Trip dates: May 25-27, 2019
Caltopo map here
In my 2018 Year in Review post I mentioned that on my next trip to Cache La Poudre Wilderness I wrote that I wanted to explore the trail-less canyons. It looked like I could include around 5 miles in the bottom of the South Fork of the Cache La Poudre River which I was particularly excited about.
From my couch I'd planned on (a) a lack of trails (b) 30 miles and over 8k' of elevation gain/loss. In my previous trip to Cache la Poudre Wilderness I'd learned that there was an enormous wildfire in the area.
It turns out that the area I'd seen had only been minimally affected by the fire...It would start fairly mild but once I got to the southern end of the wilderness I would experience the roughest terrain I've ever been in. This trip was the first and only (hopefully last?) time I've had to spend an extra night I hadn't planned on because I was just too exhausted.
I started near Stove Prairie Landing and worked towards Skin Gulch. I visited Hole in the Wall mine before heading directly uphill to Bear Mt.
Above the mine, my route started in earnest. I certainly thought I was ready.
Doesn't this look like fun? At this point I'm honestly thinking--yes. The trees aren't too close together and they are mostly still standing. The trees had been dead long enough that I could break branches off as went. For whatever reason, ever since I was about 5 years old, I've gotten a lot of pleasure out of barreling forests like this.
Not too far past the Clark Homestead I joined the "Old Flowers Road". My aunt of uncle, who are genealogists and local historians had asked me to try to get a picture of Kitty Lyon's grave.
I was planning on stocking up on water at the natural spring near Clark Homestead. As I approached I caught two very bright, green eyeballs, in my headlight. It seemed that some other animal also had the spring in mind. I tried taking a picture of the reflected eyeballs but didn't pull it off.
At this point it's around midnight and I'm getting seriously tired but I climbed up onto the ridge that extended to Bear Mt. In areas with sparse deadfall, the steps were easy and I felt optimistic and confident I'd finish that night. When the ground became a zig-zag of fallen trunks up to 2.5 feet off the ground and I'd have to "boulder hop" from one to the next, I got more demoralized.
I didn't have the benefit of moonlight and there weren't really any distinguishing features like a creek, or cliff-wall, I could use as a handrail (trails are the ultimate handrail), Everything looked the same and I dreaded every log. At some point I became completely disoriented, and started traveling in circles, letting my legs choose the path of least resistance instead of my mind choosing the direction that made sense. After I realized I'd began to wander off the crest of the ridge I was forced to admit it was time to stop and admit defeat.
Fortunately, there was a small patch of ground not crisscrossed with tree trunks that I could (partially) pitch my shelter on extend my legs for the night.
It'll be awhile before I head back into a burn area like this.
Epilogue: "This is where empires come to be humbled"
As I fumbled down that ridge on night 2 I kept thinking of a documentary I'd seen over a decade ago about the US war in Afghanistan. A historian (probably Steve Coll) was discussing the historic challenge posed by the mountainous terrain and in particular the experience of the Soviets in the 1980s. For whatever reason, I've remembered this line for at least 12 years: "...this is where empires come to be conquered."
It seems so mild on the map: elevations below 9000' and snow free. Can you even call these real mountains? I guess the Cache La Poudre Wilderness is my Afghanistan.