ilanarama: a mountain (mountain)
[personal profile] ilanarama
This past weekend, Britt and I headed out on a backpacking expedition to climb the Rio Grande Pyramid (13,821 ft, the 97th highest mountain in Colorado - or possibly the 30th, depending on how you define 'mountain'). I've wanted to climb it for some time; it's a distinctively-shaped peak (the name gives a clue!), much higher than anything else around it and thus visible from most of the high summits of the San Juans, and in 2008 Britt and I attempted to climb it but were rained out.

on the Rincon La Vaca trail

It's also a long way from anywhere, especially here. Even though it's in our local wilderness, the Weminuche, it's on the opposite side from us, near Creede, and one of the defining characteristics of a wilderness (for my non-US friends: this is a legal designation, not a descriptive one) is that there are no roads across it. So on Friday after work, we piled our stuff into the Sportsmobile and drove partway there, spent the night on a Forest Service road, and then got up early Saturday morning and drove the rest of the way to the trailhead.

This trip, we decided to take a different approach from our previous trip, taking the Weminuche Trail from its trailhead on the east side of the Rio Grande Reservoir, over Weminuche Pass to the upper Pine River Valley, and then up Rincon La Vaca, which is the valley to the southeast of the Pyramid. The lower trailhead of the Pine is only an hour from us, right next to the gazillionaire's summer home where Britt's brother works as caretaker (which PS is for sale, if you have a spare $24 million lying around), and we've done many hikes from there, but if we had started there it would have taken us two or three days to get to our base camp. (Incidentally, if you look it up on the map, you will see it's officially called the Los Piños River, but nobody here calls it anything but the Pine.)

Instead we had about six miles to go, beginning with a steep uphill climb above the south side of the reservoir and then up Weminuche Creek's plunging cascades. The climb actually made us feel quite strong and tough, because we passed a large group from Adams State College who were dayhiking to the pass - hah, we are twice as old as you kids and carrying heavy packs and we are still faster than you! (Okay, most of them were overweight and clearly unused to hiking. So yay them for getting out and doing it!)

After the initial climb, the trail mostly levels out, contouring along the side of the Weminuche River valley, which here is a broad, green meadow. We stopped for lunch on a knoll overlooking the valley, and as I looked down, I saw a brown shape break and run for the trees - it was a bear! I shouted for Britt to look, and he just got a glimpse of it, but I was so happy to have seen a bear, my first ever in the Colorado wilderness. (I've seen bears in my YARD, but not out in the woods!)

Weminuche Pass is on the Continental Divide, but it's fairly low. In fact, it's low enough that it is the site of several ditches which steal water from the west side (the Pine side) to send to the more populous east side. We poked around the ditches a little before hiking down the meadows of the upper Pine a short way to turn up its farthest north and highest side canyon, Rincon La Vaca. (Yes, the west side of the Continental Divide is to the south here.) Unfortunately there has not been much trail maintenance on Rincon La Vaca, as you can see here:

obstacle course

It was a freakin' obstacle course out there, and slippery with falling rain to boot (the above photo was taken on the way out) and we were both very happy when we broke out of the forest and into a lovely meadow. A knoll sat above the pretty creek, the perfect place for our camp. We managed to get the tent up in the pause between rainstorms, then dove in to wait out the weather. After a couple of hours, it cleared up enough for Britt to head out on a fishing expedition - and he was successful, so we had fresh cutthroat trout for dinner!

camp La Vaca creek

You might notice a large number of dead trees in these pictures. This is because the spruce bark beetle has infested this area very badly; it eats the tender inner bark of the spruce tree, which kills it. Ordinarily, trees defend themselves by exuding sap to smother the beetles, but because of the persistent drought, trees can't make much sap and are weakened. Another contributor is the warmer winters that global climate change has brought; the beetles don't die back as much in the winter as they should. So alas, the lovely deep-green background of the hillsides is now mostly red-brown.

The next day dawned stormy, so we waited for it to clear a little before heading up the trail. The photo at the top of this entry was taken just as we headed out; you can see both the Pyramid and the Window, a notch in the rock wall which extends south of the peak. This rock is old volcanic stuff, very different from the granite that comprises most of the mountains around here.

Shortly after we started up the trail, Britt, who was in the lead, turned to say something to me - and then he stared past my shoulder and pointed. I turned to see a young moose! He was following us (from a safe distance), or so it seemed, but when we turned and looked at him he casually sauntered off into the woods.


The hike was quite pleasant, with lots of lovely wildflowers: bluebells, harebells, paintbrush, large swaths of some yellow composite, and one of my favorites, fireweed. (Fireweed ought to fire its publicist, because that's such an unattractive name for such a pretty flower!) Eventually we broke out above treeline, where we crossed a boggy area under the Window and headed up to the ridge leading to the peak.

cascade The Window

peak approach climbing the peak

You can see our route on the third picture: we hiked up the green meadow just right of center, and then more or less up the pink streak to the skyline, then up the ridge to the summit. Yay summit!

summit smile

As you can see, the views are wonderful; behind me are many of the mountains we've climbed in previous years, including Jagged, Pigeon, Windom, Jupiter, and Arrow in this view west - to the south we could see Mt. Oso, and to the north, Uncompaghre and Handies peaks. Back to the east we could look down and see our camp (barely, with binoculars - our tent is in the cluster of trees at center-right in the meadow in the middle of the photo below), and when we pointed our binoculars down into the valleys below us to the west, we saw a large herd of elk. We also ate lunch and tended to the scrapes I incurred when one of the loose rocks fell on my leg as we climbed - I guess the mountain had to claim its price...

looking back owie

As is typical for this time of year, the clouds had begun to build and threaten, so soon it was time for us to scurry down. We did not make it below treeline before it started to rain, but the thunder and lightning was not very close, so it wasn't too scary, and of course we had brought our rain gear - never go anywhere in the Colorado mountains in the summer without your rain gear!


We got back to our camp and rested an hour or so; then Britt headed out to catch dinner while I read. We ended up having to eat huddled under a tree as it started raining just as we started cooking, but it wasn't too bad and passed quickly enough.

The next morning dawned bright brilliant blue, but unsurprisingly the clouds were already starting to build by the time we had packed up and started heading back to the trailhead. We stopped briefly at the mouth of Rincon La Vaca, to investigate some ditchwork we'd noticed on the way up; it looked as though the ditch had blown out and was being repaired, but of course because this is wilderness, only hand tools are usable, and materials must be brought in by horses and mules, so it was slow going. Still, it looked pretty nifty:

ditch repair

We passed a doe bounding through the meadow, and then we bounded ourselves, a bit less gracefully and more slowly, all the way back down the trail to our van, and then it was the long drive home.

window and peak view

Photos only

(no subject)

Date: 2012-07-25 10:56 am (UTC)
hedda62: my cat asleep (Default)
From: [personal profile] hedda62
OMG gorgeous. And yeah, tree pests + climate change do not make for a happy picture.

FYI, switching over to reading you (in the double sense) on DW, so planning to defriend on LJ soonish.

(no subject)

Date: 2012-07-25 02:19 pm (UTC)
hedda62: my cat asleep (Default)
From: [personal profile] hedda62
:) And I'll probably not defriend but just stop reading you on LJ, just in case DW goes down or something.

(no subject)

Date: 2012-07-25 01:01 pm (UTC)
traveller42: (Default)
From: [personal profile] traveller42
Much more successful than my last mountain adventure.

Boo on the scrapes, but glad that is all the mountain asked in payment.

As always, love the pictures.

(no subject)

Date: 2012-07-25 02:27 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
There are about 3 blogs that I read regularly where couples hike a lot. Every time I read an entry, I learn something new and I am a little jealous. We don't really have stuff like that around here... (I mean, we have baby mountains, but nothing near that beautiful.)

I find it very sad what the beetles are doing to the landscape. I assume once they infest a tree, the tree eventually dies completely? Why are the beetles not dieing like they should in the winter? (Elementary teacher brain is too small to comprehend these things.)

Also, I am really amazed that you can hike with everything you need on your back, including a way to cook trout! Very cool!

Rebecca (captcha hates me)

(no subject)

Date: 2012-07-25 03:35 pm (UTC)
yvi: Kaylee half-smiling, looking very pretty (Default)
From: [personal profile] yvi
Oh Gosh, I wish I had that kind of landscape here. I love your hiking entries. So gorgeous and they look like a lot of fun.

(no subject)

Date: 2012-07-25 07:28 pm (UTC)
blnchflr: Running (running)
From: [personal profile] blnchflr
That peak looks so far away to me; I can't comprehend how you could get to it less than a day. Guess I'm not used to judging mountain distances :)

Beautiful pictures, beautiful views, boo on scraped leg!

(no subject)

Date: 2012-07-26 02:16 pm (UTC)
oxoniensis: the top of an open guitar case (world: (see?))
From: [personal profile] oxoniensis
never go anywhere in the Colorado mountains in the summer without your rain gear!

That sounds like the English Lake District! Though being able to travel for days without coming across roads doesn't - I've never experienced that degree of wilderness. Looks gorgeous - if I had $24,000,000 spare, I'd consider the summer house.

Bears in your yard, though! Yikes. Glad you got to spot one in the wild!

(no subject)

Date: 2012-07-30 08:09 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
Contrary to popular belief, it's often very dry here too - we've had water shortages for a couple of years now. I suspect the downpours at the Olympics aren't going to do the reputation of British weather much good though! *g*

There is one particular trail (the Highline Trail - and actually, we were on a little bit of it on this trip, partly) which one can take for ten days, one end to the other, and never see a road.

Wow! I lived in the Alps as a child, so I'm used to the mountains, but there are villages and farms everywhere, so nothing remotely like that.

And, when we got back there was a pile of bear poop in our yard!

I'm glad I just get frogs, foxes and an occasional hedgehog! Much smaller droppings for one thing!

(I can't seem to log in for some reason, but this is Signe!)

(no subject)

Date: 2012-07-27 12:05 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Wow. Note to self: Take more vacation pice myself

(no subject)

Date: 2012-07-27 04:07 am (UTC)
mrkinch: vampire Viggo (Default)
From: [personal profile] mrkinch
Fantastic! I'm delighted to be able to enjoy the scenery and wildlife through your eyes. It's been so long since I've been out, and never as far out as you, but I can empathize with tenting in the rain!

(no subject)

Date: 2012-07-28 02:37 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Hello Colorado! I miss it so.

(no subject)

Date: 2012-08-02 12:30 am (UTC)
ext_794226: (Default)
From: [identity profile]
Spectacular photos! I love that Britt can catch dinner :) Fresh fish is tasty, and something I hope to get a lot more of around here.
Had no idea there are moose in colorado!

I accidentally went back a few posts to an old one and saw that you were doing a 6x.5 workout with 2 minute jogs between. Wowzers. I am sure that's what I need to do to get my HR in the right zone. My recoveries were too long today. Glad you are a data freak :)

(no subject)

Date: 2012-08-07 04:41 pm (UTC)
ext_794226: (Default)
From: [identity profile]

My email is elktonrunnerfamily at gmail dot com. I would love to chat with you sometime! I'd like to know if you train more by HR or pace. I am kind of doing both, but today I pushed the envelope on T pace trying to stay in my HR range. It felt too hard, but in the right zone based on numbers and a new max I have from the 5k race. I have doubts on my max though. Do you think you've ever reached a false max heart rate- too high? I had an espresso that day, which I don't usually do in training..I positive split the race and my max was in the first mile.


Date: 2012-08-03 12:39 am (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
Hey Ilana, sorry it's taken me so long to read this but I did have it book mark to read. Glad I did, loved it! A moose? Wow I never thought they were there. Beautiful beautiful scenery, I love the picture of you with the gorgeous back drop. Happy trails :)
Annette French


ilanarama: me, The Other Half, Moab UT 2009 (Default)

August 2017

131415 16171819
20212223 242526

My running PRs:

5K: 21:03 (downhill) 21:43 (loop)
10K: 43:06 (downhill)
10M: 1:12:59
13.1M: 1:35:55
26.2M: 3:23:31

You can reach me by email at heyheyilana @


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