Last week we went on another 7-day trek through the high peaks of the Weminuche Wilderness in the San Juan Mountains of southwest Colorado. During our backpacking trip we were treated not only to spectacular mountain vistas, but to some pretty cool wildlife encounters too!
The Wild Heart of the San Juans
The daily question on this trek: can we make it over the next pass before it starts storming? On this day – no.
Here’s our camp on the second afternoon at the beginning of a bout of stormy weather. It rained buckets this evening, but the lightning and thunder wasn’t so bad, which was fortunate given our slightly exposed above-treeline camp spot. What was more scary, in fact, was the constant rockfalls crashing down from the peaks across the meadow.
The next morning we woke up at 4am to pack the tent and hike up to a high lake to shoot sunrise. In the darkness we sensed lots of clouds swirling around overhead, but since I could see patches of stars now and then, I had a hunch that it was more of a low misty cloud layer rather than a brewing thunderstorm. Still, we couldn’t tell, and the last thing we wanted to do was to hike right up into a thundercloud (a terrifying experience which has happened to me before on a pre-sunrise hike in the same range). So we waited a while in the dark, until finally time ran out and I made the call to go for it. We hiked as fast as possible and I made it to the high lake just in time to catch a few beams of sunrise light filtering onto the rugged peaks.
I turned out to be right – the high clouds quickly burned off into clear blue skies, while far below our high 12,600 ft. vantage point, we could see a sea of clouds filling up the lower valleys. For the next couple hours those clouds really put on a show, as they’d rise up the valley and crash over the peaks like breaking waves!
After shooting this awesome cloud spectacle, calamity struck when I absentmindedly left my tripod unbalanced for a moment, and it crashed down lens-first onto a rock. My vintage 35-70mm Contax-Zeiss lens instantly became a vintage paperweight. Fortunately my camera was ok, and that was the best lens to destroy on this trip – I still had my two wideangle lenses which are the workhorses in the big, up-close mountain terrain on this trek.
Another sunset in paradise!
Now that I know these remote routes so well, trekking through these mountains has lost a bit of the adventurous feel that they used to have for me back when I was exploring them on my own for the first times, when I was “feeling” my way through them on instinct rather than knowledge. Nevertheless, these rugged peaks never fail to inspire me, and the more I go in there, the more I gain an even deeper appreciation and connection with them.
During our last trek here, while descending from a mountain-top sunrise shoot, I stumbled across these small ponds which offer a reflection of Vestal and Arrow Peaks. For the two years since then, I’ve been longing to shoot a sunrise from those ponds, so I was elated to score a fiery sunrise on the one morning we were there on this trip!
And one final note: If you email me asking for route descriptions, please forgive me if I’m unresponsive, or vague at best. There are a couple reasons for this. First, I’m not a guide and it’s far too difficult to describe these challenging routes, most of which are unmarked, trailless, and tricky. Secondly, and most importantly, I believe that half the fun of these off-trail journeys is the research, the adventure, and the sense of exploration; publishing detailed route descriptions ruins all of this.