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The Great Northern Sangre de Cristo Traverse, CO
mini location map2021-07-25
30 by photographer avatarDennisWilliams
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The Great Northern Sangre de Cristo Traverse, CO 
The Great Northern Sangre de Cristo Traverse, CO
Backpack avatar Jul 25 2021
Backpack47.00 Miles
Backpack47.00 Miles7 Days         
48 LBS Pack
 no routes
1st trip
Linked none no linked trail guides
Partners none no partners
Thirty-five years in the making.

In 1975 my father inaugurated the first of what would be close to 40 yearly one-week family backpack trips somewhere in the American west. None of us, my father, myself, nor four brothers attended all of them, life getting in the way at various times. I participated in maybe 30 of those but memory fades over the years. In the early years my brothers designed the hikes in the Sierra Nevada, Gila Wilderness, Weminuche, etc. I moved to Colorado Springs in 1985 and was keen to design a hike on my own turf. We liked high country and tree-line lakes. I was looking for a string of high lakes connected by passes, 5 - 10 miles per day, and as much country above treeline as possible. I loved the Sangre de Cristos but was having a tough time finding a week long route that did not dead-end up in high cirques requiring retreat out to lower elevations. Poring over the San Isabel NF map I suddenly hit it. There were six lakes connected by trail that met my criteria in a point-to-point route. The group would drive up Friday night and arrive Saturday, arrange vehicle logistics, and camp Saturday night at the TH. Hike in Sunday and hike back out Saturday, arriving back in town in the early morning hours of Sunday. It looked do-able so I got the 7.5' topos and went to work. The route turned out much better than I could have possibly imagined. Six lakes at or above tree-line, forty-seven miles with packs, over thirty of those well above 11,000', opportunity for several 13,000' summits, eight passes over 12,000'. A kick-ass route if there ever was one. In late July of 1986 we executed that hike with a party of ten, my father, my 29 year old self, and three of my four brothers included. It turned out to be a legendary hike within our circle and was always rated in the top five of the all-time best we ever did. So set the stage for the next thirty-five years.

Time passes but I had always wanted to go back and re-do some of our best hikes in complete detail, the Sangres in particular. In recent years I had suggested this to my brothers and our children but had always been met with "can we shorten it, make it easier, change the dates, etc.?" They were just not interested in a full-on backpack trip in the style we had done long ago. It occurred to me that I had some potential stalwart hikers in my climbing buddies so after one of our climbs I pulled out the notebook on the 1986 hike and made the proposal. Their eyes lit up like Christmas and I knew I had them. We set firm dates. I then invited my family, and informed them that the itinerary was not open to discussion. No takers.

Since my partners were 21 and 30 years of age I figured I had better improve my fitness. Over the 2-3 months prior to jump off I doubled my regular cardio and added stair stepper with a weighted backpack. Beginning 2 months ahead with 35lbs in the pack for 20 minutes I got it up to 60lbs for 40 minutes on the stepper, 3 times per week. Ordinarily I enjoy everything I do at the gym in some fashion. Weighted backpack on a stair stepper is just plain medicine. No joy whatever. But it pays off.

Angel and I left Phoenix Friday evening and drove through the night. We met Matt in Westcliffe, CO, the nearest town to the TH and a great little hamlet located at 7800' elevation at the foot of the Sangres in the Wet Mountain Valley. About as pretty a spot as there is. It is the seat of Custer County and has maybe 600 residents. We organized the vehicle logistics leaving one at the output TH some 19 driving miles from the Alvarado campground which is near the Venable/Comanche TH and our campsite and starting point for the hike. We car camped Saturday night and prepared for the adventure. I could scarcely believe we were there and about to go in.

The first day is a tough day. Alvarado is about 9,000'. Our destination, the Venable Lakes at 12,000', are maybe six miles in. My pack weighed in at 48.5lbs with 1 liter of water for the trail. Treeline is about 11,500' depending on N/S situation. We passed an old cabin site where the trees were thinning out. In 1986 we stopped there for lunch and took some photos. Back then the cabin still had walls and a roof. It does no longer, just a few logs in a heap. Testimony to the passage of time which we would see more of as the hike went on. No fire at camp. No wood at that elevation. Trout were rising but Matt had no luck.

The second day took us up over Venable Pass at 12,750', higher than the summit of Humphrey's Peak and with heavy packs. On the way up we saw a bachelor herd of about fifteen mule deer bucks. All big animals. Then down to 11,550' and back up over a second unnamed pass at 12,450'. Below that we bushwhacked side-hill around a big bench to get to San Isabel Lake at 11,625'. About seven miles total. I congratulated my cohorts on getting two 12,000' passes in one day. It would not be the last time. Camped at San Isabel in exactly the same location as 35 years previously. You start to hear the echos. It seemed as though we were more than three.

Day three was our shortest day. North up over an unnamed pass at 12,200' and then to Rito Alto Lake 11,327'. Maybe only three miles. We had hoped to drop packs in the pass and go for the summit of Rito Alto Pk. 13,794' but the sky was threatening and you dare not break the rules when in the high mountains. I have been chased off a summit by lightening in the past. Hair sizzling and standing up. Rocks chattering. Then a huge blast, only to repeat the process. A truly frightening experience that we wanted to avoid. Back in '86 we had clear weather and went up. That was the only departure from the original itinerary and it was due to circumstances beyond our control. At Rito Alto Lake trout were going crazy. At any given time we saw 2-3 going air-born. This went on all afternoon into the evening. Matt had a kludged fishing set up, really just hand-lining with a two foot stick for throwing. He managed to catch two nice cutthroats. We ate one and my two bites were the best food I tasted the entire trip. He kicked himself for not bringing his good spin casting setup. It would have been a massacre.

Day four took us north again down to just barely below the 11,000' line where the air felt thicker. Here is where we started to notice more changes, as in the disappearance of actual trail. The valley bottom is fairly open up past Iris Lake (just a wide spot in the creek) so the route is not hard to follow but it was becoming plain that the forest service has simply abandoned miles of trail in this northern section of the route. We saw a herd of about seventy elk and pushed up through an unnamed pass at 12,500' where we dropped packs and Matt and I went up to the summit of Silver Pk. 13,513' just as we had done 35 years earlier to the day. Wonderful sweeping views of the entire northern Sangre de Cristo range. Then we descended to Cotton Lake 11,500' to make camp. Maybe eight miles total with the summit.

Day five we were really getting into the belly of the beast. Little actual trail to speak of. Tested our route finding skills. Headed northwest and down to just below the 10,800' line, the lowest spot on the entire route, then northeast up through Horsethief Basin and then over two passes on the shoulders of the same 13,060' peak. No trail at all down in the timber. Hours of climbing over dead-fall and looking for trail. We would catch glimpses of improved trail shoulders at what used to be switchbacks or some tree blazes but everything was covered in decades of downed trees and overgrowth. The trail here, for the most part, is just gone. The first pass is at 12,800' and the second at 12,900'. Both higher than Humphrey's. The route then follows established trail down a 45 degree talus slope. The trail is visible here because it was hacked into a huge boulder field and because the elk have been using it so it stays open. The route drops down to Banjo Lake at 12,400', one of the strangest places I have camped. Maybe 9.5 miles with the bushwhacking. With the passes, a tough day.

No-one goes to Banjo Lake. There is now no trail in or out. It is possible that the 1986 party was the last to go there before us. There never was a trail all the way out down the drainage to the east, even in 1986. The lake lies in a cirque and is really just a large pond of snow melt. I am sure it freezes solid in winter. No trees. No willows or even bushes. Just a grassy hillside near the lake at the end of a high cirque. Minimalist. Oddly and starkly beautiful. A zen haiku executed in rock, grass, and water. Katsu! Back in '86 the ten of us sat in a circle on that green hillside above the lake. We had set up the tents and finished dinner. With nothing to burn we just sat down in the grass and started to tell stories. The sun went down and nightfall covered the faces so that only voices could be heard in that high, still, darkness. Many of those who were there would later remark on how that experience had affected them. They, and I too, likened it to a group of ice-age hunters sitting there in the dark telling stories into the night. The experiences 10,000 years ago and that day would have been indistinguishable. We were unhooked in time. On the present occasion we stayed up late in the dark drinking whisky and discussing the merits of the Stoic philosophers of the first and second centuries in Rome. Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, and of course, Epictetus. Meritorious indeed! There must be something about Banjo Lake. I am not one for crystal power and vortexes but if such places exist Banjo Lake just might be one. The earlier experience had haunted me for 35 years. When I would run into rough patches Banjo Lake was one of a few places I would retreat to in memory. Just to know that it exists gave me comfort. I found my time there highly emotional. If you want to go there anticipate substantial difficulty. It haunts me still.

Day six was another tough day. The route (no trail) descends Middle Brush Creek for 1.5 miles then cuts up through dense timber loaded with dead-fall and then high up steep grassy tundra slopes to traverse a shoulder at 12,500', then drops back down into South Branch Lake at 11,550', then back up over our last high pass at 12,350'. Another big elk herd, maybe eighty animals. After the pass we dropped down to Upper Brush Lake 11,550' for our last camp. Nine miles with almost no trail and two high passes. A lovely lake, I made some decent photos of reflections and morning light. Matt caught another trout, a rainbow this time. He put him back for the future.

Day seven found us hiking out the easy five miles downhill to the truck. The trail here is good. I guess the forest service maintains it for the fishermen and women. I have always hated hiking out on these trips. The lure of hot food and a comfortable bed just fall far short. This trip afforded a very different view from those past. Long ago I saw them with the eyes of a man on the front end with possibilities and a probably long future stretching out before me. Now that view is foreshortened and the rear view mirror reaches farther. Don't get me wrong, I am supremely grateful to view it at all. Another epic (a grossly overused word, but not here) trip in the books. Of those young men who traveled with me long ago some are gone and the rest are old. I toasted them all. It was my privilege to carry their memories with me up there. My honor. It was magnificent!
Bristlecone Pine
Cutthroat Trout
wildflower observationwildflower observationwildflower observationwildflower observationwildflower observation
Wildflowers Observation Extreme
Flowers of every color and description covering almost every hillside. Maybe the best I have ever seen.

- Antoninus Pius
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