The shout echoed in the mountain stillness. Debbie’s southern accent drew out the word “duuumuumb!”
Later, Fred complained. He already knew what he was doing was ill-advised…and dangerous. By the time his wife was shouting at him, he was frightened.
Fred was inching along the top of a cirque. There was a vertical wall above. Below was an incline steeper than the angle of repose. He was moving delicately along a sloping ledge of ice and loose rock. A slip and he would tumble hundreds of feet into a field of large boulders.
We had just completed the steep ascent of Red Dirt Pass. The rest of us had descended through talus and boulders to the bottom of the cirque. Fred had been loath to give up that much elevation. He knew our destination, Peggy Lake, was over the ridge. If he could traverse the cirque up high, he would not have to climb back up from below. He made it safely, but his route did not save him time and the elevation avoided, he admitted, had not been worth the risk.
Peggy Lake is actually two lakes. The larger is a typical cirque-lake, appearing to emanate from the steep slope from where the glacier carved the basin. This lake drains into a channel that cuts through a ridge into a second, much-smaller lake. Here in Northern Colorado’s Mt. Zirkel Wilderness, Peggy Lake resides at 11,300 ft, just above timberline.
The lakes are surrounded by willow and krummholz, the latter defined as “stunted, deformed vegetation encountered in … subalpine tree line landscapes, shaped by continual exposure to fierce, freezing winds.” I had never seen anything like this before.
It was 1974. Mary and I were on our first multi-day backpacking trip—six nights in the wilderness. We were in a group of thirteen on a trip sponsored by the Wilderness Society (TWS). TWS led “Way to the Wilderness” trips as a means of publicizing the Wilderness Act in hopes that more acreage would be added. After only a few seasons, the program was abandoned. TWS realized that wilderness areas did not need publicity. Many areas quickly suffered from too many visitors. Indeed, our own group was too large for such a fragile area.
Nonetheless, for us, the trip was special. We had moved from Illinois to Tucson a few days after our wedding three years earlier. Mary’s family had no interest in the outdoors beyond views from scenic overlooks or through a windshield. My family never had time or money to go anywhere. I had never seen a mountain. Our first few months in Tucson, we visited local parks and began hiking. Hiking led to an interest in backpacking. We had no experience and no mentors. Even though we accomplished two or three successful overnight trips near Tucson, a week-long trip in Colorado, mostly above timberline, was daunting. That’s why we signed up to go with the Wilderness Society.
When Mary and I decided to marry, we had little idea where we would live and no idea how important outdoor activities would become. As I think of it now, what attracted us to each other was that nothing we said seemed to have nuance. What I mean is that any shading of definition Mary might have used in a word, was the same for me. We communicated as if we had one of Spock’s “mind-melds” from the old Star Trek series. We had constant, honest, and comprehensive communication. We still have it. How lucky for us that we found each other.
Mary and my values regarding the world at large and how people should be treated were congruent, but leisure activities were a blank slate. I would have said my favorites were watching baseball and basketball, playing golf, and hunting. In contrast, Mary had been sickly as a young child having missed months of school due to various ailments. Her mother was over-protective. I was shocked when, just prior to graduation, we went to a city park and Mary said she did not think she had ever been in the sun two consecutive hours in her life. In fact, on that occasion, she burned her fair skin so badly I was unable to touch her the rest of the weekend.
Both of us planned to go to graduate school in Chemistry. Apropos of our compatibility, before we met, we had each dutifully applied to three schools, and two were the same: Michigan State and Arizona. (I have related elsewhere why we chose Arizona, GERMANS SUCK! – Birds and More). Arizona was exotic for me. I had never been west of Central Missouri.
I expected graduate school to lead to a career, although I had nothing specific in mind. Mary, who already was a certified teacher, was primarily interested in seeing another part of the country, not being ready to “settle down.” She was particularly motivated not to end up back in her hometown with her parents, their church, and their friends.
We did not meet until October of our senior year at the University of Illinois in Urbana. Both of us had come from long term relationships with high school sweethearts. Hers ended in a failed marriage, mine just……ended. I had few dates in college. I graduated with a Bachelor of Science (B.S.) in Chemistry certified by the American Chemical Society. There were several lesser degrees in Chemistry. The certified B.S. was the most difficult. Long class hours were required. In addition, for portions of two years I had a part-time job. I had no time for a social life. When I saw other students paired up—even couples studying together, I was envious. I finally was able to have that experience but only for the latter two months of my senior year’s first semester. In January, Mary moved to Chicago where she would complete her requirements for teaching.
Consequently, I was anticipating graduate school not for what I was to learn, but as a time to be a happy young couple. Tucson has an adjacent National Park (then a Monument) and the famous Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. We visited those immediately and noticed signs for hiking trails.
I had hiked as an Illinois Boy Scout, but those were trails on roads. Here, trails went into the mountains. I bought maps. I was shocked that there were so many canyons. Of course, I had heard of the Grand Canyon. Going through Texas on the move to Arizona, there had been a sign for Palo Duro Canyon, but now learning that there were hundreds of named canyons in the mountains surrounding Tucson was a revelation. I wanted to visit all of them.
Everything was discovery in those days. The exotic plants amazed us. It was a few weeks before someone corrected our pronunciations and we stopped saying o-co-til-lo and sa-gwar-o for two of the common desert plants.
We wanted to hike. I asked my dad (SHOEMAN: HOW MY DAD TAUGHT ME TO BE A BIRDER – Birds and More) to order Mary a pair of hiking boots and we set off. There was, however, the problem of how little outdoor activity Mary had done. Although interested, she was tentative.
Most would agree that among my personality flaws is impatience. What was fortunate was that Southern Arizona was so new to me that anything I was able to do was exciting. Accordingly, I was mostly satisfied with our slow start. At first, we only hiked short distances, maybe two miles out and two back. Mary’s reward was a stop at an A&W Root Beer stand after a successful hike. We had so little money, an A&W was a fancy treat.
Then I suggested camping and backpacking. My camping experience consisted of sleeping in big Army surplus wall tents as a Boy Scout. Otherwise, I had done a week-long canoe trip when a friend and I slept on sand bars, but that was it. I read books and we visited stores, finally buying a second-hand backpacking tent and sleeping bags. The tent was tiny—barely room for both of our medium frames. The first time we went camping, all we brought were thin foam pads. We slept poorly, but we had such an enjoyable time during the day that we tried again.
Finally, it was time for an overnight pack trip. We hiked to an area called Sycamore Flats in the Coronado National Forest. I mostly remember that I was apprehensive. I did not sleep well. What was important, however, was that now “I was a backpacker.” It was a label I dearly wanted. It was the same for Mary.
We did more overnight trips. On one, my anxiety coupled with the poor sleeping conditions resulted in a headache and severe nausea. Once home, I slept soundly and felt fine.
Another time, we became spooked by the heat and decided to turn around. I always worried too much about Mary, so I decided to carry her pack. I hugged hers in front, with mine on my back as we returned to the car. The hot day and all that exertion caused my fingers and hands to swell. That frightened me enough that I called a doctor that night. Because I did not have a fever, he told me to go to bed. I was fine the next morning. I realized later that we had walked more miles that day than if we had gone on to our designated camp. It is a wonder that we continued.
We began to take along a friend of mine from graduate school. He had such poor eyesight; he was unable to drive a car. Having someone else along gave us comfort. Still, on a trip with him, my lack of sleep once again led to nausea. We had an extremely hot hike out and Dave carried extra water and poured it over me whenever we rested. Even with such problems, we had seen enough and experienced enough of the backcountry that we wanted more, but we were still fearful. That is why we signed up for the Wilderness Society group trip.
I began our trip to Peggy Lake, as usual, not sleeping and developing a severe headache which, in the past, had led to nausea and the need to go home. These trips always had a participating doctor—a fact that had comforted us. The doctor was Fred. I went to Fred confident he would give me something for the headache. All he said was, “that happens sometimes, I suggest you just lay still.” Others went fishing that afternoon, but I laid still. I did not want to burden the others nor be embarrassed by my weakness. It worked. Without the tossing and turning, the headache subsided. I slept well that night and thoroughly relaxed into the trip. It wasn’t that I never again had sleepless nights while backpacking, but I no longer feared the headache and never had that sort of nausea again.
It was two days later, now totally absorbed within the trip, that I saw Peggy Lake for the first time. The lake shimmered in its basin. The view was particularly rewarding because of the effort. High above on the east side was a T-shaped snow field. The setting sun illuminated it to a deep orange. The skies were beautiful. I was thrilled with the exhilaration of being above timberline.
That night…the wind blew. It blew hard. Our tent heaved and sagged against us, but I was so relaxed I awoke refreshed. Upon emerging from the tent, we saw others had not fared so well. The wind had snapped a tent pole in one instance. Two other tents had collapsed when the wind pulled tent pegs from the ground. Most people were exhausted.
The morning was bright and clear. Mary and I walked below camp and down the outlet stream. We observed that we were in the middle of two cirques. The glacier had probably dug the lake below us first and then receded over a short plateau before gouging Peggy Lake. We reached a cliff and gazed far below into the deep indigo waters of aptly named Blue Lake. Here the stream had cut through deep snow and carved a cave. We could peer through the cave as the water plunged into a series of cascades. It was breathtaking—and all new.
As part of my backpacker/wilderness fantasy, I wanted to catch some trout. Where I grew up, there were no native trout. It was all bass and catfish. The streams were muddy. Being able to catch trout from a “clear, blue mountain lake,” well, that was something I had to do. I had visited several stores to buy just the right fishing gear and lures for this trip. But the fish did not cooperate. Others had caught fish the previous days—especially the three guides. The voluble Fred had been successful, proclaiming that having a fish on the line was “better than an orgasm!” A comment that brought a disdainful look from his wife.
Our second camp had been adjacent to a small stream. To me, it was perfect fly-fishing water. The guides went off with their spinning gear and soon returned with a mess of fish. I had fished but had not even seen any. After failing with flies, I tried my spinning gear too and never understood how the guides succeeded.
Thus, at Peggy Lake I was determined. The wind was still whipping the lake into whitecaps, but I kept casting. Suddenly, the wind subsided. I cast. There was a tug on my line. I set the hook and soon landed a beautiful cutthroat trout of 2-3 pounds. A few casts later, I caught another. I was the only successful angler that day and “my” fish were a nice complement to dinner that night.
That second dinner at Peggy Lake, however, almost did not happen. This trip of thirteen was mostly compatible. There was, however, one couple that struggled, Stan and Jan. Stan was ok, it was the “couple” that struggled.
Jan apparently had expected less strenuous hiking and guides strumming a guitar and leading sing-a-longs by the fire. Instead, we had some long tough hiking days and guides who either spent the evenings fishing or recounting their hunting adventures. Peggy Lake, itself, was not on a trail. That is how Fred found himself traversing a cliff on an icy slope. The rest of us, while in safer conditions had not found it easy. We had to scramble though boulders and talus. Once through those, the remaining incline was steeper than any section one would find on a constructed trail. We staggered over the ridge. Then, that night’s howling winds disturbed nearly everyone’s sleep. Stan and Jan’s tent did not break, but the wind had pulled out some stakes requiring a middle of the night resettlement.
Jan had been sarcastic and unhappy the entire trip, but she really let loose at breakfast. She let us know how miserable she was and how much she hated the place. This was to be our only lay-over day so most of us scattered as Jan continued to browbeat her husband and anyone else nearby.
When we returned for lunch, Jan was still griping at Stan. Finally, I noticed him talking with the guides. Subsequently, he came over and announced that we needed to meet. We sat in a circle as Stan told us there was sufficient time to pack up and move down to Blue Lake. There were trees down there. We would be sheltered from the wind. We would have fewer miles to walk the next day making that part of the trip easier. Jan, he said, was unhappy and wanted to leave. The guides were willing to do whatever the group wanted. We should vote. Stan voted first—to leave.
I do not remember exactly how we were ordered, but Jan was something like the 8th or 9th person in the circle. One by one, everyone after her husband had voted to stay, most remarking on the beauty of the place or the fact that while still breezy, it was now less so. When it was Jan’s turn, she said, “Well, if everybody else is voting to stay, then I’ll vote to stay too.” If looks could kill, Stan would have been guilty of justifiable homicide. We never heard of them again, but I would be surprised if their marriage persisted.
The wind ceased by evening. It was cold enough that there were no insects. We had a pleasant time talking around our small fire. The guides were locals. Jim, the leader, was a high school teacher. The other two were friends of his, mostly along to go fishing, we suspected. One of them worked as a ranch-hand, and the other worked in construction but only to support his hunting habit. They had a lot of stories and jokes, most of them not worthy of repeating but funny at the time.
Jim was a rafting guide in the summer. He said the previous year, he was guiding a family and in the middle of the trip the husband stood up, waved at the scenery, and said, “Damn my folks for raising me in Ohio! I’m moving out here.” Jim related that within three months, the family, which included a couple of children, had sold what they could and packed what was left and moved to Laramie. The husband had found construction work and now had access to all the hunting and fishing he desired. I have thought of that story often. Mary and I had moved west with the idea that it was temporary, but soon realized we were not moving back.
I never slept better than I did that night and the cold, clear tundra morning was unforgettable. The hike to Blue Lake and beyond was slower and more difficult than Stan had been led to believe when he tried to convince us to depart the day before. We had several more hours to contemplate the scenery as we descended. If I had never returned, Peggy Lake’s basin would have remained etched in my memory.
We did return, but not for 28 years. By this time, our now-adult children, Ann, and Adam, not even contemplated on that first trip, accompanied us. We followed the same route.
We made the same steep trek over the ridge that contained the cirque. Peggy Lake sat there as beautiful as ever. The fishing was better. I caught and released many and kept enough for us to have a nice meal of the deep pink flesh of a natively spawned and fed trout.
The next afternoon, Ann and I climbed Table Mountain, the higher ridge to the east. On top, the area lived up to its name. It was flat with scattered rocks and grasses. Many alpine flowers were blooming, especially gentian as this was late summer. From scattered boulders American Pipits perched and called out. It was wonderful being there with Ann. We enjoyed and discussed the spectacular views, while we reminisced about our previous backpacking trips when she was a child. It was a special time.
We walked north and had a beautiful view of Blue Lake below and Twin Lakes to the Northeast. Then we headed south toward Gold Creek basin which we had traversed the day before. Soon we were overlooking Red Dirt Pass. I recognized that it would be a relatively short scramble from the pass to where we were standing. Then one could descend the steep mountainside to Peggy Lake. This route would avoid both the dangerous traverse Fred had used as well as the steep descent down from the pass and the scramble through boulders and talus and the steep climb we had done both other trips. I was determined to return soon and try the route.
That evening, we walked over to the western ridge because there was an expansive view of Frying Pan Basin below. There was a bear! We had seen one at a distance the day before on the other side of the pass. This one was much closer although we were located several hundred feet above. The bear was in a lush, green meadow. A small stream meandered through it and there were a few small tarns in between.
We lost sight of the bear as it moved off into shrubs and boulders on the south side of the meadow. We continued to watch. In the fading bright light, the small streams and tarns turned to liquid silver. The surrounding peaks were orange with alpenglow, but we became distracted from the colors as more than twenty elk–mostly cows with calves emerged from the trees. There were also two large bulls with magnificent racks.
At first, the elk fed slowly as they tentatively entered the meadow. Suddenly, the calves began to play and gambol as if they were lambs. One would race and with a leap, splash its front feet into a tarn, then it would wheel and chase one of its herd mates. The cows tolerated it, but one of the bulls angrily shook its antlers at one of the calves and they gave him a wide berth afterwards.
It was elk recess! The calves had to bed down quietly and hide during the day. Now, here in the twilight, they were free to run and jump and chase. It was a beautiful quiet evening on that ridge. We had seen a bear and now elk playing. The setting was primordial.
Two years later, I was back. This time was different. Three weeks before, I had stumbled while crossing a beaver dam and twisted my knee. The meniscus was torn, and surgery was scheduled. I could not run, but I could walk. The surgeon had told me hiking would not cause additional damage.
My sister had told me that her son, Danny, wanted to go backpacking. My brother’s son, Matt, also wanted to go. I suggested they fly to Denver. I could drive over from Grand Junction, and we could pick up our son Adam in Ft Collins and go to the Mt Zirkel Wilderness Area. We planned to follow our original route except we would climb into Peggy Lake Basin from Red Dirt Pass without doing the wicked descent and subsequent steep climb as on our previous trips.
This time, we also climbed Mt Zirkel on the way. My physical conditioning was excellent. I had been running and participating in races prior to the knee injury. After the injury, I could still use our elliptical machine.
My knee was holding up. I was taking ibuprofen—”vitamin I” as many call it, but it hurt quite a bit descending the steeper portions from Mt Zirkel. At least we had dropped our packs at Red Dirt Pass, so I was not managing extra weight on the descent.
The climb from Red Dirt Pass to Table Mountain, followed by the direct descent to the lake proved easier than I expected. It removed most of a day from the trip. I realized I no longer needed 4 or 5 nights to visit Peggy Lake. Our original route, because of the talus and the steep slope below Red Dirt Pass, never seemed desirable to retrace, hence we had always descended via Blue Lake Basin. Now, I knew we could go in and out on the same trails. Hiking out from Peggy Lake, being mostly downhill on easy trail, could be accomplished in a single, long, day.
That layover day at Peggy Lake was pleasant. All of us caught fish and we had a few to eat. That evening at dinner, we had a great sight. A rare Short-eared Owl was hunting the tundra.
The next day we did the steep descent to Blue Lake. Having done it a couple of times, I knew we needed to traverse most of the basin up high, thereby limiting the length of the steep portion. What was important to me is that Adam suggested he do the steepest section while carrying my pack. He had a hiking pole and good balance and did not think it would be too difficult. He knew my knee was much less painful if I descended with reduced weight.
I was relieved for the help. As I watched Adam striding confidently down that steep slope, other images flooded my mind. For fifteen years, we had backpacked together. Where was the little boy I had cajoled with stories and snacks to keep him trudging along? Where was the little boy who cried so heartily when I made him release some frogs, he had caught one night in the canyon country? For years, I had supported him. Initially, I carried his tent and sleeping bag and all the food. Eventually, he carried more and more until he was going on his own. Now, I was grateful for his assistance—exceedingly grateful to be at Peggy Lake one more time. We had come full circle. I was tired and hurting. I was also overflowing with the area’s beauty. Enjoying my personal thoughts and the experience I was giving my Illinois nephews; I wiped the tears from my eyes and followed.
Then, four years later came THE accident. I have written about this elsewhere. A backpacking accident in the Grand Canyon nearly took my life (Amazon.com: On Foot: Grand Canyon Backpacking Stories) . My body endured three days of surgery immediately following the accident and afterwards I had more than ten additional surgeries. I spent a month in the hospital and another month in a hospital bed at home. More than a decade later, I know that my recovery was remarkable. I owe much of that revival to exceptional physical therapists trained at the Institute for Physical Art (IPA) in Steamboat Springs.
I became particularly reliant on Steve, one of the therapists. By happenstance, IPA was holding a class in Grand Junction while I was in the hospital. Steve was one of the instructors. It had been a dreary day. It was early November. I had been hurt on a bright day in October and now a winter gloom was settling both outside and in my mind. It was a Saturday. I probably had a therapy session and a visit from Mary, but most of the activity occurred on weekdays. I had spent most of the day alone. There is little on TV that I watch. I was reading. I remember the room being dark and feeling lonely. I heard my name in the hallway and then Steve entered.
He explained that he had to go to dinner with the other instructors and could not stay long but had wanted to stop by. A day or so before, I had met the local surgeon who was going to follow my case and eventually perform a couple of surgeries. He had looked down at me and said, “What devastating injuries. I have never seen anyone recover from this.” I related this to Steve. He shook his head. “You’ll recover. I worked at an orthopedic hospital in Maryland and saw people in worse shape. You’ll run again.” I will never forget his optimism. It was also a commitment because he knew he was going to be intimately involved in my rehabilitation. Those reassuring words on that dark night were a vital step in my recovery.
The following summer, still with several surgeries to go, I had already done a brief, solo overnight backpack. In my many sessions with Steve, I learned he was a fly fisherman but because of his work and study schedule, he had not had time to explore the area near Steamboat Springs, which includes the Zirkel Wilderness. “Why don’t we go to Peggy Lake,” I suggested. Accompanied once again by Adam, we left early one morning.
Once again, the weather was perfect, as was the fishing. More than that, my body performed splendidly. Not only was I back at Peggy Lake, but I was back! Although I had new limitations and was facing more surgeries, that trip was a momentous milestone in my post-accident life.
I returned to Peggy Lake once more. I had regaled friends of mine with stories of the fishing. One desperately wanted to visit for that reason. My other backpacking friend said he wanted to accompany us but let us know that “I don’t like to fish. I don’t eat fish. I don’t like to watch people fish.” I explained that the hike was long enough, the area big enough, and beautiful enough that he need not worry. We were on the trail at noon, and at Peggy Lake the next afternoon again climbing Mt Zirkel on the way. Weather was good, fishing was great. My non-fishing friend found plenty of area to explore.
On our departure, we had a magnificent hike out over Table Mountain. The tundra was sparkling with dew that accentuated the brilliance of the wildflowers. The morning was windless. The skies blue with distant fluffy clouds. It occurred to me, that I was nearing seventy. I might not be coming back. I made sure to revel in the magnificence.