In late June a record-breaking heat wave settled in over the southwestern United States. With a week of 95º heat in Ridgway and smoky skies from a huge wildfire in the nearby La Sal Mountains in southeast Utah, it was shaping up to be another dry and smoky summer here in the San Juan Mountains. So it was a great relief when a wet monsoon weather pattern rolled in at the end of June, bringing cooler temps and heavy wetting rains.
After the oppressive heat wave, the idea of sitting in my hammock or tent in cool rainy weather seemed dreamy to me, so to celebrate the arrival of monsoon rains I packed my backpack and headed out into the mountains for two backpack trips into the Weminuche Wilderness south of Silverton, Colorado.
Perhaps my eagerness for rainy backpacking was a bit optimistic; especially on the second longer trek I ended up spending many hours sitting in my tent through relentless rain showers with little time left over to relax outside and enjoy the scenery. But despite the challenging weather I was still able to explore some difficult-to-reach and seldom-(or never?)-visited basins, and I even was rewarded with a few brief moments of mystical light and clouds to photograph.
Perhaps you know or have heard that the extensive pine forests along eastern side of the San Juan Mountains are almost entirely dead from beetle kill - a natural phenomenon that has been unnaturally exacerbated by decades of drought, fire suppression, and climate change (winters aren't getting cold enough for long enough to kill off the beetles that bore into the trees).
Sadly, during the last 5-10 years the beetles have spread into the central core of the San Juans, and now most of the trees are dead in the pristine high basins of the Needle Mountains and Grenadier Range. It's heartbreaking to me to witness the scale and swiftness of the death that has scarred these previously paradisaical places. I think about how for hundreds of years, generations of native Utes and old timer Coloradans have probably taken for granted the healthy green pine forests, then in a span of a single decade - a geological blink of the eye - it's all dead.
To me personally as a nature photographer, the dead forests pose a depressing situation. How I am supposed to take photos celebrating the beauty of these mountains when they are draped in skeletons? It's literally becoming more and more difficult as each summer gets ever hotter, drier, and smokier, and the march of the beetles continues on. The summer monsoon weather pattern used to be as reliable as clockwork, but now even that can't be taken for granted any more - last summer it lasted for only a week.
On a practical note, the dead forests also make it difficult to camp comfortably in the Weminuche these days. Every time you set up your tent you have to make a gambling wager - do you camp amongst the skeleton trees where one of them could potentially topple and crush you? Or do you camp out in the open which is terrifying in thunderstorms? It's a bit spooky either way; you have to just try to find a somewhat suitable medium.
The Weminuche Wilderness has long been my favorite place in the world to backpack. While there's still so much to explore, and so many beautiful moments to still be found, I wonder if I can bear to keep returning here, knowing what's been lost.