Friday, September 26, 2008

The San Juan Mountains and Some Mysterious Deaths

The San Juan Mountains in South West Colorado are everything that a mountain range should be. They're pointy, pretty, tall, shaped strangely, and somewhere remote beyond deserts and small towns with good Mexican restaurants. They also have a higher proportion of abandoned mines and ghost town type stuff than many other mountain ranges.

I had planned a long weekend from some months ago with which to visit this place I had only read about along with a friend from out of town. Unfortunately, the friend had to bail on the trip but I was not going to let the weekend go to waste so I headed out anyways on Thursday night, down 285, through the Arkansas valley, and over the tall and windy Monarch pass to the town of Gunnison, which looks nothing like its portrayal in the Aliens vs Predator 2 film. From then it was another 60 miles south through the barren sagebrush and mesquite of BLM land and ranching country. Finally I got to the sleepy mountain town of Lake City, where my first impression involved seeing two nice adult buck mule deer walking across the road at 1 am to munch on someone's lawn.

Then there was a dirt road through abandoned mining stuff and a steep canyon. It was pretty awesome to be in such a remote place, but still be able to hear the the Flobot's "Handlebars" coming in across the static of the FM dial.

Anyways, the idea was to climb the Whetterhorn and Uncompahgre peaks, two notable 14ers at the North end of this range. In between the two is also something called the Matterhorn, named after a similarly shaped peak in the Alps....

I was hoping to do the Matterhorn and Whetterhorn on the first day. However, I got a late start and only had time to do the Whetterhorn before it got dark. Yet to use the word "only" here is a little awkward, because it was quite a long hike, up a lot of elevation, from my parking spot about a quarter mile up the Matterhorn Creek trailhead road. My fear of tearing out another oil pan has tended to make me rather cautious about a lot of 4WD roads.... the Subaru is great but not really jacked up for high clearance...

The approach through the valley on the Henson Road/ CO 20 was mostly pretty smooth. Several sedans and a few minivans seemed to have been able to make it through ok. Also, this road is very beautiful!

This is the ond mining camp of Henson

And the last remnants of a settlement called Capital City. Only this foundation is left:

This is someone else's picture of the Whetterhorn:

Here you see the South East face, which was the route I took up to the ledge a few hundred feet beneath the summit on the Southeast ridge. From there you walk a bit behind the face seen in this picture and go up a rather steep scramble to the very top.

My pictures of the hike:

Walking up through the treeline, the Whetterhorn is visible hear peaking out above the hill in between me and it

Above the treeline, the trail opens up into a broad alpine meadow. In this picture the Matterhorn is the high point visible... the ridge going off to the left connects to the Whetterhorn.

The Whetterhorn in view:

There are no more pictures until the summit as I was saving space for views of the top.

From the summit here is looking East to Uncompahgre:

Looking north:

Looking South West at the great mass that is the San Juans:

Due South, you can see the Valley up I took. Somewhere way down there is a car I get to walk back to!

All those pics are part of a panorama but I haven't had a chance to match it all up yet.

One thing sucked though- at the tops of all the 14ers there are little log books up there you can sign in to. They are kept in PVC pipe with twist off ends. Well some joker had squeezed the end of this pipe so tight I could not open it and sign in! So that's a drag... but at least I have photographic evidence of the success of the summitting :)

On the way down I did some hunting for the marmot. You see there is a season for such things, and the marmot meat has a very sweet and unique flavor. They recently had to outlaw marmot hunting in Mongolia because many of the species had been found to carry plague, yet this has only resulted in the emergence of a large black market for the meat, the eating of which is an important part of Mongolian tradition and culture.

In my opinion Marmot is like the sweet desert wine of the game meats. It literally smells and tastes like honey. They can be a bit messy to clean, as in the fall they build up a lot of fat to hibernate through the winter with. But it's worth it. Off a large marmot you can easily get maybe four big dinners of meaty, delicious stew, and the daily limit for marmots is two. The way I see it, if you're going to climb mountains anyway, and you bring along a small, lightweight weapon and pick up some marmot on your way down, the money you save from not having to go to the grocery store for a few days to buy meat helps to compensate for the gas you spent to drive to the mountain.

Anyways, I was using a Ruger 10/22 carbine which I felt worked great... small, lightweight, and very accurate. I don't think anything larger than the .22 caliber is really necessary for this specie...

* * *

The next day I spent relaxing and enjoying the time I had. I went down to Henson creek and fished a bit, and in general checked out the area.

Unfortunately, that night it started to rain. I had a large tarp along and was able to rig it up fine to be able to have a fire and cook in a nice dry area; but it made me nervous about doing Uncompahgre the next day.

In the morning as it made breakfast the whether was typically schizophrenic for Colorado. It was bright and sunny, yet there were dark grey clouds moving in. After waiting around to see how things would develop I decided to pack up camp and cancel the hike that day. I don't know when I'll be out that way again, and it was really a great place for mountains, but I did not think it would be safe to be on a summit with decaying weather.

As I left a significant storm came in

See the peak off in the distance? It has been eaten up by the storm- good thing I am not there!

Well I got out of there and that was that. However in the afternoon as I got out of the mountains the weather was mostly sunny, though there were a few drizzels. Instead of doing a high peak I pulled over into some BLM land and did some hiking up through the hills of desert scrub. I've always been fascinated by desert scrub. I saw some old, open mines. I went about 6 feet down into one to see if it was open all the way or not, and it was, but as it was dark and creepy and such things tend to have lots of ways to kill people in them I turned around and left.

I didn't take a picture of the high desert but it looks like this:

I saw a lot of deer... perhaps 6 or 7 deer. Unfourtunately they were not of the happy, jumping, and eating grass variety; as they were all dead and in various states of decay. I thought it rather strange to find so many dead deer in such a close area. I don't think they were hunted, unless someone went pschyo with an AR 15 or something on an entire herd, and they all kind of scattered to die... but I don't think anyone would do this. Then I thought perhaps mountain lions had eaten them, and many of the deer had bones strewn about that looked violently cracked and ripped off. Much of the back leg area seemed totally eaten and the sweet innards seemed to have been accessed as well, while a lot of the upper shoulder meat wasn't eaten...

Still, if that was the case, it was still mysterious why a lion would be able to take so many deer in such a small area. Also all of the deer seemed to be in a similar state of decomposition... none were total skeletons and none were plenty of meat with flies still on them. All were sort of in between.

So I decided perhaps this is part of a herd that might have met with death last winter. There were very heavy snows and the Department of Wildlife did do emergency feedings of thousands of deer in the Gunnison area... maybe these were the deer that no one told about the feedings... that would explain the decay level, and savagers, including savaging lions, might have been responsible for the violent menacing the carcasses seemed to have endured.

If you have any information about the mystery of the dead deer in the scrub land Southeast of Gunnison let me know.

Incidentally, my camera was full so there are no pictures of the marmots or the dead deer but if you absolutely must satiate your desire for a picture of something morbid here is someone else's picture of a dead cow being sniffed by its companion.

That's that. All in all it was a very nice trip, a very pretty and wild area, and I am very glad to have been able to check it late in the season while climbing was still feasible.

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