Saturday, July 23, 2016

Hell's Hole


Hi everyone. I want to apologize for neglecting my blog for so long. I have really missed the connections it's allowed me to make, and also the feedback I get from people. 

I've been thinking for some time about making some changes to my blog's content. So far I've stuck pretty much to Native American and family history, but there are a lot of other things that interest me, so I think I'll try sometimes just writing about subjects that interest me at the moment. I enjoy music and hiking, for instance, and I also like to make observations about events in my daily life. 

There are still a lot of stories I need to record about our family, and I'm still trying to learn more about Native American history, especially Chickasaw history, so I'll continue with that, so for those of you who think the new blogs are silly, just be patient, because I'll continue with the old subjects as well.

I hope this is agreeable to most of you. It will make the content a little less predictable, but hopefully more interesting, and we'll get to know each other a little better, so here goes.

Hell’s Hole

The Hell’s Hole Trail is a pretty good hike. It is listed as 8.2 miles out and back, starting at 9700 feet and climbing up to the tree line at 11600 feet. The Alltrails website describes it as a moderate hike, but I wouldn’t recommend it for a novice, or for a tourist from sea level.

Last week I got an invitation from Jerry, a friend from the hiking club, to hike Hell’s Hole, but I was reluctant to go. It’s been several months since I’ve been hiking, and then only a couple of “moderate” hikes with my grandson during his spring break. Jerry and Mary, who also decided to go along, are experienced hikers, and I wasn’t sure I could keep up with them.

I’ve been having some doubts about my physical fitness anyway. I’m getting older, 74 last May. My knees hurt, and my back hurts, also my left shoulder, my neck, my wrists, and don’t get me started on my feet. Also, I don’t have the energy I used to have. Penny, our dog, has to practically turn cartwheels to get me to take her walking, and I can hardly get through the day without my afternoon nap, a definite sign of old age.

But, I decided to go anyway. I have always enjoyed hiking, so it should be fun, I thought, If I could just get myself out of bed. Jerry and Mary were leaving at 7:00 AM.

The night before the hike, I filled up my water bladder to its full three liter capacity – don’t want to run out of water - made myself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and then loaded up my pack: rope, goggles, first aid kit, bear spray, insect spray, big knife, little knife, flare, map, GPS, compass, warm stuff if I have to spend the night, parka in case it rains, head lamp in case it gets dark, and two little sacks of ‘it’s nice to have’ stuff, like fire starter, tweezers for when your fingers won’t untie a tight knot, toothbrush, eye drops, extra batteries, insect spray, pencil and paper. About the only thing I didn’t pack was my sleeping bag, air mattress, and tent – overkill, I figured. After packing up, I laid out my clothes, set my alarm for 5:30 AM, and went to sleep.

Next morning I was awakened by my wife Sarah, asking, “Aren’t you going hiking today?” I instantly came awake and turned toward the clock. Sure enough, it was already 7:00 AM. I picked up my cell phone and called Jerry. “No, don’t wait for me,” I said, “It will take me 30 minutes to get there. I’ll catch up with you,” knowing full well I’d never catch them, even if I could get started in 30 minutes, but I was determined to go anyway, so I threw on my hiking clothes, laced up my boots, and raced out the door.

The trail head for Hell’s Hole is about 8 miles south of Idaho Springs, a little mountain town about 50 miles from Denver on I-70, the main highway going west. The road to the trail head is pretty good, only dirt for the last 3 miles or so, and it ends at a series of camp sites. I stopped at the first one, jumped out of the car and grabbed my gear. Looking at my pack, I thought, that’s an awful lot to carry on an easy little day hike, so I tossed out everything but my water, my parka, my peanut butter sandwich, my map, and my bear spray - you never know - and took off down the trail, the wrong trail, as it turned out.

The path I chose crossed a stream and then crossed back again, headed west, but I decided to stay on the east side of the stream, Chicago Creek, knowing that the trail followed the creek. I had glanced at the map the night before, confirming the direction of the trail, so I was confident. After all I’d been there before, only my memory wasn’t as good as I thought. Hell’s Hole Trail doesn’t follow the stream as do most mountain trails. It goes along the ridge above the stream, way above!

The Hell’s Hole camp grounds are popular, I discovered, and the campers venture pretty far out into the woods, so as I walked along the trail, I continued to see camp sites for quite a while, reinforcing my belief that I was on the right trail. Before long, I did start to encounter fallen trees, not too unusual, but also new growth. “Boy, this trail needs some work,” I thought.

After a while I stopped seeing camp sites, and I began to lose the trail, also not unusual for me. I’m notorious for getting lost. It kept veering off toward the stream, and then I’d have to climb back up the hill until I found it again. This, as I eventually reasoned out, is what you’d expect from a game trail. Deer, elk, and moose wander around eating grass, and then go down to the stream to drink. But I was in a hurry, and by the time I figured out there were no people traiIs, I was already a mile or so in.

Now I want to reassure my hiking friends that I would never have continued on at this point if someone had been with me. I would never subject anyone else to the struggles and risks of bushwhacking, or blazing your own trail. It’s strenuous work, and a little dangerous too, venturing out into the wilderness, miles from any road or trail. 

On the other hand, it's kind of exciting, and challenging too, constantly facing new obstacles, a fallen tree, a rock slide, a dense thicket, or a marsh. It’s foolhardy, especially for an old man, but when I’m by myself, I kind of enjoy it. 

Getting around fallen trees and underbrush can be tough. Those pictures of Little Red Riding Hood skipping through the forest are totally wrong. A primal forest is almost impassable, and long pants are a must. Unfortunately my fancy zip on pant leg extenders were among the things I had removed to lighten my pack. I followed game trails as much as possible, but still came away with scrapes and bruises.   

Detouring around a fallen tree can take ten or fifteen minutes. I passed by several that had been wrenched out by the roots, raising a huge pan of soil and tangled roots ten or fifteen feet high on one end, and a tangle of branches extending out 100 feet or so on the other. Usually I tried to detour around the top of the tree or climb through the branches, but one I encountered was just too dense, so I decided to go around the upended root system, which hung out over the stream.

In the cavity where the tree roots had been, was a broad stretch of mud. I didn’t want to get muddy, but my boots don’t leak, so I figured the worse that could happen was that I’d walk around for a while in muddy boots. I was wrong. That wasn’t the worse that could happen. When I stepped out onto the mud, I instantly sank up to my knee in thick, black, muck. And then, when I tried to pull my foot out, it wouldn’t budge. I just managed to lose my balance and fall. So there I was, sitting in the water, with my left foot stuck in the mud. I suddenly knew how the saber toothed tigers felt when they got caught in the tar.

My right foot was on fairly solid ground, so I used it for leverage and gradually wrenched my left foot free, and then clambered up on the bank. After assessing the damage, I was disgusted with myself. Nothing’s worse than hiking on wet feet, and I had left my extra pair of socks in the car with my pant legs, so I just slogged on with a muddy boot.

The other two things I had to deal with while bushwhacking were boulder fields and willow thickets. Boulder fields are the result of rock slides, and are pretty frequent at the base of mountains, and willow thickets grow in any flat moist area next to a stream. Since my path lay between a mountain and a stream, I was constantly avoiding one or the other.

Boulder hopping is not a sport for old folks. Sometime between the ages of forty and seventy you lose your sense of balance, and there’s something disorienting about a pile of boulders. I can cross a stream pretty well by balancing on a log, even stepping on rocks, but boulders scare me. I hurt my back a couple of years ago when one rolled under my foot and caused me to fall. I didn’t hike again for about a year.

Anyway, when I cross a boulder field, I use a walking stick to try and create a stable base, and then choose a route that allows me to hold onto a rock with the other hand. I usually carry gloves for that, but – you guessed it – I left them in the car with my socks and pant legs.

Willow thickets were my other main obstacle. I don’t understand the botany, but willows seem to grow everywhere in the mountains. It must have something to do with elevation. They seem to like water, because every marsh is covered with them, but they grow up on the mountainside too, which doesn’t make any sense to me.

The thing about willows is they grow close together and their branches intertwine so you can’t walk between them. If you try to walk on them they aren’t sturdy enough to hold you, or to lean on, and there’s nothing firm to anchor a walking stick, so you – I - usually lose my balance and fall into the water. I do everything I can to avoid willow thickets.

After about four hours of bushwhacking I finally came to the tree line, about 11500 feet in this area. In the mountains, there’s a special meaning to that saying, “You can’t see the forest for the trees,” because it’s only when you get above the tree line that you can really see where you are, so when I got there I breathed a sigh of relief, and sat down to rest, have a drink, and assess my situation.

With the exception of a few scratches, I didn’t seem to have any major injuries. I hadn’t twisted my ankle or wrenched my back, and remarkably, the mud on my left shoe had dried and flaked off. When I removed the shoe I found that my left foot wasn’t even wet. I guess mud is better than water.

But as far as reorienting myself, I realized that I was still lost. All I could see were mountains in every direction, and nothing looked familiar. I knew that the Hell’s Hole Trail ended at the tree line, at a little lake fed by Chicago Creek, and since I was at the tree line just above Chicago Creek, I knew I must be close, but why couldn’t I see the lake? Trying to come up with a plan, I decided that the most sensible thing to do would be to just follow the creek back to the trail head, so I headed back into the trees, toward where I left the stream.

As I walked, I started to get second thoughts about bushwhacking for another four hours. I wasn’t especially tired, but climbing up and down, over rocks, through muck and dense thickets does get a little old after a while. I had also remembered by this time that the Hell’s Hole Trail follows the ridge above the creek, not the creek itself, so when I got to the creek, I crossed it and headed up, hoping to cross the trail, or at least climb high enough to see it.

Climbing above the tree line, I could see the mountains again, but I still couldn’t make out the trail. The only thing that seemed vaguely familiar was a cliff looming high above me. I kept thinking about it until suddenly it hit me. It was the cliff above Hell’s Hole. I had seen it before, but only from above. That meant that I was actually in Hell’s Hole. Now I understood where the name came from. The guy who named it must have spent the day bushwhacking like me.

Central Ridge, View from Hell's Hole

The Hell’s Hole Trail follows a ridge that forms the western border of a glacial valley where the Chicago Creek runs. The valley and the creek split into two branches at the tree line and end blindly, enclosed by steep mountain ridges. Although the trail ends at the tree line, I had hiked up to the top of the central ridge on two previous occasions. There you can see both arms of the glacial valley, as well as the Chicago Creek meandering back down to the Hell’s Hole trail head. I headed for the ridge. There I’d be able to see the lakes at the end of the trail and also take in the panorama.

Getting to the top of the ridge turned out to be more of a task than I anticipated.
Climbing above the tree line is slow going, not just because it’s uphill, but because there’s not as much oxygen up there, so it was take a step and breathe, take another step and breathe, and so on. It took me another three hours to climb to the top of the ridge, about 1000 feet elevation gain I figured out later. It was 4 o’clock in the afternoon before I got there.

Having reached the top of the ridge, I sat down, ate my peanut butter sandwich, and admired the scenery. Looking down, I now recognized the end of Hell’s Hole trail, 1000 feet below me. I could see the little lakes at the end of the trail, and the willows bordering the creek. I could even make out the trail itself, extending down to the north, along the ridge, and just 50 yards to my right was the cliff overlooking Hell’s Hole, which I had been climbing out of for the last three hours.

There’s nothing like being in the mountains. It’s so beautiful, and peaceful, and relaxing, and I was getting sleepy, so just like I do every day about 4:00 PM, I lay down and took a nap. It wasn’t a long nap. It’s hard to sleep with a rock pressing against your ribs, and my camera case didn’t make a very good pillow, but I made my concession to old age, and I did feel better afterwards.

I woke up looking at a very pretty and unusual crop of flowers. I’ve seen most of the flowers above the tree line, but this one was new to me, so I took some pictures. Then I called my wife Sarah, who’s used to my little escapades. Actually I had tried to call before, but couldn’t get any reception. After explaining to her that I had gotten off the trail and might be in a little late, she just replied, “Quit lollygagging, and come home.”

Mountain Avens

I called Jerry too, who I figured was wondering why he hadn’t passed me on the trail, and left a message for him not to worry, that I would be just a little late, and that I would call him when I got down. Then I went over to the cliff overlooking Hell’s Hole, took some pictures, and then started down towards the trail.

Hell's Hole, as Viewed from Ridge

It was about 6:00 when Jerry called me back. He had gotten back to Idaho Springs and was getting phone reception. He warned me to stay on the trail in case I had to be rescued, and “Do you have a head lamp? It might be dark by the time you get down.”

“Oh, yes, of course,” I replied, lying through my teeth, knowing that I had left my headlamp back at the car with all the other stuff I didn’t want to carry. Uh Oh, I thought, there’s another problem. The forest is always dark at night, even with clear skies, and I’m clumsy enough in good light, so I began to pick up my pace. I didn’t want to get caught out on the trail after dark.

I still had to cross a marsh to get to the trail, and pick my way through another willow thicket. I did have a slight advantage this time since I was coming down from above and could plan my route, so I made it through without hitting too many blind ends, or falling into the water.

It felt so good when I finally got back on the trail. It was rocky, but easy compared to any path I had taken all day, and I was able to speed up. In fact, I jogged most of the way back, and reached the trail head in only two hours, about 30 minutes before sundown. I felt pretty good too. I was a little sore, but no more than usual after a hike, and my muscles hadn’t cramped up. When I got into Idaho Springs, I called Sarah and Jerry, and then treated myself to a greasy bacon burger and a root beer.

My little adventure lasted a total of 11 hours, hiking probably twelve miles, with a net altitude gain of 2800 feet, from 9700 to 11500 feet, and down again, and I probably spent 7 hours and 1000 feet of it "lollygagging" as Sarah would say. It’s now a new day, and I still feel pretty good. I took Penny for a walk and I’m starting to feel a little sleepy. Think I’ll take a nap.