid-morning. Breezy and a little chilly but otherwise the weather (as it was all week) was flawless. Somewhere along the way the conversation turned to the soap that was in the cabin. Jason just mentioed that it smelled good and Jon quickly excitedly responded, "They have it at Bed, Bath and Beyond!" You ever say something and just as the last word is leaving your mouth think - "Oh no, what have I done?" We immediately pulled Jon's Man Card and banished him to the back of the line for a 30 minute penalty. We hiked all the way back to the trailhead and back in to Red River for a great meal and the last nights sleep in a bed for a while.
Spent all day Tuesday making our way up to Colorado. It was a rest day so we had nowhere to be anytime soon. This meant that Jason was free to pull over every 3 1/2 minutes to take a picture of a retro sign, a rusty wheel or a freakin' old truck. "Stop the car . . . . . STOP THE CAR!!! That truck was made before 1985, I MUST capture it's essence in a photograph!" It was like vacationing with a cross between Annie Liebowitz and Richard Simmons. Thus the 4 hour drive from Red River to Lake City took us just 9 hours. But we have a photo album of old motel signs that you wouldn't believe! And we did get a chance to discover the incredible cuisine (seriously) of Kip's in Creede, Colorado. Also seriously, if you haven't seen some of Jason's really unique photography, find a way to check it out. He finds some pretty cool stuff you and I would never see.
Base camp for our three 14,000 summits in Colorado was Grizzly Gulch, 15 miles outside of Lake City and 11,600 feet above sea level. We got there and immediately noticed a big red sign alerting us to the recent bear attack in the area. Disneyworld? New York? A Cruise? No, let's go sleep on the ground for 3 nights, in a small vinyl bubble and offer ourselves up as an appretizer for any foraging wild animal that wanders by. Great idea guys! We met three more Legacy friends (Mike, Jack and Doyle) here and made plans for our three summit climbs. Mike and Jack had already attempted Handies the day before and came up just short.
So Wednesday morning we loaded up and drove (crept) over a treacherous 4WD road to the Handies trailhead. (4 mile drive took 45 minutes) It was a shorter route but shorter, when combined with climbing simply means a lot more steep sections. It was a solid but achievable summit effort and we placed five of our group on top. Mike came up short but as I explained to him, still outperformed 99.9% of the 68 year-old men with knee replacements in the world. Gene, Jason, Jack, Jon and I managed to summit and the vistas from 14,048 feet were incredible. Perfect weather allowed us to stay on top for almost an hour before heading back down.
Jack had decided not to include the Red Cloud/Sunshine double summit climb to his itinerary. But his Handies triumph and Gene's able pace-setting (in mountain climbing, as in trail running and marathons, Gene is a pace guru!) encouraged him to alter his plans. Of course some of us morons (read: me) think that pacing yourself is over-rated, which would explain my occasional pauses to push my lungs back down my throat. We were planning an Alpine start, which means you depart well before sunrise, since the double was reported to be a 10 hour excursion and they strongly suggest you be off the summits before afternoon to avoid exposure to seasonal thunderstorms. Some of us indeed did do an Alpine Start. Gene, Jack and Jon effectively snuck out of camp at 5:30 AM, leaving Jason and I asleep in our tents. Nice! Legacy Mountaineers - where no one hikes alone - unless the 3 stooges want to get a head-start and leave you behind. So Jason and I got a 60 minute gap to make up and were determined that it would be done before the first summit. Jason of course had run them down seemingly within minutes of us leaving camp and was on the first summit before the rest of us even started the final 1,000 foot climb. Those final climbs are a real test. The photo's do not do them justice. Very steep. Constant switchbacks to make the climb even possible and loose rock and gravel that requires careful steps to make forward progress. We managed to conquer Red Cloud which left Sunshine only a mile away and what appeared to be a casual downhill stroll to the saddle between and then a gentle 500 foot climb to the summit of Sunshine. As miles goes, that one was the longest of my life. And 500 feet sounds like a little but feels like a LOT! This is where your legs feel just like they did at mile 95 in Wichita Falls just a few weeks ago. We pressed on, climbed as a team and summited as one to conclude a week of adventure. (Or so I thought).
The standard return to our camp was six miles right back the way we came. Which meant back down to the saddle, back up Red Cloud and then 5 miles of switchbacks to the trailhead. We had read that there was a "short-cut" that saved a mile and avoided re-summitting Red Cloud. Only issue was the guide said it was not recommended and considered dangerous. The only intelligent choice was to take the standard route back. Only problem was we only had two intelligent people in our party - Gene and Jack, who did not hesitate and started back up Red Cloud, despite being throughly spent. Jason, Jon and I decided to try the maligned short-cut. There was some hint of trail and some we made up. For an hour we picked our way across and down a steep and wide slope of talus (loose, jagged rock that often slides away when you put weight on it). We were feeling pretty good about our choice (we could easily see Gene and Jack trudging up the return to Red Cloud) until we found ourselves on top of a 60 foot cliff with no obvious way down. We saw a chute that looked promising (read: only kindof suicidal) and started scooting down on our rear ends. Jason put his feet on some talus and started a slide toward the cliff face. A slide in which he remained a key component. Jon and I decided to reverse course and scrambled back to the top. Jason's head peaked above the rim a few minutes later. He didn't look happy. Frankly, he looked like he might have soiled himself. For the record, I don't think he did. Though after 5 days in the wilderness we all smelled a bit "seasoned" so I can't be sure. We found another route that had sufficient hand-holds and foot-holds to get us to a point where we only had to climb down a sheer vertical face of maybe 10-15 feet. Once back on reasonably horizontal ground we all were unanimous in declaring our decision to take the short-cut INSPIRED and our cliff climbing experieince, AWESOME!
Our short-cut did allow us to make it back to camp before Gene and Jack, who put in the full double-summit hike a full 15 minutes faster than the 10 hour book time. The entire trip was so much fun. Great group of guys. Incredible serenity and scenary. When was the last time you saw the Milky Way in all it's splendor? When was the last time you had a group of Mule Deer wander through your campsite at dusk while you sat 15 feet away? And for the record, Jason climbs like he rides and only summits with us because he chooses to. And the pictures he provided of the entire trip are amazing and (I'm assuming) FREE! I highly recommend taking a audio/visual creative genius with you on your next vacation. Finally, I love Gene Wilkes the Pastor. I throughly enjoy Gene Wilkes the cyclists. But I'm hear to tell you, Gene Wilkes the Mountaineering Adventurer is THE BOMB! Come for a bike ride soon and we'll share some of our favorite Gene moments, comments and stuff we just made up to embarass him. Stories that I simply can't share here, because a permament record of them would eliminate plausible deniability and we all have day jobs we want to keep!